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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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Super Bowl 50 first in 22 years without a touchdown pass

Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, right, is sacked by Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly (59) during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.  (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) AP

The NFL has increasingly become more of a passing league over the last two decades as offensive production has exploded to previously unseen heights.

But Super Bowl 50 featured a rare occurrence when it comes to the NFL’s championship game.

Neither Peyton Manning or Cam Newton completed a touchdown pass in the Denver Broncos 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night. It’s just the first time in 22 years – and fourth time in history – that the Super Bowl didn’t feature a touchdown pass.

Super Bowl XXVIII between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills was the last Super Bowl without a passing touchdown. Emmitt Smith ran for two touchdowns in the Cowboys 30-13 win over the Bills.

Super Bowl VIII between the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings and Super Bowl III between the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts are the only other Super Bowls that didn’t feature a touchdown pass. The Dolphins beat the Vikings 24-7 behind two Larry Csonka rushing touchdowns. Matt Snell of the Jets and Jerry Hill of the Colts each found the end zone on the ground in the Jets’ 16-7 victory.

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Tony Dungy, Malik Jackson headline Wednesday’s PFT Live

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Day Three of the newly-reconfigured PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio gets rolling at 6:00 a.m. ET, and the final-hour simulcast on NBCSN features a couple of great guests.

Hall of Famer Tony Dungy and Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson join the show at 8:15 a.m. ET and 8:35 a.m. ET, respectively.

The two hours before that will include plenty of news, analysis, and hot-takery, with a visit from Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer regarding the latest in the daily drip-drip-drip of news regarding eventually-former Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Until then, here’s a snippet from Tuesday’s PFT on NBCSN with plenty of high praise for Jackson, from Jonathan Vilma and yours truly.

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Broncos should consider exclusive version of franchise tag for Von Miller

Zz1jYjY1NWYyZDI5MGJjZGI4MTJmZDFkNjRjMGY0NGIzNA== AP

Last year, after the Chiefs applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to linebacker Justin Houston, speculation emerged that a team would gladly give up a pair of first-round picks as compensation for signing him to an offer sheet that Kansas City wouldn’t or couldn’t match. Ultimately, no one did.

This year, the Broncos plan to use the franchise tag if they can’t work out a long-term deal with linebacker Von Miller. If they ultimately apply the non-exclusive version of the tag to Miller, would another team sign the Super Bowl 50 MVP to an offer sheet?

The teams most tempted would be those currently picking at the bottom of round one, since they wouldn’t be giving up a high pick to get Miller now — and presumably wouldn’t be giving up a high pick in 2017, either.

One way for Denver to prevent an effort to swipe Miller would be to use the exclusive version of the franchise tag, which would increase Miller’s tender from the non-exclusive amount of roughly $14 million to the average of the five highest 2016 linebacker cap numbers.

Ultimately, the difference in amounts may not be significant. Making the decision to use the exclusive tag easier.

The safest course would be to get Miller signed before the deadline for using the tag. Then, it could be applied to someone else, like defensive lineman Malik Jackson. Whether they can get Miller signed before the tag deadline depends on how much Miller wants, and how much the Broncos are willing to pay. If a middle ground can’t be reached, the Broncos should consider using the exclusive version of the tag.

Otherwise, someone else could be breaking the bank for the man who did the most to shut down Carolina’s offense in the Super Bowl.

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Obama calls Broncos to congratulate them on Super Bowl win

BRIGHTON, CO - OCTOBER 26:  Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks on a cell phone to a potential voter during a stop at a campaign office October 26, 2008 in Brighton, Colorado. Obama continues to campaign as Election Day begins to draw near as he runs against his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Getty Images

At one point, the Super Bowl postgame coverage included the handing of a phone to the coach of the winning team with a call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nowadays, the call comes after the fact.

The Broncos have announced that President Barack Obama called coach Gary Kubiak and team captain DeMarcus Ware on Tuesday to congratulate them on the win.

Quarterback Peyton Manning wasn’t included in the call. Possibly because his Colts beat Obama’s Bears in Super Bowl XLI. (That probably wasn’t the reason. But it would be great if it were.)

The Broncos eventually will visit the White House to meet with Obama. The biggest question is whether the menu for the occasion will include mozzarella sticks and, if so, whether Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller will eat them.

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Strange facts emerge about Super Bowl 50 replay assistant

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From Super Bowl 50 comes a strange postscript that could have become a major problem for the NFL. Via TheBigLead.com, the wife of the game’s replay assistant attended the game as a fan of the Broncos.

Jimmy Oldham reportedly is a Denver-area resident. His wife donned a Broncos jersey for the game and posted a celebratory video to a public Facebook page.

A replay assistant’s potential impact on a given game is limited, especially where (as in this case) NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino was in the booth. Still, it’s a bad look for the league — and it’s something that easily could have been avoided by appointing a replay assistant: (1) who doesn’t live in the Denver area; and (2) whose wife isn’t a Broncos fan.

Per TheBigLead.com, the NFL declined to respond to questions regarding officiating assignments in relation to residency.

During the officiating lockout of 2012, the NFL yanked side judge Brian Stropolo from a Saints-Panthers game due to his status as a rabid Saints fan. As former official Jim Dapoulos explained in the aftermath of the scandal, plenty of officials have rooting interests. Most are far more concerned about doing a good job and earning high marks for their work.

Still, with only one game being played that day, it would have made much more sense to give the assignment to someone else. And if the league believes it would have been unfair to not reward the replay assistant for a great season with a Super Bowl assignment despite where he lives, the league should have ensured that Mrs. Oldham exercised far more discretion regarding her desire to see the Broncos win the game.

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Goodell says extra point rule made the NFL more exciting in 2015

<> on February 8, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Getty Images

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says Year One of the new extra point rule was a success, and more rules tweaks are on the way.

Goodell said the new rule, which moved extra point kicks back 13 yards, is an example of the kinds of changes the league will continue to consider.

“From a competitive standpoint, this season, more games were decided by one score than ever in our history. That led to great competition and the average margin of victory lower than any time in our history. We’ll continue to try to make the game more exciting as we did this last year with the extra point,” Goodell said.

It is true that there were more two-point conversion attempts in 2015 than in 2014: NFL teams went 45-for-94 on two-point conversions in 2015 after going 28-for-58 in 2014. Most fans would agree that a two-point conversion is a more exciting play than an extra point, and so there was a little more excitement in that respect.

Extra points also became more difficult, with kickers converting on 94.2 percent in 2015 after converting on 99.3 percent in 2014. But not all fans buy the idea that more missed extra points translates to more excitement.

What would really be exciting is if the new rule led to some coach deciding to go for two as the default option after touchdowns. So far no coach has done that. Perhaps it will happen if the NFL moves extra points back another 10 or 15 yards.

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New NFL policy requires prospects to authorize background checks

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Before the NFL can determine whether draft prospects should be barred from the Scouting Combine or other league-related draft events for certain criminal offenses, the NFL must be able to make that determination. Before the NFL can make that determination, the NFL must be able to investigate the prospect.

Before that can happen, the prospect must provide authorization to the NFL during the Scouting Combine registration process. If the prospect refuses to provide authorization, the prospect’s invitation to participate in the Scouting Combine will be revoked, according to the memo sent on January 25 to all team presidents, General Managers and coaches.

As a practical matter, players will gladly sign whatever paperwork they need to sign in order to participate in the Scouting Combine. Still, the mandatory background check represents yet another thing that is required of players as part of a lengthy preemployment process that, via the Combine, provides plenty of free entertainment and TV content for the NFL.

The new policy applies to all felony or misdemeanor convictions, and it broadly encompasses any conviction “involving violence,” with specific citation to crimes involving the “use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault.”

As noted earlier, the NFLPA had no comment on the new policy, which the league implemented unilaterally.

The policy has no impact on the ability of teams to independently evaluate or draft the players who are barred from league-related draft events, either due to the outcome of the background check or the refusal to consent to one.

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Patriots release Montee Ball, but most thought he wasn’t on the team

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Getty Images

It was believed that the contract of Patriots running back Montee Ball expired on February 1. If it did, the team at some point re-signed him. Because on Tuesday the Patriots released his rights.

The league’s transaction report for Tuesday shows that the Patriots waived Ball, who finished the season on the team’s practice squad.

A second-round pick in 2013, Ball entered the 2014 season as the starting running back in Denver. He lost the job during the 2014 season and was cut just before the start of the 2015 regular season.

Ball was arrested February 5 after a dispute with his girlfriend. The waiver of Ball on February 9 indicates he was employed by the Patriots on February 5, which resets the “days without an arrest” meter to that day, just as it was once again approaching 50.

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Colts add a few more coaches

Chuck Pagano AP

The Colts let go of several assistant coaches last month after reaching a deal to keep head coach Chuck Pagano and they announced some of the new faces on the staff on Tuesday.

Lee Hull will be the team’s new wide receivers coach, replacing Jim Hostler. There have been reports that Hostler will remain with the Colts in a new role but it has not been announced at this point. Hull spent the last two seasons as the head coach at Morgan State and has also worked at Maryland and Oregon State.

Jemal Singleton has been hired as running backs coach after spending last year as the special teams and running backs coach at the University of Arkansas. Charlie Williams was let go in January after four years with the team.

The Colts also hired Maurice Drayton as assistant special teams coach, Quadrian Banks as conditioning/performance analyst and Andrew Hayes-Stoker as assistant to the head coach. They also announced that Joe Philbin will be assistant head coach in addition to working with the offensive line.

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Raiders move on from Nate Allen

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The Raiders have plenty of money to spend in 2016. They’ll be spending none of it on safety Nate Allen.

Per a league source, Allen has been released after one season with the Raiders.

Signed as a free agent after five years with the Eagles, Allen appeared in five games with three starts last season, picking off one pass.

Allen signed a four-year, $23 million contract in 2015. With no signing bonus and a $4.9 million base salary that was due to become available on the third day of the 2016 league year, the Raiders walk away from Allen with no cap hit and no financial responsibility.

A vested veteran, Allen becomes a free agent immediately.

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Police deliver LeSean McCoy investigation to prosecutors

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Amid a report that an arrest of Bills running back LeSean McCoy is “imminent,” police in Philadelphia have completed their investigation. Via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com, the file has been delivered to the District Attorney’s office for potential prosecution.

McCoy apparently anticipates that he’ll be defending himself in court. Via John Barr of ESPN, McCoy has hired Philadelphia defense lawyer Jack McMahon to handle the case.

Several videos have emerged showing portions of the fight that reportedly sent two off-duty police officers to the hospital, both with fractured ribs and one with a fractured orbital bone. One comes from CrossingBroad.com, another comes from TMZ.com, and the third comes from 6abc.com.

It’s hard to make out many details, although the TMZ video seems to show McCoy throwing at least one punch.

Given the symbiotic relationship between police officers and prosecutors, the D.A. will face plenty of pressure to pursue charges against McCoy and all other suspects, in order to obtain justice for the off-duty police officers who were injured in the assault. Given McCoy’s profile and resources, there also will be pressure on prosecutors to get everything right in order to seal off any potential avenues for injecting “reasonable doubt” into the case.

The NFL already is investigating the situation, and it could impose discipline on McCoy with or without prosecution.

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Jets fill out their coaching staff with three hires

26 Jul 1998:  Offensive lineman David Diaz-Infante #63 of the Denver Broncos looks on during the 1998 Denver Broncos training camp at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport Getty Images

Jets coach Todd Bowles has filled out his coaching staff, with the team announcing three more hires today.

The Jets hired former NFL offensive lineman David Diaz-Infante as assistant offensive line coach, promoted John Scott Jr. from defensive quality control coach to assistant defensive line coach, and hired Tim Atkins as defensive quality control coach.

Diaz-Infante had background with Bowles in Arizona, where he worked for two seasons.

He was part of two Super Bowl winning teams with the Broncos, and also played for the Chargers and Eagles, along with stints in the CFL, XFL and the World League.

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Rivera to shorten Panthers’ offseason program

Zz01OGJlNTM2ZjMyOTEwZTc1ZTE1MmY4MWVlZTgxMDI0Yw== AP

As a team that got to the Super Bowl this year tries to get back next year, one of the biggest impediments to playing into February comes from the fact that the team has just played into February.

The fatigue can take a toll on a team, and Panthers coach Ron Rivera already is thinking about how to manage the extra effort expended in 2015 as 2016 approaches. Specifically, he’ll be delaying the start of the offseason program in order to ensure that his players get more rest.

“We’ve checked with the league and we’re gonna be able to do some things a little bit differently as far as when we can start,” Rivera told reporters on Tuesday. “We checked with the league, the league checked with the Players Association. Because of finishing as late as we did, we’re going to start a little later. I am going to eliminate a little bit of the time, as far as what the OTAs and the offseason program brings.

“The whole idea is that we’ve had five extra weeks of work, our young guys have gotten five more weeks that they normally wouldn’t have gotten, or may not have gotten. So that I think is important. And, again, the idea right now in talking with the trainers, the docters, the strength and conditioning staff, it’s about rest right now. . . . It does complicate things, but it’s a great problem to have.”

The players, Rivera explained, will have the same amount of time off as they had last year. But the program will still end at the same time as it did last year.

It’s a plan that goes against the approach employed by most NFL coaches, who will take full advantage of every rep and every practice and every opportunity — especially under a CBA that limits contact and practice time.

Coaches want more, not less. Rivera’s decision to choose less could start a new trend, if it ensures that the players have more gas in the tank as the team gets to December and, more importantly, January and, even more importantly, February.

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Rams announce over 56,000 deposits for season tickets

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 03:  Chris Long #91 of the St. Louis Rams reacts after a play against the San Francisco 49ers during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Rams started taking season ticket deposts on January 19 and more than 45,000 people put down $100 in a couple of days for the right to buy up to eight tickets for the team’s first season back in Los Angeles.

Their deposit drive continued through Monday and the team announced on Tuesday that more than 56,000 deposits were taken before they closed up that portion of their ticket sales effort.

“We are inspired by how enthusiastically NFL fans in Southern California have responded to the return of the Los Angeles Rams,” Rams Chief Operating Officer/Executive Vice President Kevin Demoff said in a statement. “We will reward their passion by providing a terrific game day experience at both the Coliseum this fall and ultimately in Inglewood. We can’t wait to welcome our fans on Sundays and become an integral part of the Greater Los Angeles community.”

The deposits, which are refundable, give holders the right to buy tickets at the Coliseum and season ticket holders will be at the front of the line when it’s time to start selling tickets for the Inglewood stadium that’s expected to be ready for the 2019 season.

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Grand jury indicts eight in Pilot Flying J investigation

Zz0yMTc0YWU1YmI4NWY3YzhhYzY3OWNmNTRhYWUzZDc1Mw== AP

Dormant for months, the Pilot Flying J investigation has revved up again, in a significant way.

Via WBIR.com, a federal grand jury indicted eight former and current employees of the truck-stop conglomerate on Tuesday, including former president Mark Hazelwood.

Hazelwood, who faces three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of witness tampering, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The eight defendants were informed through their lawyers on Friday to expect the indictments.

For CEO (and Browns owner) Jimmy Haslam, who has not yet been indicted, the key question is whether Hazelwood at some point will change that not guilty plea to guilty, along with an agreement to testify against Haslam.

Hazelwood reported directly to Haslam, and two of the other defendants (V.P. of national accounts Scott Wombold and V.P. of sales Jon Freeman) reported directly to Haslam, based on an organizational chart posted on the WBIR.com Twitter page.

The scandal relates to the manipulation of a rebate program to prey upon unsophisticated customers. In 2014, the company itself struck a deal to avoid prosecution by agreeing to pay a monetary penalty of more than $92 million. The agreement regarding Pilot Flying J was negotiated by attorney Aubrey Harwell. Because he also represents Haslam personally, many has presumed that Haslam is as a practical matter immune from prosecution, even if technically no individuals are exempt.

Hazelwood clearly isn’t exempt, and if he’s in position to give up the kind of evidence that draws the man at the top of the pyramid into the cross hairs, the NFL could have to revisit the position that Haslam committed no violation of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Otherwise, it would be conspicuous if Haslam is still permitted to attend the Scouting Combine or other league events, given the NFL’s new position on incoming players with criminal records.

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