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Five questions: Cleveland Browns

Manziel AP

Since returning to the NFL in 1999 after a three-year hiatus, the Browns have had more lows than highs.  One playoff appearance a dozen years ago, one other winning season, and otherwise futility.

In recent years, the futility has flowed in large part from inconsistency, with four coaches and four General Managers since 2009.  Before the Browns can contend, the front office and the coaching staff need to stabilize.  It’s unclear whether that will happen.  But that’s not one of the five specific questions I’ve selected to address as the season approaches.

These are.

1.  Who will be the quarterback?

After the Browns traded up from No. 26 to No. 22 in round one to snag Johnny Manziel, the Browns opted not to install Manziel as the starter.  It’s possible, if not likely, that it was part of the effort to short-circuit the immediate ascension of Manziel to the same kind of power Robert Griffin III had (and likely still has) in Washington.

Nevertheless empowered by the team’s apparent acceptance of a “Work Hard, Play Harder” two-sided offseason T-shirt motto, Manziel eventually took it too far, hanging out with Justin Bieber and rolling up a dollar bill after the team told him to tone it down.

With an owner who isn’t bashful about handing out pink slips but with termination not an option, the next best way to send a message to Manziel becomes sending him to the bench.  Which is what the Browns now apparently plan to do, given the ongoing praise heaped upon Brian Hoyer.

It’s a dangerous game, for multiple reasons.  First, making Manziel the backup means exposing him to injury in the preseason behind the No. 2 offensive line.  Second, it opens the door for another Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn do-si-do that could delay the date on which Manziel ascends to the job they surely want him to have.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have drafted him.

2.  Who will run the ball?

Ben Tate arrived via free agency, Terrance West comes to Cleveland through the draft.  Tate presumably will get the first crack at becoming the primary ball carrier, but his contract doesn’t point inescapably to Tate being the clear-cut bell cow.

“Competition is needed to have a good team,” Tate recently told reporters.  “You look at San Francisco. You look at Seattle. There’s competition at every position. Obviously you know who their guy is, but there are guys behind them that are good that can push them.  That’s what’s needed so I don’t see it as a threat.”

It’s only a threat for Tate if the competition results in a conclusion that West is a better option that Tate.

3.  What’s the plan at receiver?

Josh Gordon may or may not be suspended for the year, and the Browns haven’t done much to plan for life without him.  Miles Austin and Nate Burleson arrived via free agency, but both guys aren’t who they used to be.

G.M. Ray Farmer has defended the failure to make a move to replace Gordon by explaining that Super Bowl champs rarely have dominant receivers.  Of course, Super Bowl champs also often don’t have elite left tackles, but it’s unlikely that the Browns will be cutting Joe Thomas any time soon.

Perhaps the Browns ultimately played it right, if Gordon’s low concentration of marijuana metabolites and luck-of-the-draw “A” bottle/”B” bottle discrepancy results in a short suspension or none at all.  One way or another, we’ll know the answer soon enough.

4.  Will Kyle Shanahan be more flexible with Manziel?

The Browns possibly would like a Mulligan when it comes to drafting Manziel.  New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan possibly would like a Mulligan of his own when it comes to taking a job with the team that drafted Manziel.

Kyle Shanahan ensured two years of RGIII in D.C., with plenty of dysfunction fueled by a quarterback who wouldn’t or couldn’t be coached the way Shanahan wanted to coach him to the degree that Shanahan likes to coach/control all of his quarterbacks.

Shanahan wants everything done according to his plan.  Manziel does some of his best work when the plan disintegrates into no plan at all.  Whenever Manziel plays, Shanahan will need to become more flexible, or he’ll lose whatever is left of his mind after 2012 and 2013.

5.  How good is the defense?

Pretty good.

Lost in all the talk about the team’s offense is a defense that finished in the top 10 both for yards and points allowed.  Sure, coordinator Ray Horton is gone after a year, and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and safety T.J. Ward have been swapped out for Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, respectively.  But head coach Mike Pettine, who made a major impact during his only season with the Bills after stepping out of Rex Ryan’s shrinking shadow, could push the finished product to even greater heights.

To get there, Pettine needs to get more out of pass rushers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo.  If forgotten top-10 cornerback Justin Gilbert can make a quick impact, he and Joe Haden could quickly become of the best tandems in the league.

The end result could be a defense that’s even better than it was a year ago, and in turn an offense that benefits from fewer points allowed, better field position, and more turnovers.

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Five questions: San Francisco 49ers

Harbaugh AP

A tumultuous offseason has trickled into training camp, with guard Alex Boone holding out and underrated backup running back Kendall Hunter done for the year with a torn ACL.

Apart from the obvious questions regarding whether Boone will show and whether the 49ers will be able to replace Hunter’s contributions as a ball-carrier and blitzer-picker-upper, here are five questions that underpin the broader question of whether the Niners can kick in the door on which they’ve been knocking for the last three years.

1.  How much longer for Harbaugh?

Coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly wants to be paid like a guy who has won a Super Bowl even though, you know, he hasn’t.  That difference of opinion has lingered for more than a year, and Harbaugh is now a year and five months away from becoming a free agent.

Some believe that, unless a new contract is signed before the 2014 season ends, the end of the road will come after the coming season, with the 49ers allowing Harbaugh to leave or trading him to one of the six or seven franchises that inevitably will be hiring a new head coach.  (Those trade talks with the Browns from earlier this year won’t make the phone any less likely to ring.)

Plenty of other on-field and off-field issues have pushed the Harbaugh angle into the background.  It won’t stay in the background for a lot longer.

2.  Was Kaepernick underpaid, or overpaid?

Misguided reports based on false characterizations of the Colin Kaepernick contract created the impression that Kaepernick’s package resides among the best in the league.  And that triggered a strong backlash when the true numbers emerged, showing that Kaepernick did a team-friendly deal that allows the 49ers to keep him for up to seven years at a reasonable rate or to dump him if they find a better option.

Lost in the debate over whether Kaepernick did a really good deal is whether he’s a really good quarterback.  After torching the Packers to start the 2013 season with 412 passing yards fueled by Harbaugh’s rope-a-dope complaints about the hits Kaepernick takes in the read-option, Kaepernick averaged 185 passing yards per game over the rest of the regular season.  In seven post-Packers games before the bye week, Kaepernick threw six total touchdown passes and five interceptions.

A strong postseason performance (but for a misfire pass to Michael Crabtree with the season on the line . . . again) renewed his reputation as one of the great young quarterbacks in the league.  That could change again once the 2014 season begins.

3.  Can Aldon Smith stay out of trouble?

With a likely suspension coming after getting 12 days on a work crew and three years of probation in response to no-contest pleas to weapons and DUI charges, Aldon Smith may not be adding to that 42-sacks-in-43-regular-season-games performance during the first few weeks of the 2014 campaign.  The number of additional sacks and games that he racks up as a 49er depends largely on whether he can stay out of trouble.

The 49ers considered not picking up the fifth-year option on his 2011 first-round contract, a potentially hollow gesture aimed at getting Smith’s attention.  If they don’t have it, Smith eventually will drop that last straw onto the camel, and Smith’s career in San Francisco will be over.

At which point someone else will give him a second chance, not because of humanitarian concerns but because he can play at a high level.  If/when it’s determined he’s no longer a difference-maker, he’ll be making a living in a different profession.

4.  How much longer can Gore carry the load?

Not surprisingly, veteran running back Frank Gore isn’t ready to yield to Father Time, who continues to be a muther when it comes to tailback longevity.  With Kendall Hunter done for the season, the Niners will need Gore to be able to do more, in the event that Marcus Lattimore can’t get healthy or Carlos Hyde can’t get ready.

Gore has shown no signs of slowing down despite an expectation for several years that the wheels will come off.  Maybe they won’t for Gore, at least not for the next few years.

5.  Who emerges as the top target in the passing game?

Two years ago, Harbaugh boasted that the team had five No. 1 receivers.  Today, only Michael Crabtree remains from that quintet.

After a rocky start in 2012, Vernon Davis has become a Kaepernick favorite, which has bolstered Vernon’s quest for a new contract.  Crabtree, who held out into the 2009 season as a rookie, enters a contract year of his own.  Anquan Boldin had a solid season after a salary-dispute trade from Baltimore.  Supplanted by Sammy Watkins, Stevie Johnson arrives via trade from Buffalo.  Brandon Lloyd returns, 11 years and five teams after he was drafted in San Francisco.

It’s a vastly underrated group of weapons for Colin Kaepernick.  If Tom Brady had that group, they’d already be engraving his name on the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards.

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Five questions: Kansas City Chiefs

Reid Getty Images

The Chiefs followed a disastrous 2-14 season with an unlikely trip to the playoffs, followed by an even less likely 38-10 lead at Indy, capped by an even less likely second-half collapse.

For Year Two of the Andy Reid/John Dorsey regime much higher than a year ago, the bar moves higher.  Possibly, too high.

Here are five questions we (or at least I) have about the 2014 edition of the Kansas City Chiefs.

1.  Did they take too many hits in free agency?

A whopping 60 percent of the team’s offensive line bolted for bigger dollars in free agency, led by left tackle Branden Albert.  The team now hopes that Eric Fisher, the first overall pick a year ago, will be able to play better on the left side of the line than the right, where he struggled as a rookie.

Also gone is Dexter McCluster, a versatile weapon who may or may not be replaced effectively by rookie De’Anthony Thomas.

On defense, lineman Tyson Jackson and safety Kendrick Lewis signed elsewhere, and cornerback Brandon Flowers was cut late in the offseason.

The departures, which weren’t offset by many free-agent arrivals, will make it harder to run the streak of playoff appearances to two.

2.  Can they put the playoff collapse behind them?

Maybe it’s good that so many of the old players are gone.  It’ll make it a little easier to get past the playoff collapse if guys who weren’t part of it aren’t still around.

But plenty are still there, and they’ll need to learn from what happened against the Colts without having a wedge arise between the offense and the defense.  Otherwise, whenever the offense builds a lead in 2014 and the defense starts to blow it, “Here we go again” will be the refrain (spoken or otherwise) up and down the Kansas City sideline.

The offense will likely follow the lead of quarterback Alex Smith on this point, especially since his stellar day (378 passing yards, 57 rushing yards, four passing touchdowns, no interceptions) was barely noticed in the aftermath of one of the most deflating losses in franchise history.  If he stays positive when the defense starts to show signs of falling apart, others will be inclined to do the same.

3.  Is Alex Smith the answer at quarterback?

There’s a chance Smith eventually won’t be the guy leading, or cutting off, resentment of defensive failures.  Andy Reid has shown over the last 15 years a knack for getting great performances out of any and every quarterback he coaches, and rookie Aaron Murray could easily become Big Red’s next star pupil.

Smith has one year left on his contract, with the two sides still far apart.  If Smith won’t do a deal on the team’s terms, the team could turn to Murray.

And if the 2014 season goes south quickly, Murray may get a chance at some point to show what he can do before the Chiefs have to essentially choose between Smith and Murray.

4.  How good will Dee Ford be right away?

Before the draft, Dee Ford declared he’s better than Jadeveon Clowney.  Chiefs owner Clark Hunt cautiously has compared Ford to the late Derrick Thomas.

If Ford lives up to either of those assessments, the Chiefs will be able to let Justin Houston walk in free agency and install Ford as the four-letter complement to Tamba Hali.

Or maybe it’s Hali who’ll become expandable after the 2014 season, with the Chiefs opting for the two youngest options at pass rusher.  If we’ve learned nothing else in the past few years, it’s that no high-priced veteran on any team is safe.

5.  Are they nearly done with Dwayne Bowe?

Speaking of high-priced veterans who may be in danger of not being with the team, receiver Dwayne Bowe could be on the outs.  With $11 million in cash due come 2015, Bowe may be on the verge of being a former Chief if he doesn’t increase the production in 2014.

His first season under a five-year, $56 million contract resulted in only 57 catches for 673 yards.  That’s 13 fewer catches and 20 yards less than running back Jamaal Charles, who also ran the ball for 1,287 yards.

Bowe knows that his time is running short if he can’t produce a better return on the investment the Chiefs made not long after Reid and Dorsey arrived.  Otherwise, that cash and cap space will go to someone else.

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Five questions: New York Giants

Eli Manning,  Tom Coughlin AP

In four of the last five years, the Giants haven’t qualified for the playoffs.  A championship win during that lone postseason appearance takes some of the sting out of it, but Lombardi Trophies can lose their luster pretty quickly.

With two straight subpar seasons since the most recent Super Bowl victory, the Giants could be teetering toward significant change if they go three years without a playoff appearance for the first time since 1994 through 1996.  Which could be good news; the last two times coach Tom Coughlin was clearly on the hot seat, he took the team to the top of the mountain.

Here are five questions for the team unrelated to the coach’s potentially tenuous job status.

1.  Which Eli Manning will show up?

The Giants quarterback recently admitted that he’s a “little nervous” in the team’s new offense.  He should be.

Whatever the offense, Eli Manning’s career has arrived at an unexpected crossroads, at the age of 33 and with a pair of Super Bowl pelts on his wall.  Wrapped around that second NFL title are four failed seasons, with 2013 featuring a career-high 27 interceptions.

Eli’s older brother has a reputation for performing incredibly well during the regular season and then failing to meet expectations in the playoffs.  Eli has a knack for thriving in the postseason, but not being able to get there often enough.

After the second championship, Eli had seemed to be a lock for the Hall of Fame.  Now, his candidacy depends on what happens over the balance of his career.  Starting now, in a new offense with plenty of jobs riding on Eli’s ability to thrive in it.

If he’s only a “little nervous,” he’s not nearly nervous enough.

2.  Can the offensive line get the job done?

The Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run was fueled by great performances from both the offensive and defensive lines.  Last year, the offensive line wasn’t great.  This year, with the retirements of David Diehl and Chris Snee, the offensive line could be even worse.

The primary goal of training camp and the preseason will be to find the best combination of five starters and hope they can find a way to stay healthy.  A good offensive line works in seamless harmony, opening running lanes and keeping the quarterback from getting hurried, hit, and/or sacked.

The offensive live never gets enough credit when things go well, balanced by never getting enough blame when things don’t.  Things need to go well for the offensive line this year, or plenty of offensive linemen and other employees could be going away.

3.  What happened to the pass rush?

In 2007, the Giants figured out how to beat the Patriots and Tom Brady.  Specifically by knocking him down early and making him worried about getting knocked down for the rest of the game.

Four years later, the Giants showed that they still knew that the best way to win on a big stage is to throw the opposing quarterback off it.

Three years after the fact, who’s left?  Michael Strahan gets his ugly mustard jacket in less than two weeks, Osi Umenyiora can soon be seen on Hard Knocks as a member of the Falcons, and Justin Tuck has taken his 11.0 sacks to Oakland after allegedly being lowballed by the Giants.

Mathias Kiwakuna and his six sacks and restructured deal that has left him with a stick in a place where sticks don’t normally go is back, and the team hopes that the once-promising Jason Pierre-Paul can improve on his paltry sum of two sacks in 2013.  With Pierre-Paul in a contract year, he has plenty of millions of reasons to get back to being the guy who had 16.5 sacks in 2011.

4.  Who plays tight end?

Maybe Pierre-Paul should ask to play offense.  He’d have a good chance to play tight end.  Possibly as the starter.

Look at the depth chart.  The five tight ends currently on the roster are Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells, Adrien Robinson, and Xavier Grimble, who sounds like the antagonist in a Dickens novel.  That quintet combined for six total NFL catches last year.

It’s hard not to imagine the Giants making moves at the position, even if they merely pounce on a tight end cut by another team.  Or, ideally, if Jermichael Finley is cleared by the Giants and decides to keep playing football.

5.  Will they be able to run the ball?

Speaking of guys with neck injuries whose futures were in doubt, running back David Wilson has been cleared to play.  The next question becomes whether Wilson, a first-round pick in 2012, can get back to the top of the depth chart, or whether he’ll play second fiddle to newcomer Rashad Jennings, whom G.M. Jerry Reese has called a “bell cow” type.

Former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis is also on the roster, and it remains to be seen whether former Packers assistant Ben McAdoo will play the hot hand or use a revolving door at tailback.

Whoever gets the ball needs to do something with it, which could be difficult if the offensive line and/or Eli Manning don’t play well.  But that could be the key to opening up the passing game.  Which will take a lot of pressure off the defense.

Which will make the team better.  Which could keep Tom Coughlin around for at least another year.

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PFT’s 2014 Preseason Power Rankings

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Here is how PFT ranks all 32 NFL clubs entering the 2014 season. A preseason analysis of each team can be found below. The rankings were determined by vote of the editorial staff:

1. Seattle Seahawks. (NFC rank: 1.)

2. San Francisco 49ers. (NFC rank: 2.)

3. Denver Broncos. (AFC rank: 1.)

4. New England Patriots. (AFC rank: 2.)

5. Green Bay Packers. (NFC rank: 3.)

6. New Orleans Saints. (NFC rank: 4.)

7. Baltimore Ravens. (AFC rank: 3.)

8. Indianapolis Colts. (AFC rank: 4.)

9. Cincinnati Bengals. (AFC rank: 5.)

10. Carolina Panthers. (NFC rank: 5.)

11. Arizona Cardinals. (NFC rank: 6.)

12. Chicago Bears. (NFC rank: 7.)

13. Philadelphia Eagles. (NFC rank: 8.)

14. Atlanta Falcons. (NFC rank: 9.)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers. (AFC rank: 6.)

16. San Diego Chargers. (AFC rank: 7.)

17. Kansas City Chiefs. (AFC rank: 8.)

18. New York Giants. (NFC rank: 10.)

19. New York Jets. (AFC rank: 9.)

20. St. Louis Rams. (NFC rank: 11.)

21. Detroit Lions. (NFC rank: 12.)

22. Cleveland Browns. (AFC rank: 10.)

23. Washington Redskins. (NFC rank: 13.)

24. Dallas Cowboys. (NFC rank: 14.)

25. Houston Texans. (AFC rank: 11.)

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (NFC rank: 15.)

27. Minnesota Vikings. (NFC rank: 16.)

28. Buffalo Bills. (AFC rank: 12.)

29. Jacksonville Jaguars. (AFC rank: 13.)

30. Tennessee Titans. (AFC rank: 14.)

31. Miami Dolphins. (AFC rank: 15.)

32. Oakland Raiders. (AFC rank: 16.)

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 1: Seattle Seahawks

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks enter their 2014 training camp as defending Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history. While the team lost a handful of contributing pieces to free agency, the Seahawks return most of their impact players from their championship squad. In addition, the team locked up Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin to long-term contracts to keep them in Seattle for the foreseeable future.

However, Seattle still has some questions to answer as training camp gets set to open on Friday. Can Thomas, Sherman and others play with the same drive after getting paid this offseason? How does Seattle replace Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald on their defensive line? Can Percy Harvin stay healthy enough to contribute all season?

Despite the few question marks, Seattle still enters the year as a strong candidate to return to the Super Bowl and become the first team to win consecutive titles since the New England Patriots in 2003-2004.

Strengths.

Even without Brandon Browner, the “Legion of Boom” will continue to cause fits for opposing offenses this year. Earl Thomas has become the premier safety in the game and Richard Sherman arguably the best cornerback. Kam Chancellor remains as the muscle of the quartet and Byron Maxwell has become dangerous as well with four interceptions in five starts to end the regular season.

Assuming the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch can resolve any potential lingering contract concerns, Seattle’s rushing attack should be as good, if not better, in 2014. Seattle finished the season fourth in rushing with Lynch accumulating 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns. Second-year back Christine Michael has drawn praise from the coaching staff and could give the offense a home run threat out of the backfield. Defenses still have to be aware of quarterback Russell Wilson rushing as well as he ran for 539 yards last season.

Weaknesses.

The offensive line was the biggest problem area for the Seahawks last season and many of the same issues remain as the season approaches. Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini and Max Unger combined to miss 18 games due to injury and the line struggled in their absence.

Giacomini is now gone to the New York Jets and Okung didn’t participate in offseason workouts while recovering from foot surgery. Former first-round pick James Carpenter has slimmed down and in the best shape of his professional career, but has mainly been a disappointment up to this point. Seattle also needs to find a starter at right tackle between Michael Bowie and second-round pick Justin Britt.

While still ranking as the best defense in the league last year, the Seahawks did struggle every once in a while against the run. St. Louis and Tampa Bay rushed for 200 yards against Seattle in consecutive weeks. With Red Bryant released for cap reasons, one of the stalwarts of Seattle’s rush defense is now gone.

Changes.

James Carpenter is slotted to take over full-time at left guard in place of the departed Paul McQuistan. The position had been a timeshare for most of last season. Breno Giacomini will also need to be replaced at right tackle.

The Seahawks had found a nice pass rush package late in the season that caused problems for opposing offenses. However, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald have departed and Seattle will need to find replacements. Benson Mayowa, Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill, Kevin Williams and Jesse Williams should all be vying for time in passing situations.

Bryon Maxwell will take over the starting cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman after assuming the role last season following the suspension of Brandon Browner.

Camp battles.

Despite Pete Carroll’s “always compete” mantra, there aren’t many battles for starting jobs expected during training camp. Michael Bowie and Justin Britt will compete for the starting job at right tackle.

Beyond that, the wide receiver position should be fierce for roster spots and playing time. Percy Harvin participated in all offseason workouts and appears truly healthy for the first time since injuring his ankle in 2012 with the Minnesota Vikings. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson and Sidney Rice will be among the group competing for the next spot in line behind Harvin.

The same applies for the defensive line rotation with a slew of players competing for playing time. Greg Scruggs, Jesse Williams, Jordan Hill and Benson Mayowa were “redshirted” for lack of a better term due to being buried in the depth or injury. Along with the redshirt class, draft picks Cassius Marsh and Jimmy Staten will also have a chance to factor in the rotation.

Seattle will also need to find a punt returner to replace Golden Tate.

Prospects.

The Seahawks roster remains supremely talented and young. They were the youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl last February and Seattle has done a very good job of preparing their roster to absorb the larger contracts given to their emerging superstars.

The defense remains a physically imposing unit. Marshawn Lynch is a battering ram at running back and Russell Wilson the calm, distributor that directs the offense.

There are few areas of concern from a roster standpoint for Seattle as training camp approaches. The biggest question may be if they can handle being the hunted as reigning champions.

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Tony Dungy’s statement regarding his Michael Sam comments

[Editor's note:  In response to quotes that appeared in Monday's Tampa Tribune, Tony Dungy has released a statement.  The full content of it appears below.]

On Monday afternoon while on vacation with my family, I was quite surprised to read excerpts from an interview I gave several weeks ago related to this year’s NFL Draft, and I feel compelled to clarify those remarks.

I was asked whether I would have drafted Michael Sam and I answered that I would not have drafted him.  I gave my honest answer, which is that I felt drafting him would bring much distraction to the team. At the time of my interview, the Oprah Winfrey reality show that was going to chronicle Michael’s first season had been announced.

I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL.  He absolutely does.

I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process.  It should not.

I was not asked whether I would have a problem having Michael Sam on my team.  I would not.

I have been asked all of those questions several times in the last three months and have always answered them the same way—by saying that playing in the NFL is, and should be, about merit.

The best players make the team, and everyone should get the opportunity to prove whether they’re good enough to play.  That’s my opinion as a coach.  But those were not the questions I was asked.

What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams.

I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization.

I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction.  Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.

I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his quest to become a star in the NFL and I am confident he will get the opportunity to show what he can do on the field.

My sincere hope is that we will be able to focus on his play and not on his sexual orientation.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 2: San Francisco 49ers

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have arguably been the best team in the NFL over the last three seasons with a Super Bowl appearance and two NFC Championship game appearances on their resume. But any trip to the postseason that doesn’t end with that final victory leaves a team ultimately unfulfilled.

Despite some changes to the roster and some off-field incidents this offseason, the 49ers are once again primed to push for a sixth Super Bowl title this season.

San Francisco should be more dynamic offensively with a healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Steve Johnson to provide targets for Colin Kaepernick. However, the 49ers may have lost a little strength on the defensive side of the ball. NaVorro Bowman could miss a significant portion of the season while returning from injury and Aldon Smith could be suspended for transgressions off the field. In addition, all four members of the 49ers starting secondary in Super Bowl XLVII have now moved on with some question marks remaining.

Strengths.

The 49ers running game should continue to be among the most explosive in the league. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick are a daunting threats to carry the ball. In addition, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and possibly even Marcus Lattimore provide capable depth for an aging  (but somehow still not diminishing) Frank Gore. San Francisco will need to hope Daniel Kilgore can be an adequate replacement at center for the departed Jonathan Goodwin.

When healthy and able to play, the 49ers linebackers remain as strong as any unit in football. Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are dynamic threats at outside linebacker with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as two of the best inside linebackers in the game. However, Bowman could miss several games while recovering from a knee injury in the NFC Championship game and Smith’s off-field issues could likely lead to a suspension this fall.

Weaknesses.

San Francisco is noticeably weaker at cornerback than they were during their run to the NFC title in 2012. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are now gone, leaving Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as the penciled starters with journeymen Perrish Cox and Chris Cook as depth options. Brock has proven to be a solid player. However, Culliver could ultimately be suspended as well for a felony charge of possession of brass knuckles stemming from a hit-and-run arrest this offeseason.

Colin Kaepernick’s play against the division rival Seattle Seahawks is also an area of concern. In four career starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has struggled mightily in the passing game. He’s completed just 52 percent of his passes for an average of 175 yards per game with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Against all other opponents, Kaepernick has thrown 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. San Francisco is just 1-3 in those games and has been outscored by a margin of 111-52. Considering the road to the top of the division likely goes through Seattle, this an area that the 49ers have to hope Kaepernick can improve in.

Changes.

Daniel Kilgore is penciled in to replace Jonathan Goodwin as the starting center for the 49ers. It’s the first shake up to an offensive line that has been among the league’s elite units over the past few seasons.

Antoine Bethea was signed to replace the departed Donte Whitner at strong safety.

Meanwhile, the addition of Steve Johnson and the return of Brandon Lloyd to the 49ers could stabilize a receiving corps that was underwhelming last season.

Camp battles.

While Kilgore may have the jump-start, rookie Marcus Martin could also challenge for the starting center job once he comes off the non-football injury list.

The 49ers will need to find an interim replacement for NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov will likely be called upon to challenge for the job.

Prospects.

The San Francisco 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL. The problem for San Francisco right now is that until they can prove otherwise, the Seahawks are better.

The injury to Bowman and potential suspension of Smith, along with the changes in the secondary could cause some initial struggles defensively for the 49ers as well. However, the 49ers are still plenty talented enough to compete for the divisional title in the NFC West.

Another year of experience from Colin Kaepernick and improved quality at the receiver position should make the passing game more efficient this season. With a rock solid rushing attack, the 49ers offense could be the best it has been with Kaepernick under center.

The Seahawks and 49ers don’t meet until Thanksgiving night in Santa Clara before playing twice in three weeks. Those two meetings will likely go a long way toward determining the champion of a loaded NFC West and a favorite in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl.

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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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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

Julian Edelman, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken AP

The Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game last year, but their bid for another Super Bowl title were dashed by the Broncos.

Making it there was a credit to coach Bill Belichick’s adaptability as he had to fill holes created by injuries while finding a way to keep the offense moving in spite of an underwhelming season by Tom Brady’s wide receivers. That stopped against Denver, but the Patriots made it clear they have designs on staying on top in the AFC East.

They signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in hopes of stopping the revolving door at that position, with the Revis acquisition and a growing group of talent in the front seven leading to thoughts of the best Patriots defense in several years.

There were no such additions to the offense, but the hope is that the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski serves the same purpose.

Strengths.

When Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots had one of the most potent offenses in the league. When he was out, they weren’t close to the same level as a team and Brady wasn’t as effective as a quarterback. Whether Gronk can stay healthy for an entire year is a matter of some debate, but his impact on the team is certain.

The Patriots had a pretty good defense last season without Revis. Adding one of the best cornerbacks in the game as he looks to restore some luster after a forgettable year in Tampa has the potential to move the defense from pretty good to great in a shift that the Pats would love to see.

Revis won’t be doing it alone, though. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost after the sixth week of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s torn Achilles made him a bystander as well. Getting both back to go with Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich would make for one of the best front sevens in the conference.

The permanent move to safety was a good one for Devin McCourty, who turned in an excellent year in 2013. With better cornerback play expected, McCourty could be deployed in a more aggressive manner this time around.

Weaknesses.

Julian Edelman caught a lot of passes, but the rest of the wide receivers left something to be desired last season. The Patriots need Danny Amendola to remain on the field and they’d like to see the potential of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Josh Boyce translated into actual production. Without those developments, the Patriots will be relying heavily on Gronkowski remaining healthy once again this year.

Brady was sacked 40 times last year, the second-most of his career, and that number will need to come down this season. Center and right guard are the spots most in need of improvement as Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were weak links last year.

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t re-signed as a free agent, leaving the Patriots without their battering ram in the backfield from last year. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are on hand, so there’s no reason to panic although the team’s versatility took a little bit of a hit with Blount’s departure.

If everyone is healthy, the defensive line should be pretty good. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Will Smith and first-round pick Dominique Easley are all returning from serious injuries, though, and the depth isn’t strong enough to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks if they aren’t in the game.

Changes.

We’ll get to the changes that have been made in a second, right after we discuss the changes that the Patriots hope will take place. After losing Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer to season-ending injuries last year, the Patriots will be hoping that simply being healthier will allow them to push their way back to the top of the conference.

The Pats added three offensive linemen in the draft — center Bryan Stork, tackle Cameron Fleming and guard Jon Halapio — to restock with some young depth up front.

Browner will serve a suspension to start the year, so it will be some time before he and Revis can be deployed as a tandem. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard will be on hand to fill in and then fill out the sub packages.

Brandon LaFell was signed as a free agent after playing out his contract with the Panthers. There’s probably more upside with the younger receivers, but the Pats will take any help they can get at the position after last season.

Camp Battles.

Steve Gregory is gone, leaving an opening at safety next to McCourty. Patrick Chung is back after a spell with the Eagles and he’ll join Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis and rookie Jemea Thomas at the position. Harmon looks like the first choice heading into camp.

The Patriots drafted running back James White in the fourth round and he’ll likely vie with Brandon Bolden for backfield snaps left up for graps after Blount’s departure. Given the fluid nature of running back situations, he could wind up with even more than that if things break right.

New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, setting up a competition with Ryan Mallett for backup duties and the role as unofficial heir to Brady.

Prospects.

The Patriots have advanced at least as far as the conference title game in each of the last three seasons. When you survey the AFC at this point, another trip to that round feels like the expectation once again in New England.

We can’t know which Patriots might be injured this season or which teams might come together to form a whole better than anyone is predicting in July, but, outside of Denver, there aren’t any teams in the conference that are safe bets to be better than the Patriots. And there certainly aren’t any in the AFC East, where the question again appears to be how many weeks it will take for the Pats to sew up the crown.

Getting beyond the conference title game and earning another Lombardi Trophy is a different matter, however. They’ll need better health than last season, development from a young receiver or two and no noticeable slippage from key veterans to add a fourth ring for the Belichick era.

There’s a lot that needs to break right, but the Patriots are in position to capitalize if things do go that way.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 5: Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers AP

Forget about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or anyone else not named Aaron Rodgers.  The best quarterback in the NFL currently plays in Green Bay.  And that’s good enough to get the Packers in the top five as the 2014 season approaches.

They’d be even higher if Rodgers had the help that other franchise quarterbacks enjoy.  Specifically on defense.  And everyone knows it.  Maybe that’s why recent remarks from Rodgers that easily could have been interpreted as a slap at the front office and/or the locker room didn’t ruffle many feathers.

“We haven’t had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while,” Rodgers said last month.  “I think there’s been times — I think back to playing Jacksonville in ’08 in Jacksonville, some of the battles we’ve had with our division teams at times — where you walk on the field and feel like you’re kind of a JV team.”

Beyond Rodgers, the Packers have been a JV team, mainly on defense.  But the Packers may have improved just enough that they’ll be good enough to have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl.

Strengths.

On offense, it begins (and arguably ends) with Rodgers.  A high-precision passer who can run the ball, too, Rodgers knows how to gain yardage on the ground without putting himself at undue risk.  Last year’s broken collarbone happened not while he was being reckless but while trying to step up in the pocket.  Shea McLellin of the Bears shed a block and spotted Rodgers and closed ground and pulled him down before Rodgers knew what happened.  If he can stay healthy throughout 2014, the Packers will likely win the NFC North.  The real question becomes whether he’ll have enough help in the postseason to advance past the divisional round, or whether it’ll be another JV-level showing at single-elimination time, particularly from the defense.

The Packers rolled the dice last season on a pair of tailbacks, stopping Eddie Lacy’s round-two free-fall and snagging Johnathan Franklin, who appeared to be a perfect fit for the Green Bay offense.  A neck injury ended Franklin’s career before it could get started, but the gamble on Lacy ended up being a good one — especially since he eventually was able to pound out some strong performances even when the Packers were forced to implement a crappy backup plan for Rodgers.  If Lacy can match the quarterback when it comes to avoiding injury, the Packers could have the best one-two offensive punch in the NFL.

A bad defense would be a lot worse without linebacker Clay Matthews, who continues to be one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, but who has missed nine games over the past two seasons combined.  The arrival of Julius Peppers could make Matthews even better, even though the jury is still out on whether Peppers still has it like he used to.

The secondary has the potential to be very good, with highly-paid cornerback Sam Shields and first-round rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix potentially leading the way.  As a unit, however, the defense doesn’t belong in the “strength” category.

Weaknesses.

The tight end position holds little promise after the departure of Jermichael Finley.  He seems to want to return to Green Bay after neck surgery, but it seems highly unlikely that that Packers will clear him to play — or pay him what it would take to get him to walk away from his probably-too-good-to-be-true $10 million tax-free insurance policy.  The depth chart is so uncertain that the Packers have taken a chance on undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla, whose talent has been overshadowed by a litany of off-field concerns.

The offensive line continues to shuffle and rotate and generally underperform.  Bryan Bulaga moves back to the right side after a short-lived experiment at left tackle, which ended when his ACL gave out during an intrasquad scrimmage.  David Bakhtiari played well enough as a fourth-round rookie to keep the job, holding former Viking (new Bear) Jared Allen without a sack in two games and generally not being nearly as bad as some feared Bakhtiari would be.  Center Evan Dietrich-Smith bolted for Tampa Bay (to the chagrin of Rodgers), leaving the Packers to hope JC Tretter is ready.  Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang provide quality at guard, but the five-man operation as a whole allowed 45 sacks, ninth worst in the league.

Despite a few bright spots, the defense continues to be a liability, finishing in the bottom fourth of the league last year in yards allowed (372.2 per game) and points (26.8 per game).  Most of the blame lands on the poorly-toupeed head of coordinator Dom Capers, who should have been given a ticket out of Titletown after a playoff meltdown against the 49ers in January 2013.  Coach Mike McCarthy has opted for loyalty to a fault; that could end after the coming campaign.

Changes.

G.M. Ted Thompson stepped out of character in free agency, adding veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers.  Whether he plays linebacker or defensive end (he’s listed as both), Peppers could wreak havoc, if his play in 2012 was more about not being in the right frame of mind and less about diminishing physical skills.

Offensively, Matt Flynn officially is back as the Week One backup to Aaron Rodgers, which is a much better plan that to have no plan for fear of jinxing Rodgers.  While not able to lead an offense, Flynn has shown that he can get it done when pressed into service.  The Packers wisely have decided to make sure he’s available to do what needs to be done, if Rodgers gets banged up again.

The receiving corps continues to be in a state of transition.  A year after losing Greg Jennings to the Vikings, James Jones signed with the Raiders.  Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb could be joining them a year from now, which perhaps suggests that the Packers realize a quarterback like Rodgers can make most receivers look good.

The biggest free-agency defection occurred when safety M.D. Jennings left for the Bears.  Rookie Clinton-Dix will be expected to fill the void right away, if he can.

Position battles.

Barring the unlikely return of Jermichael Finley, it’s time to find a new tight end.  Andrew Quarless is expected to get the first crack at the starting job, with others in place (like Richard Rodgers) to challenge Quarless for the top spot on the depth chart and playing time.  Colt Lyerla provides the most intriguing option.  If he can stay out of trouble and get the most out of his skills, Lyerla could be the next Finley.

Before we assume that Eddie Lacy will become the unquestioned workhorse, consider these words from coach Mike McCarthy about the tailback position:  “My depth chart looks nothing like your depth chart.”  James Starks and DuJuan Harris provide plenty of talent, when healthy.  If Lacy stumbles or gets injured, one or both of them could step up.

JC Tretter gets the first crack at replacing center Evan Dietrich-Smith.  Corey Linsley provides Plan B.  Plan C could be a lot of shotgun formation and plenty of roll-out passes.

At safety, converted cornerback Micah Hyde could delay the ascension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the starting lineup, if the rookie struggles to make the transition to the next level.

Prospects.

Since winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have had three straight playoff appearances that resulted in disappointment, with a home loss to the Giants, a road loss to the 49ers, and a home loss to the 49ers.  The defense has primarily been responsible for the inability to progress beyond the divisional round, and if that happens again in 2014, it’ll be time for a new coordinator, at a minimum.

Chances are the Packers will be good enough on both sides of the ball to let Rodgers carry them back to the round of eight again.  It’ll take more than a mild improvement to get to the NFC title game, or beyond.  The Packers could be poised to do just that, and they’ll get a chance to show where they are when traveling to Seattle for the first game of the regular season.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: New Orleans Saints

drew-brees-sean-payton-saints-7b0eb0f96d81cbae_large Getty Images

The Saints are in an interesting position.

There might not be a team in the NFL as good as the thing they do than the Saints are at throwing the football.

The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees continue to be one of the best coach-quarterback pairings, and now that the contract unpleasantness with tight end* Jimmy Graham is over, their offensive weapons are in place, mostly intact from last year.

But where does that get them?

When the top teams in the NFC are playing power football, can the Saints push beyond big fantasy stats with finesse?

They benefit by being different from the teams that topped the conference last year (the Panthers likewise want to play physically), but this year will be a test to see if that difference is meaningful.

Brees is still at the top of his game, but that might not be enough any more.

Strengths.

Did we mention Drew Brees was good at throwing the ball?

He threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions last year.

And with Graham paid, they still have an impressive array of targets.

Marques Colston is still producing at a high level, and even with a change in the backfield (more on that in a moment), they’re going to be able to move the ball.

Payton is tremendous at the chess match of offense, and incorporating some new guys into the scheme will allow them to develop that capability.

Adding first-round speedster Brandin Cooks should more than make up for the departure of Lance Moore, especially with Kenny Stills developing into a more dependable target.

Weaknesses.

Last year, the Saints’ defense might have been better than their offense, or perhaps it was just by contrast to the year before.

Rob Ryan transformed a group that set a league record for yards allowed in 2012, and it’s not as if they had a gigantic personnel upgrade.

Ryan was patching together parts, and injuries didn’t help.

But Junior Galette emerged as a legitimate outside linebacker option, and defensive end Cameron Jordan had a breakout year with 12.5 sacks.

The offseason’s big acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, ought to be able to make a big impact, paired alongside Kenny Vaccaro. That enthusiasm was dampened a bit when Byrd needed back surgery, knocking him out of most of the offseason work.

The only problem is, the Saints still might not have sufficient personnel on that side of the ball, so regression is a real possibility.

They finally pared away some of the old parts on defense (cutting Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), which might have been necessary.

But other than bringing in last-legs cornerback Champ Bailey, there wasn’t the kind of influx of talent they might have needed.

They improved last year based largely on energy and emotion, and we’ll see how long that lasts in the face of a talent discrepancy.

Changes.

The Saints traded a complementary running back, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a headline move.

But that back was Darren Sproles, who was such an integral part of their offense, catching 71 passes last year.

Replacing him will be a huge challenge, and they’re going to be relying on a deep group of backs.

Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will likely get most of the carries, but Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet will need to make a big step to pick up the slack from Sproles’ departure.

Cooks might be the biggest beneficiary of the change, as they want to take advantage of his 4.3 speed. While it’s not a like-for-like replacement, he does have the same kind of game-changing ability as Sproles.

Camp Battles.

The Saints offensive line was a work in progress last year, but rookie Terron Armstead settled into a spot where they’re comfortable with him at left tackle. They were also able to hang onto right tackle Zach Strief and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return.

That leaves a hole in the middle, after Brian de la Puente left in free agency for Chicago.

Tim Lelito will get the first crack, but they brought veteran Jonathan Goodwin back for cover, giving them a reasonable competition.

It would also help if a young cornerback would step up opposite Keenan Lewis. They brought in Bailey, but all parties are probably best served if he’s able to limit his snaps a bit. Second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives them some new size at the position, which will enable them to match up better with the big wideouts in their division.

Prospects.

They’re going to be pretty good.

If the defense continues at last year’s pace, they can be very good.

But the Saints have problems local and national.

They play in perhaps the league’s deepest division, with the Falcons healthy and re-tooled and the Buccaneers on the upswing with Lovie Smith along with the defensively stout Panthers.

Then comes the matter of whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and 49ers to make a push for another title.

That makes the regular season of extreme importance. They’re a different team in their own building, so getting home field advantage might mean more to them than any team in the NFC.

If they can get it, the Saints could easily be a Super Bowl team.

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PFT’s 2014 Preseason Power Rankings Countdown

Seattle Seahawks Rookie Minicamp Getty Images

Here are PFT’s 2014 preseason power rankings. Click on the team name for an in-depth preview entering training camp:

1. Seattle Seahawks. (NFC rank: 1.)

2. San Francisco 49ers. (NFC rank: 2.)

3. Denver Broncos. (AFC rank: 1.)

4. New England Patriots. (AFC rank: 2.)

5. Green Bay Packers. (NFC rank: 3.)

6. New Orleans Saints. (NFC rank: 4.)

7. Baltimore Ravens. (AFC rank: 3.)

8. Indianapolis Colts. (AFC rank: 4.)

9. Cincinnati Bengals. (AFC rank: 5.)

10. Carolina Panthers. (NFC rank: 5.)

11. Arizona Cardinals. (NFC rank: 6.)

12. Chicago Bears. (NFC rank: 7.)

13. Philadelphia Eagles. (NFC rank: 8.)

14. Atlanta Falcons. (NFC rank: 9.)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers. (AFC rank: 6.)

16. San Diego Chargers. (AFC rank: 7.)

17. Kansas City Chiefs. (AFC rank: 8.)

18. New York Giants. (NFC rank: 10.)

19. New York Jets. (AFC rank: 9.)

20. St. Louis Rams. (NFC rank: 11.)

21. Detroit Lions. (NFC rank: 12.)

22. Cleveland Browns. (AFC rank: 10.)

23. Washington Redskins. (NFC rank: 13.)

24. Dallas Cowboys. (NFC rank: 14.)

25. Houston Texans. (AFC rank: 11.)

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (NFC rank: 15.)

27. Minnesota Vikings. (NFC rank: 16.)

28. Buffalo Bills. (AFC rank: 12.)

29. Jacksonville Jaguars. (AFC rank: 13.)

30. Tennessee Titans. (AFC rank: 14.)

31. Miami Dolphins. (AFC rank: 15.)

32. Oakland Raiders. (AFC rank: 16.)

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 7: Baltimore Ravens

Harbaugh AP

Yeah, the Ravens failed to make the playoffs last year.  Yeah, they’re facing a degree of transition and upheaval on par with last year’s post-Super Bowl retirements and free-agency defections.

But the Ravens continue to be the Ravens.   The franchise that lives by the motto, “In Ozzie We Trust.”  The team with one of the best football organizations the past generation has seen.  The group that John Harbaugh led to five straight playoff appearances to start his head-coaching career.

Last year’s performance exposed some issues that needed to be addressed.  The Ravens have addressed them, for the most part.  Here’s a look at where they are as the 2014 season approaches, and why they landed in the top 10 after failing to qualify for the 2013 postseason.

Strengths.

It’s a quarterback-driven league, and the jury is out on how driven the Ravens’ starting quarterback remains after getting a $120.6 million contract in 2013.  Does Joe Flacco have the degree of determination that true franchise quarterbacks have shown, year in and year out?  Will Flacco act like an unofficial member of the coaching staff, both during the season and when the games aren’t being played?

The answer could be no, at least not for now.  Flacco didn’t get together with his receivers before the start of the offseason program, explaining that he didn’t know enough about the new offense to make the effort worth everyone’s time.  But he could have learned plenty about the new offense, if he really wanted to.  And he could have started the process of teaching it to teammates before the official process for teaching them began, if he really wanted to.  (With or without violations of offseason rules that are never enforced.)

And so, while the Super Bowl MVP trophy and the huge contract make Flacco a strength, it’s fair to ask whether he’s the kind of quarterback that makes a team a perennial contender regardless of the quality of the rest of the roster, or whether he has simply been in the right place at the right time with a team that had enough parts around him to allow him to appear to be better than maybe he really is.

The guys expected to catch the passes from Flacco fall into that same “strong but how strong?” category.  Torrey Smith enters a contract year with numbers that have been very good, but without the kind of breakthrough in his third season that would make him one of the best receivers in the league.  Steve Smith arrives to put some punch (perhaps literally) into the position, but it’s unclear how much he has left, especially with a balky and banged up knee.  Jacoby Jones has shown flashes, but at times he falls into the “meh” category.  And while the tight end room now boasts Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels, the Ravens claim they coveted rookie Eric Ebron.  If they wanted Ebron, how good do they really feel about the guys they have?

Despite plenty of changes in recent years, the front seven on defense sets the tone, led by defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs, and linebacker Elvis Dumervil.  Linebacker Daryl Smith became a free-agent steal last year, and he’s now one of the anchors of the unit.

Safety Matt Elam made a big impact as a rookie, helping the secondary weather the departure of Ed Reed.  Cornerback Lardarius Webb should be better more than a full year after tearing an ACL, and competition should shake out the rest of an understated but talented depth chart.

On special teams, the Ravens have one of the league’s best kickers in Justin Tucker.  Which makes it easier to squeeze out close games premised on field-position battles — and which could be the difference between making to the playoffs or going home early for the second straight season.

Weaknesses.

The offensive line took a big step back last year.  The outcome would have been worse but for the midseason arrival of left tackle Eugene Monroe via trade with Jacksonville.  A huge hole currently exists at right tackle with the decision not to bring back Michael Oher, and Gino Gradkowski couldn’t fully fill the shows of the retired Matt Birk.  The line will need to get better quickly or the new offense under Gary Kubiak won’t.

At running back, a looming suspension of Ray Rice and an early off-field incident from Lorenzo Taliaferro complicates the depth chart at the start of the season.  Rice, who likely will be gone for at least one game if not more, will need to be replaced by Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett, and/or Taliaferro.

Speaking of Rice and Taliaferro and the various other Ravens who found trouble in the offseason, the franchise currently has earned the title of the reigning NFL renegades.  They’ll all undoubtedly pay for it in training camp, thanks to a head coach who has little tolerance for nonsense, but who has been forced to tolerate plenty of it.  While a positive reaction from the players could turn that weakness into a strength, the misadventures of multiple players are a problem that needs to be solved.

Changes.

In his first full year as offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell didn’t do nearly as well as he did down the stretch in 2012.  But Caldwell still did well enough to get himself a head-coaching job in Detroit.  Gary Kubiak, fired after seven years of coaching the Texans, brings a new system to town, with zone-blocking, one-cut running, roll-out passing, and all sorts of other stuff the Ravens didn’t do on a regular basis last year.  The team’s ability to adapt will determine its ability to thrive.

The offense got better with the arrival of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, and it got worse with the departures of tight end Ed Dickson, fullback Vonta Leach, and Oher.  If they can adequately fill the hole at right tackle, the offense should be fine.

On defensive, losing lineman Arthur Jones to the Colts hurts, but when a team has a great collection of linemen it’s impossible to pay them all.  Also being paid elsewhere will be linebacker Jameel McClain, cornerback Corey Graham, and safety James Ihedigbo.

Position battles.

A fifth-round pick a year ago, Rick Wagner gets the first shot to replace Oher at right tackle.  If Wagner can’t do it, Ryan Jensen provides a Plan B, and Kelechi Osemele could be moved back outside if necessary.

At inside linebacker, 2013 second-rounder Arthur Brown and 2014 first-rounder C.J. Mosley will square off for the starting job and total reps.  If the Ravens thought Brown could get it done, they wouldn’t have had to draft Mosley.  That said, we’re told that Brown had a very strong offseason, possibly responding to the challenge presented by the addition of Mosley.

At cornerback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown will battle for the nickel job, and Darian Stewart and Terrance Brooks will compete for a starting safety job, with Stewart getting the first shot.

Prospects.

At a time when the best teams in the NFC have the physicality to routinely pilfer the juice-box money of the best that the AFC has to offer, the Ravens are one of the few teams that can match the muscle of the likes of the 49ers and Seahawks.  But before the Ravens can face the NFC champion, they need to climb the playoff tree.  Before they can do that, they need to qualify for a seat at the postseason table.

They definitely can get there.  And their placement at No. 7 as the season arrives means that we think they will.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 8: Indianapolis Colts

andrewluck AP

The Colts are realizing the true benefit bottoming out.

With quarterback Andrew Luck at the helm of their offense, there’s a floor that they’re simply not going to fall through.

Playing in a division that is unsettled at best and ridiculous at worst (it occupied three of the bottom eight spots in our Preseason Power Rankings), the Colts should easily own the top spot in the AFC South barring a calamitous injury.

This year’s additions weren’t as dramatic as last year’s spending, but they added depth to an already good team, the kind of thing you’re able to do when your quarterback is both excellent and on a cheap rookie contract.

Winning 11 games each of the last two years has raised expectations, so this year will be about the Colts taking that next step.

Strengths.

The Colts have quietly developed a deep stable of targets for Luck to throw to.

If Reggie Wayne returns to anything resembling his old form, he’ll join with T.Y. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks (who came on a one-year prove-it deal) as a very good receiving corps.

They also have problem-child Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen in reserve, giving them developmental players for the future.

But perhaps the biggest boost will be getting tight end Dwayne Allen back from injury to pair with Coby Fleener, giving the Colts plenty of options in the passing game.

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton would love to call a traditional grind-it-out game, but given the weapons at his disposal, spreading the field and using multiple formations is the right thing to do.

Weaknesses.

It sure would help if the Colts could find some balance in their offense with the running game.

And it sure would help if Trent Richardson ever proved to be worthy of the first-round pick they gave up to acquire him.

Richardson averaged 2.9 yards per carry after coming over from the Browns last year, hardly what they were hoping for or needed. He admitted it was hard learning a new offense, so it’s reasonable to give him this year as a fresh start.

Then again, some help up front would also help.

The Colts offensive line has underperformed despite some big investments the last few offseasons, and finding a center and some stability in that group would pay big dividends.

Second-round pick Jack Mewhort has seen work at center, guard and tackle during the offseason, and he could add an element of toughness that they need.

There’s also the small matter of how they’ll rush the passer in the first four games, with Robert Mathis out following a PED suspension. That could cost them significantly as they open with the Broncos and Eagles, before they start division play with the Jaguars and Titans.

Changes.

The Colts didn’t make wholesale moves this offseason, but they made three significant ones which should help their defense.

Keeping cornerback Vontae Davis with a four-year, $39 million extension was the first big step, as they could ill afford to lose one of the top cover men in the AFC.

But adding linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and defensive end Arthur Jones will add some heft and legitimacy to a defense that was too often pushed around last year.

After losing safety Anotine Bethea to San Francisco, they need LaRon Landry to be a more consistent producer.

Camp Battles.

The Colts have some decisions to make at guard, as Donald Thomas is coming off two muscle tears, making it hard to know how much he can be counted on.

Mewhort worked at left guard during OTAs, but they also have Hugh Thornton as a possibility. The Colts think Lance Louis can add something as well, and seeing how that position shakes out will be huge as they try to run the ball more consistently.

They also have running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard coming off injuries, and they would love to have one of them ready to go if Richardson isn’t able to carry the load as expected.

Finding a safety to station next to Landry will also be a toss-up, as the Colts have a host of candidates for that job including Mike Adams, Colt Anderson along with holdovers such as Sergio Brown.

Prospects.

It’s easy to have high expectations for the Colts, as they practically have six wins in the bank by function of playing in the AFC South.

The Texans are good on defense, and the Jaguars are improving, but there’s no reason for the Colts to not roll through this group.

But a division title isn’t the goal for this bunch, as Manning found out more than a decade ago.

The Colts have something of a narrow window with this group because of Luck’s pending contract situation.

They have the ability to add parts now while he’s on a cheap rookie-scale deal, and they have bought aggressively in free agency. Of course, not all those deals look like bargains.

When they have to start paying Luck real money, it will be harder to make wholesale changes, so they have to hope they have a solid base in place.

Last year’s comeback win over the Chiefs in the playoffs was a solid first step, but the Colts are still punching over their weight (or at least their age) when they come up against the big guns of the AFC.

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