AROUND THE NFL

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Once again, Jerry Jones can’t imagine why the NFL would investigate and discipline RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT.  Everybody gets handcuffed, right?  Todd Archer of ESPN.com:

 

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones doesn’t believe the NFL will take any action against Ezekiel Elliott for his role in an incident involving security guards at a Las Vegas music festival last weekend.

 

“I think that the main thing is that I don’t see anything that needs supporting,” Jones said Thursday. “In terms of his status with us, [it] has not been impacted in any way. And frankly, I know how conscientious he has been in the offseason, and that’s good enough. No, I don’t see that having any consequences for us.”

 

Elliott was seen on cellphone video released by TMZ confronting a member of event security and using his body to push the man backward until he fell after hitting a gate. The running back was detained briefly early Sunday during the Electric Daisy Carnival at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was handcuffed by police when he was detained but not arrested.

 

Elliott’s attorney, Frank Salzano, called it an overreaction by security after Elliott was seen arguing with his girlfriend.

 

Elliott did not speak to reporters after Wednesday’s organized team activity.

 

In 2017, Jones was steadfast in his belief that Elliott would not face discipline from the NFL after he was accused by a former girlfriend of committing domestic violence over multiple days in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2016. Legal authorities never arrested or charged Elliott, but the NFL eventually suspended him six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.

 

Earlier this week, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Las Vegas incident would not have any impact on negotiations regarding a contract extension. Elliott is under contract through 2020 after the Cowboys picked up his fifth-year option for just over $9 million.

 

The Joneses and coach Jason Garrett have lauded Elliott’s growth since the suspension. Earlier this month, Elliott paid for the funeral expenses of a star teenage football player, Jaylon McKenzie, who was killed by a stray bullet as he left a party near St. Louis.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

If RB DEVONTA FREEMAN really is back in good health, that could be a key factor for Atlanta in 2019.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Devonta Freeman played just two games last season. Suffering from injuries in each tilt, he earned just six and eight carries in those matches, respectively. Then his season was over.

 

After dealing with knee and groin issues, the latter of which ended his 2018 campaign in October, Freeman is finally healthy and back with his teammates for OTAs.

 

“It felt good just to be out here running around and having fun,” he said Thursday, via the Associated Press. “This is fun. Just having fun running around brought back memories of when I was a kid, playing in the middle of the field. It was fun.”

 

Relegated to just 14 carries last season, Freeman watched as an inconsistent Falcons offense led Atlanta to a 7-9 record. Missing basically the entire season reminded the running back how much being on the field means.

 

“It was tough,” Freeman said. “At the time I couldn’t see the blessing that God had for me. But it was definitely tough not being able to go out there and compete and battle with my brothers. Just seeing all those guys, every time I watched a game, it was like ‘Man, that was a missed opportunity for me.’ I definitely took it to heart. I learned a lot from it, though.”

 

With Tevin Coleman signing in San Francisco this offseason, Freeman projects to have a heavy workload in 2019 as a dual-threat out of the Falcons backfield.

 

“It’s been awesome having Free back on the field and be back to having him look like himself, to see the energy that he brings has been good,” coach Dan Quinn glowed.

 

With an improved offensive line, Freeman could be in for a big bounce-back campaign. First, he must stay healthy.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

WR MICHAEL THOMAS knows his time is coming for a big contract.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is going to get paid. Perhaps soon. Certainly a lot.

 

But the idea of not going through OTAs didn’t occur to Thomas, who has a valid claim as one of the league’s most underpaid players.

 

“I’m a football player first — I like being at work,” Thomas told Mike Triplett of ESPN.com. “So it wasn’t really hard to make a decision.”

 

Thomas is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and will make a (relatively) paltry $1.15 million. With the franchise tag a possibility, he could have forced their hand this offseason by withholding his services, but he’s choosing to trust the Saints.

 

“I feel pretty certain that everything will get taken care of and handled professionally,” he said. “This is how I approach the game and how I show up to work the same way, and everything else will take care of itself.”

 

As long as he’s fortunate enough to stay healthy, the payday will doubtless come. The All-Pro wideout has caught 321 passes in his first three seasons, the most for any player in their first three. Odell Beckham Jr. is second on that list with 288. And Beckham’s working on a five-year, $90 million contract, and stars haven’t gotten any cheaper.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

There have been no shortage of offers for DT GERALD McCOY who might get nearly the $13 million he was owed by the Buccaneers.  This tweet from Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times:

 

Gerald McCoy has been overwhelmed by the amount of interest he’s received. Ten teams are involved with offers as high as $11-million per year. Glazers could’ve dragged this process out but his release by the Bucs is appreciated by McCoy. He will visit the Browns Fri.

 

Not sure why the Glazers are getting credit for not dragging things out.  The Bucs needed McCoy’s cash to pay DT NDAMUKONG SUH who they seem to prefer.  Had to dump McCoy first.

 

The Bucs got Suh officially on Thursday, apparently for less than the $10 mil figure bandied about (but in the ballpark).  ESPN.com:

 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday reached an agreement with former Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on a one-year contract.

 

Terms were not disclosed, but a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the deal is worth $9.25 million and has incentives that could push the total to $10 million.

– – –

Suh was interested in playing for Tampa’s new defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, a source told Schefter.

 

Suh finished the 2018 regular season with 4.5 sacks, four pass deflections and two fumble recoveries. He made a more significant impact in the playoffs, helping to shut down running back Ezekiel Elliott in a divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

On the one hand, it could be nothing, but we have another ailing Bosa.  Herbie Teope of NFL.com:

 

The San Francisco 49ers are without the second overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft for the short term.

 

Defensive end Nick Bosa is dealing with a Grade 1 hamstring strain and will be held out of practice for the next few weeks while receiving treatment, the Niners announced through multiple team beat writers.

 

Erring on the side of caution more than makes sense for the Niners given the tricky nature of hamstring injuries, so there’s no need for Bosa to risk further injury during OTAs in May and early June.

 

And should the team elect to hold off on Bosa practicing during the three-day mandatory minicamp on June 11-13, he’ll have more time to fully heal between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp in late July.

 

Meanwhile, Bosa isn’t the only injury news to come out of San Francisco.

 

Safety Jimmie Ward suffered a broken collarbone while diving for a ball during Thursday’s OTA practice, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo reported, via sources informed of the situation.

 

Ward is out for the rest of the spring OTA workout sessions and will have surgery Friday, Rapoport added.

 

Team sources also told Rapoport that Ward will be out for eight weeks but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

The news that the Broncos have signed TE NOAH FANT reminds us what first round picks make these days.  This from Mike Klis of 9News.com:

 

Noah Fant is going to need a local bank.

 

The tight end from the University of Iowa and the Broncos’ first-round draft pick, Fant signed a four-year contract worth $12,590,724 on Thursday. Every last dollar is fully guaranteed.

 

The deal includes a signing bonus of $7,176,888 – which is automatically slotted for the No. 20 overall selection – and a fifth-year team option.

 

Fant became the Broncos’ first-round pick largely because of his rare combination of a 4.5-second, 40 meter speed from a 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame.

 

In his sophomore and junior seasons at Iowa, he had 69 catches for 1,102 yards (an impressive 14.7-yard average) and 18 touchdowns combined.

 

Fant is expected to be the Broncos’ 1B tight end with Jeff Heuerman this year. Fant follows sixth-round receiver Juwann Winfree ($171,104 signing bonus) and fifth-round linebacker Justin Hollins ($306,896) as draft picks the Broncos have signed.

 

They still have to sign second-round picks Dalton Risner (will receive a $3,214,388 a signing bonus), a guard from Wiggins, and quarterback Drew Lock ($3,118,776), plus third-round defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones ($1,066,400).

 

So falling into the second round cost DREW LOCK about $4 million in bonus money.

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

Should the Ravens be worried about QB LAMAR JACKSON?  Even the now second-year pro doesn’t think he has been very sharp.  Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com:

 

At the end of Thursday’s practice, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh wanted to finish with a pressure scenario, telling his players that there were seven seconds remaining and the offense was down by six points.

 

Lamar Jackson threw a 3-yard touchdown pass through heavy traffic to running back Gus Edwards, winning the drill but apparently not winning over the second-year quarterback. Jackson gave a blunt assessment of how he performed in his first week of offseason practices.

 

“I’d say, my first day, I sucked. Second day, I did better. Today, it was all right but it could’ve been better,” Jackson said. “I’m always trying to be perfect in practice.”

 

The development of Jackson as a passer has been the big question mark surrounding the Ravens all offseason and will continue to be the hot-topic issue. If Baltimore wants to return to the playoffs, Jackson has to improve upon his 58.2 percent completion rate and his 159.1 yards passing per game as a starter.

 

On Thursday, Jackson showed more velocity on his passes than last season. He stepped into his throws and drove them downfield, especially on the deep passes along the sidelines.

 

There were other times when Jackson struggled connecting with his receivers, specifically in the red zone.

 

Harbaugh explained that Baltimore has rebuilt its offense under new coordinator Greg Roman, from the cadence to the terminology. As Harbaugh pointed out, the Ravens didn’t have the luxury of an extra two weeks to practice like teams that hire a new head coach do.

 

“It’s a process,” Harbaugh said. “So, we’re not exactly clicking on all cylinders yet. But I’m really happy with the progress and where we’re going.”

 

At the top of Jackson’s checklist this offseason is changing the look of his passes. He wants his spirals to be tighter, which were a problem last season and during the first week of spring workouts. Several of Jackson’s passes wobbled through the air.

 

“It’s been crazy. It’s been everywhere,” Jackson said of his throws. “I feel like my hand is a little too high on the football and that makes the ball go out of whack a lot.”

 

Jackson has impressed coaches and players with how hard he has worked this offseason. A mainstay in the Ravens’ conditioning program, Jackson has been seen doing chin-ups in the weight room and running around cones in the indoor field house.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

RB JAYLEN SAMUELS is looking forward to a breakout season in tandem with RB JAMES CONNER:

 

Much of the offseason focus on the Pittsburgh Steelers thus far centers around the players no longer with the team. As we inch closer to the start of the 2019 campaign, attention can turn to the athletes still on the Steelers’ squad.

 

During OTAs, Pittsburgh practiced a two-RB formation, with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels lined up together in the backfield. It’s a tandem the Steelers could employ more in 2019.

 

“We did a little bit of it [last season], but we didn’t really run it in a game, so I guess this year we’re going to try and put that a little more in the offense,” Samuels said Thursday, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I think that could be kind of special with me and [Conner] in the backfield. Me and him in the game, period. We’re just building on from that right now… He’s more of a runner and a catcher, as well, but I can get outside and run routes, as well. To have that dual threat with me and him in the game, it could be really scary for defenses.”

 

Most scoffed when management suggested earlier this offseason that the Steelers could run an RB committee. It’s something Pittsburgh has never done under Tomlin’s watch. Utilizing multiple backs, however, makes perfect sense.

 

With question marks in the receiver corps behind JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald the only proven, consistent receiving threat from the tight end position, the Steelers could use Samuels’ receiving acumen in the passing game.

 

Samuels enters his second season after displaying flashes of his dual-threat ability taking over for an injured Conner down the stretch. In three starts, the 22-year-old compiled 223 yards rushing on 42 carries, a 5.3 yards per tote average (including 142 yards on 19 carries against the New England Patriots). He also generated two seven-catch games last season.

 

Entering last year’s draft, some scouts considered the 6-foot, 225-pound Samuels a tight end — if you played fantasy football last season, you’ll likely remember the controversy involved late in the year. N.C. State coaches defined Samuels as an H-back, per NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein, deploying him in multiple roles, but mostly using him as a pass-catcher.

 

The Steelers could take advantage of that pass-catching ability to buffer their receiver corps and become a diverse menace out of the backfield. Much like the Patriots utilize James White’s pass-catching skills, Pittsburgh could use multiple backs to keep defenses off balance.

 

“Oh, man, Jaylen?” Conner said when asked about his running back mate. “He’s super talented. (Two-back sets are) something we’ve had in for a little while, but I think we’re going to use it a little more this year, and I’m excited about it because we’re both really talented. So it kind of puts the defense in a mix of who they really want to pay attention to because he’s shown what he can do.”

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW YORK JETS

Will the Jets trade RB Le’VEON BELL before he has even a single carry for Gang Green?  Adam Gase says that thought is “ridiculous” so based on Gase’s recent track record it is something to keep an eye on.  Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News stirring things up:

 

Adam Gase predictably denied that he had a problem with the decision to sign Le’Veon Bell this offseason. The new ruler on One Jets Drive also said that it was “ridiculous” to suggest that the perennial Pro Bowl running back could be traded before the start of the season.

 

Strip away the propaganda and half-truths and here’s what’s left: Gase didn’t want Bell, because he believes he can thrive in the backfield with an assortment of backs, according to sources. Once Gase realized that he wouldn’t be able to sway Christopher Johnson and Mike Maccagnan that Bell wasn’t needed in his offense, the coach pivoted and made it clear that he didn’t want to pay big money for any running back.

 

“We signed him,” Gase said Thursday in his first press conference since taking over as the team’s interim general manager in the wake of Maccagnan’s ouster. “I’m excited we have him. I’ve been in constant communication with him.”

 

“Whether or not we disagreed on anything … financially, that’s a completely different story than the person or the player,” Gase added. “That’s where a lot of this gets misconstrued. Le’Veon Bell is a great player. He’s a good person. I’ve been in constant contact with him. I’ve enjoyed my interaction with him when he was here.”

 

Give Gase credit: He is a master salesman, who does an excellent job communicating one-on-one with players.

 

The coach said that Bell, who has skipped the bulk of voluntary offseason workouts, “texts me all the time” to keep him up to speed on his training regimen.

 

“He’s been great with me as far as contact goes,” said Gase, who revealed earlier this offseason that Bell told him that he’ll be at the team’s mandatory three-day minicamp in a couple weeks. “Making sure that I know what he’s doing, where he’s working out at, whatever part of the United States he’s working out in. … He does a lot of different things as far as who he’s working with.”

 

Gase maintained that he doesn’t believe that the Jets overpaid for Bell, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal (which is effectively a two-year, $28 million deal).

 

“The contract was what it was,” Gase said. “You can overpay … Everybody can criticize contracts all you want, but he’s here. I’m excited he’s here. I think our players are excited he’s here. I know our coaches are. You get a chance to coach a great player, a guy that’s done things that nobody’s ever done in the league. We’re excited for that opportunity. I’m excited to get him in the offense, so I can start to figure out what else I can do with him. What hasn’t he done? What can he be great at in this system?”

 

Gase privately wasn’t pleased with Bell’s decision not to participate in the voluntary on-field work, but there’s no real recourse.

 

He’s right about this: Le’Veon Bell is a tremendous player, who should be the heartbeat of Gang Green’s offense if used properly.

 

Here are some thoughts on Gase and the Jets from Kimberley Martin of YahooSports.com:

 

Adam Gase remained defiant in the face of criticism, assuring his audience that he’s not the Machiavellian-type he has been made out to be. He insisted he’s no backstabber, disputing claims that he’s a power-hungry micromanager who’s eager to pull strings in order to seize control behind the scenes.

 

And the more questions that were hurled at him, the more the New York Jets head coach denied that he played any role in last week’s unexpected firing of general manager Mike Maccagnan.

 

“That’s just not true,” Gase said Thursday, in his first media session since the front-office made the surprising announcement. “[Team chairman and CEO] Christopher [Johnson] made the decision.”

 

Gase’s character has been publicly maligned in the days since Maccagnan’s dismissal, and as a result, the coach-turned-newly-appointed interim GM spent nearly 15 minutes defending his reputation against rumors that a “personal rift” existed between him and Maccagnan, that he didn’t want to sign free agents Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley at their hefty price tags, and that he’s the puppet master behind the Jets’ search for Maccagnan’s replacement.

 

At best, Gase is a victim of his own team owner’s naiveté — an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire caused by Johnson’s lack of foresight and poor read on his own building.

 

At worse, Gase is as devious and dishonest as “Bran The Broken” — the paraplegic puppeteer whose underhanded ways led to an entire city of innocents being slaughtered by a dragon and the true protagonist of “Game of Thrones” to be exiled North of the Wall.

 

For Johnson’s sake — and, more importantly, a fan base that has suffered through decades of disappointment — the latter better not be true. Because if Gase is the manipulative control freak some people presume, that would mean the Jets have doomed themselves to more years of the same: Unnecessary drama.

 

For argument’s sake, let’s take Gase at his word.

 

If we are to believe everything he said Thursday — that he did not expressly tell Johnson that he could no longer work with Maccagnan, that he’s “excited” to coach Bell (whenever the ex-Steelers running back, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal in March, returns from “whatever part of the United States he’s working out in.”), that he had no issues with the guaranteed $51 million Mosley received, and that he doesn’t want a “yes man” as his next GM — Johnson has put Gase in a terrible position only months into his new gig.

 

Less than two weeks ago, the Jets seemed to be standing on solid ground with a new offensive-minded head coach, a budding franchise quarterback (Sam Darnold), a game-changing running back (Bell), a vital veteran leader at middle linebacker (Mosley), and arguably the best prospect in the NFL draft (former Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams). Everything seemed stable, with Johnson publicly reinforcing his faith in Maccagnan and his confidence in the Maccagnan and Gase pairing. But the semblance of disarray has raised deserved questions about ownership’s ability to properly vet and evaluate prospective hires.

 

And now Gase — who, according to Gase, had nothing to do with the timing of Maccagnan’s exit — is left to defend himself. Nevertheless, the coach said he’s unfazed by the public’s perception of him.

 

“I get paid to take all the bullets,” he matter-of-factly said.

 

Gase also stressed that the speculation hasn’t affected his locker room or eroded the trust he has with his players — a claim backed up by Mosley. Pressed for a reaction to his coach’s reported issues with the Jets overpaying him, the linebacker replied: “It doesn’t matter. I’m here now.”

 

Mosley then divulged that Gase addressed the rumors with him directly: “He pretty much said, ‘Don’t listen to the media.’”

 

That’s a convenient strategy for a head coach who now finds himself with the interim GM title and heavy input on who Johnson hires next. But there is one thing Gase said Thursday that can’t be disputed.

 

“If we win games, nobody’s going to remember this,” he flippantly said.

 

That’s true.

 

But here’s the thing: The Jets don’t play a meaningful game for another 4½ months. Johnson did Gase no favors by firing Maccagnan when he did because now, there is no one beneath left to blame. The expectations for 2019 all hinge on Gase’s ability to get Darnold to make a major leap in Year 2 and maximize Bell’s versatility. And if Gase does win in 2019, he’ll do so with players Maccagnan drafted and signed.

 

And should the Jets disappoint for yet another season, he’ll bear the brunt of the blowback.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

DONOVAN McNABB

If no one else will, Donovan McNabb is going to throw his hat into the ring for a spot in the Hall of Fame.  Does he have a case?  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has never even been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he believes he should already have a bust in Canton.

 

“I am a Hall of Famer. My numbers speak for themselves,” McNabb told TMZ. “My numbers are better than Troy Aikman.”

 

McNabb does, in fact, have better numbers than Aikman: McNabb threw for more yards and more touchdowns, with fewer interceptions. But that’s a bit misleading.

 

For starters, McNabb played in a better passing era than Aikman: In Aikman’s rookie year, 1989, the league average passer rating was 75.6. By McNabb’s rookie year, 1999, the average passer rating had climbed only slightly, to 77.1, but by McNabb’s final year, 2011, the league average passer rating had risen all the way to 84.3. In other words, the significant increase in passing efficiency in the NFL had barely begun over the course of Aikman’s career, but it exploded during McNabb’s career. Although their careers overlapped by two years, for all intents and purposes, Aikman and McNabb played in different eras.

 

And, of course, the numbers that really matter to Aikman’s and McNabb’s Hall of Fame candidacies are three and zero. Aikman won three Super Bowl rings while McNabb won zero. Right or wrong, Super Bowl rings play an inordinate part in a quarterback’s Hall of Fame candidacy.

 

So McNabb, while a good player, simply does not have the kind of Hall of Fame candidacy that Aikman had. Which is why Aikman got in on the first ballot, and McNabb has never been close.

 

Frank Schwab of YahooSports.com defends McNabb:

 

Aikman was fortunate to be in a great spot through his career. He played behind an all-time great offensive line, with one of the best running backs ever, on one of the most loaded teams in NFL history. Would Aikman have carried a lesser team to three titles? Likely not.

 

We have gone overboard factoring Super Bowl rings into a quarterback’s legacy. Football is a team sport. Quarterbacks don’t play one-on-one, and they certainly don’t win championships on their own.

 

But we all know with even one ring, McNabb would be much closer to the Hall. He might be in already. Other great quarterbacks have retired recently or will retire soon, and many of them will likely jump McNabb in line.

 

McNabb does have a good Hall of Fame case. Which could make his frustration grow as the years go on, if he doesn’t get in.

 

 

RANKING QBs BY DIVISION

Adam Schein of NFL.com ranks the divisions by their QBs – ranging from the AFC West to the NFC East:

 

Everyone and their mother has a list ranking NFL quarterbacks. For the record, my mom loves Peyton Manning.

 

So, here’s a list with a twist. We’re ranking the divisions based on their collection of QBs, from best to worst. One other important detail that needs to be stressed: While history serves as a backdrop, this ranking is based on my projections for these signal-callers in 2019.

 

It’s rather interesting to look back at last year’s version of this list. The quarterback position is stronger than ever in many ways, thanks in part to the emergence of young stars. In other ways, it’s become akin to a closer in baseball — there seems to be more performance variance year to year than ever. What will Jimmy Garoppolo look like in 2019? Jared Goff? Cam Newton? Josh Allen? There are new coordinators, new coaches and new systems. It all adds up to tons of excitement!

 

Last year after perusing my list, NFL Media colleague and former Colts great Reggie Wayne suggested on NFL Network that I might have been distracted by binge-watching a TV show when I was asked to put the rankings together. Let the record show I did return to watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” after I finalized this year’s edition.

 

NOTE: Quarterbacks listings within each division are presented alphabetically by team. I picked the QB for each club based on whom I expect to make the biggest mark on the season.

 

1) AFC WEST

Denver Broncos: Joe Flacco

Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes

Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers

Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr

This is the only division that features two of the league’s five best quarterbacks (Mahomes and Rivers). Mahomes is majestic, and last year’s MVP season (5,097 yards and 50 TD passes!) was just the beginning for him. He’s a flat-out superstar. Rivers is still playing like a Hall of Famer at 37 years old. I think Carr is going to thrive in his second season with Jon Gruden. With massive upgrades to his weaponry — he’ll be throwing to trade acquisition Antonio Brown and free-agent signee Tyrell Williams, and now he has the top back in this year’s draft, Josh Jacobs, running the ball for him — I’m expecting big things from him in 2019. Flacco holds the last rung in this division, but he is a former Super Bowl MVP and has a chance for a career renaissance in Denver. Mahomes and Rivers carry this division to the top, though.

 

2) NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray

Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff

San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo

Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson

This group came close to being No. 1 on the list. Wilson was rightly rewarded for his greatness this offseason. He elevates the play of everyone around him, and now he’s the league’s highest-paid player. Goff was an MVP candidate for the first few months of last season. Not so much after that, but the throws in New Orleans during crunch time of the NFC Championship Game remind me of how great he can be under Sean McVay. I’m still drinking the Jimmy G Kool-Aid, especially with offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan calling the shots. If Garoppolo, coming off the ACL tear that ended his 2018 season in Week 3, is healthy, the Niners are going to surprise a lot of people. Good news: The health reports on his knee coming out of OTAs this week were positive. Murray is going to sizzle in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense with his Patrick Mahomes-like arm talent. There is excellent depth among the starters in this division.

 

3) NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky

Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers

Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins

The Aaron Rodgers “I can be coached” tour is going to be real and spectacular. Count on it. He’s healthy, and I expect his union with first-year head coach Matt LaFleur will help him remind everyone that he’s still one of the best in the game. Trubisky has made major progress in his first two seasons, and he’ll take another step forward in his second season working with offensive whiz Matt Nagy. I feel like Cousins and Stafford fall somewhere in the range of eight to 16 in the QB rankings each year. There will be many moments of genius, and moments that leave you shaking your head, for both.

 

4) AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson

Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton

Cleveland Browns: Baker Mayfield

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger

While the Freddie Kitchens promotion to head coach feels like a shotgun marriage, there’s no doubt that Mayfield is a young star. Baker thrived under Kitchens when he took over as offensive coordinator at the midway point last season, and I expect Mayfield to flourish even more now that Odell Beckham Jr. has been paired with his old LSU running mate, Jarvis Landry, in the Cleveland receiving corps. Mayfield is plenty accurate, and he has the “it” factor that can be so hard to find. I think he’ll have an MVP-caliber season while leading Cleveland to the playoffs. Big Ben still hasn’t stopped talking about Antonio Brown, and he’s going to miss his former go-to guy on game days. Ben is still great, although he’s down a tick from his Hall of Fame-caliber play. I am a believer in Jackson as a winner and runner, and I expect him to improve as a passer. First-round pick Hollywood Brown will help him, especially if Jackson does indeed show some growth as a thrower. Prediction: First-year Bengals head coach Zac Taylor will help Andy Dalton have the best season of his career.

 

5) AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen

Miami Dolphins: Josh Rosen

New England Patriots: Tom Brady

New York Jets: Sam Darnold

Brady, he of six championship rings, is the GOAT and continues to do GOAT things. He gives this division a big lift, but I’m a big fan of the second-year quarterbacks in this group. I get that these youngsters have a ton to prove, so, yes, I’m going out on a limb here by placing them ahead of a much more accomplished group in the NFC South. As for those super sophomores, Darnold has everything you want in a big-time quarterback. Adam Gase is the right guy to help him realize his potential, and the addition of Le’Veon Bell is a huge deal for his development. I’m already on the record with my prediction that Allen and the Bills will break through in 2019. I loved how Buffalo supported him in free agency with help at receiver and on the offensive line. Yes, Allen’s cannon arm is the truth. It’s wild to see Rosen joining 2018 draft classmates Darnold and Allen in this division, too. The talent around the former Cardinal is weak right now, but I’m still a big believer in his skill set.

 

6) NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton

New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston

I know, I know. You’re probably wondering why a group with two former MVPs (Ryan and Newton) and an all-time great (Brees) isn’t higher on the list, but hear me out. Winston is one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL, with a knack for throwing the ball to the other team. Newton is a great player when healthy, but his arm strength and accuracy were diminished in the second half of last season, and now he’s coming off of his second shoulder surgery in less than two years. Newton says he feels great, but Carolina’s selection of former West Virginia QB Will Grier in Round 3 of this year’s draft was smart and telling, as the team clearly felt a need to add better insurance. Now, I love Ryan. I also like seeing Dirk Koetter back calling plays for Atlanta, as he did from 2012 to ’14; the Falcons’ offense ranked in the league’s top eight in two of those three seasons. Bolstering the offensive line with two first-rounders in the draft? I love that, too! Drew Brees is still playing like Drew Brees, even as Sean Payton smartly leans on the running game. However, the questions about Newton and my doubts about Winston drag this division down a bit.

 

7) AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson

Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck

Jacksonville Jaguars: Nick Foles

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota

Luck proved last season that he’s all the way back from his shoulder woes. He’s an MVP candidate heading into 2019. I’m high on Watson, too, as he enters his third season. He has a knack for the moment. Here’s hoping he gets the pass protection he needs (sacked a league-high 62 times last season). Foles is a major upgrade at the position for the Jags in both tangibles and intangibles. I know he’s better than Blake Bortles, but am I allowed to wonder if the Foles magic will last for a full season now that he’s tasked with performing from Day 1 instead of stepping in down the stretch? I’m still waiting for Mariota to even out his play. It’s make-or-break time for the former No. 2 overall pick, whose rookie contract is due to expire after the season.

 

8) NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott

New York Giants: Eli Manning

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz

Washington Redskins: Dwayne Haskins

It was an absolute no-brainer to put the NFC East at the bottom of the list. Eli hasn’t performed to the standard of a legit starting NFL quarterback in years, and in no universe was Daniel Jones worthy of the sixth overall pick in the draft. I think Haskins is going to be great one day. The talented rookie from Ohio State could use some time to develop, but I won’t be surprised if he beats out Case Keenum for the starting job before the season, because Keenum is still Keenum (more so the guy we saw in Denver than the one in Minnesota). Wentz oozes talent, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy. When my guy Dak, who has yet to join the upper echelon of signal-callers, enters as the surest bet in the division, well, you can see why the East comes in last.

 

He sure doesn’t like JAMEIS WINSTON if that drags the NFC South below the AFC East’s collection of unproven talent and TOM BRADY.

 

Not saying this is how he did it, but let’s try to imagine ranking the QBs on a scale of 1 to 10:

 

Brady             11 (on a scale up to 10)

Rosen              6

Darnold            6

Allen                6

                       29

 

Brees               9

Ryan                8

Newton            7

                       24

 

Winston would have to be a 4 to justify the AFC East being higher.

 

 

RANKING HEAD COACHES

Bill Bender of The Sporting News has a ranking of head coaches.  We here that Eagles fans are mad that Doug Pederson is all the way down at #7, but that is still the best in the NFC East

 

We are not necessarily fans of the Grudens, but how can they be ranked behind Freddie Kitchens and Matt LaFleur at this point?

 

Bill Belichick is coming off his sixth Super Bowl championship with the Patriots and looking for a seventh in 2019.

 

That’s impressive when you consider he has as many Super Bowl rings as the rest of the coaches in the NFL combined. Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Doug Pederson, Pete Carroll and Jon Gruden also have Super Bowl rings. This season, six first-time coaches will join the list of NFL coaches hoping to join that exclusive club.

 

Teams have tried almost every method to stop the Patriots’ dynasty. Miami hired another Belichick assistant in Brian Flores. Tampa Bay hired former Arizona coach Bruce Arians, and the Cardinals made an outside-the-box hire with former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury.

 

As for Belichick? He’s on to Pittsburgh in Week 1.

 

Sporting News ranks the NFL coaches in 2019 from 1-32. At least we know where to start.

 

#1  Bill Belichick, Patriots  Last year: 1

Belichick, 67, needs 39 wins to join Don Shula (328) and George Halas (318) in the 300-win club for the regular season, but when you factor in playoffs, Belichick can reach 300 with eight wins this season. He might catch Shula (347) and Halas (327) there, too. Belichick is trying to lead New England to a fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance. The only team to do that was the Buffalo Bills from 1990-93.

 

#2  Sean McVay, Rams        Last year: 12

McVay already has a coaching tree in the NFL after just two seasons as a head coach. The 33-year-old is at the center of the youth movement in the sport. Los Angeles ranked second in the NFL with 32.9 points per game last season. McVay took his medicine to Belichick in the Super Bowl. Now we’ll see what he learned.

 

#3  Sean Payton, Saints             Last year: 6

Payton might have ranked No. 2 had a certain call gone the Saints’ way in the NFC championship game. He has re-invented the Saints’ offense to fit the final chapters of Drew Brees’ career, and New Orleans will stay in contention as long as it remains a top-five scoring offense. Last season was a missed opportunity.

 

#4  Andy Reid, Chiefs                   Last year: 8

Reid might be the best coach across major sports without a championship. He needs five wins to become just the eighth NFL coach to reach 200, and with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Chiefs will be the Super Bowl hunt for the next several years. Reid is still 1-5 conference championship games. Can he change that playoff label?

 

#5  Pete Carroll, Seahawks              Last year: 4

Carroll is consistent. The Seahawks have enjoyed seven straight winning seasons, with six coming with double-digits wins and postseason play. With Russell Wilson locked in, the next step is to get back to the NFC championship game, which has eluded Seattle since the ill-fated goal-line play in Super Bowl 49.

 

#6  John Harbaugh, Ravens             Last year: 11

Harbaugh appeared to be on the hot seat going into last season, but he turned to Lamar Jackson at quarterback, a move that led to an AFC North title and playoff berth. Harbaugh is one of seven NFL coaches with both 10 or more career playoff wins and a .625 winning percentage or better in the postseason. He will have to keep proving himself, though, in a tough AFC North.

 

#7  Doug Pederson, Eagles              Last year: 2

Pederson was No. 2 on this list last year after the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. He avoided a full-fledged Super Bowl hangover by taking Philadelphia back to the divisional round of the playoffs. Nick Foles is gone, so the Eagles must finally prove they can do it with Carson Wentz.

 

#8  Mike Tomlin, Steelers                   Last year: 3

This might seem low given Tomlin’s track record, but every coach ranked ahead of him (and the first four behind him) made the playoffs last season. Tomlin dealt with Le’Veon Bell’s holdout and Antonio Brown’s Week 17 disappearing act, and Pittsburgh lost control of the AFC North as a result. Baltimore and Cleveland are not going to let up, either. Maybe Tomlin will re-gain his mojo and put the Steelers back in the playoffs. If not, then this ranking will seem too high going into 2020.

 

#9  Anthony Lynn, Chargers                 Last year: 19

We said last year Lynn would move up if the Chargers had a top-10 defense, and Los Angeles ranked eighth in scoring defense last season. That made for back-to-back winning seasons for this franchise, and Lynn has been the biggest influence behind its culture change. The playoff loss in New England last season counts as on-the-job training.

 

#10  Frank Reich, Colts                      Last year: 25

Reich was SN’s highest ranked first-year coach last season based on the potential of his getting the best out of Andrew Luck and a roster capable of winning the AFC South. Luck returned to his 2014 from, and the Colts knocked off AFC South-champion Houston in the wild-card round. Reich will continue to build on that.

 

#11  Matt Nagy, Bears                          Last year: 28

Nagy helped the Bears take control of the NFC North with a more aggressive offense around Mitchell Trubisky and a nasty defense led by Khalil Mack. Nagy’s five-year stint as an assistant in Kansas City prepared him for this opportunity, and he took advantage of it. Despite its heartbreaking NFC wild-card loss, Chicago is the team to beat in its division this season.

 

#12  Jason Garrett, Cowboys                  Last year: 13

Face it: Garrett is going to be ranked between No. 12 and No. 15 until the end of time. He took Dallas back to the playoffs with the NFC East championship and won a playoff game against Seattle last season, but Garrett is in his 10th season and still has not reached the NFC championship game. He still has Dallas owner Jerry Jones’ support, which is all that matters.

 

#13  Mike Zimmer, Vikings                       Last year: 7

Zimmer was a top-10 coach last year, but Minnesota’s struggles to establish an offensive identity around Kirk Cousins and the coach’s feuding with former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo led to a down year. Green Bay and Chicago have offensive-minded coaches now. What will Zimmer, forever a Bill Parcells disciple, do to counter that and get the Vikings back in the playoffs?

 

#14  Dan Quinn, Falcons                            Last year: 9

The Falcons slipped to 7-9 after back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins, and Quinn now faces the challenge of climbing back up the ladder in a competitive NFC South that just added Bruce Arians to its coaching ranks. The Falcons still have the fifth best record in the NFL on the road since Quinn arrived. They aren’t far away from a return to the postseason.

 

#15  Bruce Arians, Buccaneers                 Last year: N/A

Arians is back after a year away from the NFL, and it’s easy to forget he finished below .500 just one time in five seasons with the Cardinals. Arians now must get more out of Jameis Winston in a tough division where the other three coaches have led their teams to Super Bowls in the past. Arians will turn 67 during the season. Belichick and Caroll are the only two coaches who are older.

 

#16  Ron Rivera, Panthers                           Last year: 10

Rivera is in his ninth season with the Panthers, and he has four playoff appearances and one NFC championship on the plus side. Carolina, however, still has not been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons. Last season was derailed by a seven-game losing streak, and now a return to the playoffs will require a healthy Cam Newton. Rivera still has what it takes to be a top-10 coach, but we need to see more consistency.

 

#17  Bill O’Brien, Texans                            Last year: 14

O’Brien is the lowest-ranked coach who made the playoffs last season, and this might seem harsh since that came with an 11-5 record. O’Brien has a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but the playoff meltdown was a reminder that this franchise has yet to take the next step in the postseason. O’Brien must take advantage of his opportunities in a competitive AFC.

 

#18  Kyle Shanahan, 49ers                      Last year: 20

This might seem high for Shanahan given the 49ers’ back-to-back losing seasons since he was hired. The Jimmy Garoppolo injury, however, played a large role in last year’s downfall, and we are willing to bet on Shanahan’s play-calling in Year 3. Remember when the 49ers were the “it” team heading into last season? It’s time to get that feeling back.

 

#19  Mike Vrabel, Titans                          Last year: 31

Vrabel enjoyed a successful first season in Tennessee. He pushed the franchise to the brink of the postseason with the help of a four-game winning streak in December. He should continue to guide the Titans in the right direction, but the division has three playoff-caliber teams. Tennessee finished .500 in division games last year. The Titans are close.

 

#20  Freddie Kitchens, Browns                Last year: N/A

Kitchens was a hit as Cleveland’s interim offensive coordinator last season, and the fit with franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield was enough to land him the head coaching job. Kitchens has been embraced by Browns fans starving for success, but he has tempered the offseason hype by saying, “We’re not in the prediction business.” That no-nonsense approach, combined with an innovative offense, is why we have Kitchens first among the coaches with no previous experience.

 

#21  Matt LaFleur, Packers                      Last year: N/A

LaFleur might face the most pressure among first-year coaches just because he will oversee the next chapter of Aaron Rodgers’ career. Green Bay slipped over the last few seasons under Mike McCarthy. LaFleur, meanwhile, coached under McVay in Los Angeles in 2017 and with the Titans last season. There is upside here, but LaFleur is the boom-or-bust hire of the latest cycle.

 

#22  Jon Gruden, Raiders                      Last year: 16

Gruden is the most difficult coach to rank because he was successful in the past. We also saw him trade Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack before going 4-12 in his first season back in Oakland, and now he has taken on more personnel decisions with general manager Mike Mayock. Gruden is doing it his way, but will that translate to more wins?

 

#23  Matt Patricia, Lions                          Last year: 32

Patricia was at the bottom of our rankings last season, and he rises after an up-and-down first year. Detroit beat New England and swept Green Bay, but it also lost five home games and struggled on offense around Matthew Stafford. Patricia added tight end T.J. Hockenson in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and it’s clear he’s trying to follow the Belichick model. How long will that take to materialize?

 

#24  Adam Gase, Jets                          Last year: 21

This offseason has been interesting for Gase. He left Miami after three seasons – which included a playoff appearance in Year 1 before a pair of losing seasons – and took the job in New York. It’s an odd fit at the outset, but Gase has Sam Darnold, Le’Veon Bell and a more talented roster than usual with which to work in the Big Apple.

 

#25  Sean McDermott, Bills                     Last year: 18

McDermott took the Bills to the playoffs in his first season, but Buffalo regressed in Year 2 with a 6-10 record. The Bills do have a potential franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, and they drafted Ed Oliver in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. This is still a franchise that has just two winning seasons since 2000. McDermott has led the Bills to a 10-6 record at home in his two years.

 

#26  Jay Gruden, Redskins                        Last year: 22

The Redskins are coming off back-to-back 7-9 seasons, though the trajectory of last year changed after Alex Smith’s gruesome leg injury. The good news is first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins is on board. That might put more pressure on Gruden to prove he is the right coach to grow with the former Ohio State quarterback for the future.

 

#27  Doug Marrone, Jaguars                     Last year: 15

This is steep fall for Marrone, who led the Jaguars to the AFC championship game after the 2017 season. Jacksonville slipped to the bottom of the AFC South last year and is now banking on Nick Foles to bring them back into contention in a tight division. Marrone will be the subject of hot-seat talk if there is not a sharp turn back in the right direction.

 

#28  Vic Fangio, Broncos                          Last year: N/A

Fangio is a career defensive assistant who has served as coordinator for five different franchises, and this is his first turn as a head coach. He will have to manage the quarterback situation with Joe Flacco and Drew Lock, but the good news is he gets to work with a defense that features Von Miller. Fangio is Denver’s fifth coach this decade.

 

#29  Pat Shurmur, Giants                          Last year: 30

Shurmur moves up one spot after a 5-11 season, but several big questions remain in New York. Saquon Barkley is a star, but the Giants traded Odell Beckham Jr. and drafted Daniel Jones in the first round. Shurmur faces a lot of pressure to right the ship for the Giants, a franchise once known for long-term stability.

 

#30  Brian Flores, Dolphins                         Last year: N/A

Flores is the latest Patriots assistant to land with another AFC East team in an effort to end Belichick’s reign, and he inherits a roster that will feature second-year quarterback Josh Rosen. Flores spent 15 years with New England in various roles. He has been waiting for this opportunity, and he gets it as Miami’s fifth coach this decade.

 

#31  Zac Taylor, Bengals                          Last year: N/A

The Bengals finally moved on from Marvin Lewis and became another team to hire a McVay assistant. Taylor has ties to the city after a one-year stint with the Bearcats in 2016, and he should bring much-needed creativity to a franchise that needs it after falling behind in the AFC North to the Steelers, Ravens and even Browns.

 

#32  Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals                   Last year: N/A

This is the big experiment. Arizona grabbed Kingsbury from the college ranks and took another gamble with Kyler Murray at No. 1 overall in the draft. Offense has changed in the NFL, and Kingsbury is one of the brightest minds on that side of the ball at any level. Can the Cardinals play enough defense? We’ll start Kingsbury at the bottom and let him work his way up the rankings.