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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

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The Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game last year, but their bid for another Super Bowl title were dashed by the Broncos.

Making it there was a credit to coach Bill Belichick’s adaptability as he had to fill holes created by injuries while finding a way to keep the offense moving in spite of an underwhelming season by Tom Brady’s wide receivers. That stopped against Denver, but the Patriots made it clear they have designs on staying on top in the AFC East.

They signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in hopes of stopping the revolving door at that position, with the Revis acquisition and a growing group of talent in the front seven leading to thoughts of the best Patriots defense in several years.

There were no such additions to the offense, but the hope is that the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski serves the same purpose.

Strengths.

When Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots had one of the most potent offenses in the league. When he was out, they weren’t close to the same level as a team and Brady wasn’t as effective as a quarterback. Whether Gronk can stay healthy for an entire year is a matter of some debate, but his impact on the team is certain.

The Patriots had a pretty good defense last season without Revis. Adding one of the best cornerbacks in the game as he looks to restore some luster after a forgettable year in Tampa has the potential to move the defense from pretty good to great in a shift that the Pats would love to see.

Revis won’t be doing it alone, though. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost after the sixth week of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s torn Achilles made him a bystander as well. Getting both back to go with Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich would make for one of the best front sevens in the conference.

The permanent move to safety was a good one for Devin McCourty, who turned in an excellent year in 2013. With better cornerback play expected, McCourty could be deployed in a more aggressive manner this time around.

Weaknesses.

Julian Edelman caught a lot of passes, but the rest of the wide receivers left something to be desired last season. The Patriots need Danny Amendola to remain on the field and they’d like to see the potential of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Josh Boyce translated into actual production. Without those developments, the Patriots will be relying heavily on Gronkowski remaining healthy once again this year.

Brady was sacked 40 times last year, the second-most of his career, and that number will need to come down this season. Center and right guard are the spots most in need of improvement as Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were weak links last year.

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t re-signed as a free agent, leaving the Patriots without their battering ram in the backfield from last year. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are on hand, so there’s no reason to panic although the team’s versatility took a little bit of a hit with Blount’s departure.

If everyone is healthy, the defensive line should be pretty good. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Will Smith and first-round pick Dominique Easley are all returning from serious injuries, though, and the depth isn’t strong enough to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks if they aren’t in the game.

Changes.

We’ll get to the changes that have been made in a second, right after we discuss the changes that the Patriots hope will take place. After losing Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer to season-ending injuries last year, the Patriots will be hoping that simply being healthier will allow them to push their way back to the top of the conference.

The Pats added three offensive linemen in the draft — center Bryan Stork, tackle Cameron Fleming and guard Jon Halapio — to restock with some young depth up front.

Browner will serve a suspension to start the year, so it will be some time before he and Revis can be deployed as a tandem. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard will be on hand to fill in and then fill out the sub packages.

Brandon LaFell was signed as a free agent after playing out his contract with the Panthers. There’s probably more upside with the younger receivers, but the Pats will take any help they can get at the position after last season.

Camp Battles.

Steve Gregory is gone, leaving an opening at safety next to McCourty. Patrick Chung is back after a spell with the Eagles and he’ll join Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis and rookie Jemea Thomas at the position. Harmon looks like the first choice heading into camp.

The Patriots drafted running back James White in the fourth round and he’ll likely vie with Brandon Bolden for backfield snaps left up for graps after Blount’s departure. Given the fluid nature of running back situations, he could wind up with even more than that if things break right.

New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, setting up a competition with Ryan Mallett for backup duties and the role as unofficial heir to Brady.

Prospects.

The Patriots have advanced at least as far as the conference title game in each of the last three seasons. When you survey the AFC at this point, another trip to that round feels like the expectation once again in New England.

We can’t know which Patriots might be injured this season or which teams might come together to form a whole better than anyone is predicting in July, but, outside of Denver, there aren’t any teams in the conference that are safe bets to be better than the Patriots. And there certainly aren’t any in the AFC East, where the question again appears to be how many weeks it will take for the Pats to sew up the crown.

Getting beyond the conference title game and earning another Lombardi Trophy is a different matter, however. They’ll need better health than last season, development from a young receiver or two and no noticeable slippage from key veterans to add a fourth ring for the Belichick era.

There’s a lot that needs to break right, but the Patriots are in position to capitalize if things do go that way.

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Seahawks’ third-round pick Shaquill Griffin to be in mix for starting role

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Until Deshawn Shead can return from his torn ACL, the Seattle Seahawks will need to find at least a temporary option to start opposite Richard Sherman to begin the regular season.

While the leader in the clubhouse to earn the job is veteran Jeremy Lane, third-round pick Shaquill Griffin will likely factor into the discussion during training camp as well.

“The competition is wide open, these guys understand that,” defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “I’ve said it for years, and I know people kind of look at me like I’m crazy, but Richard Sherman’s job is up for grabs. The competition is open, the best players are going to be out there and they’re going to play for us. The best guys are going to be out there, and if he shows he is more than able and more that capable of being out there and helping this football team, then he will play.”

Lane has played five seasons for Seattle and started a career-high nine games for the team last season. With Seattle shifting to utilize nickel defensive looks more frequently, Lane was a regular on the field. While he can play outside, the Seahawks have previously used him mostly in the slot. But with Shead not expected back until after the start of the season, Seattle needs another starter in the interim.

Griffin left a good impression during the limited activity of the offseason for Seattle’s coaches to envision how he could factor into the discussion as well.

“He’s got probably one of the best corner minds that we’ve had for a young guy around here,” Richard said. “That’s just in regards to leverage, positioning, the understanding of our coverages and where we need him to be. He has picked it up fairly quickly. We’re going to be really excited to see him strap it up and get out there and actually be able to compete for the football while it’s in the air. That’s going to be the next phase, but his technique has been improving day after day, and he has real strength. He has strength in his hands, you can tell he’s a powerful guy, and obviously his speed is there.”

Added head coach Pete Carroll: “He looks good. He looks really good. If you look at our draft class, I think I told you the other day, the guys look like they fit. They fit the expectations. He’s really diligent. He’s real fast. Technique-wise, it’s not hard for him to make it look right. Camp will be huge for him,” Carroll said.

Neiko Thorpe, sixth-round pick Mike Tyson, DeAndre Elliott and Pierre Desir will all factor in to the battle as well, but Lane and Griffin will head into camp as the favorites to win the job.

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Tamba Hali laments departure of John Dorsey in Kansas City

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Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali has seen good, and bad, front office management during his 11-year tenure in Kansas City.

He played through the final three years of Carl Peterson’s tenure in Kansas City and the rocky four years of Scott Pioli’s run before John Dorsey and Andy Reid took over in 2013. Dorsey and Reid have combined to lead the Chiefs to three playoff appearances in four seasons. So Hali is understandably a little caught off guard by Dorsey’s sudden departure from the Chiefs last week.

From a subjective opinion, I wasn’t too pleased,” Chiefs veteran linebacker Tamba Hali said Monday on Good Morning Football on the NFL Network. “I’m really fond of John. Mr. Dorsey, he’s done a tremendous job since he’s been with the organization so everything that happened the past week really caught a lot of us off guard. But I’m sure the Hunt family knows exactly what they’re doing with the re-signing of our coach Andy Reid. I think everything will be fine but Mr. Dorsey will be missed with the Chiefs.”

Dorsey signed Hali to a three-year extension with the Chiefs last year after Hali was named to a fifth straight Pro Bowl in 2015. The Chiefs compiled a 43-21 record in Dorsey’s four years as general manager.

Ryan Crowden, Scott Fitterer, Louis Riddick and Brent Veech are among the candidates to replace Dorsey.

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Adam Gase gives Ryan Tannehill vote of confidence

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Adam Gase wouldn’t make a prediction on Ryan Tannehill’s future a year ago after being hired by Miami. But after the Dolphins quarterback established career highs in completion percentage, touchdown percentage and passer rating in going 8-5, Gase gushes about Tannehill.

“We were put in a lot of tough positions last year,” Gase said, via Clark Judge of the Talk of Fame Network. “And I felt like — especially in our fourth-quarter games, which we had quite a few of them, he did a great job of leading our team [and] finding ways to win.

“Sometimes they weren’t pretty as far as how we had to win them, but I love the fact that he’s the same guy from start to finish. You see him get excited every once and awhile, but it’s probably one of those plays where he makes a good throw, and he gets crushed. But he’s the same guy all the time. And when you can find a guy like that there’s a lot there for us to just keep working on and find ways to get better.”

Gase wants Tannehill to become more aggressive this season, letting it rip, but Gase likes how far the former Texas A&M star has come in the past year.

“I think he’s really made a lot of strides from when I got here,” Gase said. “A lot of it has been his own development through experience.”

Tannehill, 29-35 in his first four seasons, has quieted critics for at least the moment.

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NFL Shop gets very confused about location of Washington’s team

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Apparently, the reluctance of some (I’m looking at me) to use the nickname of the Washington NFL franchise has created some confusion for the fine folks at NFLShop.com.

Via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post, a line of “State Pride” license plates offered by the league has the Washington team logo over the outline of the state of Washington.

Of course, Washington is in D.C., with the name technically being the team’s only connection to the area. Home games currently are played in Maryland, and training camp currently is held in Virginia.

The link to the item is now dead. Hopefully, someone managed to order the thing before the item was yanked.

And, even more hopefully, the man for whom both the state and the capital were named is currently making the same face he was making in the portrait accompanying this article regarding the blunder, somewhere.

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Riddick is a candidate in Kansas City, but he hasn’t directly been contacted yet

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A strange situation emerged on Sunday morning, when the league-owned media conglomerate (i.e., partially owned by the Chiefs) reported that the Chiefs had reached out to ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Louis Riddick about interviewing for the unanticipated G.M. vacancy in Kanas City. Riddick, who presumably would be interested in interviewing for the job given his interest in the 49ers G.M. position earlier this year, took to Twitter to declare that he hasn’t been contacted by the Chiefs.

So what’s going on? One theory, as offered earlier today on the non-vacation vacation edition of the PFT Live podcast (and in the video attached to this post) is that Riddick simply hadn’t been contacted yet, but that he will be. In that case, his more prudent move arguably would have been: (1) to appreciate having his name in circulation for another G.M. job; and (2) to wait for what may have been inevitable.

As one media source explains it to PFT, the truth is that, technically, the Chiefs hadn’t directly contacted Riddick, but that the team had contacted his representation. Which allowed Riddick to technically claim that he hadn’t been contacted by the Chiefs.

So why did Riddick, who definitely is a candidate for the job, shout down the report from Ian Rapoport of NFL Media on social media? It likely has something to do with what he said, or more accurately didn’t say, about the situation to ESPN. Another factor quite likely may be the fact that ESPN’s NFL information machinery ended up being scooped by a competitor — a dynamic that one specific reporter at ESPN is reputed to be very sensitive about, even if said reporter pretends publicly to not be.

For now, Riddick is continuing to pretend to not be a candidate for the Chiefs job, even though he is. It likely is a matter of time for him to interview, unless he withdraws his name or the team decides based on the clunky public denial to move on to another candidate.

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Teez Tabor’s mental makeup impresses Lions

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Some scouts questioned Teez Tabor’s lack of top-end speed after he ran a 4.62 at the combine, but Lions General Manager Bob Quinn has downplayed concerns by mentioning the cornerback’s instincts and “reactionary athleticism.”

Tabor has impressed Lions cornerbacks coach Tony Oden with his mental makeup.

“I consider him a balcony thinker as opposed to a ground-level floor thinker,” Oden said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “So he wants to know what the guy next to him is doing. Before I go over it he starts to think about, ‘OK, what if this route happens? What’s our adjustment vs. that?’ But it’s in a positive way. Sometimes you get guys doing it, trying to just kind of get on your good side. He’s doing it because it’s a legit question.”

While Oden cautions that Tabor has much to learn, the second-round pick has impressed thus far. Tabor will compete with Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden for time opposite Darius Slay.

A three-year starter at Florida, Tabor made 104 tackles, nine interceptions and 37 pass breakups.

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Ezekiel Elliott relies on hurdling to avoid getting hit in the knees

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Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will appear on the cover of a magazine while wearing no covering on his body. He’s the featured athlete in this year’s edition of the ESPN The Magazine “body issue,” which features “all nude, tastefully done” photos of various athletes.

In the press release announcing the placement of Elliott on the cover of the issue, ESPN included some quotes from Elliott, the most interesting of which relates to his habit of hurdling. Though he doesn’t say it directly, the clear message is that he’s trying to avoid taking low hits to the knee.

“One of my signature things is to hurdle people,” Elliott says. “I think it’s one of the most impressive physical feats I’m able to do, being a bigger, physical running back. I don’t have the highest vertical, but I think it’s more of a mental thing. Being a bigger running back, defensive backs will go lower on you — they tend to cut-tackle you. I just kind of gives them the aspect where they have to worry about me jumping over them and right through them; it adds an aspect to my game. I ran hurdles in high school. I was a really good hurdler.”

To continue to be a really good running back, Elliott needs to be durable. Which means it will be important for him to avoid taking the kind of hits that could make mincemeat of his knees.

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Vikings release statement supporting Michael Floyd

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The Vikings continue to support Michael Floyd as they have since signing him. On Monday, Floyd was sentenced to a day in jail for violation of his house arrest.

“When we signed Michael Floyd, we hoped he would show signs of improvement and we continue to expect that he shows progress and a professional attitude,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said in the statement. “We believe Michael will be a productive member of the Vikings organization, both on and off the field. Pursuant to the ruling of the Arizona Court earlier today, Michael will serve the remainder of his sentence and we expect him to be with the team at the start of training camp in Mankato when the players report on July 26.”

The Vikings supported Floyd’s defense that kombucha tea caused him to violate alcohol tests that were part of the terms of his house arrest. Floyd said he did not realize kombucha tea contained alcohol, which he was prohibited from consuming as part of his sentence for a December DUI in Arizona.

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Vernon Davis recalls the hardest hit he ever took, from Kam Chancellor

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Washington tight end Vernon Davis is heading into his 12th NFL season, but one hit stands out above all the rest as the hardest he’s ever taken.

Davis made an appearance for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and told a group of kids that the hardest hit he’s taken came from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, who hit Davis so hard he felt disoriented.

It was crazy. He hit me so hard, I just got up, I didn’t know where I was going. I kind of lost my memory a little bit. I just got up like this, my face was just like aaagh,” Davis said as he made a face, making the kids laugh. “I just didn’t know what happened. I was like, ‘Wow I just got hit by a very big man.’ He hit me hard. You know what somebody told me? He said, ‘Shake it off. It’s all right. Shake it off.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t remember anything. You tell me to shake it off? Why don’t you go shake it off, buddy?’ That was quite a hit.”

The hit Davis referred to gave him a concussion and drew a flag on Chancellor, although Chancellor was not fined by the NFL.

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Dak Prescott working on eliminating “potential Kryptonite”

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Dak Prescott arguably had the best rookie season for a quarterback in history. He went 13-3 as the starter with 3,667 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, only four interceptions and a 104.9 passer rating.

Whether it was easy or not, Prescott made his rookie season look that way.

Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, though, has warned Prescott that defensive coordinators have spent the offseason studying Prescott’s every move.

“You’ve got to build on the good things,” Linehan said, via Matt Mosley and Ed Weder on The Doomsday Podcast. “There were a lot of good things for a young player, but you know they will be gunning for him, studying him a little bit more. You’re not going to sneak up on anybody. They’re going to find out what it is about your game that is strong and what maybe wasn’t as good, and you really dig deep and you study. You say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to be better against this certain, whether it’s this blitz or this coverage they might be working on, my potential Kryptonite so to speak.’ So I think you’ve really got to hone in on that and be a little proactive with it.”

Everyone — from Jerry Jones to Jason Garrett to rookie teammates — has spent the offseason lauding Prescott’s work ethic, which Linehan calls “rare.” Prescott hasn’t sat idly by waiting for defensive coordinators to catch up with him.

“Every day we give him something more,” Linehan said. “It just makes sense to do in a systematic and timely fashion. I don’t think you say, ‘Hey, Dak, in your second year you need to do 10 times more.’ You need to do a few things more every day, just like you did last year. Where you started the season isn’t where you finished. We were doing things at the end of the year we didn’t even dream of doing at the beginning of the year, but there is a time factor that needs to go by.

“…Our job is to put him in a position to succeed and his job is to go out and the execute the plays we call in the situations that we’re in. That’s probably one of his best attributes is he plays his position. He takes it to another level based on a guy who does all the intangible stuff that some guys just don’t get. He’s got that part. The mental side, the experience side, that comes with daily reps and really off the field preparation that he does. He’s got some rare work ethic type stuff.”

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“Huge win” for Michael Floyd

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Yes, Vikings receiver Michael Floyd is going back to jail. No, he’d prefer not to. Yes, the fact that his sentence has been limited to only one day is being viewed by him and his representatives as a major victory.

One source with knowledge of the situation called it a “huge win,” pointing out that the presiding judge had broad discretion. The judge could have, for example, forced Floyd to spend in jail the 96 days he was given the opportunity to serve on house arrest. Likewise, the judge could have imposed a fresh sentence of house arrest, with an order requiring Floyd to serve the term in Arizona.

As it stands, one day in jail and five days of house arrest represent a “can I start serving it right now?”-type of an outcome, allowing Floyd to quickly pay his debt to Arizona and then to focus on his efforts to make the team in Minnesota, and to have a major impact on the field in 2017. This outcome allows him to miss not a single day of training camp and the preseason.

Also, the decision possibly will have no impact on his looming suspension from the league for the extreme DUI guilty plea. He faces a baseline suspension of two games, and it can be increased based on aggravating factors. The positive alcohol test becomes less of a problem if, from the judge’s perspective, the glitch necessitated only one day in jail.

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FOX Sports ditches online written content for video (welcome, former FOX Sports customers)

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The times are a-changing for online written content. But this one is driven more by money grabs than shifting audience habits.

Yes, plenty of younger folks are consuming online content via video. But plenty of folks from all demographics are still looking to get information about sports via the written word.

Here’s the problem: Online videos currently carry much more lucrative advertising dollars (and, in turn, higher commissions) than online articles. Which means that many of the people who are hired to sell advertisements are focusing more on selling video ads than on selling digital ads. Which means that websites are having a harder time selling digital ads, because they are selling more video ads. Which means that websites are focusing on generating video content that will carry the video ads their advertising employees are selling.

Which means that websites are ditching written content that has far fewer advertising dollars attached to it.

The latest, and most significant, example of this phenomenon comes from FOX, which is dumping its entire online writing and editing crew and replacing them with employees who will be enhancing the video operation. Via Bloomberg, by way of SportsBusiness Daily, FOX Sports National Networks President Jamie Horowitz justified the move by explaining that “[c]reating compelling sports video content is what we do best at FOX Sports,” and that FOX Sports “will be shifting our resources and business model away from written content and instead focus on our fans’ growing appetite for premium video across all platforms.”

It’s entirely possible that this claim is true, and that it’s just not cover for the decision to not give all customers what they want but to let the FOX Sports advertising staff chase the biggest commissions in order to serve only those who want video. But if Horowitz’s contention is accurate, that’s on FOX Sports for not hiring people who can generate written content that will whet the appetite of visitors to FOXSports.com.

Either way, welcome to PFT and NBCSports.com, those current-or-soon-to-be-former FOXSports.com customers who can’t or won’t get their information about sports via video, and who have little interest in the #EmbraceControversy style for the purposes of capturing inauthentic moments that will make waves on social media. Here, as you may have noticed, we’re providing content both in writing and through video — but not through video that features yelling and screaming and preening and posturing; instead, we’re generating video that supplements our written content and presents it in an entertaining and engaging way.

If/when FOX decides that it once again can make money from online written content or that it can’t fully and effectively promote video without tying the content to digital articles or that it cares about all of its audience and not just some of it, we hope you’ll remember that we didn’t bail on the format you prefer simply because the current business cycle entails greater financial rewards for generating video.

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Saints place Nick Fairley on non-football illness list

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Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley has been visiting doctors recently for opinions about a heart condition that created concern about his ability to continue playing in the NFL.

It looks like the consensus is that it is better for Fairley to put his career on hold. The Saints have placed Fairley on the reserve/non-football illness list, which means he will not be playing football for the team this season.

Coach Sean Payton said earlier this month that Fairley visited with three doctors and that at least one of them told him to stop playing football.

The Saints also have the option not to pay Fairley while he is on the list. Fairley signed a four-year, $28 million contract with the Saints after recording 6.5 sacks for the team last season, but Monday’s news casts serious doubt about whether he will be on the field during the life of that deal.

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Taco Charlton’s first endorsement deal not with a taco chain

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Taco Charlton seemed like a perfect fit with the Cowboys, what with a name like taco in a Tex-Mex crazy area. So who would have guessed the defensive end’s first endorsement deal would come from a soda company?

Big Red announced in a press release Monday that it had signed Charlton.

“I love my name and I actually do love tacos,” Charlton said in the release. “Although I am new to Texas, I quickly learned that nothing goes better with tacos than Big Red, so I’m excited to partner with such a unique, iconic brand.”

When Charlton arrived in DFW, he received offers of free tacos for life and one local pizza place even named a taco pizza after Charlton. Charlton, whose Twitter handle is @TheSupremeTaco, went on a taco tasting tour around the area soon after arriving.

Charlton’s given name is Vidauntae, but his grandmother nicknamed him “Taco” because he was premature and making a “run for the border,” which was a Taco Bell slogan airing at that time. 

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Michael Floyd sentenced to one day in jail for kombucha violation

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The judge apparently wasn’t a Star Wars fan.

According to Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com, Vikings wide receiver Michael Floyd was sentenced to a day in jail after a Scottsdale judge found him in violation of his house arrest for drinking kombucha tea.

Floyd was prohibited from drinking alcohol as part of his sentence for a December DUI in Arizona, which led the Cardinals to release him. He said he violated the alcohol tests that were a part of the terms of his house arrest (which was transferred to Minnesota) by drinking the tea, which he didn’t realize contained alcohol.

The Vikings bought that explanation, but the Scottsdale judge didn’t care. Floyd also has to serve the remaining five days of his house arrest.

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