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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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Titans nose tackle Sammie Hill may need knee surgery

Sammie Hill AP

Tennessee Titans nose tackle Sammie Hill may need surgery after suffering another knee injury last week.

According to John Glennon of the Tennessean, Hill injured his knee either in practice or early in the team’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday.

“We’re talking to the doctors to see,” head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “It feels better, but I don’t know yet.”

Hill suffered a knee injury during OTAs in May that kept him on the Physically Unable to Perform list for the start of training camp. He passed a physical and last week’s game against the Chiefs was his first game action of the preseason.

Hill played just four snaps against the Chiefs before being sidelined again.

Hill appeared in 15 games for the Titans last season and recorded 34 tackles and three sacks.

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Hard Knocks goes inside Mallett’s rough week

San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans Getty Images

It’s safe to assume Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett won’t be utilizing the ‘save forever’ function on his DVR when it comes to the fourth episode of the HBO series Hard Knocks: Houston Texans, which aired Tuesday night.

Eight days after Mallett was informed he’d lost the training camp battle for the Texans’ starting job and five days after he overslept and missed a practice, Mallett’s rough week was featured by Hard Knocks producers.

A longer version of the previous episode’s scene featuring Texans coach Bill O’Brien informing Mallett and Brian Hoyer of his decision to name Hoyer the starter aired this week. After O’Brien left the room, cameras showed Texans offensive coordinator George Godsey addressing both quarterbacks about the need to stay ready and do whatever is asked to help the team.

When Godsey finished talking, Mallett left the room without acknowledging Hoyer or Godsey.

Fast forward 20 or so minutes in another strong Hard Knocks episode and the reports that Mallett overslept last Thursday are confirmed. In one scene O’Brien is shown on the practice field telling a team security official not to check on Mallet and to call back a team official who’d been dispatched to check on him.

“I wouldn’t even try to call him,” cameras caught O’Brien saying. “Just let it go. He’s 27 years old. Tell Khalil (Reed, listed on the Texans’ website as a security and player engagement manager) to stop. He doesn’t need to do that s–t. Turn around and come back. F–k that.”

In the next scene Mallett is shown entering the office of general manager Rick Smith and discussing his missed practice.

“My phone turned off, man,” Mallett said. “I’m not about to (lie) or bulls–t you like that. I made a mistake. The timing f—–g looks so great. I went and got a battery alarm clock so it won’t happen again. I can’t even explain…when I woke up I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.'”

Mallett told Smith multiple times he wasn’t mad about being named the backup and that he just picked the wrong day to have his phone go dead.

After Smith told Mallett he needed to “take ownership,” Mallett responded by saying, “No question. I am not blaming technology. I didn’t get up. I’m not trying to make excuses to you, to Bill, to anybody. You don’t gotta worry about that s–t no more.”

Said Smith: “That’s a strong statement there. We need that consistency. We have to know we can count on you. If you need something, come holler at me. You can come here (any time).”

As the scene ends, Mallett tells Smith he’s been “feeling awkward just walking around the building.”

Maybe the HBO cameras made it worse.

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Fred Jackson says Doug Whaley wasn’t honest

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Getty Images

A couple of unnamed sources have claimed Bills G.M. Doug Whaley “went rogue” in cutting running back Fred Jackson. Jackson has an even stronger assessment of Whaley.

“There’s only one person in that organization that I haven’t gotten honesty from, and that was [Whaley],” Jackson told the Buffalo News, via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com.

“It was a tough pill to swallow, especially because I felt like I can still contribute,” Jackson said. “They gave me a shot. I’ll always be happy about that, but . . . they closed the door on me playing there, too.”

Jackson leaves as the third leading rushing in team history, behind Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson.

Whaley explained the decision to reporters on Monday, but Whaley’s comments had little meat. PFT reported that Jackson would have “done anything” to remain with the team, including taking less money. The Bills didn’t give Jackson that option.

If the Bills get back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the incident likely will be forgotten by January. If, however, the Bills make it 16 straight years without a postseason berth, more than a few fans may be thinking of Jackson’s release when developing opinions on whether a new G.M. is needed.

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Report: Bills G.M. “went rogue” in cutting Fred Jackson

Terry Pegula, Doug Whaley, Rex Ryan, AP

As the Bills move on from running back Fred Jackson, it’s possible that the move resulted from the actions of one specific person in the organization.

Citing two unnamed sources, Tim Graham of the Buffalo News reports that Bills G.M. Doug Whaley “went rogue” in cutting the veteran tailback.

As a source with knowledge of the situation explained it to PFT on Monday, it’s believed Whaley had wanted to cut Jackson since March, and that Whaley preferred Bryce Brown to Jackson. As PFT reported on Wednesday, Jackson would have “done anything” to stay with the team, but he never got the chance to take a pay cut or to make other concessions.

Graham says that the team will remain unified in any public comments on the situation. Privately, however, it’s hard not to wonder whether Whaley may have put even more pressure on himself by taking matters with Jackson into his own hands.

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Feely did indeed tell Judge Berman about the Jets K ball incident

Feely Getty Images

Last night, PFT surmised that free-agent kicker Jay Feely may have told Judge Richard M. Berman about the 2009 incident involving a Jets kicking ball during Feely’s unexpected trip to court in his capacity as a member of the NFL Players Association’s Executive Committee.

As it turns out, Feely did.

Appearing on The Doug Gottlieb Show, Feely said that he explained to Judge Berman the situation arising from a Jets-Patriots game.

“We talked about the similarities in that case and the differences in the way the NFL responded,” Feely said. “I didn’t get in trouble. I had no culpability in that case.”

As the kicker, Feely presumably would have been at least “generally aware” of the use of an unapproved piece of equipment by a Jets equipment employee, who was suspended as a result of the incident. But Feely was neither questioned nor disciplined.

It’s an important point, because the failure to investigate or to discipline Feely under similar circumstances shows that the NFL may have been acting arbitrarily in Brady’s case.

By Friday, we’ll find out whether Judge Berman agrees.

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Rex Ryan promises Buffalo is his last coaching job

Buffalo Bills v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Football coaches usually don’t stay in one place for long, but Rex Ryan is hoping he has several good years ahead of him in Buffalo. Because after he’s done coaching the Bills, that’s it.

Ryan told USA Today that he’s all done in coaching after he’s done with the Bills, so whatever goals he still has as a coach, he needs to accomplish them in Buffalo.

This is definitely going to be it,” Ryan said. “This is my last stop in coaching, and then when my days are up, I’ll turn it over to the younger generation. I’m not going anywhere else.”

The 52-year-old Ryan is young enough that he could have many years ahead of him: He’s a decade younger than Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick, and a decade and a half younger than Tom Coughlin. But Ryan insists any years he has left in coaching will be with the Bills.

“I got news for you: I’m not changing. I’m going to be myself. I don’t care if you like it, or you dislike it. This is who I am,” Ryan said.

And he’ll keep being who he is in Buffalo, and then end his coaching career.

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Rolando McClain passes physical days before suspension starts

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain spent the start of training camp on the physically unable to perform list and will spend the start of the regular season on the reserve/suspended list. But for now, he’s ready for a brief stint on the active roster.

McClain has passed his physical and has been taken off the PUP list, and he’s back at practice. McClain has been out all offseason with a knee injury.

After seeming to get his career on track with the Cowboys last year, McClain was suspended this offseason for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He will miss the first four games of the season while serving his suspension.

But the good news for the Cowboys is that McClain will apparently be healthy when his suspension is over. The Cowboys are ready for him to get back on the field.

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Fifth-year options have no offset obligation

Phil Taylor AP

With the Browns deciding to cut defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who has a fully-guaranteed fifth-year option salary of $5.477 million, I initially assumed that the Browns would get a dollar-for-dollar credit for any money Taylor earns elsewhere.

As I often do, I assumed wrong.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement says nothing about offset language in the fifth-year option, and the NFL Players Association believes there’s no offset obligation. Indeed, the offset duty applies only when affirmative offset language is added to a contract. Without that express language, there’s no offset.

Which means that Taylor could indeed get $5.477 million to not play for the Browns, along with whatever he makes elsewhere.

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Report: Julius Thomas to have surgery on injured finger Wednesday

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On Monday, Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell said that tight end Julius Thomas was headed for a second opinion on the finger he broke in the team’s preseason opener and that surgery was a possibility depending on the evaluation.

It looks like Thomas is headed for the operating room. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Thomas will have the surgery on Wednesday and that he could miss the next month while recovering. That’s the same general timeline Caldwell gave while discussing the possibility of surgery on Monday.

It’s a blow to the Jaguars, who spent big to get Thomas as a free agent so that he could provide Blake Bortles with a reliable target in Bortles’s second season with the club. Bortles is 39-of-60 for 461 yards and a touchdown in the preseason.

Assuming the timeline holds up, Thomas should return to the lineup sometime around the team’s Week Four game against the Colts. Clay Harbor and Marcedes Lewis are the next tight ends up for the Jaguars, who will also likely look to second-year wideouts Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee more often with Thomas out of the lineup.

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Packers set their 75-man roster

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The Packers have made the necessary roster moves to get their roster down to 75 players.

It’s a list short on recognizable names other than wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who was placed on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in the team’s second preseason game of the summer.

Nelson’s injury didn’t help wide receivers Javess Blue, Jimmie Hunt or James Butler avoid the waiver wire. Their departures leave the Pack with eight wideouts still on the roster with Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis and Myles White looking like sure or strong bets to survive final cuts as well.

The Packers also waived linebacker Tavarus Dantzler, tackle Fabbians Ebbele, linebacker Josh Francis, defensive tackle Lavon Hooks, tackle Vince Kowalski, quarterback Matt Blanchard, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, defensive back Kyle Sebetic and tight end Harold Spears.

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Trindon Holliday among the cuts as Raiders get down to 75

Trindon Holliday, Seth Roberts AP

The NFL’s shortest player is among the cuts as the Raiders trimmed their roster to 75.

Kick returner Trindon Holliday, the 5-foot-5 former track star who has made some big plays but also had some costly fumbles in his NFL career, was among the veterans the Raiders cut today. Oakland also cut veteran cornerbacks James Dockery and Ras-I Dowling.

The Raiders waived punter Steven Clark, cornerback Rob Daniel, quarterback Cody Fajardo, receiver Josh Jarper, guard Lamar Mady, running back Trent Richardson, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and receiver Milton Williams.

Offensive tackle Menelik Watson was placed on injured reserve with a ruptured Achilles, and safety Jimmy Hall was waived/injured.

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Bears claim Zac Dysert off waivers

Denver Broncos v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

Bears backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen has a concussion and the team made a move Tuesday to give themselves some more help at the position.

Agent Mike McCartney announced on Twitter that his client Zac Dysert has been claimed off waivers by Chicago. Dysert was cut by the Broncos as they made their way to 75 players this week.

The move may not just be a temporary one. Dysert was a seventh-round pick by Denver in 2013, which means he spent the first two years of his career in an offense coordinated by Adam Gase on a team coached by John Fox. That’s the same situation in Chicago and Gase might prefer to have Dysert on hand even after Clausen is healthy enough to resume his role as the No. 2 behind Jay Cutler.

Reports out of Chicago are that undrafted rookie quarterback Shane Carden will be waived to make room for Dysert on the roster. The Bears also have David Fales on the depth chart at the position.

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Which Final Four team is most likely to not win its division?

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History tells us that roughly half the teams that made the playoffs last year won’t be back in 2015. Of the four teams that made it to the conference title games, which one is most likely to not win its division?

That’s the poll question for Tuesday’s Pro Football Talk on NBCSN. Answer it now, then tune in at 6:00 p.m. ET for the show.

The show will consist of a lot more than answering that question. To find out what it will make the 30-minute cut, tune in to NBCSN at the top of the hour for Rodney Harrison, Paul Burmeister, and yours truly.

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Judge Berman “anticipates” Brady ruling by end of the week

Roger Goodell AP

On Monday, Judge Richard Berman said that he fully expected to issue a ruling in the Tom Brady case on Tuesday or Wednesday.

It’s after 5 p.m. on Tuesday in New York and there’s been no ruling issued yet, so it seems unlikely to be delivered on September 1. September 2 may not be the day either based on an order issued by Berman on Tuesday afternoon.

“The Court anticipates issuing its Decision and Order by the end of the week,” Berman wrote, via Bob McGovern of the Boston Herald.

That leaves more time to go over the potential rulings that Berman could make and the responses that the NFL and/or Brady could have to those rulings, although it’s probably safe to say that just about everything that could be said about the case, the suspension, the meaning of the nickname “Deflator,” courtroom sketch artists and the Ideal Gas Law has already been said at this point.

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Texans owner says J.J. Watt wouldn’t destroy his phone like Brady

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans Getty Images

Texans owner Bob McNair puts the blame for Deflategate squarely on Tom Brady, saying that if Brady would have cooperated with the NFL’s investigation, the matter could have been resolved much more easily.

McNair said on 610-AM in Houston that a player should be willing to cooperate with the league, and that he’d expect his own best player to cooperate in a league investigation.

“What escalated the whole thing is that Brady and the Patriots were going to cooperate fully, and then when it came down to it, they didn’t,” McNair said, via ESPN. “If it was J.J. Watt, I think he would have been cooperative, and it wouldn’t be a question. . . . I don’t think J.J. would destroy his cell phone.”

McNair is convinced that the Patriots deflated footballs to gain an edge, and that the NFL did the right thing in cracking down.

“In the minds of somebody in that organization, they thought it was important. They thought it would give them a competitive advantage, and that’s why they did it,” McNair said.

As Roger Goodell continues to face criticism over Deflategate, McNairs comments indicate that at least one of Goodell’s 32 bosses think he has done his job well.

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