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Preseason Power Rankings No. 7: New England Patriots

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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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Report: Chargers, Jets, Bucs among teams calling about No. 33

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The Packers said they are open for business when it came to trade discussions involving the No. 33 pick and their baiting of the hook appears to be getting some nibbles.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the Chargers, Jets and Buccaneers are among the teams calling the Packers about making a deal for that pick.

There’s no word on which players those teams may be interested in acquiring if they did move up. There was a report earlier on Friday that the Packers were considering taking Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer if they stay put, which doesn’t feel particularly likely but both the Chargers and Jets spent time with Kizer during the pre-draft process.

Alabama tackle Cam Robinson, Florida State running back Joe Mixon, Washington cornerback Kevin King and Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon are other players that may be of interest at the top of the second round.

The Chargers have the 38th overall pick with the Jets one spot behind them and the Buccaneers currently scheduled to pick 50th overall. Should they miss out on a deal with the Packers, the Seahawks are set to pick 34th with the Jaguars and Bears following them in the draft order.

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How did the Gareon Conley polygraph test come to be?

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A game of hot potato possibly could emerge regarding the lie detector test taken by Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley before the draft. Per multiple reports, the Ravens requested it. A source with knowledge of the situation insists the Ravens did not request it. Conley’s representatives, however, contend generally that a team requested it.

It’s a potentially important distinction because of a law known as the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988. The law says that non-governmental employers may not “directly or indirectly . . . require, request, suggest, or cause any employee or prospective employee to take or submit to any lie detector test.”

As explained by Peter King of TheMMQB.com, the Ravens decided to administer the test on Thursday, and they found a firm in northeast Ohio to conduct the test late Thursday afternoon. But other aspects of King’s report cut against the notion that the Ravens requested it or otherwise crossed the line created by federal law.

According to King, one of Conley’s agents sent an email from the person who conducted the test to all 32 teams. If the Ravens had requested it, why would the Ravens have allowed the results to be given to all 32 teams? The goal would have been to conceal the information, in the hopes that other teams would pass on Conley.

Our guess is that the Ravens simply suggested the test or maybe raised the possibility, and that Conley’s camp took it from there. While merely suggesting it could be regarded as a violation of the law, it’s unlikely that federal authorities will be descending on the team’s facility and launching a perp-walk parade any time soon. But it’s definitely the kind of thing that the league office should be advising teams to not do, and the advice extends beyond merely not “requesting” a polygraph.

Teams also shouldn’t suggest, directly or indirectly, that a player submit to a polygraph. In this case, the available evidence suggests that the spark came from the Ravens. And that should provide the league office with the spark to remind all teams about what the law does and doesn’t permit.

When it comes to polygraph testing and private employers, the law basically prohibits anything and everything relating to polygraph testing.

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Report: Jets making calls about Sheldon Richardson trade

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Heading into the offseason, there was talk about the Jets trading defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson but nothing materialized over the last couple of months.

It appears they are giving it another try ahead of the start of the second round of the draft. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the team is making calls about a Richardson trade on Friday afternoon.

Rapoport adds that the Jets “won’t give him away,” which seems like both a sensible approach and a guide to what they may be looking for in return. Richardson is entering the final year of his contract and the Jets, who also shopped Richardson before last year’s trade deadline, would likely be in position for a mid-round compensatory pick down the road if he leaves as a free agent so an offer would have to be as good as that.

Their chances of getting one probably won’t be helped by Richardson’s 2016 season. He struggled on the field, served his second suspension in as many years and spent some time on the bench after missing team meetings. When Richardson’s been right, he’s been a very effective player but he’s close to free agency and any team will have to consider how much they’re willing to give up with the possibility that things won’t get straightened out in a new city.

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Chiefs feared Saints would take Patrick Mahomes

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When the Chiefs decided to jump from No. 27 to No. 10, the simplest explanation for the move was that the Chiefs thought the Browns at No. 12 or the Cardinals at No. 13 would take quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Via Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, the Chiefs moved to No. 10 in order to leapfrog the Saints at No. 11.

Per Rapoport, the Chiefs were convinced the Saints would select Mahomes as the eventual heir to Drew Brees. Apparently, PGA golfer Ryan Palmer (who was in the New Orleans draft room on Thursday) has separately said on radio that the Saints would have taken Mahomes.

It would have been interesting to see how Brees would have reacted to the move, given what he said several weeks ago about the prospect of the Saints taking a quarterback.

“[I]f I’m going to start and that quarterback sits, well that’s not helping our team right now,” Brees said. “So, I want somebody who’s going to help our team right now. That’s the only difference.”

That almost didn’t happen, if Palmer and Rapoport are accurate that the Saints wanted Mahomes. That news, if true, also implies that the Saints didn’t feel the same way about Deshaun Watson, who was available when the Saints put in a card at No. 11.

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Gareon Conley could still be charged, despite passing polygraph test

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The Raiders decided to take a risk by drafting cornerback Gareon Conley. But it definitely was a risk, given the uncertainty of his legal situation in Cleveland.

Yes, Conley passed a polygraph test, which per multiple reports was imposed by the Ravens. (And that creates a separate potential can of worms that will be addressed in a separate post.) So why didn’t the Ravens pick Conley at No. 16 if, as reported, he passed it?

Whether Conley can pass a polygraph test (which remains inadmissible in a court of law because it’s not a reliable indicator of truth telling) isn’t relevant to whether he gets charged. Indeed, whether Conley is telling the truth and whether the evidence would permit a zealous prosecutor in Cleveland to indict Conley are two different issues.

Conley could still be indicted; the Ravens realize that, and the Raiders surely do, too. As the saying goes, a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich. That’s because the process entails a one-sided introduction of evidence, with the defendant having no representation.  It’s also easy to indict because the legal standard for doing so is much lower than the standard required for a conviction.

To get an indictment, the prosecutor merely must convince the grand jury that probable cause exists to believe a crime was committed. Combining that with the fact that the defendant has no one arguing the opposite position makes its ridiculously easy to get an indictment.

People think that, in any community, a judge has the most power within the confines of the justice system. The truth is that the prosecutor does. The prosecutor decides who gets charged, who doesn’t get charged, and what they get charged with. If the prosecutor in Cleveland subjectively decides that the alleged victim is telling the truth and/or that the defendant isn’t — or if the prosecutor simply decides that the prosecutor wants to turn the defendant’s life upside down for any reason at all, an indictment can be obtained.

The prosecutor’s discretion is really broad. Really, really broad. In nearly any case where a prosecutor wants to get an indictment, an indictment will be gotten.

There are two key facts that could significantly influence that decision-making process. The alleged victim has had a rape kit administered, and Conley has agreed to provide a DNA sample. Given that Conley’s front-line defense (based on the information provided by the witnesses in the hotel room) is that nothing happened between Conley and the alleged victim, a match between the rape kit and the indictment could be the thing that prompts the prosecutor to seek an indictment, and in turn that results in the indictment being obtained.

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Mitchell Trubisky: Mike Glennon is still the Bears’ starter

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New Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky isn’t expecting to have the starting job handed to him.

Trubisky said today in Chicago that he knows the Bears signed Mike Glennon with the expectation that he’ll start this season, and Trubisky himself will develop on the bench.

“I haven’t talked to Mike yet but I’m very excited to work with him and the rest of the quarterbacks here. Mike is the starting quarterback and I’m very excited to learn from him and the rest of the veterans on the team and I can’t wait to help the Bears win,” Trubisky said.

That might be the case for now, but it will be a major disappointment if Trubisky isn’t good enough to beat out Glennon soon. The Bears didn’t trade up to No. 2 in the draft to select a backup. They want Trubisky to start, and the sooner the better.

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Deshaun Watson: I’m not Michael Jordan, but I’m ready to work

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When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said quarterback Deshaun Watson would be the NFL’s version of Michael Jordan, even Watson himself thought that was a little crazy. But Watson is eager to do all he can to live up to his college coach’s confidence.

“It caught me off guard when Coach Sweeney said that,” Watson said today in his first press conference in Houston. “I’m not Michael Jordan, but I guess he sees greatness in me and hopefully in 10 to 15 years people can talk about my name like they do Michael Jordan.”

Watson said he’s eager to get to work for the Texans and learn from the team’s two veteran quarterbacks.

“It’s going to be a challenge, which is what I’m up for. I have a lot to learn so I’m just anxious to get here, get to work and learn from Brandon Weeden and Tom Savage, two guys I’m a huge fan of, who I’ve watched while they were in college,” Watson said.

Although he’s currently slated to be Savage’s backup, Watson said he’ll be a student of the Texans’ offense as he tries to earn playing time.

“Film study is the key to being a great quarterback,” he said. “To be detailed with that is key. I still have a lot to learn. I’m going to be a sponge when I get here and go to work.”

That’s what the Texans want to hear from their new franchise quarterback.

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Browns parting ways with Gary Barnidge

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The Browns traded back into the first round on Thursday night to take tight end David Njoku and that move had immediate repercussions for a veteran member of the team.

Tight end Gary Barnidge posted a welcome to Cleveland message to Njoku on his Twitter account Thursday night. He was back on Twitter Friday afternoon amid multiple reports that the Browns are releasing him from their 90-man roster.

Barnidge had a huge 2015 season — 79 catches for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns — and signed a contract extension through the 2018 season before the year was out. His production dropped in 2016 and the team will get over $2.1 million in cap space as a result of parting ways with him now.

That 2015 season wasn’t too long ago, obviously, and it’s no secret that any pass catcher’s production was going to be hurt by the quarterback play the Browns got last year. Those two things should help Barnidge as he tries to latch on with another team in the near future.

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Philip Rivers: I’m glad we made a move that helps right now

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In the weeks leading up to the draft, there was a lot of chatter about the Chargers drafting a quarterback and perhaps even taking one in the first round as they looked ahead to a time without Philip Rivers leading their offense.

Rivers said that any rookie quarterback the team adds would have to be prepared to sit for a while, but he made it clear on Friday that he’s happier about the route the Chargers actually took on Thursday night. They drafted wide receiver Mike Williams, who provides Rivers with another target for his passes and sends a message that they are focused on the here and now more than what might happen a few years from now.

“I’m glad we made a move that I think helps us right now,” Rivers said on XTRA 1360 with Nick Hardwick and Judson Richards.

The Chargers may still take a quarterback at some point in the draft and Rivers said he expects it, but doing it after the first round will mean a lot less talk about the end date for Rivers.

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Report: Bears G.M. didn’t tell his coach about plans to draft Mitch Trubisky

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If you thought you were surprised by the Bears trading up to take Mitch Trubisky, imagine how coach John Fox felt.

According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, Bears General Manager Ryan Pace kept the plan to move up to select the North Carolina quarterback to himself until hours before the draft.

While that’s one way to prevent leaks, it might not be the best thing to foster trust between a young G.M. and a veteran coach.

And considering Fox’s previous shenanigans with rookie quarterbacks (he once signed journeyman Brian St. Pierre off the street and started him that week rather than play rookie Tony Pike), not keeping him in the loop on the decision to make a bold move might be the best for everyone.

For the moment, Fox has a veteran in Mike Glennon he can play while Trubisky develops for the future.

And now it’s reasonable to wonder whether Fox will be in that future, if he wasn’t involved in the decision to draft Trubisky at all.

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Report: Browns called the Patriots about Jimmy Garoppolo

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The Browns were quick to declare #fakenews last night when the network they own a portion of reported they were trying to trade for Kirk Cousins.

Now comes another report from another network saying they’re still beating the bushes.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Browns called the Patriots last night to inquire about the availability of Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patriots said no thanks.

They seem to realize they don’t have an answer at the position at the moment, but they continue to not make anything happen to fix it.

The Patriots have held firm on wanting to keep Tom Brady’s backup, and so the Browns are apparently left to continue the search.

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Browns invite even more quarterback questions in 2017

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Remember when the Browns were repeatedly grilled about their decision not to sit tight at No. 2 and take Carson Wentz last year? The Browns soon may be longing for those days.

Their first-round strategy in 2017 will invite questions regarding even more quarterbacks, depending on how many of the quarterbacks on whom the Browns passed thrive in the coming season. Especially since three other teams thought enough of the top quarterbacks to trade up to get them.

First, it was Mitchell Trubisky. By passing on him and taking Myles Garrett — and with the Bears moving from No. 3 to No. 2 to get Trubisky — the Browns have invited a comparison between players on opposite sides of the ball like the one the Texans walked into when taking Mario Williams instead of Reggie Bush. Neither became truly great, which helped the Texans avoid “I told you so” criticism. If Trubisky becomes a franchise quarterback before Myles Garrett becomes Von Miller or Khalil Mack, the Browns will be hearing it, loudly.

Next, it was Patrick Mahomes. Chiefs coach Andy Reid thought enough of Mahomes to move seventeen spots to get him, from No. 27 to No. 10. If the Browns wanted Mahomes, they could have easily moved to No. 9, with Hue Jackson working his relationship with Marvin Lewis in a way that would have allowed the Browns to get Mahomes at No. 9 and Lewis to likely still get John Ross at No. 12.

Then came Deshaun Watson. There he was, on a platter at No. 12. The Browns simply had to put his name on the card. Instead, they opted for pick No. 25, along with a first-round pick in 2018 from the Texans that likely won’t be a high one.

Finally, after swinging back into the bottom of round one, the Browns could have had DeShone Kizer or Davis Webb. They opted for a tight end, David Njoku.

So, basically, the Browns could have had Trubisky instead of Garrett, or they could have had Garrett plus Mahomes or Watson or Kizer or Webb. And if the story will be similar to last year’s leak that the Browns didn’t think Wentz will become a top-20 quarterback, the Browns are quickly running out of spots in the bottom 12.

Especially when at least one of those spots belongs to whoever their current starter would be.

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Chiefs think Patrick Mahomes can be “truly great”

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Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey said he traded up to pick quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in the draft for a simple reason: He thinks Mahomes is a franchise-changing player.

He has got unbelievable talent,” Dorsey said. “He’s got the skill set to be one of those truly great players. When you make an aggressive move like that, that’s why you do it. Because players like that, they don’t come around too often.”

Dorsey gave up his first-round pick this year, his third-round pick this year and his first-round pick next year for Mahomes, but he said he doesn’t think that’s a lot to give up, compared to what Mahomes had to offer.

“I don’t think it was a lot because I think he’s going to be a really good player, he’s in a perfect situation, he can sit back, he can learn, he can develop, he’s got the tutelage of some really good coaches and I couldn’t be more excited,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey is confident he just changed the Chiefs’ fortunes. Given all they gave up, Dorsey better be right.

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T.J. Watt: Playing Texans on Christmas will be “really cool and a weird day”

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The Steelers made linebacker T.J. Watt a first-round pick on Thursday night and that means Christmas will be a family reunion for some members of the Watt family.

The Texans will be hosting the Steelers on Christmas Day, which will provide T.J. and his older brother J.J. a chance to play in the same game for the first time. J.J. Watt sent out a tweet saying he’s looking forward to a fun holiday shortly after the Steelers announced their pick and his younger brother used a couple of different adjectives to describe the prospect of facing his brother’s team.

“I played with him in the backyard a bunch, I’ve seen him play a bunch, we’ve never been on the same field in full uniforms competitively before,” T.J. said, via ESPN.com. “I think that will be really cool and a weird day for me.”

Both of the brothers play defense, so there won’t be an opportunity for them to actually match up unless the Texans decide to give J.J. one of his infrequent spins on the offensive side of the ball. The Watt brother who does play offense regularly is Chargers fullback Derek, but he’ll be on the field against the Jets on Christmas Eve and isn’t scheduled to face either of his brothers during the 2017 season.

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Final cost of Brock Osweiler mistake: two first-round picks, second-round pick, $21 million

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The Houston Texans made a huge mistake last year by signing quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract. The final cost of that blunder can now be calculated.

In addition to the $21 million that was paid to Osweiler last year, the Texans previously gave up a second-round pick in 2018 (along with a sixth-round pick in 2017 in exchange for a 2017 fourth-round pick) to get Osweiler’s $16 million guaranteed salary for 2017 off the books. They’ve now secured Osweiler’s replacement in exchange for a pair of first-round draft picks.

And, yes, at a time when few teams will consider giving up two first-round draft picks for a veteran player, the Texans gave up two first-round picks — the 25th overall selection in 2017 and next year’s first-rounder — to get Deshaun Watson. That’s no different than trading two first-round picks for Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, or any other available (and proven) signal-caller.

It’s a huge price to pay, and a definite risk to take, for screwing the pooch on Osweiler, an outcome that possibly was cemented by the inability of the Texans to bring Osweiler in for an extended visit before signing him. And it’s a lesson to any team considering the addition of a quarterback on the first day of free agency; if you’re considering a proverbial pig in a poke, you’re possibly going to be spending a lot on the lipstick that eventually will be applied to a sweaty, nasty, stinky swine.

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