Extra Points: Broncos, Ravens, Hawks, Bears

Emmanuel Sanders avoided the physically unable to perform list and participated in individual work during Broncos practice on Wednesday, and the veteran wideout is likely to be a “full go” within two-to-three weeks, tweets James Palmer of NFL.com. Now 32 years old, Sanders tore his Achilles in a December practice and missed the remainder of the season. Recent reports have indicated he may not be ready for Week 1, but if he’s ready for full practice sessions by mid-August, his availability for the start of the regular season wouldn’t seem to be in question. Sanders will be the most experienced member of a Denver pass-catching unit that also includes Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton.

Here’s more from around the NFL:

  • Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was among the Ravens placed on the active/non-football-injury list on Thursday, the club announced. Brown actually did suffer his Lisfranc injury playing football, but he’s been placed on NFI because the injury occurred in college, not the NFL. Active/NFI is different from reserve/NFI in that it doesn’t require Brown to miss any games or any specified amount of action. Rather, when he’s healthy enough to practice (which should be in just a few weeks, tweets Ian Rapoport of NFL.com), he’ll be removed from the list. Brown still counts against Baltimore’s 90-man roster while he’s on active/NFI.
  • Seahawks rookie linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has been placed on the active/physically unable to perform list, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. Like active/NFI, active/PUP won’t force Burr-Kirven to miss any time, but the designation is notable because the first-year defender recently underwent sports hernia surgery. An extremely athletic fifth-round pick, BBK is expected to be ready for training camp, per Seattle head coach Pete Carroll.
  • The Bears moved offensive tackle Bradley Sowell to tight end because they believe converted defensive lineman Rashaad Coward can make the transition to offense, as J.J. Stankevitz of NBC Sports Chicago writes. Not only is Coward expected to complete his transition to the offensive side of the ball, he’s likely to be Chicago’s top swing tackle. He’ll have to beat out NFL journeyman Cornelius Lucas for that role, but he reportedly has the edge at the moment.

Deep Purple: The Ravens’ Cornerback Depth

What do we know about the NFL in 2019? We know that running backs don’t matter. We know that passing offense does matter. And if passing offense matters, then stopping the pass must matter, too.

Pro Football Focus recently ran a study focusing on the importance of pass coverage versus pass rush. While PFF stopped short of definitively saying that coverage is more critical than applying pressure, the data seems to lean in that direction. Here’s what PFF data scientists Eric Eager and George Chahrouri found:

During the PFF era, teams with elite coverage (67th percentile or better) and a poor pass rush (33rd percentile or worse) win, on average, about a game and a half more than teams with the reverse construction.

The team that’s invested the most cap dollars in its cornerbacks for the 2019 campaign? The Baltimore Ravens, who are spending a league-high $36.509MM on CBs for the upcoming season. Let’s take a look at their projected depth chart:

  • Marlon Humphrey ($3.341MM cap figure): Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2018, Humphrey’s snap percentage increased from 55% during his rookie year to 80% last season. He ranked second in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ success rate, a measure of how often ac corner stops opponent’s “successful” plays based on down, distance, and situation.
  • Brandon Carr ($7MM): Now 33 years old, Carr has remarkably never missed a game in his 11-year NFL career. Doug Farrar of USA Today’s Touchdown Wire recently ranked Carr as the NFL’s fourth-best outside corner, noting his ability to “diagnose routes as well as anyone in the business.”
  • Jimmy Smith ($15.85MM): Smith has posted an up-and-down career with the Ravens, and 2018 was not his finest season in Baltimore. He was suspended for the first four games of the year after violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, and wasn’t all that effective when he returned. Still, the Ravens kept him around despite his team-leading cap charge.
  • Tavon Young ($3.651MM): Among corners who spent at least 20% of their time in the slot last year, Young ranked seventh in PFF’s coverage snaps per reception. He set the market for slot corners with an $8.6MM annual value on his February extension, a figure that new Lions CB Justin Coleman topped the following month.
  • Anthony Averett ($735K): A fourth-round pick out of Alabama in 2018, Averett missed several games with injury and only played 71 defensive snaps. For now, he’ll make his mark on special teams, where he saw action on 147 snaps last year.
  • Iman Marshall ($664K): Like Averett, Marshall is a fourth-rounder, albeit in the 2019 draft. He’ll work on special teams unless an injury strikes.

The Ravens have other corners such as Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Justin Bethel, and Maurice Canady who might be able to find spots on other clubs, but if Baltimore only keeps six cornerbacks, none of that group will likely be on the roster. Cyrus Jones, meanwhile, is essentially a cornerback-in-name-only, and could still make the Ravens’ roster as a return man.

Having four corners — Humphrey, Carr, Smith, and Young — who are all more than serviceable starters is something of a luxury. But the Ravens are more equipped than most teams to handle the logjam. Baltimore deployed at least four cornerbacks (dime defense) on 26% of its plays in 2018, according to Bryan Knowles of Football Outsiders. That figure ranked sixth in the NFL and was roughly double the league average dime rate.

Could the Ravens end up trading one of their corners? It seems unlikely, despite Baltimore’s long-standing inclination to acquire future assets. Humphrey isn’t going anywhere, and the same can probably be said for Carr. Smith is likely untradeable due to his contract, and Young won’t be on the move after inking an extension earlier this year.

Instead, it’ll be up to defensive coordinator Don Martindale to determine how to most effectively use his bevy of corners. The Ravens ranked third in pass defense DVOA in 2018, and while regression could certainly hit, it will be a surprise if Baltimore isn’t among the top pass defenses once again in 2019.i

Let’s Find A New Team For Jay Ajayi

Jay Ajayi is one of the more high-profile names still left on the free agent market, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s yet to find a new contract after hitting free agency in March. The former Eagle and Dolphin has never ranked favorably in running back efficiency metrics, and his injury history is concerning. After tearing his right ACL while at Boise State, Ajayi dealt with hamstring, rib, shoulder, head, and shoulder issues in the NFL before suffering another torn ACL — this time, on his left knee — in 2018.

However, there are still some reasons to be optimistic about Ajayi’s future. As recently as 2016, Ajayi finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, which measures value over a replacement level player. The following year, he ranked 10th in broken tackle/per touch percentage, a statistic that, as Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight.com tweets, is mostly under the back’s control and thus a reliable metric for evaluating the position.

As training camp approaches, let’s take a look at a few teams that could still use a back like Ajayi:

Houston Texans

Houston finally made investments in its offensive line over the offseason, adding free agent Matt Kalil on a one-year pact and using two of its first three draft picks on offensive tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. How much Kalil (who hasn’t played well or been able to stay healthy in recent years) or small-school projects Howard and Scharping will actually help in 2019 is unclear, but the Texans needed to do something to improve its rushing attack, which ranked just 26th in DVOA a season ago.

The next step might be adding a complement to running back Lamar Miller, whose share of Houston’s carry total has decreased in each of his three seasons with the club. The Texans don’t have many serviceable options behind Miller, as the leading candidate for No. 2 duties is D’Onta Foreman, who handled only seven carries in 2019 after recovering from a torn Achilles. Ajayi could give Houston another dimension on offense while protecting the team against a Miller injury.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are the only team to have actually hosted Ajayi thus far, doing so when free agency originally opened back in March. However, reports quickly followed indicating no deal was imminent between Indianapolis and Ajayi, and the Colts clearly haven’t had the urge to sign him since. Indy already has a solid rushing infrastructure, boasting one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and three competent backs in Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins, and Nyheim Hines. Indianapolis doesn’t need Ajayi, but he’d be interesting on a cheap deal.

Los Angeles Chargers

We don’t know how Melvin Gordon‘s holdout is going to end. Will he and the Chargers agree to a deal? If not, will he sit out the entire season like Le’Veon Bell did in 2018? These are currently unanswerable questions, but if Gordon does miss game action as threatened, Los Angeles could potentially need another running back.

Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson both proved to be efficient when filling in for Gordon when the latter suffered a sprained MCL last season, and Ekeler, especially, has been extremely proficient in the passing game when called upon. In the event of a Gordon absence, the Chargers could probably get by with a duo of Ekeler and Jackson, but Ajayi would give Los Angeles another option capable of handling carries.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers finished 24th in rushing DVOA and 28th in expected points gained by their rushing attack in 2018, but did next to nothing to address their backfield during the offseason. Sure, Tampa Bay added Bruce Arians favorite Andre Ellington and undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson to its roster, but the lack of meaningful reinforcements means the club will once again be relying on veteran Peyton Barber and 2018 second-round pick Ronald Jones as its primary ball-carriers.

Jones handled only 23 attempts during his rookie campaign, but the USC product is expected to be a larger part of the Bucs’ offense this season. He’s generated some buzz by gaining 13 pounds over the offseason, but adding weight has historically not been a recipe for success for running backs.

Jones’ lack of production in his first NFL season was relatively unprecedented, especially for a second-round pick. Here are the all first- or second-round round running backs since 2010 that handled fewer than 100 carries during their respective rookie years, via Pro-Football-Reference.com:

It’s not a great group! Some backs like Shane Vereen and Carlos Hyde, eventually found success, but the track of record of RBs who did next to nothing in their rookie seasons is certainly unspectacular. Barber, meanwhile, has never produced an above-average campaign, so Ajayi could be a welcome addition to Tampa Bay’s running back depth chart.

Broncos To Re-Sign RB David Williams

The Broncos are re-signing running back David Williams and waiving offensive lineman Nathan Jacobson, per Ryan O’Halloran of the Denver Post (Twitter link). Denver selected Williams in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. Mike Klis of 9News first reported the Broncos were likely to re-sign Williams (Twitter link).

Williams was waived by the Broncos at last year’s final cutdowns, but subsequently spent time on Denver’s practice squad before joining the Jaguars’ 53-man roster in October. The Arkansas product appeared in six games and played 19 offensive snaps, rushing eight times for 36 yards.

Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay is expected to be ready for training camp while recovering from a wrist injury he suffered near the end of last season. The 2018 undrafted free agent took the first rep at Denver’s camp today, per Klis (Twitter link). The Broncos’ other running backs include 2018 third-rounder Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, Khalfani Muhammad, and Devontae Jackson.

Broncos LB Todd Davis Partially Tears Calf Muscle

Broncos linebacker Todd Davis suffered a partially torn calf muscle at practice today and is expected to miss three-to-four weeks, according to Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic (Twitter link).

If Davis sticks to that timeline, he won’t be in danger of missing any regular season action. However, he’s likely to miss all of training camp and at least some of the preseason, which could put him behind the eight ball for the regular season. In the meantime, backups like Keishawn BierriaAlexander Johnson or Joseph Jones could see more action alongside starter Josey Jewell.

A former undrafted free agent, Davis began his career in Denver as a special-teamer but became a starter at inside linebacker when Danny Trevathan left via free agency in 2016. Over the past three years, Davis has started 45 games and played at least 500 defensive snaps in each season. In 2018, the 27-year-old played a career-high 842 snaps and graded as the league’s No. 25 linebacker among 92 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Is The Rams’ Offensive Line A Concern?

Following the 2016 season, the Rams’ offensive line looked like one of the worst units in the NFL. Los Angeles’ front five was fresh off a campaign in which it had ranked 29th in Football Outsiders‘ adjusted line yards, 29th in adjusted sack rate, and 21st in pressure rate allowed. No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff was sacked 25 times over the final six games of the year, and there was at least some concern that the rookie quarterback would languish à la David Carr, eternally too worried about incoming pressure to ever succeed.

Sean McVay took over as the Rams’ head coach that offseason, and the club’s new regime made fortifying its offensive line a priority. Longtime Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth was signed to a three-year, $33.75MM deal to replace failed former No. 2 overall selection Greg Robinson on Goff’s blindside. Tim Barnes struggled as Los Angeles’ center in 2016, so the Rams inked veteran John Sullivan to a cheap, one-year pact. McVay also added Aaron Kromer — who’d previously worked wonders in New Orleans and Buffalo — as LA’s new offensive line coach.

Whitworth and Sullivan, combined with holdovers Rodger Saffold, Jamon Brown, and Rob Havenstein, transformed the Rams’ front five. Los Angeles improved to third in adjusted line yards, ninth in adjusted sack rate, and 12th in pressure rate allowed. Goff absorbed only 28 sacks on the season. And Pro Football Focus, which had ranked the Rams’ line as just the 27th-best unit after 2016, assigned LA its sixth-highest offensive line grade after the 2017 campaign.

Things mostly stayed the same in 2018. The Rams arguably posted even better results along their offensive line, and the only major change came at right guard, where former waiver claim Austin Blythe took over for Brown. Brown, who was suspended for the first two games of the 20198 campaign and never regained his starting job, is now a member of the Giants.

But entering the 2019 season, real concerns have emerged on LA’s front five. Saffold is gone, having signed a four-year, $44MM pact with the Titans. The Rams should pick up a compensatory fourth-round pick in 2020 as a result of Saffold’s departure, but that won’t offset his loss during the upcoming year. At center, Sullivan saw his option declined, and he’s yet to latch on with another team.

Rams 2018 third-round pick Joseph Noteboom — who is expected to eventually take over for Whitworth at left tackle — is currently penciled in as the club’s starting left guard. While he’s a relative unknown, there are reasons to be excited about the TCU product. Noteboom posted elite measurables during the pre-draft process, and shined during the 2018 preseason, allowing zero pressures on 71 pass-blocking snaps. He played in relief of Whitworth during the Rams’ 2018 regular season finale, and didn’t give up any pressures on 47 total snaps.

Brian Allen, selected one round after Noteboom in the Rams’ 2018 draft, will take over for Sullivan at center. Allen has even less experience than Noteboom, as the former played only 36 offensive snaps during his rookie year. Pro Football Focus graded Allen relatively well (in an admittedly small sample size) when he filled in for Sullivan in Week 17, and Brandon Thorn of The Athletic — one of the best offensive line analysts in the media — called Allen an “undersized technically sound guy in the mold of Blythe.”

Noteboom and Allen have played fewer than 150 combined NFL snaps, but they aren’t the only potential problems along LA’s line. Blythe was an excellent find on the waiver wire, but his play fell off during the second half of last season, raising concerns that he may have been exposed. And while Whitworth’s play hasn’t yet begun to slip, he’ll be 38 years old by the end of the 2019 campaign, so there seemingly has to be some sort of decline approaching.

If last season was any indication, Goff needs elite offensive line play to stay effective. Per Evan Silva of Establish the Run, Goff ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating when kept clean in the pocket in 2018, but fell to 28th in passer rating when under pressure. The Rams also ran the ball at the ninth-highest clip in the league last year, so Todd Gurley, Darrell Henderson, & Co. need LA’s front five to consistently open holes in McVay’s outside zone scheme.

What will the Rams do if their line begins to falter in 2019? They may attempt to insert rookies Bobby Evans or David Edwards into the lineup, but that’d mean adding even more inexperience up front. Los Angeles could try to swing a trade for someone like Lane Taylor (Packers) or Stefen Wisniewski (Eagles), but the importance of offensive line continuity makes an in-season addition difficult. What about a reunion with Sullivan, especially if Allen struggles at center? It’s probably telling that Sullivan remains on the open market four-plus months after being cut.

None of those options are overly appealing or all that feasible, so the Rams need to hope for the best with the current projected starters. We haven’t seen a McVay/Rams offensive with a poor offensive line, and LA is certainly hoping we don’t see one next season.

Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Saints Place Carl Granderson On Did Not Report List

The Saints placed defensive end Carl Granderson on the did not report list, per a team announcement. In a related move, they also placed receiver Emmanuel Butler on the non-football injury list. 

Granderson agreed to plea no contest to one count of sexual battery and one count of unlawful contact and was set to serve out a year of probation after striking a plea deal. The judge did not agree with that compromise, however, and ordered him to immediately begin serving a six-month jail sentence in Wyoming.

Granderson, naturally, is not expected to play this season. The Wyoming product is a talented player who almost certainly would’ve been drafted if not for his legal situation. Many analysts gave Granderson a mid-round grade and the Saints gave him a hefty $85K to sign as an undrafted free agent this offseason.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Broncos’ Drew Lock On Contract Talks

On Wednesday, the Broncos finally hammered out a contract with draft pick Drew Lock. Lock, the No. 42 overall pick in the draft, reportedly wanted a “quarterback premium” to give him a higher salary than his slot. On Thursday, Lock addressed that and more with reporters (quotes via Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic, on Twitter): 

Any anxiety about possibly missing time during his contract negotiations?

I was anxious to get out on the field, but I knew we were trying to get things worked out. The Broncos and my agency were working together, but I told my agency beforehand, if it got to the point where I was missing practice, then there was no chance we were going to go on with it. I was going to sign a deal and I was going to get here, because the most important thing to me was getting out here. If I missed the conditioning test, which I made up after practice…that was OK because I was able to make it up. But, missing anything else is just not who I am.”

Did you know what a [quarterback premium] was?

I’m sure [agents Tom Condon and Jimmy Sexton] all have a really good idea of what a quarterback premium is. I’m not 100% sure what a quarterback premium is. I know that’s what they were talking about. For me, to get to the point where it was time for me to come practice, I guess in my head the quarterback premium I didn’t know much about was going to get thrown out the window, because I needed to be out here.”

(Note: Lock received workout bonuses in the third and fourth years of his deal, which the Broncos haven’t done in six years, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com noted on Twitter. Dalton Risner, taken with the No. 41 overall pick, also secured these bonuses.)

Did you push to get the deal done so that you wouldn’t be behind?

100%. I didn’t necessarily want to get behind in anything…There was no ounce of me that didn’t want to be out here on this football field, taking every rep that I was supposed to take, and being with the guys every second that I could be today and the rest of training camp.”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Vikings’ Austin Cutting Cleared To Play

Vikings rookie long snapper Austin Cutting has been cleared to play in the NFL, according to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press. Previously, the seventh-round pick’s status was up in the air due to his commitment to the Air Force Academy. 

Cutting, taken with the No. 250 overall pick, is expected to sign a four-year, $2.59MM contract with the team, including a $74K signing bonus. With a deal in hand, he’ll start training camp early next week with the other Vikings rookies.

Unsurprisingly, Cutting was the lone unsigned seventh-round pick in the NFL. Once he signs, there will be just seven stragglers left in the league.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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