The Daily Briefing Friday, March 30, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
More cancer for Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
Doctors are declaring Jim Kelly’s surgery a success.
The Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills quarterback underwent a 12-hour procedure on Wednesday to remove oral cancer and reconstruct Kelly’s upper jaw.
“We successfully removed Mr. Kelly’s cancer from his upper jaw and lymph nodes from his neck,” Dr. Mark Urken, head and neck surgeon at Mount Sinai West, said in a statement, via ESPN’s Mike Rodak. “We then reconstructed his upper jaw. Mr. Kelly is resting comfortably post-operatively.”
Jill Kelly said in a statement her husband’s recovery would be “extensive.” Jim is expected to remain in the hospital for a few weeks.
Kelly announced earlier this month that his oral cancer returned after he was declared cancer free in 2016. The 58-year-old was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw in 2013 and had surgery a short time after his diagnosis. After doctors determined cancer had spread to his nasal cavities, he underwent additional treatments and had another surgery in March 2014.
WR GOLDEN TATE III may be getting extended. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
In his first two seasons as general manager, Bob Quinn has shown a propensity to get long-term deals done with his best players right before the start of the season.
He did it with Matthew Stafford and Glover Quin last year, and with Darius Slay, Theo Riddick and Sam Martin the summer before.
All five of those players remain key contributors for the Lions, and there’s a sixth that could join the extension club later this year: Wide receiver Golden Tate.
Quinn said at the NFL’s annual meetings this week that talks on a long-term deal for Tate have not started “as of yet,” but he left open the possibility of extending the Lions’ leading receiver from the last four seasons at some point down the road.
Tate is scheduled to make $7 million this fall in the final year of his contract.
“I think all those things in my time here have happened in the summer,” Quinn said. “I think our concentration and our focus right now is on the draft. Things that come down the road after that, they’ll come and go and we’ll talk through it.”
Tate has at least 90 catches in all four of his seasons in Detroit, and last year he teamed with Marvin Jones to give the Lions a pair of 1,000-yard receivers.
While prices for slot receivers have soared in recent months — the Cleveland Browns are paying Jarvis Landry $15.98 million in 2017 — Tate likely won’t command top-of-the-market money as he’ll play this fall at 30 years old.
The Lions return their top four receivers from last season in Tate, Jones, Kenny Golladay and TJ Jones (who’s yet to sign his restricted free agent tender), and new coach Matt Patricia praised the Lions’ skill players this week as being “very dynamic.”
“The wide receivers are a major problem to defend,” Patricia said. “They’re, Golden Tate is one of the best. I mean, once the ball’s in his hands, forget about it. It’s a big problem.”
Tate told the Free Press at the Super Bowl last month that he hopes to “start getting some talks going” on a new deal later this year and that he’d “love to finish my career here and help this organization win a championship in a great division.”
“Hopefully we can get something (done),” Tate said. “I think what I’ve done in my four years is hard to do. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of being available, being durable, being reliable. So I don’t think — I think I’m still playing at a very, very high level. I think Matt (Stafford) trusts me, I think the team trusts me so hopefully we can get something done.”
Birkett also notes how time has now changed the perception of the contract of QB MATTHEW STAFFORD:
For all of the hand-wringing some people did over Matthew Stafford’s contract last summer, here’s something amazing to consider: By the time the 2018 NFL seasons begins, Stafford might only be the third-highest paid quarterback in his own division.
“I could have predicted that, honestly,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said this week at the NFL’s annual meeting. “That’s just how it is.”
Stafford signed a record five-year, $135 million extension last August that made him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
That title lasted about five months.
Jimmy Garoppolo signed a five-year, $137.5 million extension with the San Francisco 49ers in February, and both Stafford and Garoppolo have since been passed by Kirk Cousins, who signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency.
Cousins will make $28 million annually, $1 million more than Stafford.
Next up? Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is in line for a blockbuster extension this summer that could make him the NFL’s first ever $30-million-a-year player.
In the NFC North, only the Chicago Bears have a quarterback making less than $20 million: Mitchell Trubisky, their first-round pick from 2017.
Stafford is coming off a season in which he threw for more yards and touchdowns than Cousins, and he’s four years younger than Rodgers, a two-time MVP who missed part of last season with a broken collar bone.
So does that make him a bargain for 2018 (the first season his extension kicks in) and beyond?
“It’s the market, I think,” Lions president Rod Wood said. “I always look at these comments (I get from NFL people at events like this), a lot of teams like our quarterback. He’s really good. And I said this, I think when we did Matt (Patricia’s) press conference, when we were interviewing coaches it was one of the main attractions to our team, that we have a quarterback. Anybody that’s going to take over a new team as a head coach, that’s one of the most important things to them, that you have a quarterback that you can win with. I think everybody that we interviewed believe that we do have that.”
The 49ers will be training with Navy SEALS. Eric Branch in the San Francisco Chronicle:
In 2016, when he was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t thrilled when he heard the news: The Falcons were dedicating a week of their offseason program to work with Navy SEALS.
“When I was a coordinator, that stressed me out,” Shanahan said. “I couldn’t believe the coach was taking a week away from teaching to do Navy SEALS stuff. At the time, I was like ‘That has nothing to do with football.’”
Two years later, any guesses on what the 49ers will be doing for a week during their offseason program?
Yes, Shanahan will bring the Navy SEALS program to Santa Clara shortly after the 49ers report April 16. There will be classroom training and team-building exercises designed to promote brotherhood and foster tenacity and mental toughness.
Shanahan now laughs at his initial annoyance and terms the program Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn brought to the Falcons “awesome.” Shanahan considered hosting the SEALS last year in his first season with the 49ers, but didn’t because he thought there was too much football-related teaching to do with a new staff, and knew the roster was still being overhauled.
He now hopes it will help re-create the tight-knit locker room many players noted last year after their 6-10 season began with the first 0-9 start in franchise history.
“Going into our second year, I think our team is much more ready for this,” Shanahan said. “… People don’t get how much a team changes. Yeah, we’re going to go in and hopefully take off where we finished. But the team is going to look so different. You want to rekindle that because there are a lot of guys that know what they went through — but you do start over to a degree.”
The 49ers won’t be replicating the training done by SEALS, but there will be some physical labor.
As detailed by MMQB.com in 2016, the Falcons competed in various challenges in the program led by seven retired SEALS. An example: For one challenge, they split into groups of six. The groups carried a 240-pound log without being told how long they would have to carry it.
“It’s all about communicating under pressure when you are fatigued,” Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones said at the time. “And that part of it pertains to football. When you are on the field and you are tired and fatigued, what are you going to do? Are you going to let your brothers down?”
Shanahan said he eventually was won over by the program, which Quinn brought back to Atlanta in 2017.
“What I did like, and what I really believed in toward the end, is that a tighter team has an advantage over another and plays harder for each other,” Shanahan said. “I always look at, how you can be a tight team when guys are playing for contracts? This is a business.
“You look at Navy SEALS and they are as tight as anyone. … They go into some situations that they may not necessarily agree with: They are not getting cut or taking a lesser contract, they are potentially getting killed. So they block out the noise and just do it for each other because it’s a commitment they have. I think a lot of that stuff resonates.”
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Is it tampering if RB TODD GURLEY III sends signals that he wants to play with WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr? Kevin Patra at NFL.com:
It would take a huge haul to pry Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants, but the team’s decision to not put the kibosh on trade talks will keep rumors flying.
The team rumored to be most interested in acquiring the game-changing receiver is the Los Angeles Rams. Sean McVay’s team is deep into all-in mode this offseason, and it’s believed its interest in possibly acquiring OBJ is real, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
It feels like L.A.’s No. 23 overall pick in the draft has a huge ‘for sale’ sign on it if the return is a great veteran player. Beckham is the crème de la crème.
It would take a lot to pair OBJ and the Rams. First, L.A. would need to bowl over the Giants with an offer. Then New York would have to admit they’re in full-on rebuild mode and don’t want to pay Beckham for the long-term. Then the Rams would have to decide whether to give the mercurial but uber-talented receiver a massive contract extension.
The one thing that wouldn’t be a roadblock in the Beckham-to-L.A. fantasy: how he’d fit in the offense.
“There’s always enough snaps,” running back Todd Gurley, speaking hypothetically, said grinning on Tuesday, via the Los Angeles Times. “There’s always enough snaps.
“If we had him, man, it would be awesome. I’d be happy, [Jared] Goff will be happy, coach [Sean] McVay will be happy, [owner Stan] Kroenke, the whole team would be.”
QB GENO SMITH left the Chargers without a contract and headed up to Seattle where the backup QB position is open. Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News:
Smith, 27, is looking for a new opportunity coming off an encouraging year as Eli Manning’s backup in which Smith got healthy, impressed coaches and teammates with his work ethic, and played pretty well when given the chance to start in Oakland in Week 13.
As night follows day, a team coached by Jon Gruden will get older in its first year under his guidance. Hence, the signing of CB LEON HALL as announced by the team:
The Oakland Raiders have signed unrestricted free agent CB Leon Hall, the club announced Thursday.
Hall spent his first nine seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2007-15 before making stops with the New York Giants in 2016 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. He has played in 142 games with 108 starts, totaling 563 tackles (415 solo), 27 interceptions with three touchdowns, 115 passes defensed, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Originally drafted by Cincinnati in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, Hall recorded 517 tackles (380), 26 interceptions, 112 passes defensed, five forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in his nine seasons with the Bengals. His 26 interceptions rank fourth in Bengals’ franchise history, and his time in Cincinnati overlapped with Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s stint as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator.
Last season, the 5-foot-11, 195-pounder spent the second half of the year with the 49ers, appearing in nine games with one start and totaled 16 tackles (15).
Don’t put QB ANDY DALTON on your list of QBs likely to become the highest-paid player in the game – or at least it won’t happen anytime soon. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton will not be getting a new contract any time soon.
Although quarterback salaries have taken off since the Bengals signed Dalton to a long-term extension in 2014, Bengals Vice President Troy Blackburn says the Bengals don’t think they need to re-do the deal.
“We didn’t sign the Andy Dalton deal because we thought it was a good deal. At the time it was an expensive deal. It was a heavy lift,” Blackburn said. “We did it because Andy was a winning starting quarterback in the National Football League, he had demonstrated that. We know statistically your best chance of success is by rewarding your own players and maintaining that quality core. That is what drove that. We are certainly aware quarterback deals have evolved since then. We know that at the right time we will have to evolve as well. We don’t think this is the time right now. What we are going to focus on right now is building the best team for 2018 we possibly can.”
Dalton is due $13.9 million this year, which is on the low end for starting quarterbacks who are no longer on their rookie contracts. But with three more years on his deal, Dalton can’t really expect the Bengals to tear up his contract and give him a new one — especially when Dalton’s passer rating has declined three straight years.
Some day Dalton may get a new deal with the Bengals, but that day will not be this year. And probably not next year, either.
Coach Hue Jackson is signaling the Browns will be going QB at 1 and DE BRADLEY CHUBB at 4. Mary Kay Cabot in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Browns coach Hue Jackson has dared to dream about Myles Garrett and North Carolina State’s Bradly Chubb blasting in off the edges and drilling unsuspecting quarterbacks.
“I do at nighttime when I’m by myself,” Jackson said Tuesday at the NFL Annual Meeting coaches breakfast. “You kind of play that scenario game with all these different guys. I wish I could have them all. There will be good scenarios as we come down to the end here.”
Chubb, widely regarded as the best pass rusher in the draft, is one of the gamechangers the Browns are considering with their No. 4 overall pick. Depending on how the first three picks go, Saquon Barkley and Minkah Fitzpatrick could be there, too.
“Obviously, as you guys have already pegged it, we’re taking a quarterback, and then here comes the No. 4 pick,” Jackson said. “We need impact football players, period, and that’s part of where we are. So here’s another opportunity to put some impact players on our team that can help us get to winning as fast as we can.”
GM John Dorsey acknowledged that Chubb and Garrett are “very similar, (but) two different players. they play the game in different levels. Myles is such an athletic (player), to me, he’s more like Julius Peppers in terms of his movement skills and his length and how he plays. Chubb plays the game a little bit differently, but he’s still an unbelievable defensive prospect for this draft.”
Signs that RB Le’VEON BELL may not be happy in the Steel City. Joe Rutter in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Did Le’Veon Bell take a shot at a fanbase critical of his stance in contract negotiations with the Steelers? Or was the All-Pro running back merely repeating lyrics from one of his rap songs? Or perhaps he was unleashing an early April Fool’s joke?
Bell sure appeared to be throwing shade at his fans with a cryptic post to his Instagram and Twitter accounts Thursday afternoon.
It read: “it’s so hard to be a hero in a city that paints youu out to be the villain..”
Bell has threatened to skip training camp for the second year in a row since the Steelers used the franchise tag on him in successive seasons. General manager Kevin Colbert has said all offseason he hopes the Steelers and Bell can agree to a long-term contract before the July 16 deadline to reach such deals with franchise players.
Bell will make $14.5 million this year under terms of the franchise tag, and he apparently wants to be compensated at a higher rate. According to an NFL Network report this week from the owners’ meetings in Orlando, Bell wants to be paid the same as wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose contract averages $17 million a year.
Bell has a history of posting song lyrics to his social media accounts. And last year, on April 1, he tweeted that he would sit out the 2017 season rather than play under the franchise tag.
He did play but not before he missed all of training camp. He didn’t sign his contract until Labor Day, which was six days before the season opener. Bell publicly has contemplated taking an identical stance this year.
More thoughts from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Le’Veon Bell‘s comment on Thursday that he feels like Pittsburgh treats him as a villain suggests that he might not be in Pittsburgh much longer. And if he’s approaching this season with an eye toward leaving Pittsburgh a year from now, he has a role model he knows well: Kirk Cousins.
Bell and Cousins were teammates at Michigan State, and Bell is now in the position Cousins was in a year ago: Franchised for the second year in a row, and seemingly not on the same page as his team about a long-term contract extension.
It could make sense, then, for Bell to follow in Cousins’ footsteps, sign the franchise tender this year, and hit unrestricted free agency next year. Like Cousins, Bell would benefit from the NFL rule that makes a third franchise tag so expensive as to be almost impossible: Washington was never going to put the franchise tag on Cousins this year, and Bell is even less likely to get the franchise tag next year. If Bell plays out this season in Pittsburgh on the one-year franchise salary of $14.56 million, he’ll become a true unrestricted free agent next year.
The big risk, of course, is that Bell could suffer a serious injury during the 2018 season. If he blows out his knee this year, the big payday he wants next year may not materialize.
But if Bell doesn’t feel wanted in Pittsburgh and doesn’t think the Steelers are willing to pay him the kind of money he deserves on a long-term deal, the best way to find out what he’s worth on the open market is to do exactly what Cousins did: Play out his rookie contract, sign the franchise tender twice, and then hit free agency. Bell wouldn’t get the kind of contract Cousins got because no running back is going to get a quarterback contract in today’s NFL. But Bell could re-set the market for running backs by hitting the market in a year.
The Texans, who did not sign QB Colin Kaepernick last year and have been deposed on their thought process, have signed QB BRANDON WEEDEN.
THIS AND THAT
If Johnny Manziel has really re-built himself, credit his mom. ESPN.com:
Johnny Manziel has had well-documented alcohol and substance abuse issues in recent years. Stuck in a self-described “rut,” he said a conversation with his mother helped steer him away from his dependencies and onto a path that he hopes will lead back to the NFL.
“I got so low to the point where I questioned what I was doing and if my life was probably really worth living to a point anymore and got really down and really had to sit and reflect and look on what I was doing every day,” Manziel said Wednesday during an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt.
“My mom came to me one day and asked me — she didn’t really ask, she was just in tears — ‘What are you doing with your life? Why do I have to go around and get this secondhand of words and conversations of the negative things you’re doing around the world that’s coming back to me?’
“And I saw how bad that it broke her heart, and it sucked. And it really hit home.”
The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback performed at Texas A&M’s pro day on Tuesday in front of NFL coaches and scouts. He will make his debut in the developmental Spring League on April 7, hoping to impress the scouts who have watched him throw this week.
He told reporters at pro day that he feels he’s in a good place mentally as he chases another shot at the NFL or, if that doesn’t come to pass, opportunity in the Canadian Football League.
“I have a great family. I was always raised the right way. I knew the difference from right and wrong, but for whatever reason, I just liked to choose wrong,” Manziel told Van Pelt. “And I got in that rut.”
Manziel said he’s reliant on his family, agent, wife and a “great support system out there if I choose to use it, and I started to use it.” He said he has shed those in his life who were in it just to have fun.
“It’s nice to wake up with a smile on your face and not be down and out,” Manziel said.
BEST AND WORST PICKS
Brent Sobleski of Bleacher Report names the Best and Worst Pick of each team during the Super Bowl Era. His list is below, his commentary can be found here:
Best: Larry Fitzgerald
Worst: Steve Little – he was a PK picked in 1978
Only five specialists have been first-round picks in the Super Bowl era. Normally, kickers and punters wouldn’t even be included in this conversation. Yet Little’s awful three-year career must be noted. Roberto Aguayo falls on the butt end of many jokes after being a 2016 second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and struggling. Imagine taking a specialist in the first round only to have him convert 48.1 percent of his field-goal attempts and average 38.5 yards per punt. The Cardinals don’t have to imagine after wasting the 15th overall pick in 1978 on one.
Best: Mike Kenn
Worst: Aundray Bruce – 1st overall in 1988
Best: Ray Lewis
Worst: Kyle Boller
Best: Bruce Smith
Worst: Tom Cousineau
Best: Julius Peppers
Worst: Rae Carruth
Best: Walter Payton
Worst: Curtis Enis
Best: Anthony Munoz
Worst: Akili Smith
Best: Joe Thomas
Worst: Mike Junkin
Best: Emmitt Smith
Worst: Bill Thomas – RB picked in 1972
Best: Von Miller
Worst: Tommy Maddox
Best: Barry Sanders
Worst: Charles Rogers
Green Bay Packers
Best: Aaron Rodgers
Worst: Tony Mandarich
Best: Andre Johnson
Worst: Travis Johnson
Best: Peyton Manning
Worst: Steve Emtman
Best: Tony Boselli
Worst: Justin Blackmon
Kansas City Chiefs
Best: Tony Gonzalez
Worst: Todd Blackledge
Los Angeles Chargers
Best: Junior Seau
Worst: Ryan Leaf
Los Angeles Rams
Best: Jack Youngblood
Worst: Lawrence Phillips
Best: Dan Marino
Worst: Rick Norton
Best: Alan Page
Worst: Dimitrius Underwood
New England Patriots
Best: John Hannah
Worst: Kenneth Sims – Overall number 1, DL, 1982
New Orleans Saints
Best: Willie Roaf
Worst: Johnathan Sullivan = DT, 6th overall, 2003
New York Giants
Best: Lawrence Taylor
Worst: Derek Brown
New York Jets
Best: Darrelle Revis
Worst: Vernon Gholston
Best: Gene Upshaw
Worst: JaMarcus Russell
Best: Reggie White (supplemental pick)
Worst: Michael Haddix
Best: Mean Joe Greene
Worst: Huey Richardson
San Francisco 49ers
Best: Jerry Rice
Worst: Steve Spurrier
Best: Walter Jones
Worst: Aaron Curry
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best: Derrick Brooks
Worst: Bo Jackson
Best: Bruce Matthews
Worst: John Matuszak
Best: Darrell Green
Worst: Heath Shuler
As you look at the list, the selection of JeMarcus Russell by the Raiders with the first overall pick in 2007 stands out as especially bad.
Joe Thomas and Adrian Peterson were a pair of Hall of Famers who went shortly thereafter. Calvin Johnson and Darrelle Revis may be HoFers. Marshawn Lynch was in that first round, so was Patrick Willis.
The problem was there wasn’t another QB worth a darn.
In order the other QBs drafted were: Brady Quinn, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Drew Stanton, Trent Edwards, Isaiah Stanback, Jeff Rowe, Troy smith, Jordan Palmer and Tyler Thigpen. Funny that Stanton is the Last Man Standing.
As for the team the DB knows the most about, we don’t think that putting out Bo Jackson as the worst “pick” is fair to Jackson or the selection. The Buccaneers just did a very, very bad job of persuading a great player to sign a contract with them.
Charles McRae, an OT in 1991 was a bad pick. Regan Upshaw, a DE, in 1996 was a bad pick. Jackson was a good pick that was not signed.
FREE AGENCY RECAP
Gordon McGuinness of ProFootballFocus.com with an analytic breakdown of all the free agent deals:
NFL free agency is usually dominated with headlines of big deals. But there are always the ones that fly under the radar, shock the market or make you realize just how smart front offices can be.
We break down some of the most interesting deals around the league in a variety of categories below, using Pro Football Focus grades and data.
Best bargain deal
CB Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers
One deal that will carry drama into 2018 is Sherman moving from Seattle to San Francisco. Health will be a key here, but with the 49ers not committed to Sherman long term, this deal potentially has a very high reward with low risk. At his best, Sherman remains one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, having put together one of the most impressive streaks in the league, allowing no more than 99 receiving yards in 94 consecutive games between Week 4 of 2012 and Week 7 of 2017.
CB D.J Hayden, Jacksonville Jaguars
The good news for Jaguars fans is that Hayden is coming off a season in which he produced the second-highest PFF grade of his career. The bad news is that the grade was only 50.7. He also committed five penalties and missed six tackles on just 488 snaps. Since entering the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2013, Hayden has allowed an NFL passer rating over 100.0 on throws into his coverage, so it was a lot of money to pay for a player who has yet to live up to his draft billing.
Most likely to be cut after one year
LB Zach Brown, Washington Redskins
At his best, Brown is one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL, but he is coming off a year in which he really struggled in coverage. Brown allowed 47 receptions for 482 yards and five touchdowns in coverage, after not being charged with responsibility for more than two touchdowns over the previous five seasons. Should he struggle again, it would make sense for the team to move on in the offseason.
Could blow up because he’ll be used differently
RB Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers gave McKinnon a hefty deal, but his skill set fits very well with their offense and it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him make a huge impact in 2018. McKinnon has forced 22 missed tackles on 108 receptions over the past two seasons and will be put in a position to excel in space.
Best move under $1 million guaranteed
DT Dominique Easley, Los Angeles Rams
Easley missed all of 2017, but in a limited role he has proved to be an effective player since entering the NFL in 2014. He has racked up eight sacks, 11 hits and 45 hurries in 696 career snaps as a pass-rusher — not bad for a player who will provide depth behind star defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
Most impactful signing for 2018
G Andrew Norwell, Jacksonville Jaguars
Norwell was the most dominant free agent on the market, and while Kirk Cousins to Minnesota was the main attraction, Norwell’s signing in Jacksonville shows just how serious the Jaguars are about pushing themselves two steps further in 2018. With Norwell yet to post a PFF season grade of lower than 82.0 in his four-year career, the Jags got someone who dominated in 2017 right as he’s entering his prime.
Biggest player upgrade
Chicago Bears: WR Allen Robinson over Dontrelle Inman
Inman started seven of the Bears’ final eight games in 2017, catching only 25 passes with five drops and just one missed tackle forced. Robinson wouldn’t even need to be back at his 2015 level to be an improvement, but the dominance he showed that season with only eight drops from 88 catchable targets would go a long way in helping the Bears’ offense break out in 2018.
Most likely not to make the 53-man roster
OT Donald Stephenson, Cleveland Browns
Stephenson started just four games in 2017, but he still managed to surrender three sacks, three hits and 13 hurries. Since entering the NFL in 2012, he has allowed 167 total pressures on 1,645 pass-blocking snaps. With the draft still to come, there is every chance the Browns will be able to improve at the position, making Stephenson’s roster spot expendable.
Most likely to rediscover previous high-level play
DE Muhammad Wilkerson, Green Bay Packers
Wilkerson has been one of the toughest defensive linemen in the NFL to block, with the only problem being that he just hasn’t found that form over the past two seasons. With the potential to impress in Green Bay and re-enter free agency on the back of a dominant season, don’t be shocked to see him register double-digit sacks for the first time since 2015.
Most speculative deal
TE Trey Burton, Chicago Bears
Another pass-catching addition for the Bears, Burton could be in the perfect position to break out. There’s no doubt that Chicago is taking a risk here, but in a limited role last season, Burton dropped only one of the 25 catchable passes thrown his way and could provide a safe pair of hands over the middle for Mitchell Trubisky in the quarterback’s second professional season.
Best prove-it deal
S Tyrann Mathieu, Houston Texans
It was surprising that Mathieu, one of the highest-paid defensive backs in the NFL just two years ago, was in need of a “prove it” deal to earn a bigger contract next season, but injuries slowed his career. That being said, there are few defensive backs who can offer what he can with 48 total pressures, 114 tackles resulting in a defensive stop and 27 combined interceptions and pass breakups over the past five seasons.
Most underrated deals
OT Chris Hubbard, Cleveland Browns
It’s already been a big offseason of change for the Browns at offensive tackle, with longtime left tackle Joe Thomas opting to retire. But while that move will dominate the offseason in Cleveland, the signing of Hubbard could prove key to the Browns’ 2018 season. A former undrafted free agent, Hubbard allowed just three sacks (and 35 total pressures) on 514 pass-blocking snaps in 2017.
DT Beau Allen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Allen had a quietly productive final season in Philadelphia, with 17 of his 18 solo tackles resulting in a defensive stop. With 16 of those stops coming against the run — and on just 142 snaps in run defense — his run-stop percentage of 11.3 percent ranked sixth in the NFL among defensive tackles in 2017. That is the sort of production the Buccaneers were looking for, with Gerald McCoy being the only defensive tackle on their roster who impressed against the run last season.
DE Alex Okafor, New Orleans Saints
This re-signing will fly under the radar but could prove key to the Saints’ defense in 2018. A fourth-round pick out of Texas in 2013, Okafor was in the middle of a career year before injury ruined his season in Week 11 of 2017 — he racked up five sacks, four hits and 21 hurries from 304 pass-rushing snaps. He also added four batted passes — the most he has produced in a single season — so if he can stay healthy, 2018 could be a breakout year for him.
DT Tom Johnson, Seattle Seahawks
Losing Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson this offseason meant that the Seahawks had to find reinforcements on the defensive line, and they found that in Johnson. A solid rotational player, Johnson has racked up 21 sacks, 49 hits and 124 hurries from 2,387 pass-rushing snaps over the course of his career, with his best season coming in 2015, when his pass-rushing productivity rating of 9.1 was tied for fourth among defensive tackles to play at least 270 pass-rushing snaps.
G Josh Sitton, Miami Dolphins
Sitton has been one of the NFL’s best guards over the past nine years, particularly in pass protection, where he has ranked in the top five among guards in terms of PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric in seven of the past eight seasons. In his final season in Chicago, Sitton allowed just two sacks, a hit and nine hurries on 388 pass-blocking snaps, representing a big upgrade for the offensive line in Miami.
Most overrated deals
TE Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers
On paper, the prospect of Graham as a weapon for Aaron Rodgers in the red zone is a captivating one, but in practice it relies on Graham coming back from a disappointing 2017. Graham saw a career-low 9.1 yards per reception last season and dropped seven of the 64 catchable passes thrown his way, the second-worst drop rate of his eight-year career.
DT Star Lotulelei, Buffalo Bills
The Bills badly needed to add bodies to their defensive line, particularly at nose tackle, where they’ve struggled to fill the void left by Marcell Dareus. Lotulelei is at least a run-defense specialist, but his best play is years in the past and last season he earned an overall PFF grade of only 49.5. He at least nominally fits the position of need, but the Bills will need him to dramatically improve his game if he is to make meaningful inroads on bettering the unit’s performance.
LB Anthony Hitchens, Kansas City Chiefs
Hitchens was an excellent player for Dallas last season with an overall PFF grade of 80.8, but that represented a near-25-point jump from any previous year of his career. He also has been very much a run-stuffing linebacker, while Kansas City desperately needs a replacement for Derrick Johnson’s coverage prowess. With Reggie Ragland already in town, this move might not address the problem they have in that position group.
WR Paul Richardson, Washington Redskins
Richardson’s tape is littered with spectacular catches, often over a defender trying to contest at the catch point. The problem with that is that it’s often because he has struggled to get open, and his actual efficiency in bringing in those contested catches is not high. He was thrown the fifth-most contested passes in 2017, but he caught just 41.4 percent of them, which ranked 64th among 98 qualifying wideouts.
DT Haloti Ngata, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles were always going to have a challenge maintaining the best and deepest defensive front in the game, but Ngata doesn’t look to have too much left in the tank. Over the past two seasons he has played just 722 defensive snaps — including playoff appearances — and recorded only 24 total pressures and 20 defensive stops over that span. He hasn’t topped an overall PFF grade of 80 since 2014.
Best bang-for-your-buck deals
CB Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers
Sherman’s deal just makes too much sense not to mention again. While there is a small risk when it comes to how he responds to last season’s Achilles injury, the 49ers have added a player who has allowed just 49.1 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage since 2013 to be caught, the best mark in the NFL.
QB Teddy Bridgewater, New York Jets
Based on guaranteed money, the risk-reward ratio here is perfect for the Jets. Bridgewater has genuine franchise quarterback potential and produced a league-leading adjusted completion percentage of 79.3 percent in 2015.
QB Case Keenum, Denver Broncos
Keenum proved himself to be a more than capable starter for the Vikings in 2017 and ranked sixth with an NFL passer rating of 109.5 on plays where pressure was kept away from him. His salary ranks 19th among quarterbacks, so the Broncos are definitely on track for a bargain if he can repeat his success from last season.
CB Patrick Robinson, New Orleans Saints
Robinson struggled in his first stint in New Orleans but returns after an incredible year in the slot in Philadelphia, where he allowed the fifth-lowest NFL passer rating on throws into his coverage when lined up in the slot.
DT Dontari Poe, Carolina Panthers
Poe has produced a PFF grade of 74.4 or higher in all but one season since entering the league. Last season’s grade was his second highest, making his 2018 cap number of $5.3 million a bargain for the Panthers.