AFC West: Matt Ryan

Wrap-up: Falcons 23, Raiders 20

October, 14, 2012
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A look at a near miss for Oakland:

What it means: The Raiders played tough -- perhaps even better than they did in their lone win of the season over Pittsburgh in Week 3 -- but they fell short to drop to 1-4. Oakland pushed Atlanta to the brink and was oh-so-close to pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NFL season. But the Falcons are a good team, and they found a way to improve to 6-0.

Second-guessing Allen: I’ve already heard chirps from Raider Nation. Many Oakland fans wanted coach Dennis Allen to go for two points and the win in the final minute when Oakland tied the game at 20 by kicking an extra point. And fans were up in arms when Allen iced Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant on a 55-yard field goal attempt by calling a timeout right before the attempt. It was no good. But the timeout gave Bryant new life, and he responded by drilling the game winner. My thoughts? You can’t blame Allen for taking either tact. Blame the defense on perhaps its worst series of the game by allowing the Falcons to cruise down the field to get into field goal territory.

Big Palmer miscue: Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer had a good game as he completed 23 of 33 passes for 353 yards. But this game was defined by an interception returned by Asante Samuel 79 yards for a score with 2:40 to go. Yes, Palmer led the Raiders back for a tying score, but it should never have gotten to that point.

Penalties a problem again: The Raiders improved their penalty issues in the first quarter of the season after setting NFL records for penalties and penalty yardage last season. But Sunday, Oakland was sloppy again.

McFadden sputters again: Oakland running back Darren McFadden had 70 yards on 27 carries. He has 271 yards on 84 carries this season.

Interceptions come: The Raiders entered the game with no interceptions this season. They picked off Matt Ryan three times in the first half Sunday as Oakland took a 13-7 lead at halftime.

Gonzo shut out: The Falcons ended their AFC West series at 4-0. But former Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez did not find the end zone Sunday. He scored against the three other AFC West teams.

What’s next: Oakland hosts Jacksonville next Sunday. Oakland’s schedule is easing up. After the Jaguars, the Raiders go to Kansas City and then host Tampa Bay. If this team plays as inspired in those games as it did Sunday, the Raiders may have a good shot to string some wins together.

NFL hits Joe Mays back

September, 25, 2012
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This is the most chaotic of Roger Goodell’s time as NFL commissioner.

Yet in a time when the officiating labor issue has affected the integrity of the game, Goodell has taken control of one of his hot-button topics -- player safety. It will cost Denver Broncos’ middle linebacker Joe Mays.

The NFL suspended Mays for one game and fined him $50,000 for a violent hit on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub on Sunday. Mays hammered Schaub, whose helmet shot off his head. Schaub went down, holding his head in his hands in obvious pain. Later, he said he lost part of his ear on the play.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Mays is appealing the suspension. Mays has a reputation for being a good person and a respectful player. He twice apologized to Schaub on Sunday, and Denver coach John Fox has supported Mays.

Mays -- who was fined nearly $9,000 for a hit on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in Week 2 -- said Monday in an interview with a Denver radio station that he knew he was in the wrong, but he made it clear his intention was not to hurt Schaub.

“What I was thinking is, I’m just reading my progression, my gap blocks, so I’m thinking, try to get to the quarterback as fast as I could, try to get him down before he gets the ball off,” Mays said in the radio interview. “I see him back there, I’m coming, I’m coming and I see him cock back to release the ball, but I’m still going to try to hit him so I can affect the release a little bit. So, he threw the ball, and he kind of ducked his head because he saw me coming. When he ducked his head, that’s when I came in and hit him. It looked worse than what … I mean, it didn’t look good. I’ll just put it that way. My intention was to go in there and get a hit on him, not hit him in the helmet. Unfortunately, that’s what happened.”

Mays admitted, “I guess I could’ve been lower.” Still, in the radio interview, it seemed Mays thought he’d be fined, not suspended.

“If you hit him like that, you can also get fined,” Mays said. "Who knows how much money they’ll take away from me? When it comes to quarterbacks, they’re definitely going to protect them. I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen to me.”

If Mays loses the appeal, he’d likely be out for Sunday’s home game against Oakland. The Broncos could use several players in his spot, opting for Keith Brooking, Wesley Woodyard and backups Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving if he is cleared after suffering a concussion against Houston. Denver might have to make a roster move at the position if both Mays and Irving are out Sunday.

Rules are rules. It was a brutal hit. I was there, and I could feel the hit from the press box. I don’t think Mays’ intentions were bad. I believe his explanation, but the NFL has strict helmet-to-helmet rules. I don’t think Mays has a lot to complain about, especially a week after he was fined for a hit on Ryan.

Moving on: Oakland Raiders

September, 24, 2012
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Here are some areas the Oakland Raiders need to focus on after a 34-31 home win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday:

Recap: The Raiders won their first game of the season after an impressive fourth-quarter comeback. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders lost 48 straight games when trailing by 10 or more points entering the fourth quarter. That streak is over for the Raiders, who trailed 31-21 in the fourth quarter.

Biggest area to fix: The passing defense is a problem. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 386 yards and four touchdowns. The Raiders are so thin at cornerback, Michael Huff has to play cornerback and I see it continuing for now. The Raiders have to find a way to stop the pass with Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan on the horizon.

Biggest area to build on: Darren McFadden. After not being a factor in the running game in the first two games, McFadden had 113 yards rushing, including a 64-yard touchdown run. It was a sign McFadden can succeed in the zone-blocking scheme. The Raiders have to keep on going to McFadden. He is too explosive not to use him.

What to watch for: Dennis Allen goes back to Denver, where he was the Broncos’ defensive coordinator last year, trying to even his team’s record at 2-2.

Raiders are strapped at CB

September, 17, 2012
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The previous Oakland Raiders’ regime reportedly had planned to move Michael Huff from safety to cornerback.

The new Oakland regime may be forced to make the move.

One of Oakland’s thinnest position got even thinner Sunday when starter Shawntae Spencer suffered a foot injury. Monday, Oakland coach Dennis Allen said it is significant.

In the opener, fellow starter Ronald Bartell went on the injured reserve with a broken shoulder blade. He can come back in about six weeks. Pat Lee is starting for Bartell. Joselio Hanson, the team’s nickel corner, could move up to start for Spencer.

Yet, I think the Raiders should consider moving Huff to cornerback. He was a cornerback at Texas. The Raiders have more dopth at safety than cornerback. I think a combination of Huff and Lee and Hanson as the top three cornerbacks is better than anything else the Raiders can do right now.

Either way, Oakland, which is 0-2 for the first time in five years, is in a challenging spot. The Raiders face Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan in their next three games.

There is very little available talent on the street, Chris Carr could be considered, but he wouldn’t make a huge impact.

It will likely sting the Raiders to see 2011 third-round pick DeMarcus Van Dyke wearing a Pittsburgh uniform in Oakland on Sunday. The Steelers signed him after the Raiders gave up on him early this month. Van Dyke is far from a finished product, but you’d think the Raiders would like to have him right now.

In addition to Spencer, Allen said right tackle Khalif Barnes suffered a significant groin injury. Willie Smith, claimed off waivers earlier this month, will start at right tackle.

Video: Previewing Broncos-Falcons

September, 15, 2012
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Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico preview the "Monday Night Football" matchup between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.

Defensive keys for Denver

September, 15, 2012
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It was all about Peyton Manning last week when he enjoyed a masterful debut as a Denver Bronco in a 31-19 home win over Pittsburgh.

Manning’s comeback overshadowed a strong performance by a Denver defense that continues to improve. But we need to keep on an eye on Denver’s defense. If this unit is as timely and as aggressive throughout the season as it was last week and Manning stays hot, the Broncos could be a team to watch deep into the postseason.

The Denver defense will get a good test on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” at Atlanta in Week 2. The Falcons’ offense was potent in a 40-24 win at Kansas City. Here are five keys for the Denver defense in this game:

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireVon Miller will need to make an impact on Monday night as the Broncos look to slow Atlanta.
1. Von Miller: We recently examined what it would take for the second-year linebacker to become a complete player. After one game in 2012, it seems like the 2011 NFL defensive rookie of the year is well on his way to becoming the total package. If Miller plays Monday night the way he played against the Steelers, Denver will be in good shape. Miller had two sacks, and he was all over the field all the time. Miller’s performance was the buzz in the press box in Oakland on Monday night before I covered the Chargers-Raiders game. People in the AFC West are worried about how good Miller is becoming.

2. The new guys: I was struck last week by the terrific play of several additions to the defense. Denver went from being the No. 32-ranked defense in the NFL in 2010 to the No. 20-ranked team. The front office felt the need to continue to improve in the offseason and made some nice upgrades, which showed in Week 1. The new players who stood out last week were rookie defensive end Derek Wolfe and free-agent pickups cornerback Tracy Porter and safety Mike Adams. All three appear to be difference-makers. And they will be vital against the dangerous Falcons.

3. Create turnovers: The Broncos' defense needs to strike again this week. A 43-yard interception return for a touchdown by Porter sealed the win last week. Atlanta is going to do its damage, but if Denver can come up with some turnovers and another score, it can pull off the upset. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has to be rattled and kept honest or he will pick apart any defense, as he did last week against the Chiefs.

4. Get off the field on third down: The Steelers were 11-of-19 on third-down conversions last week, and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected on some big plays on third down. It was one of the reasons the Steelers were leading in the second half and why they held the ball for virtually a whole quarter. Denver has to shut down Ryan on third down better than it did Roethlisberger.

5. Contain Tony Gonzalez: Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller made an impact last week -- he had four catches for 50 yards. It seemed as though Pittsburgh thought it could exploit Denver’s defense on tight end routes. Expect the Falcons to try to get the ball in the hands of the still-potent Gonzalez often. Gonzalez was a longtime Broncos killer with Kansas City, where he spent his first 12 NFL seasons. Asked about Gonzalez this week, Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said this with a laugh: “I’m so tired of this guy. He never stops. He creates so many problems because he’s so savvy, and his experience, it shows every week.” Denver has to do everything it can to prevent Gonzalez from taking over.

Final Word: AFC West

September, 14, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

Manning brings no-huddle show to Denver: It didn’t take new Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning long to enjoy success with his no-huddle magic. After a 19-month break, Manning still has the ability to shred a defense without huddling up his troops. The Broncos scored all 25 of their offensive points in a 31-19 victory over Pittsburgh when going without a huddle, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the three drives during which they huddled yielded no points. Yes, expect more no-huddle from Manning on Monday night at Atlanta.

Will Seau’s memory charge San Diego’s defense? It will be an emotional day at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. The Chargers will honor legendary former linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide at age 43 in May. The Chargers’ defense was outstanding at Oakland in Week 1. The unit could honor Seau with a swarming, relentless performance against visiting Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeShaun Phillips
AP Photo/Ben MargotShaun Phillips (95) and the Chargers defense kept Oakland out of the end zone until the final minute of their season-opening 22-14 victory.
Can the Chiefs start quickly? Nothing sets the tone for a successful game like an early touchdown drive ... or so the Chiefs have heard. Kansas City was unable to score a touchdown on its first drive of every game last season -- and the trend continued into the opener against Atlanta. A first-series touchdown Sunday would certainly boost the Chiefs' chances to win in Buffalo.

Wake up fast, Raiders: Excuse the Raiders if they are a little foggy Sunday morning. It's a challenging week: After ending their Week 1 home loss to San Diego late Monday night, the Raiders fly to Miami on Friday ahead of Sunday's game, scheduled for 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET). It is the first of five games Oakland will play this season that start at 10 a.m. PT -- the first time in Raiders history that the team will visit the Eastern time zone that many times. For years, West Coast teams have said that playing at 10 a.m. PT is challenging because of the time adjustment. The Raiders better adjust quickly if they don’t want to adjust to being 0-2.

Broncos likely to see a lot of flying Falcons: The Broncos’ secondary looked improved last week, and it will get a stiff test Monday night in Atlanta. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was 18-of-22 for 208 yards and three touchdowns when throwing out of three-receiver sets against Kansas City, according to ESPN Stats & Information. There is no way Atlanta is going to go away from that strategy after enjoying so much success.
Tamba HaliPeter Aiken/Getty ImagesThe Kansas City Chiefs' pass rush should receive a boost with the return of Tamba Hali.
The Kansas City Chiefs' defense is in serious need of a boost.

It will get one in a big way when star pass-rusher Tamba Hali makes his 2012 debut Sunday at Buffalo. Hali served a one-game NFL suspension in Week 1 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The Chiefs were run over 40-24 by the visiting Falcons.

Hali -- who told reporters “it wasn’t fun screaming at the TV” while he watched the Falcons dismantle the Chiefs -- was one of four Kansas City defensive starters who missed the game. However, the Chiefs did not miss any of the players more than Hali. He simply makes the Chiefs a different defense, and the Chiefs know it. That’s why it is a relief that he will flying to Buffalo, where the Chiefs will try to even their record at 1-1 and bring life to what is a promising season. Hali is one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.

Without Hali to create a consistent pass rush, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was able to relax and pick apart the Chiefs. The Chiefs sacked Ryan once and barely created much of a pass-rush burst. That’s not a surprise. When Hali -- who has 53.5 sacks in six NFL seasons and 26.5 sacks in the past two seasons -- was not on the field last season, the Chiefs registered a grand total of zero sacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“We all know that Tamba brings a lot to the table as far as his ability to rush the passer,” Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel told reporters this week. “When you have that kind of pressure that you can apply to an opposing offense, that’s good for us and bad for them. They have to be concerned about it. We’ll get him back and hopefully he’ll be at a level that he can impact the opponent and then be able to help us win some games.”

Can one player make that much of a difference?

A player of Hali’s caliber can. Pass-rushers are at a premium. Hali, a first-round draft pick from Penn State in 2006, is the best defensive player in the AFC West in my opinion, although Denver pass-rusher Von Miller is making a serious push. I’m not alone in my high praise.

Last year, when he was still the defensive coordinator in Kansas City, Crennel said Hali was the best edge rusher he’d ever coached. Scouts rave about his relentless motor and marvel at how he never gives up on plays. Hali is a complete player. He is more than simply a pass-rusher. He is unwavering against the run, too.

“You see him play; you see the energy he displays in the game,” Crennel said. “And that’s what he is; he is a high-energy guy. He’s always working at his craft, trying to get better all the time. That’s what he brings to the table. The guys in the locker room appreciate the energy that he brings.”

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. says Hali is an elite player but is often overlooked, perhaps because he plays in the middle of the country and is not a flashy player at a position where there is a high flash factor. Hali has a reputation for being quiet and humble. He doesn’t talk to the media much and he never boasts. So he may get lost in the hoopla when it comes to the game’s best sack artists.

He has been voted to the last two Pro Bowls, and he played in the game last year. Earlier this summer, Hali addressed the fact that he may be a little off the radar.

“I think guys see that I play the game and I have a passion for it,” Hali said. “I hope that [the media] respect my craft, but I don’t really pay attention to it much.”

There is no doubt Hali has earned the respect of his peers. Tight end Kevin Boss considered being on Hali’s side a bonus for signing with the Chiefs. Boss had to tangle against Hali last year while with the Raiders.

You know a defensive player is special when opposing offensive coordinators game-plan specifically to neutralize that player. Boss said that was the case in Oakland last year. Stopping Hali was the top priority.

“You knew guys like Tamba Hali,” Boss said in training camp. "We had to draw a big red circle to make sure we knew where he was at all times when we were playing against him.”

Be certain that somewhere deep within the halls of the Bills facility this week they are circling No. 91 in Chiefs red. The Falcons didn’t have to do that in Week 1, and the Chiefs paid for it.

One guy to watch in Week 1

September, 6, 2012
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One player to watch for each AFC West team in Week 1.

Denver: quarterback Peyton Manning: I’d love to be creative here, but it wouldn’t be the truth if I picked anyone else. When the Broncos host Pittsburgh in Week 1, all eyes will be on Manning. It will be his first game as a Bronco -- and his first game since the 2010 playoffs, when he was a member of the Colts. He missed all of last season with a neck injury. This is a big deal, folks.

Kansas City: linebacker Justin Houston: The Chiefs will need a pass-rush burst against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan with Tamba Hali serving a one-game NFL suspension and with injuries in the secondary. Houston showed great potential last season and served as a nice complement to Hali. For this game, Houston will need to be the main pass-rusher from the edge. If not, Ryan and the Falcons receivers could have a big game.

Oakland: running back Darren McFadden: McFadden makes the Raiders go. He was lost in the seventh game of the last season with a foot injury, and the Raiders were never the same. McFadden is healed and looked great this summer. If the Raiders are going to beat the Chargers on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” McFadden will need a big game.

San Diego, quarterback Philip Rivers: Rivers was hammered in November as the Raiders' strong defensive line battered a broken San Diego offensive line. Monday night, Rivers will face Oakland without left tackle Jared Gaither. Instead, undrafted rookie Mike Harris will protect Rivers’ blind side. Rivers is in a tough spot. Rivers threw 20 interceptions last year and he threw four this preseason. He isn’t going to have a bunch of time in this game. He can’t afford to make poor throwing choices.
Justin Houston, you must continue to step up ... And get to Matt Ryan.

The NFL announced Monday that star Kansas City Chiefs’ pass-rusher Tamba Hali will be suspended for the opening game against Atlanta on Sept. 9 for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse. Hali will miss the week of preparation for that game. He will be able to return to the team Sept. 10. He will not be paid for the week he will miss.

"Tamba’s situation is unfortunate," said Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said in a statement released by the team. "Obviously, we are disappointed and will miss him during this suspension, but the NFL's policies are very clear and we respect the league's decision in this matter. We are unable to comment further on this matter or any aspect of the NFL’s Drug Policy.”

Hali is an explosive pass-rusher and he will be missed in that game. Houston, a second-year player, is the Chiefs’ second best pass-rusher and he will have to take a leading role as the Chiefs try to continue to get to Ryan.

Again, this development isn’t crushing for Hali and the Chiefs. It is just one game. It is a manageable situation, but it is a far from ideal way to start the season.

Update: Hali issued an apology following his suspension.

In other AFC West news:

U-T San Diego reports that receiver Vincent Brown could miss the first half of the season with a broken ankle he suffered Saturday night.

Kansas City starting safety Kendrick Lewis will miss time with a shoulder injury he re-aggravated Saturday night. But he will not miss the entire season. Abe Elam will replace him. He is a former starter who was signed as valuable insurance. The Chiefs could do worse than Elam spelling Lewis.

Buffalo released former San Diego star linebacker Shawne Merriman. No, I do not expect the Chargers to consider bringing him back.
Quarterbacks are measured on victories. That’s one of the reason why new Kansas City offensive coordinator Brian Daboll believes in Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel.

Daboll points to Cassel’s 11-win season in New England in 2008 (when he spelled an injured Tom Brady) and his 10-win season in 2010 as evidence that Cassel is and can continue be an effective NFL quarterback.

“He’s been a winner,” Daboll told reporters in Kansas City of Cassel on Thursday. “He’s had two 10-plus win seasons. I did a study just this offseason about 10-plus-win quarterbacks, which is what you’re defined by, obviously. There’s been nine of them in the last four years that have had two or more 10-plus win seasons in the regular season, and Matt is one of them. The other ones being Brady, (Drew) Brees, (Aaron) Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli (Manning), (Joe) Flacco, (Matt) Ryan, so he’s been a winner. He works his tail off in the classroom. I think he’s done a good job in these OTAs, and I’m looking forward to working with him.”

In other AFC West notes:

I know a lot of readers are connecting pass-rusher Aaron Kampman, cut by Jacksonville on Thursday, and the Raiders because he was in Green Bay with new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie. However, I think the Raiders are set on the defensive line. Plus, Kampman is very banged up.

Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel said Thursday he expects running Jamaal Charles to go to the doctor soon in an attempt to get cleared for training camp. There aren’t expected to be any issues with Charles -- who was lost for the 2011 season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Week 2 -- receiving clearance.

The Seahawks invited linebacker Brian Banks to their minicamp after giving him a tryout Thursday. The Chiefs have been interested in giving him a tryout. Banks was recently exonerated from a sexual assault charge on which he was convicted 10 years ago. He was 16 and prized USC recruit when he went to jail. He is now 26.

Crennel said Thursday the Chiefs would still like to work Banks out. However, Seattle has to be considered the favorite to sign him. I think if Banks works well in a practice setting, the Seahawks will sign him. Seattle coach Pete Carroll is the man who recruited him at USC.

The Chiefs believe newly signed tight end Martin Rucker may have a torn ACL. He was a bit of a long shot to make the 53-man roster.

My QB Power Rankings thoughts

April, 26, 2011
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I didn’t create any waves in our quarterback Power Rankings that were released Tuesday.

All 10 of the quarterbacks I voted for made the top 10. The only variation from my poll and the final ranking was the flip-flop of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning. I had Flacco ninth and Manning 10th. In the Power Rankings, Manning was ninth and Flacco was 10th in a tie with Dallas' Tony Romo.

The only time I struggled during my ranking was at 10th place. I chose Manning because of his Super Bowl ring over the likes of Romo, Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and St. Louis Sam Bradford. In all, I considered 18 quarterbacks. It’s a pretty strong quarterback league these days.

I think there are seven elite quarterbacks -- New England’s Tom Brady, Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Philadelphia’s Michael Vick. I think Rivers is in a good spot at No. 6. He’s clearly the best quarterback in the NFL without a Super Bowl ring and it was good to see other voters agree. Rivers was fifth on three ballots and sixth on the other five.

Kansas City’s Matt Cassel received one 10th-place vote. I considered Cassel, but I want to see more development before I place him on this impressive list.
Cam Newton, Tim Tebow & Blaine GabbertGetty ImagesMany scouts are saying they'd take Cam Newton, left, or Blaine Gabbert, right, over Tim Tebow.
The Tim Tebow debate rages on one year after he was the most dissected prospect in the 2010 NFL draft.

Last year, the Denver Broncos shocked the NFL by taking Tebow with the No. 25 overall pick. Now, it is the Broncos who are considering Tebow’s future.

The Broncos are working out or visiting with several of the top quarterback prospects in the draft. Legendary Denver quarterback and new Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway has said Denver’s interest in quarterbacks is not a smokescreen to confuse other teams. Yet Elway also said the team’s interest in quarterbacks doesn’t mean the team is not sold on Tebow. Elway insists the Broncos simply don’t want to bypass a franchise quarterback if he’s available.

Earlier this week, ESPN’s John Clayton said he thinks Elway might take a quarterback in the second round and admit that the Tebow pick -- which was made by former Denver coach Josh McDaniels -- was a mistake. With Tebow’s future perhaps unclear again, we polled several draft experts and experienced NFL scouts about what they think Denver should do and how Tebow stacks up against the better quarterback prospects of 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Barry GutierrezJohn Elway and the Broncos may be looking for Tim Tebow's replacement already.
Tebow remains a polarizing figure. The experts are divided. Some think Tebow is a born leader. Others wouldn’t touch him because of an unrefined throwing motion.

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper still has a difficult time grading Tebow because he doesn’t think he can be a pro-style quarterback. Kiper thinks Tebow would likely be a fourth-round pick in 2011. Former NFL scout Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. thinks Tebow is the answer in Denver because he projects better to the NFL than Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who could be the No. 1 overall pick by Carolina. Horton said it would be “ridiculous” and Denver would be “absolutely crazy” to draft Newton or Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert at No. 2 and ignore its massive defensive needs after drafting a quarterback in the first round last year.

The other quarterbacks who could be taken in the first three rounds are Washington’s Jake Locker, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett, TCU’s Andy Dalton, Florida State’s Christian Ponder, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi. Kiper and Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson and Steve Muench think most of them are better NFL quarterback prospects than Tebow.

“Tim Tebow is interesting because so many people have different opinions about him,” Muench said. “That’s what Denver is probably trying to figure out right now. In a lot of ways, I’d say there are a lot better options than Tebow, but then, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tim Tebow succeeds because of what kind of person and leader he is. … It’s not easy.”

Muench said Scouts Inc. had Tebow rated as a late second-round or an early third-round prospect last year. He was the fourth-rated quarterback on Scouts Inc.’s list behind Sam Bradford (who went to St. Louis at No. 1), Jimmy Clausen (No. 47, Carolina) and Colt McCoy (No. 85, Cleveland). Muench said this year’s quarterback class is much better than the 2010 class. Thus, he thinks Tebow would be a fourth-round prospect, and a similar prospect to Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor. Some teams think Taylor is best-suited for another position. Last year, Kiper looked at Tebow as an H-back prospect (and perhaps some teams did, as well). Kiper’s thoughts haven’t changed.

“I don’t think many teams would look at him in the second or third rounds,” Kiper said. “He’s not up there with Newton and Gabbert, then he’d be behind second-level guys like Andy Dalton. Ponder is moving like crazy. … I think Tebow would certainly be the fourth or fifth, sixth or seventh quarterback on teams' boards.”

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesSome scouts thought Tim Tebow would be better served as an H-back in the NFL.
Still, Horton would rather have Tebow than Newton, who’ll certainly be a top-12 pick.

“There are football questions about Tebow, but there’s also football questions about Newton,” Horton said. “There are no intangible questions about Tebow. But there are intangibles questions about Newton."

Horton thinks Denver should either let veteran quarterback Kyle Orton start the season and replace him with Tebow when the season goes south or go with Tebow to start the season. Horton reasons that quarterbacks emerge as top draft prospects every year and there will be plenty of options next year if Tebow fails, perhaps even Stanford gem Andrew Luck.

“If it doesn’t work with Tebow, well, then you move on, but you have to see what he can do,” Horton said. “Tebow was drafted as a developmental guy. Don’t run out of patience with him before he gets a chance to develop.”

Williamson said he never thought it was a good idea for Denver to draft Tebow and he would support Elway’s decision to pull the plug now. He thinks there are several second-round type prospects who would be better options than Tebow in Denver.

“I would certainly rather have Gabbert, Newton and Ponder over Tebow, in that order. And there could be an argument made for the others,” Williamson said. “I would take Mallett for sure over [Tebow]. Tebow and Locker are similar -- big, strong guys with suspect accuracy/passing skills, but Locker is further along coming out of school than Tebow.”

However, former Carolina and St. Louis draft executive Tony Softli said he had Tebow ranked as a low second-round pick last year when Softli was with the Rams. He said he wouldn’t draft a quarterback this year. He believes in Tebow. Softli raved about Tebow’s leadership ability, his history as a winner and his intelligence. Softli said Tebow, Matt Ryan, Bradford and Josh Freeman were the brightest quarterback prospects he’s seen in the past 10 years when it came to working on the grease board and breaking down the game.

“I understand why Denver is looking at quarterbacks -- they’re doing their homework and that’s smart -- but I think Tebow is going to be the guy,” Softli said. “I think the Broncos should forget about his throwing motion and just let him be who he is. His intangibles are off the charts. When it’s Tebow time, he’ll show he’s the answer.”

It’s clear. The Tebow debate is not over.
Power RankingsESPN.com IllustrationDallas' Jason Witten earned the top spot in our voting over San Diego's Antonio Gates.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 tight ends in the league today. Next week: Top 10 coaches.

Antonio Gates has received the Adrian Peterson treatment.

This guy didn’t do it this time.

Up from the NFC South rises Pat Yasinskas into the ESPN.com Power Rankings’ hot seat. Embrace the heat, my friend. In another airtight positional Power Rankings battle, Dallas' Jason Witten edged out Gates by one vote to be crowned the almighty ruler of all NFL tight ends.

How in the name of Kellen Winslow did it happen, San Diego? Talk to Yasinskas.

Yasinskas ranked Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez No. 2. He had Witten No. 1 and Gates No. 3. Witten finished with 76 voting points. Gates had 75. No other voter placed Gonzalez higher than fifth. He finished sixth.

Send your cards and letters to Yasinskas, Dallas. If you must let him know your thoughts, stay classy, San Diego.

Yasinskas reasoned that he sandwiched Gonzalez between Witten and Gates because of Gonzalez’s incredible career. Gonzalez, 35, owns every major receiving record by a tight end.

“Yes, he's nearing the end of his career, but this is the best tight end in history,” Yasinskas said. “I think that counts for something. Gonzalez still is playing at a high level. He has great chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan and the desire for a Super Bowl ring is keeping Gonzalez going strong.”

Here is the rest of the top 10 after Witten and Gates: Indianapolis’ Dallas Clark (53 points), San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (50), Washington’s Chris Cooley (36), Gonzalez (33), Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow Jr. (26), Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis (21), Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew (18) and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley (15).

Witten and Gates clearly stand out as the game’s elite tight ends. Witten was ranked first on four ballots and second on the other four. Gates received the other four first-place votes. He received three second-place votes and Yasinskas’ third-place vote.

The only thing that separated Witten and Gates in 2010 was health. Witten, 28, had 94 catches for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Gates, 30, was on his way to a brilliant season when it was derailed by nagging ankle and foot injuries. Gates ended up on injured reserve and missed six games. He finished with 50 catches, 782 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said both Witten and Gates are game-changers.

“Witten to me is the class of the two-way tight ends,” Williamson said. “Receiving needs to trump blocking because that is what the league is right now. If someone put Witten first on the list, I can buy that. In terms of doing it all, I think he is the best. … I think he is the best of the two-way guys if you put an equal amount of faith in both receiving and blocking. He is the all-around tight end prototype. If you put more weight on receiving, which I would, you have to give the nod to Gates. He was awesome last year. He was hurt and that was the only negative other than blocking. He played hurt a lot and was great.”

Let’s dig deeper into the rankings:

Not easy pickings: Several of our voters were surprised by the difficulty of this process. This is our fourth position in the series. We previously looked at receivers, running backs and pass-rushers. The pass-rushers process was very difficult. This vote was not a cool breeze, either.

This is a very strong league for tight ends these days.

“After a hellish pass-rusher ballot, I thought tight ends would be far easier,” AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky said. “They were just as difficult. There is a great deal of young talent too. I steered clear of first-year guys, but in another season or two, this could be even more brutal to sort through.”

Blame injuries: In addition to the glut of talent, a primary reason this vote was so difficult was the fact that there were major injuries at this position in 2010. In addition to Gates, Clark, Finley and Houston’s Owen Daniels were injured. That changed the voting landscape.

“I thought it was tough because there are a lot of guys with mitigating circumstances,” NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert said.

Clark’s injury prompted Yasinskas to rank him 10th. No other voter placed him lower than fourth.

“There's no doubt this guy has had a great career,” Yasinskas said. “But I ranked him a little lower than most and that's almost entirely because he missed 10 games last season. Clark is 31 and I'm not sure he'll be the same player going forward.”

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
Dale Zanine/US PresswireWill star Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez finally notch his first playoff win on Sunday?
Not everyone loves Tony G.: Clearly, Yasinskas believes in Gonzalez. He gets to see him play regularly and thinks he’s still an impact player. That’s why he ranked him second. But not everyone agrees that the future Hall of Famer is still an elite player. Kuharksy left Gonzalez off his ballot altogether.

“Gonzalez is still an excellent player,” Kuharsky said. “But as I struggled to find room for the 10 I felt needed to make the cut, he fell off. In 2010 his numbers suggest he was more quantity than quality. I'm not looking for giant plays from my tight end, but Dallas Clark replacement Jacob Tamme matched Gonzo's 9.4 yards a catch, and while Gonzalez's first-down percentage was good (55.7), it was way lower than that of the three top rookies and smaller than that of guys like Heath Miller, Ben Watson and Todd Heap, whom I hardly considered. One final note: As I've got access to Frank Wycheck during three shared radio appearances a week, I asked him for a ballot. I'm sure he admires Gonzalez's body of work. But right now Gonzalez wasn't in Wycheck's top 10 either.”

The Davis flip-flop: The 49ers’ immensely talented tight end received a wide range of support. Four voters had him third. Yet, I had him ranked ninth and Yasinskas had him eighth. I like Davis, but I’m not convinced we always see his best effort.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando was among those who voted Davis third. Sando argued that Davis has made an impact despite playing with subpar quarterbacks.

“It's easy to forget about Vernon Davis because he plays for a low-profile team that has struggled,” Sando said. “If you've seen the 49ers much, you know Davis makes the huge play better than any tight end in the league. He'll catch touchdown passes for 60 or 70 yards, outrunning even cornerbacks. He remains unrefined and can still improve his all-around game quite a bit, but his 20 touchdown receptions over the past two seasons rank first among tight ends.”

This position is in it for the long haul: I remember a conversation I had with Gates prior to the 2009 season. He was glowing over all the young talent at the position in the NFL. Gates rattled off several young tight ends he expected to have bright careers.

There’s no doubt, this is a special time for tight end play. As Gonzalez puts the cap on the most brilliant career by anyone at the position in the history of the game, the position is well stocked for the future.

Five players on the list -- Davis, Winslow, Lewis, Pettigrew and Finley -- are 27 or younger. The only players who are 30 or older on the list are Gonzalez, Clark and Gates.

Oakland’s Zach Miller and the Jets’ Dustin Keller, who finished 11th and 12th, respectively, are also young players. Miller is 25 and Keller is 26.
We mentioned last week that Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey could be a hot commodity in Denver, and on Tuesday the Broncos showed that they are very interested in the former Buffalo head coach.

The Broncos announced on Twitter that they will interview Mularkey on Friday. He is the first announced outside interview. Interim head coach Eric Studesville is also being interviewed, but he’s considered to be a long shot.

There is significance that Mularkey is the first announced interview. The Atlanta Falcons are the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and they have a bye this week. This is the only week Mularkey can interview until the Falcons’ season is over.

Mularkey is considered a potential favorite in Denver because of his head-coaching experience, his willingness to simply coach the team and his work with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. Denver has quarterback Tim Tebow going into his second season and his development is paramount to the team’s future.

Meanwhile, perhaps an obstacle to pursuing Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has been hurdled for Denver. It is being reported that he is unlikely to go to his alma mater, Michigan. ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported John Elway (who will be introduced Wednesday as the Broncos’ new front-office leader) is wooing Harbaugh.

San Francisco, Miami and Carolina could also pursue Harbaugh. If one of those teams give Harbaugh personnel power, it could be enticing. That very likely won’t happen in Denver with Elway talking over.

UPDATE: Mularkey will also interview in Cleveland.

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