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Former Big Ten backs are part of NFL's RB renaissance

It was only a few years ago that observers were talking about the dwindling importance of running backs, that the NFL was a passing league and handoffs were afterthoughts.

But there has been a RB renaissance in recent years, with ball carriers such as DeMarco Murray (for a season), Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt and Todd Gurley reinforcing the impact the position can have.

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When Dallas plays host to the New York Giants on Sunday night, the game will feature two of the most exciting, essential backs: the Cowboys’ Elliott, and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley.

The two have been friends for a few years, since standing on opposite sidelines in 2015, with Elliott running for 153 yards to help Ohio State over Penn State, 38-10. Barkley, a freshman for the Nittany Lions, ran for 194 in that game.

As he recalled this week, Elliott was duly impressed.

“I went out and hurdled a guy, and literally the next drive he comes back and hurdles one of our guys,” he said of Barkley. “That was pretty cool to me just to see him come back and do the same thing.”

Both of Sunday night’s teams are coming off Week 1 defeats, although Barkley, the No. 2 pick, gave Giants fans something to cheer. He had a 68-yard touchdown run in a 20-15 loss to Jacksonville, and with 106 yards became the first Giants rookie to debut with a 100-yard game.

Raiders hope for a jump-start

The Raiders are hoping Martavis Bryant can help jump-start their passing game, which collapsed Monday night under heavy pressure from the Rams. It was another head-scratcher of a move by Oakland, which traded a third-round pick to Pittsburgh for the 6-foot-5 receiver during the offseason, then released him in final roster cut-downs. Jon Gruden said he had been outplayed by other young receivers on the team.

Bryant is hoping to make an impact Sunday at Denver, and offensive coordinator Greg Olson praised him this week.

“He stayed in shape,” Olson said. “He stayed around town, so he’s still involved in the game and working out. He retained a lot of things that we were doing with him previously, so he looks good.”

Steelers ready for a restart

It wasn’t an actual loss, but tying Cleveland in the opener sure felt that way to a lot of Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns are much improved, granted, but they went 1-31 over the past two seasons.

Sunday, against Kansas City, the Steelers return to the comfortable confines of Heinz Field. They are 15-2 in home debuts since moving from Three Rivers Stadium in 2001. Since the start of the 2014 season, Ben Roethlisberger is averaging almost three touchdown passes per game at home.

Baker Mayfield’s got a fan

Drew Brees is bullish on No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield.

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The New Orleans standout thinks Mayfield, who eventually will take over for stopgap starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Cleveland, is bound for NFL stardom.

“I think he can be a lot better than me,” Brees told reporters this week, with his team preparing to host the Browns. “He’s got all the tools. He’s more athletic. He probably can run around better. He’s got a stronger arm.”

Clearly, Mayfield was flattered.

“Yeah, it doesn’t get much higher than that,” said the 6-foot-1 rookie, who’s roughly the same size as Brees and was born in the same place: Austin, Texas. “That’s one of the greatest to play of all time. That’s the guy that I’ve had an unbelievable amount of respect for and looked up to him just because of where I’m from, first, and then size and story as well. So I’ve always enjoyed him.”

‘It’s not going to change’

About 10 players around the NFL protested the national anthem in some way during Week 1 games, with two of them kneeling: Miami teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson.

Stills, who visited Miami-area VA hospitals Tuesday along with Wilson and other Dolphins, told reporters he won’t be standing for the anthem Sunday on the road against the New York Jets.

“It’s not going to change,” he said. “Activism isn’t something you just kind of get involved with and then turn your back on it. Once your eyes are open to some of the things that are happening, you continue to work and try to grow and create change for the rest of your life. It’s something I’m committed to forever.”

Sound bites for the booth

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman always have a collection of snacks in the Fox broadcast booth when they work a game. Of course, they’re careful about what they’ll eat.

“There are certain snacks you don’t want,” Buck said. “Popcorn, you get one of those weird kernel flakes that get in your throat, and that could knock out a quarter.”

Honey-roasted nuts are a favorite.

“You could honey-roast a cockroach and eat that,” he said, pointing to a can of sugary almonds between them during last Sunday’s opener at Carolina. “And there might be a cockroach in that can — those are from last year.”

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