AROUND THE NFL

DE NICK BOSA, #2 overall, signed his rookie contract with the 49ers on Thursday.  That left #3 overall DT QUINNEN WILLIAMS of the Jets as the lone unsigned first round selection.  From ESPN:

 

 The San Francisco 49ers have finally come to terms with No.2-overall pick Nick Bosa on a four-year contract worth $33.55 million according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

 

Bosa took his negotiations down to the wire and there was concern that he would follow in the footsteps of his older brother Joey, who had a lengthy holdout after being the No.3-overall pick of the Chargers in 2016.  Joey Bosa rebounded spectacularly from that holdout by being named Defensive Rookie of the Year and Nick has a great chance to also earn that honor.

 

Then, shortly thereafter, came word that Williams was a made man with the Jets. 

 

The New York Jets have agrees to terms with  No.3-overall pick Quinnen Williams on a four-year, $32.5 million deal according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

 

Williams was the last unsigned first-round pick and it appears he and his agents were waiting for No.2-overall pick Nick Bosa to sign with the 49ers, which he did less than an hour ago.  The deal includes a $21.68 million signing bonus and fifth-year team option. New York reportedly initially tried to defer more than 30 percent of Williams’ signing bonus to the second year of his contract, but the two sides met in the middle on a 25 percent layover and 75 percent once he officially signs his contract.

 

Williams, a defensive line star at Alabama, tore up the NFL Scouting Combine with 83rd-percentile SPARQ results and 4.83 speed- otherworldly for a 303-pound human.

 

NFC NORTH

 

GREEN BAY

QB AARON RODGERS on learning the offense of new coach Matt LaFleur.  Tom Silverstein of PackersNews.com:

 

One day into training camp under new coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers has a good feel for the new scheme he’s running, but when asked how many plays in LaFleur’s offense he could run seamlessly, he said it wasn’t near what he could before.

 

Rodgers said he is still working through different offensive concepts and trying to go deeper than just the mechanics of each play. There are still times he is asking LaFleur what he’s trying to accomplish.

 

“I think that’s an important question in any offense and there’s still some plays that maybe we haven’t taken a specific look at,” Rodgers said after the first training camp practice Thursday. “It helps if I say, ‘What are we doing this for, why are we doing this concept?’

 

“If he can show me 20 (video) clips on it, you’re, ‘Yeah, OK, makes sense. I like that.’”

 

Coaches treat the first week or so of training camp as a refresher course, installing the scheme in different parts such as red zone, short yardage, third down and goal line. Those installations were made during the offseason, but they are reinstalled at the start of camp so the plays can be run in pads against an offense or defense focused on running its own scheme.

 

Later in camp, LaFleur will start practicing plays against various defensive looks the Packers might see during the season. It is during these competitive sessions in practice and exhibition games that the players must apply what they have learned in the classroom and the offseason workouts to real football.

 

“For me, I’m a visual learner in that sense,” Rodgers said. “So, I can figure it out on paper and I’m fine with that, but I like to see it as well and it helps me lock it into my brain. So, the more questions I ask, the more film he shows, the better I feel about the concepts, the better he feels knowing I’m confident in what we’re doing.

 

“And that’s how the relationship grows.”

 

 

MINNESOTA

Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com on QB KIRK COUSINS as he prepares to start his second season with the Vikings:

 

The blame game went a little something like this as the Minnesota Vikings stumbled to an 8-7-1 finish last season.

 

It’s the offensive line’s fault! It’s playcalling! The defense lost its edge! Kirk Cousins was a bad investment!

 

Assigning a singular scapegoat for all of Minnesota’s shortcomings is indolent, but two sentiments have worked their way to becoming near absolutes in the NFL.

 

When things go well, the belief is that the quarterback is (usually) doing everything right.

 

When they don’t, it’s the quarterback who’s the problem.

 

Minnesota’s brass went back to the drawing board this offseason to remedy the supporting cast around its $84 million passer. The Vikings removed the interim offensive coordinator tag from Kevin Stefanski’s title and hired Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach/offensive adviser, along with new coaches for the offensive line, quarterback room and tight end group.

 

Building a system tailored to what Cousins does well was the top priority. Then came fixing the interior of the offensive line (drafting Garrett Bradbury, moving Pat Elflein to left guard, shoring up depth) and securing more weapons for the offense, notably tight end Irv Smith Jr. and backup running back Alexander Mattison.

 

Over the last seven months, the Vikings did their part to give Cousins what he needs to be successful. Now it’s on the quarterback to take the next step.

 

“You can have all the gaudy stats in the world, but this business is always going to come down to wins and losses,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “We can have two 1,000-yard receivers and this and that but it’s always going to come down to wins and losses. … It’s not going to be about stats or individual stats.

 

“It’s going to be about what we have to do every week to go out there and win football games. I know that’s the mindset of Coach Zim and that’s the mindset of this football team.”

 

Cousins is entering his eighth year in the league and fifth as a starter. He has been knocked for coming up short in the game’s biggest moments and struggling against superior competition. He has been labeled everything from not clutch to a system quarterback throughout his career – a player who needs everything around him to be just right in order to be successful.

 

Even if all those things hold true, that’s not to say Cousins’ “next level” is out of reach.

 

To expect that Cousins will be an entirely different quarterback in Year 2 in Minnesota is unrealistic. Even with an improved offensive line, the way Cousins performs in the pocket might not appear that different.

 

 “I don’t see Kirk becoming this incredibly — in the pocket — feel-based quarterback where he feels pressure so much differently and navigates it better,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky. “But I don’t see it as an issue for him where it’s something that’s going to be the downfall for him. The offensive line needs to be better and a big part of it is the internal part of it.

 

“The quarterback can deal with stuff on the edges. When you don’t have any comfort of what’s in front of you (on the interior of the O-line) and any confidence that you can get up into a pocket, you start seeing stuff and feel stuff differently.”

 

While Cousins’ quarterback makeup might not change that drastically, there are areas of his game that, with the right diagnosis, could improve.

 

Minnesota finished 19th in points per game last season, a result of many stalled drives. One glaring area where Cousins and the Vikings’ offense stumbled was on third down, particularly in third-and-6 or longer where their conversion rate ranked 25th.

 

“Teams were a little bit more willing to play some coverages that were man or match coverages where the windows are smaller because there’s zero concern about Kirk ever running for a first down,” Orlovsky said.

 

Staying out of third-and-long territory is the goal of every team. Even when Cousins did end up making the right read on third-down plays that went awry (much of which led him to have the fifth-best adjusted completion percentage on such throws in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus), there are ways the Vikings can help the QB in these situations.

 

“You have to be willing to get more creative (with playcalling),” Orlovsky said. “Your offensive line needs to be able to play well in order to push the ball downfield on third-and-6 or longer. You need to know whether the guys up front can or can’t block the other team long enough to get three receivers past eight yards. That’s a reality. The offensive line blocking better and being better in protection, especially up the middle, will help Stefanski be more willing to have it be just (Stefon) Diggs past the markers. He can go Diggs, (Adam) Thielen and Irv Smith where we trust the offensive line will hold up and we can push the ball and put some guys down field a little bit more with their routes.”

 

Another area Cousins struggled in 2018 has been his Achilles’ heel throughout his career: the red zone.

 

Though his statistics — 20 touchdowns, 114.7 passer rating — inside the 20-yard line don’t reveal the full picture of his own struggles in this area, there’s ways to scheme around his shortcomings by leaning more on the run.

 

“Being great in the red zone is really difficult, especially when teams don’t fear you running the football against them,” Orlovsky said. “They can commit to playing coverage more and more down there. Kirk’s lack of mobility isn’t something that scares teams.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Is RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT going to report to camp today?  There are signs that he will not.  This from Jane Slater of NFL.com:

 

@SlaterNFL

It’s official. My sources tell me Ezekiel Elliott is not on the flight to LA. Again, he has until Friday am to show up at camp though. Players have chosen to fly on their own in the past #Cowboys #TrainingCamp

 

Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com with a tweet on what Ezekiel wants:

 

On Ezekiel Elliott and the #Cowboys, I’m told the extension Elliott is looking for would exceed Todd Gurley’s four-year $57.5 million deal. Which means Dallas could eventually have 3 players (including QB Dak Prescott & WR Amari Cooper) among the top 3 salaries at their position.

 

Elliott would seem to be the only one of the three who really “should” be in the top 3.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Last year, the Rams gave running back Todd Gurley a contract that the Rams now surely regret. This year, running back Ezekiel Elliott wants even more from the Cowboys.

 

Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reports that Elliott hopes to surpass the four-year, $57.5 million extension given to Gurley. (That’s a new-money average of $14.375 million per year.) It’s unclear whether the Cowboys are willing to go there, especially if Elliott is looking for the same kind of structure, with Gurley having $34.5 million fully guaranteed by March 2019 and the Rams facing a decision on whether to fully guarantee Gurley another $10.5 million by March 2020. Also, most of Gurley’s fully guaranteed money is not subject to offset language.

 

It’s also unclear whether and to what extent the two sides are making progress. The indications continue to be that COO Stephen Jones, who dubbed Elliott earlier this year “the straw, if you will, that stirs our drink,” is handling these talks on his own, with no one below him in the organization involved or even aware of what’s going on.

 

Later today, we’ll all be aware as to whether Jones and Elliott’s agent, Rocky Arceneaux, have made enough progress to get Elliott to show up for training camp in California. He already missed the team flight from Dallas, which surely wasn’t accidental or inadvertent. The question now is whether the Cowboys do or say enough to get Elliott to make the trip on his own to Oxnard.

 

Given that it’s much easier under the CBA to hold out than to show up and leave, Elliott shouldn’t show up until he gets it in a written document signed at the bottom by Jerral Wayne Jones.

– – –

The Cowboys have been re-enforced in the offensive line by the return of C TRAVIS FREDERICK.

 

For many an NFL veteran, the genesis of training camp isn’t all that an exciting time.

 

Long, arduous days under the heat, sleeping in dorms away from families and an overall monotonous nature certainly can get old quickly in the life of an NFL mainstay.

 

Not so for Cowboys center Travis Frederick, who was happy to arrive in Oxnard, California, on Thursday to get set for camp after missing all of the 2018 season due to Guillain-Barre syndrome.

 

“I think it’s just a little bit of extra excitement for me, just a little bit more comfort, too, for whatever reason,” Frederick told the media Thursday via SportsDay’s Calvin Watkins. “Even at this point last year I was starting to feel things, and that’s another added layer or anxiety and nervousness going into a camp. You always have that, no matter how long you play. You always have a little bit of anxiety about how things are going to work out, but for me this year, I just feel very at ease knowing I’ve been through what I have and all I have to do now is play football.”

 

A 2013 first-round pick for the Cowboys, Frederick started 80 consecutive games to begin his career. With those starts came four straight Pro Bowl bids from 2014-2018.

 

But both streaks came to a halt when Frederick missed every game a season ago. It began at training camp when he wasn’t feeling himself and extending through a season in which the Cowboys won the NFC East title.

 

As it goes now, Frederick is also recovering from offseason surgery to his shoulder and abdomen area and is completely cleared to practice. Still, a summertime with teammates has a bit of a different feel and perspective this time around.

 

“You don’t get to realize what you have until it’s gone and you get a chance to evaluate that and get excited about what you do have,” Frederick said. “Also, I gained a sense of peace about where I was. I am excited to take each day in and really savor the experience.”

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

Can you be ready for the opener if you fracture your thumb the first day of training camp?  If your job requires you to catch bullets thrown by the great ELI MANNING?  That’s the Giants question today.  Paul Schwartz of the New York Post:

 

The Giants lost the services of one of their starting receivers and top players on Thursday, as Sterling Shepard suffered a fractured thumb in the first practice of training camp. He will be out of action for at least two weeks then evaluated on a week-to-week basis.

 

The Giants open their regular season Sept. 8 against the Cowboys. Given this injury and the precaution the Giants will take with one of their most important players, Shepard is likely to miss most of, if not all of the preseason.

 

Shepard was injured when he reached down attempting to scoop up a low pass from Eli Manning, with cornerback Janoris Jenkins defending on the play. Shepard made the catch but came away holding his left hand. He was forced out of the remainder of practice, and X-rays revealed the fracture.

 

This is a big blow to the Giants. Shepard, 25, was poised to emerge as a team leader and a key member of an offense that sent superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns. Shepard signed a four-year extension worth $41 million this offseason, keeping him contractually bound to the Giants through the 2023 season. He is one of the players the Giants want to build around, and now he will be unavailable for much of the summer.

 

With Beckham gone, the Giants are counting on Shepard to emerge as a No. 1 receiver.

 

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Positive early reports on the arm of QB CAM NEWTON.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

As Panthers training camp began on Thursday night, something else ended: Cam Newton’s long road back to form.

 

The Panthers quarterback, who has spent the bulk of the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery and reconfiguring his throwing motion, showed out Thursday evening in front of fans in Spartanburg, S.C., per multiple reporters.

 

Newton was seen throwing downfield to moving pass-catchers in drills, an improvement over his minicamp performance, when the Panthers QB was tossing footballs to stationary wideouts less than 10 yards away.

 

The highlight of the evening was when Newton found Curtis Samuel downfield on a deep post, hitting the receiver 40 yards in the air for a touchdown. It was a throw the quarterback couldn’t have made a few months ago and one he barely could have made at the end of last season.

 

It felt like a sign that Newton was back, and his head coach thought so, too.

 

“Everything that we’ve been told and everything that we saw really just pointed to him to be ready to go,” Panthers skipper Ron Rivera said Thursday night. “I think it did a lot for not just us but I know it did a lot for him, just uncorking them like he did, just letting them go.”

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

Conflicting tales on the status of WR MICHAEL THOMAS, but Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com has a source that says the deal is close.

 

A source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that the Saints and receiver Michael Thomas are “close” to getting a deal done that would end his unexpected holdout.

 

The characterization comes at a time when chatter has emerged that the Saints could trade Thomas in lieu of signing him; the source dismissed that possibility.

 

Of course, “close” doesn’t mean done. One or both sides will need to move in order to close the gap and do the deal. It appears, based on scattered bits and pieces we’ve gleaned, that the contract would be a five-year extension, and that the question is whether it will be worth $19 million per year or $20 million per year.

 

Within that bigger picture, there also could be structural questions regarding cash flow, guarantees, etc. But it appears that the biggest hangup for now relates to the average payout over the next five new years of the contract.

 

With the cap expected to grow in the coming years, and if Thomas is willing to commit through 2024, this one should be easy to resolve, because whatever Thomas gets now likely will be viewed as a great deal by 2022 at the latest — especially since he’s made it clear that he’s a great receiver.

 

The real question the Saints need to ask themselves is whether they are confident that, post-Drew Brees, they’ll get the most out of Thomas. Chances are that, as long as Sean Payton remains the coach in New Orleans, they will.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

One change brought by Coach Bruce Arians – no music, except the sound of soothing swear words.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

 A coach who curses like a sailor has probably found the right team to lead.

 

The Buccaneers, who have a pirate ship in their own stadium, launched their first training camp with Bruce Arians in charge. And he had a message during his first Tampa Bay training-camp press conference.

 

“Come have fun,” Arians told reporters. “We’re going to have fun. It’s going to be different when we put the pads on. There will be a lot of hollering and screaming and there won’t be any damn music. So you’ll hear some things. You know, maybe put some earplugs on the kids.”

 

Arians retired after the 2017 season, but after a year in the broadcast booth, where he once described a receiver as “wide-ass open,” he’s back on the sidelines, and he says his enthusiasm is “probably higher than ever.”

 

“I’m really excited about this team, about being back in it having been gone a year,” Arians said. “I came back early. I usually come back the day before. I was here early to get started.”

 

Arians promised a “really physical” training camp, with live tackling.

 

“That’s the only way to learn how to tackle,” Arians said. “You have to tackle some. Are we going to tackle a lot? No. Are we going to tackle certain guys? No. But we will tackle, yes.”

 

Arians also had a message for his players when it comes to dealing with the widespread belief that the Buccaneers won’t be very good.

 

“Don’t listen to the noise,” Arians said. “Go to work every day. I go back to my first year in Arizona, it was five, mostly six [predicted wins]. We won 10, and we had injuries, but we won games in the last two minutes. When you go back and look at the 5-11 record [from 2018], there were a lot of close games. We didn’t play smart enough to win, or we missed a kick, or we had a penalty or busted assignment. It was Bucs beating Bucs. Eliminate that. It wasn’t talent. It’s just play better in the final two minutes of the half and the final two minutes of the game and they’re at least 8-8.”

 

Former coach Dirk Koetter wasn’t able to get the players to avoid Bucs beating Bucs. This year, the task falls to Arians, a two-time NFL coach of the year who could be pulling off what he’d call a f–king trifecta if he can take the Buccaneers to 10 wins in 2019.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

The Cardinals plan on running an offense whose basics are familiar to QB KYLER MURRAY.  Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com:

 

Hours before he took the field for his first training camp practice, Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray said he doesn’t understand why there’s skepticism surrounding Kliff Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid offense.

 

“I don’t see why everybody thinks that it can’t be successful,” Murray said. “It’s just like any other offense. It’s an offense. We work at it, we practice it and it’s our job to execute it. If we don’t, then it won’t be successful but if we do, like I said, it works at the college level. I don’t see how it couldn’t work at the pro level.

 

Little is known about Kingsbury’s scheme, which will be a marriage of the system he ran at Texas Tech, the offense Murray commanded at Oklahoma and whatever Kingsbury creates.

 

But Kingsbury has helped Murray’s transition to the NFL by incorporating “a healthy mix” of the verbiage Murray used in college and what Kingsbury used at Texas Tech.

 

“We wanted to make sure that he was comfortable,” Kingsbury said. “And if there were things that we could change, we adjusted those things. And if there are things that didn’t work, then then we call it what we call it.”

 

It’s been helping, Murray added.

 

“I think it’s helped me a lot just coming in and being more comfortable,” Murray said. “If I was to go anywhere else, play for another guy, I’d have to learn a whole new system, a whole new offense.

 

“I think it would be a lot harder, obviously doable. But for me coming into this system, Day 1, rookie minicamp, I was a lot more comfortable than probably any other quarterback out there. So, I think it’s helped a lot.”

 

Thursday’s practice marks the first time the scheme — or parts of it — will be on any sort of display when Arizona takes the field at State Farm Stadium to open training camp.

 

AFC WEST

 

KANSAS CITY

Frank Schwab of YahooSports.com wonders why the Chiefs think they can score their way to a Super Bowl crown.  An abbreviated version of his 2019 team preview which ranks KC 4th.

 

The cliche is often repeated and not really true. Defense doesn’t win championships.

 

More than a few Super Bowl champions had mediocre defenses. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts are the example cited the most, though their defense came alive in the postseason. The 2009 New Orleans Saints weren’t a lock-down defense, but they made big plays. The 2011 New York Giants finished 27th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed, and weren’t great in per-play stats either. The 2016 and 2018 New England Patriots each finished 16th in defensive DVOA, Football Outsiders’ popular per-play metric.

 

The Kansas City Chiefs won’t have a great defense this season. That doesn’t preclude them from winning a Super Bowl. But it adds a degree of difficulty.

 

The Chiefs were good enough to win a Super Bowl last season, then their defense failed in the AFC championship game. Kansas City allowed 37 points, 524 yards and a staggering 36 first downs to the Patriots. New England held the ball for 43:59. And still the Chiefs took that game to overtime, only to be let down when the defense couldn’t get a stop on three straight third-and-10 plays on New England’s game-winning drive. Even with that horrendous defensive performance, the Chiefs still end up in the Super Bowl if Dee Ford had not lined up offsides on what would have been a game-ending Tom Brady interception.

 

From now until the moment if and when Andy Reid lifts a Lombardi Trophy, what happened that evening will be on the minds of all Chiefs fans. Kansas City can look like the best team in football with MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, go 12-4 like it did last season, get the No. 1 seed in the AFC again and host a conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, but will the defense get the one stop it needs when it counts most?

 

There were defensive changes, but they don’t clear up all the questions. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired and replaced by Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo has led one top-10 defense since 2008 and three of his last four defenses finished 32nd, 32nd and 31st in yards allowed. The Chiefs added safety Tyrann Mathieu and pass rusher Frank Clark, but moved on from pass rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston. The Chiefs’ cap situation didn’t allow them to build a new defense. There were additions, but there were subtractions too.

 

“I think we’ve got a great challenge ahead,” Mathieu said on Fox Sports, via the Kansas City Star. “I told our group, ‘This is going to be a tough hill to climb, especially where those guys were last year.’ They brought myself and Frank Clark in, and I think anytime you can bring two guys in that really have a chip on their shoulders, an edge, a certain personality, you can rub off on a lot of guys in a positive way. I think that’s why they brought me in, Kansas City, for one was to really kind of raise the tide of everybody around me, and so it’s going to be a fun season.”

 

Maybe a new look is all the Chiefs need. A scheme change to a 4-3 with Spagnuolo could click, Mathieu’s playmaking ability could transform the defense and Clark might replace what Houston and Ford did. The Chiefs don’t need the defense to be good, they need it to be good enough.

 

Mahomes is almost certain to regress from the second 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown season in NFL history, but he could regress and still be the best quarterback in football. There have been endless debates about whether or not Tyreek Hill should have been suspended by the NFL and there’s no need to go through them all again, but Hill won’t miss any time and that’s a big deal for the Chiefs offense. Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the game. After a strong finish last season, Damien Williams seems capable of filling the lead running back role. Kansas City’s offense will be ridiculous again.

 

Maybe that’s enough to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs were one play from winning an AFC title last season. This time around, the Chiefs just need their defense to make that one play.

 

Kansas City made some significant changes. Dee Ford was traded to San Francisco after it didn’t seem he’d fit in a scheme change, and Justin Houston was let go. That’s 109 career sacks leaving town. Kansas City traded with Seattle for defensive end Frank Clark, and gave him a five-year, $104 million extension. Eric Berry was coming off another injury-filled season and he was let go, replaced by Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu, who was signed to a three-year, $42 million deal, is a versatile playmaker who will have an impact. The Chiefs lost three other free agents who got more than $5 million per season: center Mitch Morse, cornerback Steven Nelson and defensive tackle Allen Bailey. All three will be missed. A trade for pass rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, sending safety Eric Murray to Cleveland, was a worthwhile gamble. The Chiefs didn’t have a first-round pick and used their top second-round pick on fast receiver Mecole Hardman, which seems a little redundant now that Tyreek Hill hasn’t been suspended. Fellow second-round pick Juan Thornhill has impressed already and could start at safety. There were a lot of changes, but it’s hard to say the Chiefs got significantly better.

 

QUARTERBACK REPORT

 

Here’s where we have to talk about Patrick Mahomes’ regression. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star did a fantastic job summing it up, and here are a couple of the key points:

 

• Mahomes led the NFL with an 8.6 percent touchdown rate. Since 2012, every QB to lead the league in that category threw at least 12 fewer touchdowns the next year.

 

• Mahomes was the 11th quarterback to throw for at least 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns. Of the first 10, three missed most or all of the following season due to injury. The remaining seven had, on average, 463 fewer passing yards and 13 fewer touchdowns. None of them improved in yards or touchdowns the following season.

 

Mellinger also laid out some historical reasons the Chiefs offense as a whole will regress. None of that means Mahomes or the Chiefs will be bad. Mahomes could take a big step back and still win MVP; he was that good last season. It’s just practically impossible to assume Mahomes and the Chiefs repeat what they did in 2018.

 

SUMMARY

 

Here’s the problem for the 2019 Chiefs: Anything but a trip to the Super Bowl is a nightmare scenario. Another trip to the AFC championship game and a loss is just another disappointment for a fan base that has been scarred. Anything less than a trip to the AFC title game is a bigger disappointment. And if the Chiefs offense regresses, the defense can’t get out of its way and Kansas City doesn’t make the playoffs? Oh my. When you lose in overtime of a conference championship game and you have the player any general manager in his right mind would pick first to build his franchise around, expectations are high. It’s a lot to live up to.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

RB MELVIN GORDON’s representatives have exchanged proposals with the Chargers – and they don’t appear to be close.  A tweet from Adam Schefter:

 

@AdamSchefter

While the two sides exchanged proposals in recent days, there is mounting pessimism Chargers’ holdout Melvin Gordon will be reporting anytime soon and his holdout threatens to go into the regular season, per sources. Time to rely on Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Detrez Newsome.

 

AFC EAST

 

MIAMI

The Dolphins have signed Cowboys cut WR ALLEN HURNS who knows his way around South Florida.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com.

 

He started the week due to make $5 million this year in Dallas. Instead, he’ll make up to $3 million in Miami.

 

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, veteran receiver Allen Hurns has signed a one-year contract with the Dolphins.

 

Hurns suffered a badly broken leg in the playoffs, but the Cowboys had picked up his option for 2019. It wasn’t guaranteed, and the Cowboys opted to tear it up.

 

They had interest in bringing him back, but he has opted to join a depth chart in Miami that is crowded — but maybe not as crowded at the top as the depth chart in Dallas.

 

Depending on the structure and the guarantees, Hurns may have to earn a roster spot. He’ll get to work immediately on competing for an opportunity to make a difference for the Miami offense in 2019.

 

Hurns is a Miami Hurricane by education who went to Carol City High School in Miami, as well.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

The Patriots may be thinking of Saints QB TAYSOM HILL as they fool around with QB/WR DANNY ETLING.

 

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has a notable history of experimenting with players in different positions, has thinned out the team’s quarterback depth chart by switching former LSU starter Danny Etling to wide receiver.

 

The Patriots selected Etling in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL draft, and he spent his rookie season on the practice squad.

 

“We always knew Danny could play different positions. I always used to joke with him and call him Taysom Hill,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said.

 

Hill’s dual quarterback/H-back role with the New Orleans Saints created a challenge for opposing defenses in 2018, as the Saints ran 175 snaps with two quarterbacks on the field. The possibility of the Patriots doing something similar with Tom Brady and Etling seems like a long shot, but training camp is a time for experimentation.

 

“Everyone has a lot of different roles on this team, and I’m no exception,” said Etling, who was a four-star quarterback recruit coming out of Terre Haute, Indiana, and began his college career at Purdue. “I’m excited to continue to keep trying to find a different role for myself and do whatever the coaches ask me to do.”

 

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Etling also took practice repetitions on special teams Thursday, which is another area in which Hill (6-2, 221) contributes to the Saints. That’s also how Julian Edelman initially made the Patriots’ roster as a rookie in 2009 when he was transitioning from college quarterback at Kent State to wide receiver/punt returner in the NFL.

 

Edelman also played cornerback early in his career, a position switch that other Patriots receivers have made under Belichick, such as team hall of famer Troy Brown. Belichick also famously had quarterback Doug Flutie attempt a dropkick during the 2005 season.

 

In Thursday’s practice, Etling still wore his No. 5 jersey, but it was no longer the color red, which is what quarterbacks wear to signify they are not to be hit.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

NFC CONTENDERS

Do you agree with Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic that only the Redskins, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Lions and Giants have no hope of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl?  Edited version below:

 

The NFC has had 12 different representatives make the Super Bowl since the turn of the century. The only four teams that have been left out during that 19-year span are the Cowboys, Lions, Vikings and Washington.

 

Once again in 2019, the conference feels wide open. By my count, 11 teams can look ahead to Feb. 2, 2020, and see themselves potentially vying for the Lombardi Trophy in Miami (some might need to squint a little harder than others). The only teams that are cross-offs from the get-go are the Giants, Lions, Bucs, Cardinals and Washington. If one of those five ends up surprising and going all the way, we’ll offer up a lifetime subscription to The Athletic to members of their fan base (note: I am not qualified to follow through on that, but I will grant you permission to yell at me on Twitter).

 

With training camps underway, now seems like a good time to take stock of the contenders. We’ll do the NFC here and the AFC in a future installment. Here’s the case for each of the NFC 11, with teams broken up into three categories.

 

Numbers are courtesy of Sportradar unless otherwise indicated. “Efficiency” refers to the DVOA metric from Football Outsiders.

 

The favorites

 

Los Angeles Rams — The Patriots bounced back from a Super Bowl loss two years ago to win it all last season. Can the Rams do the same? The offense laid an egg in the Super Bowl, but Los Angeles has averaged an NFL-best 31.4 points per game over the last two seasons, and its 24 regular-season wins over that span are tied for first. The Rams will be breaking in two new starters on the offensive line, but concerns about the impact from Todd Gurley’s health might be overblown. Football Outsiders tracks a metric called adjusted line yards to measure how much an offensive line’s blocking is responsible for a team’s rushing success. The Rams’ 5.49 adjusted line yards number last season was the highest ever recorded in Football Outsiders’ database (going back to 1996). In other words, the scheme and blocking can do a lot of the work in the run game. Combine that with the fact Los Angeles drafted Darrell Henderson in the third round, and the offense should be fine. Defensively, the Rams finished 18th in efficiency last season. Their most glaring issue was allowing big plays through the air; 10.28 percent of opponents’ pass plays resulted in explosive completions (20 yards or more). That ranked 29th in the NFL. The defense doesn’t have to be great for the Rams to get back to the Super Bowl. It just has to hover around mediocre. With Wade Phillips running the show, that seems extremely doable.

 

Keep an eye on … the Rams’ injuries. They’re one of only two teams that have finished each of the past two seasons in the top five in adjusted games lost, a metric that measures which teams are most and least hurt by injuries. Good overall health has been a factor in their success the past two seasons. If the Rams see some regression with their injury luck, the path to Miami will get more difficult.

 

New Orleans Saints — In what’s become an annual summer tradition, many are questioning whether this will be the year that 40-year-old Drew Brees shows signs of aging. Were there some ugly games for the Saints’ offense down the stretch last season? Sure. But overall, Brees set career highs in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) and completion percentage last season. The Saints finished fourth in offensive efficiency, third in passing efficiency and produced an explosive play on 10.95 percent of their dropbacks (fourth best). They lost Max Unger at center but gave themselves solid options to replace him with free agent Nick Easton and rookie Erik McCoy. New Orleans should still boast one of the best offensive lines in football to go along with elite playmakers Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. Like the Rams, the defense has to just be mediocre, not great. Last season, the Saints finished 11th in defensive efficiency. Even if that slips a bit, the offense is good enough to make them a contender.

 

Keep an eye on … cornerback Eli Apple. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, in the 10 games that Apple started after the in-season trade with the Giants, the Saints’ defense ranked sixth league-wide against the pass.

 

Philadelphia Eagles — On paper they have one of the deepest, most talented rosters in the NFL. Carson Wentz could play another 10 years and not have a group of pass-catchers around him that’s as good as this year’s version (Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert). There’s always the caveat that Wentz has to prove he can stay healthy. But if he’s able to stay on the field, given the talent and continuity on the offensive line and Doug Pederson’s aggressive mindset, this should be a top-five offense. Defensively, the pass rush is counting on newcomer Malik Jackson and third-year player Derek Barnett to fill the voids left by Michael Bennett and Chris Long. While the secondary has depth, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz needs to find the right fits — specifically at cornerback. Like the other two teams in this tier, the Eagles don’t need to field an elite defense to get to Miami. They just need to be good enough. Pederson did a brilliant job during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run with Nick Foles two years ago and kept the team together despite an injury-ravaged season last year that ended in the divisional round. The Eagles have the third-easiest schedule in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Stats, and the pieces are in place for a deep playoff run.

 

Keep an eye on … the Eagles’ injuries. They finished 31st in adjusted games lost last year before making changes to their medical staff in the offseason. An improvement in health and better injury luck will be key for them to get back to the Super Bowl.

 

Don’t count ’em out

 

Minnesota Vikings — They are the first team on this list with a defensive identity. The Vikings brought back linebacker Anthony Barr to preserve the core of a defense that finished fourth in efficiency and second in adjusted sack rate last season. With Mike Zimmer running the show, there are very few question marks on that side of the ball. The offense, however, is a different story. Best-case scenario: The addition of Gary Kubiak as an offensive adviser proves to be exactly what Kirk Cousins needs at this point in his career.

 

Chicago Bears — I can picture it now. Super Bowl media night in Miami, and Matt Nagy steps up to the podium. Just as reporters get ready to fire away, he announces, “I will only be answering questions about the double doink by Cody Parkey. If you want to discuss any other topics, please contact other members of my staff.” Nagy’s decision to seemingly publicly obsess over the playoff miss this spring has been fascinating. And while the Bears have more pressing issues, they still don’t have an answer to their kicker question.

 

Keep an eye on … the Bears’ turnover margin. They produced an interception on 14.8 percent of their opponents’ drives last season. That was the top mark in the NFL and the top mark for any team in the past five seasons. Yes, this is another area in which they might have to compensate for potential regression.

 

Dallas Cowboys — They finished 10-6, but advanced statistics suggest they weren’t quite as good as that record might indicate. …. Dallas is counting on first-time offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to add some creativity and pizzaz to its scheme. There could be an adjustment period, but if the offense starts to find its identity late in the season, and the defense can take another step forward, the Cowboys have the talent on their roster to make a run.

 

Keep an eye on … their defensive line. The Cowboys ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate last year and need to find more help for DeMarcus Lawrence. They traded for Robert Quinn and drafted Trysten Hill in the second round. Dallas needs one of those players (or someone else) to provide meaningful pass-rush snaps.

 

Green Bay Packers — Every year I get burned by picking them to go further than they do, and I’m not about to quit that habit in 2019. The case for the Packers is simple. Even with all the issues they had last year (Aaron Rodgers’ injury, his fractured relationship with Mike McCarthy, a lack of depth at wide receiver), they still finished seventh in offensive efficiency. While Matt LaFleur is a relative unknown, a slight improvement could put Green Bay into the league’s top five offenses. Defensively, the idea this offseason was obvious: load up in free agency and try to capitalize on what’s left of Rodgers’ window.

 

So you’re telling me there’s a chance

 

Atlanta Falcons — A strong case could be made that they deserve to be one tier up. Matt Ryan finished last year fifth in adjusted net yards per attempt, and the Falcons were eighth in offensive efficiency. That, of course, wasn’t enough to save Steve Sarkisian’s job. In fact, Dan Quinn parted ways with all three of his coordinators. The Falcons invested in the offensive line both in free agency and the draft, and the offense is set up to once again be a top-10 unit. The defense was terrible (31st overall) and decimated by injuries, but there’s still plenty of talent on that side of the ball. It’s not difficult to envision them competing for first place in the NFC South and making a playoff run.

 

Carolina Panthers — The Panthers are +2500 to come out of the NFC, according to The Action Network. Only five teams in the conference have worse odds. Allow me to make the case for them as a serious contender. Last year, Cam Newton was dealing with a shoulder injury so bad that just 8.28 percent of his pass attempts traveled 20 yards or more downfield; that ranked 32nd among qualifying quarterbacks. The offensive line was banged up, they were breaking in young receivers, and defenses knew Carolina couldn’t stretch the field. Yet even with all that, the Panthers still finished 11th in offensive efficiency.

 

Seattle Seahawks — Their playoff loss to the Cowboys left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, but stepping back and looking at the big picture, the Seahawks’ offense did a lot of things well last season…Given the Frank Clark trade and Jarran Reed’s suspension, Pete Carroll will have his work cut out for him on the defensive side of the ball. At some point, if it looks like that group just doesn’t have the talent to perform above league average, how much will Carroll be willing to open up the offense to give the Seahawks their best chance at a successful season? The answer to that question could determine how far Seattle goes in 2019. On paper, this is far from a Super Bowl roster. They are thin at receiver, don’t have a lot of pass rush and are unproven in the secondary. But when looking at coach/QB combos, few teams have a leg up on Carroll/Wilson. They’ve won nine games or more every season since Wilson was drafted and have made the postseason in six of those seven years.

 

San Francisco 49ers — I flip-flopped roughly 47 times on whether to include them on this list and ultimately decided to go with it. Here’s the case, starting with the offense. Kyle Shanahan can scheme up explosive plays. The 49ers saw 10.52 percent of their pass plays result in explosive completions (20 yards or more) last season — good enough for sixth-best in the league. Keep in mind that was with C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens starting 13 games. The 49ers are hoping to get a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo back and are counting on contributions from newcomers around him like running back Tevin Coleman and rookie WR Deebo Samuel. Defensively, they invested heavily in the front seven by trading for Dee Ford, signing Kwon Alexander and drafting Nick Bosa. The 49ers are likely to see improvement in turnover margin where they finished 32nd last year (just two interceptions all season for the defense), and they were the fourth-most injured team. If they can get a healthier season at key positions and benefit from some turnover luck, maybe San Francisco can compete for first place in the NFC West. Is that the likeliest outcome? No. But it’s also not out of the realm of possibility.

 

 

THE ROLE OF THE RUN

In a long take in The Athletic, Ted Nguyen looks at the role of the run in the 2019 NFL.  It is much edited below, but we think we still have the key points of the discussion below:

 

Have you ever watched in frustration as your favorite team inexplicably runs the ball up the middle with little or no success? Do you find yourself thinking, What are they doing? Why don’t they throw the ball more? Am I crazy?

 

You’re not crazy. The analytics backs up your belief that this type of play calling is illogical.

 

In the wild-card round last season, for example, the Seattle Seahawks’ offense sputtered as they were eliminated by the Dallas Cowboys 24-22. In reviewing the film, what was most frustrating to watch was Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s blind commitment to running the ball when his team was clearly outmatched up front. The Seahawks’ running backs averaged 2.8 yards per carry while their MVP-caliber quarterback, Russell Wilson, averaged 8.6 yards per pass in the same game.

 

After the game, coaches didn’t express any regret in sticking with the ground game. Some coaches just can’t help themselves — they grasp on to their ingrained belief that “establishing the run” equates to victory, even though analytics has proved otherwise.

 

Traditionalists will tell you that the run game is vital to pounding an opponent into submission and that running the ball will lead to wins. But there’s no disputing that the running game matters less in today’s game. The game rules have been changed to make passing easier and more efficient and the CBA rules limit contact in practice, which makes it a lot more difficult for offenses to refine a physical run game.

 

A yearly downward trend in rushing attempts continued in 2018. Teams only ran the ball 25.9 times per game, which is the lowest average in league history.

 

The importance of the run game has undoubtedly been diminished, but to what extent? Will the trend continue? What is the run game’s role in today’s NFL? How does it affect strategy and roster construction? How should teams value running backs?

 

To get the answers to these questions, I collected the research of several top football analytics experts to see what the numbers say and talked to several former and current NFL players and coaches to get their side of the argument.

 

What does the analytics say about the value of the run game?

Passing is more efficient than running and leads to more points

 

The most obvious evidence that passing is more efficient than running is simply that pass attempts average more yards than run attempts. Passing attempts have increased for many reasons, including rules changes that limit contact from defensive backs and protect receivers from vicious hits.

 

Josh Hermsmeyer writes for FiveThirtyEight and has consulted with NFL teams. He did a study on the scoring trend in his book “The League” and found that passing attempts have increased year over year in nearly every season from 2009 to 2016. During that time scoring has increased by 9.2 percent. The increase in passing isn’t the only reason that scoring has gone up, but it’s played a large role.

 

It’s commonly accepted that a pass play is riskier than a run play because of the chance of a sack, fumble or interception. While it’s inherently true that there is a greater range of possibilities that could lead to negative plays when passing the ball, teams have actually become more efficient as they’ve passed more.

 

“Touchdown percentage (TD%) has increased slightly while Interception percentage (INT%) has decreased,” wrote Hermsmeyer. “The net effect is that there has been an increase in TD/INT Ratio from 2009 to 2016 of 40%. Passers in the NFL now throw almost twice as many TDs as INTs on average.” Completion percentage has also increased every year in the same sample.

 

Hermsmeyer’s study concluded that:

 

Offensive scoring in the NFL has increased over time.

The rise of passing is responsible for the increase.

Passing the ball is far more efficient than running.

 

Running does not correlate with winning

 

In their own separate studies, Warren Sharp, who runs his own website and has also been a consultant for NFL teams, and Timo Riske, who is a doctoral student from Mainz, Germany, both found that establishing the run did not correlate with winning. Using data from 2011 to 2014, Sharp ran regressions on yards per rush attempt and wins, total rushing yards and wins, and yards per pass attempt and wins. He was not surprised to find that only yards per pass attempt correlated with winning.

 

The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin, who has written for Football Outsiders, talked about Riske’s work in his recent article about the dark web of NFL analytics. Riske found that the best predictor for how good a team will be is how effective its passing game was in the past. He concluded like most analytics experts that:

 

1. In a given game, passing efficiency predicts the winner to a much greater extent than rushing efficiency.

 

2. A strong passing offense is much more likely to persist over time than other units.

– – –

The analytics suggests running in short yardage situations and the red zone

 

Sharp found that running the ball on third- or fourth and short had a significantly higher success rate than passing the ball. League-wide, in 2018, on third- and fourth down with 1 or 2 yards to go, rushes had a 13 percent higher success rate (70 percent) than passes (52 percent). Red zone rushes had an 8 percent higher success rate (50 percent) than red zone passes (42 percent). To be successful in these situations, teams have to be able to run the ball. This leads to the next question: whether teams could do so effectively if they don’t run the ball often.

– – –

Here are the recommendations from the analytics community:

 

1. Don’t invest heavily in your run game because it doesn’t correlate with winning

 

2. Use more play action because it’s more effective than drop-back passing and it has proved to work without having to “establish the run”

 

3. Don’t run the ball into eight-man boxes

 

4. Test the limits of passing, don’t force the run “unnecessarily”

 

5. Use the pass to set up the run (run when defenses start to adjust to pass)

 

6. Deception in all its forms is the most important element in offense

 

7. The run game is valuable in short-yardage situations, in the red zone and for running out the clock.

 

But what about the other side of the argument?

 

The case for the run game from NFL coaches and players

 

– – –

Less risk of a negative play

 

Passing is becoming more efficient but the inherent risk of passing the ball still has to be considered. When passing the ball, there is a greater chance of a negative play than with a run play. A negative play could be a turnover or sack. On a pass play, there is the chance of an interception or fumble. The quarterback could get stripped or an offensive player could fumble the ball after a catch. On a run play, the only significant risk of a turnover is a fumble by the running back.

 

In 2018, a turnover occurred 2.9 percent of the time during plays in which the quarterback dropped back for a pass (includes pass attempts, sacks, scrambles). On plays in which the ball was handed off or kept by the quarterback by design (example: zone read), a turnover occurred 0.6 percent of the time. Turnovers occurred almost five times more on pass plays than run plays.

 

Additionally, sacks (including ones that don’t end in turnovers) are often drive killers. Derrik Klassen of Football Outsiders charted the 2016 season and found that only 179/1118 (16.01 percent) drives in which there was a sack eventually got another set of downs. 83.99 percent of drives were essentially killed by sacks. Klassen found that defenses were 70 percent more likely to kill a drive after sacking the quarterback than they were likely to surrender another set of downs.

 

Running the ball allows offenses to minimize risk. This doesn’t mean teams should continually try to establish the run if they are outmatched up front, but with a higher volume of passes comes a higher chance of turning the ball over, and winning the turnover battle does correlate with winning.

 

Disarm the pass rush

 

An offensive line coach told me he might get kicked out of the fraternity for telling me that teams don’t need to run the ball to win, but they need to run the ball to pass. Obviously, not every coach or player would agree with that statement, but every coach and player that I talked to believes that running the ball helps pass protection because it forces pass-rushers to play the run and maintain their gap responsibilities rather than just recklessly fly upfield to rush the passer.

 

Flawed statistics, unquantifiable effects and game theory

 

A coach from an analytics-driven team told me that some of the statistics used to prove the passing game’s superiority over the run game could be flawed or don’t tell the whole story because they rely on averages that could be swayed by big plays. He believes that it is better to look at median statistics when looking at the run game. The idea here is that 1) though the run game produces fewer big plays, it produces more consistent yardage; and 2) passing plays have a high variance (explosive plays, incompletes, turnovers, negative plays) that isn’t reflected by averages. There has been some discussion of using median and mode statistics to look at the run game but there haven’t been any thorough studies yet that I could find.

 

Count McDaniel as skeptical of the analytics: “A lot of stats are not quantifiable in terms of the pass game in regards to the run.” McDaniel and several other coaches explained that a strong run game affects the type of personnel on the field and the structure of the defense. For example, to stop the run, defenses have to keep run-stuffing defensive linemen in the game who aren’t as skilled at rushing the passer, or they have to keep bigger linebackers in the game who aren’t as skilled at coverage.

 

Additionally, offenses only go into a game with a certain number of plays in the game plan. Coordinators can safely call the same run concept over and over again and still safely gain yards, but if they call the same pass concept over and over again and defenders anticipate the concept coming, there is a risk that they’ll jump the pass and intercept it.

 

On every pass attempt, quarterbacks are computing massive amounts of information in a short period of time while they are getting harassed by pass-rushers. Even with elite QBs, it can be beneficial to give them mental breaks and allow them to hand the ball off once in a while.

 

Finite resources

Finding personnel for a pass-heavy attack is difficult. The quarterback position might be the most difficult position to fill in all of sports. There just aren’t enough starting-caliber quarterbacks for all 32 teams. It’s also hard to find reliable pass blocking tackles. This is why quarterbacks are the highest-paid players in the league while tackles are among the highest-paid position groups in the league.

 

It is easier to find good running backs and reliable run-blocking offensive linemen. Plus, most quarterbacks and offensive linemen need the run game to protect them from themselves. Even if teams wanted to, how many teams actually have the resources to pass the ball at a high volume?

 

Final thoughts

After looking at all the research and talking with experts in the field, it seems clear the hard-line philosophy of the importance of establishing the run is outdated and disproven. But there is still value in being able to run the ball. It’s a tricky balance, but in building a team, general managers and coaches have to put more emphasis on investing in a strong passing game, but at the same time, they can’t lose sight of creating an efficient run game.

 

In 2018, of the top 10 teams in offensive DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measurement for a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play with a league average based on situation and opponent), seven were in the top 10 in rushing success rate. Eight of 10 had winning records and made the playoffs. So while there isn’t a correlation with traditional rushing success stats, there are correlations with running, winning and efficient offensive production.

 

This research is valuable for starting important conversations, but some analytics experts have reached hard conclusions that are too black and white for an extremely complex game. There is still value in the run game that hasn’t been properly explained by numbers. The subject should be researched further, but it seems experts on both sides of the argument are in a constant shouting match with each other in which nobody ever wins. Analytics experts, coaches, players, analysts and even fans could all benefit from listening to each other and learning from each other in this conversation to advance the game.