AFC North primer: Steelers poised for Super season

Most significant changes from 2015
Standing out as perhaps the league’s most consistent division over the past half-decade, the AFC North — beyond a constantly churning Browns franchise — marches into this season with plenty of familiar faces. The Steelers, Bengals and Ravens all have retained their longtime head coaches and starting quarterbacks. Cleveland, meanwhile, is starting over again with offensive-minded coach Hue Jackson angling to turn Robert Griffin III back into a starting quarterback. The Browns will continue to face growing pains in a division armed with two Super Bowl contenders and a Ravens club that wouldn’t shock anyone if it returned to the playoffs.

What we’ll be talking about at season’s end
Can someone please start carving Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame bust? After Big Ben dials up his third Super Bowl win since 2004, it will be time to acknowledge Roethlisberger for what he is: One of the finest quarterbacks of our lifetime. The Steelers remain the class of this division and, in 2016, they’ll be much more than AFC North champions, thanks to their massive-framed, strong-armed leading man.

And at the same time, you basically need to play fantasy so you and your buddies/co-workers have something to talk about other than your feelings and/or that new bread knife you bought from Amazon.

You want to play, you want to put in the least amount of work possible but you also don’t want to be the laughing stock of the league.

It’s cool, I got you. Here’s your guide to have a totally respectable team (that probably isn’t going to win, but you never know, fantasy is weird) that will require the least amount of work on your end once the season starts.

This assumes 10-team standard scoring snake formats obviously. If you’re lazy, you’re almost assuredly not playing in one of those hipster 14-team PPR auction draft super-flex leagues.***

Go RB-RB to start your draft

This goes counter to popular draft strategies today which say go receiver heavy early. But here’s the thing, going wide receiver crazy to start means you have to manage the running back position on an almost weekly basis and who the hell has time for that?

If you want to minimize management, you need workhorses at the running back position and quite frankly there aren’t many of them in the league.

Steelers’ offense sizzles against Saints in Ben Roethlisberger’s debut

NEW ORLEANS — So that’s what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense looks like.

When it was starters vs. starters, the Steelers looked …: Mighty comfortable. While the offense ran through the Saints, the defense acquitted itself well by allowing one first down on the Saints’ first two drives. The Saints drove downfield on the third, but by then Pittsburgh had worked multiple backups into the rotation. On the Saints’ first team’s only touchdown, the Steelers had Willie Snead triple covered and he made a ridiculous catch. Hard to argue with that.

One reason to be concerned: The No. 3 cornerback role remains unresolved. Rookie Sean Davis has played most of the slot cornerback snaps, and though he’s up to the challenge, the team drafted him as a safety. First-rounder Artie Burns has been out most of the preseason with a quad injury. The Senquez Golson injury hurts more by the week. That’s why I’m not writing off the team potentially signing free agent Keenan Lewis if his health gets right. Or the team can take a chance on Donald Washington, Montell Garner or Doran Grant.

Do it Tuitt: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was active early in the game, getting past the Saints’ line of scrimmage multiple times. James Harrison also applied quarterback pressure.

Big shot: The Steelers signed linebacker Vince Williams to a three-year deal this week in part because he’s a physical tackler. But Williams earned a 15-yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet shot on running back Daniel Lasco. Williams and Fort both connected with Lasco, resulting in a fumble.

When it was starters vs. starters, the Patriots looked …: Outstanding on defense, disappointing on offense. The Patriots’ offense was 0-for-7 on third down in the first half. On defense, the Rutgers trifecta of Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon had first-half interceptions, with McCourty’s pick coming when defensive end Chris Long dropped in coverage and tipped a Cam Newton pass thrown over the middle. The D looks ready for the regular season. The offense? Not so much based on this game.

One reason to possibly be concerned: Garoppolo’s performance. After making notable strides from the preseason opener against the Saints to the second game against the Bears, he struggled Friday. The Panthers’ defense deserves some credit, but this wasn’t a confidence-building performance. Then again, in the 2008 preseason, backup quarterback Matt Cassel looked overmatched at times and that worked out OK in an 11-5 regular season after he took over for an injured Brady.

Tyrann Mathieu responds after Saints’ Vonn Bell says he can out-blitz him

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It sounded like wrestler Ric Flair was back in the building Monday when Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was asked if he caught Usain Bolt’s gold-medal performances at the Rio Olympics.

“Wooo … wooo,” Jones said, marveling at Bolt’s blazing speed. “Bolt, he’s amazing. Amazing what he can do out there as far as his speed and the length. (He’s) 6-5, I think. Those guys, once he opens up, they really don’t stand a chance, just how much ground he covers when he gets going. But he’s very impressive. Knowing he’s going to win, you still watch it. It’s exciting, though.”

“But you’ve still got to change direction,” Jones explained. “You’ve got to get to a spot, and then you’ve got to open back up. So it would be difficult for him.”

Renaldo Nehemiah, a former world record-holder in the 110-meter hurdles, made the transition to football, playing wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers from 1982-84.

“He has opened some eyes. … Now there are still a handful of things that he has be a little quicker on, but I’m pleased with the camp he’s having so far.”

When asked if he thinks he has reached that goal of becoming a better blitzer than Mathieu, Bell smiled and replied, “I think I am.”

He’s certainly not short on confidence.

So far, Bell has worked with the Saints’ second-string defense, but Payton said the Saints plan to find packages for him to get on the field with the first unit — as well as on special teams — a role that Bell has always embraced.

To Rodgers, it’s more about getting his wind ready to play a full regular-season game, not necessarily taking a hit.

“Regardless if I play zero snaps or 100 in the preseason, nothing is going to officially get you ready for that first game until you get out there,” Rodgers said last week. “You can prepare for it, but it’s always going to be the first couple [games to] test your wind, but the only way to do that is if you played every snap of every preseason game, and that’s not going to happen.

“So I would expect extended time in the third game, and probably not much to not play in the fourth game. So it’s about conditioning at that point, and making sure you feel good by the time Week 1 rolls around.”

NFL: Al-Jazeera-implicated players must speak or face suspension

The NFLPA has previously contended there’s no evidence to merit an investigation. Charlie Sly, the Indiana pharmacist who made the accusations to Al-Jazeera, has recanted his statements about the players, including Peyton Manning, who was central to the report and will not be punished by the league after cooperating with investigators.

The players have an obligation to “submit to an interview but also the duty to provide meaningful responses to the questions posed,” Birch wrote.

The NFLPA issued statements to the league on behalf of the players, of which the NFL considers “wholly devoid of any detail.” In his statement, Harrison denies the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and he recently told USA Today that the allegations made by Al-Jazeera were “flimsy.”

Harrison has declined comment on the matter at training camp.

Matthews called the claims “bogus” at the start of training camp.

“It’s kind of annoying that I have to continue to deal with this,” Matthews said. “But the truth will come out, and everything I said when the allegations came out I still stand by.”

Peppers called the allegations “nonsense.”

The league first focused on interviewing Neal since he’s a free agent, but the NFL’s letter cites an assertion in Neal’s NFLPA-approved statement as “demonstrably false.”

“Rather than eliminate the need for interviews, the players’ plainly deficient statements simply underscore the importance of obtaining their full cooperation,” Birch wrote.

Players can contact the NFL office to schedule an interview, the letter states.

NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah told ESPN this summer that the players need more evidence from the league before addressing the reports further.

“They have proved to have a terrible track record when it comes to investigations,” Atallah said of the NFL.

Mock drafts are a good place to try something new when you’re busy preparing for fantasy football drafts. That’s exactly what I did in our most recent staff mock, a 12-team PPR draft.

It’s easy to lock in on a pattern or a few key targets and never deviate from your standard approach, which could easily be thrown off when your real drafts come along. You could simply be missing a better way to draft, and trying different techniques in a mock could open your eyes to a better approach for when it’s time for the real thing.

In this latest mock, I tried something different … and I didn’t like it at all.

I am a fairly strict believer in waiting on a quarterback in fantasy football drafts, but in this mock, I found myself changing course and taking Aaron Rodgers in the fifth round. I know what many of you are thinking … “Fifth round for Aaron Rodgers? That’s an obvious pick!”

Based on our average draft position, you’re right. Rodgers normally finds himself on a roster in the first 25 picks in ESPN Standard drafts, and I took him with the 52nd pick of this mock. But our expert crew generally waits at QB, meaning that, relative to his peers at the position, he wasn’t a value. Cam Newton went a few picks prior, and Russell Wilson and Drew Brees went in the next 15 picks.

I was unable to adapt properly to my new strategy, spending the next few rounds after selecting Rodgers trying to get caught up at running back and wide receiver. This meant I wound up waiting too long to select my tight end and selected Jordan Cameron with my final position player pick.

John Elway surprised Brock Osweiler got ‘bent out of shape’ about benching

The culmination of events left the Broncos without a starting quarterback. There was 2015 seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian, which prompted the team to trade for journeyman Mark Sanchez, and move up in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft to select Paxton Lynch out of Memphis.

“That’s why you can never lock into one solution,” Elway told the Post. “You always have to have several options and go with what’s best. I haven’t talked to Brock about it. I’ve only kind of heard about it, of why he may have been a little bit upset about the way things went. …

“To be able to get Mark and then have Trevor that we drafted last year who’s having a good camp and a guy that we believe can be the future in Paxton — it’s just a matter of him coming along and continuing to improve,” Elway continued. “It may not look as good from the outside as people want it to look. But we feel pretty good about how it looks from the inside. We feel good about that spot in the years to come and of what Mark can do. We think he’s got the ability, if we get him in the right situation, to be a very sufficient and adequate quarterback.”

Whoever ends up under the center, they’ll at least have the benefit of playing with one of the NFL’s best defenses.

Who’s the starter?

That’s the prevailing question everyone wants answered in training camp, and in itself is a key function of these preseason practices. Central to the determination of who is indeed No. 1 is the depth chart.

The first depth charts entered the view of public eye on Monday. Now, before we take these as football scripture, teams are required to put these out. A grain of salt is recommended on the side.

Among the most anticipated decisions is the quarterback situation Denver, and head coach Gary Kubiak went with the coy play of naming both Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian co-starters. We know this isn’t possible, and unless Kubiak is on the verge of an offensive innovation even greater than the Wildcat, we’ll get our answer — just not until Thursday, when the Broncos play the Bears.

Elsewhere in depth chart news…

Rookie Giants receiver Sterling Shepard is listed as a starter opposite Odell Beckham Jr., and ahead of Victor Cruz, among others. Coming off two major injuries, Cruz is reportedly struggling to return to star form, so Shepard taking the starting spot isn’t too surprising.

First-round pick Eli Apple is listed as the team’s third corner, behind veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and new acquisition Janoris Jenkins. The more notable listing in New York’s secondary is rookie Darian Thompson, listed as the starter at free safety.

Rams put up extremely high bar for Orlando Pace and he met it

“Obviously, he’s as talented as there ever has been at that position,” Martz said. “But his competitiveness, his toughness — that was what put him into that truly special category.”

It used to be that offensive tackles were considered the safest picks in the NFL draft, and Pace helped establish that. Once he showed his dominance as both a pass and run blocker, other teams saw the impact he had on one of the transcendent offenses in history.

Pace was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, kicking off perhaps the last dominant era of left tackles in league history. No tackle had been taken first overall before Pace since 1968 (Ron Yary). But in the 10 drafts after Pace and Walter Jones — the first and sixth overall picks, respectively, in 1997 — made their first Pro Bowls in 1999 there were 10 top-six offensive tackles selected. In the 10 drafts prior to Pace and Jones being drafted in 1997, there had been only four O-linemen total to go in the top-six range.

NFL teams sought those impossibly large and athletic men as anchors for their offenses. As it turned out, Pace, Jones and Jonathan Ogden (fourth overall pick, 1996) were three rare specimens who defied logic — and were exceptions to the rule at the position.

In advance of the 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, ESPN’s Stats & Info group provides the most amazing statistic about each of the inductees.

Brett Favre

Most consecutive starts at quarterback: Favre made 297 consecutive starts from 1992 to 2010, the most by a quarterback in NFL history. The next-longest streak by a QB is 208 by Peyton Manning from 1998 to 2011.

Among active quarterbacks, Eli Manning is the leader with 183 consecutive starts. He would need to start all 16 games for the next seven seasons, and the first two games in the 2023 season, to reach Favre’s mark. At that point, Manning would be 42 years old.

Edward DeBartolo Jr.

First owner to win the Super Bowl five times: DeBartolo purchased the San Francisco 49ers in 1977. They won Super Bowl XVI after the 1981 season and followed with victories in Super Bowls XIX, XXIII, XXIV and XXIX. Three NFL owners — Robert Kraft (Patriots), Art Rooney (Steelers) and the board of directors of the publicly owned Packers — have won four each.

Double-digit wins and playoff appearances: Dungy coached the Indianapolis Colts for seven seasons, from 2002 to 2008. In each of them, the team had at least 10 wins and made the playoffs. In the Colts’ first 23 16-game seasons (excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season), they had two 10-win seasons.

Miles: Dismissing Tyrann Mathieu ‘one of worst things I’ve done’

As leery as NFL scouts can be about college players who are character risks, Mathieu is an example of a risk worth taking.

And for Miles, one who would have been worth keeping.

A note about the Denver Broncos: You won’t find Mark Sanchez listed here, even though he is currently in line to start for the defending champs. This is not a reflection of my feelings on the Broncos, who should not be counted out as potential Super Bowl contenders, given that they have a chance to repeat last season’s winning formula of great defense + mediocre-to-poor quarterback play. Rather, Sanchez is not listed here because I am not confident Sanchez will start all 16 games, and I’m not ready to put Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch in a list of potential title-winning QBs.

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
This selection might spark a few snickers, but Stafford does have significant ability. The first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft ranks third in the NFL in total passing yardage (23,174 yards) and completions (1,988) over the past five seasons. He’s the Lions’ all-time record holder in career passing yards (25,976) and passing touchdowns (163). He boasts a very strong arm and good mobility; he just needs to put everything together. Notably, he seemed to respond to Jim Bob Cooter when the coach was elevated to coordinator midway through last season, sparking a 6-2 second-half run for Detroit. That said, I have plenty of doubts about the rest of the Lions’ roster, especially with Calvin Johnson having retired, which is why Stafford ranks here.

After only one season at UCLA, quarterback Josh Rosen’s standing as one of the top passers in college football is already secure.

One opposing Pac-12 coach says the Bruins sophomore is the best of them all, and believes Rosen has a highly successful NFL career ahead of him, too.

“The quarterback is the best guy out there, and I mean the best guy in the country right now. That’s what we thought, anyway,” the coach told Athlon Sports. “Man, he is the real deal and we’ve got to deal with him for two more years. He didn’t play like a freshman. I think sometimes he made mistakes trying to do a little too much, but they want him to be aggressive and use his arm because he’s got the confidence and ability to put the ball where he wants it. He’ll learn when to pull it back with time, but there’s no doubt he’s going to be a big-time pro.”

From those comments, it’s not totally clear if the coach views Rosen as the college game’s best quarterback, or its best player altogether. At the very least, however, the former characterization would put Rosen in higher regard than the likes of Clemson star QB Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly or Miami’s Brad Kaaya.

UCLA coach Jim Mora certainly wouldn’t argue.