AROUND THE NFL
Field Yates with some numbers:
Major stat leaders this decade:
Passing yards: Drew Brees, 46,517
Rushing yards: LeSean McCoy, 10,434
Receiving yards: Julio Jones, 12,047
TD scored: LeSean McCoy, 85
Tackles: Luke Kuechly, 1,086
Sacks: Von Miller, 105
Interceptions: Richard Sherman, 35
Brees also leads with 342 TD passes, 28 more than Tom Brady. Matt Ryan, at 44,517, is 2nd in passing yards, exactly 2,000 yards back.
Frank Gore at 9,760 is quietly 2nd in rushing yards. He was 24th in the previous unnamed decade with 5,561 rush yards.
Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski, both of whom made decisions that kept them out of 2019, were next behind McCoy with 80 TDs.
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Ryan Leaf has emerged on the other side of the abyss with a good sense of humor. This tweet from the QB taken 2nd overall in 1998:
I was just informed that I was not selected to the @NFL All Time 100. I stand with my other snubs out there in our disappointment in this process. I’ve set up a support group to help…tag a couple fellow @nfllegends snubs and we’ll rise up together
QB AARON RODGERS says he’s content not to be pushing the statistical envelope. Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com:
Don’t get Aaron Rodgers wrong, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback still wants his 4,000-yard and 30-plus touchdown seasons.
“I definitely care,” Rodgers said Thursday.
And those around him say he’s still capable.
“I would never say it has anything to do with his skill level diminishing, or he’s getting older or any of that, because I see the same guy every day,” receiver Davante Adams said.
But Rodgers’ numbers aren’t on par with his usual output. Heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at the Detroit Lions, he will need to throw for 321 yards to reach 4,000 yards. He has thrown for 321 yards in a game only twice this season, and he hasn’t thrown for even 250 yards in any of his past seven games.
Only once in Rodgers’ career has he failed to reach 4,000 yards in a year in which he played in all 16 regular-season games. That was in 2015, the year he lost Jordy Nelson, his No. 1 receiver, to a preseason knee injury.
Yet under first-year coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers and the Packers have won 12 games and can clinch a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs with their 13th win.
“I think the level of success and the way that I feel I’m playing is different in this offense this year,” Rodgers said. “I don’t need to throw 40 touchdowns for us to win. I need to be great on my checks, be as efficient as possible. I need to take care of the football.”
In Monday night’s 23-10 win at Minnesota, Rodgers threw for just 216 yards without a touchdown and one interception. It marked the first time Rodgers had won a game in which he threw an interception without a touchdown. It was his third game this season without a touchdown pass, but the Packers have won all three. Coming into this season, Rodgers was 4-10 in such games.
“I felt like last game was one of my better games of the season,” Rodgers said. “You look at the stats and go, ‘OK, you’re (26)-of-40 for 200-something, no touchdowns. What are you talking about? Are you really lowering the bar for yourself that much?’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m never lowering the bar for myself.’
“The expectations are for greatness, but my responsibility was to get us in checks. My responsibility was to get us in the right protection scheme and take care of the football, and although I threw a pick, I felt like what I needed to do in that game, I was executing at a winning level. But any quarterback wants to throw four or five touchdowns a week. It’s just that hasn’t been the case this year, we haven’t needed it to win 12 games.”
Rodgers ranks 12th among all quarterbacks in passing yards (3,679), tied for 11th in touchdown passes (24) and 18th among all qualified quarterbacks in completion percentage (63.4). However, he has the fewest interceptions (three) and the best touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Rodgers, 36, might be better at handling those kinds of numbers than he would have earlier in his career.
“I think we had a different team back then,” Rodgers said. “We had that group on that Sports Illustrated [cover in 2011]. We had a stretch — you guys know during that time — we had almost 50 games without a 100-yard rusher. So our focus, our plan of attack with Mike [McCarthy] during that time was, ‘Hey, we’re going to be aggressive throwing the ball. We’re going to throw 40 times a game.’ There were years when I was throwing it 600 times damn near every year, and that’s what we needed to do to win. This year, we’ve done it a different way.”
TE JASON WITTEN may soldier on into 2020. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
Jason Witten’s NFL return hasn’t gone exactly as planned when he fled the television booth for the comfort of his old Starred helmet. Entering his 255th career game with the Dallas Cowboys Sunday against the Washington Redskins, the 37-year-old conceded there is a possibility it’s his final game.
“Sure, it’s a possibility,” Witten said, via ESPN. “I’m aware of that, but really, one of the things when I came back to play I was committed to going out there and playing every game and opportunity. So fortunate to do it. There will be time to make that decision, but I do not envision this being my last game.”
Witten added that he’ll decide on his future “pretty quick” after the season ends.
When that decision comes will depend on whether the Cowboys end their season with a win over the Redskins and get help from the Giants beating the Eagles, thus backing their way into the playoffs.
It’s been a disappointing season in Dallas, one that has a talented team staring at missing the postseason. Despite the struggles, Witten doesn’t regret his decision to return.
“Look, it doesn’t always go where you’re going to get a 13-3 (record) and a (No. 1) seed and a bye and home playoff games throughout,” Witten said. “Sure, you think about playing in those games and that’s what drives you is winning championships. I knew for this to be successful, it’s kind of like a quarterback: you’ve got to win games. But I’m proud of the way I played and still have an opportunity in front of us. Yeah, 100 percent, I’ve got conviction (that) it was the right thing to do and proud of the way I’ve gone about it.”
If Witten wants to return for another season, it will be interesting whether Jerry Jones insists on bringing him back or whether a new coach would resist retaining an aging player whose best days are clearly in the past.
Witten is third in receptions on the Cowboys with 59 for 505 yards and four TDs, which tells you as much about the Dallas offense this season as it does the tight end. Witten has suffered some brutal drops and runs about as well as the Tin Man after a rainstorm.
Whenever he eventually hangs up the cleats again, Witten said he plans to get into coaching, not head back to the TV booth.
NEW YORK GIANTS
LB MARKUS GOLDEN of the Giants gets a $1 million gift from the Elias Sports Bureau. Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com:
A stat correction from Sunday’s New York Giants victory over the Washington Redskins allowed Markus Golden to earn a $1 million bonus.
Golden received the early Christmas gift Tuesday when he was informed that a half sack of Dwayne Haskins early in the third quarter was being changed to a full sack. Golden raced around the left edge on the play and brought down Haskins, whose ankle was being held by linebacker Lorenzo Carter. The Giants teammates originally shared the sack.
But after further review — which happens on a weekly basis with certain disputed plays — a correction was made. Golden was credited with the full sack. It gave him 10 this season and triggered the lucrative incentive.
“I earned it,” said Golden, who has been among the team’s best and most consistent players this season.
The Giants signed Golden to a one-year, prove-it deal this offseason. It was for $3.75 million, with the additional $1 million available if he reached double-digit sacks.
Golden has done his part, performing at a pre-injury level. Golden had 12.5 sacks for the Arizona Cardinals in 2016, but he injured his knee the following year. He had 2.5 sacks combined in 2017 and ’18.
“It’s always a goal to get double-digit sacks,” he said. “If you’re rushing the passer, you want to get there. It’s a status thing — 9.5 is a big difference than 10. It feels good to get it down, get it over with and, like I said, be able to put it out for my kids to be able to keep playing, keep fighting.”
Golden is the first Giants player to reach double-digit sacks since Jason Pierre-Paul (12.5) in 2014. Golden has been the Giants’ best pass-rusher this season by a wide margin, leading the team in sacks (10), tackles for loss (17) and quarterback hits (27). He has more than twice as many sacks and quarterback hits as anybody else on the roster.
It’s something that defensive coordinator James Bettcher has seen before. Bettcher was the defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2016 when Golden had his career year.
What Bettcher has seen this season makes him believe Golden is back.
“I think just the burst. The power that he’s able to play with,” Bettcher said of what has him sold. “When he rushes, Markus might be the first one to tell you, he’s a bloody rusher. To have his power back from his lower half of his body to be able to have his burst, he might separate from a blocker, and that first two steps off the block, that burst, is important for guys like Markus. You could see that back.
“With it comes confidence. Confidence comes because you feel good and you’re able to do some of the things that you know you’ve been able to do in your career. You can see that confidence going and he’s pretty dynamic.”
It has Golden $1 million richer and ready for a potential payday as a free agent this offseason.
RB JORDAN HOWARD is back for the big finale – TE ZACH ERTZ may not be. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Eagles appear to be getting at least one offensive contributor back on the field this week.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson just told reporters that running back Jordan Howard had been cleared for contact, and was “good to go” for Sunday’s game against the Giants, via Reuben Frank of NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com.
With a win, the Eagles clinch the NFC East.
Pederson has said Howard would work back in as a complement to Miles Sanders, but at this point, any amount of offensive skill position help will be welcomed. Howard has been out since early November with a shoulder injury.
The news may not be as good for tight end Zach Ertz, who will on the practice field today but not doing much.
Ertz is dealing with rib and back injuries, and Pederson sounded a note of caution despite stating Ertz’s desire to play.
“I’m not going to risk further injury just to have him out there,” Pederson said.
They’re also going to monitor the status of right tackle Lane Johnson, who has been out since Week 14 with an ankle injury.
RB ADRIAN PETERSON does not think the end is near to his NFL career. This from Reuters:
Adrian Peterson is showing few signs of slowing down at 34 years old.
If the Washington Redskins running back gets his way, he will keep playing until a milestone birthday six years from now.
“I can see myself playing to 40,” Peterson told NFL Network’s Jane Slater on Thursday. “People look at that and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy.’ But they’ve been doing that for the past two years and, surprise, I’m still able to do it at a high level.”
Peterson has 820 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 14 games as he prepares for this week’s regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys. He is 180 yards shy of posting his ninth career 1,000-yard campaign in 13 seasons.
The Oklahoma product already ranks fifth all-time with 14,138 rushing yards and fourth all-time with 111 rushing touchdowns. The only running backs ahead of him on the scoring list are Emmitt Smith (164), LaDainian Tomlinson (145) and Marcus Allen (123).
Peterson, who turns 35 in March, has a club option on his contract worth $2.25 million for 2020, which must be exercised by a late February deadline. He has spent the past two seasons in Washington, playing in all but one game.
The Falcons late surge, including road wins at New Orleans and San Francisco, has saved the bacon for Coach Dan Quinn. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
At the midway point of this season, it seemed like a matter of time before Dan Quinn was relieved of his duties as the Falcons head coach.
The team was 1-7 and his move to take over the team’s defense had backfired in spectacular fashion, but the Falcons resisted making a change at that point and they won’t be making a change at the end of the year either. The Falcons have gone 5-2 since the midpoint with Quinn giving up the defensive role and that’s convinced the Falcons to bring Quinn back next season.
Team owner Arthur Blank announced that Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff will return in 2020. Both will report to team president Rich McKay with McKay reporting to Blank.
“Every year we evaluate all our football operations and this year I have asked Rich to work closely with Thomas and Dan over the next couple of weeks to conduct a top-to-bottom review, inclusive of structure, processes, resourcing and personnel to identify whatever changes are necessary to enable us to compete consistently at the highest level. In my time as owner, and particularly since 2008, we have been one of the winningest teams in the NFC ranking fourth in wins and across the NFL, tied for seventh in wins, and that remains the only acceptable result for us now and in the future,” Blank said in a statement.
In addition to announcing the returns, the Falcons also announced that Raheem Morris will be the team’s defensive coordinator in 2019.
The Panthers are going to do all they can to help RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY. The easy number is 67 receiving yards, the hard one is 216 scrimmage yards.
The Carolina Panthers are playing out the string but running back Christian McCaffrey has his sights set on a record-breaking day Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
With 67 receiving yards, McCaffrey would become just the third player in NFL history with 1,000-plus rush yards and 1,000-plus receiving yards in a single season, joining Marshall Faulk (1999) and Roger Craig (1985).
“You just tune it out, go with the flow,” McCaffrey said of his preparation for Sunday’s game, via the team’s official website. “Enjoy the ride and whatever happens, happens. The biggest thing is focusing on the preparation before that so when the game comes you don’t have to think about anything, you just get in the zone.”
The 67 receiving yards needed seem like child’s play for McCaffrey, who has toyed with defenses all season. He’s coming off a 119-yard receiving day in Week 16, and the past three weeks he’s been over the 80-yard receiving mark in every game. In the previous meeting with the Saints in Week 12, he generated 69 yards receiving and 64 yards rushing.
The 1,000/1,000 club isn’t the only record CMC is chasing Sunday. With 216 scrimmage yards, he’d break the single-season record for most scrimmage yards held by Chris Johnson (2,509 in 2009).
Despite the chance to make history, the running back insists he’s just focusing on beating the Saints.
“It’s one of those things where, obviously, there’s a record out there that people are talking about, but at the end of the day, I’m just preparing to try and win a football game,” McCaffrey said.
The 216 scrimmage yards are a lot, even for the focal point of the offense. He has blasted past that number once this season, however, in Week 5 versus Jacksonville (237).
Sitting at 5-10, with nothing else to play for, surely the Panthers will force-feed the ball to McCaffrey, right?
“We’ll try to get him the ball any way we can,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “As you guys have seen, you never know how it’s going to come up, but obviously, that’s a big accomplishment.”
Feeding CMC wouldn’t be a change from the normal Panthers offense. The running back has been the entire operation regularly this season, carrying the offense at every turn.
McCaffrey became the fourth player, and first RB, in NFL history with 100-plus receptions in two of his first three seasons. Others: Anquan Boldin (2003, 2005), Brandon Marshall (2007-2008) and Michael Thomas (2017-2018).
McCaffrey’s 109 receptions are the most in a season by a running back in NFL history, which broke his own record set last season (107 receptions).
When CMC is on the field, more likely than not, the ball is coming his way. The question is whether interim coach Perry Fewell would sit down the workhorse in the season finale to avoid an injury to the franchise’s centerpiece in a meaningless bout.
Oh my – MICHAEL THOMAS and ANTONIO BROWN working with DREW BREES? Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Saints are reportedly looking at a possible addition to their wide receiving corps and it would make for quite the story heading into the playoffs.
Antonio Brown posted a picture of a waiver he signed to work out with the Saints on Instagram and multiple reports confirm he’s in New Orleans to work out with the team.
Brown has been out of the league since being released by the Patriots in after a lawsuit alleging he sexually abused a woman was filed in September. He has spoken to the league as part of its investigation into those allegations, but there has been no word from the league at this point as to any disciplinary action that might be taken against him.
Any move to add Brown to the roster may wait until there’s word from the league, so we’ll have to see what develops but the prospect of Brown joining Michael Thomas in the Saints offense is an intriguing one to consider in the final days of the regular season.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com thinks about the implications:
The league apparently had hoped to kick the can all the way through the postseason regarding the status of receiver Antonio Brown. The Saints apparently may keep that from happening.
If the Saints sign Brown, who is working out for the team today, the league will have to place Brown on the Commissioner Exempt list in order to keep him off the field in the postseason. It’s believed that no team has signed Brown because of the possibility/probability that the league would take such action, forcing his new team to pay him to not play while an investigation regarding sexual assault allegations continues. However, the league has declined to comment publicly on whether that would be the outcome.
The circumstances have resulted in a three-month unpaid suspension for Brown, who ultimately has no rights to force the league to finish its investigation or to make a decision as to his status in accordance with any specific timeline. Whether intended or not, it’s an unfair outcome for any player; even if he’s ultimately cleared by the league, the mere existence of the investigation (despite no arrest or criminal charges) has operated to keep Brown out of the league far longer than most players who ever have been suspended under the Personal Conduct Policy.
For the Saints (or any other team that is entering the playoffs), the prospect of signing Brown now entails zero financial risk. If he’s placed on paid leave, the pay will be coming not from the team but from the league-wide playoff pool. So it gives the Saints dibs on Brown and forces the league to deal with a situation it would rather ignore.
The move also would give the Saints an incredibly viable alternative to Michael Thomas. Indeed, in final game ever with the Steelers, Brown caught 14 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints in New Orleans.
The chances of Brown actually playing for the Saints in the postseason remain slim. The most significant development for now is that the Saints have broken ranks with the league, and the Saints may force the league to do something it surely preferred not to do.
It’s not like Brees has had any problem finding receivers this year. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com on his amazing record of accuracy:
In 2009, Drew Brees completed 70.6 percent of his passes, setting a new NFL record for the highest completion percentage in a season. In 2011, Brees broke the record by completing 71.2 percent of his passes. In 2017 he broke the record again by completing 72.0 percent. In 2018 he broke the record once again by completing 74.4 percent. And now he’s set to break the record again this season.
Brees has completed 75.3 percent of his passes this season, which means that if he keeps passing at his normal pace in Sunday’s season finale, he’ll set a new NFL completion percentage record once again.
Although Brees is in a class of his own, he’s not the only quarterback with an excellent completion percentage this season. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has completed 71.1 percent of his passes, and Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has completed 70.7 percent. Those would represent the sixth and seventh highest completion percentages in a season in NFL history.
Passing offenses have changed significantly in the NFL, and completion percentages are much higher than they were in years past. But even in the era of inflated numbers, Brees has set himself apart.
We’re not sure we would expect QB RUSSELL WILSON to say anything else at this point, but he proclaims the new running backs, same as the old backs, ready to go. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
With multiple Seahawks running backs out for the year, the team brought back Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin. Neither have played all year; will they be good to go in Week 17?
“They look ready,” quarterback Russell Wilson told reporters on Thursday. “They look ready to go the whole game. I know Turbin has been training every single day. I’ve talked to him pretty much every week. He’s been training every single day for this moment. Sure enough, it came in Week 17. I think with Marshawn, he’s got it. He just knows how to do it. He’s been doing it for years. Like I said, it was so easy, the flow of just the handoffs and the terminology and all the talk and the communication and the communication in the backfield and all the things that we talk about is real. It just flows right off the tongue. We both understand, me and Marshawn and me and Turbin, in what to do and how to do it.”
Wilson was happy to see both players return.
“I was super excited to have Marshawn back,” Wilson said. “Beast mode. He’s been great. To have Turbin back, too, as well. Both of those guys are championship running backs. Guys who know what their doing and how to do it. It’s been great. They both know the stuff so well. They’ve put their work in and everything else. It’s going to be great to see them run the football again.”
The bigger question is whether Lynch can be the guy he once was.
“He looks great,” Wilson said. “He looks explosive. He looks fast. He looks strong. Quick as ever. He always has this infamous one-leg cut that he can do where he hops on one foot twice. He’s got some special things that he can do. He runs the ball hard obviously. Once game time comes, it’s not about the show or anything else. It’s about game time. He’ll definitely be ready to do that, for sure.”
Turbin, a fourth-round pick in the same draft that saw Wilson arrive in round three, spent three seasons with the Seahawks. He was a member of the team that won Super Bowl XLVIII and that narrowly lost Super Bowl XLIX. Lynch, of course, was a central figure on those teams — and would/could have been the MVP of Super Bowl XLIX. He notoriously told Turkish TV that someone didn’t want him to be the “face of the nation,” resulting in a controversial decision to pass, not run, at the goal line with the game on the line.
The Seahawks could get another big puzzle piece back. Grant Gordon of NFL.com:
As the NFL’s final Sunday night showdown of the regular season approaches, a key contributor has vowed to return.
Seahawks pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney told the media on Thursday, “There’s no way I’m not playing,” when Seattle (11-4) hosts San Francisco (12-3) with the NFC West title on the line.
Clowney has been missing in action for the last two weeks due to a core injury. He was limited in Thursday’s practice.
For the season so far, Clowney has played in 12 games of a possible 15 games with 10 starts, tallying 30 tackles, three sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Since he was acquired via offseason trade with the Texans, the former first-rounder has become a key element of an improving Seahawks defense.
Now, if he has anything to say about it, he’ll be back on the field for the ‘Hawks, looking to help them to a division title and at the very least one playoff game at home.
RB DERRICK HENRY says he is ready to carry the Titans to the playoffs. Theresa Walker of The AP:
Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry makes it very clear he will play Sunday against the Houston Texans with a playoff berth on the line for the Tennessee Titans.
“I love football,” Henry said Thursday. “I love playing the game, so I’m definitely ready.”
The Titans (8-7) downgraded Henry to questionable just before Houston clinched the AFC South with a win last weekend in Tampa Bay, then deactivated Henry in a 38-28 loss to New Orleans a day later. The Titans still ran for 149 yards with a group effort.
But Henry just earned his first Pro Bowl berth by running for 1,329 yards this season.
Even with being given a game off to rest a sore left hamstring, Henry still ranks third in the NFL in rushing and is tied for third in the league with 13 rushing touchdowns. The Titans are hoping he can secure the franchise’s second playoff berth in three seasons and second since the 2008 season.
Henry practiced fully Thursday, and coach Mike Vrabel said the running back looked great in Tuesday’s session before taking Wednesday off for Christmas.
“Anytime you got time to rest, it always helps a lot,” Henry said of getting a day off.
The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner had said he would play even if his leg was hanging off. Asked about sitting out against the Saints, Henry inquired what Vrabel said about it. The coach said after the loss to New Orleans that it was an organizational decision to keep Henry out of the lineup.
After hearing the coach’s response, Henry said Thursday, “That’s what it was.”
Henry’s left hamstring had been bothering him for the past few weeks. He ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns on Dec. 8 in a 42-21 win in Oakland despite obviously being limited by the hamstring. His longest run went for 24 yards with Henry running slower than he can. He ran for 86 yards on 21 carries Dec. 15 in a loss to Houston w ith a long run of 23 yards.
With Henry not 100%, the Titans made the strategic decision to rest Henry — and still benefitted when Pittsburgh’s loss to the New York Jets put the Titans in position Sunday to clinch a playoff berth with a win against Houston (10-5).
“I’m rested, I’m supposed to be ready,” Henry said.
THIS AND THAT
BILL BARNWELL’s AWARDS
ESPN.com’s expert doesn’t need Week 17 to cast his vote (edited)
With one week to go in the 2019 NFL season, I’ve pieced together my regular-season awards ballot. While I would typically wait for Week 17 to play out before making any proclamations, there really aren’t many close races this year; the winners for most of the key awards are comfortably ahead of the competition, and the guys who could move on or off the ballot altogether are the third-placed players.
Coach of the Year
3. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
I was tempted to put Brian Flores here after he turned around a Dolphins team that looked destined for the gutter after starting 0-7. You can make a case for a half-dozen other coaches in the top three, and while I wouldn’t fault anybody who put them into the mix, I had to leave out Sean McDermott, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur.
I’ve had Belichick atop my rankings here for most of 2019. I’ve laid out how absurd it is that he has pieced together one of the most incredible dynasties in the history of American sports and somehow has only three Coach of the Year trophies to show for it. If we’re talking about the most valuable coach in football or the coach I would want if I was going to start a franchise in 2020, I’m picking Belichick. I’m not that big of a dummy.
2. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
Has anything really slowed down the Saints this season? At different points, they’ve lost their Hall of Fame quarterback, their superstar cornerback, their most dynamic running back, and most of their offensive line. Just seven Saints have started all 15 games. Teams should crumble under that sort of injury luck. The Rams, for one, haven’t been able to overcome a much-less-impactful run of injuries.
The Saints somehow keep chugging along. I have to give a lot of the credit for that to Payton, who has managed to get this team to somehow thrive in spite of the injuries.
1. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
We might not remember just how irrelevant the Ravens were through the first half of 2018. After winning their Super Bowl following the 2012 season and signing Joe Flacco to a disastrous contract extension, the Ravens spent the next 5½ years treading water. Harbaugh was 44-45 with one playoff appearance over that time frame. Owner Steve Bisciotti admitted that he considered firing Harbaugh after the 2017 season. Nobody would have been surprised if the Ravens fired him after another seemingly lost season in 2018.
Since then, with Lamar Jackson taking over as starting quarterback, the Ravens are 19-3. Harbaugh admittedly had to be pushed into the Jackson Era — Harbaugh insisted that he had no plans to bench Flacco during the bye before a hip injury to the former Super Bowl MVP forced his hand — but the Ravens have been the best team in football from that day forward.
Harbaugh deserves a ton of credit for being flexible enough to mold the offense around Jackson’s strengths. The Ravens promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator this offseason and fully committed to the league’s most unconventional offense. You don’t need me to tell you it worked. Jackson is going to win MVP, and the Ravens are the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
When it comes to 2019, though, I’m honestly more impressed with how the Ravens have handled adversity on the defensive side of the ball.
Executive of the Year
A note here: I’m considering these executives strictly in the context of what they’ve done since the 2019 offseason began Feb. 4. While someone like Chris Godwin has taken a step forward this season and emerged as a dominant player, I wouldn’t give Bucs general manager Jason Licht credit in 2019 for a draft pick he made two years ago. This award considers decisions and player additions/subtractions made since the Super Bowl.
3. John Lynch, San Francisco 49ers
The rebuild finally came together in 2019. I’m not giving Lynch credit here for the decisions he made in the past, though it’s possible that he made one of the best draft picks of the past decade by taking George Kittle with the 146th pick in the 2017 draft. Kittle, somehow the ninth tight end taken in that class, might be one of the best players in football independent of position.
Lynch nailed his 2019 draft, and while using the second overall pick on Nick Bosa might seem like an obvious move, it has transformed the 49ers’ defense. Even beyond Bosa, Lynch’s draft unearthed a handful of useful players. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel has jumped up the depth chart and become almost an every-down player. Sixth-round tackle Justin Skule did a credible job filling in for Joe Staley when most rookie first-rounders struggle at left tackle during their debut campaigns. Even 220-pound punter Mitch Wishnowsky has been part of the league’s sixth-best punting unit.
The moves Lynch made to acquire veterans haven’t been quite as successful, which is why he’s third here. Pass-rusher Dee Ford has been sidelined by injuries and hasn’t played more than 50% of the snaps in a single game since Week 1. Tevin Coleman has arguably been the team’s third-best running back. Linebacker Kwon Alexander was off to a great start before tearing his pectoral muscle, playing in just eight games. The Niners gave Robbie Gould a multiyear extension, but the veteran has been the league’s fifth-worst kicker on scoring plays this season. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, acquired in a trade, has impressed when healthy, though, and Lynch hasn’t needed to make many other midseason additions. I’d rank Lynch higher if I was looking at the broader rebuild given how many 49ers have taken leaps this season, but he has still done a very good job in 2019.
2. Eric DeCosta, Baltimore Ravens
Technically a rookie general manager, DeCosta officially took over the reins from legendary Ravens executive Ozzie Newsome in January 2019. While the Ravens were excited about Lamar Jackson after his hot second half, DeCosta still had to deal with $16 million in dead money from the Flacco deal and a series of tough decisions to make on the defensive side of the ball.
He got just about everything right.
– – –
The in-season trade for cornerback Marcus Peters will go down as one of the best deals in 2019. As one of the league’s smartest franchises, the Ravens perennially don’t sell out all of their draft picks or use all of their cap space, knowing that there are likely to be some unexpected options looming as cheap additions later in free agency, over the summer, or as a midseason pickup. Peters has played like a superstar since leaving Los Angeles, and the Ravens got him for a fifth-round pick and a backup linebacker. They’ll either keep him around or net a third-round compensatory pick for Peters this offseason. Everything the Ravens do with their personnel fits a logical puzzle. It shouldn’t be the case, but there are few teams in the NFL that can say the same about their decisions.
1. Brandon Beane, Buffalo Bills
What the Bills have done over the past three years is almost unprecedented. After firing Rex Ryan, they lined up a 53-man roster on Jan. 1, 2017, for a 30-10 loss to the Jets. Less than three years later, just three players from that roster — defenders Lorenzo Alexander, Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson — remain part of the Bills organization.
Beane and coach Sean McDermott, who both came from Carolina, have fundamentally reshaped the Bills in their image, and they look more like those Panthers teams of old than the actual Panthers these days. They spent most of the first two years rebuilding the defense into one of the league’s best units, which I’m not really considering for the purposes of this award as aforementioned. The major addition Beane made on defense this year was using a first-round pick on Houston tackle Ed Oliver. While defensive tackle wasn’t necessarily a position of need, Oliver has flashed absolutely terrifying upside this season as part of a rotation.
The project this offseason was building an offensive infrastructure around second-year quarterback Josh Allen, and that has been a resounding success. After Oliver, the Bills used their next three draft picks on offensive players, and they’re all starters. Cody Ford has split time with Ty Nsekhe and admittedly struggled a bit at right tackle, but the Bills have been able to get by with the Oklahoma product, which is more than you can say for a fair number of rookie tackles.
Running back Devin Singletary helped spark a victory in the opener against the Jets and grown into the starting role as the season’s gone on, taking 52 of 54 snaps during Saturday’s loss to the Pats. And tight end Dawson Knox was expected to be buried on the depth chart behind veterans Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith, but he took his opportunity when Kroft missed camp with an injury. The Ole Miss product is still developing as a receiver and has made some unfortunate drops, but he’s a legitimate NFL athlete and blocker with more upside than most teams saw heading into the draft. It’s unrealistic to compare him to Kittle, but Knox was undervalued in the same way that Kittle was by virtue of their lack of receiving production in college.
What has been far more impressive, though, is how many veterans the Bills have added and successfully integrated into their offense. Signing John Brown and Cole Beasley to take over as the two primary wideouts for Allen raised major question marks, but they’ve both elevated their games and played at a higher level. Brown has been a legitimate No. 1 receiver on a three-year, $27 million deal, which is nearly half of what Sammy Watkins got in free agency. Brown has been the better player.
Beane has also turned around the offensive line. The Bills surrounded holdover left tackle Dion Dawkins with a whole new line by drafting Ford and signing Quinton Spain, Jon Feliciano, Spencer Long and standout Chiefs center Mitch Morse. Feliciano has broken out in his first season as a starter and might have deserved more significant Pro Bowl consideration, while Morse has become Allen’s best friend at the pivot.
The Bills aren’t a finished product on offense, in part because their quarterback is still a work in progress. They rank 21st in offensive DVOA, and after Allen’s wildly impressive game against the Cowboys, he has competed 47.8% of his passes and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt in three games against the excellent, playoff-caliber defenses of the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots. The best thing any team can do for their young quarterback is surround him with talent, though, and Beane has built an offense overnight. He’s a worthy Executive of the Year pick.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
3. Devin Bush, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The stat-stuffing Bush exhibited during the first six weeks of the season has mostly faded away, with the 10th overall pick racking up one forced fumble, one quarterback knockdown and one pass defensed over the past 10 weeks. The Steelers have also reduced his snaps over the second half of the season; after playing just under 91% of the snaps through Pittsburgh’s eighth game of the season, he has been down closer to 70% over the next seven contests, with the team taking him off the field on most third downs.
There’s still a really good football player here, though, and Bush should continue to grow around the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt. His interception of Lamar Jackson is only that much more impressive now when you consider that the likely MVP has thrown one interception over the ensuing 10 games.
2. Josh Allen, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Allen’s impact has flown under the radar amid the mess in Jacksonville, but the Jags’ decision to supplement their biggest point of strength by using the No. 7 overall pick on a defensive lineman has to be considered a success. Allen leads all rookies in sacks (10) and is second behind Nick Bosa in quarterback knockdowns (21).
1. Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers
Bosa might be pretty close to a unanimous pick this season. While the Defensive Player of the Year hype has slowed down with him picking up only two sacks after Week 8, he’s still just ahead of Allen as the best defensive rookie in the league.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
3. Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders
Running backs who don’t do much in the passing game are often overrated. You have to be efficient and attract real volume to stand out as an exception, and Jacobs looks like he might be one of those backs. The only runner drafted in the first round in 2019, Jacobs ran for two touchdowns in the opener and has only been slowed by a shoulder injury.
He ranks 10th among backs in yards per carry and 15th in success rate. Injuries have cost him two games, but Jacobs was averaging 88.5 rushing yards per contest, the fourth most in football. Fumbles are also often a problem for rookie backs, but he has one fumble on 262 touches.
If Jacobs were more of a receiver, he would be my Rookie of the Year.
2. Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
As is often the case, many of the pre-draft conversations we had about the top-drafted quarterback turned out to be mostly irrelevant. Murray’s size hasn’t mattered during his rookie campaign, as the only injury the first overall pick suffered was a pulled hamstring last Sunday.
The Cardinals have emphasized low-risk passes for Murray, likely a product of concerns about their offensive line and a lack of receiving weapons when Christian Kirk hasn’t been available, leaving Larry Fitzgerald as the only competent wideout.
Just over one-third of Murray’s rushing yardage has come on scrambles, which is a sign of how disciplined he has been in trying to create plays as a passer in the pocket. Murray needs an infusion of talent at receiver in 2020, especially if Fitzgerald leaves, but there’s something here.
1. A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
The first time I got a glowing text from somebody in the league about Brown was after his 47-yard catch in the opening quarter of Week 1 against the Browns. Over the remainder of 2019, there haven’t been more than two or three players who inspired more messages in my direction than the Titans standout, and most of them came as a result of someone watching tape in midweek and gasping at him from the All-22 footage. This is a player whom a half-dozen teams in the NFL already wish they had taken. Their mistakes are the Titans’ gain.
Brown looked like a guy who belonged on an NFL field from the first quarter of Week 1 and hasn’t let up. For a receiver who wasn’t supposed to have elite-caliber speed coming into the league, his stat line is something out of the DeSean Jackson playbook. With one week to go, he’s averaging 19.3 yards per catch on his 48 receptions. That’s the second-highest mark for any rookie receiver with 40 catches or more in the year in which he was drafted, and almost everybody who created that many big plays as a rookie ended up producing a meaningful NFL career. There are players such as Randy Moss and Jerry Rice in the top 10 of that group.
Yes, it’s premature to make those comparisons. What we’ve seen from Brown as a natural route runner and devastating receiver after the catch, though, has been undeniably fun to watch. His 91-yard touchdown against the Raiders was truly special. Brown wins repeatedly throughout the play; he blows by Daryl Worley off the line of scrimmage, slows down to catch a pass Ryan Tannehill is forced to underthrow because of pressure, brings in the completion, sheds Worley’s tackle attempt, and then simply glides away from the trailing Erik Harris for an easy score. Brown should top 1,000 yards from scrimmage in the season finale, and if he can get a full season with Tannehill in 2020, he should still be able to hit another gear in terms of volume. What a fun player.
Defensive Player of the Year
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Fitzpatrick has missed a total of three defensive snaps since arriving in Pittsburgh, where he has picked off five passes and recovered two fumbles. Some of those interceptions were the product of being in the right place at the right time, but there’s no doubt that he has solved what had been a wildly frustrating series of safety problems for the Steelers post-Troy Polamalu. Even if Pittsburgh does miss out on the postseason, Fitzpatrick is a big reason they were in playoff contention during a season in which they got replacement-level quarterback play.
2. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Remember him? Donald isn’t going to attract serious DPOY consideration because the Rams have been ordinary this season and his sack numbers have dropped from last season’s 20.5, but this is still the best interior disruptor in football by a comfortable margin.
1. Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots
You can count the number of times Gilmore has looked bad this season on one hand, with John Brown’s 53-yard touchdown in Week 16 as the most notable exception. Week after week otherwise, Gilmore has been a plug-and-play solution for stopping whomever Bill Belichick wants to stop most on the other side of the ball. He is the most important player on one of the best defenses in NFL history.
While Belichick would frequently put his top cornerback on the other team’s second-best receiver and then double-up the opposing team’s best receiver in years past, Gilmore has been good enough to take the other team’s No. 1 snap after snap. His ability to do that has allowed the Patriots to play more Cover Zero than ever before, which has helped propel their pass rush without a single dominant edge rusher on the roster.
In years past, the best cornerback in football was easier to avoid. Nnamdi Asomugha was dominant in Oakland, but because he stayed on one side of the field, smart teams were able to line up their No. 1 wideout on the other side and simply avoid him altogether. He would routinely see one or two targets per game. The Seahawks were able to convince teams to throw at Richard Sherman more frequently, but outside of rare exceptions, he stayed on his side of the field and didn’t travel.
Gilmore travels with the No. 1 guy and attracts tons of targets. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has been the nearest defender in coverage for 86 targets this season, which is tied for the 10th most in football. He has allowed a passer rating of 29.6 on those targets, which is the second-best mark in the NFL for a cornerback with 200 coverage snaps or more, trailing Patriots teammate J.C. Jackson. Had opposing quarterbacks simply instead chosen to spike the ball into the ground in lieu of targeting Gilmore this season, they would have improved their passer rating by 10 points.
Offensive Player of the Year
It’s silly to give the award for MVP to an offensive player without giving the award for Offensive Player of the Year to that same person, so I’m going to preface this accordingly. I’m treating this as the award for the best offensive player in football who isn’t a quarterback.
3. George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
We underappreciated Rob Gronkowski during his brief career. I’m not making the same mistake with Kittle.
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As brilliant as Kyle Shanahan can be as a playcaller, Kittle is the guy who unlocks big plays for the 49ers in the running game. With him on the field, the 49ers average 5.0 yards per carry, post first downs on 23.9% of their rushing attempts and generate positive expected points 42.7% of the time. Without Kittle, the Niners average 3.5 yards per rush, generate first downs 16.4% of the time and are successful in producing expected points on 31.1% of their runs.
I probably don’t need to remind you of Kittle’s impact as a receiver. While he has had a handful of touchdowns called back on penalties, the Iowa product made one of the biggest plays of the season by converting a fourth-and-2 against the Saints, turning it upfield, and running through a blatant face mask penalty to push the Niners into range for a game-winning field goal. If the Niners win in Week 17 and have home-field advantage throughout the postseason, they have the best tight end in football to thank.
2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
While the MVP chatter faded once Kyle Allen turned into stone, McCaffrey was the most productive running back in football by a significant margin in 2019
1. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
I wrote at length about Thomas’ spectacular season last week, and Thomas followed up that article by going off for 12 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Titans. It was Thomas’s 10th 100-yard game of the season, leaving him one short of the NFL record, which is shared by Michael Irvin and Calvin Johnson.
We are collectively underestimating just how stunning of a season this has been from the Saints wideout. It generally hasn’t been a great year for the league’s superstars at wide receiver, with the most talented players at the position either missing time with injuries, dealing with middling quarterback play or dropping out of the NFL altogether.
Thomas has lapped the competition. You can make an argument for him having the most dominant receiving campaign in modern NFL history. His 145 catches are 36 more than anybody else, which is the largest gap between No. 1 and No. 2 (McCaffrey) in that category since the merger in 1970. Thomas’ 1,688 receiving yards are 355 yards ahead of second-placed Chris Godwin; the only pass-catchers to jump the field by a larger distance are Marvin Harrison in 2002 (375 yards) and Calvin Johnson in 2012 (366), and Thomas still has one week to make up the difference.
Nobody else is in his universe this season, and that is despite the fact that he lost Drew Brees for nearly six full games. No player is a Hall of Famer by the time he hits his fourth season in the league, but Thomas is probably the closest we’ve seen since J.J. Watt.
Most Valuable Player
3. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
In some ways, Mahomes came back to earth this season. The touchdown rate succumbed to gravity; after throwing touchdown passes on 8.6% of his pass attempts and hitting 50 passing scores in 2018, Mahomes dropped down to 5.4% and 25 passing touchdowns through Week 16 in 2019. There weren’t as many of the surreal plays in which he seemed to wind up the entire defense with a seemingly endless scramble before uncorking a perfect throw to an open receiver 50 yards downfield. Mahomes looked like he was playing a different sport for most of 2018, and slowed by ankle and knee injuries in 2019, he looked more like a mortal quarterback.
As far as mortal quarterbacks go, though, he was even better in some ways. While he was always supposed to be the sort of Brett Favre-esque gunslinger who traded big plays with the occasional interception, he cut his interception rate from 2.1% in 2018 to 0.9% in 2019. He fumbled three times this season, down from nine in 2018. His sack rate dropped from 4.3% to 3.6%. Even given that Mahomes didn’t produce as many big plays in 2019, he also reduced his rate of bad plays quite dramatically.
Don’t get me wrong, either: Mahomes still made defensive coordinators lose sleep this season. He led all full-season starters by averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, 9.1 adjusted yards per attempt and 8.5 adjusted net yards per attempt. About the only complaint I can come up with for Mahomes is that he missed the better part of three games with a knee injury. With quarterbacks such as Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson fading in recent weeks, Mahomes gets ahead of Thomas to finish third on my ballot.
2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
As infuriating as it has been to see Pete Carroll run his offense through Chris Carson for most of the season, Wilson has been a wildly impressive passer in 2019. He has posted a 66.4% completion percentage, with the former Super Bowl MVP just under 5.0% ahead of his expected completion percentage by NFL Next Gen Stats, the second-largest gap in the league, behind Kirk Cousins. And he has done this despite being down to street free agents and practice-squad guys at receiver in November.
Somehow, Wilson has mastered throwing deep balls without putting his passes in a position in which the defense can make a play on the football and take it away. He has thrown just five interceptions, which is otherworldly for a passer whose average attempt travels 9.0 yards in the air, the fifth-longest mark in the NFL. Few quarterbacks give opposing teams more of a sinking feeling when the ball travels over their heads. Wilson has also been pressured at the league’s second-highest rate at 35.7%, although he might deserve some of the blame given how frequently Wilson ranks at or atop this leaderboard.
The only thing really keeping Russ back, though, is volume. He has thrown just under 32 passes per game, which is a product of the Seahawks’ game plan and ranks a mere 20th in the NFL. He could make up for that missing volume by running, but the Seahawks have limited him to 313 rushing yards this season. If they ever hired a coordinator who played to his strengths as an improviser and passer, he would be one of the three best MVP candidates in the league before the season began. After seeing a campaign in which Wilson is second in QBR in the red zone and seemingly makes one or two impossible completions per game, we may look back and wish that the Seahawks gave him a chance to throw 600 passes behind a competent line even once during his peak.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
The best football player on the planet in 2019, end of story. A Heisman Trophy and an NFL MVP award makes for a pretty incredible trophy case, given that only eight players in NFL history have done both. Jackson is going to have them both in his pocket before turning 24.