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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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Pete Carroll urges rugby-style tackling in instructional video

petecarroll AP

The NFL’s emphasis on tackling with the shoulders, instead of the head, isn’t just about player safety. According to the coach of the best defense in football, it’s also the most effective way to bring a ball carrier down.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has released an instructional video showing the way his coaching staff teaches tackling.

“Our tackling system features shoulder tackling and a renewed emphasis on taking the head out of tackling. We’ve found our style to be successful in the NFL and in college, and we believe it can be employed at all levels,” Carroll said.

Carroll pointed to rugby — in which players don’t wear helmets — as the sport with the best tackling techniques.

“We have found that we can practice and drill our tackling without pads or a helmet,” Carroll said. “This system of tackling was recently inspired by those who play rugby around the world. Rugby players have truly taken the head out of the game and truly exemplify shoulder tackling.”

If the techniques used in rugby are safer than the techniques in football, that raises a question: Did all of the additional equipment given to football players through the years, supposedly for player safety, actually make the American style of football less safe than it would be if, like rugby, it had eschewed protective equipment through the years?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell probably isn’t going to propose doing away with the helmet any time soon, but he does like what Carroll is preaching.

“Coach Carroll sent me the video and I thought it was terrific,” Goodell said. “It’s a great thing for our game to have the head coach of the Super Bowl champs teaching tackling techniques that protect the head and making it available to everyone. I hope players, coaches and parents at all levels of the game take the time to watch it.”

Carroll says in the video that “We are a shoulder-tackling team.” Goodell wants the NFL to have 32 shoulder-tackling teams.

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Charles Woodson finally feels like he’s playing safety

Charles Woodson AP

Charles Woodson was one of the best cornerbacks in the league for so long, shifting inside to safety as he aged seemed like a smooth transition.

But Woodson admitted it was largely winging it when he first moved.

“When I moved to safety a couple of years ago, I was really playing the position as an athlete,” Woodson told FOX Sports’ Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I was just going back there and doing it because I can play football and for the most part put myself in the right position. But what [Raiders assistant] Marcus [Robertson] is doing is molding me into a safety and allowing me to see the game from the middle of the field and understanding angles from that position.
“I’m loving it because I’m growing. If you’re not growing in this game, you’re not getting better. I plan on getting better.”

Woodson has been playing safety the last three years, but he said he feels like this is his first season where he feels like a safety.

Robertson said he was a “little apprehensive” about coaching a player of Woodson’s magnitude at first, but likes that the 37-year-old is so fully invested in the transition.

“The one thing about him is the guy wants to learn,” said Robertson, the former Titans safety. “He’s eating it up and working on it. And he’s been extremely coachable.
“It’s a beautiful thing. He’s going to have a big year.”

Having veteran players with something to prove is a common thread among the Raiders this year, but Woodson’s example is something their young players should clearly benefit from.

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PFT Live: Kyle Rudolph, PFT Planet calls and tweets

Minnesota Vikings  v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

What did Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph do after he signed his five-year contract extension with the team this week?

You can find out on Wednesday’s edition of PFT Live. Rudolph will join Mike Florio to discuss why he decided to commit his future to the Vikings. Was it the presence of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner or the promise he’s seen in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater? We’ll ask about that and much more during Rudolph’s visit to the show.

And then it will be Florio’s turn to answer the questions instead of asking them. PFT Planet is invited to send in questions on Twitter — @ProFootballTalk — or give a call to 888-237-5269 during the show to share what’s on your mind.

It all gets going at noon ET and you can watch it all live at noon ET by clicking right here.

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Commissioner will meet the media this weekend in Canton

Goodell AP

Much has been made about the apparent unwillingness of Commissioner Roger Goodell to answer questions about the controversial decision to suspend Ravens running back Ray Rice only two games for knocking out his then-fiancée (now wife) in an elevator in February.  Earlier this week, the league office dispatched Adolpho Birch to answer questions, and the consensus is that it didn’t go well.

But while Goodell has yet to address the situation with the press, that will end this weekend in Canton.

“The Commissioner meets with the media during the [Hall of Fame] weekend and will do so again this year,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy tells PFT.

It’s safe to say the first question from the assembled media members will relate to Ray Rice.  And perhaps the second.  And perhaps the third.

It’s also safe to say that it will be difficult for Goodell to say or do anything that will change the near-unanimous belief that a league known for getting it right in most situations has gotten this one incredibly wrong.

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Bucs sign Kip Edwards, officially cut Carl Nicks

Carl Nicks AP

The Buccaneers and guard Carl Nicks struck a deal last week to bring Nicks’s time with the Buccaneers to a premature end after a toe injury and subsequent MRSA infection left him unable to play for most of his two years in Tampa.

That parting of the ways became official on Wednesday when the Bucs announced that they have released Nicks, who has indicated that he will not attempt to continue his playing career with another team. The terms of the deal he struck with Tampa before his departure have not been made public.

The Buccaneers signed cornerback Kip Edwards to take Nicks’ place on the roster. Edwards went to camp with the Bills last year and then spent time on practice squads in Minnesota and Cleveland during the regular season.

Tampa needs some depth at corner right now with Alterraun Verner and Rashaan Melvin both nicked up, but Edwards faces an uphill battle to make the team.

 

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Bengals activate Geno Atkins from PUP list

Tom Brady, Geno Atkins AP

The Bengals’ wait for defensive tackle Geno Atkins to be ready to return to practice for the first time since tearing his ACL last season has come to an end.

The team announced Wednesday that they have activated Atkins from the Physically Unable to Perform list, signaling that his recovery from last year’s injury has progressed well enough for Atkins to start taking practice reps with his teammates this week.

While the Bengals’ website says “don’t look for [Atkins] to get right into the heat of the action,” any work he’s doing now will get him closer to full strength for the start of the regular season. Given Atkins’ importance to the Cincinnati defense, that qualifies as a major step in the right direction even if team drills and full contact remain things for future practices.

The Bengals also activated sixth-round pick Marquis Flowers from the PUP list. The linebacker has been bothered by a hamstring injury. Tackle Andrew Whitworth, wide receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Jermaine Gresham are a few of the Bengals still waiting for clearance to practice with the team this summer.

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Texans owner keeping an eye on Raiders’ eyes on Texas

Jerry Jones, Bob McNair AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he didn’t “make a lot” of the Raiders’ nosing around the other corner of Texas, but Texans owner Bob McNair is certainly paying attention.

It’s not surprising they would look there cause they’re looking around,” McNair said, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. “We have a growing fan base there.

“I’m not concerned bout it. We’ll see what the options are. If that’s the best option we’ll see how it plays out.”

Of course, McNair is just one vote of the 32, and the Raiders would need 23 others to get approval to move. But McNair sounded like a guy reminding people about his turf, while trying to sound open-minded.

“The finance committee would have to approve it and I’m chairman of finance committee,” he said. “You’d have to do market research.”

“They need a new stadium. If San Antonio turns out to be the best option I wouldn’t oppose it just cause it’s San Antonio.”

Considering the still vacant hole in the country’s second-largest market, all this talk about the 36th-largest market seems unusual.

But then again, these are the Raiders we’re talking about.

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Seahawks G.M. on Lynch holdout: “Next man up”

Lynch AP

The Marshawn Lynch holdout continues.  And the team continues to create the impression that it’s not worried by his absence.

Even if it is.

Asked on Tuesday by ESPN’s John Clayton whether the team is concerned about the situation, G.M. John Schneider reiterated the team’s philosophy when answering whether the team is concerned.

You know, no,” Schneider said, via the Seattle Times.  “Everybody loves Beast Mode.  We love him and respect the guy. I think what he’s done in this community, for this franchise, is outstanding.  It’s one of those deals where you can never get inside somebody’s head.  We’re just going with our plan, and I know it’s cliché-ish but next man up.  We’ve had a plan in place here for a number of years, and we can’t veer from that plan for one person because it’s the ultimate team sport.”

The plan, as Schneider explained it, is premised on making “tough decisions.”

“You make models two and three years out, and you have to stick to that and know that there’s going to be tough decisions along the way,” Schneider told Clayton.  “We had to let guys like Red Bryant go, Chris Clemons, we weren’t able to sign Breno [Giacomini], Golden Tate.  You have to be able to make those decisions along the way knowing you’ll be able to re-sign Michael Bennett and maybe there’s a free agent that comes in and fits in your bracket. It’s just one of those deals where you have to keep going about your business, and you can’t veer off of that.

“Around here we talk about what’s next, and the next person is up. That being said, last year we went through this with Brandon Browner. He had his [injury], and [Byron Maxwell] got his opportunity. Hey, Marshawn Lynch is phenomenal. Phenomenal player and just a unique part of what we’ve had going on here.  Two years ago we were able to redo his deal, and he was a big part of that foundation that we started here.”

Schneider’s explanation hints at the point of Lynch’s holdout.  A year from now, he may be one of those “tough decisions” the team has to make, when he’s closing in on 30 and he’s due to count $9 million against the cap and Christine Michael or Robert Turbin are ready to take over.  Currently, Lynch continues to be the bell cow.  Which means it’s his last, best chance to extract more money from the franchise.

None of it really matters for now.  Sure, Lynch is racking up $30,000 per day in fines, and his $1.5 million signing bonus allocation is now partially at risk.  But the Seahawks would surely waive all fines and penalties immediately if it gets Lynch back before Week One, especially since he otherwise would be used sparingly in practice and in preseason games before Week One.

That’s why the holdout really isn’t a holdout yet, because Lynch isn’t missing much.  Last year, he had five carries in the entire preseason.  The year before, also five.  In 2011, a whopping six.

This one won’t really register until Labor Day, when the Seahawks are roughly 72 hours away from raising their first-ever championship banner and launching the effort to win a second one.  If Lynch isn’t in the fold come Tuesday morning September 2, it could take more than a bad call on a last-play Hail Mary to emerge from Opening Night with a 1-0 record.

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David Wilson out this week, will see his surgeon on Monday

David Wilson AP

Giants running back David Wilson went to the hospital for a battery of tests after suffering a burner during Tuesday’s practice, but that won’t be the end of the medical evaluations for a player who had spinal fusion surgery last year.

The Giants said Wednesday, via Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News, that Wilson will visit Dr. Frank Cammisa on Monday. Cammisa performed the surgery on Wilson and will presumably checking to make sure that Tuesday’s injury didn’t adversely impact the structural repairs made during the operation.

Wilson will be out of action until at least that appointment, which means he won’t be practicing this week or facing the Bills in the Hall of Fame game on Sunday. That game is one of five that the Giants will play this preseason, so there will still be a lot of time for Wilson to shake off any rust during the preseason as long as the doctors feel that playing won’t create further problems.

It also gives the Giants time to be cautious in bringing Wilson back, something that will almost certainly be their preferred course of action given the nature of Wilson’s injury in 2013 and his quick return to the medical report this year.

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Arian Foster back at practice, Andre Johnson still out

Arian Foster AP

The Texans have had two of their veteran offensive stars on the sideline this week because of hamstring issues, but one of them made it back to the field on Wednesday.

Running back Arian Foster missed a pair of practices because of his hamstring, but Brian Smith of the Houston Chronicle reports that Foster has returned to work. There’s no word on whether Foster will be a full participant in this session, although the quick return is a good sign that the tweak was as minor as Texans coach Bill O’Brien said it was.

While the Texans have also downplayed the seriousness of wide receiver Andre Johnson’s hamstring injury, Johnson was not able to join Foster and the rest of the team on the practice field Wednesday. That makes two missed practices in a row for Johnson as he tries to catch up for time missed when he was staying away from offseason workouts because of dissatisfaction with the overall direction of the franchise.

If the team’s assessment of Johnson’s hamstring was as on point as their assessment of Foster’s, the receiver shouldn’t be out too much longer.

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Chip Kelly: DeSean Jackson didn’t open things up for others last year

Chip Kelly AP

When the Eagles released wide receiver DeSean Jackson, there was a school of thought that believed their offense would suffer in 2014 because Jackson wasn’t there.

The two main reasons cited were that Jackson’s speed is difficult to replace and that his presence opened things up for other members of the offense. The Eagles didn’t have such worries and coach Chip Kelly explained why the team is confident that everything can continue to run smoothly with Jackson in Washington.

“I think most people played us in single high [safety] coverage and they played man across the board on anybody and no one was getting any help,” Kelly said, via ESPN.com. “Riley [Cooper] was getting man [coverage] on his side. DeSean was getting man on his side. Jason Avant was getting man in the slot. Zach Ertz, whoever our tight end was, was getting manned. Running back was getting manned. No one is going to play us in two [safeties] deep because if you play us in two deep, we can run the heck out of the ball. We had everybody as close to the line of scrimmage as possible and nobody was helping anybody. They were trying to stop the run game.”

With LeSean McCoy still in the offense, that figures to be the case again this season. As a result, finding receivers that can beat the press coverage that comes with defenses playing close to the line of scrimmage will be the biggest thing for the Eagles this offseason. Rookie Jordan Matthews has the build to be that kind of receiver and has been getting rave reviews, perhaps to Kelly’s consternation, for his ability to make an impact this fall.

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Report: Initial Bills bid tops $1 billion

Pegula Getty Images

On Tuesday, the deadline came and went for making a non-binding indication of interest in buying the Bills.  And one of the potential buyers who expressed interest reportedly is willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege of doing so.

According to Josh Kosman and Lois Weiss of the New York Post, Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula already has offered more than $1 billion for the franchise.  If that’s the opener from just one of the interested buyers, the sale is destined to eclipse the record $1.1 billion paid by Stephen Ross to purchase the Dolphins.

In June, Pegula raised $1.75 billion in cash via the sale of 75,000 acres of natural gas leases in West Virginia and Ohio.

Via WGRZ-TV, other initial bids were submitted by Donald Trump and Jon Bon Jovi’s Toronto-based group.  Via the Buffalo News, Business First reporter James Fink said on WBEN radio that former Sabres owner Tom Golisano reportedly did not make an offer.

Trump, who has talked about buying the Bills in the same way he has talked about running for President, recently told FOX News that he doesn’t expect to actually win the bidding.

“I would say the chances are very, very unlikely,” Trump said.  “Because I’m not going to do something totally stupid — maybe just a little bit stupid, but not totally stupid.”

The making of a 10-figure bid by Pegula should help ensure that the team will go to someone who would keep the franchise in Buffalo.  Unless, of course, Bon Jovi and company make a Steve Ballmer-style bid, putting $2 billion or more on the table for the team.

If that’s the case, Andre Reed’s “F–k Bon Jovi!” message could be revised by the folks selling the team to say, “F–k!  Bon Jovi!”

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Tom Coughlin, Odell Beckham clear the air about hamstring

Tom Coughlin AP

It wasn’t hard to read the frustration in coach Tom Coughlin’s tone, regarding Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham’s hamstring problems.

So the rookie sat down with his old-school coach to make sure they were on the same page.

“We had that talk today and it was just kind of like, ‘I know I’m new and we don’t know each other that well,’ ” Beckham said, via Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News. “So over time you get to know people, and the bad part about it is your first impression is the kind that lasts forever, so you don’t ever want to leave a bad impression.

“But at the same time I’m just trying to reassure him that he knows how hard it is for me to not be practicing.”

Beckham missed OTA time with the hamstring problem as well, giving Coughlin a limited scope to see the 12th overall pick in the draft.

“We just had a discussion, that’s all, player [and] coach, trying to get to know each other better,” Coughlin said. “I see his frustration and he sees our frustration — but don’t make anything more of it than it is. It’s a coach wanting a player on the field and the player wanting the player on the field.”

Beckham had tests which showed no structural damage, so it’s a matter of day-to-day recovery. He said he hopes to play in some preseason games, which would certainly help Coughlin get to know him even better.

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Kelvin Benjamin feels like “a new man” after knee scare

Kelvin Benjamin AP

Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin was able to smile after his first NFL injury scare, saying he felt like “a new man” after a precautionary MRI revealed only a bone bruise.

(If that new man was Calvin Johnson, the Panthers’ passing game should be OK.)

Benjamin’s MRI revealed no structural damage, and the indication that his absence will be measured in days rather than weeks.

I’m coming back even harder, 10 times harder,” Benjamin said, via Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. “I’m getting a lot of treatment, just get better.”

Benjamin didn’t practice yesterday, and the team has today off, so there’s no rush.

“I think they just want to take their time on it,” he said. “I woke up [Tuesday] morning like a new man. I was telling them it feels way better. But they were still telling me still take your time with it.”

In his absence, the Panthers rotated Marvin McNutt into the starting mix with Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery.

And that should tell you all you need to know about the importance of Benjamin’s return.

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Kyle Rudolph visits PFT Live on Wednesday

Rudolph AP

On Sunday, he signed a long-term, big-money deal with the Vikings.  On Wednesday, he’ll give PFT Live a little of his time for free.

We think.

Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph inked a five-year, $36.5 million contract that can be worth up to $40 million.  I’ll ask him about that and other stuff related to the 2014 edition of the team, his fourth NFL season, and the first year with coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner during the show that streams right here at 12:00 p.m. ET.

If you have questions for Rudolph or questions for our daily (mostly) PFT Planet segment, ask them via Twitter.

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