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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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NFL tempts fate with inability to handle scandals properly

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Over the years, the NFL’s Commissioner has navigated plenty of difficult situations that could have tested the tenuous balance between the Commissioner’s role as the overseer of the sport and his job as employee of the owners of the teams he oversees. Through it all, an inherent conflict of interest has existed, hiding in plain sight and generating scant scrutiny or concern: How can the Commissioner be expected to police the very people for whom he works?

It’s an obscure, nuanced question, causing few to notice the dilemma faced by the master who is also a servant. And while in most past cases the Commissioner has found a way to solve problems without making conspicuous the delicate ground on which he often treads, the recent bungling of cases like the Ray Rice fiasco and #DeflateGate eventually will cause someone with real political power to notice the fundamental flaw in the structure of the league — and to suggest a solution that would entail a greater degree of independence for the Commissioner.

For the NFL (and other pro sports), a truly independent governing body would be the only way to reliably ensure that all problems would be handled consistently and all franchises treated fairly, without regard to friendship or influence or other factors that could cause a Commissioner to exercise discretion in a way that protects and/or advances the Commissioner’s relationship with a given owner. As it now stands, the NFL (and other pro sports) have a Commissioner who at times pretends to be the representative of all interested constituencies when, in reality, he’s the guy working for the folks who own the teams.

While an election process for Commissioner, with owners, players, coaches, and maybe others voting on the person who would rule the sport, would create plenty of challenges, a broadening of the pool of people who pick the Commissioner would help to alleviate the obvious problem faced by someone who is expected to impose discipline against someone who has a direct, 1/32nd voice in the compensation and/or ongoing employment of the Commissioner. The far bigger wildcard for the NFL (and other pro sports) would arise from a decision by Congress to create an office or a board responsible for supervising the sport, enforcing the rules, and punishing those who cheat.

Before the “doesn’t Congress have anything better to do?” crowd gets too cranked up, the ongoing growth of the NFL — coupled with the benefits it receives from federal legislation that makes the league office a non-profit operation and that exempts the NFL from antitrust laws when it comes to the marketing of TV rights — could eventually compel action, if the NFL can’t properly govern itself. In recent months, the league has undermined considerably public confidence in its ability to clean up its own messes. At some point, a politician will suggest that someone else should police the sport.

While still an incredibly unlikely outcome, the league’s mishandling of recent crises at least puts the potential debate in a corner of the radar. More mistakes could move the subject closer to the center of the screen.

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Goodell says NFL is still looking at changing extra points

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After another season in which more than 99 percent of extra points were successful, the NFL is looking at ways to make it harder.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said today that he wants to continue exploring ways to make extra points more exciting.

“Fans want every play to have suspense,” Goodell said. “But the extra point has become virtually automatic. We have experimented with alternatives to make it a more competitive play, and we expect to advance these ideas through the Competition Committee this offseason.”

Extra points were made harder at the Pro Bowl by moving them farther back from the goal posts, and by making the goal posts four feet narrower. The game’s kickers didn’t like that change, but it did make extra points more interesting.

But is the league ready to take such a step in the regular season? And has the league fully considered the effect that narrower goal posts would have on field goals? It’s clear that Goodell would like to see extra points become more interesting, but it’s unclear whether the NFL has found the right change to make.

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Las Vegas sports book takes “seven-figure wager” on Patriots

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You may very well like the Patriots to win Super Bowl XLIX.

But you probably aren’t quite as confident as the bettor who placed an absolutely gigantic wager on New England at an MGM Resorts International sports book in Nevada.

According to Micah Roberts of “The Linemakers” of Sporting News, MGM took a “seven-figure wager” on the Patriots over the Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Jay Rood, the vice president of race and sports at MGM, told PFT the bet was a wager on New England at pick ‘em.

MGM did not receive a single million-dollar bet on last year’s Super Bowl, Rood said.

The Patriots are one-point favorites over Seattle at numerous Nevada sports books, including MGM’s properties, which include The Mirage and Bellagio.

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Eric Winston apologizes for his shot at Roger Goodell

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NFL Players Association President Eric Winston took a shot at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell today, but it didn’t take Winston long to back down.

Shortly after Winston told Tom Curran of CSNNE.com that a 2-year-old could do Goodell’s job, Winston issued an apology.

“In a casual conversation with a reporter about the success of the NFL and how nothing seems to get in its way, I inappropriately and flippantly made a remark about the job of Commissioner Goodell,” Winston said in a statement passed along to PFT. “We often disagree on the issues but I want to apologize to Roger for being unprofessional. I am disappointed that my comment was taken out of context and inserted into a column without any knowledge that the conversation was ‘on-the-record.’ I am disappointed that this reporter chose to burn me, but this is an important lesson that I will learn going forward. This is my fault and again, I apologize.”

If Winston didn’t realize that his conversation with Curran was on the record, that’s Winston’s problem, not Curran’s. When a journalist talks to a source, the conversation is presumed on the record unless both parties explicitly agree that it’s off the record. If Winston didn’t want his comments published, he shouldn’t have said anything unless and until he and Curran agreed to keep their conversation off the record. For Winston to complain that Curran “chose to burn me” doesn’t hold much water. Curran asked a question to a source and then published the source’s answer. That’s what reporters do.

The NFLPA walks a fine line when dealing with Goodell: The league is often heavy-handed in its dealings with the players, and when that happens the players need to push back against Goodell. But antagonizing Goodell can be counterproductive for the union. Winston seems to realize that he burned himself with his comments.

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Kam Chancellor added to last injury report of the year

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The final injury report of the season is out, and it’s not a dramatic one.

Which, of course, is part of the reason these two teams are here.

The only real change on the report Friday is that Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor was listed as a limited participant in practice today with a knee injury, after not previously appearing on the report.

But he’s listed as probable for Sunday’s game, as are five other teammates: Tackle Justin Britt (knee), running back Marshawn Lynch (back), cornerback Richard Sherman (elbow), guard J.R. Sweezy (ankle) and safety Earl Thomas (shoulder).

The Patriots list is slightly longer, but doesn’t contain anything major.

Center Bryan Stork, who has been limited in practice this week with a knee injury, is listed as questionable.

Six other Patriots are listed as probable for the game: Linebacker Akeem Ayers (knee), quarterback Tom Brady (ankle), linebacker Dont’a Hightower (shoulder), defensive tackle Chris Jones (elbow), cornerback Darrelle Revis (not injury related) and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (foot).

Brady’s on the report as he often is, but has been listed as a full participant in practice all week.

The lack of news on the injury report is good news, as the two best teams in the league get to see each other near their best.

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Carroll, Belichick disagree on whether the Super Bowl is “fun”

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Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Patriots coach Bill Belichick showed mutual respect at their joint press conference this morning, but they also showed what different men they are. That was true from the very beginning, when Carroll enthused at the start of the press conference about how much fun he was having, and then Belichick offered that he wouldn’t describe this week as “fun.”

“It’s been nothing but fun,” Carroll said. “The opportunity that presents itself playing in this game is so special and so unique. Everybody is tuned in and we’re grateful for being here. Thrilled to have the matchup that we have with a great organization in Bill and New England.”

Belichick replied: “I don’t think fun is the word that I’d use. It’s been a huge challenge. It’s a tough team to prepare for, but I certainly have all the respect in the world for them. I could see why they were champions last year and why they are here again this year. They do so many things well on so many levels and we’re going to have to try to match that performance on Sunday. With that being said, our team’s excited. They’ve worked very hard to get to this point.”

Carroll and Belichick are fundamentally different coaches who have shown that there’s more than one way to win. Belichick’s mantra is “Do your job,” and he regularly reminds his players that it is, in fact, a job. Carroll wins by reminding his players that they get to play a game for a living, and embracing the fact that football is fun.

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Titans part ways with Lake Dawson

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The Titans have made a significant shakeup in their front office.

Tennessee has “parted ways” with vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson, the team said Friday afternoon.

The departure of Dawson is something of a surprise. A former NFL wide receiver, Dawson had spent the last eight seasons with Tennessee. He interviewed for the Bears’ G.M. role in January and also talked with the Dolphins and Buccaneers about their G.M. positions last year.

The club also announced it was changing its front office setup. Director of college scouting Blake Beddingfield and pro scouting coordinator Brian Gardner will now work directly under General Manager Ruston Webster. Previously, Dawson oversaw the pro and college scouting operations.

“This was not an easy decision and I want to thank Lake for his time with the team,” Webster said in a team-issued statement Friday. “This new structure will help us streamline things from both the college and pro perspectives. We will move forward without a VP of Player Personnel and the college and pro sides will report directly to me.”

The Titans finished 2-14 in 2014, the franchise’s worst record since 1983. Tennessee has not made the postseason since 2008, and it has not won a playoff game since 2003.

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Prop Challenge, Day VIII — Over-Under on Russell Wilson’s rushing yards: 41.5

Russell Wilson AP

Welcome to PFT’s Prop Challenge, our daily look at a Super Bowl proposition bet.

Here’s the idea: we present a prop, do some light analysis, then let you decide which side to take — hypothetically, of course. (Previous examples are at the bottom of this post.)

When the Super Bowl wraps up, we’ll tally the votes and see how well PFT Planet did.

Now, let’s get to today’s prop, which is courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook:

Over-Under on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s rushing yards: 41.5.

Over: -110. Under: -110.

Including the playoffs, Wilson has averaged 49.8 rushing yards in his 18 starts.

So the OVER looks good, right?

Well, maybe not.

Take Wilson’s three 100-yard rushing games out of the equation, and the third-year quarterback has averaged just 37.4 yards in his other appearances. Also, in the postseason, Wilson has gained just 47 total rushing yards on 14 attempts.

Overall, Wilson has exceeded 41.5 rushing yards in just 7-of-18 games.

In short, OVER and UNDER players have some data in their favor.

So pick a side — OVER or UNDER 41.5 rushing yards for Russell Wilson. Vote in the poll, and share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll be back tomorrow with our penultimate prop.

Previous props studied:

Day I: Over-Under on Brandon LaFell’s receiving yards.

Day II: Over-Under on Doug Baldwin’s catches.

Day III: Will Rob Gronkowski score a touchdown?

Day IV: Will there be a one-yard TD in the Super Bowl?

Day V: Over-Under on Tim Wright’s receiving yards.

Day VI: Over-Under on LeGarrette Blount’s carries.

Day VII: Will there be a safety in the Super Bowl?

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NFLPA president Eric Winston takes a shot at Roger Goodell

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Apparently, not everyone was moved by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference.

And the president of the NFL Players Association was quick to take a shot at management.

Hey, even the worst bartender at Spring Break does pretty well,” Winston said, via Tom Curran of CSNNE. “Think about it, a 2-year-old could [be NFL Commissioner] and still make money.”

So, tell us how you really feel, Eric.

Goodell admitted that the last year had been a difficult one for him, and was asked Friday during the press conference if he ever considered resigning or whether he deserved a pay cut.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t volunteer for either. Apparently that new bottle opener isn’t going to pay for itself.

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Packers fire special teams coach Shawn Slocum

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The Packers gave up a touchdown on a fake field goal and saw the Seahawks recover a key onside kick during their NFC Championship game loss nearly two weeks ago and special teams coach Shawn Slocum gave up his job on Friday.

There was some talk that a change could be made following the loss and the team released an announcement on Friday afternoon that Slocum has been released. He’d been on the staff since Mike McCarthy became the head coach in 2006.

“I would like to thank Shawn for all of his contributions over the past nine years,” McCarthy said in a statement. “He was a positive contributor to our success, including helping us win Super Bowl XLV. We wish Shawn, Michelle and their family the best moving forward.”

The Packers hired former Florida and Illinois coach Ron Zook as an assistant special teams coach before the 2014 season, but there’s been no announcement about whether he’ll be elevated to replace Slocum.

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Chris Harris optimistic on Manning’s return, has faith in Osweiler

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During his appearance on Friday’s PFT Live, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris expressed optimism Peyton Manning would return in 2015, noting the lousy taste the divisional-round loss to former team Indianapolis had to leave with the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

“I believe he’s coming back,” Harris said. “I think nobody wants to go out losing to their former team and the new quarterback that replaced you. I don’t think Peyton wants to go like that at all, so I think he’ll definitely come back.”

Teammate Demaryius Thomas, an earlier guest on Friday’s PFT Live, was more hopeful than certain on Manning’s return.

“I think he will,” Thomas said of Manning playing in 2015.

But Thomas added this: “I say that because I want him back, but I really don’t know.”

If Manning does step aside, it could open the door for backup Brock Osweiler to take the job. A three-season understudy to Manning, Osweiler has thrown just 30 NFL regular season passes.

Both Thomas and Harris believe Osweiler is capable of stepping in if needed.

Said Thomas: “I got all the faith in Brock Osweiler. He’s been around Peyton for three years now. He’s grown every year he’s been there.”

Thomas, for his part, told PFT’s Mike Florio that he would have no qualms returning to Denver if Osweiler, not Manning, were the starter. Thomas is slated to be an unrestricted free agent in March and figures to draw significant interest.

Harris, meanwhile, said he had “a lot of confidence” in Osweiler, a 6-8, 240-pound Arizona State product.

“He’s kind of like a young Joe Flacco,” Harris said of Osweiler. “He has that arm. I think him and (Broncos head coach Gary) Kubiak, I think they’re going to fit perfect together. With the way he ran the offense with the Ravens with Joe Flacco, I see Brock as a similar quarterback.”

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Roger Goodell sounded less optimistic about playoff expansion Friday

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At his pre-Super Bowl press conference last year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that he thought there were a lot of benefits to expanding the postseason.

Among the benefits he cited were a “more competitive” league with better matchups as the regular season nears its conclusion and “more excitement” for the league’s fans. Talks about adding two teams to the postseason never came to a vote with the owners last spring and there was debate about the need to involve the NFLPA, but Goodell continued to sound optimistic about it when it came up in 2014.

He didn’t sound so optimistic about it during Friday’s pre-Super Bowl press conference.

“The possibility of expanding the playoffs has been a topic over the last couple of years,” Goodell said. “There are positives to it, but there are concerns as well, among them being the risk of diluting our regular season and conflicting with college football in January.”

The latter concern wasn’t aired last year and the better matchups that Goodell mentioned would seem to run counter to the risk of diluting the regular season, so it seems significant that they were specified while the positives were left undiscussed. Owners like John Mara of the Giants and Art Rooney II have come down against the idea since it was broached last year and Goodell’s tone may suggest he’s heard likewise from other owners heading into this offseason.

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Rainy day in Arizona forces Seahawks indoors for practice

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The host committee has clearly gone overboard making the Seahawks feel at home, dialing up a cloudy, rainy day in Phoenix.

As a result, the team that ought be to used to it is going inside.

Via Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who is serving as the pool reporter this week, the Seahawks will be using the practice bubble at Arizona State for today’s practice.

There’s a chance of more rain tomorrow, but the forecast looks clear for Sunday. With a retractable roof on University of Phoenix Stadium, the conditions can be controlled for the game, and the Seahawks elected not to soak themselves today.

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Greg Jennings: Not having Adrian Peterson had a great impact

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Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings doesn’t have any more information than anyone else about whether running back Adrian Peterson will be back with the team for the 2015 season, but he doesn’t have much doubt that the team wants him back.

During an appearance with Mike Florio on PFT Live Friday, Jennings said that he thinks everybody from the front office down would be eager to welcome Peterson back to the team. That’s not too surprising, since he also thinks that not having Peterson in 2014 was a blow to the offense.

“It had a great deal of impact. Obviously when you’re talking about a guy like Adrian who any one of the other 31 teams would love to have as their running back, he changes the course of every game. … Not having him definitely impacted what we were able to do offensively,” Jennings said.

If Peterson does return, Jennings thinks he’ll find a coach in Mike Zimmer that has instilled the right culture for the organization and a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater who impressed Jennings with his poise and maturity as the season progressed.

To find out what else Jennings shared during his visit to the show, check out the video of his entire visit.

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San Diego mayor creates stadium task force, including Jim Steeg

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While Roger Goodell was talking about the potential for the Rams to move to Los Angeles, another possible suitor was talking about plans to stay put.

Via David Garrick of U-T San Diego, mayor  Kevin Faulconer announced a nine-member task force to create a proposal for a new Chargers stadium.

The group includes longtime NFL executive Jim Steeg, who worked for the Chargers for five years, but left in 2010. Steeg spent 26 years working for the league prior to that stint.

The group also includes local business leaders, but having Steeg on board will provide the kind of insight into league business they need, if they’re going to find a viable way to keep the Chargers for looking elsewhere.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urged Faulconer to get moving during his press conference Friday.

“I’m glad to hear he’s got a task force going,” Goodell said. “But they’ve been working at this for 12 years, and it’s something we need to see tangible results sooner rather than later.”

That’s a fairly broad swipe at the city, which hasn’t been able to come up with a deal to upgrade one of the worst stadiums in the league.

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