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Preseason Power Rankings No. 10: Carolina Panthers

Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera AP

There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.

Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.

The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.

Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.

But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.

Strengths.

In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.

It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.

Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.

It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.

They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.

They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.

Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.

Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.

It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.

Weaknesses.

As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.

What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.

The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.

Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.

Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.

But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.

They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.

The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.

Changes.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.

Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.

It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.

They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.

In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.

He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.

Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.

Camp Battles.

The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.

One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.

Prospects.

It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.

Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.

They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).

If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.

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Six years, $81.426 million for Julio Jones

Julio Jones AP

Like receivers Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, receiver Julio Jones has signed a five-year deal. Unlike Thomas and Bryant, Jones had one year remaining on his rookie contract.

The new-money average beats Thomas and Bryant; at $71.25 million over five years, Jones eclipses the five-year, $70 million contracts signed last month by $250,000 per year, for an average of $14.25 million. But Jones actually has a six-year deal, worth $81.426 million. That’s a total average of $13.571 million.

Jones could have gotten more in 2016 if he’d played out the fifth year of his first NFL contract, but Jones would have carried the risk of injury through the 2015 season. So he gets less now than he could have gotten later, but he gets more than he would have gotten if he had torn an ACL or had some other serious injury.

The Falcons, who based on Jones’ own words apparently wouldn’t have faced a holdout in 2016 if the franchise tag had been used, were happy to absorb the injury the risk in lieu of paying more later.

Many details regarding the contract aren’t yet known. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the deal has $47 million in guarantees; how much of that is fully guaranteed at signing isn’t known.

Bryant got $32 million fully-guaranteed at signing and as a practical matter he’ll make $45 million over three years. Thomas got $35 million fully-guaranteed at signing.

For Jones, those nuances may not matter; in announcing the deal, owner Arthur Blank called Julio Jones a “Falcon for life,” which means he’ll get all $81.426 million — and maybe more.

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Report: Snyder, McCloughan met for two hours on Thursday

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Redskins Getty Images

Dysfunction take all sorts of shapes and forms. In D.C., the effort to reverse more than a decade of dysfunction is creating the perception of even more of it.

Via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post, CSN Mid Atlantic’s Brian Mitchell said during the team’s radio pregame broadcast that owner Daniel Snyder met for two hours with G.M. Scot McCloughan on Thursday. While it’s not known what they discussed, it’s safe to assume at least two of the items on the agenda were the short- and long-term future of quarterback Robert Griffin III with the team.

In recent days, a sense has emerged that the final days of Griffin’s time with the team have arrived, and that the only question at this point is how the relationship ends. He could, in theory, be traded. He could, in theory, be cut. He could, as a practical matter, be placed in bubble wrap so that he doesn’t suffer the kind of injury that would spill into next year, costing the franchise more than $16 million in cash and salary-cap space.

Whatever happens and however it unfolds, it feels like the franchise is looking for a way to move on from its franchise quarterback. For now, however, the process feels more like groping in the dark for a light switch. The problem for the team is that, as it continues to grope, the light switch simply may not be there.

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Falcons, Julio Jones agree to new deal

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The Falcons and wide receiver Julio Jones have agreed on a five-year contract extension, according to multiple Saturday evening reports.

The deal was first reported by SI.com’s Peter King.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported the contract is worth $71.25 million, with $47 million guaranteed. Those numbers eclipse the five-year, $70 million contracts fellow star receivers Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant signed earlier this summer.

Jones caught 104 passes for a franchise-record 1,593 yards last season. He was entering the last year of his rookie deal.

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Bills play three QBs in first half, and all three play well

EJ Manuel,Tyrod Taylor, Matt Cassel AP

The Bills continue to hold an open and public quarterback competition, and on Saturday E.J. Manuel became the third different player to start in three preseason games.

By halftime, Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor had played, too. And all had played well against a Steelers defense that’s very much a work in progress.

Manuel threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Charles Clay on the second series after the running of Fred Jackson sparked a touchdown drive on the first. He gave way to Cassel, who then gave way to Taylor.

Taylor led an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the half that was highlighted by 19-yard passes to Marquise Goodwin and MarQueis Gray. The Bills had a seven-minute drive with Cassel in the game that ended in a missed field goal.

Manuel was 2-of-2 for 83 yards, Cassel was 6-of-7 for 38 yards and Taylor was 11-of-12 for 101 yards in the first half.

Taylor started the second half.

Bills Coach Rex Ryan had a little fun with the situation and made all four quarterbacks on the roster captains for the game. As for where the competition goes from here, we’ll wait for Ryan to speak after the game — and probably over at least another week.

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Terrelle Pryor not expected to play on Saturday night in Tampa

Terrelle Pryor AP

If the Browns decide to keep receiver Terrelle Pryor, it won’t happen because of anything he did on the field in a preseason game. Because he hasn’t done anything on the field in a preseason game.

The Browns have announced that Pryor is not expected to play on Saturday night in Tampa, due to a lingering hamstring injury. Pryor, who was claimed on waivers and converted to receiver during the offseason, has appeared in none of the team’s preseason games.

The goal for the Brown will be not to assess where Pryor is as of early September but where he could be at some later point in the season, or beyond. He has the physical skills to become an effective receiver, but he has spent his college and pro career playing quarterback.

Besides, it’s not as if the Browns boast an array of Randy Mosses at the receiver position.

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Steelers lose another kicker to injury

Garrett Hartley, Luke McCown AP

The Steelers lost kicker Shaun Suisham to a torn ACL in the Hall of Fame in early August, forcing them to bring in Garrett Hartley to handle the kicking duties.

Hartley was injured in the second quarter of the team’s Saturday, apparently while making a kickoff. The team announced it as a right hamstring injury that will keep him out the rest of the game.

Because he was down, the Steelers were forced to go for it on a fourth and 17 play later in the quarter.

There’s a chance the Steelers would have added another kicker following next weekend’s roster cuts anyway. Now, Hartley’s injury could force them to act sooner — and be forced to continue their search into next weekend.

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Report: Gruden has power to choose his starting quarterback

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Getty Images

At a time when some wonder whether Washington is clumsily hiding behind the “concussion” label to justify going with a starting quarterback other than Robert Griffin III to start the season, coach Jay Gruden apparently has the authority to go with a starting quarterback other than Griffin for Week One, and beyond.

Albert Breer of NFL Media reports that Gruden has the power to choose his starting quarterback, despite the huge investment made three years ago in Griffin, along with the decision to pick up his fifth-year option for 2016 at more than $16 million. (It’s guaranteed for injury only until March.)

It’s tempting to say the situation could get messy. The reality is it could only get messier. Jeff Darlington of NFL Media reports Griffin doesn’t believe he suffered a concussion last Thursday against the Lions. The team originally said during the game that Griffin had been cleared to return. Then, the team said he had a concussion, prompting some in the media to wonder whether the “concussion” label had been used as a way to keep Griffin from meeting with reporters that night, given that Griffin already had had a rough week when it comes to talking publicly.

Griffin thereafter was cleared for Saturday’s game against the Ravens, via press release announcing the he would play. The next day, another press release said he wouldn’t play — and that he hadn’t been cleared.

As Brian Mitchell of CSN Mid Atlantic explained it this week on PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, Gruden was hired to convert Griffin into a pocket passer, something Griffin apparently wanted to do. But it hasn’t worked. And at some point Gruden needs to use someone else, or he won’t be working as the team’s head coach.

None of this means Cousins is the answer. Last year, the 2012 fourth-round pick seemed to outplay Griffin in the preseason. Then, after Griffin suffered an ankle injury and Cousins initially showed promise, he played poorly, eventually yielding to Colt McCoy.

It feels like the revolving door will continue to spin at quarterback, until the team makes another bold move to find the team’s first true, entrenched, year-to-year franchise quarterback since Joe Theismann.

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Vick knows enough about new team to find Martavis Bryant

Michael Vick AP

Michael Vick made his Steelers debut on the second series of the team’s Saturday preseason game in Buffalo and, even after an abbreviated week of practice work in unfamiliar surroundings, knew exactly where to go with the ball.

Vick threw a 63-yard pass to Martavis Bryant on his first play as the Steelers moved inside the Bills’ 20-yard line. Three plays later with the Steelers facing third down, Vick lofted a pass intended to Bryant into the end zone and Bryant drew a pass interference penalty to extend the drive.

The Steelers, by the way, are really going to miss Bryant during his four-game suspension to start the season.

Vick visited the Steelers Aug. 25 and signed with the team after a workout with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The team needs a veteran backup because Bruce Gradkowski was placed on injured-reserve and because third-year quarterback Landry Jones has done little to make the team believe he can produce if Ben Roethlisberger was to suffer an injury.

Vick, 35, figures to get more work today and in next week’s preseason finale, and as long as he’s healthy and catches up to the playbook he’ll likely open the season as the primary backup to Roethlisberger despite being unemployed into the final week of August.

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Redskins, Trent Williams agree to big-money extension

Washington Redskins v Indianapolis Colts Getty Images

Maybe the timing is coincidental, or maybe the Redskins just needed to change the conversation away from the mess they have at quarterback. Either way, the team has made Trent Williams the highest-paid offensive tackle ever.

Per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Williams and the Redskins have agreed to a five-year, $66 million contract that includes more than $43 million in guarantees and $32 million at signing.

That’s a lot of money.

Williams, 27, has been to three straight Pro Bowls and his preseence at left tackle gives the Redskins one thing they don’t need to worry about amidst another mess of injuries and miscommunication.

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NFL admits ref wrongly applied new rule on defenseless receivers

Titans Texans Football AP

The NFL implemented a new rule this offseason protecting receivers from being hit in the head immediately following an interception. But when a referee applied that rule this offseason, it was not done correctly.

NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino admitted as much in a video distributed to the media, saying that in an unnecessary roughness penalty called on Bills safety Aaron Williams last week against the Browns should have been enforced under the old rule that already protected the intended receiver from taking a hit while he’s in a defenseless position. Instead, the referee applied the new rule as if the hit had taken place after the interception, awarding the ball to the Bills when it should have stayed with the Browns.

“We talked about the new rule that was instituted this year, the intended receiver in that action during an interception gets the defenseless player protection,” Blandino said. “But this is not the intended receiver after an interception. This is a receiver trying to catch a pass. This receiver has always been protected under the defenseless player rule. This foul should be enforced on the previous spot, and the offense should keep the football. It was not enforced correctly. The defense kept the football.”

No one is going to get too worked up about that because no one cares who wins or loses in the preseason, but a call like that could cost a team a game if it’s called wrong in the regular season. The officials have to work out some kinks in the preseason, too.

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No one knows who Washington’s Week One starter will be

GriffinCousins Getty Images

Washington coach Jay Gruden has insisted all offseason that Robert Griffin III will be the team’s Week One starter. And the closer we get to Week One, the less believable those statements become.

In fact, reports coming out of Washington are now indicating that Kirk Cousins will not only start tonight’s third preseason game but will also start the regular-season opener against the Dolphins. ESPN reported this morning that the team plans to start Cousins for Week One, while Albert Breer of NFL Network says there’s been no decision yet on the Week One starter.

The reality is that even if the report about Gruden planning to start Cousins is right on the money, that doesn’t mean much, because plans can change. And nothing we’ve seen coming out of Washington in the last few weeks would suggest that this is a team that will make a plan and stick to it.

The best guess is that if Cousins plays great tonight, he’ll start Week One. If Cousins struggles, that opens the door to Griffin, assuming he’s medically cleared to play. And the wild-card possibility is that Colt McCoy could play better with the backups tonight than Cousins plays with the starters, and Gruden will decide to go with McCoy.

Whatever decision Gruden makes, he’d better get it right. Gruden’s first season as a head coach was a 4-12 campaign marked by a season-long quarterback controversy. If Gruden’s second season goes the same way, he may not get a third season.

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Animal Rescue League pulls event from Heinz Field over Vick signing

Michael Vick AP

The Steelers are continuing to face backlash from dog lovers over the signing of Michael Vick.

The latest comes from the Animal Rescue League, which has pulled an October event from Heinz Field because it doesn’t want to have any connection to Vick, who was convicted of a felony for his involvement in a dog fighting ring.

“While we understand that Mr. Vick has made an effort to atone for his past mistakes and has worked to help strengthen animal abuse laws, we do not believe that it is appropriate for him to continue a high-profile and influential public career,” the organization said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Our hope is that the very public discourse taking place across Steeler Nation this week raises awareness of the brutality and inhumanity of dog fighting. With increased community knowledge of the issue, we can all play a role in helping to end dog fighting once and for all.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says the team stands by its decision to sign Vick this week. Even if that costs them some dog-loving fans.

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Kirk Cousins starts tonight, in what really might be his biggest game

Kirk Cousins AP

When Joe Theismann claimed this week that Washington’s upcoming preseason game was the biggest game of Robert Griffin III’s life, it seemed like extreme hyperbole.

But tonight’s game really might be the biggest yet for Kirk Cousins.

Cousins, who according to multiple reports has been declared tonight’s starter in Griffin’s place, now gets a great opportunity to perform with Washington’s first-string offense. In the first two weeks of the preseason, with Griffin as the starter, the offense has looked terrible. If Cousins looks poised and efficient and leads the starting offense on multiple scoring drives, coach Jay Gruden may have no choice but to make Cousins the starter for the regular season.

On the other hand, if Cousins struggles tonight just as mightily as Griffin has struggled, everyone will say it shows that Washington’s entire offense is a mess, and it goes far beyond the starting quarterback.

Theismann, the former Washington quarterback who is now the team’s preseason TV commentator, said on NFL Network that he believes Cousins will in fact be the Week One starter if he plays well tonight.

“[Griffin’s] future depends on what happens with Kirk,” Theismann said. “. . . If Kirk goes out and plays well, you have to assume that he’s going to be the guy who has to start because he hasn’t missed any time.”

Today could be the day that Griffin loses the starting job in Washington, for good.

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Gruden said Friday that RG3 was cleared, would play if he felt ready

Jay Gruden AP

Hours before the team announced on Friday that a doctor was keeping Robert Griffin III out of Saturday’s preseason game with a concussion, Washington coach Jay Gruden said that Griffin had been given final medical clearance from multiple doctors, and that the big remaining question was whether Griffin himself felt ready.

“He’s cleared from all the doctors, the neurologists — they’ve been cleared. We still want to talk to the player and make sure he’s ready to go mentally and our trainers make sure they feel like he’s ready to go also. Being cleared from the doctor doesn’t mean the player feels 100 percent so we’ve got to make sure he feels ready to go, too,” Gruden said on NFL Network, in an interview taped at 2 p.m. on Friday.

Only a few hours later, the team said a doctor had checked Griffin and declared him unable to play. So what happened? The team hasn’t offered a full explanation. Given that Gruden said the remaining issue was whether Griffin “feels ready to go,” the most likely answer would seem to be that Griffin told the doctor he had a headache or some other symptom associated with a concussion, and as a result the doctor said Griffin couldn’t go.

Gruden’s comments put Griffin in a tough position. Fair or not, when a coach says a player will play if he feels ready, and then that player doesn’t play, there’s a perception that it’s the player’s fault for not being willing to tough it out and get on the field.

The doctor’s Friday evening statement suggested that Griffin could still need a week or two to recover. Of course, at this point we can’t trust anything we hear about Griffin’s status.

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Tottenham soccer star Harry Kane says he’d like to play in the NFL

Leicester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Getty Images

Harry Kane, a star for the English soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, says he’d like to give kicking an American football a try some day.

“It depends on how my football career goes but, when I am finished, I would love to go the NFL and be a kicker. Even if I got to play just one game it is something I would like to do. It’s a long way off yet. But it is definitely something I have thought about,” Kane told The Sun.

Kane says he has kicked a football with NFL kickers and has as strong a leg as they do, although he admits he would need to work on his consistency with an oblong ball.

“We’ve had NFL teams come to Spurs and I can kick the ball as high and as far as them, but not on a consistent basis so I would need a bit of practice first,” Kane said.

Players from other sports — notably Australian football and rugby — have made a successful transition to the NFL, with 49ers running back and return man Jarryd Hayne the most recent example. But there’s a fundamental difference: Australian football and rugby players have a financial incentive to play in the NFL because they can make more money in America. Top European soccer stars make more money than NFL kickers, so if the 22-year-old Kane continues to be a successful soccer player across the pond, he would be losing money by trying football. And if he tried kicking in the NFL only after he’s past his prime in soccer, he would probably be past the age when he’d be able to make a move to the NFL.

Realistically, Kane won’t become an NFL kicker. But the mere fact that he’s talking about will be taken as a success by the NFL, which is trying hard to establish popularity in England. A popular English athlete talking up the NFL is music to the ears of the league office.

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