TWO BITS: Peterson re-signed, Cunningham

1 » Former Florida Gators linebacker Mike Peterson re-signed with the Atlanta Falcons, continuing his now-14-year NFL career with the team he has played for since 2009. Close with Atlanta head coach Mike Smith, Peterson was brought over to the Falcons when Smith was hired away from the Jacksonville Jaguars (where Peterson played from 2003-08). After amassing 109 tackles (82 solo) with three turnovers and a sack as a starter in 2009, Peterson’s production has trailed off over the last two seasons as he has moved into a reserve role. He had just 24 tackles (18 solo) in 2011. He was re-signed for depth and flexibility purposes as he can play either inside or outside and is also a strong veteran presence in the locker room.

2 » New England Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had a disappointing season in 2011, spending most weekends on the inactive list and officially being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury on Dec. 10. When he did see the field, he mostly played on special teams after registering 35 tackles and a sack in 15 games as a rookie. Head coach Bill Belichick said he was pleased with how hard Cunningham had worked and noted that he had been having a “great offseason” on June 12, but a projection by ESPN Boston just 12 days later said the player only had a 35 percent chance of making the 53-man roster. That has apparently not stopped Cunningham from working his butt off in the gym and taking some fans along for the ride, as noted by Reddit user “dafrizz888,” who recently posted his account of Cunningham selflessly taking him through a tough ab workout a few days ago.

I called over to him and told him thanks again and that I wasn’t expecting to get to work out with an NFL player when I walked into the gym. He responded “hey, we’re all just doing our thing in there man.”

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FOUR BITS: Fulwood, Gal, Raymond, Hernandez

1 » Four-star wide receiver commit Ahmad Fulwood (Jacksonville, FL) was one of a number of Florida Gators commits and targets participating in The Opening, a three-day skills competition run by Nike that took place in Eugene, OR over the weekend. InsidetheGators.com recruiting analyst Blake Alderman was in attendance at the event ($) and tagged Fulwood as the Florida commit/recruit who is “ready to play today.” With wide receiver being a major position of need for the Gators, Fulwood’s frame (6’4, 189 lbs.) and ability to “climb the ladder and catch the ball at its highest point” are major positives that offensive coordinator Brent Pease should be able to utilize as soon as he gets on campus. Fulwood did not see many passes go his way due to the quarterbacks spreading the ball around, according to Alderman, but impressed every time it was thrown to him and made a pair of touchdown grabs over the weekend.

2 » Though she ended the event eight shots off the lead, former Florida golfer Sandra Gal of Germany finished in third place (+1) at the conclusion of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open Championship, the best position she has finished in a major in her five-season LPGA Tour career. After a rough start to her career in which she missed numerous cuts and fell well outside the top 25 players in major championship events, Gal has really turned the corner the last two years. In the last 16 months she won her first tour event (the Kia Classic in March 2011) and has registered three top-15 finishes in majors – T-15 in the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship, T-12 in the 2012 LPGA Championship and third in this weekend’s U.S. Women’s Open.

3 » Former Gators tennis player Lisa Raymond had a nice tune-up for the 2012 London Olympics by competing in Wimbledon over the weekend. Though No. 1 Raymond/Liezel Huber fell in the semifinals of the women’s doubles tournament to Serena and Venus Williams, she went all the way to the finals of the mixed doubles tournament as the No. 2-ranked team with fellow American Mike Bryan. The duo defeated No. 4 Elena Vesnina/Leander Peas 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. It was the fifth Grand Slam mixed doubles title of Raymond’s career and 11th overall Grand Slam doubles title.

4 » With the New England Patriots extending tight end Rob Gronkowski this offseason, many fans of the team wondered what will become of TE Aaron Hernandez in the near future. Considering the team spent so much money to retain Gronkowski, conventional wisdom is that New England will let Hernandez’s deal expire but keep him in the fold by giving him the franchise tag in consecutive seasons before either allowing him to seek another contract or re-signing him when the time comes. However, according to The Boston Globe, that may not be so easy for the Patriots considering Hernandez could very well throw a wrench in those plans.

“Don’t expect Hernandez to accept the franchise tag number at tight end. The argument is there to be made that in his role, Hernandez is more of a receiver than a tight end,” writes Greg A. Bedard. “And considering that the receiver tag ($9.515 million) is almost double that of tight end ($5.446 million) this year, you can almost bet that Hernandez […] will prepare an argument for the receiver tag. That’s exactly what agent Blake Baratz did in February for tight end Jermichael Finley. It’s not known how much the threat affected the Packers, but they ultimately signed Finley to a two-year contract worth around $15 million.” Read more from Bedard on the subject by clicking here.

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SIX BITS: Haden, Cunningham, Rosario, Horford, Finney-Smith, Larson, Pigott, Bullard

1 » The NFL’s Around the Legaue blog highlighted cornerback Joe Haden as the most likely player from the Cleveland Browns “set for a breakout campaign in 2012.” Despite mentioning that he is “already one of the ten best cornerbacks in football,” a proclamation that would not be doubted by anyone who actually watched Haden play throughout the 2011 season, Gregg Rosenthal notes that Haden is not getting his due because after picking off six passes as a rookie he did not have a single interception in his sophomore campaign. However, he has been fantastic at limiting the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver and is “just hitting his stride” two years removed from playing as a junior for the Florida Gators and going No. 7 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Though Haden can lock down receivers, his reading comprehension (when it comes to the instructions on bottles of bubble bath) probably needs some improvement.

2 » Even though head coach Bill Belichick said New England Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had a “great offseason” and looked like a chance man at the start of mandatory minicamp, ESPN Boston only gives him a 35 percent chance of making the 53-man roster. “Last season, the Patriots kept Cunningham on the roster but he rarely saw the field, not having a special teams role in what turned out to be an injury-shortened season for the former second-round pick,” writes Mike Rodak. “Cunningham missed time in minicamp with another injury, an issue to monitor heading into training camp. If he cannot secure a role on defense during the preseason, he will face an uphill battle to make the roster.”

Read four more BITS in this post…after the break!
Continue Reading » SIX BITS: Haden, Cunningham, Rosario, Horford, Finney-Smith, Larson, Pigott, Bullard

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FOUR BITS: Siler, Starks, Cunningham, Boynton

1 » Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Brandon Siler participated in a team practice for the first time since tearing his Achilles during the last play of a practice last August and missing the entire 2011 season. According to the team website, Siler only worked during individual drills but said it was good to be back in a helmet for the first time in nine months. “It was a lot of fun and it was football again,” he said. “All the [rehab] stuff that you do is meant to get you back playing football. When you get out there and put your helmet on – and I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had my helmet on – it feels really good.” He continued, “I’ve wanted to light somebody up since I went down.” Siler did not get that chance on Tuesday as it was a non-contact, non-padded practice but will have that opportunity soon enough.

2 » For the second time in as many offseasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have begun organized team activities and minicamp without offensive tackle Max Starks. Also for the second time in as many offseasons, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has begun minicamp wearing Starks’s No. 78 practice jersey instead of his own No. 7. Roethlisberger entered the NFL along with Starks in the 2004 draft and the two have been extremely close friends ever since. Starks was unsigned heading into the 2011 season due to a neck injury he suffered late in 2010; however, after injuries plagued nearly the entire offensive line he was brought back and started almost immediately for the remaining half of the season. Last year Starks tore his ACL in the last game of the season – a playoff loss to Denver; he remains at least two months away from returning to action but is not under contract. Some have deemed it unlikely that he return to the Steelers, which is what was said last offseason as well, but Roethlisberger will undoubtedly pine for him to come back and protect him even if it is in a reserve role. (h/t Justin C.)

3 » New England Patriots outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham barely played in 2011…and it had nothing to do with his health. A notable absence from the field for the vast majority of the season (ESPNBoston.com notes that he only played 3.6 percent of the snaps in 2011 compared to 50.9 percent as a rookie in 2010), Cunningham reportedly had problems adjusting to the team’s switch to a 4-3 defense (he was a defensive end in college but was moved to linebacker upon being drafted) and may have been hurt a bit towards the end of the season though that was not the reason he missed so much time up front. According to head coach Bill Belichick, things have turned around for Cunningham and his playing time should be on the rise if he stays on the right track. “Jermaine’s had a great offseason,” Belichick said on Tuesday, noting that includes “physical improvement,” “overall mental grasp of what we’re doing,” and improvements to his “reactions and technique.” He continued, “He’s really worked hard. He looks good.” As for how much playing time he could see? “It will be up to him, and how he performs, relative to the other players at his position.”

4 » Florida Gators junior guard Kenny Boynton has needed to learn how to be a true point guard for at least two years now. If he has a future in the NBA, he is going to have to learn how to handle the ball and create both for himself and his teammates rather than just spotting up on the three-point line and taking shots. However, due to the presence of Erving Walker and the decision-making of head coach Billy Donovan, Boynton had been relegated to a shooting guard role even though giving him time at point had been a topic of discussion and consideration over the last two seasons. This time it appears that Donovan is ready to make sure Boynton gets that opportunity. “The three years he’s been here, he’s played some point,” Donovan told The Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway. “I think we’re going to need him to play some point. I think Scottie [Wilbekin] is the next logical guy in line. We signed Braxton Ogbueze who is a freshman. Kenny is a senior, so I don’t think there’s any question that Kenny is going to have to play some extra point because I think that’s best for our team.”

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SIX BITS: Calathes, Hernandez, Noah, Tyus, Beal

1 » Following up on a story from May in which the Dallas Mavericks head of international scouting said that point guard Nick Calathes will have an opportunity to play in the NBA this season is word that he may actually get that chance. According to ESPNDallas.com’s Tim MacMahon, Calathes “had discussions with the Mavericks [last] week indicating that he wants to play in the NBA” but continues “to be heavily recruited by European teams” now that his three-year contract with Panathinaikos has officially expired. MacMahon notes that should Dallas bring Calathes in for summer league action, he would be signed to a nonguaranteed contract.

2 » Now that the New England Patriots have locked up 2010 first-round pick tight end Rob Gronkowski long term with a six-year, $53 million contract extension, the focus has turned to what the team will do with fellow 2010 draft picks second-round linebacker Brandon Spikes and fourth-round TE Aaron Hernandez. As noted by the Boston Herald, New England signing Gronkowski to the richest contract for a tight end in NFL history could pose problems for Hernandez’s future. Hernandez remains under contract with the team through the 2013 season and is set to earn less than $1 million in salary each season. Should the team decide to give him a franchise tender, it would only cost them around $6 million, making there no immediate need for the Patriots to extend Hernandez as they would be able to avoid tying up a ton of money into one position. A No. 1 tight end in most NFL offenses, Hernandez is basically No. 2 at that position for New England despite also seeing time in the backfield and out near the sideline as a wide receiver. He most likely feels that he deserves money equal to or surpassing Gronkowski, which means his long-term future may have him wearing a different uniform.

3 » Only two of the seven former Florida Gators that participated in first-round action in the 2012 NBA Playoffs remain in contention for a title. Miami Heat power forward Udonis Haslem and guard/forward Mike Miller both advanced to the NBA Finals over the weekend; Haslem is looking for his second ring while Miller is still pursuing his first.

4 » Speaking of the playoffs, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (who severely sprained his ankle during the first round) has yet to recover from his injury. “I’ve tried to play a little basketball, but it’s still a little sore,” he told French-language website Catch and Shoot. “My left leg is not at its best. I can’t push off it; I can’t run well. I’m not ready at all.” Noah has been saying all offseason – since the Bulls were eliminated – that his No. 1 priority is healing and improving the strength of his ankles and lower body so he can compete with the French National Team in the 2012 London Olympics. There is a way to go until the games begin, but Noah obviously has plenty of progress that he must make before being able to participate.

5 » Former Gators forward Alex Tyus, who has spent his first season out of college playing professionally for Maccabi Ashdod in Israel, learned recently that the country has granted him temporary citizenship, which will allow him to train and likely compete with the Israeli National Team in the 2013 European Qualification games. Tyus averaged 12.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in his rookie season and helped lead Ashdod to their league finals (where the team fell 83-63 to Maccabi Tel Aviv). He and his wife converted to Judaism prior to leaving for Israel last summer.

6 » According to his agent Mark Bartelstein, who spoke with CBS Sports’ Jeff Goodman over the weekend, Florida freshman guard Bradley Beal has already scheduled three more workouts over the next seven days. Beal is set to work out for Washington (No. 3 overall) on Thursday, Cleveland (No. 4 and No. 24 overall) on Saturday and Charlotte (No. 2 overall) a week from Monday. The 2012 NBA Draft is set for June 28 giving Beal just over two weeks from press time to win over coaches and front office executives.

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FOUR BITS: Rainey, Butler, Tebow, Hernandez

1 » Now a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, running back Chris Rainey expressed on Tuesday how smooth the transition has been already to the NFL – and it is not because he has two former Florida Gators teammates and friends on the squad in center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Marcus Gilbert. “Well, this isn’t a new offense,” Rainey told WPXI in Pittsburgh, PA. “I’ve been in this offense at Florida because Charlie Weis and Coach [Todd] Haley coached together. It’s the same offense so it’s easy to me. It’s definitely an advantage. I can just go in here, see what it is and be like: I know this. I don’t even have to study. I’m right there. I’m ahead of everybody.” He is similarly not concerned about the speed of the NFL because of his five years in the Southeastern Conference. “I don’t think there’s a transition because I came from the SEC, so it’s basically the same thing the work wise,” Rainey told the station. “The hard work and all that kind of stuff [is the same]. Offense and everything [is the same], so I’m just out there doing my job.”

2 » Florida announced Wednesday that head women’s basketball coach Amanda Butler had her contract extended through the 2016-17 season after five years at the helm of the Gators. “I like the direction our program is headed,” athletic director Jeremy Foley said in a school release. “We know Amanda will be our coach for a long time. We’re excited about the future of the Gator women’s basketball program.” Butler is 98-67 in her five years at Florida, where she played as a guard from 1990-94 and served as an assistant coach from 1994-97.

3 » Panini America announced on May 31 that, as part of the company’s 2012 Prestige Football series, they will be including a 15-card insert devoted to now-New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow. The cards will be released on June 20 and numbered to a maximum of 1,500; there will also be 15 special versions of the 15th card (featuring him in a Jets uniform) that are autographed by Tebow. Below are small previews put together by OGGOA of the fronts of the 15 cards (each back includes a paragraph on Tebow):

4 » New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was scheduled to attend one of his teammates’ and fellow Connecticuter’s youth football clinic on Sunday but was delayed and showed up late for the event. When he did arrive, however, Hernandez was peppered with questions by the kids in attendance (the first of which was about the Gators); he also signed “roughly 100 autographs and [took] nearly as many pictures,” according to the New Britain Herald, before ending his appearance. In unrelated team news, recently signed wide receiver Jabar Gaffney may not wind up on New England’s final roster if he cannot beat out fellow veterans Deion Branch and Donte’ Stallworth. The three are all competing likely for a pair of roster spots, which is strange for each of the players consider all three joined the league together when selected in the 2002 NFL Draft by different teams.

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Patriots set to bring back WR Jabar Gaffney

Less than 48 hours after being released by the Washington Redskins following the most productive season of his career, former Florida Gators wide receiver Jabar Gaffney has agreed to a two-year deal to return to the New England Patriots, according to NFL Network‘s Jason LaCanfora.

Gaffney, who spent three years with New England from 2006-08, never caught more than 38 passes or amassed more than 468 yards in a single season as a member of the Patriots. He did, however, catch five touchdowns in 2007 when the team advanced to but eventually lost Super Bowl XLII.

The last two years have been the most productive of Gaffney’s career. He had 65 receptions for 875 yards and two touchdowns with Denver in 2010 and eclipsed all of those numbers by registering career- and team-highs in receptions (68), targets (115), yards (947) and touchdowns (5) for Washington.

Selected with the No. 33 overall pick in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft, Gaffney spent the first four years of his career with Houston (2002-05) before moving on to New England, Denver (2009-10) and finally Washington.

He came under fire in early April for a epic rant emanating from his Twitter account that he later claimed he did not participate in. It is unknown if that incident contributed to his release from the Redskins though the team beefed up its receiving corps in the offseason and claimed Gaffney’s 2012 salary to be cost prohibitive.

Gaffney will return to the Patriots as the fifth former Gators player on the team’s roster. In addition to tight end Aaron Hernandez and linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham, New England also plans to re-sign defensive tackle Gerard Warren for the 2012 season.

Photo Credit: Keith Nordstrom/New England Patriots

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FOUR BITS: 2013 draft, Warren, Rainey, Gaffney

1 » NFL Network’s Chad Reuter recently came out with his preseason rankings of the top five prospects by position for the 2013 NFL Draft. Reuter lists three Florida Gators on his groupings though only one is all but guaranteed to be eligible following the 2012 college football season. Ronald Powell (No. 5 defensive end) and Sharrif Floyd (No. 3 defensive tackle) are both entering their junior seasons; neither has had a full-season campaign that would lead to them leaving early and whether either will accomplish that this year remains to be seen. Powell is expected to miss at least the first month of the season (if not longer) with a torn ACL, and Floyd has yet to receive the majority of snaps at his true position of defensive tackle after playing end most of the time in 2011. Redshirt senior kicker Caleb Sturgis, however, is listed No. 2 overall among specialists (though most kickers and punters go undrafted and are signed as free agents).

2 » Former Florida DT Gerard Warren signed one-year deals with the New England Patriots both before the 2010 season (16 games played, 10 starts) and four games into the 2011 season (12 games played). According to Comcast SportsNet, Warren will do the same in 2012 as he is set to re-sign with the team soon once terms of a new deal (likely the veteran’s minimum plus incentives) are agreed to by the team and his agent.

3 » The Pittsburgh Steelers took a minimal risk by selecting former Gators running back Chris Rainey on Saturday, one the team lessened by asking plenty of people about Rainey’s character and coming away confident that he would not be an issue going forward. Perhaps one endorsement in particular, from Florida running backs coach Brian White who labeled him the “steal of the draft,” also helped motivate the team to draft Rainey. “I’ve been coaching 26 years and had as much fun coaching him as anyone I’ve ever coached,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s an incredibly infectious guy. He loves football and he really is an electric athlete. His change of direction is the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been around anyone who can change direction and accelerate like him. He’ll make a ton of dynamic plays in a lot of different areas for the Steelers and people will enjoy watching him play. He’ll bring enthusiasm and excitement to practice and the stadium that people will enjoy.”

White added that Rainey “doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, nothing” and that he has learned from “the one blemish” on his career. Lisa Webster, the mother of Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, also discussed the texting incident in which Rainey sent a message reading “Time to die” to his old girlfriend. “People say stupid stuff when they get in arguments,” Webster said. “Rainey texted it. I got on him. I told him I’d drive to Gainesville and beat him if he called her again. The boys called him. We know he wouldn’t do anything like that, he was just mad at the time. It wasn’t even her who called police. She knew he wouldn’t do anything like that.”

4 » Former Florida wide receiver Jabar Gaffney was released by the Washington Redskins on Monday after posting career-bests while with the team in 2011. In his 10th season in the NFL, Gaffney caught 68 passes for 947 yards with five touchdowns but will not be welcomed back to a team that made serious upgrades in its passing game over the last few months and did not want to spend $2.65 million on a reserve. Instead he will look to catch on with his fifth NFL franchise following Houston (2002-05), New England (2006-08), Denver (2009-10) and Washington (2011).

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