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PFT’s Week Two picks

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Getty Images

Last week, MDS and yours truly disagreed on only one pick.  I trusted the J-E-T-S, and he didn’t.

So I finished 11-5, and he’s already in second place with a 10-6 mark.

This week, we’ve doubled our disagreements.  Which means that there’s a good chance I’ll be in second place by next week at this time.

Tune in to PFT Live this Thursday and every Thursday for MDS and yours truly talking about three or four of Sunday’s games.  And, yes, there may be gloating.

Bears at Packers

MDS’s take: This is about as close as a Week Two game can get to being a must-win for the Packers. Lose here and they’re two games behind the Bears, plus the Bears have the tiebreaker edge, plus they’re 0-2 at Lambeau Field, plus they’re behind the Lions and Vikings in the NFC North as well. Jay Cutler will have a good game against the Packers’ suspect pass defense, but Aaron Rodgers will have an even better game, and the Packers will win with their backs to the wall.

MDS’s pick: Packers 34, Bears 31.

Florio’s take:  The Packers have beaten the Bears in five of their last six games.  And other than the 2010 NFC title game, none has been bigger than Thursday night’s contest at Lambeau Field.  If the Packers lose, the team that was 15-1 in 2011 will fall to 0-2 in 2012, with 25 percent of the home schedule completed.  Look for the Packers’ defense to find something close to their groove — finally — and for Green Bay to get things moving in the right direction with a strong offensive output.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 28, Bears 24.

Chiefs at Bills

MDS’s take: Picking the Bills burned me in Week One, costing me the head-to-head battle with Florio in last week’s picks. Will I learn from that mistake and avoid the Bills this time? Nope. I think the Bills are a better team than they showed against the Jets and should win a close one at home.

MDS’s pick: Bills 14, Chiefs 10.

Florio’s take:  Last year, the Bills went to Arrowhead in Week One and spanked the Chiefs.  This year, the Chiefs return the favor in Week Two.  (And as long as MDS keeps picking the Bills, I’ll keep building an edge in the season-long contest.)

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 34, Bills 21.

Saints at Panthers

MDS’s take: Can Cam Newton do to the Saints’ defense what Robert Griffin III did? Or is the Panthers’ offense going to lay an egg for the second week in a row? In a game that will leave the loser in a big hole in the NFC South, I’m picking the Panthers in a home upset.

MDS’s pick: Panthers 27, Saints 24.

Florio’s take:  The loser of this game will fall to 0-2.  For the Panthers, that would be a problem.  For the Saints, it would be grounds for panic.  Caught napping last Sunday against the Redskins, the Saints wake up in a big way.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 42, Panthers 24.

Browns at Bengals

MDS’s take: Both of these teams looked bad in Week One, but the Browns seem to be on a different level of bad, because Brandon Weeden just doesn’t look like he’s ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Joe Flacco showed on Monday night that a good quarterback can beat the Bengals deep, but Weeden is not a good quarterback.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 24, Browns 10.

Florio’s take:  The Bengals lose the games they’re supposed to lose, and they win the games they’re supposed to win.  That trend held on Monday night, and it’ll hold on Sunday.

Florio’s pick:  Bengals 28, Browns 16.

Vikings at Colts

MDS’s take: Andrew Luck had four turnovers in his debut against the Bears, but what would really concern me about that game if I were a Colts fan is that the Colts’ defense didn’t look any better than it did last year. Christian Ponder will have his second consecutive big game and the Vikings will start a surprising 2-0.

MDS’s pick: Vikings 27, Colts 20.

Florio’s take:  Andrew Luck will always be compared to Peyton Manning.  And Peyton Manning lost the first home game of his career.  So if Luck can pull this one off, he’ll already be ahead of the curve.  Though the Vikings aren’t nearly as good as they were the year that Peyton Manning entered the league, they’re good enough to spoil Luck’s debut at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Florio’s pick:  Vikings 24, Colts 20.

Texans at Jaguars

MDS’s take: Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert looks like he’s taken a big step forward since last season, and Jacksonville should put some points on the board. But the Jaguars won’t be able to keep pace with the loaded Texans offense, and this game could get ugly.

MDS’s pick: Texans 35, Jaguars 14.

Florio’s take:  Jaguars owner Shahid Khan wants to remove the tarps at EverBank Field.  His players may want to hide under them when the Texans come to town.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 35, Jaguars 17.

Raiders at Dolphins

MDS’s take: Both of these offenses looked like they leave a lot to be desired in their Week One losses, but I have a lot more faith in Carson Palmer turning things around than I have in Ryan Tannehill turning things around. The Dolphins, who started last season 0-7, will take another step toward another dismal start.

MDS’s pick: Raiders 24, Dolphins 6.

Florio’s take:  The Raiders may need sunglasses to dull the glare of all those empty orange seats.  And it will only get more empty in the second half.

Florio’s pick:  Raiders 24, Dolphins 17.

Cardinals at Patriots

MDS’s take: The Cardinals somehow seem to keep playing in close, competitive, exciting games: Last year 13 of their 16 games were decided by a touchdown or less, and they went down to the wire against the Seahawks in Week One as well. So will they be in a close game again? No. The Patriots win this one easily.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 34, Cardinals 14.

Florio’s take:  The two hottest teams over the last 10 regular-season games get together in Foxboro, but there’s still a huge gap between the 9-1 Patriots and 8-2 Cardinals.  Actually, there’s a pretty big gap right now between the 9-1 Patriots and 31 other teams.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 31, Cardinals 13.

Buccaneers at Giants

MDS’s take: Greg Schiano had his team playing exactly the kind of tough, physical football he promised they would play in Week One against the Panthers, while the defending champion Giants looked surprisingly out of sorts in their Week One loss to the Cowboys. But the Giants are still the Giants and the Buccaneers are still the Buccaneers, and Week One will look like an anomaly when this game is over.

MDS’s pick: Giants 27, Buccaneers 10.

Florio’s take:  This is the kind of game that Giants could have lost, if they’d beaten the Cowboys in Week One.  But since the Giants lost to the Cowboys in Week One, they’ll be guarding against another letdown — and quarterback Eli Manning will do what he has to do to propel the team in an early must-win situation.

Florio’s pick:  Giants 27, Buccaneers 17.

Ravens at Eagles

MDS’s take: The Eagles won ugly in Week One, while the Ravens won big. Much like they did last year, the Eagles look like a team that’s less than the sum of its parts, and I like the Ravens to go to Philadelphia and win.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 24, Eagles 17.

Florio’s take:  A week after barely beating the toothless new Browns, the Eagles get a taste of the old Browns.  By the time it’s over, Mike Vick may need Jeffrey Lurie to push the wheelchair.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 30, Eagles 21.

Redskins at Rams

MDS’s take: I liked the way the Rams’ defense looked in the first game of the Jeff Fisher era: Yes, they gave up 355 passing yards to Matthew Stafford in a loss to the Lions, but they also mixed up their coverages and picked Stafford off three times. The Rams will do a better job of containing Robert Griffin III than the Saints did, but the problem for St. Louis is that the offensive line is a mess, and they’re not going to be able to put many points on the board.

MDS’s pick: Redskins 20, Rams 13.

Florio’s take:  If the Rams had known how RG3 would make his NFL debut, the price for the pick that was sent to the Redskins would have been a lot higher than three ones and a two.  And the Rams may regret sooner rather than later the decision to not simply pick Griffin themselves.

Florio’s pick:  Redskins 28, Rams 20.

Cowboys at Seahawks

MDS’s take: Russell Wilson struggled against the Cardinals’ defense, and he’s going to struggle again against an athletic Cowboys defense that can limit Wilson’s mobility. The fans in Seattle may be calling for Matt Flynn soon.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 21, Seahawks 6.

Florio’s takeTony Romo returns to Seattle for the first time since he fumbled the snap on a field goal that would have secured a win in his first career playoff game.  This time around, the defense will be the difference, especially since the Seahawks’ receivers are banged up.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 24, Seahawks 13.

Jets at Steelers

MDS’s take: No one saw the Jets’ offensive explosion coming last week, so maybe I’m underestimating them here, but I just don’t like Mark Sanchez’s chances of moving the ball effectively against the Steelers’ defense.

MDS’s pick: Steelers 17, Jets 10.

Florio’s take:  The Steelers saw some Tebowing late in Sunday’s loss to the Broncos.  The Steelers will be hoping to see none of it on Sunday.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 20, Jets 10.

Titans at Chargers

MDS’s take: Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips had an excellent game against the Raiders, and he’s going to make Titans quarterback Jake Locker’s life very difficult on Sunday. The Chargers will be off to their first 2-0 start since 2006.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 24, Titans 17.

Florio’s take:  The Chargers begin what could be one of their final seasons in San Diego  in style.  Except for all the empty seats at the stadium.

Florio’s pick:  Chargers 21, Titans 17.

Lions at 49ers

MDS’s take: The Lions survived with an unimpressive win over the Rams at home, while the 49ers had an extremely impressive win over the Packers on the road. San Francisco may just have the best team in the NFL.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 27, Lions 17.

Florio’s take:  The 49ers have gotten better since the last time these two teams met in Detroit.  The Lions haven’t.

Florio’s pick:  49ers 31, Lions 17.

Broncos at Falcons

MDS’s take: The loss of starting cornerback Brent Grimes is a huge blow to the Falcons, and Peyton Manning is the worst quarterback to face for a team trying to adjust to an injury in the secondary: Manning will find places to pick apart the Falcons’ secondary and get a big road win against a good team.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 31, Falcons 28.

Florio’s take:  Last year, Denver’s defense kept games close long enough for the quarterback to do something heroic.  This week, they’ll do the same thing — without having to give up so few points.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 38, Falcons 35.

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Report: Dolphins players concerned about guard situation

Miami Dolphins OTA's Getty Images

As long as left tackle Branden Albert is healthy, the Dolphins are set at three spots on their offensive line.

Albert, right tackle Ju’Wuan James and center Mike Pouncey will be starting for the Dolphins in September, but things are a lot less clear at guard. The team has several options to sift through, but it doesn’t look like any of them have left the rest of the team feeling too comfortable as they head toward training camp.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reports that there’s “definitely concern” among Dolphins players about the fact that no one seized the opportunity to nail down a guard job during offseason work. Jackson adds that fourth-round pick Jamil Douglas has had some good moments, but it appears he, Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas and others will be battling it out well into camp.

Unless, of course, the Dolphins look outside the organization for more help. Evan Mathis would be a possibility if they decide to go that way, although there’s been a lot more chatter about interest in the former Eagle since his release than there’s been actual confirmation of it from any teams.

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Study pegs Eagles as healthiest team last two years, Giants unhealthiest

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 17: Chip Kelly talks to the media after being introduced as the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles during a news conference at the team's NovaCare Complex on January 17, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The former Oregon coach surprised many after he initially turned down NFL clubs saying he would remain at Oregon. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) Getty Images

Maybe the smoothies work. And maybe Tom Coughlin should try one.

The folks at Bleeding Green Nation have passed along a chart that suggests the Eagles are the healthiest team in the NFL over the last two seasons, while the Giants have been the most unhealthy over that span.

The chart is based on adjusted games lost, a formula created by FootballOutsiders.com that uses injury reports and players placed on injured reserve to quantify how available players are to their teams.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly has put plenty of emphasis on sports science, and using nutritional supplements for players to keep them at their best. And old school coach Coughlin has been criticized for not adopting new methods, which this study would seem to back up.

While there’s something to be said for doing everything possible to keep players well, football remains a collision sport and an amount of dumb luck can still make a big difference, particularly if that luck keeps a good quarterback on the field.

While it stands to reason that the best teams might be the healthiest, the next six teams on the list behind the Eagles are the Jets, Ravens, Bills, Browns, Vikings and Rams. And if you look at the Giants’ neighbors at the bottom of the chart, the Colts are 30th, and have managed to perform at a high level.

Obviously you’d rather be well than injured, but it’s unclear if all the shakes and Navy SEAL training the Eagles go through correlates to success on the field.

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Friday morning one-liners

Indianapolis Colts v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

A look at how the Bills landed Rex Ryan as their head coach.

Damien Williams is looking forward to the running back competition at Dolphins camp.

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski hosted a football camp at Andrews Air Force Base this week.

Assessing the impact of DE Sheldon Richardson’s suspension on the Jets.

Ravens WR Michael Campanaro is on track for a training camp return from a quad injury.

Former Bengals players debate the seriousness of Deflategate.

Undrafted TE E.J. Bibbs has made a positive impression on the Browns.

Troy Polamalu makes an appearance on the list of best safeties in Steelers history.

Texans DE J.J. Watt has a fan in Snoop Dogg.

If you’re looking for tips on grilling salmon, Colts T Anthony Castonzo is your man.

How much have the Jaguars improved under General Manager David Caldwell?

A positive take on Kenneth Adams IV’s increased role with the operation of the Titans.

A golf tournament is among Broncos S T.J. Ward’s charitable efforts.

The Chiefs were looking for a franchise quarterback before the 1979 draft.

Previewing the competition in the Raiders secondary.

Chargers TE Ladarius Green is in line for a bump in playing time during Antonio Gates’s suspension.

Is Cowboys owner Jerry Jones right to be confident in the team’s cornerbacks?

Former Giants S Tom Longo died at the age of 73.

Ten players the Eagles can’t afford to lose to injury.

Can play action help Redskins QB Robert Griffin III in 2015?

The Bears won’t miss facing off with Ndamukong Suh twice a season.

Remembering the on- and off-field life of late Lions great Charlie Sanders.

In search of the right theme for a painted fence to commemorate Brett Favre’s entry into the Packers Hall of Fame.

Vikings LB Chad Greenway thinks RB Adrian Peterson can still win an MVP award.

The Falcons are working to build a better defense.

The Panthers sent strong messages this offseason through contract extensions.

Saints QB Drew Brees is selling a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS.

Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston enjoyed his visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

S Deone Bucannon has found a home in the Cardinals secondary.

St. Louis has earmarked more land to be used for a new Rams stadium.

Former 49ers LB Keena Turner discusses the close relationship between Aldon Smith and Charles Haley.

Seahawks S Earl Thomas is headed to the altar.

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Richardson suspension gives leverage back to Muhammad Wilkerson

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

The Jets knew defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson wanted more money when they used their first-round pick on Leonard Williams, seemingly giving them a bit of leverage in the negotiations.

Well, Wilkerson has it back now.

With defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, they have a potential problem up front if they can’t make Wilkerson happy.

He said when he reported to mandatory minicamp that he wanted to be rewarded for his work, and doesn’t seem to think his $7 million fifth-year option is a sufficient reward.

Wilkerson skipped all the non-mandatory offseason work, but that didn’t cost him anything. Holding out of training camp would cost him $30,000 a day, and it’s unclear if he’d go that route to prove his point. But the prospect of going into the season without a pair of starters on the line is something they have to consider as a possibility, or at least something Wilkerson wants them to consider.

Of course, drafting Williams could end up working against Richardson more now, as the suspension would probably make the Jets much less likely to think about ever extending his deal.

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Packers could be thin up front in the opener with suspensions

Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

Packers defensive end Datone Jones only got a one game suspension for his violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, but the Packers are likely going to be short more than one lineman for that game.

As noted by Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers are still awaiting word on an expected punishment for defensive lineman Letroy Guion, which could leave them down two key players for the opener.

Like Jones, Guión could be facing a shorter suspension, assuming he hasn’t failed any tests. He was arrested in February for possession of marijuana and a firearm, charges which were thrown out after he paid a fine. Of course, Florida officials are still holding his truck and $190,028.81, pending a civil forfeiture case, so it’s not like he got off easy.

Players who don’t test positive for drugs but are arrested on drug-related charges have gotten one-game suspensions previously, including running back Ahmad Bradshaw.

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Report: Cowboys think Dez is bluffing, needs his Week 1 paycheck

Dez Bryant AP

Would Dez Bryant really decline to sign the franchise tag and skip Week One of the regular season, missing a $750,000 paycheck in the process? The Cowboys reportedly don’t think so.

According to Jason Cole of Bleacher Report (via the Dallas Morning News), the Cowboys are not budging from the offer they’ve made Bryant and will tell him to either sign their offer or play the 2015 season under the $12.8 million franchise tag. The reason the Cowboys think they have the leverage to hold the line with Bryant is that they believe he’s bluffing about missing games, and that he is having money problems and wouldn’t be able to afford to give up a $750,000 paycheck.

It’s unclear what kind of money problems Bryant is having. He has made enough money already in his NFL career that he should be set for life, but Bryant does have expensive tastes and was once sued for failing to pay a bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry he purchased.

Ultimately, the Cowboys may simply decide to tell Bryant to play this season for $12.8 million. If they do, Bryant won’t have much choice but to take it.

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Colts sign linebacker Justin Shirk, waive Camaron Beard

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts signed linebacker Justin Shirk and waived defensive end Camaron Beard on Thursday.

Shirk, an undrafted free agent out of Division II Bloomsburg, spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their rookie mini-camp in May. A transfer from the University of Oklahoma, Shirk was named as a first-team D2 All-American in each of his last two seasons at Bloomsburg.

He appeared in 45 games and racked up 392 tackles during his college career.

Beard, an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati, signed with the Colts after a tryout in their rookie mini-camp in May.

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Russell Wilson would “definitely consider” playing baseball if traded to the Mariners

Wilson Getty Images

On Monday night, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show, where he dropped an “F” bomb and talked about “grabbing my ding-ding.” (And he also grabbed his ding-ding several times.) On Thursday night, teammate Russell Wilson appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. While there was no “ding-ding” talk, Wilson stepped way out of his carefully-manicured character by using a word that had to be bleeped.

“I’ve gotta tell you a story,” Wilson said as soon as he took a seat between Kimmel and Andy Samberg, who was in a plastic bubble because he was pretending to have the flu.  “So I’m backstage, before the show, obviously. And all of a sudden I run into this guy with a bubble. And he sticks out his hand. I shake his hand. Next thing I know, he sh-ts in his pants.” (It’s possible Wilson said “jizzes,” in reference to Samberg’s “Jizz in My Pants” video from Saturday Night Live. Either way, it was bleeped. Either way, it didn’t mesh with the Wilson ordinarily projects.)

The discussion quickly turned to Wilson’s contractual status, with Kimmel asking Wilson if he’s more tired of talking about the Super Bowl loss or his contract.

“Both,” Wilson said.

Kimmel then  pointed out how underpaid Wilson is, suggesting that he’s making only $37,000 per year. (The audience didn’t get the joke.)

“So you’re ready for the next contract?” Kimmel said.

“That sounds exciting,” Wilson replied.

“I would love to help you with this contract, I really would,” Kimmel said. “Do you have an agent?”

“I do have an agent,” Wilson said.

“Well, that’s a bummer.”

“Maybe you can be his consultant,” Wilson said.

“How much money do you want, because we can probably hash this out right now?”

“Can we take a collection plate, maybe?” Wilson said, laughing.

“No, you get it from the team,” Kimmel responded, with a little bit of force in his voice. “You made enough money for them. I think it’s OK for them to pay you. You want to be the highest paid player in football, correct?”

“I just want to be paid based off my play,” Wilson said. “It’ll work out in the end, and we’ll figure it out.”

Wilson then reiterated that he wants to stay in Seattle, but it’s still not clear exactly what he wants financially — because he continues to avoid the question.

Wilson also said he’s seriously interested in playing both football and baseball professionally, calling it a dream he had growing up.

“It’d be tough to play [both],” Wilson said. “But, you know, there’s always a way.”

Kimmel then asked if Wilson would play both if his baseball rights were traded from the Texas Rangers to the Seattle Mariners.

“I’d definitely consider it,” Wilson said.

Kimmel did a great job of asking the right questions and drawing Wilson out on some touchy subjects, even though it’s a comedy show with low expectations for anything newsworthy.

And there was still some comedy (or at least attempts at comedy), including a quick jab by Wilson at coach Pete Carroll for paying players at USC. But it came out so fast that it sailed over the heads of the studio audience.

“He’s gonna love that comment,” Kimmel said.

Carroll won’t mind that comment if they can get a contract worked out. For now, it’s still unclear what it will take and when it will get done. However, it is clear that Wilson remains serious about baseball — and that he’d be even more serious if he were playing for the baseball team in the same town as his football team.

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NFL starts Fourth of July weekend with four-item bad-news dump

BadNews Getty Images

When the dust settled for what was for many the last work day before the long Fourth of July weekend, the NFL had announced four suspensions in the span of roughly two hours. Starting at approximately 2:00 p.m. ET and ending at approximately 4:00 p.m. ET, the NFL had announced suspensions of Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, Packers defensive lineman Datone Jones, and Chargers tight end Antonio Gates,

There are two possible explanations for this cluster of suspensions. Either all four cases happened to be resolved coincidentally in the same 120-minute window, or someone decided to hold them all until this afternoon, unveiling one after another at a time when media and fan attention will be diminished.

The latter explanation makes far more sense, but here’s the catch. Some in the league office insist that the NFL doesn’t engage in bad-news dumps, and that embarrassing or unfavorable information is disclosed when it’s disclosed, whether that’s at 5:00 p.m. ET on a Friday or 9:00 a.m. ET on a Monday.

From a P.R. standpoint, it makes sense to drop bad news into days and/or hours that will result in reduced attention. It also makes sense to not do it all the time, because then it becomes too obvious.

On Thursday, it became too obvious. On Friday, it’ll be interesting whether more obvious bad news will be unveiled.

Plenty of people won’t be working on Friday, but PFT will be on the clock — and yours truly plus producer Rob “Stats” Guerrera will be monitoring and reacting in real time from 12:00 p.m. ET to 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Radio’s PFT Live.

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Offsets are indeed the issue for Mariota, Titans

Marcus Mariota AP

No, a surfing clause isn’t keeping the Titans from signing quarterback Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The real reason is far less interesting.

As expected, it’s the question of whether Mariota’s contract will include offset language for the fully-guaranteed payments to be made from 2015 through 2018. The Titans want to have the ability to get credit for any money Mariota owns elsewhere, if Mariota is cut at any point during his first four NFL seasons. Mariota wants to have the ability to keep his guaranteed money from the Titans, and to keep whatever he earns from another team.

And so the two sides are staring at each other, waiting for one of them to blink. The Titans think/assume/hope that Mariota will cave before missing a training-camp practice, or possibly after missing a handful of them. Mariota thinks/assumes/hopes that the Titans will cave, given that they need their potential franchise quarterback to become a franchise quarterback as quickly as possible.

It’s odd that it’s even a fight. But it’s a fight because the first overall pick, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, has offset language in his contract and the third overall pick, Jaguars linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., does not have offset language in his contract.

If Mariota performs so poorly that he’s cut before he finishes his contract, the Titans will have problems far bigger than whether they can get credit for whatever Mariota earns elsewhere.

So why fight it? Maybe the Titans are simply trying to be tough. Maybe the Titans think the league wants teams to include offset language in rookie deals. (If so, the Jaguars and Rams didn’t get the memo.)

Regardless, a very minimal issue threatens to become a very major problem, if neither Mariota nor the Titans blink by the start of training camp, or at the latest not long after it opens.

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NASCAR returns to NBC this weekend

NASCAR Getty Images

On Saturday, the U.S.A. celebrates its 239th birthday. And NBC celebrates the return of NASCAR.

The auto-racing juggernaut comes back to NBC after a nine-year absence, with Saturday night’s Subway Firecracker 250 on NBCSN (7:30 p.m. ET) and Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 on NBC (7:45 p.m. ET). Both races come from the Daytona International Speedway.

For details about the coverage, click here. To watch the races, click the appropriate buttons on your TV device, or check out the live stream via NBC Sports Live Extra.

So enjoy your cookout and your beverage of choice and your fireworks, and participate in the ultimate American non-football-season experience of watching people drives cars really fast without fear of being pulled over by the fuzz.

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Mendenhall’s Roethlisberger story wasn’t completely accurate

Receipt Getty Images

The story told by former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sticking a rookie with a $25,000 tab was interesting. It would have been even more interesting if it were, you know, accurate.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, it started as a dinner for offensive linemen at a steakhouse, not a club. The offensive linemen determined that former Steelers offensive lineman Tony Hills, a rookie at the time, would pay. (Hills, who currently plays for the Cowboys, was a fourth-round pick of the Steelers in 2008.)

The quarterbacks showed up as well, the linemen ran up a huge bill, and Hills wasn’t able to pay it.

Roethlisberger actually paid roughly half of the amount on the spot, with Hills reimbursing him later.

The practice of sticking rookies with huge bar and club tabs, which was one of the issues raised in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, has ended in Pittsburgh. It’s probably ended with most NFL teams.

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Ivory release continues new NFL trend

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Before the Ray Rice debacle, NFL teams would react to a player getting arrested by issuing the same kind of perfunctory statement that the Texans issued on Thursday about defensive lineman Brandon Ivory — and then waiting for the legal process to play out before taking any further action.

After the Ray Rice debacle, the Texans followed the perfunctory statement issued on Thursday with decisive action, cutting the undrafted rookie free agent who faces charges in Alabama of first-degree burglary.

Who care if he’s innocent until proven guilty or if Ivory’s agent claims he’s innocent? Ivory is destined to be placed on the Commissioner-Exempt list, which means that any NFL team that employs Ivory will have to pay him to not play until the charges are resolved, after which point they’ll quite possibly be not paying him to not play.

Unless the player is a star, there’s no reason to deal with it. For that reason, more and more teams will be quickly dropping players who are accused of any crime that could result in their placement on paid leave.

That’s another problem with the NFL’s decision to use paid leave as a way to get players charged with certain crimes off the field until their legal situations are resolved. The league contends it’s not a disciplinary move because the player still gets paid. But if the trend will be to cut any non-essential player who is facing paid leave, the player won’t be allowed to play — and he won’t be getting paid.

Regardless of how anyone feels about any player who is accused of a crime, the NFL’s decision to supplement the criminal justice system in the name of public relations must be done in a way that respects labor relations. The NFL’s current approach doesn’t properly respect the rights of all players, which eventually will force the NFL Players Association to waste more money on legal fees.

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Lions great Charlie Sanders dies at 68

charliesanders AP

Charlie Sanders, a Hall of Fame tight end and one of the greatest players in Detroit Lions history, has died at the age of 68.

Sanders recently revealed that he was battling cancer.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Sanders played his college football at Minnesota, where he was an All-Big Ten tight end and helped lead the Gophers to a share of the Big Ten title during his senior season in 1967. The Lions selected Sanders with a third-round pick in the 1968 NFL draft.

In Detroit, Sanders made an immediate impact and became a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. When he retired after the 1977 season, Sanders had the all-time franchise record for catches, with 336 in his career.

Sanders remained with the Lions organization after retiring, working as a radio commentator, a wide receivers coach, and an assistant director of player personnel. In 2007 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Antonio Gates suspended four games for PED violation

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Fireworks haven’t been going off at NFL headquarters just before July 4, but announcements of suspensions keep on coming Thursday.

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is the latest to fall under discipline from the league office. The NFL announced that Gates has been suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

“In my 12 years in the NFL, I have taken tremendous pride in upholding the integrity of the NFL shield and all that it entails,” Gates said in a statement. “I have taken extreme care of my body with a holistic approach and I have never knowingly ingested a substance that was banned by the NFL. In an effort to recover from this past season, I used supplements and holistic medicines, and unfortunately, I have now learned that those substances always present a risk because they may contain banned substances even if the ingredient list doesn’t reflect them. As an NFL veteran and team leader, I should have done my due diligence to ensure that what I was taking for recovery was within the NFL guidelines. I understand that I am responsible for what is in my body and I have always believed that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to these issues. I take full responsibility for my actions. I’d like to express my sincere apologies to the Chargers, my teammates, coaches, fans and the league who have always supported me and expected and gotten nothing but the highest level of integrity from me.”

Gates will miss games against the Lions, Bengals, Vikings and Browns before becoming eligible to return in Week Five against the Steelers. He’ll be able to take part in training camp practices and preseason games before the suspension goes into effect.

Gates had 69 catches for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Chargers last season and that production at 34 may raise some eyebrows in light of Thursday’s suspension. Lardarius Green will be the likely replacement for Gates in San Diego’s first four games.

Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain and Packers defensive end Datone Jones have also had suspensions announced by the league on Thursday.

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