The Daily Briefing Monday, May 8, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

Peter King, who recently spent time with Kyle Shanahan in the 49ers War Room, now says that the reason ROBERT GRIFFIN III is unemployed is that he revolted against the hard coaching of the Shanahans – father and son:

 

He’s been unemployed for two months after the Browns cut him. The career of the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year is in more jeopardy than Kaepernick’s. Regardless of what he, his family or Washington owner Daniel Snyder thinks, Griffin’s biggest error was being the anti-Brady. Instead of simply being willing to be coached hard by proven quarterback developers Mike and Kyle Shanahan (and I understand all the divisive tributaries that go along with that), Griffin and his family thought they knew best. The resulting wedge driven between him and his coaches, on top of the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs in January 2013, have been factors he hasn’t recovered from.

– – –

Another thought from King:

 

Arizona and San Francisco and the Jets (and perhaps Cleveland, depending on the rookie season of DeShone Kizer) pushed off their quarterback-of-the-future choices until 2018, when vets Kirk Cousins of Washington and Jimmy Garappolo of New England could be free agents, and the college crop of passers could be better than this year. I like that.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

The bottom line is – if the Bears are right that QB MITCHELL TRUBISKY is a franchise-type QB, no one will care about what GM Ryan Pace gave up to get him. 

 

And if he stinks, he would have been a job-costing failure if taken with the third pick.

 

Peter King talks to NFL wise man Gil Brandt:

 

MMQB: Do you think the Bears made a bad trade, dealing two threes and a four to move up one spot for Mitchell Trubisky in the first round?

 

Brandt: No. Everyone has what-ifs in every draft. I’m not sure San Francisco didn’t play blind man’s bluff a little bit, but whatever they did, Chicago couldn’t know exactly what was going to happen if they don’t move up to two. I think the Bears were concerned Cleveland had all that ammunition and could move up. Plus, the agent [for Trubisky] was making it clear he knew his guy would go second. I understand what [Chicago GM] Ryan Pace went through. If you’re not proactive in this league, you die. Without a quarterback, you can’t win. The thing about everybody saying Chicago made a bad move … all those people, if they’re wrong, we’ll never see a retraction. And no one knows now whether it’s a good move or bad move.

 

 

GREEN BAY

The Packers are sincerely singing the praises of a retiring member of the media, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal.  Peter King:

 

Thank you, Bob McGinn, for making me a much smarter football writer, and for respecting the business the way you did for so long. Everyone who reads about football, and everyone who writes about football, owes you thanks. (McGinn retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week, the dean of Packers beat men and, truly, the dean of football beat men in America as far as I’m concerned. “It’s kind of sad,” Packer president Mark Murphy said Friday. “Bob is an icon. He was so important to Packer fans and football fans in this state, and beyond. His knowledge of football is excellent. I didn’t always agree with him, but he was a real professional. He did his homework. He worked at it, took great pride in it. It is very hard for me to imagine him not working. His dedication was so impressive. He timed the hangtime of punts! He timed the hangtime for the snapper to get it back. He was meticulous … Absolutely people will miss him. The vast majority loved him, swore by him. I can measure his impact. When he would write a critical article about us, I would get letters quoting Bob McGinn. That always told me he had a strong following.”

 

 

MINNESOTA

An update on the eye problems of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.  Andrew Krammer of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

 

Mike Zimmer has now undergone a total of seven surgeries on his right eye after requiring additional procedures this spring, the most recent April 25, the Vikings coach revealed Friday.

 

That operation came eight days after Zimmer said he was scheduled April 17 to have an oil bubble, which held his repaired retina in place, removed. Zimmer has also said he’ll need cataract surgery next month, when he turns 61 years old. It will be his eighth operation since Nov. 1.

 

Zimmer originally scratched his eye during the Oct. 31 game in Chicago last season. The issue persisted and eventually led to a torn retina.

 

When does he expect to have restored vision in his right eye?

 

“I hope now,” Zimmer said, under sunglasses. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen. Who knows?”

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

LB JAYLON SMITH still has a way to go, but he is making progress.  Kevin Patra at NFL.com:

 

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith continues to make progress toward returning to the field in 2017.

 

The second-year player is on the field during the team’s Phase 2 workouts.

 

“It seemed like he handled the work well last week, and he’s just done an amazing job right from the start with his rehab taking it day by day, making progress and we’ll continue to do that,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Sunday, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “If he takes that approach, that’s when he’s going to have his most success. That’s what he’s done up to this point.”

 

Smith missed his rookie season after suffering a brutal knee injury in Notre Dame’s bowl game. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported last month that the nerve in Smith’s knee has started to regenerate, but there was still a long way to go in his rehab.

 

Smith continues to wear a brace on his left leg for foot drop. The linebacker can take part in the Cowboys’ rookie minicamp this weekend because he missed all of last season while rehabbing. However, Garrett said that Smith will likely only participate in meetings and walk-throughs.

 

“He’s going to do the veteran stuff on the field on Tuesday and Thursday, so I don’t anticipate him doing a lot on the field over the weekend,” Garrett said. “But he’ll go through the meetings and the walk-throughs (during the three-day minicamp).”

 

These are just the first steps toward Smith playing this season. The Cowboys defense will get a big boost on the second level this season if the rangy linebacker can return to being even close to the playmaker he was in college.

 

 

WASHINGTON

The Redskins are being coy about who is the “GM”?  Jarrett Bell of USA Today thinks they should name Doug Williams officially to the post.

 

If there was ever a time for Doug Williams to fulfill his vision and become an NFL general manager, that time is now. If not yesterday.

 

Williams, 61, who became the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl with an MVP performance for Washington in 1988, returned the franchise in 2014. As a personnel executive, he’s had a key, behind-the-scenes role in the post-Mike Shanahan rebuilding job.

 

Yet he’s apparently waiting like everyone else to see what Washington president Bruce Allen and team owner Dan Snyder do about filling the GM post that became vacant in late March when Scot McCloughan was fired after an extended absence linked to personal issues.

 

They should roll with Williams – who, along with others, had expanded duties for the draft last week – and give him the type of shot that would be a major statement inside the building at Redskin Park and outside with a rabid fan base that includes a large percentage of African-Americans.

 

Go ahead, Bruce. Just do it.

 

I mean, Jay Cutler, Mr. Congeniality himself – not! – just got a shot as a commentator with Fox. Not sure if he’ll kill it, but at least he’ll get the chance.

 

John Lynch, the former all-pro safety whom Cutler is replacing in the booth, just orchestrated his first draft as the San Francisco 49ers GM and the reviews have been through the roof. Lynch is surrounded by a strong staff with coach Kyle Shanahan and personnel executives Martin Mayhew (a former GM) and Adam Peters. The bottom line is that so far the optics look good.

 

Williams, meanwhile, has paid dues to warrant consideration. Two stints as a head coach at his alma mater, Grambling. Another year at Morehouse. Seven years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as personnel executive and pro scouting coordinator.

 

And guess who gave Williams his first job in NFL personnel?

 

Allen, previously the Bucs GM, who hired Williams again for his current job.

 

Years ago, Williams told me that when Allen hired him with the Bucs he told him that his ultimate goal was to be sitting in Allen’s GM chair.

 

Fast forward to now. Allen’s moved up in the world, having helped groom Williams along the way. It won’t hurt Williams that he goes back to 1982 with coach Jay Gruden, who was 15 when his father, Jim, became the Bucs’ running backs coach.

 

More significantly, Williams has been in the mix with Washington the past three years, developing working relationships with the scouts and other personnel executives, as well as with any and everybody in the building, from the front office to the locker room. Institutional knowledge of the players would also help a transition.

 

As of Friday, though, Williams had not even interviewed for the vacant job and there’s no indication of Allen’s timeline – or whether he’ll even hire a GM after the makeshift measures following McCloughan’s departure flowed well during the draft.

 

During the combine, Allen told me how “we’ll cover everything,” with 43 staff members on site, many of whom could pick up the slack left by McCloughan’s absence.

 

He might be thinking similarly now. When he hired McCloughan in 2015, Allen retained authority over personnel, or as he put during the combine, “I’m still responsible.”

 

John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance that monitors and promotes minority hiring in the NFL, told USA TODAY Sports on Friday that if Allen doesn’t hire a GM he would still need to interview a minority candidate for the top football post to comply with the Rooney Rule.

 

The team hasn’t submitted a plan to the NFL regarding its structure, but Wooten – who has publicly endorsed Williams for the job – is like some at league headquarters awaiting answers.

 

Unlike most team presidents, Allen – who was once Al Davis’ right-hand man with the Oakland Raiders and is a lawyer – has a wide-ranging background. He’s been knee-deep in scouting and worked on the other side of the fence, too, as an agent.

 

So, if Williams were to land the GM job, the power for final decisions would surely rest with Allen. Keeping such power would also make it more difficult to lure candidates from the outside.

 

“We know Bruce knows what he’s doing,” Wooten said. “But we are waiting to see exactly what they’re going to do.”

 

Neither Williams nor Allen were available for comment. Allen relayed through a team spokesman on Friday that he won’t comment until there’s an announcement to make – presumably the hiring of a GM or declaration clarifying whatever structure they will proceed with.

 

If Williams gets the call as GM, the historical significance would be tremendous when considering the stained racial history.

 

Despite Williams’ distinction from Super Bowl XXII – a major source of pride for African-Americans given stereotypes about leadership roles – Washington was the last NFL franchise to integrate. And that happened under extreme pressure in 1962. The franchise’s founder, George Preston Marshall, marketed his team to the segregated South for decades.

 

More recently, the franchise has been under fire for a team nickname considered by some as disparaging to Native Americans.

 

Promoting Williams, though, is not only about the historical marker. It’s also about the opportunity for a Super Bowl hero to perhaps get hot all over again.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Peter King thinks about RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY:

 

I think Christian McCaffrey made a few positive impressions at the Panthers’ rookie camp, particularly when he was split wide and ran efficient and fast routes. One impression came after he signed his rookie contract, with $10.7 million in signing bonuses, meaning, if he handles life right, he’ll have some form of security for the rest of his life. “He celebrated by going to bed,” Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer reported. Said McCaffrey: “I signed, tried to get some sleep to get ready for [practice]. Never get comfortable.”

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

A major setback for the Saints as C MAX UNGER goes down.  Darin Gantt at ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Saints were rebuilding their defense anyway, again, and now they have a hole in the middle of the side of the ball they can trust.

 

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Saints center Max Unger suffered a foot injury, and is expected to miss the start of the 2017 regular season.

 

Unger stabilized the middle of their offensive line after coming from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade, and if he has to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, it would be a major blow for the Saints offense.

 

It could also send them back into the market for some options, such that they can replace such an important player at this stage of the offseason.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Some changes in the 49ers front office as a pair of Trent Baalke hires are sent packing.  Daniel Mano in the San Jose Mercury News:

 

The 49ers parted ways with two top staffers who had ties to former general manager Trent Baalke.

 

Director of pro personnel Mike Williams and assistant director Quentus Cumby will not return to San Francisco’s front office, sources told Tim Kawakami of Bay Area News Group.

 

They follow longtime assistant GM Tom Gamble, who left in February, and director of college scouting Matt Malaspina, who went to the Packers, as the 49ers front office continues to turn over under new general manager John Lynch.

 

Williams spent two stints with the 49ers, from 2000-08 and 2010-16, serving as a personnel assistant and director of pro personnel before eventually taking over director of pro personnel duties.

 

Cumby spent 10 seasons with San Francisco, the first seven as the team’s pro personnel scout.

– – –

Peter King on LB REUBEN FOSTER:

 

Every year there are some players with injury questions, and some players ruled undraftable due to injury concerns. There were many this year, and most teams pushed two Alabama players (defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster) down the draft board because of shoulder issues. I’ll preface this by saying in 1980 the Cincinnati Bengals drafted USC tackle Anthony Muñoz third overall despite the fact that an injured knee caused 14 NFL teams to flunk him on his physical. Muñoz became one of the great offensive linemen of all time. Before the draft, one smart scout told me his team wouldn’t draft Foster; the team feared his postseason rotator-cuff surgery would have to be re-done. The Niners, before Foster’s medical re-check with the team, labeled him a 2-minus on their medical scale, meaning they had concerns requiring another examination. After that examination, team physical Dr. Timothy McAdams and the Niners were satisfied with Foster’s healing, GM John Lynch said, and the medical grade was changed to a 2-plus. “He’ll be fine for training camp,” Lynch said. “We feel as strong as ever about his health, and really, we’ve never wavered. Our medical people are confident in him.” Foster’s shoulder will be monitored as closely as any injury entering training camp, because of everything said about it before the draft and since.

 

 

SEATTLE

Peter King:

 

Underplayed story of the draft: Seattle drafting a corner (Shaquill Griffin) and three safeties (Delano Hill, Tedric Thompson, Mike Tyson), respectively, at 90, 95, 111 and 187 overall, a clarion call to the not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be back end of the defense—Earl Thomas (age 28), Kam Chancellor (29) and Richard Sherman (29).

 

AFC WEST

 

KANSAS CITY

Rookie QB PATRICK MAHOMES admits his head is spinning as he gets his first look at Andy Reid’s playbook.  Nick Shook at NFL.com:

 

As the fresh crop of quarterbacks receive their first playbooks — imagine the yellow pages back when landlines and answering machines were still hot — the sheer amount of information can be initially overwhelming. New Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes wasn’t shy about the increased difficulty in his first 72 hours of marriage with Kansas City’s offense.

 

“It’s a lot more than I had at Texas Tech,” Mahomes said, via ESPN. “Whenever I got up there and called it, then I had to look out there and see the guys and make sure everybody was in the right position. That was pretty much the process, and it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”

 

This is quite common, but also interesting in the continuous comparison of college and professional offensive systems, their complexities and their substantial difference in snaps taken under center. Mahomes is one of the luckier rookie signal-callers, selected by a team with an entrenched starter. With no clock or calendar held against him, he’ll have plenty of time to learn the ins and outs of the offense under Alex Smith and head coach Andy Reid, who’s displayed a propensity for developing reliable passers in the past.

 

“You try to find a balance to where you’re still challenging him but he can still function,” Reid said. “Everything won’t be pretty today, but he’ll do all right. He’ll get an idea of what it’s all about.

 

“The main thing is that he learns the verbiage part. We know he can throw the football. It’s a matter of getting in and getting the verbiage down and the formations and making sure he’s comfortable with that. It’s a good period for him to learn. There will be a lot of that going on.”

 

With Smith seemingly going nowhere in the short term (barring injury, of course), Mahomes should have no problem knowing the offense by the time his opportunity comes around.

 

 

 

 

OAKLAND

Jimmy Durkin of BayAreaNewsgroup.com on the busy week of CB GAREON CONLEY.

 

Gareon Conley has had a busy week.

 

The Raiders first-round pick and former Ohio State standout cornerback was back on a football field Friday, something he views as a “stress reliever” with all he’s experienced in the past month.

 

When Conley met with the media following the first day of the Raiders’ rookie mini camp, it was far from his most important meeting of the week. That came Monday when he was in Cleveland to offer a statement to police who are looking into an April 9 allegation of rape levied against Conley.

 

“I felt like it went good,” Conley said. “There’s not more to say about that. We’ll just find out what happens after this.”

 

According to a report from NFL Network, Conley’s attorney Kevin Spellacy said he expects a time frame of 6-8 weeks while Cuyahoga County prosecutors review the case, although Conley said Friday he wasn’t aware of any such time frame.

 

Conley has been adamant from the beginning that his name will ultimately get cleared in the case and called the meeting with police “another way to prove my innocence.”

 

In the mean time, he said it’s tough to deal with having his name linger out there publicly with this accusation.

 

“It’s tough to think about it,” Conley said, “but I try not to think about it and just worry about what I’m doing out here.”

 

On Day 1, it’s clear what the Raiders have planned for their No. 24 overall pick. He worked both inside at the slot cornerback position in three receiver alignments and spent time on the outside.

 

“We’re going to learn all that we can about him,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “Gareon, we think he’s a talent. We think he can play inside and outside. We’ll see what the best combination for us is and just let him come in and compete.”

– – –

Another Raiders player with police issues over the years, LB ALDON SMITH says NFL Justice is going to allow him to play again.  Daniel Mano of the San Jose Mercury News:

 

Aldon Smith used social media Saturday to reveal an allegedly upcoming reinstatement into the NFL.

 

Several Twitter users noted such an announcement by Smith on Instagram Live, which means nothing until NFL commissioner Roger Goodell actually and officially allows the Raiders linebacker re-entrance.

 

It’s worth noting that the Raiders issued Smith’s No. 99 to undrafted free agent D-lineman Fadol Brown.

 

Smith has taken to Instagram Live before to broadcast his supposed return. But the NFL has yet to reinstate him and Smith has since been detained by police for public intoxication, an incident which led some to call it quits on expecting a comeback.

 

The former 49ers linebacker remains banished from the league after incurring a year-long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy in November 2015.

 

For everything you need to know about Smith, including commentary on his actions and future, check out this page.

 

Here is a Twitter mentions of Smith’s video, which could only be viewed by followers at the time of its posting…

 

@inkhalilwetrust

Aldon Smith said on his Instagram live stream: reinstatement should be coming soon,this football season won’t be one where he isn’t playing.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

Did the Colts draft a bargain basement franchise back in the fourth round?  Michael Manning at ProFootballFocus.com with some factoids on the similarly-initialed RB MARLON MACK:

 

The Indianapolis Colts drafted running back Marlon Mack out of South Florida in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Mack’s explosiveness could provide a new wrinkle to the Colts offense.

 

Mack had a breakaway percentage — the percentage of yardage earned on plays of 15 yards or more — of 52.3 percent, which was fifth-best in 2016. Only two running backs drafted ahead of him had a higher number.

 

Frank Gore and Robert Turbin each had a breakaway percentage of 11.0 percent or less in 2016. Gore ranked 49th out of 53. Turbin would have slotted just barely ahead of Gore if he had had enough attempts to qualify.

 

The Colts have not drafted a RB who rushed for 1,000 yards in a season since Joseph Addai in 2007, with six RBs drafted since Addai.

 

Only six RBs averaged more yards after contact in 2016 than Mack’s 3.85.

 

Mack has had a run of more than 55 yards every year in his college career. The last Colts RB to do so was Donald Brown in 2011.

 

 

TENNESSEE

The DB, among others, thinks that WR COREY DAVIS was over-drafted as the fifth overall selection.  Peter King of TheMMQB.com explains the thinking:

 

Many in the league were stunned to see Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis go as high as the fifth pick, where Tennessee took him. We’ll see if that ends up working out for the Titans. But with the draft riches he’s accumulated, and knowing wide receiver was his top priority, GM Jon Robinson figured it was smarter to take his top wideout at five rather than risk missing on the top three before he had a chance to make another pick. Sure enough, Mike Williams went to the Chargers at seven and John Ross to Cincinnati at nine. And there was the run of the top three wideouts, finished in the first nine picks.

 

AFC EAST

 

MIAMI

The Dolphins in general, and OC Clyde Christensen in particular, are advising you to get WR DeVANTE PARKER to your Fantasy Football roster at the first available moment.  Jason Lieser in the Palm Beach Post:

 

This might sound like the Dolphins are in reruns, but they’re declaring high expectations for receiver DeVante Parker again.

 

After two decent-but-not great years, he seems to be straightening out issues and has looked good in the offseason program. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen beamed when he talked about what he thinks Parker can do for Miami this season.

 

“I really think the lifestyle and routine is better,” Christensen said this morning. “Sometimes when those young guys come into this thing, it takes them a while to fall into the routine of what it takes to put your body in position, sleep, eating, practicing and being able to make it through a 16-game season, especially for a receiver where you’re just running so much.

 

“All those things have gotten better for him, and I think they’ll all combine for him having a great year this year. I really think he’ll have a great, big year—a gigantic year for us. That would be huge.”

 

Those are many of the things Adam Gase has mentioned over the past year. He said multiple times he wanted to see Parker make some changes that would help him stay healthier, ranging from nutrition to being reliable about coming to the facility for training and treatment.

 

There was progress for Parker, 24, coming off his injury-hampered rookie season. He went from 26 catches for 494 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 to 56 for 744 and four last year. He also jumped from playing 45 percent of the offensive snaps to 78.

 

The biggest problem for Parker in Year 2 was a hamstring injury that kept him out of the season opener and bothered him for months. That doesn’t seem to be an issue this spring.

 

“We’re kinda seeing what we were hoping to see, and that’s a healthy DeVante Parker—he’s running better than I’ve seen him run since I’ve been here—and a hungry DeVante Parker,” Christensen said. “He’s been around a lot more than last year. He’s practicing hard. He’s kinda zeroed in on this thing. We are seeing what we wanted to see out of him.

 

“What we need him to be is a big-play, No. 1 receiver. That’s what he has the potential to be; that’s what he has to be. We need him to play at a high level week after week after week in a consistent manner. It’s not easy to do, but he has the skills to do it, which not many guys do have, and now he’s applying himself.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

KAEP

Peter King with some thoughts:

 

So Kaepernick has bought a place in downtown Manhattan and lives in the big city fairly anonymously. I spent a long draft weekend with the Niners in California, and there are those in the building who think Kaepernick might actually rather do social justice work full-time than play quarterback. He emerges in New York City occasionally for noble cause work, last week donating 100 men’s suits to a parole office in Queens, so recipients, recently out of prison, would look more presentable when going on job interviews. I haven’t talked to Kaepernick, so I have no idea what his gut is telling him about what to do with his life. But it’s crazy that a quarterback who four years ago was coming off a Super Bowl appearance and looked to be a long-term answer has no team now and no hot NFL prospects that anyone can see. If I were a pro scout or a GM with a starting or backup quarterback need, I’d be on a plane to New York to have lunch with Kaepernick to ask him where he sees his life going. And if he sees a football future, and if I had a great quarterback coach (Sean McVay with the Rams, Bruce Arians in Arizona), I’d sign him to an incentive-laden contract. Right now.

 

 

PREDICTIONS

 

Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com makes his playoff predictions.

 

That, of course, is incredibly difficult to predict, but it won’t stop me and others from trying. Vegas is all over this 365 days a year with its odds and over/under win totals and this is generally when I first start to mull the collective gains and setbacks of an organization. Once the draft is complete, you can start to glance at some depth charts and ponder certain scheme fits and perhaps start to get an early pulse on what is to come in 2017.

 

With that in mind, here’s my first look at some projections on which clubs I believe will reach the postseason. History tells us at least 2-3 playoff teams in each conference will be different from how it played out a year ago, and the team that loses the Super Bowl generally is in for a rough go of it the following campaign:

 

Here’s my early forecast of how the 2017 season plays out:

 

AFC division winners

 

New England Patriots

The rich get richer. The best get better. All of that good stuff. The Patriots look better on paper than the squad that won the Super Bowl, with a revamped, more dynamic run game, the return of TE Rob Gronkowski to go with the addition of Brandin Cooks in the pass game. Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore are both on the roster at corner, still, and despite having so few picks, personnel guys around the league are raving about Bill Belichick’s draft. Jimmy Garoppolo remains as the backup passer should Tom Brady suffer an injury. Pencil the Patriots in for another No. 1 seed.

 

Oakland Raiders

The secondary used to be the biggest concern for the Raiders, but safety Karl Joseph, their top pick in 2016, should be healthier this year. Getting Gareon Conley late in the first round was a steal and I love the addition of safety Obi Melifonwu as well. That unit got much more athletic and dynamic. I’m not sure Marshawn Lynch has much left, but this offensive line should be powerful no matter who runs behind it. The Raiders will get Derek Carr and Khalil Mack signed long-term and as long as the fans don’t revolt too much — given the team’s impending move to Vegas and all — this team is the class of the AFC West and very much still ascending.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Addition from within here as well, assuming Martavis Bryant stays out of trouble between now and the end of the season. The offense looks like it should truly be able to hit top form, and all the defense has to be is OK for the Steelers to be deep in the playoff mix again. The continued emergence of pass rusher Bud Dupree could be crucial. The Bengals are declining and the Ravens are still trying to get back to their lofty perch and this remains Pittsburgh’s sweet spot within the AFC North. For the first time in a while they don’t open the season with any key player suspended (well, at least for now).

 

Indianapolis Colts

Nothing has gone right for them in two years it seems, yet the Colts have remained in the hunt for the AFC South crown until the end. Eventually that has to change. New GM Chris Ballard has added some teeth to the defense, and the offensive line is actually coming together and isn’t as poor as many would have you believe. Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the division and he has sufficient weapons on that side of the ball. Give me the top quarterback, especially in a division as traditionally weak as this one. Malik Hooker has the chance to be special from Day 1, and if top corner Vontae Davis can stay relatively healthy I like the Colts’ chances of winning a tight race with the Titans for the division.

 

AFC Wild Cards

 

Kansas City Chiefs

All Andy Reid does is get to the postseason pretty much like every season, and while I still don’t think Alex Smith puts this team over the top, they should be good for 10 wins or so. The defense remains legit and perhaps gets more out of a finally healthy Justin Houston. They have too many speedsters and play makers on offense not to be able to score quickly on that side of the ball, and they may have the best special teams in the entire league, which is easy to overlook but, trust me, can be the difference between success and failure in this league. Well coached, stable and consistent.

 

Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco is now another year removed from major knee surgeries and while he still lacks for proven talent around him, I am buying this defense. Baltimore has the potential to be one of the top defenses in football and will have to be. A secondary that languished for years added Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr in free agency, Marlon Humphrey in the draft, and managed to keep Lardarius Webb at a lower rate, to go with the signing of Eric Weddle and the drafting of Tavon Young a year ago. That’s a ton of resources devoted to two position groups. Edge rusher Tim Williams could be the steal of the draft and while I still have some concerns about the pass rush, I am also intrigued by Matt Judon and others. If any recently drafted receiver can do anything at all (Breshad Perriman??), then maybe they push the Steelers, but regardless I believe they get back in.

 

Next team up

 

Tennessee Titans

It’s hard not to like what young GM Jon Robinson is doing in Nashville. The Titans can run the ball down your throat, they are gradually adding weapons for Marcus Mariota, and they have totally revamped a once-lagging offensive line. Dick LeBeau is a master scheming on defense and while I’d like a few more playmakers on that side of the ball, we have to remember this is still a rebuilding franchise that couldn’t beat anyone a few years ago. I wouldn’t be shocked if they got in as a wild card. If they can survive an early stretch where four of their first five games are against 2016 playoff teams, then I’d fancy their chances a little more. If the Texans had a quarterback I’d be more inclined to go with them, and I could see the Dolphins having difficulty winning as many games as they did in 2016 as well.

 

NFC division winners

 

Seattle Seahawks

Sure, they could use another offensive lineman, but no roster is perfect. This group finds ways to win games week in and week out and if Earl Thomas comes back from injury and gives them anything at all, I could see them as the top seed. Eddie Lacy’s contract is loaded with reasons for him to lay off the second helping of desert and Russell Wilson should just now be entering his prime, if you can believe that. They still have better talent on offense than most give them credit for, and still enough alphas on defense to be downright stifling any given Sunday. Keeping a motivated Richard Sherman will provide dividends as well.

richard-sherman.jpg

 

Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers is the single biggest impact player in the NFL and he can carry a mediocre team for the better part of a season. This roster still ain’t quite what it used to be, and I don’t know what to expect from Clay Matthews anymore, but keeping Nick Perry was huge and they should be better on the back end with corner Kevin King and safety Josh Jones in the mix. Overall, it seems like it will be a speedier unit on the defensive side, which is a nice step. Replacing guard T.J. Lang won’t be easy, but it’s going to take more than losing a guard to slow Rodgers down. He’s done more with less in the past.

 

New York Giants

Defense still wins in this league. You have a legit front seven with two dudes who can come off the edge and a big-time playmaker on the back end who disrupts and turns the ball over, you are going to win a lot of football games. New York has that. Keeping Jason Pierre-Paul was huge and they’ll be even better this year on that side of the ball. Now another year removed from the end of Tom Coughlin’s long regime and with Ben McAdoo clearly the voice there, the Giants are primed to pick up where they left off. Eli Manning has someone beyond Odell Beckham to throw the ball to in Brandon Marshall and his new tight end Evan Engram, and while pass protection is a concern, I like this team quite a bit. They could still add LeGarrette Blount as well, who has a nose for the end zone.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This team’s growth reminds me some of the Raiders, and I could see them playing in January. Jameis Winston is going to be a superstar quarterback and getting tight end O.J. Howard where they did only helps that development. The defense got much better as the season went on, and frankly, the biggest move of their entire offseason may have been finding a way to retain defensive coordinator Mike Smith amid head coaching interviews. If Doug Martin does give them a boost, post-suspension, so be it, but that won’t make or break this team and I get the sense that anything less than a defensive MVP-type season won’t be enough for Gerald McCoy.

 

NFC wild cards

 

New Orleans Saints

There are always surprises in this league and teams in the postseason few would have expected back in, oh, May. So I’m riding a hunch here with the Saints. Look, we know they can score and score in bunches and that isn’t going to change. Drew Brees in a contract year? Yeah, sign me up for some of that. And maybe Adrian Peterson actually does bring something to further boost the run game. Sean Payton knew he had to address the defense and they have done that time and again. Sure, I’d like them even more with Malcolm Butler on the roster, but they got the best corner in the draft and aside from a bit of a panic move taking a right tackle with pick No. 32 (man, Reuben Foster would have put this draft over the top had the 49ers not moved up to nab him) I love everything about their offseason. If they can restore a home field advantage, look out. I expect the NFC South to be one of the more intriguing and competitive divisions in football; the Saints and Falcons play twice within three weeks in December, which could decide who gets in.

 

Washington Redskins

Another team that has quietly plugged holes without anyone seemingly noticing. They added ample talent on one-year prove-it deals, and there should be no lack of motivation from them. Terrelle Pryor will help offset the loss of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson on offense and as long as tight end Jordan Reed can stay healthy, Kirk Cousins and the offense will be fine. Adding two-sevenths of the Alabama starting front in the draft will only help anchor the defensive line, and Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson will immediately make this group more stout against the run. This is another gut feeling selection, but they were in the playoff race until Week 17 a year ago and shocked everyone to win the division the year before that, and I just have  a hunch they surpass expectations again.

 

Next team up

 

Dallas Cowboys

I smell a sophomore slump. No longer having Tony Romo as an emergency blanket could change some things here. How much does Jason Witten have left? Can Dez Bryant stay healthy? I just sort of sense a market correction of sorts here and I’m not sure they can duplicate the kind of roll they went on a year ago. I never bought into the defense, and after losing seemingly their entire secondary in free agency, color me concerned once more. Is there any pass rush? Will they have to win shootouts each week? They won’t be sneaking up on anyone anymore, that’s for sure. I suppose I remain a little skeptical, while the Falcons will miss Kyle Shanahan more than many would have you believe and the heartbreaking fashion in which they blew that Super Bowl will alter their psyche in ways most can’t imagine. Just ask the Seahawks from a few years back.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

Some thoughts from Richard Dietsch on the upheaval at ESPN:

 

1. What is the employment market for those who lost their jobs at ESPN, particularly ones with name recognition? I asked a longtime agent who negotiates contracts for high-profile sports media people, including ESPNers. “If you are unique and excellent at what you do, there is a market,” the agent said. “If you are perceived as more fungible as many traditional anchors are at the moment, then there is less upside for you. The next shrinkage to look for in our biz is the consolidation of Regional Sports Networks. That also means probably 50 fewer spots. So those broadcasters should move on it now and get contracts locked in. It’s a buyer’s market at the moment for talent who aren’t perceived as unique, however these things always do ebb and flow.”

 

2. One of the roughest stories I heard involved SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh. According to multiple ESPN staffers, Walsh flew from Florida to Connecticut with her three month-old twins under the working presumption that because she was scheduled to work that week, she’d be fine.  But the morning after she landed in Connecticut with her twins, the anchor learned she was part of the layoffs. She made public on Friday via Instagram that she had been laid off following her maternity leave. Reached on Friday by SI.com, Walsh declined comment.

 

3. If you want to hear about the process of how ESPN management told employees they were being laid off, listen to this podcast hosted by former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, an MMQB staffer who lost his ESPN gig last week. Brandt said—and this was confirmed by many others—that an ESPN executive (in some cases, these were managers who had rarely interacted with those being laid off) soberly read from the same script with an HR person listening on the line.

 

4. Many of those who lost their jobs have non-compete clauses in their deals, which means they can’t report within similar content silos until their contracts end. In order to do freelance work, at least as of now, they would have to report on entirely different beats than the ones they spent years developing at ESPN and elsewhere. Many are left with a brutal choice: Find a new job (hopefully) that will likely pay much less, or collect the remaining ESPN contract you signed but take yourself out of the job market for an extended period of time.

 

5. The factors behind the layoffs have been discussed in a ton of places, from the escalating cost of sports rights and ESPN overpaying for some properties, to new competition from FS1 driving up expenses, to heavy declines of households (ESPN was estimated to be in 87.3 million U.S. households last month, down from 94.4 million subs in March 2015 and 99 million in 2010), to poor management decision on certain talent contracts (Rick Reilly etc…). Here are two more factors not often talked about: The millions of dollars lost via the Global X games franchise as Tripp Mickle examined here and the cost of a mega-studio in Los Angeles for not a ton of a programming in relation to the overall schedule.

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Samuel Chi of Breitbart.com ruminates on which came first – ESPN’s aggressive move to the left or its infatuation with the NBA which has dragged it leftward.  In chasing millennials who are inclined to cut the cable cord, has the Worldwide leader alienated the older part of its audience?

 

The recent mass layoffs at ESPN has re-ignited a contentious debate on just how much politics has led to the downfall of the formerly “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” What’s not debatable, however, is ESPN’s continued left-ward lurch.

 

And ESPN just made another decision that will do nothing to halt or even slow its financial troubles. It’s doubling down on the NBA, a league that will prove to be fool’s gold.

 

In 2013, Mike Shannon and Will Feltus from Scarborough Research published a piece in the National Journal on “The Politics of Sports Fans.” While the link is no longer active, the research’s attendant graphic (see above) has been cited by many publications (see here, and here). It painted a pretty good picture of where sports fans stood in terms of their politics, and four years later, there is little reason to believe that has changed substantially.

 

What’s easy to gather from the report is that most sports fans are slightly right of center (for obvious reasons, but that’s a story for another day). Golf fans are the most right-wing and politically engaged. And the NBA is so far off to the left that the only sport — pro or college, big or small — that’s more lefty is its heavily-subsidized sister league WNBA.

 

If anything, the NBA is probably even more left-wing today, both the league and its fans, than it was in 2013. The research was published before NBA commissioner Adam Silver booted then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for using racist language in a private conversation and the onslaught of anti-President Trump sentiments expressed by its owners, management, and players throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and afterward.

 

LeBron James and Steph Curry, inarguably the NBA’s two biggest star players, have been unabashedly anti-Trump — the former actively campaigned for Hillary Clinton and the latter referred to the president as an “ass.” But their rhetoric was mild when compared to what was spewed by the league’s top two coaches, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs and Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors. Popovich said he was “sick to my stomach” about the election while Kerr lamented that “we’re better than this” after Trump’s upset victory in November.

 

Then there’s Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whose over-the-top anti-Trump blasts are well-documented.

 

With its employees and fans so decidedly leftist, the NBA has a numbers problem. Again, as expressed in the above graphic, the healthiest business strategy for any pro league should be to position itself as close to the political center as possible, thus maximizing its ability to attract fans from all walks of life.

 

The NBA and its broadcast partners, TNT and particularly ESPN, seemed to have missed the memo on this. The false belief that embracing the millennials and their progressive politics would pay off in the long run is as misguided as the John Judis prediction in 2002 that “demography is destiny” as he prophesized a “permanent Democratic majority.”

 

That strategy is fatally flawed because it makes several false assumptions, including 1) the notoriously mercurial millennials will remain interested in your product for more than five minutes, 2) the young will retain the politics of their youth as they go through life’s trials and tribulations, and most importantly, 3) your older, loyal clientele, who isn’t ready to die for another 30-40 years, will not abandon you even as you take it for granted.

 

And the numbers don’t lie about this. In 2016-17, the first year of the new, massive, nine-year, $24 billion deal, TV ratings on ESPN and TNT were down 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively. There’s more trouble in local markets, where NBA telecast ratings were down double digits in 15 markets with an overall decline of 14 percent across its 30 markets.

 

While the NFL can trot out political fatigue to explain away some of the ratings decline during its 2016 season, that excuse simply does not apply to the NBA, whose season started just two weeks before the November 8 election.

 

ESPN president John Skipper, who signed the deal to pay the NBA $1.4 billion per season for the network’s package (compared to $500 million previously), had a desperate decision to make as he scuttled more than 100 on-camera and/or frontline employees. He opted to go all in on his NBA investment.

 

While ESPN basically eliminated its NHL department, gutted its baseball coverage, and even substantially trimmed its NFL and college football personnel, it chose to dump more money on the NBA. Though it let go several veteran NBA writers, ESPN acquired Adrian Wojnarowski and his crew at The Vertical from Yahoo! Sports. There is no other way to read this: ESPN is committed to the NBA, and everything else can pretty much go to rot.

 

Whether this move is going to put ESPN back to profitability remains to be seen (don’t bet on it), but there is the unmistakable whiff of ESPN and its parent company Disney’s commitment to a politically leftward lurch.

 

If only they remembered this pearl of wisdom from an NBA icon who steadfastly refused to wade into politics: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

 

You can see the survey results on the left-right variance of fans of the various sports below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

JAY CUTLER

Michael McCarthy of The Sporting News on the hiring of Jay Cutler by FOX:

 

While Fox Sports hiring Jay Cutler is not as risky as CBS Sports handing its No. 1 NFL TV analyst job to Tony Romo, it’s fair to wonder why Fox is gambling on another TV neophyte in the booth.

 

Especially when that person is Cutler.

 

The former Bears quarterback has never been known as Mr. Personality. Yet Fox announced Friday he’ll take over for new 49ers general manager John Lynch on its No. 2 NFL announce team, which includes play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt, color commentator Charles Davis and sideline reporter Pam Oliver.

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“His reputation is that of a spoiled, entitled brat who squandered immense physical gifts,” said one TV executive who was surprised by the Cutler hire. “It never seemed like his heart was in it. The picture you have of him in your mind is him frowning on that exercise bike on the sidelines of that NFC championship game, while his teammates were losing to the Packers.”

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Cutler wasn’t the only game in town. Fox could have had its pick of game analysts for its No. 2 job.

 

Both Trent Dilfer and Ron Jaworksi were interested in joining Fox before they were laid off by ESPN last week, sources told Sporting News. Fox also could have recruited Phil Simms of CBS after he lost his No. 1 analyst job to Romo.

 

Then again, Cutler could surprise and end up being good on TV. 

 

Burkhardt is one of the best young play-by-play announcers in the country, so he will serve as a safety net for Cutler. And a three-person booth should help ease the rookie broadcaster’s transition to TV. Both Troy Aikman, Fox’s No. 1 game analyst with Joe Buck, and Simms, CBS’s ex-No 1, worked three-person booths early in their TV careers.

 

Many of Cutler’s teammates describe him as a different guy inside the locker room: smart, fun-loving, loyal. In fact, former Bears teammate Kyle Long predicts football fans will “fall in love” with Cutler again.

 

“Whether the public knows it or not, he actually is a funny, nice, cool guy,” Long told the Chicago Sun-Times. “(Media members) have seen that side of him sometimes. You’ve also seen Jay when he’s having maybe not the best day. Unfortunately, that’s kind of the all-encompassing stigma there.

 

“But I think if you see him in a suit and he’s got his hair done and he’s got that beard lined up, people will fall in love with Jay Cutler again.”

 

As Buck told me recently, the bottom line is that nobody tunes in NFL games to watch the announcers.

 

But a bad announcer can turn viewers off. That wouldn’t be good after a season in which NFL TV ratings fell eight percent.

 

Will NFL viewers love Cutler? That’s pushing it.

 

I’ll be happy if viewers just like him on the air this season.

 

Peter King:

 

Quite a few thoughts, actually:

 

• Players who have been crappy with the media have gone to work for TV and been good at it. Sterling Sharpe, for one. You know why Sharpe was better than anyone thought he’d be? Because he didn’t care who he skewered, in part. As a player, Cutler had an acidic personality. He was a Negative Nate. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be bad at TV. It actually means he’s got a real chance to be good, if he works at it and stays true to his real opinions.

 

• What convinced Fox execs in the Cutler audition that he would be good enough to plug in for John Lynch on its number two NFL team? Sounds like it was two things, from the audition Cutler had in Los Angeles with play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt two weeks ago, when they sat in a quiet room on the Fox lot and voiced-over the Arizona-Seattle game from Christmas Eve. “Just being conversational,” Burkhardt said Friday. “Knowing when to talk and when to shut up. Some guys talk, talk, talk, talk. Jay said his piece and just stopped.” And being prescient, just watching the game. On one play, near the Arizona goal line, Cutler piped up that the pass play failed because Jermaine Kearse was supposed to “rub,” or legally screen, the defensive back, and he missed the rub, and the ball fell incomplete. “There was another play, Carson Palmer to J.J. Nelson for an 80-yard touchdown, that Jay made a great observation,” Burkhardt said. “As soon as they got to the line, Jay knew it. He said Palmer used his eyes perfectly to move the safety and keep him away from where he wanted to throw. When we got to the last replay, there was a head-on shot of Palmer’s eyes, and then he looked left right at the snap, and Nelson was to the right, and Palmer held the safety there. Palmer threw the bomb and the safety couldn’t get back in time to make the play. Overall, he had some really cool minutiae. He was so conversational.”

 

• Could Cutler play again? Who knows. “It seemed to me he’s checked out of football emotionally,” Burkhardt said. It’s odd that he isn’t playing, to be sure, but think of this from Cutler’s perspective. He’s made $73 million in the last five years alone. He doesn’t need a big payday. And for much of his eight seasons in Chicago, he’s been beat up behind a shaky offensive line. Imagine talking to the Jets, for instance, or even Houston, and playing again behind a porous offensive line. With the Jets, he had to be thinking: Okay, I’ll make good money, and I’ll lose, and I’ll get sacked a lot. (And, though I doubt he was thinking this, add in this P.S.: He’d get the crap ripped out of him on the back pages of the tabloids as long as the Jets lost.) Why do that? Hard to think that would be a lot of fun, particularly considering you could make decent money sitting up in a booth—and maybe discovering a new vocation you actually might like.

 

• I didn’t know Cutler well, and hadn’t talked to him much since he was with the Bears. But I always thought he blew some good chances in getting to know some of the former quarterbacks who did his games. Troy Aikman, Dan Fouts, Phil Simms, Steve Beuerlein. Cutler used to view those production meetings as necessary evils instead of using them to draw knowledge out of those guys. Cutler was a little too smart for his own good.

 

• Thought the best game I ever saw Cutler play was on a Monday night in October 2011, when the mediocre Bears faced the then-unbeaten Lions in Detroit and Cutler, in a loss, played as valiantly as a quarterback could play. The Detroit front seven (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson, etc.) must have hit him 20 times that night. He had not a moment’s peace. But he completed 28 of 38 passes, threw no picks, and hung in against the most brutal of rushes. Chicago lost, but I thought that was the game of games in a career that had more disappointment than success.

 

• Eleven seasons, one playoff victory. He had some great moments, and too often we think quarterbacks can lift teams by themselves. But they can’t. However, one playoff win is one playoff win. I expected more out of Cutler when I first saw him play in Denver a decade ago.

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com conducted a poll:

 

FOX wanted Tony Romo to replace John Lynch on the network’s No. 2 team. Romo ended up at CBS, and Jay Cutler ended up in the spot FOX had earmarked for Romo.

 

So which guy will do better in their post-football football employment? That’s the PFT Live question of the day for Monday.

 

The easy answer is Romo. He got the better gig on the bigger platform with the greater opportunities to work before major audiences. Also, people don’t seem to like Cutler, based in large part on the perception that he doesn’t care.

 

If that perception is reality, or if he separately doesn’t care whether people dislike him because they already do, Cutler could actually be great. He’ll say things without worrying who might not like it or what they might say about him for saying it.

 

Romo, on the other hand, could be paralyzed by fear of criticism from fans and media and worry that he’ll be setting the stage for awkward production meetings. By getting arguably the best gig right out of the gates, Romo has nowhere to go but down. Cutler, who also ended up with a pretty good gig, nevertheless enters with low expectations, fueled by the consequences of his rebel-without-a-clue demeanor.

 

Cutler already is saying interesting things, arguing for example that the Bears shouldn’t rush Mitchell Trubisky onto the field. Romo, faced with an opportunity to advise the Texans on what they should do at quarterback during his conference call with CBS, punted.

 

And, frankly, neither Romo’s opening conference call nor his extended interview on a Dallas radio station included anything particularly compelling or interesting or humorous.

 

So it’s perhaps not as much of a no-brainer as many would think. Think it through on your own before checking a box, and then join us on Monday morning for three hours of football-only (or maybe football-mostly) talk on NBC Sports Radio (6:00 a.m. ET) and NBCSN (7:00 a.m. ET).

 

When the DB voted, about 6,000 people had weighed in on the poll with Cutler slightly ahead.