The Daily Briefing Wednesday, January 24, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Alberto Riveron will be back for a second season as the NFL’s head of officiating, ESPN feels the need to report. Kevin Seifert:
The NFL will retain senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron for the 2018 season, a league spokesman told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Riveron had a bumpy first season on the job after replacing Dean Blandino, who resigned to join Fox Sports. Riveron’s promotion coincided with an NFL initiative to give final say on replay reviews to its New York-based officiating department.
The structure was created with Blandino’s skills in mind; he had spent three seasons preparing in the league’s command center and had been a part of the replay department for 10 years before that. Riveron, a former referee, hired former replay official Russell Yurk to assist him as vice president of replay.
But Blandino and another former officiating chief, Mike Pereira, who is also an analyst for Fox Sports, were at times highly critical of their decisions. They questioned whether Riveron and Yurk had veered away from the standard of supporting the call on the field unless there is “clear and obvious” evidence of a mistake.
The issue came to a head in Week 16, when Riveron and Yurk reversed a touchdown reception by the Buffalo Bills’ Kelvin Benjamin late in the first half of an eventual 37-16 loss to the New England Patriots. A frame-by-frame analysis indicated that Benjamin might not have secured possession until after he stepped out of bounds, but Bills owner Terry Pegula was among those who said replay was never intended to make such precise distinctions.
Not everyone in the NFL disagreed with Riveron’s approach, and some thought he could smooth out the drama with better public explanations. Regardless, the NFL spokesman told Schefter that Riveron will return with the support of commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league.
Coach Mike Zimmer wraps up the season that came up one win short of the home Super Bowl appearance.
He admitted something was amiss with his defense Sunday in Philadelphia, and the week before. Chris Thomasson in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press:
The Vikings finished first in scoring and total defense during the regular season, but that didn’t mean much in the playoffs. After allowing an average of 15.8 points and 275.9 yards a game during the regular season, they gave up averages of 31 points and 407 yards in two postseason games.
It got especially ugly in Sunday’s 38-7 loss in the NFC championship game at Philadelphia. The Eagles’ 38 points and 456 yards were season-highs for the Vikings’ defense.
“There’s some things that I really want to look at in this offseason,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday. “There’s some other teams I want to study that have done a good job. I want to go back and evaluate a lot of our rush situations to see if we can improve in some of those areas, go back and see why we were good on third downs.”
The Vikings led the league in third-down defense during the regular season, allowing conversations at a rate of just 25.2 percent, the best NFL figure since Minnesota in 1975. But the Eagles converted 10 of 14 third-down plays for 71.4 percent on Sunday.
Afterward, Zimmer, who calls the defensive plays, said he could have “called a lot better game.”
“Sometimes when you’re sticking with things, and it’s been successful for you, you continue to do it, and maybe I did it a little bit too long,” he said Tuesday. “That’s all a part of the process of self-scouting, evaluation and things as you go forward.”
After the Vikings won the NFC North with a 13-3 record and advanced to the championship game for the first time since 2009, Zimmer has optimism for 2018. With the Vikings soon to move their headquarters to the new TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Zimmer pointed to the banners in the Winter Park field house.
“One of the things I want to do is put up another one of those banners,” he said.
“This football team did some very good things. … Unfortunately, we didn’t reach the ultimate goal,” Zimmer said. “I’m still proud of how this team went about their business this year and the things they were able to accomplish, the fortitude they had … and really the chemistry they had in the locker room.
“It’s disappointing to lose, but we’re going to try to figure out every possible way how we can improve.”
Then on his QB situation. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Zimmer conceded that it is “unique” to head into the offseason with questions at the position after advancing to the NFC Championship Game and that seems an apt definition for a team that has three quarterbacks set for free agency. Zimmer said he wasn’t “prepared to comment” on any specific plans concerning Case Keenum, Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater.
“We’re gonna work through the process just like I always do,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to evaluate all the players, we’re gonna evaluate everybody and we’re gonna go about our business like we always do.”
Zimmer did say that he thinks Bradford is over the knee problems that knocked him out of the lineup for all but a half after the first week of the season. Bradford was able to return to the active roster in the postseason and served as the No. 2 ahead of Bridgewater, who made one relief appearance during the regular season to mark his only playing time since the end of the 2015 season.
Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com with some shakeups among the Cowboys coaching staff:
The Cowboys finalized an agreement to hire Kellen Moore to join the coaching staff as the new quarterbacks coach, owner Jerry Jones said at the Senior Bowl.
Moore spent parts of the past three seasons in the Cowboys’ quarterbacks room. He replaces Wade Wilson, whose contract was not renewed.
“I don’t want to get ahead of an overall announcement, but I’m glad that we’re going to have Kellen with us in the future,” Jones said, via David Helmen of the team website. “We’ll get down to the specific announcements on that, but we have completed an agreement with Kellen.”
Jones said the team also re-signed running backs coach Gary Brown, and he lauded the addition of wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. The former Colts receivers coach was one of the “most sought-after” assistant coaches in the NFL, Jones said.
Jones expects to see big improvement from the team’s receiving corps with the addition of Lal.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants are hiring James Bettcher, formerly DC of the Cardinals, as their defensive coordinator. He also was coveted by the Titans.
New OC Norv Turner says that he will not shutter QB CAM NEWTON into the pocket. Steve Reed of the AP:
Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner has no plans to restrict Cam Newton’s ability to make plays with his feet. As for the quarterback’s throwing motion, well that might need a little tweaking.
The 65-year-old Turner said he returned to coaching because of an opportunity to work again with Panthers coach Ron Rivera — who was on his coaching staff for four seasons in San Diego — and to coach the talented group of offensive players led by Newton.
“He’s an amazing player for his position,” Turner said Tuesday on a conference call.
The versatile 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton has carried the ball 828 times over the past seven seasons — by far the most in the league by a quarterback during that span. By comparison, Seattle’s Russell Wilson has run the ball 578 times during his six seasons in the league.
While it’s logical to question how much pounding Newton’s body can take — he turns 29 in May — it’s also hard to argue with his success.
He’s averaged 5.2 yards per carry and has scored 54 touchdowns rushing, which is the most by a QB in NFL history. And Newton tends to play better when he’s more involved in the running game.
“He’s a real threat to defenses,” Tuner said. “So he will always have that threat to run.”
That should be music to Newton’s ears.
After Newton carried the ball a career-high 139 times last season and led the Panthers in rushing with 754 yards, he said “that’s my edge.”
“I wouldn’t expect you or anybody else to take it away,” Newton said following Carolina’s season-ending playoff loss at New Orleans. “And when I say you, I mean the media as a whole. I’m comfortable running the football, I feel like I help the team when I’m running the football, and as long as I’m playing this game, I’m going to run the football.”
Turner suggested that he and his son Scott Turner, the team’s new quarterbacks coach, will look to improve Newton’s throwing mechanics.
Because he’s so big Newton has a tendency to rely on his strong arm and throw off his back foot, often resulting in high throws that lead to incompletions or interceptions. Turner said that while sometimes those types of throws are necessary under pressure, the staff “is going to work hard to get his weight transferred and have good technique when he is throwing.”
A confident Steve Wilkes meets the Arizona media. Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic:
The Cardinals’ coaching search lasted three weeks and included traveling thousands of air miles and conducting hours of interviews. It ended on Monday with the selection of a man who had been on their list of candidates for the past few years:
“I didn’t know how long Bruce (Arians) was going to coach,” General Manager Steve Keim said on Tuesday, “so it’s my job to prepare for the future. I had to have a running list over the past several years and Steve Wilks was one of the top names on it.”
Wilks, who signed a four-year contract with a team option for a fifth year, was introduced at a news conference on Tuesday.
The Cardinals interviewed nine NFL assistants for the job, but only Wilks and Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong had second interviews.
“We knew three weeks ago that one person would stand out,” team President Michael Bidwill said. “We just didn’t know which one. We found a great leader. He doesn’t just coach football players; he coaches people.”
Wilks mentioned the usual things coaches do in such settings: assembling a team that works hard, is committed to improving and will compete for championships.
Wilks, 48, didn’t provide many details about how the Cardinals would look under his direction.
Will they run a 4-3 base defense or a 3-4? Could be either one, said Wilks, who has coached in both systems.
Quarterback? The Cardinals need to find one, he said.
Coaching staff? He would like to have coordinators in place by the Super Bowl, Feb. 4.
“Before you start talking about any scheme – offense, defense, special teams – you have to have that trust,” Wilks said. “That commitment, every day walking into this building, is about getting better today than we were yesterday.
“There is no entitlement, not from me, not from any of those players.”
Wilks was a defensive coordinator for only one season, but he was assistant head coach for one year with the Chargers and with the Panthers under Ron Rivera, in addition to coaching defensive backs.
Wilks interviewed for several head-coaching jobs this month, but those teams chose other candidates. The Cardinals brought Wilks to Arizona for a second interview last Friday and Saturday, and both sides felt a connection, they said.
So Wilks became the Cardinals’ ninth head coach (excluding one interim) in their 30 years in Arizona.
Wilks opened the news conference by thanking many of the coaches who shaped his career, including Rivera, who gave him added responsibility as the assistant head coach.
At each of his three NFL stops – Chicago, San Diego and Carolina – Wilks earned a reputation as a demanding teacher who developed talent and had the respect of his players.
Several of Wilks’ former players made unsolicited calls to Keim and Bidwill to lobby for Wilks.
“He really got the most out of us, day-in and day-out,” said Ravens safety Eric Weddle, who played for Wilks with the Chargers. “I loved my time with him and knew he would get this opportunity.”
During the interview process, Keim and Bidwill were impressed with Wilks’ charisma and became convinced Wilks possessed the attributes they were looking for.
It was obvious on Tuesday that Wilks doesn’t lack confidence.
“I’ve gotten the reputation throughout this league as one of a great teacher, a guy that can relate to players and get them to perform at a high level,” Wilks said.
After thanking several of his mentors, Wilks turned to Bidwill and Keim and said, “You guys made the right decision. I really believe that.”
Wilks has talked with several Cardinals players, including running back David Johnson, cornerback Patrick Peterson and receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, Wilks said, didn’t say whether he was retiring.
“We had a very in-depth conversation,” Wilks said. “We’d definitely love to have him back. He’s a major part of our success – past, present and future. First ballot Hall of Famer, so we definitely want him back.”
Finding someone to throw the ball to Fitzgerald, provided he returns for a 15th season, is a priority for the Cardinals. They don’t have a quarterback under contract for 2018.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Wilks said. “We don’t have a quarterback. Steve and I have addressed that issue. We’ve sat down with Michael, as well. We’re going to have a very active and aggressive plan in free agency, and we’ll see what’s going to happen in the draft.”
The lack of a quarterback was an issue as the Cardinals searched for a coach, but Bidwill has viewed it as a positive. The new coach and his staff, he said, would have a hand in picking Carson Palmer’s successor.
But finding a head coach with an offensive background obviously was not part of the Cardinals’ criteria. The job is bigger than that, Keim said.
“You have to make sure you’re hiring the right offensive coordinator,” Keim said. “The quarterback coach is so essential. To me, it’s about putting together a quality staff. More than anything through this search, it was finding the right leader.”
– – –
For the critical position of offensive coordinator, the Cardinals have interviewed former Seahawks OC Darrell Bevall. Mike McCoy, the former Chargers coach who was fired in mid-year as OC of the Broncos, is also going to be interviewed.
Al Holcomb, who was with Steve Wilkes in Carolina as DB coach, is linked to the defensive coordinator position.
Coach Sean McDermott did a two-step when asked about QB TYROD TAYLOR. Mike Rodak of ESPN.com:
“I’m not gonna get into Tyrod [Taylor’s] future. We’re still going through our evaluation and those decisions will come at some point down the road here.”
The Patriots are the home team in Super Bowl 52, but they have chosen to wear their “away” white jerseys.
Super Bowl LII is on the way, and both the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles have reason to be confident in the uniforms they’ll wear to the big game.
Serving as the official “home” team for Feb. 4’s Minneapolis showdown, New England announced Tuesday that it has elected to wear its “away” white jerseys against the Eagles, and recent history shows that the Pats are triumphant in those threads. New England is undefeated when wearing white under Bill Belichick in Super Bowls, and the team will be looking for a fourth straight Lombardi Trophy in those jerseys. Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowl champions, per ESPN’s Evan Kaplan, have also worn white.
Home team, away jerseys.#Patriots elect to wear white for #SuperBowl; team is 3-0 in white in Super Bowls under Bill Belichick. #GoPats #NotDone
Patriots will wear their road white jerseys in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles, per @MikeReiss. The team wearing white jerseys has won the Super Bowl in 12 of the previous 13 seasons, per @EpKap.
The Eagles shouldn’t feel too shabby about donning their signature green, however. As Bleeding Green Nation’s Brandon Lee Gowton pointed out Tuesday, Philadelphia has won all but one of its 2017 games in home colors, going 10-1, with the lone loss coming in a meaningless regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys. Both of the Eagles’ playoff victories this season have also come with the team in green jerseys.
For the record, Raymond Berry’s Patriots lost Super Bowl 20 to the Bears wearing red.
But the Bill Parcells’ Pats were in white for the Super Bowl 31 loss to Green Bay. So New England is 4-1 overall in white, 1-3 in blue or red. The one time the Patriots won in blue was in Super Bowl 39 against Carolina, when Justin Timberlake was also involved in the halftime show.
– – –
The best hope NFL teams have for stopping TOM BRADY could be his wife. Greg Bishop of SI.com:
Last spring Brady and his family vacationed with retired kicker Jay Feely, a close friend from their college days at Michigan. This being Brady, Feely prefers not to disclose the locale, but he does share that Brady’s wife, the supermodel Gisele Bündchen, spent time on that trip “trying to get me to convince [Tom] to stop playing.” And, Feely adds, “she was dead serious.”
Feely says he looked at his friend and told him, “Play as long as you can.” Brady smiled back and winked.
“For years he wanted to prove he belonged in this league,” Feely says. “He won three Super Bowls and still used perceived slights to motivate himself. And he’s still finding ways to motivate himself.”
Now Brady will play in his eighth Super Bowl, a feat, like so many other Brady feats, that is unlikely to be duplicated. (There are Hall of Fame quarterbacks who completed passes at a lower rate than Brady reaches Super Bowls.) An hour after his latest triumph, he made his way from the locker room to the parking garage. He held Gisele’s hand while an entourage of 10 or so trailed a few feet behind, flanked by security guards in bright orange vests.
The thumb stitched and the season saved, the best quarterback of a generation walked off into the night. He was, once again, hands down, the Super Bowl favorite.
THIS AND THAT
THE PROGRAM AD AND THE NFL’S NEW PROGRAM
In an alternative universe, a veterans’ group tries to spend $30,000 of its money for an ad in the Super Bowl program asking fans to stand up for the National Anthem. The fans, 100% of whom will stand up for the anthem anyway, barely notice the ad and if they do, they approve of it.
A reporter sees the ad in the free program provided in the press box and sends out a Tweet with a caption that implies a raised eyebrow. Other media members re-tweet and a handful of activists get upset for a few minutes. The overwhelming reaction from the rest of the universe is don’t these media folks have anything better to do than get upset over an ad that asks fans to do something they are going to do anyway.
But this is our universe – and this is what happened. The AP version:
The NFL has denied advertising space in the Super Bowl program for a veterans group that declined to alter language about standing for the national anthem.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed Tuesday that American Veterans, or AMVETS , submitted an advertisement last week to the third-party publisher of the game program with the message, “Please Stand.”
McCarthy said the league, which has editorial control over the content, asked AMVETS to consider other options for the message, such as “Please Honor our Veterans” or “Please Stand for our Veterans.” The two organizations were unable to agree on language in time to meet production deadlines. McCarthy said a separate ad from the Veterans of Foreign Wars group with the words “We Stand for Veterans” was approved.
Some NFL players have taken to kneeling during the national anthem over the last two seasons to raise awareness of social and racial injustice, issues that created division within the league. The NFL announced Tuesday that an owner-player committee was being created to try to address them.
Commissioner Roger Goodell was sent a letter dated Monday from AMVETS national commander Marion Polk to express the Lanham, Maryland-based organization’s dismay with the league’s decision.
“Freedom of speech works both ways. We respect the rights of those who choose to protest, as these rights are precisely what our members have fought — and in many cases died — for,” Polk said in his letter to Goodell. “But imposing corporate censorship to deny that same right to those veterans who have secured it for us all is reprehensible and totally beyond the pale.”
AMVETS said the same ad was accepted by the NHL and NBA for use in official programs for their All-Star Games.
McCarthy said the NFL game program has “never been a place for advertising that could be considered by some as a political statement. The NFL has long supported the military and veterans and will again salute our service members in the Super Bowl with memorable on-field moments that will be televised as part of the game.”
And this from a search of trending stories:
NFL Rejects 2018 Super Bowl Program Ad About National Anthem …
Bleacher Report-5 hours ago
The AMVETS’ organization had its proposal for a one-page ad in the Super Bowl LII program was rejected by the NFL. AMVETS executive director Joe Chenelly told Erik Brady of USA Today the ad wasn’t designed as a commentary on NFL player protests that have occurred during the national anthem.
NFL rejects ‘Please Stand’ ad for Super Bowl 52 program
Sporting News-9 hours ago
NFL rejects veterans group’s ‘Please Stand’ ad for Super Bowl …
Los Angeles Times-6 hours ago
NFL rejects military veterans’ ‘Please Stand’ Super Bowl program ad
Highly Cited-ABC News-16 hours ago
NFL rejects veterans group’s Super Bowl ad urging people to stand …
Opinion-Fox News-21 hours ago
NFL rejects Super Bowl LII program ad submitted by veterans group
Highly Cited-USA TODAY-21 hours ago
So, the only acceptable reason for standing for the Anthem as the NFL sees it is to specifically honor veterans? A general request to “stand” is a “political” distinction that those in charge of the NFL’s image thought would be disadvantageous to the League?
On the same morning the NFL had to listen to complaints of flag lovers, it was announcing a new program for “social justice” commanding more listening. Harry Lyles, Jr. at SBNation.com:
The NFL announced its initiative for a commitment to social justice, “Let’s Listen Together,” on Tuesday.
The group’s focus, according to the NFL’s release, will be “on supporting programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, with a priority on supporting improvements in education and economic development, community and police relations, and the criminal justice system. It will work directly with league staff to help identify future initiatives that have both broad support and a potential for high impact and make financial recommendations accordingly.”
The NFL will highlight societal issues, individuals, and organizations through players in NFL Network features that will debut on Thursday, Jan. 25 on NFL Total Access, with the first including Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. It will focus on “racial bias and social and emotional intelligence training for police officers.”
The conference championship game ratings were not down 10% like most of the other ratings this year. The AP:
More than 40 million people watched the NFL’s two preliminaries for the Super Bowl on Sunday, a drop of more than 8 percent compared to last year’s conference championship games.
The Nielsen company said an average of 43.2 million people watched the games. While that’s down from the 47.1 million who watched the conference championships last year, it was a more heartening report than the NFL had gotten only a week earlier. This year’s divisional championship round had seen a 16 percent dip in audience size.
Night games generally do better in the ratings than afternoon contests, but not this year. The New England-Jacksonville contest that ended around dinnertime was a better game featuring the league’s marquee player in Tom Brady. That game reached 44.1 million, compared to the 42.3 million who watched Philadelphia blow out Minnesota, Nielsen said.
After seeing viewership erosion all year, the NFL will be anxious to see if that extends to the secular holiday of Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 4. The Super Bowl is the most-watched television event each year.
The NFC game boosted Fox’s new medical soap, “The Resident,” which reached 8.65 million viewers for its premiere episode on Sunday. Television viewers had their stethoscopes handy, with medical shows “The Good Doctor,” ”Grey’s Anatomy” and “Chicago Med” also landing among Nielsen’s 20 most popular programs last week.
With a prime-time football game, Fox won the week by averaging 10.6 million viewers. CBS had 6.9 million, ABC had 4.74 million, NBC had 4.69 million, the CW had 1.53 million, Univision had 1.47 million, ION Television had 1.3 million and Telemundo had 1.2 million.
– – –
For the week of Jan. 15-21, the top 10 shows, their networks and viewerships: NFC Championship: Minnesota vs. Philadelphia, Fox, 42.3 million; “NFC Championship Post-Game” (9:39-9:47 p.m. ET), Fox, 26.53 million; “NFC Championship Post-Game” (9:47-10:04 p.m. ET), Fox, 18.88 million; “The Big Bang Theory,” CBS, 14.92 million;
So even in their depressed state, about three times as many people watched the NFC game as watched any other primetime show.
And we like that saying, “secular holiday” to describe Super Bowl Sunday.
At the Senior Bowl, Oklahoma QB BAKER MAYFIELD is resisting comparisons to Johnny Manziel. Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:
Former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield arrived late to Tuesday’s Senior Bowl practice after flying home to be with his mother, whom he said was hospitalized.
“My mom’s not doing too great,” Mayfield said, via Nicki Jhabvala of The Denver Post. “Family first. Always. Doesn’t matter what the situation is. I would never put myself before my mom. . . . As soon as I found out, I booked my flight home. It wasn’t about delaying measuring. I’ll measure tomorrow if it’s that big of a deal. I don’t care. Like I said, family first.”
Mayfield became defensive when a fan website questioned his reasons for arriving late, speculating the Heisman Trophy winner was avoiding being measured. Mayfield showed his obvious irritation with his response on Twitter, writing, “Showing up late? What would you do if your mom had gone to the hospital? Get outta here. Family before myself always.”
Mayfield is seeking to answer any questions about his image after his arrest a year ago, his flag-planting at Ohio State and his crotch-grabbing against Kansas. He insists there are no off-the-field concerns.
“Everybody wants to portray the bad boy, the Johnny Manziel stuff, but I love the game of football,” Mayfield said. “There’s no doubt about that. I’m an emotional player. I do anything it takes to win. I love being around my teammates, and I love leading and having responsibility.”
As for his height, Broncos coach Vance Joseph — Mayfield’s coach in the Senior Bowl who could become his coach in the NFL — said he has no concern about that.
“I think that’s fine,” Joseph said. “You watch Drew Brees play, he’s figured it out. He’s a very successful quarterback. Guys figure it out. Good players figure it out. I wouldn’t be concerned about that.”
– – –
Washington State QB LUKE FALK is thinking about his late teammate Tyler Hilinski at the Reese’s Senior Bowl:
Washington State QB Luke Falk has two missions this week as he competes at the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
He’ll be looking to prove himself on a big stage against some of the nation’s top prospects at the annual all-star game, and he’ll be honoring his late teammate, QB Tyler Hilinski.
Falk decided to change his jersey number from 4 to 3 this week at the Senior Bowl after Hilinski was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on Jan. 16. Hilinski wore No. 3 for the Cougars.
“I felt like it’s what I needed to do,” Falk said on Tuesday during media day at the Senior Bowl. “He needs to be remembered. He was an amazing person, an amazing soul. This guy was one of the most outgoing, bubbly … just a guy you really want to be around. People need to know it.”
Falk, who attended a candlelight vigil for Hilinski on Friday, wore a white hat with Hilinski’s red No. 3 on the side of it during the media session on Tuesday.
They were teammates for the past three seasons, with Hilinski serving as Falk’s backup. Falk said he and Hilinski pushed each other to be at their best, but that the competition was out of love.
It’s clear Hilinski will never be far from mind for Falk this week as he continues to mourn the loss of his friend.
“I think all of us that were close to him just kind of go back and ask ourselves ‘were there signs, what could we have done?’ I think we all kind of feel a little bit of guilt,” Falk said. “I wish I could give him one more hug, one more pat on the butt and let him know he’s loved.”
– – –
Here are my updated top 32 prospects for the 2018 NFL draft right now, plus my top 10 prospects at each position.
Note: Underclassmen marked with asterisks.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State*
Grade: 95 | Previous rank: 2
Barkley was the best running back in the nation this season, racking up more than 1,200 yards on 5.9 yards per carry and 18 TDs despite regularly facing eight and nine men in the box. Barkley has a distinctive combination of size, agility and power. There just aren’t many 230-plus pound backs with his feet and acceleration. …This guy is clean and complete as they come.
2. Sam Darnold, QB, USC*
Grade: 94 | Previous rank: 3
There’s no doubt that Darnold made some questionable decisions throwing the football this season (13 INTs) and picked up some bad habits behind a shaky offensive line (specifically erratic pocket poise and loose handling of the football). But when his base and feet are right, Darnold can be a very accurate passer. His ability to extend and improvise is an important trait, and there’s a lot to like about his intangibles and leadership skills. Josh Rosen is more polished as a pocket passer, but I think Darnold’s ceiling is higher.
3. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA*
Grade: 93 | Previous rank: 1
This will remain a close race between Darnold and Rosen for the top QB spot. I think it was obvious to anyone who watched the USC-UCLA game that Rosen is far more NFL ready than Darnold as a pocket passer right now…Rosen also needs to sell teams during the pre-draft process on his coachability, leadership skills and passion for the game.
4. Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State
Grade: 93 | Previous rank: 5
…Chubb was very productive this season, with a remarkable 25.0 TFL and 10.0 sacks. He’s a great all-around player.
5. Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama*
Grade: 93 | Previous rank: 4
…A solid all-around player, he could be in the mix for the No. 1 pick depending on the team.
6. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
Grade: 92 | Previous rank: 10
Ward wasn’t high enough on my radar early in the year, but I went back and watched some tape from this season — and boy was I impressed…
7. Tremaine Edmunds, OLB, Virginia Tech*
Grade: 92 | Previous rank: 31
He is a versatile linebacker with a great frame and speed for his size (6-foot-5, 236 pounds)…He’s rising on boards right now.
8. Roquan Smith, OLB, Georgia*
Grade: 91 | Previous rank: 19
An athletic sideline-to-sideline weakside linebacker, Smith played well on the biggest stage in the College Football Playoff.
9. Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame*
Grade: 91 | Previous rank: 17
Nelson is a road-grader with the size (listed at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds), strength, polish and toughness to start immediately in the NFL. He seems like one of the safer prospects at this point.
10. Vita Vea, DT, Washington*
Grade: 91 | Previous rank: 28
Listed at 6-4, 346, the former high school running back was a space-eater in the middle of Washington’s defense… He has the potential to put up some silly numbers at the combine.
11. Derwin James, S, Florida State*
Grade: 92 | Previous rank: 6
James is one of the most versatile players we’ve ever evaluated. A third-year sophomore, James tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee in the second game of 2016 and received a medical redshirt. He played well despite a disappointing overall season for Florida State. James is one of the most talented prospects in this draft and should have a good combine showing.
12. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Grade: 91 | Previous rank: NR
Evans came on strong this season, tying Ronnie Harrison with a team-high 74 tackles. He was sensational in the College Football Playoff games…With the ability to line up inside and outside, Evans has raised his stock considerably and looks to be a first-round pick. Medical results will be key to his draft stock.
13. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma*
Grade: 91 | Previous rank: 24
The son of the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown, the younger Brown is a better fit at right tackle in the pros, though he has played exclusively at left tackle in a run-heavy Oklahoma scheme. He played well down the stretch.
14. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming*
Grade: 90 | Previous rank: 15
Outside of scouting circles, Allen was a relative unknown coming into the season. Most of his appearances in the national spotlight (at Iowa, vs. Oregon, at Boise State) didn’t go well, but some of that was him and some of it was a poor supporting cast. He is one of the most physically gifted QBs to come out of college in the past five years. He has an elite arm and frame (listed at 6-5, 233) and can make every throw when his feet are right, as he showed in the bowl game against Central Michigan. If he improves his footwork and makes fewer low-percentage throws into heavy coverage, the sky is the limit for Allen.
15. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
Grade: 90 | Previous rank: 14
In 2016, McGlinchey moved from right tackle to the left side vacated by Ravens first-round pick Ronnie Stanley. An above-average zone blocker, McGlinchey plays angles well and gives good effort. He does everything well, but isn’t outstanding in any one area. A high-floor prospect.
16. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Grade: 90 | Previous rank: 13
Ridley didn’t get a chance to showcase his full potential in Alabama’s run-heavy offense, but he averaged 15.3 yards per catch this season and scored a TD in both playoff games…He’s the clear No. 1 receiver in this class, though I’m not sure if he’s a true No. 1 wideout in the NFL.
17. Joshua Jackson, CB, Iowa*
Grade: 90 | Previous rank: 21
Jackson made my Top 32 list after his three-INT game against Ohio State, and he has stayed here since…He’s still developing consistency with his footwork and eyes, but he’s one of the top CBs coming out. He led the nation with eight INTs this season.
18. Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama*
Grade: 89 | Previous rank: NR
Payne had a good season overall with 53 total tackles and a sack, but I love that he played some of his best football in the playoff. An excellent run-stuffer, he’s tough to move off the ball and has the upper-body strength to control blockers and get off blocks.
19. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Grade: 89 | Previous rank: 27
My ninth-ranked QB entering the season, the 2017 Heisman winner has done a ton to improve his draft stock. As good as Mayfield’s numbers were this season (4,627 yards, 43 TDs, 6 INTs), he’s even more impressive to me as a team leader. Teammates rally around him. So what will be the pre-draft concerns? First off, his measurables will be scrutinized. Is he 6 feet tall? Does he have 9-inch hands? Does he have the size to hold up physically or will the NFL look more like the second half of the loss to Georgia, where his efficiency dipped after taking a beating? Secondly, I think it will be critically important to study his “pressure drops” on tape. Few QBs in the country were afforded more clean pockets than Mayfield at OU. So teams will want to really focus on his effectiveness when under pressure and look for any concerning tendencies (like his tendency to bail to his right).
20. Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College
Grade: 89 | Previous rank: 8
Landry led the nation with 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2016. I still have concerns about his size (listed at 6-3, 250), but he should develop into an every-down player in the NFL and teams will value his versatility…
21. Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSA
Grade: 88 | Previous rank: NR
A fast riser right now, Davenport put up 8.5 sacks and 17.0 TFL. Scouts are excited to see him in person this week in Mobile. He’s one of the best pure pass-rushers in the class.
22. Mike Hughes, CB, UCF*
Grade: 88 | Previous rank: NR
A shutdown man-to-man cover corner who will also support the run. He took some high-level WRs out of their games in 2017, holding SMU’s Courtland Sutton (possible first-round pick) to 46 receiving yards and Memphis’ Anthony Miller (Day 2 prospect) to only three catches in the regular-season matchup… Hughes is also dangerous in the return game…
23. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M*
Grade: 88 | Previous rank: 16
Kirk hasn’t been running an NFL route tree at Texas A&M, but he’s a speedy slot receiver and dangerous punt returner. He had some focus drops during a frustrating 2017 season, but Kirk has good football character and he’s a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands.
24. Mo Hurst, DT, Michigan
Grade: 88 | Previous rank: 29
Hurst is a quick and powerful one-gap penetrator who is highly disruptive against the run. He has a powerful upper body and disengages quickly. I think he fits best as a 3-technique in a 4-3 system, where he can get in the backfield and get after the quarterback.
25. Connor Williams, OT, Texas*
Grade: 89 | Previous rank: 11
A true junior who started all 23 games in which he appeared coming into this season, Williams is an athletic scheme-versatile blocker with a high ceiling. Unfortunately, he suffered a sprained MCL and PCL in his left knee, along with a meniscus tear, against USC and missed most of the season. His medical results will play a big role in where he’s selected.
26. Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh*
Grade: 87 | Previous rank: NR
O’Neill actually was a tight end when he came to Pitt in 2014. He’s a great athlete who has played both right and left tackle. At 6-6, 290 pounds, he’s very agile and light on his feet.
27. Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
Grade: 87 | Previous rank: NR
Michel wasn’t the featured back at Georgia, but I think he’ll be the first Bulldogs RB off the board. Michel has an intriguing combination of size and burst, and he’s a better pass-catcher than his production would indicate. His acceleration and body control were on display versus Alabama.
29. Rasheem Green, DT, USC*
Grade: 87 | Previous rank: NR
The light really came on for Green in 2017, as he started all 15 games and led the team with 10 sacks. At 6-5, 280, and offering plenty of scheme versatility, he should only continue to improve with more game experience and NFL coaching.
30. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU*
Grade: 86 | Previous rank: 12
Guice isn’t Leonard Fournette, but he has an impressive combination of size, power and quickness. He also shows the ability to stick his foot in the ground and accelerate upfield…
31. Billy Price, C, Ohio State
Grade: 86 | Previous rank: NR
An experienced three-year starter at guard heading into his senior year, Price is a plug-and-play NFL starter who should be steady in the league.
32. Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado*
Grade: 86 | Previous rank: NR
A two-year starter and three-year player, Oliver has 20 pass breakups and three INTs the past two seasons. He has good length and can develop into a press-man corner in the NFL. I’m interested to see how he runs and tests at the combine…