Blackhawks

Bucs make huge splash in free agency

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Bucs make huge splash in free agency

From Comcast SportsNetTAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Greg Schiano glanced to his left where the three newest members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were seated and smiled broadly. All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, two-time Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson and well-regarded cornerback Eric Wright comprise the biggest one-day free agent haul in franchise history and figure to play key roles in whether the first-year coach makes a successful transition from Rutgers to the NFL. "I think they're a perfect fit ... for what we want to do," Schiano said. Schiano noted that Nicks is a punishing blocker who will help the running game, Jackson is a proven deep threat who'll make the passing attack better and Wright is a much-needed addition for a defense that must improve if the Bucs are to rebound from a 4-12 finish that included 10 consecutive losses to end last season. Barely 14 hours after making a splash by signing Jackson to a five-year 55.55 million contract Tuesday, general manager Mark Dominik closed five-year deals Wednesday with Nicks, one of the key blockers for Drew Brees on the Saints' record-setting offense, and Wright, who's coming off a solid season with the Lions. Nicks received a 47.5 million deal that the four-year veteran called "humbling." Wright, who matched his career high with four interceptions for Detroit last season, got a 37.5 million package -- meaning Dominik negotiated deals totaling more than 140 million in one day after not spending much at all on other team's free agents the past two years. And it appears the spending spree -- the Bucs entered free agency more than 42 million under the league salary cap -- is done. "Our eyes are turned toward the draft," where Tampa Bay has the fifth overall pick and will seek to address other needs, Dominik said. "We've made our mark," the general manager added, "for what we wanted to accomplish." Jackson gives the Bucs the legitimate No. 1 pass catcher they've lacked since Keyshawn Johnson helped Tampa Bay win its only Super Bowl title 10 years ago. The three-time 1,000-yard receiver had 37 TD receptions in seven seasons with the Chargers and provides a deep threat for young quarterback Josh Freeman. Jackson's contract, which will pay the receiver 13 million in each of his first two seasons in Tampa Bay, was done in all 5's in honor of Freeman, who wears jersey No. 5. The 29-year-old was excited to be available after earning nearly 11 million in 2011, when San Diego put franchise tag on him. He missed most of 2010 in a salary dispute. Like Nicks and Wright, Jackson said money was the only lure to Tampa Bay. Each of them like the nucleus of young talent the Bucs have assembled since deciding to rebuild with youth after the 2008 season. Former coach Raheem Morris led the team to a surprising 10-6 record, narrowly missing the playoffs two years ago. The team took a step backward last season, when Freeman threw 22 interceptions (compared to just six in 2010) and Tampa Bay's defense set a franchise record for most points allowed. "They have the tools here to do big things," Jackson said. "I'm just looking to do my part." Nicks made the Pro Bowl in New Orleans that past two seasons and is considered one of the best pass blockers in the NFL. He's also excited that Schiano's blueprint for success revolves around what the coach hopes will be a productive running game that'll take some of the pressure off Freeman. The Saints led the NFL in total offense and threw for more yards than any club in league history last season. No disrespect for what his old team approach, but he is looking forward to opening holes for the run-oriented attack that Schiano expects to open things up for Freeman and the passing game. "We were pass first, pass second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth," Nicks said, adding that it will be "interesting" facing his old team twice a year in the NFC South. Wright, a five-year veteran, was with the Lions last season after spending four years in Cleveland. With Ronde Barber's future with the Bucs up in the air after 15 seasons and Aqib Talib confronting a legal matter off the field, the Bucs felt it was essential to pursue a proven cornerback in free agency. Jackson, who during last year's lockout was one of 10 named plaintiffs in the Brady V. NFL antitrust suit filed against club owners, said he doesn't anticipate the size of his contract creating pressure for him to be anyone other than the same type of player that made him one of the most attractive players available in free agency. Nicks and Wright expect to blend in well, too, although they know all eyes will be on them and Jackson. "We're not the big three like the Miami Heat," Nicks said, smiling. "But hey ..."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.