AROUND THE NFL

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

When QB DANIEL JONES was six, QB TOM BRADY broke his young heart.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Tom Brady has been playing so long some of his opponents’ childhoods were ruined by his early-career success.

 

So it is with Thursday’s opposing quarterback, rookie Daniel Jones, who was a six-year-old Panthers fan when Brady won his second Super Bowl in a victory over Carolina.

 

“I remember where I watched it. Went to a friend’s house. The Dickens’ house. A family friend,” the now 22-year-old Jones told ESPN’s Jordan Raanan. “Obviously it was heartbreaking when [kicker Adam] Vinatieri made that field goal.”

 

As is his modus operandi, Jones didn’t shake the boat when discussing the Patriots or Thursday night’s tussle, noting that he was too young to harbor a grudge against Brady or New England for the loss.

 

“Not really,” Jones said. “Don’t think I knew that much at that age. Knew I liked the Panthers.”

 

At 42 years old, Brady is no stranger to facing vastly younger players at this stage of his career, but Thursday’s matchup with Jones will be historic. Brady has 212 wins, 71,923 passing yards (18 away from passing Peyton Manning for 2nd all-time), and 527 passing touchdowns in his 20-year career. Jones has 2 wins, 760 yards, and 4 touchdowns in his rookie season. The gaps of 210 wins, 71,163 yards, and 523 TDs between Brady and Jones are all the largest by opposing starting QBs in NFL history.

 

The 19-year, 297-day age gap between Jones and Brady is the second-largest difference between opposing starting QBs since 1970 (the largest was Jets Sam Darnold and Brady — 19 years, 306 days — in Week 17, 2018).

 

Jones (22 years, 136 days on game day) would become the youngest QB to beat the Patriots in the Brady-Belichick era (since 2001) with a win Thursday night.

 

When Brady won his first Super Bowl ring in February 2002, Jones was four years old. The Patriots have won five more since then but also lost two to Eli Manning and the Giants.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Despite a spectacular crash-and-burn on Sunday in Houston, Dan Quinn will still call the Falcons defensive alignments.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn took back defensive playcalling after the team fired defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel this offseason, but neither that move nor hiring two other coordinators has paid off the way the team hoped.

 

The Falcons are 1-4 and team owner Arthur Blank was asked about the possibility of a coaching change after the Texans steamrolled the Falcons last weekend. Blank said he isn’t considering a move, but the Texans offense picked up nearly 600 yards on the way to that win and that means Quinn was asked if someone else might be better suited to calling the defensive plays the rest of this year.

 

“If I felt [giving up the playcalling] was best, trust me, I would have certainly done that,” Quinn said, via ESPN.com. “I know what we can do, we can do better. So that’s kind of where my mind is. I recognize the question, for sure, when you’re not achieving the results you have. But trust me on that one: My ego is never as big as the team. I will always do what’s best for that. But at this time, I don’t think that’s where I’m at.”

 

Quinn said “my job is to fix it” and that goes well beyond the defense because the Falcons’ problems go well beyond the defense. If those problems don’t get fixed, Quinn’s job may be someone else’s before too much more time passes.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

A setback for San Francisco’s run game?  Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee:

 

The unbeaten 49ers were hit with another major injury to a key offensive player as they prepare for their first division game of the year.

 

Second-year right tackle Mike McGlinchey, a first-round draft pick in 2018, will have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, coach Kyle Shanahan announced Wednesday. He’s expected to miss four to six weeks.

 

The news means San Francisco (4-0) will be without both starting tackles for the foreseeable future as veteran left tackle Joe Staley continues to work back from a fractured fibula sustained Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The team also lost fullback Kyle Juszczyk to an MCL sprain in Monday night’s victory over the Cleveland Browns and he’s expected to miss at least month.

 

Daniel Brunskill, who spent the offseason playing for the Alliance of American Football, will be the 49ers’ starting right tackle in McGlinchey’s absence. Brunksill originally joined the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and spent time the last two seasons on the practice squad. He signed with San Francisco in April.

 

Shanahan was asked if the team might be more willing to make a trade now that the team is undefeated through the first quarter of the season while down both starting tackles.

 

“You always feel the same. Things got to be available,” Shanahan said. “We have to make smart decisions. If there was a smart decision, we would definitely look into it, look into it all. But it doesn’t seem like any are available at all right now.”

 

Many have wondered if the 49ers would trade for Washington’s disgruntled tackle Trent Williams, who has remained away from the team over a contract dispute, though San Francisco has indicated Williams has not been made available. Williams was a first-round draft pick in 2010 when Shanahan was Washington’s offensive coordinator under his father, Mike.

 

Brunkskill, who would be making his first career start, made the team after playing well throughout training camp and the preseason after the 49ers lost Shon Coleman, who was initial planned to be their backup “swing” tackle, to a season-ending ankle injury in the first exhibition game.

 

Essentially, Skule and Brunksill entered the year as San Francisco’s fourth and fifth options at tackle. Now they’re both starting.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

RB TODD GURLEY shows up on the Rams injury report.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Six days ago, Rams running back Todd Gurley had his best game of the year, with a couple of touchdowns in L.A.’s 30-29 loss to the Seahawks. But it came with a price.

 

Gurley missed practice on Wednesday with a quadriceps injury.

 

It’s the first Gurley injury disclosed by the Rams this year. While it’s not an injury to the knee that bothered him throughout 2018 — and that apparently has ended his days as a high-carry workhorse tailback, it’s a red flag for a team that desperately needs a win on Sunday against the 49ers to avoid falling to 3-3.

 

Also not practicing for the Rams were linebacker Clay Matthews (jaw), cornerback Aqib Talib (ribs), and linebacker Natrez Patrick (hamstring).

 

Receiver Brandin Cooks participated in a limited basis, which shows that he’s making progress from the concussion he suffered last Thursday. Linebacker Bryce Hager (shoulder) and safety Taylor Rapp (ankle) also were limited.

 

AFC WEST

 

KANSAS CITY

TE TRAVIS KELCE did something to one of his coaches on Sunday night that would be problematic if he did it to an official or fan or opponent.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com notes Kelce’s remorse:

 

In a moment of frustration, Travis Kelce shoved Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy on the sideline Sunday. The tight end immediately regretted it, returning to give Bieniemy a hug soon after.

 

“We’re good,” Kelce said Wednesday, via Adam Teicher of ESPN. “Me and coach Bieniemy have a very close relationship. I love him. He’s helped me out tremendously as a person, as a professional, and I’m sure he’ll keep doing that throughout the rest of my career. . . . I love the guy. That will never change. I appreciate him being on my tail to get me going.

 

“As far as what happened on the sideline, sometimes in football you get a little heated with your brothers or your coaches.”

 

Kelce and Bieniemy had to be separated on the sideline after Bieniemy approached Kelce following an incomplete pass intended for Kelce. Guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and offensive tackle Cam Erving stepped between Kelce and Bieniemy.

 

“He’s like a father figure, in terms of being there for me on the field,” Kelce said. “We’re wired a little bit the same when it comes to our competitive edge. . . . It’s something immediately I regretted, and I just wanted to make it good and let him know that, ‘You know what? I’m ready to rock and roll for you.’”

 

Kelce’s frustration has surfaced at various times in his career, including in 2016 when he was ejected from a game against the Jaguars after the Pro Bowler threw a penalty flag at an official.

 

“I haven’t felt like that in a while,” Kelce said. “That’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about a lot, just how to handle a lot of those situations. Looking back, seeing how I connected the dots after maybe a frustrating play and how to kind of [narrow] in and be able to attack on the next play with a clear mind.

 

“It’s football. It’s not always going to go your way, so I’ve just got to maintain the level of focus and the level of excitement that I have for the game.”

– – –

It sounds like QB PATRICK MAHOMES will be good to go.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Patrick Mahomes was full-go in practice Wednesday, a great sign he shouldn’t be hindered by the ankle injury tweaked in Sunday’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

 

“I actually feel pretty good today,” the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback said, via ESPN. “I feel like after the [Colts] game, it was sore after the game. But it’s feeling pretty good today, so I’m glad to be able to go out there and practice on it and get it moving around and stuff like that. I feel like I’ll be fine playing and moving around and still doing what I need to do to win.

 

“It’s not perfect. I guess you would say that. But it’s good enough where I can run, cut, cut off of it and do all that type of stuff.”

 

Mahomes originally suffered the ankle injury in Week 1. The injury was tweaked on Sunday. In the loss, the K.C. QB was clearly limited by the injury. With the ankle hindering his mobility, the Chiefs lost most of their explosive plays when Mahomes escapes pressure outside the pocket.

 

The signal-caller not missing any practice time at all despite it being the second time he’s twisted the ankle is a great sign that we should see a mostly healthy Mahomes come Sunday against the Houston Texans. Mahomes, despite being on the injury report with the ankle issue since Week 1, hasn’t missed a practice this season.

 

 

THE RAIDERS

Coach Jon Gruden, who coached Derrick Brooks at one point, was brought in for part of the Vontaze Burfict appeal.  Brooks was unswayed.  Scott Bair of NBCSports.com:

 

Middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict will not return to the Raiders this season. His season-long suspension for an illegal hit on Indianapolis tight end Jack Doyle will stand.

 

Appeals officer Derrick Brooks upheld the suspension following a Tuesday hearing challenging the unprecedented punishment for an on-field action. The NFL announced the news Wednesday.

 

Brooks is an independent arbitrator appointed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The former NFL defensive end played under Raiders head coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay.

 

Burfict appealed for leniency in a Tuesday teleconference that included reps from the players union and the NFL. Gruden also spoke on Burfict’s behalf. So did quarterback Derek Carr.

 

Those pleas, and Burfict’s argument the punishment was excessive, fell on deaf ears. It didn’t change minds enough to even decrease the suspension, which will be extended throughout the 2019 season. That includes the postseason, should the Raiders qualify.

 

The Silver and Black will be upset by this decision. They were bothered he was suspended at all for the action, let alone a full season. They were also troubled to find out through the media that the NFL was considering this type of action, based more on Burfict’s reputation as a dirty player than the hit itself.

 

Gruden told the media Tuesday he was hopeful the Raiders would have Burfict back playing with them at some point this season.

 

“I respect the league’s position,” Gruden said in a Tuesday press conference. “They have a tough job. At the same time, we have a lot of confidence that they’ll do what’s right. We want Burfict back. He has already been punished, and we hope he can return to playing soon.”

 

He will not play for the Raiders again in 2019. There’s no telling if he’ll play for them again, though defensive coordinator Paul Guenther loves him and could bring him back in 2020. Burfict signed a one-year contract during the offseason, and was named a team captain entering the 2019 campaign.

 

The NFL did not issue a new statement after the suspension was upheld, only re-sending the statement that came with the original suspension on Sept. 30.

 

According to ESPN’s Josina Anderson, Burfict said during the appeal hearing that he was not trying to hurt Doyle, and that the tight end’s target zone was changing and that he was not trying to injure anyone. Burfict’s camp, per Anderson, also cited other vicious hits from that same week that didn’t result in a suspension.

 

Again, this has to do with reputation and past incidents as much as anything. Burfict has been suspended twice before for illegal hits and fined hefty sums on several occasions for such actions.

 

The Raiders find themselves precariously thin at linebacker, with Tahir Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow as their primary players at the position. Marquel Lee is on injured reserve, leaving Kyle Wilber and recent additions Dakota Allen and Justin Phillips in reserve. None of those backups have much defensive experience.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CINCINNATI

Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com on the status of WR A.J. GREEN:

 

Wide receiver A.J. Green said recently that he hopes to spend his entire career with the Bengals, but the team’s 0-5 record and Green’s expiring contract have led some to wonder if a trade might be a possibility.

 

Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick weighed in on that possibility this week and cautioned that “it’s going to fall apart” if Green were dealt away. It’s fair to wonder how you’d notice things fell apart for a winless team, but it’s clearly seems like something’s in the air at the moment.

 

Green insists that it isn’t in the air around him, however.

 

“I tell everybody I haven’t heard anything,” Green said, via the team’s website. “I don’t fantasize about anything like that. I’m just trying to get healthy and go from there. I’m prepared for anything. A trade’s not going to change who I am. I’m still going to play. I’m still going to be A.J.”

 

One complication to both trading Green and getting something out of him in Cincinnati is the ankle injury that’s kept him off the field since late July. Green’s already been ruled out for this week, but ran and cut at full speed for the first time since being injured on Wednesday so a return may not be that far off regardless of what uniform he’ll be wearing when he makes it.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

He hasn’t done much this year anyway, even with Oklahoma State buddy MASON RUDOLPH at QB – but WR JAMES WASHINGTON is on the shelf.  Ian Rapoport of NFL.com with this tweet:

 

@RapSheet

#Steelers WR James Washington is expected to miss a few weeks with a shoulder injury suffered on Sunday, source said. Another challenge for either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges this week.

 

As for Rudolph, he is back at practice on a limited basis despite being viciously waylaid by Ravens S EARL THOMAS last Sunday.  But Ray Fittipaldo in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says undrafted rookie QB DEVLIN HODGES may get his first start before a national audience on Sunday night:

 

Three days after being knocked unconscious from a helmet-to-helmet hit by Ravens safety Earl Thomas, Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph returned to practice. Rudolph remains in concussion protocol, but his participation in practice Wednesday afternoon is a sign that he’s recovering.

 

“Mason is a tough dude,” receiver Johnny Holton said. “To see him out there at practice today, it was kind of amazing. People usually take a week or two off. It just shows us that he wants to be here.”

 

According to the NFL and NFLPA return-to-participation protocol, Rudolph is in Step 4 of the 5-step process toward being cleared. The final step, upon clearance by an independent neurologist and team physician, is a return to full-contact practice or game activity.

 

Rudolph took reps with the scout team Wednesday afternoon while rookie Devlin Hodges took all the reps with the first-team offense.

 

Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson says he’s healthy, expects to play against Chargers

“He’s doing well,” Hodges said. “That was a scary situation, a really scary situation. He was knocked out pretty cold. To see him here and moving around and see him smiling, it’s a good sign.”

 

The Steelers are preparing as if Hodges will be the starter when they visit the Chargers on Sunday night in Los Angeles. Because Rudolph is not likely to be cleared from the protocol until the end of the week, chances are slim that he’ll start the game. But he could serve as the backup if he is cleared before Sunday night. If not, the Steelers will elevate Paxton Lynch from the practice squad to be the backup for the game.

 

“I prepare to start every week,” Hodges said. “That’s what I do. I’m trying to be the best I can be and just go out there and play.

 

“I’m feeling good. I feel confident in myself. I have a great group around me, and I just have to go out there and compete.”

 

Hodges came on in relief of Rudolph in the Steelers’ 26-23 loss to the Ravens. He was 7 for 9 for 68 yards and finished the game with a 98.1 quarterback rating. He also had a 21-yard scramble that set up the go-ahead field goal with a little more than two minutes remaining.

 

Hodges didn’t get any reps last week, not even with the scout team because Taryn Christion was signed to mimic Ravens QB Lamar Jackson for the Steelers defense. The only throwing he did was in some seven-on-seven portions of practice. Now he’s likely to get every rep with the first-team offense this week.

 

“It helps a lot,” Hodges said. “You’re talking about getting throws in that you’re not getting in when you’re the backup or the No. 3 guy. You’re not getting a lot of throws in. So as far as getting the timing down with the receivers and being in the huddle, it’s a confidence booster.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

THE  TRUE NUMBER ONE RECEIVERS

From Mike Sando of The Athletic:

 

Julio Jones’ rare size, speed, hands and route-running versatility make him a prototypical No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. Not many would contend otherwise. Odell Beckham and Tyreek Hill are special talents with explosive play-making ability. DeAndre Hopkins dominates in his own way. Michael Thomas’ consistent production cannot be ignored. But as passing proliferates in the NFL, raw numbers can blur lines between true No. 1 wide receivers and lesser talents with outstanding production.

 

Over the past few months, I’ve asked coaches and evaluators around the NFL what makes a true No. 1 wideout in their minds. Some of their answers were as nuanced as the receivers themselves, but their input provided a framework for categorizing the top wideouts.

 

“A No. 1 receiver to me is someone who can take over a game, someone you need to double-cover the whole game,” a general manager said. “Like Julio, you have to have a safety over him the whole game, and the minute you don’t, he is going to run by you and take it to the house.”

 

Another GM thought true No. 1 receivers should be able to win matchups on the perimeter while showing enough versatility to play effectively from the slot as well. “He has very good speed, at least,” this GM said. “Not necessarily always size, but the athletic ability and explosiveness to change a game.”

 

And a third GM said true No. 1 receivers must be able to beat zone or man coverage.

 

“To be a No. 1,” this GM added, “you have to be able to make contested catches because we have to be able to throw the ball to you when everybody knows it’s coming.”

 

So who are the NFL’s true No. 1 receivers? I’ve posed that question to more than a dozen coaches and evaluators. Some of the results might surprise you.

 

No. 1 wide receivers (Superhuman division)

Coaches and evaluators thought these receivers possessed special traits to go along with proven production.

 

Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 220 | Slot: 19%

 

Jones ranks second to Antonio Brown in receptions since entering the NFL in 2011. He needs only seven yards to overtake Brown for the most receiving yards over that same period. Only Calvin Johnson averaged more yards per game since then.

 

“Here is the thing about him,” a GM said. “Third-and-3, third-and-4, something is coming to him. You don’t know which route. If it’s always a slant, we can drift a backer over there. He can run back-shoulder, he can run 9-stop, he can run a dig, he can run a slant and you know what? You can play him man, you can play him zone, he can make contested catches, he’s got enough speed to get over the top and he can run a variation of routes. Even if you try to bracket him, he can still find a way to get open.”

 

One evaluator thought Jones, 30, wasn’t quite what he once was, but since the start of the 2017 season, the six-time Pro Bowler is one of only three players to average at least 90 yards per game.

 

“You can battle your ass off and Julio still makes the play,” a former GM said. “When you watch people play him, they are fighting like crazy. Any incompletion is a celebration, whether you really covered him or not.”

 

Odell Beckham, Cleveland Browns

Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 198 | Slot: 21%

 

Beckham’s stock has suffered recently, but he’s such a special talent that placing him lower in the hierarchy didn’t seem right.

 

“Odell can do it all,” a personnel director said. “Other than Julio, he is the most complete of everybody you just mentioned — Hill, Hopkins, Michael Thomas, those guys. It’s simple, if you are going off ability, Odell has the most ability of the guys you mentioned, outside of Julio, hands down.”

 

Beckham has missed 16 of 37 games since the start of the 2017 season. He owns one big game from a production standpoint this season, against the Jets.

 

“Actually, I think he is playing better,” an evaluator said heading into Week 4. “I don’t know if there is anybody in the league right now that is getting out of breaks quicker and smoother and creating separation better than him. Rex Ryan wasn’t 100 percent wrong on his criticisms of the quarterback there.”

 

Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs

Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 185 | Slot: 37%

 

You want speed? You want versatility? Hill’s your guy, especially with Andy Reid designing the offense.

 

“He can do anything he wants to do,” a veteran coach said. “No one can question anywhere you put him on that list. He’s definitely in the top group because he is so dynamic. He can do outside receiver things and inside receiver things, and return things, and you can hand it off to him.”

 

An evaluator raised what he called the “million-dollar question” regarding Hill.

 

“If Tyreek were with the Cincinnati Bengals, would he still be a No. 1?” this evaluator asked. “He is a little bit more of a gadget-type player who benefits in Andy Reid’s offense. But when you talk about true No. 1s having traits that clearly separate them, he has that. You cannot deny he is the fastest player in the NFL.”

 

No. 1 wide receivers (Human Division)

Many coaches and evaluators anointed these guys with the No. 1 label, but they didn’t always see special traits to push them into the superhuman division.

 

DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 212 | Slot: 16%

 

Some think true No. 1 receivers should carry a vertical fear factor. Hopkins doesn’t have that kind of speed.

 

“There are different types of 1s,” an offensive coach said. “Randy Moss was not a great route runner, but everyone knows he was a 1.”

 

Hopkins seemingly can turn 50-50 balls into 100-0 balls.

 

“When the ball is up in the air, when it is either yours or mine, he is unbelievable,” an evaluator said. “I sat there and watched our guy (cornerback) play his butt off against him, but he just didn’t have the ball skills.”

 

Brown, Jones and Hopkins are the only wide receivers averaging at least 90 receiving yards per game since 2017.

 

“They are different guys,” an offensive coordinator said. “There are guys who beat people because they are just better, and guys who cannot separate but have the hand-eye coordination and competitiveness. It’s the difference between Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins, or Odell Beckham and Keenan Allen. With Hopkins, all his stuff is contested and he catches everything, but you don’t fear him like you fear Odell or Julio.”

 

Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 212 | Slot: 22%

 

Thomas leads the league in receptions with 366 since entering the NFL in 2016. Hopkins (320) is next on that list.

 

“Everyone wants to make him a No. 1, but he catches a lot of balls because they do not throw to anyone else,” a coach said. “He is the real deal, though. He’s got such great production and he’s so smart and he has everything but the great speed.”

– –

“Michael Thomas, yes, I would say he is a No. 1,” a former GM said. “It’s just, does he have the game-changing ability?”

 

Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ht: 6-5 | Wt: 231 | Slot: 16%

 

Evans is on pace for his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season to start his career. He’s averaging 20.4 yards per reception this season, up from a career-high 17.7 average in 2018. Evans also has four scoring receptions through five games, but New Orleans shut him out Sunday as cornerback Marshon Lattimore won the latest installment of their NFC South rivalry.

 

“I think he is a No. 1 and he is great down the field, but to me, when you are talking about Julio and Hopkins and Antonio Brown, I mean, that is a different level,” a GM said.

 

No. 1 wide receivers (…if you say so)

Coaches and evaluators acknowledged the talent and/or production, but a larger number weren’t willing to fully anoint for various reasons.

 

Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 225 | Slot: 20%

 

Cooper in his final 16 games with Oakland: 58 catches, 850 yards, seven touchdowns.

 

Cooper in his first 16 games with Dallas, counting the playoffs: 98 catches, 1,408 yards, 12 touchdowns.

 

The talent is obviously there, and if Cooper continues producing the way he has since Dallas acquired him, his stock will keep rising.

 

“Last year threw me off,” a GM said. “When they were shopping him, you start looking at what is going on and I just think (Jon) Gruden got in his head. I think the guy is a 1.”

 

Cooper has five scoring receptions in the Cowboys’ first five games this season.

 

“I would say he is 1A,” a former GM said. “I think he has good explosiveness. I don’t think he is as strong or as explosive as Hopkins, Julio, Antonio Brown. He is not like that. Those guys are on another level to me.”

 

Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 225 | Slot: 17%

 

In recent years, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has targeted wide receivers at a far higher rate than other top quarterbacks have targeted them. Running backs and tight ends simply haven’t been a big part of the passing game.

 

“I think you saw when Davante Adams hurt his toe on Thursday night (against the Eagles), there went the offense,” an evaluator said. “I think he is a true No. 1. Not that big, not that fast, but makes a lot of plays. To me, when it is third-and-6 and we have to keep the chains moving, that guy gets open.”

 

Others were not so sure, but some of that was because different coaches and evaluators defined No. 1 receivers in different ways. Adams doesn’t check as many boxes as some of the others.

 

“I think a 1 is a guy you have to actually scheme to take out of the game,” a longtime exec said. “You have to commit additional resources to it. If you go one-on-one, he is going to beat you, so you have to game-plan around him. I don’t think you have to game plan for this guy. Doesn’t mean he won’t catch a lot of passes.”

 

T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 183 | Slot: 26%

 

Only Brown, Jones and Hopkins have more receiving yards than Hilton since 2013.

 

“Underrated receiver,” an evaluator said. “He just always makes plays. I don’t know if he gets his due. To me, that is a guy who I don’t think defenses would think they have to double and maybe think they have to stop coming into a game. He is just a consistently good fricking little receiver who makes plays.”

 

The relative lack of size does hurt Hilton in the eyes of some.

 

“I know if we are playing him, we are probably going to have a safety (over the top) a lot because of the speed,” a GM said, “but the size and the physicality … I think you can push him around a little.”

 

Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 211 | Slot: 45%

 

Allen is on pace to surpass 1,500 yards this season with the best production through the first five games of a season in his five-year career.

 

“He is really good in the slot, but I think outside, you can take him away,” a GM said. “I think he is really good, though. One of the best inside, instinctive, savvy players. I just think if they left him outside, he would be a ho-hum guy.”

 

Allen caught nine passes for 128 yards and a touchdown when aligned wide against Houston in Week 3. The Texans’ secondary has been a problem spot, however.

 

“He’s their best receiver, but is he on the level of those other guys?” a former GM said. “I don’t know. Even though the stats are really good, off the charts, a lot of times if you have a good quarterback and he’s throwing to you, that helps too.”

 

Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings

Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 200 | Slot: 42%

 

Like Allen, Thielen aligns in the slot more than No. 1 receivers typically do. Coaches and evaluators thought Thielen was more 1A than true No. 1.

 

“He is somewhere in between and needs other people around him,” a veteran coach said. “Thielen is probably closer than I give him credit for, but like some receivers who always get the second DB, if you are in the slot, that helps with matchups.”

 

The Last Word

…on some receivers who may or may not belong in the No. 1 conversation (if I left off someone you’re interested in, it probably meant I didn’t have a comment worth sharing).

 

A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 210 | Slot: 14%

 

“At one time, I would have put him in that group with Julio. He is just banged up. To say he is a 1 today, I don’t know that. I think he is trending down. Let’s see how he comes back.”

 

Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings

Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 191 | Slot: 24%

 

“I actually think Diggs is a better receiver than Thielen even though Thielen has the stats. I think you can line up Diggs inside and outside to get open. I think Diggs can do what Davante Adams can do, but they don’t use him in that role. The more outside Thielen is, I think you can cover him.”

 

Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles

Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 218 | Slot: 13%

 

“He is hard to cover and when he gets singled up, he beats the guy who singles him up, but I don’t see him playing like a 1 consistently.”

 

Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams

Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 183 | Slot: 16%

 

“I think he’s a one-trick pony a little bit — vertical, straight line, small. But everywhere he goes, he is a key contributor to a winning team. He can be overlooked. I’d rather have him than Sammy Watkins.”

 

Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams

Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 195 | Slot: 33%

 

“If they lost Woods, that would hurt more than if you took Cooks off, because Woods to me is the guy who moves the chains, runs the precise routes, that the quarterback is always going to know where he’s at. If you are going to play soft and not give up the home run, Woods is going to catch eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown or two.”

 

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 182 | Slot: 50%

“I think he’s got a little T.Y. Hilton in him, but I don’t think they schematically use him in that role, whereas I think he could be that guy.”

 

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 215 | Slot: 53%

 

“Everyone is looking at you. The opportunity is there. Does he seize it? It’s a different deal without Antonio Brown there, and then obviously the quarterback situation is a factor.”

 

Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns

Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 196 | Slot: 60%

 

“He is Michael Thomas in a little man’s body who can’t play outside. He plays tough — you gotta love the guy — but might be in that category where he is never going to be anything but good.”

 

Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears

Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 220 | Slot: 35%

 

“If he had not gotten injured that one year (2017), I think he could have been on pace with a Thielen. Is he good enough on a week-to-week basis to separate and be a true No. 1? I don’t know if he has enough. There is a separator between the true No. 1s and the vast majority of guys that are good but not great.”

 

Josh Gordon, New England Patriots

Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 225 | Slot: 12%

 

“I don’t think he runs as great as he used to, but he’s a good 2.”

 

Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions

Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 214 | Slot: 16%

 

“I think Golladay is a legit No. 1 receiver. He is not going to beat you on speed, but he could be a Mike Evans-type player. Golladay has physical ability to beat corners one-on-one on a down you need it most. He is just bigger and stronger.”

 

Sammy Watkins, Kansas City Chiefs

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 211 | Slot: 34%

 

“I don’t know what he is, but it’s tough to say he is a 1. You are still taking him off what you thought about him in the draft. He just has not been consistent enough.”

 

Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 209 | Slot: 30%

 

“Reliable, tough player you can count on, with the ability to play inside and out. His max potential could be like a Michael Thomas or Adam Thielen – a 1 for some teams but probably best as a 2.”

 

Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

 Ht: 5-10 | Wt: 198 | Slot: 53%

 

“I wish there was another category of guys that are just consistently good, consistently solid. I would not say Julian is a No. 1. I think he is a darn good slot.”

 

Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Ht: 6-2 | Wt: 208 | Slot: 52%

 

“Kupp is like a machine. He is like the Carolina running back (Christian McCaffrey) of slot receivers. He just goes and goes.”

 

D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars

Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 198 | Slot: 22%

 

“Chark is the real deal. His performance (Sunday against Carolina) was the best I’ve seen in a while. Really good athlete. Right now, he is putting up No. 1-type numbers.”

 

A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans

Ht: 6-1 | Wt: 226 | Slot: 6%

 

“I think he can be a 1 and I think he can be the best receiver on that team. He has the all-around ability.”

 

Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens

 Ht: 5-9 | Wt: 170 | Slot: 30%

 

“Durability was my biggest concern and he did get hurt in the Pittsburgh game. He can sure run and make plays, not just on offense but on special teams, too.”

 

 D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks

 Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 229 | Slot: 14%

 

“It is crazy to me that he fell so late in the second round. He has traits that are ridiculous. He will just line up and beat you. I think he can become a 1.”

 

 Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers

Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 215 | Slot: 16%

 

“Don’t be surprised if in Year 2 or Year 3, guys like Deebo Samuel and Parris Campbell (of the Colts) suddenly emerge. I see them in that next category (below the true No. 1s).”

 

 Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins

Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 210 | Slot: 16%

 

“I love him but don’t view him as a true No. 1. To me, at his best, he is more of a slot receiver who will make big plays for you when you need them most.”

 

 Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos

Ht: 5-11 | Wt: 180 | Slot: 38%

 

“Sanders is a great example of a solid guy that has always been a really good No. 2-type receiver. In some ways, he is their No. 1 right now in Denver. Speaking of Denver, he still hasn’t flashed to his true potential, but I think Courtland Sutton has the potential to be that guy.”

 

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 218 | Slot: 58%

 

“DeAndre Hopkins at the point reminds me a little of Larry Fitzgerald at one time, except Fitz maybe had more run-after-catch.”

 

 

WHAT’S GONE WRONG?

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com looks at why the two LA teams and four other clubs who were expected to do well have faltered out of the gate.  Edited version below:

 

A lot can go wrong for a team in five weeks. History says you can kiss your playoff chances goodbye if you start 0-5; since the NFL went to its current postseason structure in 2002, no team that started the year without a win through five games has made it to the postseason. That’s bad news for Cincinnati and Washington. Even teams that win one game out of their first five have only converted their slow starts into postseason trips 8.5% of the time.

 

It’s one thing for the league’s worst teams, who started out of the race, to confirm their January vacations early. It’s another to watch teams that were expected to contend see their playoff chances wane. Let’s go through the six teams that have had their playoff chances decline most severely, according to the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI). It’s a list that starts in California and makes its way all around the NFL:

 

Los Angeles Chargers

Preseason playoff chances: 57.0%

Current playoff chances: 10.3%

Playoff chances decline: -46.7%

 

Is it just simple enough to list a bunch of injuries? Sadly, the Chargers have been bit by the injury bug yet again. Kicker Michael Badgley, safety Derwin James and left tackle Russell Okung haven’t played a single game. Tight end Hunter Henry went down because of a knee injury after Week 1, although he’s expected to return. Safety Adrian Phillips and corner Trevor Williams have already hit injured reserve, with Williams, a starter last season, eventually cut before joining the Cardinals. Wide receivers Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin were both injured, which led the Chargers to sign Dontrelle Inman, who started in Week 4 and then went to injured reserve himself. Starting center Mike Pouncey hit IR on Wednesday. Edge rusher Melvin Ingram missed Week 5 because of a hamstring injury, which was the season debut for the team’s other prominent Melvin.

 

Melvin Gordon’s absence was of his own choosing, and Austin Ekeler held his own as the team’s primary running back, but the offense has been felled by another problem: turnovers. In 2018, the Chargers either didn’t turn the ball over or turned the ball over only one time in 11 of their 18 games across the regular season and the playoffs. They were 11-0 in those games and just 2-5 otherwise. “Don’t turn the ball over” isn’t exactly some sort of modern finding, but when L.A. didn’t shoot itself in the foot, it was hard to beat.

– – –

The problems are in the secondary. If the Chargers could magically heal one of their players, the clear pick would be James. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley badly misses his star safety’s versatility and coverage ability. In watching the various big plays against the Chargers’ defense this season, there’s not one obvious culprit like the Falcons.

– – –

The Chargers are 28th in defensive DVOA through five games, and given that their schedule has included a relative middling group of quarterbacks beyond Deshaun Watson, I suspect their numbers will get worse as opponent adjustments become more significant. They can be thankful that the schedule stays relatively friendly, as they’ll get Devlin Hodges, Marcus Mariota, and either Mitchell Trubisky or Chase Daniel over the next three weeks. The only upper-echelon quarterbacks L.A. will really face the rest of the way are Aaron Rodgers and two games against Patrick Mahomes.

 

The other good news for Anthony Lynn’s team? The AFC is a bit of a mess. The Chiefs lost to the Colts, which keeps the Chargers within two games in the AFC West. The Chargers beat Indy, which would come in handy if the two end up in a wild-card tiebreaker. After the 5-0 Patriots, the 4-1 Chiefs, and the 4-1 Bills, there are eight teams that are either 3-2 or 2-3 competing for three playoff spots. The Chargers don’t look like the team from 2018, but if they can stick around .500 and possibly get guys like James and Henry back on the field, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot in December.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Preseason playoff chances: 55.9%

Current playoff chances: 16.8%

Playoff chances decline: -39.1%

 

Some explanations are simpler than others. When you replace a Hall of Fame quarterback with an untested midround pick, and then replace that midround pick with an undrafted rookie, your offense gets worse. Here are Pittsburgh’s ranks by DVOA from this season and last season:

 

2018: 6th in offense, 13th in defense and 27th in special teams

 

2019: 25th in offense, 7th in defense and 19th in special teams

 

The defense has actually done an admirable job of stepping up after struggling mightily against the Patriots and Seahawks. Over the past three games, the Steelers have picked off six passes, posted the league’s second-highest sack rate and allowed a QBR of just 22.4, which is third best in the league. One of those games was a five-takeaway performance against the 49ers, which should essentially guarantee victory; teams have gone 232-21 (.917) over the past 20 years when they’ve forced five takeaways.

– – –

The early returns on quarterback Mason Rudolph, who stepped in for Ben Roethlisberger, have been mixed. Any idea that the Steelers were going to be able to run the same offense or had a plug-and-play replacement for Roethlisberger was quickly rendered absurd. The game plan through Rudolph’s first two starts is about as conservative as you’ll ever see for an ambulatory quarterback. The evidence: 65.5% of Rudolph’s passes traveled five yards or less in the air. To put that in context, no other quarterback in the NFL topped 59% over that same time frame. Rudolph tried to take the occasional shot downfield, but he was 3-of-11 for 99 yards on deep passes, and two of those completions came against the Bengals, who have been the league’s fifth-worst team against deep passes this year.

 

Rudolph’s expected completion percentage by NFL Next Gen Stats research in those first two games was 68.7%, the sixth-highest figure in the league among quarterbacks who started and finished both games. Rudolph completed 69.1% of those throws, right in line with projections. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an extremely conservative offense, but it’s no surprise that Pittsburgh wasn’t able to do much in the red zone, where those easy completions aren’t quite as easy.

 

Before Rudolph went down because of a serious concussion from a blow to the head in Week 5, though, he was producing his best start as a pro.

– – –

It looks as if Devlin Hodges will make the start against the Chargers on Sunday night. It’s impossible to say much about how he’ll perform, although he played reasonably well against the blitz-happy Ravens in his NFL debut Sunday. He didn’t always get much help from his receivers, with JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbling away a catch in overtime that handed the Ravens a short field and the eventual winning field goal. The Steelers also used Jaylen Samuels as a Wildcat quarterback in recent weeks, but after Samuels threw an ugly interception and went down because of a knee injury on Sunday, that part of the playbook might be scrapped for the foreseeable future.

 

Injuries are really what has dismantled the Steelers’ offense. Roethlisberger is done for the year. Samuels is out for a month. Wide receiver James Washington will miss several weeks because of a shoulder injury. Receiver Donte Moncrief’s ugly start to the season was influenced by a broken finger he suffered during camp. Tight end Vance McDonald missed time because of a shoulder injury. Smith-Schuster is playing through a toe injury. Running back James Conner has already left games because of knee and ankle injuries this season. The Pittsburgh line has stayed healthy, but we’re going to see third-stringers at quarterback, running back and receiver take meaningful snaps for the Steelers on Sunday.

 

Pittsburgh’s best hope, realistically, is to get Conner and the running game going.

 

Atlanta Falcons

Preseason playoff chances: 40.5%

Current playoff chances: 3.5%

Playoff chances decline: -37%

 

The Falcons’ collapse is a lesson in self-scouting. Crucially, on the defensive side of the ball, the team evaluated itself as the defense it wanted to be as opposed to the defense it actually has been for several years. Dan Quinn & Co. wanted to believe that a healthy version of the defense that looked dominant during the 2016 playoffs is what the Falcons would look like in 2019. It wasn’t realistic.

 

The only explanation I can imagine for the Falcons conducting their business as they did this offseason is to assume that they wrote off 2018 because of injuries and thought their 2017 performance in scoring defense was real. Outside of signing defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones to extensions, the organization did little to address its defensive woes. Atlanta signed defensive linemen Adrian Clayborn and Tyeler Davison to small deals, then added edge rusher Allen Bailey on a two-year, $10.5 million deal in July after his market didn’t develop.

 

It seemed like a sure thing that Atlanta would address its woes in the draft, but it used the 14th pick on offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom.

– – –

There’s really not much Atlanta does right in pass coverage. Start up front and you see that the Falcons aren’t bothering opposing quarterbacks. Only seven teams have blitzed more frequently than them, but they still rank a lowly 30th in pressure rate. When they do manage to get pressure, their pass-rushers don’t finish the job, as the Falcons also rank 30th in sack rate against pressured quarterbacks.

– – –

The secondary, too, hasn’t lived up to form. Cornerback Desmond Trufant was supposed to be Quinn’s version of Richard Sherman, but after an impressive debut season with Quinn in 2015, Trufant tore his pec in 2016 and hasn’t been the same player since. He is tied for the league lead with four touchdowns allowed as the closest defender in coverage this season.

 

Opposite number Isaiah Oliver, who moved into the starting lineup after the Falcons cut Robert Alford this offseason, has been worse. The 2018 second-rounder has been targeted on 23.7% of opposing pass attempts, the eighth-highest rate in the league. That’s great if a defender is holding up against those throws, but Oliver has allowed an opposing passer rating of 136.0 as the closest defender, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league for corners with 100 coverage snaps or more.

– – –

After Week 2, the NFC South seemed as if it had opened up perfectly for Atlanta. The Saints were 1-1 and down Drew Brees. The Panthers were 0-2 and were about to sit an injured Cam Newton. The Bucs were 1-1, with a brutal loss to the 49ers and a narrow win over Newton’s Panthers. The Falcons had just ridden an emotional rollercoaster by converting a fourth-down pass to Jones for a touchdown to finally beat the Eagles in prime time.

 

Since then, the Saints and Panthers have gone 3-0, the Bucs upset the Rams, and the Falcons have lost three games to the AFC South by a combined 38 points. I have faith that this offense will get better as the season goes along, but it would take something close to the 2016 offense to carry the defense to victories every week. Unless Quinn suddenly stumbles onto a solution or the defense starts forcing three turnovers per game — which is hardly out of the question against the Cardinals on Sunday, to be fair — the Falcons are probably out of the playoff picture.

 

New York Jets

Preseason playoff chances: 27.2%

Current playoff chances: 0.9%

Playoff chances decline: -26.3%

 

From the day the schedule was released, this season was going to be about the second half for the Jets. From Week 8 onward, they play only two games against teams FPI projects to finish with even a .500 record in 2019, with one game against the Ravens and a Week 17 matchup with the Bills. The Jets have five games left against teams FPI projects to finish with one of the top six picks in the draft, although that top six also includes themselves. They needed to keep things manageable over the first seven weeks of the season before breaking out against the easiest schedule in the league afterward. That means 3-3 would have been ideal, 2-4 would have been totally fine, and 1-5 would even have been passable.

 

Instead, the Jets are 0-4, and with games against the Cowboys and Patriots to come, there’s a good chance they’ll start 0-6. They blew a 14-point lead in a game the Bills tried to hand to them in Week 1, and with quarterback Sam Darnold sidelined by mononucleosis, the team promptly lost its next three games by a combined 61 points. Adam Gase, the offensive guru the Jets imported to develop Darnold and kickstart a moribund attack, is running a team that has scored one offensive touchdown in five games.

 

New York’s offseason spending spree, too, has been a disaster. Linebacker C.J. Mosley injured his groin in the opener and hasn’t played since. Guard Kelechi Osemele missed last week’s loss to the Eagles because of a shoulder injury. Center Ryan Kalil was briefly benched during an ugly start to the season. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, the team’s top free agent from a year ago, also rode pine. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Le’Veon Bell — strictly by staying healthy and by playing well enough to avoid being benching — have been New York’s best signings so far.

 

Bell’s season is a reminder of just how futile it is to sign a running back and expect him to propel forward your offense. It’s certainly not his fault that Darnold went out because of illness and backup Trevor Siemian subsequently suffered a season-ending injury, but without an effective offensive line or a viable passing game, Bell has been a replacement-level back.

 

Los Angeles Rams

Preseason playoff chances: 72.8%

Current playoff chances: 51.6%

Playoff chances decline: -21.2%

 

Of course, this could be an even more extreme drop off if we set the initial bar after Week 3. The Rams started 3-0, with a win over the Saints, giving Sean McVay’s team the inside track to the top seed in the NFC. At that point, the Rams had a 92.1% chance of making it to the postseason, best in the conference.

 

Since then, they have gone 0-2, including a loss to the division-rival Seahawks. The 49ers went through their bye and dominated the Browns on Monday Night Football. Forget first place in the conference; the Rams are in third place in their own division. Their playoff chances will fall below 50% if they lose what suddenly looms as a critical game against the Niners in Los Angeles this Sunday.

 

 What’s happened? To start, L.A. has been hit by the sort of bad luck it mostly avoided in 2018. The 13-3 Rams went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or less because they came up with the big play at the exact moment they needed one. They forced takeaways late in the fourth quarter just as other teams were going to have a shot to win the game. They came up with critical fourth-down conversions to seal games up. Quarterbacks missed open receivers at exactly the worst possible time.

 

Over the last two weeks, the pages have turned. With the Rams driving to try and tie the game down 48-40, pass-rusher Shaq Barrett forced a strip sack and former defensive Rams tackle Ndamukong Suh returned it for a game-sealing touchdown. The following week saw the Seahawks convert on fourth-and-goal when Russell Wilson found a wide-open Chris Carson in the end zone for a touchdown, and while he bobbled the pass and stopped Seattle hearts for a moment, Carson caught the ball on his second try to put the Seahawks ahead.

 

The Seahawks then came up with a spectacular interception of Jared Goff on the Rams’ first attempt to take back the lead with 2:13 to go. L.A. got the ball back, but after Goff drove the team into field goal range, Greg Zuerlein reminded us that he was human. He had been 12-of-13 in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime under McVay, only for the Rams to take an inexplicable delay of game penalty with 20 seconds to go before Zuerlein pulled his 44-yard kick narrowly wide. This stuff didn’t happen to them last season.

 

The Rams recovered a league-high 71% of the fumbles in their games in 2018, then came away with all three of the fumbles in their 30-27 victory over the Panthers in the opener. Since then, though, they have recovered just one of the ensuing seven fumbles across their four other games. McVay’s team finished with a turnover margin of plus-11 last season, the fourth-best figure in the NFL; with Goff throwing seven interceptions and the fumble recovery rate regressing toward the mean, the team has a turnover margin of minus-4 after five games.

 

I wrote about Goff after Week 3 and covered the issues with Los Angeles’s offensive identity after Week 4, so I won’t go too much into those concerns again. Goff did miss a couple of throws against the Seahawks, but Total QBR agreed that it was his best game of the season, as he posted a 63.9 mark and put his team in a position to win the game.

 

Two things about how McVay approached the Seahawks game stood out as particularly interesting to me. One is that he scrapped his load management scheme for Todd Gurley. After playing Gurley on just over 71% of Los Angeles’ offensive snaps through the first four games of the season, McVay bit the bullet and sent Gurley out for 62 of Los Angeles’ 67 offensive snaps against the Seahawks, which is nearly 93%. Was it because the Rams were in a key divisional game? Did he make the decision because the Rams were playing on Thursday and would have 10 days before their next game? Regardless of why McVay increased the running back’s workload, there appear to be consequences: Gurley is struggling with a thigh contusion and is questionable to play against the 49ers.

 

The other change was how McVay employed his personnel. The Rams were able to revitalize their offense during stretches in December and January by going with 12 personnel and getting both tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee on the field. That made sense with Cooper Kupp sidelined by a torn ACL, but with Kupp back in the fold, the Rams went with 12 personnel on just 5% of their runs through the first four games of the season.

 

Even though they started the game with all three of their standout wide receivers healthy against the Seahawks, McVay used two or more tight ends on 26-of-67 snaps against Seattle on Thursday. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks eventually left the game with a concussion, but the Rams used 12 personnel most frequently in the first quarter, when he was still available. When the Rams went to those sets, they generally sacrificed Kupp, which seems surprising given how effective he has been this season. The gambit didn’t really work — just 29% of Los Angeles’ snaps out of 12 personnel were considered successful plays by the NFL’s Next-Gen Stats, as opposed to a 52% success rate out of their more traditional 11 grouping.

 

I suspect McVay wanted to use the 12 personnel to try to create easier running opportunities for Gurley. It also helped out an offensive line which is struggling right now in ways I wouldn’t have expected. The natural expectation before the year was that the interior of the Rams line would struggle, given that Los Angeles had two new starters at left guard (Joe Noteboom) and center (Brian Allen). The hope was that the Rams could rebuild on the interior while relying on dominant play from star tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein.

 

Instead, while Allen has stepped in and played at a high level, the tackles are the ones noticeably struggling.

– – –

The biggest concern for the Rams, though, has to be on the other side of the ball. Los Angeles allowed Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston to complete more than 70% of their collective passes, average 10.2 yards per attempt, and throw eight touchdowns against just one pick. The resulting 89.0 Total QBR the Rams have allowed over that time frame is last in the NFL. The Rams are not supposed to be last in the NFL at anything.

 

Aaron Donald, who lives in the opposing backfield, hasn’t knocked down an opposing quarterback once over the last two games. That’s very strange.

– – –

The secondary, though, has been disappointing. Cornerback Marcus Peters has been making critical mental mistakes. On the Mike Evans touchdown catch, Peters was in man coverage without any safety help in a Cover-0 look from Phillips. For some reason, he stood flat-footed at the sticks and didn’t run with Evans, who ran right past the former Chiefs standout. Winston had little trouble hitting Evans for a 67-yard score. Last week, the whole secondary seemed to break down on the 40-yard touchdown pass to D.K. Metcalf.

– – –

Just two weeks after seeming like the Rams had a clear path to the top seed in the NFC, though, they’re in a realistic fight for a playoff spot. I’m skeptical of the Seahawks, who have three wins by two points or less and just played their first game against an opponent not missing its best player, but both Seattle and the 49ers are legitimate playoff contenders. The Rams are still likely to make it into January, but the sense that they are two steps ahead of everyone else is gone.

 

Chicago Bears

Preseason playoff chances: 48.1%

Current playoff chances: 30.1%

Playoff chances decline: -18%

 

The Bears were just over 50% before Sunday’s loss to the Raiders in London, which seemed set in stone as a Khalil Mack revenge game and instead became a Jon Gruden revenge game. Mack was mostly anonymous throughout the contest, with his most notable impact coming when the Raiders changed a handoff to a pitch play and Josh Jacobs didn’t hear the audible. Mack recovered the rare pitch to nobody.

 

Mack and his defensive teammates are about where we would have expected through five games. The Bears have dropped off ever so slightly in DVOA, falling from their top-placed rank in 2018 to fifth so far this season. Much of that has been driven by a decline in their takeaway rate. The Bears had 14 takeaways through five games last season and finished the season with a league-high 36, but they’re now at 10 takeaways through five games. They’ve been lucky to recover six of the nine fumbles in their games on defense; safety Eddie Jackson & Co. only have four interceptions after racking up a league-high 27 last season.

 

The defense is still very good and should continue to play at that level, although injuries are inevitably going to give them more problems in 2019. The Bears played great against the Vikings in Week 4 without defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebacker Roquan Smith, but when Hicks went down with an elbow injury in the first quarter last week, the Raiders were able to take advantage of the star lineman’s absence in the running game. It’s unclear when he will return from his elbow injury, and he’s one of the best defensive players in all of football when healthy.

 

The offense? Well, it’s probably telling that one of Chicago’s best weapons has been kicker Eddy Pineiro, who has been the seventh-best kicker in football this season on scoring plays. Outside of getting the ball to star receiver Allen Robinson, who is on pace for a 1,206-yard season, this team has been a mess on offense. Chicago ranks 26th in DVOA through five weeks, right in line with the likes of the Steelers and Titans.

 

Its issues extend beyond injured quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who ranked 30th in Total QBR and 27th in passer rating before going down with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Regardless of whether it has been Trubisky or backup Chase Daniel under center, this offense isn’t creating the same sort of opportunities it did a year ago. Last season, the average Bears pass attempt traveled 8.5 yards in the air, the sixth-longest figure in the league. The Bears were only 28th in averaging 4.7 yards after catch, but the depth of their passes made up for what they did afterward.

 

This season, they rank 23rd in average pass distance (6.9 yards) and last in average yards after catch (3.9 yards). Matt Nagy’s team also ranks 29th in average yards after first contact in the running game (1.1 yards). It seems impossible for an offense with fast, agile players like Tarik Cohen, David Montgomery, Cordarrelle Patterson and Taylor Gabriel, but the Bears just aren’t doing enough with the ball in their hands. It’s surprising for an offense which runs screens for nearly 16% of their pass plays, the third-highest rate in the league.

 

Could it all be as simple as Trubisky (and Daniel) not scrambling for first downs? The Bears converted 41% of their third downs last season, which was 11th in the league. Twelve of their 82 conversions came on scrambles; when you remove those plays from the equation and strictly look at the ones in which the Bears either handed the ball off to a runner or attempted to throw for a first down, they converted 38.5% of their third-down tries. This season, with Trubisky scrambling to convert just one third down, the Bears are only picking up 34.8% of their third downs.

 

Honestly, while the offense is slightly below where I would have expected, Chicago is playing about as well as I would have imagined heading into the year. The biggest hindrance is what’s happening around them. The other three teams in the NFC North combined to go 22-26-2 last season. This season, the Lions, Packers, and Vikings are a combined 9-4-1 and each rank in the top 11 in DVOA through Week 5. The Bears, while a respectable 14th after the Raiders loss, have played like the worst team in the division.