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Preseason Power Rankings No. 14: Atlanta Falcons

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It looked like the Falcons had finally broken through.

But then last season when a few players were broken, some deeper cracks were revealed.

After turning consistent regular season success (56 wins from 2008-12) into their first playoff win under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons fell apart dramatically last year.

The injuries to star wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White were the most evident, but the Falcons were also deeply flawed along both lines, and it began to show.

But this offseason, they have aggressively (how else) pursued a fix to the problems that doctors couldn’t work on.

They used the first hours of free agency to add heft to both lines, setting the stage for a shift to more of a 3-4 defense and the possibility of more of a run game.

Strengths.

Even with the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons ought to be able to score points with anyone.

Once Jones and White are back (they’re crossing their fingers on Jones being ready soon), Ryan should again be able to play pitch-and-catch with anyone in the league.

Fixing the offensive line will help, since it was the biggest problem last year other than injuries. They averaged a measly 77.9 rushing yards per game (last in the league) while allowing 44 sacks.

So the early spend on free agent guard Jon Asamoah and using their first-rounder on tackle Jake Matthews was an immediate upgrade for a line that needed toughness as much as bodies. They’ve installed those two on the right side, and hope that left tackle Sam Baker comes back a different player after knee surgery.

If nothing else, it should give running back Stephen Jackson a chance to look like himself again. The longtime Rams star saw his streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped, and they brought in Devonta Freeman in the draft to add some between-the-tackles running depth (which they’ve lacked).

Weaknesses.

The Falcons haven’t completely escaped the injury bug, and suffered a huge blow when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a torn Achilles tendon in an offseason workout. That will push last year’s replacements and some rookies into more prominent roles.

Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu did yeoman’s work last year, and they’ll be pushed for playing time by a few rookies.

Fourth-rounder Prince Shembo looks like a player they can build around as well, but this is a group still in need of help, which might keep coming once cuts happen elsewhere.

Changes.

The problems with the linebacking corps could be helped by the fact some of their linemen might be standing up more often.

While the Falcons have been reluctant to talk about it, this offseason’s additions made it clear they’re looking at more of a 3-4 look.

Early free agency pickups Paul Soliai (a traditional nose tackle) and Tyson Jackson (a five-technique defensive end), are traditional 3-4 fits, and the price tags don’t indicate they were brought in to be role players.

They also drafted Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round with designs on using him at end, though they have a versatile group.

They brought back defensive tackles Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux this offseason, giving them some versatile options as coordinator Mike Nolan gets to play mix-and-match.

They needed to shake it up, as they couldn’t stop the run last year, next to last in the league at 135.8 yards per game allowed.

The changes will also be interesting as they pertain to veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora, who had 7.5 sacks last year. They’ll give him a chance to do that again, but are casting a wide net for anyone to create pressure.

Camp Battles.

They’re still sorting out the center position, with Joe Hawley and Peter Konz competing there through the offseason.

Konz was given the first crack at replacing the retired Todd McClure a year ago, but it didn’t last the year, with Hawley taking over before the end of the year.

They appear inclined to give Konz, a former second-rounder, one more chance, though Hawley might have the edge.

The retirement of Gonzalez will change the way they line up, as there’s not a like-for-like replacement at the move tight end spot.

They’ll use veteran Bear Pascoe as a blocker, though they have hopes for second-year man Levine Toilolo as a red zone receving threat. But the reality is they’ll replace Gonalez’s production by committee.

Prospects.

The Falcons made the sort of moves teams make when they’re a bit desperate.

The free agency splash lasted about a day, and then they were forced to fine-tune with spare parts such as their trade for backup quarterback T.J. Yates (though return man Devin Hester may still have something left).

The Falcons are talented enough in the passing game to always have a chance, and the additions to both lines should help.

But with Weatherspoon’s injury and a revolving door in the middle of their defense and a division that only got better this offseason, it might be tough for them to reclaim their spot near the top of the NFC South.

It will be curious to see what that means for the future, as coach Mike Smith is entering his seventh season, with one playoff win to show for it.

That’s nearing the point when people start grumbling (he can ask his new division neighbor Lovie Smith about that), so it will be interesting to see if Smith’s seat ever gets warm over the course of the year.

They’ve done nothing but win games under his watch, but the lack of a big postseason payoff could make him less secure than he might initially appear.

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Odell Beckham won’t say if he’ll be at any OTAs

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A report that Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham would take part in Thursday’s Organized Team Activity was proven incorrect when the wideout failed to make the trip from Los Angeles to New Jersey for the voluntary workout.

Beckham wasn’t at any of the team’s first set of OTAs this week and he wouldn’t give an answer to Kim Jones of NFL Media when she asked if he’ll be at any of the remaining seven on the team’s calendar.

“I love my team and am excited about the season,” Beckham said before offering a no comment on his plans for the rest of voluntary work.

Beckham is heading into the final year of his rookie contract — the Giants have exercised their option for 2018, which is guaranteed against injury only — and that’s the first time when players are eligible to sign an extension with the team that drafted them.

Beckham hasn’t said anything publicly about his deal and isn’t required to be at any Giants practices until their mandatory minicamp in June. He told Jones he will be there for those workouts, which may also present an opportunity to hear his thoughts about a new contract.

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Richard Sherman calls story of friction in locker room “nonsense”

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Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is denying a report that he and quarterback Russell Wilson aren’t seeing eye to eye, and that the differences between the two are emblematic of the friction between Seattle’s offense and defense.

Sherman told SiriusXM NFL Radio that the story isn’t true.

“It’s just a bunch of nonsense from ‘anonymous’ sources. Can never put much gravity of things like that,” Sherman said.

While it’s true that much of the detail in the ESPN story comes from anonymous sources, it’s a lot of detail from a lot of sources. It’s hard to believe that all of it is false — especially when it comes on the heels of the Seahawks exploring trading Sherman, something they likely wouldn’t be doing if everything in Seattle were going smoothly.

So while Sherman’s denial isn’t surprising, it also won’t be surprising if in the weeks ahead, more reporting focused on the Seahawks confirms that there really is trouble brewing in Seattle.

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NFL declines comment on federal law that would allow sports wagering

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An effort to end the federal ban on expanded gambling has begun. The NFL, which consistently has fought against the expansion of gambling, has nothing to say about that.

League spokesman Brian McCarthy told PFT that the NFL will decline comment on the fledgling effort to end 25 years of federal prohibition against expanded sports betting at the state level. If successful, each and every state would be able to decide on its own whether to embrace sports wagering.

Some believe the league’s decision to let the Raiders move to Las Vegas represents the first step toward an eventual embrace of gambling, along with an effort to find a way to siphon some of the cash that the league traditionally hasn’t been able to directly touch. It’s a long-term play, but it can’t begin until the federal government changes the law.

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Budda Baker signs with Cardinals

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The Cardinals opened the day with two unsigned members of their 2017 draft class.

They’ll end it with just first-round pick Haason Reddick in need of a contract. Safety Budda Baker signed his four-year deal with the team on Thursday.

Baker is not taking part in the team’s offseason program right now because NFL rules bar him from practicing until the University of Washington ends the school year on June 9. He did get to travel to Arizona to sign his contract, however.

“It’s definitely been difficult being away from the veteran type of guys,” Baker said, via the team’s website. “I feel like I knew this coming into it, and I’m just trying to stay focused and stay with the task at hand. You can just control what you can control and when I am here, just be ready.”

When Baker is able to fully throw himself into life with the Cardinals, he should compete for a role in a secondary that frequently uses three safeties at the same time.

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Michael Bennett calls ESPN article “trash” and “all gossip”

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As one media boycott by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett ends, another one may be beginning.

In response to a detailed article from Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine regarding the depths of the dysfunction in Seattle, Bennett said via Twitter, “This article is trash and should be on TMZ. It’s all gossip. I’m surprised this came from you.”

Bennett posted another message in response to the notion outlined in the article of resentment toward quarterback Russell Wilson: “I love [Wilson] great teammate and friend and even better human. I was at his house last week and he gave me BBQ ribs.”

Neither Wilson nor Richard Sherman, the primary characters from the Wickersham story, have reacted to the article on Twitter.

Despite Bennett’s protests, Wickersham’s article can’t be described as gossip. He has on-the-record quotes from people like former Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith, and Wickersham’s track record suggests that the facts attributed to unnamed sources or something other than #fakenews.

Wickersham will get a chance to react to the reaction, and to further discuss his story, when he appears on Friday’s PFT Live at 7:35 a.m. ET.

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C.J. Mosley recovering from shoulder surgery

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The Ravens picked up their option on linebacker C.J. Mosley’s contract for the 2018 season, but that wasn’t the only offseason development of note for their 2014 first-round pick.

Coach John Harbaugh revealed on Thursday, via Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, that Mosley had shoulder surgery. He has been in the building and taking part in meetings during the offseason program with Harbaugh adding that the team doesn’t have any long-term concerns about his status for the 2017 season.

Ravens guard Marshal Yanda is also recovering from shoulder surgery and has been held out of practices along with linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had biceps surgery. Joining them on the sideline Wednesday was tight end Maxx Williams, who ended last year on injured reserve and had a knee surgery that Harbaugh said no other football player has had before.

Williams, like all the others, is expected to be ready to go in time for training camp.

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Effort commences to legalize sports wagering

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The NFL will oppose gambling, until it doesn’t. And it won’t oppose gambling once gambling becomes legal.

The process of legalizing sports wagering has commenced, with the introduction of legislation that would end the federal ban on the expansion of betting. Via ESPN.com, the Gaming Accountability and Modernization Enhancement Act (GAME Act) would repeal a 1992 law that the prohibit the further spread of state-sponsored betting.

Representative Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) sponsored the legislation. He contends that the prevalence of illegal gambling compels an effort to legalize and regulate wagering on sporting events.

“Despite the federal gaming laws in place today, Americans are betting up to $400 billion a year on sporting events alone,” Pallone said in a statement. “It’s time to recognize that the laws are outdated, and the GAME Act will modernize them by increasing transparency, integrity, and consumer protections.”

It likely will be couched as an issue of states rights, with each jurisdiction determining whether to legalize sports betting and the federal government exiting the business of telling states what they can and can’t do. Over time, plenty of states would embrace sports betting. After years or decades, possibly all will.

The NFL has in the past fought aggressively in court the efforts of states like Delaware and New Jersey to circumvent the federal law that prohibits states from legalizing sports betting. It will be interesting to see what the NFL has to say about this effort to scuttle the federal ban — and whether and to what extent the league will devote lobbying dollars to help the new law or to block the new law.

Some believe that, despite the league’s public-facing opposition to gambling, the decision to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas means that the NFL eventually will do an about-face as abruptly as it did about Vegas, going in the blink of an eye from loathing it to loving it — and acting as if it never previously had a problem with it.

As the NFL tries to get to $25 billion in annual revenue, and with billions already changing hands illegally every year via betting on the NFL, this ultimately represents a way for the NFL to grabs some of the money on which it has historically missed out. Eventually, the end game will be to create a mechanism by which fans can bet on games through official websites and apps, finally giving the NFL a piece of a pie that it has stubbornly refused to taste.

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Jets down to one unsigned pick after signing ArDarius Stewart

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First-round pick Jamal Adams will be the final member of the 2017 Jets draft class to sign a contract with the team.

That became unavoidable on Thursday when the team announced that third-round pick ArDarius Stewart has agreed to a four-year deal. Stewart was drafted with the 79th overall pick after the Jets traded down with the Vikings in the third round.

Stewart was one of two wide receivers drafted by the Jets this year and comes to the team after earning a spot on the All-SEC first-team at Alabama last year. Stewart had 54 catches for 864 yards and eight touchdowns for the Crimson Tide with 30 of the catches resulting in a first down.

Stewart joins fourth-round pick Chad Hansen in a receiving corps fronted by Eric Decker, Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa in the wake of Brandon Marshall’s release following the 2016 season. They’ll be waiting along with the rest of the Jets to find out who will be throwing them passes as the team conducts a three-way competition for the starting quarterback job.

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Dirk Koetter apologizes for his team’s sense of humor

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The Buccaneers social media department did the kind of thing that social media departments do.

Then Bucs coach Dirk Koetter offered an apology he probably didn’t need to offer, so it didn’t blow back on the football department.

Yesterday, the Bucs poked fun of the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl by posting a photo of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and quarterback Jameis Winston to underscore the numerical message.

But Koetter has to play the Falcons later, and used to work there, so he pre-emptively apologized before anyone made a big deal of it.

“I want to make sure, on behalf of the Bucs organization, that I apologize to the Falcons,” Koetter said, via Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times. “Whatever it was supposed to be that went out on social media, that’s not what our organization is all about. That was totally unprofessional and not smart on our part, whoever was responsible for that. Heck, we want to be playing in the Super Bowl, and we were home sitting on our butt while they were playing. We have no room to be making fun of anybody that was in the Super Bowl, whether they won or not.”

For what it’s worth, the Bucs haven’t deleted the tweet, and they shouldn’t. Even if they did, it has been screenshotted and will live forever on the internet.

But Koetter (who was the Falcons offensive coordinator for three years) felt obligated to be nice to the Falcons, even if the NFL feels a little less fun because of it.

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Doug Martin: Going to rehab made me a stronger person

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Buccaneers running back Doug Martin met with the media on Thursday for the first time since he left the team late last year in the wake of receiving a four-game suspension from the league so he could check into a rehab facility.

Martin called his trip to the facility, which left him out of contact with people on the outside, a “journey of self-development” that ended with him feeling like he has grown as a person.

“It was definitely hard to be away from my friends and family,” Martin said. “I found strength in the people I was with around the time. It was definitely worth it. I definitely turned a negative into a positive and I’m out here and I’m definitely a stronger person because of it.”

Martin has gotten praise from Bucs coaches for his work this offseason even as they have hedged on making any plans for after he has served the final three games of his suspension in September. The suspension wiped out remaining guaranteed money in his contract, leaving the Bucs without a financial downside to moving on from Martin in the event they don’t think his journey of self-development ended with a player who can help them win games this year.

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Vikings start signing draft picks

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Some NFL teams have already signed all of their 2017 draft picks while there are others who have taken a more leisurely approach to getting their rookies under contract.

The Vikings fall into the latter group, but they got the ball rolling on signings on Thursday. The team announced that fifth-round wide receiver Rodney Adams has agreed to a four-year deal with the team.

Adams holds the South Florida record for receptions and receiving yards in a single season and ranks second in school history for career catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. He’s also fourth in all-purpose yards thanks to handling 46 kickoff returns over his time in school. Adams returned one of those kickoffs for a touchdown.

With Cordarrelle Patterson gone, Adams could be in the mix for the kickoff return job in Minnesota while also vying for offensive snaps with Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Laquon Treadwell, Michael Floyd, Jarius Wright and seventh-round pick Stacy Coley.

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Bears agree to terms with Victor Cruz

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Victor Cruz will be doing his salsa dancing in Chicago this year.

Cruz, the veteran wide receiver who has spent his entire career with the Giants, has agreed to terms with the Bears, according to multiple reports.

The 30-year-old Cruz was once among the NFL’s elite receivers, but he was plagued by injuries in 2014 and 2015, and although he made it through 2016 healthy, his production slipped significantly. The Bears, however, apparently think he has something left.

In Chicago, Cruz joins a receiver depth chart that also includes Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Cameron Meredith, Kendall Wright and Rueben Randle.

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Von Miller sets his sights on being the greatest of all time

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Broncos linebacker Von Miller has accomplished an extraordinary amount for a guy who just turned 28 years old: He’s been a Super Bowl MVP, a rookie of the year, a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All-Pro. But his ambitions are even higher.

“I want to be the best player in the National Football League. That’s what I go out there to be every time I play,” Miller said, via ESPN. “Over time, my play and the type of person I am will speak more to that. Maybe when I’m done, after playing 17 years or whatever, we can revisit this and see. I want to be the best player, no question. I want to be a GOAT-type [greatest of all time] player, like the guy upstairs.”

The guy upstairs Miller refers to is John Elway, the Broncos’ G.M. and Hall of Fame quarterback who is generally recognized as the greatest player in franchise history and one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game. Miller, who said his offseason work this year was designed to “push my body to a spot where it’s never been before” thinks he has a chance to be that kind of player.

“You’re never guaranteed that working hard will translate to on-the-field success, but that’s what I’m hoping for,” Miller said.

An even better version of Von Miller is a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks.

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Malcolm Butler on Pats future: Whatever happens, happens

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Cornerback Malcolm Butler is back with the Patriots for another season, but there was a time when another year in New England was in doubt.

Butler was a restricted free agent this offseason and met with the Saints about signing an offer sheet for a long-term deal, but the Saints would have had to give up the 11th overall pick of the draft and nothing wound up happening before Butler signed his tender from the Patriots. That leaves Butler set to play out this year before he can become an unrestricted free agent and the cornerback isn’t talking about whether he might want to ply his trade elsewhere should that come to pass.

“The past is the past,” Butler said, via WEEI.com. “I am just here to do a job and do anything to help the team win. Just moving forward. Whatever happens, happens. … I can’t control any of that. Everything is one day at a time. Just take it one day at a time. You can’t predict the future, so just have to go with the flow.”

With an entire season to play and the franchise/transition tags at the Patriots’ disposal, Butler is right that there are too many moving parts to have a solid grip on what the landscape will look like come March beyond knowing it will look pretty good if his fourth NFL season looks like the first three.

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Vikings “really pleased” with Laquon Treadwell’s progress

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In February, Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said that the team expected wide receiver Laquon Treadwell to make a big jump after a quiet rookie season.

Shurmur revisited Treadwell’s status during OTAs this week. Treadwell has been working with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in three-receiver sets and Shurmur said that is a sign of how much the team has liked what they’ve seen from the 2016 first-round pick this offseason.

“He’s had a great, in my opinion, five-and-a-half weeks,” Shurmur said, via ESPN.com. “He came back and he was really on point with what he’s supposed to be doing mentally. He’s been out here competing and doing a nice job running routes and catching the ball. Understanding where he fits in the running game and who to block. To this point, we’ve been really pleased with his progress based on a year ago.”

The Vikings aren’t putting all of their eggs in Treadwell’s basket. They signed Michael Floyd this month as another option at receiver and he should get opportunities once he’s had more time in the system. He’s likely to be suspended early in the season for last year’s DUI arrest, however, and continued progress for Treadwell could close the door on further chances come the regular season.

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