AROUND THE NFL
Herbie Teope of NFL.com explains why some new free agent signings could be in the works:
The next wave of free agency could be primed to begin Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. ET.
The passing of the league-wide deadline signals current veteran players on the open market no longer count in the NFL’s method of calculations for determining compensatory draft picks.
“If teams sign players, they are not counted against the compensatory pick formula,” NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport explained Monday night on Total Access. “In other words, they do not hurt future draft choices. So, you have some players that are simply in a waiting game.”
Teams with money to spend won’t find a drying pool of talent, especially on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah are the highest-ranked unsigned players on NFL.com‘s list of Top 101 free agents of 2019, which was published before the start of the new league calendar year.
And in a league where pass rushers are at a premium, Ansah and his 48 career sacks should experience an uptick from interested teams willing to be patient as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
“He had a checkup recently with an expert,” Rapoport said. “He’s going to be ready about early on or midway through training camp. That’s a good sign for him.”
Other players of note from NFL.com‘s Top 101 list still seeking a home include cornerback Morris Claiborne, linebacker Jamie Collins, running back Jay Ajayi, safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Shane Ray, among others.
Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com on progress in the various negotiations in Dallas:
The Cowboys are trying to sign quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper to contract extensions and word is that things are moving more smoothly on one front than the other.
Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the Cowboys have made more progress in their talks with Prescott than they have with Cooper at this point in the process. Hill notes that a deal with Prescott would make the quarterback the highest-paid player in team history and team owner Jerry Jones reiterated the team’s comfort with that during an appearance on The Rich Eisen Show Monday.
Jones said the team is sold on Prescott and that the quarterback’s style of play “emboldens me to make a deal with him that puts him here for the long term.”
Hill pegs the floor on a Cooper deal at $16 million a year and reports the receiver’s demands to this point have been “shockingly high.” Should that remain the case, the franchise tag could come into play after the 2019 season and using it would be a far easier choice if they are able to wrap up a deal with Prescott.
Oh boy – JASON PIERRE-PAUL’s once-car auto accident last week has far more serious implications than originally believed per Adam Schefter’s Twitter account:
Tampa DE Jason Pierre Paul suffered a potential season-ending fractured neck injury in a single-car accident last week in south Florida, league sources tell ESPN. Pierre-Paul will visit neck specialists this week to get their opinions to see if there’s hope to save this season.
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Congratulations to CB Ronde Barber who will step down from the FOX booth on September 22nd to be inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor. Eduardo Encina of the Tampa Bay Times:
Former Bucs All-Pro cornerback Rondé Barber will this year’s Ring of Honor inductee, the team announced on Tuesday.
Barber will become the Bucs’ 13th individual to be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. A halftime ceremony to induct Barber will be held during the Bucs home game on Sept. 22 against the New York Giants.
Barber, who currently serves as an analyst for Fox, will be part of Fox’s broadcast team for the Sept. 22 game.
“Rondé Barber personified greatness on and off the field during his 16 seasons as a Buccaneer and we look forward to honoring his remarkable career this upcoming season,” Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer said in a team release statement. “His achievements are as impressive as they are long, but Rondé’s most defining qualities were his ultra-competitive nature, his passion for this game, and his love of the Tampa Bay community.”
A five-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro, Barber is the only NFL player to record 25 or more sacks and 40 or more interceptions. His 28 career sacks are the second-most by a defensive back. He was also named to the NFL’s 2000’s All-Decade team, and was a key member to the Bucs’ only Super Bowl championship team during the 2002 season.
Barber has been a Hall of Fame semifinalist for the past three years.
A career-long Buc, Barber was a team captain for nine straight seasons from 2004-’12. He was named the team’s Man of the Year nominee in 2006 and was the Ed Block Courage Award winner in 2011.
An update on WR MARTAVIS BRYANT from Dan Graziano of ESPN.com:
Suspended former Steelers and Raiders wide receiver Martavis Bryant told ESPN on Monday that he’s planning to apply for reinstatement in the coming weeks.
Bryant has been suspended three times in the past four years for violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The most recent suspension, which the league characterized as a rescinding of his conditional reinstatement from his previous suspension, came on Dec. 14, with three games left in a season in which Bryant played a career-low eight games and caught 19 passes for 266 yards for the Raiders.
That suspension came at the end of a months-long appeal fight in which Bryant claimed, according to sources, that the NFL’s drug program was denying him access to proper treatment for his mental health. Bryant, now 27, was diagnosed with ADHD while in elementary school and has been in and out of treatment for it since.
In its Dec. 14 letter informing Bryant that he was once again suspended, the NFL cited Bryant’s “40 failures to cooperate” with the drug testing program between April 25, 2017, (the date of his reinstatement) and June 13, 2018. Bryant’s attorney, Peter Ginsburg, argued last season that the drug policy had failed his client.
Among other things, Ginsburg claimed that the NFL provided “treatment plans that were never designed to address Mr. Bryant’s real issues.” Ginsburg has argued that the league sent Bryant to drug counselors when it should have been sending him to counselors who deal with ADHD and conditions that arise from it. The premise of Bryant’s argument is that the league’s drug policy is ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues.
Bryant said Monday that he has been seeking league approval to see a counselor near his home in Las Vegas with whom he has had success in the past. The league has instructed him to fly to Chicago to visit NFL medical director Richard Spatafora for a status update and to gain NFL approval for treatment from his Las Vegas-based counselor. To this point, Bryant said, the league has permitted him to seek treatment from only its network of counselors.
Bryant, an unrestricted free agent, said he hopes to be reinstated and have a chance to sign with a team by the time training camps begin in July.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
While QB BEN ROTHLISBERGER has an extension, QB PHILIP RIVERS is content to go into 2019 with one year left on his contract. Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com:
Asked about his contract status entering the final year of his deal, Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers told reporters he’s fine with playing out this year if his representation and the team cannot reach an agreement on an extension this offseason.
“I’d be fine with that, and look at it again in early spring, if that is in fact how it plays out,” Rivers told reporters on Monday. “I really have no goal, or see it playing a certain way. I’m very at peace with where it is right now. I’m under contract for this season and excited about this team and our opportunities.”
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco did not reveal whether the team and Rivers’ representation have had discussions about an extension, but he said the veteran signal-caller isn’t going anywhere.
“It’s certainly something we’ll talk about,” Telesco said after the draft. “There’s no doubt.”
Even though he will turn 38 years old in December, Rivers is still playing at a high level. He finished the 2018 regular season ranked fifth in the NFL in passer rating (105.5), tied for sixth in passing touchdowns (32), eighth in passing yards (4,308) and ninth in completion percentage (68.3), earning his eighth trip to the Pro Bowl.
Rivers reiterated he would like to play a few more years, and said he wants to remain a part of the team when the Chargers open their new stadium in Inglewood in 2020. Rivers signed a four-year, $83.5 million extension before the 2015 season that includes a no-trade clause.
Ben Roethlisberger, who was part of the same 2004 draft class as Rivers, recently signed a two-year, $68 million contract extension with the Pittsburgh Steelers that included $37.5 million in guaranteed money. That contract could be used as a template to jump-start negotiations for Rivers and the Chargers.
The Chargers also brought in solid depth behind Rivers, signing Tyrod Taylor to a two-year, $11 million deal in free agency and drafting rookie Easton Stick to compete with Cardale Jones for the No. 3 quarterback job.
At the Met gala, WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. gushes about the Browns:
Odell Beckham Jr. has big plans for the Cleveland Browns.
GQ chronicled Beckham’s daring fashion choice for Monday’s Met Gala — a tuxedo jacket with cutoff sleeves and a kilt to fit the event’s camp theme — and the star wide receiver shared his bold vision for his new team with the magazine.
“I plan on being there for the next five years and trying to bring as many championships there as possible, turning [the Browns] into the new Patriots,” he told GQ.
Beckham is also bullish on his new quarterback, Baker Mayfield, predicting he will one day be fitted for a gold jacket in Canton, Ohio.
“I would say he’s next, but I feel like he’s now,” Beckham told GQ. “He’s Brett Favre. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
The March trade that sent Beckham from the New York Giants to the Browns reunited him with Jarvis Landry, and Beckham told GQ how deep his devotion goes to his former LSU teammate.
“I would take a bullet for him,” Beckham told GQ. “I hope it’d hit me in the arm, but I’d take a bullet for him.”
The Browns have made the playoffs only once since returning to Cleveland in 1999 but were 7-8-1 after selecting Mayfield No. 1 overall last year, a remarkable turnaround from their 0-16 season in 2017.
The ESPN.com story above doesn’t mention the logo free black baseball cap that completed the ensemble:
Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com with some info on the ambition of TE ERIC EBRON:
Eric Ebron had a strong first season with the Colts and the tight end has set his sights even higher for 2019.
Ebron caught 13 touchdowns during the 2018 season, which topped the 11 touchdowns he caught over his first four seasons and left him four shy of Rob Gronkowski’s record for receiving touchdowns in a season. Ebron said Tuesday that he’s set Gronkowski’s mark as his goal for the coming season.
“I believe Gronk still holds the record for most touchdowns, which is 17,” Ebron said, via the Anderson Herald-Bulletin. “So if I want to do anything that’s gonna be real spectacular or anything that’s gonna be really good, I gotta go get 17. And if I go get 17, what do I do? I help my team win games. I did that, proved that and I feel like if I’m at my best, I feel like this team will be at their best.”
Ebron said he believes the Colts defense will be a dangerous one and that’s been a familiar refrain throughout the offseason in Indianapolis. Andrew Luck‘s ability to find Ebron in the end zone is a big part of those predictions and they stand a pretty good chance of coming true even if Ebron falls short of the record.
Washington State Mike Leach with some humor regarding QB GARDNER MINSHEW. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Gardner Minshew set passing records at Washington State last year, but NFL teams were not overly impressed, which is why he didn’t go off the board until the sixth round of the draft, when the Jaguars picked him. Washington State coach Mike Leach thinks that says more about NFL scouts than it says about Minshew.
Leach told Andrew Siciliano on NFL Network that he had conversations with NFL teams before the draft in which he found himself dismayed by how little they seemed to understand about what made Minshew such a productive college quarterback.
“He’s one of those guys who uplifts the entire team,” Leach said of Minshew. “The funny thing is, people would call me about him and they’d ask, ‘How’s his arm?’ His arm is good. ‘Is he accurate?’ I mean, I’m wondering if they’re real scouts if they start asking me if he’s accurate. And then, ‘How strong is his arm?’ And it’s running through my mind, Did you really watch his film? And then his pocket presence? He’s got great pocket presence, that’s probably what he does best — he doesn’t take negative plays. And then they’d say, ‘How tall is he?’ I’d say, ‘Well, he’s exactly as tall as the all-time leading passer in the history of the NFL, Drew Brees.’ So then there’s this long, long, long pause, just really long. Because scouts have the ability to scrutinize and perceive life at a much higher level than you or I, mere mortals can.”
Leach has been the head coach at Washington State for seven years, and he was the head coach at Texas Tech for 10 years before that. And although he’s often had productive passing offenses, so far, none of his quarterbacks have amounted to anything in the NFL. So it would be easy to understand if NFL scouts believe Minshew’s passing numbers were a product of the system. But Leach thinks Minshew can prove them wrong.
Dan Parr of NFL.com gives the Patriots the best grade in the draft of any team in the AFC East:
» Round 1: (No. 32 overall) N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State.
» Round 2: (45) Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt.
» Round 3: (77) Chase Winovich, DE, Michigan; (87) Damien Harris, RB, Alabama; (101) Yodny Cajuste, OT, West Virginia.
» Round 4: (118) Hjalte Froholdt, OG, Arkansas; (133) Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn.
» Round 5: (159) Byron Cowart, DE, Maryland; (163) Jake Bailey, P, Stanford.
» Round 7: (252) Ken Webster, CB, Mississippi.
BREAKING: Bill Belichick knows how to collect talent. He did as fine a job of it as anyone in the 2019 draft, entering with a league-high 12 selections and leaving with 10 picks that are hard to quarrel with (… although we will in a second, because we don’t take the easy way out, here). Harry isn’t the fastest or most explosive receiver, but he is a big, physical target who can be a go-to guy on third down and in the red zone. The team needed that in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Brandt called him a Michael Irvin type, and the former Cowboys executive drafted Irvin back in ’88. He knows of what he speaks. However, the real work of art by New England in this draft lies in how it navigated the board for its next couple of picks. The Pats traded up to land a CB with rare size in Williams, and somehow the aforementioned Winovich fell into their lap in Round 3. Harris is a really solid addition who can pick up tough yards, catch the ball and pass-protect. Dante Scarnecchia will probably develop Cajuste into an All-Pro. Now, as for the quarreling — they didn’t pick a tight end, which was not surprising (it’s so Belichick to not address the position that seems to be in such obvious need of addressing). However, it leaves the team with the rag-tag group of Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Stephen Anderson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo on the depth chart. Also, it’s not always advisable to spend a pick on a punter, but we’ll give New England the benefit of the doubt with the Bailey selection.
Parr’s other AFC East grades at A- for the Bills, B+ for the Dolphins, B for the Jets. You can read his reasoning here.
THIS AND THAT
We have to wonder – how often does Tony Romo play golf? Because he’s awfully good at it. Todd Archer of ESPN.com:
Tucked behind the tennis courts at Gleneagles Country Club on a beautiful spring day, Tony Romo practices his short game by hitting wedge after wedge after wedge.
Almost every shot has a different trajectory. Some are high, as he tries to land the ball softly on a designated area of the green some 30 yards away. Others are low, as he tries to skip and spin the ball to a back pin. Nearby, an older woman struggles to make contact with the ball, and sometimes when she does, it veers wildly to the right, not far from where Romo is standing.
He doesn’t even notice.
For nearly 30 minutes, Romo is searching for the right feel in his hands with the wedge before heading to the back part of the driving range. Although he can pick the best of lies on the grass, he chooses hard-packed sand as he goes through another series of wedges and irons.
“When you hit off sand, you can’t fake it,” Romo said, three fingers covered in bandages to protect old blisters and prevent new ones.
This is Romo’s life now. It’s a good one, just like it was when he was the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. It’s just different.
Every morning, Romo is at a golf range at one of a handful of courses in the Dallas area, working on his game or playing with friends. He spends hours trying to unlock the secrets to the game he loves.
On this day at Gleneagles, he is playing with four friends. But his eyes are on what awaits him this week at the AT&T Byron Nelson at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, where he’s playing in the PGA Tour event on a sponsor’s exemption.
“It’s going to be fun,” Romo said. “It’s Dallas. I’m a member there. I love the course. It’s great. The kids are coming out to watch me. That’ll be fun for me. See if we can live up to the improvement I hope I’ve made. It’s going to be enjoyable. Excited to see the fans, everyone that comes out. It’ll feel like a football game. It’ll feel like that, for sure.”
Romo: ‘I’m out of office’
Football made Romo famous. He became the Cowboys’ all-time leader in passing yards (34,183) and touchdown passes (248) in a decadelong run as the starting quarterback. A series of back injuries led him to an early retirement following the 2016 season, but his fame has grown with his success as the lead NFL analyst for CBS over the past two years.
Golf has always been a passion. He got his first set of clubs for Christmas when he was 8 years old. His mother, Joan, worked at Browns Lake Golf Course, just down the street from the family home in Burlington, Wisconsin. Romo would spend hours hitting balls at the range before school or long after sunset.
When he was the Cowboys’ quarterback, some fans stewed over how much he played golf. He attempted to qualify for the Byron Nelson and the U.S. Open. He played in prestigious amateur events across the country.
Over the years, he has golfed with Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and other famous athletes and celebrities. He has regular games with PGA Tour member Jordan Spieth, who is from Dallas, and other local pros. He has even played with former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Romo knew his football schedule almost down to the minute when he was with the Cowboys. As much as he played, golf was more of a release. Without the time constraints posed by football practices and offseason conditioning, his focus on golf has become greater in retirement. Romo hired a pair of coaches, Chris O’Connell, who works with Matt Kuchar, and Andy Traynor, to help with his game.
“Last year in February was the first time I was like, ‘Let me see how good I can be,'” Romo said.
The state of his game from when he was playing football to now — he believes — is markedly different.
“I could score a little bit before, but you couldn’t hit shots,” he said. “You couldn’t do things that you need to do. When the greens get firmer, faster, I mean that’s what separates guys. Conditions, courses get longer, the rough gets higher. Each level you go up, it gets tougher. So you try to get your game to a point where you can handle some of that stuff.
“It’s a work in progress. I’ve been doing this about a year, a year and two months, so I feel like it’s like football in some ways. The progression it’s taking right now, it’s probably about a three-year run realistically as far as to keep improving to where you can compete at a level, that consistency aspect, not just a shot or two. But it’s why we play the game. It’s why we love sports. I love competing, but I also love improving and getting better and seeing how good you can be.”
It’s like being an unknown quarterback from Eastern Illinois in 2003 all over again.
“I’m the undrafted rookie trying to make it,” Romo said, “trying to make the team.”
Now, though, he’s 39 years old and still battling back issues that require strength training and rehab, but the issues are not enough to keep him from practicing. During the winter months, Romo was the lone player on the Trinity Forest driving range when temperatures dipped below 30. He regularly sends video to his coaches of him hitting into the simulator at his house.
“He doesn’t like to do the same thing every day,” O’Connell said. “I mean he kind of likes a new task, a new challenge. In terms of his mechanics with his golf swing, it’s a similar message day in and day out. We’re not jumping around trying different stuff. We’re working on the stuff that’s going to most positively impact the ball flight but with short game and course strategy and how to hit knockdown shots and how to work the ball. I mean he’s really grown a lot.
“He was pretty raw when we started in terms of tournament golf. … But he’s really developing and turning into a more complete player.”
Improvement is name of the game
The Byron Nelson will be Romo’s third PGA Tour event, but he has maintained his amateur status. He has received a sponsor’s exemption into the Corales Puntacana Golf & Resort Championship in the Dominican Republic the past two years, missing the cut both times at 15 over.
He placed blame on his recent missed cut on the greens, where he averaged 2.3 putts per hole.
“That’s almost laughable,” Romo said. “It made me know I need to work at this. Your focus needs to turn toward that. You see it as a weakness and I thought it was a strength. Obviously it didn’t turn out that way.”
He changed putters, going to an elongated club with a hockey-stick grip. He practices more and goes through drills that help with the lines and pace of each putt.
“So much of putting is putting yourself in position to feel comfortable with the line so you can just stroke it,” he said.
At the first hole on the Queen’s Course at Gleneagles, he makes a 4-footer for birdie. On the par-3 second, he misses a 6-footer for par after his tee shot misses the green to the right.
“You’ve got to chip it closer so you don’t give yourself a putt that’s 6, 8 feet, you know? But you’ve still got to make those,” Romo said. “Soft bogey.”
For the rest of the front nine, Romo misses three fairways but does not make another bogey, saving par with an 18-foot putt after blasting out of the sand on No. 7. On the par-5 eighth hole, he has just 146 yards for his second shot.
The former Cowboys quarterback says he’s excited about playing at the AT&T Byron Nelson event this week. “The kids are coming out to watch me. That’ll be fun for me. See if we can live up to the improvement I hope I’ve made.” Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
With a downhill lie and into a stiff breeze, he hits a low 9-iron.
“Be right,” he says with the ball in flight. The ball lands short on the bank in front of the green and nearly rolls back into the water.
“Just a whole lot of wind up there,” he said. “I hit mine solid.”
He chips to 15 feet and drains the putt for his second birdie of the day, which will be the type of recovery he will need at Trinity Forest to fare better than he did at Puntacana.
He said he has no goal for the Byron Nelson event, such as making the cut to advance to the weekend of play.
“There’s different success as far as the way you think of it,” Romo said. “For me, I want to be the same guy I have been and go out there and perform and just hit the ball the same way, do the same things I’ve been doing and then scorewise, let’s see how that is. It’s all about improvement.
“As long as you keep improving, the results just come as long as you’re doing things correctly. And then just wearing it out every day. I mean, it’s got to be something you care about deeply if you’re going to really improve.”
He was the same way in football. He spent hours working on his release, throwing a football into a living room couch. In golf, he is always asking O’Connell and Traynor questions.
“A lot of people in golf get to a certain level and they kind of stay at that same level, so if he keeps getting better every day, he’s going to start catching up and passing some of those guys,” O’Connell said. “He’s obviously a great athlete. He has lots of power. He has some back issues, which he’s on top of, but in terms of power and work ethic, I mean, he’s got a lot of upside.”
The Byron Nelson field is not as strong as it has been in the past, especially with the PGA Championship next week at Bethpage Black in New York, yet some golf purists don’t like the fact that Romo gets exemptions, believing they should go to professionals trying to make this their job.
“Well, this is what I want to do,” Romo said. “This is my livelihood. I think it’s the same as anything. You have to show you have the ability. You don’t just get them randomly. You’ve got to be able to perform at some time in front of somebody who thinks you deserve it. I’ve been practicing … and I practice really hard at it, just like a touring pro. Same type of schedule. Mornings you get up, it’s a routine, just like you’re playing football. I understand you only get so many [exemptions], so you’ve got to perform. Hopefully that time is coming.”
Regardless of how he fares at the Byron Nelson, Romo is set to be at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, for U.S. Open qualifying on Monday. It’s his life now.
Mel Kiper, Jr. of ESPN.com offers a list of 15 players that should move right into prominent roles as rookies.
The 2019 NFL draft has come and gone, and now we can focus on how those 254 prospects fit into their new teams’ plans. Yes, several first-round picks will be guaranteed starters when training camp begins, but the league’s best teams find multiple starters throughout their class. Just look at what the Colts did in 2018.
By now hopefully you’ve seen my draft grades for all 32 teams, and now let’s evaluate the rookies I think will make an early impact, from each day of the draft. This is more about having a clear role, not coming in and dominating from the outset.
Here are 15 rookies selected in Rounds 1-7 who will make an immediate impact:
Here are five prospect-to-team fits I really liked in the first round:
Ed Oliver, DT, Buffalo Bills
Pick: No. 9
My pal Louis Riddick said on TV several times over the past few months that Oliver was used incorrectly in college. Why is an athlete like Oliver — he has one of the fastest first steps off the ball of any defensive tackle I’ve ever scouted — playing nose tackle? Buffalo will play him as a 3-technique tackle in its 4-3 defense, in place of the retired Kyle Williams, and he’s going to be a disruptive presence. No, he’s not Aaron Donald like some were calling him last summer — he is still developing consistent pass-rush moves — but Oliver will destroy double-teams and cause wreckage in the backfield.
Because of the Bills’ offensive struggles in 2018, the defense went under the radar; it was the top-ranked pass defense, allowing only 179.2 yards per game, and gave up only 294.1 total yards per game. This is a young, talented and physical group. Oliver fills an immediate need.
Garrett Bradbury, C, Minnesota Vikings
Pick: No. 18
Yes, offensive linemen picked in the first round are supposed to start on Day 1 with their new teams. But I want to highlight Bradbury here because of the way he instantly makes the Vikings better. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was just OK last season, but it was the Minnesota running game that disappointed most, as its 93.3 yards per game ranked 30th in the league. And in the Vikings’ new zone-blocking scheme, the athletic Bradbury is a perfect fit at center, allowing Pat Elflein to move to guard. That helps turn a huge weakness into a potential strength.
With an improved running game, Cousins will be improved, too. And in Year 2 of his three-year deal, the offense must be more complete for the Vikings to get back to the playoffs.
Noah Fant, TE, Denver Broncos
Pick: No. 20
It usually takes time for tight ends to adjust to the NFL, mostly because of their inability to block. But don’t think of Fant as a traditional tight end. New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello could use Fant in the slot as a true receiver, much like the Giants did with Evan Engram as a rookie in 2017, when he caught 64 passes and scored six touchdowns. Fant and Engram are similar athletically, though I don’t expect Fant to get 115 targets in Year 1 like Engram did.
Fant will compete for snaps with Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman and Troy Fumagalli at tight end, but he could play a role as a No. 3 receiver too, while he works to improve as an inline blocker.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders
Pick: No. 24
This is an easy one, right? Isaiah Crowell is out for the season. Doug Martin is back, but he’s declining. Marshawn Lynch is gone. That means there’s a hole atop the Raiders’ running back depth chart. You should know by now that I don’t love taking running backs in the first round, but this was such a Jon Gruden pick. Jacobs is a grinder, a complete back who breaks tackles and can catch passes. He can play on third down. He had just 291 career touches from scrimmage at Alabama, so he has limited tread on his tires. Jacobs’ best is yet to come.
It’s a different time, of course, but Gruden once gave a rookie first-round pick a whopping 310 touches. That would be No. 5 overall pick Cadillac Williams, who rushed for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns in 2005. Could Jacobs come close to that workload in 2019?
Deandre Baker, CB, New York Giants
Pick: No. 30
I was tough on the Giants in my draft grades, but it wasn’t because of the decision to trade back into the first round to take Baker, who started 35 games in his career at Georgia. He is the most pro-ready of the top group of cornerbacks in this class, and he can be a legitimate No. 1 corner. He’s going to play early and often for a New York defense that allowed 61 receptions of at least 20 yards last season, the second-most such passes in the league.
Janoris Jenkins has one corner spot locked down, but the other side is wide-open, with 2018 supplemental draft pick Sam Beal and rookies Julian Love and Corey Ballentine also competing with Baker.
Rounds 2 and 3
Teams can find instant starters on Day 2 of the draft. Here are five prospects who should play early and often as rookies.
Jawaan Taylor, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Pick: No. 35 (Round 2)
This is simple. Taylor started 33 games at Florida at right tackle, and Jacksonville has a gaping hole at right tackle. Taylor can be a plug-and-play starter there, and he was a steal at the top of Round 2.
Greedy Williams, CB, Cleveland Browns
Pick: No. 46 (Round 2)
There was a lot of talk about what Williams didn’t do at LSU in 2018, and it was centered around his unwillingness to tackle. But what Williams did do was lock down pass-catchers; opposing quarterbacks completed just 33.8 percent of their passes against him, which ranked first in the FBS. Williams’ ability to stick to and run with receivers is elite, and that’s why he could start on the other side of Denzel Ward.
A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans
Pick: No. 51 (Round 2)
Question: Can you name the last Titans wide receiver to get to 1,000 receiving yards in a season? Answer: It was Kendall Wright in 2013, and it’s the longest active drought among NFL teams.
While former No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis has shown flashes of his high ceiling, he has been inconsistent. Brown, who had 2,572 total receiving yards in the SEC over the past two seasons, could contribute as a rookie, as the Titans will use the season to evaluate quarterback Marcus Mariota in a make-or-break year. Mariota will need all of the options he can get, and Brown can play in the slot and outside.
David Montgomery, RB, Chicago Bears
Pick: No. 73 (Round 3)
Likely to be a dark-horse candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Montgomery is a great fit for a Bears backfield that lost both Jordan Howard and Benny Cunningham this offseason. Remember, though, that Chicago running backs averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season, so this is a position that could be improved. Tarik Cohen will get his share of touches in 2019, but it will be Montgomery and veteran Mike Davis competing for first- and second-down carries. I like Montgomery’s chances of winning the starting job.
Justin Layne, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pick: No. 83 (Round 3)
I was surprised Layne lasted this far into the draft. I put him at No. 29 in my final mock draft, and I thought he’d go in the top 40. I love this fit in Pittsburgh, where the team brought in free agent Steven Nelson, and former first-rounder Artie Burns took a step back last season. The Steelers intercepted only eight passes in 2018, and Layne, a converted wide receiver, had 19 pass breakups over the past two seasons. Every team needs cornerback depth in this pass-happy era of the NFL.
The NFL’s best teams find good players on Day 3 of the draft. While running backs are usually a popular pick to make an immediate impact, I wanted to focus on five players who could fill specialized roles in 2019:
Tony Pollard, RB/WR/KR, Dallas Cowboys
Pick: No. 128 (Round 4)
The Cowboys had to get a No. 2 running back in this draft. Ezekiel Elliott is a workhorse, but he rarely left the field last season. That can’t last. Enter Pollard, who can be a threat in multiple areas. Pollard split time at running back at Memphis with third-round pick Darrell Henderson, and he made his biggest impact as a receiver (104 receptions over the past three seasons) and return man (seven career kickoff return touchdowns). Dallas will hope he can spell Elliott on third downs and improve its special teams.
Greg Gaines, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Pick: No. 134 (Round 4)
This pick is all about filling a specialized role on first and second downs. There weren’t many true nose tackles in this class, especially outside the first two rounds. The 312-pound Gaines, though, can replace free agent Ndamukong Suh at the nose in Wade Phillips’ defense. Gaines won’t do much as a penetrator, but he will help plug the middle of a leaky defense that allowed an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per rush last season.
Justin Hollins, OLB, Denver Broncos
Pick: No. 156 (Round 5)
New coach Vic Fangio has taken over a 3-4 Broncos defense led by outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but the roster isn’t loaded with talent. Denver has to get help spelling Miller and Chubb. That’s where Hollins, who forced six fumbles and had 14.5 tackles for loss last season, comes in. At 6-foot-4, he is still growing into his frame, but he should get some snaps to get after quarterbacks as a rookie.
D’Andre Walker, OLB, Tennessee Titans
Pick: No. 168 (Round 5)
With Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo gone, Tennessee needed edge-rushing depth for its 3-4 defense. Harold Landry and Cameron Wake have the starting spots locked down for 2019, but Walker could be a rotational player as a rookie. The Georgia product, who ranked No. 100 overall on my final Big Board, had an inconsistent career, but he flashed a high ceiling last season, finishing with 7.5 sacks. He is also stout against the run. Walker should be recovered from the double hernia surgery he had in January.
KeeSean Johnson, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Pick: No. 174 (Round 6)
The new-look Cardinals took three wide receivers in this class, but I’m going to focus only on the final one. Johnson was one of college football’s most productive receivers over the past four seasons, catching 275 passes for 3,463 yards. He is a natural pass-catcher, even if he doesn’t have ideal speed (4.60 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine). This depth chart will be tough to crack, but he could carve out a role as a third-down target. He also should contribute on special teams.