The Daily Briefing Thursday, October 4, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com breaks down six reasons the NFL is an Offensive Fiesta in 2018:

 

When Jared Goff’s plant foot hit grass at the bottom of his drop with 1:30 left in the first half last Thursday, there were eight Viking defenders within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. When he let the ball go, there was only one within 20 yards of new Ram Brandin Cooks, sprinting to the post. And the rest, really, was academic.

 

We’ve seen this scene unfold everywhere in the NFL this fall.

 

First down. Receiver coming uninterrupted off the line, and unbothered by the threat of contact. Defense geared to respect the run. Offense raring to take a shot. Touchdown.

 

“They are playing aggressively on early downs,” said one rival quarterbacks coach. “And that’s a trend sweeping the league.”

 

It’s sweeping the league, mainly because it’s working—and just as the league wants it to. With an influx of gunslinging young quarterbacks, rules changes geared towards juicing offenses, unintended consequences of other rules changes and coaches more open-minded than ever before, passing numbers and scoring have exploded. It’s like money play after money play, straight out of Madden 98.

 

Explaining it is a little more complicated than just hitting buttons. But the statistics are crystal clear:

 

• There have been 228 touchdown passes through four weeks, breaking the previous high-water mark of 205 (2013).

 

• The league’s collective completion percentage (65.4) and passer rating (94.5) are also four-week records, topping marks set in 2014 (64.3, 91.5).

 

• Passing yards through four weeks (32,215) also ran at an all-time high, edging the mark set in 2016 (31,616).

 

• Eleven quarterbacks have more than 1,200 yards through four weeks. The previous four-week high there was seven, in 2011.

 

• Seven quarterbacks have double-digit touchdown passes, and 10 have a triple-digit passer rating. Both are four-week high water marks.

 

• There have also been more touchdowns (344) and points (3030) through four weeks than ever before.

 

So what gives?

 

And after hitting up a bunch of coaches, on both sides of the ball, as well as scouts, the one-line conclusion I came to is that there is no one thing you can assign all of this to. Instead, it’s a number of changes, some made to push this offensive shift, and some helping the NFL get there organically. So let’s dive into the reasons, in no specific order:

 

1. Rules changes: This is the most obvious, and goes back a decade to when the illegal contact rules were emphasized, handcuffing defensive backs. Now, with the helmet rule and body-weight rule in the spotlight, teams see apparent examples on film of safeties pulling up on potential kill shots, and linebackers lowering their target area. So naturally, that goes into coaching. “The middle of the field is a danger-free zone,” one pro scouting director texted me. “You used to face certain teams, like Seattle, with certain players, and unless you wanted to lose guys, you stayed away. You don’t have to be as concerned about that, and even if you get hit, it’ll probably be a penalty.” Those flags extend drives and, at times, generate scoring chances and passing yards that weren’t there before.

 

2. College offenses: I’d refer back to the June 25 and July 23 editions of The MMQB, with Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Chicago’s Matt Nagy, to fully explain this one. In short, NFL coaches are far more open-minded than they used to be to implementing college-rooted concepts, which is most obvious in places like Philadelphia, New England, Kansas City and, yes, Chicago. That’s created a schematic cat-and-mouse game, with defenses scrambling, and coverage busts like the ones we saw on the part of the Bucs against Nagy’s Bears last week becoming more and more common. NFL football is no longer played in a phone booth.

 

3. Analytics: Most teams these days are looking intently at data in how they run their operation. And, as one NFC assistant coach said, “a lot of teams are buying into the analytics [on] how it is important to throw the ball more on early downs. [There are better] overall success rates on passing plays on first down, compared to running on first down.” Want proof? Through three weeks, Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was throwing more on first down than any other down (with former Oklahoma State OC Todd Monken calling the plays), completing 31 of 44 throws on those plays for 627 yards five touchdowns, a pick and a 141.3 rating. We used a first-down play from Goff to kick the column off, and he’s been pretty good on those too—going 46 of 56 for 668 yards, six touchdowns, no picks and a 152.1 rating. Teams are also more aggressive on fourth down, which is a factor in extending drives.

 

4. Offseason emphasis: This relates to rules changes, but of a different nature. Teams can’t hit in the spring, and summer contact and practice time have been cut way down under the 2011 CBA. That leaves coaches and players hard-pressed to get real run-game work done, and over time it’s caused reallocation of some of that time to even more work on the passing game. “Sh–, all we get are non-padded practices,” said one AFC offensive coordinator. “So you are almost forced to throw the ball more because that’s what you’re getting good at.”

 

5. QB talent: We’ve had 11 first-round quarterbacks in the last three draft cycles, and three look like home runs (Goff, Mahomes, Carson Wentz), while all five of the 2018 rookies have flashed big-time potential. Of the 11, nine are now their teams’ starters, and many have been paired with creative coaches (most notably Goff, Mahomes and Wentz) who are tailoring the offenses to their skill sets. That means opposing defensive coaches not only have to build a book on these guys, but they also have to learn to defend new concepts put in to unlock their talent. Again, it’s a cat-and-mouse game.

 

6. Talent elsewhere: I thought this comment, from an NFC offensive coordinator, was interesting: “Leaguewide, there’s more speed on the field. Teams are throwing it more often, and creating more space for these speed guys to run.” Part of that comes from the college concepts meant to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. Part of it comes from the rules that have opened areas that were previously no-fly zones. Part of it is that smaller players can’t be knocked into oblivion anymore. And so the NFL has never been a friendlier place for the Tyreek Hills and Jakeem Grants of the world.

 

So then the question becomes simple: Will it continue?

 

The weather will get colder. Defenses will learn to better defend the young quarterbacks and newfangled schemes. And that cat-and-mouse will play on. Which is to say there’s plenty of unknown ahead.

 

But that’s the fun part. The series of offensive haymakers we’ve gotten to this point have been a blast to watch. And it sure will be interesting to keep an eye out for the counterpunch, whenever that comes.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

The NFL will not suspend DE AKIEM HICKS for pushing an NFL official.  Of course, he already lost more than half a game after he was ejected Sunday. Emily Kaplan of ESPN.com:

 

Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks will not be suspended for pushing a referee during Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a source told ESPN, confirming multiple reports.

 

Hicks could still be fined for the incident. As a first-time offender, he would be subject to paying $33,425, according to the NFL rulebook.

 

Hicks, who is second on the team with three sacks this season, was ejected late in the second quarter of Chicago’s 48-10 victory. After Bears teammate Eddie Jackson intercepted a pass, Hicks and Buccaneers offensive guard Ali Marpet got into a scuffle. Mike Carr, the down judge, tried to separate the two players, according to a pool report, and that’s when Hicks made contact.

 

“[Carr] had the player separated and the situation was resolved,” referee Jerome Boger told a pool reporter Sunday. “And then here the defender comes back to restart or instigate it all over again.”

 

As Hicks walked off the field to the locker room, he threw his jersey and shoulder pads into the stands.

 

As it turns out, Hicks services were not needed to defeat the Buccaneers.

 

 

GREEN BAY

QB AARON RODGERS tries to quell the rumors (that he started) that he and Coach Mike McCarthy are at odds.  Ryan Wood of USA TODAY:

 

To hear Aaron Rodgers explain it, his relationship with Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy is just fine.

 

Those comments he made about the game plan after Sunday’s lackluster win? Taken out of context, Rodgers said. Which parts? He didn’t say.

 

What the Packers quarterback did say Wednesday was different than what he said Sunday. Back then, all of three days earlier, Rodgers said the Packers had a “terrible” offensive showing. “Non-playoff caliber,” he called it. He lamented not getting his top playmakers more involved.

 

How, Rodgers was asked after the game, can the Packers get their top players more touches?

 

“It’s by the plan,” he said then.

 

On Wednesday, Rodgers identified something else.

 

“We’ve got to find ways to be more efficient on offense,” Rodgers said. “Although, like I said Sunday afternoon, the numbers might have looked good – 420 yards and 50 percent-plus on third down – but the execution wasn’t where it needs to be.”

 

There is game plan, and there is execution. Rodgers questioned the game plan Sunday, not referencing “execution” once.

 

McCarthy agreed with Rodgers’ second assessment Monday. He said the Packers’ offense left a lot on the field against Buffalo, specifically five dropped passes. Rodgers, who has dealt with a left knee injury almost the entire season, also uncharacteristically missed some throws.

 

That’s execution, not game plan.

 

Rodgers admitted there’s conflict with McCarthy, even frustration. To hear him explain it, there’s no problem with a little friction.

 

“Mike and I talk all the time,” Rodgers said. “We have a great relationship. There’s always been great communication between us. Even if there’s things that we need to talk about that are tough subjects, we’ve never had a problem finding time and talking. That’s the way it’s been for 10-plus years.”

 

Even if Rodgers says he has a “great relationship” with McCarthy, Sunday was at least the fourth time he has shared a veiled criticism since the 2017 season ended.

 

Back at the Super Bowl, Rodgers was displeased the Packers didn’t consult him before choosing not to retain quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. Rodgers never fully endorsed McCarthy’s decision to reorganize his playbook this offseason. A week after saying young receivers gave a “piss-poor” effort in a scout-team drill in camp, Rodgers explained his strong stance, saying, “If no one else is going to stand up and criticize a bad practice, then maybe I need to be the one to do it.”

 

So Sunday’s public venting was not uncommon.

 

The increasing frequency might suggest Rodgers’ frustration is growing. The question moving forward is whether the coach and quarterback can not only coexist, but thrive.

 

“There’s frustration in this business,” Rodgers said, “and that’s what Mike always says, ‘Conflict is good.’”

 

NFC EAST

 

PHILADELPHIA

Dean Blandino says Eagles fans should be miffed that the crew of Shawn Hochuli missed a blow to the head of QB CARSON WENTZ on a critical fumble.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

One of the key plays in the Titans’ comeback win over the Eagles on Sunday was a strip-sack of Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz, but the former head of NFL officiating Dean Blandino says that play should have been called back because of a blow to Wentz’s head.

 

With the Eagles leading 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Titans rookie Harold Landry hit Wentz as Wentz was trying to pass, knocking the ball loose. The Titans recovered the fumble. But Blandino says Landry’s hit was to Wentz’s helmet and should have been a penalty.

 

“Yes that’s a foul,” Blandino wrote on Twitter. “Forcible contact to the head while QB is in passing posture.”

 

For NFL fans, one of the frustrations with the stricter enforcement of roughing the passer this season has been the inconsistency of it. The officials called fewer roughing the passer penalties in Week Four, but in this case it appears that the officials failed to make a call they should have made, and that was costly for the Eagles.

 

We can only see the one look on-line, no replays, but the “hit to the head” isn’t obvious.

– – –

Coach Doug Pederson has opted not to panic.  Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

 

On Monday, Doug Pederson did not rule out personnel changes once the coaches evaluated the Titans game. When he was asked about the possibility on Wednesday, Pederson sang a different tune.

 

“Obviously when you sit back and you look and you get time these last couple days to evaluate kind of where we are, the sky is not falling,” Pederson said. “The sun came up today. We’re 2-2. We’re still in good position, control our own destiny. A lot of football ahead of us and there is no panic. As coaches we prepare our players and we prepare them extremely well. We have confidence in all our guys moving forward, and so with that, we just continue to coach and get our guys ready for Sunday.”

 

That did not necessarily answer the question, but it showed Pederson wants to play down the idea that the Eagles need something to spark them. He agreed with a message that Jim Schwartz told the defense — the Eagles are one play away from being 3-1. Then again, Schwartz also said the Eagles are two plays away from 0-4. That’s the NFL, especially when a team is in as many close games as the Eagles played in September.

 

It is early for overreaction. The Vikings were 2-2 last year and finished 13-3. The Eagles went to the playoffs the last six teams they opened 2-2. Like Pederson said, there’s a lot of football left to be played. But there’s also a lot of adjustments teams can make, so just because Pederson is downplaying it doesn’t mean the coach won’t tinker. Of course, there’s no clear change to make — especially if the secondary is staying as it is. It could be more subtle with how playing time is distributed.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Offense hasn’t been Atlanta’s problem, but that’s the side of the ball that is going to be bolstered in The Burgh on Sunday.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said on Wednesday morning that he expects to have running back Devonta Freeman in the lineup against the Steelers this Sunday.

 

It would be Freeman’s first game since he injured his knee in the season-opening loss to the Eagles and he kicked off the practice week with a limited session on Wednesday. He declared himself “excited to be out here” and declared himself ready to get back to work.

 

“I’m in-tune with my body and myself, so I know when I can be me,” Freeman said, via ESPN.com. “Just getting back out there when I’m comfortable enough. I think right now, I’m comfortable enough to get out there. I feel good. I feel explosive. I’m ready to run.”

 

Getting Freeman back will be a plus to a running game that’s produced 140 yards over the last two weeks, but it still may be difficult for the Falcons offense to generate enough points to overcome a defense that’s been shredded repeatedly this season.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

The Saints are looking for pass defense help on the street.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Saints are adding some help to their beleaguered secondary.

 

New Orleans, which has the worst pass defense in the league through four weeks of the season, has signed free agent cornerback Josh Robinson, a league source tells PFT.

 

Robinson worked out for the Saints last week when the team started looking for help at the position following the ankle injury suffered by cornerback Patrick Robinson.

 

A 2012 third-round pick of the Vikings, Robinson played four seasons in Minnesota and played the last two years in Tampa Bay. The Bucs cut him this year just before the start of the regular season. The 27-year-old Robinson has been a good special teams player in addition to helping out on defense.

– – –

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com see the signing of DREW BREES by the Saints as an event that sent wide-ranging ripples around the NFL.  He has three scenarios – Brees breaks out earlier, Brees doesn’t injure shoulder, Brees doesn’t sign with Saints. 

 

We have the Brees breaks out earlier scenario below, you can read the other two here.

 

Scenario 1: Brees breaks out in 2003, not 2004

The 6-foot Brees threw only 27 passes as a rookie in 2001 before delivering a slightly below-average full season as a starter in 2002. The real star of that offense was running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who racked up 2,172 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns. It seemed likely that Brees would take a step forward in 2003 after the Chargers added star wideout David Boston in free agency, but while Tomlinson continued to play at a high level, Brees’ interception rate spiked to 4.2 percent. He posted a passer rating of just 67.5.

 

While the Chargers expected Rivers to take over at some point during the 2004 campaign, Brees turned his career around. With the help of second-year tight end Antonio Gates, Brees’ interception rate fell, his completion percentage and yards per attempt rose dramatically, and he finished with a passer rating of 104.8, making the Pro Bowl in the process. Brees has posted an above-average passer rating in each of the ensuing 14 seasons.

 

What we’re going to suppose here, then, is that Brees doesn’t have that down 2003 season and instead posts that 104.8 passer rating in 2003. The Chargers naturally don’t finish 4-12 in that scenario, but given that they also had the league’s 31st-ranked scoring defense, let’s say they finish somewhere around 8-8. What happens next might scare fans of a few teams …

 

1. The Chargers don’t have the first overall pick and never draft Manning

Naturally, with an improved record, the Chargers don’t draft first; they move down to the middle of the first round. Let’s say they pick 16th and use their selection on Ohio State defensive end Will Smith, who would rack up 67.5 sacks over a nine-year career in New Orleans.

 

2. With the first pick, the Raiders draft Manning and trade him to the Giants

The Manning family famously insisted that the Ole Miss product would refuse to play for the Chargers if San Diego drafted him and noted Eli “preferred” to play for the Giants. Eli has never given a full explanation of why he refused to play in San Diego, with most explanations suggesting his father, former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, was involved in the decision. Archie, the story goes, was concerned that his youngest son would be stuck playing for a dysfunctional organization like the one he struggled with in New Orleans all those years prior.

 

Alternate History Of ’04 Draft

PICK    TEAM   PLAYER

1.         OAK     *Eli Manning, QB

2.         ARI       Larry Fitzgerald, WR

3.         NYG     *Robert Gallery, OT

4.         WAS    Sean Taylor, S

5.         PIT       Philip Rivers, QB

6.         DET      Roy Williams, WR

7.         ATL      DeAngelo Hall, CB

8.         JAX      Reggie Williams, WR

9.         HOU     Dunta Robinson, CB

10.        CLE      Kellen Winslow Jr., TE

11.        NYJ      Jonathan Vilma, ILB

12.        BUF      Ben Roethlisberger, QB

*OAK trades Manning to NYG;

NYG trades Gallery to OAK

SD takes DE Will Smith at No. 16

 

The Raiders were only two years removed from a Super Bowl at that point, but they already had veteran Rich Gannon on the roster and were making a coaching change in replacing Bill Callahan with Norv Turner. They passed on the other promising young quarterbacks in the 2004 class, so it doesn’t seem likely that Al Davis was looking for a passer. In reality, the Raiders used the second overall pick on left tackle Robert Gallery.

 

So, let’s keep things as similar to the real world as possible. The Raiders draft Manning with the first overall pick and trade him to the Giants for the draft rights to Gallery (whom the Giants take third), the 64th selection, and first- and fifth-round picks in 2005. The most notable player from that ’05 group is edge rusher Shawne Merriman, who racked up 39.5 sacks over his first three seasons before falling to injuries and suspensions. In this scenario, the Giants get Eli and the Raiders get Gallery, Merriman, and third- and fifth-round picks. The Chargers use their pick on Smith, who replaces Merriman in their lineup from 2004 on.

 

3. The Steelers trade up from No. 11 to No. 5 to draft Rivers

Mind blown? Reports at the time suggested that the Steelers held a significant interest in Rivers, who had just finished a glowing career at NC State. Pittsburgh didn’t invite the eventual fourth overall pick to its pre-draft camp, even though another league GM swore they wanted Rivers, because Kevin Colbert knew Rivers wasn’t going to make it to the Steelers at 11.

 

Here, with a slightly different scenario, they get their man. Manning and Gallery come off the board at picks 1 and 3, and the Cardinals, who passed on Rivers in real life, take Larry Fitzgerald at No. 2. Washington, which had a first-round pick quarterback on the roster in Patrick Ramsey, still goes for Sean Taylor. That leaves the Browns at No. 5, and while they might have taken Rivers, the fact that they passed on Ben Roethlisberger in the real draft suggests that they weren’t desperately interested in adding a quarterback.

 

Pittsburgh doesn’t trade up often, but having traded up the year before for Troy Polamalu, we know Colbert would have made a move for a player he saw as a difference-maker. In this universe, the Steelers send the Browns the 10th overall pick and their 2005 first-round pick, which ended up netting tight end Heath Miller. The Browns used their 2004 first-rounder on Kellen Winslow Jr., so it’s more likely that they would have drafted a player at a different position. You can probably guess how I suspect it would have turned out for Cleveland.

 

The Steelers get Rivers, and given that he played at a high level from the moment he took over in San Diego, it’s safe to assume that they would have been just fine at quarterback for the ensuing 14 seasons. As for the quarterback who ended up filling that role …

 

4. The Bills draft Roethlisberger at 12

Buffalo wanted to bring in a quarterback to serve as a long-term replacement for Drew Bledsoe, who struggled in 2003. The organization restructured Bledsoe’s deal to take away most of a $7 million bonus that April and then moved on from the former Patriots star after the 2004 season. In the real world, they drafted Lee Evans at 13 and then traded into the bottom of the first round to add Tulane product J.P. Losman, who finished his NFL career with more interceptions (34) than touchdowns (33).

 

Evans turned into an effective wideout despite subpar quarterback play, but Bills fans would have preferred to end up with Roethlisberger, who will eventually make his way to Canton. Drafting the Miami of Ohio product titanically shifts the Bills’ past 14 years. For one, they probably don’t lose to the Steelers’ backups in Week 17 of the 2004 season and make the playoffs in the process.

 

The Bills don’t trade away their 2005 first-round pick, which the Cowboys used to draft defensive end Marcus Spears. They don’t move up to draft EJ Manuel in the first round of 2013 and use their pick on someone like Eric Reid or Justin Pugh. It’s not impossible to imagine them drafting Josh Allen in 2018 as Roethlisberger’s replacement, but the past 14 years likely include multiple trips to the postseason.

 

5. The Chargers beat the Patriots in the 2007 playoffs and end their undefeated season before the Super Bowl

Fast-forward to the 2007 season, with Brees already established as one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Rivers didn’t skip a beat in taking over for Brees in real life, but the Chargers’ deepest playoff run came to an end in 2007 with Rivers (partly) to blame. The brutally tough Rivers tore his ACL during the divisional-round upset win over the Colts, and while nobody on earth expected him to play in the AFC title game, Rivers underwent arthroscopic surgery on Monday and then played on Sunday against New England.

 

Rivers struggled, throwing two interceptions and posting a passer rating of just 47.1. What’s forgotten, though, is that Tom Brady also struggled. After throwing eight interceptions during that legendary 2007 season, Brady threw three against San Diego. Randy Moss failed to make an impact, and while Brady made what the AP recap characterized as “several stunningly poor throws,” the Patriots pulled out a 21-12 victory.

 

It’s true that the Chargers were banged up even beyond Rivers’ injury. Tomlinson got only two carries because of a knee injury. Gates played through a dislocated toe. At the same time, Brady’s interceptions gifted the Chargers a series of short fields. Two drives began on the Patriots’ side of the field, and while the Chargers got into the red zone three times, they could kick only three field goals.

 

It’s hardly out of the question to imagine a scenario in which a healthy Brees makes enough of a difference to win the game. Beating the Patriots in Foxborough in January can be awfully tough, but in a world in which Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez can pull off the upset, I wouldn’t put it past Brees to do the same thing.

 

6. The Chargers beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLII

Tomlinson had a sprained MCL and likely would have been able to recover to play some role. Gates would have been able to play through the pain of the toe injury. They would have presented a brutally difficult matchup for New York. While the Giants were relatively effective against wideouts that season, Michael Strahan & Co. ranked 26th in DVOA against throws to running backs and 30th against tight ends. The Patriots had Kevin Faulk and threw seven passes to him for 52 yards, but their top tight end was blocker Kyle Brady.

 

The Giants’ pass rush bothered Brady, but Brees famously has one of the fastest releases in football and now holds the fifth-lowest sack rate in NFL history. He would have been a nightmare matchup for the Giants. The Chargers were also a better defense than that year’s Giants, ranking sixth in DVOA to 13th for the Giants. The Giants got hot on defense that postseason, but you could say the same thing for the Chargers, who held the Titans to six points and the high-powered Colts to 21 points before forcing three Brady picks. San Diego would not have been 12.5-point favorites, as the Patriots were in Super Bowl XLII, but the Giants probably would have gone into a matchup with the Chargers as no better than seven-point underdogs.

 

7. The entire narrative around the Tom Coughlin era changes

The principals of the Giants organization over the past 15 years — notably Coughlin and Manning — have built their careers around beating the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. If the Giants lose to the Chargers in 2007, the entire story changes.

 

Remember that Eli lost his first two postseason games in 2005 and 2006 and was terrible during the second half of 2007 before getting hot during the 2007 playoffs. After the Super Bowl win, Manning played poorly in a 2008 home playoff loss. The Giants then missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, despite going 18-14 over that time frame. I don’t think the Giants’ conservative ownership would have fired Coughlin or found a new starting quarterback to replace Manning before they won the Super Bowl in the 2011 season, but skeptical Giants fans would have seen the Coughlin/Manning era as seven years of frustration before finally breaking through.

 

Likewise, we view the Chargers differently. General manager A.J. Smith fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006 and hired Norv Turner as coach. That move doesn’t look especially smart with hindsight, but if Turner immediately wins a Super Bowl, Smith suddenly seems like a genius.

 

8. The Saints draft Matt Leinart in 2006

ESPN reporter Mike Triplett, who has been covering the Saints since 2005, told me that the Saints were leaning toward drafting Leinart as they pursued a quarterback solution during this era. Leinart eventually fell to No. 10 overall to Arizona, but without that knowledge in advance, we have to assume that the Saints would have drafted Leinart with the second overall pick.

 

Reggie Bush was the top prospect in many circles heading into that draft, and it was a surprise when the Texans opted to sign a deal with edge rusher Mario Williams at No. 1. In this scenario, the Jets would have found an instant replacement for the retiring Curtis Martin and surely made the draft crowd in New York City go wild by taking Bush with the fourth overall pick. D’Brickashaw Ferguson probably ended up having a better career, but in this universe, the Virginia tackle falls to the Cardinals at 10.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

QB JIMMY GAROPPOLO had his season-ending knee surgery to repair his torn ACL on Wednesday.  He was hurt in Kansas City on September 23.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

At this point, the Rams look like the overwhelming favorite to win Super Bowl 53.  Unstoppable on offense, pretty good with a veteran defense…

 

Don’t tell that to DT MICHAEL BROCKERS.  Curtis Crabtree of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Through a quarter of the schedule, the Rams and Chiefs have been the best two teams in the league.

 

Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers doesn’t want to hear it.

 

“I hate it,” Brockers said, via Greg Beacham of the Associated Press.

 

“I hate looking at ‘SportsCenter’ and they’ve got you at the top of the power rankings,” Brockers added with a smile. “It’s just like, you know, stop crowning us! For me, I’m a humble guy. I don’t want to be crowned. I always want the attitude of being the hungry dog, being the underdog, because you almost seem to be more hungrier when you play like that.”

 

Brockers has been the playoffs just once, last year, in his seven seasons in the NFL. He’s had a season where the Rams didn’t win more games in an entire year than the current version has won in four weeks. He was drafted to the Rams in 2012 immediately after a five-year run when the team won three or fewer games four times.

 

But this Rams team is not those Rams teams. Brockers certainly knows the talent the Rams have on their roster this year. But the Super Bowl isn’t won by Week Five of the NFL season and the Rams have a long way to go.

 

“Being hunted, I don’t think that bothers us,” Brockers said. “Because we’ve been underdogs for so long, so our mentality isn’t even that we’re that good. We’ve won some games, but we know we can get better.”

 

 

SEATTLE

Joel Corey of CBSSports.com looks at ramifications of the injury to S EARL THOMAS:

 

Earl Thomas’ worst fears were realized against the Cardinals on Sunday: a season-ending injury during his contract year. The Seahawks safety fractured his left leg in the fourth quarter, and Seattle has placed him on injured reserve. A similar break to Thomas’ lower left leg in 2016 sidelined him 11 games into the season.

 

Thomas’ injury effectively ends any realistic possibility of Seattle dealing him before the Oct. 30 trading deadline. Discussions between the Seahawks and Chiefs had progressed, according to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, after Seattle lowered its asking price for Thomas to a second-round pick. The Seahawks had reportedly rebuffed the Cowboys’ efforts to acquire Thomas prior to their Week 3 game.

 

Thomas had emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after ending his holdout a few days before the regular season started because his “pay me or trade me” ultimatum to the Seahawks fell on deaf ears. He is tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions.

 

The break is expected to close the chapter on the Seahawks’ portion of the five-time All-Pro’s career, although he can be designated as a franchise player in 2019. It would cost Seattle $12.48 million to use the designation on him, which is 120 percent of his current $10.4 million salary cap number. Thomas is in the final year of a four-year contract extension signed in 2014 averaging $10 million per year, which made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety at the time.

 

Teams are more willing to gamble on injured players

An injury-plagued year or with a season-ending injury in a contract year used to be the kiss of death for most players entering free agency. A one year “prove it” deal or a below-market long-term contract were almost a certainty.

 

Teams aren’t penalizing injured players on the open market as severely anymore. The Panthers raised a lot of eyebrows by signing left tackle Matt Kalil to five-year, $55.5 million contract with $25 million in guarantees, of which $24 million was fully guaranteed at signing, as a free agent in 2017. He got the deal after missing most of the 2016 season, his final one with the Vikings who drafted him, because of a hip problem and regression since being named a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie in 2012. The way Kalil’s contract is structured practically ensures he should see at least the first three years, although he performed poorly in 2017 and is currently on injured reserve after preseason surgery on his right knee. There are adverse salary cap consequences for releasing Kalil prior to the 2020 season.

 

The Bears gave wide receiver Allen Robinson a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million in guarantees despite him tearing the ACL in his left knee during the Jaguars’ 2017 season opener. Robinson was coming off a disappointing 2016 campaign which could have been partially attributed to quarterback Blake Bortles’ struggles. In 2015, Robinson became the first Jaguars player to top 1,000 receiving yards (1,400) since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He also led the NFL with 31 catches of 20 or more yards.

 

Thomas should have a clean bill of health or close to it when free agency starts next March. Kalil and Robinson, whose injures were more serious than Thomas’, were going to be 27 and 25, respectively, for their first season under their new contracts. Although Thomas turns 30 before the 2019 season starts, he was playing at a much higher level than either Kalil or Robinson were before their injuries. Thomas was arguably the NFL’s best safety during the first quarter of the season.

 

What Thomas’ next contract will look like

The injury is unlikely to change Thomas’ asking price during the offseason. Thomas is expected to try to reclaim his place at the top of the safety pay scale. Eric Berry is the current benchmark with the six-year, $78 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees he received from the Chiefs in 2017. He was 28 when he signed the deal and has yet to return from the torn Achilles he suffered in Kansas City’s 2017 regular-season opener.

 

The safety market was extremely soft this year. Eric Reid’s significant role in the national anthem protests were a contributing factor in him still being available until he signed with the Panthers last week. Reid filed a grievance against the NFL in early May alleging collusion because of his lack of employment. Tre Boston, who intercepted five passes last season, and Kenny Vaccaro, a starter in 67 of the 68 NFL games he had played prior to this season, didn’t find work until the end of July and early August. There has been speculation that Boston and Vaccaro were collateral damage of the Reid saga. All three signed one year deals with a base value that didn’t exceed $1.5 million.

 

The 2019 safety market shouldn’t suffer the same fate. A higher caliber of players should be available. In addition to Thomas, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Packers), Landon Collins (Giants), Lamarcus Joyner (Rams) and Tyrann Mathieu (Texans) could hit the open market. Collins may be best candidate for a franchise tag out of any of the safeties since the Giants made Odell Beckham, Jr. the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver during the preseason. The Rams franchised Joyner this year for $11.287 million. A second franchise tag with the Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent increase will be $13,544,400.

 

Thomas’ next contract may be affected more structurally than financially, despite his age, with teams beginning to take a more enlightened approach toward injured free agents. Topping Berry’s $40 million in overall guarantees seems less likely than his $13 million average yearly salary. A three- or four-year contract bettering the latter wouldn’t be surprising. Berry had $25 million fully guaranteed at signing. Thomas’ first two contract years being completely secure doesn’t seem like a stretch either.

 

A case can be made that Thomas is the best safety of the current generation of players. Bill Belichick heaped high praise on Thomas during the middle of the 2016 season by calling him an Ed Reed type because of his instincts, range, ball skills and anticipation. He considers Reed the best free safety he’s seen during his NFL days, which date back to 1975.

 

There shouldn’t be a sharp decline with Thomas in at least the first two years of his contract if there’s any validity to the Reed comparison. Reed, a potential first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2019, earned All-Pro honors during his first four seasons in his thirties and led the NFL in interceptions as a 30 and 32 year old. Thomas would be 33 when his contract expired if he signed for four years.

 

Where will Thomas end up?

It’s widely known that Thomas’ preference is to play for the Cowboys. The Texas native created a bit of a stir by lobbying Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett to either trade for him or sign him if he ever hits free agency after a game between the two teams late last season. Thomas had a great audition this season against Dallas by picking off two of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott passes. Kris Richard, who was Seattle’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons, is the Cowboys’ secondary coach.

 

The Cowboys have taken a conservative approach to free agency in recent years, although a run was made at wide receiver Sammy Watkins this offseason before he signed a three-year, $48 million contract with the Chiefs containing $30 million fully guaranteed. Their last big free agent signing was cornerback Brandon Carr in 2012. He received a five-year, $50.1 million contract with $26.5 million in guarantees, and $25.5 million was fully guaranteed at signing. The deal made Carr, who’s never been to the Pro Bowl or earned All-Pro honors, the NFL’s fourth-highest-paid cornerback by average yearly salary.

 

Dallas is projected to have approximately $45 million of salary cap room next year, assuming the 2019 salary cap is set in the $190 million neighborhood. This is using offseason cap accounting rules where only the top 51 cap numbers matter and includes a second franchise tag for defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who is currently leading the NFL in sacks, at $20,571,600. Although Thomas wants to be in Dallas, the Cowboys dragging their feet in free agency or not making an offer that’s competitive with other teams could prompt him to sign elsewhere.

 

Andrew Brandt has sympathy for Seahawks management’s handling of the situation:

 

I understand Thomas’s frustration, feeling that he should have drawn some future reward for all he’s done for the team. Having been on the team side, however, I understand the Seahawks position, as cold as it may seem.

 

I dealt with this a few times with the Packers, where veterans made it known, subtly or not so subtly, that they wanted a contract extension. And, for whatever reasons, we did not agree. It is one of a team executive’s hardest jobs—managing the waning years of a player who has sacrificed greatly for the organization. I had to be as professional and tactful as possible in relaying to the agent that we simply did not want to go forward with a contract extension.

 

The Seahawks wanted Thomas on the team this last year of his contract. They did not, however, want to extend him. And they were willing to live with the uneasiness and rumbles of discontent in order to have his value for 2018. And now 2018 has ended in frustration and injury for Thomas.

 

I am honestly not sure what else could have been done with Thomas other than a parting of ways through trade or release, something the Seahawks did not want to do. The business of football is a cold one. Even for the best of the best, it rarely ends well.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

P MARQUETTE KING may have worn out his welcome, and his groin, in Denver.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Marquette King could soon be able to add the Broncos to the teams he loves to hate, along with the Raiders.

 

King, who signed with Oakland’s AFC West rival after being cut by new Raiders coach Jon Gruden, could soon be cut by the Broncos. Mike Klis of 9News.com reports that the Broncos may elevate Colby Wadman from the practice squad to the active roster for Sunday’s game against the Jets.

 

King missed practice on Wednesday with a groin injury. If he can’t practice the next two days, Wadman likely will get the nod. Even if King can practice, the Broncos may decide to go with Wadman, who has never kicked in a preseason or regular-season game.

 

Either way, Broncos coach Vance Joseph doesn’t seem to be inclined to cut King slack because he’s injured.

 

“I’m not sure because it happened on gameday,” Joseph told reporters regarding whether the injury affected King’s punting on Monday night against the Chiefs. “I think after the last punt he felt something. I would say no, it has not.”

 

King signed a three-year, $6 million contract with the Broncos. His $1.5 million base salary for 2018 is fully guaranteed. He also received a $500,000 signing bonus.

 

 

KANSAS CITY

WR SAMMY WADKINS couldn’t finish Monday night’s game with a hamstring issue, but he did practice on Wednesday on a limited basis and may play against Jacksonville on Sunday.

 

 

THE RAIDERS

It looks like Alameda County is going to kick the Raiders out of Oakland at the end of 2018.  And it looks like their new palace on the Vegas Strip won’t be ready for them until 2020.  So where will they play in ’19?  Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal shoots down the home of UNLV:

 

The Raiders remain bound for Las Vegas when — not before — a new stadium is constructed there.

 

Sam Boyd Stadium is not considered a contingency site for home games in 2019 should the franchise’s lease with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum not be extended, a person familiar with the situation said Wednesday. The lease is due to expire after this season.

 

Since early 2017, club officials have expressed a strong desire to stay in Oakland until their scheduled 2020 relocation to Las Vegas. Despite threats from Oakland to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league and team, the Raiders’ timeline to Southern Nevada has not accelerated.

 

Reluctantly, contingency sites are being considered. None is in Las Vegas.

 

On Aug. 30, owner Mark Davis addressed the uncertainty that surrounds next season.

 

“It’s in our minds, but it’s really in the back of our minds right now,” Davis said. “We’re really concerned about 2018. Obviously, 2019 won’t be in Las Vegas, but it may have to be somewhere.”

 

That sets Mike Florio’s head to whirling:

 

So where will the Raiders play in 2019, if they’ll no longer be playing in Oakland? The most sensible option would be to play at Levi’s Stadium, but the stubbornness of the 49ers and Raiders may prevent that from happening. San Antonio has expressed interest in hosting the Raiders, and there’s still an NFL-caliber stadium in San Diego.

 

Los Angeles would be an intriguing option, but the Rams and Chargers surely wouldn’t be interested in having the Raiders infringe on their turf for a season, even if a viable location for playing the Raiders’ home games could be found in that market.

 

“It’s in our minds, but it’s really in the back of our minds right now,” owner Mark Davis said in late August. “We’re really concerned about 2018. Obviously, 2019 won’t be in Las Vegas, but it may have to be somewhere.”

 

Yes, it will indeed have to be somewhere, especially if Oakland ends up not being that somewhere a year earlier than anticipated.

 

Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego?  Plenty of Raiders fans found their way there when the Chargers played there.

 

Would Reno make any sense?

 

And, do we know for sure the name of the team once it moves?  Will they be the conventional Las Vegas Raiders?  Or drop the “Las” like the hockey team?  The Vegas Silver Raiders has a certain symmetry with the Vegas Golden Knights.

– – –

The Raiders have parked T DONALD PENN on IR with a groin injury.  They are hopeful he can return before the season is out.

 

BRANDON PARKER, a third round rookie, will take his spot on the right side Sunday at the Chargers.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Jon Gruden says that he really, really wanted to draft S DERWIN JAMES, but draft decisions before he got there made it untenable.  Herbie Teope of NFL.com:

 

From this guy to that guy, viewers who watched Jon Gruden in the broadcast booth over the past decade know he won’t hold back on compliments.

 

Gruden, now once again the head coach for the Oakland Raiders, often lavished on-air praise on football players and pointed out which impact players could play for him.

 

Gruden’s penchant for heaping accolades has carried over to his return to the sidelines and he didn’t hold back Wednesday on Los Angeles Chargers rookie safety Derwin James.

 

“We wanted to take Derwin James,” Gruden said in a teleconference with Chargers beat reporters. “Everybody wanted Derwin James.”

 

The Raiders owned the 15th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and had the opportunity to take James, who eventually went to the Chargers two picks later.

 

Gruden, however, pointed out an obstacle entering the 2018 draft, as the Raiders previously used a first-round pick on safety Karl Joseph in 2016 and a second-round pick on safety Obi Melifonwu in 2017. The two selections in consecutive years made it difficult for Gruden to justify using a high pick on another safety and the Raiders ended up going with offensive tackle Kolton Miller.

 

Nevertheless, Gruden knows what kind of player the Chargers have and compared James’ versatile skill set to Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and Rodney Harrison.

 

“He’s an intimidating player, he is a physical presence,” Gruden told reporters. “I think he’s got range to play deep, he’s got coverage ability. He can run through you, he can run around you, he can run right over you. He is a dynamite young player and he’ll be one of the building blocks in L.A. for a long time for the Chargers.”

 

The Raiders’ loss is certainly the Chargers’ gain, and it is easy to see why Gruden fell in love with the young safety.

 

James, whom some draft analysts and prognosticators pegged as the top safety of the 2018 draft class, has quickly asserted himself as one of the league’s top defensive rookies.

 

Through four games, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound James leads the Chargers’ defense in tackles (26), sacks (three) and passes defensed (six).

 

Gruden will see James up close twice a year given the AFC West roots, starting Sunday when the Raiders travel to Los Angeles to play the Chargers.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

JACKSONVILLE

The Jaguars have declared RB LEONARD FOURNETTE to be out of Sunday’s big game in Kansas City with his lingering hamstring problem.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

We’re not sure if this means you should play him on your Fantasy team, but Adam Schefter’s secret sources are saying that TE ROB GRONKOWSKI is “expected” to play tonight against the Colts despite a pesky ankle injury.

– – –

Terez Paylor of YahooSports.com on the coming out party of RB SONY MICHEL:

 

Prior to the New England Patriots’ 38-7 dismantling of the Miami Dolphins, there was plenty gnashing of teeth in the greater Northeast about an offense that uncharacteristically ranked 25th in the NFL entering the contest.

 

But while many have chosen to focus on the lack of speed at receiver — which prompted a trade for trouble-but-talented Josh Gordon and a hero’s welcome for Julian Edelman this week — one of the Patriots’ issues has been the void created by the offseason departure of running back Dion Lewis.

 

Lewis, who signed this offseason with the Tennessee Titans, is one of the league’s most elusive running backs, someone who was adept at turning a 1-yard gain into 4. Given the Patriots’ reliance on short passes, this came in handy but it also gave New England some playmaking on general running plays.

 

That’s where rookie running back Sony Michel comes in. Michel rushed 26 times for 112 yards in the win against the Dolphins, and this guy’s juice — his elusiveness and big-play ability — has a chance to really help this team.

 

Take his 23-yard run, for instance.

 

I love the design of this lead play. The right guard, Shaq Mason (No. 69), picked up the stunting lineman and used his momentum to drive him out of the hole while fullback James Develin (No. 46) led through the hole and wiped out the linebacker, leaving Michel in a one-on-one situation vs. the safety. In the NFL, running backs are expected to make a defender miss with this much cushion, but what they don’t always do is avoid linebackers. In this case, one closed in to Michel’s left. But Michel is so quick, he split the two of them and picked up an extra 20 yards.

 

If Michel can do this consistently, defenses will have to start dropping an extra defender closer to the box in certain situations. That will open things up more for quarterback Tom Brady and a passing game that will likely have another top-10 finish.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

KAEP

Kanye West, one of few Americans trying to straddle both sides of the cultural divide, thinks he can arrange a summit meeting between the American president and the leader of the forces of social justice.  ESPN.com:

 

Colin Kaepernick, meet President Donald Trump. At least, that’s what rapper Kanye West would want.

 

West doubled his efforts Wednesday for the two to get together by tweeting that the former NFL quarterback, whose protests of racial injustice during the national anthem sparked a movement across the NFL, should have a “dialogue” with perhaps his most vehement critic.

 

@kanyewest

 reaching out to Colin Kaepernick. I would like you to speak with the president to tell him your experience directly. Let’s have a dialogue not a diatribe.

 

West first discussed the idea in a televised interview earlier this week.

 

As of Wednesday night, Kaepernick hadn’t replied.

 

In September, Nike launched a new ad campaign featuring Kaepernick with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

 

Trump said the ad was “a terrible message.”

 

The president has been critical of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest against social injustice, and he has frequently called out the league and commissioner Roger Goodell for their inability to curtail the practice. At a rally in Alabama a year ago, Trump said owners should fire players who kneel during the anthem, adding “get that son of a bitch off the field.”