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Preseason power rankings No. 3: Denver Broncos

John Elway, John Fox AP

Can Peyton Manning win another Super Bowl?

That is the question people ask when they talk about these Denver Broncos. John Elway, John Fox and the rest of the decision makers in Denver answer that question with an emphatic yes, and they’ve made it clear that they’re putting all their chips on the table and trying to win a championship now: Not only have the Broncos given Manning a good corps of receivers, but the Broncos also invested heavily in veteran free agents on defense this offseason, most notably DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. The plan in Denver is try to win another title while Manning is still on top, and worry about the potential consequences of having a lot of expensive aging veterans on the roster later.

That’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but it’s also a strategy that has the potential to blow up in the Broncos’ faces, if Manning and some of the other veterans on the roster begin to show their age more quickly than the Broncos are expecting. Still, the Broncos enter this season looking like the best team in the AFC.

Strengths.

Obviously, it begins with Peyton Manning, the reigning MVP of the NFL, who’s coming off perhaps the greatest season any NFL player has ever had. As long as Manning is healthy, the Broncos will have a great passing offense.

But it goes beyond Manning. If left tackle Ryan Clady is back to form and healthy for 16 games, the offensive line should be better than it was last year, when Clady was lost for the season in Week Two. And the receiving corps, featuring Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker along with new arrivals Emmanuel Sanders and second-round draft pick Cody Latimer, could be better too. And don’t forget that tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the scene last year, is still relatively inexperienced and may keep getting better this year.

The Broncos’ run defense was solid last year (stopping Seattle’s running backs was about the only thing the Broncos did well in the Super Bowl), and it could be better this year as well. The Broncos liked the way 2013 first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams played late last year at defensive tackle, and this year there’s every reason to expect a strong second season.

Weaknesses.

Last year the Broncos’ most significant weakness was their pass defense, which is why the pass defense was the top priority in free agency. Can DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward turn that pass defense into a strength? If so, the 2014 Broncos may be even better than the 2013 Broncos. If not, they’re going to need the offense to win a lot of shootouts. The wild card is the return of Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games of last season and then missed the playoffs with a torn ACL. If Miller is healthy for 16 games and as good a pass rusher as he was in 2012, then maybe we’ll need to list the Broncos’ pass defense under “strengths.”

Middle linebacker Nate Irving could turn out to be a weakness in the Broncos’ defense if he can’t prove he’s ready to handle the starting job on a full-time basis. Wesley Woodyard departed in free agency, and Denver needs Irving to be ready to handle the responsibilities that Woodyard handled last year.

Special teams may turn out to be a weakness for the Broncos as well. Last year they struggled covering kicks (although that was partially masked by the fact that it’s easy to boot the ball into the end zone for a touchback in Denver), and the Broncos still have no idea who will return punts and kickoffs for them.

Changes.

Champ Bailey has meant a lot to this franchise for the last 10 seasons, and it will look a little strange to watch the Broncos’ defense and not see Bailey. But adding both veteran Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby should change the cornerback position for the better.

Eric Decker is also a significant loss at wide receiver, but that may again be a position where the net result of the changes is an improvement. Emmanuel Sanders is an accomplished veteran, and Cody Latimer is a talented rookie. Denver’s front office did a good job of compensating for the departure of Decker.

Position battles.

The No. 1 cornerback is Aqib Talib, but after that there’s plenty of competition at the cornerback position. First-round draft pick Bradley Roby has a good shot at being the No. 2 cornerback, but if Chris Harris is completely healthy (he said in June that he’s 85 percent recovered from a torn ACL), then Harris may beat out Roby to start opposite Talib. Kayvon Webster, a 2013 third-round pick, is also in the mix and will compete to be the Broncos’ nickel corner.

Another interesting competition will take place at right tackle, where Chris Clark currently looks like the favorite. Clark stepped in for injured left tackle Ryan Clady last year and performed well enough that it would seem likely that Clark will remain a starter now that Clady is back on the left side. However, veteran Winston Justice will get a shot at beating out Clark in training camp, and so will rookie third-round pick Michael Schofield.

The backup running back position behind starter Montee Ball appears to be Ronnie Hillman’s to lose, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Hillman does, in fact, lose that battle. C.J. Anderson looked good in limited work last year, and the Broncos really like a couple of undrafted rookies, Juwan Thompson and Brennan Clay. Ultimately, the second-string running back in Denver will probably the running back who proves himself the best pass protector in training camp and the preseason, as protecting Peyton Manning is the most important priority in Denver’s offense.

The most interesting camp competition of all may be for the return job, where the departure of Trindon Holliday in free agency leaves things wide open. On punt returns, Wes Welker is the most experienced man for the job, but given Welker’s age and concerns about whether he’ll stay healthy for 16 games, it seems unlikely that Welker will be the regular punt returner this season. Instead, the Broncos will likely give a number of young and athletic players a shot at earning a roster spot by returning punts. Isaiah Burse, an undrafted free agent receiver, was a good return man at Fresno State and may be the best bet to end up winning the punt return job. Burse can also return kickoffs, and he’ll likely compete with veterans Andre Caldwell and Omar Bolden for that job.

Prospects.

The bottom line for the Broncos? First of all, they still look like the best team in the AFC. And secondly, no one in Denver will be satisfied with just being the best team in the AFC.

It’s a “Super Bowl or bust” year for the Broncos, and that means winning the Super Bowl, not just getting there. If the offense is as good as last year and the defense is better, the Broncos have a real chance of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But with the Super Bowl debacle fresh in our minds, it’s hard to argue that the Broncos are the best team in the NFL.

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Report: Johnathan Joseph has two cracked ribs, bruised lung

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 24:  Cornerback Johnathan Joseph #24 of the Houston Texans and other players enter the stadium for the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on October 24, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Texans’ loss to the Packers last Sunday swung on a fourth quarter touchdown catch by Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who was wide open in the end zone after cornerback Charles James slipped while trying to cover him.

James was in the game because starter Johnathan Joseph had to leave with an injury. Coach Bill O’Brien said on Monday that Joseph was doing OK, but a report on Tuesday was less positive about his condition.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that an MRI showed Joseph suffered two cracked ribs and a bruised lung against Green Bay.  There’s no word on Joseph’s timetable for a return to action, but it would seem that there’s a good chance he’ll miss at least this week.

That would leave the Texans down a corner for their game in Indianapolis against the Colts, which would be a bad thing given what’s at stake in the AFC South and how much Houston relies on their defense to be a driving factor on a weekly basis.

James was waived on Monday, so he won’t be an option to replace Joseph in the event he doesn’t play. Kareem Jackson, A.J. Bouye, Robert Nelson and Al-Hajj Shabazz, who was claimed on waivers to take James’ spot, are the other corners on the roster right now.

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Bucs promote Josh Huff from practice squad

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 11: Wide receiver Josh Huff #13 runs for a touchdown after making a catch against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter during a game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 11, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images) Getty Images

The Buccaneers gave Josh Huff a second chance, and it didn’t take them long to give him a chance to realize it.

The Bucs promoted the former Eagles wide receiver from the practice squad to fill the spot created by veteran wideout Cecil Shorts on injured reserve. Shorts blew out his knee in last week’s win over the Chargers.

They signed him after the Eagles released him following a DUI arrest which included possession of a gun and marijuana. But they were careful to draw a line between Huff and other guys they cut for similar offenses, saying the cases of Huff and Austin Seferian-Jenkins were not the same.

A former third-round pick of the Eagles (during the Chip Kelly era), he didn’t get much of a chance for redemption there after making some unwise comments about the prevalence of gun ownership in NFL locker rooms.

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Jaguars waive Arthur Brown

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 28:   Arthur Brown #59 of the Baltimore Ravens walks off the field after playing the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 28, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Jaguars have decided to part ways with linebacker Arthur Brown.

The team announced Tuesday that they have waived Brown, who joined the team as a waiver claim in September. Linebacker Sean Porter has been promoted from the practice squad to take his place.

Brown was a second-round pick by the Ravens in 2013 and played in 34 games for Baltimore without making an appearance in the starting lineup. He played in all 12 games for Jacksonville this season, but saw only six snaps on defense while playing a considerably larger role on special teams.

Porter was a fourth-round pick by the Bengals in 2013 and spent his rookie year on injured reserve before playing in one game for Cincinnati in 2014. He was waived in 2015 and landed on the Jaguars’ practice squad.

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D’Qwell Jackson suspended four games for violating PED policy

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Blake Bortles of Jacksonville runs at D'Qwell Jackson of Indianapolis during the NFL International Series match between Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 2, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL announced Tuesday that Colts inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has been suspended for four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy.

Jackson, 33, leads the Colts in tackles. He’s in his third year with the team after spending his first eight NFL seasons with the Browns.

Jackson previously has never missed a start with the Colts.

The four-game suspension means Jackson is done for the regular season and can return to the team should the Colts qualify for the playoffs. At 6-6, the Colts are in a three-way tie atop the AFC South the with the Texans and Titans.

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What’s next for C.J. Spiller?

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 16:  Running back C.J. Spiller #28 of the Seattle Seahawks warms up before facing the Atlanta Falcons at CenturyLink Field on October 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Running back C.J. Spiller, after he was cut by the Saints in September, could have collected the balance of his $1.7 million guaranteed salary and not played. To his credit, he has tried to continue his career — essentially for free.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked.

Signed and cut by the Seahawks before being signed and cut by the Jets, Spiller will now pass through waivers. If he clears waivers, what next?

He could wait and see what happens, if/when a contending team loses a running back during or just before the playoffs. Or he could take whatever he can find now, and hope for the best.

The smart move once again would be to wait for a chance to play in the postseason, when plenty of other teams are done for the year and trying to figure out their plans for 2017. If he plays and plays well, he could get a chance to earn a significant role with a new team in 2017.

Spiller hasn’t previously been willing to wait, however. He pounced on an opportunity with Seattle, and then again on his limited chance with the Jets.

He leaves the Jets with three carries for nine yards. He had three carries for nine yards for the Seahawks.

Only four years ago, Spiller had more than 1,700 yards from scrimmage. So he can still play; for whatever reason, however, it simply hasn’t happened this year for him.

The best news that has happened to Spiller this year arguably comes from being cut by the Jets, a team that  definitely won’t be giving him a playoff platform. He should now wait for a situation that does — unless someone like the Browns or the 49ers claims him on waivers.

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Jets cut C.J. Spiller and Jeremy Ross

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 01: C.J. Spiller #28 of the New Orleans Saints is tackled by Kerry Wynn #72 of the New York Giants during their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

It was a bit of a surprise in some quarters when the Saints cut C.J. Spiller before the start of the season.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been, because he hasn’t been able to hold down a job since.

The Jets are the latest to release the former No. 9 overall pick, announcing the move today.

Spiller signed with the Jets a month ago after a two-game stint with the Seahawks, and had four touches in four games in New York, along with five kickoff returns. Injuries kept him from realizing his potential (or his contract) with the Saints, but his inability to find a role is still a bit alarming.

The Jets also cut wide receiver Jeremy Ross, and swapped practice squad receivers, signing Darius Jennings and cutting Mario Alford.

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Former Bears running back Rashaan Salaam dead at 42

1 Sep 1997:  Rashaan Salaam #31 of the Green Bay Packers in action against the Brian Williams #51 of the Chicago Bears at the Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  The Packers defeated the Bears 38-24. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport Getty Images

Tuesday brings some sad news about former Heisman Trophy winner and Bears first-round pick Rashaan Salaam.

A spokesman for Salaam’s family has announced, via Adam Schefter of ESPN, that Salaam is dead at the age of 42. The University of Colorado, Salaam’s alma mater, released a statement saying his body was found in a Boulder, Colorado park on Monday night and that police do not suspect foul play. There is no further information about a cause of death.

Salaam won the Heisman Trophy in 1994 after running for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns for Colorado. He became the 21st pick of the 1995 NFL Draft and ran for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns during his rookie season, but that would represent his best work on the professional level. He only played 17 more games in the NFL and said after his retirement that off-field partying contributed to his quick washout in the NFL.

We offer our condolences to Salaam’s loved ones on their loss.

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Lions bring back Joique Bell

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 27: Joique Bell #35 of the Detroit Lions celebrates a second quarter touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field on December 27, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Getty Images

The injury-plagued Lions are bringing back a familiar face.

Joique Bell, a running back who played for the Lions for the last five years, has re-signed with the team today.

Bell will provide some depth at running back after Dwayne Washington got hurt against the Saints on Sunday. Bell knows the Lions’ offense and had 311 rushing yards and 286 receiving yards for the Lions last season. Bell briefly played for the Bears this season but was released after having just three carries for six yards.

The Lions also placed defensive end Armonty Bryant on injured reserve with a knee injury.

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Will Smith murder trial begins

gettyimages-51559875 Getty Images

As authorities in Louisiana try to figure out what to do with the man who shot and killed former NFL player Joe McKnight, a jury in Louisiana will eventually decide what to do with the man who shot and killed former NFL player Will Smith.

Via the Associated Press, opening statements were delivered Tuesday at the trial arising from the April death of Smith, and they demonstrate the stark differences in perspectives that arise when a shooter has the “stand your ground” law available as a defense.

Prosecutors claim Cardell Hayes committed murder by shooting Smith once in the right side and seven times in the back. Defense lawyers claim Smith was shot after he reached to get his gun.

A 12-person jury will decide based on the evidence submitted during the trial whether Jones acted in self defense, or whether he committed murder. Hayes also is charged with attempted murder for shooting Smith’s wife, Raquel, during the same incident.

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Randy Gregory expected at Cowboys practice Wednesday

Randy Gregory AP

Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory is serving the second of the two suspensions the league enacted this year and may have a third coming his way after reportedly failing a drug test, but that hasn’t caused the team to wash their hands of him once and for all.

As a result, it appears that they’ll have him at Wednesday’s practice. Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com reported on Tuesday that Gregory is eligible to return to practice this week, which is two weeks ahead of when he’d be eligible to play at the end of his combined 14-game suspension, and the Cowboys have confirmed that they expect to have him at the team’s facility.

Gregory would be eligible to play in Week 16, although that date may shift if the aforementioned failed drug test results in a suspension that would keep Gregory off the field for at least another year. Breer reports that it’s under appeal, so, for now, Gregory is able to move forward with the team.

In ideal circumstances, Gregory would return to give the Cowboys another piece to use on defense. With so little about Gregory’s NFL career qualifying as ideal, it’s unlikely anyone is planning on that actually happening.

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Report: Luke Kuechly to be evaluated Wednesday

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 17:  Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers returns a blocked field goal against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter during the game at Bank of America Stadium on November 17, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) Getty Images

Anyone who watched last Sunday night’s game between the Panthers and Seahawks likely saw how animated Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was on the sideline.

He was talking and gesturing to players, coaches and officials over the course of Carolina’s loss and it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that he would have done anything he could to put on a uniform right then and there. Until he’s cleared from the concussion protocol, however, that’s not an option.

David Newton of ESPN.com reports that Wednesday will bring the next evaluation for Kuechly, who has missed two games with the concussion he suffered against the Saints in Week 11 and could take part in some on-field work if he passes through the early stages of the protocol.

At 4-8, the Panthers don’t have realistic playoff hopes any longer and some teams might think twice about bringing a key player back from injury to play out the string. The Panthers haven’t shown any sign that they’ll go that way with Kuechly, however, so we’ll see if his status changes at all this week.

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Lions sign cornerback Asa Jackson off Ravens practice squad

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 13: Asa Jackson #27 of the Baltimore Ravens warms up before the start of the Ravens preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at M&T Bank Stadium on August 13, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Lions have found a somewhat experienced replacement for their secondary.

According to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network, the Lions are signing cornerback Asa Jackson off the Ravens practice squad to fill the spot created when Quandre Diggs suffered a season-ending pectoral injury.

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin coached Jackson with the Ravens, so there’s some familiarity there. It also establishes Jackson as one of the oldest practice squad players in the league, since Austin left Baltimore after the 2013 season.

Jackson just turned 27, and was a fifth-round pick of the Ravens in 2012. He’s served a pair of PED suspensions in his career, and has never played more than seven games in any of his five years in the league.

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Steelers should have their kicker back this week

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 20:  Chris Boswell #9 of the Pittsburgh Steelers kicks a 33 yard field goal during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers may only need one kicker this week.

Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Tuesday that injured Chris Boswell had a “legit chance” to play this week against the Bills, per Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Boswell didn’t play Sunday against the Giants with an abdominal injury, which forced them to sign Randy Bullock for the week.

Bullock was perfect on three field goals and his extra point attempt, but Tomlin made it clear that if Boswell was well enough to kick, that he was the choice.

Boswell has been kind of ordinary this year, hitting 12-of-16 field goals (but all his extra points), but the Steelers are apparently confident he’s their guy moving forward. Tomlin has shown such confidence in him before, saying he’d let him try his unorthodox rabona onside kick again even though the attempt at Baltimore failed miserably.

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Colin Kaepernick will start for 49ers in Week 14

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 04:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers runs for a first down against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the 49ers 26-6.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

There are plenty of games on the Week 14 schedule that will help decide who makes the playoffs and which teams will match up once the postseason gets underway.

There are also games that will matter only to those involved and the draft prospects who will be going at the top of the first round. The Jets-49ers clash in Santa Clara falls into that category and we now know that only one of those two teams will be changing their starting quarterback from Week 13.

49ers coach Chip Kelly wasn’t ready to name a starter after benching Colin Kaepernick in favor of Blaine Gabbert during last Sunday’s loss to the Bears, but offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins spilled the beans on Tuesday. Modkins met with the media in Kelly’s place as the head coach is away from the team following the death of his father and announced that Kaepernick will make another start.

Kaepernick completed 1-of-5 passes for four yards while being sacked five times against the Bears on a snowy day in Chicago. It will be Kaepernick’s eighth start and the four starts before the Bears debacle featured far better performances than he turned in during Week 13.

The Jets will be going with a new starter for the game. Bryce Petty, who relieved Ryan Fitzpatrick in Monday night’s blowout loss, has been installed as the starter for the rest of the season for the 3-9 Jets.

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Chiefs expect full practice for Jeremy Maclin Tuesday

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 30: Jeremy Maclin #19 of the Kansas City Chiefs reaches for a pass  during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Chiefs only have one full practice this week before they take on the Raiders in a home game on Thursday night and the word from Kansas City is that wide receiver Jeremy Maclin will be a full participant in it.

Coach Andy Reid broke the news when he met with the media on Tuesday and it represents a major step up for Maclin. The wideout has missed four straight games because of a groin injury and practiced on a limited basis last week before being ruled out for the team’s game against the Falcons.

The Chiefs were able to win three of the four games they’ve played without Maclin, but having him back in action would be a boost for their offense in a game that would give them a season sweep over Oakland with a win. It would also give them a tiebreaker advantage should the teams wind up with the same record at the end of the year.

Kansas City doesn’t have any other major injury concerns heading into the game as everyone on the 53-man roster is expected to practice on Tuesday.

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