The Daily Briefing Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Give Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com some credit, there are some true surprises on his list of possible surprise cuts. On the other hand, the surprise about LB AHMAD BROOKS is that he’s not already cut.
Training camp is a time of optimism for fans — and anxiety for many NFL players. Below is an incomplete list of some notable names at risk of being released before the start of the season, in no particular order.
1) Brock Osweiler, QB, Cleveland Browns: Within hours of acquiring Osweiler, the Browns were reportedly making calls in hopes of trading him away while swallowing part of his salary. There were no takers, but the potential awkwardness of a $16 million backup hasn’t changed. The subject of some soft-focus OTA stories, the scarcity of Osweiler’s snaps with the first-team offense spoke louder than any Hue Jackson quote. If rookie DeShone Kizer and second-year man Cody Kessler look ready early in camp, the Browns could start calling around regarding Osweiler again or simply cut him outright.
2) Lamarr Houston, OLB, Chicago Bears: Signed by the previous Bears regime in free agency, Houston is due a lot of money for someone who has been unable to stay on the field. The same type of thing could be said for teammate Pernell McPhee, but Houston’s extreme injury history sets him apart. Coming off a second torn ACL in three years, Houston has to show well in August to earn $5.95 million and stick at a crowded position in Chicago.
3) Jamaal Charles, RB, Denver Broncos: One of most unappreciated players of his era, Charles has a sneaky foundation to build a legit Hall of Fame case around. He’s also at a career crossroads. Two lost seasons in a row left Charles released by the Chiefs and greeted in free agency with nothing better than a one-year contract with zero guarantees included.
The contract says the Broncos don’t know if Charles can still play, because no one knows if Charles can still play. Everything is on the table here. It won’t be shocking if Charles turns Denver’s deal into the bargain of the offseason, because he’s a legend, and that’s the type of thing legends do. It also won’t be surprising if Charles’ knees, which prevented him from working in team drills this offseason, cut short a career with brilliant peaks.
4) Ryan Mathews, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: The NFL is a brutal business. Mathews is still recovering from neck disc surgery because of the repeated trauma he’s suffered running the football. The Eagles are fully expected to release him before paying his $4 million salary, but they need to wait until he can pass a physical to avoid owing him the money. Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson announced Sunday that Mathews is excused from training camp. Essentially, Mathews is working hard at getting healthy so the team can promptly fire him.
5+6) Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Based on the breadth of his career, Smith came at a discount (three years, $15 million) in free agency. Based on last year’s play in San Francisco and the minimal $500,000 guaranteed in his contract, Smith isn’t even a total lock to make the roster. Positive offseason reports indicate that Smith should be safe, although teammate Nelson Agholor inspired even more shorts-and-shirts optimism.
The team’s first-round pick in 2015, Agholor is currently slated to be Philly’s fourth receiver — at best. He can’t take a step back in camp or he’ll risk going the way of so many other Chip Kelly acquisitions.
7) Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots: For seven brilliant games in 2015, Lewis was as dynamic as any running back to play behind Tom Brady since Corey Dillon blessed Foxborough. Since then, Lewis has continued his career-long struggle with injuries and watched the Patriots sign roughly 47 competitors at the position. Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and James White are all locks to make the roster, meaning Lewis will need to show that old spark in August to ensure he’s safe.
8) Alfred Morris, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott’s uncertain status for the start of the season looms over the entire running back position, but Morris could be in trouble even if Elliott ends up getting suspended for the opener. With Darren McFadden expected to be the primary backup, Rod Smith and Keith Smith provide more versatility and special teams value than Morris.
9) Branden Albert, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars: At some point after the Jaguars drafted Cam Robinson No. 34 overall, Albert realized he didn’t have as much leverage as he thought. It’s worth wondering if Albert realized it too late. He showed up to mandatory minicamp after skipping OTAs and giving Robinson a head start in the battle for the left tackle job. It’s not like the Jaguars have much invested in Albert. Due $8.875 million coming off a down year plagued by injuries, Albert was acquired in a trade for only a seventh-round pick. His status could be out of his hands. If Robinson looks ready to go, another trade of Albert isn’t out of the question.
10) Sammie Coates, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: A year ago at this time, Coates was expected to fill the shoes of Martavis Bryant as the team’s prime deep threat. Coates did so with 21 catches and a league-leading “drop rate,” according to Pro Football Focus. Now Bryant is back and Eli Rogers is locked into the slot receiver role, leaving Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter and Cobi Hamilton to fight for jobs. Offseason groin surgery didn’t help Coates’ case. Neither did the second-round selection of JuJu Smith-Schuster.
11) Victor Cruz, WR, Chicago Bears: Third-year pro Cameron Meredith is the best bet to be Chicago’s top wide receiver this season. Kevin White, Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright all have significant guarantees in their contracts. That doesn’t leave much room for Cruz — unless he can reproduce the preseason magic that first had Rex Ryan talking a blue streak back in 2010.
12) Ahmad Brooks, OLB, San Francisco 49ers: Brooks specializes in escaping lists like this unharmed, having survived off-field concerns and four head-coaching changes in San Francisco. Penciled in as a starter to open camp, Brooks is 33 years old and has a cap number over $6 million for a team that is rebuilding. A strong camp by some younger teammates could leave Brooks vulnerable.
13) Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers: Coach Kyle Shanahan was going to be “sick” and dreaming of rookie Joe Williams if the team didn’t draft him, according to the MMQB’s Peter King. So general manager John Lynch wound up trading up to get a guy in Williams who wasn’t even on his draft board.
Compare that investment — emotional and otherwise — with the team’s lukewarm appraisals of Hyde this offseason. A talented and extremely elusive runner, Hyde has one year left on a contract signed three head coaches ago. He’s admittedly the biggest long shot to lose his job on this list, but Shanahan and Lynch are just starting their extreme makeover and have proven they are ready to act with conviction.
Still unanswered as camp begins is who might be calling the specific defenses for Minnesota this year. Andrew Krammer in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
Whichever football team has employed Mike Zimmer for the past 17 seasons, he’s called their defensive plays on Sundays.
There’s still a possibility of that ending this season. The Vikings head coach says he’ll likely let defensive coordinator George Edwards call a preseason game next month to see if that frees up Zimmer to better manage games in his fourth season at the helm.
“I’llprobably have [Edwards] call one in a preseason game and see how it goes,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “I have not decided yet, no, totally for the season, but I think it’d be good practice in the preseason to see how it goes. See if it helps me help other areas of the game, so I’m kind of thinking that way.”
In three years under Zimmer, the Vikings defense has gone from one of the league’s worst to one of the best. He inherited a last-place scoring defense. They’ve since ranked 11th, fifth and sixth in points allowed each of the past three seasons.
However, Zimmer has openly discussed this offseason his thinking on how he could be a better head coach and manager on game days after the Vikings went 3-8 down the stretch last season with many close losses.
Giving Zimmer’s idea more credence was how Edwards fared in the game vs. Dallas, when Zimmer couldn’t coach due to emergency eye surgery. The Vikings lost, but limited the potent Cowboys to 264 yards and 17 points. Edwards last called plays full-time as the Bills defensive coordinator in 2011.
WR DEZ BRYANT proclaims his love for The Star. David Moore in the Dallas Morning News:
Dez Bryant wants everyone to know he will miss Lucky Whitehead. But he understands why his friend was released.
The receiver also understands he has little room to talk since he reported late to The Star last Friday for physicals and conditioning work.
Bryant spoke about the release of Whitehead, the point head coach Jason Garrett wanted to get across and the love he has for the organization after Monday afternoon’s practice.
Does he believe Garrett was sending a message with the quick release of Whitehead?
“I would say so,” Bryant said. “We’re trying to do something special here.
“I really don’t have that much room to talk. Even though I had a legit deal…I still should have been there (on time last Friday), but I wasn’t. We handled it.
“At the same time, I understand what coach Garrett is trying to do. You’ve got to take care of your business.”
Bryant said no one should question his commitment to the team because he was late to report to The Star before the team departed for training camp.
“Everyone in this organization knows what’s up with me,” Bryant said. “They know I love this football team.
“Me personally, I feel like nobody reps the star more than me. That’s not a shot directed toward nobody. That’s just how I feel.
“I love the star. I’ve always loved it. I love the fans and I put my all out for them. I don’t care if I’m injured, I’m going to try my best to get out there and play. It’s how I’ve always been.
“I love Dallas,” Bryant continued. ” I love this place, I love everything about it. I love the coaches. I love Jerry Jones. I love Stephen (Jones). I love everyone around this place. I work for them.”
The same cannot be said of RB LUCKY WHITEHEAD, who is fuming about his release:
Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, in light of his release from the team Monday, blasted his old bosses regarding what he perceived to be an unjust termination.
“Let’s not sugarcoat anything,” Whitehead told the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday in a phone interview, “I was pretty much being called a liar.”
Whitehead was released Monday after Virginia police said he had been arrested in June and missed a subsequent court date. The situation appeared to be the latest instance of misbehavior from a Cowboys player in an offseason with several cases of legal issues, investigations and court dealings for the franchise.
By Tuesday, however, all charges had been dropped after the Prince William County Police Department determined that Whitehead was not the man they arrested June 22. The man did not produce identification, but provided a birthday and social security number that matched Whitehead’s.
Prosecutors went to court Tuesday where the petty theft charge along with a failure to appear charge were dropped, according to court records. Whitehead had a bench warrant issued when he failed to appear for a court date earlier this month that his agent, David Rich, told USA TODAY Sports he had no knowlege had been scheduled.
The incident took place at a convenience store when police arrested the man after an employee at the store alleged the man left without paying. Police charged the man originally identified as Whitehead with petty theft.
“At this point, the police department is also confident in confirming that Mr. Whitehead’s identity was falsely provided to police during the investigation,” police said in a statement on Tuesday. “The police department is currently seeking the identity of the man involved in the incident.
“The police department regrets the impact these events had on Mr. Whitehead and his family.”Whitehead, though, still finds himself without a job just days before most teams report to training camps this week.
“As far as the whole situation went down, I was blindsided,” Whitehead told the Dallas Morning News. “I didn’t know about a warrant that came about in the first place. Clearly because I wasn’t the person arrested. The head person (in the Cowboys organization) I told, no one backed me up. No one had my back in the whole situation. I knew about it at what? 12:45. By 2:30 I’m released.”
Whitehead caught only three passes for 48 yards last season, but was a key member in Dallas’ special teams unit, leading the team with 17 kick returns for 394 yards, as well as 25 punts for 195 yards.
“As far as the stuff that was preached (by the Cowboys), I was left out to dry,” Whitehead said. “You see the mantras that are all around The Star. I mean, by 12:45 I figured out that this is even going on. By 2:30 I was released. What’s the real reason? Let me clear my name. I didn’t have time to do that.
“I was pretty much called a liar.”
The roof in Atlanta’s new stadium was successfully closed a while ago. Now, Mike Florio wonders when, or if, it may next open.
Last month, the roof at the new Falcons stadium successfully closed. Next month, it may stay that way for a while.
Via Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon said Tuesday that the roof will be closed when the stadium opens next month, and that it will remain closed “for an undetermined period of time” thereafter. Cannon blamed the inability to fully mechanize the roof on construction delays.
As a result, Cannon said the roof will be closed both for the preseason home opener on August 26 and the regular-season home opener on September 17.
Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer reacts to the quickness with which the Panthers (as he perceives it) have been dismissed just one year after a Super Bowl appearance:
The Carolina Panthers – a team that certainly could use some good news – got several small doses of it Tuesday as they reported to training camp.
The news wasn’t controversial. It wasn’t headline-making. It was just the sort of under-the-radar, team-building stuff that translates into wins in September.
Everyone who was supposed to show up did show up, including tight end Greg Olsen and linebacker Thomas Davis. Quarterback Cam Newton looked lean – for him – at 246 pounds after what coach Ron Rivera said was a “tremendous” offseason. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s weight wasn’t divulged, but Rivera said it was where it needs to be. Defensive end Julius Peppers looked way younger than his age.
In other words, life was back to relatively normal after a bizarre week in which team owner Jerry Richardson got fed up and fired general manager Dave Gettleman just before training camp. The Panthers’ digital and social-media folks had been having fun with a “Game of Thrones” pre-training camp theme well before that bloodletting, which did not go unnoticed.
Joked Panthers center Ryan Kalil of the “Game of Thrones” theme on Tuesday: “We obviously took that a little too literally – offing major characters and all.”
Gettleman was a major character for Carolina, certainly, but he has now been replaced by interim general manager Marty Hurney. The Panthers’ true theme this season seems to be that everything is old is new again. Hurney, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and the 37-year-old Peppers have all returned, as have the low expectations that have generally followed the Panthers throughout much of their existence.
USA Today has picked Carolina to finish 7-9 this season and last in the NFC South. Among preseason picks in 2017, that one is fairly standard for these Panthers.
“Weren’t we picked that in 2015 as well?” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday, his eyes dancing. The coach likes to be picked down low – it makes motivating players easier.
Despite the front-office shakeup, Rivera said the mood actually felt “a little bit lighter” now compared to this time a year ago.
“It’s a whole new approach,” Rivera said. “A different attitude. A different atmosphere. … Shoulders aren’t being weighed down.”
Olsen stood outside the players’ dorm at Wofford almost exactly a year ago – coming off a Super Bowl season in which Carolina had won 17 games – and warned of impending doom if the team couldn’t avoid a Super Bowl hangover. By mid-October 2016, Olsen said, if the Panthers rested on their NFC championship a little they would “find ourselves 1-4 asking, ‘What’s going on?’”
That, in fact, was exactly what happened. The Panthers were 1-4 after five games in 2016 and asking themselves what was going on. They never really figured it out, ending up 6-10.
So this season, the nationwide pundits have forgotten about them again. Teams such as Tennessee or Tampa Bay are supposed to be the hot new version of those 2015, Super-Bowl bound Panthers.
But by my count, Carolina boasts a team that currently fields six of its top 10 players of all time. I am not sure about the Panthers’ depth, but I think Carolina’s first string can compete with anybody.
“We’ve got one mission,” Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess said. “That’s to get to the promised land at the end.”
Players like Funchess, Benjamin and Shaq Thompson all need to take another step forward this season. It’s time. Rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will get all sorts of chances to contribute immediately. (Samuel, in a rather touching scene Tuesday, was dropped off by his mother at Wofford.)
Olsen made sure he didn’t cause any major headlines of his own Tuesday by simply showing up like he was supposed to. He is under contract, after all. He said the “slight chaos” of a week ago, with Gettleman suddenly sent on his way, made him think “it didn’t feel it was right to add fuel to that fire.”
Olsen still wants a new contract, mind you, as does Davis (who is closer to getting one). But the tight end also said he didn’t want to distract his teammates, who had nothing to do with his contract negotiations. Thus, no holdout.
Said Olsen: “It’s not the team’s fault, Cam’s fault or Luke (Kuechly)’s fault. … This has nothing to do with them, so why penalize them?”
The Panthers still have much work to do in Spartanburg. Newton will be limited in practice and watched like a hawk every day. Shoulder soreness will be a concern after offseason surgery. McCaffrey must be force-fed because he will be essential. I still wonder about both Kuechly’s concussion history and about how well the secondary will hold up.
But these Panthers have a chance to do some great things – if they can just stay healthy, and manage to get out of their own way.
Some new titles and personnel in the Kansas City front office per Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Chiefs shook up their front office in late June when they fired John Dorsey as their General Manager and promoted Brett Veach to fill the position.
On Tuesday, the team announced some other changes to the personnel department. At the top of the list was naming Mike Borgonzi as the director of player personnel.
The Chiefs described the move as a promotion, although it appears to be a modification as much as anything. Borgonzi and Veach were co-directors of player personnel before Veach was promoted to G.M., so he should be up to speed on things related to his new title.
The team also hired Michael Davis as a personnel executive and David Hinson as an area scout. Davis previously worked for the Eagles and Jets while Hinson worked for both those teams as well as the Browns, Saints and Bills.
The Ravens are already down one running back as RB KENNETH DIXON goes to IR. Chris Wesseling at NFL.com:
Kenneth Dixon’s meniscus tear is more extensive than the Baltimore Ravens originally believed.
The second-year running back is expected to miss the entire 2017 season after undergoing surgery to repair his medial meniscus on Tuesday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, via a source informed for the situation.
Before Dixon went under the knife, the Ravens hoped he would miss just a few weeks with a “trim” rather than a full repair. While Tuesday’s procedure bodes well for Dixon’s long-term health, the recovery timetable is four-to-five months.
A physical, tackle-breaking runner with above-average receiving ability, Dixon was expected to complement Terrance West on early downs and Danny Woodhead in passing situations. He was already slated to miss the first four games of the season under suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy.
His season-long absence is a significant blow to a beleaguered backfield that offered little in the way of big-play ability last season. Early this offseason, coach John Harbaugh raved about the former Louisiana Tech star as a young player with the potential to become a “top back in this league.”
T DUANE BROWN is an unhappy non-camper. Aaron Wilson in the Houston Chronicle:
The Texans placed veteran offensive tackle Duane Brown on the reserve-did not report list.
Brown didn’t report with the defending AFC South champions for the start of camp in West Virginia due to a contract dispute and can be fined $40,000 for each missed day.
He was absent during the offseason and fined $80,000 for missing a mandatory minicamp. He also triggered a $250,000 de-escalator clause for missing offseason workouts, lowering his base salary from $9.65 million to $9.4 million.
Meanwhile, the Texans placed defensive end Joel Heath and linebacker Dayon Pratt on the active-non-football injury list and T.J. Daniel on the active physically unable to perform list.
Two significant players are starting training camp on PUP, but the Colts are adopting a “nothing to see here” mentality about QB ANDREW LUCK and S MALIK HOOKER. Writing from afar, Will Brinson of CBSSports.com suggests panic might be the better mode.
The Indianapolis Colts find themselves, for the second straight year, on the list of teams expected to bounce back and make a run at the playoffs. The Colts had the AFC South on lockdown for a long time but have ceded control to the Houston Texans for the last two seasons. Last season they found themselves in third place behind Houston and Tennessee Titans.
The biggest reason for this was an injury to Andrew Luck, one that the Colts allowed to linger for nearly two years before the quarterback had surgery on his shoulder.
Most NFL teams are not built to sustain major injuries to star quarterbacks. But the Colts’ construction is particularly dangerous under Luck as it was when Peyton Manning ran the show. Manning missed the entire 2010 season after multiple multiple neck surgeries and the Colts cratered, winning just two games and securing the No. 1 pick that would net them Luck and a fortunate franchise reboot.
When Luck has been hurt, the Colts have not been as bad, but he also hasn’t missed a truly extended stretch of time with his myriad injuries. Indy was also fortunate that Matt Hasselbeck guzzled a gallon of water from the fountain of youth prior to the 2015 season, helping the team stay afloat with Luck playing in just seven games.
Last season Luck played in 15 games but his effectiveness was severely limited. That he topped 4,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns while battling a shoulder injury that should have been operated on the offseason prior is a testament to his skillset.
Back to the problem on hand: Luck is still hurt.
The Colts announced Tuesday Luck would begin the team’s training camp on the physically unable to perform list, which is not a thing you ever want a star player placed on. Hitting the PUP list hardly means that Luck won’t be ready for the start of the season, but it at least brings his availability into question.
The update from the team on Luck’s health is hardly optimistic and encouraging, with GM Chris Ballard saying, “[shrug emoji].”
“I’m comfortable when our doctors and our trainers clear him and say he’s ready to play,” Ballard said. “Whether that means he plays in preseason or doesn’t play in preseason, that’s up to our doctors and trainers to tell us where he’s at and for Andrew to tell us where he’s at.”
Ballard also said he’s not worried about when Luck plays.
“I don’t worry about when he plays and where he plays,” Ballard said. “My concern and our concern as an organization is — look, we’re all on the same page on this. Mr. [Jim] Irsay, Chuck [Pagano] and I have all had long discussions about what’s the next step. To me, the next step is getting him into practice. Then, once we get to practice, then the next step will be games.”
Which is fine, except if it’s later than the first week of the season or if the next stop doesn’t happen for a few weeks, then all of a sudden the Colts have to be a little more concerned.
Put another way: Luck isn’t throwing yet, and no one seems that concerned about the fact that he’s not throwing. The Colts’ season probably hinges on Luck throwing, and this should be a bigger story.
Also concerning for the Colts is the presence of first-round pick Malik Hooker on the PUP list. Again, this does not rule him out for the start of the season. The rookie could end up playing and being a dynamic, Ed Reed-like player on the back end of Chuck Pagano’s defense.
But there were injury red flags for Hooker coming into the season, particularly with respect to his hamstrings. Hooker apparently tweaked his hamstring on Monday during the Colts’ rookie conditioning test, which is basically the equivalent of Jim Irsay riding through the streets of Indianapolis standing out of the top of a tank and waving a giant red flag.
Add in Clayton Geathers’ injury, which is likely to last into the regular season, and the Colts are now missing a pair of guys who profiled as likely starting safeties for the regular season.
Hooker and Luck could easily return to the team during the preseason, but if you’re looking for omens heading into 2017, seeing both your top draft pick and most important player struggle to get healthy in time for training camp is a pretty big concern.
In case you wondered, Plan B at the moment for the Colts is SCOTT TOLZEIN and he is by far the best of the three QBs on the roster. Even if he isn’t that good.
So should Luck linger on PUP, we would expect the media to ravenously beat the drums for COLIN KAEPERNICK.
The highest paid center in the NFL plays for Jacksonville and his name is BRANDON LINDER. But he may not be a center for long. Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union:
On the eve of veterans reporting to training camp, the Jaguars signed Brandon Linder to a five-year contract extension Tuesday that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid center.
Per the NFL Network, the deal is worth $51.7 million – an average of $10.34 million that eclipses Dallas’ Travis Frederick ($9.4 million).
“It was something we wanted to get done before camp so now we can just play ball,” the 25-year old Linder said on a conference call. “We knew after [organized team activities last month] that we wanted to talk, but I think it was in the past two weeks [there was] traction.”
Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson could be next.
During an event at Academy Sports on Jacksonville’s Southside, Robinson said his camp is engaged with the Jaguars about a contract extension.
“They have [talked], but at the end of the day, that’s my agent’s job and I’ll let him do his thing and I’ll do my thing on the field,” Robinson said.
As members of the 2014 draft class, Linder and Robinson became eligible for contract extensions at the beginning of the off-season. Linder is locked up and conventional wisdom suggests Robinson – a 1,400-yard/14-touchdown performer in 2015 – could be soon.
Linebacker Telvin Smith, cornerback Aaron Colvin and receiver Marqise Lee are also eligible for extensions before they become free agents next March.
A third-round pick, Linder is the first draft selection by general manager Dave Caldwell to sign a second contract.
“I’m just excited I’ll get a chance to play my career here,” Linder said. “That’s something I wanted to do. Now I’ve got five more years in this organization. I couldn’t be happier.”
Linder started his Jaguars career at right guard (2014-15) before being moved to center last year. During this year’s off-season program, he worked at right guard and center.
THIS AND THAT
4 BIG MOVES IN THE AFC
Ty Shalter of The538.com with four moves that will “re-shape” the AFC in 2017. Of course one of his moves is a Patriots signing that the DB would argue will just leave the AFC in the same shape when it pans out.
If recent history holds, this spring’s roster churn will lead to similar turnover: In nine of the past 11 seasons, at least five of 12 NFL playoff teams have failed to return to the postseason the following year.
So which players who’ve changed teams have the potential to tip the balance of power in each division? Today we take on the four divisions of the AFC. We’ll do the NFC later this week.
AFC East: Brandin Cooks, WR, Patriots
Opportunity: The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl last season, in case you forgot. And in doing so, they did it with possibly the least star-studded Patriots squad Tom Brady’s ever led to the big game. The Jets and Bills seem intent on rebuilding this year (not like the Patriots were losing sleep over them anyway). But the Miami Dolphins, who finished 2016 on a 9-2 run under rookie head coach Adam Gase, could pose a serious threat to the Patriots for the first time since 2008 — the last time any team besides the Patriots won the AFC East. Perhaps this is why New England spent the offseason getting better on offense.
What needed to be addressed: No team had a bigger difference in effectiveness between their shotgun and under-center offense last season than the Patriots, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. With All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski missing eight games (and the only proven downfield threat when he was on the field), the Patriots offense was ineffective under center as opposing defenses were able to key in on the short passes that traditionally butter Brady’s bread. As a result, New England became reliant on Brady’s ability to read the field from shotgun and produce something from nothing.
The last time Gronkowski missed more than half of a season, 2013, Brady threw to wideouts an average of 25.2 times per game, second-most in his career — but his passer efficiency rating while doing it, 91.0, was his second-worst ever. Over the next three seasons, Brady targeted wideouts just under 19 times a game. But in 2016, the heavy use of shotgun helped Brady’s rating shoot up to a whopping 109.9. So 2016 was a bit of anomaly for the Brady Patriots, one he’d be unlikely to reproduce while still relying on the likes of Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan at wideout.
Potential impact: The Patriots traded their first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Cooks, addressing their need for a vertical threat with one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL. Last season, Cooks finished 14th in the league in yards per reception, with an average of 15.0 yards; only T.Y. Hilton and Julio Jones averaged more yards per catch and had at least as many catches as Cooks (78). Cooks’s ability to get open whether a quarterback is dropping back or under center should be a boon to the offense. Patriots owner Robert Kraft compared Cooks’s potential impact to the 2007 addition of Randy Moss.
Question mark: Brady is famously dedicated to keeping his body in great shape and avoiding the effects of aging; in June, ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that Brady doesn’t seem to have lost any arm strength. But if Brady’s arm turns into a wet noodle on his 40th birthday, Cooks’s vertical threat will be minimized.
AFC North: Jeremy Maclin, WR, Ravens
Opportunity: Baltimore finished 8-8 in 2016, ahead of the 6-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals but well behind the 11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers. With significant questions surrounding the veteran cores of all three rosters, the Ravens could claw back to the top of the pack — or fall into the basement.
What needed to be addressed: The decline of Joe Flacco’s deep-ball game has affected both his output and the Ravens’ offensive results. Although Flacco’s passer rating has been at his career norm in each of the past two seasons, his average yards per completion in 2016 (9.9) and 2015 (10.5) were the lowest of his career. According to TruMedia, Flacco had the third-most passing attempts that went at least 10 yards beyond the sticks from 2008 to 2014, but he ranked just 18th from 2015 to 2016. Now, two of Flacco’s top three targets of 2016 — Steve Smith (retired) and Dennis Pitta (career-threatening injury) — are unavailable.
Potential impact: Before a lingering groin tear depressed his 2016 average yards-per-catch to a career-low 12.2, Maclin averaged 13.6 yards per reception over his career. That includes a high of 15.5 in 2014, the year before he came to Kansas City after five seasons in Philadelphia. If Maclin returns to his pre-injury form, he’ll be an excellent fit for what Flacco and the Ravens have always done best: attacking downfield. Getting to play with Flacco, rather than Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, could do wonders for Maclin, too:
Question mark: What if Maclin is fine but Flacco isn’t? Should Flacco, who’ll take up $24.5 million of the Ravens’ salary cap this season, turn in yet another subpar season despite the addition of Maclin, the clock could start ticking on the quarterback’s time in Baltimore.
AFC South: Eric Decker, WR, Titans
Opportunity: The Titans tied the Houston Texans at 9-7 last season, losing the division on a tiebreaker. Houston will add J.J. Watt to a defense that finished seventh in DVOA last season, despite missing the perennial All-Pro for 13 games. But the Texans are going back to the drawing board at quarterback, as they have every year under head coach Bill O’Brien (not that Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler haven’t left room for improvement). The Titans, meanwhile, went 8-4 in the last 12 games of 2016, and third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota seems primed to take another big step forward, as he did from his rookie season (51.6 Total Quarterback Rating) to his second (64.9).
What needed to be addressed: In the spring of 2016, Titans rookie general manager Jon Robinson went on a mission to build a power run game, drafting first-round tackle Jack Conklin and second-round tailback Derrick Henry and signing free-agent tailback DeMarco Murray. In 2017, Robinson added weapons for Mariota, drafting wideout Corey Davis No. 5 overall and catch-and-run threat Taywan Taylor in the third round. That being said, Davis’s learning curve is likely to be even steeper than for most rookie receiverss; the MAC product wasn’t medically cleared for full-speed practice until June.
Potential impact: Decker has solidified himself as one of the league’s most dangerous slot receivers. Neither No. 1 wideout Rishard Matthews nor tight end Delanie Walker, who accounted for more than 50 percent of the Titans’ non-RB targets last season, boasts Decker’s combination of size and speed. If Matthews, Walker and Mariota can build on what they did last season, Decker will make it difficult for opponents to defend the middle of the field.
Question mark: Mariota, like Davis, is recovering from surgery; he was a limited participant at June minicamp. Even if he has fully recovered in time for training camp, missing any offseason work isn’t ideal for a young quarterback. There’s also the question of how often he’ll be asked to throw to all of these weapons, considering that the run-first Titans finished 28th in team pass attempts last season.
AFC West: Marshawn Lynch, RB, Raiders
Opportunity: The Oakland Raiders were in the process of winning their 12th game when young quarterback Derek Carr was lost for the season with an injury. The Kansas City Chiefs capitalized on the opportunity, winning both of their final regular-season games and claiming the division crown on a tiebreaker. With Carr back and hometown hero Lynch coming out of retirement, the Raiders will be looking for the division crown … and maybe more. At the very least, the lame-duck Raiders should give the city of Oakland one real playoff run before they run to Las Vegas.
What needed to be addressed: Latavius Murray, who was the Raiders’ main running back last season and now is a Minnesota Viking, has a reputation as a boom-or-bust runner. In 2016, though, he was almost the opposite. He finished 16th in Success Rate, a way of measuring how consistently backs keep the offense on schedule in terms of down and distance, but 23rd in DVOA (-3.7 percent).
Potential impact: Before retiring at the end of the 2015 season, Lynch was one of the hardest backs to tackle in the NFL; in 2014, Lynch topped the league in Pro Football Focus’s Elusive Rating. To evaluate Lynch’s potential impact on the Raiders’ offense, we can compare the 2016 Raiders’ offensive line to that of the 2015 Seahawks, the last team Lynch played for, using Football Outsiders’ two advanced metrics to measure running success: Adjusted Line Yards1 and Power Success rate.2
Compared with the 2015 Seahawks, the 2016 Raiders didn’t average quite as many Adjusted Line Yards as (4.09 vs. 4.18) or perform as well in Power Success (59 percent vs. 71 percent). However, the Raiders blocked much better in the second level (8th vs. 15th) and the open field (7th vs. 12th). Over the last three seasons, according to TruMedia, Murray has had to fight through more resistance than most starting tailbacks, but Lynch took his first average hit far earlier than most of the rest of the league. Meanwhile, Lynch is far better after first contact. Bottom line? The Bay Area may feel a lot of Beast Quakes.
Question mark: Lynch is a 31-year-old running back who just took a year off. He might not have any more Beast Quakes left in him.
David Steele of The Sporting News hopes he doesn’t have a job writing about the NFL for very much longer.
The data, the words, the quotes and, above all, the photos — put them all together, and they might be the last straw.
If they’re not, they definitely should be the tipping point.
This is beyond the NFL now. All those rows of diseased brains against the black backdrop on the New York Times website, signifying the football players studied who were posthumously diagnosed with CTE, are going to do damage to more than the NFL’s reason for existence.
This puts the entire sport of football on the clock. Or at least it should. Experts have been saying for a long time now that football is hazardous to your health, like cigarettes and alcohol, and that it’s more dangerous the younger you are. This report is only the latest warning sticker.
The ratio that will stick in the minds of anyone who comes across the Times report (distilled from a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association) is 110 CTE cases out of 111.
The message that leaves: By the time you reach the NFL, it’s too late.
The overall numbers were only slightly more damning to the case that football is … well, the best the game’s defenders can say now is, not as bad as everyone’s making it out to be. In all, 202 brains, all donated to the study, were examined, and 177 were found to have CTE. Those of non-NFL players came from every level of the sport dating back to high school.
That’s 67 out of 91 football players, nearly 74 percent, who did not play in the NFL.
Plenty who follow this often point out that the NFL gets a disproportionate amount of the attention on this. These numbers support that idea. It’s an ugly reminder that, as bad as the NFL figures are and as poorly as the NFL has handled this going back decades, the fundamental problem is with football itself.
Yet, within all of that … 110 out of 111 is horrifying.
Yes, even the authors — including the renowned CTE expert Dr. Ann McKee, who is quoted in the Times article — acknowledge that the study itself is bound by the fact that these were brains donated by players and families that saw the symptoms already.
Even factoring that in, any football player, no matter when he (or, increasingly, she) started playing, who dodges this particular cognitive bullet is beating astronomical odds.
Everybody who trivializes the advance of science on this subject as some kind of vindictive, self-serving “war on football” — and you know who you are — is playing a dangerous game about a dangerous game.
And if you’re piling on top of that by scolding players who agonize over this and fight with what they have left for some kind of reparations for what they surrendered for others’ entertainment, you have to step back and face reality.
To those who screech, “They knew it was dangerous when they started playing it, they had a choice” — no, you’re wrong, they didn’t know all of this. There’s no plausible way they could have.
Make that argument in 20 or 30 years, when the kids coming up now have grown up. No sensible person can look at that sobering graphic and the faces attached to it, from Hall of Famers to long-forgotten short-timers, and speak for them, believing they went into it as many as eight decades ago with the idea that their brains would someday betray them.
There’s still going to be a lot of denial about this; there always has been, every time another revelation about the toll of this sport goes public.
On the other hand, every time, there also is another group of parents who declare that their child will never play it. Not to mention another player who walks away from the NFL to save whatever he has left.
Players were reporting to training camps around the league Tuesday as the report went public. There’s no question many took notice and reconsidered their options at least a little.
Those who still live and profit off of the game, and who have voids that need filling from it, will keep fighting it. The battles will continue.
But if this is really a “war,” they lost this battle.
How do you overcome “110 out of 111”? And why would you even try?
And more from Nancy Armour of USA TODAY:
How many more dead athletes do we need before we stop quibbling about the toll of head trauma? How many more autopsies that find brains riddled with disease? How many more heart-wrenching stories of mood changes, depression and memory loss?
100? 200? Because we’re already there.
A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of 110 out of 111 former NFL players. Let that sink in for a minute. With 53 players on regular-season rosters, that’s two teams’ worth of players, plus a couple of practice squad guys.
Makes you look at the roster of your favorite team a little differently, doesn’t it?
It’s not just NFL players who are vulnerable, either. The brains of 202 men who played football at the youth level, high school, college, semiprofessional, Canadian Football League and NFL were studied by researchers from Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System, and 177 were found to have CTE. That’s 87%.
Now, this doesn’t mean every NFL player is going to get CTE or that playing in high school is akin to signing a death certificate. All of the brains were donated, mostly by family members who suspected or feared their loved ones had CTE.
Nor does the study show why blows to the head cause CTE, or how many blows are too many.
But the numbers and details are staggering enough that they ought to finally bring an end to the double talk and denials by the NFL, NHL, FIFA and other professional sports organizations about the role their sports play in the deaths of those who played it.
“My major frustration is that we spend so much time not talking about how to solve this disease, how to find treatments, how to find ways to detect this disease. And we spend loads of money and time debating whether this is a disease,” said Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University and author of the study.
“To me, that’s obvious,” McKee added in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “Let’s move. Let’s bring some hope to people that have (CTE) and not contribute to future generations by leaving this problem unsolved. That’s what’s frustrating to me.”
When Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, grudgingly acknowledged a link between football and CTE during a Congressional hearing in March 2016, it appeared to be a reversal of years of vehement denials by the league. But within a few hours, the NFL had fallen back on its “We need more science” stance.
Sure enough, after praising McKee and her colleagues for a study that “adds to the ongoing quest for a better understanding of CTE,” the NFL all but raised its eyebrows at the whole thing.
“As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE,” the NFL said in its statement Tuesday.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is even more obstinate, saying there is still no definitive proof of a link between repetitive head trauma and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE.
While that’s technically true, it’s also like choking on smoke that can be both smelled and seen and continuing to insist it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a fire.
“This is a critical mass of evidence,” McKee said. “It’s no longer debatable it’s a problem.”
The leagues have been reluctant to admit a link between head trauma and CTE because it leaves them liable. The NFL is in the process of paying out a $1 billion settlement to former players who said the league failed to warn them of the dangers of head trauma. The NHL is currently facing a similar lawsuit from its former players.
It also could make it hard to attract youngsters to the sport. Parents tend to be a little skittish of signing their child up for something that could have debilitating consequences in 30, 40 or 50 years.
But ignoring the obvious won’t make it go away.
More answers are needed, as is a way to diagnose CTE while someone is still alive; an autopsy is currently the only way to say with certainty that a person had the disease. A cure would be even better.
The brains at the center of Tuesday’s research will help find those answers, and support – and money – from the likes of the NFL and NHL would help speed them along.
“I’m very optimistic that this disease can have an effective cure,” McKee said. “But we have to apply our resources effectively to do that.”
Almost 200 men died without answers. How many more is it going to take?
DAVID CARR’s BREAKOUT QBs
Derek Carr’s brother and former NFL overall number one is now a scribe at NFL.com. He picks three breakout QBs for 2017, none named Carr who presumably is already out. Two are names the DB could have thrown out there, one would make Carr look like Nostradamus:
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
2017 projection: 3,500 passing yards, 500 rushing yards, 35-40 total touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Mariota is one of my favorite young quarterbacks because of the pressure he puts on defenses. He can do a lot, and his offense suits him well. We already saw improvements from Year 1 to Year 2, and 2017 will see Mariota become a top-10 quarterback. He’s already quite good at seeing coverage and being able to pull the trigger downfield. But he also adds that element of being able to pull the football down and run. Because Mariota doesn’t have to put the ball in potentially detrimental situations, we’ve seen steady improvement.
The Titans’ offense is set up for Mariota to have an outstanding season. Veteran tight end Delanie Walker is a mismatch nightmare. Rookie Corey Davis tracks the ball well and will bring another element to the passing game. Free-agent acquisition Eric Decker’s a huge bonus and will provide a 1-2 punch with Davis.
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
2017 projection: 4,200 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Wentz proved he can play the quarterback position well at the NFL level in Year 1, especially early on. The Eagles struggled down the stretch because they didn’t have any big plays. In 2016, the offense tied for 26th in passing plays of 40-plus yards with six and tied for 28th in passing plays over 20 yards with 39. The front office did a good job bringing in some pieces to help Wentz get the ball downfield. Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith will pose as deep threats, and that’s what the Eagles need if they want to compete in the NFC East.
Cody Kessler, Cleveland Browns
2017 projection: 3,500 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
I thought Kessler did a good job with Hue Jackson’s offense a year ago. In nine games (eight starts), Kessler had a 65.6 percent completion rate, a 6:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 92.3 passer rating. The kid is pretty accurate and reminds me a lot of Drew Brees. He gets the ball out of his hand early, understands what it takes to be successful in this league and has a great QB coach. Like Brees with Sean Payton, Kessler benefits greatly from Jackson’s wise offensive mind.
The sophomore out of USC will compete against Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer for the starting job and has all the intangibles to win it. A full offseason in Jackson’s system is crucial — as is getting contributions from a healthy Corey Coleman and rookie tight end David Njoku. I don’t expect the ground game to be super strong this season, and the Browns will be playing from behind quite a bit, giving Kessler the opportunity to rack up numbers.
Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams?
2017 projection: ???
You know, I really thought about putting Goff on this list. I wanted to. But I just can’t. I don’t believe he’s quite ready to take it to the next level. I hope he proves me wrong, though.