AROUND THE NFL
Congratulations on a long, improbable and ultimately successful career for QB Josh McCown. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Josh McCown said in March that he would take some time to decide if he wanted to continue his NFL career during the 2019 season and he announced that decision on Monday.
McCown is retiring as a player after a career that saw him spend time with 10 NFL teams and the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League in a career that started as a Cardinals third-round pick in 2002. McCown started for some of those teams, served as a backup for others and failed to make the active roster of a couple, but he wrote in The Players Tribune that he wouldn’t have done things any differently.
“I guess it just goes to show that you don’t always get to choose your own path,” McCown wrote. “But looking back, I’m proud of how my career has gone. I don’t shy away from the journeyman label. I embrace it, full force. Because it’s been one heck of a journey.”
In that letter, McCown suggested that coaching and broadcasting were areas he’d pursue in the future. Former Browns coach Hue Jackson offered McCown a coaching job in Cleveland after the 2016 season, but he opted to continue his playing career.
McCown spent the last two seasons with the Jets and also had stints with the Browns, Buccaneers, Bears, 49ers, Panthers, Dolphins and Lions after leaving Arizona. He started 76 games over the course of his career, completed 60.2 percent of his passes and had a 98:82 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
McCown, it was announced on Monday, will be joining ESPN as an analyst.
It’s scary to think, but RB ALVIN KAMARA is not ready to admit that he’s at his peak. Glenn Guilbeau of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser:
If newly acquired Saints running back Latavius Murray, formerly of Minnesota and Oakland, did not know that Alvin Kamara was one of the kings of New Orleans, he found out on Wednesday during mini-camp.
Kamara was surrounded by cameras and reporters at his locker when Murray went to the shower after practice, and Kamara was still surrounded by cameras and reporters when Murray returned from the shower and found his way to his nearby locker.
Murray, a free agent signing last March to replace Saints veteran back Mark Ingram now with Baltimore, looked on in amazement and said, “This a podcast?”
As a crowd of reporters and players laughed, Kamara laughed and just kept talking.
Kamara, who will be entering his third season in 2020 after two spectacularly versatile campaigns, remains comfortable in his skin, in his role, and in his adopted city of New Orleans.
“It’s cool. I mean it’s a cool city,” said Kamara, a native of Norcross, Georgia, near Atlanta. “I just feel like I fit in, so it’s easy to move around and kick it and be out in the community and move the way I move. I don’t know. It’s just natural, it seems organic. I knew people out here, too, so it was easy to maneuver.”
Kamara can be found eating pasta at Marcello’s Restaurant & Wine Bar or lobster at Desi Vega’s Steakhouse — both on St. Charles Avenue in the Warehouse District — or enjoying egg fa wagyu at Doris Metropolitan Restaurant on Chartres in the French Quarter. For music, he likes the Jazz Market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the central business district.
“I mean, there’s a lot going on in New Orleans,” he said. “There are so many spots to eat. There are spots I haven’t been to yet.”
There has been much going on for the Saints’ offense with Kamara in the backfield the last two years:
► He is only the fourth running back in pro football history to gain at least 500 rushing and 500 receiving yards in his first two seasons along with Abner Haynes (1960-68), Herschel Walker (1983-97) and Edgerrin James (1999-2009). He reached half of 1,000 in his NFL Rookie of the Year season in 2017 in only 11 games.
► His 6.07 yards per rush in 2017 was the most ever by an NFL rookie running back with more than 100 carries.
► With 728 rushing yards and 826 receiving yards in 2017, he became just the third 700-700 NFL rookie and was named NFL offensive rookie of the year. He added another 883 rushing and 709 receiving last season.
► Kamara and Ingram were the first pair of Pro Bowl backs from the same team in 2017.
But Ingram, who formed a dynamic duo with Kamara, is gone and much to replace for Murray.
“Latavius is cool,” Kamara said. “He’s working and getting better every day. He may have some tips for me. I’ve got tips for him. He’s still figuring it out. Figuring out Drew Brees, figuring out the offense. He wants to learn, and he wants to be good. He’s not worrying about trying to come in and fill somebody’s shoes. He’s worrying about being him. That’s the biggest thing.”
That’s worked for Kamara, a media darling for natural conversation as opposed to big or controversial talk.
“I think it just naturally happened,” he said. “I don’t think I came into it trying to form something or to create an identity or anything like that. It was just like, ‘It’s me. I’m walking into the locker room. I’m walking into the NFL.’ And I’m going to continue to be me. And however anybody feels about it, it is what it is. Not to be rude or disrespectful, I don’t really care what anybody else thinks. Me being me is enough, and that’s it.”
Yet, on the field, he lets only his play do the talking — 1,611 yards rushing with 22 touchdowns, 1,535 yards receiving with nine touchdowns, 473 yards on kickoff returns with one touchdown and 82 yards on punt returns over two seasons. He is not a trash talker, though he has the vocabulary.
“I definitely could come up with some stuff,” he said. “Oh, I definitely could. But when I’m playing, it’s just a different zone. I don’t really waste my time too much.”
Kamara advised Murray to focus on “figuring out” Brees because that has taken up much of his time — particularly his rookie year.
“Drew’s been playing for so long,” he said. “He’s seen every defense that there’s ever been.”
Brees, 40, will enter his 19th season in 2020 fresh off establishing two of the most significant new NFL career records with 74,437 yards passing and 6,586 completions.
“From my first year to now, there were a lot of things I was trying to figure out,” Kamara said. “I took a step back and was like, ‘All right, well, if I want to be the best, then I’ve got to know what the best knows.’ And I think Drew is probably one of the (smartest) — if not the smartest — people playing football right now. I can only get better if I know as much as Drew or try to be on the same page at least as Drew.”
Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus profers five players who his data says will breakout in 2019. Two of them are first round Buccaneers draft choices from the Jason Licht Era:
One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.
Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.
Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.
Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.
Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.
O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.
Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.
Pat Bowlen tried to put his house in order before his passing, but Ryan O’Halloran of the Denver Post says it’s unclear exactly who runs the Broncos.
Will the Broncos stay in the family with one of his seven children serving as the controlling owner? Will the trustees, led by president/CEO Joe Ellis, continue to run the day-to-day operations until Brittany Bowlen in particular is deemed ready to take over? Will NFL commissioner Roger Goodell step in and suggest/demand a Bowlen child replace the trustees?
According to a source, Bowlen’s seven children, who range in age from 22-49 and were all present when their father passed away at his Denver area home late Thursday, have had productive conversations about how to proceed. Bowlen had two daughters (Amie and Beth) with his first wife, Sally Parker and five children (Patrick, Johnny, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna) with his widow, Annabel.
It is believed Bowlen’s children will get an equal share of the team, which was valued last fall by Forbes at $2.6 billion.
Because Bowlen has passed away, the children for the first time will be able to see the Pat Bowlen Trust and its documents.
The big issue for the children regarding the trust will be when Pat’s wife, Annabel, passes away. She announced her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in June 2018. Upon her death, the children will be saddled with the “death tax,” which is 40 percent of the value of the shares they inherit. It is unknown how the children would pay the tax. They would have one calendar year to make the payment; if they ask for an extension, the bill would include interest.
Also not known: How Bowlen’s death will impact his brother Bill’s lawsuit against the trustees, filed last October, demanding they be removed from their responsibilities as well as the arbitration process at the NFL level led by Carmen Policy. It is possible those two situations could continue on parallel paths.
Beth Bowlen Wallace and Brittany Bowlen, have expressed interest in becoming the team’s next controlling owner and it is believed that the trustees who currently run the Broncos (Ellis, Rich Slivka and Mary Kelly) have prioritized a transition to Brittany.
Here is a timeline regarding the ownership issues since Wallace declared last year her desire to run the Broncos:
May 31, 2018: Wallace said she was “ready right now,” to take over the Broncos and her succession plan included a “short transition and mentoring period with current Broncos leadership.” Within hours of Wallace’s announcement, the trustees said they “thoroughly evaluated” her qualifications and had declined to name her Pat Bowlen’s successor.
July 27, 2018: Ellis, the Broncos’ president/CEO, told reporters that Brittany Bowlen had “expressed an interest,” in serving as her father’s successor.
Oct. 20, 2018: At a charity event in Denver, Brittany Bowlen revealed publicly for the first time that she would like to succeed her father.
Oct. 25, 2018: Bill Bowlen filed a lawsuit in Colorado District Court to remove the trust from power, “due to their failure to uphold Pat Bowlen’s wishes and act in the best interest of Pat Bowlen, his family, and the Broncos.”
Nov. 23, 2018: The trustees submitted a response to Bill Bowlen’s lawsuit requesting a stay in the proceedings. They also requested that Wallace and her sister, Amie Klemmer — who were not a part of their uncle’s lawsuit — enter into arbitration with the NFL and the league would have the power to decide if the trustees are properly serving Pat Bowlen’s wishes.
Dec. 8, 2018: Bill Bowlen filed an objection to the trustees’ response, saying his lawsuit should proceed on a different path than their arbitration request. The filing said the trustees’ request was “nothing more than a delay tactic.”
Dec. 12, 2018:In Arapahoe County District Court, Pat’s wife, Annabel, filed a motion to intervene in the litigation involving Bill Bowlen and the trustees. That would allow her attorneys to be present for closed-door sessions.
Jan. 30, 2019:Asked at his Super Bowl news conference if he will grant the arbitration request, Goodell said the league “may be involved” in resolving the dispute. “It’s sad when disputes like this occur,” he said. “It’s not something I think Pat Bowlen — who I knew very well — would have wanted.”
March 15, 2019: District Court Judge Charles Pratt declined Bill Bowlen’s request to dismiss the NFL’s potential involvement and denied his motion asking the court to make the trustees to pay their own legal fees. The trustees’ motion to dismiss the case entirely was also denied.
March 25, 2019: At the NFL’s annual meeting in Phoenix, Ellis said Brittany Bowlen was poised to re-join the Broncos, “by the end of the year or within the year,” and would serve in a “senior management position,” with the team.
March 26, 2019: Goodell announced that former NFL executive Carmen Policy had been selected as the arbitrator and began his look into the dispute in February. The trustees want Policy to decide if their approach to selecting a new controlling owner is in-line with Pat Bowlen’s wishes.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com with another issue raised by Bowlen’s passing:
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s clumsy policy regarding the posthumous presentation of gold rings and jackets is about to get even clumsier.
As explained by Mike Klis of 9News.com, the recent passing of 2019 enshrinee Pat Bowlen will force the Hall of Fame either to apply its policy as written, or to create an exception.
Pro Football Hall of Fame spokesman Pete Fierle acknowledged that the museum faces an unprecedented dilemma.
“This is the first time that a Hall of Famer has passed away between election and enshrinement,” Fierle told Klis. “The policy for posthumous enshrinees is being reviewed to clarify the intent and purpose of decisions made in the past.”
The Hall of Fame has gotten it very wrong in the past, stubbornly refusing to give rings and jackets to the families of Hall of Famers like Junior Seau and Ken Stabler. And the reason given for denying the ring and jacket to Seau, Stabler, and other posthumously enshrined Hall of Famers applies equally to Bowlen, since he passed before he was given the ring and the jacket.
“While the iconic bronzed busts are created to memorialize every member of the Hall of Fame, the Hall of Fame Ring and Gold Jacket are items presented to living Hall of Fame members to be worn exclusively by them as evidence and pride of their having been elected to sport’s most elite fraternity,” the Hall of Fame said in a 2016 statement, when the issue of deceased Hall of Famers being denied a ring and a jacket first arose. “At no time in its 53-year history has the Hall of Fame presented either of these personal adornments posthumously or retroactively to a family member of a deceased Hall of Famer.”
To the extent that the Hall of Fame is considering making an exception for Bowlen because he passed between his election and induction, that exception would in the face of the reasoning articulated in 2016. So here’s the best solution: Give the ring and the jacket to the family of Pat Bowlen. And to the family of Junior Seau. And to the family of Ken Stabler. And to the family of every other Hall of Famer who dies before election or induction.
The Hall of Fame badly blew it in 2016. Pat Bowlen’s passing gives the Hall of Fame an opportunity to get it right. Here’s hoping that the Hall of Fame, under the guidance of the NFL, will do the right thing, as to Bowlen, Seau, Stabler, and all others who secure the game’s highest honor without witnessing it.
The DB, who wears his father’s college ring, would split things down the middle. The gold jacket seems to be something that could belong only to the enshrinee. But plenty of rings get passed down through the generations in families – and we think the Hall of Fame ring would fit that mold.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
The Chargers and WR MIKE WILLIAMS say it is time for WR MIKE WILLIAMS to step up. Grant Gordon of NFL.com:
In a seminal victory for the Chargers in 2018, it was Mike Williams who came up clutch and produced in prime time.
As the 2019 season inches closer, it is Williams who will need to come up clutch and produce no matter what time as his role will no doubt grow with the Los Angeles offense.
Quite simply, as one Williams has departed, another Williams will arrive in his place.
“We lost a big weapon in Tyrell [Williams to the Raiders, so] a lot of people in the room have to step up,” Mike Williams told reporters via the team website. “I feel like me being the player that I am, I feel like I can do that… I feel like the role is going to change. I feel I’m going to get a lot more opportunities than I did last year. A lot more balls coming my way. I’m looking forward to it.”
Within the statistics, there’s plenty of evidence that this Williams already came up clutch plenty of times this past year.
He was tops among all receivers with 83.7 percent of receptions going for first downs and his nose for the end zone was displayed to the tune of 11 total touchdowns.
His consistency wavered, though, as he had one catch or fewer in six games. Then there was the aforementioned big game in prime time, as he hauled in a season-high seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns in the Chargers’ 29-28 triumph over the Chiefs in Week 14. So he flashed brilliance, but also came up empty.
That will need to change as he likely joins Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin in L.A.’s starting receiver group.
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Williams is the prototypical NFL wideout. He’s been on the depth chart behind the likes of Allen and the other Williams. His numbers improved exponentially from his rookie year to his sophomore season, increasing from 11 catches for 95 yards in 10 games with one start to 43 grabs for 664 yards and 10 receiving scores in 16 games with five starts. All the signs are there for a big leap for Williams in 2019, including what he’s saying.
“Well, this is my third year going into the offense,” he said. “I’m a lot more confident coming out here and playing. My role is going to expand with Tyrell leaving. I’m looking forward to that. I’m ready to make some plays this upcoming season.”
Nick Caserio will not be the new GM of the Texans. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
Seven days after they shocked the NFL by firing general manager Brian Gaine, the Texans ended their pursuit of Nick Caserio as his replacement.
The Texans said Friday that New England is withdrawing tampering charges filed Wednesday with the NFL.
Team chairman Cal McNair announced in a statement Friday afternoon the Texans are no longer trying to hire Caserio, New England’s director of player personnel, citing an undisclosed clause in his contract.
“When we started the process to interview Nick Caserio for our EVP/GM position, we consulted the League office on numerous occasions, followed the procedures outlined in the League’s rules and believed we were in full compliance,” McNair said in his statement. “We have now been made aware of certain terms in Nick’s contract with the Patriots. Once we were made aware of these contract terms, I informed (Patriots owner Robert) Mr. Kraft that we would stop pursuing Nick.”
Kraft also released a statement: “The Houston Texans and the New England Patriots have always had a great working relationship. We appreciate the way Cal McNair has handled the situation.”
McNair didn’t say if the Texans will continue to search for Gaine’s replacement or keep the current management team in place. That would be coach Bill O’Brien over personnel, executive vice president of team development Jack Easterby assisting with football operations, Senior vice president Chris Olsen continuing to oversee the salary cap and contract negotiations and president Jamey Rootes continuing to run the administrative side or the organization. All would answer to McNair.
It was an expensive weekend for LB TELVIN SMITH. The AP:
Absent linebacker Telvin Smith says the Jacksonville Jaguars fined him $88,650 for missing the team’s mandatory, three-day minicamp this week.
Smith posted a picture of the fine letter on his Instagram story Saturday, adding, “it’s still love!!” The letter shows the Jaguars fined him $14,775 for missing the first day, $29,550 for the second and $44,325 for the third. The letter says the fines are required by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who wants a new contract, also skipped the camp and was expected to get fined equally.
Smith announced last month that he’s stepping away from football to “get my world in order.”
A Pro Bowl selection in 2017 and the team’s top tackler the past two seasons, Smith can avoid future fines by filing retirement paperwork with the NFL. The Jaguars would then be able to place him on the league’s reserve/retired list, which would pause his contract and free up a roster spot, as well as $9.75 million in salary-cap space. It also would protect Smith from fines and NFL testing policies.
Smith has three years remaining on his current deal, which averages $10 million annually in base salary.
Jaguars coach Doug Marrone insists the team has moved on and plans to be without Smith in 2019, but his locker remained intact during the minicamp.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets believe that RB Le’VEON BELL will make everyone better. Rich Cimini of ESPN.com:
Le’Veon Bell was mostly invisible in the offseason, skipping voluntary workouts, but he will be omnipresent once the season starts. He will be here, there and everywhere for the New York Jets: a running back. A slot receiver. A wide receiver. A workhorse. A decoy at times.
A game-changer for the offense — or so they hope.
Jets coach Adam Gase has a chessboard in his mind, and he envisions Bell, 27, as the one player he can move anywhere on the board. How they integrate his unique skill set into the offense will be one of the season’s most compelling storylines. Even though they had him in the spring for only two minicamp practices, the Jets are thinking big.
Let’s take a closer look at the potential Le’Veon Bell effect, through the eyes of Gase, his assistants and other key players on offense:
Sam Darnold, quarterback
Darnold played his rookie season without a consistent threat in the backfield. In fact, the Jets had a 100-yard rusher in only two games (Isaiah Crowell both times). Not coincidentally, Darnold enjoyed two of his most efficient performances in those games. As a passer, he should benefit from Bell’s ability as a receiver. Darnold’s completion percentage when throwing to running backs — tied for the league low at 68.0 — should spike.
Darnold: “When he’s out there in the huddle, the defensive coordinator doesn’t know where he’s going to line up. He doesn’t know what’s coming his way. With Le’Veon out there, we’ve become a little more unpredictable, just because he’s such a great route runner. He’s not just running a ‘smoke,’ and he’s not just running 5-yard routes. He could run deep on you. He could run a slant … and score. There are a lot of different things he can do.”
Bell’s versatility will help Darnold make pre-snap reads, according to Gase. How? If they split Bell out as a receiver, it should be easier for Darnold to determine if the defense is playing man or zone. For instance: If the defense doesn’t shift, it’s zone. If a safety drops down to cover him, it’s man. Gase believes Bell makes the Jets multidimensional.
Gase: “Is he going to be in the gun? Strong? Offset? Weak? Is he going to be under center [in the Wildcat]? Is he going to be split out wide? Is he going to be the single receiver? Is he going to be in empty? Is he going to be in the slot? There are five different spots he can go if we go empty.
“If you have a guy who can do all those different type of things and he’s good at it, it makes it very difficult to defend. You start seeing coverages where they simplify it because you’re moving so many pieces around. When you have that kind of flexibility, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. It’s hard to cover everything, so they simplify the defense. That’s what helps the other guys, as well, because they’re focused on [Bell] so much.”
Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa, wide receivers
Both players were frustrated in their roles last season under former offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Enunwa felt he was pigeonholed as a screen receiver. In fact, he averaged only 7.3 air yards per target (AY/T), 60th out of 64 wide receivers with at least 60 targets, per NFL Next Gen Stats research. Anderson’s issue was that he was used too much on deep balls. His AY/T was 16.5, which ranked second among wideouts. They both believe Bell’s presence will add more balance and variety to the passing game.
Enunwa: “It allows us to put us in different spots. It makes the defense guess. He can play outside, inside, in the backfield. It moves us into different spots as well. Everybody at the receiver position is able to play multiple spots. You can put a running back out there, or a tight end, and make it really hard on defenses.”
Anderson: “Sky’s the limit. He can open things up for me and help us put points on the board and make more big plays. He’s one of the best, if not the best at his position in the league. He’s very versatile.”
Kelechi Osemele, left guard
Bell’s unique running style could be a challenge for Osemele and the rest of the offensive line. If he doesn’t see immediate daylight, Bell will stay behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for a crease. In 2017, his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he averaged 3.09 seconds behind the line per carry, longest in the league among running backs (minimum: 100 carries).
Osemele: “He’ll dance a little bit and then just tear through a hole. … It’ll be unexpected at first, until we feel it out and get used to him. I think we’ll do some damage when we get that going. … We’ll know more when we get the pads on and get some reps, but players that are like that, that are patient, obviously, you have to stay on your block and you have to stay engaged. We’ll see if he’s the type of runner who will tap your hip as he’s going by or what he does. That will come as we get used to each other.”
Frank Pollack, offensive line coach
In Pittsburgh, Bell didn’t have to deal with a lot of eight-man fronts because of the talent on the perimeter. In 2017, he faced an eight-man box on only 19.9% of his carries, 20th among 26 running backs with at least 100 attempts. In case you haven’t noticed, the Jets don’t have wideout Antonio Brown, which means opponents can overplay Bell and crowd the line of scrimmage.
Pollack: “As a line coach, I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t anticipate eight- and nine-man boxes. I’m used to that everywhere I’ve been in the league. I mean, he’s a talented back. They’re going to load the box to stop him. If they do or they don’t, you have to execute up front. In this league, it shouldn’t have any bearing what we do up front and what we teach. You just need schemes to account for that. I take it as a compliment if they load the box.”
Adam Gase, playcaller
In 2017, Bell lined up in the backfield on 783 snaps (88%). He lined up as a slot receiver for only 63 plays (7%) and as a wide receiver for just 44 plays (5%). The majority of his receptions (68 out of 85) came out of the backfield, many of them on checkdowns with his back to the defense. Look for Gase to add more variety to Bell’s game.
Gase: “I’m going to really lean on what he does well. I can watch as much film as possible from Pittsburgh and say, ‘This is what he’s done; this can be my starting point.’ That is kind of our starting point. Really, it’s going to be the communication, him saying, ‘I’ve never tried this before, can I try this? Can I do these routes?’ … For me, to get used to what he likes, it’s communication, that constant communication in person that helps a playcaller.”
Kelvin Beachum, left tackle
Beachum knows Bell better than anyone on offense because they were teammates with the Steelers from 2013 to 2015. Beachum said his appreciation for Bell goes beyond blocking schemes and formation versatility. It’s about a mindset.
Beachum: “He makes people tap out. He makes the defense tap out. I can allude to a number of games where he literally wore the defense out. We kept running the same play over and over and over. They knew it was coming, we knew it was coming and he made somebody miss and he just wore the defense out.”
THIS AND THAT
Mike Clay of ESPN.com has a list of the 25 biggest position upgrades from around the NFL during the 2019 season. The three biggest ones are not a surprise:
1. Oakland Raiders, WR
Antonio Brown replaces Jordy Nelson
Nelson’s 2018 stat line: 63 receptions, 739 yards, 3 TD
Brown’s 2019 projection: 105 receptions, 1,290 yards, 10 TD
Brown’s falling out with Pittsburgh management was one of the offseason’s biggest storylines and led to a trade to the West Coast. Arguably the league’s best wide receiver of the past decade, Brown has finished no lower than fourth at the position in targets, no lower than seventh in receptions and no lower than ninth in receiving yards each of the past six seasons. Meanwhile, Raiders receivers combined for nine touchdowns last season (third fewest in the league). The soon-to-be 31-year-old Brown will undoubtedly be a target monster as Derek Carr’s undisputed top target.
2. New York Jets, RB
Le’Veon Bell replaces Isaiah Crowell
Crowell’s 2018 stat line: 164 touches, 837 yards, 6 TD
Bell’s 2019 projection: 337 touches, 1,723 yards, 9 TD
Bell infamously sat out the entire 2018 season before signing a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets. Whereas Crowell rotated with Bilal Powell and Trenton Cannon, Bell’s career usage and paycheck suggest he’ll have a workhorse role. When we last saw Bell, he racked up 1,946 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on a league-high 406 touches in 15 games back in 2017. He’s unlikely to hit those marks again in his age-27 season, but there’s no doubt he’ll be a heavily used playmaker in the Jets’ new-look offense.
3. Cleveland Browns, WR
Odell Beckham Jr. replaces Antonio Callaway
Callaway’s 2018 stat line: 43 receptions, 586 yards, 5 TD
Beckham’s 2019 projection: 90 receptions, 1,252 yards, 10 TD
Beckham has quite the knack for being involved in “I remember where I was standing when it happened” moments. His seemingly impossible one-handed catch back in 2014 launched him into stardom, and news of his trade from the Giants to the Browns in March rocked the NFL world. Injuries have limited Beckham to 16 games over the past two seasons, but he remains one of the league’s most dangerous players when active. The 26-year-old has found paydirt 46 times in 59 career games and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he kept up that torrid scoring pace as Baker Mayfield’s top target in 2019.
4. New York Giants, RG
Kevin Zeitler replaces Jamon Brown
Brown’s 2018 PFF grade: 51.7
Zeitler’s 2018 PFF grade: 74.5
Shipping Olivier Vernon to Cleveland left the Giants with one of the NFL’s worst groups of edge rushers, but it did land them one of the league’s best guards in Zeitler. As reliable as they come, the 29-year-old has played more than 1,000 snaps each of the past four seasons. He posted Pro Football Focus’ top pass-blocking grade among guards while allowing only 11 pressures last season (Brown and Patrick Omameh combined to allow 39 on 198 fewer snaps than Zeitler). Zeitler joins Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, Jon Halapio and Mike Remmers to form a much-improved offensive line.
5. Cleveland Browns, Edge
Olivier Vernon replaces Emmanuel Ogbah
Ogbah’s 2018 stat line: 40 tackles, 4.0 sacks
Vernon’s 2019 projection: 44 tackles, 7.6 sacks
Speaking of that Vernon-for-Zeitler swap, Vernon joins up with Myles Garrett in Cleveland to form one of the league’s best edge-rushing duos. Vernon missed five games last season, but was a force when active, registering eight sacks (10th most during the span), 13 hits (second), 46 total pressures (ninth) and an 86.0 PFF pass-rush grade (seventh). The 28-year-old should have plenty of sack opportunities with Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson joining him on the defensive line.
6. Kansas City Chiefs, FS
Tyrann Mathieu replaces Eric Berry
Berry’s 2018 stat line: 11 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 INT
Mathieu’s 2019 projection: 93 tackles, 1.8 sacks, 1.6 INT
Berry is another player who has been a star when healthy but hasn’t been able to stay on the field for a variety of health reasons. He has appeared in a grand total of three games over the past two seasons, and six or fewer games during four of his nine NFL seasons. The Chiefs cut him loose and signed Mathieu as a replacement during the offseason. The “Honey Badger” has proved to be one of the league’s most versatile defensive backs, playing at a high level at both safety and slot corner. Mathieu racked up 89 tackles, three sacks and a pair of interceptions in Houston last season.
7. Detroit Lions, Edge
Trey Flowers replaces Ezekiel Ansah
Ansah’s 2018 stat line: 11 tackles, 4.0 sacks
Flowers’ 2019 projection: 59 tackles, 8.6 sacks
Ansah has registered 48.0 sacks in 80 career games and has at times been one of the league’s top pass-rushers. But health has eluded the 2013 fifth-overall pick in recent seasons, and the team reached its breaking point after he was limited to 137 snaps in seven games last season. With Ansah out, Detroit spent big on Flowers, to the tune of $90 million over five years. Flowers has been limited to 21.0 sacks in 46 career games, but ranked 10th among edge rushers with 64 QB pressures last season. This would be hard to qualify as a serious upgrade if Ansah were healthy, but availability has been a big problem, so here we are.
8. New York Jets, ILB
C.J. Mosley replaces Darron Lee
Lee’s 2018 stat line: 73 tackles, 0 sacks, 3 INT
Mosley’s 2019 projection: 129 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.1 INT
Mosley has spent the past few seasons as the playcaller and leader of one of the league’s best defenses in Baltimore, so it was certainly shocking when he signed on with the Jets. He registered a ridiculous 597 tackles during his five seasons with the Ravens, which is fourth most in the league during the span. He replaces Lee, who didn’t live up to expectations after being drafted in the first round back in 2016. Mosley joins Avery Williamson to fill out one of the league’s best linebacker duos. With this pairing along with Leonard Williams, Quinnen Williams, Henry Anderson, Jachai Polite, Trumaine Johnson, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, the Jets’ defense has tremendous upside.
9. Indianapolis Colts, Edge
Justin Houston replaces Tyquan Lewis
Lewis’ 2018 stat line: 13 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 0 INT
Houston’s 2019 projection: 46 tackles, 8.9 sacks, 0.5 INT
The Colts enjoyed a relatively quiet offseason, focusing primarily on re-signing their own free agents. Their splashiest move was the signing of Houston, who will team up with Jabaal Sheard to form one of the league’s stronger edge-rushing pairs. Houston turned 30 during the offseason, but still seems to have plenty left in the tank after generating nine sacks and five forced fumbles for the Chiefs last season. The Colts are stocked with young depth at the position with 2018 second-round picks Lewis and Kemoko Turay, as well as 2019 second-rounder Ben Banogu.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars, QB
Nick Foles replaces Blake Bortles
Bortles’ 2018 stat line: 243-of-403, 2,718 yards, 13 TD, 11 INT
Foles’ 2019 projection: 369-of-561, 4,042 yards, 18 TD, 14 INT
Jacksonville’s five-year Bortles experiment is finally over, as the franchise now turns to the Super Bowl LII MVP. The $88 million dollar man heads south after another boom/bust 2018 campaign in which he completed a strong 69 percent of his passes, but also threw eight interceptions and fumbled four times in seven games. Of course, Bortles struggled to a 59 percent completion rate, 6.7 yards per attempt and 75 interceptions in 75 games with the team, so this is an upgrade no matter how you look at it. Still, Foles won’t have the supporting cast he did in Philadelphia.
11. Green Bay Packers, SS
Adrian Amos replaces Josh Jones
Jones’ 2018 stat line: 51 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 0 INT
Amos’ 2019 projection: 76 tackles, 0.8 sacks, 2.0 INT
Amos has been a key piece of an elite Bears defense. Last season, he paced Chicago’s dominant D in snaps en route to 72 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Amos signed on with the division-rival Packers during the offseason and joins rookie Darnell Savage Jr. to complete a much-needed overhaul of Green Bay’s long-underwhelming safety position. Jones hasn’t panned out since the team spent a second-round pick on him in 2017, but the Packers will look to salvage his career by giving him more work at linebacker this season.
12. Green Bay Packers, Edge
Preston Smith/Za’Darius Smith replace Clay Matthews/Nick Perry
Matthews and Perry’s combined 2018 stat line: 67 tackles, 5.0 sacks
Smith and Smith’s combined 2019 projection: 81 tackles, 10.7 sacks
Safety wasn’t the only position Green Bay overhauled during the offseason. Long-time contributors Matthews and Perry were sent packing and replaced by a pair of Smiths. Former Raven Za’Darius ranked 17th in QB pressures among edge rushers last season (59), and ex-Redskin Preston was 22nd (53). Matthews and Perry combined for only 43 QB pressures on 581 tries. Smith and Smith will be joined by rookie Rashan Gary, as well as holdovers Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert, in a suddenly deep and talented OLB room. The Packers’ defense should take a big leap forward this year.
13. Washington Redskins, SS
Landon Collins replaces Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clinton-Dix’s 2018 stat line: 92 tackles, 1.0 sack, 3 INT
Collins’ 2019 projection: 112 tackles, 0.8 sacks, 0.9 INT
Washington upgraded to Clinton-Dix at the 2018 trade deadline, but leveled up again by signing Collins to a massive six-year, $84 million contract during free agency. Collins gets knocked for his limitations in coverage, but he has made up for it as a major force in the box. His 428 tackles since entering the league in 2015 are 48 more than any other safety has compiled. Washington’s defensive backfield remains a problem area on the whole, but signing Collins at least gives the Redskins one of the league’s best strong safeties.
14. San Francisco 49ers, Edge
Dee Ford/Nick Bosa replace Arik Armstead/Ronald Blair III
Armstead and Blair’s combined 2018 stat line: 84 tackles, 8.5 sacks
Ford and Bosa’s combined 2019 projection: 96 tackles, 17.1 sacks
The last season in which San Francisco ranked better than 18th in the league in sacks was 2012. Undoubtedly frustrated with their ineffective pass rush, the 49ers traded a second-round pick for Ford and selected Bosa second overall in April’s draft. Ford is fresh off a breakout season in Kansas City in which he racked up 13.0 sacks (fifth most in the league) and, per PFF, led edge rushers with 77 QB pressures. Rookies were mostly excluded from this piece as they’re mostly unknowns, but Bosa’s high pedigree suggests he’ll make a quick impact. The 49ers’ defensive line has a high ceiling with Armstead, Blair, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas all rotating in.
15. Los Angeles Chargers, OLB
Thomas Davis replaces Jatavis Brown
Brown’s 2018 stat line: 93 tackles, 1.0 sack, 0 INT
Davis’ 2019 projection: 98 tackles, 1.3 sacks, 0.5 INT
Linebacker has long been a position of underwhelming play and/or an injury hot bed for the Chargers. In recent seasons, the team has spent midround picks on Kyzir White and Drue Tranquill, and all but converted “safety” Adrian Phillips to linebacker. Denzel Perryman has been a solid player, but has missed half of the team’s games over the past two seasons. Enter Davis, who spent his first 14 NFL seasons as a high-impact player in Carolina. Davis is now 36, but he’s coming off a season in which he registered 79 tackles in 12 games as a near-full-time player in Carolina. He’s a big upgrade next to Perryman.
16. Cleveland Browns, DT
Sheldon Richardson replaces Trevon Coley
Coley’s 2018 stat line: 39 tackles, 0.5 sacks
Richardson’s 2019 projection: 48 tackles, 3.6 sacks
As if the aforementioned addition of Vernon to go along with Garrett weren’t enough, the Browns signed Richardson as a complement to Ogunjobi during free agency. Though Richardson’s sack numbers have dipped a bit in recent seasons, he can still get to the quarterback. He managed 47 QB pressures (14th most) with Minnesota last season, whereas Coley had only eight. The 28-year-old Richardson will inevitably play a large role for one of the league’s most improved teams.
17. Denver Broncos, RT
Ja’Wuan James replaces Jared Veldheer
Veldheer’s 2018 PFF grade: 62.4
James’ 2018 PFF grade: 70.8
James has missed time with injuries throughout his five-year career, but he has been one of the game’s better right tackles when on the field. The former Dolphin has graded out strongly at PFF during each of the past three seasons and posted the 12th-best run-blocking grade among tackles in 2018. Veldheer has been a serviceable-to-good tackle throughout his career, but turns 32 this year. James, who turns 27 in June, is both younger and an upgrade opposite LT Garett Bolles.
18. Oakland Raiders, RT
Trent Brown replaces Brandon Parker
Parker’s 2018 PFF grade: 61.9
Brown’s 2018 PFF grade: 71.0
Brown got his career back on track with a terrific 2018 season protecting Tom Brady. The former 49er allowed 39 pressures and three sacks on a hefty 1,341 snaps (including the playoffs). That led to a massive four-year, $66 million contract and a ticket back to the West Coast courtesy of the Raiders. Brown replaces Parker, who allowed 43 pressures and 10 sacks while committing 11 penalties on 780 snaps last season. He was PFF’s lowest-graded tackle (minimum 500 snaps). Now, Oakland will have a formidable tackle duo if LT Kolton Miller improves in his second season.
19. Carolina Panthers, C
Matt Paradis replaces Ryan Kalil
Kalil’s 2018 PFF grade: 63.6
Paradis’ 2018 PFF grade: 79.0
Kalil retired during the offseason after holding down the fort as Carolina’s center for 12 seasons. The Panthers quickly filled the void, signing Paradis to a three-year, $27 million contract. Paradis was a gem find by Denver, which selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. One of the league’s best centers since then, Paradis has allowed only six sacks and 70 pressures on 4,069 snaps. He graded out as PFF’s No. 2 center both overall and as a run-blocker last season. The 29-year-old is an upgrade for Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey.
20. Buffalo Bills, C
Mitch Morse replaces Russell Bodine
Bodine’s 2018 PFF grade: 61.6
Morse’s 2018 PFF grade: 69.5
Bodine struggled to make a positive impact during his time with the Bengals, so it was no surprise that he struggled while anchoring a weak Bills offensive line for roughly half of the 2018 season. Buffalo overhauled nearly its entire line during the offseason, including the addition of Morse. The 27-year-old posted PFF’s sixth-best pass-blocking grade among centers while with the Chiefs last season. Morse allowed five pressures and no sacks on 811 snaps. But he’ll have a lot on his shoulders this season with Buffalo still shaky at both guard spots.
21. Tennessee Titans, LG
Rodger Saffold replaces Quinton Spain
Spain’s 2018 PFF grade: 62.3
Saffold’s 2018 PFF grade: 72.8
Spain was a solid pass-blocking presence during his four seasons in Tennessee, but the run-heavy Titans upgraded to a better all-around left guard in Saffold during the offseason. Saffold, who spent his first nine seasons with the Rams, graded out as PFF’s eighth-best guard overall and fourth-best run-blocker last season. The oversized 31-year-old will help clear running lanes for bulldozer Derrick Henry this season.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Edge
Shaquil Barrett replaces Carl Nassib
Nassib’s 2018 stat line: 29 tackles, 6.5 sacks
Barrett’s 2019 projection: 43 tackles, 4.1 sacks
After generating a total of only 60 sacks (30th in the league) during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Buccaneers entered the offseason with a clear need at edge rusher. And that was before Jason Pierre-Paul’s car accident, which will cost him at least part of the 2019 regular season. Enter Barrett, who was surprisingly limited to 31 percent of the snaps in Denver last season despite a strong 2017 campaign in which he generated 42 pressures and four sacks in a larger role. He’ll certainly play more in Tampa Bay, and there’s good chance he’ll pace the team’s edge rushers in snaps.
23. Philadelphia Eagles, WR
DeSean Jackson replaces Jordan Matthews
Matthews’ 2018 stat line: 20 receptions, 300 yards, 2 TD
Jackson’s 2019 projection: 45 receptions, 765 yards, 5 TD
Whether they’ve tried Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith or Mike Wallace, the Eagles have struggled to add a vertical element to the offense since Doug Pederson was hired in 2016. During the three seasons, they’ve completed a pedestrian 76-of-221 targets 20-plus yards down field (34.4 percent) for 2,768 yards and 12.5 yards per target. They looked to rectify that by trading for old friend Jackson, who returns to the team that drafted him, following five seasons away. Jackson’s 10.8 yards per target was sixth highest in the NFL last season, and his career 10.0 YPT tops the league since he was drafted in 2008. The 32-year-old will be a force as a lid lifter in 2019, as will 2019 draft pick JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
24. Oakland Raiders, slot CB
Lamarcus Joyner replaces Nick Nelson
Nelson’s 2018 stat line: 17 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 INT
Joyner’s 2019 projection: 71 tackles, 0.6 sacks, 1.5 INT
A solid slot corner during the Jeff Fisher era and a terrific full-time safety under Sean McVay during his time with the Rams, Joyner is expected to spend most of his snaps in the slot for the Raiders this season. The versatile safety has aligned at perimeter corner on only 2 percent of his 3,380 career snaps, instead working in the slot (41 percent), at free safety (42 percent) and in the box (15 percent). Joyner’s role will limit his exposure to true outside No. 1 wide receivers, but he’ll be busy with talented slot receivers, including Keenan Allen twice.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers, CB
Steven Nelson replaces Coty Sensabaugh
Sensabaugh’s 2018 stat line: 44 tackles, 0 INT
Nelson’s 2019 projection: 59 tackles, 2.2 INT
Pittsburgh benched 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns last season, which left the Steelers with a major weak spot at corner opposite Joe Haden. Antonio Brown trade aside, Pittsburgh’s offseason was relatively quiet, but the team did sneak in the signing of Nelson. Yes, the Chiefs have struggled to slow opposing offenses as of late, but that shouldn’t take away from what Nelson can do. He settled in as a solid corner during his four seasons with Kansas City. Last season, Nelson generated 68 tackles, picked off four passes and posted 15 passes defended. Despite missing half of the 2017 season, Nelson ranks 18th among corners in tackles and 15th in passes defended since 2016.
Mike Renner of ProFootballFocus.com with five names to know from the upcoming draft:
By Mike Renner, Lead Draft Analyst
When it comes to draft evaluations, prospects such as Quinnen Williams are an anomaly. For the most part, the sure-fire top-10 talents in any draft class have been dominating college football for multiple seasons before they declare for the draft. The 2020 class already has a handful of players doing just that. With elite PFF grades and exceptional athleticism, here are the names you can pencil into your top 10 for next April in Las Vegas:
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: NFL offensive coordinators have been willing to build around mobile quarterbacks more and more in recent years, as they’ve realized how much pressure such passers can put on opposing defenses. Tagovailoa pairs exceptional athleticism and pocket presence with one of the most accurate arms in the country. He had the highest percentage of passes charted with perfect ball placement of any Power 5 quarterback last season and had the seventh-lowest percentage of passes deemed uncatchable. He also added four touchdowns with his legs on designed runs. That combination is going to give NFL defensive coordinators headaches.
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama: The Alabama offense is utterly stacked once again with Jeudy being the next big thing in the lineage of ‘Bama wide receivers, and he has a good chance to go higher than either Julio Jones (No. 6 overall in 2011) or Amari Cooper (No. 4 in 2015). That’s because there isn’t much the Biletnikoff award winner can’t do. Last season, he broke 17 tackles on only 68 catches, dropped a mere four passes, converted 7-of-11 contested opportunities and scored 14 times. Those are video game-like numbers as a true sophomore.
A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa: I’ll forgive you if you don’t recognize Epenesa’s name. Heck, he didn’t even start for Iowa last season. But if you go back and watch their games closely, you’ll see why he made this list. Listed at 6-6, 280 pounds, Epenesa moves like a man four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter. On only 243 pass-rushing snaps last season, Epenesa recorded 10 sacks, 10 hits, and 26 hurries. That’s good enough for a 90.4 pass-rushing grade—the second highest of any returning Power-5 edge player in the nation.
Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: Young is the only guy Epenesa trailed in terms of pass-rushing grades for returning Power-5 edge rushers, and he seamlessly replaced Nick Bosa’s production along the Ohio State defensive line after the future second overall pick went down with core injury early in the season. Now it’s Young’s turn to be a top-5 pick in 2020. The sophomore led the nation with 75 pressures in 2019, and he rarely came off the field, seeing more snaps (783) than Bosa did in any single season of his college career. Listed at 6-5, 265 pounds, Young checks the size, athleticism, and production boxes in a big way.
Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia: It was a major upset when Hall decided he was returning for his senior season in Charlottesville. There’s a good chance the 6-1, 200-pound cornerback would have been the first defensive back off the board had he declared, because with Hall’s length, athleticism and ball production, he fits the mold of a modern NFL cornerback. Last season he notched an absurd 23 forced incompletions to lead the country. Maybe the biggest reason Hall decided to return though is because he’s capable of some jaw-dropping interception totals, underachieving last season in that department. He picked off only two passes in 2018, but led the nation with six dropped interceptions, two more than any other player in the FBS.