Full NFL statement on Ezekiel Elliott

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[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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Who are the quarterbacks on the hot seat entering 2017?

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Monday’s PFT Live included two hours with Barstool Big Cat of the Pardon My Take podcast, and we devoted a segment to an exercise in identifying quarterbacks facing the proverbial hook in 2017.

We each picked three of them, squabbling a bit about the selections in a genuine way.

Who are yours? Listen to ours, and then make your case in the comments for the quarterbacks you deem to be in danger, grave or otherwise.

And tune in Tuesday morning for another three-hour show, with Barstool Big Cat again in studio for the final two TV hours.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 4: Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Steelers have six Super Bowl trophies. They’d likely have more but for the team that has won five in the last 16 years. And in a year that the Patriots hope to match the Steelers at six, the Steelers may be the primary impediment to New England.

But here’s the problem. In an offseason that saw the Patriots mash the gas pedal in an effort to get even better, what have the Steelers really done to close the gap?

So while the Steelers remain among the best teams in the NFL, the question is whether they’re good enough to get to No. 7 before the Patriots get to No. 6. And then to No. 7.

Biggest positive change: The return of receiver Martavis Bryant from suspension makes a great passing game even better, with one major caveat. Bryant still hasn’t been fully reinstated, and until he is there’s a chance he won’t be. And he wouldn’t be the first player closing in on reinstatement after a substance-abuse policy who then stubs his toe to otherwise trip over a blunt. So the Steelers and Bryant have every reason to keep him on the straight and narrow as he closes in on returning to the field and further diversifying one of the best offenses in the NFL. Failure would mean that the passing game, while still potent, wouldn’t be nearly as good as it could be.

Biggest negative change: The passing of legendary Hall of Fame owner Dan Rooney in April marked not only the end of an era but also raised questions about whether the Steelers of the past 50 years could eventually revert to the bumbling also-rans of their first 40. Though Dan Rooney didn’t seek credit or the spotlight, he was the common thread for a team that consistently contended after going through multiple decades of persistent failures. There’s no reason to think Art Rooney II will have a hand any less steady than his father’s, but the future of one of the few remaining franchises run by the family that founded it presents real questions with the man who provided perhaps one of the best foundations any NFL team has ever had now gone.

Coaching thermometer: It’s been seven years since the team’s last Super Bowl appearance, and the locals tend to gripe about Mike Tomlin whenever things aren’t going as well as expected. With high expectations for 2017, a rough start will commence the annual grumbling about Tomlin’s future. Ownership has been immune to the ups and downs and highs and lows of a franchise that contends often enough to make it easy to patient, but with Art II now running the show it remains to be seen whether the trend of three coaches since 1969 will continue indefinitely.

We’d like to have a beer with . . . . Todd Haley. The former Chiefs coach has helped transform the Pittsburgh offense into a juggernaut. Though very good before Haley arrived, he has presided over an unlikely swinging of the pendulum that has given the team an offense that currently is much better than the defense. It sounds blasphemous, but it’s true, and Haley’s ability to work well with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and to get a diverse group of personalities to perform well together and not whine about getting more opportunity should have earned him consideration for a second chance to coach a team by now.

How they could prove use wrong: If Le’Veon Bell boycotts training camp and the preseason and he’s either not ready to contribute from Week One or the Steelers catch a wild hair and rescind the franchise tender (not likely), the passing game will face more pressure — and the running game will hinge on guys like rookie James Conner or veteran Knile Davis. And if the defense can’t effectively make the switch to playing more man-to-man coverage (a device aimed at slowing down the Patriots), the Steelers could plunge from Super Bowl contender to team scrambling to get to the postseason. Which they were a year ago, until a Christmas Day win over the Ravens kept them from spending January at home.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 5: Oakland Raiders

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The biggest news of the Raiders offseason had little to do with the team they’ll be putting on the field in September.

That news was, of course, that they’ll be moving to Las Vegas after a long and fruitless attempt to find a stadium deal in Oakland. The fact that they’re on their way out hasn’t done much to damper excitement about what lies ahead for the team in 2017, however.

General Manager Reggie McKenzie’s rebuilding effort was a lengthy one, but it has resulted in a team positioned for a long run of success wherever they are playing their home games. Quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper, a talented offensive line and 2016 defensive player of the year Khalil Mack are the foundation of that promise and will be major drivers for the team again this year.

Adding running back Marshawn Lynch was an intriguing move as the prospect of putting Beast Mode behind that line is one that leads to visions of great offensive success. We’ll have to see what’s left in the tank after Lynch sat out last season, however, and the Raiders’ ultimate hopes rest heavily on a defense that remains a work in progress outside of Mack.

Biggest positive change: Carr ended last season on the sideline because of a fractured fibula, which created a painful game of “What if?” for the Raiders after a 27-14 playoff loss to the Texans with Connor Cook at quarterback. Had Carr avoided injury, the Raiders were well positioned to win the division and get a bye that would have allowed them to open the postseason on their home field.

While there’s no way to guarantee that he’ll remain that way, Carr is healthy now and his contract extension further cements him as the biggest reason to believe that the Raiders can fulfill the highest of expectations for the 2017 season.

Biggest negative change: The Raiders didn’t lose any major contributors this offseason and the biggest staff change involved bumping quarterbacks coach Todd Downing up to offensive coordinator. That move seems unlikely to lead to much of a difference for a unit with talent across the board.

As mentioned, the defense doesn’t have the same kind of talent and the Raiders added former Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano to Ken Norton’s defensive staff in hopes of maximizing what is on hand. Should the unit fail to improve and friction exist between them, it could put a cap on the team’s upside.

Coaching thermometer: Jack Del Rio took over a team that went 3-13 in 2014 and went 7-9 in his first year on the job before taking the Raiders to their first playoff appearance since 2002. That’s enough to avoid any concerns about a coaching change and the desire to keep building around a strong core of talent should keep it that way unless things go terribly wrong in the near future.

We’d like to crack a beer with … Gabe Jackson. Jackson also got a lucrative extension this offseason, which makes him part of that strong core and another example of how well Oakland’s rebuild has turned out. For these purposes, though, the right guard is the representative of a line that can sometimes get undervalued due to the other star power. We’ll give him the chance to shed some light on a big reason for the Raiders’ success.

How they can prove us wrong: Lynch having nothing in the tank would be a blow, but the biggest obstacle to the Raiders taking a spot at the top of the AFC would almost certainly be another year with a defense that forces the offense to be nearly flawless in order to win games.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 6: Dallas Cowboys

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Dak Prescott has proclaimed the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East again. If so, they will accomplish some things they haven’t in a long time.

The Cowboys haven’t repeated as division champions since 1996, the year after the franchise’s last Super Bowl championship; they have not posted back-to-back winning seasons since 2008-09; and it’s been since 1995-96 that the Cowboys have had back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins.

However, because of their talent on offense, the Cowboys head into 2017 as Super Bowl contenders.

Prescott won offensive rookie of the year honors with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions; Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards, earning him six MVP votes; Dez Bryant remains a big-play threat; and the Cowboys have three All-Pro offensive linemen.

It’s the lack of talent on defense that invites questions about how far the Cowboys will go this season. They lost six defensive players in free agency who combined for 64 starts last season, and the Cowboys spent seven draft picks on defensive players to replace them. The Cowboys are younger on defense than last season, but are they better?

Biggest positive change: The Cowboys lost 11 players in free agency and two more to retirement. They didn’t make any ballyhooed moves. But Tony Romo’s retirement assures two things: The Cowboys don’t have to worry about their all-time leading passer winning a Super Bowl elsewhere; and the quarterback controversy of last season is over. Dak Prescott won the job after Romo injured his back in the preseason, but even after Romo read a concession speech upon his return, a quarterback controversy remained. Romo’s departure leaves no question: This is Prescott’s team. The Cowboys veterans turned the keys over to Prescott this offseason, empowering him as their leader.

Biggest negative change: The Cowboys offensive line has earned the right to call itself the NFL’s best. Three linemen made first-team All-Pro honors last season. However, while center Travis Frederick, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin return, the Cowboys lost the other two starters with whom they ended last season. Left guard Ron Leary signed with Denver in free agency, and right tackle Doug Free retired. The Cowboys moved left guard La’el Collins, who started the first three games last year before season-ending toe surgery, to right tackle and have often-injured Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals, competing at left guard. The Cowboys might need some time to adjust to the changes.

Coaching thermometer: Jason Garrett enters the third year of a five-year deal with job security after last season’s 13-3 finish and NFL coach of the year honors. Garrett, though, has only a 58-46 record with two playoff appearances and one playoff victory in six full seasons as head coach. If he doesn’t get the Cowboys to the championship game this season, the heat will be on for next season.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Jason Witten. Truly one of the NFL’s all-time good guys. He is all about team on the field, and all about helping others off it. In 2012, he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Five years after Witten’s retirement, Hall of Fame selectors will discuss his career. Witten has missed only one game in his career, sitting out a game against the Eagles his rookie season with a broken jaw, and he rarely misses practice. Who can forget his signature play from 2007 against the Eagles when Witten ran helmet-less down the field for a 53-yard gain?

How they can prove us wrong: Cowboys fans are painfully aware their team hasn’t made the NFC Championship Game since 1995, which was the last time they won the Super Bowl. They are 3-9 in the postseason since. As good as Tony Romo was, becoming the team’s all-time leading passer, he was 2-4 in the postseason. The Cowboys’ past two playoff losses – in 2014 and 2016 – came against the Packers when they couldn’t get enough consistent pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Getting to the passer continues to be a trouble spot for the Cowboys.

Dallas has not had a player with double-digit sacks since defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013, and it has not had a “war daddy” pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round, but he isn’t that. Rod Marinelli instead will rely on a rotation of pass rushers that includes DeMarcus Lawrence, Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper, with hopes of wearing down offensive lines.

The Cowboys need more than 36 sacks and more than nine interceptions on defense, and they need Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to continue to do what they did last season on offense.

The Cowboys will be hard pressed to win 13 games again, especially if Elliott misses any games because of an NFL suspension. But with a defense expected to feature four players who have yet to play a down in the NFL, the Cowboys actually could be better going into the 2017 postseason than they were in 2016 when they went four weeks between meaningful games.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 7: Seattle Seahawks

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The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots are the only two teams in the NFL to have won at least one playoff game in each of the last five seasons. The Seahawks had few departures from last year’s roster that lost in the Divisional Round to the Atlanta Falcons. They’ve added an 11-man draft class and augmented the roster with a few free agent signings that addressed a few areas of concern over the offseason.

Seattle’s roster remains the most talented in the NFC West. However, an offseason dominated by trade discussions involving star cornerback Richard Sherman has left an uncertainty regarding the cohesion of the locker room after Sherman’s multiple tirades and criticism of coaches last season. And for all the downplaying of the trade discussions Seattle wants to espouse now, NFL teams don’t look to trade All-Pro cornerbacks in their prime, with a reasonable contract and depth issues at the position for no reason at all. And the Seahawks practically hung a “For Sale” sign on Sherman in letting teams know publicly they were taking calls regarding Sherman’s availability.

Can the Seahawks still win the division and make a deep playoff run despite any potential lingering issues? Of course. They managed to win the division again last year in the midst of all the happenings with Sherman. But if the gremlins of last season carry over into 2017, there is potential for a crash landing.

Even if they do, the Seahawks may be talented enough to win the division again anyway.

Biggest positive change: With the selection of four defensive backs among their 11 draft picks in the NFL Draft, the Seahawks infused youth into their secondary depth. The additions of Shaquill Griffin, Tedric Thompson, Delano Hill and Mike Tyson give the Seahawks young depth that can contribute immediately on special teams and push starters Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor for playing time in the coming years. Griffin could earn a starting role opposite Sherman as DeShawn Shead is likely to start the year on PUP and Jeremy Lane has been better served as a slot cornerback during his tenure in Seattle. The rest of the group provides potentially more stable options as backups should a player of Thomas’ caliber be lost for the season again as he was last December. The drop in ability from Thomas to back up Steven Terrell was substantial and significantly lessened Seattle’s defensive might.

Biggest negative change: While Steven Hauschka had some issues in Seattle last year, the Seahawks now seem destined to be relying upon a career resurgence from Blair Walsh. Walsh, who helped the Seahawks win a playoff game in Minnesota two years ago by missing a 27-yard field goal at the end of regulation for the Vikings, now joins the Seahawks in an effort to get his career back on track. Walsh was released by the Vikings last year nine games into the season after missing eight (four field goals, four extra points) of his 35 kicks on the year. Hauschka had a problem with low kicks as five of his 10 missed kicks last season were blocked. Walsh has a big leg and earned a Pro Bowl trip as a rookie. However, what he can bring to the table now is uncertain.

Coaching thermometer: Pete Carroll has a job in Seattle as long as he wants it given the run of success the team has had during his tenure as head coach. The Seahawks have made two Super Bowl trips and brought home their first Lombardi Trophy in 2013, have won at least one playoff game in each of the last five seasons and have missed the postseason just once in Carroll’s seven seasons at the helm. Carroll has given no indication he sees the end of his coaching road coming any time soon. He and general manager John Schneider are seemingly joined at the hip and Carroll’s contract was extended through 2019 last summer.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Jon Ryan. The Seahawks’ punter is one of the more engaging personalities on the team. He’s thrown a touchdown pass in an NFC Championship game, broke his face in frigid conditions during a playoff game in Minnesota and fumbled without being touched on a fake punt. He’s also caught a 109-yard touchdown pass as a receiver playing college football at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. Ryan is now the longest-tenured member of the Seahawks and the only player on the team to predate Pete Carroll in Seattle. Honorable mention to Doug Baldwin.

How they can prove us wrong: In the positive, the Sherman issues don’t linger into the season. Wilson returns to 2015 form, now healthy, behind a significantly improved output from Seattle’s offensive line. Lacy gives the team the power back presence they’ve missed and Seattle’s defense remains along the league’s best. In the negative, the Seahawks are slow out of the gate as Wilson struggles behind continued poor offensive line play. Fissures within the team resurface as blame gets tossed around. The running game isn’t consistent. Wilson is forced to throw 30-35 times a game. Age begins to catch up to key pieces of Seattle’s defense as they slide back from the top of the league. Blair Walsh’s inconsistencies follow him to Seattle.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 8: Kansas City Chiefs

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While the Chiefs may not be knocking on the door of the Super Bowl, they’ve been loitering on the porch. For 2017, the question is whether they’re deliberately taking a few steps down toward the sidewalk in order to getting a running start that will knock it down.

In three of coach Andy Reid’s four seasons with the team, the Chiefs have made it to the postseason. But a bye in 2016, their first first-round bye since 2003, led to the same outcome as each of the other three times they skipped wild card weekend and hosted a game in the round of eight: The Chiefs lost.

They last made it to the AFC title game in 1993, and most perceive a gap between Kansas City and Oakland even though Kansas City, not Oakland, most recently won the AFC West. Contributing to the confusion regarding the Chiefs was the curious decision to invest two first-round pick in a work-in-progress quarterback when Alex Smith still has gas in the tank. The move became an obvious admission that they believe Alex Smith is a guy who can keep them on the porch, but not much more than that.

Biggest positive change: In an offseason that didn’t feature much in the way of veteran player acquisition or departure, the effort by the franchise to get a franchise quarterback stands out — if they’re right about Patrick Mahomes. For now, it’s a coin-flip proposition at best, especially with Mahomes making the difficult transition from the college spread to Reid’s version of the West Coast offense. Given that the league has three types of teams — teams with franchise quarterbacks, teams trying to find franchise quarterbacks, and teams who aren’t quite sure whether their quarterback is a franchise quarterback — the Chiefs have decided after four years with Alex Smith that he isn’t. While the move may not bear much fruit in 2016, it sets the stage for filling the void that will emerge in the conference if Tom Brady is in the final year or two of his career.

Biggest negative change: The sudden, abrupt decision to dump receiver Jeremy Maclin surprised many and reinforced the idea that the Chiefs are focused more on developing for the future than pushing their chips to the middle of the table right now. And while Reid knows Maclin well enough to know when to get out from under an eight-figure salary, the fact that the Chiefs didn’t try to get him to take less and stick around means that they simply wanted to clear him off the roster so that younger guys can get the reps. If the younger guys can’t get it done, however, that won’t help the Chiefs get to the divisional round again, and it definitely won’t help them get past it.

Coaching thermometer: By getting an extension on the same day G.M. John Dorsey got a pink slip, Reid has as much security as any coach in football. And with Brett Veach replacing Dorsey, many believe Reid will now have even more influence over the roster. So if the Chiefs are indeed taking a step or two back in an effort to eventually take a step up, chances are that Reid will be there every step of the way.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Eric Berry. He overcame cancer and has returned as good as ever, becoming the heart and soul of the team and finally getting a contract that reflects it. What does he really think about undermining Smith and eventually replacing him with Mahomes? What does the think about the way Maclin’s exit was handled? Does he truly believe that the team is moving in the right direction, and that the team can put together a championship-caliber offense before the window closes on a quality defense?

How they can prove us wrong: If they decide to throw Mahomes into the fray as a rookie in the hopes of having the game slow down for him sooner than later, the Chiefs could quickly become not a top-10 team. Likewise, the apparent plan to thrust 2016 rookie phenom Tyreek Hill (who averaged only 5.3 touches from scrimmage per game last year) into a bigger role will mean more opportunities to take more of the hits that are more likely to lead to an injury.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 9: New York Giants

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The Giants got back to the playoffs last season and their defensive turnaround was the biggest reason for their return.

They signed defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins and saw those players team with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive player of the year candidate Landon Collins to form their steeliest defense in years.

All of those players are back after Pierre-Paul signed a new deal with the team this offseason and Collins may be poised for another move up the ladder of best safeties in the league, which provides a strong foundation for the Giants’ chances of making it two postseason appearances in a row.

Whether they get there or not will have a lot to do with the other side of the ball.

Biggest positive change: After years of being the best part of the team, the Giants offense slipped behind the defense last season. In order to remedy that, the team released Victor Cruz and signed Brandon Marshall after the veteran was dismissed by the Jets.

Marshall gives Eli Manning a big target across from Odell Beckham, something that’s been missing in recent years and something that should come in handy in the red zone. They also used a first-round pick on tight end Evan Engram, who has the potential to improve another weak spot although it has taken many tight ends more than one year to find their footing at the professional level.

Biggest negative change: The most notable departure from last year’s team was defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who left for the Colts and opens up a spot next to Damon Harrison on the Giants’ defensive line. They’ll need to find the right answer there, but the overall strength of the defense makes it easier to live with Hankins’ exit.

The most negative change, then, was the shift from the urgency the Giants showed in fixing the defense last year to the passive approach that the team took to their offensive line. Prices were high in free agency and the draft was short on sure things, but signing D.J. Fluker feels like an unlikely way to turn one of last year’s biggest weaknesses into a strength.

Coaching thermometer: The Giants have generally been resistant to making coaching changes and, unless they are sticklers for fashion and hairstyle choices, there was little about Ben McAdoo’s first season in the top job suggests that will be changing. He returned the team to the playoffs for the first time since they won the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and his history as an offensive coordinator gives reason to believe he’ll find a way to elicit better results from that unit.

We’d like to crack a beer with … Odell Beckham. Beckham’s been under a microscope for most of the last two seasons thanks to on-field productivity, emotional outbursts, absence from offseason work, upcoming contract extension, boat trips before playoff losses and other things of varying importance. Getting his view on all of that might take more than one beer, so we’ll go ahead and bring a whole case.

How they can prove us wrong: If the Giants rise higher, it will almost certainly be because their patience with the offensive line pays off with improvement across the board on that side of the ball. On the other hand, lack of improvement from that group could stifle any hopes of a rebound in the run game and mitigate any advantages they may have gained by adding Marshall. That would leave the Giants putting the same pressure on their defense while navigating a schedule short on soft patches.