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AFC Whispers

Broncos' Ayers acclimating to new role

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By PFW staff

Here are a number of Whispers we've been hearing from around the AFC:

• Broncos DL Robert Ayers is never going to record double-digit sacks as he did in college, but the former first-round pick is playing better this season than he did in years past. Now strictly a down lineman — Ayers moves between end and tackle depending on the situation — he has shown an improved ability to read plays and use his strength to his advantage. With the speed rushers the Broncos have on the outside (Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller), Ayers could see a lot of one-on-one matchups, a situation in which the Broncos think he can be successful.

• The Raiders are feeding RB Darren McFadden the ball on 1st-and-10, and the strategy is paying off. The back has 124 rushing yards on that down-and-distance on 17 carries through two games, and his 7.3-yard average has frequently put the team in short-yardage situations on second and third downs. A team insider said that McFadden's productivity on first downs has been the major reason that the team's offense has been strong this season.

• The Chargers' RB combination of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert is working for them. Mathews has great speed and is improving his ability to take contact, while Tolbert is a bruiser who wears down defenses with his physical style. The man blocking for both of them, FB Jacob Hester, told PFW that their opposite styles helps keep defenses off balance. "It helps us to have two different guys, because it gives the defense two different looks," Hester said. "And we know both those guys have a whole lot of talent."

• Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers has signed a five-year extension with the team, another former draft choice whom the club has locked up long term. Flowers is not a big-play corner, but he is a sure tackler and dependable cover man, which is exactly what the team is looking for at the position. The starting corner on the other side, Brandon Carr, also has an expiring contract and may see a new deal soon, as well.

• Now that C Dan Koppen is done for the season, the onus is on Dan Connolly to fill the void. While he didn't miss a beat in the first two games, one source said that it's important to see how he does now that teams can game-plan for him. Connolly is certainly versatile — he played both guard positions last season and has played fullback — but he is a downgrade from Koppen.

• The Jets' special-teams unit took the biggest hit in free agency, losing Brad Smith, James Ihedigbo and Steve Weatherford. The coverage has not been a problem, but rookie PR Jeremy Kerley has not been very impressive — he muffed a punt in the opener that went out of bounds. P T.J. Conley is a bit inconsistent when he needs to boom a punt deep out of Jets territory.

• Keep an eye on Bills DL Spencer Johnson. He had a big sack in the team's season opener from the DT position and spent some time in practice at outside 'backer, as the team continues to look for options to spark the pass rush. He didn't make much of an impact in Week Two, but we hear that the team likes him and he can be effective.

• After an unimpressive training camp, Dolphins rookie RB Daniel Thomas looked the part in his debut in Week Two, rushing for 107 yards. It gives Miami an option of a workhorse back instead of forcing Reggie Bush to run between the tackles 20 times a game. "Daniel ran the ball extremely well, really did," head coach Tony Sparano said this week. "I thought he ran the ball hard in between the tackles. But there is a lot of things off of Daniel's performance that you guys wouldn't see that we see that Daniel needs to get better at."

• Though Browns WR Brian Robiskie is listed as a first-stringer on the depth chart, the early returns suggest several other wideouts could have bigger impacts on the offense from a pass-catching perspective. Robiskie had no catches and three targets in the Browns' first two games. Meanwhile, Mohamed Massaquoi, the other first-string wideout, had 13 targets and six catches in that span. Also, rookie Greg Little and veteran Joshua Cribbs, both listed as reserves, have had more opportunities than Robiskie early this season, and considering the playmaking and productivity of Little and Cribbs, they figure to continue to be involved quite a bit in the offense. Asked about Robiskie being a "blocking receiver" leading up to Week Three, head coach Pat Shurmur said: "No, Brian is a real receiver. I don't have any problems throwing him the football."

• In Week Two, Browns RB Montario Hardesty had just three carries, but head coach Pat Shurmur has indicated the club would like to get him more involved in the offense, and earlier than the fourth quarter, when Hardesty got those three carries at Indianapolis. "For us to win over a consistent time frame, we are going to need him, and so I need to play him sooner," Shurmur said, praising Hardesty's progress throughout training camp. We're told the Browns are high on Hardesty, GM Tom Heckert particularly, and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed.

• Look for Bengals second-year S Taylor Mays, who missed the first two games with a knee injury, to contribute primarily on special teams, as well as in a reserve role on defense, the way we hear it.

• The Texans' depth behind their starting bookend tackles, OLT Duane Brown and ORT Eric Winston, took a major hit this week when backup Rashad Butler was placed on I.R. with a ruptured triceps. If either Brown or Winston were to go down, the Texans would be forced to play rookie seventh-rounder Derek Newton or second-year veteran Andrew Gardner, who was called up from the practice squad this week.

• The way we hear it, the Texans continue to tread lightly with ILB DeMeco Ryans, who is still working his way into shape after offseason Achilles tendon surgery. Although Ryans is likely the club's best linebacker in coverage, he has come off the field more than usual on passing downs early in the season.

• As badly as Jaguars QB Luke McCown played in Week Two against the Jets, his receivers weren't much better. The Jacksonville receiving corps is not the first unit to get shut down by New York's talented secondary, but its depth was exposed with No. 2 WR Jason Hill and TE Marcedes Lewis both sidelined with injuries. In his first opportunity to make a splash, rookie WR Cecil Shorts was virtually invisible. Although it is extremely early, this looks like a position that will have to be strengthened in the offseason, particularly with so much invested in rookie triggerman Blaine Gabbert.

• Poor special-teams play by the Colts is hardly news, but it has been magnified early with Texans PR Jacoby Jones and Browns PR Joshua Cribbs burning the unit. We hear this ongoing issue is a systemic problem, as the club always depends on young, inexperienced players to get the job done.

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