How will the Ezekiel Elliott appeal hearing unfold?

Getty Images

With NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell choosing Harold Henderson to handle the Ezekiel Elliott appeal hearing, the next question becomes this: What will the appeal hearing look like?

The CBA doesn’t provide much guidance. And by not much, I mean none. Article 46 says nothing at all about the legal standard that applies, the rights of the player to present evidence or confront witnesses, and/or the duty of the NFL to affirmatively prove its case.

The league office tells PFT that the Commissioner’s decision will be reviewed under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard, which means that it would be overturned only if deemed to be (duh) arbitrary and/or capricious. This implies that the question will simply be whether the Commissioner got it sufficiently wrong that it seems random and without rhyme or reason.

It’s unclear what Elliott will be able to do to prove that. Appeals in a court of law typically occur based on a record of evidence that is closed and completed. But the NFL often takes testimony during these hearings, which makes them instantly different from appeals pursued in the justice system.

For Elliott, the real question is whether Henderson will attempt to resolve the credibility of the witnesses, which is something Goodell didn’t do in making the original decision. This presumes that the NFL will actually be introducing its evidence, including testimony from Tiffany Thompson.

It’s unclear whether Thompson or Elliott ever have told their stories under oath. Thompson, whose text exchange with a friend shows a clear financial incentive as it relates to Elliott, has yet to sue Elliott for bodily injury and emotional distress arising from it. She still can; once she does, she’ll eventually be required to testify under oath.

If the NFL is going to stay in the business of supplementing the criminal justice system, the Court of Big Shield needs to look something like a normal court. Players who are accused of wrongdoing should have the right to face their accusers. The lawyers representing the players should be able to cross-examine the accusers.

Without such basic protections, it’s impossible to get to the truth in a manner that respects the rights of the player — especially when it comes to discipline for misconduct that has no connection whatsoever to the workplace.

If guilty of domestic violence, Elliott should pay the price. But the process for determining guilt or innocence must give him a fair chance to rebut potentially false or inaccurate claims. Without those protections, the floodgates will fly open for false and/or inaccurate claims to be made against many more NFL players.

Harold Henderson isn’t a truly impartial arbitrator

Getty Images

Harold Henderson is an independent arbitrator. Unless he isn’t.

It’s an issue that has come up in the past, and with Henderson now appointed to handle the Ezekiel Elliott appeal it will come up again.

The NFL and NFLPA have disputed whether Henderson, a former NFL executive, is truly independent. While he isn’t a current league employee, he is routinely appointed by the league to handle hearings of this kind. The gig pays, it likely pays well, and he’d presumably hope to keep doing it.

As of November 2014, Henderson had handled 87 player appeals since 2008. Still, the union consistently has objected to Henderson’s appointment.

“A long-time NFL Executive and current legal consultant cannot, by definition, be a neutral arbitrator,” the union said in a statement released to PFT three years ago, in connection with the decision to appoint Henderson to handle Adrian Peterson‘s Personal Conduct Policy appeal.

Many (including some league employees) already are claiming that Henderson is independent by pointing out that he reduced Greg Hardy’s suspension from 10 games to four. But that was a grossly over-the-top penalty in light of the controlling precedent at the time — a two-game suspension for first-offense domestic violence. In coming up with 10 games, the league took Hardy’s interaction with Nicole Holder from a single evening and broke it down into four separate incidents: “First, he used physical force against her which caused her to land in a bathtub. Second, he used physical force against her which caused her to land on a futon that was covered with at least four semi-automatic rifles. Third, he used physical force against her by placing his hands around Ms. Holder’s neck and applying enough pressure to leave visible marks. And fourth, he used physical force to shove Ms. Holder against a wall in his apartment’s entry hallway.” (Obviously, these are despicable acts. But Hardy still has rights as it relates to efforts by his employer to punish him for things that happened away from the workplace.)

Though the statement announcing the Hardy suspension didn’t say it expressly, the league created the impression that the punishments were stacked based on the multiple incidents. Henderson ultimately decided to reduce the suspension to four games, without much of an explanation as to his reasoning. As PFT wrote at the time: “Henderson doesn’t know whether the NFL used the old policy (which produced a two-game suspension for first-offense domestic violence incidents) or the new policy (which moved the baseline to six), Henderson doesn’t think it matters to the resolution of Hardy’s case, and then Henderson relies on the new six-game baseline as proof that 10 games is too many, reducing it to a number below the new baseline.”

Based on existing precedent, Hardy arguably should have been suspended only two games, which was the standard penalty at the time. This time around, Henderson will be applying a policy with a standard penalty of six games. With Elliott being suspended exactly six games, it’s hard to imagine Henderson reducing it to three or four games — unless of course that’s what the NFL ultimately wants him to do.

Indeed, some believe that the league office won’t be all that upset with a reduction of the suspension, since the Commissioner obtained the appropriate P.R. cover by suspending Elliott six games. If Henderson or anyone else reduces it, no one can accuse the Commissioner or anyone employed by the league office of being soft on the issue of domestic violence.

Which, of course, overlooks entirely the question of whether Elliott actually committed domestic violence.

CBS announces Beth Mowins to call Browns-Colts game

ESPN

CBS Sports announced its NFL lineup pairings for the 2017 season, and it includes play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins teamed with new game analyst Jay Feely.

Mowins and Feely are slated to call the Browns-Colts game Sept. 24.

Mowins will call ESPN’s opening-week Monday Night Football late game between the Chargers and Broncos on Sept. 11, marking the first nationally televised NFL game called by a woman.

She has called college games for more than a decade and, since 2015, has worked as the Oakland Raiders’ preseason play-by-play announcer.

Other new faces to the CBS lineup include Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton, who will work alongside Andrew Catalon.

Here is the complete least of announcer pairings:

1. Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson

2. Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and Evan Washburn
 
3. Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and Jamie Erdahl 

4. Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon 

5. Andrew Catalon and James Lofton 

6. Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta 

7. Tom McCarthy and Steve Tasker and Steve Beuerlein 

8. Beth Mowins and Jay Feely

Goodell did not attend Ezekiel Elliott hearing

Getty Images

Conflicting reports have emerged in recent weeks regarding the direct participation of Commissioner Roger Goodell in the events preceding the suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Although, as Friday’s letter to Elliott makes abundantly clear, Goodell made the decision to suspend Elliott six games, Goodell did not personally attend the most important meeting regarding the investigation.

The NFL, after previously not commenting on the matter, has acknowledged that Goodell was not present for the June 26, 2017 hearing that preceded the issuance of discipline. Deadspin.com reported in late July that Goodell didn’t attend any of the hearings involving Elliott.

“On June 26, 2017, you and your representatives had an opportunity to meet personally with [the four] independent advisors [Peter Harvey, Ken Houston, Tonya Lovelace, and Mary Jo White] to discuss you recollection of the events of the week of July 16, 2016, you relations with [Tiffany] Thompson, the March 2017 [St. Patrick’s Day parade] incident, and other issues you and your representatives believed were pertinent to our review,” the August 11 letter informing Elliott of his suspension explains. “The advisors had an opportunity to engage directly in discussions with you, and to hear your counsel’s assessment of the legal, evidentiary and credibility issues presented in this case.”

With credibility being such a critical aspect of this matter, it’s difficult to make a conclusion about Elliott’s credibility without personally attending the June 26 hearing. While the independent advisors serve as a bit of a buffer, their assessment of Elliott’s overall credibility is no substitute for the credibility assessment made by the person making the decision.

Per a source with knowledge of the investigation, Goodell also did not meet with Tiffany Thompson, whose credibility also is at issue.

That’s a clear deviation from standard legal proceedings, especially where a case turns on the resolution of a dispute in witness testimony and recollection. In most if not all other cases, the person making the decision personally assesses the credibility of the key witnesses.

Indeed, when recalling facts and answering questions on matters that are sharply contested, what a person says is only part of the puzzle. How the person says it — demeanor, body language, tells, etc. — is as important, if not more important.

On a matter of such importance and sensitivity to the league, to the Cowboys, and to Elliott, with one of the NFL’s brightest young stars being branded a domestic abuser under a very low 51-49 standard of proof, how can a reliable decision be made if the person making the decision did not directly assess the credibility of the witnesses?

Here’s the truth: It can’t. While the four independent advisors may individually and collectively be capable of assessing witness credibility, they weren’t the ones making the decision. The person who made the decision needed to be in the room, studying every word, facial expression, and gesture. Without that, the grade on the Commissioner’s decision as to Elliott is incomplete, at best.

Arbitrator selection will be most important step in Ezekiel Elliott case

AP

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot will appeal his six-game suspension. When he does, the NFL’s next step becomes a critical one.

Commissioner Roger Goodell will have to decide whether to personally handle the appeal, whether to designate it to a league employee, whether to assign it to an “independent” person deemed friendly to league interests, or whether to hand the baton to a truly independent arbitrator.

That decision will have a significant impact on the outcome. If the Commissioner handles the appeal of the decision the Commissioner already made, it’s hard to imagine him changing his mind. Indeed, in recent years the language characterizing the appeal process has subtly morphed from ensuring the initial decision was correct to giving the player one last chance to introduce new evidence that would possibly change Goodell’s mind.

That’s not how appeals should work. And the fact that the Commissioner already made the decision to suspend Elliott six games could make it easier for Elliott, the NFL Players Association, and/or Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to argue that Goodell should designate a truly independent arbitrator to take a fresh look at the case and to determine whether Goodell got it right.

If Jones is truly furious over the suspension, he could best channel that fury by pressuring Goodell to let someone who hasn’t already formed an opinion on the case — and someone who will feel no express or implied compulsion to rubber stamp the Commissioner’s decision — to handle the appeal. And there’s good reason for Jones to push for true independence; the last two times Goodell delegated an appeal to a truly independent arbitrator (Ray Rice in 2014, Saints bounty scandal in 2012), the arbitrator scrapped the suspensions.

However it plays out, the identification of the arbitrator isn’t just the next step in the process, but arguably the most important.

The importance of considering Ezekiel Elliott’s side of the story

Getty Images

Domestic violence is illegal, abhorrent, and despicable. Those who commit it should be exposed, shamed, and incarcerated. But those accused of it should not be presumed to be guilty, especially if they were never arrested or charged.

When it comes to NFL internal investigations, the initial outcome also should not be presumed to be fair and accurate. It’s a degree of patience and caution that has become justified by bungled, ham-handed NFL investigations of recent years, from the Saints bounty scandal to the cap penalties imposed on Dallas and Washington to the Ray Rice debacle to #Deflategate. All too often, the NFL (like many other large business organizations) selects a desired outcome in such situations and works backward to justify it.

Whatever anyone thinks of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s past handling of internal investigations should at a minimum prompt a willingness to keep an open mind, to listen what Elliott has to say, and to be willing to poke holes in the facts, findings, and logic applied by the league.

That attitude likely won’t earn me any friends at 345 Park Avenue (if I have any), but it’s a clear consequence of the manner in which the league has Machiavellied its way through other investigations, at times ignoring common sense and reason to make the square peg of P.R.-driven justice fit in the round hole of reality.

Here’s the first clue that maybe a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted before concluding that Elliott did what they now say he did (apart from, you know, the fact that he wasn’t arrested or charged): One of the four experts who participated in the Commissioner’s advisory panel for the Elliott case is Mary Jo White.

For Saints fans, that name has nearly the same connotation as Ted Wells does for Patriots fans. Five years ago, the NFL hired White to serve as a supposedly independent evaluator of disputed facts and evidence regarding the bounty scandal. At one point, she met with multiple reporters and reviewed what she decided was “overwhelming evidence” of Saintly guilt.

Here’s the piece of “overwhelming evidence” many regarded as a smoking gun, as explained at the time by Peter King: “The NFL Films-recorded quote from defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, as first reported by SI in March, with Hargrove saying to defensive teammate Bobby McCray, ‘Give me my money,’ after Vitt told the team that Favre was out of the game with a leg injury. (Favre did return to the game without missing a play, but that wasn’t apparent when Hargrove made his declaration to McCray.)”

The problem with White’s insistence that Hargrove said “give me my money” is that careful, objective assessment of the video and audio leads to the fair conclusion that it’s inconclusive, at best, that Hargrove said the words. After watching it over and over and over again, I personally became convinced that he didn’t. Making White’s claim even more problematic is that she defended the conclusion that Hargrove said “give me my money” by saying “you can see his lips moving.” The video did not support that interpretation, at all.

The league later retreated from the insistence that Hargrove said “give me my money,” but the zealous, and erroneous, effort by White to put words in Hargrove’s mouth raised real questions about the overall credibility of her work, since it created a fair impression that she was serving not as an independent evaluator of the evidence but as an advocate for the league’s preferred outcome.

While the bounty scandal had more fundamental flaws (including, as former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue explained in his ruling scrapping the player suspensions, an effort to change a widespread NFL cultural dynamic by catching one team and hammering it with discipline), the effort by White to sell the strength of the case by insisting Hargrove said something that he didn’t obviously say became, at least for me, a key moment. Once I realized that Hargrove didn’t say “give me my money,” a little switch flipped in my typically limited brain. That was the moment where I decided that I wouldn’t just assume that whatever the league says in disciplinary matters is truthful and accurate. Those statements and claims from the league may ultimately be truthful and accurate, but I resolved at that point to resist the urge to say, “Well, if Big Shield says it, it must be true” and to look critically and carefully at every nook and cranny of the proof in order to ensure that everything makes sense.

Now White is back on the scene, hired once again by the NFL to provide opinions, insights, and perhaps eventually explanations regarding the strength of the league’s evidence against Elliott. Although there’s no reason to assume that there definitely will be a repeat of her inaccurate claims from 2012 (apart from the fact that she previously made an inaccurate claim in 2012), it’s a reminder that there are always two sides to the story, but that the league strongly prefers that its side be accepted as truthful and accurate, no matter what.

It will be harder to look at both sides of this case than it is in other cases. Elliott is accused of domestic violence; any effort to push back against the claims made against him will, at some point, feel like a failure to properly support the victims of domestic violence. Perhaps that makes it even more important for Elliott to receive a fair shake.

Also, it will be easy while trying to understand Elliott’s position on the situation to assume that the league is right by asking, “Why would the league want to make one of its brightest young stars look like a criminal, especially if he didn’t do it?” But that ship sailed two years ago, when the league tried to make one of the greatest players in the history of the sport look like a liar and a cheater, absent adequate proof that he lied or cheated.

The ultimate lesson from multiple botched investigations is this: The league does what it wants, when it wants, how it wants. It’s one of the spoils of being the dominant and most powerful sport in America. It also makes having a willingness to ask fair questions and, if need be, push back against questionable findings even more important.

Elliott has appeal rights, and legal rights beyond that. He has not yet publicly presented any evidence in his own defense, but that clearly is coming. Before assuming that he’s guilty as charged, it’s important to consider all of the evidence fairly and objectively.

NFL believed Tiffany Thompson more than it believed Ezekiel Elliott

Getty Images

As football fans try to shift their brains back to legalese more than a year after #Deflategate ended, many are having a hard time understanding why the league could suspend Ezekiel Elliott for committing domestic violence if he was never arrested or charged.

The distinction is fairly simple. The league’s in-house justice system operates under the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. That’s a fancy way of saying, “If we believe one side a little bit more than the other, that side wins.”

In contrast, the criminal justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This highest of all legal standards routinely causes prosecutors to not even waste time and money chasing a conviction that would easily be blocked by eloquence far less persuasive than “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Indeed, during a Friday conference call explaining the NFL’s decision, attorney Peter Harvey (a member of the four-person advisory panel who previously served as the New Jersey Attorney General) cited the high standard of proof as a reason for the failure of the prosecutor in Ohio to proceed against Elliott.

It also seems that the NFL had more complete evidence than the authorities, apparently due to a greater degree of cooperation from Tiffany Thompson, the woman who accused Elliott of multiple acts of misconduct. She produced photos that the league determined to have been taken contemporaneously with the alleged incidents, and the league also used medical experts to confirm that the photos contained images consistent with abuse resulting in injuries to her face, arms, neck, knees, hips, and shoulders.

And so the objective evidence allowed the NFL to resolve the dispute between Elliott and Thompson over whether he injured her. The fact that the league had “questions with respect to the completeness of [his] cooperation with the investigation” may have caused the league to view Elliott’s overall story a bit more dimly, even if there was no finding that he separated violated the policy by failing to cooperate.

In the end, the league needed to decide only that Thompson’s version was slightly more persuasive than Elliott’s. And it did.

Full NFL statement on Ezekiel Elliott

Getty Images

[Editor’s note: The NFL issued on Friday a statement suspending Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott six games under the Personal Conduct Policy. The full statement appears below.]

Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys was notified today by the NFL that he will be suspended without pay for the team’s first six 2017 regular-season games for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy.

Over the course of the last year, the league conducted an extensive investigation. League investigators interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, including Ms. Tiffany Thompson, who had alleged multiple instances of physical violence in July 2016, and Mr. Elliott. The league also consulted with medical experts. League investigators examined all available evidence, including photographic and digital evidence, thousands of text messages and other records of electronic communications.

Pursuant to the Personal Conduct Policy, Commissioner Goodell sought the views of four external advisors (see below) to assist him in evaluating potential violations. These experts range in experience from law enforcement, judicial and public service, and other specialized subject areas.

The advisors participated in a meeting on June 26, 2017 in New York City with Elliott, who was represented by his legal team and the NFL Players Association. The group also reviewed the league’s investigative reports and materials, the expert medical reports, and multiple NFL Players Association submissions on Elliott’s behalf.

In a letter to Elliott advising him of the decision, Todd Jones, the NFL’s Special Counsel for Conduct, said these advisors “were of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that [Elliott] engaged in physical violence against Ms. Thompson on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016.”

After reviewing the record, and having considered the views of the independent advisors, the commissioner determined that the credible evidence established that Elliott engaged in conduct that violated NFL policy.

Elliott may appeal this decision within three days. If he does not appeal, Elliott’s suspension will begin September 2, the day of final roster reductions for NFL teams. He is eligible to participate in all preseason practices and games. Elliott will be eligible to return to the team’s active roster on Monday, October 23 following the Cowboys’ Sunday, October 22 game against the San Francisco 49ers.

MEMBERS OF THE EXTERNAL EXPERT ADVISORY PANEL

PETER HARVEY, Esq., former Attorney General for the State of New Jersey.

KEN HOUSTON, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who played in 14 seasons in the NFL.

TONYA LOVELACE, MA, Chief Executive Officer of The Women of Color Network, Inc.

MARY JO WHITE, Esq., former United States attorney and former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Ezekiel Elliott suspension would be the beginning, not the end

Getty Images

It’s taken more than a year to get to the point where the NFL has an Ezekiel Elliott suspension locked and loaded. But the announcement, which could come at any moment, would in many ways not be the end but the beginning.

The letter communicating the suspension will explain Elliott’s appeal rights. He’ll have three business days to commence the process. If/when (when) he does, Commissioner Roger Goodell will have the ability to preside over the appeal personally, or to designate someone else to handle it.

Typically, the Commissioner personally handles one decision or the other, but not both. With Tom Brady‘s suspension, Goodell delegated the initial decision to Troy Vincent, and Goodell handled the appeal. With Greg Hardy’s suspension, Goodell issued the suspension and delegated the appeal to Harold Henderson (who reduced the suspension). With Ray Rice, Goodell issued the initial decision to suspend Rice indefinitely after the elevator video surfaced, and Goodell assigned the appeal to a truly independent arbitrator — whose decision to scrap the suspension means that Goodell likely won’t be doing that again.

After the appeal is finalized, Elliott will have the right to seek judicial intervention. Even if he eventually loses (and he likely would lose), he could potentially delay the suspension by obtaining a preliminary injunction blocking the suspension until the case is resolved. Brady did that two years ago. Several years before that, former Vikings defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams delayed a suspension in the Starcaps case for multiple seasons. (By the time the case ended, Pat Williams had retired.)

The NFL also could choose to do what it did in the Brady case — filing a lawsuit that seeks a declaration that the suspension is valid in a favorable forum before Elliott can file in a place where he’d be more likely to win. Two years ago, the league immediately filed suit in federal court in Manhattan after denying Brady’s appeal.

Although the league lost at the first level, the win in the appeals court makes the Southern District of New York an even more attractive option.

Bottom line — there’s still a chance that Elliott will possibly play all of the 2017 season, even if his internal appeal is resolved before Week One.

Mexico seeks to extend deal with NFL to host games

Getty Images

Mexico seeks to extend its relationship with the NFL beyond the original three-year deal to host a regular-season annually.

The Raiders played the Texans in the first-regular season game in Mexico since 2005, and the Raiders return this season to play the Patriots in Azteca on Nov. 19.

“We need to keep working hard to be as successful as last year in order to have a chance to continue with this project and that the game is here to stay,” Arturo Olive, the NFL Mexico office director, said, via The Canadian Press.

A league study estimated that the 2016 game generated $45 million for Mexico City’s economy as it drew 76,473, including 9,500 international tourists. An estimated crowd of 205,000 attended the NFL Fan Fest during the weekend.

“We are giving everything, Olive said. “We set the bar high for last year’s game, and we were successful, but we’re trying to do even better this year.”

During the 2016 game, then-Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler complained of a laser light interfering with his vision, and paper planes sailed onto the field. Some fans also participated in a homophobic chant during kickoff.

Olive said Mexico would love to go beyond annually hosting a game to having a team hold training camp there. The summer heat is an obvious problem, though.

“We have not been able yet to find a way to make it comfortable for them to leave the places where they usually do it,” he said. “In the meantime we are happy that the league trusted us with three games and we hope to keep this going for the years to come.”

The official PFT preseason power rankings landing page

It’s over. It’s done. The full 32-team PFT preseason power rankings are posted, with all teams ranked from top to bottom.

We’re not saying you should click every single link and then come back here, but you should click every single link and then come back here.

And then you should insert comments about how accurate and fair the various assessments are.

1. New England Patriots.

2. Atlanta Falcons.

3. Green Bay Packers.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers.

5. Dallas Cowboys.

6. Oakland Raiders.

7. Seattle Seahawks.

8. Kansas City Chiefs.

9. New York Giants.

10. Tennessee Titans.

11. Miami Dolphins.

12. Denver Broncos.

13. Houston Texans.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

15. Detroit Lions.

16. Baltimore Ravens.

17. Carolina Panthers.

18. Philadelphia Eagles.

19. New Orleans Saints.

20. Minnesota Vikings.

21. Cincinnati Bengals.

22. Arizona Cardinals.

23.  Buffalo Bills.

24.  Los Angeles Chargers.

25. Washington.

26. Indianapolis Colts.

27. Los Angeles Rams.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars.

29. San Francisco 49ers.

30. Chicago Bears.

31. Cleveland Browns.

32. New York Jets.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 1: New England Patriots

Getty Images

Two weeks. 16 days. 31 individual snapshots of the various NFL franchises. One to go.

You already knew which team it would be after we unveiled No. 2 (hell, you probably knew who it was before we unveiled No. 32). The Patriots. Five-time Super Bowl winners. Two in the last three years. And, most importantly, the only defending champions to ever mash the gas in an effort to get even better.

Yes, the new G.O.A.T. has an improved roster on both sides of the ball as he tries to get his record-extending sixth Super Bowl win for a quarterback, which also would catch the Steelers for the most by any franchise. They’ll be the overwhelming pick to get there, and to win it. Which, of course, will only make it harder to do.

But do it they can. With an obsessive focus on the here and now, the Patriots never get flustered by the big picture or expectations or anything else that has caused many a contender to slip from contention. And while it would be foolish to hand the Lombardi to the Patriots without playing the 267 games that come before it officially happens, it’s hard to recall a preseason favorite who was more of a postseason favorite than the Patriots.

Biggest positive change: In an offseason with plenty of positive changes, perhaps the biggest addition for 2017 and beyond comes from Buffalo, where the Bills weren’t interested in keeping cornerback Stephon Gilmore — but the Pats were willing to pounce. And since the Patriots have seen Gilmore twice per year for five years, they’ve surely seen something they like. And now they have insurance against the eventual departure of Malcolm Butler, who is sticking around for one more year, and probably only one more year. However they use Gilmore, coach Bill Belichick knows everything Gilmore can and can’t do.

Biggest negative change: For a defending Super Bowl winner, there weren’t nearly as many as usual. The biggest name to leave was a guy no one ever expected to stay — tight end Martellus Bennett. Enter former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, who potentially will help fill the role, if he’s not overwhelmed by the Patriot Way. The addition of other receivers and running backs will help, too, as the Patriots assemble perhaps the best array of offensive weapons they’ve ever had.

Coaching thermometer: 459 below Fahrenheit. Negative 253 Celsius. Absolute zero. Belichick has the job for as long as he wants it. Not even an 0-16 disaster would get him fired, not that an 0-16 disaster would ever happen to him. The real question is whether they go 16-0 for the second time in 10 years. And indeed they could.

We’d like to have a beer with . . . Belichick. Everyone who knows him swears that when he gets away from football he’s not the cold, flat, monotonous, day-to-day bad ventriloquist whose mouth moves just enough to confirm that he’s the one who’s talking and/or breathing. So let’s get him away from football and get him a beer and talk about boats or Bon Jovi or the history of the single wing or whatever tickles his fancy and gets him to act like something other than a cyborg whose only sign of humanity is the fact that he’s gaining wrinkles and losing hair.

How they could prove us wrong: It won’t take much to prove us wrong, because any deviation from wire-to-wire No. 1 seed would prove us wrong. The only potential vulnerability may be man-to-man coverage, which seemed to work (relatively speaking) when deployed by the Houston and Atlanta defenses in the postseason. The Steelers are hoping to use it more in an effort to match up better with the Patriots, who can’t be covered effectively in zone because Tom Brady can spot and dismantle any collection of defenders aimed at covering spots and not players.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 2: Atlanta Falcons

Getty Images

The thing people will remember about the 2016 Falcons is that they blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.

That’s reality, but also a shame, because there was so much positive about their season and what it portends for the future.

The Falcons have traditionally had skill-position talent, but they pushed it to another level last year, leading the league in scoring (33.8 points per game). Much of that hinged on improvements up front, as their addition of center Alex Mack was one of the hidden keys to the season. Quarterback Matt Ryan has always been good. With time to process, he was surgical, which helped him win an MVP.

They’re also young and talented on defense, and will get boosts this year. Remember, they played the latter portion of last season without their top cornerback (Desmond Trufant, who was lost to a pectoral injury midway through the year) and added another pass-rusher in Takk McKinley in the first round.

Coupled with their new state-of-the-art stadium, there’s plenty to be excited about for the long-term trajectory of the team.
But that one thing will continue to linger in the background.

Biggest positive change: The Falcons should be deeper on defense, and they could use that.

Veteran defensive tackle Dontari Poe was a good piece of business on a one-year deal, giving them a solid interior rusher.

And if McKinley emerges to help Vic Beasley (who looked like a bust after his rookie year, then looked like a star last year, perhaps the fault is with making premature judgments), they could be even better on that side of the ball.

Biggest negative change: Losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is going to take a minute to work through.

They were playing at such a high level last year that even a slight disruption is a big deal, and taking their play-caller out is definitely not just a slight disruption. We’ll see if Steve Sarkisian can keep things going, because he was given the gift of personnel to work with.

Coaching thermometer: Cool for now, but the Super Bowl collapse will raise the heat on Dan Quinn if they can’t continue playing at a high level. The Falcons coach has been unfailingly upbeat this offseason when discussing the elephant in the room, but it will never truly go away. The challenge will be keeping it out of his guys’ minds when an individual game turns south, because wondering if they’re about to fold again.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . It almost doesn’t matter, because the beers are cheap enough at their new stadium you can have more than one without taking out a home equity line.

Owner Arthur Blank has done some interesting things within the context of the league, and his cut-rate concessions (two-dollar hot dogs and five bucks for a beer) will make him more popular with fans — if not his business partners who are still gouging for snacks and beverages at their games.

Blank’s been willing to go against the grain, and that makes him one of the more interesting members of his club of 32.

How they can prove us wrong: It’s not foolproof, and a return to the playoffs is likely but far from a guarantee.

One of the first steps is making sure Devonta Freeman stays happy. The running back’s contract talks have had some rough spots, and the Falcons have kept the petty stuff at arm’s length. But if they can’t get a deal done before the season, there will be a lingering worry that an integral part of the offense is thinking about his post-Falcons years.

And while Quinn’s attitude is key to keeping the bad thoughts at bay, a run of bad luck (injuries or otherwise) could lead to flashbacks, and denying their existence doesn’t make them go away.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 3: Green Bay Packers

Getty Images

Seven years ago, the Packers barely made it to the playoffs. And then they went on the road for three straight playoff games, made it to the Super Bowl, and won the whole damn thing. Since then, the Packers rarely have had to struggle to get to the postseason, but they’ve been unable to get back to the Super Bowl.

In 2011, a franchise-best 15-1 record evaporated into a one-and-done Lambeau loss to the Giants. In 2012, another division title and a wild-card win led to a shredding in San Francisco by a quarterback now deemed to be unfit to play. The next year resulted in another division title (despite an 8-7-1) record and another home loss, this time to the same team, and the same currently-unemployed quarterback.

The Packers went 12-4 in 2014, culminating in a defeat-snatched-from-victory’s-jaws NFC title game loss in Seattle. The next year, a wild-card berth resulted in an overtime loss in a division-round game for the ages in Arizona. Last year, the Packers caught fire after a 4-6 start and made it to the NFC title game again, running out of steam in Atlanta.

This year, they again sit near the top of the stack as the season approaches. And their CEO believes that, after two NFC title-game appearances in the last three years, this time they’ll punch through, making the short trip across the border and playing for their fifth Super Bowl trophy in the Vikings’ living room. They’ll definitely get at least close. Whether they can finish the job is another issue entirely.

Biggest positive change: Ted Thompson hasn’t signed many free agents over the years, but when tight end Jared Cook made a cash grab, Thompson said sayonara and signed Martellus Bennett. While Bennett may not make a spectacular postseason catch that takes out the Cowboys in Dallas, Bennett likely will be an upgrade, especially since Bennett has had the better overall career. With Cook’s performance perhaps finally persuading Thompson of the value of having a competent pass-catching tight end (something they haven’t had since Jermichael Finley), Bennett becomes the guy who maybe can make the difference for an offense that is loaded at plenty of other positions, primarily the one responsible for throwing the football to guys like Bennett.

Biggest negative change: Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang jumped to the Lions in free agency, months after the Packers dumped guard Josh Sitton and he landed with the Bears. While some would say interior linemen are fungible, it’s not easy to let quality guys like Lang and Sitton (and center JC Tretter) leave and hope that the next man up will help keep the quarterback from being the next man down.

Coaching thermometer: Who the hell knows? The standard for Mike McCarthy doesn’t seem to be the same as it is elsewhere, where a single owner can decide in any given year (or on any given day) that the coach isn’t getting the most out of the roster. In Green Bay, it’s different. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether the individual owner would make good or bad decisions about keeping or changing coaches.

But here’s one thing that’s hard to dispute. A traditional owner likely would have pushed Thompson to push McCarthy to push defensive coordinator Dom Capers out the door. And many would say that the consistent failure of the defense to properly complement Rodgers and the offense justifies a new approach during however many years Rodgers has left.

We’d like to have a beer with . . . Mike Daniels. The underrated and outspoken interior defensive lineman would hopefully loosen up and share his insights on what’s going right and what’s going wrong with a Packers team that always gets close but can’t get over the top. Is Rodgers a good leader? Where could he do better?

When Rodgers said last year that the team lacked energy on the sideline and then said there needs to be a healthy fear of getting cut, did the players see that as a shot at McCarthy?

Who isn’t carrying his weight? Is Capers the problem?

It may take more than a few beers to get to the bottom of this one. But we’d sure love to try. Even if I’d be passed out before Daniels begins baring his soul.

How they could prove us wrong: If Bennett and Rodgers simply don’t mix (and their personalities are clearly different), that could create a layer of dysfunction that could make it hard to get through what has been an annual stretch of underachievement and adversity. And if running back Ty Montgomery can’t take the week-in, week-out   pounding now that he has made the full-time switch from receiver, they may regret letting Eddie Lacy walk — and not making a run at Adrian Peterson. Chances are, though, that they’ll still find a way to still be standing when the field is cut to eight or four. The question remains whether they can keep it together when the field gets cut to two.

Packers apparently will have to beat out every other NFL team to host draft

Getty Images

Every team apparently has a desire to host the NFL Draft, according to Packers CEO Mark Murphy. Murphy told shareholders Monday that every NFL city, plus Canton, Ohio, has bid to host the draft.

The Packers have bid for 2019, 2020 and 2021.

“What I’ve heard is they’re gong to announce soon the ‘18 draft [location], so it would probably around this time a year from now that they’re looking at ’19,” Murphy said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.

The Packers’ Titletown District would play host to the event, with the 10,000-seat Resch Center, which sits across Oneida Street from Lambeau, mentioned as a possibility for the draft itself.

The 2014 draft was the last one in New York City, with Chicago hosting in 2015 and 2016. Philadelphia hosted this year.

The Cowboys are viewed as the favorites for 2018, although a so-called “Bathroom Bill” in the works for the state’s special legislative session could send the event elsewhere. Kansas City has expressed strong interest in hosting the event in the next few years.