By STEPHEN HAWKINS
AP Sports Writer
Terri Valenti, right, who will be the NFL's first female instant replay official, and Alberto Riveron, the NFL's new head of officiating, speak to reporters before the start of the annual NFL officiating clinic Friday, July, 14, 2017 at a hotel in Irving, Texas. Valentini moves into the booth two years after Sarah Thomas became the NFL's first full-time female official on the field, and Riveron was promoted after Dean Blandino left the NFL. (AP Photo/Stephen Hawkins)
IRVING, Texas (AP) Terri Valenti always enjoyed football as a little girl, but never dreamed then of being in the NFL. That became her goal only after officiating games for the first time in 1999.
Valenti this season will be the NFL's first female instant replay official in the booth, moving into that position two years after Sarah Thomas became the league's first full-time official on the field.
''I didn't know what was involved, how long the road would be, how hard it would be, or if I would ever get there,'' Valenti said Friday at the NFL's annual officiating clinic. ''To be here at this point is just awesome.''
The annual clinic, held before each season, was the first since Alberto Riveron's promotion to be the head of officiating after Dean Blandino left the NFL.
Valenti spent the past five seasons working for instant replay in the NFL, including a Super Bowl. She also worked in the past as an on-field official in the professional United Football League in 2009, as well as high school, college, minor league and international league games.
Her new instant replay role for the NFL is different and more prominent. Each of the 17 officiating crews have an instant replay official who is the go-between for the on-field referee and the NFL's centralized operations in New York, where final decisions on reviews will be made starting this season.
''The roles I've had in the past have been supporting the replay official and getting that information that person needs to do his or her job effectively,'' she said. ''Now I'm kind of point person for a little team at each field.''
NFL referee Brad Allen said the NFL is concerned about having diversity and the most qualified people.
''It's a positive benchmark in society that we're not sort of in an old-school, old-boys mentality,'' Allen said.
Valenti, a mother of five sons, said she has never had any concerns about the players. She said she has always felt welcome when working games.
''I think at first they give me a little bit more space, which I use to my advantage, but I also have five sons so I understand boys a lot,'' she said. ''It's just natural for me, doing it at home for 33 years.''
Riveron, a nine-year game official and former referee, emphasized that the only change with the centralization of replay is that he will be the one making the final decisions on such calls.
''The process hasn't changed. We've had the same process in place now for three years. So the only thing that's changed about the process, that instead of the final decision being with the referee on the field, it's now with New York,'' he said. ''The consultation process, the way we look at the film, the plays we show him, the angles, that hasn't changed one bit.''
NFL owners also earlier this year made changes to give players more leeway for their celebrations after touchdowns. The football can again be used as a prop, and there can be group celebrations among teammates.
Asked if officials were clear on where to draw the line of celebrations, Riveron said, ''Extremely clear.''
Sexually suggestive moves and portrayals of violence, such as a throat slash, still are prohibited.
''Basically we're going to watch what they do and let them celebrate and if it gets excessive in length of time then we'll have to decide, but I'm not sure we know exactly what that length of time is,'' said referee Walt Coleman, who is going into his 29th NFL season. ''We know players are out there thinking up what they're going to do, so it should be interesting and entertaining.''
The Seattle Seahawks hired Brian Schottenheimer as their new offensive coordinator Tuesday. Mike Solari was also named the new offensive line coach. Schottenheimer most recently served as the Colts quarterbacks coach the last two seasons, but he previously was an offensive coordinator with the Jets from 2006-2011, with the St. Louis Rams from 2012-2014 and with the University of Georgia in 2015. Solari spent the last two yearse as the offensive line coach for the Giants. Both Schottenheimer and Solari will have their hands full, mainly fixing the offensive line and getting something out of what was a terrible running game the last two years. Russell Wilson remains one of the best and most athletic quarterbacks in the league, but these new additions don't really figure to benefit him all that much.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs has certainly seen an increase in popularity this week. After making national news by scoring the game-winning 61-yard touchdown last week against the Saints, Diggs will look to keep the good times rolling against the Eagles. The Eagles defense has allowed the 14th most fantasy points to opposing receivers this season, including allowing eight touchdowns to receivers over the Eagles last six games played. Diggs finished the regular season with eight touchdowns and is coming off of an impressive six-catch, 137-yard performance. Diggs should see plenty of targets and will be a top-4 fantasy play at receiver for the final four of the NFL playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has had a career season with 91 receptions and 1,276 yards, including 74 receiving yards last week in the Vikings wild win against the Saints. But Thielen has only four touchdowns this season and has not caught a touchdown since December 10th. He has been a go-to receiver for quarterback Case Keenum but when the Vikings get in the red zone Thielen serves more as a decoy than a weapon. This week he will take on an Eagles defense that has allowed the 14th most fantasy points to opposing receivers this season. The Eagles have been tough on the run this season but can be beat in the secondary. Thielen is an excellent route runner and should have no issue getting open often this weekend. He may not find the end zone but Thielen is a top-4 play at receiver in fantasy for this weekend.
Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon will look to make it two straight playoff games with a touchdown when the Vikings take on the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. McKinnon punched in a 14-yard score last week against the Saints but will go up against an Eagles defense that has allowed the second fewest fantasy points to opposing backs this season. McKinnon is the de facto backup to Latavius Murray but McKinnon presents more athletic value in the passing game. While the Eagles will try and shut down the Vikings running game, McKinnon could see some opportunities to make some plays in the screen game. The Eagles have allowed only three rushing touchdowns since Week 4 of the regular season which means the Vikings will have to get creative in the red zone. McKinnon's name is flying under the radar in preparation for championship weekend and could certainly provide some fantasy value at a cheap price.
Minnesota Vikings running back Latavius Murray will have a tough matchup Sunday against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. It will be tough sledding against a defensive unit that has allowed the second fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs this season. Up until the Cowboys Ezekiell Elliott's 103 yards in Week 17, the Eagles had not allowed a single 100-yard runner all season. Murray has become a reliable force in the red zone, scoring eight rushing touchdowns in the regular season and punching in for another score last week in the playoffs against the Saints. But the Eagles have allowed only three rushing touchdowns since Week 4, making this one of the stingiest match ups Murray will see all season. Murray could struggle to post a solid fantasy stat-line and will be a touchdown-dependent option this championship weekend.
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce (concussion) will not participate in the Pro Bowl due to a concussion he suffered in the playoffs. Tennessee Titans TE Delanie Walker has been named as Kelce's replacement.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will head into the NFC Championship game against the Eagles with his confidence at an all-time high. Keenum was playing solid football last week against the Saints but it was in the final moments where he really shined in helping create the Minnesota Miracle. He has a career-high 22 touchdown passes during the regular season but will go up against an elite Eagles defense one more stepping stone away from the Super Bowl. The Eagles have allowed the 11th fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks this season with 19 interceptions during the regular season. The unit has played extremely well of late, holding opponents to less than 227 passing yards in nine of their last 10 games, including the playoffs. Keenum will have to protect the football and could be in line for a less than stellar fantasy stat line. Nonetheless, he will be the second best quarterback option (behind the Patriots' Tom Brady) in fantasy heading towards championship weekend.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is expected to return in 2018 with full confidence from head coach Dan Quinn and his staff. The Falcons took a notable step back in 2017 with Sarkisian in his first full year as the coordinator after the departure of Kyle Shanahan. Quarterback Matt Ryan's numbers were expected to disappoint after his 2016 MVP season, and Atlanta's offense as a whole never really reached its full potential. With Sarkisian likely sticking around, it may be good news for the continuity of the unit, especially since they should be getting most of their weapons back. It wouldn't hurt to upgrade at the receiver position, though.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Nick Foles has thrown just one touchdown compared to two interceptions in five games played in Philadelphia this season. Meanwhile, he has thrown four touchdowns and zero interceptions in two road contests. The Eagles face the Minnesota Vikings in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship this weekend.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees says he has no plans to test the market, and that he hopes to re-sign with the Saints before the start of the new league year. "I'm not in the mood to make anything secretive," Brees said. "It's the same way I felt two days ago. It's the same way I felt 12 years ago. That is that I'll be here as long as they'll have me, hopefully." Brees, who turned 39 on Monday, cannot be franchise tagged, giving him a little leverage even if he insists he does not want to test the market. Brees' main goal could be some guaranteed money for 2019.
Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner (hamstring) will not participate in the 2018 Pro Bowl due to a hamstring injury. Wagner has been dealing with the ailment since late in the season and will be replaced on the Pro Bowl roster by Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Kwon Alexander.
Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones (ankle) will not participate in the 2018 Pro Bowl due to his nagging ankle injury. Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams will take Jones' place in the Pro Bowl.
The Arizona Cardinals are putting in second interview requests for their head coach position today. Among those expected to get a call are Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak and Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. With so much still in flux, it is still uncertain what the fantasy values of the various Cardinals players will be following this process. Keep an eye on who gets the job and how it will affect players such as running back David Johnson and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette was involved in a minor car accident Tuesday when his car was rear ended. Fournette was fine and was able to drive home after the accident. Of greater concern for Fournette's availability in the AFC title game against the Patriots is the ankle that he aggravated in the Divisional Round against the Steelers. Fournette's ankle has bothered him at times this season, but he was able to return against the Steelers and carried the Jaguars offense with three touchdowns. Fournette may be somewhat limited in what he can do against the Pats, but rest assured that he'll be the focal point of the offense yet again as they try to pull a second straight huge upset. T.J. Yeldon filled in admirably when Fournette left the game last weekend, and he figures to have a big role as well, even if Fournette is playing.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril (neck) intends to play again in 2018 despite missing most of the 2017 season with a career-threatening neck ailment. "Right now it's all about recovery. I had surgery. I'm in the process of recovering. It's a long process, a long journey. When I get to the end of that, then I'll figure out what's next," Avril said. Avril was injured in Week 4 and missed the rest of the season, and head coach Pete Carroll even said it would be tough for Avril to ever play again. It remains to be seen how effective Avril can be after his neck injury in 2017, but if he can return to anywhere close to his pre-injury form, his return will be a big boost to a Seattle defense that fell off in 2017, mainly due to injuries.
The Cleveland Browns are interviewing former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo for their vacant offensive coordinator position on Tuesday. McAdoo's tenure with the Giants didn't end well as he went 2-10 this past season and caught fire for benching longtime starting quarterback Eli Manning. Despite the rough season, McAdoo has had plenty of success as a play-caller in the NFL, leading the Giants to the sixth-most points in the league in 2015 when he was their offensive coordinator. McAdoo, along with former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and former Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan have all been linked to the job opening.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked on his radio show on Tuesday whether he wanted offensive coordinator Todd Haley back in 2018. Roethlisberger responded by saying, "The least amount of change the better. We don't want to have big changes because we're right there, we're on the cusp...We feel we have some great things going for us." Rumors of a fracture between Haley and Roethlisberger popped up during the season but it is apparent those issues were overblown. Roethlisberger went on to state, "I think its perceived as a bigger deal than it was." Haley is not under contract for the 2018 season but the Steelers could look to bring him back with the support of Roethlisberger.
New Orleans Saints LB Hau'oli Kikaha (ankle) proclaimed himself 'ready right now' when asked by reporters Tuesday, Jan. 16, whether or not he would be ready for OTAs.
Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson remains confident that quarterback Marcus Mariota is the right guy for the gig, and Robinson isn't too worried that the team will have yet another head coach guiding the offense in 2018. "Marcus is a pretty resilient guy. He's a very mentally tough guy," Robinson said of Mariota. "He takes a lot from the standpoint of ownership in things. I have zero concern in Marcus being able to adapt and learn, and do what's best to get the offense going." Mariota will be playing for his third NFL coach after being drafted in 2015. It was a disappointing year for the Hawaiin in 2017, as he threw for just 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions after throwing for 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2016. Injuries slowed Mariota down again, but he has plenty of pieces around him in the offense to be successful. The right coaching staff may be able to get more out of him, but fantasy owners probably won't want any part of Mariota, definitely not as a QB1.
New Orleans Saints TE Coby Fleener is set to count $8 million against the cap with a $6.3 million salary in 2018, making it highly unlikely he will stay with the team unless he agrees to a pay cut on the five-year, $36 million contract he signed in 2016. The Saints choose to release him, they would still be charged $4.8 million in dead money.