The Daily Briefing Friday, July 21, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

NFC NORTH

 

GREEN BAY

QB AARON RODGERS stands up for his coach in the face of criticism from a former teammate.  Ryan Wilson at CBSSports.com:

 

Former Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings may blame Mike McCarthy for the team blowing leads during postseason games but the coach has the full support of Aaron Rodgers.

“I don’t know what [Jennings] said,” Rodgers told WTMJ-TV’s Lance Allen, “but again I think it’s important that when you’re thinking about comments coming from outside the facility especially by people who haven’t been around the facility in a number of years you’ve got to take that with a grain of salt. We’re concerned with the opinions of our players and our coaching staff and our organization.”

 

Here’s what Jennings said last week during an appearance on FS1:

 

“The year we won [a Super Bowl] we had a great defense. The year after it took a step back. For me the issue is kind of two-sided. I’m just going to flat out say it: if we had a lead, our issue wasn’t the defense, it was Mike McCarthy,” he said. “Because he would cuff us. If you watch New England play, when they have a lead, they go for your throat. They have a great quarterback. They have arguably the best quarterback in football, but they have no doubt the best coach in all of football and probably the best coaching staff in all of football as well.”

 

Worth noting: The Packers are 10-8 in the postseason under McCarthy but just 5-6 since the team won the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. And while we accused McCarthy of a ridiculously conservative game plan against the Seahawks during the NFC Championship Game back in January 2015 — he chose to kick field goals on the Packers’ first two drives on 4th and goal from the one — that was more than two years ago now.

 

Oh, and over the last decade the Packers’ are the NFL’s second-winningest team (106-53-1) behind only the Patriots (126-34).

 

“I’ve made it pretty well known how I feel about Mike,” Rodgers said. “He’s our leader and … we follow his lead, and we love Mike. We believe in him, and he believes in us, and so we’ve got his back.”

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

At the Dallas Morning News, Tim Cowlishaw theorizes that a suspension would be good for the Cowboys and RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT.

 

If Jerry Jones wished to establish himself once and for all as an outside-the-box thinker on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month, he would suspend Ezekiel Elliott for two games. And he would do it now.

 

The three best reasons for doing it: It’s deserved, it teaches the proper lesson and it’s a bid to recreate the Cowboys’ Super Bowl success of 1993.

 

Jones didn’t exactly suspend Emmitt Smith that season. But, in effect, that’s what he did as contract negotiations with Smith’s agent, Richard Howell, dragged on and on until the Cowboys lost a season opener in Washington and a home game against a Buffalo team they had just beaten by 35 points in the Super Bowl.

 

At that point, Jones raised his offer, Howell bent ever so slightly and the Cowboys got the future all-time leading rusher back into the fold. Playing 14 games instead of 16, Smith went on to have the best rushing average of his career (5.3 yards) and actually gained more yards from scrimmage (almost 136 per game, up from 128) than the previous season.

 

And Dallas went back to back with Super Bowl wins for the only time in its history.

 

These Cowboys are just trying to find a way to play later into January and maybe one day enjoy a game in February. Given that Jones isn’t really going to suspend Elliott on his own, just how damaging would a two-game penalty served by the league be?

 

These aren’t the ’93 Cowboys.  This isn’t a team likely to start the season 0-2 and bounce back to enjoy playoff success. But how much would the loss of Elliott dictate in terms of beating the New York Giants at home?

 

Let’s assume that, with the Dallas police having suspended the investigation into whatever took place at Clutch on Sunday night, the NFL can now move swiftly in making a ruling on Elliott’s string of incidents. The fact he isn’t going to be charged or even named in any way in the latest incident clears his name only with the police, not with the league and its “personal conduct” policy.

 

On top of that, both Jones and head coach Jason Garrett have spoken this week and neither exactly came out with statements suggesting Elliott’s total innocence. Jones talked of having to treat him the way one does with a child who can’t follow directions. Garrett said Wednesday he plans to meet with Elliott on Friday before the team heads for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., the next day.

 

If the NFL’s ruling leads to a two-game suspension — it’s hard to believe it will be more than that — this is like a minor injury, only not as bad. If a back gets hurt for two games, he returns as slightly damaged goods. Instead, Elliott would be the healthiest back in the league in Week 3 when the Cowboys head to Arizona.

 

(Fun fact: That’s where Smith made his ‘93 debut. How about that?)

 

In addition, the Cowboys would have more than a month to game plan and prepare for the Giants without Elliott. Injuries force teams to scramble because most NFL clubs might carry one reserve back they feel OK about, but not two. The Cowboys presumably would feature Darren McFadden if forced to go without the NFL’s leading rusher from 2016. But they have the entire preseason to get Alfred Morris ready as well.

 

In addition, the Cowboys had Rod Smith — brother of linebacker Jaylon — working at running back this spring. They will have multiple options to consider.

 

Also it should be pointed out that Elliott had at least a 20-yard run in 10 of the 13 games he played last year against teams not named the Giants. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry in those games. In two games against New York (one was the season opener), his longest run was 15 yards and he averaged 3.6 yards.

 

So it would seem that Dak Prescott throwing the football is going to have much to do with how the season opener plays out, anyway — not to mention the Cowboys’ rookie-filled secondary going against Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and Co.

 

 Is it completely fair if the NFL hands down a two-game suspension for Elliott when no crimes have been committed? Probably not, but it’s also not a first. Elliott has had ample reminders to keep his name out of the headlines and he has chosen not to worry about them.

 

Maybe he learns a lesson the hard way (it would cost him nearly half a million dollars to miss two games) and maybe he doesn’t. Either way, the Cowboy legend he’s chasing was at his best in a slightly shortened season early in his career. Maybe Zeke could make chicken salad out of this situation in similar fashion.

 

If Elliott were to sprain an ankle and miss two games, it wouldn’t greatly alter the Dallas season calculation.  Neither should a short suspension.

– – –

Todd Archer of ESPN.com with a hopeful update on LB JAYLON SMITH:

 

A recent electromyogram showed the nerve in the left leg of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith is continuing to regenerate, with the hope of a full recovery months down the road, according to a source.

 

In the spring, Smith was first able to lift his foot and flex his toes, which generated optimism in his bid to return from a serious knee injury. While the recent test showed more improvement, the Cowboys will continue to be deliberate with his on-field return when they begin training camp practices next week in Oxnard, California.

 

Smith will continue to wear a brace on his left foot, but it is not the ankle-foot orthosis that he wore after the surgery. The Cowboys have come up with a custom-made brace that they have used with other players over the years to help keep Smith’s foot flexed. Smith said earlier in the offseason that the hope was he would eventually not need to use the brace.

 

Smith is among the Dallas Cowboys’ rookies at this week’s mini-camp of sorts that leads up to training camp but the workload is mostly walk-throughs and film study. Smith is expected to follow a similar plan to the one he had during the organized team activities and minicamp in which he practiced every other day. During the sessions open to the media in which Smith practiced, he took only a handful of snaps in full drills.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Some NFL players are resting right now.  Not the offensive line of the Redskins.  They have been in Houston where their leader T TRENT WILLIAMS has then going through an extensive conditioning camp.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Marty Hurney made two moves on the offensive line on Thursday.  T MICHAEL OHER, still concussed from last December, was waived while G TRAI TURNER was extended. 

It’s a four-year extension worth $45 million with $20.5 million guaranteed, per a report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, with a $15 million signing bonus.

 

Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com caught up with Coach Ron Rivera:

 

Ron Rivera certainly didn’t expect to spend the final Wednesday before the start of training camp like this—showing and explaining his roster to a new general manager, and catching him up on all that’s happened over the last four years in Charlotte.

 

It helped that the guy who was literally a few hours into the job, interim GM Marty Hurney, also happened to be the old general manger.

 

Given how coaches seek routine as things ramp up, it was undeniably strange. And yet, as the old colleagues (Hurney and Rivera worked together in 2011 and ’12, before Hurney was fired in October of ’12) went through this crash course, a funny thing happened.

 

The coach wasn’t just teaching. He was learning.

 

So while they’re just one day into this unusual arrangement … so far, so good.

 

“It was a great exercise,” Rivera said over the phone, as he came out of the meeting. “His comments, his objectives, his perspective, here’s a guy that did it for as many years as he did, and he was out, but still an observer from the outside looking in. There are a lot of guys he has no attachment to, and some of his comments were pretty blunt, some of it was surprising.

 

“Most of it, he saw like I did, but there was probably 10% of the guys, seven, eight, nine guys, that he had a query on. And he’d ask, ‘How about this?’ It was a really good exercise.”

 

In some cases, Hurney suggested moving a player from one position to another. In others, his assessment diverged from Rivera’s. And at the end of the session, Rivera gave Hurney more to watch—specific guys in specific games from last year, and specific moments from the spring that’ll help the interim GM get up to speed.

 

So why is Dave Gettleman gone and Hurney back to steer the ship to the shores of next offseason? As I understand it, and as a few of us reported this week, it was as much about clashes with players in contract negotiations (and how some within the personnel department felt about his tough manner) as anything. Internal speculation about the future of the team past Richardson’s ownership didn’t help either.

 

Whether Gettleman deserved his fate is certainly open for debate. To be sure, Rivera was plenty surprised when he was called to owner Jerry Richardson’s office on Monday—just back from vacation and with his training camp plan in tow (he figured that’s why Richardson wanted to talk)—and told Gettleman was gone.

 

But what he didn’t have in the aftermath was time to ponder why it went down. This is where he and the Panthers are now.

 

And so there he was watching film with Hurney on Wednesday, and thinking about how he’d address this second elephant in the room—the other one, of course, being the team’s 6–10, Super Bowl hangover of a 2016 season—when his players report to training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. on Tuesday.

 

The good news is the message he was planning to deliver, to put the ’16 downturn to bed, ties right into dealing with this newfound organizational tumult.

 

“I have a friend who recently had a heart attack, and I called him and said, ‘I’m so sad that this happened to you,’” Rivera said. “And he said, ‘Ron, it’s not really what happened to me, it happened for me,’ basically telling me that he had to change, there are things he had to alter. Well, it’s the same thing for us. The way he put it to me made me realize 2016 didn’t happen to us, it happened for us.

– – –

“I heard Bruce Arians talk about the impact of losing that first game,” Rivera said. “Well, believe me, the impact for me was huge. I know there are people that’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re gonna blame it on opening up against Denver.’ Yeah, I am. That’s part of it. It’s not the whole reason, we could’ve righted the ship, but that took a lot of the wind out of our sails. That was a punch in the gut again.”

 

Just as Arians said that the Cardinals lost their swagger in Week 1, the Panthers showed every sign they’d lost theirs, too. They went 2–6 in games decided by three points or less. They lost left tackle Michael Oher and blew a lead against the Vikings in Week 3, setting off a four-game losing streak that sent Carolina into its bye at 1–5.

 

A midseason surge gave way to a 2–4 finish. Cam Newton got beat up behind a beat-up line. The defense lost its way as injuries hit the linebacking corps. And as Rivera discusses everything that went wrong, he reiterates the message he plans to give his team Tuesday: “Last year was very difficult. But it didn’t happen to us. It happened for us. If we don’t learn from it, it’s a wasted opportunity.”

 

So here’s where the hope is now. Rivera is optimistic his young corners will build on their strong finishes, that Matt Kalil’s presence and improved health will stabilize the offensive line, that his linebackers will avoid injury, that a focus on getting the ball out to his playmakers quicker (with rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel) will help Newton avoid hits, and that the defensive line will be the strength he thinks it is.

 

And going through all of this with Hurney reinforced that. As Rivera sees it, Hurney left a team on the verge in 2012. He’s back with a group that’s fully evolved.

 

In the nearly five years since Hurney’s departure, Rivera’s place within the organization has moved forward too. And given that the team has lost its president (Danny Morrison), GM, director of player personnel (Brandon Beane) and defensive coordinator (Sean McDermott) since the first of the year, he knows it’s now on him to be a stabilizing force in choppy waters.

 

“What it forces me to do is to show everyone: This is business as usual,” Rivera said. “As far as the players are concerned, this is business as usual. For the players that don’t know Marty, this is business as usual. That’s the biggest thing. I really believe he is the right guy at the right moment, because of his background with us.”

 

Of course, there are only 10 players left (11 if you include the returning Julius Peppers) that Hurney acquired, and there’s almost no precedent for this sort of change on the eve of camp, and that means there are blind spots ahead. And when there’s a move like this, there’s always the lingering question of who might be next.

 

But if Rivera’s taken anything from this week, it’s that there’s not much time to waste energy dwelling on what just happened—a lesson he hopes his players learned no just over the past week, but over the last year.

 

“It does get everyone’s attention, but let’s be honest, you’re always on notice in the NFL,” said Rivera. “The thing we all have to understand is that we’re in a production-based business. We’re here to produce. And at the end of the day, if you’re not producing, things have to happen.”

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

A quick note from Andrew Breer of TheMMQB.com:

 

It seems to be slipping under the radar that Saints QB Drew Brees is not only in a contract year, but he also has a clause in his contract preventing the team from franchise tagging him in February. It’ll be an interesting year in New Orleans.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

This headline on a story from Mike Tanier at Bleacher Report (Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston: Which QB Has the Stuff to Join NFL’s Elite?) makes it sound like an either/or question?  Can’t it be “both” like Brady vs. Peyton Manning?  Let’s see what Tanier has to say (we have edited for space, full reasoning is here):

 

Either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston is going to have a Derek Carr-like breakthrough this season.

 

OK, maybe both will. Maybe neither will. But for purposes of quarterback prognostication, let’s play by Highlander rules. You can choose just one of them to shape your prop-bet investments, lead your fantasy team or just talk about at work in August so you can look like a genius in December.

 

Here’s a breakdown to determine which third-year quarterback makes the leap from promising prospect to MVP candidate. A deep dive into their supporting casts, franchise philosophies and 2017 schedules makes it clear that while both Mariota and Winston are poised to improve, only one has the elements in place to be anointed the Next Big Thing.

 

The Quarterbacks

At the risk of defying quarterback-analysis tradition by not crashing your browser with GIFs and taking a protractor to each passer’s release angle to demonstrate my dazzling knowledge of scouting minutiae, let’s keep things simple. Both Mariota and Winston are about where third-year quarterbacks need to be entering camp, from a holistic standpoint.

 

Football Outsiders ranked Mariota 13th in the NFL in its DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) metric and Winston 15th. ESPN’s QBR ranked them 12th (Mariota) and 13th (Winston), separated by a mere 0.2 points. Mariota gets the edge as a rusher but broke his leg late in the 2016 season and was limited in OTAs, as reported by Jason Wolf of The Tennessean. Winston is more interception-prone but has been healthier throughout his brief career than Mariota and was asked to do far more for his offense.

 

At the risk of armchair-quarterback psychoanalysis (the only thing worse than nitpicking scout-jargon GIFs), both quarterbacks have done enough in their first two seasons to meet the NFL thresholds for professionalism/work habits/leader sauce. Both showed improvement in their second seasons, led their teams to playoff near-misses last campaign and have tight haircuts, which should please Michael Vick, at least.

 

Each has each positioned himself to have a breakout third season. The question now becomes: Which team is better built to support its young quarterback?

                               

Receiving corps

Both Winston and Mariota will enjoy significant upgrades to receiving corps that left something to be desired last year.

 

Winston targeted Mike Evans a league-high 175 times last year. While Evans delivered the goods (1,321 yards, 12 touchdowns), opponents schemed to take him away late in the season. Vincent Jackson looked ready for a front-office position even before suffering an October knee injury, leaving Winston without a true second option. Adam Humphries was OK as Cosplay Julian Edelman, and tight end Cameron Brate was steady before injuring his back in the season finale. But Winston got little from his reserve receivers or running backs.

 

Newcomer DeSean Jackson should help this year. He remains one of the league’s most dangerous deep threats: According to Football Outsiders Almanac, Jackson caught 16 of 30 passes targeted to him 20-plus yards downfield last season for 579 yards, four touchdowns and five defensive pass-interference penalties that netted 169 yards. He should provide similar production while drawing safeties away from Evans and letting Humphries concentrate on a King of Slots role.

 

Further, rookie tight end O.J. Howard is a massive talent upgrade over Brate, though both will probably play a role in the passing game, and scouting combine marvel and third-round pick Chris Godwin gives defenses someone to worry about in four-receiver packages.

 

In sum, Jackson’s speed, Evans’ catch radius, Howard’s physicality and the mix-and-match possibilities elsewhere should create mismatches galore.

 

Mariota’s receiving corps last year also was limited, consisting of holdovers Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker, castoff veteran third receivers from other teams (Rishard Matthews, Harry Douglas) and late-draft small-school rookies (Tajae Sharpe). Walker showed that is getting better as he ages, and Matthews was more effective than advertised. But everyone else played as expected, leaving Mariota without a true go-to receiver.

 

Tennessee tried to address the issue in the offseason. Fifth overall pick Corey Davis was a mid-major touchdown machine at Western Michigan. He’ll be groomed as the top possession receiver and red-zone threat, while third-round pick Taywan Taylor, another mid-major draft crush, will likely be the shifty slot playmaker. The Titans used two-tight end sets a league-leading 43 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders Almanac, so toolsy Florida International product Jonnu Smith may also play a significant role.

 

Titans GM Jon Robinson clearly loves his small-school receivers, but asking three of them to ramp up and become immediate role players may be a tall order early in the season (especially with Davis coming off ankle surgery). So the edge here goes to Winston, whose goody bag is full of established players and SEC standouts.

 

Running game and protection

Mariota is supported by DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the best running back 1-2 punch in the NFL, as well as one of the league’s best young offensive lines. Tennessee’s “exotic smashmouth” system has kept both his attempt totals and turnover rates low early in his career; it’s a trade-off that may hurt Mariota’s fantasy value but benefits his long-range growth.

 

Winston’s situation is more complicated. Doug Martin is suspended until Week 4 for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. And that comes after he missed half the 2016 season with a hamstring injury before returning to average 2.9 yards per carry in the second half of the year.

 

The Buccaneers organization couldn’t stop gushing about Martin during OTAs, laying it on suspiciously thick at times. While Martin may be healthier and more dialed in than he was last year, no amount of sunshine-blowing will make him available in September.

– – –

Tampa Bay’s offensive line was poor by any measure last season…t’s never a good sign when your offensive line improvement plan involves an injured former Seahawks guard. That gives Mariota a huge advantage when it comes to protection and rushing support.

                                                     

Schedule and opponents

Normally, the AFC South is the ideal place to take off the baby bumpers for a young quarterback. But the division looks less like the Sun Belt Conference this year than in previous years, and Tennessee faces a pretty tough schedule, particularly at the start of the season.

– – –

Winston faces his own slate of challenging early defenses: the Dolphins at Miami and the Vikings, Giants, Patriots and Cardinals in the first six weeks. Plus, the NFC South is a tougher division than the AFC South.

– – –

Let’s call this a push, with the major takeaway that tough early-season slates may lead to slow starts and “What’s wrong with Mariota/Winston?” headlines in early October.

                                                   

Coach, organization, intangibles

Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht made their share of mistakes last year, from Licht trading up to draft kicker Roberto Aguayo to Koetter getting a little too clever before halftime against the Cardinals and turning a 10-0 deficit into a 24-0 chasm.

 

This offseason brought its own set of questions, starting with the lack of investment on the offensive line and at running back. Koetter told ESPN’s Jenna Laine during OTAs that he wants the Bucs to be a “badass football team,” sounding more like a junior high guidance counselor trying to be edgy than an NFL coach with a coherent vision. A visit from the HBO Hard Knocks television crew does not pass the “What Would Bill Belichick Do?” test for franchise improvement.

 

In Tennessee, Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense gives the Titans direction and personality, and trading down in the 2015 draft brought the Titans an influx of top prospects over the last two seasons. The Titans may not have championship-caliber talent yet, but all of the franchise’s oars are paddling in the same direction.

– – –

The Titans look so much like last year’s Raiders that it’s easy to give Mariota the nod here.

            

Summary

Winston now has one of the most exciting, multidimensional receiving corps in the NFL, a backfield full of injuries and questions and an offensive line that’s mediocre at best. He plays in a division full of great quarterbacks and opponents that always seem one year away from building outstanding defenses.

 

Mariota now has an upgraded (though inexperienced) receiving corps to pair with a great backfield and offensive line. The Titans system is creative but conservative, and there are several reasons to expect a bumpy early season (tough foes, small-school rookie receivers adjusting) that may suppress both Mariota’s stats and the Titans’ team-on-the-rise aspirations.

 

The balanced Titans offense plays to Mariota’s strengths as a rusher, rollout passer and ball distributor. Opening up the Buccaneers offense without improving the pass protection, however, may play to Winston’s greatest weakness: heaving interceptions in the name of making things happen.

 

Winston appears poised for a long season of running for his life and throwing deep: 4,500 yards and 30-plus touchdowns, perhaps, but with 20 interceptions and 40-plus sacks. Mariota may max out closer to last year’s 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns but with fewer sacks, fewer interceptions and greater efficiency (plus a few big runs).

 

Factor in the Titans’ more coherent organizational direction, and Mariota is more likely than Winston to take that proverbial next step into the playoffs and “elite quarterback” conversation.

 

Though if I really had the choice, I would take Dak Prescott over either of ’em.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

The Cardinals have re-signed 31-year-old RB CHRIS JOHNSON, once a 2,000-yard rusher for Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, to serve as DAVID JOHNSON’s backup.  Chris Wessling at NFL.com with more.

 

Set to turn 32 years old in September, the elder Johnson figures to battle Kerwynn Williams and Andre Ellington for snaps behind the entrenched starter.

 

Although the younger Johnson insists he can handle 30 touches per game, it was never a realistic proposition that Arians would test that notion. It’s rare for any NFL back to touch the ball even 25 times per game over the course of a 16-game season.

 

The artist formerly known as “CJ2K” succeeded in resurrecting a stalled career in the desert, running for more than 800 yards before a cracked tibia ended his 2015 season in late November. He played just four games with Arizona last season, going down with a groin injury in early October.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

As usual, your first thought when you hear the news that QB DAN ORLOVSKY has prolonged his below-mediocre career with a contract with the Rams, is how long until you read the first story saying why didn’t they sign Colin Kaepernick.  Marc Sessler at NFL.com does not play that game though:

 

Set to play behind second-year starter Jared Goff and presumed-backup Sean Mannion, the 33-year-old Orlovsky spent the past three seasons with the Lions, who first drafted him in 2005. Other stops along the way have included the Bucs, Colts and Texans.

 

Over 12 NFL campaigns, Orlovsky has completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 3,132 yards with 15 touchdowns and 13 picks. A ghost in recent seasons, he’s thrown just 40 passes since 2013.

 

The Rams like Mannion and the franchise is praying Goff evolves into a player worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. Orlovsky’s role in this drama is a minor one.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

QB DEREK CARR says that with fair officiating LB KHALIL MACK will have an unheard of number of sacks this year.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr may have the highest salary in the league, but he also may not even be the best player from the Raiders’ 2014 draft class.

 

Carr thinks Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack would blow away the league’s sack record and record 30 sacks if referees would call holding the way they should on offensive tackles who grab Mack.

 

“Because we know this is going to blow up, I’m gonna say 30,” Carr said on SiriusXM. “If he doesn’t get held . . . if they start calling the holdings, if they start calling them like they should — I’m saying 30.”

 

Mack has a total of 30 sacks in his three-year NFL career, so expecting him to get 30 in one season is unrealistic. Maybe Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks in a season is a more realistic goal.

 

And this from Albert Breer:

 

One leftover from my analytics piece of late June: Advanced statistics insist that reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack, based on his 2016 pressure numbers, should easily top the 11.0 sacks that he posted last year.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

After years of poor play, Cleveland fans would love for their team to catch fire in 2017 when playing at home – but metaphorically only, of course.  The AP fans the flames of a combustible report:

 

In promotional brochures, a U.S. company boasted of the “stunning visual effect” its shimmering aluminum panels created in an NFL stadium, an Alaskan high school and a luxury hotel along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that “soars 33 stories into the air.”

 

Those same panels — Reynobond composite material with a polyethylene core — also were used in the Grenfell Tower apartment building in London. British authorities say they’re investigating whether the panels helped spread the blaze that ripped across the building’s outer walls, killing at least 80 people, the Associated Press reports.

 

The panels, also called cladding, accentuate a building’s appearance and also improve energy efficiency. But they are not recommended for use in buildings above 40 feet because they are combustible. In the wake of last month’s fire at the 24-story, 220-foot-high tower in London, Arconic Inc. announced it would no longer make the product available for high-rise buildings.

 

Determining which buildings might be wrapped in the material in the United States is difficult. City inspectors and building owners might not even know. In some cases, building records have been long discarded and neither the owners, operators, contractors nor architects involved could or would confirm whether the cladding was used.

 

That makes it virtually impossible to know whether the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel or Cleveland Browns’ football stadium — both identified by Arconic’s brochures as wrapped in Reynobond PE — are actually clad in the same material as Grenfell Tower, which was engulfed in flames in less than five minutes.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

While KIRK COUSINS of Washington is content to take his massive one-year franchise tag money, RB Le’VEON BELL of the Steelers is apparently thinking holdout.  Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com:

 

Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers couldn’t agree on a long-term contract Monday which means the league’s most dynamic running back will play the 2017 season on the $12.1 million franchise tag. There are worse fates, though Bell says he rejected the Steelers’ offer — which included $42 million over the first three years and an average annual salary north of $12 million, according to Pro Football Talk — because he didn’t want to contribute to the devaluation of the running back position.

 

Worth noting: the aforementioned $12 million is $4 million more than the league’s next highest-paid back, LeSean McCoy of the Bills.

 

Either way, Ike Taylor, an NFL Network analyst and Bell’s former teammate in Pittsburgh, thinks that Bell could skip training camp in protest.

 

“It’s a strong possibility,” Taylor said, via NFL.com. “He might hold out.”

 

Earning $4 million more than the next highest-paid back might seem like an odd reason to be a no-show but, as Taylor explains, Bell isn’t just a running back.

 

“Le’Veon has the power right now with that $12 million,” Taylor said. “For only one position. And when you add more value to that running back, just give me $3 [million] more. Put it at $15 [million]. Give me three [million] more.”

 

Not surprisingly, Bell expressed similar sentiments Monday afternoon.

 

“I feel I should be valued as a player, not so much my position,” Bell told ESPN.com‘s Jeremy Fowler. “Hopefully down the line I can get valued at, not as much a guy who gets the ball 30 carries and that’s it. …

 

“I make plays in the passing game, blocking, doing everything,” Bell continued. “I’m arguably the top running back in the NFL and the No. 2 receiver on the Steelers, even though I play running back. Their career receiving total vs. mine, they don’t have more yards than me.”

 

He’s not wrong; Bell rushed for 1,268 yards last season (4.9 yards per carry), scored seven touchdowns and had 75 receptions for 616 yards and two more scores. He was even better on the ground during the postseason (65 carries, 357 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, two TDs).

But even if Bell does hold out, the Steelers don’t seem concerned, as one staffer put it to TheMMQB.com‘s Albert Breer: “Even if he doesn’t show up for camp, he’ll be ready to play, no matter what. I’m not worried about that. He’s always comes in in phenomenal shape.”

 

And when Bell does show up, he’ll become yet another chess piece that gives Pittsburgh one of the league’s most explosive offenses — to go along with Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, rookie second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster and that offensive line.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

TENNESSEE

See TAMPA BAY for a good look at the Titans and MARCUS MARIOTA in comparison to JAMEIS WINSTON and the Buccaneers.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com collects praise for QB JIMMY GAROPPOLO:

 

One of the great mysteries of the 2017 NFL offseason has been Bill Belichick’s plan for Jimmy Garoppolo’s future.

 

With Garoppolo fans populating the front offices of the quarterback-needy franchises holding early-round draft slots, the Patriots stood to collect a windfall of draft picks if they were willing to part with their premium Tom Brady insurance.

 

As tempting as it might have been to hold the Browns or Texans over a barrel in trade negotiations, New England’s brass ultimately deemed Garoppolo untouchable in a contract year.

 

Thanks to the reporting of NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, we know Belichick is not yet comfortable turning the offense over to 2016 third-round pick Jacoby Brissett in the event of a serious Brady injury. Rapoport later reported that the organization views Garoppolo as a potential franchise quarterback.

 

Considering the minuscule — albeit highly impressive — sample of game film compiled in Garoppolo’s 94 NFL pass attempts, the Pats’ hardline stance came as a surprise to many in the football cognoscenti.

 

The qualities Garoppolo has displayed behind closed doors, however, have led to an avalanche of hyperbole from teammates, coaches and at least one former team executive.

 

“I played against him every day in practice. He’s all that,” one former Patriots player recently told CSN New England. “He can make all the throws. He can process all the information. He is a gamer. He can slow it down. He can spin it.

 

“I’m going tell you this, if he had gotten traded to Cleveland, they’re a borderline playoff team. I really believe that.”

 

If that was the lone example of over-the-top Garoppolo praise, we might dismiss it as unwarranted hype. To the contrary, the former Eastern Illinois star has generated an endless stream of plaudits from those who have seen him practice over the past three years.

 

Belichick paid his No. 2 quarterback the ultimate compliment last November, insisting the transition is “really seamless” when Garoppolo stands in for Brady during first-team practice drills.

 

“Certainly we have a good quarterback in Jimmy,” Belichick added, “and Jimmy could go out there and run everything that Tom can run. We’ve seen that.”

 

The Ringer’s Michael Lombardi, formerly Belichick’s right-hand personnel man, insists Patriots teammates will line up to testify on behalf of Garoppolo’s estimable potential.

 

“I’ve watched this guy practice and play for too many practices. This guy is a good player,” Lombardi raved in early March. “And I’m not shilling for Belichick. … I’m telling you, he’s worth the Patriots to hold onto him. If I was in New England, I’d be telling Belichick every day, ‘There’s no way we can trade him.'”

 

When wideout Julian Edelman appeared on NFL Total Access early this offseason, he labeled Garoppolo a “stud” with the “gunslinger confidence” reminiscent of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.

 

Fellow receiver Chris Hogan offered similar testimony on Good Morning Football.

 

“Jimmy’s got a great arm,” Hogan offered. “He’s an athletic kid, and he plays really well. So when he gets his chance in the NFL, I think he’ll be real successful.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

O.J. TO GO FREE

First the wire copy at ESPN.com:

 

O.J. Simpson was granted parole Thursday after more than eight years in prison for a Las Vegas hotel heist, successfully making his case in a nationally televised hearing that reflected America’s enduring fascination with the former football star.

 

With the ruling, the 70-year-old Simpson, who was convicted in 2008 of an armed robbery involving two sports memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room, could be out of prison as early as Oct. 1 after serving the minimum nine years of a 33-year sentence.

 

When the final vote to grant parole was read after parole commissioners deliberated just over 30 minutes, Simpson lowered his head and then raised it up with a big smile.

 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” an emotional Simpson said while his sister, Shirley Baker, wept and hugged Arnelle Simpson, his daughter.

 

Then, as he was led down a hall, the former athlete raised his hands over his head in a victory gesture and said, “Oh, God, oh!”

 

All four parole commissioners cited his lack of a prior conviction, the low risk he might commit another crime, his community support and his release plans, which include moving to Florida.

 

Simpson appeared before the parole board hearing via video conferencing from Lovelock Correctional Center.

 

“I’ve spent nine years making no excuses about anything. I am sorry that things turned out the way they did,” Simpson said in his closing remarks during the hearing. “I had no intent to commit a crime. … I’ve done my time. I’d just like to get back to my family and friends — believe it or not, I do have some real friends — and I tried to be helpful to everybody.”

 

The hearing was chaired by Connie Bisbee, with Tony Corda, Adam Endel and Susan Jackson also in attendance via video conferencing from Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners headquarters in Carson City, Nevada. They voted 4-0 to grant his early release.

 

Simpson’s sentence had been scheduled to end Sept. 29, 2022.

 

Had a unanimous vote not been reached, Parole commissioners Ed Gray and Michael Keeler, who were monitoring proceedings from Las Vegas, would have weighed in.

 

Under terms of the parole, Simpson is permitted to drink alcohol, but not to excess. If tests show he has a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, that will be considered excess.

 

Simpson, appearing as inmate No. 1027820, was accompanied by lawyer Malcolm LaVergne, prison caseworker Marc La Fleur, close friend Tom Scotto, Baker and Arnelle Simpson.

 

The same four commissioners watching from Carson City granted him parole during his last public appearance in 2013 on some of his 12 charges, leaving him with four years to serve before reaching his minimum term.

 

Before the hearing concluded, one of the two memorabilia dealers Simpson robbed, Bruce Fromong, said the former football great never pointed a gun at him during the confrontation, adding that it was one of Simpson’s accomplices. Fromong said Simpson deserved to be released so he can be with his children.

 

“He is a good man. He made a mistake,” Fromong said, adding the two remain friends.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com was not impressed by O.J.’s presentation:

 

I don’t know much about parole hearings and I don’t know anything about the rules that apply for granting or denying parole in Nevada. But the O.J. Simpson parole hearing doesn’t seem to be going well.

 

Simpson rambled throughout the first 30 minutes of the hearing, quibbling over details and generally creating the impression that he still doesn’t fully accept responsibility for the things he was convicted of doing. It’s a far cry from the sullen and somber “yes” and “no” demeanor that would be ideal for convincing the members of the parole board to set him free.

 

At one point, for example, Simpson spent time trying to explain that the California courts have determined that the property he was convicted of trying to retrieve through illegal means was indeed his property.

 

He either has had no competent preparation for his remarks, or he has ignored the advice he has received. While this doesn’t mean he won’t get out, this process doesn’t seem to be going as smoothly as it would to create the general impression that he has said what he needs to say in order to secure his freedom.

 

David Steele of The Sporting News, whose past writing indicates he could be won over by Simpson’s plight, wasn’t impressed either:

 

From the moment he and his lawyer walked into the room at his Nevada prison for his parole hearing, until he walked back for good nearly two hours later after his parole was granted, O.J. Simpson never stopped being O.J. Simpson.

 

He is 70 years old, he has been embedded in the public consciousness for more than 50 years — as he told the Nevada parole board commissioners himself Thursday, he’s been a big name since he was 19 — and it feels like everybody in America knows every possible thing about him.

 

In fact, it feels like we know too much, and if one image stuck after an end date for his nine-year prison sentence was set, he is what he is, and what he always has been.

 

With possibly the rest of his life hanging in the balance, speaking to the people who held that fate in their hands, O.J. just kept acting like the O.J. we’ve known forever … the one that charmed the nation regardless of race, gender and class, and the one that got himself into exactly the jam he was in.

 

O.J. Simpson talked and acted like the Heisman winner, the NFL superstar, the celebrity, the charismatic character — and the guy who genuinely thought he could, and should, always get away with it. Who never did anything wrong, didn’t need to be accountable or remorseful for anything, and used everybody he could to get anything he wanted.

 

Even like someone who ended up doing nine years for a crime that generally gets three or four, but still acts as if he put it over on someone again.

 

It was jarring to realize that he was 70 — jarring even for the chair of the parole board, Connie Bisbee, who early on noted that he’s “currently 90 years old” before jokingly correcting herself. And, of course, Simpson chuckling right back.

 

But there he was, far closer to the end than to the beginning. The sight of his eldest daughter Arnelle, tearfully speaking on behalf of his family to support him, was additional living proof. She and her brother Jason were toddlers when he played for the Bills, children of a wife, Marguerite, who is practically forgotten now. They were young adults when he was on trial for killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

 

That case was a factor this time only because the not-guilty verdict meant he had no prior convictions the parole board could hold against him. Of course, it was the elephant in the room.

 

It’s the elephant in his life. Everything he’s been and everything he’s done, before and after, gets viewed through that prism, forever.

 

It was impossible to ignore how much that hung in the air Thursday. As he turned an explanation for how he ended up committing the crimes that put him in prison into a seeming attempt to clear his name and overturn that guilty verdict, Simpson came off like someone selling the idea that he bore no responsibility for anything he’s been through, ever.

 

“I’m sorry that things turned out the way they did,” he said at one point, once again coming up just a yard short of real accountability.

 

His comments throughout the hearing went viral and started a coast-to-coast eye-rolling epidemic. “I’ve basically led a conflict-free life.” “I’m a straight shooter.” “I’m a guy who’s always gotten along with everybody.” “I’m a guy who hasn’t lived a criminal life.”

 

In the end, none of that disingenuousness apparently weighed in the board’s decision — it just gave the world more hints that he’s a man for whom image was everything, but who has an epic lack of self-awareness, even in this place and time.

 

The asides about the “media circus” he deals with and how, “believe it or not, I do have some real friends,” were reminders that to this day, he believes he’s been the victim of others more often than the other way around.

– – –

Calling anything surrounding O.J. “surreal” anymore is cliché, but this cranked it up another level.

 

More than 20 years after the murder trial, society’s attraction to celebrity hasn’t broken. The tragically-poor handling of violence against women has barely lessened. The racial atmosphere laid bare is just as toxic, if not more so over the past year. The fatal flaws of the criminal justice system are just as exposed.

 

But O.J. Simpson has lived and thrived in the midst of all that for half a century. There was not one sign whatsoever, on the day he got yet another reprieve, that he’s going to change now.

 

The world would be grateful if he just disappeared into oblivion now. Of course, he had that chance when he dodged the bullet back in 1995 — and there we all were in 2017, gripped by another performance, because he eventually went back to being O.J. And, of course, he hinted in a letter to a supporter that he might start blogging while he’s out.

 

Even if the spotlight finally decides to stop finding him, is there any reason to think he’ll stop trying to find it?

 

There was one stunning surprise to the hearing.  Florio:

 

Many stunning things happened during the O.J. Simpson parole hearing. But the most stunning thing happened this morning, when one of the members of the parole board decided to wear his Kansas City Chiefs tie to the proceedings.

 

Yes, for whatever reason, a grown man with a job that carries real significance and responsibility opted to wear a novelty necktie with the colors and logos of a football team.

 

Maybe he’s lashing out at the looming arrival of the Raiders in Nevada. Maybe he wanted to make a roundabout reference to Marcus Allen. Maybe the guy is just a really big Chiefs fan.

 

Regardless, it was definitely unusual. Unusual enough that the Chiefs are trending on Twitter, and striking enough to get the Chiefs official Twitter account to chime in.

 

 

UNDERVALUED FANTASY QBs

Marcas Grant of NFL.com makes the case for some undervalued Fantasy QBs:

 

a list of quarterbacks you’d be wise to target this season.

 

The consistently elite bargain

Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

The whole weird contract saga between Cousins and the Washington front office is confusing and mind-numbing and will earn you exactly zero fantasy points. What will earn you lots of fantasy ponts is having a quarterback that has averaged 4,500 passing yards and 27 touchdowns across his two seasons as a full-time starter. Alas, Cousins’ candidacy here doesn’t come without a couple of concerns.

 

Perhaps the one cause for concern is the change of offensive coordinators. After working with Sean McVay, Offensive Boy Genius for two seasons, Matt Cavanaugh now takes over in the lab. It’s often hard to use past performance as a predictor of future practices, especially considering in his last stint as an offensive coordinator (BAL 1999-2004), Cavanaugh oversaw a run-heavy offense. Then again, he also had Jamal Lewis during his 2,000-yard season.

 

It’s encouraging that Cavanaugh has been Washington’s quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons, which has given him a chance to get a close-up look at the offense while also building a rapport with Cousins. The hope is that the transition to a new playcaller will be a smooth one.

 

The other issue is how well Cousins will vibe with some new pass-catchers. But it’s a muted concern. After all, he’ll still have Jamison Crowder who acquitted himself very well in 2016. Then there’s Terrelle Pryor, who was far and away the most productive receiver in an otherwise anemic Browns passing game. Add in Jordan Reed (as long as he stays healthy) and there is quite an arsenal for Cousins to work with.

 

Of course, this is all about Cousins being a draft value. But what else would you call a player who’s been in the top 10 at his position for the past two seasons yet is still coming off the board after players like Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger, who both have major fantasy red flags this year? I call it a pretty good deal.

 

The fantasy quarterback surrounded by youth and speed

Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

 

I’m sure the very mention of Alex Smith in a fantasy football column is generating groans from across the interwebs. And yes … in general terms, he’s every bit as uninspiring as you remember him. But let’s consider the cast around him and what it could mean for his outlook in 2017.

 

Last season, the Chiefs were one of three teams (DET, NE) with more yards after the catch than air yards. That’s not super surprising considering Smith’s reputation as King of the Checkdowns. But it does speak a little bit to the burners catching the ball for Kansas City. First and foremost, there’s Tyreek Hill who might currently be the fastest player in the league. Then there’s Chris Conley, who burned up the 2015 combine with a 4.35 40-yard dash. Or De’Anthony Thomas and his 4.34 40.

 

Even the guys not noted for their straight line speed were still pretty elusive last season. Travis Kelce was third in the NFL in yards after the catch. Spencer Ware was 25th. The point is that Kansas City’s roster is loaded with players who can be dangerous with the football in their hands. The other point is that this group isn’t particularly old. Among the key playmakers on the roster, Kelce is the most senior, entering his fifth NFL season.

 

So how does any of this actually make Alex Smith better? That’s where you look to the schedule. The Chiefs in 2017 face a slate that includes a slew of teams that were susceptible to allowing big YAC numbers in 2016. Certainly things rarely remain static from year to year when it comes to NFL defenses. But seeing as how this is what we have to go on, it’s at least a start.

 

The fantasy bounce-back no one saw coming

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

 

It wasn’t all that long ago that Dalton was on track to be a top 10 fantasy quarterback. Before a fractured thumb prematurely ended his 2015 season, he was the seventh-best player at his position. Sure, plenty of people like to snicker at the concept of Andy Dalton, Productive Fantasy Quarterback but it’s really a real thing guys.

 

Something has clicked for Dalton in the past couple of seasons, notably his ability to protect the football. After tossing 17 picks in 2014 alone, the Red Rocket has been intercepted just 15 times in the last two seasons combined. The biggest difference between his solid 2015 play and his mediocre showing in 2016 seems fairly easy to pinpoint — six fewer games with A.J. Green.

 

It didn’t take a football genius to see that the Bengals were a much more effective offensive team with Green on the field. Hot take: losing a great offensive player to injury will make your offense weaker. But Green is back and (hopefully) healthy for a full 16 games this year. Put his talent back on the field with the more efficient Dalton, sprinkle in a dose of dual-threat running back Joe Mixon and watch the Red Rocket take off yet again.

 

The young QB on the cusp of greatness

Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

 

Mariota started to scratch the surface last year with a few early-season breakout games. Sadly, it ended in disappointment with a broken leg in Week 16. But we’ve seen what the best of the young Titans quarterback could be.

 

Part of his increased success came from using his legs a little more in 2016. After running the ball just 34 times as a rookie, that number bumped up to 60 in 2016. It was probably more in line with what many observers always expected from Mariota. Despite his apparent efforts to prove to the world that he was more than just an athletic running quarterback, it made sense for him to put one of his best attributes on display.

 

Now that he’s established himself as a productive signal-caller (and a nearly unstoppable red zone force), he could be ready to take the next step with a new group of pass-catchers. The Titans have made a commitment to getting Mariota help in the passing game by adding free agent Eric Decker and drafting rookie Corey Davis. After just missing out on the top 10 last season, Mariota could kick the door down in 2017.

 

Second-year fantasy sleeper quarterback

Paxton Lynch, Denver Broncos

 

Yep, I said it. Fight me.

 

One late-round fantasy quarterback to rule them all

Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 

Everything is pointing to this being the year that Jameis Winston sprouts wings and flies to the upper echelon of fantasy QB stardom. In his first two seasons in the league, Winston has displayed a mixture of fearlessness and recklessness normally reserved for intergalactic bounty hunters. Now … he has weapons.

 

That’s not to suggest he was without aid in his first two years. Winston and Mike Evans have made beautiful fantasy football music together in the two seasons they’ve been teammates. Winston also played a large part in Cameron Brate’s coming-out party last season. It’s just that this year, the Bucs have gone all-in on trying to ratchet up their offensive danger level by putting DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard in the mix. Suddenly Tampa’s passing attack has the makings of a potent outfit.

 

The undervalued veteran fantasy quarterback

Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings

 

This whole list is feeling like it should be retitled “Fantasy Quarterbacks No One Wants … But Really Should.”

 

And you really should want Sam Bradford. I talked about it here but I’m willing to hit you with some of the highlights.

 

After posting respectable totals in an offense he had been given just days to learn, Bradford will now have a full offseason of study and a chance to continue working with a sneakily underrated receiving corps … oh, and Dalvin Cook out of the backfield.

 

I’m not pretending that Bradford is going to be your undisputed QB1 each and every week. But considering where you’re going to draft him, you’re not expecting that anyway. Get yourself a solid QB rotation and prosper.