The Daily Briefing Friday, January 12, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

The DB’s playoff picks aren’t particularly exciting this week – we like all the favorites – Atlanta in Philly and then the three home teams.  The Eagles, we feel, are the most likely to upset that applecart. 

 

We do feel that the winner of the Saints-Vikings game is your Super Bowl 52 champ.

– – –

At first we thought the NFL had confused Twickenham with Tottenham, but no, the NFL is moving on from England’s biggest rugby stadium in 2018.  Here is the NFL’s schedule of three, not four, games in London:

 

WEEK 6 (10/14) –                SEATTLE “at” OAKLAND                            Tottenham

 

WEEK 7 or 8 –                     TENNESSEE “at” LA CHARGERS              Wembley

 

WEEK 7 or 8 –                     PHILADELPHIA “at” JACKSONVILLE         Wembley

 

Rob Harris of the AP with more:

 

The NFL is heading to a new destination in London, and the first match-up at English Premier League club Tottenham will be the Oakland Raiders against the Seattle Seahawks in October.

 

That’s if the 60,000-plus capacity stadium, which has been designed to accommodate soccer and NFL, is completed in time for Week 6.

 

While Tottenham is sure that building work is on schedule on the White Hart Lane site where its previous stadium was demolished last year, the NFL has contingency plans to move the Oct. 14 game to Wembley Stadium.

 

The home of the England national soccer team is where the NFL will be staging another two games after Raiders-Seahawks match-up, giving London three consecutive weeks of American football for the first time.

 

The Philadelphia Eagles will play the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Tennessee Titans will take on the Los Angeles Chargers. The NFL is yet to decide which game will be on Oct. 21 in Week 7 and which slots into Week 8 on Oct. 28.

 

“It’s a great learning for us, it’s another test for us,” Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international, said Thursday at the site of Tottenham’s new stadium. “If we were ever to put a franchise in the UK we would need to know we can do three consecutive weekends.”

 

The NFL had planned to stage two games in the 2018 season at Tottenham, which was runner-up in the Premier League last season. But Tottenham, which is using Wembley as its own temporary home this season, doesn’t want the burden of two NFL fixtures when it is still settling into its new, unnamed stadium.

 

“We have created something very unique,” Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy said at the announcement of fixtures. “We still have another six or seven months of really hard work of construction.”

 

Tottenham has signed a 10-year contract for games with the NFL.

 

“We very much hope there will be a franchise in London and we would very much like this stadium to be used for that club,” Levy said. “We haven’t assumed there is going to be a franchise. It’s very much our desire.”

 

The new stadium was designed with NFL-sized changing rooms and to ensure the grass soccer pitch can be retracted and kept under lights below the stands when the artificial surface is required for NFL.

 

Waller said they “don’t want to alienate” fans of Tottenham’s rivals by being so closely associated with one Premier League team.

 

“We will need to get that right,” Waller said. “But we are also playing at Wembley so there will be plenty of other opportunities for fans to go elsewhere as well. It also puts an onus on us to ensure we are thoughtful about how we manage all our relationships.”

 

By the end of the year, 29 of the NFL’s 32 franchises will have played in London since regular-season games were first played in the British capital in 2007.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

The Dallas O-line was not as dominant as expected in 2017, so the Cowboys are making a switch.  Todd Archer at ESPN.com:

 

Offensive line coach Frank Pollack will not be back with the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, according to multiple sources.

 

It is the sixth change on Jason Garrett’s staff since the season ended and perhaps the most significant, because of the resources the Cowboys have put in their offensive line and their desire to be a run-first team.

 

Paul Alexander, who spent more than 20 years with the Cincinnati Bengals, is interviewing with the Cowboys as Pollack’s replacement, according to a source. A source said Tom Cable, who was fired by the Seattle Seahawks and was a college teammate of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, is also a candidate.

 

Assistant offensive line coach Marc Colombo, who played for the Cowboys from 2005-10, will also be in the mix.

 

Pollack took over for Bill Callahan after the 2014 season. Dallas was in the top 10 in rushing — including second in both 2016 and 2017 — in each of Pollack’s three seasons as the line coach.

 

During Pollack’s tenure, left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin made the Pro Bowl each season and all three were first-team All-Pro picks in 2016. Pollack also oversaw the move of La’el Collins from left guard to right tackle in 2017.

 

Pass protection, however, was an issue in 2017. Dak Prescott was sacked 32 times after he was sacked 25 times as a rookie. The Cowboys missed Smith for three full games and all but three snaps of a fourth. In the first game Smith missed, Prescott was sacked eight times by the Atlanta Falcons, with backup tackles Chaz Green and Byron Bell giving up six sacks. Without Smith on the field, Prescott threw one touchdown pass. The protection was better with Smith on the field, but Prescott’s yard per attempt dropped from 8 to 6.8 in 2017.

 

Pollack joined the Cowboys in 2013 as Callahan’s assistant offensive line coach. When Callahan left for the Washington Redskins, Garrett promoted Pollack, who is a stickler for details and technique.

 

Pollack joins special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, secondary coach Joe Baker and tight ends coach Steve Loney as coaches not returning. Bisaccia was named the special-teams coach with the Oakland Raiders, and Dooley became the offensive coordinator at Missouri. Loney is retiring, and Wilson and Baker had expiring contracts.

 

Running backs coach Gary Brown, whose contract ran out, also reportedly interviewed with the Raiders and has drawn interest from at least one more team. The Cowboys, however, want to keep Brown. Passing game coordinator/linebackers coach Matt Eberflus and secondary coach Greg Jackson also have expiring contracts.

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

Paul Schwartz of the New York Daily News says the next coach of the Giants is currently an assistant for a playoff team still active:

 

The next head coach of the Giants will be Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia or Pat Shurmur, with no surprise candidate looming, and at this point, all three are very much in the mix.

 

Steve Wilks, the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, did not make the cut after the first round of interviews, according to someone with knowledge of the Giants’ thinking. Steve Spagnuolo, the Giants’ defensive coordinator, and Eric Studesville, the former Broncos running backs coach and assistant head coach, are not being considered for the head-coach position.

 

No doubt, co-owner John Mara, general manager Dave Gettleman and assistant general manager Kevin Abrams after the initial interviews established a pecking order. Co-owner Steve Tisch attended only the interview with Wilks, and so Tisch will be involved the next time the Giants get to sit down with whoever is determined to be the No. 1 candidate.

 

Shurmur is a viable option for the Cardinals’ head-coaching vacancy. Patricia was once considered the favorite to land the Lions job, and still might be. McDaniels and the Colts could be a match. There is competition for all three, and the Giants likely will have to wait things out. This is a difficult time, as all three are currently involved in the playoffs and the Giants cannot simply take the next step and meet again with either of the two Patriots coordinators or with Shurmur, the Vikings’ offensive coordinator.

 

The NFL has a tampering rule in place prohibiting teams from hiring a coach involved in the playoffs. The rule states, “No contract shall be executed, and no agreement to execute a contract, or an announcement of a contract or of an agreement for employment, shall be permitted until after the conclusion of the employer club’s playing season.”

 

This rule, if not made to be broken, exists to be circumvented. If the Giants want McDaniels, Patricia or Shurmur, they can come to an unofficial agreement in the coming days — most likely after the games this weekend. Word got out last year that the 49ers decided to hire Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, as the Falcons were making their run to the Super Bowl. Three years ago, it was a poorly kept secret that Dan Quinn was getting the Falcons’ head-coaching job while he was involved in the postseason as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator.

 

Two years ago, the Giants moved quickly to hire Ben McAdoo, their offensive coordinator, when the Eagles made a move toward McAdoo for their head coach opening. This time around, the Giants will not rush into anything, as ownership understands the importance of getting this hire right.

 

All three remaining candidates intrigue the Giants, for different reasons. There is considerable regard for what Bill Belichick has done with the Patriots and a desire to glean some of that success by plucking one of his coordinators. The Giants are high on McDaniels’ ability to organize and direct a diverse offense and believe he would work well with Eli Manning, Davis Webb or a rookie quarterback, if they take one with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Patricia is the sort of ruffled defensive mastermind the Giants years ago saw in Bill Parcells — although Parcells did not have a degree in aeronautical engineering. Shurmur is seen by the Giants as a steadying influence and solid in many facets, someone who can get the best out of Odell Beckham Jr. and whoever is throwing him the ball.

 

The Giants have concerns with all three, as well. McDaniels did not perform well as a 33-year-old head coach in Denver, although there is a belief he has learned a great deal from what went down with the Broncos. There is also some trepidation that McDaniels would not be fully comfortable with the strong presence at general manager the Giants have in Gettleman. The Giants see Patricia as a potentially culture-changing head coach, but are not certain he is the CEO-type leader Gettleman says is needed in today’s NFL. Shurmur’s first head-coaching gig in Cleveland produced only nine victories in two seasons, and there is some debate about whether he is dynamic enough to handle the New York spotlight.

 

 

WASHINGTON

We put a story about KIRK COUSINS and the Browns in CLEVELAND.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Serious question – has Norv Turner ever had a running quarterback?  TEDDY BRIDGEWATER?  David Newton of ESPN.com on the news that Norv and son Scott are heading to Charlotte:

 

The Carolina Panthers have named former NFL head coach Norv Turner their new offensive coordinator, the team announced Friday.

 

Turner, 65, replaces Mike Shula, who along with quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, was fired Tuesday.

 

“Norv has coached Hall of Famers, he’s set a lot of people on the career paths that they’ve had,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera via statement. “I’m excited about his knowledge and his offensive prowess. It’s going to be invaluable to us have him evaluate our personnel and help take our quarterback to another level.”

 

Turner’s son, Scott, who worked with the quarterbacks at the University of Michigan this past season, will be the new position coach for Cam Newton, according to another source.

 

Rivera made the move because he felt a change was needed to further the development of Newton, who had 30 interceptions to only 41 touchdown passes the past two seasons.

 

“I came to the conclusion going forward the thing we needed to do was bring in a different perspective, different ideas in terms of going forward to what I believe is our ultimate goal, and that is winning a Super Bowl,” Rivera said Tuesday.

 

“I think Cam’s got room for improvement. There’s room for growth, and he showed some growth this year and made some big steps, he said.”

 

Rivera spent four years under Turner at San Diego from 2007 to 2010, including the last three years as the defensive coordinator. He always has spoken highly of what Turner has done for him professionally and personally.

 

It will be a huge family reunion, as Turner’s brother, Ron, already is an offensive consultant for the Panthers, and his nephew Cameron is the assistant quarterbacks coach.

 

Scott Turner was the quality control coach at Carolina during Rivera’s first two years (2011-2012). He spent the 2014-2016 seasons as the quarterbacks coach at Minnesota, where his dad was the offensive coordinator, before joining Michigan this year.

 

Turner left the Vikings after a 5-2 start to the 2016 season and has been out of football since. But he said in June at an NFL coaching clinic that he wanted to get back into the league and that he had been contacted by several coaches about opportunities.

 

One of Turner’s strengths has been developing young quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees. Newton, 28, is coming off his worst two seasons in terms of passer rating.

 

More Rivera quotes from Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Ron Rivera said the move was a long time in coming.

 

Rivera said he first wanted to hire Turner when Rob Chudzinski left to coach the Browns in 2013 because “the offense we’ve run was basically born from what Norv has been doing for years.” Turner had already signed on with Cleveland, however, and the move had to wait until now.

 

Rivera said the offense is “pretty much going to continue with what we do” because of the ties to Turner that were already in place, but added that Turner’s experience will be “invaluable” to getting more out of the unit. That includes quarterback Cam Newton, who Rivera believes will be taken “to another level” under Turner’s tutelage.

 

“Looking at what they had done with Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota, there are some similar styles in terms of the zone-read action, and then the prolific [passing] style going to three, five and seven-step drops,” Rivera said, via the team’s website. “But Cam is unique. He is his own player. I know he’ll have Cam do what he does best, but I think his skill set will fit very nicely with what Coach Turner wants.”

 

Rivera was Turner’s defensive coordinator in San Diego before moving to Carolina and said working for Turner was “terrific for my career.” Now he’s hoping that the same will be true while Turner is working for him.

 

NFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Priority one for the Rams this offseason is DT AARON DONALD.  Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register:

 

The Rams would like to duplicate many parts of their 2017 season, with one notable exception: They’d like Aaron Donald to be around for all for it.

 

Donald, the Rams’ star defensive lineman, held out for all of training camp and missed the season opener because he sought a new contract. The situation still hasn’t been resolved, and that’s one of the items at the top of the to-do list for General Manager Les Snead and the Rams’ front office this offseason.

 

“I would be probably lying if I put a timeline on this one,” Snead said Wednesday at Cal Lutheran. “We want him to be a Ram a long time. So when we ink that deal, or not, I can’t put a timeline on it, but it is a major priority, as it always will be until we get it done.”

 

From a practical standpoint, Donald’s contract isn’t the Rams’ top concern, because he remains under contract for the 2018 season at a very reasonable salary of just under $6.9 million.

 

Meanwhile, free agency could gut the Rams’ secondary, given that cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman, and safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Cody Davis are set to hit the market on March 15. Sammy Watkins, Connor Barwin, and John Sullivan also are notable free agents.

 

“We’ll have them all going on simultaneously and try to knock them out,” Snead said. “We’ve got a little bit of a general plan as it is now. We’ll come back and fine-tune it.”

 

The Rams’ season ended Saturday with a first-round playoff loss to Atlanta, and Snead said front-office folks took a step back this week, and will start to implement their offseason plan after the Super Bowl.

 

Part of that, Snead said, will include deciding when players currently under contract might be candidates to be released. The Rams need to carve out some salary-cap room if they’re going to sign some of their impending free agents. For instance, they could save $3 million if they cut receiver Tavon Austin, $7 million if they cut linebacker Mark Barron and $11.4 if they cut linebacker Robert Quinn.

 

This will be some high-level math, and it will take place during a philosophical debate.

 

The Rams have Donald under contract in 2018 and could apply the NFL’s “franchise tag” to him after each of the following three seasons. So, if the Rams wanted to push things, they could keep Donald under control until after the 2021 season, when Donald would be 30 years old.

 

Donald would like a new contract now, and probably one that would pay him approximately $20 million per season, a huge raise over his current salary level. Donald’s play suggests he deserves it, but the Rams have to weigh that against the damage a big contract could do to their salary-cap structure.

 

The Rams can breathe a bit easier this year, though, because even if Donald chooses to hold out again, it won’t be for long. Donald could skip the optional summer workouts, but if he failed to report to training camp one month before the start of the regular season, he would lose a full year toward free agency, and he almost certainly won’t take that risk.

 

Snead knows that with both Arizona and Seattle revamping their coaching staffs, and San Francisco still in the building phase, the Rams could be at the start of a window in which they could win multiple NFC West championships. Getting the salary-cap math correct is a big part of that challenge.

 

“We do have a young team, so it is sustainable,” Snead said, “but it’s solving that riddle. And I think it’s best for us to sit down, take a little bit of emotional break, and come back and try to be rational and smart in our thinking.”

 

Snead also addressed, with different levels of transparency, some of the other big decisions the Rams face during the offseason.

 

— Johnson, the Rams’ top cornerback, “definitely” could return in 2018, even though Johnson and the Rams seemed fairly convinced, at the start of the season, that a split would take place after this season.

 

— Austin’s status remains a question, and is a matter of, as Snead put it, “can we keep carrying him and his contract?” Austin signed a four-year, $42-million contract in Aug. 2016, but played a miniscule role in the Rams’ offense this season and appeared in only two plays against Atlanta.

 

— Sullivan, the Rams’ center and an impending free agent, also is a candidate to return, but Snead indicated he would like veterans such as Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth to begin to mentor their eventual replacements. Sullivan turned 32 during the season and Whitworth turned 36.

 

— Todd Gurley’s rookie contract would expire at the end of the 2019 season, if they Rams chose to utilize the fifth-year option, but Gurley is eligible to negotiate a new contract in mid-March. Snead acknowledged the possibility that Gurley could hold out this year, as Donald did last year, and Snead called Gurley “another domino that is important.”

 

Snead also updated the injury status of some Rams. Defensive lineman Michael Brockers, who hurt his knee against the Falcons, would not have played this week if the Rams had won, Snead said, but will not require any serious medical procedures.

 

Cornerback Kayvon Webster tore his Achilles tendon during the season. Snead indicated he wasn’t certain whether Webster would be ready for the start of training camp in July and said the Rams would be cautious. Snead sounded more certain about the availability of kicker Greg Zuerlein, who underwent back surgery last month.

 

 

SEATTLE

Larry Stone of the Seattle Times with a positive spin on 66-year-old Pete Carroll and the re-shuffled Seahawks coaching staff.

 

In the aftermath of Black Wednesday, which saw the ousting of Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable — with other prominent heads reputed to be rolling soon — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will no doubt tell you it’s all in the name of always competing.

 

That’s in his football DNA, no doubt. But it also has the markings of a guy who may be hearing his biological clock ticking, at least as it pertains to coaching.

 

Carroll will turn 67 during the first month of next season. He has two years left on the three-year extension he agreed to prior to the 2016 season, kicking in this past year and lasting through the 2019 season.

 

While the Seahawks certainly still have a core of elite talent on hand, you don’t have to squint too hard to see the end of this particular era on the horizon.

 

Carroll will never cop to this, but it would be only human to feel a little bit of extra urgency to get things right, pronto. And that pertains not just to the closing window on the Seahawks as we’ve known them, but Carroll’s own coaching mortality.

 

That’s not to say, mind you, the end is in sight for Carroll’s tenure with the Seahawks, or on a football sideline. I’ve seen no signs of that whatsoever. I hope I have his vigor and enthusiasm when I’m 66 (which, I must say, is approaching with frightening rapidity).

 

When he signed the extension, Carroll said, “I know you guys are wanting to know, how long is he going to coach or whatever. I have no end to this. I don’t see it. I’m just going for it. I’m going to go as long as it’s fun and it’s good and we’re winning games and all of that.”

 

That was two increasingly difficult seasons ago, the latest of which saw Seattle miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011. But Carroll was just as fired up as always at his season-ending press conference two weeks ago, talking about how eager he was to tackle the challenge of getting things back on track, while slapping aside the rumors of retirement.

 

“I’m pumped, and I need to translate that and transfer that into the rest of the program so everybody’s ready to go,’’ he said.

 

So Carroll is not planning any sort of exit strategy. In fact, I think it’s likelier that he has his eyes on breaking the record of Marv Levy and George Halas as the oldest coaches in NFL history. They were 72 when they finally hung it up. To get to 73, Carroll would have to make it to the 2024 season. He has joked about matching the feat of Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached Carroll’s alma mater, Pacific, at 78, and was still an assistant at age 96. A few years ago, John Schneider kidded that Carroll “thinks he can live to 120 and coach until he’s 110.”

 

I wouldn’t put any of it past him. I was surprised to learn the other day that Carroll and Nick Saban were born 46 days apart in 1951. Do you detect any signs of either of them, at age 66, slowing down? Me, neither.

 

But you do start to take a reckoning when you reach the AARP years. You realize you are guaranteed nothing, and that each day is a gift. It leads to a certain freedom, but also to an undeniable urgency, and if I were to play armchair psychiatrist, I’d wonder if that’s partially at play here. Especially with the potential for a rebuilding stretch looming around the corner in Seattle. And with the notion that one more Super Bowl might punch Carroll’s ticket to the Hall of Fame.

 

Carroll is a notoriously loyal guy, yet he cut loose two of his stalwart lieutenants, with strong indications that defensive coordinator Kris Richard and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith could be next. The Seahawks figure to be just as aggressive in reshaping the roster this season, with some key players with links to Seattle’s two Super Bowl appearances bound to be jettisoned.

 

Carroll may say that this is business as usual. He has already told us that there were no ulterior motives this year, that those reputed “win-now” acquisitions of Sheldon Richardson and Duane Brown weren’t designed to cram open the closing window of opportunity.

 

“We’re trying to go for it every time we go,’’ Carroll said at that final press conference. “There’s not a year we say, ‘’OK, let’s sit back and wait until next year.’ ’’

 

Always compete, right? But maybe sometimes, you compete just a little harder.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

Les Carpenter of UK Guardian is skeptical that the Jon Gruden hire will work out for the Raiders.

 

This was in the summer of 2000, back when Jon Gruden was still the impossibly young coach of the Oakland Raiders fighting a team owner stuck in the past. We were walking across a threadbare field at the team’s training camp – a makeshift operation set up behind a country hotel – and he kept shaking his head at the tufts of grass that looked like islands in an ocean of dirt. His face was a mix of disgust at the shoddy conditions and pride for the way he made the best of them.

 

“Look at this,” he said with a laugh.

 

Nothing about owner Al Davis’s Raiders screamed first-class in those days. That was the charm of the league’s most dysfunctional franchise. You didn’t need to be fancy to roll in Davis’s roughshod outfit. When Davis hired Gruden in 1998, one of the coach’s greatest selling points was that, as a 35-year-old, he came cheap.

 

And yet he had been a brilliant choice for Davis, a taskmaster driven to make a flophouse of a franchise right. The season before his hire, the Raiders had practically quit on their season, with one star showing up to practice clad in a fur coat. Now two years into the revival, Gruden had given the team some character.

 

But Gruden’s two respectable 8-8 seasons (they had gone 7-9 and 4-12 in the two years before his arrival) had not pleased Davis. Gruden didn’t run the owner’s beloved vertical passing offense, choosing instead the more deliberate but effective West Coast system learned from his mentor Mike Holmgren. So even with Gruden about to push the Raiders to within a game of the Super Bowl in the 2000 season, rumors flew that Gruden’s rebuild was going to cost him his job. As we walked that day I asked him about the whispers.

 

He stopped. He scowled.

 

“I don’t have a conscious fear of failure,” he said.

 

Then he smiled.

 

“I kind of like the rumors,” he added. “It’s part of the job.”

 

Watching Gruden this week, as he sat at a dais with Davis’s son Mark, after accepting a contract that could pay him up to $100m to revive the Raiders again, I wondered if it was possible for him to be that cocksure young man on the broken football field. He is in his mid-50s now with a snug security that coaches never get: guaranteed employment for the next 10 years. He’s lived the past nine seasons in the comfort of the broadcast booth – still attached to football but safely removed from the grind that devours coaches’ souls.

 

Nobody had to light a fire inside the Gruden who stood on that worn practice field nearly 18 years ago. His ticket to infamy came in winning his fight with Al Davis and the old Raider way. But that was before the Super Bowl he won with Tampa Bay, before he appeared to tire of coaching, before the Gruden Grinders on TV, before Gruden’s Quarterback Camp, before Gruden became a brand. Coaching isn’t the same when you boast a cult of personality.

 

Who knows if he can spark his new team, but doing so after years away isn’t easy. In 2004, Washington’s legendary coach Joe Gibbs left broadcasting and returned to the franchise where he had won three Super Bowls in the 1980s. Like Gruden, Gibbs had become a name, running a successful racing team. He had moderate success in the four seasons that became known as “Gibbs 2.0” twice squeaking into the playoffs as a wild card but never coming close to the greatness of before.

 

When Gibbs left again, at 67, he seemed drained, worn from the rigor of coaching in a modern age.

 

Gibbs loved to talk about the all-nighters he and his staff pulled while game-planning during the season. He’d refer to the joy of hearing the early-morning trash trucks as he toiled under the office lights. The young Gruden liked to boast of his own endless hours spent at work. On the day we talked in 2000 a reporter had told Gruden he wanted to follow the coach through his workday. Gruden roared with laughter and suggested they meet a little before 4am at a favorite convenience store to grab coffee.

 

Later that afternoon he stopped practice, angry that the Raiders defensive players – who were dominating the workouts that day – had been taunting their team-mates on offense. He called the entire team to the middle of the field. He shouted about respect, about dignity, about “playing like a champion”. His players dropped their heads. They listened. There were no more taunts the rest of practice.

 

Can this Gruden stop practices for lectures the way he once did? Will he want to? On television he seems like he was back then: hyper, aggressive, growling at things that displeased him. But now he has set a new standard for coach’s pay, blowing apart the old structure and signaling an era where coaches might become as wealthy as the best players they coach.

 

Al Davis never would have given a coach $100m, but Al Davis has been dead more than six years now. The Raiders will soon leave Oakland and their tired old stadium for an extravagant palace just off the Las Vegas strip. Gruden won’t be the gritty young coach on the barren field any more. He will be a man making $100m in a city where the nights glow and nothing is real.

 

Is that enough to make the Raiders great once more? Or just an expensive grab at a mirage from the past?

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com mulls over the possibility QB KIRK COUSINS could find his way to Cleveland.

 

As has been the case the previous two offseasons, the Redskins appear in no hurry to sign Kirk Cousins to a long-term deal. In fact, the organization could choose to use the franchise tag for the third straight year, even as coach Jay Gruden acknowledged that he’d prefer not to “go through another one-year” deal with his quarterback.

 

And neither would Cousins, who told 106.7 The Fan recently that “there’s a part of me that would like to get settled.”

 

But should the Redskins choose not to give Cousins a new contract or franchise him to the tune of $34.5 million in 2018, he would become a much-sought-after free agent. And according to TheMMQB.com‘s Albert Breer, Cousins would “seriously consider” playing for the Browns, an outfit that just put the finishing touches on an 0-16 season and are 1-31 in Hue Jackson’s two seasons as coach.

 

Thanks to a combination of on-field and front-office futility, the Browns will have the first and fourth pick in the 2018 NFL Draft after passing on Carson Wentz in 2016 and Deshaun Watson last spring. In the most recent CBSSports.com mock draft, R.J. White has Cleveland taking USC quarterback Sam Darnold first overall and Alabama free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick three picks later.

 

That would all change should the Browns land Cousins. And while that seems decidedly unlikely for several reasons, Breer notes that the team would consider going all-in on both veteran and rookie quarterbacks.

 

First, new general manager John Dorsey will likely use those first-rounders to find the team’s next franchise quarterback. Free-agent signings and later draft picks haven’t worked out; the organization has started 28 different quarterbacks since returning to Cleveland in 1999 and last drafted a quarterback in Round 1 in 2014 when they traded up to grab Johnny Manziel. Prior to that, there was Brandon Weeden (2012, 22nd overall) and Brady Quinn (2007, 22nd overall). Since the Manziel fiasco, the Browns used a 2016 third-round pick on Cody Kessler and a 2017 second-rounder on DeShone Kizer.

 

By any measure, Cousins would be a substantial upgrade but he’ll also be in high demand; the Jaguars, Bills, Cardinals, Broncos and Giants could all be looking for quarterbacks and they’re all in better shape than the Browns.

 

The good news is that Cleveland has tons of salary cap space. According to Spotrac, the Browns are sitting at $109 million in cap space, second only to the 49ers. The bad news is, well, just about everything else from the front-office dysfunction to the constant losing to the roster that can’t compete with the 31 other teams.

 

Wherever Cousins ends up, he’ll make north of $25 million a year though the Browns may not have enough money to make it worth his while to come to Cleveland.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

WR ANTONIO BROWN missed practice on Friday with an illness.

– – –

RB Le’VEON BELL serves notice to the Steelers that he is done with being tagged.  Austin Knoblauch of NFL.com:

 

Days away from the Pittsburgh Steelers starting their playoff run, Le’Veon Bell says he doesn’t want to play under the franchise tag again.

 

Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler before practice Thursday he “would definitely consider” sitting out the 2018 season if the Steelers tagged him for the second straight season. He said his message to the Steelers is simple: “Value me.”

 

“I’m not going to settle for anything,” Bell said. “I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.”

 

Bell’s remarks come three days before the Steelers’ AFC Division Round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s well known that Bell wasn’t pleased with playing under the tag — he sat out training camp and the preseason before signing his tag a week before the start of the season. He finished third in league rushing with 1,291 yards over 15 games.

 

Bell’s distaste for playing under the tag runs deep — he told Fowler he’d “probably be done” with football if he ultimately decided to sit out in 2018.

 

“They tag me again, it will be me [saying], ‘OK, do I want to play on the tag or do I not want to play on the tag?’ That’s what it comes down to,” Bell said. “If I was a free agent and they let me go, be a free agent, then yeah, I’m going to go explore free agency, test the market.”

 

It’s easy to dismiss Bell’s comments as little more than a hardline negotiation tactic. While playing under the tag is rarely an ideal situation for any player, it seems preposterous to imagine a 25-year-old who’s arguably the NFL’s best running back walking away.

 

“I’m happy where I’m at,” Bell said. “I don’t necessarily care about the money aspect of it. I just want to be valued where I’m at. If I am playing this game, I want to set standards for all the other running backs behind me like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, guys like that. I’m a guy they can kind of look at. I feel I can do that. I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do it.”

 

UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, Bell took to Twitter to clarify his feelings about next season:

 

Le’Veon Bell

@L_Bell26

I’m trying to win a super bowl…I can care less about what happens after this season…my biggest thing I’m focused on is this team I’m on right now, playing for/with my brothers, & bringing back a 7th ring! what happens next year is irrelevant to my goals

 

AFC SOUTH

 

JACKSONVILLE

Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com reminds us that RB LEONARD FOURNETTE tore up the Steelers the first time the teams met:

 

There has been a lot of attention paid to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wanting another shot at the Jacksonville Jaguars defense to atone for his five-interception performance in October.

 

That was undoubtedly Roethlisberger’s worst day of the season. It also was Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette’s best.

 

Fournette ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the Jaguars’ 30-9 victory at Heinz Field. The first touchdown was a 2-yarder in the second quarter and the second was a 90-yarder and it came on his 28th and final carry. Fournette called those the top two plays of his rookie season.

 

Why does a 2-yard run qualify? Because he took the handoff from Blake Bortles and leapt from just inside the 5-yard line and landed about 2 yards deep in the end zone. That’s approximately 18 feet in the air.

 

The 90-yard touchdown came on the first play after the two-minute warning. Fournette went off left guard, hit the open field, and poured it on. The NFL says Fournette reached a top speed of 22.05 mph, which ended up being the fastest any ball carrier has run in 2017.

 

There was another memorable play in that game, too: Fournette waving on safety Mike Mitchell. The two had been yapping back and forth all game and Fournette just got tired of hearing it, so when he broke free after stiff-arming linebacker Bud Dupree on a fourth-quarter run off right tackle he sought out Mitchell.

 

The 6-foot-1, 221-pound Mitchell went low and the 6-foot, 228-pound Fournette ran through the contact and ended up with a 12-yard gain. Mitchell popped up immediately after the play and started celebrating. Fournette yelled a few things, too.

 

Surprisingly, Fournette, who ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns, doesn’t list that among his top plays as a rookie.

 

“I don’t rank that one,” he said. “Like I said it’s competing, really. He’s a great safety and can’t wait to get at it with him once again.”

 

There’s a good chance they’ll meet again on Sunday.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

Rick Dennison is one-and-done as OC of the Bills. Mike Rodak of ESPN.com:

 

The Buffalo Bills on Friday fired offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, the team announced.

 

The Bills, who are likely to have a new starting QB next season, fired Rick Dennison after his offense finished ranked 29th in the NFL.

 

The Bills finished 29th in average yards per game (302.6) and were tied for 24th in offensive points scored (17.6) this season. Buffalo finished with a 9-7 record and lost 10-3 in an AFC wild-card game to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

“We’re not satisfied with the whole offense, and it wasn’t just about [quarterback] Tyrod [Taylor],” general manager Brandon Beane said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of hands in the cookie jar, so to speak, and [coach] Sean [McDermott] and I, we’re going to talk about everything, and we know we have to get better on offense, on defense, on special teams. We are far from a finished product.”

 

Second-half scoring was a particular issue for the Bills’ offense. Buffalo averaged 5.6 second-half points per game after Week 10, including the playoff loss. The Bills’ four offensive touchdowns in the second half over that period were tied for second fewest in the NFL.

 

Dennison joined the Bills last January after McDermott replaced Rex Ryan as coach. Dennison previously had two stints as the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator (2006-08 and 2015-16) and Houston Texans’ offensive coordinator (2010-13), working primarily under Gary Kubiak.

 

The Bills’ change at offensive coordinator will likely coincide with a change at quarterback this offseason. Taylor, in his third season as Buffalo’s starting quarterback, finished 14th in Total QBR (53.0) this season, 16th in passer rating (89.2), 15th in completion percentage (62.6), 23rd in yards per pass attempt (6.66) and 25th in passing touchdowns (14). Taylor’s Total QBR, passer rating, yards per attempt and passing touchdowns all declined in each of his three seasons since joining the Bills in 2015.

 

Buffalo has the No. 21 and No. 22 picks in April’s draft, as well as its original second-round pick and the Los Angeles Rams’ second-round selection.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com on the Patriots’ (and NFL’s) recent history of big postseason favorites:

 

The Patriots are two-touchdown favorites against the Titans on Saturday, a point spread that’s unheard of in the postseason — except for games involving the Patriots.

 

In the 21st Century, there have been seven NFL postseason games with point spreads of 12 points or more, and all seven of them were in games involving the Patriots.

 

Here’s the full list of playoff games with point spreads of 12 points or higher since 2000:

 

2018: Patriots favored by 13.5 vs. Titans

2017: Patriots favored by 16 vs. Texans (Patriots won 34-16)

2012: Patriots favored by 13.5 vs. Broncos (Patriots won 45-10)

2008: Patriots favored by 12.5 vs. Giants (Giants won 17-14)

2008: Patriots favored by 14 vs. Chargers (Patriots won 21-12)

2008: Patriots favored by 13.5 vs. Jaguars (Patriots won 31-20)

2002: Rams favored by 14 vs. Patriots (Patriots won 20-17)

 

We’re so accustomed to the Patriots being favorites that it’s easy to forget they were the biggest underdogs in any Super Bowl this century when they faced the Rams. They won that game, and since then have won four of five postseason games as heavy favorites. The Titans will hope to look like the Giants 10 years ago, or the Patriots 16 years ago, on Sunday.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

REST OR NO REST?

The DB would tend towards not giving a lot of rest to players in a clinched situation, say treating the final game like a Week 3 preseason game, but not giving healthy players a full week off. 

 

Now, let’s see what Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com says:

 

When the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night, their subpar performance on offense sparked yet another debate about whether it makes sense to rest star players in Week 17. The Rams could theoretically have dropped down to the fourth seed and strengthened Todd Gurley’s MVP case with a win over the 49ers, but rookie head coach Sean McVay chose to sit Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and several other starters in what ended up as a 34-13 loss to the 49ers. Other results left them in the same No. 3 spot they occupied before the day began.

 

A week later, the Rams came out at home against the Falcons and laid an egg. Gurley ran for 101 yards on 14 carries, and Donald spent the entire game terrorizing Matt Ryan in Atlanta’s backfield, but Goff struggled in his first playoff start. The second-year quarterback completed just 53.5 percent of his 45 pass attempts, while his receivers repeatedly lost their footing and struggled to make Atlanta’s defensive backs miss.

 

The Steelers might look at the Rams with some concern. They rested stars such as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Cameron Heyward in Week 17, and while they still had enough firepower to hand the Browns their 16th loss of the season, Pittsburgh will have to be concerned about its star players coming out rusty against the Jaguars this weekend.

 

Should the Steelers be worried? Is there a track record of teams playing worse after giving their players a week off? I tried to identify teams in recent years that sat their starting quarterback and other key contributors for part or all of the action in Week 17, and the results might surprise you.

 

The rusty ones

The Rams aren’t the only team to rest their stars in Week 17 and regret doing so. There are others, including a few teams that were victimized by major upsets. Here are a few notable teams in recent years that either kept their key players out altogether in Week 17 or took them out early:

 

2011 Green Bay Packers

Green Bay started 13-0 before losing to the Chiefs in Week 15. Having locked up the top seed in the NFC, the Packers gave off the final week of the season to Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and other stars. Matt Flynn promptly came in and threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 thriller over the Lions, which led to the longtime backup signing with the Seattle Seahawks, only to lose his job to Russell Wilson before the season even began.

 

Rodgers & Co. ended up playing the New York Giants, whom they had beaten in a 38-35 thriller in the Meadowlands two months earlier. Things didn’t go as well the second time around. The Packers lost three fumbles, allowed a Hail Mary touchdown to Hakeem Nicks at halftime and never found an answer to slow down Eli Manning. The Giants beat the Packers by 17 points en route to their own Super Bowl victory.

 

2010 Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles were locked into the 3-seed in the NFC after a stunning season from Michael Vick, who had taken over from the traded Donovan McNabb. Wanting to rest his stars, Andy Reid sat Vick, LeSean McCoy, Asante Samuel and 10 other starters in a 14-13 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Packers, who were hitting their stride early in what would become a 19-game winning streak. The Eagles went just 5-of-13 on third down, while David Akers (who did play in Week 17) missed field goals from 34 and 41 yards out. A late Vick drive resulted in a season-ending interception, and the Packers won 21-16. Three games later, they were Super Bowl champs.

 

2010 New England Patriots

On the same day as the Eagles’ loss to the Cowboys, New England took Tom Brady out with a 31-0 lead in the third quarter of its game with the Miami Dolphins, handing things over to Brian Hoyer. One year after tearing his ACL while playing in Week 17 against the Houston Texans, Wes Welker was inactive for this game with no injury listed.

 

The Patriots had home-field advantage as the top seed in the AFC, but it didn’t matter two weeks later. The sixth-seeded New York Jets upset the Colts in Indy and then came to New England with a brand-new zone scheme designed to throw off Brady. It worked. Brady was sacked five times and threw an interception, while Mark Sanchez threw for three touchdowns without a pick of his own. A late Patriots touchdown made it 28-21, but after the ensuing onside kick failed, the Jets emerged as stunning winners despite entering the day as 9.5-point underdogs.

 

Other possible candidates who rested players and lost immediately: 2009 and 2012 Cincinnati Bengals; 2009 San Diego Chargers; 2016 Dallas Cowboys

 

The rested ones

 

Not every team regrets giving its stars a break, though. Here are a few teams that took off Week 17 without skipping a beat in the playoffs:

 

2012 Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore didn’t have much to play for in Week 17, having already clinched the AFC North title with a week to spare. The Ravens’ opponents — the Bengals — were locked into the No. 6 seed and pulled players as the game went along. Baltimore didn’t bother waiting. It sat Anquan Boldin, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs as inactives and took out Joe Flacco, Ed Reed and Ray Rice after two series.

 

Things went just fine for the Ravens, who beat the Colts in the wild-card round, pulled out that famous Hail Mary over Rahim Moore for a 38-35 win over the Broncos in Denver and toppled the Patriots in Foxborough before winning the Harbaugh Bowl over Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Flacco had one of the best postseasons ever, throwing for 11 touchdowns without an interception.

 

2009 New Orleans Saints

The Saints locked up home-field advantage by going 13-2 in advance of what would be a meaningless Week 17 encounter with the Carolina Panthers. They used the opportunity to rest Drew Brees, Darren Sharper and Jonathan Vilma in advance of the postseason to come, choosing instead to start Mark Brunell in what would be a 23-10 loss to the Panthers.

 

A month later, the Saints didn’t care. They came back in the divisional round and dropped 45 points on the Arizona Cardinals during Kurt Warner’s final game. The offense then chipped in with 31 points against the Minnesota Vikings in an overtime thriller before adding 24 more in a famous 31-17 upset of the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

 

2009 Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were one of the most controversial resting teams in league history. Indy made the decision to take out Peyton Manning after the first drive of the third quarter with a 15-10 lead over the Jets in Week 16 despite the fact that they were two wins away from a perfect regular season. Curtis Painter subsequently blew the lead, costing the Colts a shot at 16-0. A week later, Manning threw just one pass in the second quarter before turning things over to Painter, who posted a 15.1 passer rating in a loss to the Buffalo Bills. Dwight Freeney and even Adam Vinatieri sat as the Colts were destroyed 30-7.

 

It didn’t matter. The Colts beat Baltimore 20-3 in the divisional round, then scored 30 more against the Jets as Manning had one of the best games of his career by throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best pass defenses in league history. Indy would lose in the Super Bowl, but that occurred more than a month after the would-be rust should have set in for Week 17.

 

Other possible candidates who rested players for some or all of Week 17 and made it past their first playoff game: 2014 Indianapolis Colts; 2014 New England Patriots; 2013 Denver Broncos; 2011 Houston Texans; 2010 New York Jets; 2009 Arizona Cardinals

 

Should teams rest their players?

 

I lean toward yes for a few reasons:

 

There’s no strong evidence it impacts team performance in the postseason

 

For every instance of a team flailing once it gets into the postseason, such as the 2017 Rams, we can find one or even two examples of a team that rested its players without any repercussions. I can’t say for sure that rest helps, but the evidence about how a break in Week 17 impacts on-field performance is mixed and unclear at best.

 

Teams break bad all the time. Last year, the Giants won in Week 17 with a full complement of players and delivered a dud at Lambeau the next week.

 

Likewise, teams might gain inspiration from playing well in Week 17. The Giants famously credit their postseason run to sending out a full complement of talent against the Patriots during Week 17 of the 2007 season, with their 38-35 loss eventually yielding a 17-14 win in Super Bowl XLII. You can make anecdotal arguments in every possible direction.

 

There is strong evidence it keeps players healthier

 

The one thing we can say for sure is that the chances of a player getting injured during Week 17 are significantly higher on the field than they are if the player remains on the sideline. (Teams worried about a star being rolled up on might wish to position him in a luxury box, and players can get hurt in practice like Artie Burns did this week, but the risk reduces to basically nil.)

 

As I mentioned earlier, the 2009 Patriots played Welker in a Week 17 game against the Texans only for Welker to tear his ACL. The Pats kept Brady in until midway through the fourth quarter, but it didn’t help. They hosted the Ravens the following week in the wild-card round and were down 14-0 after nine plays thanks to an 83-yard Rice touchdown run and a Suggs strip-sack. Brady finished with just 154 yards passing and three interceptions on 42 attempts in a 33-14 home blowout.

 

Besides, even if we poke deeper into the Rams argument, there’s not much there. Donald had a monster game. Gurley ran the ball well but struggled as a receiver. Was he rusty only in the passing game? Goff struggled, but the biggest problem for the Rams on Saturday night was Pharoh Cooper, who shockingly made two key special-teams errors. Cooper was hardly rusty; not only did he play in Week 17, but the South Carolina product started that game as a wideout and was targeted four times.

 

I suspect the Steelers aren’t concerned about what taking Week 17 off might do to them, either, given that they went down the same path last year. Again facing the Browns, the Steelers sat Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Stephon Tuitt in advance of their wild-card game against the Dolphins. Roethlisberger subsequently hit Brown for touchdown passes of 50 and 62 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two drives of the postseason, and Bell plunged in for a 1-yard score on their third.

 

Mike Tomlin’s team won 30-12 and then beat the Chiefs before being routed by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. If the Steelers don’t make it to a rematch with the Patriots (or a home game against the Titans) next week, it will be because of what the Jaguars do on Sunday as opposed to a decision Tomlin made to give his stars a break last week.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

ESPN is turning to Matt Hasselbeck to replace Jon Gruden for the Pro Bowl.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew calls the Pro Bowl, but with Jon Gruden now the coach of the Raiders, Matt Hasselbeck will be the fill-in commentator.

 

Hasselbeck was announced today as the Pro Bowl broadcaster in the booth with Sean McDonough.

 

“The process for determining our new Monday Night Football booth is already underway,” ESPN’s Stephanie Druley said in a statement. “We are looking at both internal and external candidates and expect to have a decision made this spring. This is one of the most high-profile and attractive positions in all of sports broadcasting so we want to take our time to ensure we make the best decision.”

 

That ESPN appointed Hasselbeck for the Pro Bowl gig suggests that he’s a strong candidate to get the job on a permanent basis. The Pro Bowl will be an audition.

 

Frank Schwab of Shutdown Corner with a cautious endorsement:

 

Hasselbeck getting this assignment doesn’t mean he’ll get the full-time job, but he’s going to have a unique opportunity that no other candidate will get.

 

Hasselbeck would be a fine choice, if ESPN goes that way. He knows the game and is engaging on ESPN’s studio shows. It remains to be seen if Hasselbeck can handle the transition to color commentary from the booth. He has limited experience (when he was still playing he joined Chris Myers and Ronde Barber for a game on Fox in 2014, when he was on his bye week). But he is well known from a long NFL career and good at his current role. Amid ESPN’s cutbacks, the network also wouldn’t have to pay millions to hire someone from outside, like Peyton Manning or Bruce Arians.

 

The Pro Bowl is generally not very interesting, and ratings are sagging as a result. The game on the field lacks intrigue because most of the players don’t want to get hurt in an all-star game. But this season, the Pro Bowl might be worth watching. Perhaps we’ll be getting a preview of our next “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth.

 

 

FREE AGENTS

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com with an advance look at the free agent market.

 

Before getting to the preliminary list of the top 25 unrestricted free agents of 2018 below, there are a few disclaimers to cover.

 

Many of the biggest names won’t ever make it to free agency because they’ll get a long-term deal or the franchise tag. The trade market — especially at quarterback — figures to be more active than ever in a league where fewer teams have real salary-cap issues. There will inevitably also be a few surprise names added to the free-agent pool when teams begin to make roster cuts before the start of the new league year on March 14.

 

Add that all up and it’s safe to expect a much different set of rankings by the time Chris Wesseling and I post our annual Top 101 Free Agents list in late February. The players are ranked below by their ability to impact a team for the next two to three years — this does not necessarily reflect who will make the most money.

 

1  Jimmy Garoppolo  QB  49ers

Now that 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan had a franchise quarterback fall in their laps, there is no chance they will let Jimmy GQ get away. He seems likely to get the franchise tag as a gateway to a long-term deal, which could make him one of the sport’s highest-paid players after only seven career starts.

 

2  Kirk Cousins  QB Redskins

Washington GM Bruce Allen will make the first move in answering the biggest question of this offseason: Will the Redskins allow Cousins to reset the QB market as a free agent?

 

3  Drew Brees  QB Saints

It’s hard to imagine Brees going anywhere after such a successful season in New Orleans, although his contract will be complicated, considering his age (39 on Jan. 15) and legendary franchise status. It’s worth noting that Brees found his last protracted contract talks in 2012 ” extremely frustrating” before he missed OTAs and mandatory minicamp.

 

4 Le’Veon Bell  RB  Steelers

After loading Bell up with 406 touches in the regular season, it’s theoretically possible Pittsburgh will let Bell walk away like the Cowboys did with DeMarco Murray a few years back. Tagging Bell again at the price of $14.54 million makes more sense.

 

5 Demarcus Lawrence DE  Cowboys

The 25-year-old timed his career season just right. There’s no chance the Cowboys will allow the breakout pass rusher to leave, so a franchise tag appears likely here.

 

6 Allen Robinson  WR Jaguars

He’s coming off a torn ACL, but Robinson had already established himself as one of the best young receivers in football before the injury. Considering how much money the Jaguars have spent on the defense, it would make no sense for them to let an offensive cornerstone get away.

 

7 Teddy Bridgewater  QB  Vikings

The Minnesota front office knows so much more than any other team about Bridgewater’s skill set, makeup and health. That’s why a short-term deal to stay in Minnesota makes the most sense for a player who still has the high ceiling of a franchise quarterback, but who carries plenty of risk, too.

 

8 Sheldon Richardson  DT Seahawks

Seattle gave up a second-round pick to acquire Richardson in a win-now move. It will be telling to see if the Seahawks try to keep him after a good, not great, season. It’s a little worrisome that Richardson’s best play came way back in 2014.

 

9 Ezekiel Ansah  DE  Lions

He would have been better off hitting free agency before two injury-plagued years, but Ansah is still a strong every-down starter at a position with few quality options in free agency.

 

10 Jarvis Landry  WR Dolphins

Only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones have caught more passes than Landry since the LSU product entered the league in 2014. He doesn’t have the downfield chops to earn No. 1 receiver money, but a difference-maker in the slot is still plenty worthy, and it sounds like the Dolphins might be ready to say goodbye.

 

11 Sammy Watkins WR Rams

For all the potential here, Watkins has only produced 1,023 yards over the last two years combined. Jared Goff looked to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp more often than he did to Watkins, but the Rams might use the franchise tag on the 24-year-old to see if they can get more out of him after a full offseason of work.

 

12 Lamarcus Joyner DB Rams

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips knew just how to maximize Joyner as a safety/cornerback hybrid who loves to hit and can cover the slot. There are a lot of teams looking for a player just like Joyner, and the Rams have a long to-do list this offseason. Speaking of which …

 

13 Trumaine Johnson CB  Rams

The best cornerback on one of the best teams in football often traveled with the opposition’s best receiver. Johnson is just the type of quality starter/sub- Pro Bowl player who often gets paid like a superstar in free agency.

 

14 Case Keenum  QB  Vikings

Keenum was available for nearly a month during free agency last year, settling for a $2 million deal to be Sam Bradford’s backup in Minnesota. Now he’s set to make life-changing money as a starting quarterback, whether it’s with the Vikings or elsewhere.

 

15 Andrew Norwell  OG  Panthers

An undrafted player in 2014, Norwell has been a rock-solid starter for three years before elevating his play to All-Pro status in 2017. (He remains so under-the-radar that he was lost in the shuffle on the original version of this list.) In a league awash with offensive-line issues, he’s as safe a free agent bet as it gets and will get paid accordingly.

 

16 Malcolm Butler  CB Patriots

A hanging contract situation and the arrival of Stephon Gilmore has loomed over Butler’s worst season as a starter, but he still plays the position with rare tenacity. It sure looks like Bill Belichick will let Butler’s storybook career go elsewhere.

 

17 Dontari Poe  DT Falcons

Unhappy with the offers in last year’s market, Poe settled for a one-year “prove-it” deal. He proved he’s a quality rotational player, but probably not worth the top-notch deal he’s looking for.

 

18 Dion Lewis  RB  Patriots

He was one of the five best running backs in football in December, showing surprising power and rare ability to make defenders miss every snap. Durability questions, however, make him a risky bet.

 

19 Justin Pugh  G  Giants

Rock-solid starting guards with the flexibility to play tackle make a lot of money in free agency.

 

20  Nate Solder  T  Patriots

Tom Brady’s blind-side protector is probably a league-average starting left tackle, which will be worth plenty to some. His leadership and athleticism are both plusses, but the Patriots might not want to give him big money entering his age-30 season.

 

21 Sam Bradford  QB Vikings

This is a cop-out ranking, either way. Too optimistic about Bradford’s health or a little low, considering the value of a league-average starting quarterback. No one seems to know if his knees can withstand the rigors of another full season.

 

22 Star Lotulelei  DT  Panthers

He hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as a dominant run-stuffer, but there are only so many humans his size with his playing experience.

 

23 Bashaud Breeland CB Redskins

Breeland is not as steady as teams want a No. 1 cornerback to be, but his top-end ability will tempt some team to spend big money.

 

24 Morgan Burnett  S  Packers

A reliable starting safety whose value often was best seen when he was out of the lineup for Green Bay.

 

25 Carlos Hyde RB 49ers

Given Hyde’s creativity and versatility as a runner and receiver, it’s not a great sign that he was so uneven under 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.

 

Notable omissions (in alphabetical order):

 

Nigel Bradham, LB, Eagles

Vontae Davis, CB, free agent

Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals

Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks

Brent Grimes, CB, Buccaneers

Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars

Jordan Matthews, WR, Bills

Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings

Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Redskins

Eric Reid, S, 49ers

Weston Richburg, C, Giants

Kenny Vaccaro, S, Saints

Mike Wallace, WR, Ravens