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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: Cincinnati Bengals

Green AP

The Bengals rarely are the trendy pick to do anything other than not be very good.  Heading in to the 2013 season, the Bengals are better than very good.  The Bengals are becoming one of the elite teams in the NFL.

Even at No. 6, there’s a long way to go to get to the top of the mountain.  For starters, the Bengals need to end a postseason losing streak that dates back to the game in which they ended Bo Jackson’s football career by destroying his hip on a routine tackle.  And they need to get past the other elite teams in the AFC, like the Ravens, Broncos, and Patriots.

Regardless of whether it happens, the Bengals have become something they haven’t been for more than a generation:  Relevant.  And to the teams they’ll play this year:  Dangerous.

Strengths.

Receiver A.J. Green quickly has become one of the very best receivers in the league, after only two NFL seasons.  He’s Randy Moss without the play-when-I-wanna-play-goalpost-butt-rubbing-I-wouldn’t-feed-this-to-my-dog attitude.  If Green played for a big-market team, he’d already be one of the faces of the league.

The tight end position became much stronger, too, with the selection of first-rounder Tyler Eifert to go with former first-rounder Jermaine Gresham.  Look for the Bengals to get both of them on the field often, taking advantage of the extra attention paid to Green.

On defense, tackle Geno Atkins anchors an underrated line that includes franchise-tagged end Michael Johnson and end Carlos Dunlap, whose 20 sacks despite two career starts helped him earn last week a five-year, $40 million extension.  Coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose inability to get a head-coaching job has worked to Cincy’s benefit, knows how to get the most from all his players, making the Bengals as balanced as any team in the league.

Weaknesses.

Quarterback Andy Dalton isn’t a weakness per se, but he’s not a strength, yet.  More importantly, in a league that has two types of teams (those with franchise quarterbacks and those looking for franchise quarterbacks), Dalton needs to become a franchise quarterback or he’ll eventually be replaced.  Like Christian Ponder in Minnesota, the influx of weapons makes it harder for the quarterback to blame anyone but himself if he doesn’t step up in year three.

The offensive line is more strength than weakness, but there’s a chance the recent surge from right tackle Andre Smith may have been a mirage.  He re-signed for something other than the big-money deal he wanted, and yet by all appearances he’s acting like he got paid.  Chances are he never will.

Beyond A.J. Green, the depth chart at the receiver position remains muddled.  Mohamed Sanu emerged last year as a rookie, but a foot injury ended his season prematurely.  If he’s healthy, he should be the starter across from Green.  The rest of the wideouts need to find ways to contribute, or the Bengals could decide to use plenty of Green-Gresham-Eifert looks.

Changes.

Former Steelers 3-4 linebacker James Harrison provides depth and flexibility for the Bengals’ 4-3 defense, where he can play outside linebacker in non-passing situations and slide to defensive end (or blitz effectively while stacked on a defensive end) on passing downs.

Rookie running back Giovani Bernard diversifies the rushing attack and short passing game, and Bernard possibly could knock BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the bench.  Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert helps make the offense even more dynamics.

Beyond that, there weren’t many major changes, which is a good thing for a team that has been to the postseason for two straight years for the first time in franchise history when one of those years wasn’t shortened by a strike.  Coach Marvin Lewis enters his 11th season with the franchise, and his third with offensive (Jay Gruden) and defensive (Mike Zimmer) coordinators.  For plenty of the team’s free agents, Cincinnati’s patience was rewarded — and the end result is even more continuity.

Position battles.

Running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will battle each other for playing time, and the rest of the skill-position players for touches.  Ditto for tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, who may also take reps and touches away from the team’s receivers if the team’s receivers can’t get it done.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has been durable, but if he gets injured it’ll be Josh Johnson or John Skelton replacing him.  Johnson could earn some opportunities in a Wildcat-style package.

On defense, a deep and talented defensive line (along with James Harrison, who could play some defensive end) provides a great rotation.  How the opportunities ultimately shake out will hinge in some respects on how well the various players perform during training camp and the preseason.

In the secondary, it’s Leon Hall at one corner and Dre Kirkpatrick, Pacman Jones, and Terence Newman vying for the other starting job.

Prospects.

But for the Broncos, who enter the second year of the Peyton Manning experiment, it would be tempting to predict that the Bengals will make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.  It’s more likely that the Bengals will get back to the playoffs for a third straight year — and perhaps finally win a postseason game.

If  the break the curse of Bo Jackson’s broken hip, coach Marvin Lewis could be destined to lose one or both of his coordinators.  Also, any free agents will be more attractive to other teams, forcing the Bengals to do something other than wait for them to not get offered more money elsewhere.

So this may be the year to go all in, which means the Bengals should be willing to take chances every week in order not just to get to the playoffs but to position themselves for success when they get there.  Which could lead them all the way to New York, for an open-air Super Bowl with conditions that could resemble the 1981 AFC title game against the Chargers.

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Michael Oher fitting in nicely as the Panthers’ latest left tackle

Michael Oher AP

So wait, what you’re telling me is that Michael Oher just wanted someone to take him in, to make him feel like part of the family? Sounds like a movie.

But the Panthers new left tackle was simply talking about his new team, as he tries to fit in at the most important position on the offensive line.

It seemed like they wanted me,” Oher said of the Panthers, via Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer. “I got the [same] feeling going into my rookie year of not wanting to let guys down and guys with a winning culture.

“For me, it’s about getting back to the basics and fundamentals of doing everything right. Looking myself in the mirror knowing what I have to do and getting better from within.”

The Panthers need him to get back to when he was a good tackle, because he’s their third left tackle in as many years, and last year’s experiment (Byron Bell) was kind of a disaster.

But the Panthers are counting on Oher being healthy (after a toe problem bothered him last year with the Titans) and his old Ravens position coach (John Matsko) getting him back to his previous level of stability.

“Knowing the two of them have a positive relationship, they’ve worked well together,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He worked very well for coach Matsko, and then at the end of the day he wanted to be here. That’s one of the things that he told us that impressed us. He said he wanted to be here and needed to improve and work on certain things and get back on track.

“Just hearing that from a player, and then watching him after he signed his contract. He was here and he’s been here since; that’s very pleasing.”

Probably mostly so to Cam Newton, who did too much running for his life last year, and could use someone to keep him upright so he could work on passing from a pocket.

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Tim Tebow enjoying his next last chance to make NFL mark

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 28: Tim Tebow #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles walks off the field after OTA's on May 28, 2015 at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) Getty Images

Being two years out of the league, Tim Tebow’s not about to take any opportunity for granted.

So even if he’s a bit of a curiosity, and no better than third on the Eagles’ depth chart, he’s still all smiles.

“I think sometimes when things are taken away, then you don’t realize how much fun it is to come out here and play this game,” Tebow said, via Nate Davis of USA Today. “You can’t play it forever, so I’m going to enjoy it.”

While many thought he was done after his training camp stint with the Patriots two years ago, he said he continued to train as if his next chance was coming any day. As for competition, he said a family gathering provided that.

“I still competed. I trained every single day,” he said. “You should have seen the Tebow Turkey Bowl. It was the craziest thing ever.

“I’m serious. We had uniforms.”

He said he thought his offseason work with quarterback tutor Tom House had helped, specifically mentioning his balance, posture and timing.

“I think he’s improved,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s had a lot of time the last two years working at his game. [We] wanted to have a fourth quarterback here.”

Kelly also said Tebow’s only there as a quarterback, scuttling any idea of a position switch. And with his proposal to move two-point conversions to the 1-yard line voted down, keeping him around for that job might not be as important as it might have been.

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Jameis Winston impressing with his work ethic in Bucs camp

TAMPA, FL - MAY 9: Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers works out during Rookie Mini Camp at One Buccaneer Place on May 9, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Buccaneers have found their first issue with quarterback Jameis Winston, already running into something he struggles with.

We have to kind of tell him when to leave,” Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said, via Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com.

That’s not a bad problem to have for any rookie, much less the first overall pick in the draft. While he wasn’t at Thursday’s practice because of the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event in Los Angeles, getting in enough work hasn’t been an issue.

Smith said he took double reps Wednesday to make up for the absence, and it was his best day of work so far (or perhaps since his marathon pro day workout prior to the draft).

“For him, there’s been a lot of individual work, but having a chance this week to go against our best defense and things like that [has been good],” Smith said. “We have a long ways to go. But we like where he is right now.”

Likewise, teammates have praised Winston for his work, and for always having his playbook on him, and being ready for whatever they throw at him, which has been a lot.

“He didn’t have his training wheels on or anything like that,” Smith said. “We’re kind of throwing him out there and he’s handling just about everything we’ve asked him to do.”

That’s a good sign for the Bucs, but a better sign for Winston, whose maturity many (reasonably) wondered about based on some of his college actions.

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Timing of Clady injury gives Broncos ample time to react

Peyton Manning, Ryan Clady, Rob Ninkovich AP

Two years ago, the Broncos lost left tackle Ryan Clady for the year in Week Two. They made it to the Super Bowl.

Sure, they could have used him against Seattle in the Super Bowl, but the Broncos nevertheless had a very successful season with Clady not contributing much to it. And they had to react to Clady’s absence on the fly, with no time to do anything other than call the next man up.

In 2013, Chris Clark got the assignment. And Clark is still on the team, able to do now what he did then — with a lot more time to prepare for the assignment.

Veteran Ryan Harris, who signed with the Broncos in the immediate aftermath of the Clady injury, can handle the right side, and youngsters Michael Schofield and Ty Sambrailo can compete for reps and provide depth.

Of course, the fact that the latest Clady injury happened in May could prompt a certain quarterback who may be entering the last year of his career to clamor for one or more 2016 draft picks to be dangled in an effort to upgrade the position, especially since said quarterback may not be around when those picks would be used.

Still, it’s much better to have time to react to a major injury. The Broncos did well to replace Clady when they didn’t have that luxury. They’ll now be expected to do it again.

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Ishmaa’ily Kitchen signs restricted tender with Browns

Ish Kitchen Getty Images

Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Ishmaa’ily Kitchen signed his restricted free agent tender with the team on Thursday.

The Browns placed a right of first refusal tender on Kitchen prior to the start of free agency in March. The tender is worth $1.542 million for the 2015 season.

Kitchen appeared in 12 games for Cleveland and made three starts while playing primarily at nose tackle. He recorded 43 tackles for the season. In his three-year career, Kitchen has played in 40 games for the Browns.

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Confusion emerges regarding basis for Hardy discipline

Hardy Getty Images

The Greg Hardy appeal hearing has come and gone, and confusion has emerged regarding one of the most important aspects of the case.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Hardy and the NFL Players Association contend that the NFL failed to specify during the hearing whether league imposed on Hardy a 10-game suspension under the Personal Conduct Policy in force at the time of the alleged misconduct or under the version that came later in the year, following the Ray Rice debacle. Hardy and the NFLPA also contend that arbitrator Harold Henderson failed to force the NFL to say which version of the policy was used.

In an appearance last month on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash seemed to emphasize that the discipline was imposed under the old policy. But he also made it clear that the investigation occurred under the new procedures that were adopted after the Rice case.

The alleged confusion also comes in the wake of an effort by the union to have the NFL deemed to be in contempt of court for failing to comply with the court order issued in the case filed on behalf of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. That motion specifically claims that the league applied the new policy retroactively to Hardy, in defiance of the ruling from Judge David Doty to the contrary in Peterson’s case.

Absent a significant reduction in Hardy’s suspension, a lawsuit is inevitable in his case, too. And Hardy could easily win.

But no one would be able to accuse the NFL of going too soft on off-field misconduct. Given that the Rice situation nearly took down a Commissioner, the NFL will never be accused of going too soft on off-field misconduct ever again.

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Report: Giants meet with Jake Long

Jake Long AP

The Giants, who are likely to be without their starting left tackle for at least part of the 2015 season, have reportedly huddled with a four-time Pro Bowler at the position.

Ex-Ram Jake Long, who has struggled with injuries in recent seasons, met with the Giants on Thursday, per Dan Graziano of ESPN.com.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2008 by Miami, the 30-year-old Long has torn his right ACL in back-to-back seasons, most recently on October 26. He also has suffered biceps and triceps tears in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The Rams released Long in March after two seasons.

The Giants’ incumbent left tackle, Will Beatty, suffered a pectoral tear last week. The injury could force first-round pick Ereck Flowers to step into the lineup right off the bat on the left side.

If healthy, Long would bolster the Giants’ tackle depth, giving them insurance in the event Flowers isn’t ready. However, Long would have to pass a physical.

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Adrian Peterson takes aim at the NFLPA

Adrian Peterson AP

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson isn’t happy. The good news is he’s finally admitting it. The bad news is that it’s still not clear who or what he’s not happy with.

After months of leaks and comments from folks close to Peterson but not Peterson suggesting that he’s not happy with the Vikings because of how the team reacted to Peterson’s off-field issue last year, Peterson made it clear on Wednesday night that he’s not happy with a contract that provides him no further guaranteed money. On Thursday, Peterson broadened his attack to encompass the entire system.

On Thursday night, Peterson took specific aim at the NFL Players Association.

“To clarify,” Peterson said on Twitter, “since analysts & everyone else have the answers as to what place in MY Heart this ‘rant‘ came from, this is not against the Vikings. I am just frustrated that our union did not get guaranteed contracts for its players. NFL players deserve guaranteed contracts like Our NBA and MLB brothers. Owners have the right to release players, at will, without honoring their contracts. However, players do not have the luxury of saying that they want out of their contract. And I won’t even get into the franchise tag convo.”

I’m a huge Adrian Peterson fan. I always have been. But I’m definitely not a fan of this new tactic.

Peterson believes he has in some way been wronged, by someone, over the past nine months. Still, a shotgun attack on a system that has made him a very rich man and that has the Vikings ready to pay a 30-year-old running back $12.75 million this year makes little sense.

Four years ago, he could have insisted on a fully-guaranteed contract. Or he could have insisted on a shorter-term deal, which would have allowed him to get a fresh start elsewhere. Instead, with full awareness of a system that was reiterated by a Collective Bargaining Agreement signed not long before he signed his latest contract, Peterson made a seven-year commitment, knowing that the commitment would only go both ways as long as his employer wanted it to.

Peterson made that commitment after comparing pro football to “modern-day slavery.” So he went in with eyes and ears open as to what the NFL is (or as to what he thinks it is), he signed a long-term contract, he willingly and voluntarily took a $12 million signing bonus, he earned more than $35 million over four years at a position that has become largely interchangeable in recent seasons, and he’ll get another $12.75 million this year by simply showing up for work.

It’s unclear whether Peterson is willing to not play this year or to retire if the Vikings don’t guarantee his contract beyond 2015 or if they won’t trade him. It’s possible he simply needed to vent, as he makes his way from anger to bargaining then denial, depression, and finally acceptance.

Regardless, he’s not going to find much sympathy here, or pretty much anywhere.

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Cowboys sign rookie LB Damien Wilson

2015 NFL Scouting Combine Getty Images

The Cowboys almost have their entire rookie class under contract.

Dallas has signed fourth-round selection Damien Wilson, a linebacker from Minnesota, the team said Thursday.

The pact with Wilson leaves cornerback Byron Jones, the Cowboys’ first-round selection, as the only rookie without a deal.

Wilson (6-0, 243) notched 197 tackles (16 for loss) in two seasons with the Golden Gophers. He was timed at 4.77 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, and he posted a 37-inch vertical leap.

“He’s learning real well, and he’s working real hard, so excited about where’s he going,” Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said of Wilson on Wednesday.

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Malcolm Jenkins: No one on the Eagles thinks we have a race issue

malcolmjenkins AP

Former Eagle LeSean McCoy may think Chip Kelly got rid of the good black players, but those who have remained in Philadelphia don’t see it that way.

That’s the word from Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who said he and his teammates respect Kelly and don’t believe he’s basing his evaluations on race.

“Chip has been very, very transparent on what he’s evaluating us on,” Jenkins said, via CSNPhilly.com. “That’s not only what we do on the field, but what we do in our assessments and how disciplined we are with our nutrition and all the sports science stuff. I haven’t seen him make a move outside of those parameters. I don’t think anybody in the locker room now thinks we have an issue with race. I don’t see that being a problem in the future. I don’t think there’s any need for Chip to address it.”

If other players on the Eagles agree with McCoy about Kelly, it has the potential to undermine Kelly’s ability to coach his team. But their public comments suggest that other players agree with Jenkins that there’s not a race problem on the Eagles.

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DeMaurice Smith suggests Ray Rice is being blackballed

Ray Rice Press Conference Getty Images

NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith thinks it doesn’t speak well for the NFL that no team is willing to give Ray Rice another chance.

Smith told Sal Paolantonio of ESPN that Rice, who is not suspended and is eligible to play as soon as a team signs him, would be back in the NFL if teams were willing to give him a fair chance.

“This, unfortunately, is a league that has a history of blackballing players. I find it hard to believe that a player of Mr. Rice’s caliber hasn’t at least gotten one offer from a team to come work out,” Smith said.

The term “blackballing” suggests something underhanded, but the reality is that NFL teams aren’t hiding the fact that they simply don’t want to do business with the man who last year became the poster boy for domestic violence in America. That’s the prerogative of each team, and while the union is free to advocate on Rice’s behalf, there’s not much the union can do about it.

If all 32 NFL teams have decided that they’re never going to give Rice another chance, then Rice has only himself to blame for that.

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Dez Bryant does the smart thing by showing up

Dez Bryant AP

It’s become a given that a player saddled with the franchise tag won’t show up for any workouts or practices until he signs a long-term deal or accepts his one-year franchise tender. But it may not be the smart thing to do — especially if the tagged player plans to work out on his own.

As Broncos G.M. John Elway pointed out several weeks back when venting regarding the absence of receiver Demaryius Thomas, unsigned franchise players who get injured while working out on their own get nothing. Unsigned franchise players who show up pursuant to a letter agreement that guarantees their franchise tender if they tear an ACL or pop out an Achilles who get injured get full pay.

So unless staying away was going to squeeze more money out of the team’s coffers (it wasn’t), why not continue to get ready to have a big season while working out with the team? For Bryant, the best play would be to take the $12.8 million this year, do it again next year at a 20-percent raise ($15.36 million), and then hit the market in 2017 — because there’s no way the Cowboys would pay him $22.11 million under a third franchise tag.

More franchise-tagged players need to consider the wisdom of Bryant’s move. And more will do what Bryant did the minute that one of them suffers a serious injury while unsigned and while working out at the local YMCA.

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Adrian Peterson’s rant misses the mark

Volcano

Mt. Peterson finally erupted. And it went about as well as Peter Brady’s volcano. (Timely reference, I know.)

Arguably he last man who should be painting himself as a victim but who nevertheless tried to shift blame to the Vikings for a predicament created by his own behavior has gone to Twitter for a general rant regarding the system of paying players.

“Question for the people, is a contract two sided or one?” Adrian Peterson asked. “There’s never no talk about honoring a contract!”

But NFL contracts are indeed one-sided, unless they’re individually negotiated to be two-sided. If Peterson wanted in 2011 to ensure that his contract would be two-sided through its final year of 2017, he could have — by insisting on the contract being fully guaranteed for its full duration. When NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed, the team can insist on the player honoring every game of every season while in turn having the power to tear up the deal whenever the team wants.

That’s just the way it is, and that system was reiterated via the Collective Bargaining Agreement ratified by the players only weeks before Peterson signed his latest deal.

On one hand, it’s good that Peterson has dropped the passive-aggressive approach with the Vikings. On the other hand, it’s not good that he opted to take a shotgun to a system that won’t be changing — especially after that system (as enhanced by the Commissioner-Exempt list) resulted in Peterson making plenty of money last year from the Vikings despite playing in only one game.

But now that Peterson has decided to attack the situation the same way that he attacks a defense, it may be only a matter of time before Peterson is doing shirtless driveway situps and agent Ben Dogra is rattling off “next question” at a press conference held on Peterson’s front lawn.

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Dez Bryant shows up at Cowboys OTAs, does individual drills

Indianapolis Colts v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

The Cowboys thought Dez Bryant was in “great shape,” despite his staying away from voluntary workouts and OTAs.

But Thursday, they saw for themselves.

According to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the franchise-tagged wide receiver showed up at OTAs Thursday and participated in individual drills.

That’s a bit of a surprise, considering he hasn’t signed his $12.823 million franchise tender.

But apparently, Bryant wanted to be around the team, and see his teammates. He apparently went through individual drills, but didn’t do any team drills. Considering what happened to Ryan Clady and Dante Fowler, it’s prudent to not push himself with so much money on the line.

Bryant’s not even required to attend mandatory minicamp since he hasn’t signed yet, but his showing up today is at least a sign of good faith.

Whether it’s a sign of progress toward a long-term deal, or whether Bryant just wanted to get out of the house remains to be seen.

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Adrian Peterson: Players need “same power” NFL clubs hold in contracts

Adrian Peterson AP

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, in the midst of a dispute with Minnesota, used his verified Twitter account Thursday to vent about teams being able to void contracts while players are bound to those same deals.

Here are Peterson’s thoughts on the subject, which were published one day after he told ESPN his absence from Minnesota’s offseason program was “about securing my future” in Minnesota:

“I love people who think they know it all! Smh, Research how many NFL teams hasn’t honored a player’s contract & learn something.

“Question for the people, is a contract two sided or one?

“Ok great two sided! Well why when one party decides . . . Mr. ? we wan’t you to take a pay cut now or better yet flat out release you!

“There’s never no talk about honoring a contract!

“I know hundreds of player’s that wished their team would’ve HONORED the contract! But instead got threw to the side like like trash.

“A lill crazy how one side has so much power that they can do as they please when it come to the contract! But when the other-side (player’s)  . . . Feels for whatever reason! Family, Change of scenery or simply – what they feels just might work best for them! Those same laws don’t apply!

“It’s all about honoring you’re contract! Sounds like free will is being a lil challenged to me!

“All I’m saying as a Minnesota Viking player! WE need the same power to do as all 32 teams do we they feel, under contract or not!

“It’s time for a change! Then again I’m grateful because at the end of the day, I know some of those same guys that wish a team held on!”

Peterson has three years left on his current contract. He is set to make $12.75 million in salary in 2015, $14.75 million in 2016 and $17.75 million in 2017. However, the salaries are not guaranteed.

The Vikings have insisted they will not trade Peterson. On Wednesday, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said the 30-year-old tailback would play for Minnesota or not at all.

Peterson spent most of last season on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list after being charged with felony child abuse. He eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault.

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