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Raiders look to slow down New Orleans TE Graham

Raiders look to slow down New Orleans TE Graham

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Playing in the same division as Antonio Gates and having faced Tony Gonzalez so many times over the years has given the Oakland Raiders plenty of experience dealing with elite tight ends.

Going up against New Orleans' Jimmy Graham this week might be the toughest test yet.

With his imposing 6-foot-7, 265-pound frame and the athletic ability of a former college basketball player, Graham is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. That's especially true for a Raiders team that is banged up in the secondary and has struggled all season to slow down opposing tight ends.

``He's always been a big guy who can run and go up and catch the ball but he's learned how to run routes and how to get himself open,'' coach Dennis Allen said. ``He's one of the toughest matchups that we've seen.''

Graham has overcome an inconsistent stretch earlier this season when he struggled to hold onto balls and has regained his form of late. He has 20 catches for 281 yards and four touchdowns the past three games.

That improvement has helped the Saints (4-5) rebound from an 0-4 start heading into Sunday's game against the Raiders (3-6).

``I think he was battling through some little nicks and injuries early on,'' quarterback Drew Brees said. ``I think all of us just needed to find the mojo a little bit. It took four games to do it, but when you look at the last five games you'd say we've definitely had our moments where we feel like we're back to playing the type of football we know how to play.''

Since the start of last season, Graham is second in the NFL among all tight ends in receptions (144), yards receiving (1,843) and touchdowns (18). That's quite a resume for someone who played just one year of football and four years of basketball in college at Miami.

But despite the lack of experience, Graham was drafted in the third round by the Saints in 2010 and has quickly emerged as one of the best in the league at his position.

``Graham is a matchup problem throughout the league,'' cornerback Ron Bartell said. ``He runs like a wide receiver but has unusual size. He definitely presents a problem, but there are so many tight ends like that throughout the league. We just need to be fundamentally sound. If we're able to do that I think we'll come out fine.''

The Raiders have struggled to do that this season. They allowed Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson to combine for seven catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 55-20 loss at Baltimore as Oakland left the middle of the field wide open most of the game.

Heath Miller caught two TD passes for Pittsburgh earlier in the year against Oakland, and Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen teamed up for a big day for Denver as well.

The defensive backs say much of the problem can be attributed to poor communication between the secondary and linebackers, which must be fixed immediately with Brees and the Saints coming to town.

``Oh, boy. It can't happen this week,'' cornerback Michael Huff said. ``He's one of the smartest, one the greatest quarterbacks out there. Pre-snap, he kind of knows already what you're in, so we've got to hopefully disguise a little bit and make him think a little bit and let our pressure get him.''

Complicating the task this week is the fact that Oakland strong safety Tyvon Branch has missed both practices so far with a neck injury from last week in Baltimore and his status for Sunday's game is in question.

Branch and outside linebacker Philip Wheeler have gotten the most time this season matching up against tight ends. Wheeler has struggled of late. He allowed six catches for 88 yards in six attempts last week and opposing quarterbacks have completed all 16 passes thrown his way the past three weeks, according to game charting by Pro Football Focus.

If Branch is limited at all, backup Mike Mitchell could get more time. Mitchell matched up frequently with tight ends in past years with some success, but has been mostly a special teams player this year.

``I'm curious to see how he's going to handle more of a physical, skill-position guy checking him at the line,'' Mitchell said. ``Usually, he's too fast for linebackers and too big for DBs, but I've been able to have success on those guys because I'm a skilled position guy. I like to get my hands on you a little bit and slow you down. So, we'll see. It's going to be a tough matchup. He's very good. He's one of Drew Brees' favorite targets. If he can be eliminated, that takes a lot out of their offense.''

NOTES: RB Darren McFadden ran on his sprained right ankle for the first time since hurting it Nov. 4 but is not ready to practice yet. ... RB Mike Goodson (sprained right ankle), DT Richard Seymour (knee, hamstring) and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) also did not practice. ... S Matt Giordano returned to practice after leaving last week's game with a concussion. ... The Raiders signed CB Cory Nelms to the practice squad. ... The Raiders announced the game will be televised locally.

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Metairie, La., contributed to this report.

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Report: Ravens safety Matt Elam arrested on drug charges

Report: Ravens safety Matt Elam arrested on drug charges

Ravens safety Matt Elam was arrested on drug charges early Sunday morning in Miami, according to Pro Football Talk.

"We have just been made aware of this and are looking into the situation," Ravens Vice President of Public Relations Chad Steele said via email. Steele later added that "Matt Elam is not in our (Ravens) plans."

The arrest, which reportedly occurred at 3:45 a.m. Sunday, is the latest disappointment for one of the biggest draft busts in Ravens history. Elam was a first-round pick in 2013, but he never came close to reaching expectations due to injuries and poor play. The Ravens did not pick up Elam’s fifth-year option making him a free agent in March. He has only played nine games the past two seasons, and he was suspended for one game in 2015 for violating the NFL substance abuse policy.

Now Elam has more to worry about than his disappointing NFL career, and finding another team to play for.  According to the report, Elam was charged with possession of more than 20 grams of cannabis, possession of cannabis with the intent to sell or deliver, and possession of a controlled substance. Elam was initially pulled over for reckless driving, according to police, who then found 126 grams of marijuana and three grams of oxycodone in his car.

Related: Will the Ravens cut tight end Dennis Pitta to create cap space?

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NFL Mock Draft 4.0: Combine Primer And Sleepers

NFL Mock Draft 4.0: Combine Primer And Sleepers

The annual NFL Combine kicks of Wednesday in Indianapolis. Whatever happens there -- receivers run fast, quarterbacks flash arm strength, defenders lack pop -- projections will change and in some cases significantly. Therefore here's my last look at the situation before all the sprints and lifts via mock draft 4.0 plus some other thoughts below.

* League sources offered up names of several prospects currently ranked all over the big boards with the chance to make a big splash during the combine. They include:

Alabama TE O.J. Howard -- Everybody already knows the 6-foot-6 Howard is a two-way monster. His Senior Bowl dominance certainly confirmed that. Rocking the Combine could alter his mid-to-late first round projection into 10-13 range where teams like New Orleans, Cleveland and Arizona have TE needs. Call me crazy, but if Howard is there when the Redskins pick at 17, I can imagine Washington thinkng long and hard about two-TE sets wth Jordan Reed. 

Oklahoma DT Charles Walker -- The Redskins have shown interest in Walker, according to a league source, though his draft range is all over the map. The interior force's redshirt junior season ended early due to a concussion followed by a decision to leave the Sooners early with draft preparation in mind. Was a second-team All-Big 12 selection as a junior thanks to six sacks. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Walker ninth among defensive tackles while WalterFootball.com projects the 304-pounder as a Day 2 pick.

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Pittsburgh OT Adam Bisnowaty -- Considered underrated despite starting four seasons for the Panthers. The left tackle helped key a resurgent season for the Panthers. Lack of wow prospects at the position means the order outside of Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin), Cam Robinson (Alabama) and Garrett Bolles (Utah) is in flux.

Ashland TE Adam Shaheen -- The D2 prospect is early candidate for the "Who is that guy?" award. Expect raves about Shaheen's size and athleticism. CBS Sports already has Day 2 projection on the 6-foot-6, 277-pounder who can run routes like a wide receiever. Could he move all the way into round 1?

Tulsa WR Keevan Lucas -- What the 5-foot-10 receiver lacks in height he makes up for with speed and production. Caught 81 passes for 1,180 yards and 15 touchdowns during his senior season with the Golden Hurricanes. Certain analytics show Lucas' production stood out  and put him in the same statistical company as future NFL receivers Stefon Diggs and Marqise Lee. Day 3 sleeper.

Other to watch: QB Pat Mahomes (Texas Tech), TE David Nkoju (Miami, Fl.), DT Ryan Glasgow (Michigan), CB Cordrea Tankersley (Clemson)

* Look at Scot McCloughan's draft history and one theme emerges: The man likes seniors, especially in round one. Brandon Scherff and Josh Doctson were both four-year players. The bulk of first round selections during his time at Seattle and San Francisco. That doesn't mean McCloughan will go that way with the 17th overall pick; Of the top 19 ranked prospects according to ESPN analyst Todd McShay, 14 are underclassmen. But keep a close on seniors with early round projections like Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, Temple inside linebacker Haason Reddick, Indiana guard Dan Feeney, LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, Washington wide receiver John Ross and Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson.

<<CLICK HERE TO VIEW FULL NFL MOCK DRAFT 4.0>>