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The New York Jets are hoping that their most prominent addition this offseason — a former most valuable player of the Super Bowl — never takes a snap for them. Such is the plight of a backup quarterback, and that is the new role for veteran Joe Flacco, who agreed to a one-year deal Friday as he recovers from neck surgery.
If having a reliable understudy at football’s most important job can preserve a season — just ask New Orleans, which won all five games last year behind Teddy Bridgewater after an injury to Drew Brees, or Philadelphia, which won a championship with Nick Foles — then undervaluing that position can derail it.
The Jets endured this reality last season when they lost all three games while their starter, Sam Darnold, was out with mononucleosis and fell to 0-4. They then resolved to acquire a credible backup and considered former Cincinnati starter Andy Dalton — who eventually signed with Dallas — before focusing on Flacco, the longtime Baltimore Raven who played eight games last season for Denver before sustaining a season-ending neck injury.
His agent, Joe Linta, said on Saturday that Flacco’s rehabilitation from neck surgery in April is going well and that if he continues recovering at his current rate, Flacco can expect to join the team for training camp in early August and should be cleared for contact no later than mid-September. Linta said that Flacco had already been examined by a Jets orthopedist.
“He can do everything except hit somebody or go surfing,” Linta said in a telephone interview.
The financial terms of the deal — $1.5 million, with about another $3 million in incentives, Linta said — are a pittance relative to Flacco’s potential value. They evoke the contract signed by Jameis Winston, who, unable to find a starting job, joined New Orleans for $1.1 million in an effort to revive his career after leading the league in interceptions. Unlike Winston, who at 26 might be able to parlay this sojourn into abiding stability, Flacco, 35, is confronting the possibility that he won’t enter a season as a starter again. Lamar Jackson’s emergence in the second half of the Ravens’ 2018 season, after Flacco sustained a season-ending hip injury, made him expendable, and Baltimore traded him to Denver in March 2019.
Flacco adds immediate cachet and credibility to an inexperienced position group that, beyond Darnold, has three quarterbacks — Mike White, David Fales and unsigned fourth-round pick James Morgan — who have combined to throw 48 NFL passes, all by Fales. Staying close to home appealed to Flacco, a native of Audubon, New Jersey, as did the opportunity to reunite with Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who was a Ravens scout in 2008 when Baltimore drafted Flacco with the 18th overall pick.
Those Ravens teams were powered by stingy defenses and strong running games, and Flacco, stabilizing a position long unmoored in Baltimore, steered the Ravens to playoff berths in his first five seasons, including three trips to the AFC championship game. But in the playoffs after the 2012 season, Baltimore blasted through the AFC bracket on the strength of Flacco’s arm en route to winning Super Bowl 47 against San Francisco. Flacco threw 11 touchdowns without an interception in the Ravens’ stirring playoff run.
Although Flacco has played in only two playoff games since that Super Bowl victory, that is still two more than the Jets have over that span. Their inability to identify, and develop, franchise quarterbacks has contributed to their malaise, but the Jets believe they have a long-term starter in Darnold. Still, it is perhaps inevitable that he will get hurt. Darnold has missed six games in two seasons, and the Jets have lost all six. But he is hardly the exception: Last season, according to Pro Football Reference, 19 of the NFL’s 32 teams started a backup at quarterback in at least one game.
The Jets, after years of mismanagement, are again seeking to build a contender, a task that seems more doable now that Tom Brady, their longtime nemesis, has left the AFC East. Douglas overhauled the offensive line and receiving corps, signing Breshad Perriman and drafting Denzel Mims in the second round. Those moves figure to help whoever is playing quarterback for them this season — be it Darnold, as planned, or Flacco, who provides a comforting presence, whether he ever takes a snap or not.
Tailback Phillip Lindsay and offensive lineman Dalton Risner are centerpieces on the Broncos roster, and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey recently signed the richest deal for a running back in NFL history.
The professional rise of those three homegrown athletes raises the question: Who are the greatest NFL players to come out of Colorado? Here’s a Top 10 ranking from The Denver Post. To qualify for this list, a player must have been born in the state and played high school football here as well (thus, Fairview High grad and potential Hall of Famer Tony Boselli isn’t listed).
(Birthplace, High School, College, Pro, career time span)
10. Gary Knafelc
TE | Pueblo | 1954-63
A two-time Super Bowl champion, Knafelc is in Green Bay’s Hall of Fame. A tight end, the Pueblo Central High School and CU product made several iconic catches in Packers history — including the winning touchdown reception in the first game at Lambeau Field — and was also known for his blocking in additional stints with the Cardinals and 49ers.
9. Mark Mullaney
DE | Denver | 1975-86
A member of the CSU Hall of Fame, Mullaney starred at defensive end in Minnesota, where he was part of the “Purple People Eaters” defense and played in Super Bowl XI. The NFL did not begin recording sacks until 1982, so his career stats remain a mystery. In his final five seasons, however, the George Washington High graduate accumulated 13 1/2 sacks.
8. Byron White
TB/HB | Fort Collins | 1938-41
An All-American halfback at CU, “Whizzer” had a short but distinguished career in the NFL. The future Supreme Court judge led the league in rushing in 1938 and 1940 to earn two All-Pro nods and finished his career with 1,622 total yards and 12 touchdowns.
7. Luther Elliss
DT/DE | Mancos | 1995-2004
The Macos High and Utah grad racked up 331 tackles and 29 sacks in his career and earned consecutive Pro Bowl nods in Detroit in 1999 and 2000 as a defensive lineman. He finished his career with one season in Denver.
6. Nate Solder
OL | Denver | 2011-present
Born in Denver, the future CU Buffs star first made a name for himself as a tight end for Buena Vista High. A linchpin of Tom Brady‘s offensive line during two Super Bowl title runs in New England, the reliable, gritty and heady left tackle has started all 16 games in a season five times in his career, including the last three seasons.
5. Aaron Smith
DE | Colorado Springs | 1999-2011
A Northern Colorado and Sierra High grad, Smith won a pair of Super Bowl championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lining up on the defensive line, he piled up 481 tackles and 44 sacks during a lengthy career that saw him make double-digit starts for nine consecutive seasons from 2000-08.
4. Christian McCaffrey
RB | Castle Rock | 2017-present
The Valor Christian product may be the most electric high school player the state has ever seen. After nearly winning the Heisman Trophy at Stanford, McCaffrey was selected eighth overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2017 draft and has amassed 5,443 yards from scrimmage and 39 touchdowns in three seasons. In 2019, he became the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same year. If McCaffrey stays healthy, Canton isn’t out of the question.
WR | Colorado Springs | 2005-16
An overlooked recruit out of Widefield High, Jackson turned down an opportunity to attend Columbia University of the Ivy League so he could play football and basketball for Northern Colorado. After setting UNC records in receptions, receiving yards, kick return yards, punt return yards and receiving touchdowns, the San Diego Chargers selected him with the 61st overall pick in the 2005 draft. The wideout accumulated 540 receptions for 9,080 yards and 57 touchdowns over a 12-year career split between the Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He led the NFL with a 19.2 yards-per-catch average in 2012 — one of three seasons that ended with a Pro Bowl selection.
2. Calais Campbell
DE | Denver | 2008-present
One of Denver South’s finest, Campbell was recruited by the Miami Hurricanes out of high school and racked up 39 tackles for loss over three seasons before being selected 50th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2008. A five-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro selection in 2017, the 33-year-old has recorded 696 tackles and 88 sacks in a career that’s now approaching its 13th season. He reached the Super Bowl in his first year with Arizona and has played in three conference championship games — most recently in 2017 with Jacksonville. With Campbell headed to Baltimore this offseason, more postseason success may well be on the way.
1. Dutch Clark
RB | Fowler | 1931-38
The only native Coloradan in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the “Flying Dutchman” was part of Canton’s inaugural class in 1963. Clark played at Pueblo Central and Colorado College before joining the Portsmouth Spartans in 1931. Three years later, he began a five-year run with the Detroit Lions that saw him rack up four of his six All-Pro nods and win an NFL championship in 1935.
So long as Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are together in Kansas City, the road to the division title runs though Arrowhead Stadium. The Broncos, who have lost nine straight to K.C., are keenly aware of this.
For that reason, Kansas City vs. Denver games have taken on heightened importance over the last several years as the Chiefs have claimed four straight AFC West titles. Correspondingly, the Broncos’ rivalry with the Raiders, who have had just one winning season in their last eight, has grown a bit stale.
But the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas — coupled with a new-look Raiders defense and general fan excitement in the third season of Jon Gruden’s second tenure with the team — is sure to inject fresh juice into the rivalry with the Broncos.
The Raiders, who lead the all-time series 65-54-2, currently have the hottest and most expensive ticket in the NFL since the schedule was officially released a few weeks ago. In the secondary market, the team’s ticket prices have gone up over 500% from their final season in Oakland as silver-and-black diehards are eager to pack brand-new Allegiant Stadium.
And with playoff expansion coming in 2020 via an additional wild card in each league, the Broncos and Raiders — both widely predicted to finish somewhere just north or south of .500 — are likely to have more playoff intrigue in their two matchups. That’s especially the case for the regular-season finale as the Raiders come to Denver on Jan. 3.
— Kyle Newman, The Denver Post
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Ask the Expert
+ Broncos Mailbag: Have a question about the team? Tap here to ask Ryan O’Halloran.
NFL scouts passed on Broncos rookie Tyrie Cleveland left and right. Now the former Florida Gators wide receiver can’t wait to prove those scouts were wrong. Read more…
Broncos beat writer Ryan O’Halloran offers an offseason edition of his NFL power rankings entering the summer. Read more…
Why Broncos’ rookie offensive lineman Netane Muti might be steal of the NFL draft — if he stays healthy
Former college position coach said some NFL teams gave Muti a second-round grade, if not for trio of season-ending injuries. Read more…
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+ Broncos film study: Arkansas DE McTelvin Agim’s versatility gives Vic Fangio another defensive line asset
+ Led by Mike Munchak, Broncos offensive tackle Hunter Watts feels he can make transition from FCS to NFL
+ Broncos new No. 1 cornerback A.J. Bouye hasn’t lost the chip he had as an undrafted college free agent
+ Broncos named one of four finalists for ESPN’s Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year Award
+ “Peyton’s Places” to return to ESPN+ for second season
+ Former Broncos WR Cody Latimer fired shots, assaulted friend at poker game, affidavit says
+ Want to chat about the Broncos? Ask to join our closed discussion group on Facebook.
By The Numbers
All told, the NFL would lose $5.5 billion in stadium revenue, with the Dallas Cowboys standing to lose the most at $621 million. Read more…
Broncos podcast: The importance of team being named finalist for ESPN humanitarian award and the extended impact of “Futures Football”
In this edition of the First-and-Orange podcast, Denver Post sportswriter Kyle Newman is joined by guest co-host Aric DiLalla of DenverBroncos.com to discuss the team being named a finalist for an ESPN humanitarian award as well as the impact of the Futures Football feeder program. Plus, analysis on the Broncos’ 2020 schedule. Listen here…
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For more than an hour, Matt Kerstetter’s phone went off like a restaurant buzzer.
Usually, it was Tyrie Cleveland, texting again: Hey coach, what do you think about this? These guys are calling me about free agency.
As the 2020 NFL Draft hit the seventh round last month, Kerstetter, the offensive coordinator at Westfield High School in Houston and one of Cleveland’s most trusted mentors and confidants, started taking calls from NFL teams, too. The Bears. The Vikings. The Lions. The Broncos. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
“What the heck are you doing out there?” his wife asked at one point that Saturday.
“Honey, I just talked to four different NFL teams,” the coach replied. “I’ve never been involved with this many teams at the NFL level during the draft.”
“Well,” she said. “Who’s going to pick Tyrie?”
“I have no idea.”
John Elway and the Broncos wound up beating the NFC North to the punch, selecting the 6-foot-2 wideout out of the University of Florida with pick No. 252 overall.
“The reality is, anyone who got him as late as they did got a steal,” Kerstetter said of Cleveland, who scored 30 touchdowns combined as a junior and senior at Westfield en route to the Southeastern Conference. “The kid is so much better than what people realize.
“There are so many different things that caused him to slide (down the draft). And it’s kind of laughable when you talk to some people.”
Kerstetter has been quizzed by NFL types about his kids before. The man knows the drill. He also found himself having to debunk more scrutiny and more outside perceptions about Cleveland than usual.
There was the dwindling playing time with the Gators. The shoulder injury Cleveland suffered as a junior in 2018. The arrest in Gainesville when he was a freshman after he and a Florida teammate were accused of firing BB guns inside campus housing.
“I think he understands that,” Kerstetter said of Cleveland. “I also think it’s just more motivation.
“Going back to all the things he’s already overcome, people can look at that as a negative. But you can also look at that as a positive, to kind of prove people wrong, to want to continue to do your very best to prove to those around you, that have given you that opportunity, to be right.”
Kerstetter told the Broncos what he told everybody else: If you’d gone through what this kid was tossed growing up, you’d be carrying some emotional scars, too. Cleveland was 13 years old, living in Jacksonville, Fla., when his older brother was killed at the age of 19. Grieving and wanting a change of scenery, Cleveland’s mother uprooted he and his little brother to Houston in the middle of Tyrie’s 8th-grade year — only for her to move back to Jacksonville after a few months, keeping the boys in Texas with their aunt and uncle.
“That (move) was arguably one of the best things that ever happened to him,” Kerstetter said. “You’ve got realize: He grew up in Florida and some of that crap happened when he was a kid. And losing his brother when he was a kid.”
He came out the other side better for it. Better and hungrier.
Ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect for the class of 2016 in talent-rich Texas by 247Sports, Cleveland blossomed at Westfield, where the combination of a 4.39-second time in the 40-yard dash and a 39-inch vertical leap brought 22 scholarship offers from FBS programs. Kerstetter lobbied gently for Oklahoma; Cleveland committed to the University of Houston originally before electing to sign up with the Gators, his boyhood college team.
“Tyrie is one of those guys that would come in and get extra auxiliary lifts in after track practice (during the spring),” Westfield coach Matt Meekins recalled. “It’s fun, but it’s also business. The fun part is the actual game. The business part is everything that goes before that.”
Cleveland’s playing time in Gainesville peaked early — 11 appearances and four starts as a true freshman, including 124 receiving yards at LSU, followed by eight starts and a team-high 410 receiving yards as a sophomore in 2017.
Shoulder issues cut his 2018 season short after 12 starts and three touchdown receptions, but the future Bronco drew additional high marks as a gunner on the Gators’ punt team, recording five tackles along the way. Depth pushed Cleveland to a reserve role as a senior, save for work with the special teams units, where he averaged 24.8 yards on five kick returns and recorded three tackles in coverage.
“I’m always working to get better, working on my game,” Cleveland said. “I feel like l’ve really continued just to catch up on a lot of the things (you have to do) as a receiver — mainly just working on my craft at receiver, coming in with a mindset that you’re a professional, coming in with the mindset that I know I have to get better each and every day when I set my foot down there in Denver. For me, personally, (it’s about) just working on my craft each and every day and trying to be the best version of me.”
That version, as well as proving his value with the Broncos’ special teams, are going to be the keys to Cleveland nailing down a roster spot during the preseason. Kerstetter isn’t worried about his former pupil nailing either one, because he told NFL scouts this story, too:
As a junior, Cleveland was serving the anchor leg on Westfield’s 4×100 relay team at the state championships. He accidentally jumped early and blew the exchange, a rarity costing his quartet valuable seconds.
“The part I remember about him was that ride home (to Houston),” Kerstetter recalled. “He was crushed. He felt awful that he let the team down because they were all seniors — that’s the part that bothered him the most.
“I remember him using the words in the car, ‘I let this whole team down. They’re all seniors and they’re not going to get the chance to do this again.’ That tells you the most about the type of teammate he is. The type of person he is.”
PALM DESERT, Calif. — Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf was arrested in Southern California on Friday.
Leaf, 44, was arrested on a domestic battery charge in Palm Desert, which is about 110 miles (177 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, according to booking information provided by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department on Saturday. Leaf is being held on $5,000 bail at the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility.
It wasn’t immediately known if Leaf had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.
Leaf finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1997 and led Washington State to the Rose Bowl. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers as the No. 2 pick in 1998, but he was only 4-14 as a starter in three seasons. He was 0-3 with the Dallas Cowboys in 2001 and finished his four-year career with 14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions.
He was arrested in 2012 for breaking into a home in Montana to steal prescription drugs, which violated his Texas probation and led to prison.
Last July, Leaf was hired by ESPN to be a football analyst. Leaf worked for the Pac-12 Network last season and has been co-hosting a show on SiriusXM’s Pac-12 channel.