The Daily Briefing Friday, December 15, 2017

AROUND THE NFL 

NFC EAST

NEW YORK GIANTS

How to placate QB ELI MANNING and/or his supporters, but still kick the tires on QB DAVIS WEBB?  That’s the dilemma for GM Kevin Abrams.  James Kratch in the Newark Star-Ledger:

Kevin Abrams wants to see rookie quarterback Davis Webb play at some point in the final three games, but the Giants interim general manager says it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“I think we’d all like to see all of our young guys get a chance down the stretch, Davis in particular because of the importance of the position,” Abrams said Thursday in his first public comments since stepping into his new role. “It’s just hard to do. You can only play one quarterback at a time. It’s not like trying to sprinkle in a defensive tackle or a linebacker into the mix, and give them some reps.

“It’s a bit different, and has a bit more of an impact on everything else that you do. Spags (interim coach Steve Spagnuolo) and I talk about it all the time, and John (Mara, the Giants’ co-owner) has talked about it on plenty of occasions. We know what we want to accomplish. It’s just not easy to do it necessarily. It’s an ongoing conversation, and hopefully we get an opportunity to put him out there. But it’s got to be done the right way.”

The Giants clearly decided they did not achieve that the first time they got the ball rolling toward Webb. When since-fired coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese made the decision to sit Eli Manning for the Giants’ Week 13 game at the Raiders and start Geno Smith, they said they would eventually get Webb, their third-round pick, onto the field. The expectation was Webb would start a handful of games down the stretch for the Giants as they prepared to have a top-3 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

But Mara and co-owner Steve Tisch fired the duo after the Oakland game and Spagnuolo reinstalled Manning as the team’s starter as his first act as interim coach. Now there is seemingly no plan to get Webb on the field, even though Mara himself said he wanted to see the kid play. Spagnuolo has said Manning is his starter and he does not see that changing with three games to go, and Webb has yet to do anything in practice beyond run the scout team.

Manning will start Sunday’s game against the NFC-leading Eagles, but there have been increased calls for Webb to start the Giants’ Week 16 game at the Cardinals. When asked if it was as simple as just deciding to start Webb, Abrams said, “If you make that decision, yes. It’s making that decision that is not as easy.”

It’s a call that ultimately belongs to Spagnuolo, according to Abrams. “That would be the head coach’s decision,” he said.

Kratch also provides us with this guide to the Vegas odds on what might be Eli’s future home:

The Giants’ Eli Manning drama had a new development Wednesday.

Co-owner John Mara told reporters at the NFL league meeting in Irving, Texas, that he wants Manning back with the Giants next season, even though he signed off on the sloppy call to bench Manning a few weeks back. Mara did allow that could change based on what his new coach and general manager say.

But what about Manning’s thoughts? No one knows for sure what he’s thinking. That won’t become clear until after the season. But in the meantime, people can bet on it! Here are Bovada’s odds for where Manning will play in 2018:

GIANTS: 4/7

Even after all the mayhem, the Giants remain the favorites to retain Manning’s services next season. Mara’s public comments play into that, as well as the fact Manning is under contract for two more seasons after 2017. But he has no more guaranteed money left on his deal, and the underplayed part of this story is Manning’s influence on his situation. If he wants to leave the Giants and go elsewhere given the circumstances, he has the leverage to do so given his no-trade clause and the $5 million roster bonus he is due in March 2018.

BRONCOS: 3/1

One Manning went to Denver and tacked on a Super Bowl win at the end of his career. Why couldn’t another? Many will naturally draw the Manning dots with the Broncos, who are desperate need for a quarterback, given Peyton Manning’s time in Denver. The Broncos have a strong roster that is capable of winning relatively soon if they have a quarterback. That being said, these odds seem a little too optimistic. Eli Manning may not be eager to follow in his brother’s footsteps and Broncos GM John Elway will have a high-enough draft pick to get his own quarterback.

JAGUARS: 5/1

Many treat a Manning-Tom Coughlin reunion in Jacksonville like a foregone conclusion. The Jaguars have everything in place but a quarterback, after all. But then again, Blake Bortles has played better of late, and would Manning really want to move to Jacksonville, and into a conference where he’d have to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots just to get to the Super Bowl?

CARDINALS: 12/1

This one doesn’t make much sense. Even if Carson Palmer is done, it’s time for the Cardinals to begin a rebuilding process. They had their window, they missed it and now they need to move on. Adding Manning as a veteran short-term stopgap doesn’t seem like the best move for the Cardinals, who will also be in the mix for a quarterback in this year’s draft. Besides, Blaine Gabbert is enjoying a renaissance right now.

BILLS: 12/1

Don’t see it happening. The Bills seem to have a plan under head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, and it’s unlikely Manning would be in that plan. It’s debatable how effective Manning would be in Buffalo’s brutal late-season conditions. It would be fun to see if he can dethrone the Patriots in the AFC East.

JETS: 12/1

Manning in green? This makes more sense than you’d think. The Jets showed this season they are capable of contending for a playoff berth, and Manning would get to stay in New Jersey. His commute from his Summit home to the Jets’ facility would be shorter than it is to the Meadowlands. How does this deal get done? The Jets guarantee Manning he will be the starter for at least the entire 2018 season, and then see where the chips fall in the draft.

BUCCANEERS: 12/1

Not sure what the point here is. The Buccaneers are clearly committed to Jameis Winston for the long haul, and Manning is not going to take a backup job anywhere. If he did land in Tampa, there would be a lot of transplants in blue No. 10 jerseys at the Bucs’ games.

NO TEAM: 20/1

Eli Manning has said he wants to play next year, but his dad, Archie Manning, has left the door open to a potential retirement. Maybe Eli goes halfway and heads to the Canadian Football League. 

PHILADELPHIA

Injured QB CARSON WENTZ is using FaceTime to stay in touch with his Eagles.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz still wants to help. Even if he doesn’t remember it.

Via Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News, Wentz used FaceTime to join his teammates in the daily quarterback room Wednesday, despite the fact he had just gotten out of ACL surgery and may have still been under the effects of anesthesia.

“It’s obviously disappointing, but the surgery went well, from what I heard and what he said,” backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld said. “He was feeling pretty loopy after the anesthesia, . . .  He was just ordering a burger and talking about, he was trying to figure out some of the new plays we put in.”

While they doubtless appreciated the gesture, Sudfeld said he asked Wentz, “are you sure you want to know right now?”

Wentz won’t be running any of those plays until next year, but the fact he wanted to stay in touch with the guys from his hospital bed in Pittsburgh is at least good for the camaraderie. 

NFC SOUTH

 TAMPA BAY

Bill Barnwell has an interesting piece, most of which we put below, about which would be the best openings for a new coach in 2018.  He had Tampa Bay 9th-best on his list of 10.  You can read the others below, but since we compared JAMEIS WINSTON to MATTHEW STAFFORD here yesterday, we thought you might like to see who he came up with:

 The counter-argument is that we’ve now seen Winston throw 1,431 pro passes and the results have   been underwhelming. The closest comparable for Winston in terms of rate statistics since the start of 2015 is another quarterback from Florida:

PLAYER           CMP%  Y/ATT   INT%    TDS PER INT    PASSER RATING         QBR

Jameis Winston 60.3%   7.4        2.9%     1.56                        86.2                                      54.8

Blake Bortles     59.1%   6.8        2.6%     1.77                        84.0                                      49.3

As has been the case with Bortles, you can’t make the argument that Winston hasn’t gotten help, either. The Bucs have a highly paid running back (Doug Martin), a superstar No. 1 wideout (Mike Evans), an expensive free-agent No. 2 wideout (DeSean Jackson), a first-round pick at tight end (O.J. Howard), and a safety valve (Cameron Brate). The Bucs used a high second-round pick after nabbing Winston to draft left tackle Donovan Smith, selected a star interior lineman in Ali Marpet (who is now on injured reserve), and dipped in free agency to sign J.R. Sweezy. You can take issue with some of their decisions, but the effort has certainly been there to build around Tampa’s most recent first overall pick.

Now Bortles has actually reached the middle of the QB pack this year, so it’s not all bad.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA

Adam Schefter of ESPN.com is reporting that the Cardinals are going to shelve RB ADRIAN PETERSON for the remaining three games.  Ryan Winn in the Arizona Republic:

Peterson has missed the last two games after suffering the injury in a win over the Jaguars on Nov. 26.

@AdamSchefter

Cardinals placing RB Adrian Peterson on IR with a neck injury, per source. Peterson’s season is over.

Peterson, acquired from the New Orleans Saints in a trade in October, rushed for 448 yards on 129 attempts in six games for the Cardinals. He started strong with 134 yards and two touchdowns against the Buccaneers in Week 6, but his performance was uneven in later weeks. He was held under two yards per carry in three games, and only once did he top 100 yards again (Week 9, 159 yards on a career-high 37 attempts).

Peterson has one year remaining on a two-year contract he signed with the Saints in the offseason.

This from Peterson per Josh Alper at ProFootballTalk.com (and Josina Anderson of ESPN.com):

Peterson gave a statement to Josina Anderson of ESPN after learning he will not be returning to action after going for further medical opinions on his injured neck. In addition to thanking the Cardinals for acquiring him from the Saints and giving him a chance to run as a lead back, Peterson also touched on his plans for the future.

“The good news is my neck injury doesn’t require surgery, but I’m told by Dr. Robert Watkins that the best thing for me is just more rest than the length of the season. Obviously, I’m disappointed about going on IR when my body is still able to produce but I look forward to returning completely healthy for another season in 2018. I’m grateful for the opportunity that the Arizona Cardinals have given me to show that I can still contribute on an NFL team.”

Peterson signed a two-year contract with the Saints, so the Cardinals can keep him around if they are so inclined. That may not be their choice as long as David Johnson is set to make a full recovery from the wrist injury that ended his season in the first week of the year, which would leave Peterson in a similar position to the one he was in after the Vikings released him in the offseason. 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

The DB recently saw the Rams play and someone who would know said the team is not at all disappointed in the play of WR SAMMY WADKINS.  Even though his receiving numbers are unimpressive, he is still perceived as LA’s best threat and draws the most coverage freeing up others.

 Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report has more, including the mind meld he has received from Sean McVay.

Watkins doesn’t get hung up on the fires. Or on targets, or injuries, or anybody labeling him a bust. Go ahead and eviscerate him on social media—he won’t see it. He strides into the team’s training room, without needing treatment for once, and relaxes atop a table in a contagious state of serenity. Zen. Beneath the hood covering his head is a man who cannot stop smiling.

In other words, a completely different Sammy Watkins than the one I remember.

The first time we chatted, on Oct. 14, 2015, Watkins was fuming. In the corner of an emptying locker room, he dropped a series of grenades. Each one more devastating than the last.

He needed the ball: “When I have one-on-one coverage, go to me. I don’t care what’s going on over there. I don’t care if he’s open. When I get one-on-one, just target me.”

And: “I need the ball at least 10 times—I need 10 targets.”

He said he’d gotten his agent involved: “Like, ‘Hey, I need my targets. You came up to draft me and I’m not getting targets—that’s a problem. You’re making me look bad, and you’re making yourself look bad. Why not make both of us look good?'”

I was covering the Bills for the Buffalo News at the time. Soon after my story was posted online, Watkins’ anger turned toward me. “Grow up.. Sir,” he tweeted. I tried calling his cellphone. No answer. And the next day in the Bills locker room, Watkins hurried out as fellow receiver Marcus Easley yelled, “Where’s he at, Sammy!? Point him out!”

Time passed, time healed and, sure, Sammy and I did chat a few times later that season. Still, part of me wondered if he would tell me to shove it upon traveling 2,225 miles to see him here in Los Angeles.

Turns out, this Sammy loathes that Sammy.

This Sammy is at peace.

“I was more of a statistics guy then,” he says. “That’s what I was chasing. That’s what I thought the league was about. I had to learn because when you’re losing, things tend to creep into your mind: I should be getting the ball more. If I do get the ball more, we’d be winning. But half the times I did have two touchdowns and 170 yards, we’re losing.

“I found out that, hey, the fun is in the winning.”

Watkins’ early-career volatility is, of course, completely understandable, even expected, given the position he plays. No position in sports produces more combustible personalities than the NFL wide receiver.

Your livelihood, your relevancy, is predicated solely on whether a quarterback throws you the ball. As a result, we have grown men whacking and then proposing to kicking nets, writing books entitled Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, wiping their butts on goals posts and throwing preschool-level temper tantrums.

But here’s the thing: Most receivers never change.

And that’s what makes Watkins’ Point A-to-Point B turnaround so stunning. The inherent helplessness of his profession drove Watkins mad before. Injuries drove him mad. Expectations, too. The Bills mortgaged two first-round picks and a fourth to slide up five selections and take him. They passed on Khalil Mack, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Aaron Donald, among others.All of it ate away at his mind like a parasite. Burned at him like the fire now raging around him.And yet now, sitting amid that fire, he is at peace. What changed?

Sammy Watkins has never been one to open up.Today, he will.”Nice to see you,” he says.

– – –

The irony is that Watkins was proved 100 percent correct to demand the ball. After spouting off, he averaged 100 yards and a touchdown per game over a 10-game span. I remind him of this. C’mon Sammy. Demanding the ball publicly worked like a charm.

“That was probably the best thing that happened in my life,” he says. “I got the targets I was looking for. We won two or three games in a row. So I should’ve spoken up at that time. I shouldn’t have said most of the stuff I said, but it was a great way to speak up for myself. … It made me come out and play at that level by, hey, if you say something in the media, you better come out, step up and play.”

He pauses.

It’s as if an ego is bubbling to the surface and he needs to bury it away. That ordeal fed “stress,” he says. Fed “emotion.” He sees now how that mindset can poison a locker room.

“When you’re losing, a lot of negativity can creep your way,” Watkins says. “So for me it was like, ‘If we’re going to lose, why not go out with a bang? Why not go out with having two touchdowns and 180 yards? S–t, we’re losing anyway.’ That was my mindset.

“Back then, I looked at it like I was failing because I was up and down. Emotionally. Some days, I might come prepared for practice. Some days, I might be like, ‘Man, my foot hurts.’ Being that it probably was hurt and I was injured, I let it control my days.”

In L.A., he repeats, he will never let this happen again. Even if he has yet to be targeted 10 times in a game.

Early on, he knows he could’ve spoken up.

“I could’ve easily said, ‘Why the f–k am I not getting the ball?’ Arguing. Or looking at the coach like ‘What the f–k? I’m wide-open. Why am I not getting the ball?’ It was a test for me, basically, to see how I was going to respond. And when I started handling it the right way mentally, I started playing harder. Blocking a little bit more. Getting guys open. I wasn’t negative about the situation.

“I think that’s one of the tests you have to pass, like [to prove], ‘No, everything’s going good.'”

So, do you believe him? He’s in sunshine, not snow. He’s catching passes from Jared Goff, not EJ Manuel or Tyrod Taylor. He’s on a Super Bowl contender, not a franchise banished in a 7-9 blizzard for two decades. But do you honestly believe any flammable wide receiver can just…change at the snap of a finger? Remembering just how immature Watkins was inside the building, some former Bills roll their eyes at this narrative.

They predict Watkins will fan those flames again.

Not to mention, there’s always another ligament to twist, another bone to crack. To most football fans, Sammy Watkins has been a humpty-dumpty bust.

But Sammy Watkins himself knows this: His story is not finished.

– – –

Dunbar isn’t home. Buffalo isn’t home. But L.A.? He hopes this can be. Since the Bills’ new regime shipped him off to the Rams, Watkins has restructured his life. For one, he learned to say “no” to friends and family constantly in need of money. He also fired his financial advisors. Without divulging   details, Watkins assures many non-football issues were cluttering his life in Buffalo.

“Family members are going to look at you wrong,” Watkins says. “If you say ‘no,’ you’re going to have all types of bad s–t coming your way.”

But it’s been worth it. Another reason he’s so happy? “I don’t have s–t going on outside of football.”

Go ahead and lump social media into that “s–t” category, as well. He no longer cares, at all, what any trolls have to say on Twitter or Instagram, hardly ever tapping either app open on his phone. So ignore that huge Adidas banner on Watkins’ Twitter background. His personal overhaul included dumping them as a sponsor for Nike.

Looking back, he knows he should’ve never signed with the company to begin with. Everyone kept telling Watkins it’d be more money, so he gave in even though he’d never worn Adidas growing up. They never felt right, and that foot injury eventually spelled his Buffalo demise. Says Watkins: “The Adidas cleats did it. I knew those cleats weren’t for me the whole time.”

Off the field? He’s making a conscious effort to be more of a family man. Watkins is engaged now and would rather spend any free time playing with his two daughters than going to a party. And good luck ever finding him in Dunbar. He visits only sparingly now to see his relatives—in a rental car so nobody recognizes him—and then runs a go route the hell out of Dodge. He even moved his parents into a gated community about 20 minutes outside of Dunbar.

Violence still reigns, he says.

“It’s gotten worse.”

On the field? Through 13 games, he has 34 receptions for 549 yards and seven touchdowns. Watkins insists he’s perfectly OK sharing the wealth on this pyrotechnic Rams offense. Playing with Goff has been an epiphany.

As Watkins explains, Goff often asks him in the huddle if he knows what he’s doing on a certain play, a certain route concept and—eyes wide, shaking his head—Watkins will admit he does not. At which point, Goff explains everything. Right then. In real time. And Watkins’ X’s and O’s encyclopedia grows. The duo has reached the point where they’re seeing the same holes in defenses pre-snap.

“He’s a leader,” Watkins says. “He can feel a player. He can feel our energy. Knowing if we don’t get something, he can correct it on the fly. He can look at certain looks and get us out of bad situations. Right away, I know, ‘This is a bad look. Is he going to can it?’ Certain times, if you don’t have a smart enough quarterback, he might just call that play in that bad look and I get f–ked up. So he’s always protecting us on certain passes.”

– – –

Watkins promises he’s changing for good.

He’s grateful for his turmoil.

“It’s good that I went through all the bad s–t first to get to where I’m at now,” Watkins says. “I don’t know if I’d be the same if I faced the bad s–t in my fifth year.

“Now I pay attention to everything I do—how I treat people, how I carry myself. All the way around the board, I pay attention to everything and absorb everything.”

But, oh, one more thing.

Sammy Watkins still plans on being the best wide receiver in football.

Watch your step. Do not move. Like a pack of actual rams, players storm out of the locker room n a recent Thursday afternoon. Head coach Sean McVay fines players who are late to meetings, which explains why one player turns a corner so fast he slips, face-plants and loses his snack.

The team might as well have been stampeding off to Super Bowl LII.

The Eagles lost the league’s MVP front-runner. Both Dallas (Ezekiel Elliott) and Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers) lost stars and oh-so-valuable ground in the NFC playoff race. New Orleans? The Rams took down New Orleans already. Seattle? Minnesota? Everyone’s beatable.

So this is the reality that consumes Watkins now: Winning. He used to ignore the standings, used to read his own stats, then Odell Beckham Jr.’s stats, then Mike Evans’ stats and shout “f–k!” aloud as the stress would build…and build…and build.

Not anymore. Watkins hasn’t sifted through a box score all season, nor has he watched any of his highlights.

Not that Willie Mays-like catch at San Fran. Not that dust-eating, 67-yarder at New York.

But for the Rams to win a Super Bowl, chances are they’ll need Watkins toasting corners. Regularly. They’ll need the transcendent figure Buffalo once envisioned. And, hell yes, Watkins still considers himself one of the best in the game. He puts himself in the Odell/Julio/Antonio stratosphere.

“I honestly feel like I’m at the top tier,” he says. “My numbers might not show it. But I’m pretty sure that if you put it on film, and watch any of my games this year, I compete at a high level. I get open all day. I block. I do just about everything you could ask from a wide receiver.”

Pressed just how great he can be, what his ceiling is, Watkins zeros in.

“The sky. I feel like I can be the No. 1, No. 2 receiver in this league. I just feel like that takes time, especially coming to a new team. Guys have already been here, so, no, I’m not just going to take over this team.

“Todd Gurley has been drafted here. Jared Goff. Cooper Kupp. A lot of guys have already been established here. So my job is really just to keep getting better and keep perfecting my craft. If I can continue to do that, our fans and coaches will notice. Like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this guy the ball.'”

And right then is when this Rams offense could reach another level, a Greatest Show on Turf level.

Because others agree that Watkins is rare. Receiver Tavon Austin calls him “a horse…a horse” with a knack for making the clutch catch. Robey-Coleman repeats four times in a row that “Nobody can stop him” and promises the world will soon see “the real Sammy.” Meanwhile, those receivers Watkins used to agonize over in his historic 2014 draft class will be watching the postseason from home.

Beckham is on IR. Evans is on a Buccaneers team that flopped. Allen Robinson is on IR. Jarvis Landry and Kelvin Benjamin will likely be on their sofas.

Watkins, now, stays locked in.

“I used to be addicted to…angry if I didn’t get 100 yards in one game,” Watkins says. “I’m not going to take myself down that road again.”

SEATTLE

QB RUSSELL WILSON will have his eye on DT AARON DONALD Sunday.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:

With the NFC West hanging in the balance, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are prepping for battle against a familiar foe.

Over the past three years, a lot has changed about the division-rival Rams; they’ve changed coaches, quarterbacks, color schemes and residences. But one thing that hasn’t changed, one that remains stuck in Seattle’s craw is Los Angeles’ most unstoppable lineman, and perhaps, as Wilson sees it, the league’s best defender.

“When I think about Aaron Donald, he’s probably in my opinion, the best defensive player I’ve ever played against in terms of actually playing in a game against,” Wilson told reporters Thursday, per The Seattle Times. “That’s a pretty big statement; I’ve played against some really good guys. I think back to my rookie year and my second year when I played against guys like [Navarro] Bowman and [Patrick] Willis and all of those guys are in my head, the top guys I’ve ever played.

“I think about a guy like Aaron Donald, he’s definitely there too as well, so I have tremendous respect for how he plays the game. He’s really, really tough, he’s really quick, and he’s pretty special. You look forward to those matchups just because those are things that you’ll remember and those are the things that you’ll tell your kids one day ‘I played against this guy,’ and those are fun things. He’s definitely one of those guys that will probably be a Hall of Famer no doubt.”

That’s high praise.

Wilson has seen a lot of the former Defensive Rookie of the Year over the past four years. In their first three meetings in 2014 and 2015, Donald sacked Wilson four times. Since then, the Rams defensive tackle hasn’t been as lucky, registering zero QB takedowns.

Wilson has had a rough go of it against the Rams over his career. In 11 career games against the transplant franchise, Wilson has more losses (5) and has taken more sacks (42) and QB hits (89) than against any other NFL team. Donald’s disruptive presence in the interior of L.A.’s defensive line contributes to that.

AFC WEST

DENVER

With QB TREVOR SIEMIAN hurt, QB BROCK OSWEILER got the job done off the bench Thursday night in Indianapolis.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler had one of the best games of his career on Thursday night, entering to replace an injured Trevor Siemian and leading Denver to a win in Indianapolis.

After the game, Osweiler described it as one of the most fun outings of his career.

“I was a little kid having fun tonight,” Osweiler said. “That’s really what it was. You guys all know — I’ve been on a little bit of a roller-coaster ride for the last two years. Just to go out there, “Thursday Night Football” with my teammates who I love, I was just having fun. I was going to lay it all out there. We always talk about around our building, you never know when it’s going to be your last play, your last game in this business. So just enjoy every moment, and that’s really what I was doing tonight.”

Osweiler finished the game completing 12 of 17 passes for 194 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a career-high passer rating of 147.7. Osweiler, who will be a free agent this offseason, wants to prove he can compete for a starting job somewhere, and Thursday night’s game helped that cause.

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com has some other thoughts on the Broncos win:

It’s fair to wonder if Trevor Siemian has started his last game for Denver. The recently reinstated starting quarterback gave way to Osweiler after sustaining a left shoulder injury on a first-quarter sack by Barkevious Mingo. General manager John Elway’s primary directive for 2018 is to find a franchise quarterback after cycling through Siemian, Osweiler and Paxton Lynch in a lost season, Broncos sources recently confirmed to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. Although the team’s brass once harbored high hopes for Siemian as a diamond in the rough, former coach Gary Kubiak’s pet project has been done in by durability issues and persistent struggles in the face of defensive pressure. Even with the 2016 first-round investment in Lynch, Elway is expected to take an aggressive approach at the game’s most important position as his Super Bowl window threatens to slam shut. Will Elway take another dip into the Manning well, making a run at the eminently available Eli next offseason?

Thanks to the sterling performance from Osweiler in relief, coach Vance Joseph is building on the momentum provided by last week’s shutout victory over the Jets. The Broncos are giving the embattled first-year coach the benefit of the doubt for next season, Rapoport added Thursday, but the team’s brass is keeping a watchful eye on its performance in the final month. To that end, Joseph should be earning a modicum of leeway entering next week’s matchup versus the injury-ravaged Redskins.

The Broncos started the season 3-1, lost 8 straight and now have 2 wins to go 5-9.

They could win at Washington next week, then finish the year at home against Kansas City and might have a chance to spoil the Chiefs season on New Year’s Eve.

AFC NORTH

CLEVELAND

GM John Dorsey is taking a win now approach as he makes the media rounds in Cleveland.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

John Dorsey has been the Browns GM for a week and he’s already cast aside the long-term rebuild like a worn-out shoe.

“I’m the eternal optimistic,” Dorsey said Thursday on the Really Big Show on WKNR 850. “I believe we have to be competitive in the AFC North and my total objective going into the ’18 season is to win the AFC North. Anything else to me is unacceptable.”

The Browns have lost 15 AFC North games in a row, and turning that around will be a priority for Dorsey, who’s been a part of 19 playoff teams, 11 division titles and two Super Bowl victories in his 26 years as a personnel executive.

During that same interview, Dorsey made it clear that he wasn’t a fan of his predecessor Sashi Brown’s player-acquisition skills.

“I’ll come straight out with it,” he said. “The guys who were here before, that system, they didn’t get real players.

“As Bill Parcells would always say, ‘you are your record’ and you know what? There it is, so that’s the truth-teller in this thing. And I’m going to do my darnedest to get Hue (Jackson) players.”

Dorsey’s win-now mentality has been music to Jackson’s ears. From the day he was hired, he emphasized winning as soon as possible, but that didn’t jive with Brown’s long-term overhaul of the roster.

The problem is, Brown and his executive team made 24 draft picks and 17 trades, and had only one   victory against 27 losses to show for it before Brown was fired last week. Dorsey, who cut Kenny Britt on his first day, has made it clear he’ll aggressively attempt to upgrade the talent.

“He’s walking up and down these halls preaching, ‘Let’s win. Let’s get to winning as fast as we can,”’ said Jackson. “I appreciate that. He’s doing everything he needs to do on his end. We have to continue to keep coaching better and get our guys to play better.” 

PITTSBURGH

An update on LB RYAN SHAZIER from Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com:

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier remains at a UPMC hospital in Pittsburgh as he recovers from last week’s spinal stabilization surgery, according to a hospital statement.

“Mr. Shazier has started physical rehabilitation as part of his recovery process,” the statement read.

– – –

On Tuesday, the team placed Shazier on injured reserve.

Vernon Shazier, Ryan’s father, told ESPN via text that the support from around the NFL has been “unbelievable” and the family is “remaining hopeful and taking life one day at a time.”

Steelers players have been visiting Shazier throughout the past week and have been uplifted by his spirit. More than 15 players wore customized Shazier cleats before Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, and most of the team wore No. 50 T-shirts.

“You go and visit him and all he wants to do is talk about football and how we are in practices,” linebacker T.J. Watt said. “Just how positive he is has shown us how we should approach our day-to-day lives, because football was taken away from him for the year. We have to go out here and not take things for granted and have fun.”

AFC SOUTH

 HOUSTON

With Fantasy Football playoffs looming, owners don’t want to know that WR DeANDRE HOPKINS showed up on the injury report on Thursday as “did not practice-toe.”  He still seems good to go Sunday in Jacksonville, but you never know.

INDIANAPOLIS

An update on QB ANDREW LUCK from Dr. Jim Irsay. Nick Shook of NFL.com:

Much of 2017’s struggles in Indianapolis can be traced back to one massive void under center.

While Jacoby Brissett has performed admirably, he’s no Andrew Luck. The result of Luck’s season-long absence (and a defense that lost its best player to injury and is largely filled with spare parts otherwise) has the Colts at 3-10 entering Thursday night’s matchup against the 4-9 Denver Broncos. Both teams will look back on this season as a campaign of great disappointment, but one has reason for optimism entering 2018.

Colts owner Jim Irsay gave an update on Luck’s status to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport this week during Winter League Meeting, and all signs are pointing toward the franchise quarterback’s return next season.

“He’s doing great,” Irsay told Rapoport. “He’s doing well. [We’re] disappointed obviously it’s taken as long as it’s taken. You know, medicine and the way it goes. But there hasn’t been any unusual setback. We didn’t find out anything ominous, something we didn’t know about or anything like that. It’s just taken time for him to go through his whole aspect of rehabbing and progressing and working through the soreness.”

Irsay, noted proponent of “the four-inch field between your ears,” has openly wondered how much of Luck’s injury was mental. Luck has since gone overseas for treatment, which should tell the public all they need to know about the seriousness of his nagging shoulder ailment.

Fortunately, it sounds as though the worst is in the rearview mirror for the quarterback and his ever-valuable arm.

“He’s still in Europe but he’s coming home very shortly,” Irsay told Rapoport. “No additional surgery at this point planned.”

– – –

Good news for TE BRANDON WILLIAMS who was carted off during Thursday’s game in Indianapolis.  Mike Wells of ESPN.com:

Indianapolis Colts tight end Brandon Williams was diagnosed with a concussion after being taken to a local hospital during Thursday’s game against the Denver Broncos.

Colts head coach Chuck Pagano confirmed that Williams was released from the hospital and was back with the team’s medical staff.

“It was a pretty scary thing … but he’s back here,” Pagano said after the 25-13 loss. “He’s doing well.”

Williams suffered the injury in the second quarter and had to be taken off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on a stretcher.

He was diagnosed with a head injury, but doctors did not preliminarily believe he had suffered an injury to his neck or spine.

AFC EAST

BUFFALO

It looks like QB TYROD TAYLOR will be good to go for this Sunday’s big game with Miami.    Mike Rodak of ESPN.com:

Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor will start Sunday against the Miami Dolphins after missing last   weekend’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts with a knee injury, coach Sean McDermott announced Friday.

Backup quarterback Nathan Peterman remains in the concussion protocol despite being listed as a full participant in practice Thursday. Joe Webb will serve as Taylor’s backup Sunday if Peterman does not clear the concussion protocol.

If Kelvin Benjamin’s ailing right knee keeps him out on Sunday the Bills would turn to Zay Jones, Deonte Thompson and Andre Holmes.

McDermott said he “feels good” about wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who has been limited in practice this week after aggravating a knee injury last Sunday. However, McDermott said Benjamin remains day-to-day.

The Bills on Friday also placed left tackle Cordy Glenn on injured reserve with a lingering foot and ankle injury. Glenn has missed the past five games and seven games total this season because of the injury, which also caused him to miss part of training camp and the preseason.

“Somewhat of a frustrating year overall,” McDermott said Friday of Glenn. “We realize his talent. He’s going to have a procedure in the near future with Bob Anderson, one of the best in the world with what he does. Really, the whole goal is to get Cordy in a place where he is ready to go for the offseason program and can have a productive offseason, put this behind him and move forward.”

Glenn signed a five-year, $65 million extension during the 2016 offseason. He missed five games in 2016 because of ankle and back injuries.

Rookie second-round pick Dion Dawkins has started in place of Glenn this season. McDermott did not commit Friday to Glenn remaining with the Bills in 2018.

NEW YORK JETS

An injured QB JOSH McCOWN does not want to be away from the Jets this Sunday.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

When the 2016 season was nearing an end, Browns coach Hue Jackson said that quarterback Josh   McCown could have a spot on the team’s coaching staff in 2017 if he didn’t continue playing.

McCown did continue playing by signing with the Jets, but he’s going to get some coaching experience as well. McCown is on injured reserve after breaking his left hand last week and Jets coach Todd Bowles said that the veteran will be on the sideline as a “player-coach” after asking for that responsibility.

Bowles said the team was thinking about asking him to serve in such a capacity and that he shares Jackson’s belief that McCown is well-suited to a move to coaching.

“Yes, I can see that in him,” Bowles said at his Thursday press conference. “If that’s what he wants to do, I can see him being an excellent coach when he’s done playing. … He has a feel for people, the way he sees the game, the way he relates to people is very important, and he can put all that together.”

McCown, who turns 39 in July, said after his injury that he doesn’t know what’s next for him, but he played well enough this season that there’s likely to be interest in him as a player if that’s what he wants to do. If not, it still seems likely he’ll be remaining around the game.

THIS AND THAT

RANKING THE COACHING OPENINGS

Let’s say you were this year’s Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan – which likely-to-open head coaching jobs should you want?  Here’s Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com, and he has Houston on his list. 

We all have an idea of what makes an NFL job tantalizing, right? The ideal head-coaching opportunity would come with a franchise quarterback, a bunch of extra draft picks, a hands-off owner with a history of patience, a familiar face at general manager, and a talented roster. Jobs like that don’t come open often for a reason: Coaches with those advantages don’t often lose their jobs

When I ranked the potential available jobs last year, the best spot that eventually did become available was the Los Angeles Chargers. Given their current winning streak, Anthony Lynn has to be happy with his choice, and indeed, a vacancy with Philip Rivers and a bevy of superstars (when healthy) on either side of the roster wasn’t hard to forecast as desirable.

And yet, who would have wanted the Los Angeles Rams job this time last year? The Rams were all-in on Jared Goff, who was having one of the worst rookie seasons of a quarterback in recent memory. Jeff Fisher appeared to have wasted the spoils of the Robert Griffin trade. The Rams were down their first-round pick in the 2017 draft, which was going to be No. 5 overall. They weren’t even in great cap shape. Things change fast.

This offseason, the league’s owners will be trying to find their Sean McVay, while the hot head-coaching candidates will be trying to find their Rams situation. Let’s make their lives easier by sorting through the 10 jobs most likely to come available in order of their respective desirability. Some of these jobs won’t come available, of course, and we’re not arguing that these coaches should necessarily be fired. In each case, though, there have either been reports suggesting that the coach might not be in his role next year or it’s fair to speculate given their respective teams’ performance this season.

10. Arizona Cardinals

It remains to be seen whether Bruce Arians will continue on for another year at the helm of the Cardinals, but there will likely be changes at the very top of the Arizona roster in 2018. Carson Palmer seems unlikely to return at his $20.6 million cap hit, leaving the Cardinals in such desperate need of a quarterback that they’ve been singing Blaine Gabbert’s praises. Larry Fitzgerald signed a one-year extension last month, but the deal doesn’t have any guaranteed money, suggesting that the Cardinals aren’t sure whether to expect their franchise icon back for another season.

Even beyond their two biggest salaries, though, the Cardinals are in a transitional period, if not necessarily a rebuild. They lost six key defensive pieces last year in free agency, including five starters, and then spent the vast majority of their draft capital targeting replacements. Their offensive line plan hasn’t worked, with D.J. Humphries tearing his ACL just as he started to thrive, while veteran free agents Mike Iupati and Jared Veldheer haven’t quite worked out.

Young players who were expected to turn into stars have seen their progress stall thanks to injury, leading to some awkward decisions to come for general manager Steve Keim. The Cardinals are surely going to re-sign David Johnson as early as this offseason, but should they invest in John Brown and Deone Bucannon? Should they pick up Humphries’ fifth-year option for 2019? Can the Cardinals afford to pay Markus Golden Chandler Jones money when they’re already paying Chandler Jones Chandler Jones money? Even worse, can they afford to lose Golden after next season for a 2020 compensatory pick?

Inconsistent drafting has left the Cardinals in a bind. Rod Graves’ final draft in 2012 has proved to be a disaster; none of those picks are left on the Arizona roster. Tyrann Mathieu was the star of the 2013 draft, but he has slipped after two ACL tears, and the only other player left from that draft is Earl Watford. The 2014 and 2015 drafts delivered more talent, but unless Robert Nkemdiche becomes good after two years spent alternately injured and in the doghouse, the Cardinals will have no starters from the Class of 2016.

They are too good (and expensive) to rebuild, but need to have just about every one of their talented players stay healthy to compete. Even in that scenario, they probably need a new quarterback and won’t have the cap space or the high draft picks to compete with lesser teams. If Arians and Palmer both retire this offseason, a new coach will probably go after a veteran starter like Eli Manning or Josh McCown and hope for the best behind an experimental offensive line. Good luck.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Part of evaluating jobs, of course, is evaluating starting quarterbacks. If you’re in love with Jameis Winston and chalk up this disappointing 2017 season to his shoulder injury, the Bucs job might look quite promising. Tampa has genuine stars on both sides of the ball and a clean cap picture with $70 million in space next year. Get Winston healthy, find a reliable running back, go after defensive help in free agency, and you’ve got yourself a playoff contender.

(see TAMPA BAY above for the catch) 

8. Cincinnati Bengals

Being entrusted with the Bengals job is like becoming the night watchman at a low-budget museum.   As long as you don’t screw up horrifically, you’ll be able to keep the job for about as long as you want. Heck, even if you do an awful job, you’re probably going to get some time. Marvin Lewis has had the job for 14 years without a playoff victory, of course, but think about the guys before him. Bruce Coslet made it into a fifth year with a 21-39 record. He replaced David Shula, who made it nearly five years himself with a 19-52 mark. Cincinnati moves at a glacial pace.

The flip side, of course, is that it’s difficult to really do a great job as the Bengals’ steward. You won’t be investing much in free agency, where disappointing recent low-cost signings such as A.J. Hawk and Kevin Minter won’t be encouraging owner Mike Brown to open up his checkbook. Questionable decisions, perhaps driven by a modest budget, have seen the Bengals shed talented players at wide receiver (Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu) and along the offensive line (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler) in consecutive offseasons.

It’s fair to note that six awful quarters have the Bengals here — if Cincinnati had held onto its lead against the Steelers and shown up on Sunday against the Bears, it would be 7-6 and in the thick of the AFC wild-card race on a four-game winning streak. Lewis might be negotiating an extension.

At 5-8, though, it feels like we’ve exhausted the possibilities with this Bengals team. There are plenty of big names on defense, but Cincinnati is 19th in defensive DVOA, thanks in part to playing the league’s easiest slate of offenses. The Andy Dalton breakout from 2015 looks more and more like an outlier, even if his level of play has risen slightly from his 2011-2014 beginnings. Do you want   to take this job knowing that you may not have any other quarterback options besides Dalton and AJ McCarron?

7. Washington

Daring to take the job in Washington is essentially a show of supreme confidence in yourself. You have to believe that you’re going to be the one to overcome what might be the league’s most toxic culture and succeed where eight other coaches have failed under owner Daniel Snyder. Coaches have to be confident people by definition, but taking the Washington job might also qualify as literal madness.

And to be clear, this seventh-placed ranking assumes Washington has Kirk Cousins on its roster in 2018, whether by the transition tag, the franchise tag, or a long-term extension. Without Cousins, this would be about as undesirable of a job as possible, given the hole at quarterback and the attrition rate of prior coaches. There’s virtually no chance a new coach would have the time to both identify and develop a new franchise quarterback before being fired.

The best-case scenario for Washington is that it signs Cousins to that long-term extension, but even that will eat up $25 million to $30 million or so of the $54 million in cap space it is due to hold this offseason. Several other starters are free agents, most notably inside linebacker Zach Brown and cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Washington might choose to re-sign Breeland and move on from free-agent addition Josh Norman after two frustrating seasons in D.C. Designating Norman as a post-June 1 release would free up $14 million in cap space but simultaneously create another opening on the defense.

There’s unquestioned talent on this roster, but getting all that talent on the field at the same time has been an issue because of injuries. Cousins has taken just 52 dropbacks since the start of 2016 with the offense Jay Gruden would have imagined building around — tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses, running back Chris Thompson, tight end Jordan Reed, and wideouts Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson — all on the field. There’s going to be a season every four or five years in which everyone gets right and Washington wins a division title, but as a coach with options, would you really want to hope to get lucky in one of your two seasons at the helm?

6. Denver Broncos

If Vance Joseph is fired for the sins of the father of Denver football, it will certainly be an unfair decision. He inherited Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch from the previous regime and added Brock Osweiler as his third choice. It’s awfully tough to win when your quarterbacks are throwing interceptions 3.8 percent of the time and your kicker — in the kicking paradise of Denver — is the fourth-worst in football on scoring plays.

John Elway deserves plaudits for what he has done in the past as the head of Denver’s personnel department, but a series of bad drafts are coming home to roost. There’s nobody left on this roster from the 2013 draft. The Class of 2014 delivered a pair of future Pro Bowlers in cornerback Bradley Roby and center Matt Paradis, but their second-round (Cody Latimer) and third-round (Michael Schofield) picks didn’t pan out. Shane Ray, a first-round pick in 2015, has shown promise when healthy across from Von Miller, but he appears to be the only Broncos player from that draft to emerge as a viable starter. And while the 2016 class has shown promise, Lynch appears to be a wasted Day 1 pick.

The good news is that the Broncos find themselves in a reasonable cap situation, with $33 million of space and nobody they’ll miss about to hit free agency. They also could clear another $15.5 million by releasing Aqib Talib and C.J. Anderson, who could be replaced with larger roles from Roby and Devontae Booker. Elway has been an excellent recruiter in the past, and if the Broncos retool with someone like Eli Manning while adding a tight end (Tyler Eifert?) and an inside linebacker (Zach Brown?), Denver might be able to turn things around quickly. The missing pieces on cost-controlled rookie deals, though, should keep the Broncos from flourishing until the 2016 and 2017 classes mature.

5. Indianapolis Colts

I laid out the case for the Colts job being compelling back in October, when I advocated for Indy to shut down Andrew Luck and treat 2017 like a lost season. Indy ended up placing Luck on injured reserve shortly thereafter, and the Colts have gone just 1-5 since, beating only the Tom Savage-led Texans. Their other two wins are over the 49ers and Browns, who are a combined 3-23 this season. This is a bad football team.

This was supposed to be a bad football team, though, even if Luck had been at the helm. Former GM Ryan Grigson left the cupboard virtually empty, and for GM Chris Ballard, the 2017 season has been about finding surprises and making modest bets. The big surprise has been quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who was acquired just before the Patriots were about to release him in preseason and has exhibited promise, albeit with a downright-masochistic sack rate. Journeyman Rashaan Melvin, a free agent-to-be, looked like a shutdown cornerback at times before suffering a hand injury. First-round pick Malik Hooker looked like an Earl Thomas starter kit before suffering a serious knee injury.

Indy heads into 2018 with some optimism, a top-five pick, and nearly $91 million in cap space. Now, though, the concern is Luck. The organization didn’t even expect Luck to miss significant regular-season action when he had surgery last January. It ended up costing the former first overall pick his entire season, and there’s still no public path for what comes next. The uncertainty over Luck — and the ever-increasing possibility he was never the guy we saw before the shoulder injury — makes Indianapolis a riskier proposition.

4. New York Giants

I’ve covered the awkward trappings of the Giants job earlier this season, writing about the missing draft picks of the Jerry Reese era and the consequences of benching Eli Manning.

You would want the job for stability’s sake. Outside of Ben McAdoo and Ray Handley, every Giants coach in the post-punk era has gotten a minimum of four years at the helm. Anyone who doesn’t have McAdoo’s haircut is going to be considered a wildly successful and popular upgrade for the near future. If your new GM just focuses every moment of his offseason into upgrading the offensive line and brings Manning back on a farewell tour, the Giants could be a playoff team in 2018.

It might also be time to rebuild, however. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents over the past couple of seasons won’t inspire ownership to continue investing, and with Manning on his way out of the league, the Giants either need to luck into a quarterback or take one at the top of the draft while they have the chance. The limited money left in the Giants’ budget should be going toward Justin Pugh and Odell Beckham Jr. this offseason and Landon Collins next year. They’ll be the core of the next Giants playoff team, but that’s probably not coming until 2020.

3. Chicago Bears

If you want your Rams analogue for this upcoming offseason, it’s lurking in the Midway. The Bears have their own struggling rookie quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. He has actually played better than Goff did last season, but teams around the league were more confident about Goff than they were about the Bears’ 2017 first-round selection.

Get Trubisky going and this roster suddenly looks appetizing. The defense has quietly leaped above league average for the first time since 2012, per DVOA, although it has been masked by the league’s second-toughest slate of opposing offensive attacks. The Bears have an impressive offensive line when everyone is healthy, one of the best one-two running back duos in football, and should have $65 million to spend this offseason after cutting Mike Glennon.

I would be worried, though, about spending that money with Ryan Pace as general manager. The Bears might be coming off the worst free-agent period since the Dream Team Eagles, which included letting Alshon Jeffery leave without a franchise tag so they could give $18.5 million to Glennon instead. Dion Sims (three years, $18 million) has 13 catches in 11 games. Marcus Cooper (three years, $16 million) fumbled away a would-be return touchdown against the Steelers, was subsequently torched and benched, and has barely been seen since. Markus Wheaton (two years, $11 million) had one catch in eight games before being put on IR. Prince Amukamara has been their best big-money signing, and he’s on a one-year deal.

Coincidentally, the Bears need to follow the Rams’ model and get Trubisky some weapons at receiver this offseason. If they had a passing game right now, they might be on the fringes of playoff contention.

2. Cleveland Browns

I know that the Browns have suggested Hue Jackson is going to return next year. Given the way owner Jimmy Haslam has torched timelines and ripped up road maps in years past, my suspicion is that an 0-16 season might have a way of changing his mind.

With Haslam at the helm, is the Browns job enticing? It’s hard to say that executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown left the roster in a better state than the one he inherited, given that Cleveland let impactful young players like Tashaun Gipson and Mitchell Schwartz leave in free agency for compensatory picks that haven’t yet amounted to much. There’s talent here on paper, but Cleveland’s spending spree up front on the offensive line didn’t stabilize things for its bevy of quarterbacks. This offense is barely functional for long stretches of time, reduced either to simple screens or hopeless bombs. A suicidal turnover rate in the red zone hasn’t helped matters.

The better building blocks are on defense, where Danny Shelton and Christian Kirksey have paced the league’s best run defense by DVOA. Myles Garrett has been a monster when healthy, with five sacks and 16 knockdowns in seven games. Emmanuel Ogbah is a reasonable second pass-rusher. Jason McCourty has rebuilt his career in a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber campaign and is under contract for 2018.

More than anything, though, the Browns have those draft picks. They are projected to have the first and sixth overall selections and six of the top 65 picks in the 2018 draft. They’re almost assuredly going to take a quarterback under new GM John Dorsey, who has almost assuredly spent his time away from the league after being fired from the Chiefs this summer scouting quarterbacks. Cleveland also will have nearly $117 million in cap space to work with and can outbid anyone for whomever they want. Le’Veon Bell? Allen Robinson? Jarvis Landry? All three? Draft the right quarterback and the Browns could witness exponential growth. Of course, if drafting the right quarterback were that simple …

1. Houston Texans

… the Browns would have just taken Deshaun Watson. Instead, if Bill O’Brien’s job becomes available this offseason, the opportunity to work with a franchise quarterback with four cost-controlled years remaining on his deal is the most enticing opportunity to come along in a long, long time. Watson played only seven games, but he led the league in yards per attempt (8.3) and Total QBR (81.5) before tearing his ACL.

It’s one thing for McVay to inherit Goff, who struggled mightily as a rookie. When was the last time a coach joined a team with a quarterback who has already looked as good as Watson and was still on his rookie deal? Derek Carr had a middling rookie season before Jack Del Rio arrived. Kirk Cousins didn’t cut out the interceptions until after Jay Gruden took over. The only other active example I can think of that comes close would be Mike Mularkey inheriting Marcus Mariota, and even he was an interim coach who kept his job.

On top of that, this is a top-level core capable of competing with anyone else in the league when guys are healthy. Mix Watson with a top-five wideout in DeAndre Hopkins and two superstar edge rushers in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans have a set of building blocks that 25 or so teams would probably prefer to their own. Even their second tier of talent — players such as Whitney Mercilus, Will Fuller and Kareem Jackson — is impressive. Their biggest weakness is on special teams, which would be fixable by swapping out the specialists and focusing mid-round picks for a year or two on improving their coverage.

Things aren’t perfect. The Texans are down their top two picks in the 2018 draft after moving up for Watson. Injuries have ripped apart the roster, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever have their core healthy at the same time. Houston needs a new set of offensive tackles and doesn’t have much on the interior of its defensive line. No job is perfect, though, and Houston’s is as appealing as an opening gets. 

TOP OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com rates the top 25 offensive linemen he’s seen this year – and somehow two of them are on the Browns.  And none on the top rushing team in the NFL, the Jaguars.

 PFF’s Sam Monson highlights the list of top 25 offensive linemen through 14 weeks of football, with several noteworthy players on this list who have certainly had their part in pushing their teams to where they are now.

*Editor’s Note: This list is largely based on our Pro Football Focus Player Grades, but does not stick to them 100 percent, rather Senior Analyst Sam Monson has adjusted for scheme and/or role variances between select players in certain instances.

1. JASON KELCE, C, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES – 92.4 OVERALL GRADE

Back in 2013, Jason Kelce was one of the best centers in the game, but after a slight dip following that, his play fell off a cliff last year. This season though, he has been back better than ever, at least as far as his run blocking goes.

2. DAVID DECASTRO, G, PITTSBURGH STEELERS – 91.1 OVERALL GRADE

Another player enjoying the best season of his career, Pittsburgh’s David DeCastro is only getting better over the past few years.

3. ZACK MARTIN, G, DALLAS COWBOYS – 89.8 OVERALL GRADE

The offensive line in Dallas has taken a step back from a season ago, but the one player that has maintained his extremely high level of play all season long is right guard Zack Martin.

4. ALEX MACK, C, ATLANTA FALCONS – 89.2 OVERALL GRADE

Alex Mack was one of the best centers in the game with the Browns before injury bit deep and derailed his career. The move to Atlanta coincided with a return to his best play and he has been as good as any center in the league since suiting up for the Falcons. This year, Mack has yet to surrender a sack.

5. DAVID BAKHTIARI, T, GREEN BAY PACKERS – 86.8 OVERALL GRADE

The league’s best pass blocking tackle has picked up where he left off a season ago once he got back on the field after missing some time due to injury.

6. BRANDON BROOKS, G, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES – 88.9 OVERALL GRADE

Brandon Brooks has proved to be a free agent success story for the Philadelphia Eagles, as he has been an excellent performer since arriving from Houston. The top guards in the league are separated by extremely fine margins, and like DeCastro, Brooks has yet to surrender a sack.

7. TRAVIS FREDERICK, C, DALLAS COWBOYS – 88.4 OVERALL GRADE

Not quite as dominant as in years past over the first half of the season, Travis Frederick has settled back into a groove and is consistently churning out quality performances now.

8. DARYL WILLIAMS, T, CAROLINA PANTHERS – 86.2 OVERALL GRADE

One of the surprises of the 2017 season has been the play of Daryl Williams at right tackle for the Carolina Panthers. The team had been high on him in the past, but we had seen little to suggest there was anything to that until this year.

9. LANE JOHNSON, T, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES – 85.8 OVERALL GRADE

Coming into the season, PFF had the Eagles offensive line as the No. 1 unit in the NFL on paper, and with three members of the line top-10 linemen across the entire league, the logic behind that becomes apparent, and that’s with Jason Peters going down hurt, who could easily have made a fourth.

10. JOSH SITTON, G, CHICAGO BEARS – 86.6 OVERALL GRADE

There is no better pass blocking guard in the game than Josh Sitton, and despite battling injuries along with the rest of the Chicago offensive line, he has once again been excellent in that area when on the field, but has been better than he has in the past as a run blocker.

11. BRANDON SCHERFF, G, WASHINGTON REDSKINS – 86.3 OVERALL GRADE

This past week notwithstanding, Brandon Scherff has been one of the best run blockers in the game.

12. ANDREW NORWELL, G, CAROLINA PANTHERS – 85.6 OVERALL GRADE

Another consistent stud over the past few years at guard, Andrew Norwell has been as good as ever for the Panthers this season.

13. DEMAR DOTSON, T, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS – 85.0 OVERALL GRADE

Demar Dotson is another in a long list of top players to go down for the season with injury, but his 11 games were good enough that he deserves a place on the list regardless.

14. JOEL BITONIO, G, CLEVELAND BROWNS – 84.7 OVERALL GRADE

The Browns offensive line was supposed to be one of the best in the league this season with the additions they made to the group in free agency, and while it hasn’t lived up to that hype, hurt still further by the loss of Joe Thomas to injury, Joel Bitonio has been impressive.

15. RODGER SAFFOLD, G, LOS ANGELES RAMS – 84.2 OVERALL GRADE

After a tough start to the season, Rodger Saffold has been a force for the Rams in their run this season. On the year, he has given up just one sack, and 18 total pressures, but his most dominant aspect of play has been run blocking.

16. ANDREW WHITWORTH, T, LOS ANGELES RAMS – 83.6 OVERALL GRADE

He may be 36-years old, but Andrew Whitworth remains one of the best tackles in the game, and has done so outside of the protection of the Cincinnati offensive scheme which has been one of the easier to block within for the past several seasons. Whitworth has represented a monstrous upgrade over what the Rams have had at left tackle over the past few years.

17. ANTHONY CASTONZO, T, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS – 83.3 OVERALL GRADE

The Colts offensive line has still been a major issue this season, with injuries throwing problems it’s way throughout the year, but the one stalwart on the unit once again has been Anthony Castonzo at left tackle.

18. DAVID ANDREWS, C, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS – 83.2 OVERALL GRADE

One of the biggest improvements from any offensive linemen is David Andrews of the New England Patriots. He has taken a huge leap forward from 2016.

19. SHAQ MASON, G, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS – 83.0 OVERALL GRADE

A dominant run blocker in college in Georgia Tech’s triple option offense, pass blocking was almost entirely a new thing to Shaq Mason when he was drafted by the Patriots. Under the tutelage of Dante Scarneccia, he has become one of the better guards in the league.

20. KEVIN ZEITLER, G, CLEVELAND BROWNS – 82.9 OVERALL GRADE

The big offseason acquisition for the Cleveland Browns along the offensive line was Kevin Zeitler, coming over from the divisional-rival Cincinnati Bengals. Zeitler hasn’t been as good as he was in the past, but he has picked up his play and still been impressive overall.

21. RYAN RAMCZYK, T, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS – 82.4 OVERALL GRADE

One of the rookies of the year, Ryan Ramczyk has been excellent for the dominant New Orleans offensive line since stepping in at right tackle. The better side of his game has been run blocking.

22. JOE STALEY, T, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS – 82.3 OVERALL GRADE

At his best, Joe Staley had a season as the No. 1 ranked tackle in football, and while he has never quite returned to that level, he remains a top quality starter, even in an offense that has had more than its fair share of struggles.

23. TRENT WILLIAMS, T, WASHINGTON REDSKINS – 82.1 OVERALL GRADE

The top-graded offensive tackle in the league last year, Williams has taken a step back this year, posting his lowest grade since 2012.

24. RICK WAGNER, T, DETROIT LIONS – 81.7 OVERALL GRADE

Wagner has been an excellent addition to the Lions’ offensive line, solidifying the right tackle spot and ranking 12th among tackles overall.

25. RODNEY HUDSON, C, OAKLAND RAIDERS – 81.0 OVERALL GRADE

If David Bakhtiari is the best pass blocking tackle in the game and Josh Sitton the best pass blocking guard, the best pass blocking center is Oakland’s Rodney Hudson.