AROUND THE NFL

The coaching flavor of the year, Oklahoma’s 35-year-old wiz Lincoln Riley says he will not be coaching in the NFL in 2019.  Howie Kussoy in the New York Post:

 

The Jets can cross one name off their wish list.

 

Despite reported interest from multiple NFL teams, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley said Thursday he will not turn pro anytime soon.

 

Riley, 35, has led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in each of his two seasons since being promoted from offensive coordinator and is considered by many to be the best play-caller in college football, helping mold Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into Heisman Trophy winners.

 

“I can’t tell you how I’m gonna feel in 10 years, but no, not right now,” said Riley, when asked about his interest in coaching in the NFL. “If I wasn’t at one of the elite programs in the country, maybe, but no, I’m very happy where I’m at right now.

 

“If it was 20, 30 years ago, where there were some major differences, maybe. … The way the college game has evolved, financially it’s a lot better situation now when you compare it to NFL teams. We’re at a place where we’re happy, and we don’t take that for granted. I love coaching at Oklahoma, love coaching college football.”

 

While guiding Oklahoma to another Big 12 championship and the nation’s highest-scoring offense, Riley said he’s been questioned about his future by numerous recruits, who have seen his name linked to NFL jobs.

 

 “I was very upfront, said what I’ve said the 15 times I’ve been asked about it since,” Riley said. “I told them the truth. I told them I love where I’m at right now, and I don’t have that itch right now, and I fully plan on being at Oklahoma.”

 

NFC EAST

 

PHILADELPHIA

Jonathan Jones of SI.com says the best available quick QB fix in 2019 will be NICK FOLES.

 

Oregon QB Justin Herbert, thought by many to be the top quarterback taken in April’s NFL draft, announced Wednesday that he intends to stay in school for his senior season instead of heading to the NFL in 2019.

 

The move has started a chain reaction, as quarterbacks like Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones should all see their draft stocks increased—and Haskins could see himself become a top-five pick. And while Oklahoma QB and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray has stated his intention to play baseball, ticking up a bit in the NFL draft could help make the decision that much harder.

 

But there’s a chain reaction felt in the NFL, too. Quarterback-needy teams just saw their supply shrink in what’s already thought to be a down year for signal callers in the draft. That means more competition for free-agent quarterbacks, and no one will be impacted in a more positive way (at least financially) than Philadelphia QB Nick Foles.

 

Foles, of course, is not assured to be a free agent in 2019, but as our Andrew Brandt laid out Wednesday, all signs point to him not playing with the Eagles under the contract that he and the team would have to mutually agree to in the coming months. But let’s look at his competition in the market this spring.

 

There are three categories, and clearly a Super Bowl MVP (and Philly’s possible leader in consecutive postseasons) would be at the top. In the first tier (good and available quarterbacks) would be Tyrod Taylor and Teddy Bridgewater. Next up (the probably used-up quarterbacks but still useful for some starts) are Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick. And in the final tier (quarterbacks who will likely be no longer wanted where they are today) are Joe Flacco, Blake Bortles and Ryan Tannehill.

 

With Herbert out of the picture, the price for Foles is going up. From singularly a financial standpoint, there’s no reason for Foles to opt into this $20 million deal, even if the Eagles were to pick it up. He’ll be going into his age-30 season playing the best ball of his career in an era where quarterbacks can play up to and into their 40s. The deal has no security past 2019. And finally, the $20 million is low. Though that number was reasonable when they reached the deal eight months ago, I would argue he’s already surpassed that with a 3–1 record this season coming off the bench as a starter. And he would only blow that number out of the water with a modicum of postseason success.

 

In 2018, 15 quarterbacks had an annual salary of at least $20 million. Nine have never won a Super Bowl, and seven have never played in a Super Bowl. Foles’s 2017 season was an outlier because of his situation, but he’s come back to beat a fully healthy Falcons team in Week 1 and keep the Eagles’ playoff hopes alive with wins against the playoff-bound Rams and Texans this month.

 

Foles may want to stay in Philadelphia. He may look to go be a starter where he considers it a perfect fit. He may not turn his free agency into an auction. All of those things can happen, but Foles’ play, in this market, dictates his worth is much more than the $20 million he could get in 2019.

 

Here is the logic of Andrew Brandt, referenced by Jones above, as to why Foles is adios from Philadelphia in 2019:

 

As we turn to a new year in the NFL and beyond, there is a sense of déjà vu about a certain quarterback that wasn’t playing two weeks ago becoming—for the second straight year—the most important player in the NFL in January and February. And 10 months ago, this player was outdueling a fellow named Tom Brady in a game called the Super Bowl.

 

The Philadelphia Eagles, left for dead two weeks ago, have a fighter’s chance to get to the playoffs and become that “team no one wants to play” if they get there. And this is with a backup quarterback who is re-creating the magic of a year ago, a magic that could end this week or last through February once more.

 

Simply, Nick Foles is one of the best stories in sports.

 

FOLES MAGIC

Nick Foles is a revelation and an inspiration. Living outside of Philadelphia, I have watched him closely. There is something about him that brings out the best in his team, and his teammates respond to him. He is the ultimate flat-liner (that is a good thing), never in a moment that’s too big for him. Indeed, there is a preternatural calm about him. And in all his media appearances, he not only shows admirable humility but also offers life lessons about failure and perseverance. It is exceedingly hard not to like Nick Foles.

 

This all sounds wonderful until we realize that Foles was not, is not and will not be the Eagles organization’s preferred quarterback. The Eagles invested massive draft capital into Carson Wentz, who represents what every team wants: a proven young, ascending quarterback with great arm strength, movement, leadership skills, off-the-charts character and work ethic. Wentz’s name, however, now carries an asterisk at the end of the list of so many positives, representing an injury concern. While a serious knee injury last year appears sufficiently healed, there is currently a more-concerning—and somewhat mysterious—back injury, paving the way for Foles to, as coach Doug Pederson said, “bail out” the Eagles once again.

 

Now, with “Foles Bailout, the Sequel” in full swing, the question has to be asked if there will ever be a Part III. As described below, my answer to that is, well, no. We are in the last days of Nick Foles as an Eagle. The business of football, and the Eagles rightful commitment to Wentz, require a separation from the magical Foles.

 

THE CONTRACTS TELL THE FUTURE

As with all things in the business of football, any forecasting starts—and usually ends—with analysis of their contracts. The easier of the two contracts to examine is the one with certainty for at least two years, that of Wentz.

 

Wentz: long term play

 

Wentz is finishing the third year of a four-year rookie contract. The Eagles can soon extend the deal for another year, with only the commitment of an injury guarantee to Wentz in 2020. At a $6.7 million average through the first four years of the deal, Wentz has represented incredible value, even with injuries. And were injuries not a concern, the contractually active Eagles would certainly be negotiating a top-of-market contract extension with Wentz this offseason, with $50-60 million guaranteed. With the injuries, however, I expect the team to wait. The Eagles can use the luxury of having at least two more years of contract control to see if Wentz’s back situation resolves (or not) before negotiating an extension.

 

Of course, as I always say, everything is negotiable, and the proactive Eagles could certainly try to leverage the uncertainty of Wentz’s health to negotiate an incentive-based contract full of escalators and de-escalators based on Wentz’s availability and performance. And while there may be value in that kind of contract for the Eagles, I would not expect Wentz’s representatives to accept that structure (I certainly wouldn’t if I were them). And if they would, that would signify they have real concern over Wentz’s future.

 

Thus, as for the Eagles’ decision-making on Wentz, with no contractual urgency in play, the best decision is no decision. If only the decision were that simple for Foles…

 

Foles’s mutual option

 

Foles was amply rewarded in 2018 for his “bail out” last year. The Eagles gave him $9 million guaranteed—a $2 million signing bonus, a $3 million roster bonus, and a $4 million salary—with significant per-game playing time bonuses (and those amounts doubled in the playoffs, as well as many performance incentives). Foles will end up north of $10 million for 2018, as he should. Staying with the Eagles in 2019, however, is highly problematic.

 

The reigning Super Bowl MVP is on the books for a striking $20 million salary in 2019. Whether he receives that salary—at least whether he receives it from the Eagles—is a serious question. Here is the definitive summary of the mutual option, for both the Eagles and Foles, in the current contract.

 

1. The Eagles must decide if they are going to exercise the option to keep Foles (and his $20 million salary) 30 days prior the 2019 league year, meaning in the week following the Super Bowl.

 

2. If the Eagles do not exercise the option, Foles becomes a free agent.

 

3. If and when the Eagles exercise the option, Foles must make a decision in the five days after that.

 

4. If Foles decides to void the option and cancel the contract, he must concurrently pay back the Eagles $2 million, the amount of his 2018 signing bonus, and he will then become a free agent.

 

5. If Foles decides not to void the option and remain with the Eagles, the $20 million salary becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2019 league year (March 18).

 

To summarize, the Eagles have the first decision point: whether to keep Foles at a $20 million salary. But even if they do, Foles can invalidate that decision by paying back $2 million and becoming a free agent. Alternatively, Foles can accept the option and his contract would become fully guaranteed if he is not released prior to March 18.

 

WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

My strong sense is that the Eagles will not exercise the option, letting Foles go into the marketplace. I know: The Eagles are creative and proactive and, in theory, could exercise the option to keep Foles and then trade him and his $20 million salary in the first five days of the league year before it becomes guaranteed, or even sometime later in the offseason when it is guaranteed. But I just don’t see the Eagles, even with Wentz’s injury status, carrying a backup quarterback on their roster and salary cap at a $20 million number.

 

Of course, everything’s negotiable, and the two sides could agree to rework the contract once again. However, this is about more than money. Foles, like all players, wants to play. And absent further injury to Wentz, he won’t play for the Eagles except as the “bail out” guy. And he may be the best “bail out” guy in history, but he is not the future for the Eagles.

 

Enjoy the next week or, perhaps, the next six weeks of Nick Foles, a wonderful role model of humility and grit. As enjoyable as it has been and still is, it can’t continue. He can’t stay with the Eagles; he’s too good to spend another year serving in this role. As sad as it is for the Eagles, their fans and Foles, he has to go.

 

 

WASHINGTON

RB ADRIAN PETERSON is adamant that he will play somewhere in 2019.

 

When the Washington Redskins signed Adrian Peterson in August, speculation centered on whether he could last all 16 games. Many also wondered at what level he could perform.

 

He’s topped 1,000 yards and he’ll play all 16 games. That’s why Peterson said he showed he could still play football at a high level.

 

“If you watch football, if you know anything about football, then you know that he’s still got a lot left,” Peterson, who turns 34 in March, said of himself. “If you can’t see that, you’re blind.”

 

Peterson reiterated what he told ESPN earlier this month, that he wants to stay in Washington. A week after rookie Derrius Guice tore his ACL in August, the Redskins signed Peterson to a one-year deal for the veterans minimum.

 

Peterson said he’s not in a rush to have his future settled. His kids attend school in the area, but he will return to Houston to train as he does each offseason.

 

“I would love to come back here and finish off on a better note,” Peterson said. “We have a great group of guys here — all the adversity we’ve faced this year and how guys have responded. To come to work and really stay focused shows a lot about this team, this locker room, coaches as well. … That’s something I would love to be a part of.”

 

Guice is expected to be fine for next season, but there has been talk that the Redskins could re-sign Peterson and bring him to camp — just in case. The Redskins also have Chris Thompson as a third-down back.

 

“I feel it can work,” Peterson said. “It’s always good to have a couple backs in there with the different styles. Obviously, CT is more a third-down back; he can run the ball as well. So having two guys that can pound the ball and have a no-plays-off mentality if it’s that type of game plan, why not?”

 

Peterson has met with Guice a handful of times this season, though Guice spent most of his time rehabbing in Louisiana and Florida.

 

“I like him a lot; he’s got a nice personality,” Peterson said. “I haven’t been able to see him work and his work ethic and how he handled his business. But we talked about getting him down to Houston, so hopefully he comes down and I’m able to see what he’s all about when it comes to putting in work. Show him a couple things.”

 

Peterson, who has 1,042 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, has been the Redskins’ best offensive weapon this season. He’s surpassed 90 yards seven times, with the Redskins going 5-2 in those games. He had a career-best 90-yard touchdown run at Philadelphia in Week 13. He gained 119 yards vs. Tennessee last week, behind a line that included its fourth set of starting guards and is without two of its top three tight ends.

 

He’s also eighth on the career rushing list and is tied with Jim Brown for fifth place on the all-time rushing touchdowns list.

 

When Peterson plays Sunday against the visiting Eagles, it will be the second time he’s played all 16 games in a season since 2012. He did have to deal with shoulder and knee issues at various times, but he still carried the ball 247 times.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

If Steve Sarkesian gets the heave-ho, QB MATT RYAN doesn’t want his fingerprints anywhere at the crime scene.  D. Orlando Ledbetter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

 

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has gone out of his way to compliment offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after recent games.

 

After the Carolina win, Ryan noted that Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu’s touchdowns were great calls and that both players went into the end zone untouched from 75 and 44 yards out.

 

With Dan Quinn promising to evaluate coaching and personnel changes after the regular season, Ryan was asked about Sarkisian on Wednesday.

 

 “I’m not worried about that right now,” Ryan said. “In all honesty, it’s about trying to find a way to get a win and (Steve) Sarkisian has done a good job.

 

“He’s put us in a good position to be successful as players. It’s our job to go out there and make the plays. I’m not worried about that right now.”

 

It’s noteworthy that Ryan didn’t say “great” position to be successful.

 

 Ryan has had four offensive coordinators over his 11 seasons starting with Mike Mularkey (2008-11, Dirk Koetter (2012-14), Kyle Shanahan (2015-16) and Sarkisian (2017-present).

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Browns OC Freddie Kitchens, the coaching flavor of the year after Lincoln Riley, nearly wasn’t with us in 2018.  He sent this open holiday letter through SI.com:

 

An open letter from Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to our readers on Christmas Day…

 

The true meaning of Christmas is to reflect and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Also, during the Christmas season we tend to reflect on previous Christmas memories, such as waking up on Christmas morning as children to find out what was under the tree or remembering the pure joy of celebrating Christmas morning with our own children. Christmas is the perfect time to let the ones around you know how very much they mean to you.

 

In June of 2013, I suffered an aortic dissection (a hereditary issue that causes the aorta to split and my blood to run between the walls of my aorta instead of the natural path). Facing long odds of survival, I realized how much I meant to the people around me. It is amazing how people let you know how much you mean to them when they think you are possibly going to die.

 

After emergency surgery, during the two months of rehab when I was at home and trying to get back to training camp, there were two things that made me the most thankful man in the world. Besides my gratitude for surviving, I am still most thankful for those two things. The first thing is the quality time my wife and I were able to spend together during the healing process. Our time together was priceless because she was with me every step of the way and helped me make a full recovery. The second thing is having the “What if I had died?” thoughts. One would think I would have regrets of the things I did wrong earlier in my life (and there were plenty of those). However, the main regrets were the things that I never did or never said.

 

After surviving and making a full recovery, I decided to always let the people around me know what they mean to me. What is wrong with making sure your loved ones hear “I love you”? Or ensuring the people who are close to you hear “I appreciate you”? So please, use this time of year to let the people you care about know those things before it is too late. I promise that is something you will never regret.

 

Merry Christmas,

 

Freddie Kitchens

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW YORK JETS

A weight room accident sent Jets TE ERIC TOMLINSON to IR.  Rich Cimini of ESPN.com:

 

The New York Jets lost their top blocking tight end this week because of a freak accident in the weight room, typifying their awful season.

 

While working out Wednesday after practice, Eric Tomlinson dropped a weight on his foot, lacerated two toes and required surgery, a source told ESPN.

 

The Jets didn’t announce the nature of Tomlinson’s injury, but they placed him on injured reserve Thursday. Needing an extra tight end for the season finale against the New England Patriots, they re-signed Clive Walford, who was on their preseason roster.

 

Tomlinson was one of the few regulars on offense who made it through the first 15 games without getting injured. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right guard Brian Winters are the only starters to play in every game.

 

It has been that kind of year for the Jets (4-11), who likely will fire coach Todd Bowles after the season.

 

Tomlinson, 26, was used primarily as a blocker, but he started 12 games and played 33 percent of the offensive snaps. He finished with eight catches for 72 yards. He also was a valuable contributor on special teams.

 

“He’s like our do-all guy,” special-teams coordinator Brant Boyer said Thursday. “He’ll definitely be missed, and [he’s] a great, quality person, good professional, hell of a guy.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

BILL BARNWELL’S AWARDS BALLOT

As is his custom, Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com files a long, long column with his take on the NFL awards, including the Brees-Mahomes MVP tussle.  You can read the whole thing here or the abbreviated version below:

 

In advance of Week 17, I’m filing my awards ballot for the 2018 NFL season. As I do every year here on ESPN.com, I filed a similar ballot after Week 4 and then again after Week 9, so we can all see just how much the league has progressed over the past three months. Remember when Calvin Ridley was a viable Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate?

 

I reserve the right to change my mind if someone has a particularly impressive or horrific performance in Week 17, but in most cases, I feel confident about these choices independent of what happens this Sunday. In making my selections, I’ve tried to emulate how the voters usually think about these official awards, but I’ve also used my own observations and analysis to inform my choices. In some cases, candidates who might be serious competitors for an award don’t hold much interest for me. I’ve tried to explain why that’s the case where necessary. Let’s begin by honoring the stars of the sidelines:

 

Coach of the Year

After Week 4: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

After Week 9: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears

 

Third: Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers. The two-pointer to win over the Chiefs in Week 15 was the final piece of baggage Lynn had to shed in turning around the Chargers’ culture. Everything we thought about the old Chargers — they lose to bad teams, they blow seemingly unassailable leads with bad decisions, Philip Rivers melts down once a month, the kicking game is something close to Charlie Brown LARPing — seems to be gone. Heck, Michael Badgley is 15-of-16 on field goals since taking over for Caleb Sturgis. This is a different team now, and Lynn deserves a lot of credit for turning things around after starting 0-4 last season. The Chargers have gone 20-7 since.

 

Second: Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints. I know we take Payton for granted given that the Saints have been competitive for most of the past decade, but New Orleans has won 13 of its past 14 games and will enter the postseason with the league’s best record. The Saints are first in point differential (by 43 points!) and stand as the league’s most dominant team by ESPN’s Football Power Index.

 

While maybe you could have claimed in years past that the Saints’ success was about riding Drew Brees, Payton’s defense held opposing offenses to an average of 12.3 points per game over a six-game stretch from Weeks 10-15, while Brees and the offense struggled for consistency. We’re used to the Saints being good, but this is in the pantheon of truly great Saints teams alongside the Super Bowl winners of 2009 and the 2011 team that fell to the 49ers in a legendary postseason battle.

 

First: Nagy. It’s hard to overstate what Nagy has done in his first season at the helm with Mitchell Trubisky & Co. in Chicago. The former Chiefs offensive coordinator was only a playcaller for a few weeks in Kansas City, but he has been brilliant in creating easy throws for his young quarterback while getting the most out of players such as Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel. The Chicago offense still isn’t great — it heads into Week 17 ranking 22nd in DVOA — but all this defense needed was a competent offense on the other side of the ball to win 10 games, and the Bears could make it to 12 if they beat the Vikings on Sunday.

 

This is a moment in which I wish there were also a Coordinator of the Year award, because I think you could split things between these top two in either direction. Want to name Nagy as Coach of the Year and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as Coordinator of the Year? I’m for it. Swap it and push Payton up to No. 1 as Coach of the Year and give Chicago’s Vic Fangio the nod as top coordinator? That would work, too.

 

Comeback Player of the Year

After Week 4: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

After Week 9: Watt

 

Third: Andre Hal, S, Houston Texans. While the 26-year-old Hal doesn’t have the high profile of a player like Adrian Peterson, who finishes in fourth here, it’s downright incredible that the Texans defensive back was being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma in September and is playing 31 defensive snaps per game in December.

Second: Watt. I’m going to be mentioning Watt more later in this column, so I have to save some of my info on him for other awards.

 

First: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts. It’s worth remembering that this time last year, Luck was returning from more than a month in the Netherlands, undergoing treatment for a shoulder injury with no timetable for return. Every member of the Colts organization had to be terrified that they weren’t going to see the Luck who carried middling teams to the playoffs ever again.

 

Defensive Rookie of the Year

After Week 4: Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

After Week 9: Leonard

 

Before I say anything, this is an awesome crop of young defensive talent. Derwin James and Denzel Ward are going to the Pro Bowl, but you could have sent five rookies from this class to Orlando without stretching. There’s no way to do a top three here without getting several fan bases angry. First, there’s a second tier of promising linebackers in guys such as Leighton Vander Esch, Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds who would be viable winners most years and simply miss out because of the talent at their own position, let alone at scarcer and more valuable spots in the lineup.

 

Then, in going through the four top candidates left, the guy I actually ended up cutting from the list is the Pro Bowler. Ward has been excellent as a rookie cornerback for the Browns, but he has missed two games, sat out all but seven snaps against the Chiefs and probably will be out in Week 17 after suffering his second concussion of the season. Ward probably will miss what amounts to a quarter of the season through injuries, and while he has been impactful when healthy, that narrow margin is enough to push him off the ballot for me.

 

I find it close to impossible to choose between the three players I have left. You could rank them in any order from 3 to 1, and I’d find it hard to argue against placing them in any order or permutation.

 

Third: Bradley Chubb, LB, Denver Broncos. Chubb has been phenomenal. He has five more sacks than any other rookie and four tackles for loss against the run. The NC State product has one of the most physically dominant plays of the season on tape, in which he pushes D.J. Humphries backward with one arm before accelerating to sack Josh Rosen. He’s an absolute monster.

 

At the same time, if I’m poking holes in any of these three finalists’ résumés, it’s easiest to find the weak spots with Chubb. He’s approaching Week 17 with 12 sacks but just 20 knockdowns, so he hasn’t been quite as impactful as your typical 12-sack rusher.

 

Second: Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers. Even I’m mad at myself for putting James second. What else could James do to win Defensive Rookie of the Year? He leads all safeties with 15.5 disrupted dropbacks, including three interceptions and 3.5 sacks.

 

I don’t have a criticism of James. The only thing separating him from the top spot is the talent around him in Los Angeles. He has Pro Bowl talent creating pressure along the defensive line in Joey Bosa (when healthy) and Melvin Ingram, plus top-tier cornerback Casey Hayward in the secondary. I don’t know that you can say the same thing for the No. 1 pick …

 

First: Leonard. I don’t think Leonard will win the real award, but I can’t justify putting anyone else first. How many defensive players on the Colts can you even name? Leonard is the beating heart of Matt Eberflus’ defense, which might be the biggest surprise on that side of the ball in football at 12th in defensive DVOA. The only argument I can make against Leonard is that the second-round pick missed a game with an ankle injury, with the Colts subsequently allowing 38 points to the Patriots.

 

The Indy linebacker leads the NFL with a staggering 155 tackles, 23 more than any other player. There can be some home cooking in tackle statistics, but if you look at strictly solo tackles, Leonard is at 107 and no other player in the league has topped 100. It would be one thing if Leonard were mopping up 10 yards downfield, but he has 12 tackles for loss, which is tied for second among non-edge rushing linebackers.

 

Leonard also has stuffed the scoresheet beyond tackles. At seven sacks, he has more takedowns than any rookie besides Chubb. Leonard has knocked away six passes, picked up an interception and forced four fumbles. I don’t love these sort of arbitrary endpoint comparisons, but if you look through history for players with 150 or more tackles, five or more sacks and four or more forced fumbles in a season since 1990, you get Leonard and Broderick Thomas in 1991. Here’s hoping Leonard shines on the national stage against the Titans on Sunday night.

 

Offensive Rookie of the Year

After Week 4: Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons

After Week 9: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

 

There’s a smaller pool of options here, especially as previous threats such as Ridley, D.J. Moore and Kerryon Johnson have either gotten injured or faded into the undercard. I think there’s a pretty clear top three. Ordering those three might not be so easy.

 

Third: Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos. Before suffering a season-ending wrist injury on Monday, the undrafted rookie delivered a stunning season. His workload pales in comparison to Barkley’s, but Lindsay averaged more yards per carry and posted a better success rate than Barkley, all while playing behind a similarly middling offensive line.

 

The list of NFL rookies with 150 carries or more who averaged more yards per carry than Lindsay’s 5.40 mark is pretty impressive: Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Franco Harris, Clinton Portis and DeMarco Murray all had long pro careers. As a pair of 5-foot-8 dynamos, I like the MJD comparison most. Lindsay doesn’t have MJD’s thickness, but he already has proved to be a handful near the goal line while simultaneously retaining the speed to break big runs. Lindsay looks like the best back the Broncos have had since Willis McGahee.

 

Second: Barkley. What a complicated player to unpack. I don’t need to tell you what Barkley is capable of with the football in his hands, so let’s not bother. In terms of Barkley’s impact on the Giants, was he a great player in 2018?

 

I think you can make a case for both sides. He has an outside shot at finishing the year with 2,000 yards from scrimmage, which is impressive for a team with an offense that hasn’t exactly been flowing this season. He’s fifth in the league with 73 first downs and has seven gains of 50 yards or more, four more than any other back in the league. His efficiency numbers generally aren’t great, but the Giants rely on Barkley to serve as the entirety of their offense for stretches at a time. A hardly atypical series for the Giants would include a run with Barkley on first down, a screen to Barkley on second down and a checkdown from Eli Manning to Barkley to keep the pass rush away on third down. It would be close to impossible for anyone to average 4.9 yards per carry in this offense the way that Barkley has this season.

 

At the same time, Barkley’s efficiency numbers are awful. He ranks 37th in the league in success rate as a runner out of 45 qualifying backs. Much of what he gains can be empty calories; 60.4 percent of his carries have yielded negative plays by ESPN’s model, the 10th-most in football.

 

It’s extremely difficult to make a boom-and-bust model work on an annual basis. The closest comparison in terms of escapability for Barkley is Barry Sanders, who was similarly regarded as an all-or-nothing back during his pro career, but the numbers don’t quite hold up.

 

First: Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns. I wrote at length about Mayfield during the rookie quarterback progress report a couple of weeks ago. In short, he has been head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, and that’s before Mayfield alternately torched the Bengals and antagonized their sideline last Sunday. Mayfield’s numbers are excellent — the first overall pick now ranks fifth in the league in passer rating from Week 7 onward — but he’s quickly approaching folk-hero status in Cleveland. The added bonus for playing quarterback pushes Mayfield atop the ballot for me.

 

Defensive Player of the Year

After Week 4: Khalil Mack, LB, Chicago Bears

After Week 9: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

 

Let’s start by narrowing our scope. No defensive back has played well enough to merit significant consideration here. ..None of the tackling machines at inside linebacker have stuck out enough to make it into the discussion, either.

 

With that out of the way, we’re looking for edge rushers, which makes this a little easier to break down. I’m keeping the Chiefs’ duo of Dee Ford and Chris Jones off the list, in part because Kansas City’s run defense has been atrocious, along with the idea that the Chiefs have faced 599 pass attempts this season, second in the NFL behind the Browns. The Browns’ Myles Garrett also falls just short.

 

Third: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans. I sneak Watt on just ahead of Von Miller, although the two future Hall of Famers could swap if Miller delivers a big Week 17 for the Broncos. They’re basically in a dead heat: Watt has 14.5 sacks on 24 knockdowns with six forced fumbles, while Miller has racked up 14.5 sacks on 25 knockdowns with four forced fumbles. Watt has seven tackles for loss against the run to Miller’s four, which helps point the arrow narrowly toward the Texans star.

 

Second: Mack. On a snap-by-healthy-snap basis, I don’t know if any edge rusher has been more impactful than the former Raiders star. Mack announced his candidacy in the first half of Week 1, when he absolutely terrorized the Packers in prime time, and he has generally wreaked havoc ever since. Mack has 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, including a stretch of four consecutive games with a forced fumble to start the campaign.

 

The only reason I have Mack second is the one midseason stretch in which he wasn’t terrifying.

 

First: Donald. While Donald’s MVP candidacy fell by the wayside after a pair of quiet games in Weeks 14 and 15, he’s still comfortably the best pass-rusher in football. His 19.5 sacks are four more than any other defender in the league, and his 38 knockdowns are seven ahead of second-placed Fletcher Cox. Kawann Short is the only defensive tackle in the league with more tackles for loss against the run, but I don’t see a reason to overthink this. This is the easiest pick on my ballot.

 

Offensive Player of the Year

After Week 4: Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

After Week 9: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

 

Looking at recent history, I like to use this award to honor either the best non-quarterback or the second-best quarterback in the league, even though the logical thing would be for the MVP to also win Offensive Player of the Year.

 

For a running back or a receiver to win this award, they have to clearly separate from the pack at their position. I don’t think there’s really a player who has done that this year. Ezekiel Elliott has assumed a massive workload and topped 2,000 yards from scrimmage with a game to go, but he has scored only six touchdowns. Gurley looked to be an MVP candidate heading into the Nov. 19 showdown with the Chiefs, but he hasn’t looked the same since tweaking his ankle early in that contest. A knee injury will likely cost him the final two weeks of the season and prevent him from racking up the cumulative totals to stand out as the best back in the league. Christian McCaffrey and Barkley will struggle to receive serious consideration by virtue of playing on sub-.500 teams.

 

Likewise, if you asked 10 people who the best wideout in football was in 2018, you might get five different answers. Adam Thielen got off to a blazing-hot start with eight 100-plus yard games, but the Vikings star has averaged just 58.6 receiving yards per contest and scored three touchdowns over the ensuing seven contests. Julio Jones’ touchdown regression to the mean finally came, but it came during the second half of a lost season for the Falcons. He leads all receivers by more than 100 yards, but it would take something close to a record campaign for Jones to get OPOY support on a 6-9 Falcons team. Thomas voters would likely lean toward Brees or even Alvin Kamara instead, while Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce supporters would push their votes toward Patrick Mahomes.

 

I think the best wideout in football at the moment is DeAndre Hopkins, but has he been so much better than everyone else to overcome the massive gap between a receiver and a quarterback? I’m going with all quarterbacks here, so I’ll fold the OPOY discussion in there.

 

Most Valuable Player

After Week 4: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

After Week 9: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

 

We know Mahomes and Brees are in the discussion. It’s probably easier to start eliminating passers from the pile and work our way down to a third candidate, right? Ben Baldwin went through the MVP candidates in a similar way for The Athletic, and while I have different feelings, I think eliminating quarterbacks in relative order of difficulty should lead us to the ideal top three.

 

Let’s get rid of everyone who isn’t the quarterback of a playoff team or who missed multiple games with an injury, which removes the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz from the equation.

 

Ben Roethlisberger might end up missing the postseason after the Steelers collapsed in November, and while the defense has been the biggest culprit, Roethlisberger deserves plenty of the blame. He has struggled mightily on deep throws for a full month now, including two long misses in one game against the Broncos. Over the past five weeks, Roethlisberger has had 11 deep passes with an expected completion percentage of 50 percent or more, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. While the numbers would have expected Roethlisberger to rack up 6.6 completions on those throws, he has five completions and two interceptions. With four close losses over that time frame, one more big completion might very well have made the difference.

 

Jared Goff was an MVP candidate after throwing five touchdown passes in a brilliant performance against the Vikings on national television, but Goff has been ordinary since Week 4. Over the past 11 games, Goff has posted a passer rating of 90.2 and a Total QBR of 56.4, which sandwiches him between Nick Mullens and Eli Manning over that same time frame. Maybe Cooper Kupp should be an MVP candidate.

 

Tom Brady won MVP last season and has fallen off over the second half of the season, neither of which bodes well. The voters shy away from back-to-back winners and don’t reward players who declined from the previous year, even if that new level of play is totally fine. By era-adjusted stats, Brady’s 11 interceptions are driving his worst interception rate since 2004.

 

This is the cutoff where I think everyone at least could receive reasonable MVP consideration. My next person off is Russell Wilson, and it’s strictly because of volume. Wilson has thrown only 406 passes this season, the fewest by a considerable margin of any quarterback to make 15 starts. Deshaun Watson is the second-most infrequent passer in that group, and he’s at 470 attempts. The average quarterback in that group has thrown 531 passes so far, which is an extra 30 percent on top of Wilson’s total. If Wilson were making up for that with significant run volume, it would be worth considering, but he is on pace to finish with 69 carries this season, down from an average of 101.2 rush attempts across Wilson’s five healthy campaigns as a pro. Wilson also has fumbled 10 times and taken sacks on 10 percent of his dropbacks. While he has been an efficient passer and managed to score on more than 8 percent of his pass attempts, he would need to be the most efficient passer in the league to make up for the lack of volume. The Seahawks have been effective with their plan of running the football, but they average 6.9 yards per dropback and 4.8 yards per carry. All those missing pass attempts are producing less effective offensive snaps.

 

Deshaun Watson has shouldered more of the load than Wilson, and the second-year quarterback has cut his interception rate in half from his 2017 mark of 3.9 percent, but he lacks Wilson’s gaudy touchdown total (34) and has taken sacks at an even higher rate (10.6 percent). Watson has led five fourth-quarter comebacks, but those comebacks have come against the Colts, Bills, Broncos, Washington and Jets, a group that isn’t exactly going to excite the electorate. And after three consecutive 300-yard games early in the season, Watson failed to post a single 300-yarder over a nine-week span before getting to 339 in last week’s loss to the Eagles. Yardage totals aren’t everything, but the Texans are 21st in offensive DVOA this season. Watson’s offense carried the team during that white-hot stretch in 2017, but the Texans have ridden their defense to the playoffs this season.

 

Andrew Luck is the last cut, despite his volume as a passer and steady success over the course of this campaign, Jaguars game aside. Remember the efficiency vs. volume debate I mentioned with Wilson a moment ago? Luck has thrown 604 passes and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. Philip Rivers has thrown only 484 passes, nearly 20 percent less than Luck’s total, but he’s averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, the third-highest mark in the league behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mahomes. When you factor in interceptions and sacks with adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), Rivers is fourth in the league and Luck is 14th.

 

It’s enough for me to keep Luck on the outskirts of the race. We’re left with Rivers, Mahomes and Brees. Let’s take a look at their stats:

 

QB       CMP     ATT      CMP%  YDS     Y/ATT   TD        INT       RATING            QBR     ANY/A

Brees    364       489       74.4%   3,992    8.2        32         5          115.7    81.2      8.5

Mahomes          369       556       66.4%   4,816    8.7        48         11         114.0    81.5      8.8

Rivers   333       484       68.8%   4,132    8.5        31         10         107.7    70.8      7.9

 

It’s pretty easy to eliminate Rivers, if only because Brees has been a more effective version of the same passer. Neither quarterback has played a particularly brutal schedule, although Brees has faced the third-easiest schedule in the league, while Rivers comes in at 10th easiest. (Mahomes is in as the eighth toughest.) I don’t see any argument for moving Rivers up past three, so he’ll settle there.

 

All that leaves us, unsurprisingly, with Brees vs. Mahomes. When I chose Brees in Week 9, I pointed out that Mahomes’ huge advantage in touchdowns was reasonably overcome by other elements of Brees’ game. Those differences aren’t quite as significant for Brees after a winter slump. They’ve each thrown four interceptions over the past seven games. Brees is likely to set the completion percentage record by the end of the season, but it will be by 2.4 points as opposed to the 3.9 percent mark of midseason. Mahomes’ supporting cast isn’t as impressive with Kareem Hunt out of football and Sammy Watkins mostly unavailable.

 

If you’re looking for anecdotal heroics, Brees wins out. He has led six fourth-quarter comeback victories this season, the most in football. The list includes victories over the Ravens and Steelers, along with a win over the Rams after Los Angeles tied things up at 35-35 in the fourth quarter. Mahomes has just two such wins, and prime-time losses to the Rams, Patriots and Chargers might hurt his chances. I wouldn’t take those issues seriously myself — remember that Mahomes actually led the Chiefs back into fourth-quarter comeback leads against the Patriots and Rams, only for his defense to subsequently blow the lead.

 

The thing I keep coming back to in a very tight race is what happened during Brees’ three-game slide after Thanksgiving. He posted a passer rating of just 77.0 over that three-game run, averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt with more interceptions (three) than passing touchdowns (two). Brees didn’t get a ton of help from his receivers, with Tommylee Lewis famously fumbling the ball into the end zone for a touchback against the Panthers. The Saints went 2-1 in that stretch, and that was mostly by the grace of their defense.

 

There is no such three-game stretch and no bailout defense for Mahomes, whose worst three-game run came in October and included a passer rating of 87.1. He also has toned down the giveaways; after throwing an interception in five consecutive games, Mahomes has gone without an interception in four of his past six contests. He has posted only one passer rating under 100 over the past 10 games, and it was against the Ravens, who have one of the best pass defenses in the league.

 

The case for Brees is naiveté. Mahomes is in his first season as a starter at this level. He’s working with a mad genius in Andy Reid, who will (fairly or unfairly) get more credit for Mahomes’ success than Payton will for Brees’. Mahomes has 11 interceptions and nine fumbles this season. Brees, who has five of each, has half the turnover rate. Brees has thrown shorter passes in the absence of Terron Armstead, but he remains accurate. When you remove screen passes from both players’ stats, Mahomes is completing 62.5 percent of his passes while averaging 8.33 yards per attempt. Brees is averaging an identical amount, but while completing 72.2 percent of his throws.

 

I find the other side of this argument more compelling. Mahomes has been as productive as Brees and done it while assuming about 13 percent more passing volume. (That difference could rise even further if the Saints sit Brees for Teddy Bridgewater for some or all of their meaningless Week 17 game on Sunday.) A stat like ANY/A incorporates interceptions, weights them appropriately and still leaves Mahomes narrowly ahead. He also has added more production as a runner than Brees, although the latter remains a threat on his patented pop-up sneak.

 

By the end of Sunday, Mahomes is probably going to finish his first season as a starter with 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. The only guy to do that was Peyton Manning in 2013, and he took home 49 of the 50 MVP votes. I don’t think Mahomes will win in a landslide, but I think Brees’ three-week dip was enough to put the Chiefs star in the driver’s seat. Unless Mahomes absolutely craters in Week 17, he’s my pick to win MVP. In what might be his final season, Brees will settle for second and the Offensive Player of the Year nod.

 

Third: Rivers

Second: Brees

First: Mahomes

 

The DB would go the other way – Brees for MVP for guiding his team to the best record, Mahomes for putting up the Fantasy numbers of the year which is usually the way the Offensive Player Award goes.

 

 

 

2019 DRAFT

Matt Bowen of ESPN.com acts as if QB KYLER MURRAY isn’t going to play baseball. He picks some NFL teams for Murray, most of whom already seem to have QBs:

 

Kyler Murray can be an NFL quarterback. He has an NFL arm, and his speed and athleticism is unique for the position. Just put on the tape of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Oklahoma. Pro traits are all over it.

 

Now, there has never been an NFL signal-caller built like him. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 but might be closer to 5-9. And he doesn’t have the body type of Russell Wilson, who’s 5-11 but built like a safety. That — plus a looming big decision on whether to give up football and stick with baseball — is why Murray isn’t a guaranteed first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

 

A smart NFL coach and offensive coordinator, however, would take advantage of Murray’s skill set even if he wasn’t picked in Round 1. And it might take Round 1 money for Murray to commit to football over his $4.66 million MLB signing bonus.

 

Let’s pick five team fits and situations in which Murray could thrive in 2019, plus the coaches who could get the best out of him. There are likely going to be several coaching changes — including new playcallers in Cleveland and Green Bay — so I’m excluding teams in flux.

 

1. Tennessee Titans

The Titans picked up Marcus Mariota’s fifth-year option, so he’s locked in for 2019. But the former No. 2 overall pick’s rookie deal is up after next season, and Tennessee could use the year to decide if it wants to commit to him long term. Given Mariota’s injury history, plus his inconsistent play in new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s offense, the Titans could be a prime candidate to target Murray.

 

How would Murray fit here? Just look at how LeFleur adjusted his call sheet for Mariota, who rushed for 2,237 yards in college at Oregon but hadn’t been used consistently in the QB run game in his first three NFL seasons. The Titans rank No. 5 in the NFL on rushing yards off zone-read/option plays — 283 — and we know the core route concepts would mesh with Murray’s game. Think of the outside zone-run action paired to the intermediate throws in LaFleur’s route tree. Create the open window, just as Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley called up for Murray in the clip below against TCU. Stretch/outside zone with the inside, rhythm throw.

 

Mariota could flourish in LaFleur’s offense in 2019, his second year in the system. There’s an expected bump for QBs in that situation. But with the Titans registering only 55 explosive offensive plays this season — third-fewest in the league — landing Murray gives Tennessee a big-play threat at the position if Mariota isn’t the answer.

 

2. New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees turns 40 next month, and if the Saints let backup Teddy Bridgewater walk in free agency, I like the idea of New Orleans targeting Murray and developing him in Sean Payton’s system. As we’ve seen this season, Payton will think outside of the box with his personnel. Just look at the versatility of Taysom Hill and the QB-designed runs in Payton’s game plan. Hill has rushed for 185 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries in 2018.

 

In addition to the stress Murray could create for opposing NFL defenses in the QB run game, however, his quick release, accuracy and ball velocity can be featured in the passing game. Just look at Murray ripping the throw up the seam off play-action against Baylor in the clip below.

 

Payton is still the league’s best playcaller when it comes to creating and exposing matchups. He can jump into 22 personnel (2RB-2TE-1WR) and hammer the ball downhill in the run game. He can generate open windows off play-action and misdirection or use leveled reads to influence defenders. Or he can simply spread out his playmakers to attack in the short to intermediate passing game. I would love to see Payton design specific plays for Murray right away while developing him to become the eventual starter in New Orleans.

 

3. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are expected to move on from veteran Joe Flacco this offseason, and we’ve already seen coordinator Marty Mornhinweg change the entire offense for rookie Lamar Jackson. The game plan has been molded to fit Jackson’s strengths with more designed runs, play-action, movement throws, run-pass options (RPOs) and inside verticals. That’s a perfect fit for Murray, who has shown the ability to run the rock at Oklahoma, rushing for 892 yards on 123 carries this season.

 

Plus, the RPO and QB run designs carry over from Riley’s offense, such as this lead draw in the clip below, when Murray ripped off an explosive play in the victory over Kansas.

 

The question: Why would Baltimore add another quarterback after drafting Jackson in the first round last April? For starters, it gives John Harbaugh and his staff an opportunity to build up their depth and develop another player in the system. And it gives the Ravens some insurance with the number of runs — and hits — Jackson has already taken. He has carried the ball 127 times for 605 yards and three scores this season. Since he became the starter in Week 11, Jackson has 99 carries — an average of 16.5 per game. That’s a huge number for an NFL quarterback.

 

I expect the Ravens’ system to expand with Jackson in 2019. They have an entire offseason to build the passing game to facilitate more development. But the QB runs will always be a weapon for the Ravens, and that makes them a tough offense to plan against. Adding another quarterback who displays the upper-tier speed and open-field ability of Murray fits the offensive system in Baltimore.

 

4. Chicago Bears

The arrow is starting to point up on second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in new coach Matt Nagy’s system. With his athleticism, vertical throws inside the numbers and ability to anticipate open windows, Trubisky is improving, and Nagy can script a productive game plan with those skills at the quarterback position. The tape tells us Trubisky is still developing the necessary traits to play consistently, however, and Nagy’s knack for creativity on the call sheet opens the door to adding more depth and big-play ability in the quarterback room.

 

Under Nagy, the Bears rank No. 4 in the league in rushing yards off zone-read/options runs at 420, and they want to push the ball down the field, with 71 passes of 20 yards or more. That’s good for the seventh-most attempts in the NFL. And we know Murray can make plays over the top of the defense. Plus, with Nagy’s ability to generate misdirection in the game plan, it creates a road map for the QB: Get that open window, like Riley dialed up against Kansas State. Split-flow backfield action, show the bubble screen and clear space for Murray to throw the inside glance route. House call in the clip below.

 

Given the multiple personnel groupings and unique formation looks from Nagy this season, adding Murray would give the Bears another weapon. And I would bet on Nagy to feature Murray in situations that generate explosive plays while he develops and gets used to the NFL game.

 

5. Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson is the unquestioned starter for the Seahawks, but why not put Murray as the No. 2 here? Brian Schottenheimer’s run-heavy system features the zone-read and an efficient passing game, and Murray has the skill set to excel; he just put up the highest passing efficiency season in college football history.

 

The Seahawks rank No. 1 with 857 rushing yards on zone-read/option runs. That’s Wilson in the gun reading the end man on the line of scrimmage. And the play-action, which leads to deep-ball windows, has allowed Wilson to dial up vertical throws off leveled routes. Again, this is a key trait in Riley’s system. Just take a look at the touchdown throw against Texas Tech on the flood concept in the clip below. It’s a boot scheme there, with Murray targeting the third level for the score.

 

As I said, the system works for Murray, and backup Brett Hundley is a free agent in 2019, leaving Wilson as the only QB on the roster. Murray would be allowed to develop behind Wilson here.