AROUND THE NFL

ESPN.com had its correspondents make “bold predictions” some of which are below. You can read all of them here.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com makes this “bold prediction” for the Bears:

 

The Bears bring back kicker Robbie Gould.

After Cody Parkey’s struggles, there’s no way they can bring him back even though his $3.5 million in salary and bonuses is guaranteed for 2019. Gould, the Bears’ kicker from 2005-15, will be a free agent if the 49ers don’t re-sign or tag him before March 13. Gould still makes his home in Chicago, so it would be a natural fit. — Rob Demovsky

 

 

GREEN BAY

Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

 

Before anyone accuses me of being fixated on Aaron Rodgers and the woes of the Packers, can I present in my defense that the article around which this post is based was sent to be my a colleague who is a Packers fan. If even he can see the dysfunction across the border (and worry about it), who am I to disagree?

 

So let me point you to a piece in Forbes, written by contributor Rob Reischel, a self-described longtime Packers writer for various outlets. Reischel takes an interesting piece-by-piece look at a lot of ex-Packers being critical this offseason of their former teammate and current Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers — and specifically about how the relationship between Rodgers and new 39-year-old head coach Matt LaFleur will play out.

 

As someone on record as both poking fun at Rodgers height sensitivity and also proclaiming he’s the greatest quarterback I’ve ever seen, I am here for this.

 

First, there was former tight end Jermichael Finley: “He’s coachable to a point,” Finley said of Rodgers. “Once you try to overcoach him, that’s when he’s going to do his own thing. With (former coach Mike) McCarthy, McCarthy used to call a play and Aaron would look at him and (then) it’s a whole different play.

 

And former Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings: “We all saw what Mike McCarthy was unable to do, which was get the best out of Aaron Rodgers that he possibly could,” Jennings said. “You’re going to be coming in, starting from scratch (with) a guy who has one of the highest IQs in football, who believes he knows just about everything, if not all of everything.”

 

Wondering what Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila thinks? Of course you are: “When Aaron became ‘The Man,’ he was ‘The Man’, especially in his own eyes,” Gbaja-Biamila said. “Let’s just put it that way. Things just changed. … With everything that Brett (Favre) accomplished, you would think he’d be a little more arrogant, but he was actually more humble. And I felt that Aaron was a little bit more on the arrogant side.”

 

But wait! What about former wide receiver Jeff Janis: “I think positive reinforcement works a lot better than negative. It can tear you down and break a player. You take a really good player and just keep doing that stuff to them, he’s going to start being one of those guys you can’t count on because he’s feeling like he’s inconsistent and starting to get down on himself. It’s one of those things you can’t really change because (Rodgers) is the way he is.”

 

All the players except Janis have been off the team for several years, so maybe they aren’t experts on the Rodgers of 2019. But they certainly paint the picture of a guy who has a large ego and doesn’t accept a share of the blame easily.

 

How he and an offensive-minded coach four years older than him can get along and work together figures to define the rest of Rodgers’ career.

 

QB AARON RODGERS wants to take his game to London. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Packers are the only NFL team that has not played or is not scheduled to play a game in London and one prominent player on the team would like that to change.

 

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in an interview with NFL UK that he has made his feelings known about wanting to play a game in the United Kingdom, but acknowledged the logistics that make it difficult. The Packers are not willing to give up a home game to play overseas and other teams don’t want to lose a home date against a team that’s historically been a popular attraction.

 

“Nobody wants to give up a home game with the Packers because they know it’s going to be a full house … We’re not going to give up a home game, because we’re sold out for the next 30 years,” Rodgers said.

 

Rodgers said he hopes the league will “intervene” and force the situation. In 2020, the Packers are set to play road games against three teams — the Texans, Buccaneers and Bears — who will play in London next season. If none of them get another trip and the Packers still aren’t giving up a home date, the Vikings, Lions, Saints, Colts and a NFC West opponent to be determined would be the other options for getting Green Bay over the Atlantic.

 

 

MINNESOTA

Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com with a “bold predicition”:

 

The Vikings trade cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

Mike Zimmer would likely fight tooth and nail against losing one of his star defensive players. But Minnesota’s best chance at bolstering its weakest link — the offensive line — might comes from cutting into an area where the Vikings are OK depthwise and have valuable trade leverage. Coming off the most difficult season of his career, Rhodes will turn 29 ahead of the 2019 campaign and account for $13.4 million against the salary cap. Minnesota’s crop of cornerback talent is in a good spot with Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Mike Hughes (who is coming off an ACL injury) and the early rise of undrafted free agent Holton Hill. Trading Rhodes now, knowing they’re in a good spot with their rest of their corners, could provide the Vikings with an option to garner more talent for the O-line. — Courtney Cronin

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

QB CAM NEWTON talks about the shoulder woes that hindered, and eventually ended, his 2018 season.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Cam Newton’s shoulder issue appeared obvious to anyone who watched the Carolina Panthers quarterback skip passes short of receivers, toss low-flying worm-burners and struggle-bus his way through the latter portion of his season before finally being shut down for good with two weeks left in the campaign.

 

If the TV-watching world noticed Newton’s limitations, clearly defenses took advantage as well.

 

Newton unveiled a behind-the-scenes YouTube docuseries, during which he admits just how much the shoulder issue affected his play as the Panthers season nosedived to the finish line after a 6-2 start.

 

“At this persona that we play, you can’t show no signs of weakness,” Newton said. “But I was weak, and I felt so vulnerable. I felt so scared. I felt so afraid because I know I wasn’t myself. I didn’t know what was wrong with my shoulder. I just knew that it hurt, and I knew there was an issue. I couldn’t throw the ball further than 30 yards, no lie. So I was trying to keep up with it as much as possible until the wheels fell off.

 

“I felt like defenses [were] exposing me because they knew I couldn’t throw the ball downfield. Not being in the position physically to be able to make the throws that you know you’re capable of making, that was the most disheartening thing of the whole year.”

 

In the final six games of Newton’s season, all losses, the quarterback attempted just 16 passes of 20-plus air-yards, completing four and throwing three interceptions, per Next Gen Stats. Seven of those passes went 25-plus yards, zero were completed and one was intercepted.

 

The limitations completely hindered the Panthers offense, which catapulted off a cliff as the Panthers finished 7-9.

 

Newton underwent surgery this offseason to clean up the shoulder, which the quarterback hopes will finally put the lingering problems to bed and he can return to his MVP-caliber playing style.

 

“So here I am, I’m in this position of a lot of people are saying, ‘They’ve seen the best of Cam Newton,'” he said. “F— every single thing that’s been said that I don’t like — straight up. I’m not here to knock on doors, I’m here to kick the motherf—–s down. Seeing the doubt, hearing the whispers of he don’t got it no more fuels me. That’s what makes this comeback even more extraordinary for me. I feel this is going to make me even more dangerous. When it’s all said and done I can look back in my life and I know that this particular time in my life propelled me to that next point. I’m excited for what the future holds.”

– – –

A bold prediction from ESPN.com’s David Newton:

 

Left tackle Matt Kalil will be released.

With a post-June designation, the Panthers will clear just shy of $7.3 million from the salary cap for a player who missed all of last season with a knee injury and was just average in 2017. The Panthers have many needs they could fill using that cap space. They also have the option of moving right tackle Taylor Moton to the left side and re-signing free agent Daryl Williams, who was the starting right tackle in 2017 before injuries ended his 2018 season. Kalil’s five-year, $55.5 million deal was a mistake from the beginning. — David Newton

 

 

TAMPA BAY

The Buccaneers have taken a flyer on the best Danish kicker since Morten Andersen.  He has the same last name.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

When it comes to the kicker position, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been forced to think outside the box (see: Roberto Aguayo). Now, they’re looking outside the country.

 

Tampa Bay announced Thursday that it signed Phillip Andersen, a Danish kicker who most recently booted for the Berlin Rebels of the German Football League.

 

Among the other clubs for which Andersen has kicked are the Amager Demons, Herlev Rebels and Søllerød Gold Diggers of the Danish American Football Federation. (The Gold Diggers!)

 

The Bucs signed Andersen after seeing him kick at the Husted Kicking Pro Camp in Mobile, Ala. during the Senior Bowl and then bringing him to Tampa Bay for a personal workout.

 

Andersen is currently the only kicker on the Bucs’ roster for 2019, as Cairo Santos’ contract has expired. Matt Bryant, formerly of the Bucs and most recently cut by the Atlanta Falcons, is expected to be a veteran target.

 

For now though, skål, Andersen, for your entry into the National Football League.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

CB ROBERT ALFORD isn’t on the street for long after the Falcons cut him.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

And just like that, Robert Alford has found a new home.

 

The Arizona Cardinals have signed the cornerback to a three-year contract, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, per sources informed of the deal. The team later made the news official.

 

Alford’s deal is worth $22.5 million in base salary and up to $24 million, a source told Rapoport, and the cornerback will reap $13.5 million in guaranteed money.

 

The veteran was just released by the Falcons on Tuesday after spending six seasons in Atlanta. Alford was due $8.5 million in 2019 before the Falcons cut him loose.

 

The 30-year-old spent his entire career with the Falcons, appearing in 88 games in six seasons, recording 303 tackles, 85 passes defended, 10 interceptions, one forced fumble and two defensive touchdowns. Alford turned a brilliant 2016 season, when he snagged two picks including a pick-six en route to a Super Bowl berth, into a four-year contract extension.

 

Now after a substandard 2018 and his ensuing release, the corner will have to rebound and rise like a phoenix in Arizona.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

We’re not sure this is a “bold prediction” but Mike Legwold of ESPN.com says it will be all hands on deck for a QB in Denver:

 

The Broncos fill up the quarterback depth chart.

Denver will dive into free agency for a quarterback, use a premium draft pick on a prospect and keep Case Keenum until it sorts out things for the season. The Broncos do not have a quarterback on their roster that they drafted, and their returning starter (Keenum) has one year left on his deal after a season when he looked somewhat overwhelmed. Missing on Paxton Lynch, a 2016 first-rounder Denver traded up to select, is a mistake that set back the Broncos for years as they kept waiting for him to come around and win the job. It’s time to do with quarterback what they’ve done at other positions: commit the resources to pack it with potential starters and see who’s got the moxie to win.– Jeff Legwold

 

 

KANSAS CITY

The Chiefs are concerned that QB PATRICK MAHOMES is playing basketball.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Chiefs have lowered the boom on Patrick Mahomes‘ basketball jones. Do they, or any team, have the right to do it?

 

“Haha yeah that’s gonna work,” 49ers cornerback and NFLPA executive committee member Richard Sherman said on Twitter. “If they don’t want him hooping then put it in the contract. It’s not there so he can do as he pleases. Most players do.”

 

Paragraph 3 of the Standard Player Contract contains broad language regarding activities beyond the football field: “Without prior written consent of the Club, Player will not play football or engage in activities related to football otherwise than for Club or engage in any activity other than football which may involve a significant risk of personal injury. Player represents that he has special, exceptional and unique knowledge, skill, ability, and experience as a football player, the loss of which cannot be estimated with any certainty and cannot be fairly or adequately compensated by damages. Player therefore agrees that Club will have the right, in addition to any other right which Club may possess, to enjoin Player by appropriate proceedings from playing football or engaging in football-related activities other than for Club or from engaging in any activity other than football which may involve a significant risk of personal injury.” (Emphasis added.)

 

The question becomes whether basketball constitutes an activity that “may involve a significant risk of personal injury.” In other words, is the risk of personal injury “significant”? For minor injuries — cuts, scrapes, contusions, bruises, etc. — the risk is high. Major injuries happen less frequently, but they definitely can and do occur.

 

As Sherman notes, most NFL players play basketball in the offseason. It’s a great way to get exercise, and it’s far safer than playing football. Besides, all forms of exercise entail risk; if the alternative consists of players sitting around doing nothing, teams should embrace the fact that players are trying to stay in shape on their own time.

 

If/when a serious happens away from the team’s facility, the team can place the player on the non-football injury list and, if it so chooses, not pay him. Again, the overriding question is whether the team wants its players staying in shape or playing Fortnite for the seven or eight fortnights between the end of the season and the launch of the formal offseason program, when any injury occurring within the confines of the team’s headquarters would not jeopardize a player’s right to compensation.

 

The Chiefs apparently plan to take a much safer approach with Mahomes. If Mahomes is willing to go along with it, so be it. But if Patrick Mahomes shows up for the start of the offseason program looking more like Patrick Mahouse because he hasn’t been exercising, the Chiefs shouldn’t complain.

 

We note that the Lions and Falcons have allowed QB MATTHEW STAFFORD and QB MATT RYAN to play on a church co-ed basketball team in the Atlanta area in the recent past.

 

 

– – –

DE DEE FORD seems to have no problem with a franchise tag.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

After the Chiefs’ season came to an end in the AFC Championship Game, Dee Ford said he has no problem with the team using the franchise tag to keep him in the fold in 2019.

 

The Chiefs have not made any announcements about their plans on that front, but it certainly sounds like there are no plans to let Ford get away this offseason. The defensive look is expected to change with Steve Spagnuolo taking over as defensive coordinator for Bob Sutton, but pass rushers are always at a premium and General Manager Brett Veach didn’t sound like he’s preparing to say goodbye to Ford.

 

“We’re excited about bringing him back,” Veach said, via Matt Derrick of Chiefs Digest.

 

Veach was not quite as emphatic when it came to Justin Houston‘s future in Kansas City. Houston is set to make $15.25 million with a cap hit of $21.1 million with $14 million coming back to the team if they move on without him. They could also look into other alterations to the contract and Veach said there will “be a time and place” to go through the various scenarios involving Houston.

 

 

THE RAIDERS

This bold prediction from ESPN.com’s Paul Gutierrez does sound like Jon Gruden:

 

The Raiders make a legitimate run at Antonio Brown.

You did say “bold,” right? What would be more bold than the “Parts Unknown” Raiders, who have four picks among the first 36 selections of the NFL draft and need a No. 1 wideout, going all-in for a totally known commodity in the temperamental All-Pro receiver? Jon Gruden loves veterans, and he might love Brown even more, calling the nine-year pro the “hardest-working” player he has ever seen in practice. “I’ve seen Jerry Rice,” Gruden said in December. “I’ve seen a lot of good ones. But I put Antonio Brown at the top.” — Paul Gutierrez

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

A “bold prediction” from ESPN.com’s Ravens correspondent Jamison Hensley:

 

The Ravens sign Mark Ingram in free agency.

Baltimore has done its best with patchwork at running back over the past four seasons — from Justin Forsett to Terrance West to Alex Collins to Gus Edwards — but the team needs a proven featured back in building an offense around Lamar Jackson. Under offensive coordinator Greg Roman, veteran runners such as Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy have thrived. Ingram is the type of durable, physical and efficient back (4.5-yard career average) who would be the perfect fit in Baltimore’s offense. — Jamison Hensley

 

 

CINCINNATI

Coach Zac Taylor has hired Jim Turner as his offensive line coach.  It was Turner’s misfortune to be the line coach of the Dolphins when Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin were doing their bully-victim thing.  The Cincinnati media is all aflutter as typified here by Paul Dehner, Jr.:

 

On a loop Tuesday, new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor preached his sermon of culture, character and accountability.

 

Two days later, Taylor officially announced the first hires to his staff. Among them were former Texas A&M offensive line coach Jim Turner, who comes with a checkered past of being fired for being aware of and participating in a bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins as well as suspended for his role in using sexually suggestive language in a football clinic for women two years ago at Texas A&M.

 

The potential for hypocrisy is front and center.

 

Taylor didn’t back down. In fact, he offered the exact opposite in an emphatic defense of the character of one of his most prominent early hires, one he said was No. 1 on his list for the offensive line job.

 

“On the surface sometimes things look a certain way,” Taylor said. “I feel very comfortable with the decision to bring him in. I anticipated something like this and felt very comfortable. Maybe if I didn’t know someone who had been through those situations. But I know it. And I know him. And I know what he is all about. And I feel very comfortable and know that this is the right decision.”

 

Turner is a 54-year-old ex-Marine who worked with Taylor nearly every step of his career. From Texas A&M to Miami to the University of Cincinnati, Turner spent every year he coached from 2008-16 on a staff with Taylor at some point.

 

Taylor knows and trusts Turner, that much was clear. He’s already staking his early reputation on it.

 

“He’s a great person, great human,” Taylor said. “He’s somebody I trust … Everyone gets caught in some situations sometimes they wish they would do differently. I know those situations inside and out. I feel very comfortable bringing Jim in here and all the other guys we are going to bring in.”

 

Yet, Turner’s background certainly conflicts with the mission statement set forth on Tuesday.

 

Turner was fired as the offensive line coach in Miami during the bullying scandal involving Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. In a Ted Wells report on the incident, investigators concluded not only was Turner aware of the harassment of Martin and others, but participated in it.

 

“… certainly aware of some of the insulting comments directed to Martin by Incognito … never sought to stop the behavior,” the report stated.

 

Turner also allegedly knew players engaged in homophobic taunting of an unnamed Dolphins player. It was alleged he even joined in the abuse.

 

“During the 2012 Christmas season, Coach Turner gave all of the offensive linemen gift bags that included a variety of stocking-stuffers. In each gift bag except for Player A’s, Turner included a female “blow-up” doll; Player A’s bag included a male doll,” The Wells Report stated:

 

Turner later sued Wells and his law firm for defamation, but the suit was dismissed last year.

 

Notably, the Bengals’ current Walter Payton Man of the Year, Carlos Dunlap, prominently runs an anti-bullying campaign that’s been among the most successful off-field ventures on the current club with billboards displayed around town. 

 

“We talk about culture and bringing the right people in this building,” Taylor said. “I would never do anything to tarnish the reputation of the Brown family and this organization if I didn’t believe in the person and know the person inside and out.”

 

Taylor backed up his opinion in hiring Turner to coach running backs at UC upon taking the offensive coordinator job in 2016. He was the first to hire Turner following his hiatus from coaching post-Miami.

 

After a couple weeks, Turner left when offered the position of offensive line coach at Texas A&M.

 

“I shouldn’t have hired him because he left me at UC after like a week and a half, so he should’ve been dead to me,” Taylor joked, “but he’s not, because I know what he’s about.”

 

At College Station, Turner ended up in the middle of another incident. This time it came during a football clinic for women and was suspended two weeks without pay for using sexually suggestive powerpoint slides in a presentation. Those slides went viral.

 

Sumlin issued a statement about the suspension stating, “There is absolutely no place in our program or in our University community for inappropriate conduct or degrading comments towards women, or anyone, regardless of intent.”

 

Turner and another coach involved also issued a joint apology as part of the process.

 

“We want to sincerely apologize to the passionate Aggie fans and to women everywhere for our failed attempt at humor during this week’s Aggie Football Chalk Talk and fundraiser. We clearly understand now that our comments and slides were not appropriate or consistent with the values of our football program or our Department. We must do better, and we will.”

 

Sumlin kept Turner on staff and he was one of two assistants new A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher retained in 2018 upon taking over the program.

 

Upon confirming Turner was leaving the program for the Bengals job on Wednesday, Fisher offered one final opinion on the way out.

 

“Jim did a tremendous job for us,” Fisher said to The Eagle web site. “He was outstanding, a great relationship. He handled everything tremendously with us. I wish him nothing but the best. I think he did a heck of a job. I consider him a great friend, and I wish him good luck.”

 

As for his work on the field, he runs a system that fits the scheme Taylor looks to employ and last year Trayveon Williams broke the program’s single-season rushing record.

 

Those aren’t the records that matter to the message Taylor preached this week, though. Despite Turner’s history, there is no denying where the new head coach stands on the matter as he draws his first controversial line in the sand.

 

“You’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody who has played for Jimmy Turner or coached with Jimmy Turner that will have a bad thing to say about him,” Taylor said. “You will have a hard time finding that person who will say that. That’s important to me is the people who know these people inside and out if you interview those people you will hear the same things that I’m saying today and that’s important. I know what he’s about, and the people in the community will understand that. You all will understand that. I feel very comfortable … He was out for two years and I hired him at UC. That was my decision. And so I felt very comfortable standing up here in front of whoever I need to stand in front of and explain the reasoning behind it.”

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

In a “bold prediction”, Mike Wells of ESPN.com thinks the Texans will be the landing spot for RB Le’VEON BELL:

 

Le’Veon Bell calls Houston home in 2019.

The Texans have a Pro Bowl quarterback and receiver in Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins and a defense that’s led by J.J. Watt. Bell, who didn’t play a down for Pittsburgh in 2018, will elevate Houston’s offense and allow Watt and the defense more time on the sideline while pushing the Colts for the top spot in the AFC South. — Mike Wells

 

 

TENNESSEE

It sounds like a bet on RB DEREK HENRY to win the 2019 NFL rushing title might be in order.  Turron Davenport of ESPN.com:

 

Arthur Smith on Tuesday spoke to the media for the first time as the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator. He made it clear he plans to maintain the continuity Tennessee established late in the 2018 season on offense and keep developing the unit’s physical mindset.

 

When it comes to running the ball, Smith has seen his share of gap schemes, power running schemes and, most recently, zone schemes. Maintaining a lot of the zone concepts from last season’s offense will be one key to maintaining that desired continuity.

 

Expect to see a physical attack from Smith that will strive for balance, but rely heavily on running back Derrick Henry. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound bruiser gained 1,059 yards on the ground — his first 1,000-yard rushing season — with more than half his yards coming in the final four weeks.

 

“Derrick will be a big part of the offense,” Smith said. “He has a rare skill set. Derrick’s a home-run hitter. We are taking another step hopefully with him. What he did over the last five weeks will open up a lot of things.

 

“Zone is a great starting point for us, but there are a lot of schemes that fit Derrick and fit Dion [Lewis], or whoever else will be on our roster that we will hand the ball [to]. Gaps, pin and pulls, zone reads, but there’s a certain mentality that we want to play with coming off the football. We want to be physical and knock people back.”

 

Smith wouldn’t share what he envisions the run-pass ratio to be, but he promised to run the football consistently. That’s a good sign for the running backs, considering last season the offense got away from the run game because the Titans allowed opposing defenses to dictate the flow of the game.

 

This fall, the offense plans to be the unit doing the dictating, but that doesn’t mean Smith will recklessly call run plays against defensive fronts loaded up to stop the ground attack.

 

“Physical isn’t just in the run game,” Smith said. “You can be physical in protection, how you catch the football and finish that. Are you going to go down the field and finish.”

 

Henry’s emergence helped other parts of the offense to open up, particularly the play-action passing game. Establishing the run will, in turn, help quarterback Marcus Mariota and the passing game. Mariota is heading into his fifth NFL season and will be playing for his fifth offensive coordinator. However, a lot of the same principles from 2018 will be carried over under Smith.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

A bold prediction from ESPN’s Buffalo correspondent Mike Rodak:

 

The Bills trade down and make two first-round draft picks.

At No. 9, Buffalo could be an enticing trade partner for a team seeking a quarterback or looking to nab a top-tier defensive lineman who is slipping down the board. If the Bills decide to pass up the best player available, their No. 9 selection (worth 1,350 points) is worth roughly the same as the Raiders’ Nos. 24 and 27 picks (1,420) on the traditional trade-value chart. General manager Brandon Beane said at the Senior Bowl the Bills don’t need to be in the top 10, so expect Buffalo to discuss trading down.– Mike Rodak

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

QBs UP AND DOWN

Hall of Famer Gil Brandt writes about six QBs – three that went up in 2018 and three that went down:

 

Before the offseason gets going in earnest, let’s pause a minute and look back at some quarterbacks who either far exceeded or fell drastically short of expectations in 2018. Below are three quarterbacks whose stock is pointing up after strong seasons — and three quarterbacks whose stock is pointing down after disappointing campaigns.

 

1  Patrick Mahomes

Chiefs

Quarterbacks are supposed to struggle in their first full seasons as NFL starters. Mahomes, to put it simply, did not. He threw 14 touchdown passes before finally tossing his first interception of the year in Week 5. He blazed through the season at a blistering pace, leading an offense that scored at least 26 points in every game and finishing with the third 50-touchdown campaign in NFL history, joining Peyton Manning (55 in 2013) and Tom Brady (50 in 2007). Unlike Philip Rivers and Jared Goff, he did not lay an egg against the eventual-champion Patriots in the playoffs. The only thing New England — or anyone — could do to stop him was keep him off the field by controlling the ball against Kansas City’s 31st-ranked defense.

 

Mahomes will only get better from here. As well as he played in 2018, don’t forget that he’s still only 23 years old and actually does not have a lot of experience, given that he sat on the bench for most of 2017 and only started two full years at Texas Tech. History tells us that the 30-start mark is when NFL quarterbacks really start to get a feel for the game and know what they’re doing. So, yes — it’s likely that we haven’t even seen yet just how good Mahomes can be.

 

2018 stats: 16 starts | 66.0 pct | 5,097 pass yds | 8.8 ypa | 50 pass TD | 12 INT | 113.8 passer rating

 

2 Andrew Luck

Colts

Nobody was sure what to expect from Luck after he missed all of 2017 with shoulder issues. Well, his 2018 campaign couldn’t have gone any better. Luck flourished in the offensive system installed by new coach Frank Reich, setting career highs in completions (430), attempts (639), completion percentage (67.3) and passer rating (98.7), while his yardage (4,593) and passing-touchdown totals (39) were the second-highest of his career. He finished in the top five in the NFL in touchdowns, completions and passing yards. Luck also threw three or more TD passes in eight consecutive games (Week 4 through Week 12), which was the longest streak in the league this season and tied for the second longest in history. He rallied Indy to become the second team since the merger to win a playoff game after starting 1-5.

 

And he did all of that without much in the way of proven weapons by his side, beyond T.Y. Hilton. Just wait until the Colts upgrade his supporting cast. Between Reich and the vastly improved offensive line, I think we’ll see Luck continue to live up to his pedigree as a former No. 1 overall pick in the years to come.

 

2018 stats: 16 starts | 67.3 pct | 4,593 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 39 pass TD | 15 INT | 98.7 passer rating

 

3 Baker Mayfield

Browns

Expectations are automatically sky high for any No. 1 overall draft pick, let alone a quarterback heading to the success-starved Browns. Mayfield couldn’t have handled the pressure any better. He came off the bench in Week 3, snapped Cleveland’s 19-game winless streak and, really, never looked back, setting a new record for touchdown passes by a rookie (27) despite only starting 13 games. Mayfield became the first Browns quarterback since Frank Ryan in 1966 to throw at least one touchdown pass in 13 consecutive starts in the same season, and he kept the Browns in the playoff discussion deep into December. It’s no accident that Mayfield started playing especially well when Freddie Kitchens became the team’s offensive coordinator in October; in eight games under Kitchens, Mayfield compiled a passer rating of 106.2, a 68.4 percent completion rate, a 19:8 TD-to-INT ratio and a 5-3 record. I’ve known Kitchens — who has since been promoted to head coach — a long time, and I think he has the right mix of scheme, teaching ability and personality to be helpful to Mayfield going forward.

 

Mayfield has IT. He showed it at Oklahoma and he showed it in Cleveland, bringing swagger to an organization in desperate need of some. He’ll have to contend with opponents in 2019 who now have 13 games of pro tape on him, but I think he’ll continue to succeed and prove he belongs in the upper echelon of quarterbacks long term.

 

2018 stats: 14 games (13 starts) | 63.8 pct | 3,725 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 27 pass TD | 14 INT | 93.7 passer rating

 

THREE DOWN

 

1 Kirk Cousins

Vikings

Cousins was not horrible in 2018. He just wasn’t able to live up to the (perhaps unfair) expectations that followed him into the season. He was handed $84 million guaranteed last March to push a Super Bowl contender over the hump. Instead, Minnesota (8-7-1) barely finished with a winning record. He was right around his career averages as a full-season starter entering the season (4,392 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 picks per year, with a passer rating of 97.5), and his completion percentage (70.1) was actually the second-best in the NFL. But the fact remains the Vikings went 1-6 against playoff teams and ended up watching the postseason from home one year after reaching the NFC title game.

 

I don’t think the Vikings’ offensive scheme in 2018 helped Cousins, with the tragic passing of O-line coach Tony Sparano in July further hindering the offense’s performance. I think the Vikings are hoping new offensive adviser Gary Kubiak, working with coordinator Kevin Stefanski (who took over as OC after John DeFilippo was fired last season), can help Cousins by introducing elements of the West Coast offense, returning Cousins to a system that resembles the one he operated in under Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden in Washington.

 

2018 stats: 16 starts | 70.1 pct | 4,298 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 30 pass TD | 10 INT | 99.7 passer rating

 

2 Blake Bortles

Jaguars

The Jaguars took a leap of faith with Bortles following a solid 2017 season, signing him to a three-year, $54 million deal last offseason and electing not to draft a high-profile quarterback prospect. That decision failed to pay dividends. Whatever growth Bortles experienced in 2017 came to an abrupt halt in ’18. A 3-1 start proved to be a mirage, with Bortles compiling a TD-to-INT ratio of 6:8 the rest of the way. His play was bad enough that he ended up being benched for Cody Kessler, and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett lost his job.

 

I was kind of surprised when Jacksonville drafted Bortles third overall in 2014; I expected him to be a first-rounder, but I did not think he’d go nearly that high. Coming out of 2017, the Jags looked to be in fairly good shape, with a dominant defense driving them to the AFC title game. Now, they’re looking to find a new answer under center before the window of opportunity that opened two years ago becomes completely closed for this group of players. As for Bortles, he’ll almost certainly be elsewhere in 2019, likely as a backup.

 

2018 stats: 13 games (12 starts) | 60.3 pct | 2,718 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 13 pass TD | 11 INT | 79.8 passer rating

 

3 Aaron Rodgers

Packers

Ten dazzling years as a starter in Green Bay helped Rodgers earn a four-year extension worth $134 million in August. And then, for a variety of reasons, he suffered one of the worst full-season performances of his NFL tenure, posting a sub-100 passer rating while making 15-plus starts for just the third time in his career. The difference in performance is best encapsulated in his touchdown rate. In his first 10 seasons as the Packers’ starter, Rodgers threw 2.20 touchdown passes per game. In 2018, that number plummeted to 1.56 per game. He only threw two picks this season, but his completion rate of 62.3 percent suggests he was throwing the ball away far more quickly than usual to avoid sacks.

 

Of course, Rodgers also dealt with a lingering knee injury, as well as a less-experienced receiver group, with 37 percent of his targets going to players who were 24 or younger. And after working with coach Mike McCarthy for the entirety of his time as Green Bay’s starter, Rodgers probably needed a fresh voice in his ear. I think new coach Matt LaFleur will play a key role in getting Rodgers back on track in 2019. Can the blossoming group of young receiver talent also help the two-time MVP return to form? 

 

2018 stats: 16 starts | 62.3 pct | 4,442 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 25 pass TD | 2 INT | 97.6 passer rating