Peyton Manning loses one of his key weapons

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Peyton Manning loses one of his key weapons

From Comcast SportsNetENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- The lockers of the running backs who might take Willis McGahee's spot in the Broncos lineup are conveniently lined up, four in a row.Lance Ball. Knowshon Moreno. Jeremiah Johnson. Ronnie Hillman.Barring an unlikely free agent signing, some combination of those four will be asked to fill in for the foreseeable future for Denver's leading rusher, McGahee, who tore a ligament in his right knee and will be out for what's expected to be a six-to-eight week stint."We've all got to step up and do our part," Hillman said. "Anyone can be an option."Coach John Fox said McGahee's injury, suffered in the second quarter of Denver's 30-23 victory over San Diego on Sunday, will not require surgery and that the Broncos had no immediate plans to put the 10th-year veteran on injured reserve. Asked about reports that McGahee had also fractured his leg, Fox said, "I don't want to get into too much of the exacts, other than he will not be on IR."By not putting him on injured reserve, the Broncos, at 7-3 and with a three-game lead in the AFC West, could be thinking about a playoff-time return for their leading rusher, who has 731 yards this year and was having one of his best games of the season -- 55 yards on seven carries -- before the injury Sunday.In the meantime, they must find a fill-in for McGahee, who was more reliable than explosive and spearheaded a 19th-ranked running game that's averaging 105.3 per contest. Unlike last season, when Tim Tebow was at the helm, the running game is more complimentary than integral to an offense now run by Peyton Manning.McGahee has built his career on adjusting to circumstances.Back in 2003, he was finishing his college career at Miami and was considered among the very top prospects. But in the Fiesta Bowl, he tore all the ligaments in his left knee. After multiple surgeries, McGahee fell to 23rd in the draft, and even then, he sat out his first NFL season while rehabilitating the knee.From there, he opened his career with three 1,000-yard seasons over his first four years. He went on to surpass 8,000 yards over a sturdy decade at a position where careers are often cut short. The Broncos are his third NFL team and he is ranked first among active players with 33 100-yard games."His leadership. Power running. You talk about a guy who gets you the tough yards. Those are things we're definitely going to miss," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "But there's a good young group behind him."Listed behind McGahee on last week's depth chart was Hillman, the NFL's youngest player at 21 years, 2 months, 5 days old. He's a third-round draft pick out of San Diego State who ran for 1,711 yards for the Aztecs last season and has slowly been getting more playing time with the Broncos as he has picked up the intricacies of NFL pass protection.At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he looks more like a so-called "change-of-pace" back, though offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said earlier this season that the Broncos hadn't slotted Hillman solely for that. Hillman said he could carry the ball 20 or more times if asked."If it happens, it happens. If not, I'll just come in and play my role," he said.The next candidate is Ball, a fourth-year veteran out of Maryland, who has been a dependable backup and special teams player but is still looking for his first NFL start. Shuttling in and out with Hillman after McGahee went down against the Chargers, Ball's biggest play of the day came when he slid over to block an oncoming Chargers linebacker, allowing Manning time to throw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker.Ball's biggest rushing game came last year at Kansas City -- where the Broncos play next -- when he ran 30 times for 96 yards after both McGahee and Moreno went out with injuries."I think we all have each other's back," Ball said. "If Ronnie needs to come out or if he feels like I need to step in for him, I think we keep it rolling. I think that's our mentality, is we keep the ball rolling."Moreno, the team's 2009 first-round draft pick, recovered from a torn knee ligament in that game at Kansas City last year and was expected to get playing time in 2012. He hasn't been on the active roster, however, since losing a fumble in Week 2 against Atlanta."That was weeks ago. I'm not thinking about that," Moreno said. "All I'm thinking about now is now, and doing the things I need to do to get on the field."Johnson, meanwhile, has been on Denver's practice squad all season -- a demotion of sorts after playing in eight games last season, rushing 14 times for 77 yards."That just gives you more of an attitude to go out there and work a little bit harder and show your teammates and the coaches that you're willing to do anything for that team," he said. "That's what I've been trying to display to my guys, and hopefully they've taken to it."Fox didn't rule out bringing running backs in for a look this week, though signing one would mean finding a roster spot for him. At least at this point, moving McGahee to IR didn't sound like a possibility."Right now, we feel really good about the guys we have," Fox said. "They've trained in our system. It's pretty extensive."Notes: Fox said CB Omar Bolden's (concussion) status would be evaluated day-to-day. ... LB D.J. Williams played 21 snaps in his return and made four tackles. "He had a couple of errors. Just like everybody, he's not perfect," Fox said. "I thought, all in all, he had a very good performance."

Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

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Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

More than four weeks have passed since the Sharks were dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau appear no closer to signing contract extensions than when the season ended. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson faces some of the toughest decisions of his 14-year tenure as the head of the hockey department in the coming weeks, beginning with the two best players in franchise history.

And, no, there are no back room handshake deals here between the Sharks and either of Thornton or Marleau, allowing the Sharks to protect extra players in the upcoming expansion draft. The two veterans are still pending unrestricted free agents in the truest sense, and it’s no certainty that either will return to San Jose.

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Re-signing Thornton would seem to be more of a priority than re-signing Marleau, as centermen are more valuable than wingers. Thornton’s line, with Joe Pavelski and whoever the left wing happened to be, was still drawing the opposition’s top defense pair on many nights this season. Marleau was on that line at times, but was shuffled up and down throughout the year, spending about half the season on the third line.

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL. As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final run, the World Cup, and the condensed schedule seemed to take their toll. Thornton, who typically downplays anything remotely negative, admitted more than once that this season in particular was a grind.

But perhaps just as important to the Sharks is what Thornton brings to the team emotionally. Pavelski may still be the captain – and an effective one, at that – but Thornton is still the heartbeat. Pete DeBoer made that clear after Game 2 of the first round against the Oilers, talking about what Thornton’s absence from the bench in those first two games meant to the team in terms of a bench presence.

“It’s old school accountability with Joe. It’s black and white,” DeBoer said. “He came up in an era and at a time and around people who you weren’t worried about hurting feelings. You said what needed to be said. That’s not always the case now in modern dressing rooms and with modern athletes. He’s a great resource for us, because there’s no greater pressure than peer pressure, especially from a Hall of Fame guy like that.”

So what might it take to retain Thornton and keep him from hitting the open market? 

It has been previously reported that Thornton wanted a three-year deal, and that remains the case. As for money, I would expect Thornton – who has taken hometown discounts in the past to stay in San Jose – to ask for at least $5 million per season, minimum. Our best guess here is that a Thornton-Sharks pre-July 1 agreement would probably look something like three years and somewhere between $15 – 17 million.

Whether the Sharks would be willing to make that kind of commitment to Thornton, who will be 38 in July, is unclear. If they are not, Thornton could listen to offers from other teams beginning on June 24, when the window opens for unrestricted free agents to speak with other teams.

Still, Thornton’s first choice is to remain in San Jose. The Sharks don’t have anyone that could replace him on or off the ice. There should be a deal to be made here, either sooner or later.

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Marleau’s future with the Sharks seems much hazier.

Unlike Thornton – who put up with public ridicule from Wilson and had his captaincy stripped – Marleau’s commitment to the organization hasn’t been quite as steadfast. Recall in 2015, of course, when Marleau’s preference for a brief stretch was to leave the Sharks. We reported here in November, 2015 that he was willing to accept a trade to three teams, while ESPN reported that Marleau’s agent was “quietly exploring the market” as late as January, 2016.

While those feelings seem to have passed over time, Marleau hasn’t been as emphatic as Thornton in his desire to return. When asked on April 24 if he would like to come back to the Sharks, Marleau said: “Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option. A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

At this point, though, Marleau may be asking for a bit much in his next deal. It’s believed that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is, like Thornton, seeking a contract of at least three years.

That shouldn’t be overly surprising. When asked then if he wanted a multi-year deal on April 24, Marleau said: “Yeah, I think so. … I still feel like I have at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

As we wrote here in early February, it may not make much sense for the Sharks to commit to Marleau for more than one year for a number of reasons, including potential long-term (and surely expensive) contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, something Wilson has made his top priority this offseason. 

If Marleau is seeking a lengthy commitment from San Jose, I don’t see how that works from a business perspective for San Jose, which has a number of prospects in the system at wing that could potentially fill the hole Marleau would leave. Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, in particular, could be ready to take the next step, and both would be much cheaper options (Meier has two years left on his entry level deal, while Sorensen is a pending restricted free agent that won’t require a huge raise).

* * *

Further complicating matters is that Thornton has never been shy about wanting to win with Marleau by his side. The two famously announced their nearly identical three-year contract extensions on Jan. 24, 2014, and Thornton would still prefer to have Marleau return to San Jose with him.

“Hopefully, I can come back and Patty can come back,” Thornton said after the season ended. “I think this team is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team. I really believe that."

Considering the salary cap for next season has not yet been revealed, and that Wilson can’t officially extend Jones or Vlasic until July 1, the general manager could be forced to wait a little while before finalizing anything with either Thornton or Marleau. That makes it all the more likely that the Thornton and Marleau camps will at least get an opportunity to hear from other clubs and consider other offers in late June.

In short, anything is still possible. And Wilson, Thornton and Marleau all have some difficult decisions on the horizon in a Sharks offseason that is unlike any other.

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.

Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.

But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.

Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.

The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):

Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.

Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.

Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.

Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.