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NFL morning after: Bad rules a big problem for the NFL

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After Monday night’s mess in Carolina, where the game ended with a pass interference penalty in the end zone being picked up without explanation by the referee, I didn’t want to spend Sunday thinking about rules and referees. But it was hard not to think on Sunday that the NFL has a real problem on its hands with rules that are written badly, and officials who enforce those rules inconsistently.

Everyone likes to bash the referees when they get something wrong, and I’m going to criticize the referees here today, but it’s important to remember that the referees can only enforce the rules that the NFL gives them. And I’m starting to think that a bigger problem is that the NFL’s rules simply aren’t written clearly enough to allow the officials to do their jobs properly.

Here’s a sampling of my thoughts on the rules on Sunday:

I still don’t know what roughing the passer is. In the Buccaneers-Lions game, Detroit defensive tackle Nick Fairley hit Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon in the leg and was called for roughing the passer. According to the referee, it was because Fairley hit Glennon too low. But the problem is, Fairley’s hit on Glennon was in about the same part of the leg as Chargers defensive lineman Corey Liuget’s hit on Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning a couple weeks ago. Liuget wasn’t flagged and wasn’t fined and the NFL confirmed that Liuget’s hit was legal. But if Liuget’s hit was legal, I’m not sure why Fairley’s was illegal. And that wasn’t even the only roughing the passer call in that game I couldn’t figure out: Later in the same game, Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron was flagged for an even harder to understand roughing call against Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. And don’t get me started on Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers‘ flag for a clean hit on Josh McCown.

Protecting quarterbacks is a priority, or is it? Last week, when 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks was flagged for a hit to the neck of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the NFL said it was the right call, supposedly because protecting quarterbacks is a priority. So why wasn’t Pittsburgh’s William Gay flagged on Sunday for his hit to the head of Jason Campbell? In both cases, a defensive player went high and hit a quarterback who was still holding the ball, forcing a fumble. When it was Brees getting clotheslined, it was a flag. When it was Campbell getting knocked out of the game with a concussion, it wasn’t a flag? Why? As far as I can tell, the answer is that the rules about protecting quarterbacks aren’t written clearly enough for the referees to call them consistently.

Referees are out of position even when they’re in position. Miami’s Cameron Wake lowered his helmet and drilled Carolina’s Cam Newton in the chin, and Newton ended up spitting out blood. It was a clear penalty on Wake, but the referee didn’t throw the flag. Why? Former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira said the ref was positioned exactly where he’s supposed to be, but just didn’t see it. But if that’s the case, the NFL needs to have an official positioned in a place where he will see a hit like that, or make hits to the head of quarterbacks reviewable on instant replay.

Coaches should be allowed to challenge personal fouls. Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was tripped and fell into Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s leg, triggering a flag for a personal foul. On replay, it was clear that Wilkerson only hit Flacco because he was tripped, but the referee can’t look at the replay to get the call right. Jets coach Rex Ryan should have been allowed to challenge, but under NFL rules, he couldn’t.

Coaches shouldn’t be allowed to delay games by throwing bogus challenge flags. As Detroit’s offense was lining up following a missed Tampa Bay field goal, Bucs coach Greg Schiano threw his red challenge flag. After a long delay in which Schiano and the referee conversed on the sideline, it was announced that Schiano had tried to challenge a call that wasn’t reviewable — namely, whether the Bucs’ kick had gone through the goalposts or over a goal post. Under NFL rules, it wasn’t a penalty for Schiano to throw that flag even when he couldn’t challenge. But it should be. Why should Schiano be allowed to delay the game and give his defense time to adjust to the way the Lions’ offense lined up? Later on Sunday afternoon, Giants coach Tom Coughlin did the same thing, throwing his red flag even though the play in question wasn’t reviewable. If a coach throws a challenge flag for something that can’t be challenged, he should be charged a timeout.

A huge missed call cost the Vikings, and the referee was powerless to review it. Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk blatantly grabbed and twisted Adrian Peterson’s facemask before forcing Peterson to fumble. It was an obvious penalty, and the officials should have seen it. But they missed it, and the referee couldn’t use replay to review it because for some odd reason facemasking isn’t subject to replay reviews. If we’re going to have instant replay at all, and if we’re going to have all turnovers automatically reviewed, why on earth can’t the referee look at the replay, see the blatant facemask, and get the call right?

No one knows what constitutes a catch. Late in the Cowboys’ win over the Giants, Dallas’s Dez Bryant grabbed a pass from Tony Romo, went to the ground and then lost possession. The officials ruled it incomplete, and I think the officials got it right. But the NFL’s convoluted rules about what constitutes a catch make it almost impossible for anyone to say with any confidence what will or will not be ruled a catch, and there were plenty of fans on Twitter saying they were sure Bryant had caught the pass. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett seemed to think it was a catch, too, as he called a timeout in the hopes that the extra time would trigger the replay assistant to tell the referee to review the play — which he didn’t do. The NFL simply has to do a better job of explaining what makes a catch and what makes an incompletion, so fans and coaches aren’t left confused at big moments in big games.

Forward progress isn’t clearly defined. The biggest play of the Giants-Cowboys game came when Giants receiver Victor Cruz caught a pass, was wrapped up by two Cowboys, then had the ball ripped out of his hands. The officials ruled it a fumble, and Dallas’s Jeff Heath picked it up and ran 50 yards for a touchdown. Giants coach Tom Coughlin said after the game that it was “unbelievable” that the officials didn’t rule Cruz’s forward progress had been stopped, but I can believe it because I see forward progress ruled inconsistently every week.

The NFL should eject players who enter the field during fights. When Rams defensive end Chris Long saw his brother, Bears guard Kyle Long, engaged in a skirmish on the field, Chris ran from the sideline onto the field to grab Kyle and pull him away. Chris may have simply been trying to break up the fight, but even if all they’re trying to do is break up a fight, players shouldn’t run onto the field and into a skirmish. One of the ugliest incidents in the history of American sports came in a 1977 NBA game, when Rudy Tomjanovich ran into a skirmish and Kermit Washington reacted by turning around and swinging, shattering bones in Tomjanovich’s face. The way to avoid such incidents is for all players to allow the officials to break up fights, not enter fights themselves. Other sports give automatic ejections to players who run from the sideline onto the field during a fight, and the NFL should, too.

I don’t like the overtime rule. Overtime in Green Bay felt unsatisfying all around. Here’s how I’d change the overtime rules: 1. Do away with the overtime kickoff. 2. Let the home team pick which yard line the first overtime possession will start on. 3. Let the road team pick whether to start on offense or defense, based on where the home team put the ball to start overtime. 4. Play pure sudden death, first team to score wins, and play until someone scores, with no ties.

NFL refs have a communication problem. The NFL admitted after last week’s Monday Night Football mess that referee Clete Blakeman dropped the ball when he failed to explain why a flag thrown on Carolina’s Luke Kuechly in the end zone was picked up, and the league office told refs last week that they need to use their microphones to explain to the fans why penalty flags get picked up. Amazingly, on Sunday against Miami, Kuechly committed another penalty on a pass into the end zone — and again, an official threw a flag, only to have the referee announce that there wouldn’t be a penalty, without explaining why. How does the NFL allow this to continue happening? The referees need to explain themselves. And the NFL needs to give the referees clearer rules to work with, so those explanations will make more sense.

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Kaepernick impresses Warner with touch passes

Kaepernick AP

Cardinals fans weren’t happy when former Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner decided to start working with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick this offseason.  Cardinals fans may be even less happy now.

Via Jim Corbett of USA Today, Warner said recently that Kaepernick has been displaying better touch on his throws.  Thanks to playing touch football with some receivers who aren’t used to catching fastballs from an NFL quarterback.

“We had some guys come out from the office playing in my corporate charity event, and there were a couple of times where I went, ‘Whoa! Was that a little bit of touch I just saw?” Warner said, via Corbett.  “Colin laughed and told me, ‘We’re not out here working for nothing.’

“The situation forced him to throw with a little more touch.  He couldn’t throw it as hard as maybe he wanted to with those corporate guys.”

Over the past 10 weeks, Warner has helped Kaepernick with his stance while throwing and the mechanics of making reads from one receiver to the next.  But Warner realizes that may not make a difference once Kaepernick finds himself in live game reps with his muscle memory taking over.

“Is 10 weeks enough time for you to change what you’ve been doing your entire career?  And what does that look like when bullets are flying and people are attacking you?” Warner said, via Corbett.  “Have we gone far enough where that becomes the norm for Colin?

“That’s the big question none of us can answer. . . .  You talk about a guy who has been playing the position one way for twenty-something years, and we’re [trying] to change him in three months?”

It’s unlikely that much will change, unless Kaepernick’s protection allows him to not worry about being hit and instead to consciously focus on the things he’ll have to do for a lot more than 10 weeks in order for it to become part of his subconscious.

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Agent: Seahawks re-sign Demarcus Dobbs

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The Seahawks have retained one of the NFL’s more versatile backup defensive linemen.

The club has re-signed defensive end Demarcus Dobbs, agent Wesley Spencer announced on Twitter.

Dobbs (6-2, 282) appeared in four regular season games and three postseason games for Seattle after being claimed on waivers from San Francisco in November. Overall, the 27-year-old Dobbs has notched 37 tackles in 49 regular season games since entering the NFL in 2011.

In addition to playing defensive end, Dobbs can also play tight end in a pinch. The 49ers tried him on offense earlier in his career, though defense has been his job for the bulk of his NFL experience.

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Draft status doesn’t matter, Anderson tops Ball on Broncos’ depth chart

C.J. Anderson AP

In 2013, the Broncos used a second-round draft pick on Montee Ball, and signed C.J. Anderson as an undrafted free agent. Two years later, there’s little doubt which of them is the better running back — and it’s not the one everyone thought heading into the draft.

Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has confirmed that he views Anderson as the starter heading into Organized Team Activities.

“He made a big jump as a player, and I think he’s earned the right to walk in to the offseason program — the OTAs — and line up as our starter,” Kubiak said. “But he’s got to continue to earn it on a daily basis. I think he’s shown he has all the ability to be an excellent starter in this league, so we’re really looking forward to working with him.”

So where does that leave Ball? Splitting backup reps with Ronnie Hillman, a 2012 third-round pick. Kubiak said both Ball and Hillman will get their chances, but Anderson is the man right now.

“I think all three of those guys . . . have all kind of had their little spurts of success with the club when they’ve had their opportunity,” Kubiak said. “But they’re all young. Who’s going to be the bell cow, who’s going to play every down, who’s going to be the three-down player, they’ve got to sort that out. C.J. has shown the flashes of doing that.”

With the draft just a month away, the Broncos may be a cautionary tale for teams thinking about spending high picks on running backs. It’s the undrafted Anderson who’s atop the Broncos’ depth chart, and a second-round pick and a third-round pick competing to back him up.

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Report: “Spirited debate” about where Koa Misi will play in Miami

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The Dolphins parted ways with a pair of linebackers this offseason when they released Phillip Wheeler and traded Dannell Ellerbe and there’s reportedly some difference of opinion within the organization about other changes at the position.

Koa Misi moved to middle linebacker last season and made 11 starts at the position for the Dolphins. Misi had 64 tackles and a sack in those appearances and Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald reports that head coach Joe Philbin said last week that “as of right now” Misi will remain at the position next season.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is reportedly on board with that, while the personnel department feels differently. Per Beasley, they’d like Kelvin Sheppard to get a shot in the middle while Misi returns to his previous spot on the outside of the defense. Misi started 26 games there in 2012 and 2013 and would likely remain on the first team on the strong side if he does move.

Jelani Jenkins is set for one outside spot, but the Dolphins need to round out their linebacking group over the rest of the offseason. Misi’s ability to play either spot gives them some flexibility about how to go about doing that, although that flexibility may not be needed if the personnel guys are set on pushing him to the outside.

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Dixon accused officers of racial bias

Dixon AP

Saints cornerback Brian Dixon was arrested early Sunday after an incident involving a moped.  Specifically, he was arrested for resisting arrest.  It still remains unclear what he was being arrested for when he allegedly resisted arrest.

Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate has obtained the police report.

According to the report, police officers saw Dixon “splitting lanes” and driving down the center of the road, eventually swerving and cutting off another vehicle.

The officers contend that Dixon became “belligerent” after he learned that he’d be getting a ticket, eventually saying “just give me my ticket so I can get the f–k out of here.”

According to the report, Dixon’s “imposing size, stature, and weight, as well as the defendant’s agitated state” resulted in an order to sit on a curb.  (He’s listed as six feet and 195 pounds, which would nearly qualify me as having “imposing size, stature, and weight.”)  Dixon refused, instead taking a step toward the officer.

An officer then began to place Dixon under arrest.  He allegedly tensed his body and pulled away from the officer.

“Let me go,” Dixon allegedly said.  “You’re just doing this because I’m a black man with dreads and I look like a criminal. I’m not a criminal.”

While being taken in custody, Dixon said, “I’m not a criminal.  I give so much to this community.  I’m an NFL player.  Let me call my agent.”

The Saints acknowledged that they are aware of the incident but had no further comment on Dixon, who earned a roster spot last year despite being undrafted.

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Brandon Magee gets advice from Bo Jackson

Magee AP

Officially, former Buccaneers linebacker Brandon Magee remains committed to football.  Unofficially, he’s giving baseball a try — in spring training with the Red Sox.

As he does, Magee is heeding advice from one of the last great two-sport stars, Bo Jackson.

“Some of them I can tell you, some of them I won’t,” Magee said Sunday regarding the pointers he has gotten from Jackson, via Rick Weber of ESPN.com.  “He’s a great guy.  He’s been here before.  He gives me encouragement all the times I talked to him.  He just told me to stay humble and try to keep working hard and outwork everybody out here.  That’s his main key.”

While he still may be interested in playing football, Magee seems to be all in with baseball, at least for now.

“Every day, I’m learning something new,” Magee said, via Weber.  “I’m getting adjusted to it.  It’s a lot different than playing football.  You’ve got a lot flexibility things I’m working on — getting my arm ready, getting my swing right.  I’m enjoying every minute.

“It’s been 90 feet every day so far.  I think starting tomorrow we’re going to ramp it up even more — taking four rounds of BP tomorrow.  So I’m excited about that.”

So how focused is Magee on football?

“I’m just focusing on spring training,” Magee said.  “And I take it one at a time.  When I’m playing football, it’s to help the team win.  When I’m playing baseball, I’m focusing on getting better, helping the team win.  Now I’m just focusing on getting better every day.”

Still, Magee needs to eventually pick a lane.  As Jackson said last year, times have changed since he played baseball and football at the highest levels.  He conceded that he probably wouldn’t be able to pull off playing both sports in 2015.

Currently, the lane necessarily is baseball, because no NFL team has given him a job.

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NFL to begin research Monday into enhanced camera system

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Whatever Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last week in Arizona, it worked.  The NFL will soon be taking a closer look at the use of fixed cameras during games, at the goal line and elsewhere.

Soon as in very soon.  Albert Breer of NFL Media reports that the league will commence research and development on Monday regarding Belichick’s proposal to add more cameras.

Breer says that the league specifically is looking for “the right technology and then how to best integrate the cameras into the replay system that will work in all 31 stadiums.”

Cost has been identified as a reason for not installing more cameras, a red herring that caused Belichick to go blue (unless he didn’t).  But cost surely isn’t the actual issue, especially since the technology easily can become a revenue stream with the slapping of a logo on the pylon and/or the granting to GoPro of a license to call itself the Official Action Camera of the NFL, or some similar foofy marketing concoction.

The more practical challenge from the placement of cameras in pylons comes from the presence of 22 players and seven officials on the field, who can obscure what otherwise would be a clear view of action on the field.  It also will become important for the officials to not place ever further reliance on the availability of visual evidence when making calls in real time, erring one way or the other with the assumption that any errors can be rectified by replay.

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Tisch says St. Louis, Oakland, San Diego are “kind of in the fourth quarter”

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When it comes to Los Angeles, the NFL has a tough balancing act on its hands.  The desire to go to L.A. on one side, the importance of giving the cities where the potential L.A. franchises currently play a fair chance at keeping them on the other.

Ultimately, one or two current NFL cities will be losing their teams.  And while the NFL tries to say all the right things (presumably in order to prevent three stadiums from being empty or close to it in 2015), the cat is far enough out of the bag to make it clear that St. Louis, Oakland, and/or San Diego will be losing their franchises, as soon as next year.

This could come to a vote in a year,” Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said at the league meetings, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  Tisch added that the league has made it “very clear” that those three cities must “get their proposals to their respective teams sooner rather than later.”

“Is it crunch time? Is it a two-minute warning yet? No,” Tisch said, via Thomas.  “But . . . those three cities are kind of in the fourth quarter.”

As Thomas points out, St. Louis seems to be much farther along in the process than Oakland or San Diego.  But owner Stan Kroenke remains, as Thomas characterizes it, on a “bullet train” to L.A.

Which makes the theory that has gathered momentum in recent weeks the most sensible one yet:  The Rams and Chargers go to L.A., and the Raiders slide from Oakland to St. Louis.  Which will mean that only two cities will lose the NFL, but that three teams will be getting new stadiums.

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Russell Wilson: Contract situation will work out

Russell Wilson AP

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is heading into the final season of his contract, but he doesn’t sound overly concerned about getting a new deal done.

“In terms of my contract, I don’t really talk about that kind of stuff,” Wilson said, via the Everett Herald. “I love the game of football. I love playing the game of football. I try to put my best foot forward and I want to be the best to ever play the game. That’s the way I look at it. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of games at such a young age and to be able to play with some great guys and have some great comeback wins and win a Super Bowl, and go to back to back Super Bowls. It’s been special. So that’s what I focus on. I focus on the next opportunity that I have. The rest will come. I believe God is going to bless me. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I trust always. And I trust it’s going to work out the way it’s supposed to.”

The Seahawks get Wilson for this year at the bargain salary of $1.5 million. If they can’t get a deal done beyond this year, however, the only way they could ensure he doesn’t leave is to franchise him at a number approaching $20 million.

Franchising Wilson is exactly what they’ll do if they have to, but they’d prefer to get a deal done before it comes to that. Wilson sounds like he’s ready for whatever happens: Ready to sign if the right deal comes, or ready to wait if he’s not satisfied with what the Seahawks are offering.

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Dixon arrested after moped incident

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Saints cornerback Brian Dixon was arrested for resisting arrest, but not for anything else.  Which raises a legitimate question about what he was being arrested for when he resisted arrest.

That logic still seems to be lost on the authorities in South Beach, but Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate offers some additional details about the incident.

Per Underhill, police say Dixon was driving a moped.  A police officer pulled him over.  Dixon then questioned the officer.  And the officer arrested Dixon.

Without knowing what Dixon said, it’s hard to know whether the arrest was justified.  It’s nevertheless odd that Dixon was arrested for resisting an arrest that still has not been specified.

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Packers to remain “smart” about how they use Eddie Lacy

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The Packers wanted Eddie Lacy to show he could be an effective three-down running back in 2014 and Lacy was successful in that effort.

Lacy averaged over 10 yards a catch on 42 receptions and did a solid job as a pass blocker in his second NFL season, leaving coach Mike McCarthy without too much to tell Lacy about where to improve heading into the 2015 season. The conversation will instead be about continuing to use Lacy in a way that he can be an effective offensive force without putting him at risk of overuse over the course of the season.

McCarthy said he thought the team was “really smart” in how they used Lacy last season. He ran the ball 246 times in the regular season, good for 13th in the league, and it sounds like McCarthy would be happy with a similar total next season.

“I go back to past experience,” McCarthy said, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I went through this, really. Ricky Williams [who was with the Saints when McCarthy was on New Orleans’s staff] was the first running back that I went through the how-many-attempts, how-many-runs [discussion]. It’s a learning experience. I’m conscientious of how many times each guy touches the ball, how much each guy plays, especially the running back. I think you have to be smart there.”

Lacy added 40 more carries while continuing to run well in the postseason, which makes it tough to argue with the contention that the team came up with a good plan for their top running back. As long as Lacy is healthy, they should be able to find the same formula this time around.

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League, Irsay still silent on Indiana law

Irsay AP

The NFL still hasn’t said a word about a law that passed last week in Indiana.  Last year, when a similar law nearly passed in Arizona, the league said plenty publicly — and reportedly was privately considering moving Super Bowl XLIX, with Tampa Bay being the first option.

The league has remained silent regarding the Indiana law even as hundreds rallied Saturday against the law that prohibits the placement of a “substantial burden” on the ability of a person, an institution, a business, or an association’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.  The provision has been interpreted as permitting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence says a bill clarifying the new law is now in the works.

“I just can’t account for the hostility that’s been directed at our state,” Pence said, via the Associated Press.  “I’ve been taken aback by the mischaracterizations from outside the state of Indiana about what is in this bill.”

However it plays out, the NFL’s silence in 2015 makes little sense, given the noise it made in 2014 when Arizona was poised to do the same thing.

Meanwhile, the Colts have said nothing, either.  Which seems a little odd, given the fairly high profile owner Jim Irsay has assumed on Twitter.  Though he recently has been tweeting about roster moves and the league meetings, Irsay hasn’t said a word via Twitter for the last six days.

If the league had said nothing a year ago regarding Arizona, saying nothing now wouldn’t be so glaring.  But if the league were indeed planning in 2014 to pull the plug on a Super Bowl due to be played in a matter of months, complete silence in 2015 makes no sense.

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Erin Henderson set for visit with Jets

Jermaine Gresham, Erin Henderson AP

Erin Henderson’s search for a chance to resume his NFL career will be heading to New Jersey.

Henderson met with the 49ers last week after sitting out the entire 2014 season following his release in Minnesota, but didn’t sign a contract with the team. The Niners have moved on to a scheduled meeting with Lance Briggs and Henderson’s agent says his client is moving on to a meeting with the Jets.

Jim Chapman told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee that Henderson has scheduled a visit with the AFC East club. The Jets re-signed David Harris as free agency opened and have Demario Davis back as well, which leaves Henderson as a depth option at inside linebacker.

The Vikings dropped Henderson last February after a pair of arrests for drunk driving. He started 33 games during his final three seasons with the Vikings and was a fairly effective player before his off-field trouble led to his on-field hiatus.

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Saints cornerback arrested in Miami Beach

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Saints cornerback Brian Dixon has been arrested in Miami Beach for resisting arrest without violence.  Per multiple sources, the arrest occurred early this morning.

It’s unclear why Dixon was being arrested in the first place.  He’s charged only with resisting arrest.

The Saints will now have to decide whether to resist the temptation to sever ties with Dixon, who was undrafted in 2014 coming out of Northwest Missouri State.

UPDATE 12:24 p.m. ET:  Dixon reportedly was arrested after being pulled over while driving a moped.

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Mike Tomlin: We have the goods to be NFL’s best offense

Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The Steelers averaged 27.2 points per game last season, which was good enough for seventh place in the NFL and a first place finish in the AFC North.

Things looked even better once wide receiver Martavis Bryant was plugged into the lineup after missing the first six games. The Steelers jumped to 31.2 points per game, a number that would have ranked first in the league if they’d done it over the course of all 16 contests. With Bryant set for a bigger role from the outset in 2015 and the likes of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger also on hand, coach Mike Tomlin thinks the stage is set for the Steelers to be the league’s top offense.

“My expectation is they’re capable of being the very best because we’ve got the goods,” Tomlin said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We’ve got guys that are capable. We’ve got guys that know what they’re doing. We’ve got guys that played together for an extended period of time now. So that’s a reasonable expectation.”

If the Steelers can’t get their defense on a better track, they’ll need their offense to be at least as good as it was in 2014 to book another trip to the postseason. That’s a change from the familiar balance in Pittsburgh, but it’s one that the Steelers will continue to embrace as long it represents their best path to success.

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