The Daily Briefing Wednesday, December 27, 2017

AROUND THE NFL 

Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com weighs in on whether Rams RB TODD GURLEY II – or anyone else – can keep QB TOM BRADY from claiming the AP NFL MVP Award.

First, it was Tom Brady vs. Carson Wentz. Then, it was Tom Brady vs. Antonio Brown. Now, after both those superstars went down with injuries, the most obvious competitor standing between Brady and his third MVP award is a record-setting running back. Todd Gurley has been absolutely unconscious over the past three weeks. The Rams running back has eight touchdowns during that span, which is more than the entire Browns roster has over its past six games combined.

It has been a stunning season for a player who spent most of 2016 stuck in the mud for a going-nowhere Rams team. The Rams will host the franchise’s first home playoff game in California since 1985 during wild-card weekend, and while the turnaround of Jared Goff under the tutelage of Sean McVay has been shocking, it’s difficult to imagine the Rams making the playoffs without their workhorse at running back.

Gurley has been great, but should voters really pick him over Brady? Or should the Patriots’ signal-caller deserve recognition for the latest in a series of dominant seasons? Let’s make the case for why Gurley is likely to receive serious consideration, then pick an MVP favorite with two games and one week left in the season. The five-point plan for Gurley to win goes as follows:

1. Recency bias

The Associated Press voters are only human. They make their choices in late December, so they’re naturally going to be thinking about what each candidate was doing over the final month of the season. Think about Adrian Peterson, who struggled early in the 2012 season and then ran off nine 100-yard games in 10 weeks to end his season, including a December with two 200-yard games and a 199-yard effort in a playoff-berth-clinching victory over the Packers in Week 17. His final run of the year was a 26-yarder that set up the game-winning field goal and saw him carried off the field by a teammate as the entire crowd chanted “MVP.” You couldn’t have written a better case for Peterson.

Gurley, meanwhile, got off to a hot start before slowing down as the Rams went with a heavier dosage of their passing attack in November. He failed to average even 60 rushing yards per game in November and scored three touchdowns across four contests. That was in a month in which the Rams dropped 51 points on the Giants and 33 on the Texans before losing to the Vikings and narrowly topping the Saints.

In December, though, Gurley has been a monster. He has specifically peaked over the last three weeks of the season, which coincide with the fantasy football playoffs. Voters obviously aren’t going to treat Gurley differently because he won some of them their fantasy leagues, but to put his production in context, the 23-year-old just enjoyed the best fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16) in NFL history

In comparison, while Brady has put together a great season, he’s not peaking in December. The future Hall of Famer has thrown six interceptions over his past five games, including a pick-six in Sunday’s 37-16 victory over the Bills. Brady had thrown just four picks in his previous 22 starts dating back to his return from suspension in 2016. Bothered by an Achilles injury, Brady has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns in December, with an 81.5 passer rating placing him below Mitchell Trubisky and just ahead of Tom Savage for 19th among qualifying passers this month.

While Gurley was struggling during midseason, Brady was running off one of the hottest stretches of the season, posting a 114.7 passer rating while throwing nine touchdowns without a pick. We probably shouldn’t treat games in December as more meaningful in terms of MVP consideration than the ones in previous months, but that’s the way voters seem to think about the process, so it would be foolish to ignore Gurley’s blistering December season.

2. Historic campaigns

Recent history suggests that running backs need to post crooked numbers to overcome the positional bonus handed to quarterbacks and receive even modest MVP consideration. Peterson nearly set the rushing record by running for 2,097 yards in 2012. The previous MVP to come from behind the quarterback was LaDainian Tomlinson, who racked up a staggering 31 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2006, including 28 rushing scores. One year earlier, Shaun Alexander ran for 27 touchdowns. If you want the hardware as a running back, the bare minimum requirement is to have a rushing-yardage total or a touchdown total that starts with the No. 2.

It’s tougher for a running back to generate the gaudy numbers of even a decade ago with modern workloads, but Gurley could finish the season with some truly impressive stats. If he scores twice in what is likely to be a shootout with the 49ers on Sunday, Gurley will be the first running back to top 20 touchdowns in a season since Tomlinson in 2006. He holds a seven-touchdown lead over every other player in the league, with no other running back, wide receiver or tight end topping 12 scores.

That lead in touchdowns might be critical. Le’Veon Bell could eat into the deficit during Pittsburgh’s game Monday, but Gurley is in good shape if he maintains that massive advantage. Since the 1970 merger, five other running backs have made it to the end of the season while leading the league with a touchdown total seven or more scores ahead of the competition. Three of them — Tomlinson, Alexander and Marshall Faulk — have finished their seasons with an MVP trophy. As for Brady, meanwhile, this isn’t an otherworldly campaign. Many of his competitors have fallen by the wayside thanks to injuries, but his league lead in passing yards is by a mere 259 yards over Philip Rivers. He trails Wentz in passing touchdowns despite playing two additional games. Brady is third in completion percentage and yards per attempt and second in passer rating behind Alex Smith.

Brady’s season is also below the typical standard we see from MVP-winning quarterbacks.

3. Familiarity bias

This isn’t even really a particularly notable season for Brady relative to his typical level of play. Rank Brady seasons and, even with a week to go, this one will finish no higher than fourth in passing yards. This season would rank fourth in yards per attempt, sixth in touchdown-to-interception ratio, fifth in passer rating and eighth among 11 recorded seasons in Total QBR. It’s a great campaign for mortal quarterbacks and a good one for Brady, but it’s a step below the stratospheric seasons that won him this award in 2007 and 2010.

This is going to be a problem with his candidacy, although it has nothing to do with Brady himself. Voters in all sports, including football, get easily exhausted of perennial candidates and often prefer players who either took a leap forward from their established level of play and/or haven’t won an award previously. Brady could quite viably have been a candidate for most of the past decade and has won only two awards. Likewise, Bill Belichick has won Coach of the Year three times in 17 seasons with the Patriots, even though just about every one of us would have picked him as the best football coach alive for 13 or 14 of those campaigns. As much as we know Belichick might deserve the award on a near-annual basis, he doesn’t even receive serious consideration most seasons by virtue of setting his own bar impossibly high.

There are exceptions, but if a vote is close, most of the voters tend to lean toward the new face over the guy who will be back next year.

– – –

4. Highlight plays

He doesn’t need to make monster plays to be effective, obviously, but the Brady engine works on supreme efficiency. He beats you by staying ahead of schedule, avoiding turnovers and finding receivers for easy completions drive after drive after drive. Brady’s style doesn’t lend itself to highlight reels. He has eight completions on throws traveling 30 yards or more in the air this season, only one of which has led to a touchdown (against three picks). Rob Gronkowski is the guy who gets lauded for spectacular plays on this team, not Brady.

Gurley, meanwhile, ranks alongside Gronk, Alvin Kamara and Antonio Brown as the season’s most spectacular players. Nobody tracks it, but Gurley must hold the record for most times leaping over a defender in a single season.

5. The last-man-standing effect

Brady has been among the top candidates for this award all season, and deservedly so. It’s also fair to say that he has never really grabbed the trophy for himself. He was neck-and-neck with Carson Wentz for most of the year, and after Wentz went down, Brady never had the sort of game to stand out versus the competition. Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass the first time against the Bills, delivered a dud without Gronkowski against the Dolphins, then had his winning touchdown drive against the Steelers overshadowed by the drama of the touchdown stolen from Jesse James.

Brady has done just enough to stay on top of the pack without claiming the trophy for himself. Gurley, on the other hand, has come roaring out of the pack and gone from totally outside the MVP picture a few weeks ago to standing as a possible favorite.

– – –

So, who should win?

Those are all arguments I expect the voters will take up if they lean toward Gurley, but in evaluating Gurley, I don’t know if I believe he has really done enough to overcome the massive divide in value between quarterbacks and running backs. He’s on pace to finish with 2,233 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, and while that’s impressive, it isn’t all that much different from the 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 scores David Johnson racked up for the Cardinals in 2016. I understand that they weren’t competitive, but few people (myself aside) argued that Johnson should receive serious MVP consideration.

Gurley has probably been the best running back in football in 2017, but the difference between him and Bell mostly comes down to a few touchdowns in short-yardage situations. Bell will likely get within 100 yards of Gurley’s scrimmage total after a game against the rapidly fading Texans on Monday, and while they’ll be way ahead of the rest of the pack, Gurley is not going to be way ahead of his fellow running backs in terms of cumulative production in the way that Peterson, Alexander and Tomlinson were in years past.

I also don’t think voters value receiving yards as much as rushing yards for backs. Consider that Chris Johnson had an even more impressive version of this Gurley season for the Titans in 2006 — with 2,006 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns and a league-record 2,509 yards from scrimmage — and didn’t receive a single MVP vote. Maybe he would have done better if the Titans had finished above 8-8 that year, but the last back to win league MVP with Gurley’s sort of statistical profile was Faulk, and he scored 26 touchdowns.

If I had a vote, I’d pick Brady right now. Voters lean toward late-season performance and love to pick fresh faces, but those are biases that unfairly fault players for succeeding earlier in the year. Is Brady really a worse candidate because he played his best football in late October and early November, when Gurley was posting his least productive stretch of the season? The wins Brady contributed to count for just as much as the ones Gurley is contributing to in December, right?

What I will say, though, is that I wouldn’t close the door on the race. Both of these players will likely have something meaningful to play for in Week 17. Assuming the Steelers beat the Texans, Brady will start Sunday at home against the Jets knowing New England needs a win to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Rams, meanwhile, will be kicking off simultaneously with the Saints on Sunday needing a win to clinch the third seed in the NFC. Unless the Saints fall way behind the Buccaneers in Tampa, McVay is likely to employ Gurley like it’s a meaningful regular-season game.

The race is close enough to come down to what happens in Week 17. Gurley will be facing a 49ers team that allowed him to score three times (and only narrowly stopped him from hitting four) in a Week 3 shootout, and that was before the 49ers acquired Jimmy Garoppolo and started averaging 27.5 points per game. It’s hardly out of the question to think Gurley breaks off another huge game and stamps his name atop the MVP ballot. Without multiple touchdowns in the game, though, I still think Brady has done enough to hold on and claim a much-deserved third trophy.

ESPN’s Dan Graziano conducts a poll of 12 ESPN experts each week.  Right now, 10 of their 12 first place votes go to Brady.

NFC NORTH

DETROIT

Coach Jim Caldwell says he has given “no thought” to resting any of his starters in Sunday’s finale with the Packers.

The Lions, 8-7, will be looking to post a winning season.  If they win, it would be the first consecutive winning seasons for Detroit since 1994-95.

They also will be looking to sweep the series with Green Bay for the first time since, wait for it, 1991.

Even if the Lions lose to Green Bay for an 8-8 tie, we think they hold the 2nd place tiebreaker.  That makes this the first time the Lions have finished either 1st or 2nd in their division in consecutive seasons since 1980-81.

NFC EAST

NEW YORK GIANTS

S LANDON COLLINS says the Giants need to can a bad apple.  James Kratch of NJAdvanceMedia.com:

Landon Collins wants Eli Apple to ship out.

The Giants’ two-time Pro Bowl safety blasted his embattled teammate again Tuesday during an interview with ESPN Radio New York, calling Apple “a cancer” and making it clear he believes the Giants need to get rid of the 2016 first-round pick in the offseason.

Collins, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after having season-ending surgery on his fractured forearm Monday, was asked by Bob Wischusen (guest hosting “The Michael Kay Show” on 98.7 WEPN-FM) what he would tell the Giants’ front office about the defensive secondary and changes that need to be made if the team comes to him in the offseason after this disastrous year.

Collins took the opportunity to go at Apple and continue their feud.

“There’s one corner that … he needs to grow up, and we all know who that is,” Collins said, clearly referring to Apple. “That would be the only person I would change out of our secondary group. The other two guys, [Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie] and [Janoris Jenkins], I love those guys. They play hard, they love what they do. But that first [-round] pick, I don’t think … he’s a cancer.”

Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie, both of whom were suspended one game for violating team rules, could be candidates for release or trade once the Giants hire a new general manager and head coach. The corners have no more guaranteed money left on their contracts. Apple has two more fully guaranteed years as a first-round pick on his rookie deal, but the odds of him remaining with the Giants get longer by the day.

Collins’ comments are simply the latest escalation of what has become a public issue between him and Apple. Collins originally defended Apple, who has had a tumultuous season marred by on- and off-field issues, while speaking to reporters on Dec. 13.

In his comments, Collins called Apple’s struggles “mental” and pointed to significant issues in his personal life, adding he had spoken with Apple and offered counsel.

Apple responded the next day by telling reporters he had never spoken to Collins, implying the safety was lying. Collins stood by his comments to reporters, but he was so enraged that he confronted the corner inside the team facility and had to be restrained by teammates, according to sources.

The incident was detailed in NJ Advance Media’s recent report on the significant family strife that has impacted Apple this season – issues Collins was apparently referring to when this he-said, he-said ordeal began.

After the run-in, but before the incident was reported, Collins — in a prior appearance on ESPN Radio New York — said Apple needed to grow up.

Apple played no defensive snaps in Sunday’s 23-0 loss to the Cardinals, playing only on special teams. It was the fifth game in the last six he has not played corner; he was inactive for the other four. Apple also appeared removed from the team on the sideline, sitting or standing away from the defensive subs and assistants when the Giants’ defense was on the field.

 Dan Duggan has this, also at NJAdvanceMedia that provides background on those family issues:

So, how did Apple get to this point after starting 11 games at cornerback for a playoff team as a rookie? Several people close to the situation told NJ Advance Media that strife in Apple’s family, particularly an abrupt falling out with his stepfather Tim Apple, has led to the Voorhees native going off track.

“One of the biggest reasons Eli is declining so much this year as opposed to last year is (Tim’s absence),” Apple’s half-brother Dane Blackson told NJ Advance Media. “I know everyone always talks about the fame and all of the attention and how all of that can go to your head.

“But you have to imagine that from middle school to the NFL, Tim was there. Tim made this whole thing happen. Tim didn’t miss a game. Whenever Eli looked for that support, that was always there. Now, this year whenever he goes to look for support, it’s not real, it’s not genuine.”

Eli is Annie Apple’s third son and the second child from an abusive relationship that she detailed in an SI.com column last fall. When Eli was 2, Annie met Tim. They married in 2001 and Tim raised Annie’s three sons as well as a daughter, Jordan, they had together.

“From the time I was 2 years old my dad, Timothy Apple, has been my father,” Eli said when he announced that he was changing his last name to Apple during his senior at Eastern High in Voorhees. “He’s nurtured, provided, and protected our family. I am the man I am today because of his tireless love, and commitment to our family.”

Now, just five years later, the relationship is nonexistent. Tim and Eli haven’t spoken since June, and Tim hasn’t attended Eli’s games this season for the first time since he started playing football in middle school.

Tim, 46, was Eli’s de factor manager during his son’s rookie season, working with his agent and the advisers that handled Eli’s finances, marketing and charity work. Blackson said Eli fired Tim days before Father’s Day last June.

When reached by NJ Advance Media, Tim declined to comment on the specifics of the situation.

“I love my son and I miss my son,” Tim said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s really what it’s about at this point: I miss my son.”

Eli declined to comment when asked about the impact his family situation has had on him this season.

Tim and Annie got divorced in May after 16 years of marriage. Blackson, 27, and Devion, 24, haven’t spoken to Eli or Annie in months. Blackson said Eli and Annie share a condo in Hoboken, while the rest of the family lives together in Voorhees.

“Eli is the youngest (son), so when it comes to just being easily manipulated, I feel like he was always the perfect candidate out of all of us,” Blackson said. “Out of the three – me, Devion and Eli – Eli was more the mama’s boy.”

Annie, 43, has always been a supportive and outspoken parent, according to multiple people from Eli’s background interviewed by NJ Advance Media who requested anonymity because they didn’t want to become embroiled in the Apple family’s issues.

Annie was known as one of the most vocal fans while Eli starred at Eastern High and she was never shy about voicing her opinion. While Eli was at Ohio State, Annie was part of a campaign that resulted in the College Football Playoff providing stipends to alleviate the travel expenses for the parents of players.

Annie, who was a writer and producer for “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, became a social media sensation during the 2016 NFL Draft. Her humorous and opinionated Twitter persona led to roles with ESPN and Sports Illustrated during Eli’s rookie season.

“Ever since Eli got drafted, I feel like everyone got the wrong impression of Eli,” Blackson said. “From the jump, Eli never really stood a chance. It was the Annie show. I feel like that’s his biggest downfall.”

Annie’s weekly column on SI.com created a firestorm last October when she criticized Giants co-owner John Mara for his “insensitive, dismissive and callous” comments about the domestic abuse allegations levied against former kicker Josh Brown. Eli publicly straddled the awkward line of not siding against his mother or his employer, but Blackson said his brother was furious that Annie jeopardized his career.

“I remember the whole John Mara thing, that was bad. He almost cut mom completely off,” Blackson said. “That was scary for him for a little bit. I remember him calling all of us. It was just bad.”

The relationship survived, and Blackson said Annie tried to take stronger control of Eli’s life, isolating him from the rest of the family in the process.

Eli signed a four-year, $15.1 million contract when he was drafted by the Giants. A family enrichment system was arranged through his financial team at Merrill Lynch, with $6,500 a month spread around the family to help pay for things like his grandparents’ mortgage and his sister’s private school tuition.

That system has been scrapped.

“You give him all this money and I couldn’t tell you what he’s doing with it besides letting mom spend it,” Blackson said.

Blackson said there was a drastic change in the family dynamics after Eli was hospitalized for a week in mid-June with an undisclosed illness that caused him to miss minicamp. Annie was by Eli’s side throughout the hospital stay.

“All of a sudden, we were complete enemies,” Blackson said. “I don’t know what she could have told him, but his energy was completely different from there. That was definitely a pivotal point.”

Eli cut ties with Tim the next week and communication broke down within the family.

“Just growing up, if you had told me things would end up this way, I wouldn’t believe you. ‘Eli will go all the way to the Giants and not be family-oriented?’ ” Blackson said incredulously. “He’s burning bridges left and right and he’s losing the people that really care about him and love him no matter what. I don’t know what him and Annie are up to. It’s crazy.”

– – –

The struggles on the field and the problems with teammates have put Apple at a crossroads just two   years into his career. A new general manager and coach will certainly attempt to clean up a locker room that has grown toxic during the Giants’ unexpected 2-12 flop.

And as Apple attempts to navigate the most critical juncture of his career, he remains without a pillar of the support system that helped him reach the NFL.

“Tim sacrificed everything to get him there,” Blackson said. “His performance is like a weird karma. He looks to the stands and that genuine support isn’t there anymore.”

WASHINGTON

The Redskins have lost DT ZIGGY HOOD for Sunday’s finale with a fractured elbow.

NFC SOUTH

CAROLINA

Danny Kelly of The Ringer on why the Panthers are rushing to postseason glory:

For most of the year, the Panthers have been overshadowed by a host of teams in the NFC. The reawakened Rams and high-flying Eagles have dominated headlines all season, the Vikings just keep winning, and the Saints look unstoppable thanks in part to one of the best rookie classes in recent memory, with Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore up for respective Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The up-and-down Falcons, the always dramatic Seahawks, the now-eliminated Cowboys, and the saga of Aaron Rodgers’s collarbone injury have stolen plenty of attention away from a Carolina team that’s won seven of their last eight games and clinched a spot in the postseason with a 22–19 victory against the Buccaneers on Sunday. But while they’ve been busy flying under the radar the past two months, the Panthers have quietly rediscovered their identity as a physical running team, and their resurgence on the ground gives them a chance to make some playoff noise.

Carolina’s playoff-clinching win against Tampa Bay was of the ugly variety, no doubt. The Panthers needed a late-game rally and a little bit of luck. Quarterback Cam Newton recovered his own fumbled snap from the 2-yard line to pick it up and dive into the end zone for the go-ahead, game-winning touchdown with 39 seconds remaining. That’s not going to be the victory that convinces anyone that Carolina is a Super Bowl squad, but it is another example of the type of winning formula they’ve found over the past two months. As a team, Carolina totaled 115 rush yards on 31 totes, continuing their incredible turnaround on the ground to notch their ninth consecutive game with more than 100 rushing yards — the longest active streak in the NFL, and second only to the Eagles’ run of ten games over the century mark from earlier this year. Carolina’s boost in the rushing attack has been the biggest factor in the team’s recent hot streak; A newly-consistent run game, combined with a typically strong defense and a big-play special teams group has helped the Panthers weather   Newton’s erratic performance as a passer.

Of course, Newton himself is at the center of that ground-game turnaround. He picked up chunks of yardage with his legs against the Bucs on Sunday, matching last week’s season-high for rush attempts with 14 carries for 52 yards, including that last-minute score that helped push his team to a win. It was enough to overcome another off day from him in the passing game, as he completed 16 of 25 passes for just 160 yards and a pick against Tampa Bay’s banged-up defense, his seventh game this season with a sub-70 passer rating. But a win’s a win, especially late in the year, and the style in which the Panthers secured their playoff berth was a departure from the style of the first seven weeks of the season.

Early on, Carolina seemed to rise and fall with how well Newton was throwing the ball. In back-to-back wins over New England and Detroit in Weeks 4 and 5, Newton threw six touchdowns to just one interception for a combined passer rating of 137.2, but then followed those two performances up with dismal outings the following two games. In back-to-back losses to the Eagles and Bears, Newton threw one touchdown and five interceptions with a combined passer rating of just 51.0. That loss to Chicago dropped the Panthers to 4–3, and they still seemed to be trying to figure out who they were. At times, they resembled the near-unstoppable 2015 squad that finished 15–1 and went to the Super Bowl, and at others, a discombobulated group that lacked any semblance of balance. The thing that really seemed to be missing, though, was something we’ve all come to expect from the Ron Rivera- and Newton-led Panthers teams of the past seven seasons: a physical and versatile rushing attack built largely around quarterback-option runs. Going into Week 8, Carolina ranked 29th in the NFL in rush yards per carry (3.41), were tied for 20th in rushing yards (681), and had scored just three times on the ground (tied for 20th). At that point, both Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey were averaging fewer than 3.0 yards per carry and had zero rushing touchdowns between them. Newton had carried the ball more than 10 times in a game just once.

But the Panthers’ 17–3 win against Tampa Bay in Week 8 was a turning point. Carolina unleashed Newton as a runner — he carried the ball 11 times for 44 yards in that game — and Stewart finally got into the end zone. The next week, in a crucial 20–17 win against the Falcons at home, the Panthers exploded for 201 yards and two scores on the ground; Newton ran the ball nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown, and McCaffrey added 66 yards and a score. Carolina dropped 294 yards rushing against Miami the next week — with 95 yards from Newton, 110 yards from Stewart, 68 yards and a score from Cameron Artis-Payne, and another 23 yards and a touchdown from McCaffrey. Carolina went over 200 yards on the ground again in Week 14 in their impressive win against the Vikings. Stewart led the way with 103 yards and three touchdowns, Newton rushed 11 times for 70 yards, and McCaffrey added 35 yards on eight totes. All told, from Weeks 8 through 15, the Panthers ran for a league-high 1,219 yards on 5.19 yards per attempt (second) and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground (tied for second). They were like a brand new team.

So, how’d that happen? For one, Carolina seemed to realize that Newton is most dangerous when he can run the ball all over a defense, and after averaging seven carries for 30 yards in the first seven games, he’s doubled his output in the eight games since to average 10 rushes for 60 yards a game. The Panthers’ offensive line seemed to gel midway through the year, too; it took about two months for free agent left tackle Matt Kalil to settle in to his new team’s scheme, learn the nuances and, as he put it, just “focus on the guy [he’s] blocking.” The line also had to adjust to losing center (and Matt’s brother) Ryan Kalil in Week 1 to a neck injury. That threw backup Tyler Larsen into action, which hurt communication along the line earlier on. As ESPN’s NFL Matchup pointed out last week, from Weeks 1 through 8, Carolina ranked 29th in the NFL in yards before contact per rush (1.89). But from Week 8 through 15, they rank first, providing Newton and the team’s backs a whopping 3.74 yards before contact per rush. Offensive roles appear to have become more defined in the second half as well: Stewart’s back to being the team’s bellcow, between-the-tackles sustainer, McCaffrey’s solidified himself as the team’s moveable chess piece, and Newton is the undefendable X factor that can either run, pitch it, or pass. And, of course, offensive coordinator Mike Shula deserves a little bit of credit for drawing up effective plays.

Put together, the Panthers have rediscovered their true identity, where “Keep Pounding” isn’t just the team’s slogan (which honors the late Panthers player and coach, Sam Mills), but also captures the style of football they play. Newton still has the ability to take over a game with his arm when he’s on, but failing that, the Panthers have proved in the past eight weeks that they’re balanced enough to beat teams in other ways — with a physical run game, strong special teams, and a stout defense. That formula makes them a team no one’s going to want to face come January. 

TAMPA BAY

Coach Dirk Koetter won’t deny the elephant in the room.  Jenna Laine of ESPN.com:

Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter admitted Tuesday that the rumors surrounding his job status have been a distraction, but he said he has not had any talks with ownership about his future.

“Of course,” Koetter said when asked if rumors have been a distraction. “It’s your life, it’s your life. It’s what you do. So just flip it around. Of course it is. But we all as players and coaches, we’re paid to do a job, and you try to do it to the best of our ability. That’s all you can do.”

The Bucs went 9-7 last season, Koetter’s first as head coach, but have fallen to 4-11 in his second season and are showing signs of disarray.

Koetter acknowledged that a screaming match broke out in the locker room after the team’s 22-19 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Christmas Eve. It was loud enough to be picked up by the Bucs’ radio broadcast.

According to a Tampa Bay Times report, Jameis Winston and linebacker Kwon Alexander were not happy with teammate Chris Baker’s demeanor after the game and confronted him about it.

Baker was slapped with a neutral zone infraction penalty on fourth-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 5-yard line, setting up Cam Newton’s game-winning touchdown, and Baker didn’t appear to show any remorse.

According to the website JoeBucsFan, the broadcast had to delay linebacker Lavonte David’s scheduled postgame interview so David could intervene. The Times also reported that Winston and Alexander were swearing at Baker.

“I just think that when you lose a hard-fought game like that, that’s why they call it a ‘cooling off period,'” Koetter said. “Emotions [were] running, and that game — we had a lot of nice opportunities to win, [but] we didn’t do it. No one’s happy about that. A shouting match … I don’t think that would be the first or last time that’s ever happened.”

Koetter declined to discuss Baker’s effort, which has come under scrutiny this year, instead deferring all player evaluations for after the season ends. However, sources familiar with Baker’s time with the Washington Redskins said effort was an issue for him there too. The Bucs gave him a three-year deal worth $15.75 million (maximum $18.75 million with incentives) with $9 million guaranteed to start next to Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. Baker currently has 0.5 sacks this season. 

NFC WEST

ARIZONA

Bruce Arians claims that he is the victim of fake news.  Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic:

If Bruce Arians really had it in the back of his mind that this will be his last season coaching the Cardinals, it’s doubtful he would have gotten so excitable when he was asked the followed question:

Are you intrigued with the prospect of finding and developing the team’s next quarterback of the future?

“Oh gosh, yeah. That’s always been the most exciting thing in coaching for me,” Arians said Tuesday after shooting down false reports stating he has decided to mutually part ways with the franchise next week.

“I go back to that year (in 2012) with Andrew Luck and it was one of the most fun years ever, other than Chuck’s illness,” Arians continued, referring to when he became interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts following Chuck Pagano’s battle with leukemia. “Just fun coaching every day and watching him grow. Same thing with Peyton (Manning). It was just fun watching those guys grow.”

Arians only spent one season working with Luck, but it was enough to get the rookie quarterback on his way and Arians think he can do it again next year once the Cardinals isolate and determine their own young, new quarterback.

“I would think so,” he said. “It’s just a matter of if the excitement is there. You just continue doing it, you know.”

So far, the excitement is still there, the coach confirmed.

“I got up at 5 this morning and I was excited to get here, so that hasn’t changed,” Arians said, adding his improved health has also been influential and could impact his coaching future. “Yeah, that’s made a big difference. No major things happened this year, so that’s been huge.”

On Tuesday morning, however, Pro Football Weekly reported that the 65-year-old Arians was prepared to walk away from coaching. Among other things, Hub Arkush wrote, “Arians is a prostate cancer survivor who has battled other health issues in recent seasons and the prospect of a possible rebuild for the Cardinals with no apparent answers at quarterback on the horizon is apparently enough for Arians to decide to call it quits or at least take a hiatus from coaching.”

After opening his weekly news conference with the usual review regarding injuries and some brief thoughts from Sunday’s 23-0 shutout of the Giants, Arians brought up the report himself.

“If you want to ask me about this fake news story that has come up – I’m quoting the President now – nothing has changed. I don’t know where all that s–t came from,” Arians said, laughing. “Nothing has changed for the last month and a half and everybody keeps asking the same question.”

Arians was asked about that report specifically and why others have speculated as well that this will be his final season as coach of the Cardinals.

“I have no idea. I don’t even know who in the heck this guy is,” Arians said. “I don’t know where these supposed meetings took place. That’s fun. It was good reading.”

Asked if he’s getting a little sore about all the false reports, Arians nodded his head.

“I’m getting a little tired of it, yeah,” he said. “There will come a time and a place when we decide what we’re going to do. I guess Larry (Fitzgerald) has put up with this for like eight years. I guess I can put up with it for one.”

Arians, who is under contract for next season and has a team option for 2019, was asked how often he thinks about his coaching future in Arizona.

“I never think about it,” he said. “That’s why I get tired of them asking the question. I never think about it. I only think about Seattle. Last week, I only thought about New York, trying to figure out a way with this offensive line we’re playing with to block those guys.”

At 7-8, the Cardinals can finish the season .500 with a victory this Sunday at Seattle, where they have beaten the Seahawks three times under Arians. A win would also give Arians his 50th with the Cardinals, eclipsing the tie he shares with Ken Whisenhunt for the most victories ever by a Cardinals head coach.

“This is fun,” Arians said. “Get to 8-8 and play Seattle? It seems like we play them in the last game every year. This is our playoff game. Our guys will be motivated just like theirs. They’re going to be super motivated because they have to win (to have any chance at making the playoffs). It should be a great game.

“If you’re going to be a spoiler, that’s the one you want to do it against.”

Once that game is over, Arians will huddle with his staff, General Manager Steve Keim and the players, turn in all their reports, hold some final team meetings, and then take some time to contemplate what’s next.

“I’ll sit down with my wife and son and daughter and we’ll talk about it and see if we can make a decision sometime between Monday and February,” he said.

Arians said the futures of Fitzgerald and veteran quarterback Carson Palmer will not be tied to his decision at all. “They’re all separate,” he said. He did mention all the injuries the Cardinals suffered this season and how nice it will be to have a full arsenal of players to work with again, naming off several names such as David Johnson, Markus Golden and others.

That’s why Bruce Arians loves coaching. It’s the players, he said.

“It’s the relationships,” he said. “The relationships with the players. Building the roster. There really isn’t anything I don’t like about it.”

Then why leave?

“Who says I am?” Arians asked, laughing.

Everybody, apparently.

“Everybody out of town,” Arians said. “Everybody out of town.”

SEATTLE

Pete Carroll downplays the comments of S EARL THOMAS that indicate his star safety wants to flee Seattle and head back to Texas.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll sounded unfazed about star safety Earl Thomas telling Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to “come get me” after Sunday’s game.

“I’m up in arms,” Carroll said sarcastically on his weekly radio appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Thomas, who grew up in Texas a Cowboys fan, created a stir when he caught Garrett outside the Cowboys locker room and said, “If y’all have the chance, come get me.” In postgame interviews in the Seahawks locker room, Thomas explained he meant he wants to play in Dallas if and when the Seahawks “kicked me the curb.”

“I sat with Earl afterward, and he was like, ‘What do you mean?’” Carroll said. “He didn’t think he did anything wrong at all. He didn’t know. He was just having fun and he was really excited about the game. He was a little bit [wanting to] rub it in a little bit and have a good time with it, and then he just said something into the future. When you read it, it comes across bad. But if he had another chance, he wouldn’t say that again.

“He was really concerned about our fans. That was his first [thought], ‘Geez, I don’t want to make them think that I don’t love being here’ and all that. So he said what he could say to try to clear it up and all that.”

Thomas, 28, is signed through 2018. He earned his sixth Pro Bowl this season and has a chance for a fourth All-Pro nod. He suggested after Sunday’s game that the Seahawks have not approached him about an extension.

AFC NORTH

PITTSBURGH

Mike Tomlin hints that he’s going to give the Browns a fighting chance to win a game.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

The Steelers can earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs on Sunday, but it’s a long shot: In addition to winning, Pittsburgh needs the Jets to upset New England.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, aware that his team doesn’t control whether it’s the No. 1 seed or the No. 2 seed in the AFC, said he might rest his starters on Sunday against the Browns.

“I’m undecided as I stand here right now,” Tomlin said. “It’s obvious that those types of discussions are in play.”

If the Steelers rest their starters, they’re basically saying they don’t think there’s any way the Patriots are going to lose to the Jets, so they don’t want to risk any of their most important players getting hurt when the Patriots are going to end up with home-field advantage anyway.

By resting their starters, the Steelers would be giving a gift to the 0-15 Browns, who want to win a game before the season ends. Cleveland might get that win playing against Pittsburgh’s J.V. team.

The DB would think that treating the game like a Week 2 or 3 preseason game (with key players sitting out the second half) would be a reasonable plan – one that still might produce victory.

AFC SOUTH

HOUSTON

In what could be the emergence of a plan, Bill O’Brien signals he won’t be upset if the Texans let him coach into his walk year.  Aaron Wilson in the Houston Chronicle;

As the Texans careen toward their first losing season under Bill O’Brien, the coach has been the subject of several unconfirmed rumors about his future.

O’Brien coached the Texans to AFC South division titles each of the previous two years. This season, the Texans were likely going to repeat as champions if not for losing quarterback Deshaun Watson, defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and several other key players to injuries.

O’Brien is entering the final year of his five-year contract in 2018 and said Monday that he would be willing to coach the team next season without a contract extension. O’Brien has previously said he won’t ever quit. If the Texans don’t sign O’Brien to a contract extension or fire him, there would be multiple suitors for him on the open market. At this point, it remains a fluid situation with nothing decided.

“Yeah, sure,” O’Brien said when asked if he would be willing to coach the Texans next season. without a new contract. “Yeah, I’ll coach this team. I mean, as long as they want me to coach this team, I’ll coach the team. We have a good staff, we work very hard. It hasn’t been a good year, we know that. We know the business.

“Like, we’re not blind to what goes on in the NFL. Everybody understands that it’s a bottom-line business but we believe in what we do and again, a lot of those decisions aren’t made by me. So, I just do the best job I can to work with the staff and the players to try to get a win on Sunday.”

The Texans could execute a quick turnaround with the healthy return of Watson, Watt, Mercilus, center Nick Martin, nose tackle D.J. Reader, tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin and running back D’Onta Foreman.

The Texans sorely need to upgrade their roster, especially their offensive line and defensive backfield.

“I think every year’s different,” O’Brien said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the offseason. I believe very strongly in Deshaun Watson. I mean, that’s obvious. I think he’s a great player. But I think things have to be evaluated. Like, you have to go into the offseason and you have to figure out   what are the strengths and weaknesses of your team, of your coaching staff, of your organization, and you have to make sure that you’re trying to improve.

“I think that’s the big thing. So, for me to sit here and say, ‘What are we going to do,’ that’s a long way off. I think it’s very, very important to focus on this game and then once this game’s over, now, OK, let’s evaluate where we are in all facets of what we do.”

– – –

Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com on the QB challenges facing the Texans this week in Indy:

The Texans are likely going to need another quarterback this week, giving the NFL one final chance this regular season to ignore Colin Kaepernick.

Via Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, the Texans are discussing whether to add another backup to T.J. Yates.

Backup Taylor Heinicke suffered a concussion while Yates was being tested for a concussion last week.

“We’re talking about that right now,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Obviously Taylor’s in the protocol, but we haven’t made a decision on that yet.”

The Texans already have Deshaun Watson and Tom Savage on IR (among many others), and Heinecke was the only other quarterback on the roster last week.

They’d likely just drag Josh Johnson or someone in, since he was there earlier and “knows the playbook,” which is of course important for a 4-11 team.

But they certainly need one, since Yates was sacked six times in Monday’s loss to the Steelers, and they were a heartbeat away from having to put wide receiver Braxton Miller back at his college position.

JACKSONVILLE

The loss in SF was a proverbial wake-up call says CB A.J. BOUYE.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

“I hate to say this, but we needed this,” Bouye said, via the Florida Times-Union. “It humbled a lot of people. We recognize it and we’ve got to get ready for [Tennessee] and just get it rolling going into the playoffs.”

The wakeup call is a popular notion when a team that’s in a good groove takes one on the chin and there are certainly examples of teams stumbling before finding great success. We’ll see if the Jaguars can fall into that category and coach Doug Marrone has already said that the team won’t be throttling down in Week 17 so they’ll have an opportunity to get right back on the horse.

TENNESSEE

The Titans did everything right in springing their surprise onside kick Sunday, but the NFL revealed on Tuesday that the officiating crew did not.  Shalise Manza Young explains at Shutdown Corner:

The NFL admitted on Tuesday that referee Walt Anderson’s crew erred on Sunday when it negated a Tennessee Titans onside kick against the Los Angeles Rams.

The Titans scored in the third quarter to tie the game, 20-20, on a DeMarco Murray touchdown run.

Tennessee successfully pulled off a surprise onside kick after the score, with Brynden Trawick recovering for the Titans. But Los Angeles wasn’t in position to field the ball (likely because it was a surprise onside kick…), and the officials threw a flag.

Without explaining why the flag was thrown, it was picked up. Anderson announced to the crowd at Nissan Stadium that the Rams had called a timeout, then said they hadn’t, then ruled that the ball was never officially put in play.

Anderson’s crew forced Tennessee to kick again, and the Titans opted to kick deep.

They went on to lose, 27-23.

“The officials inadvertently miscommunicated to the Los Angeles sideline that it was a full timeout instead of a 30-second timeout” following Murray’s touchdown, NFL spokesman Michael Signora wrote in an email to The Tennesseean. “When L.A. was not ready for the kickoff due to the miscommunication, the officials decided to shut it down and allow for a re-kick.”

– – –

After the game, Titans kicker Ryan Succop said an official put the ball in play, gave the signal to begin play, and that the play clock was running when he kicked the ball.

– – –

Per Cameron Wolfe of ESPN.com, the Titans are hopeful that RB DeMARCO MURRAY can play in a “limited role” in Sunday’s showdown with the Jaguars despite a LCL strain. 

AFC EAST

 NEW ENGLAND

The Patriots play some mind games with the Steelers, signing long-time Steel City stalwart LB JAMES HARRISON with the playoffs looming.  Mike Reiss of ESPN.com:

The New England Patriots bring a lot of free agents to town for visits and workouts, as part of keeping emergency lists updated. So their visit Tuesday with outside linebacker James Harrison was hardly a surprise.

But this was more significant because the position Harrison plays is arguably the team’s greatest need.

The team’s potential interest in Harrison was foreshadowed Saturday and was timely to revisit in the wake of ESPN’s Field Yates confirming his presence in town Tuesday. The Patriots have a need, Harrison has played in big games, and there are big games ahead — possibly against Harrison’s former team, the Steelers.

That is part of what makes this intriguing.

Whereas Harrison has played just 40 snaps this season for the Steelers, who might have considered re-signing him for insurance, Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can sell him that New England is a better fit for him this year because they have a larger role to offer.

Outside of third-year man Trey Flowers, the Patriots are thin and inexperienced on the edge. It led to them most recently using 235-pound linebacker Marquis Flowers at the end of the line in their base defense. Flowers hung in admirably, but can that type of situation sustain?

The team also is relying heavily on former Bills practice squad player Eric Lee and rookie Deatrich Wise at end.

The Patriots know Harrison from having played many games against him over the years, but Belichick, Patricia & Co., haven’t had much personal background with him. On Tuesday, they had a chance to explore that side of things.

Now that they have signed him, let the fun begin.

Harrison, it seems, already has.

THIS AND THAT

 FREE AGENCY WINNERS

Field Yates of ESPN.com looks at some players who he thinks will cash in beyond your expectations come March.

We’re days away from the end of the season for 20 NFL teams, which means we’re that much closer to free agency, which officially begins March 14. The clock is ticking.

The major storyline entering free agency this year will center on the potential quarterback carousel, which could include Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Bradford, Josh McCown and more.

But it’s not always the household names who draw significant interest in free agency and result in significant financial investments. One case that exemplifies this was when the Bills lured defensive back Micah Hyde from the Packers on a five-year deal worth up to $30 million. Getting Hyde was a coup for the Bills, even if it wasn’t a move that generated the same number of headlines.

So who could be this year’s version of Hyde? Last December, I detailed a few under-the-radar guys who could get bigger deals in 2017 than most think, and I hit on a few, including Mike Glennon, Tony Jefferson and Ronald Leary.

Here is the 2018 version of unrestricted free agents to keep an eye on:

Trey Burton, TE, Philadelphia Eagles

Age: 26

Jimmy Graham headlines the 2018 class of free-agent tight ends, but it’s not a particularly strong group overall. After Graham, in fact, Burton might be the only tight end worthy of a multiyear deal, and that includes the Bengals’ injury-prone-but-talented Tyler Eifert. Burton hasn’t put up huge numbers playing with Zach Ertz — he has 59 catches and six touchdowns over the past two seasons — but he can do a bit of everything: Burton is a strong route runner and has some separation speed, and he is athletic enough to chew up yards after the catch. He has also been an impact special-teams player. He could be a starter in the NFL.

Lamarcus Joyner, DB, Los Angeles Rams

Age: 27

Joyner, who is in the prime of his career, checks off many of the traits team covet in free agency. He’s versatile, having absorbed a safety role this season after mostly playing cornerback previously, and he has terrific instincts and ball skills — he has three interceptions in 2017. The 2014 second-round pick is undersized at 5-foot-8, but he is a willing and capable tackler, and he plays in a position group that is especially desired in free agency. Teams can use him to cover the deep middle of the field and can bring him closer to the line of scrimmage to match up against tight ends. I expect a substantial market for Joyner, and the Rams also have decisions to make about three other defensive backs who will be unrestricted free agents: Trumaine Johnson, who played on the franchise tag in 2017, Cody Davis and Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Paul Richardson, WR, Seattle Seahawks

Age: 25

I don’t usually like player-to-player comparisons, but Richardson compares favorably to the Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, who got a big deal this past offseason. Stills is known for his speed, but he has shown in a more prominent role this season that his game includes much more than that. Richardson has blazing speed, too, though there’s much more to his game, as well. He has a penchant for some remarkable catches and has overcome two ACL tears. He has 44 catches and six touchdowns this season, and there could be multiple suitors for a potential No. 2 receiver such as Richardson.

Andrew Norwell, OG, Carolina Panthers

Age: 26

One recent free-agency trend that isn’t going away in 2018: top-tier offensive linemen cashing in. With the ever-present difficulty of grooming college linemen into ready-made starters as rookies, a few high-end veteran linemen have seen robust markets. Norwell could be next, as the Panthers might not be able to afford him with large cap commitments already set for linemen Matt Kalil, Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Norwell, who played on a restricted free-agent deal in 2017 and made $2.75 million, get $10 million per season on his next contract. The massive former undrafted free agent is due for a big raise.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Buffalo Bills

Age: 25

When the Bills traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins to Los Angeles in the preseason, the centerpiece of the package they received was a 2018 second-round pick. 2014 sixth-round pick Gaines, however, was also acquired, and he has exceeded expectations. He has been a reliable part of Buffalo’s secondary and is now set to hit the open market. Quarterbacks, offensive linemen and defensive backs are usually the highest-paid spots in free agency, which should set up the productive Gaines for a bigger deal.

Patrick Robinson, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

Age: 30

The 2010 first-round pick has emerged as one of the league’s best slot corners after signing a cheap, one-year deal in the offseason. He has played almost 70 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps and has contributed on special teams. The reality of today’s NFL is that almost any successful defense is going to rely upon at least three cornerbacks who can provide starting-level ability. Robinson has shown a nose for the football this season with 15 passes defensed and four interceptions, which could lead to another payday despite him turning 31 as the 2018 season begins.

Ryan Jensen, C, Baltimore Ravens

Age: 26

The center position should be viewed as invaluable, as a reliable center can do an immense amount   for an offense before the snap in terms of communication and setting the protection in addition to his contributions after the snap. 2013 sixth-round pick Jensen brings a ton of nasty to the offensive line, playing with tone-setting toughness that teammates respond to and gravitate toward. He’s unafraid to mix it up with massive interior defensive forces. Jensen, who is making $1.8 million in 2017, has played 99.8 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps this season, his first as a full-time starter. He’s a stud. 

 PRO BOWL SNUBS

Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com says PFF’s grading system reveals some shocking snubs on the Pro Bowl rosters.  One thing the DB likes about this, is Monson specifically removes a Pro Bowler when adding his.  It’s one thing to says “So-and-So is a Pro Bowler”, but if “So-and-So” is, someone else isn’t. (Same thing with the Hall of Fame, only five modern candidates go in, others have to wait):

HARRISON SMITH, S, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

PFF grade: 94.6 (Replacing Malcolm Jenkins)

The NFC really made a mess of the safety position this season. Smith has been the league’s best safety and a player who could justifiably have been slotted into either free or strong safety given how the Vikings deploy him. Smith is versatile enough that he has spent significant time as a free safety (39 percent), in the box, or even manning up covering receivers in the slot. He has the highest overall PFF grade among all safeties at 94.6 and one of the highest overall grades of any player at any position, and there is no justifiable reason for him not to make the team beyond simply not watching enough tape.

LAVONTE DAVID, LB, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

PFF grade: 93.8 (Replacing Anthony Barr)

David is a victim of the Pro Bowl ballot being unable to categorize players without tying itself in knots. Instead of running with edge defenders, interior defenders, and off-the-ball linebackers, the Pro Bowl lumps edge rushers in with off-the-ball outside linebackers, meaning elite players like David get bumped because edge rushers with sacks draw votes like moths to a flame. David has been back to his best this season, forcing five fumbles, recovering a league-leading five, and posting the third-best run-stop percentage among linebackers, with the second-most stops in the run game.

DAVID BAKHTIARI, T, GREEN BAY PACKERS

PFF grade: 89.1 (Replacing Tyron Smith)

I get that Bakhtiari missed some time to start the year with injury, and that the Packers have had less luster on their season with Aaron Rodgers hurt, but Bakhtiari has been the league’s best pass-blocking tackle – by a distance – and in a league that passes 62 percent of the time, that’s kind of important. The Packers left tackle has played in 10 games, and allowed six total pressures. Say that   again slowly to yourself because it’s not like he’s had a quarterback getting rid of the ball as quick as possible to manufacture that number. There are tackles in the league who have surrendered 77 total pressures over the season, while Bakhtiari has allowed a little more than half a pressure per game.

KEVIN BYARD, S, TENNESSEE TITANS

PFF grade: 89.6 (Replacing Eric Weddle)

This one is perhaps the greatest irony of this year’s Pro Bowl rosters. Usually the players with the gaudy box score stats make it whether they deserved it or not, but Byard is actually tied for second in the league in interceptions, having led for most of the voting period, and somehow missed despite actually matching that box score stat with his overall play. Byard has been an excellent cover safety for the Titans, really making a statement in the heart of that improved secondary, and breaking up a further seven passes (leading all safeties) on top of the six he has picked off.

JASON KELCE, C, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

PFF grade: 94.4 (Replacing Travis Frederick)

It’s tough to overstate just how good Kelce has been as a run-blocker this season. His quickness and ability to execute any block assignment thrown his way has been instrumental in that offense running as efficiently as it has. If you need any example of how well he is playing, just look at what he did this past weekend, where he was a huge reason Damon Harrison had his lowest-graded performance of the season in the middle of the Giants defensive front. Kelce has been the best run-blocking center in the game by some margin, and easily deserves a spot.

TRE’DAVIOUS WHITE, CB, BUFFALO BILLS

PFF grade: 91.9  (Replacing Aqib Talib)

Performing well as a rookie corner is hard to do, but when your team trades away their No. 1 corner before the season and you have to step into that role it’s near impossible. Yet White has done exactly that for the Buffalo Bills. Their top rookie has allowed just 48.6 percent of passes thrown into his coverage to be caught, actually better than Jalen Ramsey and 10 percentage points better than Aqib Talib. White has four picks and 11 pass breakups, and the third-best overall PFF grade with a mark of 91.9.

DARYL WILLIAMS, T, CAROLINA PANTHERS

PFF grade: 86.0 (Replacing Trent Williams)

The snub of Williams, the Panthers right tackle, is the classic Pro Bowl snub. Williams has come out of nowhere to post a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and the NFL simply takes a year to catch up to that kind of surprise. If Williams has the same kind of season in 2018, that’s the Pro Bowl roster you can expect to see him on, but it sadly means he has been snubbed this year. Williams has the highest overall PFF grade among right tackles at 86.0, just narrowly ahead of Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson, who did deservedly make the roster. Williams has been a force this year for Carolina and is unfortunate he simply isn’t well known enough yet to feature.

DOUG BALDWIN, WR, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

PFF grade: 86.5  (Replacing Larry Fitzgerald)

There are players with more receiving yards and touchdowns than Baldwin, but few who are making   the kind of down-to-down impact that he does on that passing game, in tandem with QB Russell Wilson. When Wilson goes off the reservation in the backfield, making magic happen, it’s typically Baldwin that he’s heaving a prayer in the general direction of, and Baldwin typically making those passes look a lot better advised than they were when they left Wilson’s hand. Baldwin has the third-highest overall PFF grade in the NFC, behind only Julio Jones and Michael Thomas of the Saints.

MELVIN INGRAM, EDGE, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

PFF grade: 91.0  (Replacing Jadeveon Clowney or Terrell Suggs)

Ingram somehow misses out for a couple of players who are more hype or reputation than substance in 2017. Von Miller deserves his spot on the AFC roster, but Ingram has been markedly better than either Jadeveon Clowney or Terrell Suggs this year. Ingram has 69 total pressures, more than all but Miller, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Khalil Mack, and that’s 13 more than Clowney has managed despite fewer snaps rushing the passer. Ingram hasn’t been simply a pass-rush specialist either, and actually has more run stops than Suggs, and just five fewer than Clowney.

DAMON HARRISON, DI, NEW YORK GIANTS

PFF grade: 90.7  (Replacing Gerald McCoy)

People just don’t appreciate the run game when it comes to Pro Bowl voting. The interior players with all the sacks get the votes, and players like Harrison, who is truly unstoppable against the run, are ignored. Harrison – again – leads all interior defenders with 33 defensive stops, a year after leading the league with 52. He is within touching distance of leading it again in run-stop percentage, which would mark the fifth straight season he has led this statistical category, or every year of his career in which he played more than a dozen snaps. Put on the tape and watch Harrison against the run closely, he is just a force that changes how teams have to run the ball against the Giants.

MICHAEL THOMAS, S, MIAMI DOLPHINS (ST)

PFF grade: 79.7  (Replacing Matthew Slater)

Matthew Slater has a lock on the AFC special teams spot for the Pro Bowl, and he has been a great   special-teamer in the past, but he is getting there now on name recognition alone. He isn’t even the best special-teams player on his own team, but he is the one on the ballot. Slater has just 12 total snaps as a gunner this year, at least 26 fewer than either player ahead of him. Miami’s Thomas is the true “special teams ace” people think Slater is, and he may once have been. Thomas has 10 special teams tackles without missing any, plays all five phases of special teams, has a 27.3 percent win rate as a vice (the player blocking gunners), which ranks fifth in the league. He didn’t make the team simply because people don’t have a good handle on who is playing well on special teams.

ADRIAN AMOS, S, CHICAGO BEARS

PFF grade: 92.3  (Replacing Landon Collins)

Another NFC safety in need of redress, Amos has been fantastic all season for Chicago. He has graded exceptionally well both in coverage and against the run, and on plays that he has been primary coverage on, he has allowed an average of just 5.8 yards per catch. He has forced a pair of fumbles, recovered one, and returned his interception for a touchdown. He has a top-15 run-stop percentage score and the fourth-best tackling efficiency mark among all safeties.

 

 2018 DRAFT

Dan Graziano of ESPN.com has a long look at the upcoming QB class here.  After he breaks down each of the leading contenders, here is how he sees the interest in QBs among the member clubs:

Oh, how much time do you have? Here’s a start, with some help from the Football Power Index’s projected draft order:

Cleveland Browns

Projected draft picks: Nos. 1 and 5

They could pick any of these guys they want. And they need one. DeShone Kizer appears to be far away from being a consistent NFL quarterback, if he ever will be, and Cleveland has been looking for answers at this position seemingly since the days of Bernie Kosar. New GM John Dorsey will surely make quarterback his top offseason priority.

New York Giants

Projected draft pick: No. 3

The Giants still have a shot to pick No. 2, which could put them in position to draft Eli Manning’s successor. Their quarterback depth chart features Manning and completely untested 2017 third-rounder Davis Webb. They could move on from Manning after this season and turn it over to a couple of young guys, or they could keep Manning if they think whichever QB they pick here isn’t ready to start.

Cincinnati Bengals

Projected draft pick: No. 8

AJ McCarron could be an Andy Dalton successor, but McCarron also could be an unrestricted free agent. If a new coaching staff wants to make changes in Cincinnati, Dalton could be on the outs, and the Bengals could be looking for other options.

Denver Broncos

Projected draft pick: No. 9

They are two years removed from taking Paxton Lynch in the first round and still apparently no closer to an answer at this position. With Trevor Siemian having flopped, Lynch unable to stay healthy and Brock Osweiler being … well, a bit tough to trust, Denver could look for an answer in the top 10.

New York Jets

Projected draft pick: No. 10

Here’s another team, like Cleveland, perpetually searching for answers at QB. The Jets got a lightning-in-a-bottle year from 38-year-old Josh McCown, but Bryce Petty hasn’t shown much, and they haven’t had any kind of look at Christian Hackenberg. They could bring back McCown to mentor their pick.

Arizona Cardinals

Projected draft pick: No. 11

Will Carson Palmer retire? Will Bruce Arians? Will Larry Fitzgerald? Talk about uncertainty. Arizona is teeming with it. The Cardinals haven’t addressed Palmer’s successor in either of the past two drafts, which is a bit of a surprise.

Miami Dolphins

Projected draft pick: No. 13

The Fins could bring back Ryan Tannehill, but money isn’t an issue if they were to release him. Assuming Jay Cutler resumes his TV career, Miami could be on the hunt.

Washington Redskins

Projected draft pick: No. 14

If Kirk Cousins leaves as a free agent, Washington is stuck with Colt McCoy.

Los Angeles Chargers

Projected draft pick: No. 16

Like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers is getting up there. And the Chargers don’t have a replacement on the roster.

Buffalo Bills

Projected draft picks: Nos. 17 and 24

It sure doesn’t look as if the Bills are sold on Tyrod Taylor. And while they believe in Nathan Peterman to a certain degree, they also could jump if they find someone they like better in this intriguing class.

Baltimore Ravens

Projected draft pick: No. 22

Joe Flacco’s contract leaves the Ravens on the hook for at least another year or two, but the backup situation is woeful, and if you find a guy you like, it’s never the wrong time to take him.

New Orleans Saints

Projected draft pick: No. 26

Drew Brees is eligible for free agency, and while there’s no reason to think he’s going anywhere, he will turn 39 in January. The Saints could look for a successor.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected draft pick: No. 28

The way Blake Bortles is playing makes it look as if the Jags will keep him around. But that doesn’t mean they’ll ignore other options if he reverts to old form. He is signed only through 2018.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Projected draft pick: No. 29

You know you will hear that Ben Roethlisberger retirement talk again this offseason. You know you will.

Minnesota Vikings

Projected draft pick: No. 30

Things are going well with Case Keenum. Heck, Minnesota could end up winning the Super Bowl with him and signing him long term. But the fact is that Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford are all unrestricted free agents, and there is loads of long-range uncertainty about this position in Minnesota, regardless of how well the Vikings are playing now.

New England Patriots

Projected draft pick: No. 32

Their backup situation isn’t what it was a year ago when they had Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett behind Tom Brady. And while he doesn’t play like it, Brady is 40 years old. It’s not crazy to imagine the Pats dipping their toes into this water. And remember: New England got San Francisco’s pick at the top of the second round in the Garoppolo trade.