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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh stands on the field during warms-ups of their NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Detroit Reuters

In 2011, the Lions looked like one of the NFL’s up-and-coming teams, with young high draft picks like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh leading them to the playoffs.

And then the Lions came back to earth with a thud in 2012.

The Lions’ 12-loss season in ’12 was a disaster on the field, not to mention off the field, where the Lions became the poster boys for bad behavior in the NFL. This offseason has been a little quieter in Detroit, but will that lead to a better season on the field?

Our six-person PFT panel voted the Lions the NFL’s No. 20 team this season. We explore the reasons for that ranking below.

Strengths.

It all starts with the passing game, where the highly paid Matthew Stafford and the even more highly paid Calvin Johnson are one of the best young combinations in football. Johnson, who broke the all-time single-season receiving yards record last year, is one of the most talented receivers in NFL history. Players with his size, athletic ability and sure hands just don’t come along very often, and there’s every reason to believe that Megatron will continue to be one of the league’s elite offensive players.

Based on pure talent, the Lions also have a defensive line that could make scouts drool, but it remains to be seen whether that talent will translate into great results. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has said that he thinks he and Ndamukong Suh are the best pair of tackles in the NFL, although Suh wisely said he’d rather let his play do the talking on that one. Ziggy Ansah, the defensive end whom the Lions picked with the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft, also has freakish athletic talent, but he’s still new to the sport and may not be ready to be an every-down player as a rookie.

The secondary has been a weakness of the Lions, but they could be strong at safety if Louis Delmas can stay healthy and new arrival Glover Quin can play as well for Detroit as he did for Houston. Delmas and Quin have the ability to be one of the better safety combinations in the league.

Weaknesses.

The Lions’ offensive line struggled last season, and it remains to be seen whether things will get any better this year. At first blush, it would actually appear that the line has gotten worse: Starting left tackle Jeff Backus retired, starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus left to take a big contract with the Colts, and starting right guard Stephen Peterman was a cap casualty who ended up signing with the Jets. The best the Lions can hope for is that 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff proves to be ready to fill Backus’s shoes and that some combination of holdovers Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox, rookie Larry Warford and veteran additions Jake Scott and Leroy Harris can take up the two spots on the right side of the line.

Special teams were a disaster for the Lions last year, and kick coverage was the biggest reason that the Lions quickly dropped to the bottom of the NFC North: Detroit’s 1-3 start included back-to-back losses to the Vikings and Titans in which the Lions gave up both a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown, making them the first team in NFL history to accomplish that dubious feat. If the Lions’ kick coverage had gotten the job done, there’s a good chance they would have started 3-1 instead of 1-3. Kick returner Stefan Logan also had a disastrous season. The special teams absolutely must get better this year.

Changes.

Reggie Bush is the highest-profile addition to the Lions, and he has the potential to be a game-changer. The Lions got just about nothing in the way of big plays from their running game last year: Mikel Leshoure, their leading rusher, never had a run of more than 16 yards all season. Bush is the kind of big-play threat who can change that, and he said after he signed with the Lions that he’s licking his chops from watching film of the way defenses leave running lanes open while focusing most of their attention on stopping Megatron. Bush could also have the kind of impact on the passing game that Jahvid Best had before concussions derailed him during the 2011 season. Best had 27 catches for 287 yards in six games in 2011 before his season came to an end.

An even more noteworthy change may be that Jason Hanson, the Lions kicker who set an all-time NFL record for the most games played with one team, has finally called it a career. He’s been replaced by David Akers, who struggled with accuracy last year with the 49ers but who has a stronger leg than Hanson. The Lions need Akers to find his accuracy, but if he can, he’ll help turn around their special teams.

Both of last year’s starting defensive ends, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, are gone. Ansah will take over one of the starting spots, and the other is likely to be filled by Jason Jones, who was a backup for the Seahawks last season. The Lions have to hope that Ansah and Jones can fill in for Vanden Bosch and Avril without missing a beat.

Camp Battles.

The right side of the offensive line will be up in the air going into training camp. At right tackle, Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox will compete, but it’s unlikely that either will be as good as last year’s starter, Gosder Cherilus. At right guard, rookie Larry Warford is the favorite to start, but Jake Scott and Leroy Harris will be around if Warford isn’t ready yet.

At cornerback, Chris Houston will be one of the starters, but the other starting spot is wide open. The Lions would love it if second-round pick Darius Slay can prove in training camp that he’s ready to be an NFL starter from Day One of his pro career, but if Slay needs some time to develop, the starting job could go to any of last year’s three cornerback draft picks (Jonte Green, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood) or veteran Ronald Bartell.

Prospects.

The Lions’ leadership simply can’t afford another 4-12 season. It would be hard to justify G.M. Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz keeping their jobs in that scenario. So improvement is important.

And improvement is also likely: This team has too much talent to be as bad this year as it was last year.

Still, the outlook for the Lions isn’t great. They look like the worst team in the NFC North, and a second consecutive last-place finish is likely.

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Marc Trestman says the Ravens are a run-first team

Marc Trestman, John Harbaugh AP

The Ravens are paying Joe Flacco more than $20 million a year for the next six years, but they don’t view Flacco as the focal point of their offense.

That’s the word from Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, who says Baltimore hopes to be a run-first team.

“We’re always looking at ourselves as a team that should be able to run the ball first,” Trestman said, via the Baltimore Sun. “That’s just the way we want to play it, and everything starts with the physicality of our run game, and the physicality of our runner. That’s how we coach offense here, and everything starts there.”

Last year the Ravens’ offense wasn’t particularly good at either running or passing. This year the most important question facing the Ravens’ offense would seem to be whether Flacco can stay healthy after suffering a torn ACL in 2015, but Trestman thinks the run game may be even more important.

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Brandon Carr on suspensions: We have to come together even stronger

Rolando McClain AP

The Cowboys got a double dose of bad news on the suspension front Thursday with the NFL announcing a 10-game ban for linebacker Rolando McClain as well as upholding the four-game penalty handed down to defensive end Demarcus Lawrence earlier this offseason.

Lawrence’s fellow defensive end Randy Gregory will also open the year by serving a four-game suspension, leaving the Cowboys down three players that would be major parts of their defense in a perfect world. Cornerback Brandon Carr said on Sirius XM Radio with Zig Fracassi and Phil Savage that their absences raise the stakes for the rest of the players on that side of the ball.

“Well, anytime you get a guy going down in your unit, you have to come together even stronger to make up for that slack,” Carr said. “But Rolando is a guy that’s made a lot of plays for us in the past two years, another dominant presence on the field. So we’re definitely going to miss that. But football’s a game of the next man up, it’s a game of inches. So it’s going to take for all of us to come to training camp focused and next man up, get him ready, get prepared to go out there to battle.”

There were questions about the quality of the Cowboys defense when the three suspended players were expected to be in the mix to open the season, so the remaining hands on deck will have a big task ahead of them once camp gets underway later this month.

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School official suspended after bringing Ray McDonald in to speak to kids

Ray McDonald AP

As it turns out, bringing an accused rapist in to a school to talk to high school students may have been a bad idea.

The dubious decision to bring former 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald to talk to a group of at-risk students has led to the official who sanctioned it to be suspended.

According to Darin Moriki of the Bay Area News Group, the Hayward school board placed superintendent Stan Dobbs on paid administrative leave while it investigates how McDonald ended up talking to a group at Tennyson High School.

The 49ers cut McDonald after the December 2014 rape allegation, the last in a series of missteps. He has pleaded not guilty in Santa Clara County Superior Court to the criminal charges.

The reaction to McDonald entering the school was not a pleasant one, leading to apologies from the school district, and a subsequent visit from lawyer Gloria Allred, who is representing McDonald’s accuser.

“I never feel like we should have apologized because, like I told Stan, we didn’t bring him [McDonald] in as a role model,” school board president Lisa Brunner said. “We brought him in as a motivational speaker to convey, ‘Don’t do what I did. I screwed up my life,’ so I was mad about that because none of it was done with the board.”

There are plenty of ways to teach object lessons to school children, but bringing someone with pending charges of the kind McDonald has was ill-advised. And now, someone besides the 49ers has to carry the stain of being attached to McDonald’s name.

The Bears gave McDonald a chance to rebuild his reputation, but cut him quickly after his arrest last May on domestic violence charges.

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Friday morning one-liners

Glover Quin AP

T Marquis Lucas has gone from being homeless to signing with the Bills as an undrafted free agent.

The Dolphins announced their training camp schedule as well as increased protection from the elements for fans that come to watch.

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski was doling out some dating advice.

What is Jets LB Erin Henderson’s outlook for the 2016 season?

Reminiscing about the Ravens’ first year in Baltimore.

The Bengals landed seven players in NFL Network’s Top 100 rankings.

Former Browns RB Earnest Byner shares his observations from the team’s offseason work.

On Shaun Suisham and other Steelers kickers.

DT Vince Wilfork is in for some ribbing from Texans players for posing nude for ESPN’s magazine.

A look at the Colts’ cap after signing QB Andrew Luck to an extension.

The Jaguars website offers up a preview of training camp.

Titans DT Jurrell Casey is getting married on Friday.

The Broncos have set their schedule for training camp.

Chiefs K Cairo Santos took a trip home to Brazil.

Raiders WR Michael Crabtree called DE Khalil Mack the “definition of a beast.”

Breaking down the Chargers running backs.

Another suspension provides further evidence for those that believe the Cowboys fall short on judging character.

Looking ahead to the battle for playing time at tight end with the Giants.

Eagles QB Carson Wentz’s dog is playing the social media game.

Former Redskins TE Chris Cooley thinks the team is going to win 11 games this year.

Getting to know a bit about Bears rookie RB Jordan Howard.

Lions S Glover Quin is OK with outside expectations of the team being low.

Will the Packers keep three quarterbacks?

Where does the Vikings defensive line rank heading into the season?

Falcons DT Tyson Jackson’s recent training partners have included Demi Lovato.

Three questions about the Panthers wide receivers.

P Thomas Morstead is preparing for another year with the Saints.

DT Akeem Spence would like to sign an extension with the Buccaneers.

The Amazon series about the 2015 Cardinals season comes out on Friday.

Rams CB Coty Sensabaugh skipped a traditional wedding registry in favor of donations to support a charitable trip to the Dominican Republic with his wife.

The 49ers will hold a practice at Kezar Stadium in August.

Pondering whether the Seahawks should alter DL Michael Bennett’s contract.

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Stanley Wilson II puts a suit on, declares himself “happy to be alive”

IRVING, TX - DECEMBER 31: Stanley Wilson #31 of the Detroit Lions celebrates on the field during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium at Texas Stadium on December 31, 2006 in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

Former Lions cornerback Stanley Wilson II said Thursday he was “happy to be alive,” but that might have just been because he was wearing clothes.

According to Francesca Fontana of the Oregonian, Wilson was released from the hospital Wednesday and arraigned Thursday, facing felony burglary and misdemeanor trespassing charges. He was shot last week while trying to break into a Portland house, and when police found him, he was naked in a water fountain.

The 33-year-old Wilson was shot in the abdomen by the homeowner.

Unlike his burglary outfit, Wilson was wearing a dark gray suit to court Thursday. He posted $54,500 bond and was released. The judge ordered him to not go within 500 feet of the home he was breaking into, which seems like a moot judge’s order since the last time he went there he was shot and found naked. His next court appearance is July 15.

The former third-round pick out of Stanford is the son of former Bengals running back Stanley Wilson, who famously missed a Super Bowl after a cocaine binge the night before the game.

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Plummer regrets calling Jerry an “a–hole,” stands by the substance

Jake+Plummer+Sports+Pictures+Week+November+cDrgzZ9GMK9l Getty Images

Former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer recently called Cowboys owner Jerry Jones a “billionaire a–hole” over Jones’s contention that a link between football and CTE has not been proven. With some time to think about it, Plummer softened that stance.

Plummer said on FOX Sports 910 Phoenix that he wishes he hadn’t expressed his thoughts about Jones quite so colorfully.

“I was in a passionate moment at that time . . . sometimes I might not think everything through clearly,” Plummer said. “It came out, I said it, I’ll own it, I’ll stand by it. I don’t know Jerry Jones personally enough to call him that, which is probably why I shouldn’t have used that word. But, for him to say those things about the absurdity of a link between CTE and brain trauma – it points to a guy who’s trying to protect his investment or is completely out of touch with reality.”

Plummer, who has been advocating for allowing players to use medical marijuana to deal with pain caused by football injuries, stands by that stance. He just wishes he had approached the matter differently.

“I probably didn’t do well by calling him what I did, but hey it’s what happened at that moment and people are talking about it which is a great thing,” Plummer said. “Ultimately we want to save the game, we don’t want to fight the NFL over this, we just want to help keep the game that we all love to watch, and I loved to play. Keep it alive.”

The NFL has so far been unwavering in its view that marijuana is a banned substance for players, whether used medicinally or recreationally. Plummer is going to keep fighting on that front, but he’ll probably stop calling owners a–holes.

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Duron Carter makes headlines with CFL post-touchdown antics

Duron Carter, Terrell Maze AP

There was a bunch of interest in wide receiver Duron Carter in early 2015 when Carter decided to leave the Canadian Football League for the NFL, but he never actually played in an NFL game.

Carter is back in the CFL, and he’s back in the headlines. After catching a touchdown pass Thursday night for the Montreal Alouettes, Carter took to the other team’s sideline to celebrate.

Before long, he bumped Ottawa Redblacks coach Rick Campbell near the Ottawa sideline, and Campbell ended up on the ground. It didn’t appear Carter reached out or really went out of his way to strike Campbell when Campbell confronted him, but Carter was on the wrong sideline.

The Twittersphere made sure Carter’s antics were viewed widely, and quickly. Several Redblacks players chased Carter down the sideline, and some made physical contact with him.

Thursday night CFL is apparently must-see TV.

Carter is the son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter. After signing a three-year deal with the Colts in the winter of 2015, Duron Carter ended up getting cut at the end of the 2015 preseason and spent the whole season on the practice squad. The Colts didn’t offer him a futures contract after the season, and he went back to Montreal.

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C.J. Spillman convicted of sexual assault

C.J. Spillman Getty Images

Former NFL cornerback C.J. Spillman was convicted of sexual assault on Thursday stemming from a 2014 incident at the Cowboys’ team hotel when Spillman played for Dallas.

According to Claire Z. Cardona of the Dallas Morning News, a jury found Spillman guilty in under two hours in a trial that began on Monday in Fort Worth, Tex.

The second degree felony sexual assault charge carries a sentence of between two and 20 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Friday.

Spillman was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Grapevine, Tex. on Sept. 20, 2014. Spillman wasn’t officially charged until June 30, 2015 and Spillman played the remainder of the 2014 season with the Cowboys while charges were pending.

Spillman admitted to having sex with the woman but claimed it was a consensual encounter. The jury disagreed.

He has not been on an NFL roster since the conclusion of the 2014 season.

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Mercilus plans to be healthy for start of camp

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 03: Whitney Mercilus #59 of the Houston Texans reacts after sacking Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second quarter on January 3, 2016 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) Getty Images

There’s still a little more than four weeks before the Texans open training camp, and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus says he’ll be ready to go when the Texans take the field.

Mercilus has been battling a hamstring injury, but he told the Houston Chronicle that with extra treatment and rehab, he plans to be on the field in late July.

I’m feeling good, starting to get healthy,” Mercilus said.

Mercilus said he plans to go to Los Angeles in early July to visit a specialist with whom he’s previously worked. The injury kept Mercilus on the sideline during the Texans’ spring on-field work.

The AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month last December, Mercilus has become a key part of what could be a very good Texans defense. He had a career-high 12 sacks last season and also recovered two fumbles.

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Maxx Williams fine waiting his turn in crowded tight end group

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 01: Maxx Williams #87 of the Baltimore Ravens runs past Vince Williams #98 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2nd quarter of the game at Heinz Field on October 1, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) Getty Images

Both by necessity and later because the Ravens were playing for the future, tight end Maxx Williams had a busy rookie season.

Heading into 2016, though, Williams sees a crowded tight end situation. Veteran Ben Watson was signed in March, and quarterback Joe Flacco is hoping one of his favorite targets, Dennis Pitta, will be able to return from injury. If everyone is healthy, Williams could find himself fighting for snaps, but he’s saying the right things about welcoming the chance to work with Watson and Pitta.

It really helps having the veterans here; it really gives me a chance to learn from them and see what made them successful,” Williams said, per the Ravens’ official website. “It’s nice seeing those guys practice every day so you can take what they have and build off that.”

Williams said the Ravens tight ends have asked themselves, “What’s wrong with having the best tight end group in the NFL? We’re going to work to make each other better and then figure it out going into the season.”

Williams played in 14 games last season, starting seven. That’s probably more game action than the Ravens anticipated Williams, a second-round pick in 2015, getting as a rookie.

He just turned 22 in April, but he set franchise rookie records last fall with 32 receptions for 268 yards. With Watson in the fold and Pitta and Crockett Gillmore trying to get healthy, Williams knows he may have to wait his turn but said he’s comfortable with his surroundings and confident in his abilities.

“It’s nice knowing what to expect every day,” he said. “Last year, I went into every day not knowing what was going to happen. This year there’s a lot of that stress off now that I’ve been through it. Now it’s really about football and focusing on your game to get better every day.”

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Jim Kelly says he and Rex Ryan are “all good”

Jim Kelly, Kim Pegula AP

Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly said a few weeks ago that Rex Ryan has to make the playoffs or else he’ll get fired. Ryan didn’t exactly sound thrilled about that, although he wisely avoided getting into a war of words with the most popular player in franchise history.

Privately, Ryan and Kelly have communicated, and Kelly says there are no problems between the two of them.

“Yeah, we already texted,” Kelly said, via Sal Capaccio of WGR 550. “That’s all good.”

It might seem a little inelegant for a player of Kelly’s stature to talk about his former team’s coach getting fired, but Kelly was probably right: Ryan had better win this year, or else Kelly will be talking about a different Bills coach next year.

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NFL: “Credible evidence” needed for discipline, not investigation of possible PED violation

Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The NFLPA sent a letter to the NFL this week demanding “sufficient credible evidence” from the league if they want to interview four players implicated as users of performance-enhancing drugs in a report by Al-Jazeera America last year.

The league responded to that letter on Thursday and they predictably took a different view of the matter. Lindsay Jones of USA Today reports that NFL senior vice president of labor affairs Adolpho Birch sent a letter to the union calling their stance regarding interviews with Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, Packers linebacker Julius Peppers and ex-Packers linebacker Mike Nealfundamentally at odds with the CBA” when it comes to the standard the league needs to meet to begin an investigation.

“While we readily agree that such evidence is required to support the imposition of discipline, nothing in the CBA or the policy imposes such a requirement before possible violations of the policy may be investigated,” Birch wrote. “Obviously, the standard that you advocate — that the league cannot undertake an investigation unless and until it has established the facts and claims to be investigated — would simply ensure that there would be no investigations at all.  For the same reason, we are under no obligation to disclose all evidence uncovered thus far as a condition to interviewing the players, which would clearly compromise the investigation.”

Birch added that active NFL players have an “obligation to cooperate with league investigations and may be disciplined for failing to do so.”

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah told Jones that the NFLPA had not received the letter yet and therefore had no comment.

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Free agent tight end Cameron Clear gets suspended, too

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31: Cameron Clear #85 of the Texas A&M Aggies runs for a 30-yard game after a reception to set up a touchdown in the third quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl against the Duke Blue Devils at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. Texas A&M won the game 52-48. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Thursday was Suspension Day around the NFL, or at the least a day of bunch of them were announced.

Free agent tight end Cameron Clear also got a four-game suspension, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported. The reason Clear was suspended is unknown.

Clear was signed to a futures contract by the Colts last winter but was released in May.

Clear went undrafted in 2015 and signed with the Steelers after the draft. He finished his college career at Texas A&M as a teammate of former Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, who’s also a free agent and also got a four-game suspension from the NFL on Thursday.

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Report: Goodell made $32 million in 2015

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a press conference prior to Super Bowl 50 at the Moscone Center West on February 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images) Getty Images

It hasn’t been hard to find negative opinions about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during 2015, but he’s still making out OK on the financial end of things.

Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal reports that a tax filing by the NFL shows that Goodell made $32 million in 2015. That’s a drop from $34.1 million the previous year and the fourth straight year that Goodell’s compensation has dropped, although $32 million is still a fair chunk of change to take home.

Unless the league reverses course on it’s decision to give up tax-exempt status for the league office, this will be the last year they have to disclose Goodell’s pay. They made the change last year, but Kaplan reports a “stub period between the end of the last filing and when they changed status” meant they had to make the filing one more time.

While we won’t know exactly how much Goodell will pull in for his services in 2016 and beyond, it’s a good bet that his pay will remain high as long as revenues remain high. While plenty of people have negative takes on the job Goodell’s done, bank accounts around the league remain the most significant bellwether.

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NFL upholds DeMarcus Lawrence’s four-game suspension

File-This June 18, 2014, file photo shows Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence standing on the field up during an NFL football minicamp  in Arlington, Texas.The boldest move on draft day for Dallas was moving up 13 spots to get Lawrence early in the second round. The Cowboys acknowledged they might have overpaid, and did so because they thought Lawrence was the best chance to replace Ware after dumping him in a salary cap move. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File) AP

The Cowboys got a double dose of bad news on Thursday.

In addition to announcing that linebacker Rolando McClain will be suspended for the first 10 games of the season because of another violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, they also passed along word that defensive end Demarcus Lawrence’s four-game suspension under the same policy has been upheld by the league.

Defensive end Randy Gregory rounds out the trio of Cowboys defenders who will open up the season serving suspensions, which should make it difficult for the Cowboys to realize any significant immediate improvement over last year’s lackluster performance on that side of the ball. Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Ryan Russell and David Irving are among the options for the team at defensive end while Gregory and Lawrence are out of the picture.

After the Cowboys drafted running back Ezekiel Elliott in the first round, owner Jerry Jones said the team hoped his presence would lead to more possession on offense, fewer plays for the defense and, as a result, a better performance from that unit. It may have to if the Cowboys are going to improve on last year’s results.

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