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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 2: Denver Broncos

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Let the games begin.

You couldn’t blame the Broncos for being eager to start the 2013 season. They are heavy division favorites, strong conference contenders and legitimate Super Bowl challengers, and they have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.

Hey, it’s good to be the Broncos, even with the news of a potential four-game suspension for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller surfacing earlier this week.

The Broncos would be weakened without Miller, but they would still be dangerous. After all, they have Manning, still sharp at 37 years old.

But it won’t always be like this for the Broncos and their quarterback.

So forgive the Broncos if they feel a little urgency as they try to better last season’s disappointing one-and-done postseason experience.

Strengths.

Manning added to his already vast legacy with his remarkable comeback season of 2012. In his first year in Denver – with mostly new skill-position players around him, no less – Manning threw for 4,659 yards with 37 TDs and just 11 picks. Moreover, he set a career-high in completion percentage (68.6).

Now, the focus to turns to what Manning and the offense are capable of in Year Two.

The addition of slot receiver Wes Welker further strengthens an already potent passing game. He caught more than two-thirds of the passes thrown his way in each of his six seasons in New England. Opposing secondaries also have the difficult task of matching up with wideout Demaryius Thomas, who hauled in 94 receptions for 1,434 yards and 10 scores in 2012. The Broncos’ other outside receiver, Eric Decker, is quite skilled, too. He comes off an 85-catch, 13-TD campaign.

Manning, a master at dealing with the pass rush and defensive-pressure looks over the years, operates behind a solid Denver line. Left tackle Ryan Clady is one of the game’s best at his position. New right guard Louis Vasquez (ex-San Diego) bolsters the interior.

Indeed, this is an outstanding offense.

And Denver’s defense pulls its weight, too.

Should the Broncos sputter in a key spot, their defense is capable of keeping them in the game.  Such flexibility can take a team a long way. The Broncos excelled vs. the run and the pass in 2012 and allowed fewer yards per play than any other team.

Miller, who recorded 18.5 sacks last year, is the standout of this stout defense – already one of the game’s top pass rushers. If Miller is suspended, the Broncos will likely turn to ex-Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, still a capable rusher in his own right (team-high 9.5 sacks for San Diego in 2012). The April signing of Phillips could prove a very valuable investment for Denver whether Miller misses any time or not; the more pass rushers a club has, the better.

The same can be said for cornerbacks, and the Broncos have four capable ones in Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris and Tony Carter.

To review, the Broncos have a Hall of Fame quarterback, a top-caliber passing game, a blue-chip pass rusher and deep, skilled cornerback corps.

There are worse ways to enter a season.

Weaknesses.

The Broncos’ tailback position could prove a strength if rookie Montee Ball or second-year pro Ronnie Hillman emerges as a dependable and playmaking featured runner. However, until that happens, this is an area of concern. Denver was just 25th in yards per rush last season.

Center, where Dan Koppen again gets the call with J.D. Walton out with a persistent ankle injury, is another position to monitor. So is linebacker, where the overall depth has been thinned after the release of veteran middle linebacker Joe Mays.

The Broncos’ defensive end play also needs to be watched. While left end Derek Wolfe showed promise as a rookie, notching a half-dozen sacks, new right end Robert Ayers has never had more than three sacks in an NFL season.

All things considered, though, the Broncos have considerably less to worry about than any other club in the AFC West.

Changes.

In 2012, the Broncos got 16 games apiece and 29.5 combined sacks from Miller and Dumervil. Now, Miller could miss a quarter of the Broncos’ regular-season games, and Dumervil is in Baltimore after “Faxgate.” Make no mistake: the Broncos’ pass rush is still to be respected, especially when Miller is in the lineup. But if Miller misses any games and the rush suffers, it could have a trickle-down effect on the defense, with the pass defense suffering most.

And if the Broncos don’t muster the pass rush they did in 2012, when Dumervil and Miller combined for more than half of the club’s sacks, the inability to keep Dumervil will look all the worse.

The Dumervil episode aside, however, the Broncos had a very good offseason from a roster-building standpoint. Adding Welker was a coup, and Rodgers-Cromartie has the ability to prove a home-run signing, too, especially on a one-year deal. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (ex-Jacksonville) was a nice under-the-radar pickup.

In addition to bringing in Phillips, Denver did well to bring in ex-Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer late in the offseason. Jammer will be tried at safety, a position where the Broncos perhaps needed another option.

Other than Dumervil and Mays, notable Denver departures included tailback Willis McGahee, linebacker D.J. Williams and cornerback Tracy Porter. McGahee’s release signaled the Broncos would be going young at running back.

Finally, the club begins training camp short-handed in the front office – not an ideal situation, given all the roster movement late in the summer — after the suspensions of director of player personnel Matt Russell and director of pro personnel Tom Heckert due to offseason DUI arrests. Heckert’s suspension is a month, while Russell’s suspension is indefinite.

Position battles.

Hillman and Ball would each figure to have roles in the Broncos’ backfield, with fifth-year pro Knowshon Moreno also in the mix. A second-round pick in April, Ball’s draft status would suggest the Broncos believe he can play right off the bat. That said, Hillman has a year in the offense to his credit, which cannot hurt his cause. No matter who wins the job, the Broncos need some stability to develop at this position for the stretch run, when passing can become trickier in the elements.

Other positions where there could be competition are defensive tackle, where Knighton, first-round pick Sylvester Williams and veteran Kevin Vickerson are the top options; and safety, where Mike Adams (strong) and Rahim Moore (free) are the incumbents.

Prospects.

The Broncos face five 2012 playoff teams (Baltimore, Indianapolis, Washington, New England, Houston) in a schedule not without its potential challenges. For instance, five of Denver’s final eight games are on the road. Moreover, any stretch without Miller would add to the degree of difficulty.

However, let’s be clear: This is one of the NFL’s most talented teams. They should win the West and host at least one playoff game.

The goals are bigger for Denver, of course, and they are within reach.  If it were Denver’s year to win a third Super Bowl title, it would hardly be a surprise.

It would also be the sort of thing celebrated by anyone who’s ever faced a tough deadline with a lot at stake and gotten the job done. That’s what the Broncos are staring at entering 2013. They have the pieces to win, but they aren’t all going to be assembled this way for all that long.

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Steelers keep James Conner in Pittsburgh

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James Conner is leaving college football, but he’s not leaving the facility where he practiced or the stadium where he played.

The Steelers have made the former running back a third-round pick in the draft.

Conner’s story is well-documented; he survived cancer to return to football. Conner recently has said he was only 60 percent at the outset of the 2016 college season.

The Steelers currently have Le’Veon Bell at the top of the depth chart. He’s subject to the franchise tag, and could be gone after 2017. Conner, if he develops, could become an intriguing contributor in 2018.

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Cowboys add Jourdan Lewis, who faces a July jury trial

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The Cowboys have rolled the dice on a player who is facing domestic violence charges.

Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis has been drafted in round three, despite a July 10 trial date on misdemeanor charges. That fact that it’s a misdemeanor means he wouldn’t face significant jail time.

Lewis allegedly “dragged [the victim] across the living room floor and then grabbed her by the neck and held her down on the floor for about three seconds.” He has pleaded not guilty.

Lewis faces no discipline from the league, given that the incident happened before the draft. However, the incident would be considered as potential aggravating circumstances if Lewis has any violations of the Personal Conduct Policy while in the NFL.

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Giants add Davis Webb

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Amid a buzz that former Cal quarterback Davis Webb could have crashed round one, he lasted until round three. And he ended up on the depth chart in New York.

The Giants have made Webb the 87th pick in the draft.

He becomes the potential replacement to Eli Manning, whenever Eli Manning will decide to retire. (Or when the Giants will decide to retire him.)

Webb arrives from Cal. He transferred to Berkeley after losing the starting job at Texas Tech to Patrick Mahomes. Before that, Webb beat out Baker Mayfield, resulting in Mayfield transferring to Oklahaom.

Webb aspires to be a coach. For now, he’ll be a player with the Giants — and he potentially could become the starter there, in time.

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Ravens take a flier on risky pass-rusher Tim Williams

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Father Ozzie’s Home for Wayward Boys has taken in another one, and doubled up with another former Alabama player.

With the 78th pick, the Ravens took linebacker Tim Williams, who has both the pedigree and checkered past that the Ravens have some background with.

Williams is one of the most talented pass-rush prospects in the draft, with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss last year.

But he comes with concerns, specifically his admission of multiple failed drug tests in college. Coupled with a misdemeanor gun charge, it was enough to scare some people off, at least at this point in the proceedings.

Williams was also used almost exclusively as a pass-rusher, but Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome obviously felt like the middle of the third round was an acceptable time to take a chance on someone from his old school who could be an impact player on passing downs.

Williams is the second Alabama player to join the Ravens this week, along with first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

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Eagles “really confident” Sidney Jones will be same player after Achilles tear

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Cornerback Sidney Jones became a new member of the Eagles in the second round of the draft on Friday night, but it’s still unknown when Jones will be able to get on the field for the team.

Jones tore his Achilles in his pro day workout and will be on a rehab schedule for several more months at least. A recent report from his doctors indicated a return during the season is in the cards, but Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said Friday night that the team didn’t know when Jones will be ready to play.

He did say that the team believes Jones will be the same player he was before the injury when he is ready to go.

“Our doctors and training staff not only looked at corners, but we reached out to teams in other sports,” Roseman said, via CSNPhilly.com. “That gave us a lot of confidence here. There’s no insurance for this, but we feel really confident that with our medical team when he gets here he’s going to be able to be the exact same player he was before the injury. … There’ll be no rushing back from this. We’ll do whatever’s in the best interest of getting Sidney Jones 100 percent. Whatever the timetable is. We’ll defer to the doctors. That will not be our decision.”

The Eagles would obviously like to see Jones help them in 2017, but picking him here means they’re comfortable with trading a year of playing time for a better player once he’s back on the field. That says a lot about how highly they regarded Jones before the injury and how much that full return would mean to the team.

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Rams add Cooper Kupp

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The Rams are adding weapons for Jared Goff and Sean McVay.

After taking a tight end in round two, the Rams have added a receiver in the third round, nabbing Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp.

Primarily a slot receiver, Kupp’s arrival creates an intriguing situation as it relates to Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft who received a second contract last year but who has still not really become what they hoped he’d be.

Kupp could transition to the outside at the next level, with Austin on the inside. However it plays out, the Rams are adding pass catchers and playmakers as they prepare to go head to head with the Chargers in Los Angeles.

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Saints continue to add to backfield with Alvin Kamara

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The Saints already had a 1,000-yard back, and then they went and signed a former MVP and future Hall-of-Famer.

So naturally, they drafted another running back.

The Saints traded up to the 67th overall pick in the third round to take Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara.

He didn’t get regular work in college, but he was a big-play threat, averaging 6.5 yards per carry last year. He’s also a solid pass-catcher, and gives them a different element than either Mark Ingram or Adrian Peterson.

The Saints like using multiple backs, and they’ve now reloaded significantly.

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Marvin Lewis: We felt we could move forward with Joe Mixon

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The Bengals brought one of the bigger storylines of the second round of the NFL draft to an end when they drafted Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon with the 48th overall pick.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged that the 2014 video of Mixon punching a woman is repellant — “I don’t know who isn’t disgusted at what they saw,” Lewis said at a press conference Friday night.” — but said that the team’s research into Mixon during the pre-draft process and the settlement he came to with the woman left them feeling comfortable about bringing him to Cincinnati.

“We’ve done such a lot of work regarding Joe Mixon, throughout the entire process this year and based on all the time, all the research, we felt that we can continue to move forward,” Lewis said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Joe’s situation kind of came to a settlement in all ways this week, which also led us to feel better about the opportunity here to move forward. We have done all our due diligence we could do, time spent, interviewing people, everybody around him, everybody around his background, people that have coached at Oklahoma with insight regarding him and how he has carried himself since that day.”

Mixon will be scrutinized on and off the field in Cincinnati, something that he and the team should already be well aware of and something they’ll likely continue to deal with for some time given how big of a story Mixon’s assault became in the last few months.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster is a Steeler

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It’s time for virtual JuJu Smith-Schuster to change teams again.

The former USC receiver, an emotional and competitive player who will instantly fit with the mindset of Pittsburgh, has become the newest member of the Steelers.

He arrives via the 62nd pick, near the bottom of round two. And he could instantly boost a depth chart that consistently features plenty of impact players, especially with the conditional reinstatement of Martavis Bryant.

During a recent visit to PFT Live, Smith-Schuster said the Rams and Cowboys showed the most pre-draft interest in him. After creating a player based on himself in Madden, he joined the Bills before obtaining a release and signing with the Raiders.

The real Smith-Schuster is now a Steeler, and once upon a time the Steelers found a receiver from USC who did great things for the team, in Super Bowl X and elsewhere.

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Cowboys take CB Chidobe Awuzie in round two

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The Cowboys continue to address the exodus that damaged the defense in free agency.

After taking pass rusher Taco Charlton in round one, the Cowboys replaced Brandon Carr and/or Morris Claiborne by selecting Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie in round two.

The Cowboys will need Awuzie to compete for playing time right away, along with pretty much every other defensive player they pick.

Nearly all of the pre-draft visits conducted by the Cowboys were defensive players. Look for more of the same over the rest of the draft.

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Mixon pick creates crowded backfield in Cincinnati

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Setting aside the biggest issues arising from the Bengals’ decision to draft running back Joe Mixon, the team has now added a third second-round tailback to the depth chart.

Gio Bernard arrived via the second round in 2013. The following year, the Bengals used a second-round pick on Jeremy Hill. With Mixon now on the team, who gets the short straw?

Bernard, who tore an ACL late last season, already has received a $1 million roster bonus for 2017. He has a cap charge of more than $3.6 million this year.

Hill enters the final year of his rookie contract. He has averaged fewer than four yards per carry in each of the two years since his rookie season that featured 5.1 yards per attempt. He could be vulnerable to a trade or, possibly, an outright release. Either move would entail a cap charge of only $262,000.

It makes more sense for Mixon to supplant Hill, given their comparable styles. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine the Bengals keeping all three guys in 2017.

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Browns get a quarterback, draft DeShone Kizer

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After passing on quarterbacks three times in the first round, the Browns drafted a quarterback in the second round.

Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer went to Cleveland with the 52nd overall pick.

The Browns had three first-round picks but eschewed quarterbacks with all three, but tonight they decided to grab Kizer, a physically impressive quarterback who still has a lot of work to do in developing as an NFL-caliber passer.

Kizer joins Cody Kessler, last year’s third-round pick, in the Browns’ quarterback room. Cleveland also has Brock Osweiler and Kevin Hogan under contract, and the Browns have said that Osweiler will get a chance to start, although he was acquired mostly because the Texans gave the Browns a second-round pick to take his contract off their hands.

Although Kizer probably won’t start over Kessler at first, he’ll surely be given an opportunity to win the starting job at some point during the season. Whether he’s the Browns’ quarterback of the future remains to be seen, but he’s probably the most talented player they have at the most important position in football.

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Ashland tight end Adam Shaheen goes to Bears at No. 45

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The Bears traded up and took a quarterback in the first round and followed that up by trading down to take a tight end in the second round.

Their choice comes with an unusual pedigree for a second-round pick. Adam Shaheen played at Division II Ashland after starting his college career as a basketball player and dominated over the last two seasons. He’s big at 6’6″ and 278 pounds, but ran well at the combine and drew a lot of interest during the pre-draft process.

He’ll now be making a big leap in competition and there will surely be some growing pains as he finds himself lined up against NFL players. Should he grow as a result, the Bears could have a very useful weapon to go with first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky and 2016 rookie running back Jordan Howard in their offense of the future.

There’s a flip side to that happy ending, of course, but Bears General Manager Ryan Pace is betting that his offensive picks will be part of the foundation of better results in Chicago.

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Bengals draft Joe Mixon

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The most controversial player in the 2017 NFL draft is off the board.

With the 48th overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon.

Although he had first-round talent, many teams took Mixon off their boards entirely because of the ugly incident in 2014 when he punched a fellow Oklahoma student, breaking bones in her face. When video of that punch was released late last year, some people thought Mixon wouldn’t be drafted at all.

But talent wins out in the NFL, and the Bengals have a reputation for looking past players’ off-field troubles when the players can help on the field. And there’s little doubt that Mixon can help on the field.

With John Ross yesterday and Mixon today, the Bengals have added a lot of playmaking talent to their offense. With Mixon, however, they’ve also added a potential source of controversy. This pick will be heavily scrutinized.

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Colts take cornerback Quincy Wilson with the 46th pick

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New Colts General Manager Chris Ballard had a big task in front on him when he took over this offseason, and he’s starting at the back of the defense and working forward.

The Colts took Florida safety Quincy Wilson with the 46th pick, adding to the rebuild of the secondary.

They took Ohio State safety Malik Hooker in the first round last night, a shot of talent to a unit that really needed it.

Wilson gives them a big, physical cornerback, which they needed back there with Vontae Davis.

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