49ers expected to face Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys in Week 7


49ers expected to face Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys in Week 7

FRISCO, Texas  — A federal appeals court cleared the way Thursday for the NFL to impose a six-game suspension on Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott over domestic violence allegations, siding with the league in the latest high-profile fight over its ability to punish players for off-field behavior.

In a 2-1 decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans granted the league's emergency request to set aside an injunction and ordered a district court in Texas to dismiss Elliott's case.

The NFL announced that the suspension was effective immediately, though further appeals were possible and the Cowboys are not playing this weekend.

"We are currently exploring all of our legal options and will make a decision as to what is the best course of action in the next few days," Elliott attorney Frank Salzano said.

The Cowboys don't play again until next Sunday, Oct. 22, at San Francisco. If Elliott's legal team can't put the suspension on hold again, he won't be eligible to play until Nov. 30 at home against Washington, a Thursday night game the week after Thanksgiving. Elliott played the first five games as Dallas went 2-3 in a disappointing start.

A federal judge in Texas issued the injunction blocking the suspension last month, agreeing with NFL players' union attorneys who argued that the investigation of the allegations in Ohio and a subsequent appeal were unfair to Elliott, one of the league's standout running backs.

The NFL countered that it followed procedures under the league's labor deal and that the union improperly filed a lawsuit before the appeals process was complete.

The most likely destination for further legal challenges from players' union attorneys representing Elliott is with the Southern District of New York. The NFL filed in that federal court after Elliott's appeal through the league was denied by arbitrator Harold Henderson last month.

Last year's NFL rushing leader as a rookie, Elliott was suspended in August by Commissioner Roger Goodell after the league concluded following a yearlong investigation that he had several physical confrontations in the summer of 2016 with Tiffany Thompson, his girlfriend at the time.

Prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio, decided not to pursue the case in the city where Elliott starred for Ohio State, citing conflicting evidence.

Elliott's legal team filed the lawsuit on his behalf in the Eastern District of Texas before Henderson had rejected the appeal. The 5th Circuit agreed with the NFL's claim that the filing was premature.

"The procedures provided for in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA were not exhausted," Judges Jennifer Elrod and Edward Prado wrote for the majority. "The parties contracted to have an arbitrator make a final decision. That decision had not yet been issued."

In dissent, Judge James Graves disagreed that the suit was filed prematurely. Graves noted the union's argument that the league had violated the collective bargaining agreement because key information had been withheld from Goodell and Elliott's representatives before the suspension was ordered and the arbitrator's decision was based on incomplete information. The suit was properly filed in the district court because the arbitration process called for in the labor deal was not properly followed, Graves argued.

The NFL had already agreed to let Elliott play in the opener before his request for an injunction was granted by U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant in Sherman, north of Dallas. Henderson ruled against Elliott the same day Mazzant heard arguments over the injunction.

Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University Law School, noted that the opinion dealt only with jurisdictional issues and not the question of whether the NFL's appeals process was unfair to Elliott.

"This is certainly a significant setback," Feldman said. "But they still have a chance because this decision was not made on the merits of the case. He has yet to have a federal court rule against him on the merits. Until that happens, he still has a chance."

Elliott, who set a Dallas rookie franchise record with 1,631 yards rushing last season, is fourth in the NFL with 393 yards this year. He had a season-high 116 yards in a 35-31 loss to Green Bay on Sunday.

If the case shifts to federal court in New York, home to league headquarters and the site of Elliott's appeal hearing with Henderson, the venue is a familiar one. The NFL won the "Deflategate" decision in the New York court, leading to New England quarterback Tom Brady serving his four-game suspension a year after it was originally imposed. A federal judge had put Brady's suspension on hold.

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”