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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 5: Atlanta Falcons

Mike Smith AP

Prior to last year, it was fair to wonder if the Falcons were simply fantasy football Hall of Famers, guys who put up great numbers, but weren’t going to win in January.

But head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan broke through the playoff drought by beating the Seahawks, and were a play or two away from a Super Bowl appearance.

That was enough to talk tight end Tony Gonzalez back for one more shot, and with a few strategic offseason additions (though they weren’t able to make many), the Falcons should be in position to make a similar push.

Whether they can get to a Super Bowl will depend on how their defense holds, though they don’t have the pressure of having to be dominant.

Strengths.

The Falcons had a set of offensive skill position personnel to rival any in the league last season.

Then they got better.

By swapping out the old-and-slowing Michael Turner with the old-but-still-effective Steven Jackson, the Falcons upgraded their running game by a significant amount. Turner was a liability most times, still able to pop a 100-yard game occasionally, but no longer able to carry the burden of an offense. Jackson appears still able to do that, and could be a more versatile back, actually able to catch a pass.

Coupled with a smart quarterback in  Ryan, one of the best tight ends in NFL history in  Gonzalez and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White (it’s no longer Roddy White and Julio Jones), the Falcons catch create matchup problems for most NFL defenses.

Jones is growing into one of the top downfield threats in the game, with the kind of size and speed to make him hard to cover without drawing a defense specifically geared to him.

Weaknesses.

On the other hand, most NFL offenses can create matchup problems for the Falcons defense.

They simply don’t have enough good players on that side of the ball to prevent other teams from moving the ball up and down the field.

They’re assuming Osi Umenyiora will replace the pass-rush they had in John Abraham. But that might be a dangerous assumption, and there isn’t another immediate provider of pressure among the parts on hand. They’re also breaking in rookies throughout the secondary, having jettisoned Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon can be an impact player, but they don’t have enough of those, and the defensive line is a bunch of guys.

They’re not very good stopping the run either, and considering half their division (and a few potential playoff foes) will make that a priority, it’s hard to feel too good about their chances of improving considering the limited additions this offseason.

Changes.

It’s funny, for a team built around an explosive offense, to blow up 60 percent of its offensive line in one offseason.

But that’s what the Falcons did, with the retirement of center Todd McClure and cutting right tackle Tyson Clabo.

Peter Konz will slide to the middle to replace McClure, which is what he was drafted to do, and then a cast of characters will compete for the starting jobs at right guard and right tackle.

Garrett Reynolds will likely get the first crack at the guard job again, and Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are competing at tackle.

Plus, this assumes they get the Sam Baker of the first few years and the salary push, and not the left tackle that was benched for ineffectiveness in 2011.

It’s a dicey proposition, but with where they were salary cap wise, they need some young players to make jobs their own.

Camp Battles.

It wasn’t that long ago the Falcons were three-deep with expensive corners, built to match up with the Saints.

Now, Asante Samuel is all have left, and they’re stacking kids up and hoping for the best.

They used their first two draft picks on Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and both should play in the nickel package, with Trufant expected to start opposite Samuel. Robert McClain has played well at times and can be a good reserve, but they needed to add top-end talent to the position (really, to many positions on defense), and this was the area of urgency this year.

They’re going to give Akeem Dent a chance to play nickel, and he’d likely be an upgrade over the solid but exploited-by-tight ends Stephen Nicholas.

They also need some defensive linemen to emerge. Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann are solid utility linemen, who have served a lot of roles over the years. They have young players in Malliciah Goodman and Cliff Matthews who could win starting jobs, but that may say more about the guys in those jobs than Goodman and Matthews.

Prospects.

The Falcons are talented, smartly coached and well-quarterbacked.

That’s going to make them contenders automatically, and they broke through the ceiling of a playoff win last year, beating Seattle.

Their biggest problem is that they don’t match up well with the 49ers, and at some point, will have to get through them to reach the Super Bowl.

Otherwise, there aren’t many teams in the league that can slow them down.

Ryan’s about to get a giant contract, and he’ll deserve every nickel of it. He’s a smart, efficient passer and leader, who has brought in a sense of stability which they needed.

But as good as he is, his first task is to overcome his own defense.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to scheme his way past personnel problems, as they don’t have much up front to create pressure. They’re pushing all their chips to the middle of the table on Osi Umenyiora returning to his old form, because there’s no one else on the roster you could expect double-digit sacks from.

Otherwise, they’re simply counting on outscoring everyone.

Which remains a reasonable proposition, and the reason they have a chance to get to the Super Bowl.

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Offsets are indeed the issue for Mariota, Titans

Marcus Mariota AP

No, a surfing clause isn’t keeping the Titans from signing quarterback Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The real reason is far less interesting.

As expected, it’s the question of whether Mariota’s contract will include offset language for the fully-guaranteed payments to be made from 2015 through 2018. The Titans want to have the ability to get credit for any money Mariota owns elsewhere, if Mariota is cut at any point during his first four NFL seasons. Mariota wants to have the ability to keep his guaranteed money from the Titans, and to keep whatever he earns from another team.

And so the two sides are starting at each other, waiting for one of them to blink. The Titans think/assume/hope that Mariota will cave before missing a training-camp practice, or possibly after missing a handful of them. Mariota thinks/assumes/hopes that the Titans will cave, given that they need their potential franchise quarterback to become a franchise quarterback as quickly as possible.

It’s odd that it’s even a fight. But it’s a fight because the first overall pick, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, has offset language in his contract and the third overall pick, Jaguars linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., does not have offset language in his contract.

If Mariota performs so poorly that he’s cut before he finishes his contract, the Titans will have problems far bigger than whether they can get credit for whatever Mariota earns elsewhere.

So why fight it? Maybe the Titans are simply trying to be tough. Maybe the Titans think the league wants teams to include offset language in rookie deals. (If so, the Jaguars and Rams didn’t get the memo.)

Regardless, a very minimal issue threatens to become a very major problem, if neither Mariota nor the Titans blink by the start of training camp, or at the latest not long after it opens.

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NASCAR returns to NBC this weekend

NASCAR Getty Images

On Saturday, the U.S.A. celebrates its 239th birthday. And NBC celebrates the return of NASCAR.

The auto-racing juggernaut comes back to NBC after a nine-year absence, with Saturday night’s Subway Firecracker 250 on NBCSN (7:30 p.m. ET) and Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 on NBC (7:45 p.m. ET). Both races come from the Daytona International Speedway.

For details about the coverage, click here. To watch the races, click the appropriate buttons on your TV device, or check out the live stream via NBC Sports Live Extra.

So enjoy your cookout and your beverage of choice and your fireworks, and participate in the ultimate American non-football-season experience of watching people drives cars really fast without fear of being pulled over by the fuzz.

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Mendenhall’s Roethlisberger story wasn’t completely accurate

Receipt Getty Images

The story told by former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sticking a rookie with a $25,000 tab was interesting. It would have been even more interesting if it were, you know, accurate.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, it started as a dinner for offensive linemen at a steakhouse, not a club. The offensive linemen determined that former Steelers offensive lineman Tony Hills, a rookie at the time, would pay. (Hills, who currently plays for the Cowboys, was a fourth-round pick of the Steelers in 2008.)

The quarterbacks showed up as well, the linemen ran up a huge bill, and Hills wasn’t able to pay it.

Roethlisberger actually paid roughly half of the amount on the spot, with Hills reimbursing him later.

The practice of sticking rookies with huge bar and club tabs, which was one of the issues raised in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, has ended in Pittsburgh. It’s probably ended with most NFL teams.

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Ivory release continues new NFL trend

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Before the Ray Rice debacle, NFL teams would react to a player getting arrested by issuing the same kind of perfunctory statement that the Texans issued on Thursday about defensive lineman Brandon Ivory — and then waiting for the legal process to play out before taking any further action.

After the Ray Rice debacle, the Texans followed the perfunctory statement issued on Thursday with decisive action, cutting the undrafted rookie free agent who faces charges in Alabama of first-degree burglary.

Who care if he’s innocent until proven guilty or if Ivory’s agent claims he’s innocent? Ivory is destined to be placed on the Commissioner-Exempt list, which means that any NFL team that employs Ivory will have to pay him to not play until the charges are resolved, after which point they’ll quite possibly be not paying him to not play.

Unless the player is a star, there’s no reason to deal with it. For that reason, more and more teams will be quickly dropping players who are accused of any crime that could result in their placement on paid leave.

That’s another problem with the NFL’s decision to use paid leave as a way to get players charged with certain crimes off the field until their legal situations are resolved. The league contends it’s not a disciplinary move because the player still gets paid. But if the trend will be to cut any non-essential player who is facing paid leave, the player won’t be allowed to play — and he won’t be getting paid.

Regardless of how anyone feels about any player who is accused of a crime, the NFL’s decision to supplement the criminal justice system in the name of public relations must be done in a way that respects labor relations. The NFL’s current approach doesn’t properly respect the rights of all players, which eventually will force the NFL Players Association to waste more money on legal fees.

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Lions great Charlie Sanders dies at 68

charliesanders AP

Charlie Sanders, a Hall of Fame tight end and one of the greatest players in Detroit Lions history, has died at the age of 68.

Sanders recently revealed that he was battling cancer.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Sanders played his college football at Minnesota, where he was an All-Big Ten tight end and helped lead the Gophers to a share of the Big Ten title during his senior season in 1967. The Lions selected Sanders with a third-round pick in the 1968 NFL draft.

In Detroit, Sanders made an immediate impact and became a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. When he retired after the 1977 season, Sanders had the all-time franchise record for catches, with 336 in his career.

Sanders remained with the Lions organization after retiring, working as a radio commentator, a wide receivers coach, and an assistant director of player personnel. In 2007 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Antonio Gates suspended four games for PED violation

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Fireworks haven’t been going off at NFL headquarters just before July 4, but announcements of suspensions keep on coming Thursday.

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is the latest to fall under discipline from the league office. The NFL announced that Gates has been suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

“In my 12 years in the NFL, I have taken tremendous pride in upholding the integrity of the NFL shield and all that it entails,” Gates said in a statement. “I have taken extreme care of my body with a holistic approach and I have never knowingly ingested a substance that was banned by the NFL. In an effort to recover from this past season, I used supplements and holistic medicines, and unfortunately, I have now learned that those substances always present a risk because they may contain banned substances even if the ingredient list doesn’t reflect them. As an NFL veteran and team leader, I should have done my due diligence to ensure that what I was taking for recovery was within the NFL guidelines. I understand that I am responsible for what is in my body and I have always believed that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to these issues. I take full responsibility for my actions. I’d like to express my sincere apologies to the Chargers, my teammates, coaches, fans and the league who have always supported me and expected and gotten nothing but the highest level of integrity from me.”

Gates will miss games against the Lions, Bengals, Vikings and Browns before becoming eligible to return in Week Five against the Steelers. He’ll be able to take part in training camp practices and preseason games before the suspension goes into effect.

Gates had 69 catches for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Chargers last season and that production at 34 may raise some eyebrows in light of Thursday’s suspension. Lardarius Green will be the likely replacement for Gates in San Diego’s first four games.

Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain and Packers defensive end Datone Jones have also had suspensions announced by the league on Thursday.

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Datone Jones suspended one game for substance abuse violation

Datone Jones AP

Yep, it’s officially a Friday news dump, even though it’s Thursday.

Packers defensive end Datone Jones became the third player suspended today, getting one game for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

He follows Sheldon Richardson and Rolando McClain in getting suspensions on Thursday, before the league slides out to the Hamptons for the weekend.

Jones, the Packers 2013 first-round pick, was growing into a solid player, even though he hasn’t reached the heights of other guys drafted around him. And now, he won’t start working on it until Week Two.

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McClain, Richardson both failed to choose football

Buds Getty Images

NFL teams generally don’t care about players smoking marijuana. NFL teams care greatly when players have to choose between marijuana and football.

Most players who test positive for marijuana a single time immediately choose football over marijuana, avoiding any further positive tests and all potential discipline. For Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain and Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, they repeatedly failed to choose football.

For Richardson, it was marijuana. And the Jets, who used the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft on defensive lineman Leonard Williams, surely knew that Richardson was choosing marijuana over football enough times to worry about him missing games when they picked Williams.

For McClain, word emerged in February that he was facing a four-game fine under the substance-policy, only one violation away from a four-game suspension.

For both, they’ll have to choose football over marijuana or the next step will be a 10-game suspension. Then, a year.

For the next year, they’ll have to pass up to 10 drug tests per month to avoid further suspensions.

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Report: Sheldon Richardson suspended for marijuana use

Sheldon Richardson, Ryan Tannehill AP

The NFL announced Thursday that the Jets will open the season without defensive end Sheldon Richardson because Richardson has been suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

The league does not disclose the specific violation, but Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that it is for marijuana use. Richardson issued a statement through the team when the suspension was announced and went on Twitter Thursday to offer further apologies for the suspension.

“I apologize for my mistake and for disappointing the people who mean everything to me,” Richardson wrote. “I vow to you, this will not happen again. My team will continue to push forward without me to start the season. I promise I will be there for them in every way that I can until I am able to return.”

It will be interesting to see if Richardson’s suspension impacts the Jets’ decision-making on the defensive line moving forward. Muhammad Wilkerson is in the final year of his rookie deal and stayed away from voluntary work this spring while trying to get a new one. Richardson has two year and a team option left on his deal and the Jets may warm to the idea of extending Wilkerson if the suspension gives them doubts about Richardson over the long term.

Richardson said last month that he thought Wilkerson was worth “Suh money.” His suspension may wind up pushing him closer to it.

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NFL suspends Rolando McClain four games

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain is suspended for the first four games of the regular season.

The NFL has announced that McClain was suspended for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. McClain released a statement apologizing for the suspension.

“I apologize to my family, the Cowboys organization, my teammates and Cowboys fans for my mistake,” McClain said. “I will not break the rules of my profession in the future, and I regret my error. I look forward to returning to the field on week 5, when I hope to help my team beat the Patriots.”

McClain has had a series of off-field issues that nearly derailed his career in the past, but last year with the Cowboys he had a very productive season. Now his off-field problems are again becoming an issue.

The NFL likes to time the release of bad news so that it doesn’t generate too much attention, and the decision to announce the suspensions of McClain and Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson on the Thursday afternoon before a three-day holiday weekend is another example of that practice. We’ll see if there’s more bad news coming before the Fourth of July.

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Texans cut Brandon Ivory

Alabama v Mississippi Getty Images

Rookie defensive tackle Brandon Ivory’s agent said that his client will be cleared of all charges related to his arrest on Wednesday.

Ivory and another man allegedly took cash and two iPads after breaking into a home in Alabama while one held an assault rifle and the other carried a knife, which resulted in first degree burglary charges for Ivory. The Texans either disagree or aren’t interested in waiting around to find out.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that the Texans have cut Ivory a day after the arrest and their statement that they were gathering facts about what happened.

Ivory was signed as an undrafted free agent after completing his career at Alabama and will likely now need to have those charges cleared in order to get a second chance at finding a job in the NFL.

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Sheldon Richardson suspended four games for substance abuse violation

New England Patriots v New York Jets Getty Images

It’s not quite 5 p.m., but the NFL has dumped some bad news just before the start of the holiday weekend.

The league has announced that Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson has been suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Richardson can attend training camp and play in the preseason, but he’ll miss the first four weeks of the regular season and will be eligible to return after the team plays the Dolphins on October 4. He’ll also miss games against the Browns, Colts and Eagles.

“I apologize for letting down my family, teammates, this organization and the fans,” Richardson said in a statement sent through the team. “However, words aren’t enough. This is something that can only be addressed by how I handle myself from this point on. I don’t want this to take away from what the team is trying to accomplish. While I won’t be there at the start of the regular season, I will do whatever I can to support my teammates until I’m able to return to the field.”

In a separate statement, coach Todd Bowles called the news “disappointing” and said that the Jets will “keep moving forward with our preparations” for the 2015 season.

Those preparations will likely include a larger role for first-round pick Leonard Williams, who will likely join Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison as the team’s top linemen until Richardson can return.

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Packers have leapfrogged Seahawks as Super Bowl favorites

Aaron Rodgers AP

Maybe a summer of Russell Wilson contract drama is rubbing off on the betting public.

Whether it’s that or the relative stability in other precincts, there’s a new Super Bowl favorite in the gambling community.

Kevin Bradley, the sports book manager at Bovada.lv, said the Seahawks no longer carried their best odds to win the title.

“The Super Bowl runner-up Seahawks had been favorite to win it all in 2016 since their loss back in February but there is very little support for them from a betting perspective,” Bradley said. “The Packers have now jumped to the favorite position at 6/1 and have seen more money than any other team. If the Hawks can get there again and win the Super Bowl, it would be the best result for the book and I do not see that changing any time soon.”

The Seahawks are still second on their list at 13/2, followed by the Colts (8/1), Patriots (9/1) and Cowboys (10/1).

And now that I’ve written my second gambling-related item of the day, it’s time to pour one out in honor of our former PFT colleague Morris Wilkening.

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Ryan Kerrigan running after offseason knee scope

Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Hoyer AP

Washington did a lot of work to upgrade their defensive line in free agency by signing Stephen Paea, Terrance Knighton and Ricky Jean Francois to bolster the unit.

Their hope is that group can work well with outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan on the field this fall, a development that will require Kerrigan to make a full recovery from an offseason knee scope. Kerrigan appears to be well on his way to making that recovery.

“I’m running now,” Kerrigan said, via CSN Washington. “Now it’s just about building the strength. My leg feels really good and I’m glad I got the surgery — not just for football but it makes my everyday life feel better so I’m glad I got it done. Now it’s just a matter of getting strong and getting into shape.”

Kerrigan’s presence in the lineup will benefit the Redskins as a team and it will give him a chance to make his best case for a new deal if he and the team don’t come to an agreement before the start of the season.

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NFL announces seven players eligible for supplemental draft

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In the last two years, no players have been selected in the NFL supplemental draft. This year, the NFL has announced that seven players are eligible to be selected.

However, only one is likely to be chosen: Isaiah Battle, an offensive tackle from Clemson, has a very good chance of getting picked when the supplemental draft takes place on July 9.

The league has announced that six other players are eligible as well: West Georgia defensive end Darrius Caldwell, West Georgia defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey, Houston defensive end Eric Eiland, UConn tight end Sean McQuillan, Kansas defensive back Kevin Short and North Carolina Central wide receiver/kick returner Adrian Wilkins.

Players can enter the supplemental draft if something changes with their college eligibility after the deadline to declare for the regular draft. Often when “something changes” that means the player off-field trouble, so that means supplemental prospects are viewed by NFL teams as having one strike against them already.

Battle’s talent may be sufficient that some team will overlook that one strike and draft him. The other players are likely to be passed over in the supplemental draft and attempt to sign somewhere as undrafted free agents.

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