NEW YORK — Several teams will be missing key players when the NFL season kicks off this weekend.
Most notable among the 26 players suspended by the league are All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who will sit out Pittsburgh’s first two games, and veteran tight end Antonio Gates of San Diego, out for four games.
Bell had his suspension for violating the substance abuse policy (DUI and drug possession arrest in August 2014) reduced from three games. His teammate, wide receiver Martavis Bryant, is banned for four weeks, also for substance abuse.
Gates, one of the most prolific players at his position in league history, is docked four games under the performance enhancers policy.
“In my 12 years in the NFL, I have taken tremendous pride in upholding the integrity of the NFL shield and all that it entails,” Gates said when his suspension was announced in July. He indicated he was unaware of what caused the positive test. “I have always believed that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to these issues, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
Also out are three standout defensive linemen: the Cowboys’ Greg Hardy (personal conduct, four games), the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson (substance abuse, four games) and the Bills’ Marcell Dareus (substance abuse, one game). Richardson could face another suspension, as well. He pleaded not guilty Monday to resisting arrest and traffic charges stemming from his arrest in July in Missouri.
Three players have suspensions that could last the entire season. Cleveland WR Josh Gordon (substance abuse, indefinite), Miami DE-LB Dion Jordan (substance abuse, season), and Arizona LB Daryl Washington (substance abuse, indefinite).
Other likely starters who won’t be available include Green Bay DT Letroy Guion (substance abuse, three games) and DE Datone Jones (substance abuse, one game); Dallas LB Rolando McClain (substance abuse, four games); Kansas City CB Sean Smith (substance abuse, three games); and Denver safety T.J. Ward (personal conduct, one game).
Bell’s absence could be particularly damaging for Pittsburgh, which lost a wild-card playoff game to Baltimore in January when Bell was injured. Although the Steelers have a dynamic passing game with Ben Roethlisberger throwing to Antonio Brown, Bell is, well, a bell cow for the offense. Add in the loss of the emerging Bryant and it figures to put a major crimp in Pittsburgh’s offense in games with the Patriots and 49ers.
Hardy’s case has been the most fluid of any of the suspended players. Then with Carolina, he was on the commissioner’s exempt list, unable to play but paid his full salary of $13 million, for 15 games. An arbitrator reduced his original suspension of 10 games to four games upon appeal.
Hardy had been convicted in a domestic violence trial in North Carolina last year, but the conviction was thrown out when his accuser could not be located to testify.
Dallas signed him in the offseason to a one-year, $13.1 million deal loaded with incentives. The Cowboys envision Hardy as the pass-rushing piece to solidify their defense.