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Preseason Power Rankings No. 15: Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben AP

I’ve been accused of both being a Steelers fan and hating the Steelers.  Neither statement is accurate.

Here’s one that is:  After spending most of my life living in and within 100 miles of Pittsburgh, I know the Steelers as well if not better than any NFL team.

And here’s one thing I know:  When they are expected to be bad, they usually find a way to be pretty good.

In 2013, that theory could get its toughest test in years.  The roster is in transition, with a mix of aging veterans who are getting close the being kicked to the curb (including one with really long hair), a nucleus of players who are in their prime and who need to lead like it, and youngsters who’ll be relied upon to step up or step off.

For now, the consensus of the six PFT scribes placed the Steelers at No. 15.  Plenty of people think they’ll end up much worse.  Which tells me that there’s a good chance they’ll finish much better.

Strengths.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this franchise, year in and year out, comes from the franchise itself.  The Rooney family leads the team with a steady hand, never getting too high or too low in response to whatever may be happening at any given moment, month, or year.  Their patience could be tested over the next year or two, if the effort to change a flat tire on a moving car doesn’t work out very well.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains a strength, but he could be an even stronger presence in three ways.  First, he needs to become a real leader of the team, not just a leader in word or title.  When former teammate Hines Ward pointed earlier this year to a lack of leadership earlier this offseason, he was pointing directly at Roethlisberger.  It’s time for Ben to prove the MVP of Super Bowl XL wrong.  (Unless the MVP of Super Bowl XL is right.)

Second, Roethlisberger needs to do less.  In the two seasons the Steelers won Super Bowls with Roethlisberger at the helm, he had his two lowest full-season per-game passing-yard averages, other than his rookie season.  The Steelers have been trying to achieve greater balance between run and pass, and Roethlisberger needs to buy in to that approach completely.

Third, he needs to stay healthy.  Though Roethlisberger apparently has recovered quickly from late-offseason knee surgery, there’s a sense that his very large body will betray him sooner than later, making it very hard for him to match other franchise quarterbacks by playing deep into his 30s.

In contrast to the Patriots’ inability to find quality receivers in the upper rounds of the draft, the Steelers have mastered the art of reaching into the haystack and pulling out mid-to-late-round needles.  Even with Mike Wallace (a third-rounder) gone to the highest bidder, the Steelers have a paid of solid replacements in Antonio Brown (a sixth-rounder) and Emmanuel Sanders (a third-round pick).  This year, the Steelers reached for two more needles, picking Markus Wheaton in (where else?) round three and Justin Brown in (where else?) round six.

The offensive line has been a perennial weakness.  The fact that it isn’t this year sort of makes it a strength.  Marcus Gilbert steps in for Max Starks at left tackle, and Mike Adams will handle the right side.  Maurkice Pouncey anchors the middle, with Ramon Foster on Pouncey’s left and a fully-healed David DeCastro, a first-rounder in 2012, to the right of the apologetic Hernandez apologist.

On defense, the ongoing presence of ageless coordinator Dick LeBeau will be needed more than ever, as the team adjusts to the departure of linebacker James Harrison and the highly unlikely return of nose tackle Casey Hampton.  But the Steelers have shown over the last 20-plus years an ability to interchange parts and still have a strong defense.  Regardless of the names and faces, the end result will be a fierce, hard-hitting defense.

Weaknesses.

The Steelers desperately need leaders with the will and the ability to influence teammates, on both sides of the ball.  Last year, they simply weren’t able to adjust to the sudden departure of leaders like Hines Ward and Aaron Smith.  This year, it will be very hard to turn around the perceived status of the team without players who take the criticisms personally and motivate those around them to take it up a notch, or three.

The running back position is perhaps less of a weakness than it is unsettled.  Rashard Mendenhall has left via free agency, and the Steelers hope Le’Veon Bell can make a Franco-style impact as a rookie.  If Bell doesn’t, it’ll be up to a revolving door of journeyman to provide the balance the team needs on offense.

The tight end position could be an issue for the Steelers, if Heath Miller has trouble recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in 2012.  If he does, David Johnson (who tore an ACL last August) could get a chance to shine.

The defensive line isn’t necessarily a weakness, but it’s not as strong as it used to be, making it harder for the largely anonymous trio to tie up blockers, which allows linebackers to get to the ball.

Changes.

On offense, a quartet of big names has bolted:  Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks, and Willie Colon.  On defense, James Harrison has hit the road after rejecting a pay cut.  Casey Hampton didn’t even get a chance to turn down an offer; his contract expired, and the Steelers moved on.  (We still wouldn’t be completely shocked if he returns.)

New faces on offense include backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who displaced Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch.  Rookie quarterback Landry Jones has prompted Batch to suggest that, if Jones develops well, he could eventually displace Roethlisberger.  Three rookie skill-position players, led by Le’Veon Bell, will help the offense find its groove in year two under coordinator Todd Haley.

First-round linebacker Jarvis Jones, if his neck really is a non-issue, could make a huge impact from the get-go, making Steelers fans forget all about Harrison.  (Until, of course, Harrison is chasing around Roethlisberger when the Bengals face the Steelers.)

Position battles.

The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to become the bell cow back, but he’ll have to earn it.  Other contenders include Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and diminutive-but-effective La’Rod Stephens-Howling.

Beyond Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, the spots on the receiver depth chart are up for grabs. Don’t overlook Plaxico Burress, who’ll have his first full offseason and training camp to prepare for an NFL campaign in five years, as the primary red-zone target.  The slot job could come down to Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Markus Wheaton.

Pencil in Jarvis Jones as the replacement for James Harrison, but Jones will need to fend off Jason Worilds.

Despite the return of starting corners Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, the return of William Gay could make things interesting, especially if Allen slips.

At safety, it could be hard to keep rookie Shamarko Thomas off the field, even with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark on the roster.  (It also could be hard for Thomas to avoid the inevitable nickname of “Sharknado.”)

At punter, incumbent Drew Butler will battle it out with Brian Moorman, who was the incumbent in Buffalo a year ago.

Prospects.

The Steelers feel like a team in transition that borders on turmoil.  They missed the playoffs in 2012, and many see them as the third-best team in a competitive AFC North.

But the Steelers have a way of finding their groove when they’re being doubted, and it should surprise no one if coach Mike Tomlin wills the team toward postseason contention.  If they get there, they’ve still got enough talent and experience to cause problems for supposedly “better” teams in the AFC and, if it comes down to it, the NFC.

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A.J. Green is (still) really, really good

CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 12:  A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs the football upfield during the game against Minnesota Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium on August 12, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images) Getty Images

There are times that Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green just makes it look easy.

On the second drive Thursday night, for example.

Tightly covered along the sideline by Dolphins rookie Xavien Howard, Green just outjumped him and came down inbounds on a 51-yard gain. Two plays later Green caught a 19-yard pass from Andy Dalton, then two plays after that he caught a short pass, gave Tony Lippett a stiffarm and turned it into a 7-yard touchdown.

That score gave the Bengals a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter. Through 12 minutes, Green has five catches on five targets for 80 yards.

The Dolphins took a 7-3 lead on a 74-yard bomb from Ryan Tannehill to Kenny Stills on their second play from scrimmage.

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Stills goes deep to give Dolphins early lead

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills (10) catches a pass for a touchdown in front of New England Patriots defensive back Justin Coleman (22) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) AP

A 74-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Kenny Stills has given the Dolphins an early 7-3 lead on the Bengals.

The Bengals were blitzing, and it appeared Stills broke off his designed route to go deep.

The touchdown came on the Dolphins’ second play from scrimmage and marked the first time in their last eight road games that the Dolphins have scored a first quarter touchdown.

The Bengals got the ball first and put together a methodical drive that stalled out in Miami territory. Mike Nugent kicked a 42-yard field goal to open the scoring.

The Bengals announced that running back and special teams player Rex Burkhead suffered a hamstring injury on the opening kickoff. His return is doubtful.

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NFL officially announces Lady Gaga as Super Bowl halftime headliner

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Lady Gaga sings the National Anthem at Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Matt Cowan/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL made it official Thursday, announcing that six-time Grammy winner Lady Gaga will headline this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

The news had been previously reported by Sports Business Daily. Super Bowl LI is in Houston on Feb. 5.

A formal announcement that includes an interview with Lady Gaga will air this Sunday, Oct. 2, on FOX’s NFL Sunday pregame show.

Lady Gaga sang the national anthem before last year’s Super Bowl.

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Gordon tweets “see you soon;” Jackson says Browns support him

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 8:  Josh Gordon #12 of the Cleveland Browns catches a pass before a game with the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

Not long after announcing via a team press release that he’d be entering a treatment facility, Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon tweeted that he’s been “under some pressure and stress recently [and] had to take a time out for myself. Sometimes you have to do what’s best for you.”

Gordon also thanked the NFL and the Browns. In a separate tweet Gordon wrote, “see you soon.”

The announcement that his return, which could have happened next week, is on hold came late Thursday afternoon. On his Thursday evening radio show, Browns coach Hue Jackson said the Browns “support Gordon 100 percent.”

Jackson said “it’s unfortunate” that the Browns won’t be getting Gordon back in their lineup but said “Josh needs to do what’s best for Josh.”

As part of his conditional reinstatement, Gordon had been at the Browns facility and had been allowed to participate in team meetings while sitting out the first four games of the 2016 season.

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Tunsil moves out to tackle with Albert inactive

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:   Branden Albert #76 of the Miami Dolphins in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 29, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Getty Images

Left tackle Branden Albert is one of four Dolphins offensive starters inactive for Thursday night’s game at Cincinnati.

Albert had been listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Also out are tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion), center Mike Pouncey (hip) and running back Arian Foster (hamstring). Pouncey has yet to play this season, and Foster also missed last week’s game.

The Dolphins also announced Damien Williams as the starter at running back. Rookie Laremy Tunsil will move out from guard to start in place of Albert, and Billy Turner will start at Tunsil’s usual spot of left guard.

Two starting linebackers, Koa Misi (neck) and Jelani Jenkins (groin), are also out due to injuries.

Dolphins Coach Adam Gase had hinted at changes to the lineup even before injuries forced at least a few of them. As previously reported, Tony Lippett is replacing Byron Maxwell in the starting lineup at cornerback.

As expected, Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard will start in place of the injured Dre Kirkpatrick. The Bengals also have decided to keep tight end Tyler Eifert out at least another week. They had listed Eifert and Kirkpatrick as doubtful.

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Week Four is here; which game is the biggest?

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Jacoby Brissett #7 of the New England Patriots warms up before the game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

Friday’s PFT Live features a question of the day that focuses on the weekend to come. Specifically, which game is the biggest game of the fourth week of the season?

Pick from one of the five selections below, defend your selection in the comments, attack the selections of others, or complain about the decision to omit a contest like Lions-Bears.

You can also correct preemptively everyone who will improperly refer to this weekend as the “quarter pole” of the season.

Guests include Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com, Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, and perhaps someone from the team that wins on Thursday night, when the Dolphins face the Bengals.

The Dolphins, by the way, are 15-3 against Cincinnati since the merger, a fact that is not relevant to Thursday’s game but nevertheless extremely interesting — especially since PFT Live producer Rob “Stats” Guerrera strongly believes it isn’t.

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Man arrested for entering Broncos facility, threatening John Elway

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 08:  General Manager John Elway holds the Lombardi Trophy to celebrate the Denver Broncos in win Super Bowl 50 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High before taking on the Carolina Panthers on September 8, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) Getty Images

A great Sunday in Cincinnati for the Broncos was followed by a bizarre Monday morning.

Via KUSA in Denver, a man was arrested on Monday for entering the team’s facility, making strange accusations, and issuing a vague threat to a security officer and G.M. John Elway.

36-year-old Cordell Robinson entered through an unlocked door in the team’s media room at 7:10 a.m. local time, walked to the lobby, and began taking photographs of the trophies. Asked to leave, Robinson allegedly claimed that the Broncos owe him money, and that he owns 20 percent of the franchise.

Asked to leave again, Robinson said to the security officer that Robinson would “get him and Elway.”

Robinson faces charges of second-degree criminal trespass.

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Report: Dolphins bench Byron Maxwell

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, center, is stopped after short gain by Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins (53) and defensive back Byron Maxwell (41) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) AP

The Dolphins will bench cornerback Byron Maxwell and start Tony Lippett in his place Thursday night against the Bengals, NFL Network reported.

Maxwell, acquired in a trade with the Eagles last March, has started the first three games. He’s broken up four passes and forced a fumble, but the Dolphins have struggled and the defense has given up too many big plays in the passing game.

The Eagles traded Maxwell a year after signing him to a six-year, $63 million contract.

Lippett is a second-year player who played in nine games as a rookie and has played in all three this season as a backup.

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With Colts-Jaguars, NFL sends more bad football to London

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 13:   Trent Cole #58 of the Indianapolis Colts hits the arm of  Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during the game at EverBank Field on December 13, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Getty Images

If the NFL wants to get more popular in England, perhaps it should stop scheduling such bad games there.

With the 1-2 Colts facing the 0-3 Jaguars on Sunday, the NFL will be fielding its 15th regular season game in London. And not a single one of them has matched up two teams with winning records. Six of them have matched up two teams with losing records.

Here’s the full list of regular season games in London, with the teams’ records heading into the game:

2007: Giants (5-2) vs. Dolphins (0-7)
2008: Chargers (3-4) vs. Saints (3-4)
2009: Patriots (4-2) vs. Buccaneers (0-6)
2010: Broncos (2-5) vs. 49ers (1-6)
2011: Bears (3-3) vs. Buccaneers (4-2)
2012: Patriots (4-3) vs. Rams (3-4)
2013: Steelers (0-3) vs. Vikings (0-3)
2013: 49ers (5-2) vs. Jaguars (0-7)
2014: Dolphins (1-2) vs. Raiders (0-3)
2014: Lions (5-2) vs. Falcons (2-5)
2014: Cowboys (6-3) vs. Jaguars (1-8)
2015: Jets (2-1) vs. Dolphins (1-2)
2015: Bills (3-3) vs. Jaguars (1-5)
2015: Lions (1-6) vs. Chiefs (2-5)
2016: Colts (1-2) vs. Jaguars (0-3)

No undefeated team has ever played in London, but on Sunday the Jaguars will become the sixth winless team to play in London.

A big problem facing the NFL is that good teams don’t want to give up home games to play in London. In fact, last year the Chiefs became the first team to give up a home game to London and still finish the season with a winning record. As long as second-tier teams are going to London, the NFL is going to have a hard time getting London fans excited.

With the 2-1 Giants playing the 2-1 Rams in London later this month, it’s possible that London fans will finally see something they haven’t seen yet: A game featuring two winning teams.

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Marvin Jones added to Lions injury report

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 25: Marvin Jones #11 of the Detroit Lions catches a touchdown pass against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 25, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Lions 34-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

Wide receiver Marvin Jones signed with the Lions as a free agent this offseason and he’s fit right in with his new team in the first three games of the season.

Jones leads the league in receiving yards with 408 and is coming off a six-catch/205-yard/two-touchdown performance in Week Three’s loss to the Packers. Jones’ chances of building on those numbers could be impacted by a hamstring injury, however.

Jones is on Thursday’s injury report as a limited participant in practice after not being on the report at all after Wednesday’s practice. That suggests that Jones may have come down with the injury during practice and will make Friday’s practice one to watch for a better idea about how much the hamstring might affect him against the Bears on Sunday.

Defensive end Ziggy Ansah (ankle) and linebacker DeAndre Levy (quad) remained out of practice for the Lions while tight end Eric Ebron (ankle) got in a limited practice after missing Wednesday’s session.

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Josh Gordon entering rehab, NFL return on hold

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon stands on the field during practice at the NFL football team's training camp, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, in Berea, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Richard) AP

Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon announced Thursday that he’ll enter an in-patient treatment facility and that his NFL return is on hold.

Gordon was conditionally reinstated by the NFL in July and would have been eligible to fully return to the Browns on Monday, Oct. 3 and play in the team’s Oct. 9 game. He was suspended for the first four games of 2016 as part of the terms of reinstatement from his previous suspension.

“After careful thought and deep consideration I’ve decided that I need to step away from pursuing my return to the Browns and my football career to enter an in-patient rehabilitation facility,” Gordon said in a statement. “This is the right decision for me and one that I hope will enable me to gain full control of my life and continue on a path to reach my full potential as a person. I appreciate the support of the NFL, NFLPA, the Browns, my teammates, my agent and the community through this extremely challenging process.”

Gordon led the NFL in receiving with 1,646 yards in 2013. He’s played in just five games since due to two different NFL suspensions and a one-game team suspension at the end of 2014. Gordon participated in training camp when healthy in August and played in two preseason games.

“We support Josh in taking this step to seek additional help and treatment,” Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said. “His singular focus must be on his own health. We want nothing more than for Josh to be successful personally and professionally and will not comment on his status with the organization at this time.”

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Three Chargers offensive linemen battling injury issues

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 13: Dee Ford #55 of the Kansas City Chiefs fights through the block of Joe Barksdale #72 of the San Diego Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium during the second quarter of the game on December 13, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images) Getty Images

Chargers left tackle King Dunlap missed practice again Thursday due to migraine headaches, and right tackle Joe Barksdale was again limited due to a foot injury.

The Chargers had a new addition to Thursday’s injury and participation report. Starting left guard Orlando Franklin did not practice Thursday due to a back issue.

With three starters in question three days from Sunday’s game vs. the Saints, the Chargers have some worries but the team has experienced backup offensive linemen in Kenny Wiggins and Chris Hairston.

Defensive end Joey Bosa, who’s still trying to get healthy enough to make his NFL debut, was again listed as limited with a hamstring injury. Cornerback Brandon Flowers missed a second straight day of practice due to a concussion.

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Dez Bryant gets good news from Dr. Andrews

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 25:  Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on before a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears at AT&T Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant ducked an MRI in part because he didn’t want bad news. On Thursday, he apparently has gotten good news.

On Twitter, Bryant tweeted that he received “great feedback” from Dr. James Andrews. Bryant also described himself as “day to day.”

That’s great news, given that Bryant reportedly will miss up to three weeks with a hairline fracture in his knee. Of course, this doesn’t mean Bryant will be ready to go when the Cowboys play at San Francisco on Sunday.

Earlier on Thursday, coach Jason Garrett explained that Bryant feared that he had a serious knee injury, which caused him to avoid the diagnostic procedure that would have confirmed its existence.

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No MRI yet for Eric Decker

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 27:  Geno Smith #7 of the New York Jets passes the ball to Eric Decker #87 prior to the start of a preseason game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on August 27, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images) Getty Images

Maybe the Jets don’t have an MRI machine at their facility, either.

In the same week that an MRI on the knee of Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant was delayed in part by the fact that the swanky new digs in Frisco, Texas lack the fairly significant bones-and-ligament-and-cartilage diagnostic machinery, Jets receiver Eric Decker still hasn’t had an MRI on his injured shoulder.

On Wednesday, coach Todd Bowles said Decker “probably” will get an MRI. On Thursday, Bowles said that an MRI hasn’t happened, yet.

“He could be [getting an MRI],” Bowles said. “They’re still discussing it.”

Asked if there’s a reason for the delay in the administration of the MRI, Bowles said, “Not to my knowledge, no. . . . I’m not going in and demanding that he have an MRI. I’m sure they have their reasons and that isn’t my call.”

Asked if there’s a concern that Decker’s injury could last more than a week, Bowles said, “It’s a concern. Hopefully it’s not, but if it is, we’re getting other guys ready to play. I’ll see where he is [Friday] before I can make a decision on how serious or not serious it is.”

Decker injured the shoulder in Week Two against the Bills. He aggravated it on Sunday, in a loss to the Chiefs.

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NFL makes Randy Gregory’s 10-game suspension official

SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 13:   Randy Gregory #94 of the Dallas Cowboys on the sidelines before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on August 13, 2015 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) Getty Images

We’ve known for more than a week that Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory dropped his appeal of a 10-game suspension, but there was never a formal announcement from the league that the suspension has been put in place.

That announcement came on Thursday. The league confirmed that Gregory will be suspended through the team’s December 18 game against the Buccaneers as the suspension does not go into effect until after this weekend’s game against the 49ers because Gregory is still serving a four-game ban.

Gregory played 12 games as a rookie before his substance-abuse violations led to the two suspensions and owner Jerry Jones was asked if he feels the second-round pick they used to select Gregory was a wasted one.

“I really don’t want to hindsight those,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan, via the Dallas Morning News. “If you look at the amount of play time we got out of a second-round pick, then I would say that it’s not been good. Ultimately, if we can have him on the field, which is rightfully the question … then it would be an outstanding pick.”

Gregory’s unlikely to change any minds on that front in two weeks at the end of this year after missing training camp and the preseason while at a treatment facility, which means that discussion can move into 2017 if the Cowboys decide to keep Gregory on hand.

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