Month: June 2018

Poll: Who Is Patriots’ Biggest AFC Threat?

Around a year ago, I asked readers who would be the biggest challenger to the Patriots’ AFC stranglehold. Seeing as they repeated as conference champions, this question seems pertinent again. And with more complications coming out of New England than there were a year ago, the Pats venturing to the Super Bowl may be more difficult this season than it was in 2017.

But who is best-equipped to end this run?

The Jaguars emerged after a decade of playoff absences to nearly stun the Patriots in Foxborough, and an argument can be made that had Myles Jack not been prematurely whistled down following his pivotal forced fumble, the upstart team would have represented the AFC in Super Bowl LII. How likely are the Jags to take the next step this season?

Their loaded defense mostly avoided injuries in 2017 and, after rumors the Jags would attempt to upgrade from Blake Bortles at quarterback this offseason vanished quickly, the franchise has the same issue at sports’ most important position. However, the reigning AFC South champions didn’t lose any cornerstone players from last season’s effort, one Allen Robinson was not healthy for, so it stands to reason they will be a factor again.

Pittsburgh may be the safest bet here, but the Steelers have run into persistent trouble in January. Though dealt tough blows in the form of Ryan Shazier‘s injury and Jesse James‘ pivotal touchdown being overturned against the Patriots last season, the Steelers’ balanced team disappointed in allowing 45 points in a divisional-round loss. Pittsburgh signed Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic, and drafted athletic safety Terrell Edmunds in Round 1. However, have the Steelers done enough to improve defensively in time to capitalize on what could be the final year Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are working together?

The AFC West could be as wide open as in any season since before Peyton Manning arrived in Denver, and it could feature multiple legitimate challengers for conference supremacy.

Las Vegas places the Chargers as the division’s favorite, despite the franchise having failed to make the playoffs in each of the past four years and all but one season in the 2010s. They also have by far the weakest home-field advantage in football. But, roster-wise, the Bolts boast a strong pass rush, added Mike Pouncey and selected a player whom many thought was the steal of the draft in Derwin James. Los Angeles’ similar offensive core, Hunter Henry‘s injury aside, should be a boon for the Philip Rivers-led attack to lead a breakthrough charge.

The Chiefs are on the heels of winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history, but they look quite different from their previous outfits. Kansas City traded both Alex Smith and Marcus Peters, the latter not having an obvious replacement like the former does. Although the Chiefs did add Sammy Watkins on a surprising contract to help out Patrick Mahomes, how ready will the 2017 first-rounder be to guide the team back to the playoffs in his debut campaign? Kansas City will have Eric Berry back, and the franchise added Anthony Hitchens and Xavier Williams to help the run defense before using nearly its entire draft to restock its weaker unit. But will a defense that ranked 30th in DVOA with Peters be competent enough now that the team’s high-floor quarterback is out of town?

Vegas also is bullish on the Texans, despite their four-win 2017, placing them among the frontrunners in what looks like the weaker of the two conferences. Deshaun Watson is looking to be ready for Week 1, and, as of now, J.J. Watt is on that path too. Houston strung together three straight nine-win seasons from 2014-16, with three different starting quarterbacks, and displayed considerable flash with Watson last season. But is it a bridge to far to ask the second-year quarterback to pilot the team to a legitimate Super Bowl perch?

The Titans made the playoffs, revamped their coaching staff and signed multiple Patriots cogs. They may be slightly overqualified for sleeper status. The Broncos made an attempt to pair their upper-echelon defense with a better quarterback in Case Keenum and saw Bradley Chubb fall to them at No. 5. They still employ many holdovers from Super Bowl 50, but is their window still open? Can Jon Gruden reinvigorate the recently well-regarded Raiders after a busy offseason? Does the AFC North or AFC East have a deep-sleeping candidate that could make a Jaguars-level leap?

Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section!

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Eagles Notes: Ajayi, Darby, Sudfeld, LBs

The Eagles‘ current plan does not involve a running back-by-committee approach. Instead, Jay Ajayi is the clear No. 1 ball-carrier coming out of Philadelphia’s offseason activities. Corey Clement, Darren Sproles and a to-be-determined cog will fill out the backfield behind the former Dolphins starter.

Came in last year and obviously proved to us that he can handle it,” Doug Pederson said, via Zach Berman of Philly.com. “He’s definitely going into camp as the No. 1 guy. It takes nothing away from what Corey did or what Sproles has done here, Wendell [Smallwood], [Donnel Pumphrey] is coming back, Matt Jones. You’ve got guys that are going to compete in that role.”

Ajayi played well post-trade last season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry after gaining just 3.4 per tote in seven games with the Dolphins in 2017. No Eagle back averaged more than 11 carries per game last season, but Berman expects Ajayi to exceed that mark this year. Berman, though, does not anticipate the Eagles will re-sign Ajayi after this season due to the money he could well command after his contract year. This scenario would leave the Eagles in need come 2019, unless they view Clement as a potential every-down back.

Here’s the latest from the defending Super Bowl champions:

  • Nate Sudfeld has impressed during the Eagles’ offseason program. The No. 2 quarterback while Carson Wentz recovers, Sudfeld has given the impression he could handle backup responsibilities, Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes. This would come into play if the Eagles do decide to trade Nick Foles — for what would have to be a hefty haul considering their offseason-long reluctance on this front. But Sudfeld, a former Redskins sixth-round pick, has only thrown 23 passes — all in Philly’s Week 17 game last season. He did serve as the Eagles’ backup during the Super Bowl run, which is a fairly strong indicator of the franchise’s view of him at this point.
  • The Eagles finally moving on from Mychal Kendricks has left them a bit thin at linebacker. Although Jordan Hicks is currently expected to be back and resume a three-down role, his injury history (having missed 17 combined games in his three-year career) can’t leave Philly too comfortable. However, converted safety Nate Gerry is firmly in the mix to claim Kendricks’ old job at weakside ‘backer, per Zangaro. A college defensive back, Gerry spent last season on Philadelphia’s practice squad. He, former Broncos special-teamer Corey Nelson and Kamu Grugier-Hill represent the viable competitors to line up in base sets alongside Hicks and Nigel Bradham, Zangaro notes. A 2016 Patriots sixth-rounder, Grugier-Hill’s worked as a special-teamer for the Eagles the past two years.
  • Ronald Darby‘s experience, and the Eagles’ positioning as one of the favorites to win Super Bowl LIII, doesn’t add up to a preseason trade, Andrew Kulp of NBC Sports Philadelphia writes. The Eagles have Darby under contract for one more season, at an affordable $1.1MM, and boast a less experienced cornerback contingent than last season’s. Patrick Robinson departed, and Sidney Jones has played in one game. Darby inserted himself in the Jameis Winston saga, perhaps creating a slight off-field hiccup. But the former Bills starter graded as by far the Eagles’ best corner last season, in the view of Pro Football Focus.

NFC Notes: 49ers, Seahawks, Marshall, Lions

Several months before the draft, Tarvarius Moore wasn’t high on many team’s draft boards. While the cornerback had a solid senior season at Southern Mississippi, he served as mostly a backup in 2015. Prior to that, he was playing for Pearl River Community College.

As a result, the prospect wasn’t invited to the NFL draft combine. However, he went on to run 4.32-second 40-yard dash time at his school’s pro day, catching the eye of many NFL talent evaluators, including the 49ers.

“I remember talking about it,” Adam Peters, the 49ers vice president of player personnel, told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “We were all kind of p—- that he ran that fast because now we would have to take him a little higher.”

Barrows writes about the journey the 49ers took en route to selecting the defensive back with one of their third-round picks. While Moore is considered somewhat of a rookie sleeper considering his late rise up the rankings, it’s notable that several teams had focused in on the prospect in the days prior to the draft.

“I actually had a couple of teams call me after we picked him, and they said, ‘Hey, we really liked this guy. But we just didn’t have enough time to spend on him,’” Peters said. “Because I think a lot of teams really jumped on him after he had that pro day. And then they were kind of scrambling to catch up.”

Let’s take a look at some more notes from around the NFC…

  • Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times believes receivers Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, and Jaron Brown are locks to make the Seahawks roster. Outside of that trio, any of Seattle’s other wideouts could end up being cut. Brandon Marshall, Amara Darboh and David Moore seem to have the inside track on the final three spots, although Condotta says the team could cut bait with Marshall if he’s failed to recover from last year’s surgeries. Otherwise, the team is also rostering receivers Marcus Johnson, Tanner McEvoy, and Cyril Grayson.
  • For what it’s worth, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll gushed about the potential of Moore, who was taken in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. David Moore has been special for us,” Carroll told Condotta. “He’s a very, very good athlete. He came from a really small program (East Central in Oklahoma), and he wasn’t able to catch it all in stride until late in the season when we finally got him active the last week, but you can see the playmaking ability. We’re already trying to figure out ways to move him around so he can show off what he’s got. He doesn’t look like it, but he’s a real strong kid, probably 218 pounds, and he’s physical. We’re really excited to see him like we did in preseason last year with run after catch stuff. He’s had a very good camp, he has made a big jump—made the freshman-sophomore jump, and it’s exciting to see that.” Moore appeared in a single game for the Seahawks during his rookie campaign.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press explores five Lions players who should outperform their contracts next season. Offensive guard Graham Glasgow ($809K) leads the list, followed by cornerback Darius Slay ($6.1MM), left tackle Taylor Decker ($2.9MM), defensive end Anthony Zettel ($660K), and wideout Kenny Golladay ($765K). The writer also opines that the Lions don’t have any bad contracts on the books.
  • The latest bit of Jameis Winston news could end up being damaging to the Buccaneers quarterback.

This Date In Transactions History: Marc Bulger

With the Rams prepared to take Sam Bradford with the first-overall pick in the 2010 draft, the organization decided to release long-time quarterback Marc Bulger. Eight years ago today, the Pro Bowler ended up finding his next home. On June 23, 2010, Bulger signed a one-year, $3.8MM deal with the Ravens (with the potential to earn up to $5.8MM thanks to incentives).

Bulger, a 2000 sixth-round pick out of West Virginia, bounced around the NFL during his rookie season, spending time with the Saints and Falcons. He eventually landed on the Rams practice squad, although he was inactive for his entire rookie campaign. He got his first chance to start during the 2002 season following injuries to Kurt Warner and Jamie Martin. Bulger ended up leading the team to a 6-0 record to wrap up the year, and he ultimately earned the full-time starting gig in 2003.

Bulger would go on to earn a pair of Pro Bowl nods during his time with the Rams, including a 2006 campaign when he completed 62.9-percent of his passes for 4,301 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. The team ended up signing the quarterback to a six-year, $62.5MM extension following that standout campaign, but Bulger’s product dropped soon after. Between 2007 and 2008, Bulger threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and he missed half of the 2009 season due to injury.

With the Rams armed with the first-overall pick heading into the 2010 draft, they released Bulger early in the offseason. While some sources claim that the quarterback requested the release, there was plenty of incentive for the organization. The team had already signed A.J. Feeley to be Bradford’s backup, and releasing Bulger saved the team $8.5MM.

Then, eight years ago today, Bulger ended up catching on with the Ravens. While Baltimore was paying the veteran modest money to back-up a third-year Joe Flacco, the quarterback didn’t end up seeing the field during the 2010 campaign. While teams expressed interest in him during the following offseason, Bulger ultimately decided to hang up his cleats.

It was an unceremonious ending to a pretty underrated career. Bulger currently sits second on the Rams’ list of all-time passing yard leaders, and he’s third in touchdowns. While his tenure in Baltimore was forgettable, those in St. Louis will likely remember Bulger’s contribution for years to come.

AFC Notes: Browns, Jets, Bridgewater, Cardona

The Browns backfield is loaded with talent, including veteran Carlos Hyde, pass-catcher Duke Johnson, and second-rounder Nick Chubb. While Hyde is expected to sit atop the depth chart at the beginning of the preseason, running backs coach Freddie Kitchens said his team will ultimately be “riding the hot hand” next season.

“Ultimately, all three of those guys can run our running game,” Kitchens told Andrew Gribble of ClevelandBrowns.com. “Duke can do a few more things in the passing game. Ultimately, we feel like that is a position of strength. Coach (Bill) Parcells taught me a long time ago, do not turn a position of strength into a weakness. You would like to keep it a strength, and we are fortunate that is where we are.”

Despite Hyde getting early-down looks and Johnson playing a major role in the passing game, Kitchens still believes that his rookie back will end up being an x-factor for Cleveland.

“He has a great work ethic. He is physical in everything that he does,” Kitchens said “He will take a handoff, and the handoff is violent. I think that is a very unique perspective from a running back standpoint that everything he does is violent. I think that he brings that to the table.”

Let’s take a look at some more notes from around the AFC…

  • Last preseason, Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan traded Sheldon Richardson, satisfying the team’s needs for receiver depth (he added wideout Jermaine Kearse) and future trade assets (2018 second-rounder) along the way. Could he make another deal this year? ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini believes there’s a possibility. The team has a need at pass rusher, and the writer points to Broncos linebacker Shane Ray and Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler as potential targets. Cimini also believes quarterback Teddy Bridgewater could end up being trade bait, but it’d require rookie Sam Darnold winning the backup gig.
  • Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona recently inked a four-year, $1MM (with $850K in bonuses), and ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss takes a look at some of the more lucrative long snapper deals around the NFL. Rams long snapper Jake McQuaide is the highest earner at the position, collecting $1.175MM each season. Meanwhile, Cardona’s $1MM in guarantees only rivals the deal signed by Jaguars back Carson Tinker.
  • Yesterday, the Patriots signed their top draft pick, offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn. Following the deal, first-round running back Sony Michel is the team’s only unsigned draft pick.

TE Coby Fleener Still Dealing With Concussion Symptoms

Veteran tight end Coby Fleener admitted that he’s still dealing with symptoms from a concussion he suffered last November, and the lingering effects may prevent him from joining a new team by the time training camp starts.

“It’s still there, unfortunately,’’ Fleener said in an interview with Don Banks of The Athletic. “I’m just hoping it heals and gets better from time, I guess. I’d still like to play, but I have to get healthy first before I can even make that decision really. That’s the frustrating aspect of it. The doctors aren’t able to say, ‘Oh, in four to six weeks, he’ll be right as rain.’ That’s just not the reality with concussions. It’s a frustration for every athlete and every doctor who treats them and every coach who has to coach them.’’

The 29-year-old had gotten off to a solid start for the Saints last season, hauling in 22 receptions for 295 yards and two touchdowns through 11 games. However, Fleener suffered a concussion in late November, forcing him to miss the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. Fleener has yet to fully recover from the injury, and after having signed a five-year, $36MM contract with the Saints back in 2016, the tight end was released by the organization back in May.

The veteran has some logistical hurdles to overcome before he could consider signing with a team. While Banks writes that several organizations have expressed interest, they need to wait until Fleener is capable of passing the NFL’s concussion protocol. With all the uncertainty, the former second-rounder isn’t sure if he’ll be back in the NFL by the time training camp rolls around.

“I don’t know, because that’s kind of guesswork,’’ he said. “If you would have asked me the day after my concussion, I would have said, ‘Oh, yeah, I imagine I’ll be fine in a week.’ I don’t think anyone foresaw this happening. But I don’t want to try and put a timetable on it in any way, shape or form at this point.’’

Fleener has spent six years in the NFL with the Saints and Colts. His best season came in 2014 with Indy, when he compiled 51 receptions for 774 yards and eight touchdowns.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC North Notes: Steelers, Price, Browns

Two key Steelers will be changing positions. Pittsburgh’s outside linebacker starters, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, will swap spots, with Dupree shifting to the right outside linebacker role and Watt moving to the left side, Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes. Dupree’s issues with being too far behind quarterbacks on outside rushes, in a league that features mostly right-handed passers, prompted Keith Butler to relocate him.

What Bud did too much of last year, in my opinion, was he got past the quarterback,” Butler said. “To me, you’re useless when you’re past the quarterback. Now, he won’t be as useless behind the quarterback because he can work back a little bit or he can go up and under where the quarterback won’t see him.”

Although the Steelers exercised Dupree’s fifth-year option, the 2015 first-round pick has not lived up to expectations just yet. The Kentucky product rated as a bottom-10 edge defender, per Pro Football Focus, last season, but the Steelers will try to give him another opportunity to make good on their investment. Butler said the relative inexperience of the players involved in this switch prompted him to wait until the offseason to make this move.

I think I’m more natural on the left side just because I’m more right-hand dominant,” Watt said, via Benz. “I can have a better dip and a better stab. I have more pitches I can throw on the left side.”

Here’s the latest out of the AFC North, shifting to the division’s most pressing issue — Le’Veon Bell‘s status in Pittsburgh.

  • As less than a month remains until the pivotal extension deadline for franchise-tagged players, Bell has not shown up at Steelers workouts. This was expected. But as of last week, the Steelers had yet to resume contract talks with their All-Pro running back. And Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette puts the odds at an extension occurring as longer than the sides continuing their present arrangement. Fittipaldo writes Bell not reaching a long-term agreement would again induce him to skip training camp and the preseason. Of course, Bell and the Steelers failing to come to terms this year could well mean the 26-year-old dynamo will be playing elsewhere in 2019, considering the prohibitive cost for tagging a player three times.
  • Tyrod Taylor will be a free agent at season’s end, but one AFC executive views him as a player who could make Baker Mayfield wait a long time before taking the Browns‘ reins. “Tyrod Taylor could keep Baker Mayfield on the bench for years,” the anonymous staffer said, via Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report. This seems unlikely given the investment the Browns made in Mayfield, and the fact full redshirts for first-round QBs rarely occur anymore. But Taylor does have three years’ experience as a starter and has maybe the best cast of wide receivers he’s enjoyed since ascending to a starting role. That said, the risk-averse passer will need to be re-signed for this to occur. It would likely take Mayfield’s development stalling considerably for Cleveland to bring back Taylor.
  • Prior to the Lions taking Arkansas interior lineman Frank Ragnow with their first-round pick, the Bengals had he and Billy Price ranked “pretty much evenly,” Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com notes. After watching the Ohio State product operate this offseason, one that didn’t feature him becoming fully cleared until Monday, the Bengals believe Price might be a better fit for their offense rather than the player who was selected one spot ahead of him. He’s expected to be Cincinnati’s starting center from Day 1.

Texans Moving Kareem Jackson To Safety

Kareem Jackson has been a key part of every Texans secondary this decade, but in advance of his ninth season, the plan will be for him to line up at a different position.

The Texans are planning to move Jackson from cornerback to safety this season, Bill O’Brien said during an interview on Sports Radio 610 (Twitter link, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle). Jackson has started 108 games at corner for the Texans since arriving as a first-round pick in 2010.

Houston may be thinner at safety than it expected, with Andre Hal being recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The Texans signed Tyrann Mathieu and plan for him to work exclusively at safety, and they used a third-round pick on Justin Reid. But Jackson, who is entering his age-30 season, is now expected to factor into this mix.

Johnathan Joseph re-signed with the Texans this offseason, and the team added slot corner Aaron Colvin as well. They join 2015 first-rounder Kevin Johnson. Working as Houston’s slot cornerback, Jackson started 14 games last season. He rated as Pro Football Focus’ No. 95 cornerback in 2017. He fared much better in 2016, rating as the advanced metrics site’s No. 35 corner (and fifth among full-time slot corners).

Jackson is the Texans’ longest-tenured player. He’s signed through the 2018 season and stands to earn $9MM this year.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Witness: Jameis Winston Was In Uber Vehicle Alone With Accuser

Another revelation came out of the Jameis Winston saga on Friday, and it could be viewed as damaging for the Buccaneers quarterback.

Mark Scruggs, attorney for a friend of Winston’s, Brandon Banks, said Winston did get into the car alone with the unnamed Uber driver that night in March 2016, when the accuser said Winston groped her. This came after the then-22-year-old quarterback was directed by friends to the Uber after being “unruly” at a Scottsdale, Ariz., nightclub. Scruggs said Banks saw an “intoxicated” Winston get into the car alone, which contradicts Ronald Darby‘s account that Winston was never alone with the driver, ESPN.com’s Paula Lavigne reports.

Banks, Winston and Darby were at the Scottsdale nightclub that night. This is the first time Banks, a former Vanderbilt football player, has been identified as being at the scene, Lavigne reports. Banks is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence after being found guilty of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual assault in June 2017 for an incident that occurred at Vanderbilt in 2013. Banks was awaiting trial in March of 2016.

Scruggs told ESPN that Winston, Darby and Banks were in a separate Uber that night, but that the driver who made the accusation against Winston was the one who picked him up from the nightclub. Banks did not confirm the driver’s account, though, since he was not in that particular Uber car. The driver said she and Winston were the only passengers.

It appeared that Winston was trying to lay this on Brandon,” Scruggs said, via Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, regarding his client’s reason for coming forward. “They were together that night. They took an Uber to a club, the three of them did, and Brandon said nothing whatsoever happened while the three of them were in the Uber. … For whatever reason, they felt they needed to put (Winston), escort him into an Uber so he could go home on his own. There’s two different Uber rides is what we’re talking about.”

Winston’s camp said the Uber driver was confused as to the number of people in the vehicle, and Darby said last year that he and Winston were in the backseat. The NFL is expected to suspend Winston for at least three games and did not view Darby’s account as entirely credible.

Some with the Buccaneers, and some close to Winston outside of the team, are “struggling to fathom” that he groped an Uber driver, Mike Jones of USA Today notes. But considering Winston’s past, most notably the 2012 rape accusation, the new information coming out about the March 2016 night makes it more likely Winston will serve at least a three-game suspension. And it could cloud his future with the Bucs.

Tampa Bay picked up the 24-year-old passer’s fifth-year option in May, but that $20.9MM 2019 salary is guaranteed for injury only. Now that he’s expected to miss the Bucs’ first three games, there will be immense pressure on the former No. 1 overall pick to shake the on-field inconsistency and while obviously avoid any additional off-field trouble.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.