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NFL AM: Rolando McClain’s 10-Game Ban Leads Slew of Suspensions

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Just hours before a holiday weekend was set to begin, the NFL did a suspension dump on Thursday, handing down rulings on four suspensions of varied length and reason.

The biggest of those went to Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, who was suspended 10 games for his latest violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. McClain missed the first four games of the 2015 season for a similar infraction, which triggered the escalation in the length of the ban this time around.

This is McClain’s third violation of the substance abuse policy in the last 12 months. Last July, McClain was initially fined four game checks for violating the policy, but when he did so again, that fine became a four-game suspension. His third violation ups the punishment and really hits the Cowboys where it hurts, in the middle of their defense.

Dallas also found out on Thursday that they will officially be without third-year defensive end Demarcus Lawrence for the first four games of the 2016 season after his suspension for violating the same policy was upheld on appeal. The Cowboys will also be without defensive end Randy Gregory for the first four games for a similar violation.

Those three bans put the Cowboys defense in dire straits entering the season, with few options to fill those holes. Dallas made just one upgrade to their front seven through free agency, signing defensive tackle Cedric Thornton away from the division rival Philadelphia Eagles, but on the ends, they’re looking at starting players without much experience and with limited talent.

That list includes undrafted free agent David Irving, Raiders castoff Benson Mayowa, 2015 fifth round pick Ryan Russell and 2016 fourth rounder Charles Tapper. The Oklahoma product Tapper might be the best of the bunch, but his lack of experience in the league makes it unlikely he’ll have a high impact as a rookie pass rusher.

Things should stabilize for Dallas up front once Gregory and Lawrence return, but until then it’s hard to see how the team will get after the quarterback, making this one of the greatest challenges of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s career. Dallas opens the season with back-to-back division rivalry games against New York and Washington, so they’ll need to figure out some way to get after passers if they want to stay out of an early hole in the NFC East race.

As for linebacker and the situation with McClain, the Cowboys knew what they were getting into when they re-signed the trouble linebacker to a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason. McClain had a highly successful 2015 season after he returned from his four-game suspension. In 11 games, he compiled 97 tackles, including nine for loss, a pair of sacks, 10 QB pressures, an interception and three pass deflections.

But because of his past transgressions, the talented linebacker didn’t generate much interest on the open market, which allowed Dallas to bring him back on what would have been a bargain contract had he been able to follow the rules. However, believing he could do that, and having no backup plan should he fail to, was the Cowboys’ biggest mistake of the offseason.

After all, McClain is an extremely talented player, who doesn’t have the drive to put his career and his commitment to team ahead of selfish individual activities. He was selected No. 8 overall in the 2010 Draft by the Raiders and after two strong seasons, flamed out in his third pro year and was released by Oakland.

In the year that followed he retired, then signed with the Baltimore Ravens, then retired again, opting not to play football at all in 2013. Baltimore retained his rights and traded them to the Cowboys two years ago today, on July 1, 2014. Dallas was able to convince him to come back to the game and he successfully replaced injured linebacker Sean Lee and helped Dallas to a 12-4 record and playoff run in 2014.

But questions about his commitment to the game remained and got louder when he twice violated the league’s substance abuse policy last offseason. Still he returned from his suspension and played so well that the Cowboys again ignored the writing on the wall and chose to bring him back for 2016. The length and financial commitment of that contract alone aren’t so bad. It’s a low-risk deal if treated the right way. What’s bad is that Dallas heightened that risk by failing to secure a proper Plan B should McClain screw up again.

They neglected their short term future at the position by twice passing on UCLA linebacker Myles Jack among other talented linebackers, instead choosing to draft a first round running back and then an injured linebacker in Jaylon Smith who has no chance to contribute to the team in 2016.

Now they’re stuck elevating a player like Kyle Wilber or Andrew Gachkar, both more well suited for depth/special teams roles, to a starting spot in their linebacking corps, which not only weakens their front line, because neither player is all that talented, but also weakens their depth. God forbid anything happens to linebacker Sean Lee, one of the most fragile players in the league, Dallas will be down to Anthony Hitchens and a band of misfits in their linebacking corps.

With those issues in the middle, plus trouble filling the ends up front, it’s looking like it’s going to be a long season on D in Big D.

MANZIEL GETS FOUR-GAME SUBSTANCE ABUSE BAN

If Johnny Manziel ever returns to the NFL, which seems more doubtful by the day, whatever team takes a risk on him is going to have to sit him down for at least four games.

The league handed Manziel a four-game suspension on Thursday for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Manziel is currently unemployed after being released by the Cleveland Browns earlier in the offseason. He’s also facing possible charges of misdemeanor assault stemming from a February incident in Dallas with his now ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley. Those domestic violence charges, if they are pursued could land Manziel in jail, but even if they don’t he is likely to face a further ban from the league.

The 2012 Heisman Trophy Winner was last seen in Cabo San Lucas, sporting a Josh Gordon jersey, and reportedly told TMZ that, as of today, July 1, he’s going sober and beginning his NFL comeback. We can’t wait to see how that goes.

JETS’ RICHARDSON GETS ONE-GAME BAN

The last of the NFL suspensions handed down on Thursday went to New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was suspended for the season opener due to a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy.

The suspension stems from an incident last offseason, in which Richardson was clocked driving his Bentley at speeds up to 143 miles per hour and elicited a high-speed police chase through a St. Louis suburb. When police finally stopped Richardson, they found three passengers in the car, including a 12-year old relative, as well as a loaded semi-automatic handgun. Police also detected a strong marijuana odor emanating from the vehicle. Richardson was arrested and assessed five misdemeanor charges. He reached a plea deal to avoid jail time, but the NFL still came down on him, albeit a year later.

The Jets should be fine without Richardson for a game, especially if they get things squared away with fellow defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson. Of course Wilkerson is none too pleased the Jets used the franchise tag on him this offseason and the two sides have not been able to come to terms on a contract extension, with Wilkerson threatening a holdout. But if the Jets can get Wilkerson back in their good graces, he and 2015 first rounder Leonard Williams can hold down the front line for a game until Richardson returns, at which point New York will again have the best defensive line in the league.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys