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NFL, NFLPA Announce Significant Drop in COVID-19 Cases Entering Playoffs

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The NFL and NFLPA have announced a significant drop in COVID-19 cases league-wide with the 2021 playoffs well underway.

There were just 22 new confirmed positive cases over the most recent testing period spanning from Jan. 3-9. Only three of those confirmed positives were from players, while the other 22 were of staff members and personnel.

In total, 17,459 tests were administered to 2,933 individuals over the span.

Tuesday’s results announcement snaps a a streak of five consecutive weeks case numbers did not desecrate league-wide. After 70 new confirmed positives were announced last period, this week’s steep decline is a clear victory for the league with the game becoming more consequential and the margins getting thinner.

While the Pittsburgh Steelers saw their season ended prematurely Sunday night, it did not mean an end to their ongoing battle with COVID-19. The team’s practice facility was reportedly closed Monday following a possible virus-related issue.

NFL

Sarah Thomas to Become First Woman to Officiate Super Bowl

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Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl during Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida on Feb. 7, the NFL announced on Tuesday.

Thomas just finished her sixth season as an NFL official and will be working in her fifth playoff game.

“Sarah Thomas has made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” NFL executive vice president for football operations Troy Vincent said in a press release. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.”

A native of Pascagoula, Mississippi, Thomas has already been the first female official to work a college bowl game and in 2015, the first to work an NFL game.

Thomas, 47, got her start in the NFL as a line judge in 2015. In 2017, she was promoted she was promoted to head linesman, a move which coincided with the NFL replacing that term with the gender-neutral down judge. She worked her first playoff game in 2019.

Thomas wears uniform number 53. For the first time this season, she was permitted to wear a snap-back hat, allowing her pony tail to be visible from underneath her hat as she works.

The NFL picks the official at every position that grades the best throughout the season as officials for the Super Bowl. In addition to Thomas, Carl Cheffers will referee, Fred Bryan will be the umpire, Rusty Barnes the line judge, James Coleman the field judge, Eugene Hall the side judge and Dino Paganelli the back judge. Thomas and Coleman will be making their Super Bowl debuts.

“Their body of work over the course of a 17-game season has earned them the honor of officiating the biggest game on the world’s biggest stage,” said Vincent. “They are the best of the best.”

Click for more of Steelers Now’s coverage of Super Bowl LV.

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NFL

Report: NFL Salary Cap Expected around $180 Million; Would Put Steelers $35 Million in Red

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The 2021 NFL salary cap is expected to be around $180 million, according to a report by Mike Florio of NBC Sports.

The salary cap is supposed to be fixed at 48% of the league’s revenue, according to the CBA signed between the league and the NFLPA that went into effect in March, with a possible increase if the NFL makes the expected decision to go to a 17-game schedule this fall.

But after the COVID-19 pandemic cost teams the vast majority of ticket sales in 2020, the league’s revenue has cratered heading into this offseason. The NFL and NFLPA agreed in their return-to-play negotiations that the 2021 salary cap will not fall below $175 million.

But that figure would represent a $23.2 million salary cap decrease instead of the typically expected $10 million or so increase, putting many teams, and the Pittsburgh Steelers in particular, in a salary cap crunch.

Florio said that some owners would like to see the impacts of the pandemic spread out over several years of cap impacts to reduce the immediate decrease, but that other owners see that as an interest-free loan to the players and balked.

While the most desirable of free agents will likely not be impacted, the number of teams in a cap crunch would likely cause middle-tier free agents to be unable to cash in on their expected paydays and low-tier free agents could be forced to re-sign for minimal, if any, raises.

The Steelers would need to trim approximately $35 million from their current salary obligations to be compliant with a $180 million cap, according to salary cap analysis from F.S. Fisher of Steelers Now.

While the $5 million in extra room would be helpful, it would not change the fundamental approach the Steelers will have to take this offseason of restructuring, negotiating pay cuts or releasing players already under contract for 2021.

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2021 NFL Draft

NFL Cancels In-Person 2021 Scouting Combine in Indianapolis; Pro Days On

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After weeks of rumors and speculation, the NFL has made it official, announcing in a memo to clubs Monday they are significant alterations to the 2021 Scouting Combine.

Annually held in Indianapolis, the league is scrapping in-person workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium, instead opting for pro days on college campuses. The NFL will coordinate with schools to ensure “consistency in testing and drills,” providing video of said workouts to all clubs.

Interviews and psychological testing of prospects normally executed at the physical combine will instead be conducted in an entirely virtual format.

As for medical evaluations, limited in-person exams will most likely be conducted over a three-day span in early April. While some evaluations will also be held virtually, an undetermined number of prospects will be invited to designated satellite locations for in-person exams. Each franchise will be permitted to dispatch a physician and athletic trainer to conduct the in-person portion.

Leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft in April, the league will work directly with clubs, schools and affiliated broadcast partners to ensure media availability with Combine invitees. The NFL intends to keep with tradition and make head coaches and general managers available to the media as well.

The altered Combine format was devised and overseen by a special committee of league and club officials, including NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills, Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert.

Further details regarding protocols and finalized dates will be released as the committee continues to meet and plan over the coming weeks.

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