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Preseason Power Rankings No. 7: New England Patriots

Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v New England Patriots Getty Images

It was just another quiet offseason for the big dogs of the AFC East.

Except for Wes Welker signing to play with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, of course. And Rob Gronkowski having surgery a couple of times qualifies as a notable development. Signing Tim Tebow might not turn out to be much more than an entertaining distraction, but entertaining distractions are far better than the one Aaron Hernandez has provided.

Okay, so it was anything but quiet in New England. How much will all the noise wind up mattering, though? The Patriots have seen players come and go for all sorts of reasons since the start of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era and they’ve kept on ticking.

This might be a bigger challenge than some of those other years, but betting against them still doesn’t feel like a good idea.

Strengths.

Whatever their group of wide receivers and tight ends wind up looking like, the Patriots still have Tom Brady at quarterback and that should go a long way toward ensuring they remain a potent passing offense. He’ll need to find a new security blanket with Welker gone and they’ll lose a lot of dynamism with Hernandez in prison, but Brady’s career record provides plenty of confidence that he’ll make it happen.

The offensive line will help Brady deal with the change in circumstance. Nate Solder has established himself as a strong pass protector at left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer is one of the league’s best right tackles and Logan Mankins remains a rock at left guard. Center Ryan Wendell should improve in his second year as a starter and this group should keep Brady from tasting the turf too often.

Stevan Ridley ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, giving the Patriots one of the most productive seasons by a back in the Brady era. He’s joined in the backfield by Shane Vereen, whose versatility will likely be part of the plan to shore up the passing game in the face of the thin receiving corps.

Vince Wilfork remains one of the most effective defensive tackles in the NFL, the starting linebackers are strong in all phases of the game and Devin McCourty took to safety like a duck to water. That foundation would be enhanced if defensive end Chandler Jones can remain healthy and rush the passer the way he did before an ankle injury slowed him down in the second half last year.

Weaknesses.

For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, the Patriots are putting a lot on the shoulders of rookie receivers and guys coming back from injuries. Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce may be the next generation of Patriot pass catchers, but rookies take time to acclimate themselves to the game. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have played all 16 games in a season once between them and tight end Jake Ballard hasn’t played in more than a year because of a serious knee injury.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest on suspicion of DUI is problematic for the Patriots because it raises the possibility that he’ll be suspended at some point this season. If so, the Pats will have to rely more heavily on the likes of Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling to shut down opposing receivers and that’s not something they’ve proven capable of doing in the past.

A healthy Jones and Rob Ninkovich can be a productive pass rushing duo, but it wouldn’t hurt to find a couple of other guys to get after the quarterback.

The Patriots are a bit thin on the defensive line after cutting loose Kyle Love and Brandon Dreaderick and they aren’t much deeper at linebacker behind the impressive starting trio. In past years, the Patriots have struggled to replace players lost to injury and they are vulnerable in both those spots heading into this year.

Changes.

The Welker/Amendola swap grabbed the most headlines, but it was one of several moves at receiver for New England. Brandon Lloyd is also gone and Michael Jenkins joins the two rookies, which at least gives the team options as they try to put together a winning receiving corps. Expect to see more churning at this spot as the Patriots have already cut Donald Jones after signing him to a three-year deal early in the offseason.

Running back Danny Woodhead signed with the Chargers as a free agent and the Patriots traded track star Jeff Demps to Tampa for LeGarrette Blount. It’s unclear how much time he’ll see, but he definitely gives them the chance to go with a different look than Ridley and Vereen provide. The Patriots also added Leon Washington, although he’ll likely be put to more use as a returner than out of the backfield.

Two veterans who arrived at free agency are ticketed for big roles on defense. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and safety Adrian Wilson could both be upgrades over what came before, although neither one figures to be an every-down player at this stage of their career.

The question above about the depth of the defensive line will be answered more positively if CFL refugee Armond Armstead and second-round pick Jamie Collins can win jobs in the rotation. Collins may also play linebacker as the team moves from look to look.

And then there’s Tebow, whose role remains undefined at this point but who will presumably be doing something in New England if he makes the team as opposed to just watching as he did with the Jets.

Camp Battles.

While the team doesn’t appear to have any plans to move on from Dennard, the possibility of a suspension should lead to increased competition for the job opposite Aqib Talib. Rookie Logan Ryan could find his way into the mix with a strong camp.

Dan Connolly should get a push from Marcus Cannon at right guard, although the Patriots might prefer to have Cannon as their top reserve option at both guard and tackle.

Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanwanui will battle for tight end snaps left open by Hernandez and possibly those belonging to Gronkowski as well if he isn’t ready to return from surgeries on his back and forearm. On the other side of the ball, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory will all be looking to grab the spot next to McCourty at safety.

Prospects.

There’s been a lot of talk about the potential for a drop off in New England this season, much of it focused on the uncertainty at receiver and tight end. The concerns about those spots are legitimate, but even with those questions it is difficult to mark them as anything but the AFC East favorite heading into the season.

How much more they can be than that will be a more significant question as the season unfolds. Baltimore and Denver both look very strong on paper heading into the season and the Patriots play their typically tough slate outside of the division. Trips to Atlanta, Houston and Baltimore will likely loom large for the Patriots as they fight for playoff position and all three of those games will test them on both sides of the ball.

If they survive those tests and get Gronkowski back at full strength sooner rather than later, the Patriots will be in the mix for the AFC title come playoff time. Which would make this season look a lot like most of the others in the last decade, even if the offseason was more chaotic than anyone in the organization might have liked.

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Kirk Cousins seeks advice from other quarterbacks

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 14:  Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins throws out the first pitch before the game between the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park on May 14, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) Getty Images

In his four prior NFL seasons, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins never spent an entire offseason as the starter. This year, as he adjusts to being “the guy” for the first time ever, Cousins has sought advice from other guys who have been or currently are “the guy.”

“I’ve called a few of the starting quarterbacks around the league, a few of the retired guys who had great careers, and just asked them what worked for them in the offseason,” Cousins said, via Tarik El-Bashir of CSNMidAtlantic.com.

Cousins didn’t say who he contacted, but Cousins discussed what he wanted to find out.

“What was their rhythm in January, February, March?” Cousins said. “When they went back in April, May, June, what’s their rhythm? What’s their rhythm in the summer? How do they handle family? How do they balance travel and opportunities?”

It’s a smart approach for Cousins to take. And it underscores just how well he performed in 2015, given that he was thrust into the starting job late in the preseason. This year, with the benefit of being the starter for the entire offseason, Cousins could be even better.

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Ezekiel Elliott finds things are moving faster during OTAs

PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 24: Ezekiel Elliott #15 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in action against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during a game at High Point Solutions Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images) Getty Images

The Cowboys took running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the draft, so it’s not going out on too much of a limb to say that they want him to be their starter come the regular season.

The only things standing in the way of that happening are Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and a rough transition to the professional game. Elliott got his attempt to avoid the last of those pitfalls going during OTAs last week and noticed one significant difference from life on the collegiate level.

“Just a lot faster pace,” Elliott said, via the team’s website. “The game moves so much faster.”

Elliott is competing with the two veterans because, per running backs coach Gary Brown, it is “the best thing for our team.” He’s also looking to McFadden as a model for how to prepare for the offseason work that will determine the pecking order in the backfield.

Assuming the acclimation process speeds up to match the speed of the game, Elliott’s upside should win him that competition well before the first Sunday of the regular season.

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Agent says Seantrel Henderson will be in Buffalo Tuesday

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 07:  Willie Young #97 of the Chicago Bears rushes against Seantrel Henderson #66 of the Buffalo Bills at Soldier Field on September 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bills defeated the Bears 23-20 in overtime.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

Tackle Seantrel Henderson hasn’t been around the Bills this offseason, but his agent Alan Herman says that will change on Tuesday.

Herman spoke to Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News in the wake of a report that the Bills didn’t know where Henderson was and haven’t heard from him since the end of last season. Per Herman, Henderson has been recovering from surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota about a month ago that was part of treatment for Crohn’s Disease.

Herman added that the Bills medical staff is aware that Henderson had this surgery and another operation that was required to “remove all infected areas and reattach his intestines” after serious stomach issues last season.

“Crohn’s disease is no minor condition,” Herman said. “It has to be treated properly. … He had the surgery and had to wear a bag for a number of months after that, which is no walk in the park. And he stayed close to Minnesota to make sure he was getting the right kind of treatment. Then, they basically took the bag out about a month ago. Everything is OK now to the point where once he had the second surgery and was in the hospital for three days, he’s been cleared to do whatever he wants.”

Herman said his client has spoken to some teammates, but that no members of the coaching staff have been in touch. They’ll get a chance to catch up this week, it seems, as Henderson returns to compete for the right tackle job with Jordan Mills and Cyrus Kouandjio.

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Manziel goes missing in New York (updated)

johnnymanziel Getty Images

Unemployed quarterback Johnny Manziel recently arrived in New York for reasons entirely unrelated to attempting to become something other than an unemployed quarterback. According to the Page Six of the New York Post, Manziel has now gone missing.

In a short blurb posted at the Page Six microsite, Manziel was supposed to take a helicopter to the Hamptons on Saturday, where he would be hosting a small party for friends and family. He reportedly didn’t show for the flight.

The night before, Manziel reportedly was confronted in Manhattan by the owner of the Mercedes in which Manziel was a passenger when it crashed into a pole and sustain serious damage last month. Manziel supposedly promised to reimburse the owner for the vehicle, but Manziel reneged.

Straight punk. Straight punk. Straight bitch,” Wayne Schneider told TMZ after blocking a vehicle in which Manziel was riding outside the Trump Soho.

For weeks, Manziel’s situation gradually has developed an ominous vibe. Hopefully, he’ll get things straightened out before that feeling comes to fruition.

UPDATE 6:21 p.m. ET: Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reports that Manziel has been in touch with sources close to him as recently as this afternoon. So if he was missing, he isn’t now.

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Bills haven’t heard from Seantrel Henderson since season ended

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 24: Seantrel Henderson #66 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates with the fans after the game against the New York Jets at Ford Field on November 24, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Bills defeated the Jets 38-3. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) Getty Images

As if the Bills didn’t have enough issues with the players who have shown up for offseason workouts, they apparently have one lingering issue with a player who hasn’t.

Via Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News, the Bills have heard nothing from right tackle Seantrel Henderson since the 2015 season ended.

Henderson, the starting right tackle in 2014 and most of 2015, missed the last five games of the season due to Crohn’s disease.  Per Scull, Henderson had surgery “a few months ago” for the condition. One source told Dunne that “nobody knows” whether Henderson will even be on the team in 2016.

Jordan Mills and Cyrus Kouandjio are the primary candidates to replace Henderson, if he doesn’t return to the team.

Crohn’s disease has a wide range of symptoms, consequences, and complications. Plenty of people have it and rarely suffer through any significant issues. Plenty also struggle with it, constantly. While the article notes that a team source questioned Henderson’s work ethic, with a reference to past marijuana issues, it’s entirely possible that Henderson is simply focused on his health — and that he chooses not to make his situation any more public than it needs to be.

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Earl Thomas enjoying healthy shoulder, more freedom in defense

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 6: Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks carries the ball after an interception against the Minnesota Vikings during the second quarter of the game on December 6, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) Getty Images

Seahawks safety Earl Thomas spent much of last offseason rehabbing from shoulder surgery, something that he says kept him from getting into the best possible shape for the 2015 season.

Thomas never missed a game last season, but was critical of some performances and told John Clayton on 710 ESPN there were “a lot of mental battles with my shoulder” over the course of the year. During his interview with Clayton, Thomas said he has found it easier this year to “get my lungs prepared to really run and hit” during offseason practices.

He’ll use that lung capacity in his customary role as the leader of the Seahawks defense, although his on-field role will be a bit different than it has been in past years.

“I think they’re giving me more and more freedom just to roam back there and see what I see. Most of the time I know where the ball is going,” Thomas said. “Me and [defensive coordinator Kris Richard] kind of butt heads about me taking too many chances sometimes but I’ve got to stick to my guns. And we’re getting a better relationship with that but most of all, they let me roam, let me be myself, let me play with personality back there. And I’m having fun.”

Thomas said he felt the defense has improved its depth this offseason through the draft and by bringing back old friends Brandon Browner and Chris Clemons. Having those two back has reminded Thomas why the Seahawks defense was “so dominant in the first place” and having Thomas back to being 100 percent healthy on the field won’t hurt their chances of getting back there again.

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Dion Jordan will apply for reinstatement Wednesday

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Dion Jordan #95 of the Miami Dolphins reacts to winning a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Sun Life Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

Like so many of NFL players suspended for at least a year due to violations of the substance-abuse policy, Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan has become both gone and largely forgotten. Jordan could soon be no longer forgotten, and also no longer gone.

The third overall pick in the 2013 draft tells Tom Pelissero of USA Today that a petition for reinstatement will be filed on Wednesday.

Jordan says that he has passed two tests a week since his suspension began in early 2015, and that he hasn’t taken drugs in more than two years. He says that, in November 2014, he provided a diluted sample after admittedly drinking excess water to flush alcohol from his system, without realizing he wasn’t being tested for alcohol.

Jordan also claims that his previous six-game suspension in 2014 resulted from a positive test for MDMA and a positive test for marijuana. Without other violations, however, those two failed tests shouldn’t have put Jordan off the field, at all.

Whatever the outcome of the reinstatement effort, the league’s obsession with checking a player’s urine for drugs that don’t enhance performance continues to keep skilled, able players off the field for reasons unrelated to their skills and abilities. At a time when many think the NFL should be worried about skilled, able players choosing to retire from football prematurely, maybe the league should reconsider its attitude regarding the things willing participants in professional football do when they aren’t at work.

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John Mara changes his tune on Las Vegas

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 19: John K. Mara President and Chief Executive officer and Steve Tisch chairman and executive vice president of the New York Giants speak with Jeffrey Lurie owner of the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 19, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images) Getty Images

When the NFL’s owners got together in March, Giants co-owner John Mara sent an ominous message regarding a possible move of the Raiders to Las Vegas. In two months’ time, Mara has revised his position. Significantly.

During the annual gathering two months ago, Mara said that “most owners” would view Vegas as a “non-starter.” Last week, Mara offered a more middle-of-the-road assessment of the possibility that the Raiders would secure the 24 votes necessary to approve a Vegas move.

“[U]ntil there is actually a presentation with all the pros and cons, I wouldn’t bet one way or the other at this point,” Mara said last week (pun probably not intended), via Jenny Vrentas of TheMMQB.com.

“I’m open-minded,” Mara added. “I would want to hear a presentation about it and the pros and cons, and obviously there are some concerns, but I am not going to rule it out.”

Several others also were polled. Texans owner Bob McNair sounds supportive, which isn’t a surprise given that one of the other alternatives is to shoehorn the Raiders into San Antonio, which is currently Texans and Cowboys turf. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is more concerned about the size of the market than the stuff that goes on within it, 49ers CEO Jed York supports the Raiders finding a new stadium anywhere (possibly since that would mean never being forced to share space with the 49ers), and Jets owner Woody Johnson likes the fact that the Nevada taxes are either low or non-existent.

None of those owners, or any others, have suggested that gambling would be a “non-starter.” Instead, it currently appears that the presence of gambling in Las Vegas is actually a non-issue for at least 24 owners, possibly more.

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Third-round negotiations become the NFL’s “wild, wild West”

Abner Mares Jose Ramirez during their super featherweight fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 13, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Getty Images

There’s a popular belief that rookie contracts under the 2011 CBA should take only five minutes. In one specific round, those talks are slightly more complicated.

As explained by Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, the third round has become what one agent calls the “wild, wild West.”

For reasons not entirely known, the current labor deal allows for more negotiation in round three than in the other rounds. Over time, this has created fluctuations in the various slots, giving both team and player ammunition for digging in and not budging.

As noted by Ben Volin of the Boston Globe,  206 of 253 draft picks have signed contracts as of Friday afternoon. The 81.4-percent completion rate is kept low by the fact that only 17 of 35 third-round picks have agreed to terms.

It’s odd that the current cookie-cutter approach doesn’t apply to every round of the draft, and it’s an inconsistency that should be addressed in the next labor negotiations. Of course, given all of the other issues pending between the NFL and NFL Players Association, this one likely will be very low on the list.

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Calvin Pryor thinks third year will be his best yet

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:   Calvin Pryor #25 of the New York Jets celebrates breaking up a pass against the Miami Dolphins during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 29, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Getty Images

Safety Calvin Pryor’s first two seasons with the Jets unfolded very differently.

The 2014 first-round pick struggled as a rookie while playing in a coverage role, but fared much better in 2015 after other changes to the Jets secondary allowed him to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Pryor had 69 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble while playing in 13 games, which he thinks is just the base for what he can do in his third season.

Pryor said last week that he hasn’t “even hit the ceiling fan yet” when it comes to his potential and that 2016 will find him continuing to rise.

“I know I’m one hell of a player when my mind is right and I’m focused and I’m locked in, and I have guys around me that believe in me,” Pryor said, via NJ.com. “I like to shine in the brightest moments. That’s something I’m not going to shy away from. I think with Year 3, I can only get better. I believe in my ability to do great things, as well as make the Pro Bowl and being an All-Pro. That’s some of the things I have on my list, but at the same time, I have to put in the work for it. And once the season rolls around, I’ve got to play like it.”

Pryor believes it is “too early to tell” how good the Jets will be on defense this season, but a strong group last year should benefit from both another year of experience in coach Todd Bowles’ system and Pryor’s continued growth at safety.

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Former Inglewood employee claims books were cooked to lure NFL team

butts-james-021215-usnews-getty-ftr_1uizmphscx13t1lcc3uaxcvzwc Getty Images

As the Rams return to L.A. and prepare to eventually move into a swanky new home in Inglewood, a new vehicle has emerged for potentially peeling back the curtain on exactly how the deal got done.

Regardless of its ultimate merit, a federal lawsuit filed by Inglewood’s former budget and accounting manager could result in the public disclosure of plenty of documents and information and testimony and other stuff that Inglewood, the Rams, and/or the NFL would prefer the public not see.

Via Angel Jennings of the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Ohno alleges that Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts (pictured) instructed employees to “create a faςade of financial responsibility and well-being” for Inglewood during the competition with Carson for the privilege of putting a football stadium within city limits. Ohio claim that Inglewood regularly used money from a federal Asset Forfeiture Fund to pay for expenses that could not be covered by the Inglewood General Fund.

Butts strongly denied the allegations, claiming that “[t]he city undergoes rigorous and thorough audits by an outside audit firm.” Butts also pointed out that Ohno was simply a probationary employee who was let go before her probationary period ended.

Of course, her status won’t matter, if Ohno can prove that her job ended because, for example, she complained internally about irregularities like the alleged use of the Asset Forfeiture Fund for unauthorized expenses. In most American jurisdictions, employees of public and private institutions are protected against retaliation for raising concerns that the employer would prefer to not be raised, by anyone at any time.

Ohno alleges that Butts labeled her a “troublemaker,” which is one of the ingredients for proving improper retaliation.

“I was told to stand down, look the other way and be a team player because when Inglewood got the Rams, there would be so much money coming in, no one would care how the city ran its finances,” Ohno said in a statement, via the Times.

The lawsuit primarily will focus on: (1) exploring the accounting details; and (2) developing evidence (such as email messages and texts) showing that Ohno complained about financial issues and/or that Butts raised concerns about her complaints.

Along the way, email or other communications between the city, the Rams, and the NFL could come to light. Thanks to the defect in human nature that routinely results in people reducing to writing things they’d never say while sitting in a witness box, it makes sense for every media outlet in Southern California to scour each and every document filed in court throughout the life of Ohno’s lawsuit.

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It’s your weekly PFT Live podcast reminder

PFTLive

More than five years ago, it started as a 30-minute Internet-only vehicle for hot takes and Chris Farley-style interviews. Now, PFT Live somehow has morphed into a three-hour national radio show, with two hours per day that will be simulcast on NBCSN starting later this year.

I’m not sure when or how or why it happened, but it happened. And since there’s a chance it can all disappear even more quickly than it arrived, you’d better listen while you still can. (That’s the best sales pitch I could muster at the moment.)

Apart from those who listen to the show live on Sirius 213, XM 202, NBCSportsRadio.com, the NBC Sports Radio app, and the various terrestrial stations that carry the program, the podcast is available of every hour, every day. And the best thing about a digital file is that the demand can never outpace the supply.

For PFT Live, the demand has increased to well over 100,000 per week. Which probably means I should spend more time preparing for the show and less time trying to get more people to listen to it.

The program returns Tuesday at 6:00 a.m. ET. See you then. Even though I can’t see you and, fortunately for you, you won’t be able to see me before I remove the hair from my face and/or attach the hair to my scalp.

For now, you should subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or audioBoom. Also, feel free to drop in a rating and/or a review. Especially if you conclude after careful consideration of all relevant circumstances and factors that it doesn’t blow.

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Landing Super Bowl lands a $4 million bonus for Dolphins

MIAMI - DECEMBER 19:  Stephen Ross owner of the Miami Dolphins poses for a photo before his team plays against the Buffalo Bills at Sun Life Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Miami, Florida. The Bills defeated the Dolphins 17-14.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images) Getty Images

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross joked last week about the $450 million of his own money he spent renovating his stadium, saying “I wish it was $450 million.”

But now that South Florida has secured another Super Bowl, the money is going to start flowing back into Ross’s pockets.

As part of the deal he signed with local government for renovations, the Dolphins will start cashing in on bonuses for landing big events.

The city will pay them $4 million for bringing the Super Bowl, and there are bonuses for other big events, which could pay the team up to $5 million a year.

For instance, they can also make $3 million for a World Cup semi-final or a national college-football championship, $2 million for a college playoff game, and $750,000 for international soccer matches or other events that draw 55,000 to the stadium.

The money comes from hotel taxes, which softens the burden on local residents who have felt burned by stadium deals before.

But coupled with the cost of Super Bowl bids themselves, it shows the lengths some cities will go to secure big events and keep owners happy.

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Bruce Irvin thinks Raiders are ready to take the next step

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:   Bruce Irvin #51 of the Seattle Seahawks and  Richard Sherman #25 of the Seattle Seahawks walk off the field after beating the Dallas Cowboys 13-12 at AT&T Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

Among the reasons why the Raiders have become a popular offseason choice to make a move up the standings and into the playoff hunt is the arrival of linebacker Bruce Irvin as a free agent.

Irvin is one of several players the Raiders brought to Oakland to join Khalil Mack in hopes building a defensive unit capable of taking Oakland to the right side of .500 for the first time since 2002. Irvin believes that he and Mack will prove to be a strong duo — “I really expect us to do a lot of great things this year” — and that the Raiders as a whole will prove worthy of the preseason optimism.

“You could definitely tell it’s a tight group,” Irvin said, via ESPN.com. “We’re on the way up. You have a lot of guys who are willing to listen to the older guys, so that’s the greatest thing about coming to a situation like this … I have to say, it’s a bunch of guys who are hungry. They are ready to take the next step. We know what we have to do. We’ve seen the blueprint to win a Super Bowl — it’s running the ball and playing great defense. I think we are ready to take that next step and really capture this AFC West.”

Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson all come to the Raiders from teams that made the playoffs last year, giving the defense some players with the knowledge of what it takes to advance to the next level. Executing those things is a different story, although the talent on both sides of the ball makes it easy to see why people are bullish about the Raiders having a chance to do it.

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Patriots won’t say whether John Jastremski has been fired

2286022 Getty Images

Last September, on the heels of the initial court ruling that scrapped quarterback Tom Brady’s suspension, the Patriots separately secured the reinstatement of John Jastremski and Jim McNally, the equipment employees whose Beavis-and-Butthead text messages became the only real evidence of consequence in the #Deflategate investigation.

It’s possible that, not long after Jastremski returned, he left again.

Ben Volin of the Boston Globe delves into the question of whether the Patriots fired Jastremski last season, starting with an offhand comment from (who else?) comedian Jim Breuer and ending with the team declining to respond to a pair of inquiries from Volin as to Jastremski’s status.

Breuer says he met Jastremski in Cancun during the 2015 season. The meeting apparently happened on November 9, one day after the Patriots hosted Washington. With no bye the following weekend, Jastremski whereabouts on an in-season Monday raise obvious questions as to whether he was indeed still employed.

By not answering the simple question of whether Jastremski still works for the team, the Patriots necessarily have fueled speculation about the status of the guy who was primarily responsible for preparing footballs — and who along with McNally was accused by the league of running the deflation racket. If Jastremski is gone, that in turn fuels speculation as to whether the Patriots privately have concluded that he was indeed guilty.

It makes sense for the Patriots to keep things quiet with Brady’s federal litigation still pending. Then again, it would have made sense to keep Jastremski employed until the lawsuit and all appeals conclude.

The answer could be (emphasis on could) that Jastremski technically hasn’t been let go but that the Patriots have put him on paid leave pending the outcome of Brady’s case. If Breuer hadn’t blown Jastemski’s cover, no one would have ever known the difference.

Does any of it matter to Brady’s suspension? Perhaps. Like the brief submitted by 21 professor to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit harping on the Ideal Gas Law (a principle technically irrelevant to the case at this point in the process), it’s the kind of collateral fact that could get the attention of the black-robed individuals who will be making a nuanced application of convoluted legal principles to a hotly-contested factual pattern.

In English, it means that the Patriots probably wish Breuer had communicated in goat when asked about Jastremski.

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