AROUND THE NFL

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com ranks the desirability of the eight vacant coaching jobs.

 

The following list is mine and mine alone, not reflective of the feelings of any of the other PFT writers. So don’t blame them.

 

No. 8: The Bengals.

The organization known for being extremely careful with money has had a sense of malaise descend on it over the past few seasons, with multiple non-playoff efforts coming after a string of five straight one-and-done postseason appearances. Owner Mike Brown seems to be intent on hiring someone whom he knows, which narrows the universe of potential coaches considerably. The team also has the lowest budget for a coach, or close to it. Key players like A.J. Green are aging and due for new contracts sooner than later. The quarterback is a middle-of-the-pack guy at best. Apathy looms. And their Ohio rivals are poised to take over the division.

 

No. 7: The Dolphins.

An owner who once was asked to comment on Stephen Ross living in New York and owning a team in Miami said, “I love competing against him.” And that continues to be one of the biggest impediments to the Dolphins becoming as good as they can be. Ross, an absentee landlord, isn’t sufficiently engaged in the team, deferring to others. As of Monday, the primary person to whom Ross defers (until he doesn’t) will be G.M. Chris Grier, with coach Adam Gase fired and V.P. of football operations reassigned to a non-football job. With the Jets and Bills having their quarterbacks of the future, the Dolphins need to figure out that position first, and then most of the others.

 

No. 6: The Cardinals.

The Cardinals could be mired in the basement of the NFC West for a while, and the new coach could find himself reporting to a new G.M. as soon as 2020 — a new G.M. who may want to hire his own coach ASAP. With plenty of holes on the roster and highly competitive rivals in L.A., Arizona, and Seattle, it’s no surprise Eric Bieniemy passed on sitting for an interview.

 

No. 5: The Broncos.

After consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1971-72, expectations should be low in Denver. Which is good. But the organization is mired in dysfunction, due in large part to an intra-family Willie Wonka competition gone bad, and a former franchise quarterback whose work as the leader of the franchise has left something to be desired in recent years. With the Chiefs poised to dominate the division for years thanks to the presence of Patrick Mahomes, with the Chargers not far behind, and with the Raiders possibly ready to turn it around, the next coach in Denver could be another short-term coach in Denver.

 

No. 4: The Buccaneers.

It’s hardly ideal to take a coaching job and to not have the ability to pick a quarterback, given the team’s decision to stick with Jamies Winston for at least another year. But the Bucs could do a lot worse at the most important position on the field; with the right coach (Dirk Koetter apparently wasn’t it), Winston could still become a franchise quarterback. And if 2019 proves that Winston isn’t the guy, it becomes basically a scholarship year for the new coach. Regardless, expectations for the team are low, the rest of the NFC South is in transition or close to it, and the door is open for the Bucs to become something they haven’t been in a long time — a true contender.

 

No. 3: The Jets.

Sam Darnold had a strong late-season push, making him a viable candidate to become a short-list franchise quarterback. With Tom Brady inevitably retiring, the Jets could fill the looming power vacuum in the AFC East. But it’s a tough market and the roster has plenty of holes. The question is whether the next coach will get enough time to turn it around.

 

No. 2: The Packers.

No traditional owner. A commitment to patience. A G.M. who gets it. A plan to spend in free agency. A rabid and loyal fan base. History, tradition, etc. The only wildcard is whether Aaron Rodgers will be on board with the hire, and what he may say or do if he isn’t.

 

No. 1: The Browns.

There’s a sizable gap between No. 1 and the rest. This could be the most attractive opening of the past decade, if not longer. And the presence of Baker Mayfield, plus the absence of any real accomplishments since the franchise rejoined the NFL in 1999, makes it a must-have job. Throw in a talented nucleus of young players and plenty of cap space, and the job gets even better. The only drawbacks are that expectations actually may be higher than desirable for 2019, and the potential for meddling by ownership.

 

– – –

 

Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com has this ranking of rookies:

 

The members of the NFL rookie class of 2018 have finished their first lap as pros.

 

Their production showed plenty of reasons for optimism, with more than a few glimpses at the brightest of futures.

 

And while Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James held the top spot for much of the season for his remarkably versatile body of work, the final evaluation brought a new No. 1 to close out the year.

 

These cumulative rankings encompass the entire body of regular-season work from the first week to the last.

 

So from game analysis and discussions with personnel evaluators and players, here’s a look at the top 10 rookies this season.

 

1. LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts

Stats: 163 tackles, 7 sacks, 4 FF, 2 INTs

Previous rank: 2

 

Tackles aren’t always a quality metric these days, but a hard look at the game video shows Leonard’s production can simply be regarded as one of the best rookie seasons in quite some time. He made plays in big moments for a playoff team, including his interception in the regular-season finale to help the Colts into the wild-card round.

 

2. S Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers

Stats: 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs

Previous rank: 1

 

This was practically a tie as James, too, was a key piece in a playoff puzzle. The Chargers embraced his versatility, especially when defensive end Joey Bosa missed time with a foot injury in the first half of the season and James was used as a pass-rusher.

 

3. QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 3,725 yards passing, 27 TDs, 63.8 percent completions

Previous ranking: 4

 

Had Mayfield started all 16 games for the Browns with Freddie Kitchens as the playcaller the entire season — Mayfield started 13 games and Kitchens called the plays in eight — Mayfield likely would have finished at No. 1. In the last eight games, Mayfield threw 19 touchdown passes and the Browns went 5-3.

 

4. RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Stats: 1,307 yards rushing, 91 catches, 15 total TDs

Previous ranking: 5

 

Some of his work in the passing game was a result of the Giants’ struggles to find any consistency between Eli Manning and the team’s receivers, but Barkley’s production went from a 100-yard rushing game in his first NFL start to another in Week 17. He also did not lose a fumble in 352 touches on offense.

 

5. LB Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

Stats: 60 tackles, 12 sacks, 2 FF

Previous ranking: 3

 

It is a testament to this year’s collection of rookie defenders that Chubb ranks third best among them here, as there have been plenty of seasons when Chubb’s 12 sacks would have made him the runaway selection as the league’s defensive rookie of the year. (His teammate Von Miller won the award in 2011 with 11.5 sacks.) Chubb’s demeanor, work ethic and approach to the game, along with his obvious physical skills, give him a chance to be one of the league’s best.

 

6. LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears

Stats: 122 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT

Previous rank: 6

 

Smith is an important part of one of just two defenses in the playoff field that surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. (Baltimore is the other.) He has been a model of consistency and athleticism.

 

7. LB Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys

Stats: 140 tackles, 7 PD, 2 INTs

Previous ranking: 7

 

Vander Esch left the regular-season finale with a shin injury but still finished with nine tackles in the game. He made 11 starts on the season and played so well that when former Pro Bowl selection Sean Lee returned from injury, the Cowboys felt compelled to keep Vander Esch in the lineup as much as possible.

 

8. G Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts

Stats: Colts surrendered league-low 18 sacks.

Previous ranking: 9

 

An offensive line coach in the league said what he liked most about Nelson was his ability to transition and his awareness to move in and out of double-teams to make the right play in pass protection and then one play later simply “obliterate” a defender in the run game. He will be a fixture in front of quarterback Andrew Luck.

 

9. RB Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

Stats: 1,037 yards rushing, 5.4 yards per carry, 10 total TDs

Previous ranking: 8

 

Lindsay left the Broncos’ Week 16 loss against the Raiders with a wrist injury that required surgery, and he will now miss a Pro Bowl he deserved to play in. That aside, Lindsay was a revelation for the Broncos as an undrafted rookie who started training camp as the No. 6 running back on the depth chart.

 

10. CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 53 tackles, 3 INTs, 11 PD

Previous ranking: 10

 

Ward missed three of the last four games of the season with a concussion but consistently showed the ability to bounce back after the inevitable rough spots for a rookie cornerback and line up with confidence on the next play.

 

And then there was Lamar

There were five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, with Lamar Jackson the fifth when the Baltimore Ravens reeled him in with the final pick of the round. Now here he is some eight months later as the lone rookie quarterback in the playoffs, and he will be the youngest rookie quarterback to ever start a postseason game when he lines up across from the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday — one day before his 22nd birthday. He topped 60 percent completions in just two of his seven starts, but he plays with composure and awareness and has the ability to wreck a good defensive play at any moment with what he can do with the ball in his hands.

 

Close, but not quite (totals are for 17 weeks)

 

Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (team went 6-1 in his seven starts); 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey (no holding penalties in 16 starts, just three penalties all season); Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds (121 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 FF); Bengals S Jessie Bates (111 tackles, 3 INTs); Browns RB Nick Chubb (996 yards rushing, 10 total TDs); Panthers CB Donte Jackson (73 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 sack); Texans S Justin Reid (88 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 TD); Packers CB Jaire Alexander (66 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PD); 49ers LB Fred Warner (105 tackles, 1 FF); Falcons WR Calvin Ridley (64 catches, 821 yards, 10 TDs); Steelers S Terrell Edmunds (78 tackles, 4 PD); Bears DT Bilal Nichols (28 tackles, 2 FF, 3 sacks); Ravens T Orlando Brown Jr. (just two holding penalties); Giants DT B.J. Hill (48 tackles, 5.5 sacks); Titans LB Rashaan Evans (53 tackles, 2 TFL); Dolphins S Minkah Fitzpatrick (80 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 TD); Titans LB Harold Landry (37 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks).

 

It really was quite the rookie class when the rookie QB who is starting a playoff game is legitimately outside the top 10 and the running back with 2,000 scrimmage yards is #4.

 

NFC EAST

 

WASHINGTON

We know enough to know that the “domestic violence” charges against LB REUBEN FOSTER that set off the nation’s woke sporting media were bogus.  Florida authorities have dropped the charges, but the damage was done.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Reuben Foster was due in a Tampa courtroom on Thursday morning for an arraignment on domestic violence charges, but the hearing did not go forward.

 

WFLA in Tampa reports that the arraignment was called off because the charges against Foster were dismissed. TMZ reports the charges were dismissed by the State Attorney’s Office on January 2.

 

Foster had been arrested in Tampa on Saturday, November 24 while in town to play the Buccaneers as a member of the 49ers. The linebacker was released the next day and claimed off of waivers by Washington. He never played for Washington as he was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt list.

 

The alleged victim was Foster’s ex-girlfriend and the same woman who recanted previous domestic violence allegations against Foster in 2018. Elissa Ennis later said that she lied when recanting those allegations and reports indicated that she intended to take part in this investigation into Foster’s actions. Foster’s agent told TMZ he believes the case was dismissed because of “issues with the witness’ credibility.”

 

The NFL has disciplined players in the past without criminal charges being filed, so Foster may still face a penalty but the decision to dismiss charges would seem to make it likelier that he will be back on the field at some point during the 2019 season.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com makes the case for a big contract for WR JULIO JONES:

 

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones smiled and nodded his head with approval when told of owner Arthur Blank’s reiterating last Sunday that he wants Jones to be a Falcon for life.

 

“I love Mr. Blank,” Jones told ESPN. “I love the organization. That’s why I do whatever it takes for the organization. I’m not a selfish guy, and neither is the organization. It’s more like they’re going to take care of what they need to take care of. It’s no pressure on either end.”

 

The “pressure” reference was to Jones’ contract situation, an issue general manager Thomas Dimitroff promised to address fully going into the 2019 season. Jones has two years and more than $21 million left on the five-year, $71.25 million extension he signed in August 2015.

 

Jones obviously believes he has outplayed his contract, which led to talk about a possible holdout heading into this past season. That never materialized, as the Falcons satisfied him in the interim by adjusting numbers and boosting Jones’ salary by $2.8 million for 2018.

 

All Jones did in response was lead the league with 1,677 receiving yards on 113 catches with eight touchdowns. Jones finished with 10 100-yard games to set a franchise single-season record.

 

Is it time to make Jones, who turns 30 next month, the league’s highest-paid wide receiver?

 

“I don’t know about highest-paid receiver or whatever it may be, but I know Julio should be a Falcon for life,” Blank said. “We have a number of players who are up for consideration. The coach [Dan Quinn] and the staff will make those determinations. But we’ll certainly take care of the players we should take care of first. And Julio, he’s had another great season.”

 

Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants tops all receivers at an average of $18 million per year. Beckham also received the highest guarantee at $65 million. Jones’ average of $14.25 million per year is 11th in the league.

 

Several league executives, as well as contract agents, believe Jones’ camp would be foolish not to seek at least $20 million per year and $70 million guaranteed, no matter how the next deal is constructed. Agent Jimmy Sexton will handle the negotiations for Jones.

 

Former Falcon Roddy White, who is the team’s all-time leading receiver with 10,863 yards — just 132 yards ahead of Jones — spoke up for his good friend and former teammate by saying, “Yes, he deserves to be the highest-paid receiver. I think he does, based on performance. For me, that’s a no-brainer.”

 

The Falcons already made one of their players one of the highest paid at his position when quarterback Matt Ryan signed a five-year, $150 million extension ($100 million guaranteed), though Ryan was topped by Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million per year).

 

As of now, the Falcons are projected to have $21,766,005 in salary-cap space for 2019 based on a projected $190 million cap. That number could change, of course, based on players signed to extensions or new contracts, or players being released.

 

Jones insisted that he isn’t caught up in being the highest-paid receiver.

 

“For me, that’s on them to decide what they’re going to do and how they’re going to go about it,” he said. “I don’t look at numbers. I can’t tell you who makes what right now. To be honest, I really don’t know. I promise you I don’t know. I just try to make sure the business side gets taken care of. And once it gets taken care of, we’re good. I trust in them; they trust in me.”

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

Tim Tebow looks at QB TAYSOM HILL of the Saints and wonders what if.  Christopher Dabe of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

 

Just about everything Tim Tebow has seen Taysom Hill do for the New Orleans Saints was what Sean Payton pitched as a vision for the one-time Heisman Trophy winner before he switched to playing baseball.

 

It just wasn’t what Tebow wanted at the time.

 

Instead, Tebow wanted to keep trying his hand at playing only quarterback. While Hill also has aspirations of being a No. 1 quarterback somewhere, he’s currently doing whatever is asked of him as a blocker and ballcarrier on offense and as a multi-faceted player on special teams.

 

That’s something of the pitch Payton made for Tebow “back in the day,” Tebow said Monday (Dec. 31) while in New Orleans at Audubon Gentilly Charter School for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.

 

Although he declined to be specific about the timeframe of when Payton talked with him, Tebow said he “talked to coach Payton a lot when he was trying to get me to come do that-ish, here,” he said in reference to everything Hill does for the Saints.

 

Tebow and Payton had multiple conversations sometime after the New York Jets cut Tebow in 2013, Tebow said. Soon after, he went through training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles. The New England Patriots had him in camp in 2015.

 

“He did a good job making it clear what he thought,” Tebow said. “It just wasn’t necessarily in my heart at the time. It was cool. It wasn’t like I was totally against it. Love coach Payton. He’s one of the best coaches out there. For me, I still wanted to pursue being a quarterback and then baseball. Sometimes it’s not that you dislike something. It’s that you have something even more in your heart.”

 

Tebow said he liked what he saw when Hill played in college for BYU. While there, Hill became BYU’s career leader in rushing yards among quarterbacks with 2,815, and he accounted for 75 touchdowns. He played in 37 games and started 33. Injuries limited his playing time over four seasons.

 

“If he was on a better team — I’m not trying to knock his college team — if he was on a better team, I think he would have had a chance to be special,” Tebow said. “You put him on the field with good teams and see what he could do, I think he could have done really well. I liked watching him a lot.”

 

Hill joined the Saints after the Green Bay Packers waived him at the end of the 2017 preseason. The Packers intended to put Hill on their practice squad before the Saints put in a claim for him. Soon after, it became clear how the Saints envisioned using Hill as more than a quarterback.

 

For the Saints, Hill has rushed 37 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns. On special teams, he has several tackles and his punt block sparked a winning rally against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 

Isn’t Taysom Hill faster than Tebow?

 

Yup

 

Hill at BYU’s Pro Day hit 4.44 in the 40 with a 38.5 vertical.

 

Tebow at the NFL Combine was 4.72 with a 38.5 vertical.

 

Is that difference significant for the role Hill plays?  We think so.

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

QB LAMAR JACKSON is set to break a playoff record for youngest QB to start a postseason game.  Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com has the surprising record holder who comes from an era when QBs were supposed to stay in school longer than today:

 

Lamar Jackson never visualized being a starting quarterback in a playoff game this season, having told the Baltimore Ravens after he was drafted that he would sit out and learn.

 

But a hip injury to Joe Flacco suddenly put the fleet-footed first-round pick on the fast track.

 

Now, Jackson not only is suiting up for a postseason game in his eighth career start, he’s making NFL history: He will become the youngest quarterback ever to start an NFL playoff game.

 

The fact he will be the first quarterback to start a playoff game before his 22nd birthday has seemed to impress everyone except Jackson himself.

 

“I’m here to play football. I was 21 all year,” Jackson said. “So, it’s another game for me.”

 

Jackson will start Sunday’s wild-card game between the Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers at 21 years, 364 days. He will surpass Bernie Kosar, who was 22 years, 40 days old when he started for the Cleveland Browns and threw his first touchdown pass in a 1985 postseason game to Ozzie Newsome (who drafted Jackson 33 years later).

 

Young quarterbacks have recorded mixed success in the postseason. Since 2001, only four quarterbacks 23 years old and under have won a playoff game (Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Flacco and Mark Sanchez). Over that span, quarterbacks 23 and younger have a 10-11 record (.476) in the postseason.

 

Jackson shows his youthful exuberance on the field, from dancing in the huddle to somersaulting into the end zone. But the Ravens don’t think too much about Jackson’s age. Players and coaches have praised Jackson for his poise in going 6-1 as a starter this season.

 

 

CINCINNATI

It’s not often that an OC from a fired staff is getting head coaching interest, but the Bengals are taking a look at Tampa Bay’s Todd Monken.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Josh McDaniels is no longer on the Bengals’ list of candidates for their head coaching job, but it appears another offensive coordinator could find his way into the mix.

 

Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com reports the Bengals would like to speak to Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Monken doesn’t have a contract in Tampa for next season and the impending arrival of a new coach likely means that Monken will be moving on one way or another.

 

The Jets have also been linked to Monken, who was the head coach at Southern Miss before joining Dirk Koetter’s staff in Tampa. Former Jets and current Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick endorsed Monken this week.

 

“I’m telling you: He’s got it,” Fitzpatrick said, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “He’s got the ‘It factor’ as a head coach.”

 

There’s no reported date for a Monken interview with the Bengals at this point.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

Shalise Manza Young of YahooSports.com with an update on the unrest of WR ANTONIO BROWN:

 

One former Pittsburgh player believes it’s time for the team to move on from the mercurial receiver.

 

Meanwhile, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger acted on Tuesday like there had been no issue between he and Brown.

 

Practice dispute

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette reported that Brown had a disagreement with a teammate last Wednesday during a walkthrough, and NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala reported that teammate was Ben Roethlisberger.

 

Brown didn’t practice for the rest of the week. The Post-Gazette reported it was Brown’s decision not to do so, citing a source.

 

On Saturday, when the Steelers held their final walkthrough and evening meeting at the team hotel, Brown was nowhere to be found.

 

He still showed up at Heinz Field on Sunday expecting to play, and did not, and kudos to the Steelers for sitting their best player in a game where they obviously could have used him.

 

Kinkhabwala reported that Brown left the stadium at halftime.

 

On Monday, during final team meetings, Brown again was a no-show.

 

Brown finished the season with 104 catches for 1,297 yards and an NFL-best 15 touchdowns in 15 games.

 

Roethlisberger: ‘I didn’t see it’

During his weekly appearance on Pittsburgh station 93.7 The Fan on Tuesday, Roethlisberger somewhat oddly pleaded ignorance to any incident between him and Brown.

 

“That’s what’s baffling to me, people are making a big deal about a walkthrough on Wednesday, a fight between he and I. If there was a blow up or something, I sure as heck didn’t see it,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m not sure where that comes from.”

 

He added that he spoke to Brown on Thursday morning and felt everything was fine, though he reached out after that and hasn’t gotten a response. Other Steelers players have also reached out to Brown and not gotten a response, which Roethlisberger acknowledged is frustrating for them.

 

Asked about Brown’s future with the team, Roethlisberger said, “I’m obviously not the coach and the owner. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I love Antonio and wish him nothing but the best. I hope he’s back with me because he makes me better.”

 

Was Roethlisberger covering for his teammate because he feels he needs Brown for a chance at a Super Bowl run in 2019?

 

Time to go?

ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, who was teammates with Brown in Pittsburgh for the first four seasons of Brown’s career, was on the network’s flagship “Sportscenter” Monday night and was highly critical of Brown as a player and person, going so far as to say it’s time for Pittsburgh to send Brown packing.

 

With the caveat that we don’t fully know the relationship between Clark and Brown and whether Clark has some long-standing beef with the receiver, here’s what Clark said.

 

“Antonio has been a guy who’s been a ‘me’ guy. He’s been a guy who’s self-centered in a way where he cares about the individual stats, how I’m being treated, how I’m being perceived or portrayed,” Clark said. “But the one guy you can’t have infighting with is Ben Roethlisberger. There are many players in the organization that Antonio Brown is above – Ben is not one of those people.

 

“But for it to get to a point where he’s held out of this game, a must-win for the Pittsburgh Steelers, when you see him on the sideline in a mink coat before the game, not Pittsburgh Steelers gear, not sideline gear, totally separate from team, that lets you know this is an issue that’s not about today or yesterday, it’s been something that’s happening through the year and his career.”

 

Show host Scott Van Pelt wondered how Brown could have jeopardized his availability for a game his team had to win, and Clark again hammered Brown’s selfishness.

 

“When you’re Antonio Brown and you have the mindset that he has, he’s above that. You’re never going to touch Antonio Brown,” Clark said. “Quick story: Antonio Brown is walking past the weight room in training camp [in 2012], Antonio’s going into his third year, we hear that Mike Wallace has turned down his deal. And I knew already that they were going to offer [a contract extension to] Antonio. And he’s walking past and I turned to the strength coach and I said, ‘when you give him money, you’re going to create a monster.’

 

“That day in practice, Antonio and I almost get into a fight because he’s saying things to [defensive coordinator Dick] Lebeau, he’s screaming at coach Lebeau, he’s screaming at us defensively, ‘don’t touch me, I’m the franchise!’ Because he already had that mindset, and now with success, with money, these things come.

 

“You hear more about him, some things we don’t need to bring up now, but when it comes to being a good teammate, when it comes to just being supportive, understanding that you’re trying to achieve one goal, that doesn’t matter to him. What matters to him is 19 attempts, 14 catches, 185 yards, two touchdowns against the Saints [Brown’s numbers in Week 16].”

 

Van Pelt wondered how the Steelers will move on from this – Kinkhabwala said that coach Mike Tomlin hadn’t addressed Brown’s behavior with the rest of the team, which is odd – and Clark believes they can’t.

 

“This is where Mike Tomlin has to put his foot down and shop Antonio Brown. Obviously you want to get something for him; he’s one of the best wide receivers in the league, matter of fact, he’s one of the best football players in the league.

 

“JuJu Smith-Schuster has shown you he can be a No. 1. Ben Roethlisberger speaks glowingly of James Washington. This is about the fabric of the team. This is the guy that goes on Facebook Live [after a January 2017 playoff game] as your coach is talking and leaks information outside the locker room that never should be there. This is about the guy that publicly talks about not getting the ball or issues with the offensive coordinator, knocks over garbage cans or knocks over Gatorade bottles because he doesn’t get the rock.

 

“At some point, when you’re an organization that’s built on team, an organization that’s built on integrity, you have to show the rest of the locker room that. Will he be good going forward? Probably so. But you have to take that stand. …Time for him to go.”

 

The 30-year-old Brown has three years left on his current contract, with an average base salary of $12.13 million per year.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com has a theory on what set off Brown:

 

So what prompted Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to go AWOL, only days after having his best game of the season? Some are pointing to the internal vote that resulted in not Brown but receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster being named the team’s MVP for 2018.

 

The team announced that Smith-Schuster won the award on Thursday. Not Brown, who was in the discussion for NFL MVP in 2017 — and who won his franchise-record fourth team MVP award last year.

 

If the players learned about it on Wednesday, the outcome would help explain why Brown was feeling disrespected and unappreciated on the practice field, where he reportedly threw a football at Ben Roethlisberger and stormed out.

 

Simms and I have been batting around that theory throughout the week on PFT Live, and Albert Breer of SI.com cites an unnamed source in support of the notion that the MVP vote sparked the eruption.

 

“He was unreal in New Orleans, we still lost, and the vote comes out and it’s JuJu,” the unnamed source told Breer. “So [Brown] shows up for work, he’s not voted MVP, he’s in a bad way, and that carried over into the walkthrough.”

 

Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com reports that Brown wanted to see whether the Steelers would thrive without him, and whether Smith-Schuster would perform at a high level without Brown on the field to draw attention away from the second-year player.

 

Thursday’s announcement, which came at a time when no one outside the organization knew about the latest Brown incident, sparked speculation that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be miffed about the snub. But the player most upset by the outcome apparently was Brown.

 

Again, the players vote for the MVP award. At a time when much has been said regarding whether the players would welcome Brown back, it’s fair to ask whether Brown wants to return. That’s a critically important question; how it’s resolved will go a long way toward determining how the relationship between Brown and the Steelers unfolds in 2019.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

TENNESSEE

Radio host Clay Travis is among the Titans fans who were surprised and disappointed that QB MARCUS MARIOTA did not play on Sunday night after practicing during the week.  Travis, who has been among Mariota’s most ardent supporters now feels he and other Titans fans can’t count on Mariota.

 

Here is the current spin on the situation from the AP:

 

The Tennessee Titans’ quest for a second straight postseason appearance ended with injured quarterback Marcus Mariota watching from the sideline.

 

Luckily for the Titans, Mariota said a neck specialist has made clear that only rest is needed — no surgery — to heal nerves frayed by injuries that knocked him out of three different games this season.

 

“What it came down to was just allowing time for the nerve to heal,” Mariota said Monday. “Unfortunately, I’ve had several nerve injuries throughout the course of the year, and it just left me susceptible to a bigger injury. And when it came down to it, he felt through time and some rest, the nerve should calm down and it should fully recover.”

 

Without Mariota, the Titans lost 33-17 on Sunday night to Indianapolis to snap a four-game winning streak and miss out on the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot that went to the Colts. Mariota called sitting out “very disappointing.”

 

Mariota consulted with spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins of Los Angeles after being knocked out of a loss to the Colts on Nov. 18 and again after suffering another stinger to the neck Dec. 22 in a win against Washington. Mariota said the specialist reviewed an MRI exam and other tests with the decision for Mariota not to play made by both the Titans and the quarterback.

 

“I wasn’t able to get to a point where I was ready to go,” Mariota said.

 

Now Mariota has time to heal, then get back on the field to prove whether he deserves a long-term contract past 2019. He already is under contract for 2019 since Tennessee picked up his fifth-year option at $20.9 million. Mariota said he’s not concerned about contract talks, saying he wants to stay with the Titans.

 

Coach Mike Vrabel said he has no concerns about Mariota, who completed 68.9 percent of his passes this season — a single-season franchise record.

 

“He helped us win a lot of games, and so I have full confidence in Marcus when he’s healthy and available to go out there and try to win,” Vrabel said. “He’s done some good things.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

CONTRACT AWARDS

Former agent Joel Corry looks at the deals that were signed in 2018 and ranks the best and the worst (somewhat edited below, you can see the whole thing here.

 

The NFL’s financial landscape is being assessed through awards for the sixth-straight year on CBSSports.com, now that the regular season has ended. These awards differ from the traditional NFL honors because they are from an economic perspective, emphasizing 2018 veteran acquisitions. Players acquired by trades or in free agency can have a tremendous impact on an NFL team’s fortunes. Rookies weren’t given any consideration because their salaries are a function of draft position and the rookie wage scale. The same applies to players on restricted free-agent tenders, since the amounts are set by the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

 

Most Valuable Acquisition

BEARS –   LB KHALIL MACK

Mack made an immediate impact after the Bears gave up their next two first-round picks to get him from the Raiders on Labor Day weekend and gave him a blockbuster contract in the process. He became the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback with a six-year, $141 million contract extension averaging $23.5 million per year. Mack has the fourth-most overall guarantees ever in a NFL contract at $90 million, of which $60 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Both are records for non-quarterbacks.

 

Runner Up: Drew Brees, QB, Saints

 

Least Valuable Acquisition

CARDINALS – QB SAM BRADFORD

The Cardinals signed Bradford to a two-year, $40 million contract despite the QB playing only six quarters of football in 2017 due to a balky left knee that had previously suffered two ACL tears. The $15 million fully guaranteed at signing consisted of a $10 million signing bonus and a $5 million base salary. The deal also contained $5 million of 46-man per-game active roster bonuses ($312,500 each game) for this season, which was the largest ever in an NFL contract, because of Bradford’s injury history. The per-game amount was payable only if Bradford was on the 46-man active roster for that particular game.

 

He was benched three games into the 2018 season for rookie Josh Rosen, the 10th-overall pick. Bradford wasn’t active on game day for the other five games he was with the Cardinals before his release in order to limit his roster bonus collection. Bradford made $15,937,500 for his eight-game stint with the Cardinals, where he was on the field for only 135 of Arizona’s 942 offensive snaps (14.3 percent). He didn’t sign with another NFL team after his release.

 

Runners Up: Vontae Davis, CB, Bills; Allen Hurns, WR, Cowboys; Carlos Hyde, RB, Browns/Jaguars; Tyrod Taylor, QB, Browns

 

Offensive Signing of the Year

COLTS – ERIC EBRON

Ebron signed a two-year, $13 million contract (worth up to $15 million through incentives) with Indianapolis after the Lions released him in early March to prevent his $8.25 million 2018 fifth-year option from becoming fully guaranteed. The 2014 first-round pick had a much bigger role than anticipated because injuries to tight end Jack Doyle, who played in last season’s Pro Bowl, limited him to six games in 2018. Ebron set career highs of 66 catches, 750 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions, which were tied for the NFL’s second most. His 14 total touchdowns were tied for fifth in the NFL. Ebron earned his first Pro Bowl berth this season.

 

The Colts may have opted to designate the 25 year old as a franchise player without a 2019 contract year in place. The 2019 tight end number is expected to be in the $10.5 million neighborhood. The four-year, $32 million contract (worth to $34.8 million with incentives) containing $22 million of guarantees Trey Burton received from the Bears during free agency probably would have been Ebron’s salary floor if he were able to enter the open market in March.

 

Runners Up: Drew Brees, QB, Saints; Brandin Cooks, WR, Rams

 

Defensive Signing of the Year

BEARS – CB KYLE FULLER

Fuller validated Chicago’s decision to match the four-year, $56 million offer sheet he signed with the Packers after being designated a transition player for $12.971 million. He tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions this season.

 

The offer sheet worked out to Chicago’s advantage, rather than letting Fuller hit the open market or giving him a $14.975 million franchise tag. In either of those cases, a long-term deal likely would have had significantly more that $18 million fully guaranteed in the matched offer sheet. By contrast, Trumaine Johnson, who signed the most lucrative free agent cornerback with the Jets at $72.5 million for five years, had $34 million fully guaranteed and $45 million in overall guarantees.

 

Runner Up: Demario Davis, LB, Saints

 

Biggest Steal

REDSKINS – RB ADRIAN PETERSON

It took a season-ending knee injury to 2018 second-round pick Derrius Guice for the Redskins to sign Peterson to a one-year contract at his $1.015 million league-minimum salary without any incentives late in the preseason. No other teams had expressed serious interest in Peterson in the previous five months since free agency started. The assumption was Peterson had very little gas left in the tank after two injury-plagued and unproductive seasons.

 

The Redskins never imagined Peterson would have such a big offensive impact. The 33 year old became the oldest to rush for 1,000 yards during a season in 34 years while running behind an offensive line that was decimated by injuries. Peterson was one of eight running backs to crack the 1,000 yard mark this season. Peterson’s 1,042 rushing yards were eighth in the NFL.

 

Runner Up: Pierre Desir, CB, Colts

 

Best Use of a Contract Year

CHIEFS – LB DEE FORD

Ford follows in the footsteps of Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who won this award last season. He is an edge rusher who had a breakout season with an expiring contract following an injury-plagued year.

 

Ford’s six sacks and four forced fumbles in five October games helped him garner AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. His 78 quarterback pressures were third in the NFL and first among edge rushers. Ford also tied for eighth in the NFL with a career high 13 sacks. The 2014 first round pick is a prime candidate for a franchise tag because his 2018 play is an outlier and the immense importance of players who can pressure opposing quarterbacks. The linebacker number is expected to be roughly $15.6 million, assuming the 2019 salary cap is in the $190 million range.

 

Ford would have no shortage of suitors if the Chiefs let him hit the open market. As a highly-productive pass rusher in his prime, Ford would quickly join Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack, who won the award in 2016, in the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club.

 

Runners Up: Frank Clark, DE, Seahawks; Trey Flowers, DE, Patriots; Jason Myers, K, Jets

 

Worst Use of a Contract Year

BILLS/CHIEFS – WR KELVIN BENJAMIN

Benjamin was best known in 2018 for curiously blaming Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during the preseason for not being as productive as Odell Beckham, Jr., Brandin Cooks and Mike Evans, who were also taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, during his three-and-a-half seasons in Carolina. The 28th-overall pick in 2014 was a major disappointment after being traded to the Bills in the middle of the 2017 season. Benjamin caught only 39 passes for 571 yards with two touchdowns in 18 games with Buffalo before his release in early December. He signed with the Chiefs a couple days later to provide wide receiver depth because of Sammy Watkins’ foot injury, which has kept him out of action the last six weeks. Although there isn’t going to be a particularly strong group of wide receivers available in the 2019 NFL draft, look for Benjamin to sign a one-year prove-it deal to try to re-establish his value.

 

Runners Up: Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals; Ereck Flowers, OT, Giants/Jaguars; David Irving, DL, Cowboys

 

Best Contract Year Extension (for a team)

VIKINGS – DE DANIELLE HUNTER

Hunter sold himself short by signing a five-year, $72 million extension with $40.007 million of guarantees during the offseason. The contract runs through the 2023 season. Hunter would have been facing a 2019 franchise tag in the $17.3 million range by merely duplicating his 2017 performance, which he has easily exceeded. Hunter tied for fourth in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. Since Hunter had a career year while playing out his contract, he would have been in a position to potentially leverage the franchise tag into a long-term deal averaging in the $20 million-per-year neighborhood. Hunter’s deal contains $1 million in annual base-salary escalators for sacks. His 2019 base salary increased by $500,000 once he got to 13 sacks. It’s just a matter of time before Hunter is drastically underpaid compared to his contemporaries (Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence, etc.) despite the escalators with the salaries for top pass rushers expected to explode over the next couple of years.

 

Runner Up: Shaq Mason, OG, Patriots

 

Worst Contract Year Extension (for a team)

JAGUARS – QB BLAKE BORTLES

The Jaguars going all-in on Blake Bortles after an unexpected playoff run to the AFC Championship Game last season backfired spectacularly. Bortles was given a two-year, $34.497 million extension (worth up to another $12.5 million through salary escalators and incentives) with $26.5 million fully guaranteed instead of allowing him to play the 2018 season on his $19.053 million fifth-year option. He took such a step backward after being an effective game manager in 2017 that he was benched four games in early December for Cody Kessler, who didn’t fare any better, until the regular-season finale.

 

The Jaguars would have been able to walk away from Bortles after this season without any salary-cap consequences if he were still playing under his fifth-year option. Because of the extension, the Jaguars could have as much as $16.5 million in dead money by releasing Bortles during the offseason. This stems from his $6.5 million salary guarantee in 2019, which has an offset, and $10 million of signing-bonus proration from his 2019 and 2020 contract years.

 

The cap hit for releasing Bortles could be taken over two years by using a post-June 1 designation. Jacksonville would be required to carry Bortles’ full $21 million cap number until June 2, even though he would no longer be a part of the roster with a release in this manner. The non-guaranteed $7.5 million of Bortles’ $14 million 2019 base salary would come off the books at this time, leaving the Jaguars with $11.5 million of dead money. There would be a $5 million cap charge in 2020 relating to the $15 million signing bonus Bortles received in the extension. This is because the acceleration of the $5 million in signing bonus proration from Bortles’ 2020 contract year would be delayed with use of a post-June 1 designation.

 

Bortles’ $16 million and $18 million salaries in the next two years as well as his inconsistency make him practically untradeable. The offset will lessen the 2019 cap obligation but probably not by the full $6.5 million guarantee because Bortles signing a 2019 contract with another team for that amount or more would be surprising, given how he performed this season.

 

Runners Up: Ricardo Allen, S, Falcons; David Johnson, RB, Cardinals

 

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

The NFL rebounded strongly in terms of TV ratings this year.  Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com:

 

NFL television ratings rose by 5 percent in 2018 as compared with the 2017 season, according to figures released Wednesday by the league.

 

The uptick partially stemmed two years of ratings slides for the NFL, part of a decrease throughout the television industry. The average game in 2018 drew 15.8 million viewers as compared with 14.9 million in 2017. That number was 16.5 million for the 2016 season and 17.9 million in 2015.

 

Of the top 50 telecasts since the start of the 2018 season, 46 were NFL games.

 

Meanwhile, average streaming viewership rose 86 percent. A total of 13 Thursday night games were streamed on Amazon Prime.

 

Analysts have offered a series of explanations for this season’s ratings rebound, including the success of teams in some of the NFL’s largest markets: Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles (both the Rams and Chargers).

 

The NFL particularly shined during its primetime broadcasts this past season.

 

Thursday Night Football broadcasts averaged 14.9 million viewers, an uptick of 4% from last year’s reported viewership. Sunday Night Football averaged 19.3 million viewers, which marked an increase of 6%. Monday Night Football broadcasts garnered 11.6 million viewers, signaling an 8% growth from 2017.

 

The NFL also saw its viewership during Sunday afternoon games also improve. FOX averaged 18 million viewers during its broadcasts, marking a 2% increase. Meanwhile, CBS averaged 16.5 million viewers, which was up 6% from last year’s average.

– – –

There are five teams that can be compelled to appear on “Hard Knocks” this year.  John Breech of CBSSports.com explains the process and picks his favorite – a team whose two primary faces are familiar to television viewers:

 

At some point, there aren’t going to be any eligible teams for Hard Knocks, but luckily for the NFL, that won’t be happening in 2019, and that’s because there are five eligible teams for this year’s show.

 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Hard Knocks selection process, a team doesn’t have to be on the show if any of the three rules below applies to them:

 

They have a first-year head coach in place

 

They have a playoff berth in the past two seasons

 

They have appeared on Hard Knocks in the past 10 years

 

For instance, the Packers don’t have to be on the show in 2019 because they’ll have a new head coach. The Seahawks won’t have to be on the show because they’ve made the playoffs in the past two seasons and the Falcons won’t have to be on the show because they’ve appeared on Hard Knocks in the past 10 years.

 

When we factor in those three rules and apply them to every team, we’re left with just five teams that the NFL can force to be on Hard Knocks in 2019: The 49ers, Raiders, Giants, Redskins and Lions.

 

Of those five teams, we can probably go ahead and eliminate the 49ers, and that’s because they don’t sound very interested in having a TV show invade their training camp this summer. Last year, general manager John Lynch made it pretty clear that he didn’t want the 49ers on Hard Knocks. This year, it was coach Kyle Shanahan who didn’t sound too enthusiastic about the idea.

 

“It’s a hard, hard, bad stance, Hard Knocks,” Shanahan said Monday, via quotes distributed by the team. “You will see the worst entertainment possible by me.”

 

With the 49ers likely out of the running, that leaves us with the Raiders, Giants, Redskins and Lions.

 

Although I don’t have any say in this decision, I think the pick is obvious and it’s THE RAIDERS. Putting Jon Gruden on HBO for one hour a week practically guarantees that this would go down as the craziest season of Hard Knocks ever. Gruden’s personality is basically made-for-TV, which is why all of his Hooter’s commercials are so fascinating. Not to mention, there’s the added twist that the Raiders don’t even know where they’ll be holding training camp this year since they’re technically homeless.

 

I would also watch the Giants on Hard Knocks for the Odell Beckham drama alone. The Lions would also be an interesting choice, but watching Matt Patricia yell at the camera crew about their posture for five straight weeks would probably get old.

 

As for the Redskins, they would be a fascinating choice, if only because it would potentially give us an inside look at the recovery of Alex Smith. However, I vote the Raiders, so let’s hope it’s the Raiders.

 

Should a team be able to eliminate itself just by saying it isn’t interested in being on the show?

 

 

 

WORST TO FIRST

Which of the eight division tail-enders will keep up the recent tradition of going worst-to-first.  Hall of Famer Gil Brandt looks at the candidates:

 

There are some years when a handful of last-place teams jump out as strong candidates to finish in first place the following season. This is not one of those years.

 

 

Two Januarys ago, I pegged the Eagles (7-9 in the NFC East in 2016), Jaguars (3-13 in the AFC South) and Panthers (6-10 in the NFC South) as the three last-place teams most likely to finish first in 2017. They obliged, with Philadelphia and Jacksonville winning their divisions and the Panthers finishing in second only by virtue of a tiebreaker. (And, of course, the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.) Last year, I ranked the Texans as having the best worst-to-first potential, and they went on to win the AFC South in 2018. From 2014 to ’18, five of the 15 teams ranked in the top three of my annual worst-to-first assessment have gone on to finish first the year after the ranking. This year, we’ll be lucky to get one.

 

Of course, the odds are against most last-place teams, at least based on the past five seasons: 19 of the 40 last-place teams that I’ve assessed since January of 2014 went on to finish in last place again, while just six managed to claim a division title.

 

Below is my ranking of the eight last-place teams of 2018, according to their chances of finishing first in 2019 (with the rankings presented in reverse order this year, for a twist):

 

8) Arizona Cardinals (NFC West, 3-13)

The Cardinals will enter 2019 with their third coach in three seasons, which does not reflect the kind of stability a team needs to succeed. They have two things working in their favor: They racked up 49 sacks (tied for fifth most in the NFL) and they have a franchise quarterback in Josh Rosen. But Arizona also finished 32nd on offense. Aside from David Johnson (who wasn’t able to do much in 2018) and veteran Larry Fitzgerald (who might be retiring), the Cardinals just don’t have much to work with on offense. And they’re stuck in a division with two playoff teams (the Rams and Seahawks) and a third team (the 49ers) that could become a playoff team when Jimmy Garoppolo returns to health.

 

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC South, 5-11)

Turnovers helped lead to Dirk Koetter’s demise. He’s a very good offensive coach, but it’s tough to win in the NFL with a turnover differential of minus-18 (a league-high 35 turnovers against 17 takeaways). The defense needs help and must make more impact plays in 2019 — Jason Pierre-Paul had 12.5 sacks in his first year with the Bucs, but no one else approached double-digits. And Jameis Winston must consistently perform like a playoff-caliber QB, cutting way down on the turnovers (19:14 TD-to-INT ratio, with seven fumbles, three lost). The Saints ruled the division this season, but they’re not a lock to dominate again in 2019, and while the Falcons should be better, the Panthers appear to be a descending team. If Winston can put together the kind of season he seemed to be capable of when Tampa took him first overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Bucs could potentially make some noise.

 

6) Detroit Lions (NFC North, 6-10)

The Lions took a significant step backward in 2018, winning just one game (vs. New England in Week 3) against an opponent that finished the year with a winning record. Their top priority — whether it’s addressed via schematic adjustments enacted by whoever replaces Jim Bob Cooter at offensive coordinator or personnel changes, or both — is to fix the issues that led Matthew Stafford to throw for less than 200 yards per game (with four TDs and three INTs) over Detroit’s final six games. The offensive line is in fairly good shape, and Stafford should have plenty of years of production left, given that he’ll still only be 31 when the 2019 season starts. With additional time to implement his vision, Matt Patricia’s defense — which ranked 10th in 2018 — should theoretically be better. Detroit has tended to draft well in recent years. If some useful pieces can be added to the offense, and if the offense is also reinvigorated by the new coordinator, the Lions could get back on track in a division where the Packers and Vikings are also in flux to some degree.

 

5) Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North, 6-10)

There won’t be a clear-cut favorite in the AFC North heading into next season. The Ravens, who are aging on defense and face questions about the long-term sustainability of their offensive attack, could be peaking in 2018. The Steelers missed the playoffs and appear to be in danger of being enveloped by offseason drama. Cleveland should take the next step in 2019, but there are no guarantees in a new head coach’s first year. Of course, the Bengals will also be hiring a new coach. And they were one of the weakest defensive teams, yardage-wise, in NFL history, ranking fifth all-time in total yards allowed. But I think that issue can be alleviated somewhat by the coaching change. There is also more than enough talent on offense, which should be built around running back Joe Mixon going forward, with a complementary passing game featuring a serviceable Andy Dalton throwing to A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Giovani Bernard and (should he re-sign) Tyler Eifert. There is enough unpredictability around the division that I could easily see the Bengals rising above the fray next season — or finishing last once again.

 

4) Oakland Raiders (AFC West, 4-12)

I might be a season early on the Raiders, but my optimism around this team stems from the strong play of quarterback Derek Carr, who finished with career highs in passing yards (4,049) and completion percentage (68.9). Oakland was definitely an improved team down the stretch, with the exception of a Week 17 blowout loss to the Chiefs. Both sides of the ball require personnel upgrades, and I think that’s where new general manager Mike Mayock will help coach Jon Gruden, who exudes great enthusiasm and really knows how to coach football but has not always picked well in the draft. I think the Raiders will be better in Year 2 under Gruden, who has a quarterback-friendly offense, and I think they’ll win more games next year, though I think they’re still not quite ready to threaten the Chiefs or Chargers.

 

3) New York Jets (AFC East, 4-12)

I know the Patriots have won the AFC East in 16 of the last 18 seasons. But they can’t win forever, can they? When the fall comes, there will be an open competition between the Bills, Jets and Dolphins to fill the power vacuum. If the Jets hire the right coach, why can’t Sam Darnold follow in the footsteps of Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who won division titles in their second NFL seasons? Darnold has shown every earmark of becoming a legit franchise quarterback this season despite working with a lesser supporting cast. As someone who entered the NFL without a ton of experience as a starting quarterback, he had to work through some ups and downs, including a stretch from Week 7 to Week 9 when he completed 47.3 percent of his passes with a 2:7 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 43.3, and a foot injury that cost him three games. But he finished strong (931 yards, six TDs, one pick and a 99.1 passer rating in his last four games) and looked like a much more confident quarterback at the end of the season. The roster needs a lot of work, but the Jets are projected to have plenty of salary-cap space, according to OverTheCap, and there’s every reason to believe in Darnold in 2019.

 

2) New York Giants (NFC East, 5-11)

While the Giants seriously underachieved in 2018, they’re closer to contending in 2019 than some people think. After all, they lost an NFL-high eight games by seven points or less, and they became the first team in league history to lose each of their final two games by a single point. Rookie running back Saquon Barkley was everything they were hoping he’d be when they drafted him No. 2 overall, while receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — even with his penchant for generating off-field attention — became one of just seven players to post four or more 1,000-yard seasons in the last five years. The keys for New York will be upgrading the pass rush after finishing tied for 30th in sacks and fortifying the offensive line to give Eli Manning time to throw.

 

As for Manning, I think he’s got two good seasons left in him. He didn’t play especially poorly in 2018. The offense ranked a decent 17th, and he completed a career-best 66.0 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards (fourth best in his career) and a passer rating of 92.4 (also fourth best). I would think about drafting a quarterback to develop behind Manning, but at this point, the Giants’ best option is probably finding some extra talent to put around the 37-year-old.

 

1) Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South, 5-11)

No 2017 playoff team fell further this season than the Jaguars. And no last-place team is in a better place to rebound, thanks to a talented defense that still finished fifth in the NFL — provided a few significant issues are addressed on offense. Really good coaches seem to be harder to find every day, with seemingly everybody in the NFL looking for innovative, creative offensive coordinators who have a total understanding of what opposing defenses do. But Jacksonville must find the right offensive coordinator to resurrect an attack that dropped from sixth in yards and fifth in scoring in 2017 to 27th and 31st in 2018. The Jags also need to straighten out Leonard Fournette, who put up a dud of a year in which he was hurt, suspended and — by his own admission — in suboptimal shape, although a healthier O-line should help in that regard. And then we come to the quarterback position.

 

Personally, I think Nick Foles would be an attractive fit in Jacksonville, among the options that figure to be up for grabs. There seems to be a little bit of magic to him, and that’s definitely something the Jags could use at QB. His overall record as a starter (26-18) might not wow you, but you can’t argue with a Super Bowl MVP award. He’s like the sales rep who might not be the slickest guy on the team but is able to land the accounts that matter. I’d also like Ryan Tannehill here should he become available. But even if you put the names of Foles, Tannehill, Joe Flacco and Teddy Bridgewater in a hat and pulled one out, whoever you chose would be an upgrade over Blake Bortles, who had one of the worst seasons of his career in Year 5.

 

 

BILL BARNWELL’S PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Bill Barnwell has an enormously long version of a playoff preview where he imagines in great detail a path to the Super Bowl title for each of the 12 playoff teams. 

The full thing is here.

 

One of the great things, is that he charts wildly different paths in all quarters of each of the 12 imagined scenarios.  We will just list them below, read at the link for all the gory details

 

1. New Orleans Saints

Beat the Patriots, 31-17, in Super Bowl after a win over X and the Bears.

 

2. Los Angeles Rams

Beat the Chiefs, 37-34, in Super Bowl after wins over the Bears and Cowboys.

 

3. Chicago Bears

Beat the Chargers, 27-7 in Super Bowl after wins over the Eagles, Bears and Saints.

 

4. Dallas Cowboys

Beat the Chiefs, 24-14, in Super Bowl after wins over Seahawks, Rams and Saints.

 

5. Seattle Seahawks

Beat the Chiefs, 31-20, in Super Bowl after wins over Cowboys, Rams and Eagles.

 

6. Philadelphia Eagles

Beat the Patriots, 27-20, in the Super Bowl after wins over Bears, Saints and Rams.

 

AFC

 

1. Kansas City Chiefs

Beat the Rams, 45-42, in the Super Bowl after wins over Chargers and Texans.

 

2. New England Patriots,

Beat the Saints, 24-23, in the Super Bowl after wins over Texans and Ravens.

 

3. Houston Texans

Beat the Rams, 23-19, in the Super Bowl after wins over Colts, Patriots and Ravens.

 

4. Baltimore Ravens

Beat the Rams, 23-14, in the Super Bowl after wins over Chargers, Chiefs and Patriots.

 

5. Los Angeles Chargers

Beat the Saints, 30-24, in the Super Bowl after wins over Ravens, Chiefs and Patriots.

 

6. Indianapolis Colts

Beat the Cowboys, 23-9, in the Super Bowl after wins over Texans, Chiefs and Ravens.

 

Barnwell also has a Super Bowl “comparison” for each of the 2018 teams:

 

NFC

 

Saints Super Bowl comp: 1977 Cowboys. By standard score, the Saints rank relatively similar to a handful of Super Bowl losers, including the 1996 and 2011 Patriots. The closest champion requires us to go back more than 40 years, to a 1977 Cowboys team that ranked second in points per game, just ahead of these third-placed Saints. The defense wasn’t quite as impressive, but Harvey Martin & Co. allowed just 23 points over their three-game playoff run.

 

Rams Super Bowl comp: 2009 Saints. The Rams are actually closest to a pair of Super Bowl losers in the 1988 Bengals and 1991 Bills. The closest team to win the title is an earlier edition of the likeliest opponents for the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, as those Saints combined one of the league’s best offenses with a slightly below-average defense. Both those Saints and this year’s Rams rank 20th in scoring defense.

 

Bears Super Bowl comp: 1985 Bears. It doesn’t have to be especially complicated. That Bears defense was a cut above even this team — the 2018 Bears allowed 17.7 points per game, but if you use standardized score to translate the 1985 Bears into this era, they would have allowed 15.9 points per game — but they’re a dominant defense that forces a ton of takeaways. Quarterback Jim McMahon was in his fourth season with the Bears, but he was still relatively inexperienced as a pro. He finished that fourth campaign with 961 NFL pass attempts, not too far off from the 764 passes Trubisky has thrown as he enters the postseason.

 

Cowboys Super Bowl comp: 2007 Giants. There aren’t really any similar teams to the Cowboys that made it to the Super Bowl if we use their full-season totals. We can treat the second-half Cowboys like a different team, but as they went 7-1 while outscoring their opponents by a total of just 12 points, even they don’t look like most Super Bowl winners. As a result, the closest team is actually one that trampled the Cowboys on their way to one of the most famous Super Bowl victories of all time. The 2007 Giants lost by double-digits twice to the Cowboys during the regular season, only to hold Tony Romo to a 50 percent completion percentage and cling to a 21-17 lead for the final 11 minutes of the game. You know what happened three weeks later.

 

Seahawks Super Bowl comp: 1988 49ers. Seahawks fans might not enjoy the comparison between their team and the rivals who faced them in a series of brutal games earlier this decade during the Jim Harbaugh era, but the final 49ers team under Bill Walsh’s stewardship is the closest comparable for these Seahawks. That Niners team was considered a pass-happy attack in its day, but to put things in context, those 49ers ran the ball 49 percent of the time, which would be the second-highest run rate in football. Their defense also carried them through the postseason, allowing just 21 defensive points in wins over the Vikings, Bears and Bengals.

 

Eagles Super Bowl comp: 2003 Panthers. There isn’t really a comparable Super Bowl winner in the bunch for the Eagles by the numbers; the closest example would be the 2003 Panthers, who are a near-perfect match after accounting for era. The Panthers combined an above-average defense with slightly below-average offense and outscored their opponents by a total of 21 points, while this year’s Eagles mixed an above-average scoring defense with slightly below-average offense and outscored their opponents by 19 points. Those Panthers needed to win two games on the road with Jake Delhomme at quarterback against the top two seeds in the conference and managed to do so, topping Marc Bulger’s 12-4 Rams in St. Louis before an ugly 14-3 victory over, yes, the Eagles in Philadelphia.

 

AFC

 

Chiefs Super Bowl comp: 2016 Falcons. I’m generally trying to find Super Bowl winners with these historical comparisons, but there just aren’t as many teams with this sort of offensive firepower who also had a pretty mediocre defense. The Chiefs finished with the 17th-best offense since the merger by standardized score, but just six of the previous 16 teams also posted negative defenses, and none of them won the Super Bowl. The Kyle Shanahan-era Falcons are the closest Super Bowl comp, and like the Chiefs in this scenario, a hotter-than-expected defense helped fuel their agonizingly close run toward the Lombardi trophy.

 

Patriots Super Bowl comparable: 2001 Patriots. Funny how that works, huh? The 2018 Patriots are 0.82 standard deviations over the mean on offense, while the 2001 Patriots were … 0.82 standard deviations over the mean on offense. DVOA takes more of a shine to this year’s offense, and I’d agree, but the 2001 Patriots were sixth in the league in points per game. This season’s defense is also a significant upgrade on the 2001 unit, which ranked 31st in DVOA.

 

Texans Super Bowl comparable: 1981 49ers. Though the Texans are going to look better historically by point differential by virtue of playing an easy schedule, the 49ers also played a below-average slate and rode the league’s second-best scoring defense for most of the season. In the playoffs, though, the offense drove the Niners to a Super Bowl title, averaging more than 30 points per game. With three Hall of Famers on the roster, the 49ers also were blessed with stars at key positions in Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and trade acquisition Fred Dean, who was that season’s equivalent of Khalil Mack. There was also the small matter of a famous catch against the Cowboys …

 

Ravens Super Bowl comp: 2003 Patriots. New England wasn’t exactly running quarterback power with Brady during its second Super Bowl-winning campaign, but the Pats combined slightly above-average offensive play with an excellent defense. Like the Ravens, they weathered an early storm before getting hot as the season went on, but their rise came quicker. The Pats started 2-2 before rolling off 12 consecutive victories, followed by playoff victories over the Titans, Colts and Panthers. They got caught in a wild shootout with the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, as the league’s top defense allowed Jake Delhomme to throw for 323 yards and three touchdowns before a bad kickoff and an Adam Vinatieri field goal sealed things for the Pats.

 

Chargers Super Bowl comp: 1987 Washington. I don’t necessarily love this comparison, given that it involves midseason replacement players (like quarterback Ed Rubbert) and a Washington team which served as a perennial playoff contender under Joe Gibbs’ stewardship. In terms of on-field performance, though, the 11-4 Washington team that won the Super Bowl is the closest victor to this Chargers team. It spent most of the year with Jay Schroeder as their quarterback before turning things over to Doug Williams, who led the first offense in Super Bowl history to rack up 600 yards in a game. If the Chargers have to turn the reins over to backup Geno Smith, I’m not very confident the former Jets starter will be able to follow in Williams’ footsteps.

 

Colts Super Bowl comp: 2012 Ravens. Again, while Ravens fans might not love being compared to a modern Colts iteration, the same Flacco-led team which beat the Colts at home in the wild-card round was above-average on both sides of the ball and slightly better on offense than defense. Those Ravens were 10th in scoring offense, and while the Colts are fifth, the ridiculous performances at the top of the leaderboard mean that Reich & Co. are closer to the Titans in 27th than than they are to the Chiefs in first place.