AROUND THE NFL

It’s hard to believe the NFL draft was ever held in New York every year.  Two more cities earn the joy of the NFL’s great spring carnival.  Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com:

 

NFL owners awarded the 2021 draft to Cleveland and the 2023 draft to Kansas City during a meeting Wednesday in Key Biscayne, Florida.

 

The league was not ready to move on bids for the 2022 draft, saying about 20 cities are interested in hosting that year. The NFL will make an announcement about the location at a later date.

 

The 2020 draft was previously awarded to Las Vegas, in conjunction with the relocation of the Oakland Raiders.

 

The Browns will be celebrating their 75th anniversary in 2021. Draft events will take place around FirstEnergy Stadium, including the shore of Lake Erie and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

 

“Cleveland has a passionate fan base and the city offers distinctive iconic locations and attractions that will bring the NFL Draft experience to fans in unique and exciting ways,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “We look forward to collaborating with the Cleveland Browns, the City of Cleveland, Greater Cleveland Sports Commission and Destination Cleveland to celebrate the achievements of the next generation of players and create a memorable fan experience.”

 

Kansas City officials, meanwhile, plan to host the draft near Union Station and the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

 

Since last holding the draft at its traditional New York location, the NFL has taken it on the road to five different cities: Chicago in 2015 and ’16; Philadelphia in ’17; Arlington, Texas, in ’18; and Nashville, Tennessee, in ’19.

 

The league said last month that more than 600,000 people attended the draft over the three days in Nashville, eclipsing the 250,000 who attended in Philadelphia.

 

NFC NORTH

 

MINNESOTA

Today’s murmurs from the media indicate that TE KYLE RUDOLPH might be around for the long haul.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

The Minnesota Vikings are attempting to keep Kyle Rudolph around for the long-haul.

 

The tight end confirmed a report that the Vikings offered him a five-year contract extension recently and his agent and the team are working through the situation, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Rudolph reportedly sounded optimistic a deal could get done before training camp.

 

Rudolph’s situation has hung over the Vikings since before the team selected Irv Smith in the second round of the draft. Rudolph is currently slated to make $7.5 million in 2019 and previously said he doesn’t plan to take a pay cut.

 

The cap-strapped Vikings have been looking to create more room under the salary cap. An extension would alleviate the situation in the short term and keep Rudolph in Minnesota for the foreseeable future. That the 29-year-old has not agreed to the deal presented, despite saying he wants to remain a Viking, suggests the format of the offer favors the team in the long run.

 

A contract extension that reduces the current cap number and keeps Rudolph in Minnesota to help tutor Smith at one of the most difficult positions for a rookie to pick up is an ideal situation for both sides.

 

With Rudolph joining teammates for OTAs, it seems steps are at least being made toward that possible extension.

 

Coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday he’s optimistic the tight end would be part of his team in 2019.

 

“Because both sides are working towards it and he’s under contract,” a matter-of-fact Zimmer replied when asked why he was optimistic.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Back and forth in the Cowboys negotitations with QB DAK PRESCOTT.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

 

It’s time for our weekly Dak Prescott extension negotiations update.

 

Bulletin: They’re going well.

 

That’s the word from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who spoke to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport at the Spring League Meeting in Key Biscayne, Fla., on Wednesday.

 

“I’d generally say going well,” Jones said of talks with his franchise quarterback. “These things never have a definitive answer. Because you never know if you’ve done it until you’ve done it.”

 

Prescott is entering the final season of his rookie contract and is reportedly targeting a extension worth at least $30 million per year.

 

Jones added to Rapoport that Dallas has also begun negotiations with running back Ezekiel Elliott and “others.”

 

The owner’s comments come after Prescott told NFL Network’s Jane Slater that he and his team have submitted a counteroffer to the Cowboys.

 

“I can’t really say on that. It’s one from each side,” Prescott said of how close the two sides were on compensation. “So yeah, it’s my first time doing this. Ask me in a few years and I’ll know I’ll be able to tell you we sent this one, they sent this one, we’re about to get it done. But right now, I’m learning the process too and letting my team handle their business.

 

Prescott, Elliott and linebacker Jaylon Smith aren’t the only Cowboys stars, after DeMarcus Lawrence, to warrant big extensions this offseason. In the last year of his rookie deal, Amari Cooper is also an extension candidate.

 

Dak said he doesn’t know where Cooper and the Cowboys are in negotiations, adding, “I just hope he’s catching the balls I throw.”

 

– – –

The Cowboys have never had an anthem protestor/disrespecter/social justice hero.  But now veteran DL ROBERT QUINN is on the roster.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

After signing Robert Quinn as a free agent this spring, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said the defensive end’s national anthem protests were “not a concern.”

 

“We all know where we stand with the Cowboys,” Jones told PFT.

 

The Cowboys are one of the few NFL teams never to have had a player protest during the national anthem.

 

Quinn, though, has raised his fist during the national anthem as a social protest against racism and social injustice since 2016 when he was with the Rams. He did it every game last year with the Dolphins.

 

Quinn said he has talked to the Cowboys about his protests.

 

“[But] not in too much detail,” Quinn said Wednesday, via Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It’s a personal thing. [I’ll] kind of leave it that.”

 

Quinn would not reveal his plans for the national anthem this season.

 

“Right now, I am just focused on football,” Quinn said. “I have been talking about it for a while. Now I’m just focused on football, and we will see where it goes.”

 

 

WASHINGTON

The Redskins will try to replace LB REUBEN FOSTER with LB JON BOSTIC.  John Keim of ESPN.com:

 

The Washington Redskins signed veteran linebacker Jon Bostic to boost a unit weakened by the loss of Reuben Foster.

 

Foster tore his ACL in practice Monday. He has not yet had surgery, and doctors fear there could be more damage but won’t know until they operate, a source said.

 

He was officially placed on injured reserve on Wednesday.

 

Bostic started 14 games for Pittsburgh last season, but the Steelers drafted Devin Bush in the first round. They cut Bostic a day later. Bostic is now with his fifth franchise in as many years — and sixth overall — after spending his first three seasons with Chicago, where he was a second-round pick in 2013.

 

He has made 28 starts the past two years combined, including 14 in 2017 with Indianapolis. He missed 2016 with a foot injury while playing for Detroit. Chicago traded Bostic to New England in 2015 where he made one start and appeared in 11 games.

 

Foster was going to start inside in the Redskins’ base 3-4 defense, providing Washington with a young, fast and athletic linebacker. Without him, they have veteran Mason Foster, second-year Shaun Dion Hamilton and rookie fifth-round pick Cole Holcomb. They also have Josh Harvey-Clemons as a nickel linebacker.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Is this a big deal – that QB CAM NEWTON isn’t throwing yet?  Coach Ron Rivera says no.  Reuters:

 

Cam Newton was not cleared to throw as the Carolina Panthers worked out together Wednesday, four months after the quarterback had shoulder surgery.

 

Head coach Ron Rivera said the team remains focused on Newton returning at full strength for the start of training camp in July.

 

“We’ll just continue to go through the process,” Rivera said after the first day of organized team activities in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s really … not that big a deal.”

 

Tight end Greg Olsen, whose 2018 season ended in December with a foot injury, told reporters he can be a full participant at OTAs. Injuries have limited him to just 16 games combined over the past two seasons.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

John Breech of CBSSports.com has some advice to put the Saints over the top:

 

No team in the NFL had a more bitter ending to their 2018 season than the New Orleans Saints.

– – –

For the month of May, we’ll be taking a look at three potential moves that teams can still make this offseason to turn themselves from playoff contenders into Super Bowl contenders. Although the Saints have a talented roster, there are three small things they can do to put themselves in a position to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2009 season.

 

And just for the record, none of these three things include signing Zion Wiliamson, even if Sean Payton thinks it would be a good idea.

 

Also not included on this list is praying, although you could probably make an argument that it should be on the list: Pray for better refs. Pray for no more Minneapolis Miracles.

 

OK, let’s get to the list.

 

1. Sign Gerald McCoy/add depth to the defensive line

The Saints love the idea of adding defensive linemen so much that they’ve already done it multiple times this offseason. Since free agency started in March, New Orleans has added a total of two defensive linemen in Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards Jr.

 

For most teams, that would probably be enough, but the Saints aren’t most teams. Despite adding Brown and Edwards, the Saints still have a serious depth problem on their defensive line. For one, the Saints are going to have a big hole on their line due to the fact that Sheldon Rankins will likely miss at least the first part of the season. Rankins, who has started 32 straight regular season games for New Orleans, won’t be on the field for the opener this year due to the fact that he tore his Achilles in the Saints’ January playoff win over the Eagles.

 

With Rankins out, the next man up is supposed to be David Onyemata, but there’s no guarantee he’s going to be on the field in Week 1, either, because he’s dealing with a legal situation — Onyemata was cited for marijuana possession back in February — that could potentially lead to a punishment from the NFL.

 

Basically, at the rate things are going, veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan might not recognize anyone on the Saints defensive line when he takes the field in Week 1. If you need a quick refresher, the Saints starters on the defensive line last season were Alex Okafor and Jordan at defensive end along with Tyeler Davison and Rankins at tackle. Well, Okafor and Davison left in free agency and we already know Rankins won’t be on the field to start the season, which is why depth is still a problem.

 

The other reason the Saints could use a defensive tackle is because they like to use a rotation of four defensive tackles, which is kind of hard to do when you don’t have four guys to pull that off with.

 

The good news for the Saints is that defensive tackle is actually one of the few positions that still has some major talent left on the free agent market. If the Saints feel like they’re one player away from finally getting back to the Super Bowl, then the guy they should go after is Gerald McCoy. It’s not often that a six-time Pro Bowler suddenly becomes available as a free agent in May, but that’s exactly what has happened with McCoy and the Saints need to take advantage of it (Ndamukong Suh would have also made sense, but he’s expected to sign with the Buccaneers).

 

One thing that’ s not clear with McCoy is what his asking price would be for 2019. The veteran defensive lineman was originally set to count $13 million against the cap this season before being cut by the Bucs. Although it’s unlikely that McCoy will be seeking that amount of money, he’s probably not going to give anyone a huge discount, which means the Saints will probably have to pay him something between $8 million and $11 million. Of course, if any team knows how to manipulate the salary cap in order to make room for a big contract, it’s the Saints, and we’ve seen them do that multiple times for Drew Brees.

 

That being said, if McCoy is out of their price range, then the Saints could call either Allen Bailey or Corey Liuget. Both players have postseason experience after playing for the Chiefs (Bailey) and Chargers (Liuget) in 2018.

 

2. Find a receiver to complement Michael Thomas and call Michael Crabtree first

The biggest surprise of the offseason in New Orleans was probably the fact that the Saints didn’t bother to add a wide receiver during free agency or even during the NFL Draft. Although Drew Brees will have plenty of weapons to throw to in 2019, the depth chart at receiver gets noticeably thin after Michael Thomas.

 

The Saints top two receivers behind Thomas last season were Tre’Quan Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., who both come with their own concerns. Of all the receivers on the team, Smith finished with the second most receiving yards (427), but he was highly inconsistent. As a matter of fact, more than 60 percent of his yards on the season came in just two games and those were both blowout wins (Smith had 157 in a 48-7 win over the Eagles and 111 in a 43-19 win over the Redskins). In the other 13 games he played in, he averaged just 12.3 yards per game, which isn’t exactly what you want from a guy who’s supposed to be the No. 2 receiver.

 

As for Ginn, someone in New Orleans must have a voodoo doll of him, because he can’t stay healthy. The veteran dealt with knee issues last season, which caused him to miss 13 games, and at age 34, there’s no guarantee he won’t be dealing with those same issues going into 2019. The Saints also have Cameron Meredith, but he’s dealing with his own knee issues that caused him to miss 10 games last season. Another option is Keith Kirkwood, but he’s an unproven undrafted free agent who was signed in 2018.

 

Ginn (209 receiving yards), Kirkwood (209) and Meredith (114) combined for 532 yards last season, which wasn’t even half of what Thomas totaled (1,405). If there’s a position where the Saints could really use a veteran, it’s at receiver, and the person they should call is Michael Crabtree.

 

For one, unlike Ginn and Meredith, Crabtree has a history of staying healthy. The 31-year-old has played in all 16 regular season games in four of his past five seasons, and the only year where he didn’t hit the 16-game mark came in 2017, when he played in 14 games. Of course, health is only part of the equation, the more important factor here is that Crabtree actually produces. In a Ravens offense that had non-existent passing game last season, Crabtree still managed to total 607 receiving yards, which would have made him the second most productive receiver in New Orleans last year.

 

Crabtree is also incredibly consistent: The former first round pick has gone over 600 yards in nine of his 10 NFL seasons. Let’s also not forget that he’s a scoring machine. Crabtree has been on the receiving end of 28 touchdowns since 2015, which is tied for the seventh most of any player in the NFL over that span.

 

If Crabtree ends up demanding more money than the Saints are willing to pay, there are also a few other veteran options out there. The Saints could contact Jermaine Kearse or Pierre Garcon, but Garcon might not be the best option because he’s missed 16 games over the past two seasons.

 

If all else fails, the Saints could call Dez Bryant, the same guy they called last season when they needed receiver help. The only issue with going that route is that they’ll likely have to wait until at least August before he’s 100 percent healthy and that’s because Bryant is still recovering from a torn Achilles that he suffered in November during his first week practicing with the Saints.

 

3. Add some depth to the offensive line

The Saints have a pretty loaded roster, but if there’s one spot where any NFL team can stand to add some depth, it’s on the offensive line, and Sean Payton seems well aware that his team could probably use a few extra bodies.

 

The biggest problem for the Saints is that no one on the left side of their line can ever stay healthy. Although left tackle Terron Armstead has some serious talent when he’s on the field, he’s almost never on the field. The 27-year old has never made it through an entire 16-game season in his seven-year career and he’s missed a total of 21 games over the past three seasons combined.

– – –

Although the free agency pool isn’t exactly deep on the O-line right now, there are a couple of veterans available. At guard, there’s Jeff Allen, who has started 30 games over the past three seasons (Four with the Chiefs and 26 with the Texans). The biggest upside with Allen is that he could potentially provide some versatile depth to the Saints’ offensive line and that’s because he’s started at least one game in his career at every position except for center (40 starts at left guard, 23 starts at right guard, three starts at left tackle and two starts at right tackle). Other veteran interior offensive linemen who are still available include Chance Warmack, Ryan Groy and Patrick Omameh. Although Omameh probably wouldn’t be garnering any Pro Bowl votes if he were to sign in New Orleans, he’s still a crafty veteran who’s started 24 games over the past two seasons while playing with both the Jaguars (18 starts) and Giants (six starts).

 

If Payton would feel more comfortable adding some tackle insurance in case Armstead gets hurt again, there’s also a few of those available. Although the Saints might have a tough time convincing someone like Donald Penn to sign as a backup, they could look to a tackle more in their price range like Garry Gilliam, Jermey Parnell or Ryan Schraeder. Penn would be definitely be the most intriguing option, though. At 36 years old and coming off a season where he only played four games due to injury, the veteran might be willing to sign for less and embrace a backup role if it means getting back to the postseason. In 12 seasons, Penn has been to the playoffs only twice, with no victories.

 

AFC WEST

 

KANSAS CITY

WR SAMMY WATKINS has been proclaimed as a great receiver, even as his numbers lag behind.  He says he is putting the work in to have outstanding production in 2019.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

It’s unknown at this point if the Chiefs are going to have wide receiver Tyreek Hill back for the regular season and any plan for life without him is likely to include a big role for Sammy Watkins.

 

Watkins’ injury history makes that a dicey proposition. He missed six games during his first season with the Chiefs and has missed at least three games in three of his five NFL seasons. Watkins is confident that the team can count on him, however.

 

The wideout recently tweeted that “the world will now get to witness my greatness again” and was asked about why that was the case during an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio.

 

“Just the work I’ve been putting in,” Watkins said. “The confidence I have in myself and knowing that my body just feels amazing, just knowing that my body is holding up. I’m constantly getting faster, stronger, better, and I’m getting the support from the team, from my teammates and the organization. I feel like the fans and everyone, all the support I’ve been getting, it can’t go wrong. The universe kinda gives everybody what they wish for and the energy that they push out. That’s what I’ve been doing, trying to manifest a great year.”

 

Watkins credits the Chiefs staff with helping him “tremendously” with his body as he heads into the 2019 season. He also said he feels settled in the offense after bouncing from the Bills to the Rams to the Chiefs from 2016 through 2018. Whether Hill’s around or not, the Chiefs will be hoping health and comfort lead to bigger things in Watkins’ second year with the team.

– – –

Mike Clay of ESPN.com makes a long case (edited below) that the Chiefs might not be the slam dunk only challenger to the Patriots in the AFC:

 

The 2018 season felt like a breakout for the Kansas City Chiefs, an odd thing to say about a franchise that had won at least nine games in each of the previous five seasons.

 

Of course, there’s no denying that Andy Reid & Co. took their game to a new level. The Chiefs finished the regular season 12-4 and won a playoff game for only the second time in the past 25 seasons. The Kansas City offense ranked first in the NFL in both points scored and yardage, the first time they’ve accomplished that combination (they did it in the AFL in 1966), and Patrick Mahomes won the league MVP in his first season as an NFL starter.

 

Despite the recent string of success, however, there are a few reasons to be concerned about the Chiefs taking a step back in 2019 and perhaps even missing the playoffs for only the second time since Reid took over as coach in 2013.

 

Regression is inevitable

If nothing else, impending offensive regression to the mean is a near-undefeated force the Chiefs will need to overcome.

 

Consider the Chiefs’ 2018 offensive explosion, which was responsible for a majority of the team’s success. They averaged a whopping 35.31 points, 425.6 yards per game and 6.84 yards per play, all of which were tops in the league. They finished in the top five in first downs per game (24.0), third-down conversion rate (47.2 percent), red zone efficiency (71.8 percent) and scoring margin (plus-144).

 

The Chiefs’ offense totaled 66 touchdowns, which league history tells us is unsustainable. Each of the five offenses that scored 58-plus touchdowns in a single season from 2009 to 2017 suffered a large drop-off the next season. The average dip was 15.8 scores, or nearly one full touchdown per game. Those offenses were led by a who’s who of the league’s best passers in Peyton Manning (2013 Denver Broncos), Aaron Rodgers (2011 Green Bay Packers), Drew Brees (2011 New Orleans Saints), Tom Brady (2012 New England Patriots) and Matt Ryan (2016 Atlanta Falcons).

 

Even more incredible, of the 30 offenses that scored 50-plus touchdowns in a season over the past decade, only three increased their total the next season. All three were Patriots teams (2011, 2012, 2016). The average drop of everyone else was 13.3 touchdowns. Again, nearly one per game.

 

Touchdown regression

The top 10 touchdown-producing teams since 2009 and their performance the following season.

 

TEAM               YEAR   OFF. TD       NEXT SEASON     DIFFERENCE

Broncos            2013     71                              55           – 16

Chiefs                2018    66                             TBD          TBD

Packers            2011     63                              49                        -14

Saints                2011    62                              53                         -9

Saints                2018    59                              TBD         TBD

Patriots              2012    60                               44           -16

Falcons              2016    58                               34           -24

Patriots              2011    57                               60           +3

Patriots              2010    56                               57           +1

Saints                2009    56                              42                        -14

 

History suggests that the Chiefs will still rank near the top of the NFL in scoring but won’t come close to their historic 2018 production. As we’ll get to later, that could be a big problem.

 

The regression will likely hit Mahomes, too.

If we look at the 20 highest single-season passing yardage totals from 2007 to 2017, we get an average of 5,024 yards. Excluding Brady’s injury-shortened 2008 season (11 pass attempts), the other quarterbacks averaged 4,489 yards the next season, and only one of the 19 increased his yardage total (2016 Brees). When we focus on the eight quarterbacks who, like Mahomes, reached 5,000 passing yards, we encounter a similar dynamic. Although four attempted more passes the following season, all eight saw a drop in yardage, with an average dip of 413.5 yards.

 

A review of touchdown passes shows something similar. Thirty quarterbacks threw 34-plus touchdowns in a single season from 2007 to 2017. Only three increased their total the following season (2012-13 Manning from 37 to 55, 2010-11 Brady from 36 to 39, 2017-18 Russell Wilson from 34 to 35). Again, excluding 2008 Brady, the average dip was 10.4 TD passes.

 

Mahomes is in a unique club, being one of three quarterbacks to throw 50-plus touchdowns in a season (2013 Manning — 55, 2007 Brady — 50). But Brees is the only quarterback in NFL history who has reached 40 touchdown passes in a season more than once (46 in 2011 and 43 in 2012). Therefore, every quarterback in NFL history who had 40 or more touchdown passes in a season threw for fewer the following season.

 

The common retort to this commentary is something along the lines of “well, the league has never seen anything like Patrick Mahomes.” That is true, to an extent. Mahomes had one start under his belt prior to shredding the league for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns during his age-23 season.

 

Of course, some said the same about Matthew Stafford following his breakout 2011 campaign. Stafford had only 13 starts prior to exploding for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in his age-23 season. This was also eight years ago, when offenses weren’t nearly as productive or pass-heavy as they are today. Stafford appeared to be a superstar in the making, and though he has settled in as a solid quarterback, he has gone seven consecutive seasons without reaching 5,000 yards and has reached 30 touchdown passes only once since.

– – –

This section was a long way of saying that — regardless of coaching, personnel, schedule and everything else I’ll dive into in the rest of this story — history suggests it’s a near certainty that the statistical production of the Chiefs’ offense and, in turn, Mahomes will drop (perhaps significantly) in 2019. And that could happen while Mahomes is still playing at an All-Pro level.

 

The offensive personnel is worse

Star running back Kareem Hunt was cut during the 2018 season after video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman. Though the raw counting stats were similar, Kansas City backs averaged 4.61 yards per carry (ninth in the NFL) — including 2.52 yards after contact per attempt (second) and 10.1 yards per target (first) — during Hunt’s 11 games. Those marks dropped to 4.59 YPC (12th), 1.58 YAC (28th) and 7.89 YPT (third) once Spencer Ware and Damien Williams took the bulk of the touches down the stretch.

 

Ware is gone, replaced by Carlos Hyde. Hyde has flashed potential at times since being drafted in 2014 but has struggled to 3.7 YPC and 1.88 YAC over the past two seasons. He will join Williams and rookie Darwin Thompson to lead the Chiefs’ backfield in 2019. This is one of the lowest-rated running back rooms in the league.

 

Mitch Morse, one of the league’s top centers, left via free agency, which is notable considering Mahomes was pressured on a league-high 30 percent of his dropbacks last season. Pro Football Focus graded Morse as an above-average center during the three seasons in which he played 11 or more games.

 

The elephant in the room is the status of Tyreek Hill, who has been barred indefinitely from all team activities after audio surfaced in which the star wide receiver’s fiancée accused him of abusing their 3-year-old son. He seems like a near lock for a suspension (at minimum) to begin the 2019 season.

 

Hill has been one of the NFL’s most explosive players since entering the league in 2016, scoring 29 offensive touchdowns and adding five more as a returner. Over the past two seasons, Hill was fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (2,662) and receiving touchdowns (19), while his 11.0 yards per target was tops in the league among players with at least 600 receiving yards. Losing Hill for a significant stretch would leave Mahomes to rely on oft-injured Sammy Watkins, rookie Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson (who has 500 receiving yards in three NFL seasons) at wide receiver.

 

Reliable No. 2 tight end Demetrius Harris and depth WR Chris Conley were lost via free agency.

 

The defense hasn’t improved much … if at all

Kansas City’s historic 2018 offensive season was not only impressive, it was absolutely necessary in helping the Chiefs win 13 games (including playoffs). Why? Well, that offense offset some very bad defense.

 

The Chiefs’ defense allowed 3.1 touchdowns per game (sixth-worst), 405.5 yards per game (second-worst), 5.85 yards per play (ninth-worst), 26.2 first downs per game (worst) and a 72.4 percent red zone conversion rate (second-worst).

 

On the positive side, Kansas City ranked first in both forced fumbles and sacks, but here’s where that gets tricky: Justin Houston (released) and Dee Ford (traded) were responsible for 13 of the team’s 23 forced fumbles and 25 of the 55 sacks. That is a massive share.

 

Acquiring Frank Clark (14.0 sacks, three forced fumbles last season with the Seattle Seahawks) will help offset some of that loss, but combined with the likes of Breeland Speaks, Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah (8.5 sacks, 1 FF combined last season), the Chiefs have lost more than they gained.

 

Safety Eric Berry also was let go, though he barely played last season and was replaced by the productive Tyrann Mathieu.

 

Solid cornerback Steven Nelson, along with Orlando Scandrick and Eric Murray, were lost in the secondary and replaced by journeymen Bashaud Breeland and Keith Reaser and second-round rookie Juan Thornhill.

 

The Chiefs have a few stars (Chris Jones, Clark) and good players (Kendall Fuller, Mathieu) on defense. But there is a significant number of weak spots behind them, most notably linebacker, where No. 1 option Anthony Hitchens had 2018’s worst PFF grade among 89 off-ball linebackers who played at least 300 snaps. The team did trade for Darron Lee, though the Jets castoff isn’t a lock for significant snaps with Hitchens, Reggie Ragland and Dorian O’Daniel also in the mix.

 

The schedule is grueling

Based on my metrics, which evaluate a schedule based on current rosters (not the previous season’s won-loss records), the Chiefs will face the ninth-hardest slate in 2019. Additionally, the Kansas City offense will face the league’s toughest slate of defenses.

 

Incredibly, 12 of the Chiefs’ 16 games will be against defenses projected to be better than average. Their toughest showdowns will come against the Bears, Vikings and Jaguars, and they’ll also face the Chargers (twice), Broncos (twice), Titans, Texans, Colts, Patriots and Ravens. Their other four games are against the Raiders (twice), Lions and Packers, who all project to be better defensively in 2019 than they were last season.

 

By the way, the Chargers (who also had a 12-4 record last season) are undoubtedly the Chiefs’ biggest threat in the AFC West this season. The Chargers and Chiefs have common opponents in 14 of 16 games, but Kansas City’s unique matchups are Baltimore and New England, which is tougher than Los Angeles’ unique opponents, Pittsburgh and Miami. That could prove to be the difference in what figures to be a tight divisional race.

 

The Chargers are better

The Chiefs might have won the tiebreaker, but the Chargers matched Kansas City’s win total and allowed 84 fewer points last season. Los Angeles had a relatively nondescript offseason but made some key additions at need positions, including linebacker Thomas Davis, first-round defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and second-round safety Nasir Adderley.

 

Unlike in 2018, stud edge rusher Joey Bosa will be healthy to begin the season, as will tight end Hunter Henry, who missed the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL. Offensive line is the obvious potential Achilles’ heel, but the Chargers’ offense is otherwise in terrific shape and the defense is one of the league’s best on paper.

 

It’s hard to make an objective case that the Chiefs are the better overall team and, once the schedule comes into play, it makes sense to expect a changing of the guard at the top of the division.

 

Though the Chargers are the Chiefs’ top AFC West competition, the other two teams could be tricky too. The Broncos have a good defense, and the Raiders are much improved (albeit still with plenty of holes) from 2018.

 

Final thoughts

Despite all of the roadblocks I laid out, I still think the odds favor the Chiefs slipping into the playoffs as a wild card. There are two reasons for this: Reid and Mahomes. As noted earlier, Kansas City hasn’t fallen below nine wins under Reid and has made the playoffs five times during his six seasons with the team. Reid is one of the league’s best coaches and Mahomes will be a major difference-maker, even if he regresses.

 

Will I be shocked if the Chiefs miss the playoffs? No. But at the end of the day, I have them projected for 9.6 wins and second place in the AFC West, which will set up a trip to Cleveland to face the Browns in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

With WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. doing his thing elsewhere, the Browns offensive installation may be struggling.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Odell Beckham is not taking part in the voluntary organized team activities the Browns are holding right now and Jarvis Landry has been sitting out of practices with an injury, which leaves offensive coordinator Todd Monken without two key players as he works to install this year’s offense.

 

Wednesday’s OTA also saw Antonio Callaway sitting out, so Monken had even less on his plate. After the practice, he focused on the need to make the most out of whoever is available on a given day.

 

“You do what you can,” Monken said, via Cleveland.com. “The most important part is we have a vast majority of our guys here. In terms of your installs, what we’re doing offensively, our calls and our adjustments receiver-wise, it’s obviously a challenge for our quarterbacks in terms of the receiving corps that are out there, but that’s part of the deal. It’s their job to make them right.”

 

Monken found a bright side to the absences by pointing to chances for other wideouts like Damion Ratley and Derrick Willies to make a case for continued roles once the team gets closer to the regular season. Those roles would be small ones in an ideal Browns world, but, as those around Cleveland know well, living in that world isn’t guaranteed.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

WR JuJu SCHUSTER-SMITH says the air is clear in the Steelers locker room.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

JuJu Smith-Schuster struck a balance between respecting the talent of former teammate Antonio Brown and taking charge of a reimagined Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver room.

 

The young wideout credited Brown as a “great player” who “dominates” on the field, and didn’t bite when asked about previous social media exchanges between the two players. Smith-Schuster, however, also noted that things are quieter in the locker room without Brown.

 

“The chemistry is on point,” Smith-Schuster said Wednesday, via the Associated Press. “Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is communicating. There’s really no — how do you say? — drama in our locker room.”

 

Smith-Schuster now vaults to the clear No. 1 receiver in a receiver corps that looks much less dangerous without Brown. Behind JuJu sits second-year wideout James Washington, slot receiver Ryan Switzer, free-agent addition Donte Moncrief, Eli Rodgers, and third-round rookie Diontae Johnson, among others.

 

Smith-Schuster noted that everyone who was around the past several seasons learned from Brown’s work ethic.

 

“I think everyone picked it up, not only us as receivers but everybody on the team,” Smith-Schuster said. “They all see how AB worked. They’ve seen how he came out here every day and he just ran hard, 100 percent.”

 

Still just 22 years old, Smith-Schuster is prepared to be the lead dog in Pittsburgh.

 

“Being a young guy in a room, being 22, I feel like a French bulldog, you know, just barking at everybody,” he said. “At the same time, they’ve got dogs too, so they can bark. I like that role.”

 

If Smith-Schuster’s on-field bark can remain loud without Brown around the Steelers offense would remain a potent force.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Even with their prime evidence now disallowed by a judge, Palm Beach County prosecutors have yet to drop charges against Patriots owner Robert Kraft.  And Roger Goodell, on Wednesday, says he is not looking at discipline in Kraft’s case until those charges are resolved. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com looks at the timetable:

 

On Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed that no action will be taken against Patriots owner Robert Kraft unless and until the pending criminal charges against him are resolved. So when will those charges be resolved?

 

The prosecution has been stayed pending appeal of the ruling suppressing the surveillance video from introduction into evidence at trial. In Florida, the appellate system has two steps. As one source with knowledge of the process tells PFT, resolution in the lower level could take at least a year. If/when the case then migrates to the Florida Supreme Court, more time will necessarily pass as briefs are submitted and oral arguments are scheduled and the court considers everything that is submitted and issues a decision in writing.

 

So it could be two years, maybe more, before the appeals courts in Florida provide a final answer as to whether the surveillance video will or won’t be available for use at trial. A last-ditch effort to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court would create even more delay.

 

That said, there’s a chance that the prosecution could quietly dismiss the case, perhaps after some of the media attention dies down. The question then would become whether the surveillance video would be made public; previously, the presiding judge ruled that if/when the case is dismissed, the surveillance video would be fair game.

 

Kraft’s lawyers have since renewed the argument that the video never should be made public, given the finding that the entire surveillance process violated the applicable legal requirements for utilizing such practices. A ruling on that specific request has not been issued.

 

Thus, if the charges are dismissed and the surveillance video is permanently blocked from public view, the league will have limited evidence for determining whether a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy occurred. Ultimately, the only available proof may come from an interview of Kraft, since no other witnesses would fall within the jurisdiction of the league’s investigation.

 

If Kraft denies that solicitation of prostitution occurred, how would the league prove that it did? That could be the key question when it comes to determining whether and to what extent the league disciplines Kraft, whenever it is that the criminal case is resolved. Absent a dismissal, it could be a very long time before the criminal case is resolved.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

Adam Gase surfaces and says it is a good thing that he won’t be picking the next GM.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Eight days ago, the Jets abruptly fired G.M. Mike Maccagnan. The search for a replacement has not yet officially begun. When the time comes to make a hire, the hire will be made by one person: CEO and chairman Christopher Johnson.

 

That’s what coach Adam Gase explained to reporters in his first press conference following the firing of Maccagnan.

 

Gase characterized the search as being in the “beginning stages of our process,” and that the goal for now is to identify candidates.

 

“We’ve been working to really kind of finalizing what we’re thinking as far as people,” Gase said.

 

When asked what Gase is looking for, he reiterated that it’s Johnson’s decision.

 

“We’re doing our part,” Gase said. “There’s a group of us working on this.”

 

Gase acknowledged that, despite the “mold” that other teams use when hiring General Managers, Johnson is “looking for something a little bit different.” This meshes with Johnson’s comments from last week that he wants a “great strategic thinker,” and not necessarily a talent evaluator.

 

The first-year coach, who arrived after three seasons as head coach in Miami, explained that it’s not important that he have a prior relationship with the new G.M. Gase also made it clear that the new G.M. will have final say over the roster, and that he won’t be a “yes” man.

 

“I don’t really hang out with ‘yes’ men,” Gase said. “If it’s someone I already know, it won’t be a ‘yes’ man.”

 

Gase emphasized that roster development will be a collaborative process, but that at the end of the day the G.M. will have the power to make the decision that he wants to make.

 

Still, the reality remains that the Jets have two general options for hiring a new General Manager. They can hire the “best person for the job,” or they can hire the best person with whom Gase is already comfortable. If it’s the former, chances are that the new G.M. will arrive with a list developed over a lifetime in football of coaches the G.M. would hire, if/when he becomes a G.M. There’s a chance Gase’s name won’t be on that list, especially if the two men have no prior relationship.

 

That’s what could set the stage for further dysfunction. Every G.M. wants to hire his own coach, and the G.M. will be inclined to tread water for a year or two before making a move to hire the coach he would have hired in the first place. Given the turmoil Jets have endured in recent years, it would be far better to hire a G.M. with whom Gase is comfortable, make it clear that they will be equally accountable, and find out whether or not they can turn a long-suffering franchise into a team that more often than not makes its opponents endure the suffering.

 

If they can’t, the next move would be to clean house and start over, with a new G.M. and a new head coach. By then, team owner Woody Johnson could be back from his ambassadorship in the U.K., reclaiming control of the team from his younger brother, perhaps while simultaneously saying, “Hold my beer.”

 

Which would naturally cause Jets fans to once again hold their breath, and to hope for a better outcome.

 

And this on the role of Peter Schrager, from Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:

 

Just when you thought things couldn’t get stranger on One Jets Drive, we present the latest head-scratcher in the wake of Mike Maccagnan’s ouster.

 

The Daily News has learned the Jets won’t be hiring a search firm/consultant to help them in their general manager search like they did for the previous two GM hires. However, they have told others that television personality and sideline reporter Peter Schrager could be contacted for assistance on prospective candidates.

 

Schrager has been mentioned as a potential resource in internal discussions, according to a team source. The feeling is that the Jets believed they could turn to Schrager for opinions, suggestions and/or intel on quality candidates if they needed help.

 

The MMQB and NFL.com put out comprehensive annual General Manager Watch Lists. Schrager often uses those lists as a resource when presenting a similar candidate compilation for television.

 

It’s unclear whether the Jets have reached out to the veteran broadcaster, who is one of the hosts on the “Good Morning Football” program on the NFL Network. Schrager could not be reached for comment. The Jets did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

 

While much of the NFL has lampooned the Jets for being an unstable, dysfunctional outfit in the past week, Schrager has painted a relatively rosy picture after Johnson’s unconventional decision to whack his GM after having him pick the new head coach, spend more than $120 million in free agency and run the draft.

 

Schrager has a close friendship with Christopher Johnson, according to sources.

 

The broadcaster was an attendee at Johnson’s wedding last July.

One NFL source cracked Schrager was the Jets “one-man search firm,” but that would be a stretch. It’s more likely Johnson would ask his friend for advice if needed.

 

Regardless, it’s an interesting approach for an organization that used Korn Ferry consulting firm to unearth John Idzik six years ago and NFL Network’s Charley Casserly to bring Maccagnan aboard in 2015.

 

Adam Gase, legal counsel Hymie Elhai, and Johnson are leading the search now.

 

Gase — who told people that he wanted to streamline the scouting department after firing a team scout Monday as the interim GM — said this week he was “surprised” Macccagnan was fired, but later claimed “sh—like that happens all the time.”

 

Mehta has learned that Gase is acting like a GM while he has the “interim” title:

 

The Adam Gase power grab rolls on in impressive fashion.

 

The Jets interim general manager made another move to shake things up in Florham Park.

 

Gase fired scout Bill Dekraker, according to sources. Gase, who told reporters Monday that he didn’t want his hands in anything other than coaching his players, has been telling people privately that he wants to streamline the scouting department.

 

That’s an interesting thing to tell folks when you publicly insist that you only want to coach the team. It stretches the bounds of believability, you might say.

 

In six days as the interim GM, Gase has 1) traded away former first-round pick Darron Lee for a 2020 sixth-rounder 2) signed punter Matt Darr, who played for him in Miami before not playing in the NFL in 2017 and most of 2018 3) cut 2017 draft pick Jordan Leggett and 4) fired an area scout, who was hired by Maccagnan.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

FORMER PLAYERS

Now retired DE Chris Long admits to being a pothead during his NFL career despite the league’s law against it.  Reuters:

 

Recently retired defensive end Chris Long admits to using marijuana as an NFL player, saying that the league should move toward a place where testing positive does not result in a suspension.

 

“I certainly enjoyed my fair share on a regular basis throughout my career. I was never afraid to say that, but I’m able to say it more explicitly now,” Long said of his marijuana use on The Dan Patrick Show on Wednesday.

 

“Listen, if not for that, I’m not as capable of coping with the stressors of day-to-day NFL life. A lot of guys get a lot of pain management out of it.”

 

Long, 34, announced his retirement Saturday night. He made 70 career sacks in 11 NFL seasons with the St. Louis Rams (2008-2015), New England Patriots (2006) and Philadelphia Eagles (2017-18). He was the second overall pick in the 2008 draft.

 

The NFL announced earlier this week that the league and the NFL Players Association have created a committee that “will establish uniform standards for club practices and policies regarding pain management and the use of prescription medication by NFL players as well as conduct research concerning pain management and alternative therapies.”

 

Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, told the Washington Post: “We’ll look at marijuana.”

 

“We should be headed to a place where we allow players to enjoy what I would not even call a drug,” Long said. “It’s far less dangerous than guzzling a fifth of alcohol and going out after a game.

 

“I think from a standpoint of what’s safer for people and the player, certainly people in the spotlight, it is far less harmful than alcohol. It is far less harmful than tobacco, and at various points in the league’s history, they have engaged in partnerships on different levels with those respective industries.”

 

Long said he was able to easily beat once-a-year testing by the NFL.

 

“Players know when the test is. We can stop,” Long said.

 

“In that month or two that you stop, you’re going to reach for the sleeping pills, you’re going to reach for the pain killers and you’re going to reach for the bottle a little bit more. … If you’re serious about players not smoking, you’d be testing more often. I hope they go the opposite direction and just kind of realize how arbitrary doing that one test a year is.”

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

There is a slight modification to the news that “singleheaders” were out.  They haven’t been totally done away with, but there will be fewer of them.  Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal:

 

@BenFischerSBJ

Urgent: NFL is now clarifying this, saying they’ll let this happen “up to two times” this season in each market, to see how it goes. Team can do it more than twice if they want.

 

What is this? Shalise Manza Young of YahooSports.com:

 

While NFL owners don’t support a proposal to change the overtime rules, they have made some other changes during the league meetings being held this week in Florida.

 

Both have to do with game broadcasts.

 

Single-header rule dropped

The more welcome change will likely be the decision to drop the “single-header rule.”

 

As explained by Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal, that means that all broadcast markets will get at least three games in the Sunday windows.

 

So if, for example, you’re a Miami Dolphins fan living in Dallas and both the Dolphins and Cowboys are playing at 1 p.m. ET on CBS and Fox, you’ll get to see both games.

 

In the past, the Dolphins game would have been blacked out in the Dallas market.

 

This is a boon for fans who don’t want to shell out for Sunday Ticket and DirecTV, and those who live in markets that have multiple teams, like greater Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York or the Bay Area.

 

Change to divisional round start times

The team owners also voted to change the start times of the Sunday divisional round games.

 

They will now kickoff at 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. ET, instead of the previous 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET slots.

 

A 1 p.m. ET kickoff essentially made it impossible to put a game with a West Coast home team in that window because it is just too early. This change allows the league greater flexibility in scheduling the four games.

 

The two Saturday divisional round games begin at 4:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. ET.

 

Fewer commercial breaks in Super Bowl

NFL owners also announced something that had been reported earlier this month: Super Bowl LIV, to be broadcast on Fox, will have four commercial breaks per quarter, down from five per quarter in recent years.

 

The breaks will be 30 seconds longer, but it will be a negligible difference for players and viewers.