AROUND THE NFL

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

QB MITCHELL TRUBISKY is actually playing pretty good, the Bears are now 7-6 after disposing of the Cowboys, but LB ROQUAN SMITH hurt his pectoral.  Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com:

 

The rest of Bears linebacker Roquan Smith’s season is in jeopardy.

 

Smith, Chicago’s leading tackler, suffered what is believed to be a significant pectoral injury in the first quarter of the Bears’ 31-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.

 

“We’ll get more details in the next couple of days, [but] it doesn’t look real good for him,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said after the game.

 

Smith made contact with Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott as he crossed the goal line to cap Dallas’ opening 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Kevin Pierre-Louis replaced Smith on defense for the remainder of the game.

 

Chicago’s first-round pick in 2018 (eighth overall), Smith had a career-best 15 total tackles last week. The Bears are already without another starting inside linebacker, Danny Trevathan (elbow), who was replaced in the starting lineup by Nick Kwiatkoski.

 

Smith entered Thursday’s game with 99 tackles, two sacks and one interception this season. As a rookie last season, he played in all 16 games and posted 122 tackles, five sacks and an interception.

 

“It could be a big loss,” Nagy said. “The way that Roquan has been playing the last couple of weeks, he’s been flying around and making plays. You just love that confidence that he’s bringing to the defense.

 

More on the Bears from Dickerson:

 

So you’re saying there’s a chance.

 

The Chicago Bears are still alive — albeit, slightly — in the NFC playoff chase following Thursday’s 31-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys (6-7); a team regardless of where they finish in the abysmal NFC East appears headed for an offseason overhaul.

 

But the Bears owe no apologies after their most impressive win of the 2019 season — save for the game quarterback Chase Daniel came off the bench to lead Chicago to a division victory over Minnesota in Week 4.

 

The Bears (7-6) will head to Lambeau Field next week winners of three straight and above the .500 mark for the first time since October. Chicago entered the game with a 1.1% chance to make the playoffs, but the win increased those chances to 2.3%, per ESPN’s Football Power Index.

 

Chicago is certainly in the hunt for a postseason berth, but its road is arduous. The Bears finish out the season with playoff-caliber opponents in Green Bay, Kansas City and Minnesota, whereas the Packers (Redskins and Lions) and Vikings (Lions and Chargers) have much more winnable games left on their respective schedules. The Rams also currently have seven wins and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears.

 

Still, the Bears are finally resembling the team many predicted they would be following last season’s surprise 12-4 record and NFC North championship.

 

The big question is whether the Bears waited too long to peak.

 

We think ESPN’s computers undersell the Bears chances.  We kind of like them against the Packers and Chiefs, but let’s call those games 50-50 so the chance of winning both is 25%.  All it would take is Green Bay to beat Minnesota (another 50-50) and then it would be Chicago vs. Minnesota in Week 17 in Minneapolis for second place in the North.  Call that another 50/50.  So we get about 6%, not 2.3%.

 

 

 

MINNESOTA

Coach Mike Zimmer on the mystery of WR ADAM THIELIN’s hamstring.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com

 

The Vikings know they need Adam Thielen, and there’s a general sense that he’s getting closer to being well.

 

But the lack of concrete timeline makes it a difficult topic for them to discuss.

 

Via Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said the wide receiver hasn’t suffered a setback with the hamstring injury which has cost him three straight games, but he doesn’t know when he’ll be back to health.

 

“I think he’s getting really close, but there’s really no sense to push it,” Zimmer said Thursday. “Like today, there’s really no sense to push it. We’ll see how it goes next week or, uh, tomorrow. . . .

 

“He’s frustrated.”

 

Thielen initially injured his hamstring on Oct. 20 against the Lions. He then sat out of the short-week game against Washington, tried to return the following week but only made it seven snaps. He did some limited work in practice last week, but didn’t play last week and hasn’t practiced this week.

 

“[Hamstring injuries] are all different,” Zimmer said “We always get an MRI. Sometimes two or three MRIs to see where they’re at. And typically, at the end of the day, you have to trust the player.

 

“If the MRI looks pretty good, you trust the player. If the player says he can play, then you let him play. That’s kind of what happened a few weeks ago against Kansas City. That’s what happened. The MRI looked good, the player said he could play. Started to play and he couldn’t end up playing. So we’ve been cautious with it. We’ve had a couple more MRIs.”

 

Despite that, they’re no closer to a clear answer to when he can return, hopefully for an entire game this time.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Jason Garrett survives Thursday’s loss in Chicago.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was mad after Thursday’s 31-24 loss to the Bears.

 

But not mad enough to make a coaching change.

 

Jones told reporters the Cowboys just have to play better.

 

“We’ll line them up here next week,” Jones said. “We’re going to go practice, and we’re going to try to win a football game. Everybody that’s in here that’s healthy will be playing, and everybody who is in here coaching will be coaching. We’ve just got to play better.”

 

The Cowboys lost their third consecutive game and have dropped seven of 10 since opening with a 3-0 record. They are 6-7 but remain atop the middling NFC East.

 

But the Cowboys don’t look anything like a playoff team much less a team that could go on a postseason run to fulfill Jones’ fairytale dream. The owner seemed to realize that watching Thursday’s game.

 

“They took it to us,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to see if we can step in here and win a game. I don’t care if we stay in contention all the way down until they have the playoffs, we’ve got to start showing our fans, more importantly, show ourselves we can do the things to win games.”

 

Jones criticized the coaching staff after the team’s loss to the Patriots in Week 12. He was asked Thursday if that criticism has contributed to the Cowboys’ lackluster play.

 

He didn’t appreciate the question.

 

“The same way that my praise of them is contributing,” Jones said. “You may have noticed that I’ve been praising them, too. So much for words. Seriously. So much for words.”

 

Dak Prescott said earlier this week it was put up or shut up time. It seems it’s shut-up time in Dallas.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Bruce Allen is the source of the troubles says holdout T TRENT WILLIAMS.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Trent Williams was careful not to blame Washington owner Dan Snyder for the dysfunctional situation that saw him miss the entire season.

 

But he pulled no punches when it came to team president Bruce Allen, saying it was his fault the situation became so acrimonious — and that the team has been so bad for the last decade.

 

In a lengthy piece from Les Carpenter of the Washington Post, the veteran left tackle said Allen putting him on the non-football injury list (and withholding his salary) when he reported to the team midseason was punitive.

 

“It just goes to show you how behind the times [Allen] is, and he still tries to use that money to hold it over black athletes,” Williams said.

 

Williams held out to begin the offseason, unhappy with the team’s handling of his medical situation. There’s some reasonable degree of he-said/she-said involved here (as in any situation as complicated as this one), and Allen called Williams’ allegations “comical.”

 

But it doesn’t sound like there’s any way Williams would return to the team as long as Allen’s running it.

 

“I don’t see how it can be reconciled,” Williams said. “At the end of the day I’m a human being, I ain’t like a dog and you can slap s— out of me and I’m going to come back the next morning with my tail wagging. This was a conscious decision, they didn’t burn the bridge by accident. This was something they felt comfortable doing, so I got to feel comfortable with moving on, too.”

 

Williams believes as long as Allen’s in charge, it will be hard for them to be competitive, and that they’d have to overpay to get free agents to come there after the way he was treated. In Allen’s 10 years running the team, they’re 62-93-1.

 

“There’s no shortcuts to the top,” he said. “It’s a long, grueling road, and right now I don’t even feel like the organization is on a road, it’s on a track that’s going in circles. You get to a point where you say: ‘All right, we’re about to break through,’ and in less than a year, you’re back to rebuilding. . . .

 

“I just don’t understand. In any business world, when the employer has someone who is underperforming, he finds another one. I don’t know in the last 10 years if there is a worse record [for] someone who has held their job for 10 years and performed the way they performed and still have a job. I don’t know. That would be good to look up and [see] just who else is in that company. I would be thrilled to find out.”

 

When asked for a response, Allen said only: “I’m much more concerned about the Green Bay Packers than that.”

 

Snyder has stood by Allen through years of criticism, though recent reports suggest he’s considering moving on. Until or unless he does, it doesn’t appear there’s a road to mending the relationship with one of their best players of the last generation.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

NEW ORLEANS

Terez Paylor of YahooSports.com on QB+ TAYSOM HILL:

 

There’s at least one thing that’s settled, now that we’re 13 weeks in. And it’s this indisputable, unassailable fact:

 

The most versatile player in the NFL is a 29-year-old, third-string quarterback who went undrafted in 2017.

 

If you ask New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, he might tell you that the player, Taysom Hill, may be the next Steve Young.

 

Not that Payton has ever bothered to tell the third-year pro that himself.

 

“I don’t know that Sean and I have ever really specifically talked about it,” Hill told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “But I know it’s been said.”

 

Indeed. Payton hinted at the comparison while speaking to CBS’s broadcast team during the preseason, and lavished more praise upon Hill after his sterling Thanksgiving performance in the Saints’ 26-18 win over the Falcons.

 

“Listen, he’s just a football player,” Payton said. “He’s neat to coach, he can play a number of different positions. There aren’t many guys like him.”

 

Opponents have taken notice. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan — whose team will square off against the Saints on Sunday in a critical NFC battle of two 10-2 teams — called Hill an “unbelievable” player on special teams, while 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told the media Thursday how important it is for his players to know where he is.

 

It makes sense because football players like Hill don’t exactly grow on trees. He’s a 6-foot-2, 220-pound quarterback with 4.5 speed (to run away from defenders), soft hands (to play receiver and tight end), enough power to play running back, and the instincts and toughness to star on special teams.

 

“[He’s] the first one I’ve coached like him,” Payton added.

 

And as he has all year, Hill showed why his coach loves him so much against the Falcons, as he blocked a punt — which set up a 3-yard touchdown catch from Drew Brees a few plays later — and scored another touchdown on a 30-yard run later in the game on a direct snap.

 

On the season, Hill has rushed 16 times for 127 yards and a score, while catching 13 passes for 114 yards and four scores. Those numbers are even more impressive considering Hill has also logged a stunning 55.5 percent of the Saints’ special teams snaps while you know, doing the abundance of tasks NFL quarterbacks are expected to do on a weekly basis to prepare.

 

“I watch film, I do everything Drew does,” Hill said. “As we prepare for a game, I’m in with Drew early and late, and I’m getting all that experience. I know what his routine is, and he’s a master of that, and so I’ve adopted that routine.”

 

For the moment, Hill is the Saints’ third-string quarterback, which means reps are hard to come by. Teams get only so much practice time, so they overwhelmingly devote it to getting the No. 1 starter as many reps as possible, with the No. 2 guy working in only sparingly.

 

This leaves Hill to take mental reps — the process of watching the No. 1 QB practice, while imagining what he would do in the same situation. Yet, the absence of these regular quarterbacking reps frees Hill to be Payton’s gadget with the No. 1 offense.

 

On one play, he might be asked to run deep. On another, he might have to block a defensive end. And then the next play, he’s tasked with playing quarterback, right before he has to go out as a core special teamer.

 

This all requires an extraordinary amount of focus.

 

“Which is the easy part, since I’m a quarterback,” Hill said. “Intellectually, the transition from, ‘Hey, go and do this at this position’ [was] easy [offensively] because I already knew what that guy was supposed to do.”

 

So a lot of times Hill does the things he’d want a running back or receiver to do, as if he were playing quarterback. He has also worked hard on his technique at those positions, and handling the physicality required to line up everywhere is no small chore.

 

“So maybe your hands get beat up, right, and then you’re asked to go in and throw the ball,” Hill said.

 

The physicality doesn’t seem to make much of an impact on Hill, whose passion for the game shines through in practice.

 

“I don’t think there’s anyone that enjoys playing football more than him,” Payton said. “That kind of rubs off and is contagious on his teammates. When a guy like him makes a play, you see guys get excited.”

 

For all the on-field work he has gotten this season, it’s worth noting that Hill has thrown only three passes this season, completing two of them for 35 yards, and the path to regular playing time at quarterback in New Orleans is unclear as long as Brees and backup Teddy Bridgewater are around.

 

And considering his advanced age, not to mention the fact he’s entering a contract year in 2020, one might wonder if Hill would be better served committing to a “slash” role full-time for an upcoming payday.

 

When asked if he sees himself playing quarterback long-term, Hill didn’t even let the reporter finish before making his preference clear.

 

“Absolutely,” Hill told Yahoo Sports, with conviction. “Absolutely. Yep. Yep … I think as a dual-threat quarterback, that’s always a challenge — it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a great runner, so the assumption is something’s lacking, right?’ Like, whatever. It’s the same thing Lamar Jackson gets, that we all get. And it is what it is. I’m comfortable with my abilities.”

 

And in the meantime, so is Payton, who has already gotten Hill on the field for 17 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps and can’t wait to devise more ways to unleash on opponents the NFL’s most versatile weapon.

 

“While he’s developing as a quarterback, there’s a lot of places he’s playing,” Payton said. “We probably need to get him the ball even more.”

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

CB RICHARD SHERMAN offers a voice of reason as someone who did have to try to follow the ball when Ravens QB LAMAR JACKSON had it.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman says broadcaster Tim Ryan shouldn’t be shunned for the comments he made about Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson‘s “dark skin” making it easier for him to hide the ball from the defense.

 

Sherman said today that he doesn’t believe Ryan was making a racist comment.

 

“I know Tim personally and I listened to the dialogue and saw it written, and honestly I wasn’t as outraged as everybody else,” Sherman said. “I understand how it can be taken under a certain context and be offensive to some, but if you’re saying, this is a brown ball, they’re wearing dark colors, and he has a brown arm, honestly, sometimes we were having trouble seeing it on film. He’s making a play fake and sometimes he’s swinging his arm real fast and you’re like, Does he have the ball? And you look up and [Mark] Ingram is running it. So it was technically a valid point, but you can always phrase things better.”

 

Ryan was suspended for saying during a radio interview, “He’s really good at that fake, Lamar Jackson, but when you consider his dark skin with a dark football with a dark uniform, you could not see that thing.” Sherman said Ryan was correct in his analysis that the 49ers’ defense was struggling to tell whether Jackson had the ball on some plays.

 

“It 100 percent is an issue,” Sherman said. “That’s why it wasn’t that offensive, because what he was saying was a great point. . . . He could have used better words, but it was made bigger than it really was.”

 

San Francisco defensive end Dee Ford also stuck up for Ryan.

 

“I told him, ‘I got your back,’” Ford said of a conversation he had with Ryan after Ryan was suspended by the team. “The words kind of got taken out of context. I think he knows now he could have used better judgment with his words, but we’ve got his back. I knew what he was trying to say. This era we live in, it’s just what it is.”

 

The 49ers have said Ryan will not work their radio broadcast of this week’s game. They have not said whether he will face any further consequences. Based on Sherman and Ford’s comments, it sounds like the players on the 49ers think Ryan should return to the booth.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. is “non-committal” about his commitment to Cleveland.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

 

Odell Beckham Jr., who’s in the midst of arguably the most disappointing season of his career, was non-committal on Thursday when asked about whether or not he wants to be back with the Browns next season.

 

“No one knows what the future holds tomorrow,’’ Beckham said. “I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen. My locker is right beside one of the men (Jarvis Landry) that means the most to me in the world. I think about just being able to come to work and see him every single day and how special this could be. I couldn’t sit here and tell you whether I’m going to be here, want to be here, don’t want to be here.

 

“This is exactly where I’m at now and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. In the offseason, everything will figure itself out. That’s just something I’m going to tune out for right now. Catch me in the offseason and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know God’s plan.”

 

Beckham Jr. wasn’t ‘super excited’ about his TD

 

Under contract through 2023, Beckham is due an average of about $14 million over the next four years, but he’s earned most of the $65 million in guaranteed money in his new deal — the five-year, $90 million extension he signed with the Giants in August of 2018. Therefore, the Browns can part ways with him if he asks out without any dead money on their cap after this season.

 

The hit would come in what they gave up to get him in the trade with the Giants in March — a 2019 first-round pick, Jabrill Peppers and a 2019 third-round pick. But if he’s truly unhappy and they can get a haul for him in return, it’s something that might have to be explored.

 

“That’s something that we’ll worry about when offseason comes around,’’ Beckham said about being back. “Right now I’m just still learning, I’m learning every single day. New experiences and just trying to find a way to finish the rest of the season strong. If it’s possible that we can make the playoffs, I’m all in.”

 

He acknowledged that he doesn’t want to endure another year like this. It’s the worst statistical season he’s ever had in a healthy year, and he’ll likely miss the Pro Bowl — unless he’s voted in on sheer ability and reputation. He’s 28th in the NFL with 57 receptions, 23rd with 805 yards and way down at the bottom of the barrel with only two touchdown catches.

 

Why 2020 will be the best year of Odell Beckham Jr.’s life

 

He has no chemistry with Baker Mayfield, and is coming off his third outing with yardage in the 20s in 12 games this season. In his 59 games in New York, that happened only two times. He told cleveland.com recently that 2020 is going to be the “best year of my life” and he re-iterated that on Thursday.

 

“Honestly, I couldn’t see that happening,’’ Beckham said of repeating this year. “For me personally, this offseason, it’s about work and getting to the very best of my abilities no matter what. Like I tell you all the time, 2020’s going to be my year. So I’m not really worried about so much what’s going to happen in the future, but my mindset for next year is no matter what’s going on, nothing’s going to be in my way.

 

“So honestly, any ‘what’s the future hold?’ … I don’t know the answers for that. Right now I’m just taking it a day at a time, trying to finish the season healthy, trying to win these last four games and what happens.’’

 

If Beckham and Mayfield don’t win and find their groove soon, OBJ won’t want to be here next year

 

Beckham was asked if a full offseason with Mayfield would bring the magic that everyone expects. Beckham missed all of OTAs and the extra minicamp while he grappled with the trade, and sat out most of the training camp with hip and groin injuries.

 

“Yeah, definitely. I can agree to that,’’ he said. “You could play devil’s advocate and look at it either way. I always say this: There’s people that get traded in the middle of the season and come in and catch eight passes for 100-some yards and a touchdown. So it’s everything. It’s the scheme. It’s the quarterback. It’s the receiver. It’s every piece of it. It’s tough to say, ‘O, if you were here for OTAs, then everything would’ve just been smooth.’

 

“I could’ve been here for all of OTAs and it could’ve been even worse. It could’ve been 2,000 yards. It’s tough to say that. But I know that experience and I always say game reps, experience, you can’t buy that experience.”

 

Odell Beckham’s disappointing season: Film Review

 

Beckham, who turned 27 last month and is in his sixth NFL season, went a career-long eight games without a touchdown and six outings without a 100-yard game, also longest of his career. He’s not happy with the way he’s been used, but he’s held his tongue for the most part. Things have slipped out here and there such as last week when he said he wasn’t ‘super excited’ about his 35-yard TD catch against the Dolphins because it reminded him he went eight games without one.

 

Beckham has 57 catches for 805 yards and 2 TDs. 

 

So, he is tracking for 76 catches, 1,073 yards and 3 TDs.

 

Not bad, but his average per 16 games with the Giants was 106-1,485-12 TDs.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

QB TOM BRADY now has multiple injuries with the Chiefs coming to town.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

It’s possible Tom Brady is getting too old for this stuff.

 

Brady, who has been dealing with a right elbow injury, now has a toe injury. He was limited in practice on Thursday, three days before a showdown with the Chiefs.

 

He absorbed 12 hits on Sunday night against the Texans, and as Brady ages the question isn’t when his arm will go but when his legs will. When he can’t step and slide and glide away from pressure, he’ll take more hits and, eventually, he’ll suffer more injuries.

 

And he keeps getting older and older. And the guys chasing him around stay the same. And at some point he will indeed conclude that the time has come to walk off into the sunset, with six or seven or however many Super Bowl trophies he eventually wins.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

Cody Benjamin of CBSSports.com on LB BRANDON COPELAND, who has his head screwed on straight:

 

Brandon Copeland has been in the NFL for more than six years now, going from undrafted rookie to practice-squad backup to starting outside linebacker, but he’s perhaps best known for his off-field skills, famously investing and saving about 90 percent of his football salary.

 

It should come as no surprise, then, that Copeland, now in his second season with the New York Jets, is already well prepared for life after the gridiron. As he details in the fourth and final edition of 2019’s “Plan for Amazing,” a series from John Hancock and The Players Tribune that profiles NFL stars and their plans for the future, Copeland is dedicated to sharing his passion for financial literacy, especially after hanging up the cleats.

 

“I remember draft day,” he says, recalling the April 2013 weekend he signed with the Baltimore Ravens. “At that point, technically, I signed a three-year, $1.5 million contract. To a senior in college, you know, it sounded amazing, right? I finally make it to the end of the preseason, and I get cut. That original contract, I probably saw $20,000 of that $1.5 million.”

 

Right away, Copeland explains, he realized he could not depend on football to provide a long-term living for he and his family. Since entering the pros a rookie free agent, the Maryland native has earned four more contracts, spending three seasons as a reserve with the Detroit Lions before joining the Jets in 2018 and registering a career-high five sacks. But he also knows football careers can be halted in an instant. So he’s got what he calls an “Advise-Empower-Enable” plan to achieve and help others achieve “financial freedom.”

 

His chief outlet for doing so: His own real estate business.

 

“We have some house flips, and we also have rentals,” he says. “I’ll choose properties, design the kitchens myself.”

 

Additionally, Copeland teaches a financial literacy class at the University of Pennsylvania, his college football stomping grounds. Nicknamed “Life 101,” the class is meant to instruct students on just about every standard but major financial decision, from buying a house to improving credit scores to budgeting spending and filing taxes. In between all that, he advises youth camps and is working on a book — all in the name of sharing the information he’s already applying to his own life and career.

 

“I’ve always been motivated by my son,” he explains. “Like, I want to provide every single opportunity for (him). (He’ll) have to work for stuff, but I also want him to know, in the back of his head, that his dad and his mom have him.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

RECEIVERS NUMEROLOGY

Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com notes that the 80s aren’t what they used to be, thanks to Keyshawn Johnson:

 

Keyshawn Johnson sought two outcomes from his NFL career. He aspired to be a great football player, of course. But he also wanted the world to know that he was a great football player. Johnson needed a brand, and his instincts to develop one were perfect.

 

A wide receiver out of USC who was projected as the top pick of the 1996 draft, Johnson knew fans wouldn’t see his face during games. It would be obscured by a helmet and face mask. But they would see and remember his number. So Johnson decided to break the NFL rule that required receivers to wear a number from 80 to 89, the start of a trend that would extend into the 2019 season as receivers associate their numbers with looks, style and branding.

 

Johnson first wanted to wear No. 3, his college number, but the NFL denied that request. It did, however, offer a compromise: If Johnson were drafted by a team for whom all 80s numbers were in use, he could then wear a number from 10 to 19. Johnson took the hint. When the New York Jets selected him No. 1 overall, he waited for them to assign numbers to every other receiver on their expanded roster. When Johnson’s turn came, all of the 80s were taken. Too bad. He chose No. 19 for training camp, and the NFL permitted him to keep it even after several numbers in the 80s became available.

 

“We wanted to do something that would differentiate the other receivers that were already playing and myself,” Johnson, now an ESPN NFL analyst, said recently. “I wasn’t just a unique talent, but a unique personality that could capture the fan base and have fans gravitate toward, you know, me. When you saw No. 19, you automatically knew what that stood for and why it was that way.

 

“It was all about looking cool and different, and being someone that people could identify with. When you see a green No. 19 jersey, who is the first person you think of? When you see 19 in all of the NFL, you don’t think of [former San Diego Chargers receiver] Lance Alworth. You think of Keyshawn Johnson. And Lance is a Hall of Famer. It’s a unique and cool kind of thing.”

 

As it turns out, Johnson was far from the only wide receiver who thought that way. Amid widespread protest, the league changed its rule in 2004 and allowed receivers to wear numbers from 10 to 19 and 80 to 89. And since then, most receivers have migrated away from numbers in the 80s.

 

Of the 229 receivers in ESPN’s player database, 181 wear a number from 10 to 19 (79.4%). The NFL’s top 50 pass-catchers this season include 31 receivers who wear numbers from 10 to 19 and four who wear numbers in the 80s. (The rest are tight ends and running backs.)

 

“Like most things I’ve done in my career, people started to get jealous,” Johnson said. “Agents of other players started complaining that they were not allowed to wear 19, but I was.”

 

Most of today’s receivers were just beginning their youth football careers when the NFL changed the rule, and the majority of them shifted in favor of the teens. With the help of ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters, we set out to understand if they are following Johnson’s lead, in spirit if not by name, or if those low numbers have simply become the default. We learned that most everyone has a story behind his number, even if it is as simple as honoring a favorite player or listening to the suggestion of an equipment manager.

 

The most interesting responses, however, came from those who said they not only look better in jerseys with numbers from 10 to 19, but also faster, slimmer and more agile. Numbers in the 80s, they said, should be reserved for bigger, slower players. That association has a connection to the science of multisensory perception, one that could help explain how this migration took hold.

 

‘Way more swaggy’

DJ Chark Jr. initially wore No. 82 at LSU because everything else was taken. He switched to No. 7 for his final season and took No. 17 when the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him in 2018.

 

“My senior year, when I was able to get 7, that was way more swaggy than an 80 number,” the 2019 breakout receiver said. “Eighty numbers just don’t look good to me. It’s hard for you to swag that. A few people can swag it out, but I feel like with my body type — I’m a bigger receiver [at 6-foot-4] but I’m also skinnier — so a teen number looks better.”

 

Marvin Jones Jr., meanwhile, switched from 82 to 11 in 2016 when he left the Cincinnati Bengals and signed with the Detroit Lions. Part of the change, he said, was to symbolize a fresh start. But Jones didn’t want just a different number. He had come to realize the inferences wrapped up in a lower digits.

 

“The teens,” he said, “those are for the skill positions. Those are the people with the most swag and stuff like that. I guess that’s kind of where it came from. It started to be a universal thing.”

– – –

 

Numbers built for speed

The association between numbers and appearance might not be as superficial as it seems. The human brain keeps track of information in our daily interactions “even if we’re not paying attention,” said Ladan Shams, a cognitive neuroscientist who is a professor of psychology, neuroscience and bioengineering at UCLA. The statistics of attributes such as the size, weight, color and location of objects we encounter and the relationship between the attributes are generally stored in the brain and all create an infrastructure that helps interpret new situations.

 

While there is no accepted research on the impact of jersey numbers on perception, Shams said it would make sense if football players perceptually or cognitively associate smaller numbers with lower mass and faster speed.

 

WR receiving yard leaders by jersey number

10: DeAndre Hopkins, HOU (903)

11: Julio Jones, ATL (950)

12: Chris Godwin, TB (1,121)

13: Michael Thomas, NO (1,290)

14: Courtland Sutton, DEN (906)

15: John Brown, BUF (882)

16: Tyler Lockett, SEA (831)

17: DJ Chark Jr., JAX (881)

18: Cooper Kupp, LAR (945)

19: Amari Cooper, DAL (971)

 

WR receiving yard leaders by jersey number

80: Jarvis Landry, CLE (919)

81: Mike Williams, LAC (778)

82: Jamison Crowder, NYJ (588)

83: Tyler Boyd, CIN (758)

84: Corey Davis, TEN (426)

85: No WR with a catch

86: Darius Slayton, NYG (505)

87: Sterling Shepard, NYG (322)

88: Marcell Ateman, OAK (70)

89: Andy Isabella, ARI (180)

 

“We go grocery shopping and we’re buying rice,” Shams said. “And there is a number on the bag. It might say 10 pounds or 15 pounds of rice. That may affect how we associate the larger mass of objects with a larger number written on them. Take athletes who might spend a lot of time in the gym lifting weights. They see different weights with different numbers on them. This is 25 pounds. That one is 10 pounds. That may contribute to the formation of the association between written numbers and the mass of objects.

 

“So if that’s the case, if there is an association in the perceptual system between larger written numbers with heavier objects, then that association may extend to human bodies and jersey numbers. Also, lighter bodies tend to be slender and they tend to be more agile. This association links the smaller numbers with being slender, lighter, faster. So there can also be an association between the magnitude of numbers and slenderness and agility.”

 

In other words, a number from 10 to 19 may trigger our brains to perceive a receiver as faster and more agile than one who is wearing a number in the 80s. Think about your initial impression of college defensive linemen who wear numbers in the single digits such as Auburn’s Derrick Brown, who wears No. 5. Brown, a potential first-round pick for the 2020 draft, is listed at 318 pounds. Would you guess he weighed that much if you saw him on the sideline wearing No. 5, rather than lined up over center?

 

“There can very well exist an association between magnitude of numbers and heaviness, either at a perceptual or a cognitive level,” Shams said. “[The players’] feeling that the smaller jersey number may make them look more slender or faster, it may not be completely meaningless. There may be something to it.”

 

The one outlier? In 1991, the Atlanta Falcons assigned No. 35 to receiver Mike Pritchard because they thought they might also use him as a running back in their run-and-shoot scheme. But Pritchard caught 201 passes over three seasons before leaving to join the Denver Broncos, where he took No. 81.

 

Doubts and indifference

Not all receivers who spoke with ESPN seemed to care whether their number is in the range of 10 to 19 or in the 80s. The Bengals’ A.J. Green said he wears No. 18 simply as a combination of his high school number (No. 1, though he wore No. 84 during his freshman season because Randy Moss was his favorite player) and his college number at Georgia (No. 8). The Lions’ Marvin Hall said: “I honestly feel like they are just numbers at the end of the day. The player is what makes the numbers.”

 

The first receiver to opt into a number from 10 to 19 after the 2004 rule change, the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, has attributed his decision to a team staffer who figured No. 11 was the closest he could get to the No. 1 he wore at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Jarvis Landry chose No. 14 when he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins to match the year (2014). But when he was traded in 2018 to the Cleveland Browns, there were no numbers from 10 to 19 immediately available. So he took 80, the number he wore in high school and college, to honor both his brother and his family’s favorite player (Jerry Rice).

 

Landry is one of two players who wear a number in the 80s currently among the top 20 wide receivers in receptions this season, with the Bengals’ Tyler Boyd (No. 83) being the other. And oddly enough, not a single wide receiver who wears one 80s number — No. 85 — even has a catch this season.

 

Keyshawn Johnson’s nephew, New Orleans Saints star Michael Thomas, wears No. 13 after emulating Johnson’s No. 3 at Ohio State (83 was “too far away”). He points out that the teen numbers are family tradition. Johnson himself said the only motivation he had was to be “cool and different,” but agreed that he often correlates smaller numbers with athleticism — and not just for receivers.

 

He, for instance, thinks that Jets quarterback Sam Darnold made a big mistake choosing No. 14.

 

“If he was wearing No. 4,” Johnson said. “He would look cool, like Deshaun Watson in Houston. Instead, he is wearing this ugly 14 that makes him look like a dropback quarterback, when he’s actually a pretty damn good athlete. If he wore 4, he would look awesome.”

 

That number worked wonders for another quarterback, Johnson contends.

 

“Brett Favre was 4,” Johnson said, “but what he did is he gave you the illusion that he could run and do a lot of things, even though he couldn’t. Look how cool that made him.”

 

Favre did rush for 1,503 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first nine seasons as a starter for the Green Bay Packers, from 1992 to 2000, before spending the rest of his career largely behind the line of scrimmage. He was always nimble in the pocket, but to hear Johnson tell it — and there’s probably some science behind it — Favre’s single-digit number elevated the perception of those skills.

 

Johnson has additional personal theories about numbers:

 

If you’re a receiver, don’t pick 10, 12 or 14. “They don’t look right,” he said. Houston Texans star DeAndre Hopkins has helped popularize No. 10, but his reasoning for wearing that number has nothing to do with football. He wears it in honor of soccer legend Lionel Messi.

 

The No. 13, worn by the Browns’ Odell Beckham Jr. among others, is a winner. Beckham wore No. 3 at LSU because it was Allen Iverson’s number in the NBA, and when he was drafted by the New York Giants, he added the “1.” If he had to do it over again, Beckham says he’d wear No. 11 so he could be “No. 1 twice over.”

 

Thinking about No. 15 or No. 17? You better try it on first. “Depends on who’s wearing it,” Johnson said. Of the 229 receivers in the ESPN player database, No. 17 is actually the most popular choice in the teens among wide receivers (22).

 

The irony is that jersey numbers from 10 to 19 are decidedly old-school. Prior to 1973, receivers could wear all sorts of numbers. Alworth wore No. 19, Don Maynard wore No. 13 and Charlie Joiner wore No. 18. All three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (There are 16 wide receivers who wore numbers in the 80s in the Hall, including Moss, Rice, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, Raymond Berry and Lynn Swann.)

 

In a way, Johnson connected a lost era of football history to the present. He capitalized on the perceptual tendencies of the human brain without realizing it. And, most importantly, he defined what was cool in the 1990s and watched it transition into swag in 2019.

 

“What it’s always about,” Johnson said, “is being able to identify what’s cool. And I was the one who started it all.”

 

 

2020 DRAFT

Chris Trapasso of CBSSports.com on the CFB players who have helped themselves the most in 2019:

 

For as sad as it is that the regular season of the 2019 college football season is over, among many other things we can take from it myriad players who drastically improved their draft stock with sparkling campaigns across the country.

 

Joe Burrow going to win the Heisman in a few days, and he’s the obvious headliner here. Beyond him, I’ve identified nine more prospects (plus an honorable mention) who did themselves plenty of good on the draft front in 2019.

 

Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

There are so many things I can write about Burrow’s 2019, but I’ll whittle it down to this: In the seven draft classes I’ve evaluated, I don’t believe any other prospect has risen further faster than Burrow — especially at the game’s most vital position. He was on the fringe of even being draftable after a 2018 that was mostly mediocre with some high-level flashes.

 

Then he transformed into The Terminator. After Baker Mayfield, Tua Tagovailoa, and Kyler Murray seemingly took efficiency at quarterback to an entirely new stratosphere at the collegiate ranks, Burrow has played better than what we’ve seen in the past. His 203 passing efficiency mark trails only Tagovailoa this season in college football history. Good lawd.

 

From his laser-like accuracy to his impressive drifting inside the pocket and impact scrambles, Burrow has been essentially unfazed all season. He’s made outstanding decisions and given his wideouts chances to make plays on the football every week. He will be the slam dunk, consensus top quarterback in the 2020 class. Exactly zero people, well maybe besides Burrow, his family, and Ed Orgeron, saw this meteoric of a rise coming.

 

Yetur Gross-Matos, EDGE, Penn State

As a sophomore, Gross-Matos earned the distinction of somewhat raw physical freak. At 6-foot-5 and over 260 pounds, the 20-year-old edge rusher had eight sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He wasn’t consistently winning at the point of attack as a pass rusher though.

 

As a junior, Gross-Matos’ traditional numbers didn’t improve — eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 10 games — but, importantly, he demonstrated a clear step forward using his hands against pass protectors while maintaining his sturdiness against the run. In 2018, YGM looked like a specimen who mainly relied on his athletic superiority to win. This year, he’s used finesse to beat blockers, and he’s certainly not any less impressive physically as a 21-year-old.

 

For someone who’ll turn 22 in February, YGM earned the label of someone with an arrow pointing up at a premier position. He needed to polish his game quite a bit even after his breakout sophomore campaign, and he did. YGM is probably going to crush his combine workout too, so he’ll (likely) check important boxes during the pre-draft process. And his improvement as a junior has probably locked him into Round 1.

 

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

No one could knock Taylor’s production at Wisconsin entering the 2019 season — consecutive 1,700-plus yard seasons — and his stellar long speed is easy to see in essentially every game.

 

But there was some concern about his lack of involvement in the Badgers’ pass game due to his first two years in Madison, as he caught a grand total of 16 passes for 155 yards. Was Wisconsin’s offensive philosophy to blame for that pedestrian total, or was an issue Taylor had catching the football the culprit?

 

The true junior proved to be reliable catching the ball if he’s part of the game plan in that respect. Heading into the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, the ultra-productive runner has 22 receptions for 201 yards with five receiving scores on the season. At close to 6-foot and 220 pounds with good lateral quickness and track speed, Taylor will be effective on handoffs in the NFL, and his new-found receiving prowess will help him move up draft boards around the league, as many teams will view him as a prospect who can also help the pass game on Sundays.

 

Jedrick Wills Jr, OT, Alabama

Wills had an adequate 2018 season at right tackle for the Crimson Tide. Nothing he did screamed “future first-round pick.” As a junior he’s played with more power and balance in pass protection, a combination vital for young blockers once they reach the NFL level.

 

Many struggle early on dealing with strong defensive linemen, and a good amount of early picks are further ahead blocking for the run than they are for the pass, which doesn’t bode well in today’s pass-crazy NFL.

 

At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Wills will check the size box to play right tackle in the pros. And while he’s not light-footed, his footwork isn’t clumsy. He plays with tremendous knee bend. Because of how low he sinks, the mass on his frame and simply how strong he is, Wills often overwhelms edge rushers, and his arms are long enough to stave off smaller defenders as they try to turn the corner.

 

From someone who started the year on the Day 3 radar with Day 2 potential, Wills is now squarely in the first-round conversation after a dazzling display of technically sound power for Alabama’s ground game and aerial attack this season.

 

Antoine Winfield Jr., DB, Minnesota

Winfield had flashed throughout his Minnesota career; he just repeatedly got injured. The defensive back with NFL bloodlines finally enjoyed a clean bill of health this season and thrived on the back end with 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and an eye-popping seven interceptions.

 

At 5-foot-10 and around 200 pounds, he’ll be on the smaller size for the traditional safety position. However, that position really doesn’t exist anymore in the NFL. Safeties have essentially become “slot defenders” who occasionally play the deep portions of the field. Winfield isn’t the twitchiest defensive back in this class, yet his instincts and ball skills are outstanding, and he’s a force in the run game.

 

In 2018, he had 17 tackles and a pick in four games. In 2017, two pass breakups and 20 tackles in four contests. Staying on the field all season for the Golden Gophers and loading the stat sheet was huge for Winfield’s draft stock.

 

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

After landing in Columbus as a top recruit from Texas — the No. 2 all-purpose back in the 2017 class, per 247 Sports — Dobbins looked the part in his true freshman season with 7.2 yards per carry on 194 rushes. The hype was born.

 

But in 2018 with a larger workload, Dobbins’ efficiency plummeted to 4.6 yards per carry, and Dwayne Haskins emerged as the foundation on the Buckeyes offense. Dobbins was an afterthought.

 

This year, Dobbins has returned as a vital element to what Ohio State does offensively. On 250 carries, the most in his three-year career, he’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry with 19 rushing touchdowns. Bulked up to close to 220 pounds, the compact, springy runner has been crafty bouncing between the tackles and has hit a plethora of chunk plays down the field. Dobbins will likely get an opportunity on the national stage in the College Football Playoff against a top-tier defense (or two), but what he’s already achieved as a true junior has significantly raised his draft stock. He’s on the Day 2 radar.

 

Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

Hurts has truly had one of the most fascinating college football careers. After entering Alabama as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the nation per 247 Sports, in what turned out to be a bust of a class at that specific position, he started as a true freshman and lost to Deshaun Watson and Clemson in an epic national title game. That year, Hurts completed over 60% of his passes with 23 touchdowns and nine picks while rushing for 954 yards with 13 more scores on the ground. Hurts played more than just admirably for being so young, but he was clearly a limited passer with outstanding rushing skills.

 

Then in 2017, his completion percentage dipped slightly, and he got very risk averse — which led to just one pick on the year — with 17 touchdowns through the air and 855 yards rushing with eight scores. After a disappointing first half of the national title game against Georgia, Hurts was famously replaced by Tua Tagovailoa. 

 

He played at times in 2018 for Nick Saban’s club and looked more polished passing from inside the pocket — 72.9% completion rate, eight touchdowns, two picks — but a transfer was imminent as Tagovailoa set his opponent’s secondaries on fire every week.

 

At Oklahoma in Lincoln Riley’s hyper-creative Air Raid offense, Hurts has continued to improve as a passer, and his athleticism has been accentuated in the designed run game. He’s completed close to 72% of his throws at nearly 12 yards per attempt with 31 touchdowns and only six interceptions. As a runner, Hurts already has already amassed over 1,200 yards for the Sooners and struts into the Big 12 title game with 18 touchdowns on the ground. My goodness. He’s still somewhat raw when it comes to getting through his reads quickly and not instantly morphing into a running back against pressure. But his accuracy has gotten sharper.

 

The NFL in general isn’t anti-Air Raid anymore, so Hurts’ time under Riley’s tutelage will likely work wonders for him during the pre-draft process. I will not be surprised when his name is called on Day 2.

 

Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

Akers’ story isn’t much different than that of Dobbins. Like his Ohio State contemporary, Akers was an enormous recruit — he was the No. 2 running back and No. 3 overall recruit in the country in 2017, per 247 Sports — and instantly looked the part in his true freshman season at a major program.

 

As Florida State’s offensive line deteriorated to dust in 2018, Akers went from 1,025 yards at 5.3 yards per carry to 706 yards at 4.4 yards per carry. The jolts of outstanding cutting and contact balance were there, but he simply didn’t get running room often.

 

With the Seminoles’ front returning to respectability this season, the true junior has been one of the most elusive ball carriers in the country. As of November 9, per Pro Football Focus, he led the country with 61 missed tackles forced.

 

At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, Akers has ideal running back size and serious juice in his legs to bounce laterally or explode forward for a long gain. He heads into Florida State’s bowl game with over 1,100 yards on the ground this season at 5.0 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. Stock up for Akers this year, without question.

 

Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama

Leatherwood simply was not good at right guard last season for the Crimson Tide. Too often he was overwhelmed by power, and that lack of functional strength on the inside led to him getting overly anxious to get his hands on defensive linemen before they could get into his body. The result? A fair amount of off-balance “lunges,” which are never good for a blocker.

 

The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder has a body to play tackle and is able to tap into his athletic gifts there more than in a phone booth on the interior. And he’s flourished at left tackle in 2019 for the Crimson Tide. Leatherwood’s athletic gifts are easy to see in every game. He glides in pass protection and it isn’t a difficult task for him to get to the second level on a screen or combo block. I’m talking about the No. 1 offensive tackle and No. 4 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class here. He’s super-talented.

 

Could Leatherwood add some weight/power once he reaches the NFL? Yes, definitely. Needs to. But his pass protection is reliable, he has long arms, and has almost totally removed his tendency to lunge at defenders. In something you rarely see at the collegiate level pertaining to a draft prospect, Leatherwood kicked from guard to tackle, and his stock has soared.

 

Devin Duvernay, WR, Texas

Before 2019, Duvernay had 70 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns — in three seasons at Texas. This year? He’s been that dude for the Longhorns out of the slot. Duvernay has caught a ridiculous 103 passes for 1,294 yards with eight receiving touchdowns.

 

And he’s been as sure-handed as any pass catcher in the country. For a slot wideout, Duvernay’s movements aren’t exceptionally quick-twitch, but he has scary acceleration out of his break during a route or after the football is in his hands, and that element of his athletic profile allows him to create separation not just on underneath routes but down the field too.

 

He seemed like a possible late-round selection after a reliable but far from spectacular junior campaign. Now Duvernay, a Senior Bowl invitee, has a chance to be a top-100 selection with the league clearly prioritizing separation skills over contested-catch ability.

 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU

As a sophomore in Baton Rouge, this fire hydrant of a runner averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 145 attempts with seven scores. Decent season. Nothing that indicated he was truly on the draft radar for all 32 teams.

 

Now, he’s essentially a lock to get drafted after a masterpiece of a 1,200-plus yard season while averaging 6.8 yards per tote.

 

Edwards-Helaire is only listed at 5-foot-8, which will scare some teams away, foolishly. He’s built low to the ground and his 200-plus pound frame makes him a nightmare to actually bring to the turf. He possesses a jump cut and spin move straight out of a video game.

 

He’s not going to run 4.40 at the combine. Not a huge deal. His contact balance and ability to make defenders miss in tight quarters will help him outplay his draft position. The team that picks him will likely have a plan to use him in the pass game too, as he’s shown to be an asset in that area with 43 catches for 338 yards this season. At some point during draft season, do yourself a favorite and watch CEH against Alabama.

 

Honorable Mention: Logan Wilson, LB, Wyoming

Linebackers on the draft radar from the Mountain West are usually one of two things (and I mean no disrespect here, it’s just how it’s been) — small, quick and super-productive, or NFL-sized with slower feet and decent production.

 

Leighton Vander Esch was the exception at nearly 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds with elite athleticism and a loaded statistical resume. While I’m not expecting Wilson to land in the first round like Vander Esch did, he could be another exception listed at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds with smooth athleticism and plenty of tackling and coverage production.

 

After averaging 101 tackles, two picks, two sacks, nearly nine tackles for loss, and a little more than two pass breakups per year in his first three seasons with the Cowboys, Wilson returned to school for his redshirt senior campaign and instead of falling short of the lofty standards he set, the rangy linebacker has exceeded those as a cover man, which is vital for the modern-day linebacker. With a bowl game upcoming for Wyoming, Wilson has 99 tackles, four picks (one being a gimme off a tip) and seven pass breakups.

 

Showing he could maintain his high-level of production while consistently demonstrating comfort sinking in zone coverage — and making plays on the ball — will bode well for Wilson once he reaches the NFL level. The week at the Senior Bowl will be enormously important for him, but his play in Laramie this year has made him a draftable prospect who may not have to wait until the final stages of the draft to hear his name called.