The Daily Briefing Wednesday, September 26, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

Competition committee member Sean Payton says someone up the NFL chain of command seems to have deleted the words “intentionally” from their instructions about body weight on the quarterback sowing confusion among the rank and file officials.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The NFL’s Competition Committee is set to have a conference call next week to discuss, among other topics, the spike in roughing the passer calls over the opening weeks of the regular season and one member of the committee shared his view on where things have gone wrong on Wednesday.

 

Saints head coach Sean Payton said that the league’s point of emphasis regarding flags for defensive players landing with their body weight on top of quarterbacks has been misinterpreted on some of the plays that have resulted in penalties this season.

 

“The point of emphasis in the offseason was very simple, and that was avoiding the player ‘intentionally’ placing all the weight on the quarterback,” Payton said, via the New Orleans Advocate. “Have we seen some that have been flagged that should not have been? Absolutely.”

 

A number of calls suggest that the point of emphasis has not been “very simple” for all officials and Payton said that there’s been inconsistency between different officiating crews about when to throw a flag. He said everyone needs to get on “the same page” and we’ll find out if next week’s conversation is able to get that done.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

ESPN’s NFC North reporters are taking the first place Bears seriously with the arrival of LB KHALIL MACK:

 

A month ago, the NFC North looked like potentially the toughest division in football. The Green Bay Packers had the league’s best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. The Minnesota Vikings had the NFL’s top defense. The Detroit Lions had, arguably, the top special-teams unit and the Chicago Bears had just traded for Khalil Mack, one of the league’s best defensive playmakers.

 

Yet three weeks in, the division looks like a big jumble with no undefeated teams and the surprising Bears at 2-1. There’s still plenty of time, of course, for this to play out. But three weeks in, what has changed? What’s to be believed and what will still come across as a falsehood by the end of the season?

 

How has the impact of Khalil Mack changed your outlook on the division race?

 

Courtney Cronin, ESPN Vikings reporter: The Bears’ defense has legitimized their playoff hopes in 2018. A team that felt like it was still a year away before Sept. 1 is now in first place in the NFC North, thanks in part to how the acquisition of Mack has taken this unit to another level. Every team is now circling the Bears on their calendar, wondering how the heck they’re going to block the former defensive player of the year who has recorded a sack and forced a fumble in three straight games. This defense is advancing at such a rapid rate that the only thing that could halt Chicago’s chances at the playoffs might be its play at quarterback. The long and short of it: There’s no longer a two-team race in the division between the Vikings and Packers.

 

Rob Demovsky, ESPN Packers reporter: Let’s see the Bears shut down an elite quarterback before we declare them real players in the NFC North — even with a dominant pass-rusher like Mack. They couldn’t keep Rodgers from finishing them off in the opener, and that collapse could end up being costly. They beat Russell Wilson, who is solid but not elite and the Cardinals played two quarterbacks by choice, which means they don’t really have one. Talk to me after Week 7 when they play Tom Brady, and then we’ll see.

 

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Lions reporter: It’s huge. Fans (and media, too) often overlook the true impact of defensive stars in the league now because of the intense focus on fantasy and offensive skill players. But Mack has made Chicago one of the league’s most dangerous defenses and is such an impact playmaker. He has forced a fumble in every game this season. He has four sacks in three games. And for opposing offensive tackles, there really is no easy way to handle him. He changes protection schemes and will only get better as the season goes along and he begins to understand his NFC North opponents. In my opinion, bringing Mack in should end up giving the Bears at least two more wins this season than they would have had without him.

 

Kevin Seifert, NFL writer: The only position that can change the course of a game more than an elite pass-rusher is an elite quarterback. So, sure, the Bears’ acquisition of Mack changed my outlook. It gave the Bears arguably the best defense in the division, a pretty important asset when you’re competing with Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford. Through three weeks, the Bears rank No. 8 in scoring defense (18.3 points per game) and No. 1 in ESPN defensive efficiency. In the end, the trade elevated the Bears into equal contention with the Vikings and Packers.

 

 

GREEN BAY

Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com on a key Packers offensive player named Aaron – and it is not Rodgers:

 

He had not touched a football in 25 days — not in an actual game, anyway.

 

So when Aaron Jones took the field late in the first quarter on Sunday at the Washington Redskins and did what Aaron Jones does — sliced through the smallest of holes and turned a 2-yard gain into 10 — it was no wonder the Green Bay Packers’ second-year running back jumped up and emphatically gave the first-down signal.

 

“There was a lot pent up,” Jones said of both the 10-yard run and his reaction. “I was sitting at home for two weeks just waiting for a carry. My first one, for it to be like — of course, I wanted to take it to the house — but for it to be a big run, I was pumped and I just wanted to bring a spark.”

 

On the very next play, Jones cut a run inside for an 8-yard gain.

 

Two plays, two carries, 18 yards.

 

What’s not to like about that?

 

Yet Jones touched the ball only five more times in the 31-17 loss at FedEx Field. He caught one pass for 5 yards, and his six carries totaled 42 yards for an impressive 7.0 yards per rush.

 

To be sure, just about everyone who ran the ball against the Redskins had some success. Jamaal Williams averaged 5.8 yards on five carries and Ty Montgomery 4.0 yards on four carries. Even gimpy Aaron Rodgers ran twice for 13 yards.

 

Whether anyone liked it or not, Packers coach Mike McCarthy wasn’t about to run Jones into the ground in his first game since the Aug. 30 preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs, after he served a two-week suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy following his marijuana arrest last year and no-contest plea in February.

 

But if there’s a running back who can take over a game, it’s Jones. And this Sunday against a Buffalo Bills defense that has allowed only 80 rushing yards per game so far, McCarthy will have to at least consider a game plan that includes much more of Jones.

 

Although it’s hard to take Williams off the field because he excels in the blitz-pickup department, neither he nor Montgomery has Jones’ explosiveness through even the smallest of openings. Jones’ 5.6-yard average per carry in his short career leads all NFL backs with at least 85 rushes since the start of the 2017 season.

 

“I thought Aaron had a real nice start,” McCarthy said Monday. “As far as his play-time numbers, we kind of hit the target that I was looking for. As we talked about last week, you’ve got to be smart with all your players, particularly when it’s the first time out there. He hadn’t played since Kansas City but, boy, I thought he did some really good things with the ball and did some good things in the passing game.

 

Jones was absent from the Packers for two games due to a substance abuse suspension.

 

NFC EAST

 

PHILADELPHIA

Good news for the Eagles.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Eagles got one offensive starter back in the lineup last week and they could have another make his 2018 debut against the Titans this week.

 

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said at the start of his Wednesday press conference that wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has been cleared for contact. That was the final medical milestone for Jeffery to hit in his return from offseason shoulder surgery.

 

Pederson said the team has yet to make a decision about whether or not Jeffery will play against Tennessee. The wideout was listed as questionable for last Sunday’s game against the Colts despite not having full clearance, so it would seem like a decent bet that he’ll play if all goes well at practice the next three days.

 

With quarterback Carson Wentz returning to the lineup for the Indianapolis game and running backs Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles trending toward returns, the Eagles should have all hands on deck offensively in the near future.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

The Falcons may have lost their ace safeties, but star RB DEVONTA FREEMAN could be back as soon as this week.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com on conflicting reports:

 

After a report last week indicated that running back Devonta Freeman would miss 2-4 weeks with a knee injury, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn offered a rebuttal that referred to Freeman as day to day.

 

It’s looking like that original timeline might have been on the money, however. Freeman has missed the last two games after getting hurt in the season opener and he’s not ready to get back to a full workload as this week’s practices get underway.

 

Quinn said on 92.9 The Game Wednesday that Freeman is “getting closer” and will participate in “some of the walkthroughs” as the team starts preparing to face the Bengals in Week Four. There will be two more practice days, but the trajectory would suggest that Week Five may be a more realistic return date.

 

That also seems to be the case for defensive end Derrick Shelby, who is in the same category as Freeman in terms of workload. Quinn said defensive end Takk McKinley is set to get in some work during practice, so he may make it back to the lineup ahead of the other two players.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Buccaneers S CHRIS CONTE was steamrolled by a stiff arm from Steelers TE VANCE McDONALD on Monday, and left the game with an injury.  The story now, as he goes to IR, is that Conte was already hurt before he was embarrassed.  Adam Schefter of ESPN.com has a tweet:

 

@AdamSchefter

Bucs’ S Chris Conte, the victim of Vance McDonald’s stiff arm, played with a torn PCL Monday night, per source. Conte “gutted it out and honestly shouldn’t have played.” He now will be sidelined the next six weeks, resting an injury he played with vs. Steelers.

– – –

Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter declines to reveal his starting QB for Sunday in Chicago as JAMEIS WINSTON returned to work.  Herbie Teope at NFL.com:

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter knows who is starting at quarterback between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston for Week 4. He’s just not telling anyone.

 

Koetter doesn’t want to tip his hand to the Chicago Bears, but Winston, who returns from a three-game suspension, sounded more like a backup than a starter during a Wednesday morning press conference.

 

Winston placed an emphasis on doing whatever he can to help the team remain successful and wanting to be a part of the winning culture that has come with the Buccaneers’ 2-1 start.

 

“My passion for this team, my love for the team, goes beyond where I’m out there throwing the football for this team or not,” Winston told reporters. “Like I said, it’s my first day back. Let me enjoy that before I start answering any more questions about that.”

 

Without Winston, the Buccaneers’ offense has thrived and Fitzpatrick became the first quarterback in the league’s history to pass for more than 400 yards in three consecutive games.

 

The veteran quarterback was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Weeks 1-2 and currently leads the league with 1,230 yards passing and ranks second in touchdown passes with 11.

 

Winston said he watched the games during his suspension and he is well aware of the FitzMagic mania that has swept through the community and taken the league by storm since Week 1.

 

“I’ve seen the beards, but when the guy throws for 400 yards three games in a row, you got to love that,” Winston told reporters. “And as a community, we got to get behind this team because when we’re winning, when things are going good, we got to capitalize on that. I’m just happy to be back, man, like I’m happy that now I can be a part of that. I’m not watching from a distance. I can be here with my teammates.”

 

Whether he is starting or sitting behind Fizpatrick, Winston made it clear his return changes nothing and all he wants to be a part of the team’s achievements on the field.

 

“It’s about the team’s success,” Winston said. “I’m not a selfish player; it’s about our team. We’re out here doing big things and we have to continue doing it.”

 

In the history of the NFL, only 2 QBs have passed for 1,200 yards and 10 TDs in the first three games of a season.  One is TOM BRADY (1,327, 11 TDs) in 2011, the other is RYAN FITZPATRICK for the Buccaneers this year (1,230, 11 TDs).  We would expect it to be Fitzpatrick at the helm on Sunday.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

The 49ers have a list of QBs, we count five, that they are surveilling to take JIMMY GARAOPPOLO’s spot on the roster.  It does not include Nike’s bellcow spokesperson per this dispatch from Reuters:

 

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers are looking at quarterbacks on Tuesday with Jimmy Garoppolo out for the season.

 

Colin Kaepernick is not among the veteran passers invited to the workout.

 

Shanahan said the 49ers already have made contact with former Miami Dolphins backup Matt Moore. NFL Network reported the long list of players the 49ers are evaluating includes Matt Simms, who was with the Atlanta Falcons when Shanahan was offensive coordinator there, along with Tom Savage, T.J. Yates and Kellen Clemens.

 

Reports of trade interest from the 49ers in multiple quarterbacks — Tyrod Taylor of the Browns and New York Jets backup Josh McCown — are unlikely to bear fruit. Browns head coach Hue Jackson said Monday that Cleveland would not trade Taylor, even after No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield was promoted to the starting job.

 

Kaepernick remains unemployed and last played for the 49ers in 2016, the season before Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were hired.

 

C.J. Beathard takes over as the No. 1 quarterback in San Francisco. Shanahan said he has total confidence in Beathard, who has “the respect of the team.”

 

Other insider reports list Savage as the favorite.

 

Someone named QB NICK MULLENS has been promoted from the practice squad for this week’s game at the Chargers.

 

Former Dolphin backup MATT MOORE has declined the offer to tryout, but it is not yet clear if he is retired (per Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com).

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

The Rams are flying high right now, but are also collecting injuries at cornerback.  Sean Wagner-McGough of CBSSports.com:

 

The Rams are 3-0 with a plus-66 point differential, but two injuries have marred their otherwise perfect start. During their win over the Chargers on Sunday, the Rams lost both of their starting cornerbacks, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, to injuries. On Monday, an update arrived.

 

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Peters strained his calf and is day-to-day, but because the Rams play against the Vikings on Thursday night, he might miss Week 4. Meanwhile, Schefter reported that Talib is going to miss at least one month with a high ankle sprain.

 

 

Those are two of the Rams’ most important players, both of whom were brought in via trade in the offseason. Replacing them won’t be easy. But all things considered, the injury news is probably the best kind of update the Rams could’ve received.

 

So long as the Rams get Talib back in a month or so and Peters back for Week 5, they’ll be OK, because they’re not entirely dependent on their defense. Their offense — with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Robert Woods — can win shootouts if that’s what it comes to. What’s important is that the injuries to Talib and Peters weren’t season-enders. Barring new injuries, they should be there for the stretch run of the season, which is when the Rams will need them. In the meantime, expect players like Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman to see the field.

 

With that being said, the Vikings just caught a huge break. Going into Los Angeles and beating the Rams on a short week was always going to be difficult — and it still will be — but their task will be significantly easier with Talib and possibly Peters absent. In their careers, Talib and Peters have combined for 54 interceptions. Since 2015, when Peters entered the NFL, he leads the league in picks while Talib has the second-most picks since 2008, when his career began.

 

The Vikings’ talented receiving group, led by Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, will now present a substantial mismatch for the Rams’ secondary on Thursday night.

 

AFC NORTH

 

PITTSBURGH

Former Steelers LB James Harrison is publicly providing RB Le’VEON BELL with a road map to further mess with the Steelers.

 

James Harrison saw Le’Veon Bell’s holdout lasting into the regular season before most others did. Now the former linebacker is suggesting that Bell hold himself out of games even if he does come back to the Steelers to sign his franchise tender before the end of the season.

 

Harrison appeared on Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed” Tuesday, and he outlined a pretty bold plan for Bell to “return” in time to record a full season of service while still protecting his body from game action.

 

“If I’m Le’Veon, I’m coming back Nov. 13, and going to go in there, I’m going to get my credit, the season that I need to get, and I’m going to do the best I can to get out of that season healthy. For me, I’d give you everything in practice. You would see, the cameras would see, that I am fine. I am healthy. But come Saturday? Something ain’t right. I can’t play on Sunday. Because if I go out here and I mess something up. I’m losing a lot of money.”

 

Nov. 13 falls during Week 11 of the NFL season, the deadline for Bell to sign his deal, get credit for a season of service time and assure himself free agency in 2019. Otherwise, he could be subjected to the franchise tag at a similar salary again.

 

Harrison is suggesting a path — faking injury — that would allow Bell to get credit, plus a fat prorated salary, while functionally protracting his holdout, even under contract.

 

Of course, the Steelers would be better off trading Bell or rescinding the tag before things ever get that far, which is probably the point. Those are outcomes Bell would probably prefer, and that strategy could give him the leverage to force them sooner than later. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Steelers have reportedly begun listening to offers for the star back.

 

Harrison also said that criticism Bell has received from teammates since choosing to skip games could also be a stumbling block.

 

“After the things they said about him, and him having to step back into that locker room, there’s going to be a lot of friction. Things said, you can’t just pull them back and take them away. … So instead of making more fuss than what it is, yeah, I feel, just let him go.”

 

It’s not clear whether Bell and Harrison have been in contact, and we won’t speculate. He’s been right about Bell’s tactics and mindset before, though, so it’s probably worth taking his words more seriously than, say, Terry Bradshaw’s.

 

Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com looks at which teams, he highlights three, might be interested in landing Bell.

 

An NFL player can irritate some portions of the locker room. He can rankle a coaching staff. He can even have his agent repeatedly butt heads with the team’s front office.

 

But when a contract holdout starts crossing into taunting territory, it’s time to move on. And if you have any doubts about Le’Veon Bell being at this point of no return, just check out the jet-ski jaunt from Miami earlier this month. If Bell’s divorce from the Pittsburgh Steelers finally goes down, history is likely to remember that moment being the incident that prompted the Steelers to break it off.

 

According to a league source who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Monday, that snippet of Bell on the water is when Pittsburgh officially opened the door to trade offers. Partially because of the impact Bell’s behavior – and the questions surrounding it – have had on the locker room, and partly because the Steelers are now convinced that Bell’s heart is more invested in his pending free agency than coming in and helping Pittsburgh. Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, has been putting out trade feelers to other franchises for several weeks, the source said. But within only the past few days have the Steelers been open to listening to offers.

 

None of that means a deal is likely to happen, largely because of the complications that surround an acquisition. There is a question of what the Steelers would accept for Bell – a bounty that would need to be at least a third-round pick because that is what Bell’s free-agent departure would likely draw in a compensatory draft choice. But the more complicated matter for teams pursuing Bell is the fact that they can’t sign him until after the season, due to franchise tag restrictions. In effect, he could be a short-term rental for any team that acquires him, choosing to play out the string and maximize his value in free agency. There’s also the matter of Bell being intent on preserving his health prior to that free-agency foray. It’s a goal that will likely extend to any team that signs him as well.

 

So what is Bell really worth and who is in play? That’s a question best answered by a handful of factors, chief among them being immediate need, available money, quarterback talent and the stability of the franchise brain trust. With that in mind, here is the case for the top three Bell suitors, ranked from strongest case to weakest:

 

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

The basics: The Colts have the youngest roster of “under contract” players for 2019. That gives their front office and coaching staff some leeway to splurge on a few seasoned veterans. Indianapolis also has a ton of money to spend next year if it chooses. Barring extensions before the offseason, the standardized salary-cap space for the Colts will be roughly $73 million. If allowable roll-over cap space from this season is calculated, Indianapolis can push offseason spending beyond $120 million in 2019. That’s an absurd amount of space – and it will factor in every NFL agent trying to get their clients into the mix with the franchise.

 

Andrew Luck is 29 and needs some force-multipliers next to him on offense. As a three-down “unicorn” running back, Bell fits that mold, meaning he should make Luck a better player – and in turn, more worth the franchise-quarterback contract he’s already being paid.

 

Why they’ll do it: Team owner Jim Irsay will never get over wasting some of Peyton Manning’s prime. And he’s got to feel some of Luck’s prime has been frittered away with injuries and some bad front-office management in the previous regime. So he will be on board with paying a special player like Bell to pair with his franchise centerpiece. General manager Chris Ballard spent enough time with the Kansas City Chiefs watching Jamaal Charles to know what a special three-down running back can do. Even head coach Frank Reich seems suited for a player like Bell, preferring to run multiple offensive personnel groups and formations, constantly looking for mismatch opportunities.

 

Few running backs in the NFL are more suited than Bell to being used in a multitude of ways, regardless of down and distance. Oh, and lest we forget, the Colts have an extra second-round pick to burn in 2019 from the New York Jets, thanks to the 2018 draft trade in the first round. That’s a very lucrative trade chip should it be dangled for Bell. And while the Colts could wait and sign Bell in the offseason without giving up a draft pick, he could make a difference right now. Maybe to the point of propelling the Colts back into the postseason.

 

Why they won’t: Ballard has a nice young team and he’s off to a good start when it comes to building from within and grooming. But there is also a lot of work ahead, and Ballard is believed to be an architect who prefers using free agency to accentuate, rather than overpaying for marquee pieces. Bell would be an overpay situation at a position that rarely justifies it. Bell also comes with baggage with the league’s drug-testing program and a holdout with the Steelers that might rub some suitors the wrong way. If it comes down to having to surrender a high pick (and a second-round pick for Bell would be a top-end price at this stage), Ballard may stay patient and continue stacking his roster through drafting and extending the growing talent base.

 

NEW YORK JETS

The basics: The next richest team with oodles of roll-over cash in 2019? That’s the Jets, who are looking at more than $100 million on the ledger in the offseason. The Jets also have the second-youngest roster of players under contract heading into next year with few seriously pressing contract extensions weighing on the immediate horizon. The quarterback spot is presumably resolved with promising rookie Sam Darnold, whose rookie deal will give the Jets an expansive opportunity to spend money all over the place for at least the next three offseasons. Head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan also are in a position where they could use some more wins and positive inflection points this season. Adding Bell behind Darnold could make the Jets the most interesting team in New York for at least the next half-decade.

 

Why they’ll do it: You can’t spend money in the next free-agency rotation if you don’t have a job. And if the Jets tank this season with Darnold, fans are likely to descend upon the practice facility with pitch forks and torches. While rookie quarterbacks can buy time for some regimes, it doesn’t feel like that will be the case with Bowles and Maccagnan. It may actually go in the opposite direction, with fans asking if the team can afford to leave Darnold in the hands of men who have repeatedly failed to get the franchise turned around. From that vantage, getting Bell sooner rather than later would seem to be a must. It would also instantly give Darnold a marquee offensive piece who could remove some of the heat and help speed up his growth curve. The Jets also have an extra third-round pick to offer from the Teddy Bridgewater trade with the Saints.

 

As for the money, if there’s any team that could have a massive “wink-wink” deal in place after a trade, it’s the Jets, who offered quarterback Kirk Cousins a three-year deal for $90 million guaranteed last offseason. They aren’t afraid to incinerate cash if it means landing a big fish.

 

Why they won’t: The Jets already traded their second- and sixth-round picks in next year’s draft. They added a third-round selection from the Saints, but there isn’t a ton of draft currency for a team that needs to add a lot of pieces over the next several seasons. The Jets simply may not have the pieces to get a deal done.

 

Then there’s the chance that there could be a total clean sweep in the offseason, with firings of the entire coaching staff and front office. If that’s a possibility, adding Bell in the middle of such an uncertain point wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Particularly knowing he can’t be signed until after the season.

 

Then there’s the inescapable reality that the Jets can wait and get Bell for nothing but cash in the offseason. Let’s be real: This isn’t a team likely to contend for a playoff spot with or without Bell. So why spend a draft pick now when 2019 and beyond is the target for growth and addition? From this view, the Jets could be patient and blow out an offer to Bell in a few more months.

 

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The basics: The Buccaneers have a significant need at running back, with second-round pick Ronald Jones continuing to have issues getting onto the active roster this season. With a passing game that looks very impressive right now, adding a dynamic running back could make Tampa Bay’s offense extremely difficult to deal with, especially if the starting quarterback (whoever that may be) is playing well. But the key part of the structure that isn’t impressive? The salary cap.

 

Tampa Bay doesn’t have the cap space to add Bell right now, with roughly $6 million available. That means some deals would have to be restructured, which is doable. But the 2019 cap has about $25 million available and there are players to extend. The finances of this would be sticky.

 

Why they’ll do it: Desperation. The reality is quarterback Jameis Winston has to be a moderate success for this coaching staff and front office to survive long term. And that needs to start right now, with Winston due a contract extension after next season. Adding Bell to the current mix may finally get Winston to transform into the franchise centerpiece Tampa Bay thought it was getting. There’s also the reality that Tampa Bay is hanging around right now and very well might be in the playoff mix all season. Bell could significantly impact a postseason push that lifts all boats, from the coaching staff to the front office to Winston. That would be a big deal to ownership, which has to be getting antsy with the lack of a definitive forward leap in the past few seasons.

 

Why they won’t: Is Bell worth sacrificing other key players? With the Buccaneers’ cap situation in 2018 and 2019, someone would likely get left out in the cold. This is a team that still has to pay star linebacker Kwon Alexander and anchor guard Ali Marpet. Is Tampa Bay willing to lose one of those players for Bell after spending a second-round pick on Jones? Likely not.

 

Mike Florio offers another opportunity the Steelers might want to pursue:

 

The advice publicly provided by former Steelers linebacker James Harrison to unsigned Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, while more than a little extreme as stated, echoes a reality that has been widely discussed while Bell has explored his options: Show up at late as possible, do the bare minimum, and get to the open market next March.

 

Harrison thinks Bell should fake injuries. Bell doesn’t need to go quite that far. Bell can simply embellish the bumps and bruises he’ll inevitably suffer, from hamstring strains to elbow soreness to irrefutable concussion-like symptoms. And if Bell handles it artfully, he’ll be able to minimize his exposure to physical contact and maximize his earning potential in 2019.

 

It’s not just actual or perceived injury that will be an issue. A player can be disruptive in other ways, without engaging in conduct rising to the level of conduct detrimental to the team. Demeanor, facial expressions, an unwillingness to go above and beyond the call will send a clear message to anyone who is paying attention about whether Bell is engaged in the effort that the rest of the team is engaged in.

 

Would that be awkward? Yes it would. But Bell would have to get through it for only seven weeks before completing his contract, fulfilling his obligation, and setting the stage for his big-money payday.

 

What about the postseason, you ask? Given that the window for signing Bell to a long-term deal reopens when the regular season ends, Bell could easily say, “Pay me or I’m not playing for relative peanuts in the playoffs.” And he could walk out the door, and there’s not much the Steelers could do about it.

 

The one thing the Steelers could do about it right now is, if they can’t trade him, rescind the franchise tender. They reportedly won’t do that, but they also reportedly wouldn’t consider trading him. And now they are.

 

While they would get nothing in return (not even a compensatory draft pick, because they would have no net free-agency losses in 2018), the Steelers would save the full $14.54 million and avoid a headache of their own making.

 

The overriding question is whether the Steelers would be willing to essentially admit that their stubborn approach to player negotiations created this mess, and whether they would be willing to create a potential precedent that other players could rely upon in the future.

 

Ultimately, they need to determine how much value they place on the present version of the team, and whether they want to invite what could end up being a major late-season distraction.

 

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

A tweet from Andrew Siciliano:

 

@AndrewSiciliano

Brandin Cooks: 336 yards

 

Patriots WR combined: 230 yards

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

LATE SIGNINGS WHO ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com has a list of 10 late signings who have been worth their weight in gold (edited version below):

 

The Khalil Mack blockbuster aside, it hasn’t been a banner year for big-ticket offseason acquisitions.

 

Among the veteran field generals switching allegiances in March, Sam Bradford and Tyrod Taylor have already been yanked in favor of their respective franchises’ quarterbacks of the future. The Bills traded their stopgap signal-caller, AJ McCarron, before he ever played a down in Buffalo.

 

On the other side of the ball, a trio of Pro Bowl defensive backs were felled by injuries in Week 3. The Rams’ cornerback tandem of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters won’t play together for at least another month. Their division rivals in San Francisco lost not only free-agent pickup Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL, but also Richard Sherman to a calf strain that will sideline the superstar cover man for the next few weeks.

 

While the offseason market’s show ponies have underwhelmed early in the race, afterthought acquisitions have jumped out to impressive starts. The list of leftover luminaries starts with Adrian Peterson, a Cardinals castoff casually discarded as damaged goods despite ample evidence to the contrary on his 2017 game film.

 

1) Adrian Peterson, running back, Washington Redskins

If not for second-round pick Derrius Guice’s preseason ACL tear, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher might still be waiting for a call. Signed to a veteran-minimum contract in late August after Guice went down, Peterson wasted no time unseating Rob Kelley and establishing himself as the focal point of his new offense. If it seems like the 33-year-old still possesses the trademark jump-cuts and explosive gallop of a much younger man, that’s because it’s true. Peterson is running like the vintage version of himself, as evidenced by his 87 yards in the first half of last week’s victory — his best first-half output since his 2012 MVP season.

 

Going back to his stint with Arizona last year, Peterson has rushed for 120 or more yards in three of his last nine starts. Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott is the only other active running back who can make the same claim.

 

2) Robert Quinn, defensive end, Miami Dolphins

When the Rams decided to reallocate resources from edge rusher to cornerback, Quinn was shipped to South Beach for a fourth-round pick and a swap of sixth-rounders. The former All-Pro has been a revelation in Miami, following a promising preseason with a strong September

 

3) Jon Bostic, linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

It’s not Bostic’s fault that the Steelers’ defense is allowing nearly 30 points per game since losing sideline-to-sideline playmaker Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury last December. Carrying a cap hit of just $1.5 million, Bostic has pulled off a convincing Shazier impersonation, leading the team in tackles as a run-stuffer while adding a pair of sacks and a tipped pass that led to Mike Hilton’s red-zone interception Monday night.

 

4) Kenny Vaccaro, safety, Tennessee Titans

Signed as a backup plan when strong safety Johnathan Cyprien went down with a torn ACL early in training camp, Vaccaro has proven to be an upgrade in the back end.

 

5) John Brown, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens

Signed off the scrap heap as a reclamation project after injuries sabotaged his last two seasons in Arizona, Brown has been a godsend on a one-year, $5 million contract.

 

6) Trent Brown, left tackle, New England Patriots

When the Giants lured Nate Solder to the Big Apple with the richest offensive-line contract in football, the Patriots were forced to get creative on Tom Brady’s blind side. They agreed to move down 48 spots in the middle rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft in exchange for San Francisco’s right tackle, a mountain of a man (6-foot-8 and 380 pounds) coming off shoulder surgery. Earning less than $2 million in the final year of his rookie contract, Brown is only a slight downgrade at a fraction of Solder’s cost.

 

7) Benson Mayowa, defensive end, Arizona Cardinals

Arizona’s offense might be a blatant mess, but the defense has witnessed surprising early-season performances from Mayowa, former first-round bust Robert Nkemdiche and journeyman linebacker Josh Bynes. Signed on the cheap for $1.35 million after notching seven sacks over the past two seasons as a rotational pass rusher in Dallas, Mayowa hit Alex Smith three times in the opener and took Jared Goff down twice in Week 2. After starting just 11 games across five NFL seasons, Mayowa is outplaying 2017 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Chandler Jones in Steve Wilks’ new 4-3 defense.

 

8) Leon Hall, defensive back, Oakland Raiders

Jordy Nelson welcomed Dolphins rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick to the NFL with a vintage performance last week, but his signing didn’t exactly fly under the radar in Oakland. When the Raiders reunited Hall with former Bengals coordinator Paul Guenther in late March, the move barely made a ripple.

 

9) Sam Shields, cornerback, Los Angeles Rams

Who can blame pundits for ignoring Shields in offseason assessments of the Rams’ star-studded shopping spree? A Pro Bowl selection earlier in his career with the Packers, Shields sat out the 2017 season to recover from a severe concussion sustained in the 2016 opener. He hadn’t stepped foot on an NFL field in two years when he took his first snap in Los Angeles.

 

10) Chris Clark, left tackle, Carolina Panthers

In case of emergency, dial Clark, swing-tackle for hire. A fill-in starter for the Broncos and Texans for the bulk of this decade, Clark was sitting on his couch waiting to turn 33 years old when the desperate Panthers convinced him to stand guard on Cam Newton’s blind side until their injured starters return on some hazy future date. Clark won’t win any awards for his pass protection against the Bengals’ front seven, but he’s been serviceable enough to play every snap for an offense that has scored 55 points over the past two weeks. It’s a credit to offensive line coach John Matsko that Clark didn’t even get a chance to have his body shoved in August, yet still paved the way for Christian McCaffrey’s career-high 184 rushing yards in Week 3.

 

 

A NEW LEAGUE

Mike Florio ponders the recent statements of Jerry Jones decrying the gentlefication of the NFL and wonders if we could see a schism in the NFL in a few years. The DB wonders if Jones isn’t sounding a warning about the impending XFL.

 

why is Jones advocating a more rough-and-tumble professional sport at a time when the league seems to be so determined to make the game as safe as it can be, in the obvious hopes of maintaining the supply of future pro players? Jones likely realizes that the time may be right for a new professional football league. Not a spring league that looks to complement the NFL or to resurrect a brand that appears to be a watered down version of what it once was, in that one year. The time may be right for a fall football league that competes with the NFL, by embracing old-school football, with old-school players and old-school rules and old-school violence that new-school players will gladly embrace in order to play the game and get paid for doing so.

 

All it takes is one billionaire who can’t get a seat at the NFL table to pounce on the opportunity that is hiding in plain sight. (Someone like, say, the current occupant of the Oval Office.) It’s an opportunity to be the six-ounce gloves league that the NFL currently doesn’t want to be. It’s an opportunity to capture players and fans who believe the NFL game has gone soft. It’s an opportunity to finally give the NFL the competitor it hasn’t experienced since the AFL.

 

And therein lies the irony. It was the AFL and its wide-open, high-flying, offense-heavy game that threatened the stodgy, stuffy, grind-it-out NFL. Now, it could be a throwback to rough-and-tumble, fist-in-face, mud-and-blood football that makes the NFL sweat. Jones likely realizes that someone out there may be thinking about setting up shop on the other side of the tracks because Jones knows that, if he currently didn’t own the most valuable franchise in the NFL, he’d see the value in creating a competitive league with hard-nosed competition that makes no apologies and pays no attention to the potential impact of the highest level of the sport on the lower levels of the game.

 

 

BEST ROOKIES

Jeff Legwold is on the rookie beat at ESPN.com:

 

Life comes at you fast. Especially for NFL rookies. Look no further than New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who went from a season-opening victory in Week 1 to four interceptions in the past two games combined.

 

On the other end is Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley, who went without a reception in Week 1 (despite being on the field for 45 plays in the Falcons’ offense) to Sunday’s three-touchdown bonanza. Or Baker Mayfield, who went from the bench to folk hero as he helped orchestrate the Cleveland Browns’ first win since Week 16 of the 2016 season.

 

From game analysis and discussions with personnel evaluators, here’s the updated look at the top 10 rookies, with total stats from Weeks 1-3:

 

Top 10

 

1. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

Stats: 30 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PDs

 

Sure, the Colts are 1-2, but Leonard, a second-round pick, has done plenty of heavy lifting, having played every snap on defense so far this season — 211 snaps and counting.

 

2. Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers

Stats: 33 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 PD

 

Warner has reached double-digit tackles in all three of the team’s games and he has done it starting at middle linebacker, a notoriously difficult position for a rookie to handle.

 

3. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

Stats: 20 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFL, 1 INT

 

James has not only made plays in coverage but has had an impact along the line of scrimmage for a defense that is missing Joey Bosa (bruised foot). Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has been quick to use James in a variety of roles, including giving him plenty of opportunities in the pass rush.

 

4. Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 2 INTs, 1 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR

 

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said Ward’s “stupid'” tackling caused back spasms early in the season. He has come a long way from that. Williams’ defense needs cornerbacks who can hold their own on their own in coverage and Ward continues to show why he’s on track for big things.

 

5. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Stats: 216 yards rushing, 137 yards receiving, 2 TDs

 

Barkley has already shown he can bring plenty to the offensive table even if stymied in the run game. The Cowboys held Barkley to just 28 yards rushing in Week 2 (2.6 yards per carry), but Barkley had 80 yards receiving.

 

6. Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB, New England Patriots

Stats: 13 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD

 

Bentley wasn’t invited to the scouting combine, but the fifth-round pick has quickly earned coach Bill Belichick’s trust as the Patriots try to work through their issues on defense overall. On Wednesday, the Patriots placed Bentley on injured reserve, costing New England’s struggling defense one bright spot.

 

7. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Buffalo Bills

Stats: 24 tackles, 1 sack, 3 PD

 

Watch Edmunds play and it’s easy to forget he is one of the youngest players in the league, having just turned 20 in May. He’s active, instinctive and consistently forcing the issue, including in the Bills’ upset win over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday.

 

8. Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons

Stats: 11 catches, 210 yards, 4 TDs, 2 carries, 12 yards

 

After closing out the season opener without a reception, Ridley has begun to roll. On Sunday, he caught three touchdown passes against the Carolina Panthers. Ridley was 11 years old the last time a Falcons player had three touchdown receptions in a game — Alge Crumpler on Oct. 22, 2006.

 

9. Kenny Young, LB, Baltimore Ravens

Stats: 22 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack

 

With the injury to C.J. Mosley, Young now leads the team in tackles and has played 102 snaps combined in the past two games. The Ravens lead the league in total defense and are No. 5 in scoring defense. Coach John Harbaugh has said the fourth-round pick doesn’t “get overwhelmed by a mistake” and keeps playing fast.

 

10. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

Stats: 55.7 completion percentage, 515 yards passing, 2 TDs passing, 2 TDs rushing

 

Yes, he’s still rough around the edges, and Mayfield is headed to this list in short order now that he’s starting, but Allen helped orchestrate the biggest upset in the league since 1995 as the Bills beat the Vikings. The dude outraced Anthony Barr to the pylon for one touchdown run, hurdled Barr on another play and threw himself over the Vikings’ line for another scoring run. The Bills were 17-point underdogs.

 

Interesting the Ridley makes the list with one big game, but BAKER MAYFIELD of the Browns does not.