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Preseason Power Rankings No. 15: Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben AP

I’ve been accused of both being a Steelers fan and hating the Steelers.  Neither statement is accurate.

Here’s one that is:  After spending most of my life living in and within 100 miles of Pittsburgh, I know the Steelers as well if not better than any NFL team.

And here’s one thing I know:  When they are expected to be bad, they usually find a way to be pretty good.

In 2013, that theory could get its toughest test in years.  The roster is in transition, with a mix of aging veterans who are getting close the being kicked to the curb (including one with really long hair), a nucleus of players who are in their prime and who need to lead like it, and youngsters who’ll be relied upon to step up or step off.

For now, the consensus of the six PFT scribes placed the Steelers at No. 15.  Plenty of people think they’ll end up much worse.  Which tells me that there’s a good chance they’ll finish much better.

Strengths.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this franchise, year in and year out, comes from the franchise itself.  The Rooney family leads the team with a steady hand, never getting too high or too low in response to whatever may be happening at any given moment, month, or year.  Their patience could be tested over the next year or two, if the effort to change a flat tire on a moving car doesn’t work out very well.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains a strength, but he could be an even stronger presence in three ways.  First, he needs to become a real leader of the team, not just a leader in word or title.  When former teammate Hines Ward pointed earlier this year to a lack of leadership earlier this offseason, he was pointing directly at Roethlisberger.  It’s time for Ben to prove the MVP of Super Bowl XL wrong.  (Unless the MVP of Super Bowl XL is right.)

Second, Roethlisberger needs to do less.  In the two seasons the Steelers won Super Bowls with Roethlisberger at the helm, he had his two lowest full-season per-game passing-yard averages, other than his rookie season.  The Steelers have been trying to achieve greater balance between run and pass, and Roethlisberger needs to buy in to that approach completely.

Third, he needs to stay healthy.  Though Roethlisberger apparently has recovered quickly from late-offseason knee surgery, there’s a sense that his very large body will betray him sooner than later, making it very hard for him to match other franchise quarterbacks by playing deep into his 30s.

In contrast to the Patriots’ inability to find quality receivers in the upper rounds of the draft, the Steelers have mastered the art of reaching into the haystack and pulling out mid-to-late-round needles.  Even with Mike Wallace (a third-rounder) gone to the highest bidder, the Steelers have a paid of solid replacements in Antonio Brown (a sixth-rounder) and Emmanuel Sanders (a third-round pick).  This year, the Steelers reached for two more needles, picking Markus Wheaton in (where else?) round three and Justin Brown in (where else?) round six.

The offensive line has been a perennial weakness.  The fact that it isn’t this year sort of makes it a strength.  Marcus Gilbert steps in for Max Starks at left tackle, and Mike Adams will handle the right side.  Maurkice Pouncey anchors the middle, with Ramon Foster on Pouncey’s left and a fully-healed David DeCastro, a first-rounder in 2012, to the right of the apologetic Hernandez apologist.

On defense, the ongoing presence of ageless coordinator Dick LeBeau will be needed more than ever, as the team adjusts to the departure of linebacker James Harrison and the highly unlikely return of nose tackle Casey Hampton.  But the Steelers have shown over the last 20-plus years an ability to interchange parts and still have a strong defense.  Regardless of the names and faces, the end result will be a fierce, hard-hitting defense.

Weaknesses.

The Steelers desperately need leaders with the will and the ability to influence teammates, on both sides of the ball.  Last year, they simply weren’t able to adjust to the sudden departure of leaders like Hines Ward and Aaron Smith.  This year, it will be very hard to turn around the perceived status of the team without players who take the criticisms personally and motivate those around them to take it up a notch, or three.

The running back position is perhaps less of a weakness than it is unsettled.  Rashard Mendenhall has left via free agency, and the Steelers hope Le’Veon Bell can make a Franco-style impact as a rookie.  If Bell doesn’t, it’ll be up to a revolving door of journeyman to provide the balance the team needs on offense.

The tight end position could be an issue for the Steelers, if Heath Miller has trouble recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in 2012.  If he does, David Johnson (who tore an ACL last August) could get a chance to shine.

The defensive line isn’t necessarily a weakness, but it’s not as strong as it used to be, making it harder for the largely anonymous trio to tie up blockers, which allows linebackers to get to the ball.

Changes.

On offense, a quartet of big names has bolted:  Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks, and Willie Colon.  On defense, James Harrison has hit the road after rejecting a pay cut.  Casey Hampton didn’t even get a chance to turn down an offer; his contract expired, and the Steelers moved on.  (We still wouldn’t be completely shocked if he returns.)

New faces on offense include backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who displaced Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch.  Rookie quarterback Landry Jones has prompted Batch to suggest that, if Jones develops well, he could eventually displace Roethlisberger.  Three rookie skill-position players, led by Le’Veon Bell, will help the offense find its groove in year two under coordinator Todd Haley.

First-round linebacker Jarvis Jones, if his neck really is a non-issue, could make a huge impact from the get-go, making Steelers fans forget all about Harrison.  (Until, of course, Harrison is chasing around Roethlisberger when the Bengals face the Steelers.)

Position battles.

The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to become the bell cow back, but he’ll have to earn it.  Other contenders include Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and diminutive-but-effective La’Rod Stephens-Howling.

Beyond Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, the spots on the receiver depth chart are up for grabs. Don’t overlook Plaxico Burress, who’ll have his first full offseason and training camp to prepare for an NFL campaign in five years, as the primary red-zone target.  The slot job could come down to Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Markus Wheaton.

Pencil in Jarvis Jones as the replacement for James Harrison, but Jones will need to fend off Jason Worilds.

Despite the return of starting corners Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, the return of William Gay could make things interesting, especially if Allen slips.

At safety, it could be hard to keep rookie Shamarko Thomas off the field, even with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark on the roster.  (It also could be hard for Thomas to avoid the inevitable nickname of “Sharknado.”)

At punter, incumbent Drew Butler will battle it out with Brian Moorman, who was the incumbent in Buffalo a year ago.

Prospects.

The Steelers feel like a team in transition that borders on turmoil.  They missed the playoffs in 2012, and many see them as the third-best team in a competitive AFC North.

But the Steelers have a way of finding their groove when they’re being doubted, and it should surprise no one if coach Mike Tomlin wills the team toward postseason contention.  If they get there, they’ve still got enough talent and experience to cause problems for supposedly “better” teams in the AFC and, if it comes down to it, the NFC.

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Irsay increases the pressure on his employees

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Colts owner Jim Irsay recently said that it’s not “Super Bowl or bust” for coach Chuck Pagano.

More recent remarks from Irsay suggest that it eventually will be, for Pagano and everyone else.

“In the Andrew Luck era, we would like to win at least two World Championships,” Irsay said Saturday.

He’d also like to win two titles consecutively.

“When you look at that, we look at how do we build this roster over the next three years to really be able to go on a run where you can win two Super Bowls in a row, when you can really be dominant,” Irsay said.  “Again, that’s working on all phases of the ball.”

It’s hard enough to win one Super Bowl; it’s significantly harder to win two in a row.  But it’s no surprise that Irsay is reminding his employees of the high bar that has been set for the franchise.  Irsay declared in 2013 that, in parting ways with Peyton Manning, Irsay chose championships over stats.

At some point the championships need to show up.  If they don’t, pretty much everyone on the payroll but Andrew Luck will be at risk.

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Carroll says ball currently is in Wilson’s court

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Here’s an item that was largely overlooked in the aftermath of the 2015 NFL draft — the player selected with the 75th pick in the 2012 NFL draft is no closer to a new deal.

In an interview with ESPN, Carroll said that talks with quarterback Russell Wilson are “going a little slow,” but that the process is “ongoing,” via Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.

As it relates to the formal exchange of offers and counteroffers, it won’t be going anywhere until Wilson’s camp responds to whatever Seattle most recently put on the table.  Carroll specifically said that the team is “waiting to hear from their side.”

Condotta notes that, shortly after Carroll’s interview, Wilson responded with this message on Twitter:  “I’d rather patiently wait & see what God has in store than do something that isn’t best for my life.”

That sounds like Wilson may not be responding any time soon, if at all.  It possibly means Wilson will decide to play out his contract, forcing the Seahawks to decide whether to apply the exclusive or non-exclusive version of the franchise tag.  The exclusive version would cost upwards of $25 million for 2016 (and nearly $100 million on a year-to-year basis over three years).  The non-exclusive version would allow another team to swoop in with a major offer that, if not matched by the Seahawks, would result in Wilson changing teams — and in Seattle receiving a pair of first-round draft picks.

For now, it appears that Wilson plans to drive a hard bargain, as passively as possible.  And he has every right to drive a hard bargain, passively or aggressively.  At some point, however, it will become difficult to reconcile posturing for top dollar with the ubiquitous cry of “Go ‘Hawks!

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Bears reach deals with QB Shane Carden, 14 other undrafted rookies

Shane Carden AP

If you can’t beat him, sign his doppleganger.

East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden, who has been said to look like former Packers star Brett Favre, is one of 15 undrafted rookie free agents to agree to deals with the Bears, the club said on its website on Sunday evening.

Carden (6-2, 218) threw for more than 4,000 yards in each of his final two seasons with the Pirates. In this span, he threw 66 TDs and just 20 picks in 1,166 passes. Carden will vie to stick on a depth chart that includes Jay Cutler, Jimmy Clausen and David Fales.

The Bears also reached deals with these undrafted rookies: TCU LB Jonathan Anderson, Rice CB Bryce Callahan, East Central CB Qumain Black, Toledo PK Jeremiah Detmer, Central Florida CB Jacoby Glenn, Coastal Carolina OG Chad Hamilton, UCLA S Anthony Jefferson, Arkansas OT Cameron Jefferson, Old Dominion LS Rick Lovato, Illinois State WR Cameron Meredith, Baylor WR Levi Norwood, Miami (Fla.) DE Olsen Pierre, Washington LB John Timu, Alabama TE Brian Vogler.

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Jason Garrett: Cowboys have the right support for Randy Gregory

randygregory AP

Randy Gregory was a top 10 talent who slipped to the Cowboys at No. 60 in the draft primarily because of off-field concerns. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says those concerns are alleviated by the support system the team will have in place for Gregory.

“We believe we have the right kind of environment here with the Cowboys,” Garrett said on NFL Network. “We have an excellent coaching staff who believes in coaching the man first, and we also have an excellent support staff who can help our players in every way possible. . . . Some of the off-the-field concerns that we have with Randy, we feel like we can help address.”

The details of Gregory’s off-field concerns remain unclear, although he reportedly has mental health issues. Football locker rooms haven’t always been the most supportive places for people who need to work out such issues, but Garrett is vowing that the Cowboys will take good care of Gregory.

And, of course, on the field the Cowboys think they got themselves a great player.

“Randy Gregory is a very natural pass rusher,” Garrett said. “He seems to have a knack for getting to the quarterback.”

Gregory’s job in Dallas is simple: Get to the quarterback. The Cowboys’ job of supporting Gregory will be more complex, and may determine just how successful he is in the NFL.

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49ers pick up a pair of 2016 draft picks

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The 49ers will have a little added picking power in the 2016 NFL Draft.

In trades this week, San Francisco snagged a pair of extra selections in next year’s draft, getting a fifth-round pick from San Diego when trading down on Thursday and a sixth-round pick from Dallas for a 2015 seventh-round pick on Saturday.

The Eagles came away with the highest future pick, snagging a 2016 third-rounder from Detroit for a 2015 fourth-round pick. However, the Lions are likely to get a 2016 third-rounder as a compensatory pick after losing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency.

Here is the full list of future selections acquired during the 2015 NFL Draft:

Philadelphia: 2016 third-round selection (from Detroit).

San Francisco: 2016 fifth-round selection (from San Diego), 2016 sixth-round selection (from Dallas).

Detroit: 2016 fifth-round selection (from Denver).

Washington: 2016 sixth-round selection (from New Orleans).

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Maccagnan: Zac Stacy trade not related to concerns about Stevan Ridley’s knee

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Instead of taking a shot on a rookie running back with a seventh-round pick on Saturday, the Jets opted to trade it to the Rams in exchange for Zac Stacy.

Stacy, a 2013 fifth-round pick, became an odd man out in St. Louis when the team drafted Todd Gurley in the first round on Thursday. Reports that he wanted a trade came a short time later and the Jets decided to take the plunge.

Stacy joins a depth chart that also features Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell and Stevan Ridley, who the Jets signed as a free agent this offseason as he recovers from a torn ACL. Jets General Manager Mike Maccagnan said Saturday that concerns about Ridley’s return weren’t the reason why the team made the deal for Stacy.

“We thought the idea of bringing Zac in for that kind of investment would be very beneficial and increase the competition at that position,” Maccagnan said, via ESPN.com. “He’s had success in the league. Two years ago, he was close to a 1,000-yard back. This past season, his production wasn’t quite as high, but we do think he’s a good-caliber running back.”

It may not be the knee that made Maccagnan pull the trigger on the trade, but the Jets would seem to have some concern about Ivory and/or Ridley being right for the job to add another back with a similar style to the mix.

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24 early entries went undrafted

georgefarmer AP

The first two days of the NFL draft were big for underclassmen, with 43 of them selected. But the third day of the NFL draft wasn’t as kind to players who turned pro early.

Only 17 underclassmen were selected in Rounds 4-7, which brought the total of underclassmen drafted to 60. With 84 underclassmen declaring for this year’s draft, that means there were 24 players who gave up their remaining NCAA eligibility and weren’t chosen at all.

That doesn’t mean those players made the wrong call — some of them will make NFL rosters as undrafted free agents — but it does serve as a reminder that players need to think long and hard about whether they’re doing the right thing if they decide to give up their college scholarships for a shot at the pros.

Some of those players who turned pro early in January now may be coming to the realization that they’re unlikely ever to make money playing football. Here’s hoping they learned something while they were in college.

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Jaguars sign nine undrafteds, including Auburn’s Nick Marshall

Auburn Pro Day Football AP

One of perhaps the 10 best quarterbacks eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft has a new home.

Of course, there were only seven quarterbacks drafted, and this one is changing positions, which says as much about the class as him in particular.

The Jaguars announced the addition of nine undrafted rookies, including cornerback Nick Marshall.

Marshall was a quarterback at Auburn, and his college coach thinks he could play the position at the next level. He might be right, given the supply/demand issues the league is having there.

But for now, he’s a corner, where he participated during the Senior Bowl.

The Jaguars did sign another quarterback, Kansas State’s Jake Walters, along with linebacker Thurston Armbrister (Miami), defensive tackle Eric Crume (Syracuse), running back Corey Grant (Auburn) tight end Connor Hamlett (Oregon State), guard Chris Reed (Minnestoa-Mankato) and linebackers Matt Robinson (Maryland) and Todd Thomas (Pittsburgh).

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Chip Kelly: Tim Tebow isn’t here just to be a camp arm

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When Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez was asked last month about Tim Tebow’s role with the team last month, he effectively said Tebow was a spare arm to help them through practice until Sam Bradford was well.

Well, coach Chip Kelly disagrees with that assessment, saying Tebow had as much of a shot as anybody.

During an appearance on the NFL Network, Kelly dispelled that notion, such that such a notion can be dispelled before players set foot on the field.

“No. I think everybody here that we bring to our organization is here to compete for a job. That’s what Timmy is going to do,” Kelly said, via NJ.com. “He’s an unbelievable competitor. . . .

“If we were just going to have guys throw drills, we’d take [Mike] Mayock in the offseason and bring him down here and let him throw to them.”

While joking with the league-owned network’s talent might have gotten Kelly out of a potentially uncomfortable line of questioning, it doesn’t make the issue go away.

And while he clearly didn’t get the quarterback he was hoping for this weekend, Kelly’s going to spend plenty of time on the position moving forward, massaging egos and managing expectations.

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Lions “don’t know” if Travis Swanson will start at center

Jacksonville Jaguars v Detroit Lions Getty Images

Coming into the draft, the interior of the offensive line was often mentioned as an area the Lions needed to address and the evaluation was spot on based on what the team did over the last three days.

They drafted guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round after they acquired Manny Ramirez from the Broncos as part of a trade that moved them down to the 28th overall pick. Tomlinson appears ticketed for left guard while 2014 third-rounder Travis Swanson is in line to take over for Dominic Raiola at center, although offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn said he’s not ready to name him the starter at this point in the offseason.

“I don’t know,” Washburn said, via the Detroit Free Press. “And I’m not trying to be evasive, I just don’t know. What is it, May 2, 3rd? The depth kind of develops itself, which is a nice thing. Going through OTAs, mini-camp, training camp, it always takes care of itself.”

The best outcome for the Lions would be for Tomlinson and Swanson to establish themselves as the best options with the first team while Ramirez provides them with an experienced reserve at both guard and center. Should second-round running back Ameer Abdullah do the same, the Lions will likely be able to do a better job of moving the ball on the ground this season.

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Jay Gruden: Alfred Morris “won’t be affected” by Matt Jones’s arrival

Alfred Morris, Malcolm Jenkins AP

Bolstering the run game appears to have been on Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan’s mind when the team went into the draft this year.

He selected Brandon Scherff in the first round to provide some needed talent to the team’s offensive line and then added two more offensive linemen as the draft wrapped up on Saturday. They also drafted former Florida running back Matt Jones to the roster in a move that coach Jay Gruden said would have no impact on incumbent starter Alfred Morris’s role in Washington.

“No, no, Alfred won’t be affected,” Gruden said, via the team’s website. “Alfred’s still the running back here. He’s had three great seasons and that won’t change, but to add another guy that can come in here and pound the rock a little bit doesn’t hurt anything. It’ll help Alfred in that regard taking some carries off of him, but for the most part, Alfred will be getting the bulk of the carries and Matt will get some too, obviously.”

At 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, pounding the rock should be Jones’s speciality as a ball carrier at the professional level. He also earned good marks for his pass blocking, which should set him up well as a complementary piece for Gruden to use behind Morris. If he proves capable of doing more than that it’s all the better for the Redskins, but a capable reserve is really what they need as Morris accounted for all but 19 of last year’s carries by tailbacks currently on the roster.

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Broncos add four undrafted offensive linemen

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The Broncos drafted a pair of offensive linemen over the last two days of the draft and they continued addressing the area after the draft came to an end.

Denver announced nine undrafted free agent signings and the group includes four more blocking prospects for a team that’s moving in a different direction up front with head coach Gary Kubiak installing his offensive scheme. They signed Mississippi State center Dillon Day, who was a four-year starter, to go with fourth-round pick Max Garcia and former Clemson Tiger Kalon Davis on the interior of the line.

The Broncos drafted tackle Ty Sambrailo in the second round and they filled out the depth chart at the position with Wyoming’s Connor Rains and Nevada’s Kyle Roberts.

Nebraska linebacker Zaire Anderson, Boise State wide receiver Matt Miller, Oklahoma defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue, Rice WR Jordan Taylor and Clemson defensive lineman Josh Watson round out the group of undrafted additions to the Denver roster.

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Seven quarterbacks drafted, fewest since 1955

mariota AP

Although quarterbacks went 1-2 in this year’s NFL draft, from top to bottom NFL teams viewed this as one of the weakest years for quarterback prospects ever.

As a result, only seven quarterbacks were drafted — the fewest in any NFL draft since six quarterbacks were taken in 1955.

After Jameis Winston went first to the Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota went second to the Titans, the rest of the quarterback picks were sparse: The Saints took Garrett Grayson and the Rams took Sean Mannion in the third round, the Jets took Bryce Petty in the fourth round, the Packers took Brett Hundley in the fifth round and the Broncos took Trevor Siemian in the seventh round.

In that 1955 draft, with only six quarterbacks drafted, George Shaw went first overall to the Baltimore Colts. That didn’t work out very well; Shaw had a mediocre career. But in the ninth round that year, the Steelers took quarterback Johnny Unitas. That worked out pretty well for the Colts, as Unitas got cut without ever playing a game for the Steelers, and then headed to Baltimore where he became one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

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Bryce Petty wants to prove the other 31 teams wrong

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If Tom Petty was drafted by the Jets in the fourth round on Saturday, he might have opened his conference call with the media by saying that the waiting was the hardest part.

It was Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty that the Jets traded up to take, however, and that means there were fewer song lyrics when he talked about being drafted a little later than he hoped. Petty was touted as a potential first-round pick or second day selection, but he had to wait a bit longer to run down his dream of being drafted. Petty said that waiting until the fourth round didn’t hurt his confidence or his desire to make the rest of the league regret letting him linger.

“You have people that question you and that was their decision, so my job now is to prove to the other 31 teams what they’re missing out on,” Petty said, via the New York Post. “I’m so excited to be a Jet right now and get to further my playing career in New York, and that’s all I’m worried about now. I’m still very confident in my abilities. I think you have to, as any competitor, especially at quarterback and especially at quarterback in the NFL. You’re graded on two things and that is wins and losses.”

General Manager Mike Maccagnan said he thinks Petty has “all the physical attributes and parts” to be a successful quarterback in the NFL, but he and coach Todd Bowles stressed that they feel he needs time to put those tools to use in an NFL offense. The presence of Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick should give him that time in 2015, although 2016 might be a different story if those two can’t lead an improved supporting cast to better results.

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No University of Tennessee players drafted for first time since 1963

Justin Coleman AP

The SEC might have had the most players picked from any collegiate conference for the ninth year in a row, but it wasn’t a banner day for all of the schools from that neck of the woods.

The University of Tennessee ranks among the most prolific producers of NFL talent, but none of the members of last year’s squad were able to get an NFL team to volunteer interest in a Volunteer. For the first time since 1963, no members of the Tennessee team were drafted into the NFL.

Tennessee was 7-6 under coach Butch Jones last season and had two players invited to the combine. Linebacker A.J. Johnson was one of them, but he’s facing rape charges that chilled his draft hopes. Cornerback Justin Coleman was the other invitee and the school announced that he’s heading to the Vikings as an undrafted free agent.

They also announced that punter Matt Darr is signing with the Dolphins while defensive lineman Jordan Williams will try to earn a job on the talented Jets front.

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