The Daily Briefing Wednesday, August 29, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Former NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez is not a fan of DeMaurice Smith, the lawyer who heads the NFLPA. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez does not believe today’s NFL players are getting good representation from their union.
Gonzalez said on FS1 that NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith is not doing a good job of leading the union because he does not understand what NFL players really need.
“I do believe that the person in that position should be somebody who played in the NFL,” Gonzalez said. “Somebody who understands what the players are going through because they did it before. That was something that I never liked about DeMaurice.”
Regarding the NFL’s ongoing talks with the NFLPA about a revised national anthem rule, Gonzalez said he believes former NFLPA head Gene Upshaw, who was a Hall of Fame player, would have been able to agree with former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue about a rule that everyone could live with.
“The knock against Gene Upshaw was that he was in Tagliabue’s pocket. Everybody said they’re too close to each other. These two guys, DeMaurice and Roger Goodell they can’t stand each other,” Gonzalez said. “These guys are getting paid a lot of money to go into that room and come up with a solution that’s going to be great for everybody. Everybody’s got to concede. That’s just how it goes. Anybody who thinks they’re going to get the whole enchilada, it doesn’t make sense. You should not think that way because that’s how progress gets stalled. These guys should have gone in that room, it should be over and done with now, everybody concedes, everybody gives, everybody takes, and let’s get back to the game of football. DeMaurice has not been able to do that. I have not seen that.”
Gonzalez proposed former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita as someone who could lead the NFL Players Association.
Sports players’ unions have often been led by non-players. The current executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, Tony Clark, is a former player, but he’s the first former player to head the union. The head of the National Basketball Association Players’ Association, Michele Roberts, didn’t play pro sports. Neither did Donald Fehr, who is currently executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association and previously spent 25 years heading the baseball union. So Smith is far from alone in lacking the experience that Gonzalez thinks is essential.
QB KIRK COUSINS did not take the most money when he signed up with the Vikings. Shalise Manza Young of YahooSports.com:
Right around the time free agency began, Kirk Cousins told ESPN that he’d decided to have a camera crew follow him around to document the free agency process.
Part One of the end product of that partnership is now online, and it reveals interesting bits of information, namely that Cousins had a bigger offer on the table from another team and decided to sign with the Minnesota Vikings instead.
Three years, $90 million
The video opens on March 2, 12 days before free agency begins, with Cousins calling Mike McCartney, and asking the agent to walk him through the process of what can happen and when.
McCartney says the pair have done a lot of research on quarterback-needy teams, and adds, “Minnesota and Arizona maybe are a little above the Jets and Broncos.”
On March 12, the day the “legal tampering” window opens, Cousins is on the phone with McCartney again. When he hangs up, he tells his wife, Julie, that the Jets have upped their offer: three years, $30 million per year, fully guaranteed.
Her eyes wide, Julie says, “Whoa.”
At the time, the Vikings were at $25 million per year. With the increased offer from New York, Kirk explains to Julie, McCartney can go back to Minnesota to get them to close that gap.
Talking to the camera, Cousins explains that money is important, but the structure is more important: “We want the money to be guaranteed. My preference would be to get a fully guaranteed contract or do one-year deals,” he said.
Cousins agreed to a three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings, or $28 million per year. In the documentary, he says he feels like Minnesota is a good fit, and while the contract is relatively short, it’s a move made with long-term implications in mind.
Lots of voicemail
The funnest moment of the 14-minute video is near the end. Cousins, with McCartney, has decided to agree to the deal with Minnesota and calls his wife to tell her the news.
Then he tries his mother.
A third attempt is made to share his great news when Cousins calls his sister. But, he explains, she’s a doctor and is likely busy. Sure enough, Karalyne Cousins’ phone goes straight to voicemail too.
We hear a voice off-camera suggest that Kirk try James, the friendly AAA agent he was speaking to a few days earlier; James realized he was talking to an NFL quarterback and told Cousins to get his money but remain humble and win a Super Bowl.
So Cousins calls James, and we’re left to believe that before anyone in his immediate family knew Cousins had signed the richest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history, James from AAA knew he’d agreed with the Vikings.
Living in the basement
During this time, Cousins, his wife and their son are living in the basement of Julie Cousins’ parents’ home outside Atlanta.
“Even though I’m from Michigan, I hate cold weather,” Kirk says, which makes you wonder if he knows what winter is like in Minneapolis.
He doesn’t explain exactly how the young family ended up as basement-dwellers. “Almost on accident we ended up moving in with my in-laws. We weren’t planning on it, but it happened,” Cousins said. “We spent some money to remodel my in-laws’ basement so that we could have our own apartment down there, and so we have our space in the basement. We’ve got our little life down here.”
The situation seems to work. Cousins plays catch with his 64-year-old father-in-law, Michael Hampton, in the backyard. Cousins explains that a major league pitcher told him to never let his arm rest, for fear that stiffness could set in.
“Made him into a pretty good receiver,” Cousins said. “It’s a little silly and goofy to be living with your in-laws, but it works out.”
G ZACK MARTIN appears to be in line to start the opener at Carolina. Todd Archer of ESPN.com on his return to practice:
– Last week Zack Martin said he would play in the Sept. 9 season opener against the Carolina Panthers. On Tuesday there was proof with the Pro Bowl right guard returning to practice for the first time since getting hurt Aug. 18.
Martin suffered a hyperextended and bruised left knee in the first half of the Cowboys’ preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals. An MRI revealed there was no structural damage to his knee, only a bruise.
Last week, Martin went through conditioning work and individual drills in full pads. He is not wearing any kind of brace on his knee.
Like the rest of the starters, he will not play in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Houston Texans.
“I don’t really want to go an extended period of time without being out there,” Martin said. “You get in such a routine with training camp and if you’re out a certain amount of time you can lose it pretty quickly, so I wanted to make sure I got out there and get the reps to stay sharp for the opener.”
Martin said he felt “great,” during practice and does not anticipate any soreness Wednesday.
“I’m ready to roll,” he said.
– – –
How much does Jerry Jones value another Super Bowl win? Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Cowboys are 184-168 since their last Super Bowl title in 1995. They have only nine postseason appearances and no NFC Championship Game appearances in the past 22 seasons.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who won three titles in his first seven seasons of owning the team, never expected the Super Bowl drought to last this long.
Jones said Tuesday he would pay anything for his fourth Lombardi Trophy and the franchise’s sixth.
“It would be embarrassing,” Jones said on his weekly radio show on 105.3 The Fan. “It would be shocking if you knew the size of the check I would write if it guaranteed me a Super Bowl. And it would be obscene. There’s nothing that I would not do financially to get a Super Bowl. So, that’s a given. That’s a real given.”
Jones, though, likely wouldn’t give up his G.M. title for another championship, and he said in a new book, Big Game, that his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame isn’t for trade either. According to a story at TheRinger.com on author Mark Leibovich, who wrote the book on the NFL and its owners, Jones was asked “whether he’d trade his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for another Super Bowl ring. Jones hems and haws — he’d been drinking — and then says he wouldn’t.”
Jones tried to clarify Tuesday. Kind of. Sort of.
“Well, first of all, years ago, and you know who we’re trading with, don’t you? The man up above, because whether or not you trade that for that, there’s nobody to trade this for a Super Bowl win, or there’s nobody to trade that for a gold jacket,” Jones said on his radio show. “We’re talking about upstairs now. And years ago I wanted that third Super Bowl so bad that I said, ‘If you give me one more, I’ll never ask again.’ And so I find myself trying to re-trade that trade for the last 20-something years. So, we’ve got it in perspective of who we’re talking about right now, then I don’t have to make that trade. So, let’s just win that Super Bowl.”
We could be laughing about this in February when the Eagles once again hoist Lombardi, but the defending champs continue to give off bad vibes as the season approaches. Today we learn that WR ALSHON JEFFERY will be dead wood on the active roster for the first two games at least. Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:
Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery‘s injured shoulder will keep him out at least the first two games of the season, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports. The team, though, is expected to activate him to the 53-player roster this weekend with hopes that Jeffery can return by Week Three.
The Eagles’ first two games are against the Falcons and the Buccaneers.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said earlier Tuesday that Jeffery is “progressing well” but offered no guarantees that the receiver would return for the season opener.
Jeffery is on the physically unable to perform list and would miss six games if he remained on the list after final cutdowns Saturday.
Jeffery played through his shoulder injury last season, catching 57 passes for 789 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season with the Eagles. He had offseason surgery to repair the injury.
WR LARRY FITZGERALD is one of three Arizona sports stars who will help lay John McCain to rest in Annapolis on Sunday.
Senator John McCain, who died on Saturday at 81-years-old after battling brain cancer, will be memorialized in multiple events this week. In his adopted state of Arizona, where he lived for well over 30 years, McCain will lay in state in the state capitol on Wednesday and on Thursday, there will be a funeral service at North Phoenix Baptist Church.
Three of the biggest sports stars in recent Arizona history will be part of that service.
According to McCain’s official website, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of six individuals who will read a tribute to to McCain.
Vice President Joe Biden, former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods, Raza Development Fund president Tommy Espinoza and two of his seven children will also offer tributes or Biblical readings.
Fitzgerald has spent his entire 13-year NFL career with the Cardinals, and in that time became an admirer and friend of McCain; last Christmas, he penned a piece for Sports Illustrated explaining why he so greatly admires the statesman.
“I’m not much of a political guy, but I am fascinated with history and in particular learning about the impact war has had on so many lives,” Fitzgerald wrote. “I knew a few things about the senator just from playing in Arizona and getting to know him over the years. He is also an avid Cardinals fan and attends our games and practices from time to time, so our relationship has grown throughout my career.”
On Twitter, Fitzgerald posted a picture of himself and McCain in Washington, D.C., looking over the National Mall toward the Washington Monument.
“Rest in peace to an American hero, statesman, servant of the people, and dear friend. Godspeed Senator McCain. My prayers for Cindy and the beautiful McCain family,” he wrote.
While Fitzgerald is the only athlete doing a tribute, two other greats will serve as pallbearers: Shane Doan, who played 21 seasons in the NHL, 20 of them in Phoenix after the Winnipeg Jets moved south; and Luis Gonzalez, who spent eight years of his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Hey, we have something somewhat compelling about one of the otherwise meaningless Week 4 preseason games. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
With roster cuts looming, Robert Griffin III has one more chance to make his case to the Ravens in Thursday night’s preseason game.
That chance will come against the team that drafted him second overall in the 2012 draft, which is a twist that would work well for a novel or movie about a quarterback trying to mount a comeback. Playing Washington for the first time since being released in 2016 isn’t something that Griffin says he’s spending any extra time thinking about this week, however.
“They drafted me in 2012 and gave [me] an opportunity to play this game that I’ve dreamed of playing for most of my life,” Griffin said, via ESPN.com. “If I get that opportunity to go out there and play against them, it won’t be any more special or less special. But I’ll always know where I started.”
Griffin’s start had the makings of a fairy tale, but things quickly went the other way after a knee injury late in his rookie season. Thursday night’s outing will likely have great bearing on how many more chapters there are in his story.
From a distance, the DB wonders why Griffin did not succeed in the NFL. He combined a great arm, great speed, apparent intelligence coming in and parlayed it into a very successful statistical rookie season in 2012. 9-6 record in 15 starts, 65.6% completion percentage, 20 TDs, just 5 INTS…plus a running dimension.
Then he was mediocre in ’13 and nothing much since.
But if he did it in ’12, he could have done it thereafter. There are rumors and rumblings, but it still remains a puzzle from a distance.
The Bengals handed out big bucks to two of their defensive stalwarts on Tuesday. Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com:
While Aaron Donald awaits a new deal from the Los Angeles Rams, the Cincinnati Bengals are taking care of their two stars along the defensive line.
Cincinnati signed two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap to separate extensions on Tuesday.
Atkins agreed to a four-year extension through 2022, Atkins’ agency, SportsTrust Advisors, announced Tuesday on Twitter. Atkins’ new contract is worth $65.3 million, sources told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.
The defensive tackle receives $25.5 million in the first year and more than half of the deal ($37.5M) in the the first two years. His $16.3M yearly average is the highest annual rate signed by a 30-plus-year-old non-quarterback in NFL history.
Dunlap agreed to a three-year extension through 2021 worth $45 million, a source told Rapoport.
Atkins and Dunlap were both in the final seasons of five-year deals signed in 2013. Cincinnati selected both players in the 2010 draft (Dunlap in the second round, Atkins in the fourth).
Since entering the league, Dunlap ranks 10th in the league in sacks (64.5) and Atkins ranks 18th (61), the two making up arguably the most consistent pass-rushing duo of the decade.
As Atkins and Dunlap enter their 30s, they are surrounded by young and promising talent on Cincy’s defensive line. Atkins shares the defensive tackle position with third-year prospect Andrew Billings. Across from Dunlap is sophomore rising star Jordan Willis.
Is Atkins a Hall of Famer in waiting? Not just in waiting, but going in the first year of eligibility. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com seems to assume so in his story on the extension.
Now that Geno Atkins has signed on as a Bengal through 2022, the franchise appears to have gained its second first-ballot Pro Football Hall-of-Famer to have played most of his career, if not all, in Cincinnati.
Wide receiver A.J. Green can fall into that category next season. Atkins, 30, the game-breaking six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, is on pace to finish his 13th season in ’22 with 99 career sacks, the second most of any interior player in history and 2.5 more than the total Hall-of-Fame tackle Warren Sapp racked up in his 13 seasons.
When the Bengals played the Hall-of-Fame game in Atkins’ rookie season of 2010, then defensive line coach Jay Hayes made sure during warmups that he introduced the 6-1, 300-pound Atkins to the 6-1 John Randle, the Hall-of-Famer who played at 290 pounds and has the most career interior sacks with 137.5 while proving that shorter tackles could have a big impact.
“I remember meeting and talking and him just telling me to go out there and play balls to the wall, 100 miles per hour,” Atkins said after signing the deal that will make him the first Bengals defensive lineman to play 13 seasons.
T Anthony Munoz would be the first Bengals HOFer. Ken Anderson still waits. We kind of had Atkins more in line with Anderson, but what do we know.
RB Le’VEON BELL says he will go to work on Labor Day. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Steelers running back has not signed his franchise tender or reported to the Steelers since the deadline to sign a multi-year deal passed in July. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Bell has told some of his teammates that he will report to the team on Monday.
That’s the first day of practice for the week leading up to Pittsburgh’s Week One game against the Browns. Bell also reported six days ahead of the team’s first game in 2017, although he came in to take a physical a few days before that practice. There’s no word on if his plans are similar on that front as well.
When Bell reports, the Steelers will have a roster exemption for up to two weeks for the running back. Bell played in Week One last year despite missing out on offseason work, training camp and the preseason.
THIS AND THAT
Kate Mara is both an actress and an NFL heir. She’s all in with using the National Anthem to fight social injustice, or is it fight for social justice. Elizabeth Taylor, yes Elizabeth Taylor, of Variety:
Kate Mara is speaking out in support of NFL players who choose to kneel during the national anthem.
“I believe everybody has a constitutional right to stand, or kneel or sit during the national anthem,” the “Pose” actress tells Variety. “So, I stand by the player’s decision whatever that might be.”
While Mara has made a name for herself as an actress in both television and film, her family also happens to co-own the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants. She is a great-granddaughter of both Giants founder Tim Mara and Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr.
Her words of support for players protesting during the anthem come on the heels of her uncle and Giants co-owner John Mara’s involvement in helping shape the NFL’s controversial new policy to fine teams if their players kneel during the anthem.
“I think certainly we all hope that our players stand for the anthem this year,” John Mara said during an interview in May with Sirius XM Radio. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Controversy aside, Kate Mara was on hand on Thursday night at New York City’s the Blond for AT&T’s party to celebrate the 25th season of NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV.
Bob Costas has been with NBC for nearly 40 years, but with a vastly diminished role, maybe not much longer. It sounds like he’s itching for a forum where he can wax more political and rise in opposition to the current NFL. Andrew Marchand of the New York Post:
In the history of sportscasting, no broadcaster has probably been more associated with one network than Bob Costas and NBC.
Now, after nearly four decades in which Costas has been the lead announcer on Olympics, World Series, Super Bowls and late-night talk shows, Costas and NBC are in discussions to end the relationship, sources have told The Post.
If a deal can be struck, it would mean finishing Costas’ current multi-million contract three years early as it is goes through 2021, according to a source. The contract calls for exclusivity for NBC, besides the work Costas does for MLB Network.
When contacted, Costas initially declined comment on the talks, saying he couldn’t confirm or deny the discussions. He then relented and went on to say that there were no hard feelings on either side, but with his decision to stop doing the Olympics and with his antipathy toward football, it may be time for a change.
Costas wants to pursue a journalism show that would feature interviews, commentaries and a critical look at the world of sports and perhaps other topics. NBC rarely utilizes Costas on-air after he stepped away from his last major roles on the Olympics and the NFL.
“Sometimes you get to a point where it is not a fit anymore,” Costas said. “It doesn’t mean that anyone is angry or upset.”
NBC declined comment.
Both sides are willing to talk about the terms that could lead to a buyout.
As it stands now, NBC is paying Costas seven figures per year in a “Tom Brokaw-like” emeritus role to pitch in when needed. In the last couple of years, he has only been on the air sparingly for perspectives on news events like the deaths of Muhammad Ali and colleague Dick Enberg, as well as a few minutes during the Triple Crown races.
While Costas does not have a prominent on-air role with the network, he is still associated closely with NBC because of their longtime history and his legendary status.
Costas has always stood out among sports network anchors for his willingness to speak strongly on the issues, even on the events NBC is covering. Costas ended up not hosting last February’s Super Bowl after saying football “destroys people’s brains.”
With NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” contract running through the 2022 season, Costas’ commentaries — even off NBC’s air — could be more of a liability than an asset in retaining its NFL package. The two sides could agree to allow Costas to do other projects, while remaining a part of NBC, but that does not seem to make sense for either.
Costas’ agent, Sandy Montag, and NBC executives already have exchanged ideas and have meetings planned in the near future for what could lead to a potential buyout. Either way, Costas will continue his work with MLB Network.
Both sides have some leverage in the negotiations. Costas, 66, is owed a good deal of money and could simply collect checks, if he so pleased, while NBC could prevent Costas from finishing off his career in the fashion he prefers.
Costas declined to say where a possible new show could be housed. Platforms like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon and others are often in play for the type of program Costas is trying to create.
“It is gratifying that there are a number of places that are anxious to do the sort of thing that I was seldom able to do over the last several years at NBC,” Costas said.
Costas added he would like to do “thoughtful discussions, reasonable commentaries and essays.” These have all been hallmarks of his time with NBC and HBO when he was the preeminent sportscaster of his prime.
There was a time when Costas thought he may be a one-broadcast-network guy, but that seldom, if ever, happens now in any entertainment or news genre. Still, Costas is probably more closely associated with NBC than Howard Cosell, Jim McKay and Keith Jackson were with ABC or Chris Berman with ESPN or Joe Buck is with Fox.
But as accomplished as all of these sportscasters were — or are, in the case of Buck — none have had the range of Costas, hosting the Olympics and the Super Bowl, calling the play-by-play of the World Series and having a late-night talk show.
Since 1979, Costas did it all at NBC. Soon, that relationship will likely end.
Bob Costas called play-by-play in the World Series? Yes he did. There is a Wikipedia page for just about everything:
FANTASY RUNNING BACK SLEEPERS
Mike Lutovsky of The Sporting News offers some names to throw out at running back late in your draft.
This year we’re highlighting most key rookies not named Saquon Barkley, plus looking at some second-year backs who were on people’s radars at various points last year. We don’t have many veterans because who cares about veteran running backs? This is a young man’s game, and we treat it thusly. If Doug Martin has a huge year, then we’ll pat him on the back and move on. We’re not going to feel bad about omitting him from this list, trust me.
Some of the guys we highlight not play much at all this year; others might emerge late in the season, well after you’ve dropped them. That’s how it works. We’re all just grasping at straws and hoping for the best. All you can do is stay on top of things and give yourself options. Just knowing these guys exist is half the battle.
2018 Fantasy Football Sleepers: Running backs
Rashaad Penny, Seahawks. Penny put up huge numbers his senior season at San Diego State, rushing for 2,248 yards and 23 TDs. The Seahawks used the 27th-overall pick on him and have been raving about his skill set ever since. Fantasy owners are wary of trusting Seattle RBs, but if Penny can maintain even a steady two-down role, he should reward owners with a solid season. The 5-11, 220-pound rookie is unlikely to do much as a pass-catcher, but we know Seattle wants to run the ball, and Penny has the goods to deliver even behind a suspect offensive line. Chris Carson could also be a sleeper pick if he wins the starting job to begin the year, but it seems likely that Penny will take the lead back role before the season ends. (UPDATE: Penny is dealing with a broken finger that will likely keep him out for the rest of the preseason. While he may be ready for Week 1, he might have trouble overtaking Carson early in the season. So, that’s a stock up for Carson who will have the first chance to win the starting job.)
Ronald Jones II, Buccaneers. Jones seems destined to emerge from the Peyton Barber/Charles Sims/Jacquizz Rodgers logjam and see regular touches relatively early in the season. He ran for at least 987 yards in all three seasons at USC, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring 42 total touchdowns. At 5-11, 208 pounds, Jones has decent size and should be able to handle 15-plus touches per game. He’s unlikely to do much as a receiver, but he’ll still have value.
Royce Freeman, Broncos. Freeman has good size (6-0, 229 pounds) and could immediately step in as Denver’s goal-line back. He scored 64 total TDs (plus one passing) in his four-year career at Oregon, going for at least 16 rushing touchdowns in three of four seasons. Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson both will be involved in Denver’s backfield — and both also have some sleeper appeal — but it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Freeman breaks through to become the lead back early in the season. If nothing else, he’ll likely have value most weeks as a TD-or-bust guy in standard league.
Samaje Perine, Redskins. In the wake of Derrius Guice’s season-ending ACL tear, the Redskins are going to need someone to step up in their backfield. That could be Perine. The second-year man from Oklahoma had a couple of 100-yard games as a rookie and has pretty good vision. It’s also notable that most of his action last season came behind a makeshift offensive line that was dealing with injuries. Perine may not have the same playmaking ability as Guice, but he is probably going to win the lead back role as the offseason goes along. (UPDATE: Adrian Peterson is now the favorite for the lead-back role to open the season, but Perine still looms as a potential sleeper later in the year.)
Kerryon Johnson, Lions. The Lions traded up to get Johnson in the second round of this year’s draft, so it’s clear they valued him, but after also signing LeGarrette Blount in the offseason, Johnson’s role is TBD. Last season’s SEC Offensive Player of the Year ran for 1,391 yards and scored 20 total TDs, and at 6-0, 213 pounds, he should be big enough to handle a feature back role if given one. But with Blount still dangerous near the goal line and Theo Riddick returning as a top receiving back, Johnson will have to earn a bigger role. If he does, he could be the lead back Detroit has seemingly been searching for since Barry Sanders retired.
Sony Michel, Patriots. We’re all just guessing when it comes to the Patriots (except for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski). Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, and James White are still in the Pats backfield, but after drafting Michel in the first round this year, it would appear he’s in prime position to eventually take over “lead back” duties (if there is such a thing in New England). The 5-11, 214-pound rookie averaged 7.9 yards per carry while scoring 16 TDs his senior season at Georgia, and for his career, he averaged 6.1 ypc while proving to be a capable receiver. The skill set is there, but opportunities might be inconsistent, especially with White seemingly locked into the “receiving back” role and Burkhead likely handling things around the goal line.
D’Onta Foreman, Texans. If healthy, there’s a good chance Foreman will take over as Houston’s lead back at some point this season. The “if healthy” part is the key, as Foreman ruptured his Achilles’ in Week 11 last year. His status for training camp is still up in the air. Foreman looked good before his injury last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and scoring twice in the game in which he was injured. He likely won’t be used much in the receiving game, but as a pure runner, a healthy Foreman figures to be more effective than Lamar Miller and have plenty of value in Houston’s dynamic offensive attack. (UPDATE: Foreman is likely to start the season on the PUP list and will miss the first six games if that happens. Still, Foreman carries value as a late-round stash or as a waiver wire pickup after the first month of the season.)
Corey Clement, Eagles. Clement played well in limited duty last season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 12.3 yards per reception. He could easily slide into the “Darren Sproles” role (even though Sproles is healthy and back with the Eagles) and should also get more carries with LeGarrette Blount gone. Considering Blount ran 173 times last year (including 31 times inside the red zone), Clement’s ceiling is higher than you might think, especially when you remember that Jay Ajayi is far from a sure thing as the “lead back.”
Matt Breida, 49ers. Jerick McKinnon is being paid like “The Man” in San Francisco, but Breida shouldn’t be overlooked. He finished last season with back-to-back solid games, running for 146 yards and a score on only 23 carries. He’ll undoubtedly play behind McKinnon early in the season, but we know that a Kyle Shanahan offense can support two relevant fantasy backs, as we saw with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta. Fellow second-year runner Joe Williams, who missed all of last season due to an ankle injury, will also be in the mix for touches, but if Breida can maintain his lock on the No. 2 role early in the season, he could be poised for big things later on.
Chris Ivory, Bills. We really wish we had more foresight and could figure out a better sleeper candidate than Ivory if LeSean McCoy winds up facing a lengthy suspension (which absolutely could happen). But the 30-year-old Ivory is the current handcuff in Buffalo, and none of the other current backups (Taiwan Jones, Marcus Murphy and Travaris Cadet) have run for even 100 yards in a season. Could it be rookie Keith Ford? Maybe, but now we’re just throwing darts. Ivory ran for over 1,000 yards with the Jets in 2015, but in the two seasons since with Jacksonville, he managed only 821 yards while averaging 3.8 and 3.4 yards per carry, respectively. Because of his potential as a “starting running back,” Ivory has some value, but this situation could get weird fast if McCoy is suspended.
Nick Chubb, Browns. Chubb was a monster right from the start in college, but a knee injury suffered as a sophomore slowed him down, and sharing the backfield with Sony Michel also limited his overall numbers. Still, he finished his four-year career at UGA with 4,769 rushing yards, 48 total TDs, and a 6.3 yards-per-carry average. He’ll be in a committee to start his pro career in Cleveland, where Carlos Hyde figures to see early-down work and Duke Johnson Jr. will get the call on passing downs. Chubb will get chance to earn playing time, though, and the 35th-overall pick could overtake Hyde at some point this season. If nothing else, he’ll be a valuable handcuff.
Aaron Jones, Packers. Jones averaged 5.5 yards per carry and posted two 100-yard games as a rookie last year, but a knee injury suffered in Week 10 halted his momentum. The Packers crowded backfield (Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery) combined with Jones missing the first two games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy has his ADP lower than it should be. It’s tough to predict what will happen in Green Bay’s backfield, but Jones has as good of a chance as anyone of emerging after Week 2. Take advantage and stash him.
Bilal Powell, Jets. Originally we had Elijah McGuire as the top sleeper option for the Jets, but a fractured foot could sideline him for the start of the season. With McGuire out of the mix for the time being, Powell will reestablish the primary receiving back in the Jets offense and will be the primary handcuff to Isaiah Crowell. Considering that Powell ran for over 700 yards last year and scored five times, he’s worth adding as he could make an impact if Crowell is slow out of the gate.
Jordan Wilkins/Nyheim Hines, Colts. This might be a new “Thunder-and-Lightning” duo. Wilkins (6-1, 217 pounds) ran for 1,011 yards and nine TDs in his final season at Ole Miss, while Hines (5-9, 197 pounds) posted 1,113 yards and 12 TDs in his final season at NC State. Hines also proved to be an adept pass-catcher, totaling 89 receptions in his three-year college career. With Marlon Mack and Robert Turbin returning as Indy’s top two options at RB, there’s a good chance Wilkins and/or Hines will get a chance to earn playing time at some point this year. Obviously, Wilkins profiles as more of a “lead back”, but as we saw last year with Tarik Cohen, sometimes the receiving backs like Hines get a chance to shine earlier in the season. Both are worth stashing if you have the roster space.
Kalen Ballage, Dolphins. Ballage will start the year behind last year’s breakout Kenyan Drake and ageless wonder Frank Gore, but the 6-3, 230-pound bruiser could be at least a goal-line back sooner rather than later. He didn’t really impress as a runner at Arizona State (4.4 yards per carry), but he was actually a solid receiver, catching 44 balls his junior season. If given the chance, Ballage could be a valuable fantasy contributor.
BILL BARNWELL’S NAMES TO WATCH
The NFL is on the cusp of a fascinating campaign. These are the people in and around the league who will drive the conversations of 2018.
They’re not necessarily the most skilled or important players, coaches and executives, but for one reason or another, I think we’ll either be talking about them or noticing how they influence the upcoming season. I’ve split them into several unordered groups, starting with the folks who have the most riding on the season.
Group I: The Now-or-Nevers
These are the people around the league who have more to gain or lose than just about anyone else over the next six months — for all kinds of reasons.
1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
I think we’re underrating Bell’s MVP (or Offensive Player of the Year) chances heading into the season.
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A healthy Bell with a heavy workload and a few more big plays should be enough to produce a career year. Running backs are always at a disadvantage against quarterbacks in award races, but Bell could be uniquely positioned to exceed even lofty expectations in 2018.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans
In the paradox that was the 2017 Titans season, Mariota was a microcosm of Tennessee’s stunted growth. The former second overall pick produced his worst season as a pro and simultaneously led the league with three fourth-quarter comeback victories and four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
3. Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Winston produced the best four-game stretch of his career after returning from injury last season, a run in which he completed nearly 72 percent of his passes while averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and throwing for eight touchdowns against two picks. He improved in virtually every statistical category I can find and was better than league average by the vast majority of measures.
We should be looking at a potential Pro Bowl season for Winston. Instead, he is suspended for three games after allegedly groping an Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016. This is a critical year for Winston’s development, but that has far less to do with what he does on the field than how he acts off of it.
4. John Elway, GM, Broncos
It’s unfathomable to suggest that Elway’s job might be on the line given that he’s a franchise icon and two years removed from winning Super Bowl 50. But it’s difficult to believe just how much has gone wrong in Denver since the team raised the Lombardi trophy.
5. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Since 1970, 318 quarterbacks have thrown 500 or more passes in a season. Of those quarterbacks, just three have posted a worse yards per attempt index (Y/A+) than Flacco did last season, when the Super Bowl XLVII MVP averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in a league in which the average pass went for 6.6 yards per throw. Flacco hasn’t posted a Y/A+ above the league average of 100 since the 2012 season.
6. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions
7. Norv Turner, offensive coordinator, Panthers
Panthers fans who were deliriously excited about the franchise moving on from longtime offensive coordinator Mike Shula had about three days to celebrate before being puzzled by the hire of the 66-year-old Turner, who was just over one year removed from leaving the Vikings in the middle of a frustrating season. Turner has had an impressive career as an offensive coordinator, but after the Chargers finished fifth in offensive DVOA in 2011, his offenses haven’t ranked better than 16th in offensive DVOA in any season.
As I mentioned earlier this year, Turner has never really worked with a mobile quarterback during his career. Is that a great fit for Cam Newton?
8. Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
The best example of the unique position Bortles occupies in the NFL world is that he is a former No. 3 overall pick who had an organization shop for pieces to make him look good each offseason while simultaneously making excuses as he failed to improve and yet, still, Bortles manages to have a persecution complex.
9. Hue Jackson, coach, Browns
Let us all grow up to have Jackson’s confidence. Few coaches keep their jobs after a 1-15 season, although it would have been harsh to fire Jackson amid Cleveland’s tanking efforts. Even fewer manage to hold onto the gig after a winless campaign, when the Browns actually were supposed to be more competitive. Jackson was hired for his ability to work with quarterbacks, but he spent 2017 destroying DeShone Kizer’s confidence before letting the rookie flail on the field during a brutal season. Deposed general manager Sashi Brown and analytics chief Paul DePodesta have taken the heat for trading away the pick the Eagles used on Carson Wentz, even though Jackson didn’t want to use the second overall pick on Wentz.
10. Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator, Falcons
I’m not convinced Sarkisian deserves anywhere near as much of the blame for what happened with the Falcons’ offense last season. For one, the Falcons were always going to decline from the record marks they put up in 2016, regardless of whether former coordinator Kyle Shanahan stuck around. The Falcons produced the best first-down offense in league history in 2016, and in 2017, they fell all the way to third in yards per play and third in conversion rate on first downs. Their offensive line also stayed healthy for 80 starts in 2016, which is virtually impossible to repeat (and out of any coordinator’s control).
The biggest problem with the Falcons’ offense in 2017, instead, was that it spent too much time on the sidelines. Atlanta’s defense allowed more plays per drive than any other team in football. The Falcons’ defense allowed the second-longest average drive in terms of time of possession. It ranked 26th in turnover percentage.
As a result, the offense ran only 157 meaningful possessions last season, the lowest mark in the league by nine full possessions.
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Those numbers aren’t going to placate Falcons fans, though, and Sarkisian might make for a convenient scapegoat if the defense doesn’t take that long-awaited big step forward. He will have to hope for a positive regression to the mean in the red zone from Julio Jones, who scored a scarcely believable three touchdowns on 88 receptions a year ago. I imagine Falcons fans might have some playcalling suggestions for what not to do in the red zone after last season’s goal-line stand in Philadelphia.
11. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
There aren’t many comparisons made between Newton and Andy Dalton. Rightfully so. I’m making one here because both Newton and Dalton put together 2015 campaigns that look like huge outliers in context with the rest of their careers. Dalton’s passer rating falls between 80.4 and 91.8 in six of his seven seasons. In 2015, he posted a passer rating of 106.2. Cam’s passer rating stays within a similarly modest range in five of his six campaigns, with a low of 75.8 and a high of 88.8. During his MVP season, the former Auburn star made his way up to a rating of 99.4.
Passer rating shouldn’t tell the whole story for Newton given how much he offers as a runner, but you can understand why there’s a sense of frustration with Cam stagnating as a passer.
12. Adam Gase, coach, Dolphins
It took one year for Gase to morph from darling young coach into a frustrated, possibly overmatched leader. This time last year, Dolphins staffers were somehow predicting breakout seasons for virtually every one of Miami’s weapons. The breakouts didn’t come.
13. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Jets
A league constantly decrying the lack of useful quarterbacks didn’t value Bridgewater this offseason; while veterans such as Mike Glennon and Chase Daniel were able to sign multimillion-dollar deals, Bridgewater’s one-year deal guaranteed him only $500,000 at signing. It seemed like a logical landing spot for Bridgewater given that he would be competing with injury-prone veteran Josh McCown, only for the Jets to trade up and grab Sam Darnold in the draft, pushing back Bridgewater into the No. 3 role.
Darnold seems likely to start Week 1, which leaves both the Jets and Bridgewater in a quandary. Both Bridgewater and McCown have $5 million base salaries, but while McCown’s money is guaranteed, Bridgewater’s is not. The Jets also value McCown as an on-field coach for Darnold. There’s not an obvious fit on the roster for Bridgewater, even though he has looked impressive during the preseason.
Carrying Bridgewater’s $5 million base salary in the hopes of essentially buying a compensatory pick also doesn’t make sense. The league isn’t going to suddenly value Bridgewater at $16 million per year if he sits behind Darnold. If he gets backup money on the free-agent market in 2019, Bridgewater would qualify for a draft pick only in the sixth or seventh round. Even that would require the Jets to mostly sit out free agency, something they haven’t done under GM Mike Maccagnan (and shouldn’t do as they build their offense around Darnold).
The most likely scenario is that the Jets either cut Bridgewater or trade him for a conditional pick. The Jets can hope to get a second- or a third-round pick, but they have little leverage in keeping Bridgewater and aren’t likely to find a desperate team on the market. The comparisons to Sam Bradford don’t fit; the Vikings were a unique match in terms of a team expecting to be very competitive, and the Eagles had a quarterback who the league continues to value as a starter.
While there have been folks clamoring for the Jaguars to acquire Bridgewater — and a swap of Bridgewater and a pick for Dante Fowler would make sense for both sides — Tyrod Taylor would be a much better fit for the Jags and their desire to hold onto the football and protect field position. Bridgewater remains a useful player and deserves a chance to start somewhere, but that opportunity probably won’t come until 2019.
14. Khalil Mack, DE, Raiders
Teams don’t normally wait this long to sign true franchise players, as we’re seeing from the other stars in this draft class. Mike Evans signed an extension over the summer, while Odell Beckham Jr. just signed an extension. Aaron Donald is close to signing his deal. It’s a little bit of a surprise that Mack isn’t yet signed, but it’s far more disconcerting that the Raiders don’t even appear to be close to a deal with their star pass-rusher.
Do the Raiders really think Mack isn’t worth Donald-level money? Would they realistically trade their star pass-rusher with no obvious replacement for Mack left on the roster?
15. David Culley, quarterbacks coach, Bills
It’s possible that Culley is extremely well-qualified to coach new Bills quarterback Josh Allen, for whom the team traded draft capital in excess of the first overall pick to move up in April. Culley takes the stance that coaching is coaching regardless of position, and as a 62-year-old entering his 40th year on the job, you suspect he knows a thing or two.
At the same time, though, how many teams do you see handing the quarterback coaching duties to a guy whose résumé at that specific job has a 30-year gap? The last quarterback Culley directly tutored before taking over as Bills quarterbacks coach in 2017 was future NFL running back Brian Mitchell at Southwestern Louisiana in the mid-1980s. Culley worked mostly as a receivers coach over the ensuing decades,
Group II: The Rookies (or Almost Rookies)
Here are the folks who are either debuting or practically debuting on the national stage this upcoming season.
16. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
When the Chiefs traded up to grab the top guy on their draft board in 2017, they sealed Alex Smith’s fate. What happened next could not — and did not — alter the plan. Smith produced the best season of his career and led the league in passer rating. The Chiefs fired the general manager who drafted Mahomes and lost much of their offensive brainpower when Matt Nagy left for the Bears. No matter. The Chiefs drafted Mahomes in 2017 to start in Week 1 of 2018. We’re about to get there.
Organizations don’t do this very often, in part because it’s difficult to be spoiled for choice with quarterbacks. Teams peck and claw and stay up at night dreaming about getting someone like Smith, who virtually never throws his team out of a game and gets them back into it more often than the public thinks. Imagine a team like the Browns or the Jets being frustrated by a quarterback whose purported ceiling is 10 wins and a playoff loss. It’s football privilege to shoot for a better quarterback than Smith, even given Smith’s age (34) and cap number.
Teams have replaced their sitting Pro Bowl starter with an inexperienced backup for injury reasons, of course, but there aren’t many recent examples of a team willingly trading or allowing a Pro Bowl passer to leave during the offseason while replacing them with a first-round pick sans track record.
17. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Does any rookie running back in recent memory come into the league under more pressure than the former Penn State star? Ezekiel Elliott was drafted nearly as high, but he was entering a situation with a great offensive line on a team that had run the ball well in previous seasons. Leonard Fournette and Trent Richardson were joining teams with low expectations, although the Jaguars quickly exceeded theirs with Fournette’s help.
Barkley, the highest-drafted running back since Reggie Bush in 2006, has to single-handedly rescue a moribund Giants running game.
18. Sidney Jones, CB, Eagles
The biggest surprise from the 2017 Eagles roster was … OK, it was Nelson Agholor. The second-biggest surprise on the roster was Patrick Robinson, who was cut after one season with the Colts and signed with the Eagles for just $775,000. Robinson promptly turned into one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, giving the Eagles a huge advantage at what became close to a starting role. He knocked away 18 passes, which tied the former Saints first-round pick for the sixth most in football. Robinson promptly returned to New Orleans on a four-year, $20 million deal this offseason.
Enter Jones, who tore his Achilles and fell to the Eagles in the middle of the second round in last year’s draft. Jones essentially took 2017 as a redshirt year, but with Robinson leaving, the Washington product will be taking over in the lineup as Philadelphia’s slot cornerback.
19. Matt Nagy, coach, Bears
When teams fire their head coach, they often replace that coach with someone who represents the polar opposite of their deposed leader. It’s no surprise, then, that the Bears replaced 63-year-old defensive stalwart John Fox with 40-year-old Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. Fox has 16 years of head-coaching experience; Nagy has 10 years of coaching experience in total, having been elevated to the offensive coordinator’s role in Kansas City after Doug Pederson left for the Eagles.
20. Terrell Edmunds, S, Steelers
The Steelers haven’t really found a replacement for Troy Polamalu since the future Hall of Famer faded after 30 and retired in 2015. Their defense took a step forward last season, only to regress after star linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a career-threatening spinal injury, allowing an average of 28 points per game.
While Pittsburgh didn’t acquire a direct replacement for Shazier this offseason, their best solution may be to get creative. New safety Morgan Burnett played some linebacker in Green Bay and could feature there on passing downs. Edmunds, on the other hand, might play a little bit of everything.
21. Michael Dickson, P, Seahawks
There’s something a little sad about Seahawks fans who once bragged about arguably the best roster in football pinning their hopes on a rookie punter, but Dickson has comfortably been the best punter in football during the preseason.
Group III: Familiar Faces in New Places
How will these names we already know fare in new digs?
22. Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
The most plausible scenario for the 2018 Vikings, sadly, is that they decline for reasons almost totally unrelated to Cousins, only for their $28 million quarterback to take the blame.
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The scary thing is that the only way for Cousins to really live up to this deal, given how good the Vikings were a year ago, is to make it to the Super Bowl. Anything less and there will be a portion of the audience pointing out that they could have kept Case Keenum (or Teddy Bridgewater) at a fraction of Cousins’ price tag while using the savings to add an impact player at another position of need, regardless of how effective Cousins performs. Is this fair? Absolutely not.
23. Jon Gruden, coach, Raiders
The league’s biggest mystery is what we’ll see from the Raiders’ offense in Week 1. Gruden’s offseason moves as shadow general manager haven’t been inspiring, which isn’t a surprise given his track record with personnel in Tampa Bay. It’s also fair to note that there’s still plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball in Oakland, as the Raiders are only two years removed from looking quite competitive offensively under Bill Musgrave.
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Gruden is beginning a 10-year, $100 million contract. Patience might be the most important virtue for the new Raiders.
24. Jerick McKinnon, RB, 49ers
The list of unheralded, inexpensive backs who made their names in offenses led by a Shanahan goes back more than 20 years.
25. Malcolm Butler, CB, Titans
Given the events of Super Bowl LII, Butler really couldn’t have had a better offseason. The Patriots took plenty of criticism for benching the Super Bowl XLIX hero in a game in which their cornerbacks couldn’t hold up in coverage. Butler might have been forced to settle for a one-year deal if teams had questions about what Bill Belichick saw, but instead, he found a five-year, $61.3 million contract that doesn’t really represent any sort of discount from what he would have gotten had Butler been anonymously fine in the Super Bowl.
26. Alex Smith, QB, Washington
Smith has spent the past seven years in the protective cocoon of quarterback gurus Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid, and the list of quarterbacks who have faded after parting ways with their coach is considerable. Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick all regressed after their spell under Harbaugh and Reid, and while you might argue that they were hit by either injuries or the aging curve, Smith is 34.
The best argument against Smith following in their footsteps is the 2017 season in which Smith leveled up and finally added to his ability to avoid takeaways by making plays downfield.
Group IV: The Rehabilitation Stories
These players are physically or mentally rehabbing after traumatic ends to their 2017.
27. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
It should be telling that after two years essentially lost in the injury wilderness, Watt is still the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year.
28. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
I don’t need to tell you about Rodgers.
29. David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Does anybody have more riding on the 2018 season than Arizona’s star running back? If we see a repeat of the 2016 season, when Johnson had a credible case as the best running back in football, he should challenge for a Todd Gurley-sized contract with $50 million or so in new money. If we see a repeat of Johnson’s 2017 season — which lasted all of three quarters before Johnson dislocated his wrist — he’s probably looking at a one-year, prove-it deal before hitting free agency again in 2019.
30. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
Completion percentage never tells the whole story, but Luck still hasn’t had that MVP-caliber season since joining the league. The closest he came was 2014, when he threw 40 touchdown passes and ran for three more, but even that was more about a dismal Indianapolis rushing attack than anything else….Nobody would argue that the Colts are worse off with the return of Luck, but as we fret about the former first overall pick returning to his old form, is it fair to wonder whether there’s ever going to be another gear for the best quarterback prospect of his generation? Luck admittedly hasn’t had much help up front, so a healthy and effective offensive line might unlock the MVP candidate waiting to get out.
31. Marcus Williams, S, Saints
I feel confident that nobody on the planet is looking forward to Week 1 of the NFL season more than Williams, who will get a chance to atone for his leading role in the disastrous end to the Saints-Vikings playoff encounter from last season. What was forgotten in light of what happened is just how impressive Williams was during his rookie campaign.
32. Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans
I wrote about Watson earlier this month in context with Carson Wentz, but Watson is further ahead in his rehabilitation and a lock to start Week 1. Skeptics want to compare Watson to Robert Griffin III in terms of rookie quarterbacks who succeeded in offenses with college flourishes before struggling after knee injuries, but Watson wasn’t anywhere near as reliant on his legs last season as Griffin was during that fateful rookie campaign. On the other hand, Watson might also be stuck behind the worst offensive line in football. Those legs could come in handy.
Group V: The Breakout Stars of 2017 (and 2018)
Can the standouts of 2017 hold onto their gains in 2018? And can the players who impressed underneath the radar last season take an even bigger step toward stardom this year?
33. Myles Garrett, DE, Browns
Lost in the chatter about how the Browns foolishly traded away the pick the Texans used on Deshaun Watson is that they still might have ended up with the best player in the 2017 draft.
34. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
I wrote all about Garoppolo’s 2018 season to come earlier in August.
35. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
Ramsey might not be the best cornerback in football. He might not even be the best cornerback on his own team when you consider how good A.J. Bouye was last season. He’s damn good right now, though, and you would be a fool to bet against the 23-year-old continuing to improve.
36. Trey Flowers, DE, Patriots
The first team in NFL history to amass 600 yards from scrimmage in a game and lose was the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, the last meaningful professional football game you watched. You lose a game in which your offense marches up and down the field for one of two reasons. One is that the offense turns the ball over a bunch of times, which the Patriots didn’t do. The other is that your defense can’t get off the field.
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The Patriots spent the offseason trying to fix that by adding depth for the front seven, signing Adrian Clayborn and trading for Danny Shelton. They’ll get back playoff hero Dont’a Hightower and probably have enough on the edge to move him back to inside linebacker. The guy who could make the biggest difference, though, is Flowers. The former midround pick racked up 25 knockdowns last season and added nine more during the postseason, three more than any other player. The 25-hit total usually amounts to a total of just over 11 sacks in a given campaign, but Flowers finished his season with just 6.5 sacks, which was the sixth-largest gap in football. He’s either a budding star or already a secret one.
37. Doug Pederson, coach, Eagles
What do you do for a follow-up after taking your team from worst to first and winning a Super Bowl? The league has watched what Pederson has done in Philadelphia and taken from his bounty; the Eagles lost offensive coordinator Frank Reich to the Colts and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to the Vikings, with the Eagles promoting Mike Groh and Press Taylor from within to take their places.
38. William Jackson III, CB, Bengals
Marvin Lewis has a pattern when it comes to cornerbacks. He likes drafting them in the first round. He likes sitting them for a while or giving them limited snaps. Eventually, they break through and quite often succeed in doing so. (You might notice this trend also popping up in Minnesota under former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.)
Jackson might make Lewis accelerate his cornerback curve.
39. Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons
The (Falcons) defense is something less than the sum of some impressive parts. The guy who might be able to make the difference is Jarrett, who had three sacks in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots and dominated for stretches in 2017, but finished the season with only four sacks and 13 hurries. Those are good numbers, but if Vic Beasley Jr. returns to form as a full-time defensive end and Jarrett adds to his dominance as a run defender by chipping in more as a secondary pass-rusher, the Falcons could unlock their playoff code.
40. Sean McVay, coach, Rams
McVay has already proved that he’s a good coach, but he’s going to get a chance to see how he improvises in 2018.
41. DeForest Buckner, DL, 49ers
If the 49ers want to make a move to the top of the NFC West and into the postseason, it’ll be less about Jimmy Garoppolo and more about the defense…If Buckner can rack up 10 sacks in 2018, he would become the anchor of the first post-Harbaugh 49ers defense worth writing home about.
Group VI: One More Ride
These are the stars making one final trip through the league while hoping to win a Super Bowl before possibly retiring.
42. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Whether this is or is not Gronk’s final season in the NFL, the 29-year-old has probably already done enough to earn his place in the Hall of Fame…One more typical season wouldn’t hurt Gronkowski’s chances, but he has simply been too good to keep out.
43. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
ESPN has air yards and yards after catch data going back through 2006. Of the 393 qualifying seasons from quarterbacks over that time frame, Brees’ 2017 season had the fourth-smallest gap between air yards per throw (6.36) and yards after catch (6.18). The only quarterback who has been able to have consistent success with a range that small is Alex Smith, and Brees’ 2017 season was more productive than any of the Smith campaigns that would come close to an even split. This archetype has an extremely thin margin for error.
This can go one of two ways. One is that the 2017 season was a once-off aberration for Brees, whose air yard percentage had been declining but fell off of a cliff last season. Quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers make cameos toward the top of this list. The alternative is that Brees relies too heavily on his receivers, gets what will almost surely be a less impressive season from Alvin Kamara, and sees his numbers suffer.
44. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Rams
Talking about Whitworth is difficult. The 36-year-old LSU product is probably the most underrated football player of the past decade, given that he played extremely well at a premium position for an extended period of time. His 2017 season was also somehow overrated, given that he took a step backward as a pass protector after leaving Cincinnati for Los Angeles. Even more paradoxically, Whitworth was simultaneously a massive upgrade at a position the Rams have spent nearly a full decade trying to solve. Appraising offensive linemen is hard.
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if the line can’t hold up in 2018, all the schemes and weapons in the world won’t save Los Angeles.
Group VII: The Wild Cards Who Could Decide the Season
While not necessarily the first names we think of as game-changers, these are the players who could help swing a division if they’re healthy and productive.
45. Sean Lee, LB, Cowboys
The Cowboys are quietly excited about their defense, which shouldn’t be a surprise after investing three of their past four first- and second-round picks on that side of the ball. For whatever DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch might offer, though, the defense is likely to remain utterly dependent on the 32-year-old Lee, who, incredibly, is still yet to play a full 16-game season as a pro.
46. Sammy Watkins, WR, Chiefs
You might argue that the Chiefs made an even more shocking bet on Anthony Hitchens than they did on their new wide receiver, but the signing of Watkins makes more of a statement. The Chiefs didn’t really need another weapon given the presence of Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They desperately needed help at cornerback and could have signed someone like Trumaine Johnson with the money they spent on Watkins, although it would have required a longer commitment on paper.
Instead, Kansas City went in the opposite direction and went all-in on weapons for Mahomes. Watkins is still only 25, but he has a serious foot injury in his past and spent last season as a relatively innocuous afterthought in the Rams’ offense.
47. Damon Mitchell, head athletic trainer, Chargers
Nothing has hurt the Chargers more over the past three seasons than injuries.
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The Chargers improved from 31st in adjusted games lost in 2016 to 16th last season, a move that coincided with the ascension of Mitchell into the role as head trainer. Correlation isn’t always causation, and the Chargers are already down several would-be contributors with Hunter Henry, Jason Verrett and Jaylen Watkins all out for the year, but Mitchell is on this list as a reminder of what the Chargers need to do to thrive in 2018
48. Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys
Is Smith the last star Cowboys lineman left standing? With Travis Frederick sidelined by Guillain-Barré syndrome and Zack Martin missing most of the preseason with a knee injury, Smith’s return from back and knee issues is absolutely critical for a Cowboys line in major transition.
49. Samson Ebukam, OLB, Rams
You know what the Rams did this offseason. Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are all here. Trumaine Johnson, Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn are in other places. It seemed likely that the Rams were going to use their title-adjacent status to lure a veteran or two in to rush the quarterback from the outside, but it never really happened. The Rams find themselves entering the season with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a five-time Pro Bowler rushing from the inside … and the duo of Ebukam and Matt Longacre on the outside.
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There’s no doubt Phillips is likely to get the most out of his inexperienced charges, but this is a wildly aggressive move from a team that has dealt away draft picks and handed out big contracts to players at positions on both sides of the ball.
Group VII: The Ghost
The player who dominates more conversation about the NFL than anyone without even stepping on the field.
50. Colin Kaepernick, QB, free agent
It’s still impossible to talk about the most important people in and around the NFL without bringing up Kaepernick, whose protests against social injustice still reverberate and impact the league.
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The on-field story still hasn’t changed. Kaepernick is overqualified for a job; there is no modern precedent for a healthy quarterback with Kaepernick’s résumé failing to find work in the NFL.