The Daily Briefing Tuesday, November 6, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
|If The Season Ended Today in the AFC –
All four division leaders won, as did the Chargers, Dolphins and Titans. So that was bad news for the byed Bengals and losing Ravens. The conventional wisdom would be that we have our four division winners lined up, plus the Chargers for one Wild Card. We could see the winner of the matchup of 3-5 teams that is JAX at IND getting back in the chase for the last Wild Card.
Kansas City West 8-1 3-0 7-1
New England East 7-2 2-0 5-1
Pittsburgh North 5-2-1 3-1-1 3-2-1
Houston South 6-3 2-1 5-2
LA Chargers WC 6-2 1-1 4-1
Cincinnati WC 5-3 1-1 3-2
Miami 5-4 2-1 4-3
Tennessee 4-4 2-0 2-4
Baltimore 4-5 1-3 4-3
In the NFC, the Saints seize the high ground (sort of, the Rams haven’t byed so are technically still atop things), while the Panthers, Bears, Vikings and Eagles (on bye) also benefit.
NFC Div Conf
Los Angeles Rams West 8-1 3-0 5-1
New Orleans South 7-1 1-1 5-1
Chicago North 5-3 0-1 3-1
Washington East 5-3 2-0 5-2
Carolina WC 6-2 1-1 4-2
Minnesota WC 5-3-1 1-0-1 4-2-1
Atlanta 4-4 2-1 4-2
Seattle 4-4 1-1 3-2
Philadelphia 4-4 1-0 2-3
Green Bay 3-4-1 1-1-1 2-3-1
The Lions are moving on from RB AMEER ABDULLAH.
The Detroit Lions on Tuesday signed wide receiver Bruce Ellington and waived Ameer Abdullah, the team’s leading rusher last season and their former second-round pick.
Ellington might be the Lions’ new slot receiver after they traded Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago. The 27-year-old Ellington has played in 40 games for San Francisco and Houston, catching 56 passes for 637 yards and five touchdowns. He also could end up as the team’s returner — a role held last week by rookie Brandon Powell and at times before that by Abdullah — because he has 47 career punt returns for 372 yards and 50 kick returns for 1,279 yards.
A fourth-round pick of San Francisco in 2014, Ellington spent two seasons with the 49ers and then 14 games over two seasons with Houston before being placed on injured reserve by the Texans on Sept. 25 with a hamstring injury and released last week.
Abdullah’s role had diminished greatly this season after the signing of LeGarrette Blount and the draft selection of Kerryon Johnson in the second round. With Blount, Johnson and veteran Theo Riddick on the roster, Abdullah was active for only three games this season — two of which came when Riddick was recovering from a knee injury.
Troy Aikman goes way back with all of the people he’s talking about here, but he sees what we see. Todd Archer of ESPN.com:
Having lived through the Dallas Cowboys’ decline after three Super Bowl wins in the 1990s and witnessed the franchise’s continued struggles, longtime broadcaster and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said he believes major organizational changes will be needed if the team doesn’t turn it around in the second half of this season.
Those changes could include owner and general manager Jerry Jones, the one constant during a parade of coaches. Aikman mentioned the coaches since the Cowboys’ last Lombardi Trophy — Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett — none of whom has been able to take the team to an NFC Championship Game, let alone a Super Bowl.
“Go through the list and this team, over a long period of time, has been what it’s been,” Aikman said Tuesday on 1310 The Ticket. “It hasn’t always mattered who the head coach has been. So to me, if you’re asking me, I’d say there has to be a complete overhaul of the entire organization.”
Jones has been the general manager since 1989, but he does not operate as a traditional general manager. He leans mostly on executive vice president Stephen Jones, vice president of player personnel Will McClay and Garrett in personnel moves.
“I’ve heard Jerry say, ‘OK, look, we’re going to do it differently. I’m going to do it differently.’ … But it’s the same. Nothing changes,” Aikman said. “And that to me is the bigger issue. … Yes, coaching is important, personnel, all those things are important, but how are you going about evaluating how you’re going about running the organization?
“Whatever that looks like — and everyone has an opinion on what it does look like, but I’m not in the building. I have no idea. I talk to people. I talk to people who have been inside the building and have a pretty good understanding how things are run, and in a lot of ways there’s a lot of dysfunction, and that has to change if this team is going to be able to compete on a consistent basis like the teams that you look to around the league that seemingly are in the hunt each and every year.”
Aikman is a close friend of Garrett from their years together as Dallas teammates, but he has been critical of Garrett through the years.
Jones said after Monday’s 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans there was no scenario in which he would make an in-season head-coaching change. Since purchasing the team he has done so once, elevating Garrett to the position in 2010 after Phillips got off to a 1-7 start.
Garrett was asked on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas if he was worried about his job.
“I’m just focused on getting our team to play as well as we can play,” said Garrett, who has a 70-58 career record, including 3-5 this season. “We’ll learn from that experience [Monday] and get our eyes forward to Philadelphia.
Aikman said: “I can’t think of a loss that was this bad at this point of a year.” But he said he does not believe Jones would make a change if the Cowboys finish the season below .500 because he is “comfortable” with Garrett.
“One thing Jerry has done over the years, whether it’s been accurate or not, is he’s done things to at least give the fan base hope going into the next year,” Aikman said.
David Newton of ESPN.com on the relative merits of the 2018 Panthers.
Cam Newton says the 2018 Carolina Panthers may not be the most talented team he’s been a part of, but it’s getting up there in terms of “meshing and linking up perfectly” heading into Thursday night’s game at Pittsburgh.
Outside linebacker Thomas Davis disagreed with his quarterback, saying this roster is more talented than the one in 2015 that had an NFL-best 15-1 record, reached the Super Bowl and had a franchise-record 10 Pro Bowl selections.
“He’s been on a more talented team that this one?” Davis asked. “I’ve been around a lot of Cam teams, other than at Auburn, and they weren’t that talented down there either. But this might be his most talented team. I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“From my observations, being a part of the 2015 team, athletically, speed-wise, from that standpoint in particularly on the offensive side, this is definitely the most talented set of guys I’ve been around.”
The Panthers (6-2) are on a three-game winning streak that began with Newton leading three fourth-quarter touchdown drives to overcome a 17-0 deficit to the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
They’ve beaten Baltimore 36-21 and Tampa Bay 42-28 in their last two games.
The 2015 team won its first 14 games before losing at Atlanta in the next-to-last game of the season. It led the league in scoring with 31.3 points per game and was sixth in points allowed at 19.3.
This team ranks 11th in scoring (27.5 ppg.) and 12th in points allowed (22.5 ppg.).
But in terms of pure talent Davis likes this team better, particularly on offense where he gives running back Christian McCaffrey the edge over Jonathan Stewart and the receiving corps that includes DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel the edge over Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn Jr. and Devin Funchess.
“I mean, it speaks for itself,” Davis said.
Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen agrees the offensive weapons are the best Newton has had around him.
“Curtis with the ball in his hands. Christian with the ball in his hands. DJ with the ball in his hands. Obviously, Cam,” Olsen said. “Those guys are just so explosive. They’re so dynamic.
“You can give them all the ball as a handoff. You can throw it to them all. They’re very unique in that regard. I don’t know if we’ve ever had this many guys offensively that were that dynamic with the ball in their hands.”
What has impressed Newton the most about the current team is the “harmony” by which so many different personalities have come together to play unselfishly.
On that he and Davis agree.
“We are often sidetracked by analytics, fantasy, this, that and the third,” Newton said. “It all comes down to the boys in the locker room. Do they play for each other or do they play for themselves.
“That’s what this team is kind of developing for ourselves. Listen, we may not necessarily be the best team in the league, but we’re damn sure going to be the best team when we play. That’s all that matters.”
It looks like a QB making his 2nd start will take on one making his 223rd on Monday night.
The 49ers still haven’t announced their starting quarterback for Monday night, but Nick Mullens beat them to the punch.
Mullens told reporters Tuesday that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan informed Mullens that he will start against the Giants.
Mullens took first-team reps in practice Tuesday, followed by C.J. Beathard and Tom Savage.
It does not come as a surprise.
Beathard has won one of 10 career starts, and Mullens completed 16 of 22 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the Raiders last week in his NFL debut.
Jimmy Garoppolo went 1-2 as the team’s starter this season before his ACL injury against the Chiefs; Beathard is 0-5; and Mullens is 1-0.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
In its first outing with seven first round picks, the Rams defense gave up six touchdowns. Lindsey Thiry of ESPN.com:
Marcus Peters didn’t mince words.
The Los Angeles Rams cornerback said after the team’s first loss of the season that his performance against the New Orleans Saints was not up to standards.
“I can stand up,” Peters said. “I can play better.”
Peters wasn’t alone.
As the Rams prepare for a matchup against the Seattle Seahawks (4-4) on Sunday, they’ll first have to address the issues that plagued them against the Saints. In their worst defensive performance of the season, Drew Brees passed for four touchdowns and Alvin Kamara rushed for two more as the Rams allowed a season-high 45 points and 487 total yards of offense.
“We going to fix it,” Aaron Donald said. “We ain’t panicking. We’ll make the corrections and fix it and get better.”
Another inconsistent performance, one that — unlike in previous games — they couldn’t overcome in the final minutes, begs the question: What exactly does the Rams’ defense need to improve?
The Rams’ 8-1 record reflects that the defense has performed well enough to win.
But make no mistake, the defense underwent an offseason overhaul in an effort to put it on par with last season’s top-scoring offense. This is a team that gave Ndamukong Suh a one-year deal worth $14 million, picked up Peters’ fifth-year option that will pay him about $10 million over two seasons and will spend $19 million on Aqib Talib for two years, not to mention the $11.3 million cost to franchise tag Lamarcus Joyner and the six-year, $135 million extension given to Donald.
So far, it hasn’t exactly paid off.
Through nine games, the Rams’ defense is allowing the 14th-most passing yards per game and the 13th-most rushing yards per game. Teams are averaging 22.2 points per game (10th), a number somewhat skewed by a Week 2 shutout of the struggling Arizona Cardinals. The Rams have given up 53 offensive plays that gained 12-plus rushing yards or 20-plus passing yards, which is seventh-most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
In the first half against the Saints, the Rams appeared unable to stop the run, defend the pass or simply wrap up and tackle.
“They were getting out of the huddle, they were tricking us with a bunch of formations and stuff,” Michael Brockers said.
But in the second half, most of the issues appeared improved. After passing for 211 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, Brees was held to 135 yards and a touchdown in the second. After rushing for 50 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, Kamara gained only 32 after the break.
“The biggest thing, especially with just defense in general, with a team like that, that does such a great job changing up their tempos, personnel groupings, putting different players in a variety of different spots, it’s just getting the call in,” coach Sean McVay said. “Getting our cleats in the grass, being ready to go and lock in and play with the proper technique with our alignment, our assignment and just the fundamentals.”
But a lack of consistency on defense can’t exactly be what the Rams envisioned with a defensive line that features three first-round picks, including the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Donald, plus Suh and Brockers.
“We just got to execute the calls that are called,” Brockers said.
The Rams are still No. 1 in the pass rush win-loss rate for the season, at 64.9 percent, according to ESPN pass rush metrics using NFL Next Gen Stats. But against the Saints, they did not record a sack for the first time this season.
“There will be games where you get a bunch,” said Donald, who has 10 sacks this season. “Sometimes you get a couple, and some games you just get none.”
Before the trade deadline, the Rams added former first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr., with hope that the fourth-year pro would provide pressure from the edge that otherwise has been missing. Fowler, five days after joining the team, played 62 percent of the snaps against the Saints.
In the secondary, the Rams traded for Peters and Talib, who has been on the injured reserve since he suffered an ankle injury in a Week 3 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. For his part, Peters has struggled.
On Sunday, Saints receiver Michael Thomas caught 12 passes for 211 yards, a Saints franchise record for receiving yards in a game.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Peters was the nearest defender on eight of Brees’ targets, all of which were to Thomas. Thomas caught six of those eight passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. The most notable completion came in the final four minutes of the game, when Thomas flew by Peters for a 72-yard touchdown reception.
“I got beat,” said Peters, who brought an impressive résumé with him to L.A., including a league-high 19 interceptions in three seasons. So far this season, he has added only one more. “I’ve had a bad couple of weeks.”
Peters has been the nearest defender on seven touchdown passes, the most given up by a cornerback this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Targeted receivers are averaging 12 yards per target when Peters is the nearest defender, the second-highest rate allowed by a cornerback with at least 25 targets.
“He’s a guy that we have a lot of confidence in,” McVay said. “In a lot of instances, he’s isolated one-on-one with the other team’s best receiver, and that’s come up throughout various times this season.”
But for the several areas that need to be shored up, one thing is certain: The Rams’ defense clamps down when it has to.
After Brees racked up 35 points and the Saints gained 313 yards in the first half, they scored only 10 points in the second half and gained only 174 more yards.
“At that point, we come in, we definitely make adjustments,” Brockers said. “That’s what we do.”
That’s a trend the Rams have gone with all season, as they’ve allowed an average of 9.1 points per game after halftime this season, which ranks second in the NFL to the Ravens’ 5.6, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“Just the overall urgency that we can consistently display,” McVay said, “I think will help us play better as a unit.”
Per David Perdum of ESPN.com, QB RUSSELL WILSON is facing the greatest odds that he has ever confronted this week:
The Seattle Seahawks opened as 9.5-point underdogs against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 10 at the SuperBook, and the line was quickly bet to -10. That line would be the largest underdog Russell Wilson has ever been in his career (previous was +7.5 on four occasions).
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Sam Farmer with a tweet on why some people love QB PHILIP RIVERS:
Few years back, Philip Rivers promised to speak at a Catholic retreat in Phoenix. Nasty weather in SD and he worried his flight might be canceled. So to keep his promise, he hopped in his truck and made 10-hour roundtrip drive to deliver the talk. Rare dude.
He’s as rare as nasty weather in SD.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com on whether or not the Steelers should hope for RB Le’VEON BELL to show up by next week.
Let’s assume that running back Le’Veon Bell doesn’t report to the Steelers and sign his franchise tender by next Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. ET. If/when that happens, the battle lines could be drawn for a CBA fight regarding the terms of a franchise tag that would be applied to Bell in 2019.
Here’s the basic question, as it possibly could unfold between the Steelers (and the NFL’s Management Council) and Bell (and the NFL Players Association): If Bell doesn’t play this year, would a franchise tag in 2019 carry the same value as the franchise tag in 2018, or would it count as a third franchise tag, qualifying Bell for the quarterback tender?
The relevant language comes from Article 10, Section 15(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement: “If any Franchise Player does not play in the NFL in a League Year, his Prior Team shall have the right to designate such player as a Franchise Player or a Transition Player the following League Year, if such designation is otherwise available to the Team, except that the applicable Tender must be made and any 120% Tender shall be measured from the Player’s Prior Year Salary.”
Some believe based on this language that the league would argue that, because Bell didn’t play under the second tag, the second tag would carry over to the next year. Some believe the NFLPA would argue that the plain language of the provision contains no such limitation and that a re-tag of Bell in 2019 would count as a third tag, qualifying him for the quarterback tender — regardless of whether he skips the entire 2018 season.
The difference between the two positions translates to a gap of more than $10 million between the potential tender amounts, with the 2018 tag at $14.54 million and the quarterback tender potentially in the range of $25 million (the quarterback tender was $23.189 million in 2018). Which would make the Steelers far less likely to use the franchise tag on Bell again in 2019, if it’s the higher amount.
If it’s the lower amount, the Steelers could re-tag Bell and then trade him. But if he doesn’t play in 2018, Section 15(a) also limits the team’s ability to use the exclusive version of the franchise tag, allowing a team to sign him to an offer sheet in return for a first-round and third-round draft pick. This would limit the maximum compensation the Steelers could get for Bell, which could in turn reduce his trade value.
And if the Steelers are able to trade Bell, the thinking is that he’d receive a lower financial package than he would receive if he could be signed without his new team giving up draft pick(s) or player(s) compensation. If the quarterback tender applies and, as a practical matter, Bell can’t be franchise tagged (and thus can’t be traded), Bell would hit the open market and get more than anyone would reasonably expect.
Case in point: Receiver Sammy Watkins hit the open market, and he received a contract that is in many respects better than the deal Odell Beckham Jr. signed to stay with the Giants. That’s the way to get paid huge money — land on the market on the first day of free agency, and sign with a team that can get the player without any compensation beyond the player’s contract.
The manner in which the Article 10, Section 15(a) is interpreted and applied will go a long way toward determining which franchise tender applies to Bell, if he doesn’t show up by next Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. ET.
And this goes further in the financial weeds:
The CBA provision that potentially prevents the Steelers from re-tagging running back Le’Veon Bell at $14.54 million if he fails to show up in 2018 carries a more clear limitation regarding the transition tag for 2019.
Article 10, Section 15(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement provides as follows: “If any Franchise Player does not play in the NFL in a League Year, his Prior Team shall have the right to designate such player as a Franchise Player or a Transition Player the following League Year, if such designation is otherwise available to the Team, except that the applicable Tender must be made and any 120% Tender shall be measured from the Player’s Prior Year Salary.” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, if Bell doesn’t report in 2018 (and thus makes zero dollars and zero cents), the application of the transition tender would guarantee a 20-percent raise over Bell’s 2017 salary. That’s $14.54 million, the amount of Bell’s franchise tender in 2018.
In contrast, if Bell reports by next Tuesday, his transition tender for 2019 (due to his diminished earnings for 2018) would be in the range of $9 million to $10 million, the expected standard amount for the running back transition tender. So it would become significantly more expensive for the Steelers to apply the transition tender to Bell in 2019, if he doesn’t show up in 2018.
Ultimately, the transition tag is irrelevant, because the Steelers wouldn’t match any offer sheet that Bell would sign with another team. But the mere application of the transition tag by the Steelers would consume significantly more cap space if he doesn’t show up in 2018 than it would if he does. Which makes it even less likely that the transition tag will be in play, if Bell doesn’t show up by next Tuesday.
QB TOM BRADY doesn’t think he’s seen the last of AARON RODGERS. ProFootballTalk.com:
Unless they meet in the Super Bowl or the NFL changes its scheduling format, the next time the Patriots and Packers will play each other will be in 2022.
And, despite it being a foregone conclusion that last Sunday’s matchup would be their last, Tom Brady said he “fully intends” to face Aaron Rodgers in that game.
Were that to happen, Brady would be 45 and Rodgers would be 38.
In the past, both quarterbacks have said they’d like to play into their 40s and, now age 41, Brady has already done it.
For Rodgers to make it that far, he’ll have to cut down on the number of hits he takes, something Brady has certainly done during the latter half of his career.
“We’re not the type of team that buys into hype. And so we didn’t really take the Aaron Rodgers versus Tom Brady thing too seriously,” a veteran Patriot told ProFootballTalk after the game. “But as the week went on, and the game began to grow, I have to admit we felt it. We started to realize: This is the Rolling Stones and the Beatles meeting. Mick Jagger and John Lennon. It’s not gonna happen again, ever.”
Turns out it might.
THIS AND THAT
BILL BARNWELL’S MIDSEASON AWARDS
I’m trying to use my best judgment on who should win the award based on the criteria typically set by the voters. I’ll mention those quirks as we get involved, but in some cases, I’ll have to break from tradition if I feel like there’s a player deserving of further attention.
Like last time, I’ll be listing my top three candidates for the league’s major awards, which are officially handed out by the Associated Press. I’ll also be giving nods for several awards I’m making up, many of which owe a research debt to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats and player-tracking data.
Coach of the Year
My quarter-season winner for this award was Mike Vrabel, and things haven’t exactly gone well for the Titans since then.
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There’s a whole other tier of teams whose coaches are consistently great but never get much appreciation for this award. Bill Belichick might deserve to win this award every year. Sean Payton’s Saints are 7-1.
Third: Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
McVay won Coach of the Year last season and is doing every bit as good of a job in 2018, but nobody has won this award in consecutive seasons since Joe Gibbs in 1982 and 1983.
Second: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
The one veteran candidate who might be ahead in the running is Reid, given that the Chiefs are 8-1 after replacing Alex Smith with Patrick Mahomes.
First: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears
Instead, I think the favorite is likely the guy to whom Reid handed over playcalling duties during that ugly November run a year ago. Nagy might need to share this award with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio given that the Bears are relying so heavily upon their D, but the first-year coach has done a great job of working with an extremely inexperienced quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky to create an offense that seems to perpetually generate safe completions with big-play possibilities after the catch. The most likely candidate to win this award is always a first-year coach who leads a team from the bottom of a division to the playoffs, and Nagy is the only candidate who fits that description.
Will Nagy’s Bears undergo a fall similar to Vrabel’s Titans? If they do, it won’t be for the same reasons. The Titans’ three wins came by a combined nine points, and each required Tennessee to take the lead in the fourth quarter. We can’t say the same thing about the Bears, who led entering the fourth quarter in four of their five victories. After modest victories over the Seahawks and Cardinals, the Bears have thumped the Bucs, Jets and Bills by a combined 84 points. Big wins over bad teams might not seem impressive, but they’re historically a better predictor of future success than narrow wins, even against better competition.
Play of the Year
If we’re looking for the most important play of 2018 so far, the best place to go is ESPN’s win expectancy model.
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Through nine weeks, though, the Play of the Year is Graham Gano’s 63-yard field goal against the Giants, which turned a 31-30 deficit into a 33-31 victory for the Panthers with one second left. Carolina’s chances of winning rose by a whopping 80.7 percent on the play, as the Panthers suddenly became prohibitive favorites on one of the longest field goals in NFL history. The Panthers only needed to stop the Giants on the subsequent kickoff to ensure a victory, which took them to 3-1 in the NFC.
Comeback Player of the Year
Honorable mention for this award goes to Andre Hal, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in June and has somehow already made it back onto the field for the first-place Texans.
The only player to drop out of the top three after Week 4 is John Brown, and that is because the Ravens haven’t been able to consistently feature him.
Third: Adrian Peterson, RB, Washington
Peterson’s tenure in Arizona last season ended after a neck injury, but the 33-year-old’s presence on this list stems from the fact that he was on the street as late as Aug. 20 and was only signed because Derrius Guice went down with a torn ACL. \
Second: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
As his offensive line has improved, Luck has begun to grow comfortable under center. The Colts were on bye this week, but from Weeks 5-8, Luck took just one sack on 160 dropbacks. That’s unheard of for a player who appeared to be a magnet for pass-rushers as recently as 2016. Opponents were getting pressure on only 23.1 percent of their dropbacks over that time frame, which was the seventh-lowest mark in the league.
Predictably, Luck has responded with excellent play. He’s averaging a modest 6.8 yards per attempt, but he has thrown 14 touchdown passes against five picks, completed more than 64 percent of his passes, and posted a Total QBR of 76.6, which is sixth best in the NFL over that span. Not bad when you consider that he was without T.Y. Hilton for two of those games and Ryan Grant for the other two.
First: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Even if the player who seemed to defy the physics of the interior and time-warp his way through the line of scrimmage isn’t quite back, the version of Watt we’re seeing in 2018 is still a top-five pass-rusher. He has to rely a little more on that ceaseless motor, and Watt sees fewer double-teams thanks to the presence of Jadeveon Clowney, but the future Hall of Famer is an easy All-Pro pick with nine sacks, 16 quarterback knockdowns and four forced fumbles in nine games.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
This is a four-player race, which obviously makes it difficult to sum up in three spots. I honestly think you could leave off any one of these players and make a case for the other three. As tough as it was given that his team led the league in pass defense DVOA heading into the game, I’m putting Denzel Ward fourth.
Third: Bradley Chubb, LB, Denver Broncos
After a slow start, Chubb came afire in October. The fourth overall pick racked up 5.5 sacks in five October games and has eight so far this season, which is tied for sixth in the league.
Second: Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers
Rookie safeties don’t often do what James is doing. Usually, even talented first-rounders who go on to lengthy careers struggle as rookies or narrowly keep their head above water.
First: Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
Leonard missed Indianapolis’ game against the Patriots, and New England promptly took advantage by throwing for a combined 152 yards and a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski and James White. He missed one running play against the Bills and Buffalo turned it into a 30-yard gain. The Colts aren’t a great defense, but how many of their starters can you even name without hoping that Robert Mathis is still in the fold? Leonard has been an immediate difference-maker for a team desperate to find them.
The South Carolina State product continues to fill up the scoresheet, as even after missing a game, he has racked up a league-high 88 tackles to go along with four sacks, three forced fumbles and two pass breakups. To put that tackle number in context, Leonard has been in on the tackle on 19.7 percent of his snaps this season. Rams linebacker Cory Littleton, who is playing behind arguably the scariest interior defensive line in football, is the only guy with 400 snaps or more within 3.5 percentage of points of Leonard. I don’t think Leonard will win, if only because he’s playing for a team nobody is really paying attention to and won’t rack up a huge sack total, but the second-round pick has been a huge find for Frank Reich and Chris Ballard in Indy.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Somewhat surprisingly, none of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round even merit serious consideration for one of these three spots.
Third: Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions
Johnson didn’t offer much on Sunday against a stout Vikings run defense, but as the Lions distribute extra touches after trading away Golden Tate, Johnson should be one of the first people in line for more runs.
Second: Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons
The touchdown rate from Weeks 2-4 was never going to be sustainable, although Ridley did get back on the board for the first time since September with a 40-yard catch in traffic and score during Sunday’s comfortable win over Washington.
First: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Barkley’s numbers are inflated, and he should still win Rookie of the Year. Just 21.6 percent of his carries have turned into first downs, which is just below the running back average of 21.8 percent. Barkley has 152 yards from scrimmage in garbage time, when the Giants start drives with no more than a 1 percent chance of winning the game. The only players with more are Chris Ivory (155) and Odell Beckham Jr.. (165).
And yet, you’ve seen him play and know what I’m talking about. Barkley has six touches for 30 yards or more when nobody else has more than four. He has 348 more yards from scrimmage than any other rookie and is on pace for 2,032 yards from scrimmage, which only Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James pulled off as rookies. The Giants haven’t done many creative things with Barkley, as he has caught just four passes which traveled longer than six yards in the air. He is the “Get Out of Jail Free” card for an offense that is tethered to the ground by a horrific offensive line and a quarterback who is crumbling into dust.
Defensive Player of the Year
History tells us that barring a transcendent season from a player in the secondary or at middle linebacker, this award goes to a pass-rusher. With all due respect to guys like D.J. Swearinger, Stephon Gilmore and Tre’Davious White, nobody in the secondary has stood out quite enough to earn a third-placed nod.
My pick here after four weeks was Khalil Mack, but he falls off the list after an injury-hit October.
Third: Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
Garrett was quietly an impact player on a middling defense last season, though he missed a chunk of the season with injuries. This year, Garrett is quietly an All-Pro candidate on the league’s best pass defense by DVOA, but they’ll likely fall off that mantel after running into the Chiefs on Sunday. No matter. Garrett has been excellent, with nine sacks, 18 knockdowns and three forced fumbles. He has beaten Alejandro Villanueva for a sack in each of Cleveland’s games against the Steelers, and while his other sacks have been against the less notable of the linemen world, Garrett’s motor shines through on tape. Even if you think he’s blocked, Garrett seems to run his way into second-chance sacks every week. He and Larry Ogunjobi are the best building blocks left from the Sashi Brown reign in Cleveland.
Second: Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings
After 3.5 sacks and four knockdowns on Sunday during Minnesota’s twice-annual “What did Matthew Stafford do to the people of Minneapolis?” festival, Hunter now leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks, spotting the 24-year-old a 1.5-sack lead on the competition. And while you could maybe make the case that Hunter benefited from playing alongside Everson Griffen before this season, Griffen missed five games before returning against the Saints in Week 8.
Hunter’s performance might not be sustainable — those 11.5 sacks have come on just 15 knockdowns, which would usually generate something closer to seven sacks — but he’s a legitimate superstar playing for a defense with three high-profile games against the Bears, Packers and Seahawks after its bye. Hunter also gets the Lions again in Week 16 in what could be a showcase game for the LSU product.
First: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
Donald didn’t have a sack against the devastatingly quick release of Drew Brees on Sunday, so the reigning Defensive Player of the Year had to settle for four knockdowns, a tackle for loss in which he might have made Alvin Kamara reconsider football, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery to hand the Rams a short field. After a slow start to the year, Donald has 10 sacks and 20 knockdowns in his past six games. Hunter has the better sack total, but Donald is such a force of nature on each and every snap he plays in a way that nobody else in football can match right now. If the numbers are close, I lean toward the Rams star.
Offensive Player of the Year
I’m going to treat that as the award for non-quarterbacks, since there have been years (including 2017) in which the voting has gone in that direction in awarding the best skill-position weapon the trophy. I’m willing to consider a universe in which a running back or receiver is eligible to win MVP, but the season we’re seeing from James Conner might be a useful reminder of how even the great backs can be replaced.
Third: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Do you care about the touchdown total? Jones finally did make it into the end zone for the first time this season, taking a screen to the house for a 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal a win against Washington. It was a fitting cap to yet another 100-yard day for Jones, who has run off four such games in five contests. He’s the rare wideout who is so productive that fantasy owners can’t even realistically be upset that he hasn’t been scoring touchdowns.
Second: Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Thielen’s streak of games with 100 yards and a touchdown came to an end on Sunday, as he racked up just 22 yards and a score on seven targets during the win over the Lions. The most underpaid veteran in the league will have to settle for entering his bye week with the league lead in receptions (78), receiving yards (947), and first downs (51). It seems like there’s going to come a point in which Thielen retreats to earth and is suddenly a mortal wideout again, but over the second half of 2017, Thielen racked up 43 catches for 649 yards and three scores, which isn’t exactly anything of which to be ashamed.
I think you’ll see a slight decline in Thielen’s numbers, if only by virtue of volume. Dalvin Cook’s return to health and a likely run of victories against an easier schedule in December should push Minnesota toward a heavier dose of its running game, which would come at the expense of its pass-catching corps. Even then, though, Thielen is going to be a very viable OPOY candidate.
First: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
In a way, I couldn’t put backs like Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara on this list because Gurley has blown them away with production. Even after his quietest game of the season during Sunday’s loss to the Saints, Gurley has 1,230 yards from scrimmage, 145 yards more than the second-placed Conner. Barkley is the only other back to top 1,000 yards. Gurley has 16 touchdowns, which is three ahead of Hunt at 13. He has 31 more carries than any other back, of course, but the former first-round pick is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and producing first downs on 26.9 percent of his runs. Kamara is the only back with 100 carries or more who tops him there, and Kamara has done it over 111 carries to Gurley’s 182. Backs with this sort of volume and efficiency just don’t exist anymore.
What would it take for Gurley to win MVP? He had a better shot last season, when the young breakout candidates tore their ACLs and the award fell almost by default to Tom Brady, who is at a natural disadvantage as a former two-time winner. Brady played great and deserved the trophy, but his efficiency numbers were no different from 2015, when he didn’t come close to winning, and they were actually down from 2016, when Brady was suspended for four games to start the year.
Gurley has 868 rushing yards and 362 receiving yards to go with 16 touchdowns in nine games, leaving him on pace for 1,543 rushing yards, 644 receiving yards, and 28 touchdowns. That would be one hell of a résumé, but the Rams might sit Gurley if they have nothing to play for in December. Voters haven’t really been interested in total yards from scrimmage in years past, but if Gurley can make it to 2,500 and 30 touchdowns, those round numbers might be enough.
Most Valuable Player
We’re left with the quarterbacks. Two passers are pretty obviously shoo-ins. The third-place pick was a little tougher. You can pick a flaw in a lot of very good candidates. Brady’s interception rate has spiked to the point where he won’t be able to repeat. Carson Wentz is two (and in some cases three) games behind the competition, although his rate stats are excellent. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been accurate enough to keep up, which is remarkable given that he has a 64.5 percent completion percentage. (League average is 65.2 percent.) Philip Rivers has thrown only 246 passes, which is good for his arm but keeps him from racking up the cumulative totals to get in the top three.
Two young NFC passers came up narrowly short. Jared Goff is playing well, but he has slipped some after that incredible prime-time game against the Vikings. From Week 5 on, Goff has completed 64.2 percent of his passes and posted a 100.9 passer rating, which is 11th in the league. By Total QBR, his 64.0 mark is 13th. He certainly hasn’t been bad, of course, but the standards at the top of the charts here are higher than they’ve ever been before. He has fallen to fifth in both passer rating and QBR, which is where he ranks here.
I’m also narrowly eliminating Cam Newton, although I’ve been pleasantly surprised to be totally wrong about Norv Turner and the Panthers’ offense this season. Instead of trying to revert to some antiquated offensive scheme, Turner has turned Newton and the offense loose. Plenty of teams run jet sweeps and end-arounds in 2018, but the Panthers mix in reverses and even the rare double reverse for big plays, like the one we saw to Samuel on Sunday.
The only thing I’d fault Newton for in this offense is a relatively conservative passing game. The Panthers have successfully jump-started his completion percentage over 60 percent and all the way to a staggering 67.3 percent, but Newton is averaging just 7.2 yards per attempt, which is below the league average of 7.6 yards per pass attempt this season. He makes up for that to some extent by racking up 355 rushing yards, but even those runs have required 62 carries, which is far more than any other passer. (Those numbers don’t include kneel-downs.) His numbers are very good, but they’re just a tad below our top three MVP candidates.
Third: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
I recognize that 2018 has been a higher-scoring campaign than 2016, but compare Ryan’s first eight games of 2018 with the first eight games of his MVP campaign under Kyle Shanahan in 2016:
YEAR CMP ATT CMP% YDS Y/ATT TD INT PASSER RATING QBR
2016 193 279 69.2% 2636 9.4 19 4 115.8 77.7
2018 213 301 70.8% 2685 8.9 19 3 115.1 74.8
Yes, Ryan is not going to get as much consideration because his defense stinks and his team is a distant third at 4-4 in the NFC South, but he has been every bit as good as the guy we saw win MVP two years ago. Keep in mind he was doing that with a better offensive line and Freeman as his lead back in the running game. This version of Ryan has Calvin Ridley, which helps, but the Boston College product just went five-plus games without an interception before throwing a pick on Sunday afternoon. If the Falcons make their way back into the wild-card hunt in the NFC, Ryan deserves MVP chatter.
Second: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
First: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Let’s work through these two together, since they stand apart for me. The most obvious difference is the touchdown total. Mahomes has 29 touchdown passes. Twenty-nine! Brees has 18. Andrew Luck has 23, and nobody else in the league tops 20. The second-year sensation Mahomes is throwing for touchdowns on 9.1 percent of his passes, the second-highest mark in the league behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. The only passer to hit 9 percent in a 500-attempt season is Aaron Rodgers in 2011. Tom Brady didn’t do it in 2007. Dan Marino didn’t do it in 1984. This is a big advantage for Mahomes.
And then, when you start working through the rest of the categories, Brees picks up advantages, some significant. The veteran has thrown one interception on 279 pass attempts. Mahomes has thrown seven in 317 tries, although his pick on Sunday was essentially a Hail Mary after poor Chiefs clock management. Mahomes is completing 66.2 percent of his passes. Brees is completing 76.3 percent of his throws. Just as Mahomes is challenging the touchdown record, Brees is threatening to take the completion percentage record and jump it from 72.1 percent by more than 4 percentage points. Completions can be overrated, but 40.9 percent of Brees’ completions go for first downs, which is well above the league average of 36.3 percent.
Mahomes is averaging nearly a full yard more per pass than Brees, but a lot of that comes from his receivers’ work on screens. Strip them out and Brees is completing 74.9 percent of his passes and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. Mahomes is completing 61.9 percent of his non-screen passes while averaging … 8.7 yards per attempt. Both marks are great. You don’t need me to tell you Brees’ is better.
Of course, while both teams have excellent weapons, there’s a reason I ranked the Chiefs’ weapons as the scariest in football before the season. Brees’ top two receivers are Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Pretty terrifying. Mahomes gets to work with Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt. Also scary. After that, though, Mahomes’ next two guys up are Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins. Brees is working with Benjamin Watson and either Ted Ginn Jr. or rookie Tre’Quan Smith, depending on when you’re judging the arsenals. Brees has Mark Ingram to help in pass protection and a better offensive line given the injuries on the interior for the Chiefs, but Mahomes has more with which to work.
I’m not exactly the QB wins type, but the Saints are 7-1 and the Chiefs are 8-1. The Saints’ lone loss came in a game against the Bucs in which Brees put up 40 points and his defense allowed 48 points. The Chiefs’ lone loss came in a game in which Mahomes scored 40 points and his defense allowed 43 points to the Patriots. The only thing I might mention is that Mahomes left a couple of would-be touchdowns on the table with bad throws in the first half. It would be foolish to say Mahomes played badly, but it also would be naive to pretend he couldn’t have played better given the opportunities at hand.
The case for Mahomes outside of the touchdowns isn’t as obvious, at least to me. He has thrown 38 more passes than Brees, the product of not yet having his bye week. Mahomes offers far more with his legs than Brees, as the Texas Tech product has 144 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries once you remove those pesky kneel-downs from his totals. Brees, ceding touches in the running game to Taysom Hill, has turned nine carries into 34 yards, although he also has two scores on sneaks, which mitigates some of the gap between the two.
At the end of the day, there just isn’t much between these two. Brees has a passer rating of 120.6 and a Total QBR of 84.5. Mahomes has a passer rating of 116.7 and a Total QBR of 85.4. They’re 1-2 in each category. Maybe I lean toward Brees because the sentimental, sappy side of me wants to see the 39-year-old Brees finally win league MVP before he retires. If you prefer Mahomes, I can’t fault you. If Mahomes gets to 56 passing touchdowns and breaks the league record in his first full year as a starter, I’ll join you on that side of the fence. For now, though, very narrowly, I lean toward Brees.
The DB was musing about where to place QB ELI MANNING on the list of all-time great QBs as his career seems to be about done.
Some folks go by Super Bowl wins, which would make him a Hall of Famer for sure. Others have different standards.
The DB got thinking about just winning percentage, shouldn’t the totality of every regular season game count more than 1 or 2 successful playoff runs.
In any case, here are the 25 QBs since 1970 with more than 175 starts. We sorted them by winning percentage and let’s see what happens.
Tom Brady 297 .774
Joe Montana 187 .711
Peyton Manning 292 .685
Terry Bradshaw 177 .684
Ben Roethlisberger 227 .676
John Elway 252 .645
Jim Kelly 177 .621
Brett Favre 322 .618
Donovan McNabb 177 .607
Dan Marino 258 .601
Joe Flacco 178 .596
Matt Ryan 176 .585
Troy Aikman 180 .583
Drew Brees 269 .580
Philip Rivers 209 .555
Dave Krieg 184 .549
Ken Anderson 178 .522
Eli Manning 234 .513
Drew Bledsoe 199 .508
Carson Palmer 185 .505
Dan Fouts 178 .503
Warren Moon 213 .493
Boomer Esiason 178 .466
Kerry Collins 187 .449
Vinny Testaverde 219 .422
We have active players in BOLD, Hall of Famers in RED, italicized Brady and Peyton Manning because they are going to Canton beyond any shadow of a doubt.
So, it actually isn’t too bad a sort for greatness. Donovan McNabb is higher than you would think he should be. And we were surprised to see Roethlisberger at .676, he feels more like a .610.
Fouts and Moon are in the Hall from 50-50 records – especially surprising because they don’t even have a Super Bowl appearance between them.
But in general, the line around .550 would seem to be a pretty good place to start giving thumbs up or thumbs down for the Hall.
Looking ahead, AARON RODGERS (.642) and ALEX SMITH (a surprising .575) are at 166 career starts.
AIKMAN RATINGS Thru Week 9
The Chicago Bears, plucked for Sunday Football in Week 11 and leaders of the NFC North, sit atop the Aikman Combined Ratings for the second week in a row. After a dominating victory over the #32 Bills, the Bears widened their lead to 6.1 points over the Rams, who remained in second place despite a loss to the Saints. Chicago plays the #23 Lions this week before a showdown with the #6 Vikings on November 18 on NBC.
The Bears also retain 1st place in the Aikman Defense ratings, 1.7 points ahead of division rival Minnesota.
The Chiefs, at 102.7, continue their bid to be the first team in Aikman history with a triple digit score in Aikman Offense. The Saints are closely behind in Aikman Offense, but New Orleans ranks only 25th in Aikman Defense so they are only 11th in the Aikman Combined despite their 7-1 record.
We should note that the range between 2nd and 13th in the Aikman Combined is just 5.1 points so a slight change in rating can result in a significant change in ranking.
AIKMAN COMBINED RATINGS