The 2013 draft was a mess, but here are three first-rounders with hope

The Raiders’ defense is improving by leaps and bounds, he has cover skills and an ever-improving pass rush and front seven in front of him. I love Raiders defensive backs coach Rod Woodson, who believes he can cull more from Hayden, and few have Hall of Famer Woodson’s first-hand knowledge of the position.

Despite upgrades to the roster, Hayden still has a chance to see the field. David Amerson stepped into a starting corner spot for Oakland, but that doesn’t mean Hayden couldn’t supplant him, and the safety pair of newcomer Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson should be able to give the corners the freedom to jump routes. It’s do-or-die time for Hayden in Oakland, and I’m not ready to write him off just yet.

LB Jarvis Jones, No. 17, Steelers: This team knows a thing or two about drafting linebackers, and it hasn’t been all that unusual for some recent edge players — be it LaMarr Woodley, Cam Heyward or Jason Worilds — to take time to find their way in this 3-4 defense. So Jones needing some time to get himself going shouldn’t be a total shocker.

When drafted, he looked like a perfect fit for this scheme, though he too came in with injury concerns. He has been a sporadic contributor at best and his pass rush has yet to really flash at the NFL level.

On the bright side, he did start 15 games last season, more than his first two seasons combined. He also produced his first career interception in 2015 and forced a fumble. Yes, this is modest production … but at least he was regularly on the field, a necessary first step. Some of the other outside linebackers need work, too. James Harrison is like 40 by now (actually, he’s 38) and mulled retirement. Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick, didn’t exactly have a scintillating rookie campaign.

I believe this defense will start to make strides again, and in this scheme Jones should be in position to make more plays, with no fifth-year option a motivating factor for him as well.

He’s No. 21 in your program, No. 4 in the 2016 NFL Draft and No. 1 among rookies in jersey sales through one week. That’s running back Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys, folks.

No. 21 is No. 1 when it comes to jersey sales through the first full week after the draft.

— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) May 5, 2016
Is this all that surprising? Not really. There’s a reason they call the Cowboys “America’s Team.” If they don’t have the largest fan base of any team in the NFL, it’s pretty close. And when a team with a fan base of that size not only has a high draft pick, but uses it on an exciting skill position player, they’re going to sell a lot of jerseys. (These are presumably full jerseys and not the kind that cut off just below the shoulder pads so everyone can see your abs.)

Elliott is followed on the rookie jerseys sales list by the No. 2 and then No. 1 picks in the 2016 draft. Division rival Carson Wentz, the future quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, is in second place for his No. 11 jersey. Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick and new QB of the Los Angeles Rams, saw his No. 16 uni sell the third-most among rookies during the first week of his career.

No word on whether Elliott’s jersey sales have helped the Cowboys defense in any way.

Shaq Lawson has a big fan, possible endorsement due to Google alerts

It’s not hard to figure out from where new Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Shaq Lawson got his name. There’s a very famous Shaq that was taking the basketball world by storm when Lawson was born in June 1994. Shaquille O’Neal had just finished his second NBA season, one in which he had averaged 29.3 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.9 blocks when Lawson’s father, Lawrence, chose to name his son Shaq because he was such a long baby, according to the Buffalo News.

“We do think that the way we play will feature some of the physical traits that he has,” Garrett said shortly after his club drafted Tapper. “He plays the right way.”

Other thoughts on the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class:

Critics will argue that running backs are the easiest position to find and thus spending a first-round draft pick on one — especially as high as No. 4 overall — is almost by definition a reach. Dallas may have paid a premium price for Ezekiel Elliott, but make no mistake: he is an elite talent, with the blend of vision, power, speed, hands and competitiveness as a blocker to be a three-down difference-maker immediately for the Cowboys. Drafted into an optimum situation with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and a terrific offensive line aiding his transition into the NFL, Elliott is the odds-on-favorite at this early point to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year this season.

Perhaps in part because Elliott offers immediate impact potential for a team built to win now, the Cowboys’ decision a round later to select injured linebacker Jaylon Smith was a surprising one. Like Elliott, Smith’s talent is undeniable. Prior to tearing multiple knee ligaments in his knee on New Year’s Day in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Elliott and the Buckeyes, Smith looked like a strong candidate to be the Cowboys’ choice at No. 4 overall. Therefore, it is difficult to question the Cowboys for gambling on Smith 30 picks later. Last week Jerry Jones stated that the Cowboys will not place Smith on Injured Reserve this season, hoping instead that he will be ready in time for a potential playoff run.

With all due respect to Smith, it was a different post-draft declaration by Jones which created even more buzz, with the always opinionated Cowboys’ owner expressing regret that he didn’t push harder for a trade up to land former Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Denver Broncos ultimately offered more, trading up with the Seattle Seahawks to land the 6-foot-7, 240 pound Lynch at No. 26 overall.

What we learned: 10 takeaways from Thursday

Is Thomas Rawls a lock to carry the load early in the season for the Seahawks? The second-year back is not ready for camp as he tries to recover from a serious leg/ankle injury and Pete Carroll has hesitated to promise Rawls the starting job. The position battle to see who else emerges in Seattle is one to watch.

Good news for the Saints, as safety Jairus Byrd was healthy enough to open training camp on the field for the first time in three seasons.

Coach Todd Bowles made a few things clear about his quarterback position on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s first full day with the Jets. Fitzpatrick is definitely the starter. Geno Smith is the backup and isn’t going anywhere. That would seem to put Bryce Petty’s job in jeopardy.

At least Fitzpatrick’s hair showed up in midseason form:

Okay…NOW it’s official.

We have re-signed QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The salsa is back in the Big Apple.

Victor Cruz will be on the Giants’ practice field when the team begins training sessions on Friday and will not be placed on the PUP list, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported, per sources informed of his progress.

The injury-afflicted wide receiver hasn’t played a game since suffering a season-ending knee injury in October 2014. He planned to return in 2015, stirring Giants fans fantasies of a lethal Odell Beckham-Cruz combo on the wings. However, a calf injury sidelined him for the season, leaving everyone to wonder when he’d ever return to his full form, or the field.

When Cruz participated in individual drills in May’s organized team activities, he called the workout a “turning point” and promised the plan was “to be full go” by the beginning of training camp. The Giants wideout is currently on schedule, but updates on Cruz’s health have become the most predictably unreliable reports in the league.

Cowboys’ Randy Gregory facing additional suspension

The situation on the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive front seven continues to grow ever bleaker.

Defensive end Randy Gregory, already suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, is enrolling into a treatment program as he faces the prospect of an additional suspension, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported, via a source informed of the player’s plans.

The real worry, per Rapoport, is that Gregory has shut out people in his inner circle. It’s now hoped that treatment will help him resolve the problem and allow him to get his football career back on track.

The latest ban is also for violation of the NFL’s Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse, which will likely bring the suspension to at least 10 games. There is concern amongst the Cowboys’ braintrust, Rapoport added, that Gregory might not play again.

“I don’t want to comment on that,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett in response to news of Gregory facing suspension, according to the Cowboys’ official website. “I’m not commenting on Randy Gregory.”

A consensus top-10 talent leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, Gregory plummeted to Dallas in the second round due to a failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Nebraska star also was late to pre-draft interviews amid concerns about his ability to handle the “mental rigors” of professional football.

Needless to say, the Cowboys were well aware of the risk in drafting Gregory.

Executive vice president and chief operating officer Stephen Jones made it clear months ago that the second-year edge rusher was on thin ice.

“This is a disappointment,” Jones said in February. “We have been clear with Randy about what his responsibilities are and what is expected of him. This is something that he is going to have to work through and correct.”

Along with Gregory’s lengthy absence, the Cowboys also have middle linebacker Rolando McClain serving a 10-game suspension and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence sitting out the first four games.

The front office is under increasing pressure to import pass rushing help over the next six weeks.

Suspended WR Josh Gordon meets with Roger Goodell

Gordon, who hasn’t played a game since December 2014, was spotted in April hanging out with free-agent quarterback — and former Browns starter — Johnny Manziel in Southern California. Still, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown told The Plain Dealer in June that he believed Gordon was making progress.

“I’ve talked with Josh twice on the phone, and the last time I talked with him he sounded very motivated and I think he was in rehab and feeling good about it and discovering some things about himself,” Brown, an advisor to the team, said. “He really seemed ready to take responsibility for himself.”

Brown also suggested that coach Hue Jackson and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam would welcome Gordon back if he’s reinstated, but Cleveland certainly isn’t waiting around after selecting four receivers — Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton — in this year’s draft.

Gordon’s return would give the Browns an uber-talented weapon to bolster their ailing offensive attack. As it always seems to be with this player, though, we’ll need to wait and see what comes next.

If Ray Rice has an opportunity to play in the NFL again, he plans to use his game checks to battle the issue of domestic violence.

The former Ravens running back was released by Baltimore in September 2014 after video surfaced of Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Rice told USA TODAY’s Tom Pelissero on Wednesday that he would donate his entire 2016 salary to organizations and programs aimed at the prevention of domestic violence and the support of its victims.

“All the scrutiny that I’ve got, it was deserved, because domestic violence is a horrible thing,” Rice said. “Me donating my salary is something that’ll be from the heart for me. I only want to play football so I can end it the right way for my kids and for the people that really believed in me. But I know there’s a lot of people affected by domestic violence, and every dollar helps. It’s raising awareness.”

Matt Spaeth’s long run with the Pittsburgh Steelers is over.

The team announced Thursday that Spaeth has been released with the designation of failed physical.

“Matt never fully recovered from knee surgery that occurred this past offseason, and he will not be ready to return to football activities at this time,” general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement released by the team. “Matt played an integral role in our Super Bowl XLIII Championship run, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.”