The Daily Briefing Wednesday, July 11, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Can Matt Nagy do for the Bears offense what Sean McVay did for the Rams in 2017?  Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:

 

The only thing worse than being bad is being bad and boring. The John Fox Chicago Bears were bad and boring. Matt Nagy’s Bears will not be boring.

 

For the first time since the dawn of the Jay Cutler Era, I can’t wait to watch the Bears in September. The NFC North is in the mix as one of the league’s most fascinating divisions. The franchise who gave us Butkus, Singletary and Urlacher is suddenly looking pass happy and cutting edge. It’s all because of a coach who is ambivalent about the pronunciation of his last name, but unequivocal about building a team in his image.

 

Rams coach Sean McVay raised the stakes a year ago. Along with his well-coiffed general manager Les Snead, McVay proved it’s possible to transform an offense from stone age to stunning in one offseason, largely because of off-season acquisitions. No one is expecting the Bears to go from worst to first like the Rams did, just to make the monsters of the midway more watchable again. Nagy is primed to do so with a little help from his general manager Ryan Pace, who is no slouch either up top.

 

The stark contrast between last year’s Bears approach and the new regime is why I chose the Bears’ offense for Making the Leap. There’s a saying in coaching that you never want to be the guy following The Guy. But you do want to be the guy following Fox or Jeff Fisher, two adherents to a run-first philosophy that may not come back into vogue until a few more generations of guys roam the sideline. In the meantime, Nagy already has the ingredients to matter again on offense. A Bears offense that’s fun to watch is victory enough for now.

 

A strong foundation

Look to the line. When projecting an offense ready to take a step forward, looking for strength up front is the best place to start. Philadelphia’s line last season made the Eagles’ coaches look a lot smarter and the skill-position players look more skilled. Chicago doesn’t have the Eagles’ level of talent, but the Bears have enviable continuity and the pieces to be dominant, especially in the running game.

 

Guard Kyle Long is among the league’s best when he’s healthy. Center Cody Whitehair is entrenched as a foundation piece, with flexibility to play both center and guard like this year’s second-round pick James Daniels. Long, Whitehair and tackle Charles Leno Jr. were all ranked among the top five at their position in run-block success percentage by PFF, while Daniels is also a strong run-blocker. Right tackle Bobby Massie is probably the weak link here, and he’s reliably started 60 games over the last four years.

 

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will be putting the group together. He did a terrific job getting players ready for the NFL at Notre Dame after a strong run as a position coach for the Bears previously. Finding the right staff is perhaps the most difficult part of a new head coach’s job, and Nagy has put an excellent group around him by all accounts.

 

The Bears can build from the line out. While Fox’s run-run-pass routine is gone, a multi-faceted running game will make life easier on quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the rest of the passing attack. Expect to see less of long-striding bruiser Jordan Howard and a lot more of Tarik Cohen, the human joystick who Nagy will move all over the team’s formations this season. This is one of the league’s best tandems, two top-25 backs with a coach who should know how to use them. Nagy’s mentor Andy Reid has stayed ahead of the curve with his use of running backs on passing downs since the days of Brian Westbrook, a trend that continued with Nagy’s utilization of Kareem Hunt in Kansas City.

 

The strength of this offense was already in place. I just trust Nagy and Hiestand to bring it to the forefront, and help the rest of the new guys along. …

 

The new pieces fit together

The corny jabs at the old Bears regime were fun and the strong backfield is important, but this article is only being written because of Nagy and Pace’s offseason spending spree. The team’s top four projected receivers are all brand new:

 

WR1: Allen Robinson signed a three-year, $42 million contract on March 15.

WR2: Taylor Gabriel signed a four-year, $26 million contract on March 13.

WR3: Anthony Miller drafted with the No. 51 overall pick after an expensive trade.

TE1: Trey Burton signed a four-year, $32 million contract on March 13.

 

That’s how to rebuild a passing attack, which ended last season with Kendall Wright and Josh Bellamy as the top two options. It’s unlikely that all of these moves pan out, but they each made sense in isolation and even more sense together.

 

Robinson has a true No. 1 receiver skill set, which has become increasingly difficult for teams to find in the draft. Gabriel can take the top off a defense and line up anywhere, not unlike what Tyreek Hill did for Nagy in Kansas City. Miller is destined for the slot and has the profile to rack up targets as a rookie like Cooper Kupp did with the Rams last year. Burton is a poor man’s Zach Ertz or a poorer man’s Travis Kelce, having already shown the chops to be a quality NFL starter.

 

Pace and Nagy aren’t done building their offense, but this core group is a great place to start. Listening to Nagy talk this offseason, it’s clear that he had a specific vision of what role each acquisition would play in his offense. Nagy shook off a question about whether his offense would be too light with Gabriel and Cohen on the field at the same time.

 

“I could care less about size,” Nagy told ProFootballWeekly in May. “I just think you put the best football players out there for that personnel group, for scheme, and for the play that we have. You can’t live in it. … You can’t live with three huge receivers in there either, in my opinion. What that does is to force the defense to change up now a little bit how they play defense personnel-wise.”

 

Instead of playing conservative, reactive Foxball, Nagy is intent on dictating. That changes expectations for what a big free-agent pickup should be asked to produce. Gabriel doesn’t need to rack up 1,000 yards to be a success. In this wide open NFL, having the flexibility to put these four receivers and Cohen on the field at the same time will create mismatches for Nagy to exploit with his play-calling. All he needs is a quarterback who sees the field the same way.

 

In Trubisky they trust

It’s taken a while to discuss second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who wisely dropped the “ell” in Mitchell after a nondescript rookie season. I came into this exercise looking forward to watching most of Trubisky’s snaps from 2017 again, hoping to learn a few new things and get excited anew about his potential. It wasn’t always easy.

 

Trubisky has a great feel for throwing on the move and moves to his second read better than many rookie quarterbacks. His most impressive throws often came against pressure and in games like the Week 14 win over the Bengals — his high-water mark for the season — he showed a great mid-range game, plus athleticism in the red zone similar to a mid-career Alex Smith.

 

There were also multi-week stretches where Trubisky looked understandably uncomfortable. While the offense didn’t ask him to do much, he froze against pressure and he missed a lot of open throws, which cuts against his reputation for accuracy. I don’t put much stock into the negatives aside from the accuracy because they weren’t that negative.

 

It is so difficult to translate a rookie quarterback’s performance into what kind of pro he’s going to be. (See: Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Robert Griffin III, Jared Goff.) That’s especially true when the rookie is playing in an unimaginative offense with poor receivers. Trubisky’s 12 starts ultimately gave him valuable experience that no classroom could. And it’s not like the Bears are going to ask him to carry the offense this year, either.

 

Goff’s experience in Los Angeles last season is instructive. Despite his ridiculously high ranking in the “Top 100 Players of 2018” list, Goff played a supporting role on the Rams’ offense. Todd Gurley was the centerpiece, like the Bears’ running game should be this year. The coaching staff and the play-calling were the Rams’ next biggest edge, with the variety of new weapons around Goff providing all the flexibility that McVay needed. From three-step drops to clearly defined reads to great pass protection and wide open receivers, McVay did everything possible to make Goff’s job as easy as possible. That’s not a knock on Goff. That’s just a good coach, and Goff responded by taking a huge step forward as a 22-year-old, one that the Rams will build upon this year.

 

Trubisky doesn’t need to make the leap on his own to star status for this Bears offense to shine. He just needs to play his part and allow his talented teammates and coaching staff to do their thing. Cohen can take a five-yard screen pass 30 yards. Robinson can get the yards needed for a first down because of Nagy’s well-timed play call. Burton can run a wide-open drag route, which Gabriel opens up by attracting defenders deep.

 

This season is not all about the Bears finally finding their quarterback after decades in the wilderness. It’s about the entire offense reminding an entire city what it’s like to watch entertaining football again.

 

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

QB ELI MANNING is fired up by what he sees from the 2018 edition of WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr.

 

When Odell Beckham Jr. exited the 2017 season after just four games due to a broken ankle, the already suspect New York Giants offense became a meandering operation stumbling aimlessly through the gridiron jungle.

 

With OBJ appearing on pace to return fully healthy, the Giants should have their field-tilting game-changer back. Eli Manning, speaking at a football camp at Kean University, said Beckham looked like his old self again during last month’s workouts.

 

“Odell looked healthy,” Manning said, via ESPN’s Jordan Raanan. “He was running routes full speed, making cuts and seemed to be his old self. So I’m excited about that and that he can go out there and run all the routes.

 

“So, excited to get him back going once training camp hits up. And getting on the same page, there are always new routes and new tweaks to the offense. But I know he’s been working hard and is going to have a big year.”

 

Getting Beckham back fully healthy is the most important piece to boosting Manning’s final years with Big Blue. While the additions of Saquon Barkley to the backfield, Nate Solder and Will Hernandez to the offensive line, and the growth of wideout Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram are all important boosters, no player affects defenses the way OBJ can. His return makes everything on the field easier.

 

The biggest issue Manning sees Beckham needing to get used to when training camp opens later this month is wearing a shirt.

 

“Yeah, I’ve seen a couple videos,” Manning said of offseason workouts of Beckham, Barkley, Engram and Shepard. “Those guys always work. Appreciate the work. Getting ready for the upcoming season. I know they’ll have to make some adjustments. We do practice with our shirts on with the Giants. So they’ll have to make an adjustment the first few weeks. It may take some time to get used to that. But besides that I know those guys, it’s great that they are together. They are challenging each other. They’re getting ready for the upcoming season.”

 

Classic Elisha dad joke.

 

With all accounts of Beckham’s ankle being fully healthy, the main question is whether the superstar wideout plans to fully participate in training camp or whether he might decide to alter his offseason approach with a holdout over his contract desires.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Team founder Jerry Richardson will continue to be represented by a statue at Bank of America Stadium to the chagrin of Steve Reed of the AP:

 

While new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper would like the focus to be on his plans for the team’s future, he cannot completely put the franchise’s sullied past behind him.

 

Tepper has to keep the prominent statue of Panthers’ founder Jerry Richardson outside of the stadium as part of the NFL-record $2.2 billion deal he agreed to in June after Richardson decided to sell the team in December amid reports of sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace.

 

Tepper said Tuesday when he was introduced as the team’s new owner that he’s “contractually obligated” to keep the 13-foot high statue of Richardson standing alongside two growling panthers where it is.

 

The league substantiated the allegations against Richardson following a six-month investigation and fined him $2.75 million.

 

Fans have expressed their desire on social media and sports talk shows to remove the statue, which was built in 2016.

 

And while Tepper said contractually he can’t do that, he spoke repeatedly about changing the environment of the Panthers workplace.

 

Tepper said there will be “no impediment” in employees feeling comfortable coming forward if they if they have any problems on the business side of the organization.

 

He wants to create an environment where “everybody feels safe like a family.”

 

Did he use “sullied” correctly?  We get “damage the purity or integrity of; defile.”  The team of Rae Carruth was not pure or unsullied prior to Richardson’s improprieties coming to light, but whatever.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Randy Moss has reached out to QB JAMEIS WINSTON.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Currently-embattled Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has a new mentor: Once-embattled receiver Randy Moss.

 

Via FloridaFootballInsiders.com, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer is working with Winston during the down time between the conclusion of the offseason program and the opening of training camp.

 

Moss spoke to FOX 13 on Tuesday about Winston, who has been suspended for the first three games of the season due to a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy.

 

“He’s doing things right,” Moss said. “It’s a bump in the road. . . . Man, just continue to fight. It happens. . . . What he did was wrong. You know, I’m not saying right or wrong. There was a woman involved. So I’m not going to get into all of that. What he did was wrong. He knows it was wrong. So, I think it’s up to him as a man to understand what he did wrong, live and learn from it and let it go.”

 

Moss is helping not only Winston but other players, but Moss understands that the advice may not register.

 

“I’m just here to be able to tell and just give the guys whatever I’ve been through,” Moss said. “If they take it, they take it. If they don’t, so what?”

 

If Winston doesn’t take Randy’s advice, Winston could soon be taking a hike from the NFL.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

Things are starting to pile up on GM Steve Keim who was charged with DUI on July 4.  There seems to be another unknown DUI in his background and he told a shady story when booked.  Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com:

 

– Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim misidentified himself to police during a traffic stop in the early hours of July 4 before he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, according to the police report.

 

Keim was pulled over after entering the gates of a community in Chandler, Arizona, and when a police officer approached Keim’s pickup truck, registered to a local dealership, the officer could “smell a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage” and see that his eyes were “bloodshot and watery.”

 

Keim then identified himself by name but said he was “the director of security for the Arizona Cardinals,” according to the report. Keim then told the officer he “works with Sean McKenzie.” However, the officer noted that “the only Officer Sean McKenzie I know was killed in an off duty vehicle collision and I believed he was referencing him.” McKenzie died in an off-duty motorcycle accident in 2014, according to multiple reports.

 

Police first noticed Keim driving fast at 12:12 a.m. on Wednesday, according to the police report. The officer followed Keim as he drove into a business complex, got out of his car and walked toward a law firm. The officer then drove away but continued to observe Keim, only to see Keim get back in the car and continue driving. Keim then drifted out of his lane multiple times, including once into a lane where another car was driving. At one point, according to the police report, Keim made a wide turn and nearly hit a curb.

 

When he was pulled over nine minutes after police first noticed Keim driving fast, Keim told police he had only “two beers” about an hour to two hours before, and had them with pizza, according to the report. Keim told the officer that he was “bouncing around” and had just come from a friend’s.

 

One of the responding officers reported that Keim’s voice had a “slight slur.”

 

Results on Keim’s blood alcohol content were not completed as of Tuesday morning, according to police.

 

Keim failed the only field sobriety test he was given — following a light with his eyes — and told officers he was unable to do any of the physical tests because of a “pre-existing knee injury.”

 

Keim was then arrested at 12:47 a.m. using two sets of handcuffs because of his size, the report noted.

 

He was charged with DUI liquor/drugs/vapors, a misdemeanor. He was cited and released at 1:55 a.m.

 

Keim was previously convicted of DUI in 1996.

 

AFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

The Los Angeles Chargers have no use for San Diego Charger Dan Fouts on their preseason telecasts.  Although they say otherwise. Jay Posner of UT San Diego.  Plus an interesting hire as the team’s radio analyst:

 

Dan Fouts won’t be calling exhibition games for the Chargers this summer, but the team is hopeful he can return in 2019.

 

It was barely a week ago that Fouts told a San Diego radio show, “Don’t ever refer to me as a Los Angeles Charger,” but a team spokesman said Tuesday’s announcement that LaDainian Tomlinson would replace Fouts this summer was not related in any way to the Hall of Fame quarterback’s comments.

 

According to the spokesman, Fouts was unable to work this summer due to issues with his personal schedule. The plan for 2018 was to have a three-man booth with Fouts, Tomlinson and Dedes, the spokesman said, adding that the club hopes that will happen next summer.

 

Like Fouts, Tomlinson is a Chargers Hall of Famer, but one who has not been as critical of the team’s move from San Diego to Los Angeles. Last August, Fouts told a Los Angeles radio station it was “embarrassing, I think, for both the Chargers and the National Football League,” for the club to be playing games at tiny StubHub Stadium in Carson.

 

Tomlinson will work with Dedes on three summer broadcasts — Aug. 11, 18 and 30. Those games can be seen in San Diego on KFMB Channel 8 (and in Los Angeles on KABC Channel 7). The other exhibition game, Aug. 25, will be televised nationally on CBS.

 

The Chargers also announced Tuesday that another broadcaster with San Diego ties, El Cajon native Daniel Jeremiah, will be the team’s new radio color analyst. He replaces former Chargers center Nick Hardwick, who recently resigned, saying he was missing too many weekends with his family.

 

Jeremiah, a former NFL scout who has worked for NFL Network since 2012, played quarterback at El Cajon Christian High and Appalachian State. He will work with play-by-play voice Matt “Money” Smith and sideline reporter Shannon Farren.

 

In a third change, the Chargers said Mario Solis, a sports reporter and anchor at the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, will handle Spanish language play-by-play duties. He replaces longtime voice Jorge Villanueva, who will switch over to analyst duties for his 25th season with the team.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

Georgia police are confirming that RB LeSEAN McCOY’s girlfriend was indeed the victim of a “targeted home invasion” although they aren’t saying that the running back was the perpetrator.

 

Earlier today Bills running back LeSean McCoy was accused of beating his ex-girlfriend, Delicia Cordon. The accusation was made by a friend of Cordon’s in a since-deleted Instagram post that included a picture of Cordon’s battered face. Now, police in Georgia are saying Cordon was the victim of a targeted home invasion.

 

Public records show that Cordon and McCoy at one point shared an address in Alpharetta, Ga. We reached out to local police departments in the area seeking any information related to any incidents involving McCoy or Cordon, and received this statement from the Milton County police department:

 

On July 10, 2018 at approximately 3:18 A.M., Milton Police responded to a home invasion at a residence on Hickory Pass near the Cherokee County line. The preliminary investigation indicates that this residence was specifically targeted by the suspect or suspects, and not a random incident.

 

When officers arrived they found one victim who had been physically assaulted by a lone intruder. During the altercation, the suspect demanded specific items from the victim. An adult female victim was treated and released at North Fulton Regional Hospital. A second adult female victim also sustained a minor injury during the incident.

 

Update (4:47 p.m. ET): TMZ reports that in June, McCoy attempted to have Cordon removed from the home in Alpharetta by court order. According to the court documents cited by TMZ, McCoy asked the judge to order Cordon to leave the house and return to him various items that were in her possession.

 

Update (5:30 p.m. ET): The Heavy obtained a court document that was filed by Cordon’s attorney on June 22 in response to McCoy’s attempt to have Cordon removed from his home.

 

According to the document, Cordon and her 16-year-old son have been living at the house since October 2016. The document claims that while Cordon was out of town to attend her sister’s graduation on June 1, McCoy sent friends and family members to the house to remove Cordon’s belongings without her knowledge. The document says Cordon became aware of this by checking the a feed house’s security cameras, and called the police to stop the removal of her belongings.

 

You can read the full court filing below:

 

Meanwhile, another woman named Cicely Billups, who claims to be friends with Cordon, made a post on her Facebook page claiming someone sent “dudes in [Cordon’s] house to pistol whip and rob her!!”

 

We’ll update as more information becomes available.

 

We’re not sure we would want G RICHIE INCOGNITO as our character witness, but he’s there for his guy Shady.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Bills, the NFL, and authorities in Georgia currently have begun the process of piecing together the events leading to the vicious beating of Delicia Cordon, and whether Bills running back LeSean McCoy had any responsibility for it. They probably should speak to former Bills offensive lineman Richie Incognito.

 

“I support and stand by my boy, Shady,” Incognito said Tuesday night on Twitter. “I know the full story and he didn’t do it. People can be quick to make false assumptions without knowing the full story.”

 

In a separate tweet, Incognito said of Cordon, “Enough with this fake lifestyle she was living.”

 

It’s unclear whether Incognito is simply claiming that McCoy didn’t personally assault Cordon or whether Incognito knows (or thinks he knows) with certainty that McCoy had no involvement with it.

 

“She was definitely assaulted,” Incognito tweeted. “Police were involved. Shady was in Florida and she was in Atlanta.”

 

But no one seems to be saying (at this point) that McCoy actually performed the assault. The question is whether (as strongly implied by Cordon’s lawyers) McCoy essentially played the Rae Carruth/Jeff Gillooly role, pulling the strings and/or pushing the buttons (and/or paying the money) necessary to get someone to invade the house McCoy owns, retrieve specific items of jewelry that McCoy had given to Cordon, and send a message in extreme physical fashion.

 

If there’s any truth to the not-so-subtle allegation made by Cordon’s lawyers, it’s entirely possible that a Fargo-style scenario played out here, with the brutal assault of Cordon not part of the plan but something that just happened in the moment. That definitely wouldn’t insulate McCoy from scrutiny by the league or the law, but at this point no possibility should be ruled out.

 

And the Bills, the league, and the authorities may want to get in touch with Incognito, if for no reason other than to find out whether he has communicated in the past day with McCoy (especially by text), and what McCoy specifically had to say.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

BILL BARNWELL RANKS THE NFL’S ARSENALS

A hugely long piece from ESPN’s expert that you can read in its entirety here.  He ranks each team’s running backs, receivers and tight ends and we’re not sure we saw the top two teams coming.  Excerpts below:

 

Now that just about every running back, wide receiver and tight end short of Dez Bryant are on a roster, let’s take stock of where the league stands after a busy offseason. We’re ranking each team’s arsenal of running and receiving weapons from 32 to 1. Please keep a few things in mind:

 

These rankings are attempting to consider a team’s skill-position talent without including the impact of the quarterback, offensive line or scheme. Let me repeat that again. These rankings are attempting to consider a team’s skill-position talent without including the impact of the quarterback, offensive line or scheme. It’s not possible to totally extricate one from the other, but this will be an educated guess.

 

These rankings don’t include contract value. I might mention a contract here or there, but this analysis is strictly about on-field performance.

 

I’m solely considering how these players will perform in 2018. Long-term value beyond this upcoming season doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to project injuries, so I’m using each player’s recent injury history as an estimate of his availability for this year.

 

The arsenals are weighted more toward receivers. All you have to do is take a look at contracts to see how the league values wideouts versus tight ends and running backs. The largest active annual salary on an extension for a running back is LeSean McCoy, at $8 million per year. That’s what Trey Burton and Kenny Stills average on the deals they’ve signed over the past two offseasons.

 

Top-level talent wins out over depth. These rankings are weighted heavily toward each team’s top five weapons, given that each squad will line up five skill-position players on most snaps. Organizations with truly remarkable depth at the skill-position spots will get a slight bump, but no team has an Antonio Brown lurking on its bench.

 

Finally, I didn’t mention everyone. Every team has a rookie mid-round pick or a veteran with some history of success lurking as their sixth or seventh option. Most of them will have only a modest impact. Mentioning all of them would turn this into an even longer piece.

 

All right! The Jets were 32nd last season. Surely, they’ve invested in their skill-position talent for new quarterback Sam Darnold and won’t be last this year, right?

 

32. New York Jets

Well, no. …The move to spend $4 million per year on anonymous Browns back Isaiah Crowell doesn’t move the needle. The Jets will be investing in skill-position talent next offseason.

 

31. Miami Dolphins

No team falls further in this year’s rankings, as everything that looked promising for Miami in 2017 either didn’t work out or didn’t come back in 2018.

 

30. Dallas Cowboys

When you remove that dominant offensive line and quarterback Dak Prescott from the equation, the Cowboys are left with one excellent running back in Ezekiel Elliott and what must surely be the worst receiving corps in football

 

29. Buffalo Bills (DB – And this presumes LeSean McCoy available)

Knees are the concern with the Bills’ weapons. Tight end Charles Clay has spent the majority of his Bills career battling through knee issues. Top wideout Kelvin Benjamin was traded to the Bills in part because the Panthers were concerned about the long-term health of his knees. Second-year receiver Zay Jones, who was the worst starting wideout in the NFL last season by most metrics, underwent knee surgery in May. Shady McCoy saw his yards per carry drop by more than a full yard last season, although that was likely due more to an ill-fitting scheme than any significant drop in McCoy’s own level of play. After the soon-to-be-30-year-old halfback, though, the Bills will be relying on players with a track record of injuries to catch passes from first-round pick Josh Allen (or AJ McCarron or Nathan Peterman). This is another team likely to be shopping for receivers next offseason.

 

28. Seattle Seahawks

Doug Baldwin famously argued that the Seahawks’ weapons weren’t “pedestrian” during their Super Bowl run, but he’s the only skill-position player left from that team, and subsequent draft picks such as Tyler Lockett and C.J. Prosise haven’t been able to stay healthy. The Seahawks swapped out tight end Jimmy Graham for Ed Dickson this offseason and added 34-year-old wideout Brandon Marshall, who was struggling even before suffering a season-ending injury with the Giants. Seattle fans will pin their hopes on first-round pick Rashaad Penny, but if the offensive line play doesn’t improve under new OL coach Mike Solari, it might be impossible to evaluate the Seahawks’ new starting running back.

 

27. Indianapolis Colts

The absence of Andrew Luck brought T.Y. Hilton back to earth, as the 2016 receiving-yardage champion saw his streak of 1,000-yard seasons snapped at four. Hilton should return to form if Luck is back under center in 2018, while the Stanford product should make the most of one of the league’s most athletic one-two punches at tight end with Eric Ebron joining Jack Doyle. Indy also bought low on Ryan Grant after he mysteriously failed his physical with the Ravens, but the former Washington wide receiver is going to turn 28 during the season and hasn’t yet posted a single 100-yard game as a wideout. If Nyheim Hines or Marlon Mack emerge as a promising running back, the Colts could rise up the rankings next season.

 

26. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have their star quarterback and an offensive guru as coach, but they’re more about depth than impact contributors at the skill positions. The curious decision to pay Jerick McKinnon more than $10 million in 2018 to join Kyle Juszczyk in the backfield gives the Niners two versatile players, but neither has been particularly effective as a runner nor receiver during the majority of their respective careers. Marquise Goodwin had his best pro season by a wide margin last season, and he will be joined by the returning Pierre Garcon and second-round pick Dante Pettis, but the most likely place for growth is with second-year target George Kittle at tight end.

 

25. Jacksonville Jaguars

Leonard Fournette absorbed a huge workload when healthy in 2017, with the first-round pick’s numbers impacted by an ankle injury. The LSU product averaged 4.6 yards per carry before the injury in the middle of the season and just 3.2 yards per rush afterward. Fournette should be better, but the additions to the receiving corps raise question marks.

 

24. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens came into the offseason with a mission to overhaul their receiving corps, and indeed, Joe Flacco’s top five targets might be players who weren’t wearing black and purple last season.

 

23. Green Bay Packers

It’s tempting to see the swap of Jordy Nelson for Jimmy Graham as a positive for the Packers, given Nelson’s dramatic decline, but I’m not sure Graham is improving these days, either.

 

22. Denver Broncos

With the Broncos investing $25 million guaranteed in new quarterback Case Keenum and trading for new right tackle Jared Veldheer, general manager John Elway was forced to pinch pennies elsewhere on offense. It was no surprise that the Broncos moved on from C.J. Anderson.

 

21. Detroit Lions

In a similar vein, the Lions have a pair of effective veteran wideouts in free-agent acquisitions Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. Since taking over, though, general manager Bob Quinn has devoted two first-round picks and two significant contracts to offensive linemen.

 

20. Arizona Cardinals

Amid the morass of quarterback injuries that was the 2017 season, one of the most disappointing absences had to be David Johnson, who was arguably the best running back in football in 2016 and then went down for the 2017 season after 17 touches with a fractured wrist…Even with a healthy Johnson, though, Arizona’s receiving corps has virtually nobody in his prime. Larry Fitzgerald’s late-career turn into Wes Welker has been remarkable, but there’s precious little behind him.

 

19. Oakland Raiders

It’s too easy to make the joke that this would be a top-five team in the 2015 weapon rankings, but who on this team looks better right now than he did a year ago? You can find 2017 scapegoats — Todd Downing for the Raiders holdovers, Brett Hundley for Jordy Nelson, the early-season suspension for Doug Martin, Martavis Bryant for Martavis Bryant — but it’s way more plausible to believe that one of these guys will bounce back than it is to think that every one of these players is going to suddenly spark to life.

 

18. Washington

The most appealing parts of the offense in Washington are the nontraditional weapons, all of whom struggled with injuries last season. Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson were reduced to 203 touches, down from 250 in 2016. Each should benefit from playing with Alex Smith, as long as they stay healthy, which has been a particularly difficult task for Reed, who has spent most of that time either on the sidelines or playing through pain. It’s tough to project him for anything close to a full season.

 

 

17. Carolina Panthers

Quietly, few teams have poured more resources into their weapons over the past several seasons than Carolina. The Panthers’ wide receiving corps includes two second-round picks (Devin Funchess and Curtis Samuel) and rookie first-round pick D.J. Moore, before even considering that the team also devoted a first-round pick in 2014 to departed wideout Kelvin Benjamin. Halfback Christian McCaffrey went with the eighth overall pick last season, while tight end Greg Olsen is due nearly $27 million over the next three years as part of the contract extension he signed in April.

 

16. Cincinnati Bengals

If the Bengals could ever get all of their weapons on the field at the same time and protect Andy Dalton, they would be absolutely terrifying. Imagine a receiving corps with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Tyler Boyd and 2017 ninth overall pick John Ross as the primary targets, and the duo of Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon working out of the backfield

 

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa spent last offseason focusing on getting Jameis Winston weapons, but just like when you buy your child some new toys for Christmas and he or she looks at them for a second before going back to the old favorites, Winston was mostly concerned with getting the ball to Mike Evans and Cameron Brate in key moments.

 

14. Tennessee Titans

Is Corey Davis going to blossom into a No. 1 receiver? Injuries and the curse that has seemingly afflicted rookie wideouts over the past several seasons limited Davis to 375 receiving yards in his debut campaign, but if the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft takes a big leap forward, everything could fall into place for Tennessee. Rishard Matthews is likely stretched as a top wideout, but he would be an above-average No. 2.

 

Delanie Walker is beginning to decline as he hits his age-34 campaign, but if Davis can take some of the heat off Tennessee’s star tight end on third downs — where Walker has caught 72 passes over the past three years, more than any other tight end in the league — Walker’s aging won’t slow down Marcus Mariota. The one-two punch of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis does have the Ice Hockey-approved big back/small back combo down, but Lewis’ perennial injury concerns cap his ceiling, while the track record of backs leaving New England is riddled with disappointments.

 

13. Cleveland Browns

Josh Gordon thinks the Browns already have the best receiving corps in football, and while I’m not sure I agree, it’s related less to talent and more to availability.

 

If those guys do stay on the field all season, the Browns are in business. They have a wildly underrated back in Duke Johnson, so much so that Cleveland appears set to take away his path to a bigger role by signing Carlos Hyde and drafting Nick Chubb.

 

12. Houston Texans

In the fever dream that was DeShaun Watson’s six starts for the Texans in 2017, his weapons unfurled into a terrifying hydra. The Texans ranked third in offensive win probability added per game from weeks 2 to 8 and 30th from then on, which is both a credit to what DeAndre Hopkins & Co. can do with the right quarterback and a reminder of how most of those weapons (Hopkins aside) were anonymous with the wrong passer and a dismal offensive line.

 

Naturally, any 2018 projection for the Texans’ weapons would find them somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Hopkins has a reasonable case — given his quarterback play — for being the best wide receiver in the league at the moment. After that, though, the Texans don’t have a second star.

 

11. New Orleans Saints

Few teams could replace Brandin Cooks with Ted Ginn Jr. and not skip a beat, but the Saints managed to pull that off in 2017, thanks to an excellent season from their offensive line and the seemingly ageless excellence of Drew Brees.

 

10. Los Angeles Chargers

You get the feeling that the Chargers have one of those dry-erase boards with “It’s Been ___ Days Since Our Last ACL Injury” written at the top.

 

9. Chicago Bears

It’s certainly fair to say that no team this offseason has added more weapons for its quarterback than the Bears. Many of general manager Ryan Pace’s moves are gambles, both in terms of the contracts involved (which aren’t being considered here) and the track records of the players in question (which are).

 

8. New England Patriots

The Patriots finished No. 1 in these rankings last year, thanks to a combination of top-level talent with unmatched depth. Those extra players came in handy when the Pats lost Julian Edelman before the year and Chris Hogan for half of the season. The Pats also have taken quite a hit this offseason, with Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola leaving and being replaced on the roster by the combination of Jordan Matthews and Cordarrelle Patterson. Edelman, suspended for the first four games of the year, will return as a 32-year-old coming off of a torn ACL. (It is perhaps worth noting that Wes Welker, who preceded Edelman in the slot, was allowed to leave for Denver at 32 and was essentially done by 33.)

 

Coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels make up for an arguably lackluster group of wideouts with Rob Gronkowski and a dizzying array of running backs. The most dominant tight end in football history can make up for plenty of mistakes, but Gronk’s injury history requires no introduction. Even at halfback, where the Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round, New England will be forced to replace the production of Dion Lewis. Tom Brady will still make it all work, of course, but the Pats have downgraded from an embarrassment of riches to mere riches.

 

7. Philadelphia Eagles

The team that beat Belichick’s Patriots in Super Bowl LII is structured in a similar way, combining a star tight end with a rotation of useful running backs. Zach Ertz isn’t as dominant as Gronkowski, but his injury history isn’t as pressing. I’d also argue that the Eagles have a better group of wideouts for 2018, especially given that Edelman is guaranteed to miss at least four games. Philly can expect more out of Alshon Jeffery, who played through a torn rotator cuff last season. To the shock of everyone, Nelson Agholor emerged as a useful slot receiver, and he should continue to improve in that role, while Mike Wallace should be an upgrade on the departed Torrey Smith and could be pushed by further improvement from second-year wideout Mack Hollins.

 

6. Los Angeles Rams

I grossly underestimated the Rams’ weapons last year. Running back Todd Gurley looked stuck in mud during his second season with Jeff Fisher, then subsequently led the league in fantasy points in 2017. Robert Woods, who had been a more notable blocker than pass-catcher in Buffalo, averaged just over 65 receiving yards per game. Cooper Kupp was the second-most productive rookie wideout in the league. Sammy Watkins had a middling year, and it didn’t even really matter. The Rams were a joy to watch for most of last season, and they upgraded on Watkins by trading a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks, who has averaged 1,131 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over the past three seasons.

 

5. Minnesota Vikings

Even the Vikings didn’t expect Adam Thielen to turn into one of the most productive wideouts in the NFL, given that they offered Alshon Jeffery a multiyear deal that would have consigned Thielen to a role in the slot. Jeffery is obviously happy with the choice he made in free agency, but the Vikings ended up with one of the biggest bargains in football. Thielen finished fifth in receiving yards, and the only wideout duo to top Thielen and Stefon Diggs in receiving yards was Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. It seems safe to give up on former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, but new slot receiver Kendall Wright could be an upgrade on Jarius Wright.

 

At the other spots, the Vikings have high-ceiling options. Kyle Rudolph’s target share went down with the departure of Sam Bradford and the emergence of Thielen, but he still managed to catch eight touchdown passes. He also has played all 16 games in each of the past three seasons after missing nearly a full year between 2013 and 2014. Running back Dalvin Cook is coming off a torn ACL, and he looked promising before going down, as the 2017 second-round pick was averaging 4.8 yards per carry and generating first downs on more than 20 percent of his rush attempts. Cook is coming off early fantasy draft boards as the 10th-highest back by ADP, which speaks to his potential. The 22-year-old was on pace for more than 1,400 rushing yards when he was hurt; if Cook stays at that level in 2018, the Vikings might have the league’s best big three.

 

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

Of course, the Steelers annually have the inside track on the best wide receiver and running back in football with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell on board. Bell’s 2017 season was surprising, though. For a player who had either been unavailable or incredible during his first three years as Pittsburgh’s primary back, Bell was neither last season. The 26-year-old stayed healthy and assumed a massive workload, leading the league with 321 carries, but he wasn’t the same hyper-efficient back of old. In 2016, Bell turned 261 carries into 1,268 yards. With 61 additional carries last season, Bell gained just 23 more yards than he had the previous season.

 

The problem was that Bell didn’t come up with the explosive plays we saw from him in years past. From 2013 to 2016, the Michigan State product racked up a 30-plus-yard gain once every 42 touches. With 406 touches last season, history suggests Bell would have had between nine and 10 of those explosive plays. Instead, Bell had only three of them, all in the passing game and none going for more than 42 yards. Even if the chances are that Bell won’t be as healthy this season, he’s likely to turn more of the touches he gets into highlight-reel runs and catches.

 

The Steelers have a big three to match up with just about anyone in Bell, Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who just racked up the sixth-most receiving yards in league history for a wideout in his age-21 season. After that, though, Pittsburgh drops off. There doesn’t appear to be much behind Bell at halfback, and the tight end duo of Jesse James and Vance McDonald aren’t efficient. If second-round pick James Washington makes an immediate impact at receiver — which might be tough if Bell and Brown stay healthy, given their typical workload — this will look low.

 

 

3. Atlanta Falcons

If you saw the Falcons drafting another Alabama wide receiver in the first round, pat yourself on the back. Atlanta already seemed set at wide receiver for the short term with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but with Taylor Gabriel leaving, the Falcons added a silky-smooth route runner to replace him in Calvin Ridley. The recent track records of first-round picks at wideout isn’t filled with success stories, but Ridley should be an upgrade on the 378 receiving yards Gabriel racked up a year ago.

 

Atlanta is another team in the discussion for the best running back duo in football with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, but Freeman was less efficient across the board last season while fumbling four times on 232 touches. The anticipated Austin Hooper breakout didn’t really arrive, either, as the tight end turned a blown coverage into an 88-yard touchdown against the Bears in the opener but generated only 398 yards and two scores over the ensuing 15 games. We saw how devastating the Falcons can be when everything clicks, as was the case in 2016, but they’re just one small step behind the top two attacks in football. It would help if they get to run more drives — the Falcons had just 157 meaningful offensive possessions in 2017, lowest in the league and a whopping 38 possessions behind the league-leading Cardinals.

 

2. New York Giants

Nobody can say that Eli Manning lacks an arsenal. The Giants ranked low on this list last year out of pessimism against their running backs, fears about Brandon Marshall after a rough year with the Jets and the slim likelihood of rookie tight end Evan Engram having an immediate impact. The first two turned out to be legitimate, but Engram — in part because he was the last man standing after injuries — had a wildly productive debut season. The first-round pick finished with 722 receiving yards, which ranks fourth among rookie tight ends since the merger and is the most since Jeremy Shockey had 894 yards for the Giants in 2002. He was a top-five tight end by fantasy points in 2017, and he should be in the running again this season.

 

The expectations for Saquon Barkley, meanwhile, are Offensive Rookie of the Year. Outside of concerns about his offensive line, it shouldn’t take much convincing to believe that Barkley will be a leading back from the outset, both as a runner and a receiver. Odell Beckham Jr. also should be healed from his fractured ankle and playing for a new contract, which could give the Giants a reasonable shot at having a top-five contributor at running back, wide receiver and tight end. The wideout depth chart is thin, and there’s going to be an adjustment period for Sterling Shepard as the Giants get away from using 11 personnel on every snap and move the third-year wideout out of the slot, but the Giants are going to have moments this season in which they make defenders look absolutely stupid.

 

1. Kansas City Chiefs

This has been building one year at a time for the Chiefs, who were relying on players such as Charcandrick West and Jason Avant as meaningful weapons during their playoff run in 2015. It starts with Travis Kelce, who is the consensus second-best tight end in the league behind Gronkowski. In 2016, the Chiefs added Tyreek Hill, who graduated from his gadget return man role as a rookie into a real-deal wideout last season by posting a 75-1,183-7 line. Andy Reid & Co. drafted Kareem Hunt last season, and the running back produced 1,782 yards from scrimmage as a rookie, which was the 10th-best mark for a debuting runner in league history. The Chiefs likely will give him snaps off more frequently with the return of Spencer Ware, but Hunt already is one of the league’s best backs.

 

It’s hard to find a team that can say it’s paying its fourth-best weapon $16 million per year, and, in part, that’s because the Chiefs probably overpaid Sammy Watkins. If we ignore the money and the hype surrounding Watkins coming out of Clemson, it’s accurate enough to say that Patrick Mahomes’ fourth-best weapon is a 25-year-old guy who averaged just over 80 receiving yards per game in 2015 and turned nine red zone targets into seven touchdowns last season. The upside for Watkins is still as a legitimate No. 1 receiver in an offense that already has two of them.

 

While we can never truly know whether a young quarterback would develop into a star in any situation, it’s hard to imagine what else Patrick Mahomes could ask for than Reid as a coach and this bevy of talent as targets. Every team is susceptible to injuries, and Mahomes will have growing pains, but no offense has as much upside across the board at the skill-position spots as these Chiefs.

 

 

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DOWN UNDER

Might we see a cracking good NFL game in Brisbane?  This from 9News.com:

 

The Queensland government is working to bring an NFL game Down Under.

 

During her recent trade trip to the United States, tourism minister Kate Jones met with NFL executives, pushing a plan to have a game played at Suncorp Stadium.

 

The traditional home of rugby league in Queensland would have to swap its pies and sausage rolls for wings, hot dogs and nachos, and the NFL helmets would make Johnathan Thurston’s famed headgear look pretty flimsy.

 

But it’s not unprecedented for NFL games to be played outside the US with games already held in London every year.

 

“We have a deliberate focus at the moment in growing American tourism to Queensland and what better way to get Americans here than an NFL game,” Ms Jones said.

 

A similar attempt by former Premier Campbell Newman in 2014 was unsuccessful.

 

But in the years since, Australian stars Jarrod Hayne, Jesse Williams and Jordan Mialata have boosted the game’s profile here in Australia.

 

Queenslanders do love their sport and probably wouldn’t need a lot of encouragement to get behind a Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys clash.