Bell, Burfict lead pack of players returning from suspension
Le'Veon Bell insists he'll do everything in his power to make sure his latest run-in with the NFL's substance abuse policy is his last. Vontaze Burfict isn't so sure he can say the same about his reprimands from the league's disciplinary committee.
Either way, two of the NFL's most dynamic players head back to work this week after serving three-game suspensions to start the 2016 season. Bell sat for running afoul of the drug policy for the second time, Burfict as penance for a series of unhinged moments on the field that culminated in his helmet-to-helmet knockout blow of Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown in last year's wild-card round.
Their returns should give their teams - both expected to compete for a playoff spot in the hypercompetitive AFC North and both coming off one-sided losses last Sunday - a boost as October dawns, the front edge of a wave that will include other bold-faced names (including some dude in New England) that will come off the suspended list next week.
How their teams have survived in the absence of such vital parts is a mixed bag.
For all of Bell's talent, DeAngelo Williams led the NFL in rushing through two weeks before Pittsburgh's hot start came to a sudden and decisive halt in Philadelphia. The Bengals, however, have missed Burfict - the emotional touchstone of a defense that is among the NFL's best when it at its finest.
Their comebacks, however, come with a caveat. Any potential missteps going forward would carry far harsher penalties. Bell doesn't think that will be an issue.
''I'm not a perfect person,'' the 2014 All-Pro said. ''I never will be. I know there are some things I can get better at.''
Burfict, meanwhile, doesn't seem to care whether his helter-skelter style of play incurs the wrath of the commissioner's office.
''Why would I change anything?'' he said earlier this week.
That's just Vontaze being Vontaze. A look at the returns on the horizon and what they could mean going forward.
THE PLAYER: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh
THE RETURN: Sunday night vs. Kansas City
THE IMPACT: You mean besides giving fantasy football owners a headache as they try to decipher how much Bell will be used? Bell was one of the best versatile backs in the league before tearing the MCL in his right knee on a tackle by Burfict last November. The knee is fine (Bell decided against wearing a protective brace) and he begins the final year of the rookie deal he signed in 2013 trying to prove to the Steelers - and 31 other teams - that he's matured as a person while remaining as explosive as ever.
THE PLAYER: Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati
THE RETURN: Thursday vs. Miami
THE IMPACT: The Bengals need more than just Burfict's production - he's perhaps their most dynamic defender when healthy - they need his energy, too. Cincinnati gave up four touchdown passes to Denver on Sunday and looked downright polite in a loss at Pittsburgh in Week 2. Burfict's presence could provide the Bengals with an emotional boost they desperately need. A trendy pick to make a deep playoff run, Cincinnati is a middling 15th in total defense and seems to have lost a bit of its swagger. Burfict should help provided he keeps his cool - never a guarantee.
THE PLAYER: Tom Brady, QB, New England
THE RETURN: Week 5 at Cleveland
THE IMPACT: Try not to muss up all of Jimmy Garoppolo's and Jacoby Brisset's hard work. Kidding. (But only a little). Brady's 21-month battle with the league over ''Deflategate'' will finally end when his four-game suspension expires following this Sunday's visit from Buffalo. The Patriots have chugged right along in Brady's absence, though all that success will likely just spur Brady to send a message that New England's dominance doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of coach Bill Belichick.
THE PLAYER: Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland
THE RETURN: Week 5 vs. New England
THE IMPACT: Massive. Maybe . With Gordon, you never know. He led the NFL in yards receiving in 2013, but that was three years and a handful of suspensions ago. Following a miserable start, the Browns are starting to show signs of life with Terrelle Pryor doing a little bit of everything. Pryor thinks the Browns' offense ''could get ugly'' (in a good way) if Gordon stays out of trouble. That's a mighty big `if' though.
THE PLAYER: Marcell Dareus, DL, Buffalo
THE RETURN: Week 5 at Los Angeles
THE IMPACT: Like Bell, the Bills' highest-paid player missed time for a second straight season for finding himself on the wrong side of the NFL's drug policy. Like Bell, Dareus has watched the guys filling in get by pretty well without him. Sacks and turnovers are up in Buffalo, which whipped Arizona last weekend and will face the healthiest Patriots quarterback available (and not suspended) on Sunday. The 331-pound Dareus (his listed weight anyway) may need time to get into playing shape but his presence in the middle could free things up for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to get creative with how he uses guys on the edge.
OTHER GUYS ON THE WAY: Rob Ninkovich, DE New England; Mike Pennel, DL Green Bay; Arthur Jones, DE Indianapolis
AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, John Wawrow in Buffalo, Kyle Hightower in Boston, Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Mike Marot in Indianapolis and Genaro Armas in Green Bay, Wisc., contributed to this report.