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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 23: Miami Dolphins

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Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland didn’t hear no a lot this offseason.

The team had been the bridesmaid many times in the last few years when pursuing players and coaches, but they landed plenty of big game this offseason. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, tight end Dustin Keller, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes are just some of the players who decided to play in South Florida this season and their arrival has led to a lot of playoff talk around the Dolphins.

That may make it a win-or-else scenario for Ireland, which makes it a good thing that he seems to have positioned the team well from a personnel standpoint. Now that personnel needs to gel in order for the team to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Strengths.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t have too many people to throw to as a rookie last season, which contributed to some of his struggles, and Ireland made sure that excuse disappeared. In addition to Wallace and Keller, Miami re-signed Brian Hartline and added Brandon Gibson as a free agent to give themselves a far deeper and considerably more talented receiving corps than they had last season. There’s been plenty of optimism about Tannehill’s growth this offseason and this group gives him a chance to show it off in a major way.

The Dolphins haven’t had any complaints about Cameron Wake’s pass rush ability over the years. Wake had 15 sacks last season, a career high, and did it without much help from his friends on the defense. If first-round pick Dion Jordan brings the heat as hoped, Wake will be even more dangerous to stop this time around.

Defensive line continues to be a Miami strength when you kick inside to the tackle spot. Randy Starks isn’t likely to get a long-term deal after being franchised, keeping his motivation high to turn in another productive season. Paul Soliai gives them a huge obstacle to opposing run games and Jared Odrick is a handy extra body to use at end or tackle.

Safety Reshad Jones, who is also looking for a new contract, is coming off a very strong 2012 season. A repeat performance will get him that deal and make him someone Miami can build around in the secondary.

Center Mike Pouncey has a good chance to join his brother Maurkice in the Pro Bowl sooner rather than later. He’ll anchor a line that has questions we’ll discuss below and the upside to be an effective unit.

Weaknesses.

It may not turn out to be a weakness in the long run, but there are certainly plenty of questions to answer about the cornerbacks. Grimes and Richard Marshall are both coming off of injuries that could leave them at less than full strength and one can never predict how much rookies like Jamar Taylor and Will Davis will bring to the table in their first seasons.

We’ll stay in the uncertainty more than weakness column as we turn our eye to the running backs. Reggie Bush went to Detroit, leaving second-year man Lamar Miller as the likeliest choice for the lead back role this year. Miller’s speed is intriguing, but he’ll need to show he can do the more mundane business of moving the chains and picking up pass rushers to help make Miami’s offense balanced and productive this season.

As mentioned above, no one other than Wake rushed the passer well enough. If Jordan doesn’t provide the extra pressure, it’s hard to see who might do it.

Camp will be important for the Dolphins because they have so many new players in the system and chemistry will be a must for units with major changes like the offensive line and linebackers. While you’d expect the players to pick things up fairly well, it’s never as easy as just plugging players into spots and letting them go.

Changes.

There will be a new look on the offensive line for the Dolphins this season. Jake Long was the rare one that got away this offseason, heading to the Rams and leaving left tackle in the hands of Jonathan Martin. Martin played the position at Stanford and moved there after Long was hurt last season, so familiarity with the job shouldn’t be too big an obstacle.

The Dolphins also signed Tyson Clabo to play right tackle, a move some questioned because his style doesn’t seem to mesh with the zone blocking principles the Dolphins introduced last season. He’s a capable player, so the line should be in good shape if he takes to the new system.

Linebacker was another area of major change as the Dolphins shipped out Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett in favor of Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. They definitely got younger and faster in the process, but both of the discarded vets were solid players and Ellerbe has a short track record of success for a player who got a big deal this offseason.

Wide receiver Davone Bess and tight end Anthony Fasano were each let go as part of the overhaul of the receiving corps.

One notable area without change was Joe Philbin’s coaching staff, which provides the team with continuity in their effort to build on last season’s result.

Camp Battles.

Richie Incognito should hold onto the left guard spot, but right guard will be a spot of contention for John Jerry, rookie Dallas Thomas and, assuming he’s healthy, free agent addition Lance Louis. Jerry didn’t play well last season, which should make the competition that much livelier.

There’s plenty to sort out at corner with Nolan Carroll and Dimitri Patterson joining the players already named in a fight for roles in the secondary. The best-case scenario for the Dolphins is that all the competition helps answer some of their questions at corner before the start of the regular season.

Miller’s the odds-on favorite for the top spot on the depth chart, but Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee will be fighting for snaps as well. Thomas has disappointed to this point in his NFL career and Gillislee passing him by wouldn’t bode well for his future in Miami.

The Dolphins drafted kicker Caleb Sturgis in the fifth round, which likely makes him a favorite in the battle with erratic incumbent Dan Carpenter.

Prospects. 

With Aaron Hernandez in prison, Rob Gronkowski’s status uncertain because of surgeries and other questions about their receiving corps, many have opined that the Patriots could be in danger of losing their perch atop the AFC East.

If they do, the Dolphins appear to be the team in the best position to replace them as division champs. They were 7-9 last season before making additions that should be improvements in several places, Philbin and Tannehill have a year of experience under their belts and the Bills and Jets are riddled with more holes. It’s easy to see things coming together in a winning season and a playoff berth, whether or not the Patriots plummet.

That said, the Dolphins still need to do it. Teams with busy offseasons never suffer for a lack of buzz, but they do fail to answer the bell on occasion. The Dolphins have the pieces and we’ll find out soon enough if they know how to use them.

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Bengals bring back defensive tackle Pat Sims from Oakland

Pat Sims AP

The Bengals obviously have no qualms with bringing back known commodities.

The team announced they had re-signed defensive tackle Pat Sims, who spent the last two years with the Raiders.

The veteran spent his previous five seasons with the Bengals, and started 23 games for them. He started all 16 games for the Raiders in 2013, but was reduced to a rotational role last year, starting two games.

He joins comeback kids such as Michael Johnson and Brandon Ghee as returning to the Bengals after going elsewhere in free agency.

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Report: Chuck Pagano enters lame-duck season in Indy

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While recently reading Chuck Pagano’s 2014 book, Sidelined, it became impossible to envision him coaching any team other than the Colts. But it’s now seems to be a distinct possibility.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Pagano and the Colts aren’t expected to reach agreement on a contract extension before the fourth and final year of the contract he signed in 2012.

Which means that Pagano will be a lame duck, a phenomenon that some teams try to avoid but multiple franchises have embraced in recent years. Last season, the Cowboys opted not to extend the contract of coach Jason Garrett before or during the season, signing him to a new contract after he technically was no longer employed by the team.

Garrett could have made life interesting for the Cowboys by expressing a desire to coach elsewhere.  He didn’t.  Pagano may feel differently, if Colts owner Jim Irsay opts to make Pagano wait until after the 2015 season to get a new contract.  At some point, the team needs to demonstrate real loyalty to a coach who has helped the team become successful.

The problem may be that owner Jim Irsay wants more success before making a fresh commitment to Pagano.  Ditto, possibly, for G.M. Ryan Grigson, who also is entering the final year of his contract, who traded a first-round draft pick for Trent Richardson, and who possibly won’t be getting an extension, either.

Irsay had no qualms about firing Jim Mora after the 2001 season, after a 6-10 season followed a pair of playoff appearances with Peyton Manning.  Perhaps Irsay believes that, unless Grigson and Pagano can get more out of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, Irsay will find someone who will.

That’s his right, but it also will be Grigson’s and Pagano’s right to accept employment elsewhere, if they take the Colts to or close to the top of the NFL and attract interest elsewhere.

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Mariota may be drafted No. 2, by the Titans or someone else

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Most people think the Buccaneers will take Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the draft. But will the Titans take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota second overall?

That’s an open question, but there’s been increasing chatter lately that if the Titans don’t take Mariota, they’ll be able to trade the second overall pick to another team that wants him. That’s what one G.M. told Jason La Canfora of CBS.

He’s going second overall,” the unnamed G.M. said of Mariota. “I don’t know to which team, but he’s going second overall.”

One intriguing option that has surfaced recently is the possibility that Philip Rivers — who says he plans to play out the final year of his contract this season, rather than signing an extension with the Chargers — could be available in a trade. The Chargers say that’s not happening, but if the Titans were to offer the No. 2 overall pick for Rivers, that could make sense for both teams: It would reunite Rivers with Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Chargers offensive coordinator, and it would give the Chargers a long-term quarterback of the future, rather than a quarterback who could be gone after one more year. The Titans have more than $27 million in cap space, so they could afford Rivers’s $17 million cap hit this year and could either franchise him or sign him to an extension after that.

All of this is a long way from actually happening. But with the draft five weeks away, it’s sounding increasingly likely that Winston will go first and Mariota will go second, to the Titans or to some team that makes a trade with the Titans.

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Dan Snyder’s defense on censorship charge might be gullible employees

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Dan Snyder’s radio station is finally going to debut a radio show hosted by one of his sharpest critics, and somebody at that station is either the most gullible person in the world or a horrible liar.

According to Will Hobson and Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, former Post beat writer Jason Reid’s show “The Man Cave” will finally hit the air Monday, after a two-week delay over its promoted start date and the resignation of the program director that created it.

Naturally, this looked suspicious given the fact Snyder owns the station, and his team president Bruce Allen was said to have a poor relationship with Reid.

But that would have been just old-fashioned intimidation, and not even the weird part of this story.

Apparently, somebody prank-called the station pretending to be ESPN president John Skipper, demanding that the show be taken off the air. But ESPN staffers told us at the owners meetings that Skipper never dips into radio business, especially with a relatively small local affiliate.

Three sources at the station told the Post that the prank caller (from an 860 area code, same as Bristol, Conn.) knew enough about station business and had Skipper’s accent down, making it believable to them. The caller threatened legal action if the show went on, replacing the syndicated “Mike and Mike” show. It apparently convinced Red Zebra Bradcasting station executive Rick Carmean, who alerted team officials and told the station the show would be shelved.

The Manti Te’o/fake deal girlfriend-level plot came unraveled when Allen called Skipper himself to tell him the station would look into it, and Skipper thanked him for his consideration before calling his underlings to find out what the hell exactly was going on.

Neither station officials nor the team have commented, or explained the nature of the delay. Reid hasn’t returned messages to former co-workers at the Post, and his agent hasn’t said anything either.

ESPN released a statement saying they didn’t have anything to do with this mess, which makes them the one with clean hands in this whole thing.

We’ll see when or if the show actually hits the air, whether Snyder will continue to subsidize a guy who ripped his team routinely. Or whether paychecks soften that criticism.

But one thing’s for sure.

They better have a really good call-screener.

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Jerry Jones has no problem with the current catch rule

Jerry Jones AP

I’ve been agitating all week for the owners to take the reins of the sport over which they reign and do what the league office won’t regarding the catch rule.  Namely, change it.

Not tweak the language or otherwise pretend to change the rule without changing it.  Actually change it, making what Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant did in the playoffs against the Packers into, if/when it happens in the future, a catch.

In Arizona, I tried to lobby V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent, and Competition Committee member Jeff Fisher to change the rule from a subjective test to an objective one.  It didn’t work.

So when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones arrived at the set of PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, I assumed I’d get one of the more influential members of NFL ownership to co-sign the notion that a new rule is needed.  Not so.

“First of all, we know that just as these rules could go against you they could go with you, and we had a couple of other calls that went with us during the playoffs,” Jones said.  “But since we have instant replay you really strive to get it right because you have a lot of time to look at it with instant replay.  It was a catch, it just didn’t fall under the rules. . . .  Those are the kinds of rules that I think need to be reconciled with more of reality.  Did he catch it, or did he not catch it?  Well, he caught the ball, we all know in any definition there is except the rules of the NFL.  I live with it though because we live with a lot of rules that have those caveats.”

While Jones ultimately says all the right things from the league’s perspective, lurking in his response is a concession that the rule indeed should be “reconciled more with reality.” The only thing that seems to be keeping Jones from flat-out revolting against the rule is the likelihood that, the next time around, he’ll potentially benefit from it.

“Well, obviously everybody that makes decisions on these rules know that the same thing could happen against them,” Jones said.  “Everybody has to play offense and everybody has to catch the ball.  And so it really is an attempt by very knowledgeable people, very focused people to try to come up with the most competitive way to make these calls and so there was no club bias when we were sitting there.  Now, we had a little bias because we had visions of Super Bowl if we make that catch.  But still, I’m totally satisfied that every rule we’ve got is an attempt to do the best job for competitiveness, which in turn does it for the fans.”

If Jones, whose team was burned by the rule in a high-profile setting, ultimately is satisfied with the language, maybe everyone else should be, too.  Still, it’s not good for the NFL to have a disconnect between what we see — that Bryant, as Jones said, caught the ball — and what the rules later tell us that we saw.

For the full conversation with Jones, click the thing in the thing below.

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Bomb threat disrupts Aaron Hernandez trial

Hernandez AP

The murder trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was suspended today when a bomb threat was called into the courthouse in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Just before 1 p.m. Eastern those who had been evacuated were given the all clear to return to the building, according to Michele Steele of ESPN. There was no immediate word on whether the threat was specifically related to the Hernandez case.

The Hernandez trial was scheduled to be going on until 4 p.m. today, but he and all other incarcerated defendants were taken from the courthouse to a secure location.

Hernandez has been standing trial for almost two months for the killing last year of Odin Lloyd. During today’s proceedings, the judge ruled that jailhouse phone conversations in which Hernandez discussed giving money to a cousin could be used as evidence.

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NFL not commenting on controversial new Indiana law

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Last year, as Arizona was closing in on passing a religious freedom law that would have allowed business owners to deny service on the basis of sexual orientation that conflicted with the religious beliefs of said business owners, the NFL expressed concern about the situation.

“Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” the NFL said in a statement.  “We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law, but will decline further comment at this time.”

At that time, the league also declined to comment on whether an alternate site was identified for Super Bowl XLIX.

Fast forward to 2015, and Indiana has passed the law that Arizona didn’t.  So will it jeopardize the ability of Indianapolis to host future league-presented events like the Super Bowl and the annual Scouting Combine?

That’s unknown, because unlike 2014 when Arizona was merely considering passing the law, the NFL has no comment this time around.

Presumably, the principles expressed by the NFL a year ago still apply.  The NFL nevertheless has opted not to reiterate those principles as it relates to Indiana.

The NCAA, which will be staging the Final Four in Indianapolis in less than two weeks, has opted for something other than silence, saying via CNN that governing body for college athletics is “committed to an inclusive environment where all individuals enjoy equal access to events.”

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NFL seems set with current overtime format

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NFL owners voted down a proposal to change overtime this week, and from all indications the league does not want to tinker with the overtime format.

This week’s proposal, which would have guaranteed each team a possession, was the latest idea to change overtime that got to the discussion phase but didn’t have enough support to come to fruition. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said before the league meeting that he sees no reason to change overtime, and most owners seem to agree with him.

Still, the overtime format will continue to be debated. Some want every team to be guaranteed a possession, so that the team receiving the opening kickoff can’t march down the field and win without the team that kicks off ever getting the ball. Others want to adopt the college football format of alternating possessions. Still others want more radical changes, like doing away with field goals in overtime so that only a touchdown (or safety) can win the game. Or replacing the coin toss with an “auction” format so the two teams can “bid” on which yard line overtime will start from.

At the moment, that’s all talk. PFT Planet, let us know if you’d rather see the NFL take some action to change overtime.

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Steelers bring back Darrius Heyward-Bey for another year

Knile Davis, Darrius Heyward-Bey AP

Darrius Heyward-Bey finally has a new niche.

But for a former seventh overall pick, it’s not the one you’d think.

The Steelers announced they signed Heyward-Bey to another one-year contract, keeping him around.

After he failed to convert his raw speed into consistent production with the Raiders, he settled in with the Steelers as a special teamer last year, catching just three passes.

“I wanted to come back here,” he said, in a statement from the team. “They have been honest with me from Day 1. In this business of the NFL, for them to be very honest with me, what they expect from me and me telling them what I expect. It’s an honest partnership.”

When he came to the Steelers, they had Antonio Brown and Marcus Wheaton, and brought in rookie Martavis Bryant and Lance Moore. But he became a regular on special teams, and with his speed, was a natural fit.

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Chip Kelly says he tried to trade for Bradford without losing Foles

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Rams coach Jeff Fisher has said that his team only agreed to trade Sam Bradford because Nick Foles was the player the Eagles’ offered, and that the Rams thought Foles could be their franchise quarterback. That meshes with what Chip Kelly revealed at this week’s league meeting: He tried to get the Rams to trade Bradford for draft picks, and agreed to give up Foles only when Foles was what the Rams demanded.

“It went on for a couple weeks,” Kelly said, via the News Journal. “We were trying to keep Nick if we could. It was just at the last second, they wanted players. We were trying to get it done with draft picks, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Presumably, if the Rams had agreed to give up Bradford for draft picks, the Eagles would have kept Foles and let Mark Sanchez walk in free agency. Instead, the Eagles re-signed Sanchez and will have him compete with Bradford for the starting quarterback job.

Despite speculation that Bradford could be turned into a bargaining chip for a trade up in the draft to select Marcus Mariota, everything Kelly says indicates that he thinks highly of Bradford and believes Bradford can run his offense effectively. Bradford is a player Kelly wanted badly — so badly that he gave up Foles and draft picks to acquire him.

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Everybody wants somebody else to give Ray Rice a chance

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Two things seem apparent in regards to former Ravens running back Ray Rice.

Plenty of people want to see him get a second chance in theory.

No one, however, seems interested in putting that theory into practice.

A number of coaches at the league meetings mentioned that they think Rice could or should get another opportunity after being cut by the Ravens following his brutal domestic assault of his now-wife.

But it’s almost April, and 16 running backs have been signed in free agency, and Rice hasn’t even had a reported visit.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell has a need at the position after cutting Reggie Bush, and expressed hope for another opportunity for Rice. But when asked if he would be interested, Caldwell backed away.

I don’t foresee that, to be plain and simple,” Caldwell said, via Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. “There has to be a need and a fit in all areas. At this point in time, he’s not a fit for us.”

Like Caldwell, Colts coach Chuck Pagano has first-hand knowledge of Rice, but his team just signed Frank Gore.

“I hope and pray that Ray gets an opportunity, because I know there’s still gas left in the tank, so to speak,” Pagano said. “And if somebody gives him that opportunity, I know he’ll make them proud, and I know he’ll make good on that opportunity.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was more careful in his words, saying he hoped for the best for the entire family, stopping short of a full blown endorsement.

“Like anybody you’ve been close to, you want things to work out well for the,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the way we feel about Janay and Ray.”

At the moment, it doesn’t appear that’s going to be playing in the NFL.

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With so much tampering, NFL will struggle to police it all

Roger Goodell AP

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the obvious on Wednesday when he said at the league meeting that multiple teams had dealings before the start of free agency that may have violated the letter of the law.

“We want to make sure no teams are gaining an advantage as it relates to free agency and the opportunity to get free agents,” Goodell said. “There are several teams and several issues that we’re looking at.”

The most-discussed case has been the Jets’ signing of Darrelle Revis after owner Woody Johnson publicly talked about Revis while he was still under contract to the Patriots. But some of the biggest deals signed in free agency — including Ndamukong Suh to Miami and Julius Thomas to Jacksonville — were widely believed to be done deals even before it was legal for NFL teams to get deals done with free agents from other teams.

And that points to why it’s going to be so difficult for the NFL to police tampering: It has become widely acknowledged around the league that it’s commonplace, and although “everyone else is doing it too” might not be an air-tight legal defense, it does raise the question of whether it’s really fair for the NFL to punish some teams for doing things that other teams were surely doing as well.

Maybe Goodell will decide to send a message, make an example of one team, and impose harsh discipline for tampering. Or maybe Goodell will decide that in the grand scheme of things, tampering really isn’t that big a problem, and the league would be better off letting it go.

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Jim Tomsula: Reggie Bush is an every-down running back

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San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula says the 49ers think their new running back, Reggie Bush, can carry the load as the featured back in their offense.

“Reggie can be an every down back. He’s done that in the NFL,” Tomsula said. “He’s a running back. He’s not a gadget guy in my opinion. I think Reggie Bush is a running back. I’m really excited about Reggie joining the crew.”

It’s unclear at the moment whether Bush, Carlos Hyde or Kendall Hunter will be the primary running back in the 49ers’ offense, but Tomsula said the 49ers have plans for all three of them.

“Right now we’ve got three guys in the backfield that we feel great about, they’re all just a little different from each other,” Tomsula said. “So as we get rolling here and we throw that ball out on the field, let’s take a look at what each guy does and build off that.”

It seems highly unlikely that the 30-year-old Bush, who had just 76 carries for 297 yards in Detroit last year, will get anything close to the workload that Frank Gore got in San Francisco last year, when he had 255 carries for 1,106 yards. But the 49ers think Bush can play a significant role in 2015.

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Charles Haley endorses Greg Hardy move because of course he does

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The Cowboys needed pass-rush help to get themselves to the next level, so they ignored the red flags, and took a chance to acquire one of the most productive players in the league.

And Charles Haley helped them win three Super Bowls in four years. Oh wait, you thought we were talking about Greg Hardy again?

Actually, the two players present many of the same considerations for the Cowboys, and like when they traded for Haley in 1992, they took a chance on talent trumping trouble.

“Bags?” Haley told Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. “I had suitcases. Full suitcases.”

So does Hardy, who missed last year because of domestic violence charges (which were dropped after he reached a civil settlement), but had 15.0 sacks the year before.

Haley said he plans to reach out to Hardy, after missing him when he was in town on his free agent visit last week. And as you might expect, Haley endorsed the move.

Everybody deserves a second chance,” Haley said. “He wants to show everybody what he has and what he can do. He wants to be judged by what he does on the field. But the only way you can be judged by the things you do on the field is you can’t be doing dumb [expletive] off the field.

“That’s what I tell all these guys. If you want to make money and be successful, you need to dedicate yourself on the field and avoid those situations off the field. Everyone has a phone or a camera that can record or take pictures of whatever you do. You always have to act like you’re in a little fish bowl with everyone looking at you. And you must act accordingly. . . .

“He’s going to be fine. I can’t wait to meet him and I can’t wait to see him play. I hope and pray the Cowboys make the next step in this journey for a Super Bowl. Sometimes bad boys have to come in here and kick some tail.”

Of course, Haley took action to deal with his problems, including anger management counseling, which he admits might have helped him avoid some of the problems he had with the 49ers.

Hardy’s going to have to prove he’s willing to make amends as well, since it appears the NFL is looking to lay the hammer down in terms of a suspension.

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Victor Cruz making progress, but no promises about opener

Victor Cruz AP

Even though Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is making progress in his recovery from last year’s torn patellar tendon, his timeline for a return is uncertain.

Via Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post, Giants coach Tom Coughlin expressed some cautious optimism about Cruz, saying he started running at the team facility last week.

“I think he’ll be the player that he was, and hopefully better,” Coughlin said. “But as far as when, I would be careful. Hopefully, it’s the first [regular-season] game. But if it isn’t, we’ve done that before. We just went through it.”

While Odell Beckham’s persistent hamstring problems last year caused him to miss the first four games, this is a different rehab.

So even though Coughlin said Cruz might work from the start of training camp, they’re clearly going to play it cautious with his schedule.

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