AROUND THE NFL

Peter King:

 

I think I don’t know a retired player who sets as good an example for his peers and those behind him than Curtis Martin, who graduated with a doctorate degree on Thursday. Such a good person, and such a shining example.

– – –

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com thinks the NFL should imitate the NBA.

 

The NFL can’t reconcile the importance of convincing everyone that every team always plays to win with the reality that, for non-playoff teams in December, it pays handsomely to not win. So the NFL doesn’t try to.

 

Taking it one step farther, the NFL refuses to even consider something that would become a major offseason tentpole for the league, gathering millions of TV viewers and potentially becoming another traveling roadshow that would bring thousands of fans into the streets of one of the cities that is in play for the top pick. The only logical explanation for the league’s flat-out failure not only to entertain the possibility but to steadfastly ignore that it even exists underscores the league’s position on tanking: Act like the temptation doesn’t exist, even when it clearly does.

 

An NBA-style lottery would be weighted, with the worst teams getting more balls in the machine. By embracing that contest, the league would be sending the message that it’s good to be bad. Which would undermine the “you play to win the game” vibe that the league feels compelled to infuse throughout the full regular-season schedule, especially after Thanksgiving, when the 20 non-playoff teams become increasingly clear — and when ownership’s urge to bench the starters for undrafted rookies becomes increasingly strong.

 

But there’s a way to do a lottery that both creates another offseason phenomenon while eradicating the phenomenon of tanking. The bottom 12 spots in the first round would be determined by playoff exits and regular-season records, culminating in the Super Bowl teams at No. 31 and 32. The top 20 spots, reserved for the non-playoff teams, would determined by a straight lottery: One ball per team, 20 balls.

 

Why should the worst of the non-playoff teams get a bigger reward than the best of them? The NFL has become the ultimate haves (playoffs) and have-nots (no playoffs) pass/fail proposition, and the have-nots should all get the same chance to have the first pick. This necessarily would kill the tanking temptation, because an aspiration to pick first could be tied only to an aspiration to not make the playoffs. And every team and fan base always wants to make the playoffs. (If there’s any doubt, watch or listen to any of the shows aimed at convinced every fan base that their team has a chance to make the playoffs this year.)

 

Consider the concept as it relates to 2019. Plenty of Dolphins fans (and possibly the fan who signs the checks) would prefer to see the team take its lumps this year, with the reward being the best quarterback ever coached by the guy who used to coach the Dolphins. A lottery that makes the chances of getting the first overall pick equal for all non-playoff teams would scuttle that chatter, with the sole goal always being to make it to the postseason, and with the consolation prize being three months or so of hope and wonder that maybe this is the year that the ping-pong gods will smile on a forsaken franchise.

 

The league loves hope, generally. It abhors hope when the hope is tied to the incentive to lose, especially in this new age of legalized gambling. In one fell swoop, the league could end that temptation forever, while also creating an event that would join the Scouting Combine, free agency, and the draft as the major moneymaking and ratings-generating events of the offseason.

 

So the Steelers or Vikings, who just missed the playoffs this year after long runs near the top, should have same chance at the top pick as all the other non-playoff teams?

– – –

Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com on the state of 2019 Hard Knocks:

 

Usually by this time of the year, we know which team will be featured on NFL Films’ “Hard Knocks.” This year, we’re still in limbo.

 

According to Peter King of NBC’s Football Morning in America, part of the delay stems from programming for the league’s 100th season.

 

But there also has yet to be a volunteer, as usual.

 

Once you cross off the teams with new head coaches, the teams which made the playoffs in the last two years, or the teams that have been on it before, you’re left with five possibilities.

 

Washington, along with the Raiders, 49ers, Lions, and Giants can be compelled to do it.

 

King makes a reasonable case for the Raiders to be the pick (Jon Gruden and Antonio Brown, mainly), but Raiders owner Mark Davis has already said he didn’t want it. That may not necessarily matter to the league, however.

 

The DB thinks the Redskins are a pretty good story.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Peter King is on board with a big deal for QB DAK PRESCOTT:

 

I think the Dallas Cowboys should take a deep breath and sign Dak Prescott—five years, $150 milion ($90 million guaranteed) sounds about correct—before he plays well enough this year to push him into Russell Wilson land. Prescott’s not a top-five quarterback, but you absolutely can win with him, and he can play well enough in and out of the pocket to be competitive in the biggest games on the schedule. And he is a very good face of the franchise, eminently trustworthy and a good leader. For those who swear he’s not worth it, ask yourself this question: What is the alternative, and are you willing to let Prescott walk away while the Cowboys go the draft-and-develop route in the near future?

 

I think some Cowboys fans would like, in part because of the financial sanity, the advantage to having a rookie quarterback not chew up your cap. But let’s look at the first-round quarterbacks in the most recent seven drafts, and let’s see how many are better than Prescott. I don’t include 2018 and 2019 because we don’t know the results of their play yet. We are not sure of all of these players, but we have a pretty good idea about most.

 

Quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 2011 and 2017, compared to Prescott

 

Total first-round QBs: 20.

 

Clearly not as good as Prescott … 11 of 20 (55 percent): Jake Locker (8th pick, 2011), Blaine Gabbert (10-2011), Christian Ponder (12-2011), Robert Griffin III (2-2012), Ryan Tannehill (8-2012), Brandon Weeden (22-2012), E.J. Manuel (16-2013), Blake Bortles (3-2014), Johnny Manziel (22-2014), Teddy Bridgewater (32-2014), Paxton Lynch (26-2016).

 

Too close to call right now, but Prescott has an edge … 3 of 20 (15 percent): Jameis Winston (1-2015), Marcus Mariota (2-2015), Mitchell Trubisky (2-2017).

 

Clearly better than Prescott … 3 of 20 (15 percent): Cam Newton (1-2011), Andrew Luck (1-2012), Patrick Mahomes (10-2017).

 

Better than Prescott, though with an injury asterisk … 1 of 20 (5 percent): Carson Wentz (2-2016).

 

Too close to call right now, but they look better than Prescott to me … 2 of 20 (10 percent): Jared Goff (1-2016), Deshaun Watson (12-2017).

 

So—and we’re sure to disagree on a few of these—I have Prescott with at least a slight edge on 14 of the 20 first-round quarterbacks picked between 2011 and 2017. So, Cowboy fans: Are you sure you want to roll the dice, cast Prescott aside in the near future, and take your shot with the next hot young first-rounder? I will remind you: In 2016, I covered the Cowboys draft, and I was inside their process, and Jerry Jones looked like his dog just died after he and his scouting group missed out on Paxton Lynch, and they were ticked off again to miss out on Connor Cook atop the fourth round, which left them with … Dak Prescott.

 

We kind of like CAM NEWTON, but we’re not sure he’s better than Prescott, who we also kind of like.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Owner Arthur Blank insists he is reasonably happy with the current state of the Falcons.

 

In wake of the release of Peter King’s power rankings, Falcons owner Arthur Blank responded to the comment that he was “restless” about the football team.

 

“I’m feeling very good about what (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and (coach) Dan (Quinn) have done this offseason,” Blank said in a statement sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via email. “We have some key guys getting healthy again, the draft picks are getting up to speed, the new coordinators are meshing well and I’m confident we’re going to be ready to go for a very competitive training camp. I like where we’re going.”The Falcons were ranked 17th in Peter King’s “Football Morning in America” column, which was published on Monday. He notes that the Falcons have an 18-17 record since losing Super Bowl LI and dropped an interesting tidbit about Blank. “I keep hearing owner Arthur Blank is getting restless,” King wrote. 

– – –

Injuries are forcing G ANDY LEVITRE to call it quits.  D. Orlando Ledbetter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

 

Former Falcons guard Andy Levitre announced his retirement from the NFL on social media Tuesday.

 

“Unfortunately, due to injury my body won’t allow me to continue any longer,” Levitre wrote. “Thank you to my wife and children, my family, friends, coaches, teammates and all of the fans who supported me on this journey.”

 

The Falcons wished Levitre well in retirement.“We’d like to congratulate Andy on his career and his recent retirement,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “During his time as part of the Falcons family, he was a valuable and well-respected contributor on and off the field. We wish the best to Andy, his wife, Katie, and the entire Levitre family.”The Falcons acquired Levitre from the Tennessee Titans via trade before the start of the 2015 season. He came in the week before the season opener and took over the starting left guard position.

 

Levitre started all 16 regular-season games in 2015 and 2016. He started in the playoffs and in Super Bowl LI for the Falcons.His troubles started in the 2017 season when he suffered a torn triceps injury after starting 13 games.

 

Levitre tried to return in 2018, but was lost for the season when he torn the same triceps in the second game of the season, when he played 12 snaps against the Panthers. Wes Schweitzer, who started 18 games in 2017 at right guard, came on after Levitre was injured and finished the game.

 

After the season, Levitre said he wanted to continue his career, but changed his mind.“A true competitor, and a great teammate,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He epitomizes the competitiveness and toughness of a Falcon man. Andy represents everything I love about the NFL. Congratulations on an outstanding career.”

 

Levitre, 32, was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the second round (51st overall) of the 2009 draft out of Oregon State.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

Jeremy Kluff of ProFootballTalk.com on the rumors surrounding CB PATRICK PETERSON:

 

The Patrick Peterson trade rumors are heating up … again.

 

The star cornerback didn’t report to the Cardinals’ voluntary veteran minicamp late last month because he was reportedly was upset about something someone in management had said to him.

 

It’s also not clear if he’ll be reporting to the Cardinals’ organized team activities later this month.

 

Chatter continues to circulate that he is once again not happy in Arizona and trade rumors are once again swirling around the shutdown corner as a result.

 

Much of the talk is centered around the Kansas City Chiefs as a potential destination for Peterson.

 

CBS Sports: Patrick Peterson trade to Chiefs would be good move for both teams

John Breech writes: “With a new Cardinals coaching staff now in place, it would make since (sic) for them to start fresh with players who actually want to be in Arizona. Clearly, Peterson isn’t one of those players. If the Cards start to shop Peterson, every team in the NFL should call them with an offer. Not only is he a three-time All-Pro corner, but he’s also under contract for the next two seasons at the very reasonable rates of $11 million (2019) and $12.05 million (2020).”

 

Are you a sports fan? Stay in the know. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

 

Former NFL wide receiver: Peterson getting traded to Chiefs, “soon”

Antonio Bryant seemed to start the Peterson to the Chiefs rumors a few weeks ago with a since deleted tweet declaring: “Patrick Peterson to the Chiefs!”

 

He doubled down on Tuesday and tweeted it again. Bryant, who has close to 90,000 followers posted a tweet with a Gif of Peterson in a Chiefs uniform with the message “Soon” and an arrow pointing to the cornerback’s Twitter handle: @P2.

 

It had the message: “Soon” with an arrow pointing to Peterson’s Twitter handle, @P2.

 

@ab89

 🔜@P2

Raising Zona: A Patrick Peterson trade to the Chiefs makes sense

Avery Duncan writes: “Due to the Chiefs looking to be a Super Bowl contender for the foreseeable future, a first may not do the trick alone. Instead, I’d look to make a trade revolving around a first and a middle-round pick. Though it’ll be a steep price to pay, the Chiefs window to win is now; they simply can’t deny it and haven’t, based on their additions of Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu, and Emmanuel Ogbah.”

 

Fansided: Patrick Peterson again rumored to be headed to the Chiefs

Kevin Scott writes: “It has been widely reported that the Cardinals do not want to trade Peterson. This could be a move by Bryant (or by Peterson through Bryant) to push the issue and try to get the team to move toward a deal. Peterson himself has made some cryptic posts on social media that seem to suggest he is unhappy in Arizona, and even removed mentions of the Cardinals from his social media profile. So this could be more Bryant fluff. Or it could be a situation of “where there is smoke, there is fire.” We should find out in the coming days or weeks. If nothing else, Bryant is giving Chiefs fans something to hope for in this very quiet time in the NFL calendar.”

 

@foxsports910

 “@P2 is as good as gone… why can’t more people come to grips with that reality? He’s been upset with @AZCardinals for TWO seasons now, but the team wants to hold him hostage for some reason. Just let him go to the @Chiefs already,” – @CrashGladys on @KennyAndCrash

Clutch Points: Kansas City Chiefs could be a potential trade destination for Patrick Peterson

Chris Reed writes: “The franchise isn’t shy about trading away draft capital, since they haven’t had a first-rounder since 2017. Perhaps they’d be willing to do so again for Peterson, who would be the type of elite corner the Chiefs would need.”

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Peter King:

 

Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Odell Beckham Jr. has spent about a day in Cleveland since being traded from the Giants to the Browns. That would be one day in Cleveland out of 61 since the trade.

 

Free country. Seems weird.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

With his offense in good hands with Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick decides that he is the best choice to take over the Patriots defense.  Ben Volin of the Boston Globe:

 

The Patriots made their coaching staff available to the media on Friday, and clarified most of the new roles. Joe Judge will coach receivers in addition to special teams. Bret Bielema will coach defensive line. Jerod Mayo will handle inside linebackers, DeMarcus Covington will coach outside linebackers, Mike Pellegrino will coach cornerbacks. Cole Popovich will have more responsibility as assistant offensive line coach, and Mike Lombardi, son of former executive Mike Lombardi, will be the assistant QB coach.

 

One role not mentioned — defensive coordinator. The Patriots still don’t have one after Greg Schiano left abruptly in March after one month on the job.

 

The buzz I am hearing from a league source is that Bill Belichick will simply call defensive plays himself this fall. This same source also told me Bielema would become defensive line coach, which I was going to write in this space before it was confirmed on Friday.

 

Calling plays is not that much more responsibility for Belichick, who has always been involved with the defense, even when Matt Patricia and Brian Flores were the coordinator. Belichick usually coaches the defensive linemen during the game, and often told Patricia and Flores when to call blitzes.

 

At this point, Belichick as defensive coordinator is the most sensible option. When Schiano left in late March, pretty much anyone else that Belichick would consider for defensive coordinator already had his job for 2019 lined up. Bielema is the only other person on the Patriots’ staff even remotely qualified. Steve Belichick, the coach’s son, is not ready for play-calling yet. Mayo is a first-time coach, and needs at least some experience.

 

So Belichick probably figures that he’ll get through this year calling plays himself, then figure out a long-term solution next year. Who knows, maybe Patricia will be available to come back?

 

– – –

Robert Kraft’s outside hired guns have defeated the Jupiter Police and Palm Beach County State’s Attorney, by pointing out how unfair the surveillance that entrapped Kraft was to the many people who went to the massage parlor for legitimate reasons.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Now that a judge has ruled that the surveillance video containing images of Patriots owner Robert Kraft allegedly engaged in sexual activity cannot be used at the trial of his case, Kraft is doing exactly what we thought he would do.

 

Kraft now seeks an order permanently blocking the prosecution from giving the video to the various media companies that have been fighting to get access to it. The motion, filed after Monday’s ruling that prevents the video from being used at trial, seeks modification of the current order that delays the release of the video until: (1) his trial begins; (2) a plea agreement is reached; and (3) prosecutors dismiss the charges.

 

Deadspin.com has the motion, and Diana Moskovitz of Deadspin explains that the pending order allows the prosecutors to quickly drop the case and ensure that the video will be released, a move that would be entirely possible given the amount of rancor that has unfolded between the two sides in this prosecution. Kraft hopes to prevent this by arguing that the illegal nature of the surveillance operation supersedes the broad requirements of Florida law regarding the public nature of videos, documents, etc. generated by law enforcement in the exercise of its official duties.

 

It’s a compelling argument. Why should the public have access to materials generated in violation of applicable legal standards? Why should potentially vindictive prosecutors have a vehicle for sticking it to a defendant who successful enforces his rights in court, with the ultimate fallback when the defendant chooses to fight becoming the ability to drop the case and inject embarrassing evidence into the public eye?

 

While Monday’s ruling will be subject to appeal by the prosecution, if the video ultimately cannot be used at trial, the only fair outcome for Kraft and all other persons who appear on the “sneak and peek” videos generated over a five-day period in January would be to permanently prevent any of them from ever being made public, including videos that show people who were simply getting massages, and nothing more.

– – –

A Peter King factoid:

 

There are 27 quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose careers stretch from the 1950s to today.

 

Total playoff wins for those 27 quarterbacks after their 39th birthday: 1.

 

Total playoff wins for Tom Brady after his 39th birthday: 8.

 

Won-lost record for those 27 quarterbacks after their 39th birthday: 64-64.

 

Won-lost record for Tom Brady after his 39th birthday: 43-10.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

We just had Coach Adam Gase spitting fire about reports that he and GM Mike Mccagnan weren’t getting along.  Now, Mccagnan, the man who drafted QB CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG in the 2nd round several years ago, is fired.  Nate Davis of USA TODAY:

 

After four years on the job, the New York Jets fired general manager Mike Maccagnan on Wednesday morning.

 

Team chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson made the announcement.

 

“I came to the decision to make a change after much thought and a careful assessment of what would be in the best long-term interests of the New York Jets,” Johnson said in a statement.

 

The search for Maccagnan’s replacement will begin immediately, and new head coach Adam Gase, who clashed with Maccagnan according to published reports, will serve as GM in an interim capacity.

 

The Jets never reached postseason under Maccagnan and last appeared in the playoffs in 2010.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

PETER KING’S POWER RANKINGS

Peter King assesses the 32 member clubs, with plenty of gossip.  Somewhat edited below:

 

Mid-May. Time to take stock of the offseason. There’s not much left for teams to do before training camp. Vets with something left (Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson, Jay Ajayi, maybe Chris Long) could land somewhere, but those guys aren’t going to shift the balance of power in pro football’s 100th season.

 

So here are my rankings, 1 to 32, of the teams with most of the chairs being taken, and the music about to stop. Instead of justifying my pick in many of the fat-graf explanations, I’ll take some space on a key point that could determine success or failure with the team.

 

I fully expect to be wildly incorrect, so react accordingly.

 

The Lead: Rankings

 

The 2018 playoff teams are marked with asterisks … The teams that finished under .500 in 2018 are marked with plus-signs.

 

1. *KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (2018: 13-5)

Seems a little crazy with the firing of the 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt) six months ago and the iffy status of the NFL’s most dangerous weapon because of a child-abuse investigation (Tyreek Hill). But this is an In-Mahomes-We-Trust pick, mostly. I wonder if you could ever say that a rookie picked as low as 56—that was the draft slot of the Chiefs’ top pick, Georgia receiver-returner Mecole Hardman—would enter a season as the rookie with the most pressure to produce at a high level from opening day.

 

2. *NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2018: 14-5)

I just kept thinking as New England, round-by-round, let tight ends go by in the draft: Well, Bill Belichick knows he needs a tight end badly, and if he doesn’t take one, it must mean he didn’t love one, or he has plans beyond the draft. One of those plans, post-Gronk, was Ben Watson, who was highly peeved to not be active for the NFC title game as a Saint, and felt he had unfinished business as a player when he retired after the season. Watson, even at 38, is a useable player familiar with Patriot ways because he played for them for six years. I’m not sure Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be much of a factor either. And we’ll see who else comes available. Could Kyle Rudolph, for instance, in Minnesota, be a June cap casualty?

 

3. *INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2018: 11-7)

My first surprise, having the Colts this high. I’m relying on Justin Houston an awful lot here. The Colts haven’t had a pass-rusher have a premier season since 2013, when Robert Mathis had his last great rush season with 19.5 sacks. Houston had an impact year at 29 last fall for Kansas City (14 games, 11 sacks, including playoffs), which is why the Colts outbid others for his services on the free market in March. But he missed 5, 12, 1 and 4 games (regular and postseason) in his last four Chief seasons, so this is a gamble. If the Colts get 12 effective games out of him—and if two or three or those are in the postseason—the investment will be worth it. Big if. You can tell I’m buying Houston being able to have one more strong year for a good team. I’m probably sold mostly by the fact I saw his last game for Kansas City—the overtime classic against New England in the AFC title game—and Houston played an astounding 95 of 97 snaps that cold Sunday at Arrowhead, frequently buzzing around Tom Brady.

 

4. *LOS ANGELES RAMS (15-4)

The Rams will be good; we know that. But good enough to stave off the Niners and Seahawks in the West? Good enough to play deep into January? You might wonder about Todd Gurley’s future, because of the weird usage pattern in 2018 (first 12 games: 19.4 carries per game; last five games: 10.6 carries) that hinted at a bum knee. I’m not that concerned about Gurley, or the running game, because Sean McVay will figure it out. I’m more concerned with what the heck happened to Marcus Peters last year, and whether in a pass-happy NFC West the Peters-Aqib Talib combo platter can be the top cornerback group in the division like the Rams planned.

 

5. *LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (13-5)

Guess what percent of the Chargers’ defensive snaps Joey Bosa has played in his three NFL seasons. It’s 58.5 (including playoffs). He’s very productive when he plays—29.5 sacks in 37 NFL games—and now, for the Chargers to try to take the next step, they need the stereo rushers of Bosa and Melvin Ingram to attack the pocket together, consistently. It was interesting watching the Chargers play defense in Baltimore in the wild-card game—the secondary was so good and so deep and so young. If Bosa stays on the field this year, the Chargers will be on equal footing with the Rams for best team in L.A. How amazing it is to see the Chargers, a combined 9-23 in 2016, come so far so fast.

 

6. *NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-4)

I’m dying to know after bowing out of the playoffs in the most bizarre of circumstances in two straight years—the Stefon Diggs walk-off (essentially) TD in 2017, and the blown non-interference call against the Rams last year—whether the impact of those dispiriting losses will have any impact on the Saints in 2019. The two most important people in the Saints world, Sean Payton and Drew Brees, don’t seem like they’ll let a hangover happen. Payton hid for a few days after the game, then faced the music without bitterness at the combine and at the league meetings, helping push the league into improving the rule that doomed the franchise in January. For the Saints’ sake, I was glad to see them trade up for a day-one starting center, Erik McCoy, even if it cost them a second-round pick next year. McCoy was a borderline first-rounder, and after the slightly surprising retirement of Max Unger, he became a vital addition for a line that’s crucial to the Saints’ success.

 

7. +SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (4-12)

Here’s my big surprise. Only I don’t see it that way. In 2017 and 2018, the Niners were 6-2 when Jimmy Garoppolo started and 4-18 when he didn’t. In his fateful last start, when he ran left and tore his ACL at Kansas City, these were the last four drives he executed that afternoon, going head to head with Patrick Mahomes at rabid Arrowhead: 54 yards to a field goal, 87 yards to a touchdown, 77 yards to a touchdown, 58 yards to a field goal. In his 10 NFL starts, he’s a 66-percent passer. I have no problem making two statements: I think the 49ers are a playoff team if Garappolo plays a full season. And I think Garoppolo will be seen as a top 10 NFL quarterback if he plays a full season this year. Still, the fact that he hasn’t done it leaves the question in everyone’s mind: The kid’s started only 10 games in five NFL seasons, he’s been rewarded ridiculously for what the Niners expect him to do … and now, can he do it? The future of so many people in San Francisco—including joined-at-the-hip coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch—are riding on Garoppolo’s right arm. And his health. I’m fine gambling on him.

 

8. *PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-8)

I am trusting Carson Wentz to play a full season. If I were not, and I were trusting Nate Sudfeld to be the 2019 Nick Foles, I sure as heck would not have the Eagles eighth.

 

9. *CHICAGO BEARS (12-5)

“Can you believe how lucky I am?” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano told me last week. “Coaching the Bears, in Chicago, with this incredible defense?” The great thing for Pagano and this iteration of the Bears is that Roquan Smith won’t have a ridiculously damaging holdout way too deep into training camp, and Smith can be the power point of the interior of the defense, which is what he was drafted to be … and, presumably, Khalil Mack, who started all 65 games in his career before being traded to Chicago, will go back to ironman Mack in 2019; he hurt his ankle early in his Bear year and missed three starts and was less than himself for three or four more. How good quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will be in year three is shrouded in mystery, but the Bears can still be the best team in the NFC North with a quarterback who’s 18th or 22nd in the league.

 

10. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8-7-1)

Washington, at the end of the Kirk Cousins Era, loved Cousins the person and wasn’t entirely sold on Cousins the player. The Vikings, after one year of Cousins as the franchise guy, understand the reticence. His numbers were exquisite—70 percent passing, 4,298 yards, a 30-to-10 TD-to-interception ratio. But the Vikings, as it turned out, needed to win three of their five December games to make the playoffs. They won two. In the three losses, they fell behind New England 10-0, Seattle 21-0 and Chicago 13-0 … and Cousins led three touchdown drives in 32 total possessions in those games. Put simply, he’s got to play better in the big spot to justify $84 million guaranteed in three years. There’s nothing particularly analytical or deep about that, but it is the truth. One X factor in Cousins’ favor: His offensive line was awful last year, and two-thirds of the interior has been rebuilt this spring—with free-agent guard Josh Kline from Tennessee and first-round center Garrett Bradbury from North Carolina State.

 

11. +CLEVELAND BROWNS (7-8-1)

GM John Dorsey is gambling on the boldest chemistry experiment in recent NFL annals. I am too. I think the Browns enter the season as the best team in the division … but so much is riding on the risky calls Dorsey has made. One: naming Freddie Kitchens head coach. Until the last two months of the 2018 Browns season with Kitchens as interim offensive coordinator, he was a faceless, totally unknown career NFL assistant. Now the Bill Parcells disciple has become the Baker Mayfield muse. No coach in my memory has done more for his career in two months than Kitchens. Two: trading for Odell Beckham Jr. He’s great. We all can see that. But he’s a tinderbox too. Will he grow up, back with his best friend Jarvis Landry? (They were teammates at LSU.) Three: the acquisitions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon to bolster the defense line. Richardson’s on his fourth team in seven NFL seasons, Vernon his third in eight years. If Cleveland gets a Pro Bowl year out of either player, I think it’ll be lucky. On the surface, this seems like a free-wheeling, fun team. It has the most talent in the division. But the most talent doesn’t always win. And one final twinkling star may be on the way, if the Gerald McCoy-to-Cleveland rumors pan out. Man, what a time to be alive in Cleveland. What jersey will Drew Carey buy?

 

12. *BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7)

This is how close Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh were in the fourth quarter of the final Sunday of the 2018 season. In Cincinnati, the Steelers and the Bengals were tied at 13 with six minutes to play, and the Steelers had the ball, minus Antonio Brown, at their 25-yard line. In Baltimore, the Browns, trailing 27-26, had the ball first-and-10 at the Ravens’ 39-yard-line with 1:18 left. A first down and a field goal would win the game for Cleveland. Imagine, for a moment, if Cincinnati and Cleveland walked off with wins that Sunday. Records of the top three teams in the division: Baltimore 9-7, Cleveland 8-7-1, Pittsburgh 8-7-1. I only mention that because the division is pretty close, and the Ravens, who got Lamar Jackson two new receiving toys (Marquise Brown (they’re hoping he can be in the Tyreek Hill-factor league and Miles Boykin), are a fascinating team to watch. They could win 11. They could win six. The offense had better score, because the defense has holes.

 

13. *SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10-7)

In the first two drafts after being named Seahawks GM in 2010, John Schneider picked safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor (same 2010 draft, 119 picks apart), tackle Russell Okung, wideout Golden Tate, linebackers K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith, corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell—and Seattle signed Stanford wideout Doug Baldwin as an undrafted free-agent. Not bad. Three-quarters of the Legion of Boom secondary, a Super Bowl MVP (Smith), a cornerstone linebacker (Wright) and the second-best receiver (to Steve Largent) in franchise history in Baldwin. So now, in the span of 14 months, Baldwin, Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor are gone. Schneider is having to rebuild the secondary from scratch. He got his quarterback with the 75th pick in 2012, and Bobby Wagner and Wright should hold the defense together for at least one more year. But make no mistake: Seattle is in the midst of Schneider trying to rebuild a great team and keep it at least good and playoff-competitive, formed around an innovative quarterback. Some puzzle pieces need to come through this year for Seattle to win 10 games: free-agent pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah, first-round rusher L.J. Collier, second-round receiver/male model D.K. Metcalf, and maybe, just maybe a tackling machine in fifth-round Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven—who had the most tackles in a college season (176) since Luke Kuechly in 2011 at Boston College. Not many GMs get to build two teams with the same franchise. That’s Schneider’s task this year and next.

 

14. +GREEN BAY PACKERS (6-9-1)

I can only imagine what Aaron Rodgers feels like sitting there at the Bucks playoff games when he’s not thinking, Fear the Deer, baby. He has to be thinking how absurd it is that, since mid-2015, he’s won exactly half of his starts—27 of 54, over nearly a four-year period. He has to be thinking how, at 35, he’s reaching the home stretch of his career, and he doesn’t want to go out with one Super Bowl win and just one Super Bowl appearance. And he has to be thinking all eyes around the league will be on him as he tries to team with a new coach, Matt LaFleur, to rekindle the hopes of a great franchise gone mediocre. In a personnel sense, the Packers didn’t help Rodgers and LaFleur much this offseason, adding no marquee free-agents and just a second-round center (Elgton Jenkins) and third-round tight end (Jace Sternberger) and no receiver help. So the weight continues to be on Rodgers as he adjusts to a new coach and new system, in a division with at least two teams that have passed the Packers. Big year for the quarterback.

 

15. *HOUSTON TEXANS (11-6)

I would have liked to see the Texans devote more resources to fixing, arguably, the worst position group—offensive line—on any returning playoff team. Last year, the mobile Deshaun Watson was sacked, hit or pressured significantly 275 times in 16 games, per Pro Football Focus. That’s a lot. Houston responded by drafting Tytus Howard, a tackle from small Alabama State, in the first round, after their reported top tackle choice, Andre Dillard, was snatched before them by Philadelphia. I hope Howard can play right away, because he’s desperately needed. It’s amazing that, under all that pressure, Watson found time to hit DeAndre Hopkins 115 times. Imagine if Watson had legitimate time to pick apart defenses. He could connect with Hopkins 150 times.

 

16. *DALLAS COWBOYS (11-7)

Best news of the offseason for the Cowboys, easily, didn’t come in free agency (through re-signing pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence for five years was big) or the draft. It came on the field in the last few weeks, when the Cowboys have seen the best center in football, Travis Frederick, return to form after missing 2018 with an autoimmune disorder that attacked his nervous system and left him feeling weak for months. “He looks really good,” said coach Jason Garrett. “It’s good to see him out there in a stance, running football plays.” In 2017, with Frederick as the linchpin, Dallas had the best line in the NFC. The Cowboys can reclaim that if Frederick’s back whole.

 

17. +ATLANTA FALCONS (7-9)

I keep hearing owner Arthur Blank is getting restless.

 

18. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-6-1)

 

It’s going to be peaceful in Pittsburgh without the weekly (daily?) questions about Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. But with all the distractions and discord last year, the Steelers still averaged 26.8 points per game, and I’ll be surprised if they reach those heights this year.

 

19. +OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-12)

Such an interesting team, from the front office and the addition of Mike Mayock, to the offensive attack and the addition of Antonio Brown, to the run game and the addition of Josh Jacobs, to the secondary and the addition of tone-setter Johnathan Abram. I wonder if the schedule will make it very tough to be good—and not just the quality of opposition, but the way the slate is set up, with the Raiders going 48 days between games in Oakland in Week 2 and Week 9. And the Raiders finish with two straight on the road. Hard to imagine the Grudens being great this year, but they can, at least, set the stage for a bright future by hanging around .500.

 

20. +JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5-11)

Hard not to get a weird vibe from this team. You’ve got two of the most my-way-or-the-highway guys, Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone, running the show, and last year there was Jalen Ramsey being a loose cannon all year and Leonard Fournette acting up late in the season—both are back this year—on the way to a stunningly disappointing five-win season. Then Coughlin criticizes players who aren’t in the voluntary offseason program. The leading tackler, linebacker Telvin Smith, mysteriously walks away from football without first telling the team, and acts all bothered when people question why he’s doing this … and makes himself unavailable to the team. Even with Nick Foles, the steadiest guy and best teammate you could imagine, imported to improve the quarterback position, it’s still hard to trust this team.

 

21. +CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-9)

Just a lot of uncertainty with this franchise right now. I don’t know what the Panthers will get out of Cam Newton after two surgical procedures on his throwing shoulder in the last two-plus calendar years. I need to see whether Bruce Irvin and Brian Burns can be the day-one pass-rush threats they were imported to be. I’ll be interested to watch the line’s ability to keep Newton clean, though the Panthers have to be thrilled with the development of third-year tackle Taylor Moton. More than ever, Carolina needs the quarterback to be kept clean—his long-term health is at stake—and the team also needs to make sure it doesn’t beat Christian McCaffrey (20.2 touches per game last year) into the ground. Carolina will contend if Newton stays healthy for 16 weeks and the pass-rush can be good by Labor Day, and both are possible. Big ifs.

 

22. +WASHINGTON (7-9)

Love the Dwayne Haskins pick, even though it might take some getting used to for him to mesh with Jay Gruden’s offense. “Could be an adjustment period,” someone close to Gruden told me the other day. But Gruden, after watching Haskins at a mini-camp over the weekend, gushed over him: “He’s made some throws that turn your head, without a doubt.” Love the Montez Sweat pick too, especially late in the first round.

 

23. +BUFFALO BILLS (6-10)

Here’s what I like about Buffalo’s offseason: They got a little better at a lot of places on the roster.

 

24. +DENVER BRONCOS (6-10)

The spring has gone rather well for the Broncos … assuming Joe Flacco can play. Even if he can’t, and the Broncos are more optimistic about him than anyone in the state of Maryland, Denver GM John Elway backstopped the quarterback position pretty well by stealing Drew Lock with the 42nd pick in the draft. But the best thing that’s happened in Denver since season’s end is the hire of Vic Fangio, because he’s long-past due at a head-coaching shot, and he can command a room, and he’s the kind of football guy his players will respect from day one. The storm clouds, for me, are the fate of Chris Harris (contract dispute), whether Flacco can recreate the old days from Baltimore, and whether the line can protect Flacco.

 

25. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7)

So we’ve reached year five of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. If you’re like me, you really don’t know if either is the long-term passer for his team.

 

26. +NEW YORK JETS (4-12)

Obviously, the Jets are better, with Le’Veon Bell to energize the offense, C.J. Mosley to be the (expensive) hub of the defense, and Jets fan-man Quinnen Williams pushing the pile into the quarterback. But I’ve got to see it first. The Jets have won five, five and four games the last three years (14-34, for those scoring at home), and the guy they’re relying on most to change the offensive culture, Bell, has a unique résumé in recent NFL history. When he plays, he’s the best all-around weapon among backs in the NFL. When he plays.

 

27. +DETROIT LIONS (6-10)

The coach, Matt Patricia, is a former Patriot. The GM, Bob Quinn, is a former Patriot. Two assistant coaches and two scouts are former Patriots. Eight players on the roster, led by Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola, are former Patriots; six used to be coached by Patricia, the Patriots’ former defensive coordinator. I’m sure I’m missing a Foxboro alumnus or two. It’s good to have a base of people with a Belichickian base, collectively. And I trust Patricia to build a competitive defense in the rock-ribbed NFC North. But what I’d like to see in Detroit is an offense that scores more than 15 points a game.

 

28. +NEW YORK GIANTS (5-11)

Every reporter and TV screamer and columnist has weighed in on Eli Manning and Daniel Jones and the sanity of the general manager. So let’s spend one paragraph on one of the most interesting things we’ll witness this year: exactly who will be impactful, and who will line up where, on the Giants defense. By my count, nine of the 11 starters on defense on opening day (if they open in a nickel package) could be new to the team over the last 15 months: defensive linemen B.J. Hill and Dexter Lawrence, linebackers Alec Ogletree, Oshane Ximines and Lorenzo Carter, and defensive backs Sam Beal, Deandre Baker, Antoine Bethea and Jabrill Peppers. Chemistry class will be in session at Giants camp in July. It had better be—because no one knows how productive the post-Odell offense will be.

 

29. +TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-11)

Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich with Jameis Winston. I like that a lot, mostly because of the drama. I have no idea what direction the Bucs’ offense will take, but I do know one thing: Winston will throw deep early and often.

 

30. +CINCINNATI BENGALS (6-10)

No one in Cincinnati wants to hear this, but this is the same kind of season as Arizona and Miami are approaching: new coach, fact-finding mission, a major rebuilding job. But it seems so much more significant after Marvin Lewis had the head-coaching gig for 16 years, and first-year, first-time head coach Zac Taylor emigrates from the wildly successful Rams offense to the humdrum Cincinnati attack. And not only does Taylor have to figure out—this year, preferably—if he’s going to stick with Andy Dalton after this ninth Bengal season, he’s got to do it while reconfiguring his offensive line and making sure rookie defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has the resources to be competitive during a total defensive overhaul. Bengals were a bad defense last year and allowed 28.4 points per game. Good for the Bengals in finally tearing the insular staff apart and looking outward to fix a foundering franchise.

 

31. +ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-13)

All is definitely not lost for the Cardinals. The real losers in the post-season Cardinal experiment? The American football fans. Unless you’ve got a TV package able to show every Cardinals game, starting with seven competitive games—Detroit, at Baltimore, Carolina, Seattle, at Cincinnati, Atlanta, at New York Giants—or you’ve got the RedZone Channel, you’re going to miss a fascinating football story. Think of this: Soon after being named the Texas Tech head coach late in 2013, Kingsbury offered a tiny Allen (Texas) High School sophomore quarterback, Kyler Murray, a full scholarship to play quarterback for the Red Raiders beginning in the summer of 2016. Murray turned it down eventually, choosing Texas A&M and later transferring to Oklahoma. And so now Kingsbury, six years after first laying eyes on the phenom quarterback who’s been the smallest man on the field for years, gets to make him the centerpiece of an imaginative and thrilling offense in the NFL. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see every snap of Murray’s developement, with Kingsbury pulling the strings? It’s a shame the Cardinals have but one prime-time affair this year (Halloween night, Thursday, Garoppolo at Murray). If I’m not there in person, I’ll be watching on TV, that’s for sure.

 

32. +MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9)

So you hear things in this job. Some things you hear are true, some you’re not sure about, and some sound so smart and logical you figure there’s a good chance they’re true. This falls in the third category: Miami owner Stephen Ross either in direct words to his football people or in every message to the football staff in recent months, has told them he wants a long-term quarterback above all things—and whatever it takes, whether it be tanking this season, or somehow getting in position to take the quarterback they’re sure can be the next franchise quarterback for the Dolphins, that’s the most important development for this Miami season. Why not? Assessing Ross’ 10 years as majority owner of the Dolphins: one season over .500 … zero division titles … zero playoff wins … no franchise QB. If indeed he has told his minions that he is interested only in a quarterback who has a chance to be the next Dan Marino, why not? And if letting Ju’Wuan James and Cam Wake go in free agency and getting third and fifth-round Compensatory Picks in return, and if picking up an extra second-round pick by moving down in this year’s draft in a trade with New Orleans, and if dealing Ryan Tannehill to Tennessee for a fourth-round pick … if doing all those things leaves Miami with nine picks in the first five rounds next April, including (presumably) a high first-rounder of their own, then the Dolphins should be in fine position to draft a big QB prospect. By the way, acquiring Josh Rosen for the 62nd pick this year gives Miami a bridge year to see if Rosen just might be that franchise guy. Smart investment there. Funny to say this about the team I like least in 2019 heading into the season, but I appreciate what Miami’s doing.