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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Indianapolis Colts

Pagano Getty Images

The Colts were the surprise team of 2012, vaulting from 2-14 the previous season to 11-5 in the playoffs based on a combination of a new quarterback and some old-fashioned emotion.

Now that the strong feelings have subsided, and a new baseline of expectations has been set, it’s reasonable to wonder whether they’ll be able to continue to build, or will suffer the kind of regression to the mean so many teams that make big leaps find.

Quarterback Andrew Luck is a special player, and as long as he’s well, there’s a floor on how bad the Colts are going to get. But they overachieved by such a remarkable degree last season, that it seems almost impossible to replicate.

They strengthened the middle third of their roster with a bunch of free agent signings, but the offseason didn’t bring in many difference-makers.

They have many young parts other than Luck which will provide the base for years to come, but may not have done enough to help him yet.

Strengths.

It starts at the top, as Luck was as good as advertised as a rookie.

While his overall stats might not shine like others, he was also asked to much more, and with much less. The Colts didn’t put Luck into a comfortable spot, with a leaky line and an offense that asked him to move the ball downfield rather than making the safe, short throws.

He still excelled, and looked his best in late-game situations, when young players can often fold. He has a legitimate star in Reggie Wayne to throw to, a young deep threat in T.Y. Hilton and a pair of good tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

Now’s he’s going to have to build on that, and even what could be considered a problem may work out in his favor. Losing coordinator Bruce Arians and replacing him with Pep Hamilton will be a change in style, but Hamilton was Luck’s OC in college at Stanford, and will bring a system well-suited to his strengths and weaknesses.

Weaknesses.

One of Luck’s biggest problems last year was hardly his fault.

He took 41 sacks behind a makeshift offensive line that seemed like the last problem that General Manager Ryan Grigson got around to addressing.

They’ve at least added some new names there this year, signing right tackle Gosder Cherilus for more money than anyone thought he’d get, and then bringing in former Patriots guard Donald Thomas.

That’s still just a 40 percent turnover for a line that was pretty bad last year, which may not be enough to fix it.

They’re also not overwhelmed with options in the pass rush. Letting Dwight Freeney walk was reasonable given his age and the direction of the franchise, but they kind of have Robert Mathis and your guess is as good as mine to provide sacks.

Signing former Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden early in free agency was a bit of a head-scratcher. He’s not a bad player, and may well be able to set the edge and help the run defense, but he’s hardly worth the investment and urgency they put into him.

As with many young and rebuilding teams, special teams was kind of a hash last year, but a season to put parts together might lend some stability there, particularly in the return game.

Changes.

The Colts spent, as the owner referred to it, “SERIOUS coin” this offseason, but they also bought a lot of bulk.

While some of the new additions could have an immediate impact (safety LaRon Landry, running Ahmad Bradshaw), many of the guys they brought in were more subtle tweaks to the roster.

Cornerback Greg Toler’s a solid addition to a secondary that needed help.

New quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is the right kind of voice to put in Luck’s ear at this stage in his career, a smart veteran who has made the transition from starter to backup.

But some of the moves just seem like they were made for the sake of making moves.

An upgrade at tackle was a necessity, but Cherilus got an awful lot of money ($34.5 million over five years), considering a market that went flat and some of the guys who are still available now.

They needed another outside weapon on offense, but Darrius Heyward-Bey has always provided more sizzle than steak. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois got a big contract for a guy who was always a backup.

The Colts needed to add depth to a young roster, and some of the guys they signed should provide that. But Grigson behaved like all that coin of Irsay’s was burning a hole in his pocket.

Camp Battles.

The sorting at defensive tackle will be interesting, as Jean-Francois and Fili Moala are likely battling for a starting job. But both are versatile enough to play end in Greg Manusky’s hybrid 3-4, and should have a role. The fact Jean-Francois has never been a full-time player makes Moala a necessity, even if he’s not starting.

They’re also looking at options at inside linebacker.

They brought in Kevin Sheppard in a trade with Buffalo, and he took a lot of offseason reps with the first defense while Pat Angerer was recovering from a foot surgery.

Angerer’s likely to win the job if he’s well, and should give them a solid pair along with Jerrell Freeman.

Prospects.

Though it sounds strange to say, the Colts are practically in the early stages of another coaching change.

While Chuck Pagano’s battle with cancer was the emotional lift for last year’s climb, much of that success happened when he was away from the team taking care of his health.

He set the tone in the offseason and established the program, and Arians did a masterful job of running things in his absence. Now it’s on Pagano to keep the progress going. Hamilton was an excellent hire, someone who was going to have his pick of NFL jobs at some point.

The Colts are still an at early stage in their growth as a franchise, and Pagano was respected around the league before last season.

He’s a good coach, but the job’s harder now. Going from good to great is much harder than going from terrible to good, and Pagano will have to adjust to that.

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Week Five skill position injury report — Wednesday

Joique Bell AP

For fantasy football players, here’s a rundown of the skill position players listed on Wednesday’s injury report as furnished by the NFL. Key fantasy starters are bolded. The final injury report for Sunday games is released Friday, with the final Monday-night injury report released on Saturday

(Week Five byes: Raiders, Dolphins).

FULL

Cowboys WR Dez Bryant (shoulder).

Bengals RB Rex Burkhead (knee).

Eagles TE Trey Burton (Achilles).

Browns TE Jordan Cameron (shoulder).

Eagles TE James Casey (knee).

49ers RB Michael Crabtree (foot).

Vikings RB Jerome Felton (knee). — PROBABLE

Bills WR Marquise Goodwin (concussion).

49ers RB Frank Gore (back).

Broncos TE Virgil Green (concussion).

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski (knee).

Cardinals TE Rob Housler (hip).

Eagles WR Josh Huff (shoulder).

Jets RB Chris Johnson (ankle).

Titans QB Jake Locker (right wrist).

Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin (hamstring).

Bears WR Brandon Marshall (ankle).

Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon (ankle). — PROBABLE

Broncos PK Brandon McManus (right groin).

Ravens RB Bernard Pierce (thigh).

Eagles WR Brad Smith (groin).

Vikings WR Rodney Smith (hamstring). — PROBABLE

Chiefs RB De’Anthony Thomas (hamstring).

Bills WR Sammy Watkins (ribs).

Saints TE Benjamin Watson (groin).

LIMITED

Rams WR Tavon Austin (knee).

Giants WR Odell Beckham (hamstring).

Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater (ankle) — QUESTIONABLE.

Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles (ankle).

Jets WR Eric Decker (hamstring).

Cardinals RB Andre Ellington (foot).

Chargers TE Ladarius Green (hamstring).

Falcons WR Devin Hester (ankle).

Texans WR Damaris Johnson (foot).

Chargers WR TE David Johnson (shoulder).

Falcons WR Julio Jones (ankle).

49ers TE Vance McDonald (knee).

Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart (thigh).

Browns RB Ben Tate (knee).

Titans TE Delanie Walker (shoulder).

Steelers WR Markus Wheaton (groin).

DID NOT PRACTICE

Chiefs WR Donnie Avery (groin).

Lions RB Joique Bell (concussion).

Packers WR Jarrett Boykin (groin). — OUT

Colts RB Ahmad Bradshaw (not injury related).

Panthers TE Richie Brockel (ankle).

Steelers WR Martavis Bryant (illness).

49ers TE Vernon Davis (back).

Bills WR Marcus Easley (knee).

Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (groin).

Falcons WR Harry Douglas (foot).

Lions TE Joseph Fauria (ankle).

Chargers WR Malcom Floyd (illness).

Texans RB Arian Foster (hamstring).

Rams QB Shaun Hill (thigh).

Saints RB Mark Ingram (hand).

Texans WR Andre Johnson (ankle).

Lions WR Calvin Johnson (ankle).

Bengals WR Marvin Jones (ankle).

Saints RB Erik Lorig (ankle).

Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (knee).

Buccaneers QB Josh McCown (thumb).

Steelers TE Heath Miller (not injury related).

Browns WR Marlon Moore (illness).

Jets WR David Nelson (ankle).

Cardinals QB Carson Palmer (right shoulder).

Lions RB Theo Riddick (hamstring).

Cowboys QB Tony Romo (back).

Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph (abdomen, groin) — OUT.

Buccaneers TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ankle).

Titans TE Taylor Thompson (knee).

Colts WR Reggie Wayne (not injury related).

Panthers RB Fozzy Whittaker (thigh).

Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle).

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Justin Blackmon working through voluntary treatment program

Justin Blackmon, Chris Harris AP

Receiver Justin Blackmon has missed an entire calendar year’s worth of games after being suspended indefinitely by the league for repeated violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have stuck by Blackmon despite his issues but fully expect to not have him be available this season.

Whether he will ever be reinstated remains to be seen as well, but Blackmon is at least attempting to take steps needed to give himself the chance to return to his NFL career in the future.

According to Mark Long of the Associated Press, Blackmon has checked into a voluntary treatment facility and is about halfway through the 90-day program.

“He’s healing and taking time for himself,” head coach Gus Bradley said. “The great thing is he has chosen this for himself. It’s awesome to hear about.”

This isn’t the first time Blackmon has sought out treatment for his problems. He also planned to enter rehab last year after the suspension was handed down by the league. But Blackmon was arrested again in July for possession of marijuana in Oklahoma, which essentially closed the door on any chance that he could return to the field this year.

Blackmon showed great potential as a rookie in 2012 when he caught 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns for the Jaguars. After serving a four-game suspension to begin the 2013 season, Blackmon also had a standout performance in Denver with 14 catches for 190 yards before he was suspended indefinitely in November.

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Cowboys player allegedly involved in a sexual assault

Cowboys Getty Images

Despite unprecedented sensitivity to the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault in the NFL, incidents involving NFL players continue.

The latest allegedly happened on the evening of September 20.

According to the New York Daily News, defensive back C.J. Spillman has been accused of sexually assaulting a female at the team’s hotel.

“We have a sexual assault report we are investigating at this time, and it does involve C.J. Spillman,” a police spokesman told the Daily News.  “He is involved in the investigation.  We are looking into the matter.”

Spillman played on September 21 at St. Louis, and again on September 28 against the Saints.  On September 26, the alleged victim’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, alerted Commissioner Roger Goodell to the allegations.

It’s unclear whether the team or the league previously knew about it.  It’s also unclear why Spillman has not yet been placed on the rabbit-from-a-hat Commissioner’s Permission list.

Now that the situation has become publicly known, chances are that Spillman will land on paid suspension until the charges are resolved.  Or maybe the Cowboys will simply cut him, since he’s not a key player.

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Alexander says suspension arises from violation “many months ago”

Alexander Getty Images

The four-game suspension imposed on Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander has become a 10-game suspension.  Alexander has issued a statement expressing regret for the incident that, according to Alexander, happened a long time ago.

“I’m very sorry to the Panthers organization, my teammates, and Panthers fans that my mistakes from many months ago will prevent me from contributing for several more weeks,” Alexander said in a statement.  “This discipline arose from a violation that occurred many months ago.  Since that violation, I have continued to grow, and I will continue to work hard, as I have been doing, to stay in shape and be a major contributor upon my return.   Through God’s favor, I will continue to show through my behavior that I have learned some valuable life lessons.”

While the violation triggering the 10-game suspension may have happened many months ago, it wasn’t only one violation that resulted in the suspension.  But for the revision to the substance-abuse policy, the latest violation would have resulted in Alexander missing an entire year, at a minimum.

A fourth-round pick in 2012, Alexander will be eligible to return after Week 15, barring another violation.

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Report: Aaron Dobson benched after he “mouthed off” to McDaniels

Aaron Dobson AP

The Patriots scratched wide receiver Aaron Dobson in each of the last two games.

We now reportedly have an idea why.

According to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe, the Patriots benched Dobson for the Sept. 21 win vs. Oakland and the Sept. 29 loss at Kansas City after the second-year wide receiver “mouthed off” to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

A second-round pick in the 2013 draft, the 23-year-old Dobson showed potential as a rookie, hauling in 37 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns. He’s appeared in one game this season, catching one pass for 13 yards.

The question now is whether Dobson can earn his way back onto the active roster for Sunday’s matchup vs. Cincinnati. This much is certain: team and player figure to be asked about the subject this week.

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Derek Carr could be the key to luring Gruden

Carr Getty Images

As the 2014 draft approached, Raiders owner Mark Davis developed a strong desire to draft quarterback Derek Carr.  On the afternoon before the draft began, chatter emerged that Davis was pushing for Carr to be taken with the fifth overall pick in round one.

The Raiders passed, as did each of the next 32 teams.  Then, with the fifth pick in round two, the Raiders pounced on Carr.

With a front office and coaching staff in win-now mode and a roster laden with veterans, it didn’t make sense.  With coach Dennis Allen already gone and Davis apparently interested in bringing Jon Gruden back to the Bay Area, it suddenly does.

The current thinking is that Davis wanted Carr because Davis believes Carr’s presence will help lure Gruden back to town.  For any coach with options (and it’s still not clear how many options Gruden really has had or will have), the quarterback position becomes nearly as important as the salary.  Davis thinks that Gruden’s favorite quarterback in the 2014 class was Carr.  Which could help Gruden choose to return to the Black Hole at a time when the roster otherwise contains plenty of red flags.

Other terms will be compensation and power.  Or, at a minimum, the power to hire someone Gruden trusts to set the table from a personnel standpoint.

It’s not clear whether Gruden has any interest in leaving the friendly confines of the broadcast booth, but if he’s ready to jump and if Davis is ready to pay, Carr could be the guy who helps seal the deal.

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Geno gets testy over Vick questions

Smith AP

Well, at least he didn’t tell anyone to go f–k himself.

Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who lost his cool and yelled a pair of “F” bombs into the stands at the end of Sunday’s loss to the Lions, was in no mood on Wednesday to take questions about a guy who once shot a pair of middle fingers to hecklers in Atlanta.

Asked whether Smith sees the value in using Mike Vick to provide the offense with a spark when needed, the current starter bristled.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to lead to with that question,” Smith said, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “Maybe that’s your opinion.  What do you mean a spark?  We’ve already put him in.”

Asked if it would make sense to have Vick come in not for a cameo appearance but to jump-start the offense, Smith got even more testy.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Smith said.  “What team do you see doing that? . . .  That’s not a question. Next question.”

Actually, the Cardinals did that, seven years ago.  Coach Ken Whisenhunt routinely yanked second-year quarterback Matt Leinart for veteran backup Kurt Warner when the team fell behind, re-inserting Leinart once Warner evened things up again.  That continued until Leinart, who was getting frustrated with the technique, broke a collarbone.  The next year, Warner was the starter and the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl.

For his part, Vick opted to navigate around the topic far more diplomatically.

“[W]e don’t need any more distractions right now even though I don’t think I would be a distraction if I went in and played temporarily,” Vick said.  “We just need to focus on beating San Diego.”

Or, as coach Rex Ryan put it with a reference to Bill Belichick’s bizarre Cincinnati presser, the Jets are “on to San Diego.”

For Smith, the best news coming from the road game in California is that any heckling will come from fans who are supposed to be heckling him.

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Reche Caldwell faces prison time after guilty plea on drug charge

reche-caldwell Getty Images

Former NFL receiver Reche Caldwell could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal drug conspiracy.

Caldwell admitted to a scheme to distribute the drug “Molly,” prosecutors say.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Caldwell admits that he signed for and accepted a parcel from China containing 1.5 kilograms of Molly. A week later, investigators intercepted a package mailed by Caldwell that contained the drug.

A second-round pick of the Chargers in 2002, Caldwell spent seven years in the NFL in San Diego, New England, Washington and St. Louis.

Caldwell has been arrested three times this year. In addition to the arrest in connection with this case, he also was arrested in January on an accusation that he was running an illegal gambling operation, and in August on a charge of possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license.

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Kaepernick avoids topic of locker-room turmoil

Kaepernick Getty Images

After non-reporter Deion Sanders reported that 49ers players want coach Jim Harbaugh to coach someone other than the 49ers, the team trotted out several players to debunk the report from the non-reporter.

But where were the team leaders?  Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Colin Kaepernick were all silent on the topic in the aftermath of the report.

Kaepernick broke his silence on Wednesday, via the final question at his weekly Wednesday press conference.  But Kaepernick didn’t address the substance of Sanders’ non-reporter report.

“Well, I’d like to know who the source is,” Kaepernick said.  “So, when you get a source from that, then we can talk about that. Until then, that’s the media.”

It continues the dismissive tone that the 49ers have applied to Deion’s non-reporter report.  And it overlooks the fact that information from anonymous sources can be as reliable, and perhaps in some cases even more reliable, than information from on-the-record sources.

Still, it would be easier to dismiss Deion’s non-reporter report if team leaders were sounding off — not about the fact that the source isn’t named but the reality that the source is flat-out wrong.

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The time Larry Donnell shoveled dirt on every other bad beat story

Larry Donnell, Brandon Meriweather AP

Look, fantasy football bad beat stories are generally just tedious.

Here’s an example: Last week, a fantasy owner benched Giants tight end Larry Donnell in favor of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Donnell outscored Davis, and the fantasy owner lost.

Yawn.

Well, what if we told you the fantasy owner was Larry Donnell himself?

This apparently actually happened.

According to NorthJersey.com, Donnell mentioned Wednesday he started Davis in his fantasy league in Week Four, leaving himself on the bench.

Donnell, of course, would go on to catch seven passes for 54 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants’ win vs. Washington. Davis, meanwhile, tallied two catches, eight yards and no scores and departed with a back injury in a win vs. Philadelphia.

In the end, the Giants were triumphant, but Donnell’s fantasy squad paid the price.

“Would’ve won if I played me,” Donnell said Wednesday, according to NorthJersey.com. “During the game, I’m like, ‘Really?’ That’s the honest truth.”

Let us propose a rule. Before telling a bad beat story, ask yourself this question: is your bad beat story as compelling as Larry Donnell’s?

We thought not.

So it’s settled. Rest in peace, bad beat stories other than Larry Donnell’s.

Rest in peace.

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Trent Williams: Seahawks aren’t unstoppable, we can beat them

TrentWilliams AP

As Washington left tackle Trent Williams studies film of Seattle’s defense in preparation for Monday night’s meeting, his conclusion is this: These guys are beatable.

Williams said he and his teammates won’t go into the game against the defending champion Seahawks intimidated, because they know they can win.

Can we beat them? Yeah,” Williams said, via the Washington Post. “At the end of the day, they’re not robots. They’re human beings and nobody’s perfect. Nobody plays perfect every Sunday. They have been beaten before. It’s not like they’re unstoppable. They’re a great team, no doubt about it, but anything is possible in the NFL.”

Williams said that after the embarrassment of Thursday’s loss to the Giants, he and his teammates are motivated.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we need to step up,” he said. “We’re going against one of the best teams in the NFL right now on Monday night. I think guys are going to come with their best effort, and hopefully we’ll turn this thing around.”

Beating Seattle would be a very big step toward turning things around.

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Knee injury keeps Kyle Williams out of practice

Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Ryan Fitzpatrick AP

The Bills have had one of the stingiest run defenses in the league through the first four weeks of the season, but they were missing one of the major cogs in that effort when they kicked off practice for Week Five.

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams didn’t participate because of the knee injury he suffered in last Sunday’s loss to the Texans. Beyond saying that Williams’s experience meant that he didn’t have to practice in order to play, coach Doug Marrone didn’t offer much insight into Williams’s condition.

“I just heard that we’re going to see how it progresses. He’s been around, he’s walking around here,” Marrone said, via ESPN.com. “That’s the doctors. When they release him, they release him, and when they don’t … I don’t have a feel. All I know is how it progresses, I’ll know more as the week goes.”

History says that no one should expect Marrone to be more forthcoming as the week goes on, so Williams’s practice status will be the best guide to predicting whether or not he’ll be in the lineup against the Lions. Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant are the backup options in the event Williams doesn’t play.

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NFL announces extension of DirecTV Sunday Ticket deal

SundayTicket

NFL Sunday Ticket is staying on DirecTV.

The league announced on Wednesday that it has extended its agreement with DirecTV to give the satellite provider the rights to show out-of-market games. Darren Rovell of ESPN reports that it’s an eight-year deal that will see DirecTV paying the NFL $1.5 billion a year, a 50 percent increase over the $1 billion a year DirecTV was paying under its previous deal with the league.

The NFL’s announcement also said DirecTV will continue with added features beyond the live Sunday games, including the Red Zone Channel, Game Mix with eight games on one screen and the new Fantasy Zone channel. DirecTV will also continue carrying NFL Network on satellite and make it available to subscribers to watch on mobile devices.

Some fans who have cable and can’t get DirecTV will be disappointed that Sunday Ticket isn’t going to be available to cable subscribers. But DirecTV is increasingly promoting the ability of Sunday Ticket subscribers to watch games on tablets and phones, which means you no longer need a satellite dish on your roof to have Sunday Ticket. You just need to pay DirecTV for access, which millions of fans will do. Sunday Ticket is one of the most valuable properties on American television, because the NFL is the most popular programming on American television.

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Jon Gruden says the predictable thing about Raiders job

grudenx-large AP

With the Raiders already in the market for a head coach after the 2014 season and with former Raiders (and Buccaneers) coach Jon Gruden’s name the first to emerge, the elder brother of Washington coach Jay Gruden is saying all the right things about the move he potentially will make come January.

I’m not thinking about coaching,” Jon Gruden said.  “I’m thinking about heading to Washington, watching the world champions and my brother coach.”

He’s probably also thinking about the quality of the welcome he’ll get from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who may be reluctant to invite an immediate family member of the next opponent’s head coach into practice and production meetings.  Either way, Jon Gruden isn’t thinking about coaching right now because he shouldn’t be thinking about it.  Or, more accurately, he shouldn’t be talking about thinking about it.

Playing it slow and playing it cool eventually will pay off for Gruden, either via a big offer from the Raiders or more money from ESPN.  At a time when most NFL teams with vacancies aren’t beating a path to Gruden’s door for the privilege of paying him a lot of money to return to coaching, the Raiders have become the franchise with the most interest in hiring Jon Gruden since the Buccaneers became no longer interested in employing him.

It will be a delicate balance for Gruden, who won’t want to alienate a fan base that still worships him.  But his best play would be to find a way to parlay Oakland’s interest into interest from a franchise that has much better prospects for 2015 and beyond — if there’s a franchise out there that would want to hire him.

Other than the Raiders right now, there really hasn’t been.  And the truth is that, despite the hype, there may never be.

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Frank Alexander suspended 10 games for another drug violation

Frank Alexander AP

The Panthers were hoping to get defensive end Frank Alexander back this week, after he served his four-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy.

Instead, they’ll see him in December, if at all.

The league announced that Alexander was suspended 10 games for violating the substance abuse policy again. He’ll be eligible to return on Dec. 15, following their game against the Buccaneers.

The suspension is a double-blow for the Panthers considering they were thinned out by Greg Hardy being on the commissioner’s exempt list, and their defense has struggled mightily.

But Alexander is apparently having a different kind of struggle.

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