Five Eagles We're Watching on Defense vs. Pittsburgh

Five Eagles We're Watching on Defense vs. Pittsburgh

We are only hours away from an Eagles kickoff, and while we have to keep telling ourselves it's only preseason, we are genuinely excited for some football around here. Yesterday we talked about our five Eagles we'll be watching on offense in tonight's game, so naturally today we're delving into the other side of the ball.

The defense will be without several big-name players tonight, so the star power is a bit lacking, but the starters generally play a quarter max in the first preseason game anyway. That put the emphasis on a collection of young players, and we're struck by how many could play important roles for Juan Castillo in the season ahead. Up first though, he's a new face, but a name that's been around the league for awhile.

DeMeco Ryans

It's amazing to think that the Birds have not had a stable situation at middle linebacker since heading into the '09 campaign. Undoubtedly the Eagles' biggest offseason acquisition, Thursday marks the first time we'll get a glimpse of two-time Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans in midnight green. Heralded not only as the answer in the middle of the defense, but also as the group's leader, all eyes will be on Ryans tonight to see if he is 100% after suffering a ruptured Achilles two seasons ago.

The concern in Philly is the team acquired damaged goods in their trade with the Texans. Houston was willing to part with Ryans for a fourth-round pick and a swap of thirds, in part because he didn't fit their switch to a 3-4 defense, in part because they were no longer getting their money's worth at $6 million-plus per year. Ryans saw his role reduced in the new system, appearing in less than 60% of the club's snaps in 2011.

His reduction in playing time could be explained one of two ways. Some worry the coaches simply lost confidence in Ryans after his injury, but in reality the Texans spent a lot of the time in dime personnel, which replaces one of the interior linebackers with a defensive back to better defend against the pass. That's the big difference as Ryans moves back to the 4-3 where he's most comfortable. The Eagles are counting on him as a three-down linebacker, so his athleticism coming off of that injury will be tested in coverage tonight.

Along with rookie Mychal Kendricks and second-year backer Brian Rolle, the Birds debut an all-new look at linebacker tonight. It should be a lot of fun.

Brandon Graham

Both Jason Babin and Trent Cole were ruled out tonight, so Brandon Graham should not only start, but see plenty of action throughout. It will be the first significant playing time for the former first-round pick since December 2010, as his recovery from microfracture surgery limited him to three games and 56 snaps last season. As we wrote about previously, it's critical that Graham make an impression in these exhibitions if he has a chance to crack the rotation at defensive end and shake the bust label. Very excited to see what he can do in year three.

Fletcher Cox

This one is a no-brainer, and arguably could have topped the list. The Eagles moved up three spots in April's draft to select Fletcher Cox with the 12th overall pick, so naturally we want to see what the new kid brings to the table. Standing 6-4, 298 lbs., the 21 year old has been billed as a penetrating defensive tackle who will disrupt plays in the backfield and could eventually draw double teams -- a perfect fit for D-line coach Jim Washburn's scheme.

While we just want to see if Cox is as good as advertised, it will also be interesting to see if the coaches move him around at all. Chances are they will save this look for a real situation, but there has been talk of Cox also lining up on the end.

Curtis Marsh

Curtis Marsh is another young player we already discussed a couple weeks back, as he has stepped into the role as the primary backup to Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at corner this offseason. He'll get plenty of action with the twos, but we'll be looking for the package with all three on the field at the same time -- Marsh and DRC on the outside, Asomugha on the inside. A third-round pick who seldom played in his rookie season, Marsh has good size (6-1, 197) and is physical with receivers. It will be our first real shot of him since last summer.

Jaiquawn Jarrett

Yet another kid, at one point second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett was having one of the more tumultuous offseasons of anybody on the roster. Coaches were mum on Jarrett during mini-camps, and afterward the team signed veteran O.J. Atogwe, all of which caused many in the media to openly wonder whether the Temple product would even wind up making the team.

When Jarrett was taken in the second round of 2011's draft, there was an expectation he would make an immediate impact in the secondary. Instead he was lost, and despite poor safety play especially early on in the season, JJ couldn't get on the field. Of course, he had a fairly reasonable excuse not being ready to hit the ground running in that the lockout wiped away off-season programs that are especially valuable to incoming rookies. After all, the safety position isn't all about running around making big hits.

With Nate Allen our of the lineup tonight, all of a sudden Jarrett is likely in the starting lineup alongside Kurt Coleman, which would put to rest any ideas the coaches were just going to give up on him after last season. He still has a long way to go before shaking the stigma that he was a reach, and we suspect he'll stay on the field for awhile when the rest of the starters come out, as every rep is crucial right now. Clearly though the playing field is finally level for Jarrett this year.

MLB Notes: Rangers' Rougned Odor's suspension reduced to 7 games

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MLB Notes: Rangers' Rougned Odor's suspension reduced to 7 games

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor started serving his suspension Friday for punching Toronto's Jose Bautista after the penalty was reduced from eight to seven games.

Odor was out of the lineup for the series opener against Pittsburgh. He will be eligible to return June 4 when Texas is home against Seattle.

Bautista was suspended one game, and he was serving that Friday, when the penalty was upheld a day after his appeal was heard.

The Rangers promoted former top prospect Jurickson Profar from Triple-A Round Rock, and he was in the lineup against the Pirates as the leadoff hitter playing second base. Odor had been leading off.

Odor's penalty was cut by Major League Baseball special assistant John McHale Jr. The appeal over Odor's role in a May 15 brawl between the Rangers and Blue Jays was heard Tuesday. The league disciplined 14 players and staff over the melee in Arlington (see full story).

Red Sox: Struggling RHP Clay Buchholz to bullpen
TORONTO -- Struggling Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz is being moved to the bullpen and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez will take Buchholz's spot in the rotation, starting Tuesday at Baltimore.

Buchholz is 2-5 with a 6.35 ERA in 10 starts and has allowed five earned runs or more six times. He gave up season-highs of six runs and three home runs in Thursday's 8-2 loss to Colorado.

Rodriguez (right knee) is on the 15-day DL has not pitched for the Red Sox this season. He's 0-3 with a 3.54 ERA in five rehab starts at Triple-A Pawtucket. He went 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA as a rookie in 2015.

Buchholz has made two career relief appearances, one in his rookie season in 2007 and another in 2008.

Manager John Farrell said Buchholz will make multi-inning appearances in order to remain stretched out and could return to the rotation later in the season.

NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

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NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It's the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it's his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

"We needed LeBron to set the tone for us early and I thought he did that," coach Tyronn Lue said.

James will be the eighth player in NBA history to appear in six consecutive finals and the first who didn't play for the Boston Celtics.

"He's just a great player," Lue said. "He's a proven winner. He's always won over the course of his career. To go to six straight finals is unbelievable."

James got there by taking down a Toronto team that set a franchise record with 56 wins and reached the conference finals for the first time in 21 seasons.

After a second-quarter dunk, James shared some verbal barbs with rapper Drake, the Raptors' global ambassador and the man who popularized the nickname `6ix' for Toronto.

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith added 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday's Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

"This city has been craving a championship," Lue said. "We have the right team and we have the right talent."

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered "Let's go, Raptors! Let's go, Raptors!" throughout most of the final three minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said reaching the conference finals was "a tremendous learning experience" for his young team, one that's "a step ahead" in its process of becoming a championship contender.

"We're learning," Casey said. "We're not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We're going to be."

A dejected Lowry said it was hard to see the positive side of Toronto's best season ever.

"Of course you're going to look back at some point but right now I'm disappointed," he said. "Simple as that, I'm disappointed."

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland's nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. ... Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

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NFL Notes: Jets' offer to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stands at 3 years

NEW YORK -- A person familiar with the negotiations says the New York Jets made a three-year offer to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in March that includes $12 million guaranteed in the first year.

That offer has remained on the table for Fitzpatrick, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side is commenting publicly on the negotiations.

The New York Post first reported the terms of the offer Friday.

Fitzpatrick and the Jets have been locked in a contract stalemate. The 33-year-old quarterback is a free agent and coming off a season in which he threw a Jets-record 31 touchdown passes and led New York within a victory of the playoffs.

Both the Jets and Fitzpatrick have said they would like a reunion, but have unable to agree on a deal.

Bears: First-round pick Leonard Floyd agrees to deal
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears and first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd have agreed to a four-year contract with an option for a fifth year.

The Bears drafted the outside linebacker from Georgia with the ninth pick after trading up two spots in a deal with Tampa Bay. Chicago hopes he will add some athleticism to a team trying to build on a 6-10 season. The 6-foot-6, 244-pound Floyd led the Bulldogs in sacks for the third straight year with 4 , and tied for the team lead with 10 1/2 tackles for loss last season.

With the announcement Friday, the Bears have agreed to contracts with eight of their nine picks. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard, a third-rounder, is the exception.

NFL: Navy's Reynolds, Carter can defer military service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds will get his chance to play in the NFL this season.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Friday that the record-setting Navy quarterback Reynolds and fullback Chris Swain can defer their military service to play in the NFL.

Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech to the academy in Annapolis. As students cheered the news about their graduating classmates, Carter said: "Go get 'em."

Reynolds was drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens. He is the NCAA's career leader in touchdowns with 88. He had 31 touchdown passes while leading Navy's triple-option offense. The Ravens plan to use him as a running back, receiver and kick returner.

Swain has signed with the San Diego Chargers (see full story).

Redskins: Activists criticize poll on team name
WASHINGTON -- Native American leaders and activists have criticized a recent US national poll that found nine of 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the Washington Redskins' name.

On a conference call held Friday by the National Congress of American Indians and "Change the Mascot" campaign, panelists voiced opposition to a Washington Post poll that surveyed 504 Native Americans, 90 percent of whom said the name doesn't bother them.

James Fenelon, a California State San Bernardino sociology professor, called the poll "immoral," adding it was not representative of Native American communities. Amanda Blackhorse, lead plaintiff in the trademark case against the Redskins, said the "misguided" poll will not affect attempts to change the name.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jackie Pata said: "This issue is not about polling. This issue is about human rights."

D.C. council member David Grosso said he hadn't been swayed and that the government would not support the team moving back into the District unless the name was changed.

The team currently plays its home games in Maryland, with its headquarters and training facility in Virginia.