The Daily Briefing Friday, December 8, 2017

AROUND THE NFL 

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com assess the NFC playoff picture after Atlanta beat New Orleans on Thursday night:

Eleven yards away from burying his biggest rival in the NFC South race, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw a pass that might haunt him until he faces the Falcons again. Luckily for him and NFL fans, that rematch is only two weeks away.

Falcons cornerback Deion Jones’ interception was one of those plays that can change the shape of an entire season in an instant. Here are a few of the quick playoff picture ramifications from Atlanta’s 20-17 victory:

The No. 1 seed in the NFC is all but out for New Orleans: A win over Atlanta on Thursday night would have put the Saints in truly commanding position to win the NFC South, considering they have already swept the Carolina Panthers. The Saints could have started to set their sights on home-field advantage in the NFC or a playoff bye. That’s going to be a lot more difficult now with four losses, two more than the Vikings and Eagles. A head-to-head loss to the Rams also could hurt the Saints in seeding.

Even if the Saints do still win the division, it’s likely now they will be playing on Wild Card Weekend.

The NFC South could come down to the Falcons-Saints rematch: Now 8-5, Falcons go on the road to Tampa in Week 15. If they can win that game, Atlanta will head to New Orleans for a pivotal Week 16 matchup with a chance to take over first place in the NFC South. The team started 7-5 last season, so they know how a hot finish can translate to playoff success. Thursday night’s win over New Orleans, at the very least, gives the Falcons some breathing room in the wild-card race. Speaking of which ..

The road for the Packers, Cowboys and Lions just got tougher: The three pack of 6-6 NFC wild-card hopefuls need the Falcons, Panthers or Seahawks to slip up down the stretch. It’s still quite possible that happens because of the difficult schedule all three teams face, but this win by Atlanta makes the path less likely.

The Panthers should be smiling too: Carolina has plenty of issues to worry about with their inconsistent passing game and the visiting Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. But the Panthers now join the Falcons and Saints in the “control their fate” NFC South party. The Falcons-Panthers game in Week 17 is going to be ripe with playoff implications. All three teams in the best division in football can win the division if they just win out. Deion Jones made sure of it.

NFC NORTH

DETROIT

QB MATTHEW STAFFORD appears like he is going to play Sunday in Tampa, but how well remains a question.  Dave Birkett in the Detroit Free Press:

The swelling in Matthew Stafford’s right hand has subsided enough that he’s resumed throwing, and if Thursday was any indication, the Detroit Lions could have their starting quarterback on the field this weekend.

Stafford, who injured his throwing hand in last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, took part in the open portion of Lions practice Thursday.

He used his left hand to hand the ball off to running backs, and worked first in the quarterback rotation in both a light goal-line passing drill on air and an offensive installation period in front of reporters.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has a bruised right hand, throws passes and hands off the ball with his right hand during practice Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Also hear from coach Jim Caldwell and OC Jim Bob Cooter. Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press

Stafford attempted an assortment of short passes Thursday and was mostly crisp with his throws. He appeared to be throwing at no more than 75 percent velocity, and practiced with tape on his right pinky and ring fingers.

On Wednesday, Stafford said he had not thrown a football since Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs stepped on his hand after a fourth-quarter interception. He declined to show his hand to reporters at the time, and shielded it with a towel as he walked through the locker room.

Stafford was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice, when he made two handoffs during the open portion of practice but spent the rest of his time watching from the side.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said before practice Thursday that there was no timetable for determining Stafford’s availability for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“When he’s ready (we’ll make the decision),” Caldwell said.

Several Lions players sounded an optimistic note about Stafford’s availability for the weekend after practice.

“Hopefully he’s ready to go,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “I’m not exactly sure what the role is for him and what the timeline is for him, but I do know it’s a crucial game so if I had to bet on it, I’d bet he would be out there.”

Jamie Samuelson, also writing in the Free Press, doesn’t think that his recent extension guarantees that Jim Caldwell will coach the Lions in 2018:

I felt before the season started Caldwell needed to win a playoff game to return for his fifth year. That was before the news broke prior to the Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons that he had already agreed to a contract extension during the summer. Contract extensions are notable, but they are not guarantees. The L.A. Rams signed Jeff Fisher to an extension last season. Word of the   extension leaked out eight days before Fisher was fired. Sean McVay was hired and the Rams are on their way to the playoffs in his first season.

Caldwell is an impressive man and an outstanding leader of men. The off-field issues that plagued the Lions under Jim Schwartz are of the past. The undisciplined style on the field has improved in terms of penalties, but it certainly hasn’t improved in terms of making sure the requisite number of players are on the field. Caldwell’s greatest strength is his unshakeable consistency.

But I’m starting to wonder if his greatest strength isn’t also his greatest weakness.

The Lions are at the breaking point of the 2017 season. If they win out, they might make it into the playoffs. Even then, they’ll once again be headed on the road in the opening weekend of the postseason. And that’s if they even get in. Their weaknesses are obvious — an inability to run the ball and an inability to stop the run. But their slow starts are turning from an annoyance to a fatal flaw. Falling behind the Minnesota Vikings is one thing. Falling behind the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears is quite another. Maybe the play-calling needs to change. Maybe the message needs to change. But one thing seems quite apparent and that’s Caldwell needs to shake things up quickly and dramatically. Otherwise, he might be answering for his stubborn consistency with his job.

Caldwell will be judged, as any coach should, by wins and losses. And he has won more than he has lost in Detroit. But I think he should be judged by this simple question — are the Lions better off now than they were four years ago when he took over?

They battled for the playoffs his first year and fell short in the wildcard round. That seems to be their best case scenario for this season and even that is unrealistic. In 2014, the Lions had the No. 19 offense (yards per game) in the NFL and the No. 2 defense. This season, they’re No. 15 in offense and No. 26 in defense. They are plus-2 in turnover differential. Four years ago, they were plus-7.

Personnel is definitely a factor and general manager Bob Quinn is a work in progress. But you look for your coach to be a difference maker on the field and off. Clearly, Caldwell is a difference maker off the field, but we’re still looking for the proof on it. In-game decisions have been puzzling at times with the low light coming a month ago when he opted not to kick a go-ahead field goal against the Steelers and went for a fourth-and-goal at the 1 yard line late in the third quarter. That move was surprising, so give him credit for that. But it also backfired.

I don’t want to sit here in four weeks and say I told you so. I also don’t want to wildly swing back the other way and say, “wow, I was wrong AGAIN about Caldwell.” He’s a good man and a good coach.

The Lions are looking for greatness all over the organization and it is time to look for that in the head coaching position. The clock is ticking and Caldwell’s résumé seems to be finished. Four games remain to change it and it starts Sunday in Tampa.

MINNESOTA

Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com talks to Brian Sipe, who knows what CASE KEENUM is going through:

Brian Sipe admittedly doesn’t keep up with the NFL as much as he used to. Nowadays, the former NFL MVP quarterback gets his fix elsewhere, having spent six seasons (2009-14) as the quarterbacks coach at his alma mater, San Diego State University, and currently assists his son-in-law with high school coaching.

He’ll catch a game here and there when his wife, Jeri, has the television glued to Fox or CBS on Sundays. Sipe has maintained a quiet life away from the NFL since his remarkable rise during the late 1970s.

Yet despite not being up to speed on the landscape of today’s NFL, Sipe — along with the rest of the world — knows about Case Keenum’s incredible season.

As the 2017 MVP race picks up more steam, Keenum is currently ranked fifth in ESPN’s Week 14 poll, behind Tom Brady, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. The award, decided by a panel of 50 sportswriters at the end of the regular season, heavily factors in statistical achievements. Though Keenum ranks 14th in passing yards, 16th in touchdown passes and 12th in yards per attempt, it would be difficult and unfair to not put the quarterback of a 10-2 team in the conversation.

The parallels between Sipe and Keenum’s paths from college to the NFL are similar, but no line is stronger than how they earned their jobs as starters.

Sipe was drafted in the 13th round (back when the NFL draft was 17 rounds) in 1972 by the Cleveland Browns, was a member of the team’s taxi squad — a precursor to today’s practice squads — for two seasons before being elevated to a backup for the next two years and finally earned his spot as a starter in the 1976 season. Keenum went undrafted out of Houston and bounced back and forth between the Texans and Rams for four seasons before signing with the Vikings in the offseason.

Keenum became an emergency starter in Week 2 after Sam Bradford injured his knee the previous game. Despite a brief respite when Bradford came back in Week 5, it’s been Keenum’s job in leading the Vikings to first place in the NFC

Sipe got his spot when Mike Phipps went down with an injury in the Browns’ 1976 season opener. Sipe led them to a 9-5 record, a six-game improvement from the disastrous season before. Phipps never got his job back and was eventually traded.

Sipe viewed his NFL career as an evolution of goals. Five seasons in, he had finally proven (to himself, at least) that he belonged.

“That year, my goal moved from just getting the job to hanging on to the job,” Sipe said. “That’s not always an easy thing to do, but my objective was to prepare, play my best, grow as a quarterback and establish myself as a starter in the NFL. That was my highest aspiration.”

He remained the Browns’ starter for eight seasons and is still the all-time passing leader in franchise history with 27,713 yards and 154 touchdowns. His situation wasn’t the easiest to weather given the doubt he sensed inside the organization.

“I was always looking over my shoulder,” he said. “During the time I was the starter, they drafted another quarterback high. There were a lot of people in that organization that couldn’t believe I was the starting quarterback because I was 6 foot, 185 pounds, didn’t have the splashy credentials.”

The game after Phipps went down in the opener, Sipe bombed in Denver, which led Cleveland general manager Peter Hadhazy to call an impromptu news conference in the locker room.

“I overheard him telling the press that I wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL,” Sipe said. “I thought, ‘Well, he doesn’t really have a choice about next week, so why would he say something like this?’ Fortunately, the next week I lit it up and kind of lit it up the rest of the year. He acknowledged after the season was over with and I had won the team’s most valuable player award that maybe he had been mistaken that afternoon.”

Four years from that moment, Sipe earned the NFL’s MVP award during the 1980 season, a year where he threw for 4,123 yards and 30 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions, a 60.8 percent completion percentage on 554 attempts, and led the franchise to its first postseason berth in eight years.

It’s still strange for the quarterback to see his name on a list with the other greats from his heyday: Walter Payton, Terry Bradshaw, Earl Campbell and others. And when he looks back at his long NFL career, followed by two years in the USFL, Sipe doesn’t view the monumental award as his defining moment.

“To this day, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation,” he said. “That was never my aspiration (winning MVP). It was just to be a member of what I considered to be an elite group of athletes that were legit NFL players.”

For Sipe, it’s a culmination of the journey he took from a no-name player to where he ended up in the NFL. It was a career highlighted by moments like the night he got to shake hands with his childhood idol Rodger Staubach before the Browns and Cowboys kicked off in 1979.

“I remember being very emotional and then walking out … just wondering, ‘God, how did I get here? Thank you,’” he said.

In leading the Vikings to their longest win streak (8) since the 1998 season, Keenum has robotically maintained his focus every week, regardless of not being named the outright starter.

“I’m going to be boring and give you the same answer. I don’t think it changes anything,” Keenum said in November. “I’m boring. I’m going to answer the same way that I’ve prepared the same way and I’m going to take it a week at a time.”

That’s an approach that resonates with Sipe.

“I can understand Case if he says he’s battling for his job every week because that’s how I competed,” he said. “I never wanted anyone else under center. I got the job when somebody else got injured and he never got his job back. I guess that stuck in the back of my mind, and I never, ever thought about myself in a historical context. I was always thrilled every chance I had to start for the Cleveland Browns.”

NFC EAST

PHILADELPHIA

One would presume that TE ZACH ERTZ will play Sunday in Los Angeles, but that does not appear to be assured.  ESPN.com:

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz has been cleared to practice but remains in the league’s concussion protocol.

The team said earlier Thursday that he had cleared the concussion protocol.

Ertz exited Sunday night’s 24-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks with a head injury and did not return.

He remained on the ground and appeared dazed following a hit over the middle by safety Bradley McDougald in the third quarter. Ertz walked off the field under his own power but was taken to the trainers tent to be tested for a concussion before heading to the locker room.

Ertz did practice Thursday ahead of Sunday’s game against the Rams in Los Angeles.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com on the implications of Thursday night’s win:

Atlanta’s playoff hopes fluctuated with every Matt Ryan interception counterbalanced by a plague of penalties and injuries incurred by New Orleans in a game of sweeping momentum swings. With the season on the brink, Dan Quinn seemed doomed to days of second-guessing after declining a holding penalty that would have placed the Saints in a third-and-11 pickle on the cusp of field-goal range. Faced instead with a fourth-and-1 at the 24-yard line, Sean Payton put the game in his quarterback’s hands, dialing up a successful Drew Brees sneak. Jones went on to save his head coach — and his team’s season — in the red zone, flashing dynamic athleticism over a two-play sequence that will send the Falcons flying into next week’s battle with the Buccaneers. After snuffing out a Willie Snead catch-and-run with extraordinary closing speed, Jones leaped high in the air to snare a Brees pass intended for tight end Josh Hill.

– – –

How impressive was Atlanta’s defense? Twice this season Ryan has emerged victorious despite throwing a trio of interceptions. Outside of those outliers, the other 20 instances of a quarterback tossing three picks have resulted in losses. Just as NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was explaining that only   two of Ryan’s 10 interceptions have been the quarterback’s fault this season, the 2016 MVP unfurled his 11th on an underthrown jumpball to Jones in the corner of the end zone.

Even if Ryan managed to salvage the win, it’s no secret that the league’s 14th-ranked offense pales in comparison to last season’s historically great attack. What’s the difference? Under creative play-caller Kyle Shanahan last year, Ryan played like a fast-breaking point guard with unmatched court vision, spreading the wealth to wide open receivers and running backs while hitting bullseyes downfield. Under Steve Sarkisian this year, the multi-purpose running backs and speed demon Taylor Gabriel are afterthoughts and Ryan is too often forced to squeeze the ball into tight windows. To the surprise of no one, Ryan — like most quarterbacks — is a lot more effective when the play-caller finds a way to scheme defined open windows.

CAROLINA

The Panthers are getting a couple of key players back for Sunday’s battle with the Vikings.  David Newton of ESPN.com:

The Carolina Panthers will have Pro Bowl players Ryan Kalil and Greg Olsen back for Sunday’s key NFC game against the Minnesota Vikings at Bank of America Stadium.

Kalil, a five-time Pro Bowl selection at center, said Thursday he will play even though coach Ron Rivera cautiously said, “We’ll see.”

“I’ll be suiting up and snapping the ball on Sunday,” said Kalil, sidelined 10 of the past 11 games with a neck injury that flared up after the opener.

Kalil attempted to make a comeback in an Oct. 22 game at Chicago, but aggravated the injury in the first half and didn’t play in the second half. He has been inactive for four of the past five games, not playing in the one game he suited up.

Tyler Larsen has started for Kalil, but has not practiced the past two days because of a foot injury. He had a walking boot on earlier in the week.

 Kalil was listed as limited on Thursday, but he worked with the first-team offense during the media portion of practice.

“He’s had a good couple of days,” Rivera said. “Real encouraged by it. I know he’s encouraged by it. He looks good out there. We’ll continue with it.”

Olsen, a three-time Pro Bowl selection at tight end, was activated off injured reserve for a Nov. 26 game against the New York Jets. He developed soreness in the foot, surgically repaired after he broke it in a Week 2 win against Buffalo, and did not play in the second half against the Jets or in Sunday’s loss to New Orleans.

The staff took a cautious approach on Sunday, feeling the artificial turf at MetLife Stadium contributed to the soreness and there was no point in aggravating it further on the turf at New Orleans.

The next three games are on grass at home.

“From the beginning we knew this was going to be a little bit of a struggle, kind of a touch and go thing as we transitioned our way back,” Olsen said. “Yeah, I feel good. I feel we’re heading down a good path. I’m looking forward to getting out there and hopefully this time stay out there.”

The return of both players comes at a good time for the Panthers (8-4), a game behind New Orleans (9-3) in the NFC South and two games behind Minnesota (10-2) and Philadelphia (10-2) for the top two seeds in the NFC.

They also could bring a spark to an offense that has been inconsistent the past two weeks.

“This is a huge stretch for us,” Olsen said. “One of the best teams we’ll play coming here on Sunday.”

NEW ORLEANS

Curtis Crabtree of ProFootballTalk.com on some by-play during Thursday night’s game that does not reflect well on Saints coach Sean Payton:

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton put his right hand around his neck and appeared to yell “choke” in the direction of Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman early in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s game.

With 12:40 remaining, Freeman took a toss to his left into the Saints bench area for no gain. As he returned to the field of play, it appeared as though Freeman and Payton each began chirping at each other with Payton shown on the broadcast grasping at his neck and twice yelling “choke” in Freeman’s direction.

“I don’t remember that,” Payton said during his postgame press conference.

Freeman did.

“I saw it,” Freeman said, via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That man don’t know nothing about choking. He ain’t from where I’m from.

“He’s a good competitor so the competin’ probably came out. But you don’t let that bother you. He don’t know nothing about choking.”

While the broadcast picked up faint parts of the exchange, it’s difficult to make out the exact comments shared between the two. Payton’s reference would almost certainly be a shot at last year’s Super Bowl, where the Falcons watched a 28-3 advantage evaporate before the New England Patriots won in overtime.

Payton may not remember it, but it’s pretty obvious he did it.

The two teams meet again in just 16 days.

– – –

Chris Wesseling on the Saints’ injuries:

The Saints could have used a waiting room for their sideline injury tent. Literally lining up to get examined by medical personnel, they are going to need the extra few days of rest in advance of next week’s home bout with the Jets. Alvin Kamara went down with a concussion at the tail end of an opening drive dominated by the sensational rookie’s four touches. His absence severely handcuffed a New Orleans offense that discovered screen passes to tight ends and quick-hitters to third and fourth receivers don’t have quite the same punch. The problems weren’t limited to that side of the ball. The defense saw defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata, linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro go down with injuries of their own. With a handful of key defenders out and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore sucking oxygen on the sideline, Matt Ryan took full advantage with the game on the line, leading an eight-play field-goal drive that stood as the game-winner. 

NFC WEST

ARIZONA

Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com builds the case against Cardinals special teams coordinator Amos Jones with some barely disguised help from GM Steve Keim:

Within a stretch of five minutes in the third quarter Sunday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals epitomized their struggles on special teams this season.

After holding the Los Angeles Rams to a three-and-out at the Rams’ 9-yard line, the Cardinals gave up a 70-yard punt by Rams punter Johnny Hekker, who kicked from his own end zone and placed it perfectly away from returner Patrick Peterson to flip field position and pin the Cardinals back at their own 21. From there, Arizona went three-and-out. Andy Lee’s punt went 40 yards, but the Rams’ Pharoh Cooper returned it 30 yards, giving Los Angeles prime field position at the Cardinals’ 30.

It took the Rams just six plays to score a touchdown and extend their lead to 13 with about 20 minutes left in the game.

“The punt return was just poor technique,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Our wing on that side just totally lost contain and fell inside. They blocked a gunner, and once he reversed field, it was free sailing from there. You have to contain it. You can’t follow your own color down the field. You learn that in high school, and a couple of our guys were following each other down the field. It’s something we work every day on.”

That sequence was just part of the Cardinals’ special-teams issues Sunday — and all season — that general manager Steve Keim saw when he turned on the tape after Arizona’s 32-16 loss.

And while he tried to bite his tongue talking about it, he didn’t hold back.

“I’m never going to go on record or publicly and bash any of our players individually or one of our coaches,” Keim said during an interview on 98.7 FM in Phoenix early Monday morning. “The bottom line is, and it’s [not an] excuse, our special teams, it’s been unacceptable. Point blank. That’s something that needs to improve, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Keim was clearly frustrated following another abysmal special-teams performance, and rightfully so. The Cardinals had a field goal and an extra point blocked — although the NFL informed coach Bruce Arians that the plays should’ve been flagged because the Rams’ defense illegally rushed the kicker, hitting the long-snapper before he was able to establish a blocking position. They also gave up 15 yards per punt return and 50 yards in kick returns while allowing Hekker to hit that 70-yard punt that eventually led to a game-deciding touchdown.

But Sunday’s performance on special teams wasn’t an anomaly for the Cardinals.

They’ve been struggling all season.

They’ve been struggling for a while.

They’re ranked in the bottom five in the NFL in eight special-teams categories: expected points added by special teams (31st), field goal percentage (29th), opponent field goal percentage (32nd), net yards per punt 28th), opponent net yards per punt (30th), opponent yards per kick return (28th), average starting field position on kickoff returns (30th) and opponent field goal blocks (30th).

While the Cardinals haven’t been ranked that low in that many categories before in Arians’ tenure, they’ve still consistently hovered near the bottom in some of the same categories over the past five years.

They were ranked 30th in expected points added by special teams the past two seasons. They’ve were ranked 32nd in net yards per punt in 2016 and 2015, and 30th in 2014. They were in the bottom three in the NFL in opponent net yards per punt in three of the past five years, including this season. Arizona began the Arians era ranked last in the NFL in average opponent starting field position on kickoff returns during his first two years and then improved to the middle of the pack in 2015 and 2016, only to drop off again this season.

Three-time Pro Bowl gunner Justin Bethel, who’s taken on more of a role as a defensive back this season, said inconsistency has plagued Arizona’s special teams this season. To fix that, he added, Arizona has to focus on the “little things.”

“Sometimes you just got to be more aware of what the team is trying to do to you and making sure you know what they’re going to try to do to you, and plan for it before the game actually gets there,” Bethel said.

The Cardinals are on pace for the worst overall special-teams season in Arians’ five years.

They’ve already missed seven field goals (an Arians-era high). They’re close to giving up the most yards and net yards on punts. They have the second-lowest kickoff return average in five years and the third-lowest average punt-return rate — by almost a yard lower than the next highest. Their average starting position on kickoffs or touchbacks is the second lowest in the past five years. And this is the second season in the past five without blocking a field goal.

Blame, however, can’t solely be placed on the players.

Throughout the past five years, 148 players have taken at least one snap on special teams, including five punters, four long-snappers and three kickers.

And while the players change, there’s been one consistency: special-teams coordinator Amos Jones.

Jones has been able to avoid Arians’ ire over the past five years, regardless of how poor the on-field performance has been. Blame, when needed, has been put on the players — not Jones. On Wednesday, Arians expressed his contentment with the special teams.

“Other than last week, I thought we’ve been solid most of the season,” Arians said. “Our punt returns were up. Kickoff returns were hit or miss, but no, I think we’ve been fine, other than the blocked extra points and field goal, which were illegal.”

Turnover on the field has been one of the roots of all the special-teams struggles, Bethel said.

“I think before we had a group that was used to playing off each other and people got hurt and people had to leave,” Bethel said. “I think bringing in new guys trying to learn how to play with everybody else, that’s something that you just got to get used to. I think that’s something they’re doing and we got a lot of injures and we got guys playing places or positions that they never played or played that often.

“Even though practice is still hard, we can’t always go full speed on everything. So I think just seeing it is enough and figuring out what you got to do yourself to make sure you’re able to play whatever it is you need to play.”

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Alden Gonzalez of ESPN.com on the first meeting of what could, could become this generations Brady and Manning.

Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are busy. They have teams to guide, offenses to run, opposing defenses to study. There isn’t much time in their week for casual NFL observance.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t kept a close eye on one another.

“A lot of our film has crossed over, so we do get to watch a lot of their offense,” said Goff, whose Los Angeles Rams host Wentz’s Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

“We’ve shared a number of crossover film this year while playing similar opponents and everything,” Wentz said. “I’ve seen him on film a handful of times.”

Goff and Wentz didn’t just go No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2016 draft, they were represented by the same agency, Rep 1 Sports, and spent a lot of time working out together in the weeks leading up to the NFL scouting combine. They built a friendship then and keep in touch now. Soon, they’ll become only the fifth quarterback duo to be selected at the top of the draft and actually face off, with each of their teams among the very best in the NFL.

Wentz, in his second year in the same system, is putting up MVP-caliber numbers, leading the NFL with 29 touchdown passes and sporting a 72.5 Total QBR. He has been at his best when pressured: In 87 passing attempts while under duress, Wentz has thrown seven touchdowns with zero interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking.

Rams coach Sean McVay called Wentz “a very talented individual” who is also “conscientious.”

“He’s been tremendous this year — in everything he’s been doing, especially his ability to extend plays and make plays outside the pocket,” Goff said. “I know that’s always something he was always really good at and is continuing to get really good at. A lot of respect for him and what he’s done. He’s one guy who has really worked his way into everything he’s earned. He’s deserved everything he’s earned up to this point, and I’m expecting him to continue to keep getting better.”

Few have improved like Goff, who struggled mightily through seven rookie starts but has thrived under the system of his first-year head coach, McVay. From 2016 to 2017, Goff has made significant improvements in completion percentage (54.6 to 62.2), yards per game (155.6 to 265.3), yards per attempt (5.3 to 8.1), touchdown-to-interception ratio (0.71 to 3.33) and passer rating (63.6 to 98.4).

“Seeing him on tape and everything, you just see some of the throws he makes and some of the things they’re doing offensively down there,” Wentz said. “He’s having a great year, and it’s exciting for him.”

“It’s fun to watch, quite honestly,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Goff. “Just to see the growth in his play and all the things that we saw in him when we were scouting and working him out and evaluating all these quarterbacks a year ago. This is exactly what we saw. It’s exciting. Obviously he’s well coached there.”

Unlike Goff, Wentz thrived immediately as a rookie. But he took his lumps in the second half of the 2016 season, right around the time when Goff was named the Rams’ starter and began to struggle himself. Pederson brought up how much football Goff and Wentz had been playing by that point, going from their collegiate seasons to draft preparations to the NFL.

They hit the proverbial rookie wall — albeit to varying degrees — and became energized by a customary offseason.

Wentz said he and Goff are “good friends” who “got along great” in the pre-draft process and believes they’ll be “forever linked.” But they have each done their best to keep the focus on the game this week, which isn’t all that hard. The Eagles are 10-2, while ranked first in point differential and tied for the NFL lead averaging 30.1 points per game. The Rams are 9-3, while ranked second in point differential and tied for the NFL lead averaging 30.1 points per game.

“There’s a lot more at stake than just me versus Jared and everything,” Wentz said. “But at the same time, it’s definitely exciting.”

Goff was asked what it would be like to be on the same field as Wentz and corrected the reporter.

“We won’t be on the field at the same time,” Goff said. “Actually, one of us will be on the sidelines and one of us will be out there. But it’ll be fun. It’ll be good to see him; it’ll be good to compete in the same game as him.”

AFC NORTH

CLEVELAND

Having found their coach for the University of Tennessee, the Haslams turned their attention to the Browns on Thursday, firing GM Sashi Brown, allegedly complying with the Rooney Rule and hiring John Dorsey in one fell swoop.  Cindy Boren and Des Bieler in the Washington Post:

The Browns, still waiting for their first win of the season, did not wait long to bring in a new personnel chief. Hours after firing executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown Thursday, the team announced the hiring of John Dorsey as its new general manager.

“We know we have a critical and very positive opportunity ahead of us to profoundly impact the foundation of this football team,” Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said in a statement. “Bringing in someone of John Dorsey’s caliber, his track record of success and his experience, significantly strengthens our opportunities to build a winning football team and that has been, and continues to be, what we want for our fans.”

Dorsey was the general manager of the Chiefs from 2013 until June, when Kansas City surprisingly fired him after going 43-21 during his tenure. In Cleveland, the 57-year-old former linebacker will be charged with landing a franchise quarterback while working with incumbent head coach Hue Jackson.

Earlier in the day, Haslam had said that Jackson would “remain our coach and will return for the 2018 season” while announcing Brown’s firing. Hired to run the personnel department in January 2016, Brown took an analytics-based approach that emphasized the acquisition of draft picks for long-term success, reminding many of the 76ers’ “Process.”

As with former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, though, Brown lost his job after his team struggled mightily to have even a sliver of early success. They went 1-15 in 2016 and, through 12 games this year, are in danger of joining the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history.

“Our win-loss record since I became executive vice president isn’t going to cut it,” Brown said in a statement Thursday, before Dorsey arrived. ” … Obviously, the Browns have not yet achieved the turnaround we wanted for a franchise and the best fans in the NFL, who deserve it more than any other in sports. I know that turnaround is coming.”

“We have great appreciation and gratitude for Sashi’s commitment and leadership to our organization but believe transitioning to someone with strong experience and success in drafting and building consistently winning football teams is critical to the future of the Cleveland Browns,” owner Jimmy Haslam said in a statement Thursday morning. “Today we informed Sashi that we were going in a new direction. The 2018 draft and offseason is pivotal for our franchise, we need to ensure that we maximize our opportunity for success; with our picks, free agency and building our roster.”

Thanks to Brown’s moves, Dorsey inherits an enviable situation in the 2018 draft, as Cleveland has 12 picks, including two in the first round and three in the second. The team also has plenty of salary-cap room, giving Dorsey a wealth of options for possibly pursuing a free agent quarterback, but he is likely to use what should be a pick very high in the draft, if not No. 1 overall, to land a top young signal-caller.

In both of the past two offseasons, the Browns have chosen to trade down rather than draft a franchise quarterback and have watched Carson Wentz become an MVP candidate with the Eagles and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson post a breakout season before being injured. A quarterback Cleveland drafted in the second round this year, DeShone Kizer, has struggled in 11 starts.

While the Browns hope that Dorsey provides stability to a front office that has been marked by rapid turnover for the past few years, the team may have to answer some questions about its hiring process Thursday. While there were reports that the Browns had managed to satisfy the NFL’s “Rooney rule,” which mandates that teams have meaningful interviews with minority candidates before filling head coaching and front office vacancies, the speed of Dorsey’s hiring, combined with other reports that Cleveland had been zeroing in on him “for weeks,” raised concerns that the team may not have complied with the spirit of the rule.

Having gone 1-27 and apparently survived, Jackson takes umbrage with those who say he torpedoed Brown.  Mary Kay Cabot in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Browns coach Hue Jackson took exception to the notion that he won a power struggle with Browns Executive Vice President Sashi Brown, who was fired on Thursday with a 1-27 mark.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who’s expected to address the media on Friday, also announced in a   statement that Jackson will be back for the 2018 season. 

“I didn’t win a power (struggle),” Jackson said. “I look at it as I was coaching a football team and trying to do the best that I can.  Everybody’s trying to do the best they can. I don’t see a power struggle. I have a contract that was longer than two years.

“Where we are today is the organization made a decision to do something different. I stand behind that wholeheartedly, grateful for the opportunity to still be here and grateful for the opportunity to coach this team and that’s what I am going to do.”

Jackson also took umbrage to the accusation that he leaked negative information to the media to make the front office look bad.

“Criticizing the front office? How would I make the front office look bad? I coach a football team,” he said. “That right there is bad enough. 1-27 is bad enough. I don’t have to say anything. Just look at our football team. I’m a part of that as I said earlier.”

Jackson added, “I don’t deal in leaks. This has been a leaky place for years. This isn’t the first time you have ever heard leaks out of the Cleveland Browns. Hopefully, some of that stuff will go away in time, but it is not going to go away when you are losing, that is for sure. If anything, it is going to ratchet up even more.”

He added that Brown is a “good person and a heck of a worker.”

It’s no secret, however, that Jackson and Brown didn’t work well together, and that the rift throughout this season, primarily over personnel disagreements, was very real. In fact, one source told cleveland.com that communication broke down between the two over the past month or so, and that they barely spoke except when they had to in meetings.

“I’m not going to say that was the case,” Jackson said of the discord. “There are things that we all wish we could do better. … It was never like that here in the building. Obviously when you lose like we have, that’s not good either. As we move forward, I want that person to be somebody that understands the vision, exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The two clashed over numerous personnel decisions, including quarterbacks Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo and AJ McCarron, and other players such as linebacker Demario Davis and Joe Haden. Jackson and Brown got into it again before the 2017 draft, with Jackson and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams arguing for Myles Garrett and at least some in the front office preferring current Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the Mentor, Ohio native.

In 2016, Jackson wanted the Browns to sign former Bengals receiver Marvin Jones as a free agent, and Brown didn’t bring him in for a visit. Same thing this year with Jeremy Maclin, who signed with the Ravens.

The list goes on an on, and Jackson has indicated throughout the past two seasons that he attributes his 1-27 record — the worst start in NFL history for a head coach with one team — to a lack of talent on the roster. The Browns have had 24 draft picks over the past two seasons, and they’ve made 17 trades. They’ve also had more cap space than almost anyone to sign free agents. And yet,   they’re 1-27.

“I’m in charge of coaching this team and trying to do the best I can with what I have,” Jackson said.

But he refused to get into specifics of what’s gone wrong in the past two seasons.

“I don’t think any of those things matter right now,” he said. “When you look at it – and I’m just as big a part of it as Sashi is – right now, we are a 1-27 football team. I take my responsibility in that, too. I have some things I have to work through and get better, as well. I don’t think it all should go towards him. We all have to do our part and do it better.”

Doug Lesmerises, also of the Plain Dealer, is not buying Jackson’s act:

Hue Jackson sat down in front of reporters after Browns practice Thursday and started talking about the weather, once again striking the pose of an innocent bystander amidst the Browns chaos.

Don’t believe it.

Jackson is the cause of it, a coach who undermined the front office while failing to develop a quarterback, a coach who grabbed the ears of nervous owners and got them to bail on the future while somehow skirting blame for Sunday after Sunday when he doesn’t get anywhere near the best out of his team.

Executive VP for football operations Sashi Brown was fired Thursday while owner Jimmy Haslam committed to Jackson for the 2018 season.

That means Jackson won.

He fought the battle for Haslam’s blessing and the battle of public perception more effectively. If Jackson was half as good at coaching as he was at saving his own job and media manipulation, the Browns would be a playoff team.

Jackson denies it, of course, taking issue when I asked him Thursday about leaks that led to repeated stories this season designed to make the front office look bad.

“I don’t deal in leaks,” Jackson said during his news conference. “I’ve been doing this for quite a while. I don’t know what you are referring to when you say ‘leaks out of here.’ This has been a leaky place for years. This is not the first time you have ever heard leaks out of the Cleveland Browns.

“Hopefully, some of that stuff will go away in time, but it is not going to go away when you are losing, that is for sure. If anything, it is going to ratchet up even more. I think you get that yourselves. I appreciate ‘my agent, my this, my that,’ but we don’t deal in that way. I have never dealt in that way.”

Jackson continued his point in the hallway, telling me that he went searching for the assistant that sent e-mails to NFL analyst Benjamin Allbright earlier this year that said Sashi Brown went home early on the night Jimmy Garoppolo was traded, a claim that has been disputed.

Jackson also made it clear he hasn’t appreciated much of what I’ve written and asked him about. So   that’s important to note. Jackson denied any role in the leaks and disagrees with my view.

And my view is that he’s harming the Browns.

On the day when the other person leading this team was fired, Jackson was given a vote of confidence into next season. Why is firing Brown attached to keeping Jackson? It’s illogical. And it doesn’t happen unless Jackson has worked to make it happen.

Jackson, in fact, made the point for his own dismissal in his explanation of why he wouldn’t need to create bad press for Sashi Brown.

He said the results are bad enough.

“Criticizing the front office? How would I make the front office look bad? I coach a football team. That right there is bad enough, 1-27 is bad enough,” Jackson said. “I don’t have to say anything. My agent doesn’t have to say anything. Just look at our football team. I’m a part of that as I said earlier.”

So why is he here? What’s Jackson’s case for himself?

“I never thought that I should not be here,” Jackson said, “but I’m not the judge of why Sashi is not here or not. That is something that you would have to take up with Jimmy.

That will be taken up with Haslam, who is expected to meet with reporters Friday. But Jackson’s approach Thursday was an insult to Browns fans.

After a year of stories about coach and front office infighting, for Jackson to act as if he’s above it all is to ask a beaten down fan base to ignore reality.

When you win, Hue, at least don’t insult our intelligence. Because this is what the Browns are left with now. Jimmy Haslam made his choice.

After investing in a front office plan that he knew would take three years and would require some patience, Haslam sided with a supposed quarterback guru who has done nothing but ruin the confidence of DeShone Kizer while failing to improve his accuracy or mechanics.

Jackson has waffled wildly between declaring Kizer the hope for the city, then benching him, the same way he benched Cody Kessler in a panic last year. But it was Jackson who was all-in on Kizer starting the year, who anointed him the starter when the quarterback was really a value pick at No. 52 in the second round.

Jackson’s own plan varied week to week, moment to moment. He took veiled shots at the roster while accepting or denying the basics of the long-term front office plan, depending on what suited him best.

At the very least, Sashi Brown’s plan had the long-term health of the Browns in mind. It wasn’t always perfect, but you could see the underlying goal.

Just like you can see Jackson’s goal. Saving himself.

And then lying to us about it.

“I didn’t win a power [struggle], I’m sorry that you feel that way,” Jackson said during the news conference when I asked why we couldn’t all just be honest and admit what happened here with Jackson, Brown and Haslam.

“I respect that you feel that it was a power struggle. I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as I was coaching a football team and trying to do the best that I can. I think everybody is trying to do the best they can. You look at it that way. I don’t see a power struggle.

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com on the Browns’ Rooney Rule shananigans:

John Wooten, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, rarely takes issue with arguably questionable efforts by NFL teams to comply with the letter and spirit of the Rooney Rule. With respect to Cleveland’s bang-bang hiring of G.M. John Dorsey, on the same day executive V.P. of football operations Sashi Brown was fired, Wooten isn’t happy.

“I think John Dorsey is a very top quality G.M.,” Wooten told Jarrett Bell of USA Today. “I am livid that the Browns would totally ignore the work all of us to make the Rooney Rule meaningful.”

The Browns contend that they complied with the Rooney Rule. Like the Chiefs earlier this year, however, the Browns have declined to disclose how and when they complied. Based on a separate statement that Wooten gave to ESPN, it appears that the Browns did not comply by interviewing one of the recommended minority candidates.

Some have suggested that the Browns complied via a vague interview of former 49ers coach Mike Singletary, which occurred in recent weeks. But how could Singletary be regarded as a viable candidate to be a General Manager? He got into coaching more than a decade after his playing career ended, and he has never worked as a scout. The notion that he’d instantly be qualified to be a G.M. is nearly as laughable as someone buying a team and making himself the G.M. (which has been done, amazingly).

It’s also unclear whether the Browns complied with the Rooney Rule by interviewing minority candidates before Brown was fired. Washington pulled that move when hiring Mike Shanahan to replace Jim Zorn, interviewing then-assistant Jerry Gray before actually firing Zorn. The league regarded that ruse as sufficient compliance with the Rooney Rule.

Yes, the Browns have a minority head coach and had, until today, a minority executive who ran the entire football operation. But there’s no exception to the Rooney Rule based on past hires; as to coaching, G.M., and other high-level jobs, at least one minority candidate must be interviewed.

Even if the Browns found a way to clumsily check the box, the spirit of the rule apparently was ignored. And it’s likely that the league, based on an established lack of diligence and transparency in matters of this nature, will not be inclined to find that a violation occurred.

The fact that the league will give the Browns a pass doesn’t mean Wooten, the media, or anyone else should. If a rule on the books isn’t going to be respected, the rule should be scrapped. And in the same year that the man for whom the rule was named died, it would be nice to see teams go out of their way to honor the rule — especially when the team in question is currently owned by someone who previously owned a significant chunk of the Steelers.

That said, haven’t the Browns already satisfied the spirit of the Rooney Rule with their recent hires.  Both Brown and Jackson are African-Americans hired by the current regime.  Brown replaced Ray Farmer who is also an African-American.  Romeo Crennel, a recent Browns coach, is an African-American.  DeShone Kizer is an African-American quarterback

So no one could argue that the Browns recent hiring practices for important positions are anything but exemplary.  It’s not the Browns that the Rooney Rule is aimed at.

Off the top of one’s head, the DB thinks of the Patriots and Cowboys as two teams with a dearth of African-American coaches and GMs over the years.  The Saints?  The Falcons?  But certainly the Browns have shown a willingness to hire African-Americans.

PITTSBURGH

It sounds like LB RYAN SHAZIER is going to have a decision to make after he undergoes spinal stabilization surgery.  Scott Davis of Business Insider:

The Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday announced that linebacker Ryan Shazier underwent surgery after suffering a spinal injury from a head-on tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday.

ESPN’s Michele Steele reported on Twitter a neurologist who consults with the NFLPA said the injury is “more severe” than expected and Shazier may not play football again. Steele noted the neurologist had not seen Shazier’s medical records and was only giving his professional opinion.

“Just got off phone w neurologist Dr Anthony Alessi, who consults w NFLPA, asked him what he makes of Shazier’s spinal stabilization surgery,” Steele wrote. “‘It’s not good…We’re not going to see him this season. He may not play football again.'”

Steele also reported via Twitter: “Alessi says surgery is needed when the ‘bones around his spinal cord are dislocated. This is a more severe injury (than a contusion.) This is a much more severe situation on our hands than we thought.'”

After making a head-first tackle on Monday, Shazier laid on the field for minutes afterward, grabbing both his head and his back and not moving his legs. He was carted off the field and taken to a hospital.

On Tuesday, the team said his condition was improving and he was not expected to need surgery.

It’s unclear what has happened since Tuesday, only that Shazier’s condition has not improved in the way the team had hoped. The team announced Shazier had been moved from Cincinnati to a hospital in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the surgery will take months of recovery, putting Shazier’s career at risk.

AFC EAST

MIAMI

Could we be in for another version of Pittsburgh-Cincinnati this Monday night?  DT NDAMUKONG SUH is sending signals.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

Last weekend, Tom Brady got in a tiff with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the sideline after the Patriots struggled to score touchdowns early against the Buffalo Bills.

Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh would like to see that display of frustration again this Monday night in Miami.

“I’d love to make him mad,” Suh said Thursday, via the Palm Beach Post. “My job is to piss him off and have him yelling at his offensive linemen for not blocking me, his coach and everybody on the sideline. That’s my job.

“We know he likes to drop back and throw comfortably and have this nice pocket, but my sole job is to disrupt that at all costs.”

Brady currently sits as the NFL’s leader in passing yards per game (302.7), passing yards per attempt (8.3), and passer rating (109.7). The Pats QB was frustrated last week, throwing for zero touchdowns and producing a 82.4 passer rating.

With Brady under center, New England has struggled in Miami more than any other opposing city. Brady is 7-8 in his career in South Beach, his most losses in any city outside of New England. While some of those games were meaningless end-of-season scenarios, it’s without question the Dolphins play the Pats tougher in Miami.

Suh and the Dolphins hope to continue that trend in prime time.

“I’m not much of a talker,” Suh said when asked what he says to Brady when he takes down the QB. “I usually don’t like going to the ground. I like inflicting pain and then going about my business and getting ready for the next play. I usually try to not stay on the ground and hop up quick.”

NEW YORK JETS

More praise for QB JOSH McCOWN from his OC.  Josh Alper at ProFootballTalk.com:

Josh McCown is installed as the Jets starter for the rest of the season and the veteran has played well enough this year that there’s already conversation about bringing him back for another spin.

Coach Todd Bowles said at his Thursday press conference that he’s not thinking that far ahead, but offensive coordinator John Morton was willing to endorse a return for a player he called “perfect” for his offense.

 “Sure. Why wouldn’t I?” Morton said, via the New York Daily News. “Look at the stats. But I don’t make that decision. You can ask the head coach that and the people upstairs.”

In any deal with McCown, the Jets need to consider more than just how McCown has played this year. His overall history in the NFL says that the Jets can’t assume that this year’s mixture of good health and good performance will repeat itself, which is something similar to the decision they had to make in 2016 regarding Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Passer Rating may not be a perfect measurement, but it shows McCown in the high middle of NFL QBs in 2017 with some pretty good company on either side: 

1          Tom Brady NE               109.7

2          Alex Smith  KC              107.2

3          Drew Brees NO             104.2

4          Aaron Rodgers GB        103.2

5          Deshaun Watson Hou   103.0

6          Carson Wentz Phi         102.0

7          Kirk Cousins Was            99.6

8          Case Keenum Min           98.6

9          Jared Goff LAR                98.4

10        Matthew Stafford Det       98.2

11        Russell Wilson Sea          96.9

12        Josh McCown NYJ         96.7

13        Philip Rivers LAC             96.0

14        Andy Dalton Cin               92.9

15        Matt Ryan Atl                   92.4

16        Derek Carr Oak               91.9

17        Jameis Winston TB         90.1

18        Ben Roethlisberger Pit    89.8

THIS AND THAT

 2018 DRAFT

Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com gets some candid comments from scouts about the top four QBs who might be in the draft.

In June, a group of NFL personnel men stood on the sideline of Nicholls State University, having made the annual pilgrimage to watch the next wave of quarterback talent at the Manning Passing Academy. Watching from afar – and with players lacking names on their shirts – one player with prototypical tools and a lofty draft status began drawing steady criticism.

“Who’s the kid with the big windup?” one longtime NFL evaluator asked, settling among a group of friends and focusing on a reddish blonde camp counselor with a zippy arm and ideal frame.

“That’s [Sam] Darnold,” an NFC personnel man answered.

The two raised their eyebrows at each other. Darnold’s delivery was unquestionably long, dropping the football down and backward with regularity. It was adding fractions of time to his delivery, separating the USC star from the crowd based on a concerning mechanical flaw.

“You can have him,” the NFC personnel man concluded within the group. “Loopy motion. Bad face. Overrated.”

Months later, this Darnold deliberation is just getting started, epitomizing what will be another hotly debated NFL quarterback class. Yahoo Sports spoke to seven NFL evaluators who have either seen the quarterbacks live (in games or offseason camps), or watched tape on potential picks in the coming draft. The consensus of the group is that at least four quarterbacks will settle into the first round of the 2017 draft: Darnold (if he declares), UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson also drew consideration, although the consensus appeared to place him somewhere in the second round.

Asked to shape up the group, including a pecking order, this is how the potential 2017 crop of first-round picks ranks going into bowl season: 

JOSH ROSEN

Rosen’s natural ability as a passer is universally loved. Two evaluators who knocked Darnold’s throwing motion after watching him firsthand in the Manning Passing Academy this past summer both raved about watching Rosen at the same event in June of 2016.

All seven evaluators shared one common thread with Rosen: His throwing motion and release are basically as elite as it gets for a prospect. They raved about his fluidity and how he spun the ball effortlessly. “He can really spin it” was said repeatedly.

There was agreement that Rosen’s footwork is sound with a clean pocket but that he can get loose in his discipline – both in decisions and mechanics – when he’s flushed out of the pocket or trying to make something happen. There also appeared to be universal agreement that Rosen is the likeliest “start from Day 1” guy in the class.

The negatives that came up were consistent: He has an underlying arrogance about him that can rub some the wrong way; he has a little bit of a party reputation off the field (though not to the point of serious concern); and his work habits and leadership have room to grow

From a football perspective, there was concern about his penchant to force bad throws rather than just getting rid of the ball. But a few evaluators were very critical of the offensive talent around Rosen, suggesting it cornered and forced him to make things happen.

SAM DARNOLD

Darnold’s leadership, athleticism and improvisation were the key takeaways. Evaluators said it was clear that he makes a lot of plays based on his natural instincts and ability. But there was some immense concern about his throwing motion, which may take some work over a sustained period. Darnold worked on the motion in the offseason, but one evaluator said he has reverted to his long release and even with work, it may be what feels most natural to him. The same evaluator said Darnold’s release can work, so long as it’s not too slow – which, at this point, it doesn’t seem to be. It remains a solid point of contention between evaluators. Some think it’s a big deal. Others feel it’s workable.

Another evaluator believed Darnold had a penchant for bailing on the pocket too often, criticizing his “taking off” at the first opportunity.

The opinions on Darnold’s development were also scattered. A few evaluators thought he could be a first day starter, while others said he needs to have a bridge quarterback protecting him from having to come in and play immediately. But it was clear that all seven evaluators thought Darnold had a lot of development left ahead of him – meaning that the right coaching staff will be important.

As for whether he could still be the first quarterback taken over Rosen, one evaluator summed it up best: “He’s not a better pure passer than Rosen, but if Darnold goes [first in the class], it’s because someone fell in love with his athleticism and longer-term upside as a package. He’ll probably do really well in interviews with staffs.”

JOSH ALLEN

Allen is going to be a significant wild card in the mix. The consistency that evaluators rave about his size/arm/skills is striking. But there are a lot of “project” concerns, too. One evaluator called continued comparisons to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz “insulting,” noting that Wentz had a mental acuity and “feel” that Allen doesn’t share. Another said Allen will be a top 20 lock largely because of his size and arm strength, similar to what floated Joe Flacco’s stock coming out of Delaware in 2008.

Overall impressions were that Allen has a future as a big downfield passer but tries to fire a cannon too often. He’s unpolished in the short or intermediate game and is more about power than perfect ball placement. But even with that, there is an aspect that everyone agreed could propel Allen into a real debate with Darnold and possibly Rosen at the top of the draft: When he throws in shorts, he has the ability to blow you away. He looks like a monster prospect in workouts because of his arm and ability to move at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. One evaluator said it was Allen – and not Darnold – who was the talk of the Manning Passing Academy in 2017.

“When I walked in [to the Manning Passing Academy], the first thing I heard was, ‘The most impressive guy here is Josh Allen.’”

There seems to be little debate that Allen could light a fire in the draft process, particularly if he can qualify for a Senior Bowl appearance and show well. But at least one evaluator had a frightening warning about getting too excited: “JaMarcus Russell looked like an All-Pro in his workout [at LSU], and Allen has some of those same physical abilities. He’s going to be eye-candy for guys who fall for the great workouts.”

BAKER MAYFIELD

Mayfield is going to have to work out well and ace his interviews – which will feature a lot of probing questions meant to test his maturity. Don’t be surprised if you persistently hear the Johnny Manziel comparison attached to Mayfield. In a half-compliment/half-swipe, one evaluator said, “I think he’s a lot like a physically built-up Johnny Manziel. That’s what he looks like when I watch him.”

That’s where some of the disagreements come in. Some like his football aptitude and throwing ability – not to mention that he can make the necessary NFL throws. Others were put off by Mayfield’s immaturity (his embarrassing drunken arrest video in which he ran from the police; the crotch-grabbing on national TV; the flag-planting against Ohio State; the trash-talking with opposing players).

Said one evaluator, “There’s a difference between being a fiery guy and being an emotional hothead. Mayfield is probably both. That could still be OK if he’s more of a leader and less of a hothead.”

Of the quartet, Mayfield will likely get the most off-field and locker room work when it comes to character (though to be fair, Rosen will get his share, too). Evaluators like his skills and smarts as a football player, and his leadership and work ethic all got positive reviews. But the height will continue to be a big hurdle, especially if there are any other perceived drawbacks. As one evaluator said, “There are more guys his size who have shown you can be successful starters [in the NFL], but let’s be honest: For every Russell Wilson, there are 100 guys who didn’t make it.”