AFC West: Brandon Mebane


There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

Chiefs ink Jonathan Baldwin

July, 29, 2011
7/29/11
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The Kansas City Chiefs have announced they have signed receiver Jon Baldwin. The Pitt receiver was the No. 26 overall pick.

Baldwin is expected to star opposite Dwayne Bowe. Baldwin is a vertical threat that the team has high hopes for. He can start practicing immediately.

The Chiefs have upgraded their passing game with the addition of Baldwin and slot receiver Steve Breaston. The former Arizona receiver agreed to terms earlier this week.

Baldwin is the second 2011 first-round pick to sign in the AFC West. Denver’s Von Miller signed Thursday. Only San Diego’s Corey Liuget remains unsigned. Oakland signed its top pick, Stefen Wisniewski, and the rest of its draft class. Third-round pick Justin Houston is the Chiefs’ lone remaining unsigned draft pick.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs released 2008 third-round pick Brad Cottam. He suffered a serious vertebra injury in 2009 and he couldn’t come back from it.

In other AFC West nuggets on a predictably busy Friday:

ESPN’s John Clayton reports that the Broncos have more cap room than expected.

It doesn’t look like the Broncos are going to end up with Seattle defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. I don’t think Denver wanted to give him the big money he wanted.

The Broncos are reportedly one of five teams that are trying to secure Houston standout fullback Vonta Leach. He has made it know he wants to stay with the Texans.

Late AFC West notes

July, 28, 2011
7/28/11
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Late night (OK, early morning) notes on a Wild Wednesday:

Add the Houston Texans to the teams that are making a big run at Nnamdi Asomugha. The Texans join the Jets and 49ers as teams currently scrambling to pay Asomugha big dollars. Houston’s foray into the Asomugha party is not a surprise. They’ve been expected to make a run. The more teams making serious bids, the more money it will take to get him.

I get the feeling his agents are sitting back and letting the ledger rise. Meanwhile, ESPN’s John Clayton points out a couple of reasons why an Asomugha move to San Francisco is very possible.

    Around the division:

  • The Denver Post reports that no deal is imminent between the Broncos and the Dolphins for quarterback Kyle Orton, and Orton is expected to practice in Denver on Thursday. Still, this is a fluid situation that can change quickly.
  • Broncos safety Brian Dawkins told reporters in Denver on Wednesday that he is in the process of restructuring his contract, which will keep him with the team.
  • Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil proclaimed that he is 100 percent healthy. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle last August and missed the entire 2010 season. He is moving back to defensive end as the Broncos transition to the 4-3 defense this season.
  • After making linebacker Jonas Mouton the first second-round pick to sign earlier Wednesday, the Chargers signed tackle Stephen Schilling (sixth round) and linebacker Andrew Gachkar (seventh round) later in the evening.
We’re still waiting for movement on Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the top free-agent prize on the market. There has been some developments.

Asomugha
Asomugha
The San Francisco 49ers are going to unload cornerback Nate Clements. That means they are clearing salary-cap room at the same position Asomugha plays. More smoke, folks, more smoke.

The Jets are currently considered the 49ers’ fiercest competitor for Asomugha right now. The Jets still have cap room left after agreeing to a monster deal with receiver Santonio Holmes earlier Wednesday. Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis says his team wants Asomugha badly.

While the Raiders wait to see what happens with Asomugha, they will wave goodbye to quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. He has agreed to a deal with Cincinnati.

It was evident throughout the offseason that Gradkowski would leave. He was a favorite of former coach Tom Cable. Jason Campbell will be backed up by Kyle Boller. Gradkowski had somewhat of a cult following in Oakland. Despite his limitations, he did often ignite the Raiders’ offense. He was a good Raider, who always gave the team his best effort. He was the anti-JaMarcus Russell and he’ll always have a warm spot in the hearts of many Oakland fans for that very reason.
  • The Raiders signed rookie running back Taiwan Jones, fourth-round pick. It will be fun to watch the speedy Jones in training camp.
  • The Brandon Mebane talks are heating up. Denver is one of a few teams trying to grab the Seattle defensive tackle. Denver has a huge need and could pay big to get Mebane.
It’s not exactly the onslaught, but there is movement in the AFC West.
  • The San Diego Union Tribune reports the Chargers signed right tackle Jeromey Clary for four years, $20 million. Clary was a target of the Chargers, who have plenty of cap room. The Chargers have several free agents and are working on keeping targets Eric Weddle and Kevin Burnett. Clary is an underrated part of a strong offensive line. Keeping him means continuity for a strong offensive line.
  • In Kansas City, center Casey Wiegmann reportedly has signed for one year. This has been expected. His agent Joe Linta, told me last week that Wiegmann, 38, wanted to play one more year in Kansas City. The Chiefs have long wanted him back. Wiegmann is an anchor to a strong offensive line. He is a leader on and off the field. Wiegmann will groom second-round pick Rodney Hudson, who can also play guard.
  • The Raiders brought back former Denver first-round pick Jarvis Moss. He is strictly a backup. The Raiders have plenty of high-profile free agents, but keeping Moss is just for depth reasons.
  • Meanwhile, keep an eye on Seattle free agent Brandon Mebane in Denver. If the Seahawks don’t re-sign him, he could fit with the Broncos.
  • I continue to hear linebacker Nick Barnett would love to play in San Diego. I’m sure the Chargers would have interest in him at inside linebacker. Barnett has been told by Green Bay he’ll either be cut or traded soon.
  • Oakland guard Cooper Carlisle was at the Raiders’ facility Tuesday. There has been reports that he could be cut as Oakland tries to get under the salary cap. Oakland has been working on contract restructuring to get under the salary cap.
  • Ohio State has made a decision that could help Terrelle Pryor get a spot in the supplemental draft. There had been questions whether or not he’d be eligible. Pryor has been connected to Oakland.
  • San Diego also brought back tight end Randy McMichael for one year. He is a favorite of head coach Norv Turner. McMichael is a solid backup receiver and an underrated blocker. He is good insurance if starter Antonio Gates has another injury-filled season. McMichael, 32, had 20 catches for the Chargers in 2010.
  • Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said the Broncos were in on him before he re-upped with the Panthers. Johnson played for Broncos coach John Fox in Carolina. I hear the Broncos are clearing cap room and want to be players for key defenders.
  • Kansas City backup receiver Terrence Cooper reportedly is coming back to the team. I don’t think that will keep the Chiefs from looking for more receiver help.

Waiting for the onslaught

July, 26, 2011
7/26/11
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While the news has been cranking up in the past hour or so, the first day of NFL movement has been slower than expected.

None of the AFC West teams have even sent out their list of signed undrafted free agents. I spoke to several agents Monday and they expected Tuesday to be overrun with agreements. Teams can agree to terms with free agents from other teams, but they can’t sign them until Friday. Teams can make trades and agree to terms with their own free agents as well as adding undrafted free agents.

Yet, teams have so far spent of Tuesday planning. Many teams are cutting players as they prepare for free agency. Both Baltimore and Dallas have cut several veterans and there’s speculation they are both trying to make room to make a run at Oakland free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who’ll be the free agent prize. Several agents I spoke to Tuesday said they were surprised by the lack of agreements. But they said they sensed teams were trying to adjust to the new $120 million salary cap and that more deals will start happening, in earnest, Wednesday and Thursday.

There is also a sense of caution, several agents said. They feel teams don’t want to get spurned by players who they make agreements with now. So, teams all may be waiting to finalize agreements closer to Friday to avoid being left at the altar.

The quarterback domino is worth watching. It started when it was reported Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck will not return to the Seahawks. ESPN’s John Clayton reports Tennessee may be the frontrunner to land Hasselbeck. That could affect Denver’s attempt to trade Kyle Orton. Clayton reports Orton could be reunited with Brandon Marshall in Miami.

Yet, Clayton also said if the Broncos don’t receive a third-round pick for Orton, he could be kept in Denver and the Broncos could wait to see if a quarterback gets hurt later in training camp before trying to trade him again. I think that would not be smart. If the Broncos are comfortable with handing the keys to Tim Tebow now, they should just do it and see what happens. Keeping Orton around and having him take valuable repetitions from Tebow would be a waste.

Denver has to make a decision now. The Arizona Republic thinks the Cardinals could decide to pursue Orton over the Eagles’ Kevin Kolb. The paper reasons that the Cardinals think that Orton is not far off Kolb in terms of talent, and Orton could be enticing because he’d be cheaper. The quarterback market could start to move soon.

Meanwhile, I hear Seattle is working to bring back defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. Denver has been interested in him. Still, Denver could go after Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins or San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin.

There was some talk Baltimore offensive lineman Marshal Yanda could end up in the AFC West. He is heading back to the Ravens, though.

By the way, Seattle is picking up quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Leinart. Boy, that trade with San Diego for Charlie Whitehurst is looking even worse than it did last season. The Chargers moved up 20 spots in the second round last year and received a third-rounder for Whitehurst in 2011. The Seahawks then thought Whitehurst was the quarterback of the future. Clearly, that idea has changed.
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC West team:

Denver Broncos

1.Trade Kyle Orton or name him the starter: The Broncos need to make a decision at quarterback quickly. There will be some teams in need of a veteran quarterback and the Broncos will surely field calls about Orton. If they get a decent offer in return (second or third-round pick) I could see Denver trading him and going with second-year quarterback Tim Tebow. If Orton is not traded early in the new league year, we’d have to assume Denver is going to give him the opportunity to hold off Tebow.

2. Sign a defensive tackle: The Broncos have long had a major hole at this position. It needs to upgrade its defense, which was ranked 32nd in the NFL last season. It begins at this position, which Denver bypassed in the draft. Potential free-agent targets include Seattle’s Brandon Mebane and San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin,although he is a better fit for 3-4 teams.

3. Sign a running back: New Denver coach John Fox recently said signing a running back is the team’s top free-agent priority. I think the above-mentioned projects are more pressing, but there’s no doubt Denver needs help at the position. It needs a veteran to pair with third-year running back Knowshon Moreno. We could see the Broncos trying to reunite Fox with former Carolina back DeAngelo Williams.

Top free agents: Tackle Ryan Harris and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas.

Kansas City Chiefs

1. Sign a nose tackle: The Chiefs have a few needs and more than $30 million in salary-cap money to play with. They can get to work. The team could use a stout anchor for the 3-4 defense. The Chiefs tried to sign Shaun Rogers prior to the lockout and they want a veteran. Franklin could be the answer.

2. Sign an offensive tackle: If the Chiefs get an upgrade at tackle, they should have a very strong line. They could sign a right tackle (a position they considered in the draft) or they can sign a left tackle and move Branden Albert to right tackle. Possible names to consider include Matt Light (who has New England ties to Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli and quarterback Matt Cassel) or New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod or a right tackle like Tyson Clabo or San Diego’s Jeromey Clary.

3. Sign a receiver: The Chiefs are a dangerous offensive team. But they could use a slot receiver to do along with No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe and first-round pick Jon Baldwin. A name to keep an eye on is the Cardinals’ Steve Breaston. He played for Kansas City coach Todd Haley in Arizona.

Top free agent: Center Casey Wiegmann.

Oakland Raiders

1. Re-sign tight end Zach Miller: Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is the best free agent in the NFL. But it will be difficult for Oakland to keep him. The Raiders must do what it takes to sign Miller. He is one of the game’s best young tight ends and he is arguably the team’s most important offensive player. He is the team’s most reliable receiving target. The Raiders love Miller and tried to sign him to a long-term deal prior to the lockout. Signing him before he hits the market will be and should be the team’s top priority.

2. Sign a couple offensive linemen: The Raiders’ offensive line is in flux. It has some interesting young players, but it needs to find a way to add some veterans somewhere -- despite the team’s salary-cap limitations.

3. Figure out secondary: If Asomugha and safety Michael Huff leave, the Raiders will need to get their youngsters up to speed quickly or try to find a veteran experience. I think we’ll see a mixture of both if Asomugha and Huff both leave as expected.

Top free agents: Asomugha, Huff, Miller and guard Robert Gallery.

San Diego Chargers

1. Re-sign safety Eric Weddle: The safety is a playmaker who will be very popular on the open market. The Chargers don't want him to get there. The Chargers have the salary-cap room to keep their top in-house options, and Weddle is at the top of the list. There is no reason for the Chargers to lose him and I think this key part of the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense will remain with the Chargers.

2. Figure out receiver situation: Top receiver Vincent Jackson will be franchised. No. 2 receiver Malcom Floyd is unrestricted and he could get a big offer elsewhere. Backup Legedu Naanee is also expected to leave. The Chargers could use a veteran receiver. I doubt they will spend big money on the top names available, but they could look for a bargain or swing a trade for a veteran like Carolina’s Steve Smith.

3. Figure out inside linebacker situation: The Chargers could lose inside linebackers Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler. They would like to keep Burnett. Still, I could see the Chargers trying to find another inside linebacker to compete to star. They could also look for an edge rusher at outside linebacker.

Top free agents: Floyd, Weddle, Clary, Burnett, quarterback Billy Volek, receiver Legedu Naanee, linebacker Stephen Cooper, linebacker Brandon Siler and running back Darren Sproles.

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