How Biggest NFL Suspensions Could Change the Course of the 2016 Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2016

How Biggest NFL Suspensions Could Change the Course of the 2016 Season

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    The New England Patriots will be without quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of 2016.
    The New England Patriots will be without quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of 2016.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was recently informed the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, New York, would not grant a rehearing in the deflated-football case. Brady later announced he would not seek an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

    This means Brady's on-again-off-again four-game suspension appears to be on for good.

    Brady's high-profile absence for the first month of the campaign will likely have a major impact on the Patriots and the 2016 NFL season in general. However, his suspension isn't the only one that could dramatically affect how the coming season unfolds. Players such as Martavis Bryant, Randy Gregory and Karlos Williams will also miss time through suspension this season.

    These and other suspensions could leave a lasting mark on the 2016 season, and we're going to examine them today. We'll be focusing on suspensions involving key players whose absences will be significant, examining the details of their enforced exclusions and the potential fallout of each.

Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Wideout Martavis Bryant will miss the entire 2016 season.
    Wideout Martavis Bryant will miss the entire 2016 season.Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without wide receiver Martavis Bryant for the entire 2016 season, at a minimum. The NFL suspended Bryant indefinitely for repeated violations of its substance-abuse policy.

    Losing Bryant hurts the Pittsburgh offense because he has emerged as a dangerous downfield threat during his first two seasons in the league. The Clemson product amassed 1,314 yards and 14 touchdowns over the past two years on 76 receptions, averaging an impressive 17.3 yards per reception.

    With Bryant out, the Steelers are down a weapon in their annual arms race with the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers and Ravens have each been to the playoffs in three of the past five seasons, while the Bengals have reached the postseason five consecutive times.

    With the Ravens healthy, there will likely be a three-team race in the AFC North in 2016. The division has sent two teams to the postseason in four out of the past five years and has sent three teams there twice in that span. The divisional race is going to have an impact on the 2016 playoffs.

    The good news for Pittsburgh is the team likely possesses enough weapons to survive Bryant's suspension. The team added pass-catching tight end Ladarius Green in free agency and will likely push former Auburn star Sammie Coates into Bryant's receiver slot.

    Having a healthy Le'Veon Bell to pair with DeAngelo Williams in the backfield will also help.

    Still, the absence of Bryant has the potential to hamper Pittsburgh's offensive efforts this season. This could affect the standings in the AFC North and affect the conference as a whole.

Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict will miss the first three games of 2016.
    Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict will miss the first three games of 2016.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was handed a three-game suspension for repeated violations of the league's safety-related playing rules.

    The suspension was given after Burfict delivered a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore Ravens tight end Maxx Williams in the regular-season finale and then another to Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the playoffs.

    As reporter Jeremy Fowler recently explained to Coley Harvey of, Burfict is quickly gaining a reputation as a dirty player:

    The disdain opposing players have for Burfict reaffirms the belief that he’s dirty, and I try not to throw around that word casually. But players know when a guy has good intentions. They believe Burfict crossed that plane a long time ago. And not just Steelers players. Many across the league have taken notice. The rep will be difficult to shake.

    In addition to being a big hitter, Burfict is a top-level run defender. Pro Football Focus rated him 26th in run defense among 4-3 outside linebackers for the 2016 season. Not having him for the first three games could significantly affect the Bengals' season.

    Cincinnati opens with three challenging contests—at the New York Jets, at Pittsburgh and at home against the Denver Broncos. If Cincinnati loses two or even all three of those games, the team will likely be in a significant AFC North hole. As we mentioned previously, the standings in the division could have conference-wide implications.

    Burfict's reputation will also keep him under the watchful eye of league officials. Another illegal hit could draw an even lengthier suspension later in the season.

Karlos Williams, RB, Buffalo Bills

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    Bills running back Karlos Williams faces a four-game suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy.
    Bills running back Karlos Williams faces a four-game suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy.Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    As a rookie, running back Karlos Williams added some quality punch to the Buffalo Bills' ground game in 2015. The Florida State product racked up 507 yards and seven touchdowns on just 93 carries. Pro Football Focus rated him 12th overall among running backs for the 2015 season.

    William and backfield mate LeSean McCoy formed a powerful tandem last season and were poised to build on it in 2016. Unfortunately, Williams will be starting late in 2016. According to NFL Media's Kevin Patra, Williams was handed a four-game suspension on Friday. His expulsion is for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

    This means the Bills will be without Williams for the opening month of the campaign, and that month looks vicious. Buffalo opens at the Baltimore Ravens, then plays against the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and at the Patriots. Not having their running game at full strength for that stretch could be a serious issue for the Bills.

    Buffalo is looking to rebound in head coach Rex Ryan's second season. The team hasn't made a playoff appearance since the 1999 season but might have a chance to make its return this year. With New England dealing with its own significant early-season suspension, there might just be room to make a move in the AFC East this season.

    The problem is Williams' suspension makes it that much harder for the Bills to make their move early.

Aaron Colvin, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin will spend the first four games of 2016 on the sidelines.
    Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin will spend the first four games of 2016 on the sidelines.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars had a tremendous offseason, collecting several talented additions and setting the stage for a major step toward contention. The defense in particular appears much stronger after the team added Malik Jackson, Prince Amukamara, Tashaun Gipson and rookie Jalen Ramsey.

    With a beefed-up defense and a talented and evolving offense, the Jaguars should be in position to challenge for the AFC South crown in 2016. Unfortunately, one of the team's top contributors from last season won't be around to kick off the journey.

    Third-year corner Aaron Colvin was given a four-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy. This means he won't be eligible to return until the Jaguars face the Chicago Bears in Week 6. He will miss games against the Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. That rough four-game stretch includes a cross-country visit to San Diego and a trip to London.

    Fortunately, Jacksonville added some quality depth to its cornerback group in the form of Amukamara and Ramsey. Still, losing Colvin hurts, as he was arguably the team's best corner in 2015. He racked up 73 tackles, 4.0 sacks and a forced fumble last season. Pro Football Focus rated him 47th overall among all cornerbacks.

    Colvin appeared in all 16 games last season and made 15 starts. If Ramsey or Amukamara struggle to take over his spot in the first month, it could help put the Jaguars in an AFC South hole. Obviously, this would not be an ideal way to start what should be a promising 2016 campaign.

DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, Dallas Cowboys

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    Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is facing a four-game suspension to start the season.
    Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is facing a four-game suspension to start the season.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Dallas Cowboys decided not to bring back pass-rusher Greg Hardy this offseason, which affects a team pass rush that was rated 14th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. If the Cowboys were planning on counting on young pass-rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory to pick up the slack, however, they have to be disappointed.

    Gregory is facing a four-game ban to open the season because he violated of the league's substance-abuse policy. Lawrence is also facing a four-game suspension, though his is related to the league's PED policy. This means the Cowboys will have to play the first month of the season without either edge-rusher.

    With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant presumably back at 100 percent this season, the Cowboys should again be contenders in the NFC East and perhaps in the playoffs. Just two seasons ago, a healthy Dallas team managed 12 regular-season wins and fell a few plays short of reaching the NFC title game.

    Not having Gregory and Lawrence on the field will hurt Dallas in the opening month of the season, when the team will play divisional games against the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants.

    Lawrence was especially effective as a pass-rusher in 2015. He finished the season with 8.0 sacks. While Gregory didn't produce a sack as a rookie last season, he did play well enough to earn a ranking of 78th overall among 189 edge-rushers from Pro Football Focus.

    A weakened pass rush in the first month of the season could cost the Cowboys a pair of games against NFC East rivals and hamper the team's playoff asperations.

Rolando McClain, LB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain is facing a 10-game suspension to start the season.
    Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain is facing a 10-game suspension to start the season.Jerome Davis/Getty Images

    The Cowboys pass rush will definitely be hindered during the opening month of the season, but Lawrence and Gregory are not the only notable defenders facing a suspension in Dallas. Standout linebacker Rolando McClain is looking at a 10-game suspension for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.

    Losing McClain is a big blow to Dallas. The Alabama product produced 80 tackles, 2.0 sacks, an interception and a defensive touchdown in 2015. Pro Football Focus rated him 24th overall among all inside linebackers for the season. His suspension means the Cowboys will be without the centerpiece of their front seven for 10 games—and perhaps longer.

    Since another violation of the substance-abuse policy would result in a ban of at least one year, the Cowboys might want to simply part ways with McClain for good. However, the team seems reluctant to do so because releasing him would prevent the Cowboys from recouping his $750,000 signing bonus.

    “The main thing is strategically, [financially], it’s not good for us,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of possibly releasing McClain, per Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “And he doesn’t take up an active spot on the roster [during the season].”

    As things stand, the Cowboys should get McClain back in Week 12. The good news is the Cowboys should have McClain available for half of their divisional games. The bad news is he'll be absent for the other half. His suspension further inhibits Dallas' bid for a postseason return.

    Read more here:

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

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    Tom Brady's four-game suspension could haunt the Patriots at season's end.
    Tom Brady's four-game suspension could haunt the Patriots at season's end.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Had the New England Patriots owned home-field advantage in last season's AFC title game, they might have represented the AFC in Super Bowl 50 instead of the Denver Broncos. Unfortunately, the Patriots lost four of their final six games and were forced to play the conference championship in Colorado.

    Playoff seeding is why Tom Brady's four-game ban to start the season could be crushing for New England. The team opens up on the road against the Arizona Cardinals and will then play the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and Bills at home. That stretch of games appears a whole lot tougher with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.

    For one thing, teams aren't going to be as intimidated.

    "It’s always exciting when you get a guy like that for his first game because he’s going to be nervous," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said during an appearance on CBS Sports Radio's Tiki and Tierney. "He’s probably going to be sitting there holding the ball a little longer or trying to get rid of it quick, throwing bad balls."

    Losing even one game during Brady's absence would hurt, but losing two or three could crush the team's hopes of earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The team couldn't earn the No. 1 seed with 12 wins a year ago.

    Even if New England cruises to another AFC East title, a couple of opening losses could cost the team in a big way.

    The Patriots are talented enough that they can win with Garoppolo under center, but as Campbell pointed out, his inexperience could hurt the team. If this happens, it could easily alter the way the rest of the 2016 season unfolds.


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