AROUND THE NFL
This about the NFL’s relationship with Mexico. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
The NFL has another game in Mexico on the books this season, but the future of that market could be in question.
According to a report from the Spanish website AS.com (thanks Google Translate), future NFL games and Formula 1 racing could be in doubt in the country as the government cuts back on subsidies for hosting sporting events.
“The decision does not depend on us, we will not have resources for that game of football,” tourism official Miguel Torruco said. “It would be good if [the event] stayed, but it is a reality that we do not have a budget for the following year.”
The decision won’t affect plans for this year’s Chargers-Chiefs game in Mexico City in Week 11.
After last year’s game between the Chiefs and Rams was pulled because of field concerns, the NFL reiterated its intent to host games there through 2021, which would apparently require some degree of corporate sponsorship or some other funding to pick up the slack.
Apparently, last year’s funding didn’t go into field maintenance.
Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com with more on who will call the plays in Green Bay:
After a little digging around, here’s the best way I can explain where the Packers are on who-calls-what-gate: They’re working on it. For the last few years, Aaron Rodgers has pretty much total freedom to change what he’s wanted to (which did create friction with the old staff), set protections and improvise on the fly. Conversely, Matt LaFleur’s system, as we’ve written here in the past, is built to take all of that off the quarterback’s plate, in an effort to get the quarterback playing fast. So the spring, for the coaches and Rodgers, was about meshing the two. One example: Guys from the Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan tree have become acquainted with what’s called the “double call.” The idea is for the coach to give the quarterback two calls, and a read to make the decision on which one is in on a given play. It’s great for younger quarterbacks, because it simplifies another element of the game, and safeguards them against snapping the offense into a bad call. Rodgers, on the other hand, has become accustomed to getting a play call and adjusting as he sees fit from there. So how will the Packers marry those two? As I understand it, the plan is to go with the double-call, while giving Rodgers the freedom to adjust past that. Similarly, as those systems have entrusted protection calls to the center (again, to get the quarterback faster), the Packers will train Corey Linsley to manage that area of the game, with Rodgers having power to make corrections. The hope here, of course, would be to get the best of both worlds—giving Rodgers the option, but not the obligation, to make changes on the fly, getting him playing faster on some snaps, while taking advantage of his knowhow on others. So let’s see how that works before we go crazy either way. It’d seem to have pretty good potential.
While “Hard Knock” may be the flashier starring role, there is another reality show that lasts all year. And the Panthers had the starring role in 2018. Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:
In the fourth installment of Amazon’s “All or Nothing” series, the 2018 Carolina Panthers are getting the behind-the-scenes treatment.
Amazon and NFL Films announced Wednesday that Carolina’s 7-9 campaign will be the focus of their latest look behind the season of an NFL team. The new slate of eight episodes will premiere July 19 on Amazon Prime Video.
The “All or Nothing” series previously gave viewers inside glimpses of the 2015 Arizona Cardinals, 2016 Los Angeles Rams and 2017 Dallas Cowboys. Only the 2015 Cards made the postseason, while the 2016 Rams fired their head coach en route to a 4-12 record and the 2017 ‘Boys dealt with injuries and suspensions during a streaky 9-7 campaign. The Panthers are the fourth NFC team and first NFC South squad to be featured on the series.
Carolina looked bound for the playoffs in 2018, breaking out to a 6-2 record midway through the campaign. Their two losses came by one score each and their wins were epic; Carolina’s 33-31 back-and-forth victory over the New York Giants in Week 4, which ended on a 63-yard Graham Gano field goal, and the Panthers’ three-score comeback win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7 should feature heavily as the high points of the season.
However, it all went wrong for the Panthers following a devastating blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on “Thursday Night Football” in Week 10. Cam Newton first reportedly injured his shoulder in the 52-21 loss, and soon after Carolina fell into a deep slump, losing seven straight games, including six by one score. The Panthers sat Newton for the season’s final two games and missed the postseason for the second time in three years.
Carolina’s locker room is full of notable characters and storylines that are worth paying attention to in this series, not least of whom is Newton, the flamboyant, enigmatic signal-caller who got off to a lightning-hot start (67.3 comp. pct, 15 TDs, 4 INTs) but whose injured shoulder and diminished passing ability helped tank the Panthers’ season. The injury forced Newton to undergo offseason shoulder surgery from which he is still recovering.
Albert Breer on the looming new contract for WR MICHAEL THOMAS who could be the first at his position to hit $20 million per year:
There was some sticker shock over the idea of Saints receiver Michael Thomas getting $22 million per year in new money on his next contract. Should there be? For three years, the market for top defensive players stagnated, with Ndamukong Suh and Von Miller remaining atop it at about $19 million per. Then Aaron Donald got $22.5 million per, just before Khalil Mack got $23.5 million per, and since then DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark have also eclipsed the $20 million-per mark. Similarly, the receiver market has stagnated a little recently, where the top guys are getting small bumps over the top of the market, and second-tier players like Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry are approaching it. So look at it this way: A.J. Green got $15 million per in new money on a four-year deal before the 2015 season. That year, the salary cap was $143.28 million, so Green’s APY was at 10.47 percent of the cap. This year the cap will be $188.2 million. And 10.47 percent of that is $19.70 million. Which isn’t that far off from Thomas’ negotiating position. (And also explains why Amari Cooper’s negotiation has been a tough one for Dallas.)
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Adam Rank of NFL.com offers this look at the state of the Saints in 2019.
Members of the Saints organization, fans of the team around the world and those who boycotted the Super Bowl because, well, you know why.
It’s been the best of times and the worst of times for Saints fans in recent years. New Orleans currently enjoys a level of football prosperity it has never seen. From a record-setting quarterback to a running back who is the human equivalent to a cheat code. But at the same time, the Saints have suffered the type of stinging playoff loss no fan base should ever endure. And not only once, but twice! However, New Orleans will answer the call like it always does as it moves on to 2019.
How the Saints got here
Let’s take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
— Drew Brees became the NFL’s all-time passing leader. It’s something that really needs to celebrated. Brees was cast aside by the San Diego Chargers after suffering a devastating shoulder injury in the final game of the 2005 season and came to New Orleans looking to prove himself all over again just as the city was rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Together, Brees and New Orleans have teamed to make history.
— Won 10 straight games, the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. The 10th win came when New Orleans completed the season sweep of the rival Falcons on Thanksgiving night.
— Clinched second-consecutive NFC South title. Significant because the South remains one of the most competitive divisions in football.
— Huge wins over the Rams and Steelers that helped clinch the top overall seed in the NFC. And they even defeated the defending Super Bowl-champion Eagles in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. That’s probably where you want to stop the stream if you’re watching the season-in-review from home.
— Let’s just talk about this right now. Most football observers will agree that Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis was interfered with by Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman on the infamous fourth-quarter throw in the NFC Championship Game. If pass interference had been called, the game’s result might have been different, granting the Saints their first trip to the Super Bowl since winning the title to close out the 2009 season. Many Saints fans refused to watch the Super Bowl LIII in protest, and I can’t say that I blame them. However, you can question some of the Saints’ play calling on that drive, and they did have the ball first in overtime, as well. So, while Saints fans have every right to be upset about the no-call, the Saints still had a chance to win the game.
Head coach: Sean Payton. There’s this scene in “Ocean’s Twelve” where Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) makes this crack to Bruce Willis (who plays himself in the movie) about how that little statue on the mantle starts smirking at you after a while. It’s a reference to it being a long time since Julia Roberts had won an Oscar. I’m obviously not suggesting Payton, who is nine seasons removed from his last Super Bowl appearance, is in any sort of trouble. The exact opposite, of course. But there is something career-defining about getting that second Lombardi Trophy. It’s the kind of thing that changes the convo from “likely to go to the Hall of Fame” to “there is no doubt he’s going to the Hall of Fame.” Because there aren’t many coaches who have won two Super Bowls and are not in the Hall (of the guys who are eligible). So I guess that was a lot of words just to say the Saints have one of the best coaches on the planet.
Quarterback: Drew Brees. There is this scene in “Ocean’s Twelve” … I’m just kidding. You know, I was watching my guy Cam Jordan on my show “Good Morning Football” a few weeks ago. Jordan is always great. But I loved that he was dragging every quarterback in the NFL at the expense of making it clear that he thinks Brees is the best quarterback in the game. “I mean year in and year out, he doesn’t get the MVP … but eventually he’s due,” Jordan said. “Who has thrown for more 5,000-yard seasons than Drew Brees?”
Good question. I’m assuming it’s Brees. (Checks notes). Yep, it’s Brees, who has done it five times. (The feat has been accomplished 11 times in NFL history.) I completely agree with what Jordan is getting at here. It’s ridiculous that he’s never won the MVP award. I guess Peyton Manning had to win it 80 times and keep it from Brees, who never seems to get his full recognition. Even last year, when he failed to pass for 4,000 yards for the first time in what seems like forever, Brees was still pretty special. (Brees last failed to throw for 4k back in 2005 as a member of the Chargers. And it’s fair to point out Brees only missed the mark in 2018 because he sat out Week 17, seeing that the Saints had already locked up the top seed in the NFC.)
The most impressive thing for me is Brees threw 32 touchdowns with just five interceptions last season. He has 13 interceptions total in the last two seasons, the fewest of any QB with 850 or more attempts, and he’s completed a league-best 73.2 percent of his passes over that span. He’s obviously much more than a game manager, but he’s also averaged less than 270 passing yards per game over the past two seasons after averaging 325 from 2011-2016. I just call that efficiency, though. It’s like when Danny Ocean allowed Linus to do all of the heavy lifting in “Ocean’s Twelve.” He’s giving other people (running backs, in this case) an opportunity.
Projected 2019 MVP: Alvin Kamara, running back. You all laughed last season when I told you Kamara was going to be one of the best fantasy backs in the business. Regression was a word that was thrown around quite a bit, too, after he took the league by storm as a rookie. However, Kamara improved his rushing-yards total (mostly because he had more attempts) and did increase his rushing touchdowns from eight to 14. He finished with 18 total touchdowns, up from 13 the previous year. Kamara could have a bigger workload this year with Mark Ingram in Baltimore, though the team did bring in Latavius Murray as a complementary back. But expect bigger things from Kamara this season, maybe even some snaps from under center, as Payton recently alluded to.
2019 breakout star: Marcus Davenport, defensive end. The Saints traded up 13 spots in Round 1 last year — parting with three picks, including two first-rounders, in the deal — to take the little-known Davenport out of UTSA. And I say “little-known” for more casual fans, because he was a darling of the 2018 draft season even though he didn’t play his college ball at a program with a history of producing NFL talent. Davenport’s rookie season was kind of a mixed bag, though. He had just 4.5 sacks, but he battled hip and toe ailments during the season and underwent surgery this offseason. He looked amazing at times when he was healthy in 2018. So you figure that a full offseason with the Saints should help him heading into 2019. With Cam Jordan opposite him, Davenport should really flourish in Year 2.
And also: Alex Anzalone, linebacker. The Saints have a lot of talented players in their front seven. Anzalone has been great in pass coverage and could step into a bigger role with the team this season.
New face to know: Jared Cook, tight end. It was crazy when the Saints traded away Jimmy Graham in 2015. I mean, they did get Max Unger in the deal with the Seahawks, but the Saints have struggled to find a replacement at tight end. I remember when Coby Fleener was supposed to be the dude. He was not. It was like the first time Mason Ryan jumped out to help CM Punk and you thought Batista was back. He was not. And Ryan’s Twitter bio now states that he performs as an archer in Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” in Las Vegas. You might think that is a joke, but it’s the truth. But back to Cook. He had a rebirth last year in Oakland. He notched nearly 900 receiving yards and scored six touchdowns. He’s my X-factor for the Saints’ offense this year.
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Will the Saints be …
Able to get over back-to-back devastating playoff losses? It’s funny. If you are a fan of a losing team — one that is rebuilding — you can kind of insulate yourself as a fan and look for small improvements and victories. You can celebrate if your team knocks off a contender. Or maybe look forward to the draft. The feeling is quite a bit different when you have one of the best teams in the NFL and you lose in the playoffs. And the Saints haven’t just lost in the playoffs — they’ve lost in some of the most excruciating ways. First it was Stefon Diggs and the Minnesota Miracle. And then the no-call last season. To go through that in back-to-back years and bounce back is a tough ask. But if there is a coach and quarterback who I would have a lot of confidence in to do it, it’s Payton and Brees.
Survive Max Unger’s retirement? Unger had been the anchor on the offensive line since the team acquired him in the Jimmy Graham trade in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl last season. Now it looks like second-round pick Erik McCoy is going to be the guy in the middle for the Saints. No pressure or anything, rook. The newbie is surrounded by veterans on the O-line, which should help, and it would be especially nice if left tackle Terron Armstead can stay healthy.
One storyline people are overlooking: This defense is really, really good. Obviously, when you have Sean Payton and Drew Brees, they are going to be the headliners of the team. They are the Jeff Bebe and Russell Hammond of the team. And that’s understandable. But I love the way the defense has started to come together, playing very stingy ball down the stretch last season. I’ve already mentioned my affinity for Cam Jordan and bullishness about up-and-comers like Marcus Davenport and Alex Anzalone. There are plenty of other guys to be excited about at each level of the defense, like Sheldon Rankins, Demario Davis and Marshon Lattimore. I know Eli Apple has been a disappointment to this point in his career, but I’m interested to see what the 2018 trade-deadline acquisition does in his contract year, too. Who knows? Maybe he can turn things around alongside fellow former Buckeyes Lattimore and Vonn Bell after being labeled a “cancer” by then-teammate Landon Collins back in 2017. Apple recorded two interceptions and nine passes defensed in 10 starts with the Saints last year.
One storyline people are overthinking: Who will step up as the team’s No. 2 receiver? It kind of doesn’t matter. It’s been Brees’ m.o. during his career to distribute the ball all over the field. Michael Thomas is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, and he’s one of the best in the game. Kamara is really the No. 2 receiver. And with a talented group that includes Tre’Quan Smith, Cam Meredith and Cook, the Saints will find a way to score. They don’t need a designated No. 2 receiver.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Saints MUST …
— Get to the Super Bowl. I mean, if your friend invites you to lunch only to cancel at the last minute while you’re already at the restaurant, you can forgive that once. Maybe even twice. But a third invite? Your ass better be there or we are finished.
I was impressed by the way the Saints bounced back last season from a crushing playoff defeat in Minnesota. They are going to be asked to do it again. Not to mention, they have a real gauntlet to open the season. But this is what Payton and Brees always do. They always seem to rise to the occasion and I would bank on them doing it again.
Some ongoing good work in Kenya by Seahawks LB K.J. WRIGHT.
It’s the period of the NFL calendar during which players take more time to give back to charities and causes that are near to their hearts. While many players do charity work during the busy season, the summer break affords greater opportunities for bigger gifts.
K.J. Wright is one high-profile example.
The Seattle Seahawks linebacker is heading to Kenya to check in on the wells he helped fund last year.
“It just hit my heart,” Wright said of his last visit to Kenya, via the team’s official website. “I’m always trying to help people whenever I can, and I just learned about a situation I had no idea about, and it just touched me to do something.”
Wright helped raise more than $75,000 — including the $25,000 received for being named the Seahawks’ 2018 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee — to pay for two wells, with some money left over to help provide future aid to the area. The 29-year-old noted during the season that each well costs about $20,000.
“You see where they get their water from, it’s terrible what they have to do to get water, so this could be big for them,” Wright said.
Helping to get a vital life source to those in need has been an undertaking of several NFL players, with Wright’s contribution being the latest example of how these men can have a lasting influence not only on the field and in their local communities, but around the globe.
Investigators from NFL Justice grilled WR TYREEK HILL for eight hours. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill met for eight hours with NFL officials today as the league continues to review whether Hill violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
A league source tells PFT that Hill’s meeting with NFL Special Counsel for Investigations Lisa Friel and her deputy, Jennifer Gaffney, began at 8:30 a.m. local time in Kansas City and concluded at 4:30 p.m.
At issue is an allegation that Hill physically abused his son and broke his arm, a comment Hill made in a recorded conversation that his fiancee needs “to be terrified of me,” and the circumstances that led to Hill’s son being removed from their home.
The Chiefs have not permitted Hill to participate in offseason work, but it is unclear whether he will be present when the team opens training camp on July 23. He could be suspended for a significant period of time, even though he is not facing criminal charges.
If the NFL decides to discipline Hill, he would have another meeting in New York with Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The Colts feel good about having QB JACOBY BRISSETT under contract for one more year. And Coach Frank Reich can relate to his plight as a backup (for the moment). Kevin Bowen of 1080TheFan.com:
Chris Ballard should continue to sleep pretty well through the 2019 season.
It is that comfort, thanks to having Jacoby Brissett under contract as his backup quarterback, that has Ballard resting easy at night.
The trade offers have not been abundant, but the ones that have been pitched to the Colts for Brissett have not been enough to part ways with their backup quarterback.
Ballard said it would take something that “blew him away” to make such a move and clearly that hasn’t happened.
The full expectation is Brissett will play out the final year of his rookie contract with the Colts.
Next spring though, when Brissett becomes a free agent for the first time in his NFL life, that’s when decisions will have to be made.
Sure, the Colts would love to retain Brissett moving forward. But the competitor inside of Brissett, who was a 2016 third-round pick, also has the itch to be a full-time starter in this league.
It’s the sort of dilemma that Frank Reich faced during his playing career.
“After five or so years in the league, I had a few opportunities to play and won some games, which was culminated with winning a couple playoff games,” Reich says, sharing his story from playing in Buffalo as a backup. “After winning a couple playoff games, I still had two years left on my contract. (I thought), ‘Man, I wish my contract was up right now.’ But it wasn’t. I remember talking to (Ralph) Wilson, the owner of the Bills at the time. I was expressing my desire about a couple of things. He’d been around this game a long time, and I remember him saying to me, ‘Frank, I appreciate everything that you’ve done. But, in business, this is just the way it works. Your contract’s not up. At some level, you just have to continue to do what you’re doing and hopefully it works out well for you.’
“On one side as a player, you just have to say that’s life in the NFL. You signed the contract. But that isn’t the way it is with Jacoby and that wasn’t the way it was with me. The Bills organization didn’t make me feel like I wasn’t valued. I felt incredibly valued, and I knew I was contributing. And I think Jacoby knows that’s true.”
From starting 15 games for the Colts in 2017, to the learning under Reich, while playing behind Luck in 2018, Brissett has consumed a lot in his two years in Indianapolis.
Brissett was the starting quarterback for the entire spring offseason program again in 2019, but his duties with the second team will return next month, with Luck coming back from his calf injury.
Ideally, the Colts wouldn’t have Brissett under center for one meaningful snap in 2019.
And they know if an opportunity to start comes Brissett’s way in free agency next spring, it will be time to look for a new backup.
“It’s impossible for me to have a higher opinion of Jacoby than I do,” Reich says. “I said it last year, I think he’s a top 20 quarterback. I still say that. After watching him for a year, this guy’s really good.
“I tell Chris all the time, ‘Please don’t let him go. I don’t care what anybody offers him. Don’t let him go.’ I love Jacoby. The problem is now I’ve gotten to know Jacoby and, at some point, I hope that it works out for Jacoby. But not now.”
Optimism about QB JOSH ALLEN in Buffalo. Vic Carucci in the Buffalo News:
During a decade of playing in the NFL, LeSean McCoy has seen his share of quarterbacks with varying levels of experience.
He knows when he’s seeing their best, worst and everything in between.
During the Buffalo Bills’ offseason workouts, McCoy kept a particularly close watch on Josh Allen. McCoy wanted a firsthand account of just how much improvement Allen made from his rookie season in 2018 and, therefore, just how good the running back should feel about the Bills’ overall chances for improving on last year’s 6-10 finish.
“He looks better,” McCoy told The Buffalo News. “I think he looks more confident. I think last year he just played off of talent. Sometimes, when quarterbacks are really talented, you overlook how smart they really are. Josh is smart.”
So far, Allen seems to be showing he is smart enough not to assume he knows everything about being a successful quarterback in the NFL. Since joining the Bills as the seventh overall pick of last year’s draft, the former Wyoming star has represented the franchise’s best hope since its Super Bowl years of emerging from the ranks of a perpetual also-ran. That has resulted in considerable hype, as well as scrutiny.
Yet, Allen appears to be maintaining a proper balance between recognizing how far he has come and how much farther he needs to go.
“I definitely think as you get better, you have to step back and see where you’ve progressed,” he told reporters at the end of the Bills’ mandatory minicamp earlier this month. “Obviously, there’s something that you can get better at every day, and having a certain mindset and trying to pick something specific to go work on. At the same time, getting out there and trying to understand that some parts of my game are looking good, but trying to work on something else. ‘I can revisit this and make sure that thing is good to go.’
“It’s going to be a constant grind, though. Every time you step on the field, you have to find something else to get better at.”
That introspection hasn’t been lost on coach Sean McDermott. He, too, recognizes how vital Allen’s performance is to the Bills’ fortunes and, by extension, his job security. He is entering his third season as a head coach in a league where that is often seen as the win-or-else point for those in his line of work.
“I believe Josh is well informed of what he needs to improve on and what he does well already and improving on those areas as well,” McDermott told reporters during minicamp. “So, Josh is a young man that is driven and very in tune and very self-aware to his development, his overall development as a young man and as a football player and how important that is to our organization. I’ve seen that in the habits that he has undertaken since he left here in January and when we got him back and what he’s done since that time.”
Now that Allen is the undisputed starter and not sharing practice reps from the bottom of the depth chart as he did as a rookie, his challenges have graduated to a more sophisticated level. At times, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll trusted Allen enough to let him call plays at a hurry-up pace.
Allen also impressed teammates – including new receivers John Brown, Cole Beasley and Andre Roberts – with not only his skills as a thrower and runner, but with his grasp of the scheme.
As far as Pro Football Hall-of-Fame General Manager Bill Polian is concerned, Allen is on course to become the quarterback the Bills are banking on him becoming.
“Just continue doing what he’s doing,” the former Bills and Indianapolis Colts executive told reporters at Jim Kelly’s Celebrity Golf Tournament earlier this month. “The second year, he’s going to be a whole lot better than the first. The biggest jump a player makes is between their first and second years, so he’ll be comfortable in the offense, he’ll be comfortable knowing what’s expected of him, he’ll be comfortable knowing what he’s playing against.
Some thoughts from Albert Breer on the Patriots personnel department:
We discussed last Monday the future of the Patriots personnel department, and what could happen over the coming years, and it may color why the Krafts has been involved in the Nick Caserio saga, much like they drove the effort to keep Josh McDaniels in February 2018. The Patriots lost both their national scouts James Liipfert and Dujuan Daniels (to Houston and Oakland, respectively), and a key area scout, Pat Stewart (to Philly), over the last year. Word in scouting circles is that Caserio and college scouting director Monti Ossenfort are up in May 2020, and there’s a pretty decent chance that both leave then. All of that leaves pro scouting director Dave Ziegler, a college teammate of Caserio and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as the highest-ranking personnel man under contract through 2020. So Ziegler’s a key figure. And you can see why the Kraft family would take an interest in trying to maintain some continuity on that side of the operation, as they did with McDaniels ahead of this year’s exodus of five assistant coaches.
NEW YORK JETS
The DB has noticed that quite a few hotshot scouts flounder when they are pumped up to GM. This from Albert Breer is interesting on that topic and explains a smart hire by new Jets GM Joe Douglas:
I remember a conversation I had with Phil Savage when he stepped down as executive director of the Senior Bowl last year—and how he said he wished he’d had the experience of running the all-star game before he got his shot at being a general manager (that happened for him in 2005, with the Browns). His point was that a GM’s job is all-encompassing. You have to manage people, oversee budgets, allocate resources, and run an operation, even when a scout’s natural instinct may be to lock himself in a room with a bunch of game tape. It helped Savage earlier this year in running the Arizona Hotshots of the AAF. And my guess is it’ll help him become a tremendous resource for 42-year-old Jets GM Joe Douglas. Savage was a mentor of Douglas’ over the latter’s first five years in the league, and he’ll serve as Douglas’s senior personnel advisor with the Jets now.
THIS AND THAT
The NFL is thinking about an expansion of the “Hard Knocks” concept.
One of the things that was quietly discussed at the most recent owners meeting in May was the future of “Hard Knocks,” given some of the difficulty the league had in finding a volunteer team for this summer. The general assembly, including owners and team presidents, discussed the viability of the franchise and its potential evolution. One idea mirrored the “All-Access” series that Showtime has done, where NHL teams have been featured in preparation for the Winter Classic and boxers have been spotlighted ahead of big fights. The NFL concept would be to give NFL Films access to two teams going into a big game a few times over the course of the season, with the episodes airing later in the year. And that, as far as I can tell, would be in addition to the training camp series, which could undergo changes as well. My sense is that the concern would be “Hard Knocks” getting stale after all these years—and as all of you well know, the league likes to get in front of those sorts of things. And another thing that was discussed (that I’m sure coaches will love) was the potential elimination of parameters around who the league can mandate to do “Hard Knocks,” which allow the NFL to make anyone do it.
FIRST-TIME PRO BOWLERS IN 2019
Interesting off-season exercise by Marc Sessler of NFL.com, assessing who on each roster could be a Pro Bowl pick for the first time this year:
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Christian Kirk, WR, second NFL season: We lack an exact picture of Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid-flavored offense, but it’s apparent the attack will pepper enemies with four-wide sets that force defenses to make critical decisions on the fly: Blanket potential receivers? Key on do-everything back David Johnson? Or keep an eye on fleet-footed Kyler Murray in case he decides to blast into hyperspace by foot? Veteran wideout Larry Fitzgerald told NFL Network’s Steve Wyche that Arizona’s playbook was “different than anything [he’s] ever run,” but noted Murray was “already in the driver’s seat” due to his familiarity with the system. Kingsbury went out of his way to note that Kirk “has a good feel for it, as well,” after shining in a familiar scheme at Texas A&M. Off to a fast start, Kirk’s stock is rising as the Cardinals prepare to feature his gifts as a deep threat. I’m betting on Kingsbury and Murray churning out a fleet of big-yardage targets led by the frisky Kirk.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Grady Jarrett, DT, fifth NFL season: The 6-foot, 305-pound Jarrett has been consistent on the field — and consistently overlooked for Pro Bowl honors. Tough sledding, with Aaron Donald operating in a similar role, but Jarrett joined the Rams star last season as the only interior lineman to play at least 14 games while notching both a stop and a quarterback pressure in every tilt. Jarrett’s space-eating ability and pass-rushing prowess landed him sixth league-wide at his position in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. His contract-year status (barring a long-term extension for the franchise-tagged Jarrett) won’t hurt, either, this time around.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Christian McCaffrey, RB, third NFL season: A notorious Pro Bowl snub a year ago, McCaffrey finished sixth overall in rushing (1,098 yards) and third in yards from scrimmage (1,965), only to watch the NFL’s all-star game from a faraway love seat. Packing on noticeable muscle this offseason and looming as Carolina’s pacesetter, McCaffrey will exact his revenge when autumn strikes.
CHICAGO BEARS: Roquan Smith, LB, second NFL season: Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson all made the Pro Bowl a year ago. It’s no stretch to suggest Smith will be next after logging 121 tackles, five sacks and 12 pressures as a first-round rookie. He made leaps as the season crept along, boasting tangible pass-coverage skills and playing one of his most impressive games all year in Chicago’s tight playoff loss to the Eagles. Smith’s finest days are ahead.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Jaylon Smith, LB, third NFL season: Let’s remember that marvelous rookie Leighton Vander Esch was initially snubbed by voters before landing in the Pro Bowl as an alternate. His linebacking partner in crime could be next. Smith recorded the top pass-rush win percentage (27.8) and second-best pass-rush grade (84.8) at his position, per Pro Football Focus. Two Cowboys ‘backers are not too many for this year’s all-star festivities.
DETROIT LIONS: Kenny Golladay, WR, third NFL season: Already Detroit’s clear-cut top wideout, Golladay is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign that saw him average nine targets, five catches and 73 yards per game after Golden Tate was shipped to the Eagles. One of the better contested-catch receivers around, only 14 pass-catchers league-wide absorbed more targets than the 6-4 Golladay in 2018. Detroit has talked about running up a storm, but room still exists for a monster season for the man known as Babytron.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Jaire Alexander, CB, second NFL season: Giddy Packers fans discovered what they had in Alexander during a raucous playmaking performance against the Rams in Week 8. Los Angeles targeted the newbie nine times, but Alexander broke up a whopping five of those passes — more than any cover man logged in a single game all season, per Pro Football Focus. A perfect fit for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system, Alexander has the tools to emerge as one of the division’s most exciting defensive backs.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Brandin Cooks, WR, sixth NFL season: Apparently four straight 1,000-yard seasons isn’t enough to earn a Pro Bowl bid. Cooks boasts 360 catches and 34 total scores over five campaigns but has yet to put up the 100-grab year that serves as the doorway for most Pro Bowl wideouts. The Rams have plenty of mouths to feed, but let’s not get too cute and select a plucky inside linebacker here.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Dalvin Cook, RB, third NFL season: Lost to a devastating knee injury as a rookie, Cook was held to 615 ground yards last season in a pass-happy offense that saw him split time with Latavius Murray and miss five games with a hamstring injury. Coach Mike Zimmer appears determined to run the ball to a fault in 2019, signaling a breakout — and bell cow — year for Cook. With little competition in the backfield, Cook’s biggest challenge is staying on the field. His talent will pave the way if so.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Marcus Davenport, DE, second NFL season: The narrative for eons in New Orleans was Drew Brees and a high-octane offense scoring points in bunches to mask a defense that, at best, showed up on time for games. That once embattled unit is now a strength, especially up front, where starry Cam Jordan headlines a deep group of behemoths. Davenport saw his rookie season cut short by a toe injury, but he also notched 28 pressures with just one missed tackle. Set for starting snaps in 2019, the first-rounder looms as a future household name.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Will Hernandez, LG, second NFL season: The heavily henpecked Giants quietly house a flock of young players who could bust out in 2019. As a rookie, Hernandez tied Nate Solder for the most snaps played on offense (1,027), while not allowing a sack after Week 7, per Pro Football Focus. After manning the line for years with a flock of ham-and-eggers, the Giants have found something legitimate in Hernandez. If it’s good enough for Baldy, it’s good enough for me.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Derek Barnett, DE, third NFL season: The 14th overall pick from 2017 was off to a solid start last season before a torn rotator cuff sent him into the abyss. With Michael Bennett out the door, Barnett is a candidate for double-digit sacks as a full-time contributor. “He started out lights out last year,” coach Doug Pederson said in March, per PhillyVoice.com. “He was playing well. He was one of our top edge rushers. … He doesn’t necessarily have to prove anything to us. He just has to be Derek, and he’ll play.”
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, sixth NFL season: “If not now, then when?” Tracy Chapman asked in her 1988 self-titled debut album. Were those words penned for Jimmy Garoppolo, the future quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers? Entirely unlikely, as Jimmy G wasn’t even born yet, but it’s an apt message for a quarterback set to turn 28 in November. Assuming his surgically repaired knee is ready to roll, Garoppolo has a golden opportunity to nab Comeback Player of the Year honors and possibly a playoff bid. He and uber-creative coach Kyle Shanahan are under a fair amount of pressure to make the latter happen come September. The time is now.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Jarran Reed, DT, fourth NFL season: The 26-year-old lineman is currently healing from sports hernia surgery. Assuming he’s ready for camp, Reed should add to an impressive resume that saw him become one of just 15 players to trigger a pass-rushing triple-double in 2018: double-digit totals in sacks (10.5), hits (13) and hurries (26). With jettisoned Frank Clark replaced by the oft-injured Ziggy Ansah and rookie L.J. Collier, Seattle will rely on Reed to stir chaos.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Chris Godwin, WR, third NFL season: This was a coin flip between Godwin and dominant-when-healthy tight end O.J. Howard. New coach Bruce Arians has a reputation for deemphasizing tight ends, but he acknowledged he’s never had an athletic specimen the equal of Howard. I trust Arians will use his best players, but I know the coach has fallen hard for his young wideout — who posted a 59/842/7 line in 2018 — saying in March: “I think Chris Godwin is going to be close to a 100-catch guy, especially because I think he can play in the slot. He’s never coming off the field.”
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Jonathan Allen, DE, third NFL season: Washington’s defense is stocked with young talent up front. Defensive lineman Daron Payne is an evolving talent, and Matt Ioannidis just earned a three-year extension. I’m going with Allen, though, the 3-4 end out of Alabama who piled up eight sacks a year ago after a Lisfranc injury sideswiped his rookie campaign. His ability to cast off blockers makes Allen a force from the inside for a unit that should cause problems for quarterbacks in 2019.
Some DB thoughts:
Obviously, not all four of the wide receivers he tabs are going to make it – not with MICHAEL THOMAS, AMARI COOPER, JULIO JONES and more also in the NFC. That’s why we would have gone with O.J. HOWARD at TE for the Buccaneers.
Hard to believe BRANDIN COOKS and GRADY JARRETT have never made the Pro Bowl.
On to the AFC:
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Matt Judon, edge, fourth NFL season: The departure of Terrell Suggs and free-agency darling Za’Darius Smith strips the Ravens of 15.5 sacks from last year’s defense. Still, Baltimore’s track record of drafting and developing pass rushers speaks for itself. Enter Matt Judon, the 26-year-old enforcer who tied for second on the team with seven sacks last season after posting eight in 2017. The table is set for upped snaps and double-digit takedowns with Judon, in a contract campaign, leading the charge ahead of Shane Ray, Pernell McPhee, Tim Williams and rookie Jaylon Ferguson. Not bad for a guy drafted in the fifth round in 2016 out of Division II Grand Valley State.
BUFFALO BILLS: Tre’Davious White, CB, third NFL season: The final first-round draft pick for Doug Whaley in Buffalo, White surged out of the gate to start 16 games as a rookie in 2017. He finished that season as the NFL’s sixth-best cornerback, per Pro Football Focus, with the analytics site rating him as the league’s top rookie. Less splashy on paper in 2018, White clearly had the attention of opposing teams, who made him the fifth-lowest-targeted cornerback in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. One of the grittier press-cover operators in the conference, White is Pro Bowl-ready.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Joe Mixon, RB, third NFL season: The Bengals were chopped down by a flood of injuries and issues in 2018, but Mixon glowed as a wire-to-wire bright spot. After years of backfield-by-committee action in Cincinnati, the do-it-all workhorse turned Giovani Bernard into an afterthought by outpacing his teammate, 280 touches to 91. Mixon’s 1,464 total yards and nine scores were the product of a versatile talent who rumbles through would-be tacklers and stirs chaos as a catch-and-run weapon in the flats. Just getting started, Mixon has an opportunity for career numbers come September.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Baker Mayfield, QB, second NFL season: Below rests a list of Browns quarterbacks selected to the Pro Bowl:
— Otto Graham (1950-1954)
— Tommy O’Connell (1957)
— Milt Plum (1960-1961)
— Frank Ryan (1964-1966)
— Bill Nelsen (1969)
— Brian Sipe (1980)
— Bernie Kosar (1987)
— Derek Anderson (2007)
Notice something? Outside of Derek Anderson’s deal-with-the-devil campaign in ’07, Cleveland has offered nothing but junk under center since Bernie Kosar was cut by Bill Belichick in 1993. The painful decades feel lodged in the past, though, thanks to the rise of Baker Mayfield, who arrived as a somewhat surprising first overall draft selection only to transform the entire franchise in his first season. Beyond setting a rookie record with 27 touchdown passes, Mayfield finished third in the league with 39 big-time throws, described by Pro Football Focus as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” This happened despite the Browns dropping the ninth-most passes in the NFL. Odell Beckham Jr.’s arrival only adds to the excitement around Mayfield’s second season — assuming that offensive line holds up.
DENVER BRONCOS: Bradley Chubb, edge, second NFL season: Chubb lived up to his billing as a havoc-wreaking quarterback night-terror unleashed in unison with Denver’s Von Miller. His 12 sacks as a rookie included a midseason tear of 7.5 takedowns over a five-game stretch. Chubb and Miller remain the heart of this Broncos squad, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both earn Pro Bowl honors this time around. “Spoiler alert … Both these guys have 20 sacks; it’s never been done before,” Peter Schrager of “Good Morning Football” predicted in May. “Two 20-sack guys, 40 sacks total.” Dream big!
HOUSTON TEXANS: Justin Reid, S, second NFL season: Attached to a rough-and-tumble Texans defense, Reid offered a little bit of everything as a 12-game starter during his rookie year. He held his own in coverage as one of the AFC’s sure tacklers and lifted Houston with a handful of key turnovers, headlined by his 101-yard pick-six against the Redskins in Week 11. While Jamal Adams and Derwin James are favorites to return to the Pro Bowl — three safeties make the roster for each conference — Reid has forged a path as one of the game’s exciting young players at the position.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Darius Leonard, LB, second NFL season: First-team All-Pro? Check. Defensive Rookie of the Year? Check. Pro Bowl selection? Oops. One of Earth’s dimmer human events occurred last December, when Leonard was left in the cold by dazed-and-confused Pro Bowl voters. As an act of revenge, the rookie vowed to record 40 tackles against the Giants in Week 16. Leonard fell a tad short with nine stops against the G-Men, but still led the league with 163 tackles on the year — 19 more than the next guy on the list. Adding seven sacks, two picks and four forced fumbles in Year 1, Leonard is a roaming force who can do it all.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Myles Jack, LB, fourth NFL season: Jack tumbled down draft boards in 2016 due to concerns over his surgically repaired right knee, which he acknowledged might someday require microfracture surgery. The athletic linebacker has swatted away doubters by starting 34 consecutive games for the Jaguars dating back to his rookie year and playing more than 2,200 snaps over the past two seasons. With Telvin Smith out of the mix, Jack — a standout coverage ‘backer and playmaker with four turnovers and two defensive scores in three seasons — figures to see another massive workload in 2019.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Chris Jones, DT, fourth NFL season: We love you, Pro Bowl selection process, but sometimes you operate like a drunken uncle tipping over at the Christmas dinner table. Jones was snubbed despite finishing third league-wide behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt with 15.5 sacks. The behemoth also earned second-team All-Pro honors, November’s AFC Defensive Player of the Month and the fifth-highest mark by Pro Football Focus at his position. After sitting out voluntary workouts and mandatory minicamp in search of a new deal, Jones looms as the centerpiece of a revamped Chiefs defense that needs him to double his efforts in 2019.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Desmond King II, CB/return specialist, third NFL season: Three cheers for wildly underrated Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, whose track record for unearthing late-round gems has turned this roster into a beast. King, a 2017 fifth-rounder out of Iowa, finished last season as the second-best corner in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus, while giving the Bolts a dangerous element in the return game, capped by his electric 73-yard punt-return touchdown in a comeback triumph over Pittsburgh in Week 13. King added another 72-yard kickoff return in the postseason win over Baltimore, making him one of the AFC West’s most intriguing young talents.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Laremy Tunsil, OT, fourth NFL season: The Dolphins have roster issues, but whoever wins the quarterback tussle between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen should feel fine about the left tackle position. With 44 starts at the tender age of 24, Tunsil will be ready to rock long after the Fins complete their so-called organic tank job: “He’s the best young LT in the NFL,” NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah tweeted in May. “He’ll get HUGE money soon.”
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: J.C. Jackson, CB, second NFL season: After casting off Malcolm Butler, Bill Belichick found a suitable replacement in Jackson, the undrafted cover man out of Maryland who morphed into a reliable, difference-making starter down the stretch. Jackson finished the year with a league-best 42.0 passer rating allowed, leading some inside the building to believe he might ultimately surpass All-Pro Pats corner Stephon Gilmore.
NEW YORK JETS: Sam Darnold, QB, second NFL season: Not unlike Browns fans wearing Baker Mayfield jerseys, hanging Baker Mayfield posters on their walls and drinking gleefully from Baker Mayfield coffee cups, Jets faithful finally have a rising sun to wake up to each morning. Sam Darnold is poised to make a serious second-year leap, with Le’Veon Bell at his disposal and just enough talent at the receiver position. Limiting turnovers will help, but the Darnold we witnessed in the final month of last season was uber-promising. Playing in a ponderously conservative offense as a rookie, Darnold now finds himself with a challenging, creative, alpha-male spirit-guide in Adam Gase. The future is aglow.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Maurice Hurst, DT, second NFL season: The Raiders house a few young options for this list in pass rusher Arden Key, cornerback Gareon Conley and a trio of first-rounders in pass rusher Clelin Ferrell, running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram. I’m going with Hurst, a dominant college performer at Michigan who fell to the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft after being diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL Scouting Combine. The interior D-lineman was the best Raiders defender for long stretches in 2018 and looms as a steal for the Silver and Black. My 1b choice would be Conley, who came up big as the Raiders held Antonio Brown (when he was still a Steeler) to 35 yards in Week 14 and the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill to 13 yards off one grab in Week 13. Yummy.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Vance McDonald, TE, seventh NFL season: Older than most on this list, the 29-year-old McDonald has generated some noise as a breakthrough player for the Steelers after producing a career-high 50 catches for 610 yards with four scores. I’m buying the chatter based on an offense stripped of Antonio Brown and tight end Jesse James, who combined for 207 targets to McDonald’s 72 in 2018. This offense enjoys its pass-catching tight ends, and McDonald tops the depth chart heading into camp. “It’s required, it’s definitely being asked,” the tight end said in May of his expanded role, “… and I will embrace it.”
TENNESSEE TITANS: Harold Landry, edge, second season: Landry’s part-time role is set to grow with Brian Orakpo (who retired) and Derrick Morgan (who’s still a free agent) out the door. A second-round pick in 2018, the rookie showed pass-rushing promise down the stretch and triggered a game-turning forced fumble of Carson Wentz in a Week 4 comeback win over the Eagles. Landry should benefit from one-on-one matchups, with Cameron Wake added to the mix. “I think he will break out. … First-step quickness, outstanding closing burst and had a knack for getting it done,” NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks said on the “Move The Sticks” podcast in May. “We saw flashes of it during his rookie season with the Titans. I believe we get a bigger dose [in 2019].”