The Daily Briefing Friday, October 5, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Not everyone will keep up the pace or even play all 16 games, but 10 franchise season passing records are in danger of falling. This ESPN graphic:
Ten quarterbacks are on pace to break their franchise single-season passing yards record. Four are on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single-season passing yards record (5,477 in 2013).
Ben Roethlisberger 5,656 Steelers
Jared Goff 5,624 Rams
Kirk Cousins 5,548 Vikings
Derek Carr 5,492 Raiders
Ryan Fitzpatrick* 5,424 Buccaneers
Matt Ryan 5,264 Falcons
Joe Flacco 5,008 Ravens
Deshaun Watson 4,948 Texans
Patrick Mahomes 4,800 Chiefs
Andy Dalton 4,788 Bengals
*= Has been benched for Jameis Winston
— ESPN Stats & Information
They missed at least one – MITCH TRUBISKY of the Bears is on a pace for 3,880 and that would top Erik Kramer’s 3,838.
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The Washington Post notes that the “Anthem protests” have not been front and center in the NFL in 2018 – as TV ratings move up:
One of the biggest offseason storylines of the NFL offseason, the national anthem protests, has been a non-story now that the actual season has kicked off.
Through four weeks of play, a handful of players have continued to demonstrate during the anthem by kneeling, sitting, or raising a fist, but they have gone unnoticed for the most part.
Perhaps the biggest reason for that is President Trump, who has railed against protesting players on Twitter and in speeches, has remained largely silent about the subject so far.
Another reason is many players who were protesting on the field last season have instead been trying to make their voices heard by working in the community to address social and racial issues.
Demario Davis of the Saints, a member of the Players Coalition group that strives to address inequity and injustice issues, explained about the difference in thinking this season.
“What we’re about is not what’s in the headlines or being talked about the most. We’re most concerned about the issues plaguing our country; that’s what we want to be on the front line of,” Davis said. “When there are some deep injustices in our country – and a lot of them are round racial disparity – where can we use our platform to help?”
Despite the shift in thinking, not everyone is complimentary of the Players Coalition. Eric Reid, who just signed with the Panthers and is known for protesting alongside Colin Kaepernick, called it “an NFL subversion group” this week.
Reid, like Kaepernick, has an ongoing collusion grievance against the NFL in the courts.
At any given time for a decade, QB MATTHEW STAFFORD has probably been between the 10th and 15th individual doing one of the most demanding and unique jobs in the world. Out of hundreds of applicants for that position. But that’s not enough in 21st century America. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was on the receiving end of direct and indirect slights this week.
The indirect one came from former teammate and current Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who said that Jared Goff is the best quarterback he’s ever played with in the NFL. When asked about it on Thursday, Stafford said Goff is playing well right now and Suh’s ranking is “not something I’m going to waste a lot of my own time thinking about.”
Stafford was slammed more directly by former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason during an interview with Detroit radio station 97.1 The Ticket. Esiason called Stafford a “locker room lawyer” rather than a leader and criticized his lack of energy during games.
“I respect his opinion,” Stafford said, via the Detroit Free Press. “Whatever he wants to say, he can say. He’s not in our locker room, not with our guys, not with me ever. So I don’t put too much credit into that. I just go about my day. Listen, guys. There’s people that are going to say good things, they’re going to say bad things about us every day. If I spent all my time worrying about what he said or Suh posted or [things like] that, I’d be doing a disservice to the guys in the locker room, and I’m trying to get all those and myself as ready to play as I possibly can. And worry about all that other stuff doesn’t help me do that, so I don’t do it.”
Stafford had an awful game against the Jets in the season opener, but has put up strong numbers the last three weeks for the Lions. The team is 1-2 in those games, however, and quarterbacks of losing teams are going to take shots until those results change.
What would Esiason base his “locker room lawyer” statement on? What evidence?
Will it be so easy to lower the noise level in a game stadium? D. Orlando Ledbetter in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
The communications on defense against the Bengals was so bad that Falcons coach Dan Quinn ordered the team’s DJ to lower the sound of the music at practice.
The Falcons (1-3) are set to face the Steelers (1-2-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field.
Two players were playing different coverages when the Bengals scored touchdowns by Tyler Eifert and John Ross in the 37-36 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.
“On both occasions, that was Falcons beating Falcons,” Quinn said. “So, that is as difficult as it gets. You generally haven’t seen a lot of that from us where we bust a coverage and miscommunicate to cause an explosive play.”
With safety Ricardo Allen out, the secondary struggled. He was the main signal-caller for the back end of the defense.
The Falcons calls are relayed from the coaches to the players and then is spread around the defense individually. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has the green dot helmet and has sideline communications with the coaches.
“We had our DJ turn the music down some this week in practice so that we can clearly hear some of our communications,” Quinn said. “It was more of an emphasis for us in every single spot that we could look for it, hear it and acknowledge it.
“It starts in the classroom from player to player. Then from a coaching side, I wanted the coaches to the side. I want to hear the players talk.
From where CB RICHARD SHERMAN sits, QBs are now unstoppable if they play their cards right. Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
Four weeks into the season, NFL teams are on a record-setting pace in a number of major offensive categories, including points scored, touchdowns, passing yards, completions and completion percentage.
In all of those statistical categories, the totals accumulated represent the highest through the first four weeks of a season in league history.
On Thursday, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman offered his explanation for the offensive outburst.
“This is what the league wanted,” Sherman said. “They want record passing numbers. You’ve got an average quarterback; the average quarterback’s passer rating is like 92 and that used to be Hall of Fame numbers. And now it’s not Hall of Fame numbers, that’s the average quarterback.
“You can’t touch him. You can’t tackle him. You can’t hit him high, can’t hit him low. You can’t knock him down to the ground hard … all that. You can’t hit a receiver too high, you can’t hit him low, you can’t push him. You can barely press him. It’s making it really difficult on teams to combat it because every rule in the book is designed to make sure you don’t get them stopped.”
Sherman noted that rule changes or points of emphasis geared toward roughing the passer, tackling and illegal contact have given offenses a distinct advantage with the additions to the roughing-the-passer rules the latest in a line of changes that have made life more difficult for defenders.
“They’re just trying to make it impossible for guys to play defense,” Sherman said. “It’s an interesting league we play in.”
San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh wasn’t so sure that the increased offensive output could be correlated to rule changes.
“To attribute it to rules, I don’t know,” Saleh said. “I don’t know if I want to attribute (it) to that. I don’t know if it’s offenses being more creative. I know the quarterback play is getting a lot better, the skill set is a lot better and there’s a lot of creativity in the league right now so it’s a challenge, for sure, especially with some of the stuff that’s shown up.”
The Ravens are off to a good start – and now they get their best cornerback back after a session on the sidelines courtesy of NFL Justice. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is back this week, but he said he’s regained something more important than his football career.
After serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy for an incident involving a former girlfriend, Smith said he used the time off to refocus himself, and get his life back on track. He’s missed time from football before (such as a torn Achilles), but said this one was different.
“You guys all know I’ve done this different ways, obviously, but it’s extremely hard,” Smith said, via Jonas Shaffer of the Baltimore Sun. “This one was a little bit different in the sense that I’m a lot older now.
“You get time to kind of recalibrate personally and, I guess, everything. You think about life. But this time, it gave me an opportunity to really sit down and just get that love back, get my body back, get my mind, my personal life, in order.”
The suspension stems from a previous relationship, in which the NFL found evidence of “threatening and emotionally abusive behaviors” by Smith toward a former girlfriend. Smith didn’t say much about the cause of the suspension, citing legal reasons. But he said during his time away, he got engaged and discovered he was going to be a father again.
The Ravens organization and his teammates have supported him, with the team saying in their statement in August they “believe [Smith] is taking the proper steps to improve and that he can change.”
“Obviously, us as players, we know Jimmy and know what he went through and know what it means to him,” safety Eric Weddle said. “As you get older, you appreciate certain things, little things, right? It’s the relationships, it’s your teammates, it’s the team that backed you. I think he’s come with a different appreciation to what this game has brought to him.”
From a football standpoint, Smith’s return adds another top cover player to a defense that was already playing well, which they have described as a “good problem” to have.
So we have QB BAKER MAYFIELD on film for about 6 quarters – and the veteran DC of the Ravens is saying stuff like this. Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com:
– The Baltimore Ravens have had tremendous success against rookie quarterbacks.
But the Ravens don’t see Baker Mayfield as your average rookie quarterback.
Heading into Sunday’s game at Cleveland, Baltimore defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale gave a lofty compliment to this year’s No. 1 overall pick.
“I already told the defense this, I think Baker Mayfield is this generation’s Brett Favre or John Elway, if you will,” Martindale said Thursday. “This guy knows where he wants to go with the ball, and he’s very accurate. He’s got a quick release, and he’s really playing well.”
Why would Martindale compare a quarterback with two games of experience to two of Hall of Fame quarterbacks?
“The kid’s confidence and swag,” Martindale said. “When he comes out there, he thinks he’s standing on top of the mountain. He’s making plays to show he’s standing on top of the mountain.”
Told of Martindale’s comments, Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley smiled.
“He’s carving a bust?” Haley said, referring to the Hall of Fame.
Asked if he wanted to say any more, Haley added: “I’ll hold my stance. I’m excited about a lot of things he’s doing, but like I said this week will be a real test. We’ll know a lot more come Sunday evening.”
Favre said Wednesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he thinks Mayfield “can be great.”
“To criticize how tall he is, I don’t pay attention to that. I think Drew Brees has dispelled any of that talk.
“(Former Green Bay GM and Hall of Famer) Ron Wolf said it best. He goes ‘You know, it’s amazing to me today how the most overlooked thing with the quarterback is the fact he’s a winner.’ And we were talking about Baker Mayfield and … he goes, ‘That guy is a winner. He’s been a walk-on … he transferred, people tried to write him off but yet he’s managed to persevere and he’s a winner,'” he said.
In two games, Mayfield (listed at 6-foot-1) has passed for 496 yards, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions (81.2 passer rating).
On Sunday, Mayfield will face the Ravens and the NFL’s No. 2 defense, which has a history of dominating young passers. Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 15-5 against rookie quarterbacks.
“Baker Mayfield is pretty advanced,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not, I don’t think, a rookie in the true sense. He seems like he has a really good feel for the game.”
Not that there is ever such a thing as a good loss, but Frank Reich’s Colts do play hard. Now if they had better hands. Herbie Teope of NFL.com:
The Indianapolis Colts were their worst enemy in Thursday night’s 38-24 loss to the New England Patriots.
Quarterback Andrew Luck tossed two interceptions and rookie running back Jordan Wilkins lost a fumble, but the receiving corps certainly didn’t help Luck as the Colts moved to 1-4 on the season.
Wide receivers Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers and Zach Pascal, rookie running back Nyheim Hines and tight end Eric Ebron each accounted for a dropped pass, and the issue of not securing the ball carried over from Week 4.
“Obviously, the drops are unacceptable,” Colts coach Frank Reich told reporters after the game, via the team’s official website. “We have been doing great catching the ball until the last two weeks, so we just got to get that back on track. I mean, we’re throwing a lot of passes, you’re probably going have one or two — that happens — but we just got to get back on track in that regard.”
Not having sure-handed wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who was inactive with a hamstring injury, and tight end Jack Doyle, who has missed two games with a hip injury, didn’t help the Colts’ cause.
But someone within the receiving corps needs to step up as a consistent and reliable target when considering the Colts have attempted a head-turning 121 pass attempts in the past two games. Indianapolis is averaging 53.8 pass attempts in the mistake-filled four losses.
“We’re not going to win consistently until we learn how to get out of our own way,” Luck said, via the team’s website. “That’s not taking anything away from New England. I mean, they beat us fair and square.
“That was the better team today and I think anybody who watched it or played in it knows that. That’s probably self-evident but I think when we look at ourselves, we’re going to have to learn how not to lose before we want to give ourselves a chance to win. And so, it’s frustrating, the stuff out there. We’re all frustrated, but I don’t think anybody’s losing the belief.”
Meanwhile, Reich doesn’t believe there is an underlying reason for the drops that have plagued the offense in the past two games.
For the head coach, it’s just a matter of players needing to come through when the ball comes their way.
“I just think we’ve got to make those plays,” Reich said. “It’s concentration. The guys we have, I know they have good hands. I mean, I see them every day in practice. We don’t have any guys that don’t have good hands, they all have good hands, so it’s just a matter of concentration.”
The Colts have 10 days to fix the issues before playing the New York Jets in Week 6. Extra time spent with the JUGS machine is probably on the menu.
QB TOM BRADY hit 500 TD passes on Thursday night on FOX with another excellent performance. Plus, he took a record away from Vinny Testaverde. Mike Reiss of ESPN.com
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became the third player in NFL history to throw 500 touchdown passes, reaching the mark in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Brady connected with wide receiver Josh Gordon on a 39-yard pass with 9:19 left to join Peyton Manning (539) and Brett Favre (508) as the only quarterbacks to throw for 500 touchdowns. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on the cusp of becoming the fourth.
“Things like that, milestones and so forth, there’s so many people who contribute,” Brady said after the team’s 38-24 victory. “I just think of all the people who have really worked hard. A quarterback doesn’t throw them to himself. He needs people to catch, and block, and the defense to make plays, and coaches to coach. These are all great team awards. Pretty cool.”
In joining that exclusive club, Brady became the first player to do so while playing for only one team.
“It’s tremendous. It’s a lot of touchdown passes to a lot of different guys, too. … No quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Brady also set an NFL record by throwing at least one touchdown pass to 71 different players, breaking a tie with Vinny Testaverde for the most in NFL history.
Gordon, who was playing in only his second game with the Patriots, said he was honored to be the 71st different player to catch a touchdown pass from Brady.
“To catch any pass from Tom is amazing, let alone some history-making catch,” Gordon said. “I told him, ‘Congratulations’ and I know there are many more from him to come. … So I am looking forward to that and the next history point to make from him. I hope to be a part of it. It was awesome.”
Another record for Brady – it was the 226th time he had left a field the winner. That ties Thursday’s lose ADAM VINATIERI for most ever. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Brady has been on the winning team in 199 regular season games and 27 postseason games. Vinatieri has been on the winning team for 206 regular season games and 21 postseason games. For five years they were winning games together, as Vinatieri kicked for the Patriots from 1996 to 2005 and Brady became the Patriots’ starting quarterback in 2001.
Hall of Fame quarterback and kicker George Blanda still owns the record for the most regular-season games on the winning team, with 209. Both Brady and Vinatieri could break that record this year.
THIS AND THAT
It’s been a tough week for good guys named Anderson in the sports industry.
Dave Anderson has passed away.
Dave Anderson, who spent more than 40 years as a columnist and reporter for The New York Times, has died at the age of 89.
Anderson died Thursday at an assisted living center in Cresskill, New Jersey, according to his son Steve.
Anderson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for his sports commentary. He was the 1994 winner of The Associated Press Sports Editors Red Smith Award and was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1990. He was recognized multiple times for his boxing coverage.
In 2014, ESPN and the Pen American Center gave Anderson a lifetime achievement award, citing his nuance and the depth of his writing.
“For more than half a century, Dave Anderson has waded into the hurly-burly of sportswriting with quiet dignity and a true craftsman’s regard for the language,” the judges wrote in honoring Anderson. “You didn’t read him for bombast or half-cocked opinion. You read him because, quite simply, he knew whereof he wrote.”
Anderson joined the Times in 1966 and worked there until 2007, when he retired. But he continued to contribute to the Times, with his most recent work in the newspaper’s online archives being an August 2017 piece on tennis’ US Open.
Prior to the Times, Anderson worked for the New York Journal-American and the Brooklyn Eagle. He wrote 21 books during his career.
Anderson is survived by four children, three grandchildren and one great-grandson. His wife, Maureen, died at the age of 82 in 2014.
Anderson’s son Steve worked at ESPN for 35 years, retiring in 2015 as executive vice president, content operations and creative services.
Somehow, the ESPN obit doesn’t mention that Anderson was John Madden’s co-author on four books including “One Knee Equals Two Feet” and “Hey, I Wrote A Book.” He was perfectly able to write in an authentic Madden voice while drawing out the coach on a number of interesting topics.
And last week, we lost Jerry Anderson.
One of the most important figures in the rise of Kansas City-based sports architecture firm Populous has died.
Jerry Anderson, the architect behind the Super Bowl, Olympic Games, NCAA championship events and FIFA World Cup, passed away after battling cancer. He was 64.
Anderson, who joined Populous in 2002 and opened its Denver office, led the design and operation of some of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. The National Football League was once of his first and longest lasting clients.
According to a release from Populous, he worked on every Super Bowl since Super Bowl XIX, which was played in January 1985.
“Few people are more synonymous with the Super Bowl and more a part of the NFL events family than Jerry. The list of ways that Jerry made the NFL — and everything he touched — better is extraordinary,” Peter O’Reilly, senior vice president of events and club business development for the NFL, said in the release. “Though we will miss him dearly, his legacy will shine on.”
If you admired the way things look at the Super Bowl, why it looks like a bigger event than any other, a better coordinated event – thank Jerry Anderson. He was an eye of calm in the midst of chaos, as nice and polite a man as you would ever meet.
Dave Anderson was one of the dying breed of gentlemen sportswriters. He had a genuine, trustworthy decorum and his copy was always informative and clear. He could take a side without grinding an axe. We’re not sure how he would have thrived in today’s clickbait era, but we feel better to have known him and Jerry Anderson.
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com offers his list of the top 10 MVP candidates at the Week 4/Week 5 mark:
At the 2018 season’s initial quarter mark, it’s Mahomes and Goff leading the race for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. Let’s examine the field:
1) Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs
Because NFL coaches spend 15-to-18 hours a day concocting intricate game plans designed to outsmart their equally tireless defensive counterparts, their conservative philosophies can be at odds with entertainment value. The last thing they want to see on game day is a freelancing quarterback throwing caution — and their best-laid plans — to the wind. Any football fan over the age of 35 can recall the sideline antics of Packers coach Mike Holmgren, throwing his hands up in exasperation whenever Brett Favre interrogated the limits of sandlot football in the 1990s.
It just so happens that the quarterback position is at its most visually and viscerally appealing when played in a swashbuckler style with a devil-may-care attitude that rewards creativity and improvisation. Behind Door No. 1, Reid had the platonic ideal of a safe caretaker in Alex Smith, a solid veteran with a limited ceiling and a track record of perennial playoff contention. To Reid’s everlasting credit, he opted instead for Door No. 2, which opened to the mystery of a wildly unpredictable young quarterback with the raw talent and stylistic similarities of a young Favre. Now that a precocious Mahomes is deciphering opponents’ intentions before the snap and forcing defenses to cover the entire width and length of the 53×100 gridiron, his first four games of 2018 most resemble Tom Brady’s 2007 and Peyton Manning’s 2013 — two of the greatest QB seasons in the Super Bowl era.
In other words, the ceiling is lifted. Raise high the roof beam, Andy Reid!
2) Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams
It was fair to question Goff’s standing among the league’s premier players last season, with McVay programming him before the snap and providing defined reads via play-action and misdirection. The early portion of this season has been a different story, though. Showcasing an unusually high release point with the requisite touch, zip, decision-making and impeccable timing, Goff has become the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 350 yards with a 75.0 percent completion rate in three consecutive games. He leads the league in yards per attempt (10.5) and passer rating (127.3).
Broadcast analyst Troy Aikman’s TNF commentary was telling, as he openly wondered if Goff would “have enough arm” to pull off high-risk passes against the Vikings on separate touchdowns to Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. Arm talent isn’t limited to the radar gun. It also incorporates the skill to change speeds and loft as required, the accuracy and willingness to squeeze throws into tight windows and the ability to throw from different angles and platforms. Goff showed those traits the previous week with a sideline rope to Woods late in the second quarter and the subtle pocket movement to give himself space for a throw on the run to Cooper Kupp down the sideline early in the third quarter. Goff is certainly lucky to have McVay in his corner, but the inverse is true, as well.
3) Khalil Mack, linebacker, Chicago Bears
The vaunted 1985 Bears defense was notorious for sending quarterbacks to the hospital. This year’s swaggering Mack-led iteration simply sends them to the bench. If your mind’s eye conjures up images of Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas while watching Mack, you’re not alone. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year has tied a modern-day NFL record with a strip-sack in four consecutive games. For good measure, he’s thrown in a pick-six and a QB hit that caused an interception.
Against all odds, Mack has managed to exceed lofty expectations in the wake of a blockbuster trade that netted him the richest contract for a defensive player in history. An upstart team with a puncher’s chance to make waves has suddenly morphed into a legitimate contender. Just how legitimate? Despite blitzing less than any other defense, the Bears have become one of just seven teams this century to amass at least 18 sacks in the first four games. The other six, per “The Ringer NFL Show,” made it to the second round of the playoffs. The Monsters of the Midway have won three straight games for the first time since 2013. If not for Aaron Rodgers’ uncanny ability to walk on water, they’d be one of three remaining undefeated outfits.
4) Alvin Kamara, running back, New Orleans Saints
As a dual-purpose runner/receiver hybrid threatening to make linebackers extinct, Kamara was born for his era, just as pile-driving Larry Csonka was perfectly suited for 1970s smashmouth football. When he went a full quarter without touching the ball against Cleveland in Week 2, the Saints’ high-octane offense suddenly turned pedestrian — just as it was early last season before Kamara emerged on the scene.
The 2017 third-round steal is the first player in NFL history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards through his first 20 career games. His 35 receptions this year are the most ever by a running back at the season’s first-quarter mark. Without Mark Ingram to shoulder the load in September, Kamara has surged out to a pace that puts him on track for 2,444 yards from scrimmage — a number that would be good for second-place all time.
5) Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans Saints
Brees hasn’t been perfect. As the offense went long stretches without scoring versus the Browns, he underthrew a wide-open Ted Ginn on a potential long touchdown and overthrew Ben Watson in the end zone. This is quibbling, however, with a master craftsman in his customary groove, completing nearly 76 percent of his passes. Brees is enjoying a stretch out of milestone heaven. Two weeks after leapfrogging Brett Favre to become the all-time leader in completions, he’s poised to do the same to Peyton Manning this week in career passing yards.
“This is what I know,” former Saints tackle Zach Strief told The MMQB this week. “All the QBs in the NFL go on the field, and they play against professional players, and try and complete every pass they throw. And nobody in the history of football has done that better than Drew Brees.” What better way to cap off a historic season than collecting his first MVP award in the 18th year of a brilliant career?
6) Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers
After giving the sporting world memorable catchphrases such as “R-E-L-A-X” and “run the table” in previous playoff runs, Rodgers unveiled “seven times three” for his Willis Reed moment in the thrilling season opener. On the wrong end of a scoreboard that read 20-0, Rodgers did the quick math and dragged his bum knee on touchdown drives of 81, 75 and 75 yards to lead the largest fourth-quarter comeback in the storied, 98-year history of the Packers.
Like a seasoned bullfighter out of a Hemingway novel, Rodgers is a grizzled veteran playing 21st-century America’s most iconic athletic position with style and flair. Some of the prettiest passes in football this season have been dropped by Green Bay’s receivers, including a pair of perfect teardrop wrist flicks off one foot and out of the hands of Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison last week. Now that his knee is allowing him to scramble in and out of trouble once again, Rodgers is poised for a move up this list.
7) Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles Rams
Ask Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter how hard it is to corral the reigning Offensive Player of the Year. Overshadowed by Goff’s scintillating performance was a two-play sequence in the middle of the third quarter in which Gurley’s jump cut left Hunter grasping for air on a 9-yard run and a 56-yard screen pass that left Hunter face-down in the grass after catching a stiff arm. After leading the NFL with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns last season, Gurley is making another run at “NFL Honors” hardware with a current pace that’d give him 2,128 yards and 24 scores by year’s end.
8) Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
Why would the Chiefs trade Alex Smith, a mainstay in the MVP discussion throughout last season? Sure, they had Mahomes ready and able to take the offensive reins. Perhaps it was also because Reid realized Hill was truly his team’s most valuable performer. In terms of functional football speed, Hill is the league’s fastest player, combining an early-career Chris Johnson’s incredible lateral agility with Steve Smith’s jump-ball ferocity and run-after-catch prowess. The result is a Randy Moss-like effect on his quarterbacks, generating aberrant career years by forcing defenses to play on their heels and surrender sizable swaths of the gridiron, thereby enhancing the spacing in Reid’s ever-open passing game. Hill is the straw that stirs the drink in Kansas City.
9) Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys’ formula for success is similar to that of the Jaguars: Jump out to an early lead, control the ball with a chain-moving ground attack and unleash hell on opposing quarterbacks forced to play catchup. It’s much more difficult to pull off in Dallas with a slumping a quarterback, overmatched wideouts, inexperienced tight ends and an offensive line that is a shadow of its once-dominant self.
Defenses know the plan. Since entering the league in 2016, Elliott has faced more stacked boxes than any other running back. That hasn’t stopped him from leading the league in rushing yards (3,040) and 100-yard rushing games (14) over the past three years. The finest of those performances might have come last week when Elliott amassed 240 yards as the team’s leading rusher and receiver in a last-minute victory over the Lions. Take away the NFL’s most well-rounded running back, and this team might be in the hunt for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
10) Jurrell Casey, defensive lineman, Tennessee Titans
The Week 1 loss was not just the longest contest in NFL history and the hottest game-time temperature in Titans history. With the loss of Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker and the uncertainty surrounding the injuries to quarterback Marcus Mariota and star left tackle Taylor Lewan, it loomed as a season-stabbing, worst-case scenario back-breaker. Not so fast. Mike Vrabel’s staff coached the next two games as if they were the team’s Super Bowl, pulling off fake punts, going for fourth downs deep in their own territory and running Derrick Henry out of the Wildcat to compensate for a backup quarterback and third-string tackles.
While Matt LaFleur’s offense struggled to overcome disadvantages in personnel, Casey keyed a stingy defense that surprised the Texans and stifled the Jaguars in the next two weeks. By time the reigning Super Bowl champs landed in Nashville, Casey had the front seven swarming, leading a ravenous unit that racked up 11 QB hits and nine tackles for loss in an upset victory over the Eagles. It’s time for the NFL’s most unsung star to garner a fair share of recognition as a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage.
HONORABLE MENTION: Aaron Donald, defensive lineman, Los Angeles Rams; Geno Atkins, defensive lineman, Cincinnati Bengals; Fletcher Cox, defensive lineman, Philadelphia Eagles; J.J. Watt, defensive lineman, Houston Texans; Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints; Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens; Philip Rivers, quarterback, Los Angeles Chargers; Melvin Gordon, running back, Los Angeles Chargers; Von Miller, linebacker, Denver Broncos; Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
No TOM BRADY, just on general principles? We think ANDY DALTON probably deserves a spot in the top 10, but certainly in the honorable mentions. MATT RYAN? BEN ROETHLISBERGER? We know they aren’t winning yet, but crazy numbers building.