AROUND THE NFL

NFC NORTH

 

DETROIT

Is Darrell Bevell a better OC than Jim Bob Cooter?  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Lions have their new offensive coordinator.

 

Darrell Bevell, who spent seven seasons as the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator from 2011 through 2017, was hired by the Lions today.

 

The 49-year-old Bevell was out of coaching last year. He has previously served as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator for five seasons and the Packers’ quarterbacks coach or assistant quarterbacks coach for six seasons, so he knows the NFC North well.

 

In Detroit Bevell will be tasked with getting Matthew Stafford back on track. Last year Stafford managed just 3,777 passing yards, by far his fewest in any full season of his career, and the Lions struggled to a 6-10 record.

 

Apparently he was a “target” of the Bengals for the OC job, if and when Zac Taylor is hired as Cincinnati’s coach.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Oft-injured LB SEAN LEE is thinking he is coming back in 2019 to probably get injured again.  David Moore of the Dallas Morning News:

 

Sean Lee discussed his future again Tuesday, saying he wants to take a month or so to decide his fate.

 

The Cowboys linebacker made his comments during his weekly radio appearance on “The Ticket” (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM).

 

“I want to continue to play the game, but I have to evaluate physically where I’m at. I definitely have some decisions to make.

 

“I’m leaning toward playing for sure.”

 

Separate hamstring injuries limited Lee to seven games this season. He started five games but lost his job in the starting lineup to rookie Leighton Vander Esch, who was added to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday.

 

Lee remained engaged with the team during his rehabilitation and Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have both credited the veteran linebacker’s influence on their improvement. But Lee did finish the season with a career-low 37 tackles. He recovered a fumble and was credited with half a sack.

 

Lee has one year left on his contract and is scheduled to make $7 million next season. He said if the Cowboys want him back he understands it will be as a reserve. He left the door open to a pay cut for his diminished role, saying if he does decide to continue his career it won’t be driven by money.

 

“I’m going to take a month, travel a little bit with the wife, see how I feel,” said Lee, who turns 33 in July. “A month or two down the line I’ll figure out where I’m at.”

 

In nine seasons, the max would have been 144 games played for Lee.  His total is 93 (which we have to admit is about 20 more than we would have thought).

– – –

The Cowboys have extended OL coach Marc Colombo.

 

The Dallas Cowboys may not be ready to guarantee the return of the entire coaching staff for 2019.

 

But they have already decided that offensive line coach Marc Colombo is a keeper for the foreseeable future.

 

The team has signed Colombo to a three-year deal, according to multiple sources.

 

The Cowboys feel so good about what Colombo did after being promoted from assistant offensive line coach midway through the season that they will not bring back Hudson Houck as a consultant in 2019.

 

Dallas initially interviewed Colombo for the job following the 2017 season to replace Frank Pollack but felt the team’s former right tackle wasn’t experienced enough to lead the position.

 

Colombo played nine seasons in the NFL, including more than five seasons with the Cowboys. He was hired as an assistant coach with the Cowboys in 2015 and was named assistant offensive line coach in 2016.

 

The Cowboys hired former Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander instead and it proved to be a bad marriage from the outset.

 

 

PHILADELPHIA

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com on the balance the Eagles face between doing what’s right for NICK FOLES and what’s right for the Eagles:

 

On Tuesday, the case was made for Nick Foles doing what’s best for Nick Foles, because it’s clear that the Eagles will always do what’s best for the Eagles. On Tuesday, the Eagles made it clear that, indeed, they will do what’s best for them, when it comes to Foles or anyone else.

 

“It always has to be what’s best for our football team and the Philadelphia Eagles,” Eagles executive V.P. of football operations Howie Roseman told reporters. “We have to make decisions based on that.”

 

In other words, Foles may think he deserves a shot at the open market, unfettered by any rights the Eagles may be able to exercise. But that doesn’t mean the Eagles will let that happen.

 

“There is also a respect factor for guys that have done a lot for us and been part of it,” Roseman acknowledged. “We try to factor that in as well, but the bottom line is we have to do what’s best for our football team to help us win games going forward.”

 

With Foles, the ultimate respect would be to let him walk away as a free agent. But that’s not “best for our football team,” because the Eagles could play out this hand in a way that allows them to finagle something more than whatever compensatory draft pick consideration they’d realize.

 

And the Eagles will make no apologies for doing that. Indeed, when Roseman says that “I don’t know a team that wouldn’t want to have Nick Foles on their roster,” Roseman is laying the foundation to eventually trade Foles, presumably after application of the franchise tag.

 

Still, Foles shouldn’t be bashful about acting in his own interests. He can make it clear that, if he’s tagged, he won’t sign the tender, preventing the Eagles from trading him. Or he’ll sign the tender, happily collect roughly $25 million, and refuse to sign a long-term contract, with the Eagles or anyone else.

 

If he wants to take it to another level, Foles can (through his agent) make it clear that he believes he has deserved the opportunity to pick his next team unrestricted and unfettered, and that he will no longer be a good solider while he waits for the long-overdue reward flowing from the Super Bowl championship he delivered to the Eagles last year. For example, Foles can make it clear (privately) that he won’t show up for any voluntary offseason activities with any team (whether he signs the tender or not) until he gets a chance to go to the market and get paid whatever the market will bear.

 

So what will the market bear? If Kirk Cousins got $84 million fully guaranteed on a three-year deal on the open market despite never winning a playoff game and having a propensity for losing high-profile regular-season games (a trend that has continued this year), couldn’t Foles get that much? Couldn’t he get more?

 

Yes, Foles’ time with the Rams didn’t go well. Neither did Case Keenum‘s time with the Rams, nor Jared Goff‘s. Before and after that lost year in St. Louis, Foles has proven that he can do what few have done in recent years: Win a Super Bowl.

 

That has value. And Foles has done enough to deserve a chance to turn that value into money that will sustain his family, decades into the future.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

An update on LB TAKK McKINLEY’s health from D. Orlando Ledbetter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

 

Falcons defensive end Takk McKinley returned to Oakland after a mental evaluation by Los Angeles police following in an incident on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the situation.

 

The person said the incident was isolated and not believed to be serious.

 

The Falcons acknowledged the incident in a statement Tuesday night involving a friend, who had called police.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Jenna Laine of ESPN.com on the changes expected to Tampa Bay’s defense from new DC Todd Bowles:

 

Big changes are coming to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense in 2019. After nearly 30 years of being a predominantly 4-3 defense, the Bucs are expected to use a hybrid 3-4 base defense (three defensive linemen, four linebackers) under new head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

 

Arians said last week during his introductory news conference that the Bucs would “adapt to what the players do best,” and Bowles agreed. The former New York Jets head coach said he had not had a chance to view the Bucs’ game tape, but he noted he had spent half of his career coaching a 3-4 defensive scheme and the other half a 4-3 scheme.

 

Tampa Bay fans can expect a much different look from the defense next season, and here’s what you should know before offseason workouts begin:

 

Bucs will be a one-gap defense

A one-gap defense is different than a traditional 3-4, which typically asks players to play in a two-gap. In that scheme, defensive linemen try to occupy their blockers and allow players on the back end to penetrate. “We’re going to attack,” Arians said.

 

For example, the Bucs’ 2018 first-round pick, Vita Vea, won’t be a space-eating nose tackle here. Instead, he will go up the field and get after the quarterback, much of it similar to what he’s done in Tampa already.

 

Gerald McCoy, who is due to make $13 million next year (none guaranteed) if he remains on the roster, would line up on the outside as a three-technique, opposite a player such as William Gholston, who may truly be a better fit as a player in a 3-4 scheme. Given that the Bucs are about $16.5 million under the salary cap going into 2019, there is a real chance McCoy won’t return.

 

“We have a lot of tough decisions to make,” general manager Jason Licht said when specifically asked about McCoy. “A lot of people have a lot of tough decisions to make.”

 

One player who won’t be going anywhere next season is Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 11.5 sacks this past season. He would line up as a rush-end, which is really a hybrid five-technique defensive end/outside linebacker standing at the line of scrimmage.

 

“We tried to get Jason Pierre-Paul really, really hard in Arizona,” Arians said. “And we got Chandler Jones and he’s [produced 41 sacks] the last three years, so [Pierre-Paul] fits extremely well because he rushes the passer.”

 

The real question is, can Pierre-Paul be as effective standing up after spending his whole career with his hand in the dirt?

 

They will blitz often

Whether it was when he was with the Jets or the Arizona Cardinals, a Bowles-led defense will blitz often, and those blitzes have been effective.

 

From 2015 to 2018, Bowles’ Jets blitzed 936 of 2,501 dropbacks (37.4 percent), second most in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those blitzes resulted in 125 quarterback hits and 26 interceptions, ranking third most and second most, respectively, of any team when blitzing.

 

When he was the defensive coordinator of the Cardinals from 2013 to 2014, Bowles’ defense blitzed 620 of 1,333 dropbacks (46.5 percent), which was the most in the NFL. Quarterbacks were contacted on 92 of those dropbacks and threw 17 interceptions, both numbers more than any other team in the league.

 

“Most of it was the illusions of pressure, as opposed to pressure itself,” Bowles said. “A lot of guys came free. We had some good athletes on that team and they made me look good.”

 

One of Bowles’ favorite blitzes is the triple A-gap pressure, where three defenders (usually two linebackers and a safety) attack the space between the center and guards on both sides.

 

From 2016 to 2018, the Bucs blitzed just 418 of 1,792 times (23.3 percent of dropbacks), so this will be quite a change. It also will mean the secondary will be much more vulnerable on the back end, but the gist of this scheme is “high risk, high reward.”

 

What happens with David?

Lavonte David’s future could be one of the Bucs’ most important offseason decisions. He is a prototypical 4-3 weakside linebacker — smaller, quicker and instinctive. David is arguably the Bucs’ most athletic player and best tackler. He’s also due to make $9 million next season, none of which is guaranteed, which might push him to change teams because of the scheme change.

 

While Arians generally allows Bowles to run the show on defense, he does believe there’s a spot for David because he can blitz, tackle and cover. Linebackers who can truly cover receivers are valuable commodities in today’s NFL.

 

“Oh, I think he’ll be a great inside linebacker for us,” Arians said of David. “Our stack backer — basically the same thing he’s played — it’s not really any different.”

 

A “stack” linebacker typically plays behind the three-technique and away from the tight end, on the weakside of the formation.

 

David gives them a ton of options here. He was the jack of all trades under former coach Greg Schiano, finishing with 7.0 sacks, five interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2013.

 

Expect versatility, adaptability and aggressiveness

Bowles’ history suggests he also will be unpredictable. When he was facing the Dallas Cowboys in 2014, he converted his Cardinals’ defense from a 3-4 and unveiled a 4-3, believing it was better schematically. Arizona held DeMarco Murray to 79 total rushing yards and won 28-17.

 

When Cardinals linebacker Darryl Washington was suspended, Bowles took strong safety Deone Bucannon and created a “moneybacker” role for him. He did the same with J.J. Wilcox when Bowles was with the Jets last season.

 

You can also expect Bowles’ cornerbacks to play more aggressively, giving far less cushion than they had under Mike Smith and his off-coverage scheme. Bowles will have his corners press, too (although not all the time, and at times he was criticized in New York for not doing it enough). He favors longer corners, and that bodes well for Carlton Davis.

 

Although Vernon Hargreaves III doesn’t have Davis’ 6-foot-1, 206-pound frame, he could see a career resurgence being able to use his physicality to disrupt receivers’ routes the way he did at Florida.

 

No matter what personnel decisions are made, the Bucs’ defense is sure to look much different to fans than the “bend but don’t break” scheme they’d come to know for decades.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

The Broncos offensive coordinator will come from Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco staff.  Mike Klis of KUSA.com:

 

There was a hiccup that brought gasps to Broncos Country but otherwise John Elway’s overall plan with his coaching staff was well executed.

 

Elway, the Broncos’ general manager, wanted a head coach who was considered to have strong expertise and success on one side of the ball. He got that with Vic Fangio, who is considered one of the league’s best defensive coordinators.

 

Elway also wanted an forward-thinking offensive coordinator who is up on the college-style concepts and he got exactly that with Rich Scangarello.

 

The Broncos and Scangarello have finalized a two-year contract, sources told 9News.

 

Scangarello came in after assumed offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak abruptly left the Broncos last week over a disagreement on assistant coaches and concerns about advancing his offensive scheme. 

 

As Kubiak moved on to the Minnesota Vikings, Scangarello instantly becomes the biggest question mark on the first Fangio-controlled coaching staff. Yes, Scangarello comes from the Kyle Shanahan school of offense. And Kyle Shanahan has modernized the tried-and-true, if old-school Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak school of West Coast offense. (Did you know Sean McVay is a disciple of both Shanahans? It’s true. McVay was hired by the Rams away from Washington, where Kyle Shanahan brought him along).

 

Scangarello is a risky hire because he’s never been in charge of game planning or play-calling at the NFL level.

 

It will help that he would have plenty of experience around him. Mike Munchak, an NFL head coach or position coach the past 22 years, was hired to be the Broncos’ offensive line coach.

 

The Broncos are also expected to retain running backs coach Curtis Modkins and receivers coach Zach Azzanni. Scangarello will have input on the tight end coaching position currently held by Geep Chryst.

 

On defense, Fangio brought in 28-year NFL coach Ed Donatell to be his coordinator and he is expected to retain defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who is about to work in his 30th NFL season, and veteran inside linebackers coach Reggie Herring.    

 

Scangarello, who will turn 47 on Tax Day, has been offensive coordinator for small-college Northern Arizona and Wagner. But he has just four years of previous NFL coaching experience. He spent the past two years as Kyle Shanahan’s quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers.

 

The 49ers initially declined the Broncos permission to interview Scangarello because the team was also getting interview requests for passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and run game coordinator Mike McDaniel.

 

Kyle Shanahan couldn’t afford to lose two top offensive assistants, so he eventually decided to keep LaFleur and McDaniel and allowed Scangarello to interview with the Broncos.

 

 

KANSAS CITY

It looks like the Chiefs are getting back three players for the Patriots whose talents were not needed to dispose of the Colts.  The AP:

 

Chiefs safety Eric Berry and running back Spencer Ware returned to practice Wednesday, raising the possibility that both will be available for their AFC championship showdown with New England.

 

Berry missed most of the season with a heel injury that developed in training camp, then played parts of two games against the Chargers and Seahawks. The heel began to bother him again the next week, and he did not practice last week or play in the divisional round against Indianapolis.

 

Ware hurt his hamstring in a Week 14 win over the Ravens.

 

Chiefs coach Andy Reid also said that right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who was activated off injured reserve on Tuesday, would work into the mix with the starters. Whether he starts in Sunday’s game against the Patriots will not be decided until later in the week.

 

“We’re getting our work done starting today,” Reid said, “and we’ll put it in right through Saturday.”

 

The Chiefs have treated Berry with caution all year after the three-time All-Pro tore his Achilles tendon in last season’s opener. He remains one of their best playmakers when he’s on the field, and he’s continued to provide a vocal and emotional lift while he’s been out.

 

He broke down the pregame huddle before last Saturday’s 31-13 victory over the Colts.

 

One sign that Berry might be available came when Duvernay-Tardif came off IR. The Chiefs had to cut someone from the 53-man roster to make space and chose veteran safety Ron Parker.

 

AFC NORTH

 

PITTSBURGH

Owner Art Rooney II sounds more positive about extending aging QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER than he does head coach Mike Tomlin.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Steelers have a tradition of sticking with their head coaches for much longer than most teams and they have a tradition of talking about contract extensions with those coaches when there are two years left on their contract.

 

That’s where things stand with Mike Tomlin’s deal heading into the 2019 season, but team owner Art Rooney II indicated there aren’t any immediate plans to talk about any adjustments to the deal.

 

“Those are things we’ll get to sort of later in the offseason, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Rooney said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

 

Extension discussions aren’t on hold across the board as Rooney said “we feel good about” extending Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract when the subject was broached. Given that and changes to the coaching staff, speculation that Tomlin’s seat has gotten hotter will probably continue but Rooney did push back at a suggestion that the team was a circus in 2018.

 

“It’s nonsense,” Rooney said. “We didn’t achieve our goal of winning the division but we finished half a game out and had a lot of opportunities to get there.”

 

There’s been talk about expanding the coaching staff since the end of the season and Rooney said he thinks it is important to have someone on the coaching staff to help with game management, although he added that such an addition might have other responsibilities as well.

 

Nick Shook of NFL.com collected more thoughts from Rooney II today:

 

Brown’s drama and most recent decision to sit out of Pittsburgh’s season finale have recycled the growing question: Are the Steelers spiraling out of control?

 

“I don’t know where it comes from,” Rooney said of the question and perception of a franchise losing its identity amid relentless drama. “As far as I am concerned, it is nonsense.”

 

Brown has been a source of drama for some time now, and Le’Veon Bell’s contract dispute and decision to sit out the 2018 season fanned those flames, which grew stronger when Brown’s latest internal dispute occured. As for Bell, Rooney is happy with the state of the position without the two-time All-Pro, saying the performance of James Conner and Jaylen Samuels has him feeling good about the position.

 

Rooney addressed that and more in his time with the local beat writers:

 

» Rooney defended Pittsburgh’s decision to tag Bell, asking the rhetorical question of how frequent such a thing has happened in the NFL’s history.

 

» On Brown’s decision to sit out of the Week 17 game against Cincinnati, Rooney said: “I wish I could say that I talked to Antonio and understand what he was thinking,” per The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly.

 

» In defense of Brown, Rooney said the receiver was not a distraction “until the last week of the season … the situation changed the last week of the season.” Rooney went on to say Brown received his final game check despite choosing to sit out of the Week 17 game: “He probably did what he needed to do to avoid his last check being voided,” he said, per Bouchette.

 

» Rooney said one of Pittsburgh’s goals is to secure an extension for 36-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has one year left on his current deal.

 

» Rooney would not commit to making an effort to extend coach Mike Tomlin, who has two years left on his contract. “Those are things we’ll get to later in the offseason,” he said, per Bouchette.

 

» Rooney said he’s talked to Tomlin about installing an assistant for the coach to help with with challenge calls on the field, but it wouldn’t be their sole role, calling it “important,” per Bouchette.

 

» There was also this gut punch concerning kicker Chris Boswell, who had a difficult 2018:

 

@MarkKaboly

 ARII: “If I had to point to a couple of things that were problem areas that cost us the opportunity was No. 1 was the lack of even an average kicking game. For inexplicable reasons our kicker went from one of the best in the league to one of the worst in the league.”

 

» Rooney acknowledged that Pittsburgh’s defense was better, but the team still needs improvement from its secondary. Currently, veteran corner Joe Haden is Pittsburgh’s best defensive back. Haden turns 30 in April.

 

» Rooney said Ryan Shazier still wants to rehabilitate with the goal of returning to an NFL field at some point. In order to make that possible, Rooney said the Steelers would probably have to sign him to a player contract this year to allow him to continue on such a path, since Shazier’s current deal expires at the start of the new league year.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

JACKSONVILLE

Mike Zimmer canned John DeFillippo as Minnesota’s OC because he seemed too enamored with padding his resume with empty passing yards.  But now it looks as if he will be Doug Marrone’s OC and the NICK FOLES whispers are growing. Jake Nisse of the New York Post:

 

There may be a new front-runner in the Nick Foles sweepstakes.

 

The Eagles quarterback, who likely will depart Philadelphia this offseason after the team reiterated Tuesday that Carson Wentz remains its starter, will have plenty of suitors after leading the Birds to another playoff berth.

 

The Jaguars are one of those teams in need of a quarterback, and they’re expected to hire one of the masterminds behind Foles’ magical run last season.

 

According to various reports Wednesday, the Jags are planning to hire John DeFilippo as their offensive coordinator. DeFilippo didn’t last a full season with the Vikings in the same role, but he served as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach from 2016-17.

 

That past rapport with Foles could be trouble for the Giants, who could look to their division rivals for their next quarterback, should they decide to move on from 38-year-old Eli Manning.

 

In six starts under DeFilippo in 2017-18, Foles posted a 5-1 record, 1,508 passing yards and 11 touchdowns en route to a Super Bowl victory over the Patriots, and the Jaguars could envision Foles putting up those stats in Jacksonville — if and when Foles is there for the taking.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com says the Eagles should want to steer Foles towards Jacksonville:

 

For a team that has the talent to contend, a quarterback like Foles could be the answer, especially in light of his views on the importance of relationships and teamwork. The question becomes whether the Jaguars can finagle Foles’ rights, whether it happens through the free agency process or by a trade with the Eagles.

 

If it’s the latter, the Eagles surely would be happy to comply. They’d love to steer Foles out of the division (the Giants and Washington may be interested), and they won’t see the Jaguars in a regular-season setting until 2022. Whether it’s Jacksonville, Miami, Cincinnati, Denver, or someone else in the AFC, the Eagles would like nothing more than the ensure that Foles won’t resurface in the NFC East.

 

Maybe that’s where the compromise could happen. Even though it would be an unenforceable side agreement that could get the Eagles in trouble (if anyone were to blab about it), the Eagles and Foles could agree on a wink-nod basis to let Foles walk away as a free agent if he makes it clear that he won’t roll in either direction on I-95 but instead head to a team with which the Eagles doesn’t directly compete.

– – –

Meanwhile, RB LEONARD FOURNETTE is said to be placated.  Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com:

 

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said the clear-the-air meeting he had last week with running back Leonard Fournette was productive and he feels good about the first-round pick’s mindset heading into the 2019 offseason.

 

“We had a good meeting,” Marrone said Wednesday. “I’m not going to speak for Leonard, but when he left that meeting I think he’s in a really good place.

 

“So, that’s encouraging, and I’m excited about that.”

 

Marrone would not go into specifics about what was discussed in the meeting other than to say they discussed “where we’re going; where we want to go; what we want to do. Set out a plan, and I feel good about it.”

 

It’ll be several months before the Jaguars see if Fournette will be able to back up Marrone’s optimism. There’s certainly a lot for him to prove because there are legitimate questions about Fournette’s maturity, commitment to football, conditioning, on-field behavior and production after the 2018 season.

 

So much so that there was some speculation late in the season that the team would be willing to trade — or cut — him in the offseason.

 

The Jaguars selected Fournette fourth overall in 2017, and he had a solid rookie season, rushing for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns to help the Jaguars win the AFC South and reach the AFC Championship Game. The 2018 season was a huge disappointment, though.

 

Fournette missed seven games because of injuries, was suspended for another, had several off-field issues, and let himself get out of shape. The season ended on a sour note when executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin publicly criticized Fournette (who was inactive because of a foot injury) and T.J. Yeldon for sitting alone on the bench and acting disinterested during the season finale.

 

Coughlin said they were “disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.”

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

When James Harrison spent some time with the Patriots he wanted to hate QB TOM BRADY.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

When he was a Steeler, James Harrison played against Tom Brady for many years. Then Harrison ended his career with the Patriots and was surprised to find himself loving Brady.

 

Harrison said on FS1 that he was impressed not only with the way he was welcomed by Brady, but by the way Brady treated every teammate, whether a star player or an undrafted rookie or a member of the practice squad.

 

“Believe me, I wanted to, like, hate this dude with a passion,” Harrison said. “I get there and I’m like, ‘Dude, he’s the ultimate teammate.’”

 

Harrison didn’t always have a great relationship with teammates during his long career, which included 14 seasons with the Steelers, one with the Bengals and a final few games with the Patriots. But he and Brady are both competitors who want to do what it takes to win, so it’s no surprise they got along great.

– – –

One of the reasons for Patriots dominance in the Belichick-Brady Era has been the fact they’ve earned so many playoff home games – and then dominated in those games against every one by Baltimore.

 

Sunday’s game in Kansas City is only New England’s 3rd road playoff game since the 2006 season – and the Patriots lost both of the previous two in Denver.

 

The last time the Patriots won a road playoff game was January 14, 2007 at San Diego.

 

Since then, beginning with the 2007 season, the Patriots have played 17 home playoff games (14-3, winners of last 9), 2 road playoff games (0-2) and 5 Super Bowls (2-3).

 

Overall, Brady-Belichick are 3-4 on the road in the playoffs, 20-3 at home.

– – –

Here is Dan Wetzel on how Brady is motivating himself and his teammates.

 

Tom Brady sounded relaxed Wednesday when discussing how his New England Patriots were the betting underdog (plus-3) in Sunday’s AFC championship game in Kansas City.

 

“It doesn’t change much for us, but it just kind of shows you what people think about what our chances are,” Brady said. “That’s about it. No more added comment to that.”

 

There was no repeat of last Sunday, when he declared to CBS, “I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, we can’t win any games.” Here in the focus of midweek preparation, he was more philosophical.

 

“I don’t think about it too much, what people might say or think,” Brady said Wednesday.

 

Ah, well, perhaps, but if so, that would run counter to Tom Brady’s entire athletic career which has been driven by the motivation gained from listening to and thinking about any and every negative thing ever said or thought about him.

 

This isn’t a unique quality for an elite athlete. Michael Jordan spent his entire career still fuming that one year back in high school he was put on the junior varsity. He even invited the coach who made the decision to his Hall of Fame induction and “thanked” him for driving him to greatness.

 

This is how it works. The smallest slight is the biggest motivator, which is why it stands to reason that by Sunday, a fired-up Tom Brady will take the field at Arrowhead Stadium trying to channel the emotion that got him there in the first place.

 

For all the Super Bowl rings (five), millions in the bank (considerable) and fame and fabulous family he has, the 41-year-old, future first-ballot Hall of Famer remains a grinder. America scoffed at his CBS comment – no one believes in the NFL’s all-time winningest quarterback and his non-parallel dynasty?

 

Yet it doesn’t matter how widespread the criticism was.

 

To Brady, he’s still the kid who while growing up in San Mateo, California, had to fight his way out of the shadow of his three older sisters, all local playing field legends who’d go on to be Division I college athletes in soccer and softball.

 

He’s still the pudgy high school freshman who was a backup quarterback on a winless team that managed just two touchdowns all season. To improve his agility and quickness, he spent the offseason engaged in a backyard speed exercise called the “five-dot drill,” running early in the morning and in the dark of night and in the middle of family cookouts until he willed his way to improvement.

 

He’s still the guy who had just one major school recruiting him (University of California) until he sent a highlight tape to drum up interest.

 

He’s still the young college quarterback who arrived at Michigan as the seventh-string quarterback and barely sniffed the field for three seasons – his first career pass, in mop-up duty, was a pick-six.

 

He’s still the college junior who upon winning the starting job had to share the role for two seasons with a local phenom named Drew Henson, forcing him to prove himself, and his maturity, on a weekly basis despite being the superior player.

 

He’s still the NFL draft prospect who generated little attention even though he had been an excellent college quarterback. The result was falling to 199th overall, behind six other quarterbacks – the Brady Six – a group he has never forgotten and still draws inspiration from.

 

He’s still the quarterback who got the job only because the starter, Drew Bledsoe, was injured, not because his coaches chose him. He then spent much of his career measuring himself against NFL royalty and former No. 1 overall pick Peyton Manning.

 

In Brady’s mind, he has never been the chosen one, no matter the results. Some of it defies history and reality.

 

For instance, yes, Brady wasn’t much of a quarterback when he began playing football. He was, by almost any other measure, an exceptional athlete. The Montreal Expos drafted him as a catcher coming out of high school. Prior to that, he was so adept at golf while in middle school that some still believe had he pursued the sport he could have reached the PGA Tour. And, yeah, he had only one scholarship offer as a high school junior, but it was to a Pac-12 school. And he got to mighty Michigan. And he did get drafted. And …

 

Look, he never was a nobody.

 

Yet pretending, or perhaps believing, he was a nobody is what got him to become not just somebody, but to continue the climb long past the accomplishments and age of others. He just doesn’t stop. If he hasn’t by age 41, he never will.

 

Across the way Sunday is a player who represents what Brady believes he never was – at least if Brady massages the story a bit. Patrick Mahomes was a starter as a freshman at Texas Tech, turned pro early and had the Chiefs trade three picks, two of them first-rounders, to move up and take him 10th overall.

 

Mahomes sat for most of his first season, but now is a likely Most Valuable Player, a true sensation who has overwhelmed the NFL. It may seem ludicrous from the outside to think a five-time Super Bowl champion is trying to prove himself against a 23-year-old with one career playoff victory, but that is how Tom Brady thinks.

 

One more game to show everyone. One more game to convince everyone.

 

Make him a field-goal underdog and it’s even better, no matter what he says.

 

“I mean, if you’re not motivated this week, you’ve got a major problem,” Brady said, dismissing the concept of extra motivation. “This is the week where you shouldn’t have to put anything extra in.”

 

He’s right about that. He’d come to compete no matter who against or where the game was played or what the oddsmakers and media were saying.

 

But this is still Tom Brady and a lifetime of actions say more than a news conference full of calm perspective.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

THE TOP 25 FREE AGENTS

Barring any late contracts, here are the top 25 free agents headed for the open market in March as defined by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:

 

The most interesting expected free agent this offseason isn’t on the list below. Nick Foles has a mutual option in his contract that makes it exceedingly likely he will be set free by the Eagles, especially after they declared Monday that Carson Wentz is their quarterback and will remain their quarterback.

 

Foles would top a group of available quarterbacks, including Teddy Bridgewater, that is likely to grow as teams begin to prune their salary cap before the March spending spree. That’s something to keep in mind when looking at my way-too-early list of the top 25 free agents in 2019. A lot of names will be added to the market because of cuts, and plenty of high-profile players (like Jadeveon Clowney) are unlikely to ever make it to free agency, because their current teams will use the franchise tag to keep them or strike a long-term deal.

 

That makes this initial list fun to consider, albeit a work in progress. It’s a free-agent crop that is heavy on pass rushers and safeties while light on offensive linemen, wide receivers and cornerbacks. Chris Wesseling and I will publish our complete Top 101 Free Agents list in February. In the meantime, feel free to irrationally believe your team is going to sign all the players below and solve all of their problems.

 

1 DeMarcus Lawrence

DE Cowboys

Don’t worry about his sack number dropping to 10.5. Lawrence backed up his breakout 2017 (14.5 sacks) with another season as a top-five pass rusher, solidifying his place as one of the league’s best players.

 

2  Le’Veon Bell

RB Steelers

This ranking isn’t a prediction of how much guaranteed money Bell will earn. It’s a reflection of his status as one of the transcendent players this century at his position — and the fact that he’s still just 26 years old.

 

3  Jadeveon Clowney

OLB  Texans

Using the franchise tag to retain Clowney makes too much sense for Houston, even if Clowney won’t be thrilled about it.

 

4  Grady Jarrett

DT  Falcons

A 25-year-old game-wrecker from the interior who has improved every year. There’s little chance the Falcons will let Jarrett get away.

 

5  Trey Flowers

DE  Patriots

While Flowers isn’t a prototypical pure pass rusher from the outside, he can do everything well from a variety of positions, the perfect Swiss Army Knife for a modern defense. And he’s already been the most disruptive presence on a Super Bowl championship team.

 

6  Earl Thomas

S  Seahawks

Thomas would be even higher on this list if not for two of his previous three seasons being marred by injury. He has maintained his high level of play as a potential future Hall of Famer and isn’t yet 30 years old.

 

7  Dee Ford

OLB  Chiefs

At a position where speed kills, Ford’s first step is among the best in football. The Chiefs might use the franchise tag on him to make sure his monster breakout season can be repeated.

 

8  Frank Clark

DE  Seahawks

In many years, Clark would be the best pass rusher available. He isn’t as complete a player as the guys above, but 32 sacks and 66 QB hits over the last three years speaks for itself.

 

9  Landon Collins

S  Giants

Collins received some Defensive Player of the Year consideration in 2016, but his hard-hitting style has made less of an impact lately. And his 2018 campaign ended after Week 13, when he hit IR and underwent shoulder surgery.

 

10  C.J. Mosley

LB  Ravens

Inside linebackers don’t get paid in free agency, although Mosley could be an exception. A four-time Pro Bowler, Mosley is known for his smarts and his leadership.

 

11  Anthony Barr

LB  Vikings

The skill set and splash plays didn’t always add up to excellent overall production, although his contract year went well. It’s a bit of a concern that a great defensive coach like Mike Zimmer didn’t consistently get more out of him.

 

12  Sheldon Richardson

DT  Vikings

Richardson started out his season like a man on fire before settling into another campaign that made his employers probably want just a little bit more. He’s been stuck on the “prove-it contract” cycle for years.

 

13  Ronald Darby

CB  Eagles

A torn ACL will hurt Darby’s value, but he’s still the class of a soft cornerback crop of free agents.

 

14  Tyrann Mathieu

S  Texans

It’s unclear why safeties like Honey Badger didn’t get paid well last offseason. There’s an even better crop of free agents at the position this time around.

 

15  Lamarcus Joyner

S  Rams

The Rams valued Joyner enough to use the franchise tag on him last year. There just aren’t enough tough, versatile safeties who can cover slot receivers around.

 

16  Teddy Bridgewater

QB  Saints

Teddy’s underwhelming Week 17 start was more about a rag-tag backup Saints offensive line that didn’t protect Bridgewater than it was about anything else. He showed enough in the 2018 preseason to compete for a starting job somewhere.

 

17  Preston Smith

LB  Redskins

If everyone thinks Smith is underrated, is he still underrated? Pro Football Focus’ No. 8-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2018 should get the contract of someone rated quite highly.

 

18  Ndamukong Suh

DT  Rams

If he plays another game or two like the one he did in the Wild Card Round, Suh’s price tag could skyrocket.

 

19  K.J. Wright

LB  Seahawks

Instinctive as a run-stopper and excellent in coverage, Wright looked good late in the season after missing 11 games with a lingering knee injury.

 

20  Za’Darius Smith

OLB  Ravens

PFF credited Smith with 10 sacks, 17 QB hits and 33 hurries in the regular season, which is monster production for someone with 690 snaps. He plays with laudable fury.

 

21  Ezekiel Ansah

DE  Lions

One of the toughest players to evaluate in free agency. The Lions spent hefty franchise-tag money on a guy with just 662 snaps combined over the last two years.

 

22  Daryl Williams

OT  Panthers

Good tackles are so hard to find in free agency that Williams, a second-team All Pro in 2017, should still inspire plenty of interest despite missing nearly all of this season with a knee injury.

 

23  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

S  Redskins

The Packers’ opinion of Clinton-Dix and his so-so time in Washington after being traded there by Green Bay this season might have him pegged as just an above-average starting safety, but that should be worth something on the open market.

 

24  Brandon Graham

DE  Eagles

This ranking may look disrespectful for a player of Graham’s caliber, but the track record of betting on soon-to-be 31-year-old pass rushers in free agency is rough.

 

25  Matt Paradis

C  Broncos

He’s consistently been one of the highest-graded centers in football since the Broncos selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He missed the last seven games of 2018 with a broken right fibula.

 

Notable omissions (in alphabetical order):

 

Kwon Alexander, LB, Buccaneers

Randall Cobb, WR, Packers

Tevin Coleman, RB, Falcons

Stephen Gostkowski, K, Patriots

Jordan Hicks, LB, Eagles

Mark Ingram, RB, Saints

Kareem Jackson, CB, Texans

Ja’Wuan James, OT, Dolphins

Eric Reid, S, Panthers

Bradley Roby, CB, Broncos

Rodger Saffold, OG, Rams

Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens

Golden Tate, WR, Eagles

 

 

INSPIRE CHANGE

The NFL is pouring millions into a program that will see American children learn more African-American history.  Jenny Vrentas of SI.com explains:

 

Growing up outside Atlanta, Stephen Weatherly says around 95% of his knowledge of African-American history was learned at home, from his mom and grandmother.

 

One lesson about his own race’s history in America that still sticks with the Vikings defensive end came from watching Roots, the television miniseries based on the story of Kunta Kinte, a Gambian man who was sold to an American slave owner. Weatherly was in middle school when he watched with his mom; she was the one who explained to him the meaning behind the famous scene in which Kunta Kinte is tied up to a tree and ordered to be beaten until he accepts the name, Toby, that was given to him by his white slave master.

 

“I remember her explaining to me that you have been given your name by people who love you, and it’s important that no one renames you because they can’t pronounce it or, worse, don’t respect you,” Weatherly says. “That’s the main reason why I don’t like being called ‘Steve.’ My name is ‘Stephen.’ That came from a black history lesson, and I was not going to learn that in grade school.”

 

Weatherly, 24, remembers some black history lessons he did learn in school, usually during February, which is designated as Black History Month. But they often featured the same, small number of figures—among them, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, George Washington Carver and Sojourner Truth. “It made it seem like, wow, my whole people’s successes came from these 20-30 people, out of all of history,” he adds. “That’s kind of the perception you get, if you don’t have it coming from another source.”

 

This past fall, Weatherly took part in a program through the Vikings that is working to change how African-American history is taught in about a dozen Minnesota schools. This year, the NFL will begin doing this on a national level, starting by instituting a digital African-American History education program in 175 schools in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Montana and North Carolina that are in high-need and high-poverty areas, and where African-American history has been cut.

 

This project is one piece of a new “Inspire Change” initiative the NFL will announce today, part of the seven-year social justice partnership agreed to last year between the NFL and the Players Coalition, a social change and advocacy group of current and former players founded by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin. It includes a TV spot that will air during this weekend’s divisional round playoff games, featuring the Bears’ social justice work in the Chicago area, and two new grants approved by a joint NFL-players ownership committee: to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which creates long-term mentoring relationships between adults and kids, and Operation HOPE, which targets income inequality through free financial literacy, recovery and entrepreneurship programming.

 

The NFL says that its financial commitment for the social justice platform was $8.5 million in 2018, and will rise to $12 million total through the 2019 fiscal year; in addition, nearly $2 million in social justice matching grants have been issued to clubs and current and former players through the NFL Foundation, and teams and players are raising funds for social justice work through each club’s own matching program. The Bears, for example, this season raised more than $800,000 to be split among five Chicago area non-profits. “We anticipate that over the length of the initiative,” a league spokesperson said, “we could exceed the reported $89 million.” That figure represents a combination of national and local funding, and would include both NFL funds and those generated from players and clubs.

 

One piece of that pot will be committed to helping schools implement more comprehensive African-American history education programs than what Weatherly and many of his contemporaries had growing up, at no charge to the schools or students. The course being used was developed by Clayborne Carson, the director of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford, and is offered through EverFi, a digital curriculum provider. It’s based around modules that include vignettes of an individual person’s story or an event, and students complete a capstone essay project at the end.

 

The Vikings have worked with a handful of local high schools to implement this course over the past three years, supported in part through funds from the NFL Foundation. They customized the program with short introductory videos from Vikings legends sharing personal stories about their experiences being black in America.

 

In one video, Carl Eller, a Hall-of-Fame defensive end, recounts being denied service at the front counter of a cafe where he wanted to buy a hamburger, at age 11 or 12. He was told to go to the back counter, where blacks were served, but decided not to spend his money there—an experience he’s carried with him for 60-some years. In another, Greg Coleman, who was one of the first black punters in the NFL, shares how his peewee football team in Jacksonville won the city championship in its division and was looking forward to playing in the Gator Bowl. But his team was not allowed to play there, with the rest of the city champions, because of the color of the players’ skin. Coleman had trouble finishing the story, because the memory still stung so much.

 

The experiences of current and former players can be folded into programming in other states in this same way, or through virtual meetings with students. This past November, on an off-day, Weatherly called in via Skype from the Vikings’ facilities to a class with freshmen and sophomores from two Twin Cities high schools who were currently going through the curriculum. He quizzed them on facts about 10 different African-Americans they had learned about, and did a Q&A session with the students.