The Daily Briefing Friday, June 2, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

The DB is old enough to remember when the NFL abandoned Labor Day Weekend, primarily because New Yorkers needed to close up their summer homes on Long Island and at the Jersey Shore and couldn’t make Giants and Jets games that Sunday.

 

And we believe one reason the NFL got off to a slow ratings start in 2016 was that its college football rivals had such a compelling slate of games last year on Labor Day Weekend while the NFL sat idle.

 

Here’s Chris Burke of SI.com:

 

The main reason I hope the NFL never adopts a 17- or 18-game regular-season schedule? I think it’s that I do not want the pros playing on Labor Day weekend, which I have come to love as the semi-official kickoff to the college football season. (There are a handful of NCAA games the prior Saturday now, but the Thursday before Labor Day is when it really gets rolling.) College football has figured out how to put its footprint all over that weekend, too, with games running Thursday-Monday, in NFL-esque fashion. It’s the perfect way to begin transitioning from summer to fall, and it allows college football to have the stage to itself before the NFL takes hold.

 

The NFL used to open up after Labor Day, then the start of the season moved up.  It’s been the week after Labor Day since at least 2002 if Wikipedia is to be believed.

 

In 1990, the NFL re-introduced a bye week to the schedule, which it had not had since 1966. Each team played sixteen regular season games over seventeen weeks. During the season, on a rotating basis, each team would have the weekend off. As a result, opening weekend was moved up to Labor Day weekend. The league had an odd number of teams (31) from 1999 to 2001. During that period, at least one team had to be given a bye on any given week. For the 1993 season, the league experimented with the schedule by adding a second bye week for each team, resulting in a 18-week regular season. In 2001, the September 11th attacks resulted in the league postponing its week 2 games, leading to another 18-week season.

 

Since the 2002 season, the league has scheduled a nationally televised regular season kickoff game on the Thursday night after Labor Day, prior to the first Sunday of NFL games to kick off the season.

 

Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote this back in 2013 – and it stands up today.

 

Why is the NFL giving up Labor Day?

 

I know, the NFL schedule works nicely whereby the Super Bowl arrives in February, which is sweeps month for television ratings. But you don’t have to end the season earlier by starting it earlier. You can start earlier and finish at the same place, merely by giving each squad two byes.

 

Nothing wrong with two byes. It would help the wounded heal. And it wouldn’t hurt the television package. Instead of, say, 10 NFL games at noon Sunday, there would be eight. Where would be the harm in that?

 

The networks would love it. An extra Thursday night game. A bonus Friday night game, at least this year, when high schools typically aren’t starting and the NFL would have no guilt of keeping people away from the scholastic gate. An extra Sunday night and Monday night to sell ads. An extra Sunday afternoon smorgasbord.

 

The viewers would love it. Nothing against Colorado State-Colorado, but who would you rather see? Cowboys-Giants or an in-state rivalry that fosters passion only an hour north and south of Denver? Who would you rather see? Pitt-Florida State, or Robert Griffin III?

 

The NFL is leaving money on the table, I assume, and I don’t know why. Sports are the final frontier of big television revenue. DVR and netflix and Internet broadcasts have slaughtered the old days of appointment television. The only appointment television is sports, and nothing is bigger than the NFL.

 

Why compact the NFL regular season into 17 weeks? Why not make it 18 weeks? NFL owners occasionally have negotiated for a longer season, 18 games, but play 16 games over 18 weeks, and much of the same revenue exists. We don’t care which NFL games are on. We don’t need 18 weeks of the Patriots or Steelers or 49ers. We need 18 weeks of anyone in the NFL.

 

Please, NFL. Go back to Labor Day.

 

NFC NORTH

 

DETROIT

RB AMEER ABDULLAH is trying to rebound from a Dreaded Lisfranc Injury.  Or so he said before a podcast was edited.  Michael Rothstein at ESPN.com:

 

Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah told “The Carriker Chronicles” podcast that he suffered a Lisfranc injury when he hurt his foot last season, requiring surgery.

 

The injury, which happened in Week 2 against Tennessee, sent Abdullah to injured reserve and cost him almost his entire season.

 

“I ended up tearing my Lisfranc the second game of the season against the Tennessee Titans, separating my foot, so that was a bummer for me,” Abdullah told Adam Carriker. “But I’m shaking back good now. It’s helped me understand my body more, so I’m a lot more penciled in on what I need to do as far as recovery, make sure I’m [doing all the] right things for my body to make sure I’m ready for this 2017 season.”

 

Some versions of the podcast posted online have been edited to remove Abdullah’s comment on the Lisfranc injury. It wasn’t immediately clear why the edit was made. A Facebook message sent to Carriker was not immediately returned Thursday.

 

Before the injury last season, Abdullah had 18 carries for 101 yards along with five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. He was fully cleared from the injury in February and has been healthy for a while. He has been a full participant in the first two open-to-the-media OTAs and has looked fine as a runner throughout.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

The wheels of NFL Justice continue to grind on RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, although at a snail’s pace.  The League now has possession of his phone records – and we suspect they are not benign.  Tom Pelissero of USA Today:

 

The NFL Players Association recently turned over phone records and other documents that league investigators have been seeking in their ongoing probe of domestic violence allegations against Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott – a potentially significant step in resolving a case that has lingered since last summer.

 

The players’ union and Elliott’s representatives complied with the longstanding request last week, two people with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

 

The NFL has said only that its investigation is ongoing, declining to get into details.

 

Given intense public criticism of its handling of the Josh Brown domestic violence case last year – a matter that became public only because the NFL suspended Brown, then the New York Giants’ kicker, for one game – it makes sense the league would be reluctant to make any decision on Elliott without gathering as much information as possible.

 

The submission of these documents now suggests the investigation is nearing its conclusion and there could be closure before the calendar gets too close to the start of the regular season in September, as the league generally tries to provide out of fairness to clubs, though any discipline would be subject to an appeal that could further extend the process.

 

Players’ cooperation with league investigations, particularly as it pertains to personal information such as phone records, has been a contentious issue in recent years – most notably in the Tom Brady Deflategate case. Last summer, several players accused of performance-enhancing drug use in a documentary submitted to interviews with NFL investigators after months of delays. The highest-profile of them, retired quarterback Peyton Manning, was exonerated in an NFL statement noting he and his wife fully cooperated, providing interviews and access to all records investigators sought. The personal conduct policy stipulates failure to cooperate with an investigation will be grounds for disciplinary action; that was part of the basis the NFL cited for Brady’s controversial four-game suspension.

 

Elliott, his attorney Frank Salzano and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones all have voiced frustration publicly that the NFL hasn’t closed its investigation, which began after a woman accused Elliott of abusing her over several days last July in Ohio. USA TODAY Sports reported in November the same woman called police on Elliott in February 2016 in Florida, before he was drafted. NFL investigators spoke with Elliott last fall and have continued to seek additional information.

 

Elliott, now 21, was never arrested or charged in either case involving the woman, who claimed Elliott choked her, attempted to hit her in the face, threw her against doors and onto a bed and refused to let her leave his apartment on multiple occasions last July. The Columbus (Ohio) City Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against Elliott, citing conflicting and inconsistent information across all incidents. Documents released by authorities reveal numerous issues with the criminal case, including a statement from a key witness who says Elliott’s accuser told her to lie to police about a separate incident. The lead attorney who evaluated the woman’s allegations told USA TODAY Sports in October he believes there was a series of violent interactions between her and Elliott, but he couldn’t firmly conclude exactly what happened.

 

The league also has looked into videos and photos that surfaced of Elliott pulling down a woman’s shirt and exposing her bare breast on the roof of a Dallas bar while watching an early St. Patrick’s Day parade in March.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

DE DWIGHT FREENEY could be returning to the Falcons.  Josh Alper at ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Dwight Freeney said he wasn’t going to make an immediate decision about returning to play in 2018 when asked about his plans in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t long before a report that he wanted to remain in uniform surfaced.

 

Freeney’s name hasn’t come up for much public discussion since that point, but there have been some talks. Freeney told Alex Marvez and Bill Polian of Sirius XM NFL Radio that he has spoken to the Falcons about another year in Atlanta and that he is optimistic that things will work out for a 16th season.

 

The Falcons drafted Takkarist McKinley in the first round to beef up their defensive end options and a deal with Freeney would give him a veteran mentor for his rookie season.

 

Freeney had three sacks in 15 games for the Falcons in the 2016 regular season and added another one in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

QB DREW BREES loves two new veteran additions to the Saints offense – RB ADRIAN PETERSON and WR TED GINN, Jr. – or at least he does in June.

 

On Peterson, with Mike Florio of Pro FootballTalk.com:

 

The early reviews continue to be positive for new Saints running back Adrian Peterson. The future Hall of Fame tailback has a fan in his new future Hall of Fame quarterback teammate.

 

“He is a stud,” Brees told reporters on Thursday regarding Peterson. “He looks the part. It has been impressive. Obviously, you admired the guy from afar. I have played in a few Pro Bowls with him, so I do have a little bit of that experience. There is something about handing the ball off to that guy and watching him run through the hole and take on anybody who tries to tackle him. Obviously, we are not in pads right now, but you are just imagining what it is going to be like. So, I am excited for that time to come.”

 

The team’s defenders may not be excited for that time to come, especially when he catches a swing pass from Brees.

 

Any time you can get him in space against a smaller DB, look out,” Brees said. “Good luck tackling that guy in the open field. I feel like all of our backs are doing a really good job right now. Our offense is conducive to that. We do a lot with our backs. I think he is going to be able to do some stuff in this offense that maybe he has not done over the course of his career, just because we require some versatility from that position.”

 

On Ginn from Josh Alper, also at ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Brees also likes what he’s seen from wide receiver Ted Ginn, who signed with the team earlier in the offseason. Ginn’s speed has long been his calling card and reports from the team’s practices mesh with Brees’ observation that the wideout can still go fast.

 

“I could not be more impressed with Teddy,” Brees said, via ESPN.com. “I think he’s great for that room, just as being a veteran guy who’s been around a long time, played a lot of football,” Brees said. “I think he’s played some of his best football here over the last few years too, as he’s become more veteran. And I think he just brings a great element to that room — wisdom and leadership. And he’s still extremely productive. He certainly doesn’t look like he’s lost a step. He can fly.”

 

NFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Chris Burke of SI.com thinks it is significant that Coach Sean McVay has conspicuously not declared QB JARED GOFF to be his starter:

 

Not exactly going out on a limb here, but I think Jared Goff will be the Rams’ Week 1 starter. That said, I also think there is more than simple coach-speak to Sean McVay’s declaration during a press conference this week that “whoever we feel like gives us the best chance is who’s going to play behind center.” Other than being selected at No. 1 overall, Goff did little last year to tattoo his name atop the depth chart. Forcing him to beat out Sean Mannion is the correct approach, no matter how poorly it reflects on Los Angeles’ aggressive move to trade up in last year’s draft.

 

Let’s also be honest about what happened around Goff in 2016: The Rams’ offense was a mess long before Goff even stepped into the huddle. Just take a look at what happened with other promising Rams’ talents during the Jeff Fisher era—Greg Robinson, Tavon Austin, even Todd Gurley to some extent—and it’s obvious that regime did little to put its offensive weapons in positions to succeed.

 

McVay’s arrival (and the implementation of his scheme) should help Goff improve. That does not mean McVay has to be Goff’s babysitter. If Mannion somehow manages to outplay Goff in the coming months, the Rams should explore their options.

 

 

SEATTLE

From his perspective, Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon sees the Seahawks still stung by the events in SB49.  Conor Orr of NFL.com:

 

Whether or not Seattle Seahawks players and coaches agree with ESPN’s recent deep dive into their team’s post-Super Bowl loss psyche, the piece started a lot of conversations about one of the NFL’s best teams.

 

Warren Moon, a team radio broadcaster and mentor to some Seahawks players like Russell Wilson, has essentially agreed with one of the theses of the story: Some have still not gotten over the Super Bowl XLIX goal-line loss to the Patriots.

 

“Yeah, they are still having a hangover from two years ago, if you can believe it or not, about losing that Super Bowl in the last minute with the interception on the 1-yard line,” Moon told former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart, via the Seattle Times. “And with a lot of guys, it just kind of rubbed them the wrong way and they just haven’t gotten over it. This team will not be able to move on and really do what they want to do which is win another Super Bowl unless they can somehow put that behind them.

 

“There are certain guys on the team that just haven’t been able to do that and until they are able to do that they are going to continue to keep having a very good football team but a team that is going to probably come up short of there goals because of not being able to let go of the past and letting those things become a hindrance to their success.”

 

It’s easy for a fan to say let it go already, but in a way it’s kind of endearing that the team’s core players have carried the burden this long. We often paint today’s football players as distant from the rag-tag, pre-free agency gladiators who were synonymous with one team throughout their careers. This, at least, shows us that wins and losses still resonate.

 

As for the practical matter at hand (winning games this season and returning to the Super Bowl), this all falls on coach Pete Carroll. Carroll has made a living off of his ability to create positive atmospheres and if this is still festering somewhere deep inside the locker room, he needs to find a way to weed it out for good.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

The DB feels old knowing that pro athletes are showing up who were named after Shaquille O’Neal.  And one of them, with a slightly different spelling, is hurt.  The AP:

 

Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett will miss the rest of the team’s offseason program because of a hip injury sustained in a non-team workout last week.

 

Coach Vance Joseph tweeted that Barrett won’t need surgery but will be out “at least the next few months.”

 

Barrett missed OTAs this week to travel to Vail, Colorado, to see how severe his injury was. Joseph said doctors told the team Wednesday that the injury could be treated conservatively.

 

“It’s a tough break losing him for at least the next few months, but we’re still counting on him being a big part of our team in 2017,” Joseph said. “I have no doubt Shaq will work very hard during his rehab. We’re looking forward to getting him back on the field when he’s healthy.”

 

Barrett, an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State in 2015, has seven sacks over the last two seasons.

 

 

KANSAS CITY

After a camp and some OTA’s, QB PATRICK MAHOMES thinks he’s not too far away from being able to get the job done in the NFL.  Adam Teicher of ESPN.com doesn’t sound so sure:

 

Patrick Mahomes II has yet to advance beyond the No. 3 quarterback spot at Kansas City Chiefs practice, but the rookie said he doesn’t feel it will be long before he gains on the top two on the depth chart — starter Alex Smith and Tyler Bray.

 

“I don’t know if I’m that far away,” Mahomes said when asked how close he is to being game-ready. “I’ve just got to keep working, keep getting better. These veterans are guys that have been around the league, been in the league, and have been very successful. In order to be like them, I’ve got to go as hard as I do and catch up to them.”

 

In five full-squad practice sessions, Mahomes has shown many of the qualities that led the Chiefs to trade up 17 spots in the first round of the draft last month and select him with the 10th overall pick. His throws are generally accurate and arrive with zip. He has a big arm and can throw well on the move.

 

But he’s had his share of adjustments to the pro game. He showed that during the first two-minute drill of his NFL career in practice Wednesday.

 

That’s why Mahomes still looks a long way from challenging Smith for the starting spot, or even Bray for the No. 2 job.

 

“There’s going to be a lot of growing pains as a rookie, especially at that position,” center Mitch Morse said. “I definitely believe he’s capable of picking up the speed of the game. He’s very enthusiastic, always (into it). But right now, for me, (Smith) is our quarterback. He’s going to be our quarterback no matter what.

 

“Pat’s going to be a great player. He really strives to negate the deficits, right? He’s always trying to focus on the things that he doesn’t do well instead of ‘Look what I can do.'”

– – –

On the defensive side, the Chiefs have been short-handed in OTA’s and normally affable Andy Reid doesn’t like being asked about it.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

On Thursday, coach Andy Reid was asked about his absence. He seemed to be a little irritated about the subject.

 

“It’s a voluntary camp,” Reid said. “Let me tell you how I work on this whole thing about guys not being here. I can allow [the media] out here one time. If I get pummeled on who’s here and who’s not here, we’ll just do the one. We come out here, we give you every day that you can talk to these guys, so don’t worry about all of that. It’s a voluntary camp and that’s how I’m going to answer it every time you ask.”

 

It very well may be that Reid was irritated less about the question than he is about the fact that players are absent. Voluntary or not, coaches want their players to participate — especially since the players who play for their competitors are doing just that.

 

Complicating matters for any coach with players who opt not to attend optional workouts is that any expression of disapproval or frustration with the absence runs afoul of the labor deal. So while it’s a topic that likely is at the forefront of Reid’s mind, Reid doesn’t want the topic to ever be on his tongue.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Chris Burke of SI.com is starting to think the Chargers will make some noise in 2017:

 

I think the Chargers are reeling me back in, again. There was a long stretch, from the Schottenheimer era through 2015, when I penciled them in as a playoff team just about every year. (The one year I skipped, 2013, they qualified.) I’m not quite ready to take that leap yet, given their spot in a very difficult AFC West, but they’ll be tough if they can keep all their key players on the field for once. I think between Joey Bosa’s dominance, signs of life from Melvin Gordon and its upgrades up front, it would not be a shock to see Los Angeles make a little noise in 2017.

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

CB TAVON YOUNG made an interception, then crumpled to the ground without contact.  Callie Caplan of the Baltimore Sun on the torn ACL:

 

Ravens cornerback Tavon Young left Thursday’s organized team activity with a knee injury, later revealed to be a torn ACL.

 

“Coming back stronger than ever, GOD got me, thanks for the prayers,” Young tweeted Thursday.

 

Young, who had emerged as the team’s top option in the slot entering his second season, intercepted backup quarterback Dustin Vaughan during a drill about an hour into the session and suffered the injury as he ran up the field.

 

The 23-year-old Upper Marlboro native lay on his back as trainers tended to him on the field before limping off with support on both sides. Young played in all 16 games, making 11 starts, after being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.

 

 

CLEVELAND

Chris Burke of SI.com is cautiously bullish on the Browns:

 

I think the Browns are closer to being competitive than a lot of people believe, and the extension they handed LB Christian Kirksey this week is another reason why. Despite its 1-15 record a season ago and a brewing clustercovfefe at the QB position, Cleveland has inched past the total-teardown portion of its rebuild and now is identifying players that can help for the long haul. Kirksey, a tackling machine against the run, fits that bill. Ditto guys like Jamie Collins, Joel Bitonio and Corey Coleman (if he can stay healthy). I doubt Cleveland wins more than three or four games this season—this is still a long-term project, and the schedule is not friendly—but progress should be evident.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

The well-traveled RB CHRISTINE MICHAEL lands in Indy.  Mike Wells of ESPN.com:

 

The Indianapolis Colts continued their offseason trend of adding competition to the roster, signing free-agent running back Christine Michael, the team announced Thursday.

 

In a corresponding move, the Colts waived running back Brandon Radcliff.

 

Michael, 26, will join a Colts backfield that already features veterans Frank Gore, Robert Turbin, Josh Ferguson and rookie Marlon Mack. Gore and Turbin are projected to be the team’s top two running backs next season.

 

New general manager Chris Ballard has put a premium on adding as much depth and competition to the roster as possible as the Colts try to end their two-year absence from the playoffs.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

KAEP

Scott Barrett of ProFootballFocus.com uses advanced metrics to check out how good QB COLIN KAEPERNICK might be.

 

I love finding interesting and unique stats. I could spend (and typically do) all day with my head buried in a number of different spreadsheets looking for the perfect stat to tell me what’s going on with a specific player. This was, of course, a main reason why I’m doing this series each weekday. Before I started writing this series, I would just post these different stats on twitter and sit back and watch the retweets fly in and debates unfold in my mentions. The most-debated player this offseason has been Colin Kaepernick: either he’s terrible and a locker room distraction and that’s why he’s unemployed or he’s a starter-level talent who is being blacklisted by the NFL due to political reasons.

 

I don’t care enough to debate this from a non-statistical level, but I do think I have some interesting statistics that can add fuel to either side’s fire.

 

The Good: Throughout the history of the NFL, among all 186 quarterbacks to record at least 1,500 attempts throughout their careers, Colin Kaepernick ranks fifth-best in passing touchdown to interception ratio (72:30.)

 

The Bad: Since the NFL merger (1970), among all 186 quarterbacks with at least 1,500 attempts throughout their careers, only David Carr has a worse Sack%+ (era-adjusted sack percentage) than Kaepernick. In the PFF era (2007-present), among all quarterbacks with 1,500 dropbacks, no quarterback has been sacked more often than Kaepernick, getting sacked on 8.3 percent of his dropbacks.

 

Since 2012, Kaepernick ranks 15th in passer rating of 30 quarterbacks to total at least 1,000 pass attempts. He also ranks third-best of these 30 quarterbacks in rushing yardage.

 

Kaepernick’s passer rating and touchdown to interception ratio are constantly being referenced by his proponents in arguments for why he’s unjustly unemployed. I’m not sure that’s right, however. Really, I think they’re highlighting a major flaw in traditional passing stats – that they neglect how often a quarterback is getting sacked. Sacks are major drive-killers, in that they result in the loss of a down and negative yardage.

 

Over the past 10 seasons, quarterbacks average a 61.7 passer rating when pressured and a passer rating of 95.0 when operating from a clean pocket. Rather than make a low-percentage throw, Kaepernick is choosing to take a sack. After looking at the data, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the right decision. Since 2009, only 6.7 percent of drives where a quarterback was sacked resulted in a touchdown. Either way, a sack, like an interception, is a negative quarterback play that should be factored into the equation when looking at a quarterback’s efficiency. One such quarterback stat does factor in sacks as a negative play: adjusted net yards per attempt . Over the past three seasons, among all 29 quarterbacks with at least 800 attempts over this span, Kaepernick ranks ahead of only Blake Bortles in adjusted net yards per attempt.

 

This isn’t just a product of Kaepernick’s offensive line, either. For perspective, last season, Kaerpernick was sacked on 8.7 percent of his dropbacks (sixth-highest), while Blaine Gabbert was much closer to league-average (5.6 percent) at 5.8 percent of his dropbacks. Last season, in Gabbert starts, the 49ers averaged 22.2 points per game with a negative-5.8-point differential. In Kaepernick starts, the 49ers averaged only 18.0 points per game and with a negative-12.9-point differential.

 

Kaepernick is still unemployed and is unlikely to be named a starter wherever he lands. As for my own personal opinion on Kaepernick, I think he was once an average NFL starter, but has been playing at a backup-caliber level the past two seasons.

 

Among all 33 quarterbacks to play at least 500 snaps, Kaepernick was our worst-graded quarterback in 2015. In 2016, he ranked seventh-worst of 30 qualifying. Prior to that, he hovered around the NFL average.

 

The DB has found it interesting that some of the most mobile quarterbacks (also Michael Vick) take the most sacks.

– – –

Kaep would have you believe that for every fan repulsed by his behavior, there are several who are now drawn to his brand.  Michael David Smith at ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Owners may be shying away from signing Colin Kaepernick because they fear a fan backlash, but it’s also worth considering how many fans a team will gain if it signs Kaepernick.

 

Kaepernick revealed on social media today that he’s been inundated with fan mail.

 

“I want to thank the people for the support! My parents sent me these photos yesterday and continue to receive dollies full of mail in support! I couldn’t do this without the people, I love you,” Kaepernick wrote.

 

That’s not the first piece of data that shows Kaepernick has a big fan base: NFL Shop revealed in September, shortly after Kaepernick began his national anthem protest, that Kaepernick’s jersey was the league’s top-selling piece of merchandise.

 

Kaepernick is a polarizing figure, but being polarizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By definition, a polarizing figure has a lot of people who support him, and in Kaepernick’s case those people will be eager to cheer for his team this season. If he has a team this season.

 

 

ANSWERS FROM ESPN

Those remaining at ESPN.com offer some answers to NFL predictions questions:

 

Which new player will make biggest difference in 2017?

 

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: If healthy and on the field, new Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is an immediate upgrade for Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia offense. He has the size and frame to run inside breaking routes and cause matchup problems in the red zone. His skill set is a perfect match for Doug Pederson’s system.

 

Dan Graziano, NFL Insider: Over the past two seasons, Jameis Winston ranks 20th in the NFL with 1,265 passing yards on throws traveling at least 20 yards in the air. Winston ranks 30th in completion percentage and 24th in QBR on such passes. Over the same time period, Kirk Cousins ranks third, fourth and eighth in the same categories. DeSean Jackson is my answer.

 

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Few non-quarterbacks are good enough to add victories to their teams by themselves. Jackson and Calais Campbell could be rare exceptions. The Tampa Bay offense and the Jacksonville defense should spike noticeably this season because of these two players.

 

Aaron Schatz, editor of Football Outsiders: I’m going with Jeffery, because it is hard to overstate just how bad the Eagles’ wide receivers were a year ago. Jeffery has averaged 15 yards per catch in the NFL; his biggest problem has been staying on the field.

 

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Martellus Bennett will give Aaron Rodgers over a full season what Jared Cook managed for the final three weeks of 2016 and then the playoffs: a playmaking tight end who changes the way teams defend the Packers. Rodgers noted often how Cook impacted the team, much like Jermichael Finley before him, and Bennett is cut from the same cloth.

 

Field Yates, NFL Insider: It’s never easy choosing just one, but the addition of Tony Jefferson gives the Ravens all sorts of flexibility in the back end. The safety duo of him and Eric Weddle — one of the game’s most consistent players — should bode well for coordinator Dean Pees. The rising value of the safety position around the league should not be overlooked.

 

The Patriots’ biggest challenger in 2017 will be ________ .

 

Bowen: The Oakland Raiders have some of the key traits necessary to challenge the Patriots: pass-rush ability; an offensive line that can control tempo; and enough offensive weapons to create explosive plays. To beat New England, you must have a physical identity on both sides of the ball. And Oakland has that under Jack Del Rio.

 

Graziano: The addition of Marshawn Lynch allows the Raiders to play more physically than in 2016, which gives them options that should only help their explosive passing game. They have a game-changing pass-rusher in Khalil Mack and enough pieces on defense to give the Patriots a tough time head-to-head. I like Oakland’s chances to hold off Kansas City and Denver in a tough division, if Derek Carr can stay healthy.

 

Sando: The Steelers are that team from a pure talent standpoint, but the Seahawks have shown they match up well enough with New England to be the most problematic challenger. The Seahawks won at Gillette Stadium last season, even though Russell Wilson was less than full strength. A few years ago, Seattle had a double-digit lead on New England in the Super Bowl before Cliff Avril’s injury gutted its pass rush.

 

Schatz: I’m going with the Raiders too. The Patriots travel to Pittsburgh, giving the Steelers a leg up on passing New England for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. But Tom Brady has sliced through the Pittsburgh defense so many times now that I have no faith in the Steelers beating the Patriots in the postseason without a huge defensive leap forward and a change in scheme. Oakland will probably need to beat the Patriots in a neutral-site Mexico City game if they want home field in the playoffs, but at least Raiders’ young talent will give the Patriots something different to try to beat.

 

Seifert: Father Time. The only way the Patriots are not the NFL’s best team this season is if Brady suddenly hits the wall, either through an age-related performance slip or by injury. And even then, with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett behind him, the drop-off wouldn’t be severe. The team that has the best chance to overtake the Patriots is the Steelers: A Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, substantial offensive firepower and a defense that can rush the passer is always a threat to win.

 

Yates: The Green Bay Packers, but there will be many. Not to simplify things, but it’s incredibly hard to win in the NFL. No matter the opponent. The Patriots look excellent on paper, but nothing will come easy for them. The Packers, Seahawks, Steelers, Chiefs and Falcons are among other potential top teams. I also think the Vikings will be very good.

 

Which QB will make the biggest leap forward in 2017?

 

Bowen: Eagles QB Carson Wentz is my pick after the flashes he showed as a rookie, along with the upgrades Philly made at wide receiver. Alshon Jeffery is a great fit for the Eagles’ scheme, and Torrey Smith can still blow the top off the secondary with his vertical speed. Both players should facilitate more production from Wentz in his second season.

 

Graziano: OK, laugh, but I’ll say Tyrod Taylor. He has the eighth-best Total QBR in the league since the start of the 2015 season — better than guys such as Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck. And that has been with Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy missing 16 combined games over the past two seasons. Taylor knows new Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison from their time together in Baltimore, which bodes well for his ability to take another step forward in 2017.

 

Sando: Wentz’s rookie numbers were modest (16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions), leaving significant room for improvement. The Eagles also added weapons around him, which should help his cause. I’m less optimistic about Blake Bortles, and I think if his efficiency improves, it will have more to do with the Jaguars’ defense and running game lightening the load.

 

Schatz: Jared Goff is the choice here, but only because he was so bad last year that “not the worst starting quarterback in the league” would qualify as a colossal leap forward. Having Sean McVay around to run the Rams’ offense will be a big help, though; last year’s game film should all be burned and forgotten.

 

Seifert: Wentz tailed off badly as a rookie after a strong start, finishing 2016 with the NFL’s fifth-worst QBR (52.8), but he’ll benefit from the Eagles’ aggressive additions at receiver and also a full year with right tackle Lane Johnson.

 

Yates: Wentz must rectify his mechanics (which skidded downhill as a rookie), but there’s plenty to like about his situation. The team beefed up the backfield by signing LeGarrette Blount, while also significantly improving its receiving corps.

 

Who’s the non-playoff team from 2016 that will make the 2017 field?

 

Bowen: The Indianapolis Colts play in a very winnable division, and new general manager Chris Ballard spent the offseason upgrading the Indianapolis defense. After adding young, ball-hawking talent to the secondary (Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson) and veterans along the defensive front, the Colts should be in a position to make a run in the AFC South.

 

Graziano: I like the Los Angeles Rams. Coordinator Wade Phillips’ impact on the defense and head coach Sean McVay’s intelligence and energy will be enough to vault them to their first winning season since 2003. Also helping their case: The Cardinals are due for a downturn and Seattle’s ship looked a little leaky last year. Obviously, there’s some concern about how Jared Goff meshes with the new coaching staff and learns a whole new system. But I’ll give that staff and running back Todd Gurley the benefit of the doubt. Don’t underestimate the impact of veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth on the offensive line, either.

 

Sando: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were my choice for most improved (see below), so they’re a logical pick here too. The Colts and Chargers are two other teams I’ll be watching. Indy has better unity throughout its organization, a favorable schedule and an improved roster. For the Chargers, QB Philip Rivers must reduce his turnovers.

 

Schatz: I’m driving the Rams bandwagon this year. OK, I guess it’s more of a minivan, but more folks should be hopping aboard once they realize Phillips’ phenomenal record of improving defenses in his first year as coordinator. (I wrote about that in detail here.) The offense isn’t going to be good, but there’s no way it will be as bad as last year. The 2016 Rams had the fourth-worst offense in the history of our DVOA stats, which stretches all the way back to 1987. The other teams in the bottom dozen improved by an average of three wins the next year, and three of those teams had winning records.

 

Seifert: Assuming quarterback Marcus Mariota recovers fully from his broken leg, the Tennessee Titans will have a multifaceted offense with the talent to gain yardage in big chunks. Remember, Mariota had the NFL’s fourth-best QBR after Week 5 last season. And the Titans did a nice job addressing their defensive weaknesses this offseason, especially in the back end, by signing cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien while drafting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson at No. 18 overall.

 

Yates: The Buccaneers have added so much horsepower on offense this offseason: DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, to name a few pieces. Plus, guard J.R. Sweezy could be back in the lineup, and the offseason reports on running back Doug Martin are positive. The division is no slouch, but I view Tampa Bay as a 10-win team next season.

 

Which Year 2 player looks primed for a breakout season?

 

Bowen: Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry had eight touchdown catches as a rookie, and he has the trust of quarterback Philip Rivers inside of the 20-yard line (seven red zone touchdowns in 2016). With the size (6-foot-5) to win matchups and the route-running ability to create separation, Henry is in a position to move ahead of veteran Antonio Gates as one of Rivers’ top targets.

 

Graziano: Tampa Bay pass-rusher Noah Spence had 5.5 sacks in a limited role as a rookie, but I expect his playing time — and his impact — to increase in 2017. Remember, this was a first-round talent who fell to the second round because of off-field concerns from early in his college career. He adapted well to what coordinator Mike Smith was teaching last year in Tampa Bay and could be part of a real defensive renaissance there.

 

Sando: Seahawks RB C.J. Prosise should be primed for a breakout season in Year 2. He flashed great ability with Seattle as a rookie in 2016 — 156 yards from scrimmage at New England, for instance — but injuries kept him off the field. Better luck on the health front could let Prosise shine in a situational role.

 

Schatz: Football Outsiders’ DYAR stats had Hunter Henry of the Chargers ranked fifth in total value among tight ends last season. Not bad for a rookie. Gates is still around, but he’ll be 37 this season, so the path is open for Henry to become one of the most productive players at the position.

 

Seifert: Washington receiver Josh Doctson is going to have every opportunity to break out in 2017. The departures of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon have left it wide-open for him. An Achilles tendon injury largely derailed his rookie season, but coach Jay Gruden knows how to use big receivers with speed.

 

Yates: A broken leg delayed Sheldon Rankins’ start to his NFL career, but the powerful, imposing defensive tackle really showed up for New Orleans last season. In a league where you need to be able to pressure the quarterback from all angles, Rankins profiles as a potentially dominant interior defensive lineman. Eight sacks wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

 

Who will be the NFL’s best offense and defense in 2017?

 

Bowen: The Patriots should create the most issues for opposing defenses this season with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the addition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks in coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense. Cooks has the electric ability to produce explosive plays on high-percentage throws from Tom Brady. On defense, give me the Seahawks. Getting Earl Thomas back is the key to Seattle’s core Cover 3 scheme. This unit wins with the perfect mix of rush and coverage.

 

Graziano: Offense has to be the Patriots after adding Cooks and bringing in a new crew of RBs that should make the running game much more dynamic. Assuming Brady plays all 16 games (which he didn’t last year), you have to imagine New England stays on top. Defensively, give me Denver, which might have come down a bit from its ridiculous 2015 heights but is still a unit that can win games on its own, even without top-end quarterback play.

 

Sando: Green Bay will push New England after restoring the tight end position, but I agree that the Patriots should have the best offense with Cooks in the equation and Brady playing 16 games instead of 12. On defense, I’ll go with the Giants edging out Denver and Seattle. They found a way to re-sign Jason Pierre-Paul, despite giving Olivier Vernon a big contract last offseason.

 

 

RECEIVERS

Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders has a complicated way to measure wide receivers:

 

Last week we looked at quarterbacks and their passing plus-minus in 2016. The same method goes into creating receiving plus-minus, but this time we are looking at things from the perspective of receivers.

 

Receiving plus-minus estimates how many catches a receiver caught compared to what an average receiver would have caught, given the location of those targets. It does not consider targets listed as “Thrown Away,” “Tipped at Line,” or “Quarterback Hit in Motion.” Player performance is compared to a historical baseline of how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether it is on the left, middle, or right side of the field. Note that plus-minus is not scaled to a player’s target total.

 

Wide receivers require at least 50 targets to qualify for season rankings. Running backs and tight ends require 25 targets. In addition to the plus-minus stat (expressed with a “+” for above average or “-” for below average), we have included the player’s catch rate (C%) and the adjusted rate (C%+), which expresses plus-minus in terms of efficiency.

Note that the quality of the quarterback will be part of each player’s plus-minus; we remove passes thrown away on purpose from this analysis, but not inaccurate passes that are simply bad throws or bad decisions.

2016 Wide Receivers

 

A total of 88 wide receivers qualified this season, but we’ll just show the top and bottom rankings to save space here. Each receiver’s plus-minus can be found later this summer in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.

 

2016 Wide Receivers: Top 20 in Receiving Plus-Minus

Rk        Player   Team                 Passes            C%      REC +/- C%+

1          Doug Baldwin    SEA        123              78.9%     +12.9            +10.5%

2          Adam Thielen    MIN          90              76.7%     +12.2            +13.6%

3          Michael Thomas NO         119              77.3%     +11.4              +9.6%

4          Stefon Diggs     MIN         107              78.5%     +11.3            +10.6%

5          Cole Beasley     DAL           94              80.9%       +9.5            +10.1%

6          Pierre Garcon    WAS       109              72.5%       +8.8              +8.1%

7          Brandin Cooks NO            115             68.7%       +8.7              +7.6%

8          Antonio Brown   PIT          150              70.7%       +8.1              +5.4%

9          Julio Jones        ATL         125              66.4%       +7.9              +6.3%

10         Jordy Nelson     GB          144              67.4%       +7.6              +5.3%

11         Larry Fitzgerald ARI          147              74.1%       +7.3              +5.0%

12         Robert Woods   BUF           68              73.5%       +7.2            +10.7%

13         Terrance Williams DAL    60                 73.3%       +6.8            +11.4%

14         A.J. Green        CIN            94              70.2%       +6.8             +7.2%

15         T.Y. Hilton         IND          142              64.1%       +6.3              +4.4%

16         Jarvis Landry     MIA         123              76.4%       +6.2              +5.0%

17         Mohamed Sanu ATL           78              75.6%       +5.7              +7.3%

18         Chris Hogan      NE             54              70.4%       +5.3              +9.8%

19         DeVante Parker MIA           83              67.5%       +4.6              +5.5%

20         DeSean Jackson WAS    90                 62.2%       +4.3              +4.8%

 

Antonio Brown’s bid at leading the league in receiving plus-minus for three years in a row came up well short, but he still finished a solid eighth. Expectations were probably too high for Brown to challenge Marvin Harrison’s single-season record of 143 catches. The situation seemed right though, with Heath Miller’s retirement and Martavis Bryant’s season-long suspension. Brown sat out the Week 17 finale, but he finished with 106 receptions, well short of the 136 he had in 2015 when he had the highest plus-minus season on record (+18.3). We saw last week that Ben Roethlisberger had a career-low -6.3, but Brown was still his top receiver at +7.9. We’ll see some other Steelers later, but the team’s bottom-ranked player in plus-minus was Sammie Coates (-4.2), who struggled mightily to catch the ball after a hand injury.

 

There were not any dominant seasons by wideouts in 2016. Doug Baldwin, an FO favorite, had the second-lowest plus-minus (+12.9) to lead the league in the last 11 seasons. He did this after finishing third in 2015, so regardless of the chatter about in-fighting in Seattle, Baldwin has been on an impressive roll with Russell Wilson.

We talked a lot about Sam Bradford finishing third in passing plus-minus (+28.4) in a season where he set the single-season record for completion percentage. Most of that success was when he threw to Adam Thielen (+12.2) and Stefon Diggs (+11.3), who both ranked in the top four in 2016. Diggs was a known threat, but Thielen really surprised with 967 yards, including a 202-yard game against the Packers’ ravaged secondary in Week 16. Thielen earned a three-year extension worth a total of $27 million. If 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, who had one grab in his rookie year, continues to be a huge disappointment, then it will continue to be the Diggs and Thielen Show in Minnesota.

 

The only other team with a pair of wideouts in the top 12 was New Orleans, which always does well in this stat thanks to Drew Brees’ accuracy. However, the Saints dealt Brandin Cooks to New England this offseason. That move is reasonable when you have Brees and saw a strong rookie effort from Michael Thomas, who almost quietly produced 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. New Orleans’ third wideout, Willie Snead (+2.5), will have to pick up the slack with Cooks gone, but Thomas is a player to watch for in 2017.

 

Interestingly enough, Dallas has two wide receivers in the top 20, but neither is All-Pro Dez Bryant. For whatever reason, rookie Dak Prescott was not nearly as efficient when throwing to Bryant, who will tend to draw the tougher defensive matchup, and who was not always 100 percent healthy in 2016. Still, Prescott was -2.0 to Bryant, tied with Brice Butler for his lowest plus-minus to any teammate. We know Cole Beasley catches the underneath routes out of the slot, but one thing Dallas changed this year was to get Terrance Williams more involved in the intermediate game. Bryant’s targets were nearly a full 4 yards deeper than Williams’, so that certainly had something to do with the numbers being down. Bryant has been a +21.9 in his career with Tony Romo at quarterback, but -11.0 with Dallas’ other passers. Prescott will have to get better at throwing to his No. 1 receiver, but this is a minor quibble to have on a Dallas offense that seems set for a long run of success.

 

Miami (Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker), Atlanta (Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu), and Washington (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson), also each had a duo in the top 20. Washington was the least surprising given Kirk Cousins’ success, but let’s not forget that both of those players have moved on this offseason, with Garcon going to San Francisco and Jackson down to Tampa Bay. Jackson is a very interesting fit with the vertical Jameis Winston. It is no surprise to see Atlanta here in Matt Ryan’s MVP season, but the Miami numbers were a bit unexpected with Landry usually not showing up this high, and Parker seemingly not “there” yet in his development. Still, Ryan Tannehill (+3.4) had a top-10 finish in passing plus-minus, so perhaps Adam Gase has that offense moving in the right direction.

 

Many of the names in the bottom 20 should come as no surprise, given some of the reputations for notoriously bad hands or routes, and/or an inaccurate quarterback. Is it any surprise that Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess both show up for Carolina, or Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham for Philadelphia? The same can be said about Blake Bortles’ duo of Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson in Jacksonville. Seth Roberts made a few big plays with Derek Carr in Oakland, but overall the team could really do an upgrade on him for its third receiving target. Roberts’ catch rate was 16.3 percentage points below average, the worst in the NFL. The Raiders did add tight end Jared Cook this offseason.

 

You can see the Bottom 20 and the tight end listings here.