AROUND THE NFL

The NFL is going to have an expanded class for its 2020 Hall of Fame contingent, with an emphasis on old timers.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Board of Trustees approved a special Centennial Class for 2020. That means the Class of 2020 could include 20 members.

 

The class could include as many as five modern-era players as well as 10 seniors — players retired for more than 25 seasons — three contributors and two coaches.

 

“You can imagine with 100 years of history behind us, there’s a belief among most of our selectors that there are so many deserving seniors that might have fallen between the cracks, or people don’t remember their history, that we can go back and look at and assess and examine again,” Hall of Fame president David Baker said Friday. “. . .We think it’s going to be very, very exciting.”

 

A special “blue-ribbon” panel of 25 people will select the ballot for the seniors, coaches and contributors at an in-person meeting in late December or early January after a reduction mail-in vote. The committee will include some of the 48 selectors, Hall of Famers and historians.

 

All 48 selectors will consider the 10 seniors, three contributors and two coaches in one singular unit on Selection Saturday. In other words, it’s an up or down vote for all 15 of those candidates.

 

The modern-era candidates will go through the traditional process of selection, with each one voted on individually.

 

The Centennial slate must receive a minimum positive vote of 80 percent to earn election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as must each modern-era finalist.

 

Baker will choose who and how many inductees are enshrined at the annual Enshrinement Ceremony the first weekend of August and who and how many are enshrined at a special Centennial Celebration in Canton in September 2020.

 

“This is an opportunity to catch up on perhaps some injustices,” Baker said. “We can’t have everybody in there that fans want, and I assure you that I get that mail and I get those phone calls. . . .It’s not the hall of very, very good. It’s the Hall of Fame, and it should be hard to make it into. But we think this is an opportunity that comes around every other lifetime — once in a 100 years — and we should celebrate the 100 years that this league has started here in Canton, Ohio, and has become a part of the fabric of America and the next 100 years, where can you imagine the things that are going to happen there.”

 

Mike Florio sees the new deal as advantageous for the candidacy of Paul Tagliabue and is somewhat suspicious of the whole deal.

 

Twice before, the Hall of Fame selectors have decided to reject former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. His next rejection could likewise trigger the rejection of 14 others.

 

The specific rules of the so-called Centennial Class, which is unabashedly being framed as a vehicle for fixing past mistakes and oversights, create an all-or-nothing dynamic, presenting the entire group as a single unit, with everyone or no one getting in.

 

Suspicion instantly has emerged in some circles that someone specifically crafted the rules as a way to guarantee Tagliabue’s inclusion. To keep Tagliabue (or anyone else on the list of 10 seniors, three contributors, and two coaches) out, the voters would have to keep everyone out.

 

Thus, as a practical matter, the Centennial Class will be determined by the hand-picked group of 25 who set the parameters of the 15 candidates — unless at least 20 percent of the total group of selectors decide to reject the entire approach and vote the entire class down.

 

And maybe they should. The bar for inclusion in Canton already is too low. Why have an amnesty year that grants admission to 15 that couldn’t get in through the normal course of consideration, simply because next year marks the 100th anniversary of the NFL? It felt like a political power play when the concept was first floated, and that sense becomes even stronger given that the full class of voters will be robbed of the chance to consider the candidates one by one, as it should be.

 

So, yes, maybe at least 20 percent of the selectors should come together right now and advise the powers-that-be that, absent the chance to vote on each of the 15 individually, the vote on all 15 will be no.

– – –

ESPN.com asks its correspondents to assess the first round QBs.  Edited version below:

 

Here’s an update from NFL Nation reporters in Arizona (Josh Weinfuss), New York (Jordan Raanan) and Washington (John Keim), analyzing how the young quarterbacks are faring thus far in training camp:

 

Kyler Murray, Cardinals

Highlights: Where to start? Murray has been showing off all facets of his game in training camp, especially during 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills, from his passing to his running to his poise to his understanding of the offense. He came into the NFL with a reputation as a top-tier passer, but he might be raising the expectations. He has been displaying an accuracy that allows him to put passes in tight windows, a velocity that has made it tough for defenders to get their hands on his passes and a touch that has seen defensive backs grasping flat-footed when Murray lofts a pass just out of reach, putting it where only the receiver can make a play.

 

When Murray has pulled the ball down to run or had a designed run, he has shown quickness and speed that should make him a dynamic quarterback.

Watch on ESPN+ » More »

 

Needs work: Murray has not struggled much early in camp. Sure, there are passes that are too high or too wide, but they have been rare.

 

Quote: “Early on, I really liked what I’ve seen because I think he can check a lot of those boxes. And, me, as an accurate quarterback when I played, I look for accuracy. And what does that mean? The biggest thing is, are most balls within the realm of what their receiver’s doing? It doesn’t mean you complete every pass. It doesn’t mean every 45-yard pass is perfect on the money, but you don’t see him overthrow guys by 10 yards. You don’t see him throw balls into the dirt. Everything is in the vicinity of his receiver. And that, to me, bodes well that he’s got a chance to be a really accurate quarterback.” — Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner

 

Daniel Jones, Giants

Highlights: Jones has experienced the standard rookie ups and downs, but what has stood out is his ability to throw the deep ball and his willingness to pull the trigger. There seems to be no fear in the No. 6 overall pick to make a mistake downfield, and his deep-ball accuracy has been impressive.

 

Jones has worked exclusively with the second team. Coach Pat Shurmur said recently that first-team snaps “might happen” at some point this summer. Regardless, it would take something crazy for Jones to be the Week 1 starter. He’s the backup, and the Giants would prefer to follow the Patrick Mahomes-Chiefs model and keep him behind Manning this season.

 

Still, the early returns at camp have been positive.

 

Needs work: Jones admitted that the biggest challenge has been that there is “a lot I haven’t seen before” in terms of defensive looks. This could explain why he has been up and down the past few days. Only some favorable bounces and good fortune prevented him from throwing a few more interceptions.

 

Quote: “Definitely he’s probably had some of the best deep balls at OTAs and camp of all the quarterbacks. He’s done a good job, man.” — Shepard

 

Dwayne Haskins, Redskins

Highlights: Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said that every day there’s a throw on which the coaches say, “no, no, no … nice throw.” They consider Haskins to have “special arm talent,” and that’s true, especially when he’s comfortable with the pre-snap read.

 

Sometimes his best throws don’t result in anything — running back Byron Marshall dropped a perfect ball from him on a wheel route the other day, for example.

 

On the same day, he threw a nice slot fade to receiver Trey Quinn against cornerback Josh Norman, putting it where only Quinn had a shot at the ball. Haskins has shown touch, too.

 

There are times when he might take an extra hitch on his throw, but because of his arm, he still gets the throw off on time.

 

Needs work: Gruden said the Redskins are focused on having Haskins be able to call the plays in the huddle more quickly, allowing him to get to the line faster and giving him more time to read the defense.

 

Haskins has struggled in two-minute situations.

 

He also needs work against the blitz — identifying it, adjusting protections and knowing where to throw. He could probably checkdown more, but the other aspects are what matter most to the Redskins. Because Haskins is a pocket passer, they want him more comfortable in all facets, knowing that unlike Murray, his legs will not bail him out of plays.

 

Quote: “The biggest hurdle for him is the limited time we have from the time we drafted him, just getting acclimated to our system … and how we can coach him to anticipate things, understand what he’s seeing before it happens. And once all that happens, if he shows he can go in the classroom, hear some information and apply it to the offense he’s already mastered, then you have to start thinking of him as a big-time option for us.” — Kevin O’Connell, Redskins offensive coordinator

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Bears DC Chuck Pagano has big shoes to fill as he takes over for Vic Fangio.  Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com:

 

Veteran coach Chuck Pagano understands the expectations associated with taking over an elite defense.

 

The Chicago Bears were so dominant on that side last year that it will be difficult for them to produce at the same level, likely through no fault of Pagano. Under Vic Fangio, who was named head coach of the Denver Broncos, the Bears led the league in takeaways (36), interceptions (27), interception returns for touchdowns (five), lowest passer rating (72.9), fewest rushing touchdowns (five), fewest first downs allowed (278), fewest total plays allowed of 20-plus yards (46), fewest rushing plays allowed of 10-plus yards (28), fewest points per game (17.7), fewest red zone drives allowed (40) and red zone takeaways (six).

 

No pressure, right?

 

“We all know what we signed up for,” Pagano said on Thursday. “Players and coaches, we understand what the expectations are. It’s really change the changeable, except the unchangeable, right? And remove whatever’s not good. So we’re going to work our tails off and do the best we can day in and day out. Exhaust all resources to make sure we don’t do ‘this’ and we keep doing ‘this’ and make sure that this team is successful and we do our job.”

 

Not that Pagano is complaining. The ex-Colts head coach inherits a defense that returns four Pro Bowlers, including Khalil Mack — one of the game’s best players on either side of the ball.

 

“I walked into the very best situation — I said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times — that anybody could walk into,” Pagano said. “Now it’s just my job, our job, the staff’s job, we always talk about us. It’s unity over self. It’s all of us. Team first. It’s Coach Nagy’s vision. It’s just our job to make sure that we do the right thing and put these guys in the right spots so that they can play fast and continue to build on the foundation that’s already been laid.”

 

 

DETROIT

Don’t say WR KENNY GOLLADAY didn’t tell you to draft him for your Fantasy team.  Dave Birkett in the Detroit Free Press:

 

Kenny Golladay heard the news. How could he not?

 

Michael Thomas became the highest-paid receiver in NFL history early Wednesday morning, agreeing to a five-year, $100 million extension with the New Orleans Saints that raised the antenna of every other pass catcher in the league.

 

Asked about Thomas’ record-setting contract after practice Wednesday, Golladay smiled and nodded assuringly, knowing he’s perhaps a year away from landing his own life-changing deal.

 

“I like that,” Golladay said. “I’m happy for him. I want all these receivers to get paid.”

 

NFL players must wait three years to renegotiate their rookie contracts under the current collective bargaining agreement, and Golladay is as good a bet as any to hit a windfall in 2020.

 

First, he’s a mid-round pick who, like Thomas — a second-round pick by the Saints in 2016 — quickly outplayed his rookie deal. Second and more importantly, he’s an ascending player who’s gotten better every year he’s been on the field.

 

 “I look at it like this, man,” Golladay said. “As long as I do like I do on the field, all the other contract negotiations, I’m going to leave that up to my agent and everything and that’s going to take care of itself. As long as I’m out there making plays then I just know I put my best foot forward to set myself up for success.”

 

Golladay has had a meteoric rise since signing with FCS power North Dakota out of high school.

 

He spent two years at North Dakota before transferring to Northern Illinois. He led the Mid-American Conference in receptions per game as a senior. He was a third-round pick by the Lions in 2017. And after an injury-interrupted rookie season, he had a breakout 2018 where he emerged as Matthew Stafford’s favorite target.

 

Last year, Golladay led the Lions with 70 catches, 1,063 yards receiving and a 15.2-yard per catch average.

 

“It’s just the beginning, I feel like,” Golladay said. “I’m still growing as a receiver. I’m only coming into my third year. I’m still young in the game and I understand that and the coaches, they remind me of that all the time. I don’t ever want to get a big head, so if it’s out there taking extra reps or staying after practice and doing extra I’m all for it.”

 

Golladay took on an expanded role on offense last season, not just from a workload standpoint but in what he was asked to do.

 

He lined up at every receiver spot on the field, including the slot, and Lions coach Matt Patricia said the team is working on different ways to deploy Golladay this fall.

 

“For us it was how do we just get him in good positions,” Patricia said. “We’re kind of running out of different ways to do that, so it becomes even more difficult as we go forward. I think defenses are going to be dialed in to where he’s at work, what’s he doing, what he does well. So that’s going to be a hard (thing this year) where he’s going to see coverages that he’s never seen before and that’ll be a big challenge for him from that standpoint.”

– – –

Golladay said he has several goals in mind for this season. And while he wouldn’t share them, they’re not the “crazy” Julio Jones-type 3,000-yard season ones, either.

 

“I for sure, like any receiver would say, I can be a 100-catch guy,” Golladay said. “But I’m not just going to demand the ball every play just so I can get 100 catches. I’m going to do whatever I need to do to help the team.”

 

More: Detroit Lions observations: The dreaded conditioning hill, Stafford’s latest pick

 

The Lions should have more options in the passing game this fall, from Jones, who’s healthy after missing seven games with a knee injury last year, to new slot receiver Danny Amendola and a host of new tight ends.

 

But still a few months shy of his 26th birthday, Golladay should be a major player on an offense the Lions hope will be much improved, and if that happens he’ll have plenty to look forward to in 2020.

 

“I know everyone else has high expectations for me as well, but their expectations isn’t as high as mine,” Golladay said. “I feel like I just got a lot to prove. I don’t know if people think I’ve already proven a lot. I don’t think I have. I’m still trying to do what I got to do.”

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

A bad back for G ZACK MARTIN.  Jon Machota of The Athletic tweets:

 

Zack Martin’s back has been bothering him. He will get an MRI. He did not take part in the morning walk-through

 

 

WASHINGTON

T TRENT WILLIAMS feels no pressure to return to the Redskins.  Craig Hoffman of FanDC Radio:

 

The Washington Post revealed Thursday that Redskins left tackle Trent Williams demanded a trade on June 1. 106.7 The Fan has not yet been able to independently confirm that exact detail, but a source close to Williams said he had been mulling it around that time and “wouldn’t be surprised.”

 

That request was rebuffed by the team as Williams is still a Redskin and currently on the Reserve/Did Not Report list. The Post reported a subsequent request for a raise was also denied.

 

People on both sides of the standoff have indicated that there haven’t been any recent discussions. The team doesn’t know what Williams wants, whether that be specifics of a new contract or changes along the medical staff.

 

The medical issue stems not only from the misdiagnosis of a tumor on Williams’ head that was surgically removed this offseason, but the handling of his knee and thumb injuries over the past two seasons.

 

Frustration from the injuries, their aftermath and a lack of winning boiled over, resulting in the trade request, but the relationship isn’t so far beyond repair that the seven-time Pro Bowler is a lock to never play in Washington again.

 

The team is somewhat confused with Williams’ request because they don’t know what he wants. A source familiar with their thinking indicated he has not demanded specific changes on the medical staff, and Williams’ side has been silent in attempts to negotiate a new contract. A source familiar with Williams’ thinking indicated he wouldn’t demand to be the highest paid tackle in the NFL, but does want more guaranteed money. He currently has two years remaining on his contract, but next year’s $12.5 million base salary isn’t guaranteed.

 

As of now, both sides are dug in. Williams has made nearly $100 million in his career and has taken care of his finances in a way that he and his family are set. The Redskins’ reported hope to squeeze him financially with fines aren’t yet having an effect, but that could change. The amount of money Williams has accrued in fines, while significant, doesn’t equal one of his game checks. Those start coming Week 1. As of now, Williams is telling friends he’s prepared to sit out the season.

 

However, Williams still isn’t ready to play football yet. The cosmetic surgeries that were required to fix his head limited his ability to workout in the offseason. While Williams is in Los Angeles rapidly getting into shape, he isn’t there yet. When he is ready to play, his competitive nature could certainly kick in and his stomach to hold out could change.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Falcons GM Thomas Dmitroff has no problem using the big money contract of WR MICHAEL THOMAS as a floor for his negotiations with WR JULIO JONES.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

Michael Thomas became the highest-paid receiver in the league on Wednesday, but how long will the New Orleans Saints receiver hold the mantle? And will an NFC South foe take it from him?

 

That’s the expectation from the Atlanta Falcons and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who are in the throes of contract extension negotiations with star receiver Julio Jones.

 

Dimitroff told NFL Network on Thursday night ahead of the Hall of Fame Game that their talks with Jones’ team have been productive and they expect to reach a deal eventually that will see Jones supplant Thomas.

 

“We know what Julio is in this league. We have a very good idea of approximately where he’s going to be, which I won’t share specifically,” Dimitroff said. “The good thing is we’ve never been held by our owner to be limiting someone and we’re very good with our football players here. We feel very proud of how we approach it.

 

“And again, where we approach it with Julio, we look at everything, of course. We believe that he should be the highest-paid player — sorry, I did not say player — the highest-paid receiver in the league. And I know he believes that. It’s just how we’re going to approach this and how we’re going to get it done. I believe it’s right around the corner but I don’t want know when it is.”

 

Thomas broke the bank with a five-year, $100 million extension with $61 million in guarantees. The Saints receiver now leads all receivers in annual average value, while Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham paces wideouts with $65M guaranteed.

 

That Jones will be in Atlanta long-term is not a question. Both sides have expressed optimism that an extension will get done. Unlike Thomas, who held out before sealing his deal, Jones showed up to and has been participating in Falcons training camp this month.

 

 

“We want Julio here for the rest of his career, whatever that is,” Dimitroff said Thursday. “I know you were going to ask me, Where are you? We’re still working on it. I’m not worried about it. We’re not concerned about it. We have a great working relationship, not only with Julio, but with CAA and with Jimmy Sexton. We’re communicating well. We’re not worried about the timeframe of it. … So there’s not a major rush here.”

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

QB KYLER MURRAY eats pressure for breakfast.  Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com:

 

Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray said Thursday that he doesn’t feel pressure — at all — but he understands that if he doesn’t perform, there’ll be plenty of people not happy with him.

 

“I got to go out and play well,” Murray said. “And if I don’t, then people are gonna be mad, I’m gonna be mad, everybody’s gonna be mad. So, my focus is play well.”

 

He sees the chatter, whether it’s through news on his phone or on TV while he’s eating dinner, but the first overall pick in this year’s draft isn’t letting that affect him.

 

“I don’t feel pressure,” Murray said.

 

Murray is set to play in his first preseason game next Thursday against the Los Angeles Chargers. He doesn’t expect to play “too much” but wants to “get out there, get a feel for the game and let it rip a little.”

 

As Murray enters his second week of training camp, he’s finding out what it’s like to be a professional football player. He doesn’t have school to worry about. His life has become all football, all the time.

 

“It’s been fun,” Murray said. “It’s a little different. Schedule’s a little easier just because this is what we love to do. This is what I love to do, so for me, it’s easy to just wake up and play football and worry about football.”

 

Murray also has learned during training camp that the NFL is faster than the college game, especially professional defensive backs.

 

“I think that’s probably one of the biggest adjustments is windows are tighter,” Murray said. “You got to anticipate things a lot more. But that makes it fun. College, you know, dudes would be wide open. It’d be really easy stuff like that. It’s part of being in the NFL.”

 

But the 21-year-old said he is already feeling more comfortable overall.

 

He has better understanding of the offensive concepts, what the offensive line is doing, what he should be doing against certain looks and what everyone else on the field is doing.

 

“We’re just kind of honing in on that and,” he said, “sharpening up on those things.”

 

AFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

With the Chargers showing no sign of wanting to pony up $10 million per for RB MELVIN GORDON, he has had his agent ask for a trade.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com does not see a market.

 

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon reportedly has asked for a trade. OK, so who will trade for him?

 

It’s a two-step process that will require a team to be willing both to give the Chargers acceptable trade compensation, and to pay Gordon the contract that the Chargers currently aren’t inclined to give him.

 

Some have mentioned the Buccaneers as a destination, but new coach Bruce Arians has made it clear that he’s not going to sink a bunch of resources into the position. Few teams are willing to do that, especially for a running back who isn’t one of the top three or four in the league.

 

That’s the problem Gordon will face, even if the Chargers ever authorize his agents to shop the player. Between what the Chargers will want and what Gordon will want, it won’t make sense to make that kind of investment in a veteran — especially when every draft class includes plenty of guys who can move the chances for an investment far lower than what it will take to get Gordon.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. has no problem, at the moment, if QB BAKER MAYFIELD barks at him.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

 

Odell Beckham joked about Baker screaming at the WRs: “I hate being yelled at.” In seriousness, “when you have a QB like Baker, you want to work for him”

 

 

PITTSBURGH

QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER is liking his current teammates.  Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

 

It seemed like a curious comment coming from a quarterback entering his 16th NFL season who has won two Super Bowls and owns every significant team passing record.

 

“I feel like I love football again,” Ben Roethlisberger said.

 

It was the “again” part that merited an explanation.

 

“I don’t know if I can put my finger on a particular reason, but it just feels that way,” Roethlisberger said Thursday at Steelers training camp in Latrobe.

 

 “I always love doing it, but I think loving it but having fun doing it, I think a lot of things can contribute to it. You get a rejuvenated feel at this point in your career. You can either just go through the motions or you get it going. I feel like I got it going.”

 

A lot of people are noticing, including his teammates.

 

Several Steelers players have remarked over the past couple days how relaxed and much fun Roethlisberger appears to be having at Saint Vincent College. It would be easy to suggest the departure of Antonio Brown and some of the consternation that went with his presence is a big reason for Roethlisberger’s attitude.

 

Or perhaps it’s the calm I’ll-show-you determination that comes from having a lot of unfounded national criticism directed at him about his leadership and his apparent bad relationship with his former All-Pro receiver in the offseason.

 

But none of that was ever mentioned by Roethlisberger. If anything, the drudgery of another training camp — his 16th, five years more than his next closest teammate (Ramon Foster) — could have the opposite effect. Or, as Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro wryly noted, “Camp is camp.”

 

Still, there seems to be an extra bounce in the quarterback’s step this year.

 

“It’s not easy, but it’s not forced, its natural,” Roethlisberger said when asked bout his demeanor at training camp. “I think, in part, it’s my faith, my family, the guys out here, the new contract for three years. There’s a lot of peace in my life right now and I’m enjoying it.”

 

And his teammates are taking note. Tight end Vance McDonald, who is in his second full camp with the Steelers and has a locker next to Roethlisberger at the team’s South Side practice facility, said, “Just his whole approach and demeanor is completely different this year. I think he’s on fire.”

 

Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who protects Roethlisberger’s blind side, said Roethlisberger’s attitude is “contagious” and remarkable to see after so many training camps.

 

“Ben has always been an amazing player to play for because he transmits a lot of that competitive edge to the players,” Villanueva said. “You don’t know if you should be competitive all the time [in practice] and when you play with Ben, you realize you have to be competitive all the time.

 

“For him to come out to practice every day … come out in all the periods, give the best he can, is something that’s contagious to us younger guys that are following his lead.”

 

Example: In the afternoon practice on Wednesday, Roethlisberger ran a quarterback sneak from his own 1-yard line and, because the defensive players are not allowed to touch him, he continued to run 99 yards for a playful touchdown. Along the way, he exchanged laterals with JuJu Smith-Schuster before spiking the ball in the end zone.

 

“You just try to get through it,” DeCastro said. “The older you get the more fun you have with it to get through it.”

 

But none of that should be mistaken for any lack of competitive desire on Roethlisberger’s part.

 

“I don’t know that it will ever leave me,” said Roethlisberger, who led the NFL in attempts (675), completions (452), passing yards (5,129) and interceptions (16) in 2018. “That’s just something that drives me. I can go out there and act like, ‘OK, guys, let’s just try to learn some things.’ But once I get going, then the juices get flowing and you want to win.”

 

Those juices include feeling rejuvenated.

 

“I told my wife when I was home the other day, she was asking how it was going,” he said. “I said I feel like I love football again. She got a big smile on her face and said it made her happy to hear that.”

 

Probably a lot of others, too.

– – –

And this evidence that QB AARON RODGERS of the Packers isn’t the only Game of Thrones fan in the NFL (warning – spoilers).

 

The divisive “Game of Thrones” series finale is apparently still causing arguments two-and-a-half months later, even at Steelers training camp.

 

Wednesday’s training camp included a brief skirmish between left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and defensive end Cam Heyward that was quickly diffused.

 

On Thursday, Villanueva said the fight was over the two players’ opposing views of the “Thrones” finale.

 

“It was about ‘Game of Thrones,’” Villanueva told media in Latrobe. “I think that the ending, they could’ve done better, and Cam is convinced it’s the greatest TV show of all time.”

 

Villanueva got into specifics about what he didn’t appreciate about how the HBO juggernaut wrapped up its main story lines.

 

“I just think Jon Snow should not have been sent north of the Wall,” he said. “After everything that he did for the Seven Kingdoms, to get that treatment, it’s just, you know. Cam thought that was a fair punishment for killing Daenerys [Targaryen], and yeah, that’s all it was.”

 

“Thrones” ended with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) leaving his post with the Night’s Watch and riding beyond the Wall with a group of Wildlings. The controversial part is that he was sentenced to go back to the Night’s Watch after killing his lover (and aunt) Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) after she and her dragon burned King’s Landing to the ground.

 

Some fans felt that sending Jon back to the Wall was a weird choice given that the army that was angry at him for killing their queen left Westeros and the fact the Night’s Watch is theoretically unnecessary now that the White Walkers have been wiped out and the Wildlings are allies.

 

When asked if his “Thrones” finale opinion is really what started the fight, Heyward paused, closed his eyes and said “no comment” with a big laugh.

 

As Ned Stark would say, “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Whether this was truly the cause of the altercation or just Heyward and Villanueva having fun, these two appear to be just fine.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

The Patriots are signing WR CAMERON MEREDITH who was cut by the Saints earlier this week.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

ADAM SCHEIN’s TOP 10

Adam Schein of NFL.com gets all exacerbated by the NFL.com Top 10 as voted by the players.  Then, he makes his picks which are much the same except for some slotting.  On his list, we have boldfaced the players who are also in the players’ top 10.

 

Really?? Really?!?!

 

NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2019” — as voted on by the players themselves — concluded Wednesday night, and this is their top 10?!

 

10) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

9) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

8) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

7) Antonio Brown, WR, Oakland Raiders

6) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

5) Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

4) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

3) Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago Bears

2) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

1) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

 

The actual NFL players came up with these rankings? Not a group of Pop Warner kids?

 

I make it a life goal to not get offended by rankings and lists. Well I’m offended.

 

Look, obviously all of these guys are great players. That goes without saying. But we’re talking about the absolute best of the best here. And I can’t let some of the players’ hierarchical hiccups go.

 

Drew Brees ahead of Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady? The best receiver in the NFL not cracking the top 10? The best running back not even making the top 15?

 

According to the players, Brees is currently the second-best player in the entire league. He’d be third on my list of New Orleans Saints, behind Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.

 

Speaking of my personal preferences, well, that’s why we’re here today. I’m here to correct the record by providing my own ranking of the NFL’s top 10 players in 2019. You’re welcome.

 

10) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

I gave Elliott the nod over Bobby Wagner by a hair. It was tough. I think Wagner is a Hall of Famer in the middle of the Seahawks defense. But Zeke is the best running back in the NFL.

 

Elliott has been in the NFL for three years, and he’s averaged the most rushing yards per game in each, winning a pair of rushing titles in the process. Not to mention, he hauled in a career-high 77 passes last season. Elliott impacts the entire Cowboys team. He’s not a running back, he’s a weapon. He’s the engine that makes this thing go. Not surprisingly, he accounted for a higher percentage (34.2) of his team’s total scrimmage yards than any other player in the NFL last season.

 

Now about that contract, Jerry … Pay the man!

 

9) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

Too low? Too high? Brady is the single greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL. And while signal-callers like Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson provided better individual production in 2018, Tom Brady is Tom Brady. He still dominates, maximizes the Patriots talent and comes up huge in big moments — like on Championship Sunday this past January. The guy is 30-10 in the postseason.

 

Any list of NFL elites without Brady would be incomplete. The six-time Super Bowl champion oozes greatness and just wins. The end.

 

8) Antonio Brown, WR, Oakland Raiders

Brown’s a legend. He has put together a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. AB’s numbers are off the charts over the last six years, when he has averaged 114 catches for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns. Last year, he logged an NFL-best 15 TDs in 15 games.

 

So, how will he fare after the relocation to Oakland? Expect more of the same. The 31-year-old’s still in his prime and will dominate in Year 1 with Jon Gruden’s Raiders.

 

7) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

Thomas has hands of crazy glue. No receiver in NFL history has piled up as many catches in his first three seasons as Thomas (321). His catch rate in 2018 (a mind-bending 85 percent, with 125 grabs on 147 targets) easily topped the league. That allowed Thomas to lead the NFL in catches despite ranking outside of the top 10 in targets.

 

And now, the 2016 second-round pick is the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, having inked a five-year, $100 million extension on Wednesday. Good for him. The dude’s unstoppable.

 

6) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

The word gets tossed around loosely nowadays, but this cat is a true, unadulterated freak. Julio’s the ultimate blend of size, toughness, hands, athleticism, professionalism and pure domination. When Jones is doubled, he’s wide open. And he has no ego, making him an ideal cornerstone player for the Falcons. Which is why, yes, he should — and will — get the new deal he desires.

 

Having just led the NFL in receiving yards for the second time in the past four years, Jones has now eclipsed 1,400 yards in five straight seasons — no other player, not even Jerry Rice, has accomplished such a feat. Did I mention he’s the all-time leader in receiving yards per game (96.7)?

 

5) Khalil Mack, OLB, Chicago Bears

The Bears sack artist strikes fear in the opposition. He was like a wind-up toy upon arrival in Chicago, seemingly sacking the quarterback the moment he got off the airplane at O’Hare. There is no doubt in my mind that his 12.5 sacks last season — the most by a Bear since Richard Dent in 1993 — were just the starting point. He’s a true game-wrecker, having logged six forced fumbles and a pick-six last year.

 

Mack’s the focal point of a spectacular defense that also features 2018 Pro Bowlers Kyle Fuller, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson. It’s a ferocious unit, with Mack as the tip of the spear. Vic Fangio, now head coach of the Broncos, will be missed. But yeah, Chuck Pagano will do just fine with Mack and Co. at his disposal.

 

4) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

Who’s the best wide receiver in the NFL today? There’s only one answer. Hopkins is everything you want in a wideout. I mean, back in 2015, the man put up a stat line of 111/1,521/11 while catching balls from the four-QB clown car of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden. Now that he has a real quarterback in Deshaun Watson, it’s no surprise to see him post a 2018 line of 115/1,572/11.

 

Oh, and he doesn’t drop the ball. Ever. Pro Football Focus started charting drops back in 2007, and Hopkins just set the record for most catches in a season without a single drop. We’re talkin’ vise-grip hands, people.

 

3) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

Here’s the deal: Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback in NFL history. He’s healthy. Thus, he should be flat-out amazing in 2019. I only say “should” because we’ll have to wait and see how Rodgers jells with Matt LaFleur. But the first-time head coach can’t screw this up — Rodgers is just too gifted.

 

His career passer rating of 103.1 is the highest in NFL history. His career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.23 (338:80) is the highest in NFL history. Are you catching the trend here?

 

2) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Mahomes is the most exciting player in sports right now. He just hit 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his first year as an NFL starter, taking home league MVP honors at age 23. I still don’t think we truly appreciate just how absurd that is. It’s scary to think how good this guy can become, because he’s just getting started. His skill set and commitment to greatness are spectacular. Would anyone be surprised if he repeated as MVP in 2019? Didn’t think so.

 

It’s not like Mahomes benefited from hot streaks, either. His entire season was a hot streak. SEE: Thirteen games with a passer rating of 100-plus. In today’s pass-happy, breakneck-paced NFL, Mahomes is a golden-armed king.

 

1) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

OK, kudos to the players: They got the No. 1 spot right.

 

Donald is unstoppable, unblockable and the NFL might have to rename the Defensive Player of the Year award after him. He recently told the press that he expects to play better in September because he is at his first training camp in three years. Frightening. Donald sacked the quarterback 20.5 times last year — as a defensive tackle!

 

There are a bunch of fine defensive players in the NFL in 2019, but Donald’s just on another level. Since 2015, he’s hit the quarterback 136 times — that’s 30 (!) more than Von Miller’s second-place total.

 

So he has EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, DeANDRE HOPKINS and MICHAEL THOMAS in and DREW BREES, TODD GURLEY and VON MILLER out.

 

We agree that Brees seemed to slip a tad in 2018 and no longer should be there. And we are glad to put Hopkins in there.

 

We would take Gurley over Elliott if Gurley was healthy, which he may not be.

 

And between Michael Thomas and Von Miller, we don’t really see it being a big deal which one is in and which one is out.

 

 

2ND-YEAR BREAKOUTS

Field Yates of ESPN.com on who he thinks is ticketed for a breakout season from the crop of 2nd year players:

 

Let’s do our annual look at players in their second pro season who profile as possible breakout candidates in 2019.

 

Before we do, a list of those whose rookie merits were substantial enough to exclude from this list: (Sequon) Barkley, Baker Mayfield, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, Calvin Ridley and Phillip Lindsay.

 

DJ Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers

2018 stats: 55 receptions, 788 yards, 2 TDs

 

We saw some real signs of stardom from Moore, who snatched 32 catches over the final seven games of his rookie season. What we know about Moore despite a small sample size is that he’s reliable and explosive: He had just one drop last season on 80 total targets and — among 82 qualified wide receivers — led the league in yards after the catch per reception at an exceptional 7.69 figure, 73.9% above the NFL average for wideouts. The speedy 22-year-old should see more volume with Devin Funchess now in Indianapolis, and he profiles as my favorite of the Panthers’ young pass-catchers.

 

Christian Kirk, WR, Arizona Cardinals

2018 stats: 43 receptions, 590 yards, 3 TDs

 

The fact that Kirk was able to make an impact last season for a dismal Arizona offense is anecdotal evidence enough, as the Cardinals averaged just 4.28 yards per play, the worst such rate since 2012. There’s nowhere to go but up, yet Kirk still managed at least eight points in seven of his final eight games. That’s not a gaudy metric, but if we assume a more fast-paced, voluminous passing game under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury — whose offenses normally played a massive number of snaps at Texas Tech — it’s reasonable to assume Kirk’s numbers will follow. And as a player, there’s a lot to like: He is solid after the catch, a technically sound route-runner and has good hands. Kyler-to-Kirk sounds fun.

 

Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins

2018 stats: Missed season due to ACL tear

 

There are legitimate health concerns here, part of why I selected Guice as my bust candidate for 2019 based off where he’s going in drafts. This isn’t an effort to speak out of both sides of my mouth; Guice has an abundance of natural talent that was on display prior to his injury suffered in a preseason game last August. Adrian Peterson was a successful addition for Washington and figures to be in the mix again this season, but if — if — Guice is fully healthy and able to handle an expanded role, he’s due for fantasy goodness.

 

Courtland Sutton, WR, Denver Broncos

2018 stats: 42 receptions, 704 yards, 4 TDs

 

We saw quite a bit of Sutton last season, as he made an immediate impression during training camp and was thrust into more action after Demaryius Thomas was traded to the Texans. What immediately stood out from Sutton was the big-play ability, as he finished seventh in the NFL with 16.8 yards per reception. He was one of three young wideouts — DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick, too — to log extended time for the Broncos. Sutton remains the one whose upside I believe in most, particularly with what seems to be the inside track on the No. 2 job (or even lead job if Emmanuel Sanders is not fully ready for Week 1).

 

Dante Pettis, WR, San Francisco 49ers

2018 stats: 27 receptions, 467 yards, 5 TDs

 

Much of what happened in San Francisco offensively last season had to do with the injury to Jimmy Garoppolo. Even so, Pettis made his mark with Nick Mullens (who, yes, did show well in his first NFL action) under center, posting a three-game streak of seven or more targets and a receiving touchdown in each affair. The only players with a longer such streak last season were Antonio Brown, Adam Thielen, Christian McCaffrey and Keenan Allen. Not bad. Neither was Pettis’ 17.3 yards per catch, fifth-best among the 212 players with at least 20 catches. The 49ers’ offense figures to be more explosive this offseason, which should lend itself to more scores for Pettis.

 

Kalen Ballage, RB, Miami Dolphins

2018 stats: 191 yards, TD, 9 receptions, 56 yards

 

Ballage’s rookie season was one predicated upon patience, as 27 of his 36 carries came during a three-week December stretch. With Frank Gore gone, Ballage is going toe-to-toe with Kenyan Drake for the starting gig, which might actually prevail as a workshare. That being said, his physical traits are hard to miss at 6-foot-2 and nearly 240 pounds with very good speed, and the role might just be savory enough that he becomes a viable weekly lineup cog. His early strong start in training camp has drawn plenty of attention.

 

Keke Coutee, WR, Houston Texans

2018 stats: 28 receptions, 287 yards, TD

 

When Coutee played as a rookie, he got the ball. He had four games in which he ran 15 or more routes and was targeted on a massive 27.3% of said routes. The sample size is small, but if that were to have taken place over the full course of the season, Coutee’s 27.3% would have been seventh-best among wideouts. He’s a slot wideout who can be a vacuum for the football, and he plays with an outstanding quarterback. The last time we saw Coutee, he gobbled up 11 catches for 110 yards in the playoffs against the Colts. Volume will be his friend.

 

Michael Gallup, WR, Dallas Cowboys

2018 stats: 33 catches, 507 yards, 2 TDs

 

We saw Gallup’s growth in his rookie season, as he emerged as a vertical threat for the Cowboys with 15.4 yards per reception. In Weeks 1-5, he ran just 14.2 routes per game, a number that ballooned to 30.9 in Weeks 6-17, a clear sign of his progress. He ranked 11th in the NFL in air yards per target last season, and his 31.2% target share on deep passes for Dallas ranked ahead of established deep threat T.Y. Hilton of the Colts. Expect Gallup to remain busy as the No. 2 wideout in Dallas, despite the fact that this is a run-oriented offense. He’s an exciting player.

 

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, Green Bay Packers

2018 stats: 38 receptions, 581 yards, 2 TDs

 

There’s been plenty of optimism surrounding MVS, who seems like a legitimate candidate to be the second wideout in Green Bay. The argument is simple if such takes place: Aaron Rodgers, back to being healthy, is still one of the best players on the planet, and the numbers for his No. 2 pass-catcher are legit — in three of Rodgers’ past five healthy seasons, Green Bay’s second wideout has finished as a top-20 fantasy scorer on a per-game basis. Valdes-Scantling should be a useful weapon in the red zone, where Rodgers owns a 59-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past three seasons. He flashed quite a bit of talent last season.

 

Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets

2018 stats: 239 of 414 (57.7%), 2,865 yards, 17 TDs, 15 INTs

 

It was a rookie season of peaks and valleys for Darnold, exemplified by a pick-six on his first career pass before he guided the Jets to a season-opening win. A foot injury affected Darnold in the second half of the season, but when it finally got right and he returned to the field, it was with a six-touchdown, one-interception stretch of three games. The Jets bolstered their offense with Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder, which should lend itself well to easy yards for Darnold via the short passing game.

 

James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

2018 stats: 16 receptions, 217 yards, TD

 

No team does a better job of finding talent in the NFL draft at wide receiver than the Steelers, as general manager Kevin Colbert has a keen evaluation eye for that spot. Entering training camp, there’s a gaping hole at the second wideout spot for Pittsburgh that Washington — a 2018 second-round selection — projects to be in the mix for. Should he secure that job, consider that the Steelers have the most passing yards over the past three seasons in the NFL, and over the past five seasons they are fifth in total red zone snaps. The NFL’s target leader over the past three seasons (Antonio Brown) is gone, and someone needs to step up. Washington has drawn praise from teammates this offseason for his progress.

 

Chris Herndon, TE, New York Jets

2018 stats: 39 receptions, 502 yards, 4 TDs

 

A four-game suspension to begin the season unquestionably affects the value of Herndon, but there’s a lot to like about his game based off what we saw last season. He ranked fourth among tight ends in air yards per target (10.3) and seventh in yards per catch (12.9). We noted Darnold’s expected improvement earlier in this piece, which will invariably tie to Herndon’s game as well. While the Jets did invest in playmakers on offense, there’s a clear path for him to dominate the tight end snaps upon his return from suspension and be a middle-of-the-field chains-mover.

 

Others of note: Anthony Miller, Bears; Trey Quinn, Redskins; Hayden Hurst, Ravens; Dallas Goedert, Eagles; Mark Andrews, Ravens; Mike Gesicki, Dolphins; DJ Chark, Jaguars; DaeSean Hamilton, Broncos; Antonio Callaway, Browns; Deon Cain, Colts; Braxton Berrios, Patriots

 

 

10 TO START A TEAM

55 of ESPN’s “experts” – some indeed experts, some junior sportswriters – were asked to each vote on 10 players they would draft to start a team for the ages (or at least the next three years).  So Mahomes as QB and not Brees or Rivers.

 

Welcome to the inaugural NFL Pick 10, in which we asked 55 ESPN writers and analysts to play general manager. The rules are simple: They each picked 10 players to start an NFL team from scratch and win for the next three seasons. Any 10 players. No salary-cap rules, no position restrictions, no trades. It’s an exercise in team building for the future, and it requires three crucial clarifications:

 

* Aside from the 10 players, they were told to assume every other player is replacement-level. So consider this question: If you don’t take a single O-lineman, will your star QB stay healthy?

 

* Health and age matter. Our voters are trying to win the next three seasons (and the playoffs). Will their roster be intact in 2022? Are players set to peak, or set to decline?

 

* Players are picked in order of importance to the general manager.

 

So whom did our 55 experts take for their team? Here’s what our consensus top 10 looks like — based on ranked-choice voting — plus surprise storylines and a full positional breakdown.

 

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs

No. of ballots: 42 of 55 | No. 1 votes: 37

 

Mahomes was picked No. 1 overall 37 times on our 55 ballots, as voters put a high emphasis on his positional value and health certainty — he won’t turn 24 until September. He has a 5,000-yard season, a 50-touchdown season, an All-Pro season and an MVP. Again: He’s 23. A question mark: Aside from one special fourth quarter, he was pretty average over two playoff games. The voters believe he’ll check that box for this team.

 

Why did you pick Mahomes at No. 1?

 

“Mahomes is a magician when he breaks the pocket, but there was nothing illusory about his 50-touchdown season; he possesses the physical and mental tools required to become an all-time great and is an easy first pick.” — Mina Kimes, senior writer

 

“A ridiculously explosive playmaker, Mahomes already has an MVP award on his mantle despite appearing in only 17 games.” — Mike Clay, fantasy writer

 

“I’ll answer this with a question: Have you watched him play?” — Jason Reid, The Undefeated senior writer

 

2. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

No. of ballots: 53 of 55 | No. 1 votes: 8

 

So why does Donald end up No. 2 when he was on more ballots than Mahomes? It’s simple — Mahomes lapped the field in No. 1 votes (37), while Donald dominated in No. 2 votes (34). He had eight votes for No. 1, as some voters noted that, statistically, he’s far more unique than Mahomes. Donald is 28, but voters believe he’ll maintain his brilliance for the next three years, and maybe they’re on to something; Donald appears to be getting better. He leaped to 20.5 sacks last season, his fourth straight as an All-Pro.

 

Why did you pick Donald at No. 1?

 

“No need to overthink this — Donald is the most dominant defensive force in the league, and he’s in his prime.” — Jake Trotter, Browns reporter

 

“A championship team is built around great defense, and Donald is the most disruptive interior pass-rusher in the NFL.” — Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter

 

“Count me among those who think Donald stakes a good claim to being the best player in the NFL, considering that in back-to-back seasons, he was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.” — Tristan H. Cockroft, fantasy writer

 

3. Khalil Mack, OLB, Bears

No. of ballots: 42 of 55 | No. 1 votes: 1

 

Mack, who had 12.5 sacks in his first season in Chicago, was the clear winner for the No. 3 spot, as his 21 votes were 13 more than any player. As the best player on the league’s best defense last season, the 28-year-old Mack appears poised for another huge season. What most interested us, though? The 13 voters who left the NFL’s top edge rusher completely off their ballot. Among the pass-rushers who were chosen over Mack by those voters: Von Miller, Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa and J.J. Watt.

 

Why did you leave Mack off your ballot?

 

“Donald was my starting point defensively, and though Mack is incredible, I felt I was able to build my pass rush around Donald and Von Miller.” — Field Yates, NFL analyst

 

“Defense isn’t as reliable as offense, so I had room for only one pass-rusher on my team … and Donald is better than Mack.” — Seth Walder, sports analytics writer

 

4. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans

No. of ballots: 30 of 55

 

Is the debate about the NFL’s best wide receiver over? Our voters overwhelmingly chose Hopkins as their top wideout, as the next-best WR appeared on just 13 ballots (Michael Thomas) to Hopkins’ 30. Still just 27, Hopkins is coming off a season in which he led the league in first-down catches (81), ranked second in receiving yards (1,572) and ranked third in receptions (115). He has 24 touchdown catches over the past two seasons and has played in 95 of 96 possible career games. With budding star Deshaun Watson throwing to him, Hopkins could be in line for a monster run.

 

Why did you pick Hopkins as your top receiver?

 

“I’d be happy with five or six of the NFL’s elite wide receivers, but Hopkins has the best combo of age, size, speed, hands and monster numbers over the past two years.” — Mike Triplett, Saints reporter

 

“With 22 red zone touchdown receptions over the past four seasons, Hopkins is the ultimate scoring weapon, a prime target with the route-running chops and body control to eat up defenders at the point of attack.” — Matt Bowen, NFL analyst

 

5. David Bakhtiari, OT, Packers

No. of ballots: 30 of 55

 

Like wide receiver, there’s a clear positional favorite here — Bakhtiari was on 21 more ballots than the second-ranked tackle (Tyron Smith). Our voters put a major emphasis on youth when picking this position, as the only 30-year-old tackle who was on more than two ballots was Mitchell Schwartz, who landed on six. Bakhtiari, 27, has started 90 of 96 games for the Packers since being taken in the fourth round in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded tackle last season.

 

What makes Bakhtiari the league’s top young tackle?

 

“Other than quarterback play, the most important factor in fielding a good football team is pass protection, and Bakhtiari is the NFL’s best blindside protector.” — Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer

 

“My squad will pass at a higher rate than any team in NFL history, so selecting an elite pass-blocking tackle in the prime of his career is both a necessary and an easy choice.” — Seth Walder, sports analytics writer

 

6. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants

No. of ballots: 24 of 55

 

Running back was a curious position for our voters; 22 didn’t take any running backs on their team, while another four voted for two-back teams. The majority chose the dual-threat, 22-year-old Barkley, who just won Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,307 yards and catching 91 passes for another 721 yards. He was on 19 more ballots than Ezekiel Elliott, who was the No. 2 back, according to our voters. Barkley stayed healthy in college and in his first NFL season, but what will his body look like after he gets 300-plus touches for the rebuilding Giants in 2019?

 

What makes Barkley the safest bet to be the league’s top running back?

 

“Barkley finished with the second-most rushing yards in the NFL as a rookie, and the Giants’ reliance on him is only likely to grow as they eventually transition from veteran quarterback Eli Manning to Daniel Jones.” — Lindsey Thiry, Rams reporter

 

“Barkley is just 22 years old with a clean injury history and the ability to beat defenses with the combination of speed, power and elusiveness that make him an otherworldly runner and high-volume receiver.” — Anthony Olivieri, ESPN reporter-researcher

 

7. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars

No. of ballots: 23 of 55

 

Three seasons in the NFL, two Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro selection … and Ramsey is still just 24 years old. The competition for the top corner in our top 10 was tight, but Ramsey edged out Stephon Gilmore, who was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded corner last season but is four years older than Ramsey. One prickly issue in Ramsey’s future will be sorting out a new contract — he wants to get paid. Based on how he has played so far, that new deal will come in time.

 

What makes Ramsey the league’s top young cornerback?

 

“Ramsey has a rare combination of size, length and speed, and you stick him on the opponent’s best receiver and worry about the rest of the offense.” — Michael DiRocco, Jaguars reporter

 

“Ramsey has everything you want in a top corner — confidence, size, speed, lockdown man and zone coverage ability and a knack for interceptions — and I’d love to have a player I could trust to lock down his side of the field every Sunday.” — Cameron Wolfe, Dolphins reporter

 

8. Quenton Nelson, G, Colts

No. of ballots: 21 of 55

 

What’s more important when building a 10-man team: an interior offensive lineman or a tight end? Our voters chose the former, as Nelson landed on 21 ballots, while the top tight end — Travis Kelce — made just 10. Though maybe our voters were scared of not putting Nelson on their team? The 23-year-old Nelson started every game as a rookie in 2018 — going viral for how he manhandled defenders — and was named first-team All-Pro.

 

Why did you pick Nelson as your only offensive lineman?

 

“With quarterbacks getting rid of the ball so quick, the fastest way for a defender to get home is up the middle, and in just his second season, Nelson has shown he’s one of the best interior blockers in the NFL.” — Eric D. Williams, Chargers reporter

 

“He’s young, strong, nasty and athletic enough to handle the growing legion of quick, interior pass-rushers.” — Rich Cimini, Jets reporter

 

9. Derwin James, S, Chargers

No. of ballots: 20 of 55

 

Is the 22-year-old James a rangy safety, a downhill linebacker who can make plays in the backfield, or a big, physical corner? Depending on the play, yes, yes and yes. Behold, the NFL’s reigning Monsterback! Voters loved the versatility (three interceptions and 3.5 sacks as a rookie) and that this Swiss Army knife defender makes any defense better. Did we mention he’s 22?

 

Why did you pick James as your top defensive back?

 

“In today’s pass-happy league, you simply can’t play defense without an edge presence, a high-end nickel corner and a safety who can function in the deep middle of the field, as well as down in the box as the personnel groupings change out down to down. James is that safety.” — Jeff Legwold, Broncos reporter

 

“It feels like James was built in a lab to stop the passing explosion in the NFL; the versatile Chargers safety can play just about every position behind the defensive line and affects the game in ways that don’t always show up on the stat sheet.” — Mina Kimes, Senior writer

 

“Because with everything James can do — play on the line of scrimmage and in space, cover, tackle and blitz — he’s going to impact a defense much more than a cornerback or a safety whose games are more one-dimensional.” — Brady Henderson, Seahawks reporter

 

10. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos

No. of ballots: 16 of 55

 

Surprised to see a 30-year-old on our list? Don’t be. Miller, who has at least 10 sacks in seven of his eight NFL seasons, hasn’t showed signs of slowing down. His 98 career sacks rank 33rd all time, but our voters think he’s going to continue his run. One of the reasons for optimism? New Broncos coach Vic Fangio is a guru of 3-4 defenses, and he’ll get a chance to mold a D led by Miller (and second-year stud Bradley Chubb) back into one of the league’s premier units.

 

Why did you pick Miller as your top edge rusher?

 

“Of the NFL’s top-tier pass rushers, Miller is the most consistently healthy and productive defender of the bunch.” — Bill Barnwell, NFL analyst

 

“The quarterback must go down, and Miller, still dominating with one double-digit-sack season after another, remains in his prime at 30.” — Eric Karabell, fantasy writer