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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: New Orleans Saints

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The Saints are in an interesting position.

There might not be a team in the NFL as good as the thing they do than the Saints are at throwing the football.

The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees continue to be one of the best coach-quarterback pairings, and now that the contract unpleasantness with tight end* Jimmy Graham is over, their offensive weapons are in place, mostly intact from last year.

But where does that get them?

When the top teams in the NFC are playing power football, can the Saints push beyond big fantasy stats with finesse?

They benefit by being different from the teams that topped the conference last year (the Panthers likewise want to play physically), but this year will be a test to see if that difference is meaningful.

Brees is still at the top of his game, but that might not be enough any more.

Strengths.

Did we mention Drew Brees was good at throwing the ball?

He threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions last year.

And with Graham paid, they still have an impressive array of targets.

Marques Colston is still producing at a high level, and even with a change in the backfield (more on that in a moment), they’re going to be able to move the ball.

Payton is tremendous at the chess match of offense, and incorporating some new guys into the scheme will allow them to develop that capability.

Adding first-round speedster Brandin Cooks should more than make up for the departure of Lance Moore, especially with Kenny Stills developing into a more dependable target.

Weaknesses.

Last year, the Saints’ defense might have been better than their offense, or perhaps it was just by contrast to the year before.

Rob Ryan transformed a group that set a league record for yards allowed in 2012, and it’s not as if they had a gigantic personnel upgrade.

Ryan was patching together parts, and injuries didn’t help.

But Junior Galette emerged as a legitimate outside linebacker option, and defensive end Cameron Jordan had a breakout year with 12.5 sacks.

The offseason’s big acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, ought to be able to make a big impact, paired alongside Kenny Vaccaro. That enthusiasm was dampened a bit when Byrd needed back surgery, knocking him out of most of the offseason work.

The only problem is, the Saints still might not have sufficient personnel on that side of the ball, so regression is a real possibility.

They finally pared away some of the old parts on defense (cutting Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), which might have been necessary.

But other than bringing in last-legs cornerback Champ Bailey, there wasn’t the kind of influx of talent they might have needed.

They improved last year based largely on energy and emotion, and we’ll see how long that lasts in the face of a talent discrepancy.

Changes.

The Saints traded a complementary running back, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a headline move.

But that back was Darren Sproles, who was such an integral part of their offense, catching 71 passes last year.

Replacing him will be a huge challenge, and they’re going to be relying on a deep group of backs.

Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will likely get most of the carries, but Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet will need to make a big step to pick up the slack from Sproles’ departure.

Cooks might be the biggest beneficiary of the change, as they want to take advantage of his 4.3 speed. While it’s not a like-for-like replacement, he does have the same kind of game-changing ability as Sproles.

Camp Battles.

The Saints offensive line was a work in progress last year, but rookie Terron Armstead settled into a spot where they’re comfortable with him at left tackle. They were also able to hang onto right tackle Zach Strief and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return.

That leaves a hole in the middle, after Brian de la Puente left in free agency for Chicago.

Tim Lelito will get the first crack, but they brought veteran Jonathan Goodwin back for cover, giving them a reasonable competition.

It would also help if a young cornerback would step up opposite Keenan Lewis. They brought in Bailey, but all parties are probably best served if he’s able to limit his snaps a bit. Second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives them some new size at the position, which will enable them to match up better with the big wideouts in their division.

Prospects.

They’re going to be pretty good.

If the defense continues at last year’s pace, they can be very good.

But the Saints have problems local and national.

They play in perhaps the league’s deepest division, with the Falcons healthy and re-tooled and the Buccaneers on the upswing with Lovie Smith along with the defensively stout Panthers.

Then comes the matter of whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and 49ers to make a push for another title.

That makes the regular season of extreme importance. They’re a different team in their own building, so getting home field advantage might mean more to them than any team in the NFC.

If they can get it, the Saints could easily be a Super Bowl team.

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Roddy White questionable, Jake Matthews probable for Falcons

Roddy White AP

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Tuesday that wide receiver Roddy White didn’t need to practice in order to play against the Buccaneers on Thursday night, so you wouldn’t expect the fact that White spent another day on the sideline on Wednesday to have much bearing on how he’s listed on the team’s injury report for their game.

It didn’t. White is listed as questionable, which means that the Falcons will make a final call about whether or not White can go on a balky hamstring. Based on Smith’s comments, the best guess would be that White is in the lineup. How close to 100 percent he’ll be after also tweaking his knee in the opener is another question, however.

The Falcons have more certainty when it comes to left tackle Jake Matthews. He missed last week with an ankle injury, but he’s practiced this week and got a probable tag from the team. That should mean he’s back in the starting lineup with Gabe Carimi going back to his third tackle role or spelling Lamar Holmes on the right side.

Wide receiver Julio Jones (ankle) and linebacker Prince Shembo (knee) are also listed as probable for Atlanta.

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New substance-abuse policy may help LaVon Brazill, not Darryl Washington or Justin Blackmon

LaVon Brazill AP

It’s already known that Browns receiver Josh Gordon will have his suspension reduced from a year to 10 games under the new substance-abuse policy.  It’s not known whether other players will receive any type of relief once the new substance-abuse policy is implemented.

Per a league source, the new policy is likely to reduce the suspension imposed on former Colts receiver LaVon Brazill (pictured), who was cut by the Colts and headed to the CFL.  The new policy won’t help Cardinals linebacker Darryl Washington, who has been suspended for a year, or Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon, who was suspended for a large chunk of the 2013 season and who has not yet been reinstated.

Only the new PED policy has been announced.  The new substance-abuse policy is expected to be announced soon.

The new PED policy resulted in the lifting of ony three player suspensions — Broncos receiver Wes Welker, Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick, and Rams receiver Stedman Bailey.

 

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Vontaze Burfict diagnosed with another concussion

Vontaze Burfict, Paul Guenther AP

The Bengals were unsure whether or not linebacker Vontaze Burfict would be able to play in Week Two after suffering a concussion against the Ravens in the season opener.

Burfict was able to get clearance through the league’s concussion protocol and took the field against the Falcons, only to see his day come to an early end with what the team called a stinger at the time. Burfict missed practice on Wednesday, but he wasn’t listed as having a stinger.

Burfict is listed as suffering from another concussion. Geoff Hobson of the team’s website reports that Burfict began having concussion symptoms after being diagnosed with the stinger and he’ll now reenter the protocol before he can be cleared to practice or play in a game. After a second concussion in such a short amount of time, Burfict may need to wait a bit longer before the green light comes this time.

Wide receiver A.J. Green, who hurt his foot in the Falcons game, also didn’t practice, but said he’ll try to give it a go on Thursday. Guard Kevin Zeitler was in a boot after injuring his calf and Hobson believes he’s doubtful to be on the field against the Titans this week.

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Joe Flacco Has a Cold

Joe Flacco AP

A starting quarterback who’s never missed a regular season game has missed his team’s first practice of the week.

Ravens starter Joe Flacco didn’t participate in the club’s workout on Wednesday, according to the team’s official Twitter feed. The Ravens (1-1) play at Cleveland on Sunday.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not elaborate on Flacco’s absence, the club said.

However, it appears that Flacco may just be a little under the weather. According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Flacco has a cold. Also, Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com reported that “word is” Flacco isn’t feeling well.

This sounds like a story right in Gay Talese’s wheelhouse.

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Scandrick and Spencer at practice in Dallas, Romo out

tonyromo AP

There was good news for the Cowboys’ defense and bad news for the offense at practice today.

Dallas got back cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who was on the field thanks to the NFL ending his suspension. Although Scandrick had been suspended for the first four games of the season under the old drug-testing policy, when the league and the players formally agreed to a new drug policy today, one of the byproducts was that Scandrick’s suspension was reduced to time served. Scandrick is back and from all accounts ready to go.

Also back, though perhaps not ready to go, is defensive end Anthony Spencer. Today was Spencer’s first time on the practice field since microfracture surgery a year ago, which is a positive step in his recovery. But Spencer isn’t ready to go through a full practice just yet, which probably means it’s going to be a while longer before he’s ready to play in a game.

Tony Romo, whose 2013 season was cut short because of back surgery, had to miss practice today to rest his back.

Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant was at practice but not doing much as he continues to rest the shoulder he injured on Sunday. Bryant returned to Sunday’s game after the injury and is expected to play this week, but the Cowboys are taking it easy on him on the practice field.

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Gloria Allred blasts NFL for handling of Brandon Marshall case

Brandon Marshall AP

Celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred started the press conference ripping into the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell, with charges that he ignored complaints filed regarding Brandon Marshall.

Allred appeared with Kristeena Spivey, who accused the now-Bears wide receiver of abusing her friend Rasheedah Watley.

Marshall denied ever abusing Watley in 2009, but Spivey recalled an incident when Marshall rammed into her car, and threw a chunk of cement at a window to try to get Watley out.

Spivey said she called and emailed Roger Goodell, but never heard back from him. Marshall was suspended three games, but that was reduced to one.

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Rusty Hardin: No plea discussions in Adrian Peterson case at this point

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Adrian Peterson is on the exempt list until his legal proceedings have reached their conclusion and his lawyer said Tuesday that there’s no quick resolution in the works.

Rochelle Olson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Rusty Hardin said that there have been no plea discussions with prosecutors regarding the charges of reckless or negligent injury to a charges that Peterson faces in Texas. Hardin said that he still expects there to be a trial next year.

Hardin also released a statement.

“Adrian wants to continue his work in the NFL and contribute to his team and community,” the statement reads. “In order to do so, he is prepared to resolve this matter in the appropriate legal forum rather than the court of public opinion. I have spent my entire career asking people to wait until all the facts are in, and I’m doing so again today. Ultimately, it will be up to a judge and jury to decide this case, which is the way it should be. Ours is the greatest legal system in the world, and Adrian is confident that a just result will emerge once all the facts are presented.”

There’s a lot of time between now and next year for talks about a plea to pick up and Hardin would be showing too much of his hand to say that he’s looking to plead out as soon as possible, but there may be motivation to come to a quicker resolution with Peterson’s return to the NFL contingent on the case coming to an end.

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DeSean Jackson doesn’t practice, but doesn’t plan on missing date with Eagles

DeSean Jackson AP

The Redskins are going to Philadelphia on Sunday, a trip that’s been circled on wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s calendar since the day the schedule was announced.

It’s Jackson’s first chance to play against the team that released him in the spring and he didn’t make any attempt to downplay the importance of the game on Tuesday.

“It’s going to be a huge game for myself and I’ve looked forward to ever since everything went down the way it went down,” Jackson said, via the Washington Post.

Complicating matters for Jackson is a shoulder injury suffered in last Sunday’s victory over the Jaguars. Jackson wasn’t a participant in practice on Wednesday and coach Jay Gruden wasn’t ruling him in or out, but Jackson sounded confident that he’d get the green light medically in time to face his former team.

“I’m a very confident person, regardless of an injury and I pride myself on not missing any games and prepare myself any and every way I can to help my team. So when it comes time for game, I’m going to do everything I can to get myself prepared and ready. Being cleared through my trainers is more of ‘we’re waiting’ more than anything. But I should be good come Sunday.”

Assuming he’s right, Jackson’s return to Philly in a different uniform will be one of the top storylines in Week Three.

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Greg Hardy hasn’t agreed to paid suspension, yet

Hardy Getty Images

When it comes to players accused of domestic violence whose cases are still pending, the NFL has discovered plutonium by accident.

Either way, the emerging trend is to suspend the player with pay, via the little-known Exemption/Commissioner’s Permission designation.  It’s catch-all that allows a team to park a player on the sidelines for an indefinite period of time.  And it’s the modern equivalent of the Bucs and Eagles sending Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens, respectively, home with pay.

Because the labor deal no longer allows guys to be sent home with pay, the player has to agree to this approach.  In the case of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the player agreed.  In the case of Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that the player hasn’t, yet.

While there’s a good chance he will, keep in mind that Hardy faces evidence that is less clear than the charges pending against Peterson, who essentially admits spanking his son to the point of broken skin.  Hardy, found guilty via a preliminary trial so informal that the state doesn’t even generate a transcript of the proceedings, still has a chance to go to court and to pull out a win before a jury, especially since the standard for a criminal conviction is so high.

Apart from the fact that Hardy may be exonerated is the reality that he’s due to become a free agent in 2015.  If he’s not playing, it becomes harder for Hardy to position himself for a major payday in free agency.  And if he’s ultimately acquitted, that major payday could still come.

Regardless of Hardy’s circumstances, this seat-of-the-pants procedure gives the NFL too easy of a way out of the maze the league has created by caring about what players do when not at work.  Instead of suspending the player with pay before his case ends and then presumably suspending him without pay after he is found legally responsible, the league should mobilize an NTSB-style team of investigators to explore the circumstances and make a quick decision as to whether the player is or isn’t guilty.

If the NFL believes he’s clean, he plays.  If the NFL thinks he did something wrong, he receives punishment.  Either way, the cloud of uncertainty won’t linger over the player, his team, and the league.

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Report: Goodell wants to “be a leader in the domestic violence space”

Roger Goodell AP

So far, we’ve heard more from Zygi Wilf and Jerry Richardson and Steve Bisciotti than we’ve heard from Roger Goodell.

There are indications that could be changing, soon.

A source close to Goodell told Peter King of TheMMQB that “Roger has determined that he will be a leader in the domestic-violence space.”

Any time he wants to start would likely be relief to those in Minnesota and Carolina and Baltimore, and around the league where the off-field abuse allegations against stars has overshadowed the start of the season.

And that fact that King’s article is titled “It’s Past Time, Commissioner” should tell you which way the winds are blowing.

Goodell has hired four women in the last week, one to head his Washington office and three to help him drive the league’s new programs surrounding domestic violence.

But while putting out fires by placing players on the equivalent of double secret probation, we haven’t heard from Goodell since a pair of handpicked interviews with female journalists (neither of whom operate within the NFL sphere) last week.

You’d think that would change sometime soon.

But until it does, the sounds of silence coming from 345 Park Avenue are deafening.

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Doug Martin, Gerald McCoy questionable for Thursday night

Gerald McCoy AP

Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy broke his hand last Sunday and hasn’t practiced at all this week, but the Bucs aren’t ruling him out of Thursday night’s game against the Falcons.

McCoy has been listed as questionable on the team’s Wednesday injury report, which should mean he has a 50/50 chance of being on the field. Coach Lovie Smith said, via the team, that McCoy has been feeling better since being fitted for a cast, but no decision will be made until Thursday about his status. If he can’t play, Akeem Spence, Clinton McDonald and Da’Quan Bowers will be the options inside for the Bucs.

Running back Doug Martin missed Sunday’s game with a knee injury, but he’s been practicing this week and also drew a questionable tag for the NFC South matchup. The same goes for defensive end Michael Johnson, who was held out of the loss to the Rams because of an ankle injury.

The Bucs ruled out linebacker Mason Foster and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

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Jay Gruden: When McCoy comes out and Sproles comes in, we’re like “Oh s—“

Jay Gruden AP

Eagles running back Darren Sproles had a monster game against the Colts on Monday night, displaying exactly the kind of playmaking ability that he showed in New Orleans and San Diego before being traded to the Eagles for a fifth-round pick during the offseason.

That ability makes Sproles’ impact on the Eagles offense has hard to miss and Redskins coach Jay Gruden has picked up on it while preparing for this weekend’s NFC East clash between the two teams. As Gruden explains, there’s no longer a reason to catch your breath when LeSean McCoy is on the sideline.

“You’d think when McCoy comes out of the game we’re high-fiving, you know, ‘Hey, he’s on the bench, thank god.’ All of a sudden Sproles come in and we’re like, ‘Oh, s—,'” Gruden said, via CSNPhilly.com. “They’re two dynamic players when the ball is in their hands out in space. Our job is to know where they are at all times. We’ve got to do a great job of not just tackling one guy but gang-tackling and everybody running to the ball.”

Sproles has actually produced more yards and touchdowns in the first two games than McCoy, something that few people probably predicted heading into the season. It’s unlikely that things will remain that way over the long haul, but that’s all the more reason for defenses to be at their sharpest when facing off with the Eagles this season.

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Gloria Allred calls presser to detail another NFL abuse case

Gloria Allred AP

With a decision on Greg Hardy’s playing status imminent, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might have thought he tied up all his domestic violence loose ends.

So naturally, another one is about to fray.

According to Mike Morris of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, attorney Gloria Allred has called a 3 p.m. press conference where she’ll discuss alleged incidents of abuse by another NFL player.

Allred said in a statement she would be joined by “two individuals who allege that they or a family member were victims of violence and abuse by an NFL player,” and that those two would “discuss how the NFL and Commissioner Goodell failed them.”

There was no information about the identity of the people who’d be talking, or who the player was.

You can practically hear the puckering in New York now.

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C.J. Spiller takes home AFC special teams player of the week

C.J. Spiller AP

The Bills improved to 2-0 last Sunday thanks in part to some big contributions from running back C.J. Spiller.

Spiller ran for 68 yards, including a 47-yard scamper to set up a score, and returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. That latter accomplishment helped Spiller nab AFC special teams player of the week honors for the second time in his career.

Spiller previously won the award as a rookie in 2010, which was the last time that Spiller was the team’s primary kickoff returner. The team put Spiller back in that position this year to give him more chances to make plays, something that worked out handsomely for them against the Dolphins.

It’s the second straight week that a Bills player has taken home special teams honors. Kicker Dan Carpenter was the Week One recipient after his field goal in overtime gave the Bills a win over the Bears.

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Rice appeal could hinge on private meeting with Goodell

Newsome Getty Images

The appeal of Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension will find out what the NFL knew and when the NFL knew it about what happened inside that Atlantic City elevator.  To get there, the hearing officer will have to assess the accuracy and credibility of a variety of witnesses who said things and/or heard things said when Rice explained the incident.

Ravens G.M. Ozzie Newsome said last week that Rice didn’t lie to Newsome.  Since Newsome was in the room when Rice met with Commissioner Roger Goodell in June, that sets up a potential dispute between Newsome’s recollection of Rice’s remarks and Goodell’s.

But Newsome said something else last week that will raise the stakes on the looming effort to figure out who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.

“We had a meeting but also Ray and Janay and Roger had a separate meeting and a story was told in that meeting,” Newsome said.  “So what was said during the meeting between the three could have been a lot different than what was said when the eight of us were in a room together.”

Ultimately, the question of whether Rice lied could come down to the credibility of the testimony from Rice, his wife, and Goodell regarding the statements made during that meeting.  Since the NFL makes no transcript of these meetings, there’s no way to know with certainty what was said.

Goodell’s decision to meet privately with Rice and his wife makes Goodell a central witness to the question of whether the NFL knew what was on the tape, and it makes it even more important that a truly independent party with no direct or indirect ties to Goodell be responsible for getting to the truth.

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