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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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Hernandez lawyer seeks permission to question tipster on juror misconduct

Aaron Hernandez AP

The first Aaron Hernandez trial ended in a conviction. But that still may not be the end of it.

Via the Associated Press, lawyer James Sultan now knows the name of a tipster who claims that one of the jurors in the Odin Lloyd murder case participated in discussions about the other double murder case involving the former Patriots tight end.  If true, this means that the juror lied during jury selection in the case involving the murder of Odin Lloyd.

Sultan now wants to question the tipster, in order to learn more about whether the juror truly was lying during jury selection. Sultan also conceded that the tipster has had “extensive personal contact” with Hernandez.

“That contact is clearly relevant to this individual’s credibility,” Sultan said in a court filing. “Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that this individual likely possesses information relevant to whether a juror was exposed to prejudicial, extrinsic information.”

Judge E. Susan Garsh eventually will rule on whether the tipster may be interviewed, which could result in the juror being questions. Which, in theory, could result in the conviction being scrapped and a new trial being conducted.

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Todd Bowles won’t hesitate to pull Geno Smith if need be

Todd Bowles AP

Perhaps the least-deserved vote of confidence this offseason came when Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said it wasn’t really a competition, and the starting quarterback job was Geno Smith’s to lose.

New head coach Todd Bowles moved quickly to cut that talk off in May, and on the eve of his first training camp, made it clear he wouldn’t hesitate to pull Smith if he doesn’t perform.

“If you feel that his position or any other position is hurting the team, as a head coach, it’s up to you to do something about it,” Bowles said, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “It’s not a year-long thing for anybody. You earn your keep by the week. You earn your keep by the day. . . .

“If somebody is not doing their job, it’s up to me to rectify the situation.”

The Jets have veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in reserve, and his experience with Gailey gives the Jets a baseline expectation for what their offense could be. Smith has the physical potential to offer somewhat more, which is why he’s going to have to be a disaster in training camp or the preseason to not have the job in the regular season. But Bowles insisted it wasn’t a season-long appointment.

“A bad two or three weeks is relative,” Bowles said. “Whether it’s mental, whether it’s confidence or whether it’s physical. … All those things have to be [considered] and be determined. If you see progress among the mistakes, that’s one thing. If you don’t see any progress and you see a spiraling for any position, then it’s your job to make a move. . . . I’m always fair. . . .

“It all depends on how he’s not performing, whether it’s the first game, second game, third game. Is it consecutive? Is it just a bad game? All those factors play into it. Again, it’s not just the quarterback. It’s every position on our team. . . . Everybody has to do their job. The quarterback is an important part of it, but he’s part of the team. And he’s treated like everybody else is treated.”

The Jets have enough talent on defense to compete now, as long as their quarterback position doesn’t hurt them. And if it does, it sounds like Bowles will make a change, regardless past investments there.

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Jake Long visiting the Falcons

Packers Rams Football AP

Former No. 1 overall draft pick Jake Long is hoping to revive his career in Atlanta.

Long is visiting the Falcons for a physical and a workout, Chris Mortensen of ESPN reports.

The 30-year-old Long was the first overall pick of the Dolphins in the 2008 draft. After five seasons with the Dolphins, he spent the last two years with the Rams.

Long is coming off his second ACL surgery, and it’s unclear how healthy he is. But if he’s ready to go, he could provide an upgrade on the Falcons’ offensive line, perhaps taking over at left tackle and allowing last year’s first-round pick, Jake Matthews, to move to right tackle. Long isn’t worth anything close to the five-year, $57.75 million deal he got as a rookie with the Dolphins or the four-year, $36 million deal he got in his second contract with the Rams, but on a low-cost, incentive-laden deal, he could be a good fit in Atlanta.

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NFL and NFLPA negotiating a settlement for Le’Veon Bell

Le'Veon Bell AP

The NFL is apparently talking to Le’Veon Bell about shortening his suspension for his DUI and marijuana arrest.

Of course, doing so would shorten the lifespan of the precedent they’re trying to set.

According to Dan Graziano of, the league and the NFLPA are negotiating a settlement to reduce the Steelers running back’s suspension from three games to one or two.

But doing so might create more problems for a league that already has issues getting punishments to stick.

Two games is their new standard for DUI arrests, and they can add more if there are aggravating factors. Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith got a game above the baseline, and he crashed his car into a light pole.

Bell was stopped on his way to the airport last year in the preseason, and told cops he wasn’t sure why he was getting a DUI, saying: “I smoked two hours ago, I’m not high anymore.”

Shortening the suspension to one game would seemingly take the teeth out of their new policy on drunk driving arrests, so it’s unclear if that’s a step the league is willing to take.

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Report: Muhammad Wilkerson will report to Jets camp on time

New York Jets v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson skipped the voluntary portion of the offseason because he wanted a new contract.

He arrived in time for the mandatory minicamp to avoid a fine.

So it follows that he’s going to show up for training camp on time, since that’s when the serious fines accrue.

According to Brian Costello of the New York Post, Wilkerson is expected to arrive on time tomorrow despite the lack of a new deal.

Wilkerson’s riding out the $6.96 million option year left on his rookie deal, and is obviously hoping for something with far more security soon.

But it’s apparently not worth the big financial hit it would take to make this level of statement. While players can rack up $72,920 in fines for skipping a three-day mandatory minicamp, it jumps to $30,000 per day in training camp.

“I’m very confident, hopefully that things will work out with myself and my agent and those guys get something worked out,” Wilkerson said in June.

The clock’s ticking. But at least the meter’s not running.

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Cowboys drop Ryan Williams

Dallas Cowboys OTA

The Cowboys won’t be bringing running back Ryan Williams with them to training camp.

Williams was waived on Tuesday, ending a run with the Cowboys that began last year but never saw Williams take a regular season snap for the team. Injuries have been an issue for Williams ever since the Cardinals made him a second-round pick in 2011 and they continue to get in the way of his attempt to carve out a professional football career.

Todd Archer of reports that Williams had knee surgery after June’s minicamp, which made for a steep uphill climb if he was going to make the 53-man roster.

Williams’s departure may spark another round of speculation about the Cowboys making a move to bolster their running back group. Chris Johnson and Ray Rice are two names that may come up, but the Cowboys have maintained all offseason that they are happy to move forward with Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden.

The Cowboys also released linebacker Cam Lawrence and offensive lineman Ryan Miller. They signed offensive lineman Ronald Patrick, linebacker Justin Anderson and running back Gus Johnson.

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PFT Live: Sean Payton, Cardinals talk with Kent Somers

Sean Payton AP

Saints coach Sean Payton is getting ready for his 10th season with the team, but he’ll take a break from his preparations to spend a few minutes with PFT Live on Tuesday.

Payton will join Mike Florio on the program a day before the Saints report to training camp in Florio’s home state of West Virginia. Among the topics that they’ll discuss is the team’s decision to cut linebacker Junior Galette and what Payton thinks the defense needs to do to make up for the loss of a player who gave them 10 sacks last season.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic will also join the program to talk about the Cardinals’ bringing Dr. Jen Welter on as a training camp intern to work with inside linebackers.

We also want to hear what PFT Planet thinks. Email questions at any time or get in touch on Twitter at @ProFootballTalk to let us know what’s on your mind.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can listen to all three hours live via the various NBC Sports Radio affiliates, through the links at PFT, or with the NBC Sports Radio app.

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Geep Chryst: Kaepernick didn’t regress as much as perceived

Colin Kaepernick, Kendall Hunter AP

The 49ers failed to advance to the playoffs last season, ending a three-year string of making it at least as far as the NFC title game and touching off an offseason of sweeping change.

One thing that didn’t change was the identity of the starting quarterback. Colin Kaepernick will run the offense again this season after a 2014 season that left many people feeling like he’d regressed in his third year at the helm. His offensive coordinator Geep Chryst isn’t one of those people. He cited other factors for creating a perception that Kaepernick was moving in the wrong direction.

“And then last year, you’re playing with some different sets of challenges,” Chryst said, via the San Jose Mercury News. “There was more change within the offensive line than he had experienced the last couple of years. How does that affect your production as a quarterback? You’re behind more often in games. How does that affect your production as a quarterback? I cite the fact that we had six touchdowns nullified by penalty. You plug that back into his formula, he really wasn’t … he didn’t regress off his line as much as perceived.”

Chryst continued to point in other directions for the team’s offensive struggles last season by saying he could provide examples of Kaepernick being at “a disadvantage because his team wasn’t playing as well as it was around him in other games.” Chryst added that part of the challenge for quarterbacks is succeeding in spite of those obstacles and Kaepernick may have more opportunities to overcome them this year.

The 49ers have lost two starting offensive linemen, running back Frank Gore and several key defensive pieces, leaving Kaepernick with a team that is going to need him to avoid any regression if the offense is going to move back in the right direction.

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Stephen A. Smith “hears” (doesn’t know) Tom Brady destroyed his phone

AFC Champion New England Patriots Team Media Availability AP

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith craves attention, so I always hesitate before writing about his outlandish claims. I hesitated before I wrote that Smith hinted Chip Kelly was racist, and I hesitated before writing about Smith’s comments on today’s episode of ESPN First Take.

But ignoring Smith won’t make him go away, so let’s just deal head on with it. Smith claimed today that he has a source telling him that the NFL is likely to uphold Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, and that Brady destroyed his cell phone to hide text messages to the Patriots’ ball boys.

“I’m hearing that Tom Brady actually destroyed his cell phone,” Smith said on the air.

Smith later clarified that he was just “hearing” that Brady destroyed his phone, and can’t confirm that for certain.

“I don’t know,” Smith added.

Regarding the first part of Smith’s report, that the NFL is “likely” to uphold Brady’s suspension, that comes across as little more than a guess. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell either will or won’t uphold Brady’s suspension, and claiming that he’s “likely” to go either way at this point doesn’t mean much. It especially doesn’t mean much coming from someone like Smith, who has no history of scoops coming out of the league office. If ESPN’s respected veteran NFL reporters say they’re “hearing” what Goodell is “likely” to do, we can reasonably surmise that they’re “hearing” it from well-placed sources within the league office. Even if such a report turned out to be wrong, if it came from a respected reporter it was probably based on contact with sources who are in a position to know what they’re talking about. When it comes from Smith, it doesn’t mean anything.

The part about Brady destroying his cell phone — the part that Smith acknowledges he doesn’t “know” — just sounds silly. Brady has already refused to hand over his phone to the Ted Wells investigation. It’s not like Wells has the power to send the cops into Brady’s house to execute a search warrant and seize his phone. Why would Brady need to destroy it? And even if Brady did destroy his physical phone, that wouldn’t make the records of any texts or calls to the Patriots’ ball boys disappear. The “report” doesn’t make a lot of sense, and if the “reporter” “hears” something like that, he needs to express more skepticism and ask his “source” to clarify where this “information” is coming from.

But that’s not how Smith operates. If he “hears” something that will get us all talking, he’ll repeat it on the air. And now we’re talking about Stephen A. Smith. Mission accomplished.

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35 days later, no Tom Brady ruling

Goodell Getty Images

As the Greg Hardy appeal lingered without resolution, many assumed the same thing wouldn’t happen in the Tom Brady case, given it’s much higher profile

A full five weeks since the hearing, there’s still no ruling on the question of whether Commissioner Roger Goodell will uphold, modify, or scuttle the four-game suspension he previously approved.

Last week, Goodell insisted that there’s no “timeline” for a decision. Technically correct because there’s no specific date by which a ruling is required, the Collective Bargaining Agreement nevertheless requires a ruling “as soon as practicable,” fancy lawyer talk for “as soon as possible.”

It was possible for the league to digest the convoluted 243-page report from Ted Wells and issue a four-game suspension to Brady in only five days. Why would it take seven times that amount for Goodell to review work he already has approved?

Some believe the delay is aimed at squeezing Brady into a settlement that perhaps would entail a shorter suspension. Some believe the delay is intended to keep Brady and the NFLPA from having enough time to challenge the case in court. Some believe the delay results from the fact that Goodell and the league office simply don’t know what to do.

Despite the absence of a specific timeline in the CBA, Goodell surely will issue a ruling by Labor Day, given that the Patriots are due to host the Steelers three days later in the regular-season opener. It would only be fair to issue a ruling before camp opens, so that the Patriots can properly divvy up reps in advance of Week One.

Regardless, this shouldn’t have taken 35 days and counting for a ruling to emerge. Whatever the other reason(s) for the delay, it’s becoming more and more clear that this exercise is about more than simply trying to engage in a second look at a decision to which Goodell previously gave the green light.

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Mike Wallace: I have to be a better person, player and leader

Teddy Bridgewater, Mike Wallace AP

Mike Wallace’s two years with the Dolphins were a disappointment in terms of on-field production, the team’s place in the standings and the way Wallace fit in with the rest of the team.

Wallace is now with the Vikings after an offseason trade and the wide receiver says he didn’t do a good job of holding in his frustration at not meeting his or the team’s goals during his time in Miami. Wallace said he’s learned from that experience and vows to be better across the board in 2015 as a result.

“[I’m trying] my best to be a leader this year and do a much better job in that department than I have been before,” Wallace said, via the Pioneer Press. “[I’ve got] to be a better person and a better player and lead more. You take experiences that you have in your life and just learn from them. Some are good and some are bad, but you have to build from it. I know some mistakes I made in Miami. I know some good things. So I try to leave the bad and take the good.”

The Vikings are obviously looking for Wallace to be the leader of their wide receiver group, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner believes that “what guys say is very meaningless” and that proof will come from Wallace’s actions in practice and his production in games. If he’s strong in both areas, the Vikings offense should be a much more effective unit this year.

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Report: Dolphins bring Josh Freeman back days after cutting him

Josh Freeman AP

Former first-round quarterback Josh Freeman might not have shown much in recent years, but he keeps getting chances.

Including from the team which just cut him last week.

According to Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, the Dolphins have re-signed Josh Freeman.

They cut him last week, apparently ending his comeback attempt there. But the Dolphins only had three quarterbacks after the move, and teams generally want four passers in camp with rosters at 90.

It’s unclear why the Dolphins did an about face, or why they cut him the first time, but the coming days should provide more of an answer.

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Harrison Smith isn’t a fan of the fifth-year option

Smith Getty Images

in 2015, Vikings safety Harrison Smith enters the fourth year of his contract. If the 29th pick in 2012 had been selected four spots lower, it would be the final year of his contract.

Thanks to the fifth-year option, it’s not.

I’m obviously not a fan of the fifth-year option,” Smith said Monday, via Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Agents and teams know a lot more than I do, but it does kind of seem like a weird deal for the first-rounders. I just think that part of the CBA was poorly done.”

Guys taken at the bottom of round one definitely should feel that way. Which always makes it better to be the first guy taken in round two than the last guy taken in round one.

Of course, the Vikings could sign Smith to a new deal at any time. For now, it looks like they won’t be.

“Nothing is going on,” Smith said. “As far as what my agents have told me and what I’ve talked to [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] about is we’re going to hold off on those and focus on playing good football and go from there.”

With two years left on his contract, the Vikings may not be comfortable shifting the injury risk from Smith to the team until he gets through his fourth NFL season healthy enough to cash in. From the team’s perspective, that makes sense. From the player’s perspective, that fifth-year option could be keeping him from getting paid now.

And that’s the biggest problem with the fifth-year option. By keeping the player from the market for an extra year, it necessarily keeps the team from feeling a sense of urgency to get him signed to an extension.

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Prince Amukamara claims Victor Cruz is faster than ever

Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants Getty Images

Giants receiver Victor Cruz is only nine months removed from a severe knee injury, but he looks better than ever.

That’s the word from Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara, who worked out with Cruz and believes he’s faster now than he was before he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee in October.

“I trained with Cruz for one day down in Arizona ‐ and he just came in for a day because he was in town ‐ and I’m telling you, this guy looked fab . . . I’m telling you. Remember that I said this. This guy looks faster now than he did before,” Amukamara said on his podcast, via “I was just looking at him and was like, ‘Man, how is this possible?'”

Honestly, it’s probably not possible. And Amukamara acknowledged that he might just be feeling a little optimistic.

“It could be [he’s faster] or it could be I haven’t seen him run in a long time and he just looks crisp,” Amukamara said. “But I keep telling him. ‘Man, you look faster. You look faster’ and stuff like that. He looks so good, so polished. He does not look like he missed a step.”

Still, Amukamara’s comments come three weeks after Cruz himself said all the medical personnel are telling him he’ll be ready to go for training camp. Considering how ugly that knee injury in October looked, the fact that he’s running at all in July is impressive. If he’s running as well as he did before the injury, that’s incredible.

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Grubman returns to San Diego for more meetings

Grubman Getty Images

As San Diego tries to keep the Chargers and as the Chargers try to leave, NFL executive V.P. Eric Grubman is returning for another set of meetings.

Via Scott M. Reid of the Orange County Register, Grubman will meet separately with the city and the team, who have had overtly conflicting agendas for the last month.

San Diego hopes to finagle a public vote in January on partial public funding, but that requires an accelerated Environmental Impact Report. Via Reid, the EIR must be done by next week in order to keep the plan on track.

The Chargers will separately update Grubman on the efforts to build a new stadium in Carson, which the Chargers would share with the Raiders. Last month, the Chargers walked away from direct talks with San Diego due to disagreements regarding the viability of an accelerated EIR and public vote.

Grubman will visit L.A. and Oakland, too, as he makes one last attempt to gather information prior to an August 11 ownership meeting aimed solely at tackling the situation in L.A., a market that quickly has gone from luxury to necessity for the NFL.

Apart from whether a new stadium is built in Carson (for the Chargers and Raiders) or Inglewood (for the Rams and likely one other team), the league needs to have a viable temporary location for one or two franchises. With the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and Angels Stadium in Anaheim reportedly not interested, that leaves few options for a 2-3 year Band-Aid, which could make finding short-term space a bigger challenge for the league than building a permanent NFL venue.

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