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Vikings GM on staying perfect; Christian Hackenberg still waiting

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  • By NFL.com
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With Week 7 of the NFL season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

» The secret to Lorenzo Alexander's success.

» Why Christian Hackenberg continues to wait.

» An update on the mysterious saga of Ladarius Green.

But first, we catch up with one of the masterminds of the Vikings' juggling act ...

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Rick Spielman was looking forward to the Minnesota Vikings' bye weekend mostly because it meant a plane ride to a college game. And that meant, maybe, a 90-minute nap.

"That's my 'me' time," Spielman said.

There isn't another general manager in the NFL who could use a spa day more than Spielman. His team is the league's lone remaining undefeated squad, having tested the bounds of resilience and desperation deal-making along the way.

From the moment quarterback Teddy Bridgewater crumbled to the ground with a devastating knee injury in practice a little more than a week before the regular season even began, the Vikings' roster has been on tilt. Coach Mike Zimmer cancelled the rest of that practice, then held a team meeting, while Spielman and the personnel department began three days of sifting through their options. Then Spielman spent all night negotiating a blockbuster trade to acquire quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for draft picks, including a first-round choice in 2017.

And that was just the beginning. Running back Adrian Peterson is out, and so are left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle Andre Smith, all perhaps for the entire season. Last week, the Vikings announced the signing of veteran tackle Jake Long, the former first overall pick who immediately began working on the left side before the Week 6 bye in preparation for the Vikings' game this weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I've been in this business a long time; I don't know if your head ever spins," Spielman said as he prepared for his scouting trip. "The injuries have been pretty significant so far. When things happen, you just try to do the best you can to make adjustments."

The adjustments the Vikings have made -- most particularly the acquisition of Bradford, who, in four games, has completed 70.4 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions -- have paid off so far. Bradford's play has been so impressive that there are already questions about how the Vikings will manage their quarterbacks next season, when Bridgewater is expected to return.

Immediately after the trade, Spielman made it clear that Bridgewater's timeline is uncertain, and the second year of Bradford's current contract is important because of that. But with the Vikings now on a roll, Spielman sounds a bit like he is tapping the brakes on the runaway optimism.

"We're still not going to know the end results," Spielman said. "He has played well for us, but we still have a long season ahead of us."

Still, that Minnesota is 5-0 after such a barrage of bad news is a reflection of the all-in attitude the Vikings had from the start. Minnesota was a popular preseason Super Bowl pick coming off an 11-5 campaign and its first NFC North title since 2009. Every team facing similar injuries -- Super Bowl-ready or not -- would pay lip service to the notion of never giving up on the season. But Spielman admitted that, had the Vikings' timeline been different, the team's reaction to Bridgewater's injury might have been, too.

"I think each year is different," he said. "Maybe if it was Coach Zimmer's first year, and we had just started building this under his and my vision of what we want the team to be, but we're into his third year right now. We put a lot of time and effort into the three years to build what we envision as a good football team. Because we're in that phase instead of the beginning of the program, we're going to be more aggressive."

The Vikings also knew they possessed a top defense on which to lean. Minnesota is allowing the fewest points in the league (12.6 per game). That provides a safety net for all the offensive tinkering, which has resulted in the 14th-ranked scoring offense (23.8 points per game). Could Spielman have imagined all his decisions would work out so well?

"Honestly, no," Spielman said.

The signing of Long is almost certainly the last significant deal the Vikings will make this season. They have limited cap space -- at one point last week, Spielman said it was about $50,000 -- a function of having 10 players and about $33 million on injured reserve and the non-football injury list. Spielman has begun looking at the roster and salary cap for 2017, which will bring momentous decisions about the futures of Bradford, Bridgewater and Peterson.

But with the Vikings' season resuming in Philadelphia, and with Minnesota now the NFC team to beat, the big roster decisions can wait while the current ones play out.

"All of that stuff will be there at the end," Spielman said. "I take it -- we do, as a team -- take it one day at a time, one game at a time. People say, 'Why don't you trade for this left tackle?' -- it's not fantasy football. You have to tie in the business aspect. We did give up a first-round pick for Sam next year. I still have eight draft picks, my goal is always to have 10. I'm not going to touch any more draft picks."

-- Judy Battista

And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL.com's reporters:

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Urschel makes it all add up. In a new Bose commercial, J.J. Watt tunes out Ravens offensive lineman/math whiz John Urschel as he explains how noise-canceling headphones work. Urschel said, "J.J. was great," and that the shoot took only about two hours of filming -- which is remarkably fast for any TV production.

"Their acoustic engineers had written up some things for me to look at," Urschel told me. "So once I looked at them and learned them, I didn't have to memorize them. I knew them. So it was very much like I was teaching. That made it very natural."

Urschel owns bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from Penn State and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT. He's never received a grade other than an "A."

Urschel -- popular within the Ravens organization -- said he eventually wants "to be a professor, be a researcher and get to learn about fascinating phenomena in the world and also inspire young people."

You might be wondering if Urschel and his math genius are a fit in an NFL locker room. I did, too. So I asked him.

"I know what you're saying," he said. "While I don't think the math fits in an NFL locker room, I very much feel like I do. Yeah, I do all these 'math things,' but I'm also just one of the guys. I'm a football player. So while the things I do off the field might not fit in, I feel like I do."

-- Kimberly Jones

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BUFFALO BILLS: Alexander's breakout a long time coming. It's impressive enough that Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander leads the league with eight sacks. A relative unknown before now, Alexander is on his sixth team and in his 12th season.

When I talked to Bills defensive lineman Leger Douzable, one of the former Jets who is now on Rex Ryan's Buffalo roster, he called Alexander "one of the greatest teammates you could have."

Why?

"Because he's so unselfish. You can't help but get fired up seeing him running down on kickoff and punt teams."

Alexander has been on the field for 64.4 percent of Buffalo's defensive snaps and at least 32 snaps in each game. He is also among the Bills' leaders in special teams snaps. (He was, by the way, the Redskins' Special Teams Player of the Year in 2011.)

Rex said he once thought Alexander reminded him of Adalius Thomas, but lost track of him until Bills GM Doug Whaley wanted to sign him.

"He just makes plays," Rex said. "He's smart, he ties in super well -- like, him, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, all that group, Douzable -- all those guys, they're just a team. These guys build off each other. [Alexander] will be the first to tell you that he wouldn't have the success without Jerry Hughes opposite him. He's been phenomenal."

-- Kimberly Jones

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Bringing the comeback back. The Giants rallied from a 10-0 deficit to defeat Baltimore last Sunday for one of their wildest -- and most stunning -- wins in recent memory. How rare was the comeback? Very.

The Giants had lost the previous 13 games in which they'd trailed by at least 10 points at any point in the game. They are 18-69 (.207) when Eli Manning starts and the team trails by 10 or more points at any point in the game. And the Giants are just 3-27 (.100) in the last 30 such games, dating back to Week 10, 2012.

Sunday's victory marked the first time the Giant won after overcoming at least a 10-point deficit since Week 5 of the 2014 season. Odell Beckham Jr. made his NFL debut that day after missing his first four games as a rookie with a hamstring injury; he caught his first touchdown pass on a route he'd never practiced.

On Sunday, Beckham led the Giants with two TDs and 222 receiving yards. He scored the game-winner from 66 yards out with 1:24 to play.

"That was a fun locker room after the game," Manning said. "Exciting locker room."

No wonder.

-- Kimberly Jones

From childhood fan to on-field colleague. After making his first NFL touchdown catch Sunday, Giants rookie receiver Roger Lewis Jr. tweeted that he "went from wearing an Eli Manning jersey in middle school to catching his 300th touchdown pass."

Lewis told me it was "back when my mom was picking out my clothes" that he donned the Eli jersey. Now, he has that touchdown football in his locker. He said he will ask Manning to sign it, then give it to Mom.

Which begs the question: Did Manning want that milestone football?

"No, he can have it," Manning said. "It's his first one; I got 300 other ones. The first one's a special one, and he deserves it."

Manning does have the ball he threw for his first touchdown pass, to Jeremy Shockey back in November 2004 -- six days before Lewis turned 11 years old.

-- Kimberly Jones

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NEW YORK JETS: Hackenberg has to keep waiting -- for now. When the Jets drafted Christian Hackenberg, their plan was for him to sit out the 2016 season and learn from veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

At the time, it made sense, with Fitzpatrick coming off a career season and with the 21-year-old Hackenberg needing to learn the pro game. Now? The grand plan -- at least around the rookie -- has fallen apart, with an ineffective Fitzpatrick being benched in favor of Geno Smith. Coach Todd Bowles said neither Bryce Petty, who injured his shoulder in the fourth preseason game and returned to practice a week ago, nor Hackenberg was an option.

"You've got to get reps to get ready," Bowles said. "He's a rookie quarterback and he's got three in front of him. He's not going to get enough reps to be ready to throw in there like that. He's getting plenty of scout-team reps. He's learning poise in the pocket and is getting experience that way."

In this, the year of the rookie quarterback, the Jets' handling of Hackenberg, their second-round pick, is at least interesting and arguably a debate topic. Consider that five rookies have started at QB this season, posting a combined 9-9 record: Dak Prescott (5-1), Carson Wentz (3-2), Jacoby Brissett (1-1), Cody Kessler (0-4) and Paxton Lynch (0-1). The rookies have a combined passer rating of 97.0. The NFL average passer rating is 91.3.

Hackenberg told me at the end of preseason that he would prepare as a starter whether he actually had that opportunity or not this season. It seems anything could be possible in Florham Park.

-- Kimberly Jones

Ryan remembers Byrd. Rex Ryan became emotional at his Wednesday press conference when the Bills coach was asked about the passing of former Jet Dennis Byrd.

Byrd, a compelling figure following his recovery from paralysis after a career-ending neck injury in 1992, died on Saturday in a two-vehicle accident in Oklahoma. He was 50.

Rex said when he was Jets coach, he unexpectedly received a package from Byrd. It was the jersey Byrd was wearing when he was injured.

"He came out, spoke to our team, and he was amazing," Rex said. "So he inspired me, and he inspired the whole team, too."

As for the jersey, Rex said, "I couldn't accept it. No way."

The jersey remains at the Jets' training facility in Florham Park. It is framed and hangs in the equipment area.

-- Kimberly Jones

* * * * *

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Belichick sees something special in Bell. If you want to know what it's like when Bill Belichick fawns, consider his reaction when a reporter started asking about Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell.

"Oh my God," the Patriots' coach said, before the full query was even out.

The NFL's longest-tenured head coach went on to call Bell a "tremendous player" and credit the third-year back with having just about every positive asset a player at his position could have. None of which was lost on Bell.

"It's really humbling," Bell said. "He's one of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game, and to say he likes my skill set? It blew me away."

Bell missed the first three weeks of the season while serving a suspension for a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy (for, he said, missing drug tests). In the three games since, he has 263 rushing yards on 48 carries and another 177 receiving yards on 20 receptions. Belichick said Bell is "as good as anybody." This week, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out and the Patriots coming to town, the Steelers will certainly need Bell to live up to that praise.

"I have to do whatever I can to help us win this game," Bell said. "But I feel like that when Ben's playing. It's not any different. I'm in shape to do whatever is asked of me."

The Patriots rank ninth in run defense (allowing 92 rushing yards per game), and they've allowed an average of 45.5 receiving yards per game to running backs. Bell said when he looks at New England, he sees a team "that wants to bleed you out. They make sure to take away the big play, and they'll let you have a couple yards here and there."

Bell, of course, said he has no problem with that, explaining, "We know how to be patient."

As for backup quarterback Landry Jones, who will be making the start in Roethlisberger's stead, Bell said, "It's on us to take the pressure off him. Guys like the offensive line, 'AB' [Antonio Brown] and myself."

And Belichick, for one, is at least talking like Bell could.

-- Aditi Kinkhabwala

Green's status still up in the air. The long, confusing saga that has been Ladarius Green's time in Pittsburgh continues this week ... with more uncertainty.

The Steelers' one splashy offseason signing, Green was finally set to practice this week, and on Monday, said he expected to. As of Thursday, he had yet to join his teammates on the field.

Brought in to help fill the hole left by tight end Heath Miller's retirement, Green has not suited up once since signing his four-year, $20 million contract. The team has maintained that his recovery from seemingly routine ankle surgery in January has prevented his return; NFL.com first reported this summer that Green has actually been suffering from recurring headaches.

While Green has never denied the headaches have played a role in his sidelining, he did declare himself ready to participate. In fact, when asked if it was reasonable to even be active come Sunday, when Pittsburgh host the Pats, he said on Monday, "I hope so."

By Thursday, he knew that was improbable. And while he again said, "I feel ready, I feel good," he also said it is head coach Mike Tomlin's decision on when to activate him, and "I don't argue."

Tomlin has remained non-committal on when he expects Green to return. Tuesday, he said he had "more pressing issues" to discuss with his medical staff than Green. The Steelers have until the day after Week 11 to begin Green's practice clock. Once he participates for the first time, the team has 21 days to officially add him to the 53-man roster.

-- Aditi Kinkhabwala

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