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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 1: San Francisco 49ers

Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Willis AP

The San Francisco 49ers earn the top spot in our preseason power rankings after a trip to the Super Bowl last season.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick took over the helm midseason and was able to get the 49ers past their NFC Championship game appearance of 2011 and back to the game’s biggest stage. While the 49ers ultimately fell a few plays short of a title, they enter the 2013 season as a championship contender once again.

The 49ers will need to stem the tide of injuries to key players early in the season and find adequate replacements for a few departed veterans. They’ll also have to navigate perhaps the toughest division in the NFL but the outlook for the 49ers is still rosy as training camp gets underway.

Strengths.

The 49ers offensive line has been among the best in the league for several seasons. The starting group of Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis started all 16 games last season. Staley and Iupati both were selected to the Pro Bowl last season with Boone as an alternate. Adam Snyder is a veteran that should be able to fill-in adequately at guard should either Iupati or Boone go down with an injury as well.

San Francisco linebackers are also among the strongest units in the league. As with the offensive line, the linebacking corps for the 49ers was remarkably durable as the four starters each started all 16 games last season. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form a formidable tandem inside and Aldon Smith has quickly become one of the best pass rushers in the league in his first two seasons. Parys Haralson is returning after a torn triceps forced him to miss all of last season and third-round pick Corey Lemonier adds even more depth to an already strong group.

Weaknesses.

With Michael Crabtree out for the foreseeable future with a torn Achilles and Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams on PUP while working back from ACL tears, the 49ers have serious questions at the wide receiver position. Anquan Boldin is a solid veteran option but he’s adjusting to his new team. A.J. Jenkins saw just one target in a wasted rookie season. The 49ers need Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette or fourth-round pick Quinton Patton to become contributors to bridge the gap until Crabtree and Manningham get healthy.

Vernon Davis is one of the best tight ends in the game. However, the loss of Delanie Walker to Tennessee will be a blow – especially if Davis is needed to help at receiver with the mounting injuries outside. Garrett Celek appeared in 13 games last season but isn’t much of a receiving option. Second-round pick Vance McDonald could fill the role of the departed Walker and be the complementary tight end the 49ers need.

Changes.

The trade to acquire Anquan Boldin from the Ravens this offseason has become a pivotal move for the 49ers following the Achilles injury to Crabtree. Manningham and Williams are still working back from knee injuries and Boldin will be the only option with any real experience and proven production until they can return. San Francisco added cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and safety Craig Dahl to add depth on the defensive side of the ball. Kicker Phil Dawson looks to solidify a position that was wildly inconsistent with David Akers last season.

Quarterback Alex Smith left to take over the starting job for the Kansas City Chiefs. The 49ers signed Colt McCoy from Cleveland to serve as the backup for Kaepernick. Tight end Delanie Walker left in free agency to sign with the Tennessee Titans. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and safety Dashon Goldson signed a lucrative contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Camp battles.

Cornerback should be one of the more intriguing battles of camp for the 49ers. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers starters all 16 games for the 49ers last year but should see competition from Asomugha for playing time. Chris Culliver also was a decent contributor for San Francisco at times last season and will be in the mix as well.

With the departure of Sopoaga to the Eagles, the 49ers will need to find a replacement along the defensive line. Dorsey is expected to compete with Ian Williams for the starting nose tackle job though Dorsey doesn’t have the traditional size attributed to a 3-4 nose tackle. Lamar Divens may have an outside shot at competing for the job as well if Dorsey or Williams don’t grab hold of the spot.

Prospects.

The San Francisco 49ers have one of the strongest rosters in the league and could be playing their best at the end of the season after players return from injuries. They’ll miss Crabtree early in the year and the receiving corps is very shaky with Manningham and Williams also working back from injuries. All three are likely to be back at some point during the season and the 49ers should be able to bridge the gap with enough victories to be in the playoff picture until they return. The running game will have to take on additional weight in the interim but Frank Gore and company should continue to shoulder the load well with Kaepernick bringing an added dimension as well.

The 49ers have been the benefactors of remarkable durability over the past few seasons, especially defensively and along the offensive line. Is the Crabtree injury a precursor of issues to come?  The 49ers should expect a serious fight for the NFC West from the rival Seattle Seahawks as well and an improved St. Louis Rams team could continue to cause problems for the 49ers this season. At full strength the 49ers are as talented as any team in the league and should be in the hunt to make the Super Bowl once again.

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Chargers waive Jonas Mouton

Seattle Seahawks v San Diego Chargers Getty Images

The Chargers have let go of a former second-round pick whose career has been marked by injuries.

The club waived linebacker Jonas Mouton with a failed physical designation on Wednesday, the team announced. In all, Mouton – the No. 61 pick in 2011 — played just three games for San Diego, recording one tackle. The 26-year-old Michigan product missed the 2013 season with a torn right ACL and most of the 2011 campaign with a shoulder ailment.

In another transaction Wednesday, the Chargers placed right guard Jeromey Clary (hip) on the active/PUP list, the club said.

The Chargers have 89 players on their roster, one short of the limit. This includes ex-Ravens linebacker Adrian Hamilton, whose signing the team announced Tuesday. The 26-year-old Hamilton (6-3, 255) played in two games for Baltimore in 2012.

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Suggs wants Flacco to drop more “F” bombs

Joe Flacco AP

Yes, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has the hardware and the cold-hard-straight-cash-homey.  But is he ready to become a true franchise quarterback?  The kind of guy who acts like an unofficial member of the coaching staff, getting in guys’ faces when they screw up and/or periodically firing off a primal scream, Tom Brady-style, in order to keep his head from exploding, Scanners-style.

Linebacker Terrell Suggs wants to see Flacco act more like Brady and Peyton Manning, pissing and moaning and generally having tantrums when guys don’t show the same abilities and smarts as their on-field leaders do.

“Joe is just ‘Cool Joe,’” Suggs said upon arrival at training camp, via the team’s official website.  “Most of the time he’s not the most vocal.  But sometimes we may need that.   He may have to cuss somebody out.  He may have to cuss me out.  It’s good to hear your quarterback get after somebody sometimes.  I think it will be a good thing.”

Suggs suggested that Flacco has in the past been more passive-aggressive when it comes to making his points.  Suggs wants Flacco to be aggressive-aggressive.

“He has cussed me out before, but Joe knows how to do his little subliminal slick shots,” Suggs said.  “We’re looking for a little bit more direct. . . .  I’ve said it from the jump: We have a lot of leaders on this team.  I’m really looking forward to seeing Joe Flacco come into his own.  Be one of those premier, elite quarterbacks and talk to his team.  We’re definitely going to stand behind Joe, stand behind Haloti [Ngata] and hopefully they all stand behind me.”

The knock from some on Flacco is that he doesn’t seem to care enough.  Basically, Suggs is trying to get Flacco to care more.  Or to at least act like he does.

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Chris Johnson cleared for full practice, “flying” during conditioning run

Chris Johnson AP

Jets running back Chris Johnson didn’t do much during the spring while making his way back from knee surgery, but he said Wednesday that he’s ready to work.

Johnson said, via Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com, that Dr. James Andrews cleared him to make a full return to practice when the Jets hold their first session of training camp on Thursday. Johnson isn’t sure if the Jets will give him the green light to do everything right away, but it doesn’t look like the knee will hold him back from earning reps ahead of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.

Coach Rex Ryan said that Johnson was “flying” during the team’s conditioning run and that speed is the reason why the Jets signed him to join an offense that was devoid of playmakers last season.

Johnson wasn’t the only player to do well during the conditioning test as Ryan revealed that everyone on the team passed the test for the first time in his six years as the team’s head coach. That left him with an “incredible” feeling about this year’s team, something that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those who have been listening to Ryan for the last week.

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Dean Cain, Matt Leinart trade barbs (yes, it’s still a little slow)

Leinart Getty Images

With plenty of camps still not open, there’s still some time for slow-news-days stories.  Especially when they involved former first-round busts.

Actor Dean Cain, talking to TMZ while loading groceries into his Ford F-150, cautioned Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel against living a Hollywood lifestyle.

“I do remember another quarterback, back in the day, coming out and being a high draft choice, and hanging out with the Hollywood starlets and stars, and never really doing that well,” Cain said.  “I didn’t say any names coming out of USC wearing No. 11 named Matt Leinart. . . .  I’m not saying Matt Leinart can’t get ladies, but he can’t get a contract in the NFL now.”

Said Leinart on Twitter, presumably in response:  “Put 7 years in, pretty sure that’s 7 more than 99% of the world.  Some people should stick to their day job because they couldn’t cut it!”

He’s right, but drawing an NFL paycheck for seven years and fulfilling the potential that made him a top-10 pick are two different things.  Leinart undoubtedly was a bust of near-historic proportions.”Stick to being D list!” Leinart added in a shot at Cain that pretty much ignores the current status of the guy who just played the D-list card.  The biggest question over the next few years is whether Manziel will eventually join them as guys who used to be not far less than they were expected to be.

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John Elway: It will never be the same here without Pat Bowlen

John Elway, John Fox AP

Broncos General Manager John Elway worked for Pat Bowlen for his entire playing career and he returned to the Broncos fold as an executive several years ago, which made Bowlen’s decision to step down as owner on Wednesday because he has Alzheimer’s Disease an emotional one for the team’s General Manager.

Elway shed a few tears at a Wednesday press conference about the change at the top of the team’s hierarchy, calling it a “sad, sad day” for the organization and saying that he hopes his bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day resides next to one honoring the team’s longtime owner.

“From the inside out, it will never be the same here,” Elway said, via the Denver Post. “He has given me so much. It’s going to be hard to walk through those doors and not see him.”

Team president Joe Ellis, who has taken over much of the day-to-day responsibility for running the team, also spoke at the press conference and promised to keep running the team the way that Bowlen did over the last three decades.

“We are going to do right by his family, the team and the community,” Ellis said. “This is really hard. It doesn’t change what we do. He loved running this team and was really good at it. … We all wish Pat would walk through that door and do what he did so well. But he left us a blueprint that’s easy to follow.”

The Broncos have had just five losing seasons since Bowlen bought the team and have won two Super Bowls while advancing to four others during his time as owner.

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Vikings waive DE Spencer Nealy, sign TE Michael Higgins

Jacksonville Jaguars v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Vikings have parted ways with suspended defensive end Spencer Nealy, waiving him on Wednesday, the club said.

The 24-year-old Nealy was banned four games in July for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Should Nealy sign elsewhere, he could take part in training camp and the preseason before serving his suspension, which can end no earlier than September 29.

To fill Nealy’s roster spot, the Vikings signed tight end Michael Higgins, a Nebraska-Omaha product who was on the Saints’ practice squad a season ago and played four regular season games for New Orleans from 2011 through 2012.

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Panthers sign center Fernando Velasco

Fernando Velasco AP

The Panthers have huge questions at offensive tackle entering training camp, but they added a little depth in the middle of the line Wednesday.

Via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, the Panthers have signed center Fernando Velasco. Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson sent out a photo of his former Georgia teammate at the stadium today.

Velasco played well for the Steelers last year subbing for the injured Maurkice Pouncey, before tearing his Achilles in Week 13.

If he’s well, he gives the Panthers a solid backup option behind Ryan Kalil, as they didn’t have much experience in the middle.

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Chiefs, Jamaal Charles agree to new contract

Jamaal Charles AP

So much for the Jamaal Charles holdout.

Just as Chiefs players were reporting to training camp on Wednesday afternoon — and just as reports were coming in that Charles was officially a holdout — Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Charles and the Chiefs have agreed on a new contract.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that it’s a two-year extension that makes Charles the second-highest paid running back in the NFL, behind Adrian Peterson. Charles is now under contract to Kansas City through 2017. Charles was due to make $3.9 million this year, which is a fairly low salary considering that Charles plays a huge role in Kansas City’s offense — so huge that he is arguably the most important non-quarterback in the NFL.

Charles led the Chiefs last year not just in rushing with 259 carries for 1,287 yards, but also in receiving with 70 catches for 693 yards.

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Sidney Rice thanks the Seahawks on the way out the door

Sidney Rice AP

Sidney Rice stepped away from the NFL at age 27 today, but he said he wants to make sure Seattle knows he’s not going anywhere.

“After careful consideration and seven wonderful years playing in the National Football League, including the last three for the Seattle Seahawks, I have decided to retire from playing in the National Football League,” Rice said in a statement released by the team. “I have enjoyed my experiences with all of my coaches, teammates and passionate Seahawks fans. I take great pride in knowing I was one of the players signed to help build the foundation of the team that ultimately won the Super Bowl. I’ll be joining the 12s in support of the Seattle Seahawks as they take on the challenge to repeat. I appreciate all of the wonderful opportunities and look forward to establishing myself as a businessman. I will always be a Seahawk!”

Rice has invested his money back into his market, as he opened the first of five chicken-wing restaurants in June.

That kind of responsibility is part of the reason the Seahawks had such a response to Rice, who missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL.

“The entire organization would like to thank Sidney for his leadership over the past three seasons,” said General Manager John Schneider said. “His time as a Seahawks player displayed the core values that Pete and I aimed to bring to the program and Sidney is a true champion. We wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors.”

Rice wasn’t a certainty to make the Seahawks roster this season, but he has clearly taken the steps to establish himself for the much longer career of being a retired football player, and done it the right way.

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Von Miller cleared to practice

Von Miller AP

The Broncos are doing the same roster housekeeping to start training camp as the other 31 teams in the league, but their roster shuffling won’t involve linebacker Von Miller.

Coach John Fox said Wednesday that Miller will avoid the Physically Unable to Perform list after tearing his ACL in Week 16 of last season. Fox said that Miller may be limited in practice in the early stages, something that seems like a good bet since passing on the PUP list now means it won’t be an option if Miller should need extra time to round into shape when the preseason comes to an end.

Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and safety Rahim Moore, who all joined Miller on season-ending injured reserve last year, also avoided the PUP list. Cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in the postseason, was not so lucky. Harris was placed on the PUP list and Fox said his rehab is progressing as expected.

“He’s on schedule,” Fox said, via USA Today. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a guy work that hard to rehab. … It’s grueling.”

The Broncos have their first practice of training camp on Thursday morning.

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Trestman: Jordan Palmer will get first run at top backup QB job

Jordan Palmer AP

The eldest of the Bears’ backup quarterback options will get the initial shot at being the top reserve behind Jay Cutler.

Coach Mark Trestman indicated Wednesday that Jordan Palmer will have the first opportunity at the club’s second-team reps, the Bears’ official Twitter feed reported.

The 30-year-old Palmer has not played in an NFL regular season game since 2010. However, he has the most experience in the Bears’ scheme after re-signing with the club last October.

Sixth-round pick David Fales and ex-Panther Jimmy Clausen are the other competitors to replace Josh McCown as Cutler’s top backup. McCown starred in extended relief work a season ago, earning a starting job with Tampa Bay.

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Cardinals place Tyrann Mathieu on PUP list

Tyrann Mathieu AP

The Cardinals aren’t sure whether or not safety Tyrann Mathieu will be healed from torn ligaments in his knee in time to play in the team’s first regular season game, so it comes as little surprise to learn that he won’t be practicing with the team early in training camp.

Mathieu was one of two Cardinals placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list on Thursday, which means he’ll be held out of the team’s practices until the medical team feels he’s ready to take on a bigger workload. The procedural move can be undone at any point during camp, but Mathieu’s questionable status for Week One could lead the team to leave him on the list for at least the first six weeks of the regular season.

Mathieu will be joined on the PUP list by defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu. Ta’amu is also recovering from a torn ACL that was suffered in Week 17 last season and said in the spring that he hopes to return to action before the end of camp.

The Cardinals also waived wide receiver Kelsey Pope as they set their roster for the start of camp.

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Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice is retiring

Seattle Seahawks v Detroit Lions Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks will enter the 2014 season with one less player than they expected to have.

Per a league source, receiver Sidney Rice has decided to retire from football.  The source says that the 27-year-old Rice’s decision arises from his history of concussions.

More recently, Rice has been unable to play due to a knee injury suffered during the 2013 season.  A torn ACL caused him to miss eight games in the regular season and the playoffs.

Signed in 2011 after four seasons in Minnesota, Rice never came close to matching a breakout season third season in the league.  With Brett Favre arriving in Minnesota, Rice generated 1,312 receiving yards in 2009.  Since then, he has appeared in 16 regular-season games only once.

Cut after the 2013 season by the Seahawks, Rice rejoined Seattle in April after getting clearance from Dr. James Andrews.  Rice was due to earn a base salary of $1 million this year.

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NaVorro Bowman opens 49ers camp on the PUP list

NaVorro Bowman AP

Some of the roster moves teams are making come as a surprise, but the 49ers knew this one was coming.

The team announced linebacker NaVorro Bowman was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list.

Bowman suffered a torn ACL and MCL in last year’s NFC Championship Game, so he wasn’t expected to be back on the field for the start of camp.

But getting him back on the field early in the season will be crucial for the 49ers if they want to get back to that level, as Bowman was playing as well as any defensive player in the league last season.

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Kluwe suit on hold as settlement talks continue

Kluwe AP

Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe will absolutely, positively sue the Vikings this week.

Unless he doesn’t.

According to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, lawyer Clayton Halunen says that the lawsuit he previously promised to file on Wednesday has been placed on hold.  Instead, Halunen will take the next couple of weeks” to see whether the case can be resolved via negotiations with the team.

“We have spoken with the Vikings lawyer Joe Anthony and we have agreed to recommend to our clients that they continue with their conversations,” Halunen said Wednesday, via Tomassaon.  “We will not be taking any action pending the completion of those discussions.”

It’s a smart move, by both sides.  The early 1980s Wapnerization of America flooded courts with civil complaints, forcing judges to come up with mandatory mediation programs, which compel litigants to try to work out their differences under the auspices of a neutral third party.  Eventually, the Vikings and Kluwe will have to do just that.  With the facts of Kluwe’s case not very complicated, why not just do it now?

“We have not set a deadline so I can’t say there’s a deadline but I think both sides are interested in trying to determine whether or not our conversations are going to be a productive in a very short period,” Halunen said.

The real deadline comes on the two-year anniversary of May 2013 Kluwe’s release by the Vikings.  He’ll either sue or settle long before it’s four minutes to Wapner.

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