Driveways, canyons, pools: NFL players create clever workouts

Driveways, canyons, pools: NFL players create clever workouts

A farm. A field. A canyon. A pool. Even a driveway. As NFL players wait for a return to normalcy before the 2020 regular season begins, they have had to get creative with how and where they train.

The ripple effects of these unprecedented times — nationwide social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and an unknown timetable for a vaccine — have altered the professional sports landscape, and the NFL is no exception.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell authorized the reopening of all team facilities this week, in accordance with state and local regulations, although coaches and players who are not undergoing rehabilitation are prohibited from entering team buildings. While a handful of clubs took advantage of this allowance, states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, Washington and California are still imposing heavier restrictions that affect a dozen team facilities.

These inconsistent regulations have also changed the responsibilities of NFL strength trainers, who have spent time remotely assessing the workout needs of players, including their access to resources, as well as acting as liaisons for online equipment purchases. NFL teams were permitted to provide each player with up to $1,500 worth of workout equipment. Nevertheless, players have had to find inventive ways to stay in shape.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins uses his parents’ driveway as his outdoor gym. New York Giants wide receiver Golden Tate mowed a track into a steep canyon near his home. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington designed a training regimen on his Texas farm. New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis has his personal trainers living with him. Giants linebacker Blake Martinez became the beneficiary of a state-of-the-art gym. And Cleveland Browns punter Jamie Gillan grabbed some beers and built a “grubby” garage gym.

Even though players’ locations, living situations and resources differ, there’s a lesson shared by all: There are no excuses.

Big-money quarterback staying with parents

The playful jab is uttered without warning, hurled from the driver’s side of a passing vehicle.

“Go Pack, go!”

And in that moment of lighthearted jest, Kirk Cousins can only ignore it. He knows the stop sign in front of the house makes him a sitting duck every morning.

Four times a week, starting promptly at 9 a.m., the Vikings quarterback gathers equipment from the garage and arranges it neatly on the long, curved pavement leading from his parents’ house to the sidewalk. Resting on a wooden chair is his laptop, connected by videoconference to his longtime personal trainer, Chad Cook, who is 450 miles away in Atlanta. This is a glimpse into what constitutes the 2020 NFL offseason.

“I like my privacy, so being out in the driveway, on display for the whole neighborhood to see is probably less than ideal. But desperate times call for desperate measures,” Cousins said with a smile during a recent ESPN interview. “If it means a guy drives by in a truck and yells, ‘Go Pack, go!’ at me while we’re working out, then so be it.”

The manicured lawns of this Orlando, Florida, suburb serve as a backdrop to Cousins’ regimen and his attempt at normalcy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not a “home gym” by any means, Cousins concedes, but he insists he has everything he needs: a medicine ball, jump-rope, foam rollers, free weights and a football. And, the most essential tool of all: the laptop he uses to connect with Cook.

“[Every car will] see me doing my shuffles across the driveway, or my cariocas, or doing the jump-rope or different plank exercises, core work, medicine ball, lunges — whatever it may be. And different people honk or wave, so it’s kind of fun,” said Cousins, who signed a two-year, $66 million extension with the Vikings in March.

Spotty Wi-Fi is a challenge when working out outdoors, but sheltering in place with his parents was by design: The nine-year veteran and his wife, Julie, now have plenty of reinforcements when it comes to taking care of their sons, Cooper, 2½, and Turner, 1.

“I kind of laugh when I talk about having two like I have 10,” Cousins joked, “because compared to other guys in the league who have three, four, five, six kids, having two is not a big deal.”

Dealing with this adversity has reaffirmed his commitment to his craft. It also taught him that the Public Broadcasting Service can be a football player’s, as well as a father’s, best friend: “‘Daniel Tiger[‘s Neighborhood]’ on PBS can be a lifesaver.”

‘Strict training mode’ means living with trainers

The plan was to be in Nashville, Tennessee, for a month, but Demario Davis‘ offseason residence has become his permanent dwelling during the pandemic. His 7,500-square-foot house, purchased last offseason, is a saving grace of sorts, equipped with enough room for his wife, Tamela, and their four children under the age of 6.

And his two personal trainers.

Davis’ trainers, Jose Tienda and Piankhi Gibson, typically work with him in two-to-three-week “strict training mode” spurts before heading back to their respective homes. They’ll return to Nashville soon for another extended stay with Davis.

As the 31-year-old enters his ninth NFL season — and the final year of his contract — he is determined not to lose ground to a youngster who might be aiming for his spot.

Mid-morning acupuncture and soft tissue work with Tienda give way to afternoon aqua training in a neighbor’s pool with Gibson. Davis pauses for dinner and to help put the kids to bed. But before long, he’s headed back for more body work. He crawls into bed around 12:30 or 1 a.m. on those rigorous training days.

With Louisiana still reeling from 35,316 confirmed COVID-19 cases (and 2,485 reported deaths) as of Thursday, Davis wasn’t surprised Saints coach Sean Payton — who was the first known NFL figure to test positive for the coronavirus — announced there would not be virtual workouts, meetings or workout sessions at the team facility.

“The virtual offseason really wouldn’t have fit the flow of how we operate down there,” the veteran linebacker said of the Saints, who have one of the oldest rosters in the NFL. “We don’t have a young team. … He knew with our experience level, the strong leaders we have at each position, that we’d get it done as far as training.”

While Davis is eager to play, he said he won’t waste time guessing when the season will start.

“The pandemic don’t know nothing about football season. The virus ain’t just like, ‘Oh, football season’s coming, let me chill out,'” he said with a laugh. “So I’m going to train and stay in shape because that’s just a philosophy of mine — you stay ready at all times. But I think it’s a discredit to people who are on the front lines working, and the people who are being affected by it, when we’re just thinking about how fast we can get back to sports.”

‘Grubby little gym’ becomes labor of love

The police officers approached without warning.

Jamie Gillan had been punting on a turf field almost an hour away from his Tremont, Ohio, residence, completely unaware of the state’s shelter-in-place orders. With nonessential businesses closed, the Browns punter — nicknamed “The Scottish Hammer” — had used local fields to practice his kicking drills. That is, until he was no longer allowed.

“[The officers] were like, ‘Yeah man, we want to let you punt. We love the Browns and everything, but it’s just the rules,'” the Scotland-born special-teamer explained in his thick brogue.

Faced with the prospect of quarantining alone, Gillan chose to go be with family.

He made trips to the liquor store and the supermarket — packing his truck with several bottles of bourbon for his father, “120 eggs and 16 racks of bacon” — and then he and his German shepherd named Bear traveled seven hours to southern Maryland to stay with his parents and 19-year-old sister.

The rural area around his parents’ house affords him space to practice his booming kicks, and there’s a “massive” field, owned by a friend, which Gillan uses, too. But the self-described “workout junkie” had to get creative with strength training. Soon his parents’ garage became his gym.

Unable to buy equipment online because of limited inventory and “skyrocketing” prices, Gillan purchased old equipment from a local high school: barbells, bumper plates, 40-, 80- and 100-pound dumbbells and bands. He purchased rubber matting from a local tractor store.

He searched Facebook Marketplace for a squat rack, but he and his father, Colin, who is a former rugby player and member of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, came up with a better solution — they would construct their own.

“We came back [from Lowe’s], cracked open some beers and just started building it,” Gillan said with a chuckle. Even with old, rusty weights, his “grubby little gym” was everything he needed.

Gillan said his resourcefulness was forged during four years playing at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a historically black university. During offseasons when he and his teammates didn’t have access to the gym, their surroundings became their workout room. They bench-pressed and squatted logs, they did dips and pullups on metal bars at local parks, and Gillan hopped fences to punt on neighboring fields when access to their football field was prohibited.

“One thing I notice about a lot of historically black colleges is they’re very underfunded,” Gillan said, stressing that he and other student-athletes had to be creative. “Maybe it got me prepared for this weird period.”

State-of-the-art amenities ease the transition

Blake Martinez‘s father, Marc, had a master plan: purchase a plot of land 15 minutes from the family home in Tucson, Arizona, and build a facility for his son to train and live. It didn’t take long for the idea to become Martinez’s reality.

The linebacker thanks his father every day for his ingenuity, as well as his construction company.

The 18,000-square-foot facility — conceptualized and built last year — “has everything a football player would need,” said Martinez, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers who signed a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the Giants in March.

The warehouse-looking steel structure contains “a miniature version of a college weight room,” a full-length basketball court, a 30-by-15-yard turf field and an outdoor sand volleyball court. It also doubles as a residence, with three bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen on the second level for him, his wife, Kristy, and their young daughter.

“It kept getting better and better as it kept getting built,” Martinez said. He works out for two hours in person with his longtime trainer, Glenn Howell, four times a week.

But familiarity with his new franchise is a luxury Martinez, 26, doesn’t have.

With New York and New Jersey being one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Martinez doesn’t know when he’ll be able to travel to the facility or even meet members of the Giants organization for the first time.

“It’s not like I’ve been on the team for a while and I know the guys already. So, it’s been tough in that aspect, connecting with guys,” he said.

Martinez said the pandemic has taught him “I literally have zero excuses not to show up the first day and make sure I’m 100 percent ready to go and help push all of the younger guys to that level if they haven’t gotten there yet.”

Making use of California canyons

Golden Tate‘s stunning San Diego views come at a price.

“I’ve just got to watch out for rattlesnakes,” the Giants wide receiver said with a laugh.

When stay-at-home orders were issued in California in mid-March, Tate took advantage of his surroundings — namely, the canyon his house is built on.

“It’s not the best condition to be running in,” admitted the 11-year NFL player, who mowed a 7-by-40-yard patch of grass on a steep incline. “But it’ll suffice right now. It’s better than doing nothing.”

Tate, a married father of two small kids, purchased PowerBlock dumbbells and a Jugs machine from which he catches about 100 balls a day. He bikes at home on his Peloton and uses mountain bike trails for his aerobic conditioning. But finding a flat surface for route running has been a challenge. So, too, is self-discipline.

“Over my career, I’m so used to having someone — an instructor or the guys around me — push me. And right now, I’m forced to push myself,” said Tate, who turns 32 on Aug. 2.

The veteran receiver played through the 2011 NFL lockout, but he said the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything he has experienced.

“I feel bad for the first-, second-, third- and fourth-round guys who are expected to come in and help the team right away, but they’re not having the same opportunity to grow as a player, not getting those reps on the field,” he said.

“The offseason is when you have the time to really focus on the fundamentals of the game, the bigger picture and the details of the game. And it looks like right now we’re going to show up for camp — if we show up for camp — in the middle of the fire of trying to figure out who’s going to make the team and trying to get ready for a season. That can be overwhelming.”

Strengths trainers turned investigators

With their players scattered across the country, NFL strength and conditioning coaches feel more like part-time sleuths and office managers than in-person trainers.

“We kind of went more into equipment sales and trying to be a liaison to help guys get set up and make sure they’re doing the right thing,” said Justus Galac, now in his seventh year as the New York Jets‘ head strength and conditioning coach. “What we found was, guys in the Southern states and more into the Midwest had more access than our guys in the Northeast and West Coast.”

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Danny Amendola impresses with some nifty, one-handed catches while working out with a helmet on in his backyard.

Strength trainers have been tasked with identifying what their players need from a performance standpoint to achieve their fitness goals, regardless of where they live and what resources they have access to. “Even though they might have access to a Steak ‘n Shake parking lot or they might be in a third floor of an apartment,” said Justin Lovett, the Los Angeles Rams‘ new head strength and conditioning coach.

Lovett was hired in the midst of California’s coronavirus shutdown, but unlike during the 2011 lockout year, when he was on the Denver Broncos‘ staff, communication is permitted and has proved paramount. But there have been challenges.

“The biggest problem with the rookie class is they don’t have the money that some of the older guys do,” Galac said. “Not saying millions of dollars, but able to go buy equipment, pay for a trainer to take care of them, buying more food that you may normally not have to buy because the facility provides it. All those little things are adding up for these guys. And the rookies, they have no idea. And it’s not their fault.”

This time of year is crucial for strength staffs, not only for getting players in shape but also for getting new players up to speed with their programs. “And we’ve lost that,” Galac said.

In fact, the Jets’ weight room underwent a face-lift this offseason, complete with a new floor, turf accents and equipment. “And nobody’s using it,” Galac said. “It’s sitting empty. The players haven’t even seen it yet.”

Finding space and serenity in the countryside

James Washington misses football. And, occasionally, his farm.

The 26-acre property the Steelers wide receiver purchased near his hometown of Abilene, Texas, made it easy for him to comply with social distancing rules. It also afforded him space to work out and keep in shape by way of chores. Washington, who was an agribusiness major with a concentration in farm and ranch management at Oklahoma State, finds the countryside calming. He enjoys the views of passing cars, wheat fields and cattle pastures during his eight- to 12-mile rides on his recently purchased bicycle.

His workout setup, which included an assortment of resistance bands sent by the Steelers and his high school dumbbells retrieved from his parents’ house, was complete with the arrival of a Jugs machine, which he kept in the barn and carried to a flat area in one of the pastures.

However, staving off boredom is a challenge whenever he’s in Pittsburgh, a more crowded city with fewer options for keeping busy.

“When I was in Texas, I’d work out, do my virtual [team] meetings and then I’d have to find something to do cause I can’t just sit in the house,” Washington said last week, after he, JuJu Smith-Schuster and fellow receiver Ryan Switzer worked out in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s home weight room. “Being on the farm really helped me a lot, because there was always something that could have been done.”

Washington loves his farm so much his recent stay in Pittsburgh was short-lived. He returned to Texas on Wednesday to celebrate Memorial Day weekend with family and tend to his most recent purchase: cattle. The time away from the Steelers’ facility has also given Washington time to think.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” he said. “Everybody feels like we should be at the facility, doing physical stuff, getting ready to go. … Even if there’s no fans, we still have to go out there and just go 110 percent, even if it would feel weird. Fans help make the game. It’s really crazy to think about.

“Just being away from things, you really find out how much you miss the sport. It sucks. That’s really what I figured out. That I love football.”

Published at Sat, 23 May 2020 13:40:35 +0000

Barnwell ranks the worst NFL offseasons: Why the Texans and Pats are at the bottom

Barnwell ranks the worst NFL offseasons: Why the Texans and Pats are at the bottom

With the NFL universe on pause, now seems like a good time to continue our big-picture look into how each organization did during the player-acquisition period of the offseason. Over the next four days, I’m going to run through all 32 teams and rank the work they did from worst to first.

To measure how each team performed, I’m comparing their roster, cap situation and future draft capital at the beginning of the offseason to what they have in mid-May. The most important thing a team can do is add talent, so those that made significant inroads in improving their roster will rank highly, while those that saw key pieces leave without replacements won’t. I also considered how each attacked their specific needs, how well they read the market and handled the financial side of their deals, and what they did to create future draft picks.

For each team, I’ll include what went right, what went wrong, what they might have done differently with a bit of hindsight and what they need to do next in the months to come. Finally, and this is important: These aren’t power rankings of how these teams will perform in 2020. Some of the worst teams in the league from last season will finish at or near the top of these rankings because they were able to draft immediate-impact players at key positions, while some of the best teams shed talent or weren’t able to add much in the draft because they had already dealt away picks.

I’ll start Monday with the bottom eight teams, hit eight more on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then finish up with the top eight on Thursday. You can probably guess where these rankings begin:

Jump to a team:
CHI | DET | GB | HOU
LAR | NE | SEA | TEN

What went right: Hmm. We’re starting this series with the toughest question, huh? I suppose the two-year, $3 million deal the Texans gave former Eagles and Chargers defensive back Jaylen Watkins could be decent value if they slot him in the correct role. They also upgraded their special-teams coverage units by importing players such as Eric Murray and Michael Thomas. Second-round pick Ross Blacklock, Houston’s first selection in the 2020 draft, could turn into a useful interior disrupter and third pass-rusher for a team that had the league’s fourth-worst adjusted sack rate.

What went wrong: The Texans traded away arguably their second-best player for pennies on the dollar because he wanted a new contract and then overpaid for just about every one of their offseason additions. Even if they hadn’t traded wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a swap of fourth-rounders for a second-round pick and running back David Johnson‘s bloated contract, this would be a disaster.

Coach Bill O’Brien misread the market and handed out significant deals to cornerback Bradley Roby (three years, $36 million), wide receiver Randall Cobb (three years, $27 million), kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn (four years, $17.7 million) and Murray (three years, $18 million) and even threw in a one-year, $4 million pact for backup quarterback AJ McCarron. O’Brien finished up by giving agentless left tackle Laremy Tunsil a three-year, $66 million extension, a market-shifting deal everyone saw coming from the moment the Texans traded away multiple first-round picks to acquire Tunsil without negotiating an extension as part of the pact.

What they could have done differently: How much time do you have? Let’s start by using the window afforded them during the trading process last year to insist on getting Tunsil signed to an extension as part of that trade. The team reportedly attempted to sign Carlos Hyde to an extension before free agency; Hyde isn’t much more than a league-average running back, but if signing him meant that O’Brien wouldn’t have assumed the Johnson contract, it would have been a hidden victory for this team.

The Texans shouldn’t have traded away Hopkins, contract demands or not. The Falcons were able to satiate Julio Jones when he was three years away from the end of his deal by moving money around before handing him a deal with two years to go. And if you don’t want to follow that model, what was Hopkins going to do in a league in which the new collective bargaining makes it virtually impossible for players to hold out?

Read more: Barnwell graded more than 100 signings and trades this offseason

If O’Brien thought his relationship with Hopkins was unsalvageable and he needed to trade his star wide receiver away, that’s one thing. He simply had to get more out of that deal than an underwater running back contract and a second-round pick. Even if Hopkins wanted a new deal, the Stefon Diggs trade saw the Vikings send a less productive player with a reputation of creating drama inside his building to the Bills for a much greater haul, most notably a first-round pick. Beating the Vikings to the punch for that Bills deal would have been more defensible.

What’s left to do: Trade Kenny Stills. The Texans don’t really have a need for Stills as their fourth wide receiver behind Cobb, Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller, and the former Dolphins wideout has $7 million in unguaranteed money due on the final year of his deal. There’s an obvious fit here with the Packers, who didn’t get all of their shopping done this offseason.


What went right: Offensive tackle Germain Ifedi didn’t live up to expectations as a first-round pick for Seattle, but the Bears were able to sign the oft-penalized lineman to a one-year deal for just over $1 million, which is good value for a solid run-blocker. They will try Ifedi at guard as a replacement for the retired Kyle Long. General manager Ryan Pace also took the first steps out of the Mitchell Trubisky business, declining the quarterback’s fifth-year option while bringing in Nick Foles to compete for a starting job. While Robert Quinn‘s five-year, $70 million deal is expensive, it’s for a player for whom ESPN’s pass rush win rate analysis suggests was the most effective pass-rusher in the league over the past two seasons. I also liked the flier Chicago took on former Steelers first-round corner Artie Burns.

What went wrong: Despite the fact that Foles’ contract was a disaster for the Jaguars, the Bears sent a fourth-round pick to acquire him and didn’t force the Jags to eat any of the money, instead restructuring $21 million in guarantees to come due over the next three seasons. Foles could work out as the team’s starter, but this is the equivalent of signing an expensive three-year gym membership as a college senior. There couldn’t have been much of a market for Foles, and Andy Dalton, who was cut by the Bengals after the draft, came without the pick or significant cash attached.

The Jimmy Graham deal was likely the worst contract of free agency, as a Bears team that had already committed significant assets to tight ends Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton under Pace gave Graham a two-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed and a truly inexplicable no-trade clause. Graham can’t block, and he was anonymous during his time with the Packers. Chicago needed three voidable years to re-sign linebacker Danny Trevathan on a three-year, $21.8 million deal, which is like taking out a loan so you can help pay for that gym membership. There are still questions about what this team has at wide receiver and in the secondary, where it will likely need second-rounder Jaylon Johnson to start as a rookie.

What they could have done differently: Waited out the quarterback market. Foles wasn’t going to have many suitors, and the Jaguars had little leverage in moving his massive contract. Judging from the deals that Dalton and Jameis Winston signed — and the offers Joe Flacco and Cam Newton have yet to get — there was more supply in the quarterback market than demand this offseason. Wiping away the Graham deal goes without saying; if the Bears wanted to go after a versatile tight end, they were better off handing a similar deal to Eric Ebron, who signed with Pittsburgh for less money.

What’s left to do: Add a veteran cornerback. The bottom tier of the cornerback market still has plenty of options available. Guys such as Eli Apple, Trumaine Johnson and Dre Kirkpatrick were generally problems in 2019, but the Bears should be able to sign one of them for little more than the veterans minimum. I would prefer Apple, who is still only 24 and was competent for the Saints in 2018.


What went right: The Patriots finally invested at tight end, using third-round picks on Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Franchising and retaining guard Joe Thuney gives them their best chance of building around the running game as they shift their offensive identity. Perhaps most important, they kept their dominant secondary together by re-signing Devin McCourty to a two-year deal, losing only Duron Harmon to the Lions.

Behind the 32-year-old McCourty at safety, coach Bill Belichick made obviously Belichickian additions by signing Adrian Phillips and using a second-round pick on the versatile and athletic Kyle Dugger. New England also banked three projected compensatory picks for the players it lost in free agency, including a third-rounder for quarterback Tom Brady and fourth-rounders for linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy.

What went wrong: The Patriots had Brady at quarterback, and now they have Jarrett Stidham. Even a diminished Brady would still project to be a playoff-caliber quarterback with the sort of defense this team had in 2019; the same thing isn’t clear with Stidham, who appears to be the Week 1 starter. Losing Brady is one thing, but the Pats neglecting to make a meaningful move for someone like Andy Dalton seems shortsighted and stubborn.

Franchising Thuney means New England has a league-high $28.6 million of its cap committed to guards in 2020, nearly $7 million more than any other team. The Thuney tag cost the Patriots valuable cap space and eliminated their leverage in dealing with Rob Gronkowski when he wanted to return, forcing them to trade their legendary tight end to the Bucs for a midround pick. The Pats also lost three members of their starting front seven with Collins, Van Noy and defensive tackle Danny Shelton leaving town. While I have faith Belichick will replace those guys in the long term, the defense should take a step backward in 2020.

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Bill Belichick is confident Jarrett Stidham will be able to lead the Patriots’ offense.

What they could have done differently: When Brady was clamoring for more money during the summer of 2019, the Patriots gave him a “two-year deal,” which was really an $8 million raise and a ticket to free agency after the season. Given that Brady ended up netting only a two-year, $50 million deal on the open market, this team could have made him a credible multiyear offer to stick around for the remainder of his career.

Would Brady have taken that kind of offer if the Pats had made it at this time last year? It’s impossible to say. Given what both sides had to gain, though, it’s not hard to imagine a common ground where the Patriots could have given him a new deal with two years of guarantees and a voidable year or two attached to help create short-term cap space. (The Pats used that space on Antonio Brown, which is another thing that didn’t go well.)

Belichick is obviously not stupid; the Patriots chose not to make that sort of offer for a reason. Stidham’s performance over the next couple of years will make it clear whether the legendary coach was right to move on from the most fruitful relationship in NFL history.

What’s left to do: Clear out cap room and wait. New England should be targeting veterans who come available now that we’re on the other side of the post-June 1 window. (I know that sounds weird, but in the NFL, the middle of May comes after June 1.) Belichick can clear out about $5 million by cutting backup running back Rex Burkhead and offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor or gin up another $3 million or so by releasing safety Terrence Brooks and tight end Matt LaCosse. The Pats should be in the market for a veteran tight end, but more important, it’s money they could put toward someone like Cam Newton or Joe Flacco, if they’re healthy enough to compete with Stidham and Brian Hoyer.


What went right: The Lions went all-in on rebuilding their oft-frustrating secondary, trading cornerback Darius Slay and replacing him by signing Desmond Trufant and drafting Jeff Okudah at No. 3 overall. On paper, the trio of Okudah, Trufant and Justin Coleman would rank as one of the best cornerback combinations in the league. Trading for safety Duron Harmon completed the defensive back makeover. They will miss Slay, but even with him on the field last season, they allowed a passer rating of 97.4, which would have been the eighth-worst mark in the league.

What went wrong: Coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn elected to rebuild most of their defense by acquiring the players Bill Belichick didn’t want to keep, a move that typically turns out poorly for other teams. Jamie Collins‘ three-year, $30 million deal seemed particularly onerous for a linebacker who was a mess outside of New England during his run with Cleveland. The Lions will now start four former Pats on defense in Collins, Harmon, Trey Flowers and Danny Shelton. They look perilously thin along the defensive line, and while Belichick has been able to mold middling players into contributors across his front seven, Patricia’s players have generally been better elsewhere than they were playing for him in Detroit.

The Lions also weren’t able to parlay the No. 3 draft pick into a bidding war between the Chargers and Dolphins, forcing them to stay put. Okudah should be an impact cornerback, and I don’t have any issue with them drafting him, but this team could have sorely used an extra first-round pick. Detroit used its second-round pick on running back D’Andre Swift, and while he is a talented player, this isn’t a roster that can afford to use two second-round picks on running backs across three years. You could argue Kerryon Johnson is a sunk cost, but the Lions could have addressed running back with one of a number of veterans at minimal cost.

Instead, Detroit hit free agency yet again, and its deals were questionable. Trufant hasn’t lived up to expectations over the past three seasons. The five-year, $45 million deal it handed Halapoulivaati Vaitai pays the former Eagles swing tackle like he is an upper-echelon starter. It sure looks reminiscent of the big deal that Detroit handed former starting right tackle Rick Wagner, which didn’t work out.

What they could have done differently: Resisted the urge to go after as many former Patriots as possible. The Collins deal is a mess, and under Belichick, the Patriots have exhibited the ability to develop players such as Shelton and Harmon into useful contributors. Patricia and Quinn are trying to buy them instead. If the Lions couldn’t trade down in the first round, they should have used their second-rounder on a position that’s tougher to fill than halfback.

What’s left to do: Add defensive line help. Detroit signed Nick Williams to a two-year deal after he impressed with the Bears in his first significant stretch of pro action as a 29-year-old, but it needs another pass-rusher to mix in on a rotational basis. I’d love to see the Lions sign Jadeveon Clowney, but more realistically, this would be a landing spot for somebody like Jabaal Sheard on the edge or Marcell Dareus on the interior. Hey, one of those guys used to play for the Patriots!


What went right: The Rams acknowledged sunk costs and made the difficult decision to essentially erase their 2018 offseason by releasing running back Todd Gurley and trading away receiver Brandin Cooks. They rebuilt their defensive line around Aaron Donald by signing Leonard Floyd and A’Shawn Robinson, and when Michael Brockers failed his physical with the Ravens, they brought him back at a reasonable price. L.A. is expected to add third- and fourth-round compensatory picks in the 2021 draft for losing linebackers Dante Fowler Jr. and Cory Littleton in free agency.

What went wrong: As I wrote about in my winners and losers column, the Rams didn’t address their needs. They used their two second-round picks on replacements for Gurley and Cooks; shouldn’t Sean McVay be able to coach up a running back and third receiver without having to use the team’s top picks? Their offensive line is still seriously troubling, and while they re-signed veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the 38-year-old committed 14 penalties last season, up from 12 over his prior two seasons combined. The Rams have two other line starters coming off season-ending knee injuries, and they added only Jamil Demby and seventh-round pick Tremayne Anchrum.

They didn’t replace Littleton, and while defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a track record of molding inside linebackers out of unlikely places, Phillips is gone too. The Rams were ninth in defensive DVOA last season, and they will go from Phillips’ decades of experience to 37-year-old Brandon Staley, who has spent only three years in the NFL. They also lost longtime special-teams coordinator John Fassel, who will be replaced by former Central Michigan coach John Bonamego.

Perhaps more disconcertingly, it seems L.A. is either struggling with cash flow or going to present itself as such for the time being. It still hasn’t paid Gurley or Clay Matthews owed bonus money, which led to Matthews filing a grievance with the league. Last week, the Rams reportedly applied for a $500 million loan from the league to help finance cost overruns on their new stadium while simultaneously asking for a 30-year repayment term, which is double the typical length. These two issues likely aren’t directly related — the bonuses for Gurley and Matthews are a drop in the bucket relative to the stadium costs — but it’s fair to wonder whether the organization is in position to meet the lofty contract demands of star corner Jalen Ramsey.

What they could have done differently: As was the case with the Texans and Tunsil, the Rams should have negotiated an extension with Ramsey when they made their trade with the Jaguars. It would have been more difficult, given that they made the deal in the middle of the season, but even agreeing on the broader framework of an extension would have gone a long way. Given how Marcus Peters has played since leaving the Rams, it’s fair to argue that this team should have just held onto him and its two first-round picks, but that’s another conversation altogether.

The Rams didn’t have a first-round pick in April, and they won’t have one in next year’s draft, either. With that in mind, they badly needed to use one of their second-round picks this year on helping their offensive line. The organization was spoiled by what happened in 2017 and 2018, when the line stayed remarkably healthy and free-agent imports such as Whitworth and John Sullivan played at a high level. The line was a mess last season, and Jared Goff just isn’t good enough to overcome heavy pressure. He posted a league-worst passer rating of 34.5 under pressure. Even if second-round pick Cam Akers turns into a superstar, the Rams should have waited to target a running back.

What’s left to do: Sign Ramsey (or wide receiver Cooper Kupp). Both Kupp and Ramsey are in the final year of their respective deals, and the Rams don’t want to head to the 2021 offseason with the two stars vying for one franchise tag. They also will have to work on deals for tight end Gerald Everett and defensive backs John Johnson III and Troy Hill next year, and while some of their pending free agents will be allowed to leave, they probably want to lock up at least one of their big two before the season begins. Ramsey will look to reset the cornerback market and will be asking something in the range of $20 million per season.


What went right: In a market in which teams were aggressively paying for potential at offensive tackle, the Packers got a reasonable price in replacing Bryan Bulaga with Rick Wagner on a two-year, $11 million pact. While it wasn’t the first-round wide receiver Packers fans were craving, Devin Funchess could deliver good value on a one-year, $2.5 million deal as a second or third wideout. And while it’s not ideal for their chances of winning in 2020, if Green Bay did add its quarterback of the future when it drafted Jordan Love with the 26th pick, it would obviously push this offseason way higher than it ranks now.

What went wrong: In an offseason in which the draft was full of wide receiver talent and veteran wideout prices were depressed, the Packers really couldn’t come away with more than Funchess? Taking Love was one thing, but using a second-round pick on bruising running back AJ Dillon seemed more egregious. It also seemed to hint that Aaron Jones‘ future after the season lies outside of Green Bay, which is unlikely to make many Packers fans happy.

The decision to move on from Bulaga also was curious, given that he signed a relatively friendly deal with the Chargers. It’s possible the Packers weren’t given an option to match, but if they could have signed Bulaga for three years and $30 million, they should have brought back their stalwart right tackle.

They didn’t do much to address their defense. While they improved from 29th to 15th in DVOA after a spending spree in free agency last year, they are unlikely to be as healthy on the defensive side of the ball in 2020 after their starters missed a total of four games all season. They replaced linebacker Blake Martinez with Christian Kirksey, which should be a positive if Kirksey stays healthy, but I was surprised Green Bay didn’t try to do more to add depth on defense.

What they could have done differently: Realistically, even if the Packers wanted Love in Round 1, they should have gone out of their way to get one of the remaining wideouts in the second round. I’m not often an advocate for trading up, and it’s possible that opposing teams were quoting astronomical prices to the Packers after seeing how their fan base reacted to the Love pick, but they should have moved up in the second round to get someone like Laviska Shenault Jr. or Denzel Mims. Dillon basically has to turn into Derrick Henry for that pick to work, and both the track record and NFL career span of backs like Henry aren’t great.

What’s left to do: Acquire a veteran wideout. I mentioned Kenny Stills earlier, and a trade for the Texans wideout makes total sense.


What went right: The Seahawks added significant offensive line depth, re-signing Mike Iupati and signing the likes of B.J. Finney, Brandon Shell, Cedric Ogbuehi and Chance Warmack, before drafting Damien Lewis in the third round. With a thin depth chart at wide receiver behind starters Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, they were able to get a steal by adding Phillip Dorsett on a one-year deal for the veterans minimum. They also added some modestly priced depth at defensive end by signing Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin, and they made what looked to be an excellent trade in acquiring cornerback Quinton Dunbar from Washington for a fifth-round pick.

What went wrong: Dunbar’s near-term future appears to be uncertain after a warrant was issued for his arrest on armed robbery charges. The Seahawks will be able to get by without him, but they still haven’t acquired a primary pass-rusher after letting Jadeveon Clowney leave this offseason. The former first overall pick is still a free agent, but Seattle was 30th in adjusted sack rate with him and could be even worse without him. The two-year, $23 million deal the team gave defensive tackle Jarran Reed had a player-friendly structure, and it kept the franchise aligned with a player who was suspended for six games after being accused of domestic assault last year.

While it’s obviously too early to make significant judgments about draft picks, Seattle’s first-round selection of off-ball linebacker Jordyn Brooks was widely seen as a stretch for both the player and the positional value. The Seahawks have proved broader consensus wrong in the past — Metcalf and quarterback Russell Wilson come to mind — but Brooks will have to be great to overcome the needs this team had on either side of the line of scrimmage. Most of the offensive linemen Seattle added simply weren’t very good in other places, with Finney as an exception. The one-year, $7 million deal the Seahawks gave Greg Olsen was also a lot for a 35-year-old tight end with one healthy season over his past three years.

What they could have done differently: I would suggest that they should have traded down from No. 27, but I’m not sure there was much of a market for the pick. The Packers moved up to 26 to draft Love, but after that, no team moved up in the draft until the Colts did so at No. 41. Taking a player at a more significant position would make sense to me, such as offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson or defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos.

The depth approach Seattle took to its line was interesting, but adding a second guaranteed starter behind Finney would have been helpful. Shell appears likely to start at right tackle, but on a two-year, $9 million price tag, I would have liked to see the Seahawks try to finally find a pass-protecting tackle for Wilson by going after Bryan Bulaga.

What’s left to do: Bring back Clowney. A one-year reunion makes sense for both sides, given that the Seahawks are likely to be a playoff contender and Clowney wants to restore his free-agent stock on a winner. Seattle has about $15 million in cap space, which is a little more than what he might hope to land on a one-year pact at this point. General manager John Schneider could clear out $5.4 million by releasing backup pass-catchers Jacob Hollister and David Moore.


What went right: The ideal situation for the Titans would have been retaining quarterback Ryan Tannehill and franchising running back Derrick Henry, which is what ended up happening. Tennessee hasn’t yet come to terms on an extension with Henry, which I’m considering a plus given how poorly contracts have aged for running backs. It also lost right tackle Jack Conklin, but it replaced the former All-Pro by re-upping Dennis Kelly and using its first-round pick on Isaiah Wilson.

What went wrong: Losing Conklin and cornerback Logan Ryan cost the team two valuable starters, and I’m not sure the Kelly/Wilson combination or free-agent corner Johnathan Joseph are going to be as valuable in their absence. The Vic Beasley Jr. signing locked the Titans in on a one-year deal for a pass-rusher who has been successful for 1½ of his five pro seasons and didn’t offer any ability to keep him if he exceeds expectations.

Most notably, to get the Tannehill deal done, the Titans practically guaranteed their breakout quarterback three years and $91 million, which is a huge investment for a player whom the Dolphins paid $5 million to sell for a fourth-round pick at this time last year. He was one of the league’s best quarterbacks last season, but he has a lengthy injury history. The Titans also want to build around running the football, which makes a $31 million quarterback an expensive accessory.

What they could have done differently: I’m not sure the Titans had much of a choice, but even limiting the Tannehill deal to two guaranteed seasons would have been a much better deal. With hindsight, it’s fair to suggest they might have been better off letting him hit the market and going after somebody like Nick Foles or Andy Dalton at a much cheaper price. Likewise, for a team that has expressed interest in Jadeveon Clowney, the Titans would have been better off just signing Clowney to a one-year deal as opposed to Beasley. Some of that is hindsight, but the Beasley and Tannehill deals raised questions before we even saw how the rest of those respective markets worked out.

What’s left to do: Let Henry play out his franchise tag. When he was asked about a possible extension in January, Henry said the six-year, $90 million extension that Ezekiel Elliott signed with the Cowboys was “the floor.” Elliott’s deal paid him $37.6 million over its first three years.

Henry’s franchise tag is worth $10.2 million in 2020. If the Titans franchised him two more times, in 2021 and 2022, they would end up paying him $40.1 million, which is right about what Elliott’s deal included after accounting for cap inflation. They also would retain the leverage of going year to year with the ability to opt out if Henry gets hurt or doesn’t live up to expectations. The NFL’s running back economics are absolutely warped, and it’s unfair to Henry after his production over the past year and a half, but the Titans will likely regret it if they give him a Zeke-sized deal.

Come back Tuesday for Nos. 24-17 on the list.

Published at Mon, 18 May 2020 12:20:18 +0000

Who won — and lost — the NFL offseason: Barnwell picks 20 players, teams and trends

Who won — and lost — the NFL offseason: Barnwell picks 20 players, teams and trends

Let’s break down some of the winners and losers from this NFL offseason. Some of the stories in the short term were obvious — you don’t need me to tell you again who won the DeAndre Hopkins trade — but I’m going to try to take a look at the bigger picture to see how players, teams, coaches and others around the NFL were impacted by the moves and decisions made over the past few months.

Let’s start with a trio of young quarterbacks from the 2019 draft, all of whom are leaving the acquisition portion of the offseason as their teams’ starters. It begins with the player who might have the biggest shoes to fill of any player in NFL history:

Jump to a winner/loser:
Clowney | Edwards-Helaire | Haskins
Lock | Minshew | Murray | Newton
Prescott | Rodgers | Stidham | Trubisky

Stidham is one of the most obvious victors of the past few months. We all knew the Patriots and Tom Brady would come to terms on a deal … until they didn’t. Then we all knew that the Pats were going to acquire Nick Foles or Andy Dalton or pull off some impossible run up the draft board for Tua Tagovailoa … and that didn’t happen either. Through the entire player acquisition window, the only competition the Patriots added for Stidham is veteran Brian Hoyer, who lost his last battle with Stidham for the backup spot in training camp in 2019. Barring a last-second move for Cam Newton, Stidham is going to be the Week 1 starter for the Patriots.

Merely having a chance to play is a huge opportunity for Stidham and one rarely afforded midround picks who aren’t forced into action by injury. Imagine if one of the other teams looking for quarterbacks in that draft range last year took Stidham instead? The Panthers paid Teddy Bridgewater in lieu of handing things over to Will Grier (pick No. 100). Ryan Finley (104) is buried behind first overall pick Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, while Easton Stick (166) is third behind Tyrod Taylor and sixth overall pick Justin Herbert in L.A. One other late-round selection will be starting in 2020 — see the next winner — but there are midround picks who don’t really get a chance to play meaningful football across their rookie deals. Stidham will get his.

The Patriots didn’t exactly add any star weapons for their new starter, but they did address their threadbare tight end room by using third-round picks on Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Retaining guard Joe Thuney on a franchise tag and getting back center David Andrews from a pulmonary embolism means the Patriots should be well-positioned to protect Stidham. It’s obviously way too early to say anything about how he will perform, but he has gone from being an afterthought to taking the reins for Bill Belichick & Co.


Likewise, the Jaguars cleared out a path for their 2019 sixth-round pick, as they traded away free-agent addition Nick Foles after paying him more than $30 million for four starts. Jacksonville then sat out the various free-agent quarterback options and didn’t use either of its first-round picks on a signal-caller. The Jags even added Tyler Eifert at tight end and used a second-round pick on wideout Laviska Shenault Jr., though their desperate attempts to get anybody to take running back Leonard Fournette off their hands found no takers.

Again, even having a chance to take meaningful reps as a sixth-round pick is rare. The last sixth-rounder to throw at least 400 passes over his first two seasons was Tom Brady, who threw three as a rookie in 2000 and 413 while leading the Pats to a Super Bowl in 2001. Minshew is already way ahead of the game in terms of opportunity; now, with just Joshua Dobbs and sixth-round pick Jake Luton backing him up, Minshew should get a full season to prove he’s an NFL quarterback.


Let’s hit a 2019 quarterback trifecta! Lock flashed promise while going 4-1 across his five starts at the end of the season, though it’s worth noting that those four wins came against the teams ranked 20th (Chargers), 26th (Texans), 27th (Lions), and 30th (Raiders) in pass defense DVOA. At the very least, he did enough for the Broncos to feel confident about opening the 2020 season with him as their starter.

While Denver held out some hope for luring Tom Brady, it didn’t make a move for any of the other quarterbacks when Brady decided to stay east. The Broncos didn’t even bring in a significant backup — the depth chart behind Lock consists of Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Riley Neal. This is Lock’s team.

On top of that vote of confidence from general manager John Elway, no quarterback gained more weapons this offseason than the Missouri product. Lock already had a handful of exciting pieces in running back Phillip Lindsay, wide receiver Courtland Sutton and tight end Noah Fant. I can’t pretend I’m the biggest Melvin Gordon fan, and it’s not a great contract for the Broncos, but the running back can be valuable when he’s healthy and protecting the football. Elway then used his first two selections in the draft on wideouts Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler.

Denver didn’t address its problematic left tackle spot, but it did make a major addition on the interior by signing lineman Graham Glasgow to a $44 million deal. The Broncos finished up by adding experienced offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who has gotten Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Daniel Jones to exceed expectations over the past few seasons. It’s fair to be skeptical of Lock after just five starts, but outside of a left tackle, the 23-year-old has everything he could have asked for from his organization this offseason.


On the other hand, there’s a member of that 2019 quarterback class who might feel left out among all the additions. Washington did avoid the lure of using the second overall pick on a quarterback, but it did little to help its starting quarterback.

Haskins’ receiving corps beyond Terry McLaurin was lacking last season, and the most notable free agents his team imported to help out its young starter were Cody Latimer and Richard Rodgers. Washington used midround picks on hybrid back Antonio Gibson and wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden, but it also traded away star left tackle Trent Williams without adding a meaningful replacement.


Loser: Cam Newton, QB, free agent

Things haven’t worked out for the former league MVP, who might have hoped to play out the final year of his deal with the Panthers while earning $19.1 million. Newton was instead cut, and the coronavirus pandemic has prevented him from finding a new team. He hasn’t been able to conduct a public workout, though he has posted videos on Instagram that show him going through drills. In the meantime, the starting jobs and most of the prime backup jobs have been filled.

There are still at least seven teams that should be looking for a backup quarterback, including the aforementioned Broncos and Jaguars, who don’t seem to want to challenge their young starters. The Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks all need a veteran backup, but there’s little chance of Newton playing meaningful snaps for those teams in 2020.

The two most logical landing spots left for Newton are in the AFC. Let’s start with the Titans, who gave Ryan Tannehill $91 million in practical guarantees over the next three years. Tannehill’s hold on the starting job isn’t going anywhere at that price tag, but the former Dolphins starter missed 24 games over his final four years in Miami. There’s a reasonable chance he misses time this year, and the Titans currently have seventh-round picks Cole McDonald and Logan Woodside behind their starter.

Tannehill was revelatory as a play-action passer last season, which fits what Newton does best. From 2017 through the first half of 2018, Newton posted a passer rating of 114.7 on play-action attempts, the seventh-best rate in the league. The Titans are built around Derrick Henry and their power-running attack, and it’s not difficult to imagine how Newton could play a role in that attack. A few starts for the Titans could help rebuild his value before the 2021 offseason.

The ideal job for Newton would be in Pittsburgh. The Steelers should get Ben Roethlisberger back after he missed 14 games in 2019 with an elbow injury, but the longtime starter is 38 and has missed 38 games over his 16-year career. Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were replacement-level quarterbacks last season, and Newton could viably make his case to serve as Roethlisberger’s long-term replacement in Pittsburgh if he plays well in a couple of spot starts.


While the Bears started this offseason suggesting that Trubisky would be their Week 1 starter in 2020, their actions suggest that his future is tenuous. Chicago traded for Nick Foles, and in restructuring the former Super Bowl MVP’s deal, it guaranteed Foles $21 million over the next three seasons. Then the team declined Trubisky’s fifth-year option, which would have guaranteed a $24.8 million salary in 2021 for injury.

Failing to earn a fifth-year option pickup has typically been a bad sign. Eight other first-round quarterbacks have had their fifth-year option declined. None of them made it to a fifth year with the team that drafted them. Six of them — Jake Locker, EJ Manuel, Christian Ponder, Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel and Paxton Lynch — didn’t take an NFL snap anywhere in Year 5. Teddy Bridgewater spent his fifth year sitting behind Drew Brees, while the only one of the bunch who saw meaningful action was Blaine Gabbert in San Francisco.

Trubisky will instead have to look toward a teammate for hope. The Bears declined Kyle Fuller‘s fifth-year option after injuries and inconsistent play, but after a breakout season, they used the transition tag to keep him around before matching a four-year, $56 million offer sheet. Fuller ended up making much more than he would have if the Bears had simply picked up that option in the first place. They have spent years trying to surround Trubisky with talent to confirm their belief that he was a franchise quarterback in the making. Now he has to overcome their skepticism and the odds.


There was little trade interest in Howard before he was dealt to the Eagles last offseason, and after seeing his rushing yards and yards-per-game figures decline in each of the past three seasons, I figured that the league would see him as a relatively replaceable zone runner. Alfred Morris, a similarly productive rookie, wasn’t able to ever get a significant deal.

Howard instead got a two-year, $10 million pact from the Dolphins with $4.8 million guaranteed in Year 1. Miami also added veterans Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras in free agency before using first- and second-round picks on offensive linemen. The Dolphins traded for Matt Breida, but they didn’t use a significant pick on a running back, and Breida has been a boom-or-bust player with injury issues during his time with the 49ers.

Howard landing meaningful guaranteed money, a starting job and a team that invested heavily in offensive linemen has to be considered a victory.

In a similar way to Newton’s, Clowney’s market has been depressed by medical concerns and an inability to evaluate those issues under the current climate. For all we hear about how NFL teams don’t focus on sacks, Clowney’s three-sack total from 2019 hasn’t helped his case. The former first overall pick is unquestionably talented, but the massive deal he might have received under typical circumstances after a more productive season hasn’t arrived.

Naturally, it seems like the logical thing for Clowney to do is sign a one-year deal with a contender and try to rebuild his value in the hopes of signing a big deal next year. Under normal circumstances, that idea makes sense. This isn’t a normal season, though, and there’s a chance that Clowney — and many other veterans — might not be able to sign big contracts next offseason.

As Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap wrote last week, the uncertainty around 2020 stadium and ticket revenue could lead to a meaningful drop in league income, which would result in a shrunken salary cap. Teams have seen the cap rise by an average of just under 6% over the past decade, up from $120 million in 2011 to $198.2 million in 2020. With players improving their share of revenue in the new CBA, the cap was expected to rise well north of $200 million in 2021. Now, Fitzgerald projects, the cap could fall somewhere between $130 million to $175 million in 2021, depending on how revenues are affected by the pandemic.

Obviously, it’s too early to project what the situation will be like next year, and the league could come to an agreement with its players to push future revenues forward to try to account for a reduced cap figure in 2021, but we could be looking at a different financial landscape next spring. Teams that were planning for a $210 million cap would be forced to cut veterans to get compliant, flooding the market with talented players. Many free agents would likely look for one-year deals in advance of a massive projected cap increase in 2022 and 2023, when local revenue would return to form and the league would be flush with television revenue from new deals. Clowney might end up stuck signing back-to-back one-year deals as a result.


Losers: Teams with lots of guaranteed money tied up in 2021

While we’re again months and months away from having any idea about what the cap will look like next year, there are teams that have to be sweating the possibility of a reduced cap. Take the Eagles, who already have $263.3 million on the books for 2021, much of it tied up in players who are core pieces of the roster. Getting down to $210 million would require a couple of restructures and cuts of veterans like DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Marquise Goodwin. Moving to $175 million would require another $35 million in savings.

The Eagles would find a reduced cap most difficult, but teams like the Saints, Falcons and Steelers would also be in compromised positions. Again, the league and players could come to terms on a deal that could restore some of the missing revenue, and the NFL would get a bump from a possible 17-game season in 2021, but the alternative looms as a dangerous scenario for several of the league’s highest-spending teams.


I hit the most crucial parts of the DeAndre Hopkins trade when it happened in March, but it’s quietly a huge victory for Johnson. With the Cardinals slapping the transition tag on Kenyan Drake, Arizona was clearly moving forward with Drake as its starting running back. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Chase Edmonds as the No. 2 behind him. Johnson was likely in line to get cut, where veterans like Devonta Freeman, Carlos Hyde and LeSean McCoy haven’t found a market.

Instead, the Texans traded for Johnson as part of the Hopkins deal, suggesting that Bill O’Brien sees him as a meaningful asset. With Houston treating Duke Johnson like a third-down back last season, David Johnson has a clear path to lead-back duties in an offense that ranked 11th in rush offense DVOA a year ago. There’s even a chance that the Texans pay Johnson the $9 million he’s due in 2021, which seemed out of the question when the offseason began.


While I wrote about why the Jordan Love decision might not be as bad as it seems for the Packers, it’s fair to say that Rodgers’ position can’t feel as good as it did a few months ago.

Green Bay seemed to set a deadline on the Rodgers era, and the only shopping it did to help Rodgers this offseason was to swap out tight end Jimmy Graham for wide receiver Devin Funchess. I still think the Packers could go after a veteran wideout like Kenny Stills, but you can understand why Rodgers would be cranky right about now.


One year ago, the Rams were coming off a trip to the Super Bowl. Every team wanted to hire a coach who vaguely resembled Sean McVay. Their young core seemed set to compete for another title. After a frustrating 2019 campaign left the Rams struggling for answers on offense and out of the playoffs for the first time since McVay arrived in town, it was clear that Los Angeles needed to make changes during the offseason.

I’m not sure those changes really helped, as this offseason felt like a repudiation of the Rams’ philosophy. They lost legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and longtime special-teams coordinator John Fassel. Just two years after handing out huge contracts to Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley, they punted on both of those deals, cutting their former MVP candidate at running back while trading the wide receiver to the Texans. They were even publicly called out for not paying Gurley and Clay Matthews bonus money, which should hurt the organization when it tries to sign free agents in the future.

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Sean McVay says the Rams are fully focused on the Cowboys in Week 1 after the NFL schedule release.

Furthermore, the Rams didn’t really resolve any of their problems this offseason. After trading two first-round picks to acquire Jalen Ramsey, they still haven’t signed their star cornerback to an extension. They swapped out Dante Fowler Jr. for edge rusher Leonard Floyd and used their top two picks to replace Cooks and Gurley, but they didn’t do anything to replace star inside linebacker Cory Littleton.

Crucially, L.A. almost entirely ignored an offensive line that crumbled in 2019, re-signing aging left tackle Andrew Whitworth while choosing to hope for a healthier 2020. With Jared Goff posting the league’s worst passer rating under pressure in 2019, McVay will need to conjure up a solution to get his prize pupil back on track this season.


Well, duh. The Buccaneers have Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski now. Even beyond those two additions, though, the offseason has gone extremely well for the Bucs. They needed to retain the core of their wildly underrated defensive line and managed to do so by franchising Shaq Barrett and re-signing both Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh. Their biggest hole heading into the draft was at right tackle, and they had to move up only one spot to get Tristan Wirfs.

This offseason was something out of a dream for Tampa Bay, which has a higher win projection in Vegas than the Patriots for 2020.


A particularly big winner in this scenario is Tampa Bay’s general manager. Licht has been the general manager for six years, and the Bucs have gone 34-62 during his time in charge. That’s the third-worst mark in football. The team has cycled through three coaches over that six-year span, and while Licht nailed first-round picks on wide receiver Mike Evans and defensive tackle Vita Vea, he’s also the one who drafted Jameis Winston and stuck with the embattled quarterback over the past five years. Licht also whiffed on most of his second-round selections, most notably kicker Roberto Aguayo, who was the low point of an almost comical inability from the organization to identify a competent kicker.

Licht is by all accounts a nice guy, and he has hit on a number of his midround selections too. Teams are generally too aggressive in getting rid of their top decision-makers, and I’m not saying Licht should have been fired. Typically, though, general managers with that sort of track record don’t get to enter a seventh offseason, and when Licht did, he managed to convince Brady and Gronkowski to come to town. Nobody would have batted an eye if the Bucs let go of Licht last offseason; now, if the Bucs live up to expectations, he might very well win Executive of the Year.


Loser: Tight end streamers against the Arizona Cardinals

If you played daily fantasy football or chose to stream your tight ends on a week-to-week basis in standard fantasy football, you knew about the Cardinals. Last year, Arizona allowed 309 points to opposing tight ends in PPR leagues, an average of 19.3 points per game. No other team was above 244, and the league average was 195 points, or just under 12.2 points per contest. It’s the second-worst season any team has posted against tight ends over the past 20 years, trailing only the 2013 Cardinals. Everybody from T.J. Hockenson to Ross Dwelley had their best games of the season against Arizona.

Vance Joseph-led defenses don’t always know what to do with tight ends — the Broncos ranked 26th against tight ends during his two years as Denver’s coach — but the Cardinals did something to address the problem this offseason by drafting Isaiah Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick. They’ve suggested that the talented Clemson defender will begin his NFL career at linebacker, where he’s likely to see plenty of action against tight ends in coverage. Arizona has managed to get the least out of athletic, hybrid defenders like Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick in years past, but Simmons could very well ruin one of the easiest exploits in fantasy football.


Did any first-round pick end up in a more advantageous landing spot? Andy Reid told general manager Brett Veach that he thought Edwards-Helaire was better than Brian Westbrook before the Chiefs drafted the LSU back with the final pick of the first round. The only running back Reid had drafted before the third round across his career as a head coach and personnel executive before Edwards-Helaire was LeSean McCoy, who was the 53rd pick in the 2009 draft.

While the Chiefs have suggested that Edwards-Helaire will split time with incumbent Damien Williams, the future belongs to the rookie. Williams is a free agent after the season and wasn’t healthy for most of 2019 with hamstring issues. The Chiefs also said the same thing about Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware in 2017, and when Ware went down with a knee injury in the preseason, Hunt was handed the job and finished his rookie year with 1,782 yards from scrimmage. Edwards-Helaire should turn into one of the most productive backs in football; the only real question is when.


Losers: Rookie coaches (and players)

It should go without saying that this is incredibly low on the list of upheavals caused by the pandemic, but while the NFL has managed to keep free agency and the draft on schedule, there’s no realistic way for football teams to practice. With team facilities closed, organized team activities (OTAs) have been postponed and will likely be canceled. Rookie minicamps are being conducted remotely. It’s unclear whether teams will be able to undergo a full training camp.

As a result, newcomers seem likely to suffer. Some rookie players already have a difficult time catching up with the speed of the league and the complexity of professional playbooks; now they’ll have to try to catch up on the finer points over Zoom. Likewise, rookie coaches who are attempting to install a new scheme and work with new players already were going to have their practice time reduced over the summer by the new CBA. They’re almost surely going to miss out on any pre-training-camp practice time.

Naturally, the teams with new head coaches and coordinators — the Browns, Giants, Panthers and Washington — are the ones that are most likely to suffer from this lack of teaching time. Teams with stability could benefit. In an indirect way, though they could not have possibly predicted what was going to happen, teams such as the Steelers and Texans who dealt away much of their draft capital could end up feeling better about their decisions, given that rookies may struggle to make an impact in 2020.


Winners: Veterans negotiating contracts with the Houston Texans

You probably knew that the Texans weren’t going to get out of a winners and losers column unscathed. I’ll leave the Hopkins deal aside, but it’s worth noting just how dramatically the contracts the Texans handed out differ from those of their peers. Slot corner Bradley Roby signed a three-year, $31.5 million deal when guys like Chris Harris Jr. and Brian Poole were forced to sign smaller contracts and Logan Ryan remains a free agent. Wideout Randall Cobb inked a three-year, $27 million deal when the wideout market totally cratered.

The biggest deal, though, belongs to Laremy Tunsil. The Texans didn’t sign the offensive tackle to an extension after trading two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Dolphins last August. Tunsil said that even he would have made that trade from the Dolphins’ perspective, and he continued to dabble in negotiations when he chose to represent himself in extension talks with O’Brien.

Tunsil did well. He ended up signing a three-year, $66 million extension, meaning he’ll make a total of $76.9 million over the next four years. The deal shattered the tackle market, where the largest average annual salary belonged to Lane Johnson at $18 million per season, and Johnson’s deal is really a paper extension for cap purposes with base salaries that will void next offseason. The largest real deal for a tackle is Trent Brown‘s four-year, $66.8 million pact from last offseason. Brown averaged less than $17 million per season on his deal. Tunsil averaged $22 million on his extension and $19.3 million over the next four years. Nobody in the league got a bigger contract this offseason after adjusting for positional expectations. Tunsil even gets to hit free agency again before turning 30. Not bad for a part-time agent!


I mentioned three other 2019 quarterbacks earlier, but I’ll add a fourth to the list with the first overall pick from last year’s draft. It isn’t complicated, of course: Murray was given the gift of DeAndre Hopkins, who will add to a receiving corps that already featured Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald. The Arizona offense was also better after adding Kenyan Drake last season, and Drake was retained on a transition tag. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense will not lack for weapons.

I’m still a little worried about the offensive line, but the Cardinals did re-sign left tackle D.J. Humphries after his best season and added Josh Jones to compete with Marcus Gilbert on the right side. Last year’s MVP was a second-year quarterback who took a leap forward after his team spent the offseason surrounding him with the right weapons. It’s asking a lot of Murray to follow in the footsteps of Lamar Jackson, of course, but Murray should have the pieces he needs to take a leap forward in 2020.


I’ll finish up with one of the most interesting unresolved sagas of the offseason. No, Prescott doesn’t have his deal yet, though the star quarterback will have long-term financial security once he signs the $31.5 million franchise tag. The Cowboys continue to say they intend to keep Prescott around on a long-term deal, but they did add Andy Dalton and suggested last week that Prescott “has to accept what [the Cowboys] want to pay him.”

play

1:09

Domonique Foxworth makes a case for why the Cowboys should sign Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Of course, Prescott doesn’t really have to accept that. The Cowboys can franchise him again in 2021 for $37.8 million, but with a third franchise tag costing them $54.3 million, they realistically have to get Prescott signed before the end of the 2021 season. And if the Cowboys think Prescott’s demands are unreasonable now, they’re not going to get cheaper, given that the likes of Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are going to raise the market by signing extensions of their own.

I’ve got a much bigger piece on the Prescott situation in the works, so I’m not going to get into the will they/should they questions here. What I will say, though, is that Prescott is in the catbird seat. The Cowboys let go of Jason Garrett, but they retained offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and star wide receiver Amari Cooper before adding another valuable weapon in rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb. Prescott lost veteran center Travis Frederick to retirement, but he’s well-positioned to deliver a big season for an offense that finished second in DVOA a year ago. If Prescott does that, well, the Cowboys might need to accept what Dak wants to be paid.

Published at Tue, 12 May 2020 22:37:47 +0000

Patriots’ Kraft auctions Super Bowl ring for charity

Patriots’ Kraft auctions Super Bowl ring for charity

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has put his Super Bowl LI championship ring up for bid to benefit the All In Challenge, which aims to be the largest digital fundraiser in history by raising tens of millions of dollars to feed those in need.

The winner also will receive a personal visit with Kraft in his Gillette Stadium office, with the team sending its private plane to bring to town the new owner of the ring if he or she is not within driving distance.

“What could I do that would be special? I’ve been thinking about it for weeks,” Kraft said in a video posted on social media. “I finally thought about our experience in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. We were down 28-3 [in the third quarter] and had 99.6% [odds] to lose. And we came back, and we won.

“And I thought about what is going on at this time and wanted to give something of extreme value in support of our health care workers. So I thought it would be good to give this ring, our fifth Super Bowl win, because it showed how we came back.”

After Kraft’s announcement at 6 p.m. ET Sunday, the auction opened at $75,000. By midnight, the bidding had reached $330,000. The auction is scheduled to extend over the next 11 days.

Kraft was asked to participate in the All In Challenge by his friend Michael Rubin, the founder and executive chairman of retailer Fanatics, who created the fundraiser that has raised $38 million as of Sunday night, according to its website.

In his video message, Kraft said: “We’re the greatest country in the world, with the greatest people, who feel a sense of team and work together in the toughest times. So I want to give this ring to someone who will be worthy enough to bid it up, so we can get meals to all these people who are hurting badly at this time.”

Published at Mon, 11 May 2020 00:50:18 +0000

NFL experts pick best matchups, biggest winners from schedule release

NFL experts pick best matchups, biggest winners from schedule release

The 2020 NFL schedule is out, and the regular season will begin with the Houston Texans facing the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday, Sept. 10. Week 1 also features the New Orleans Saints hosting Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the opening Monday Night Football games will see the Pittsburgh Steelers at the New York Giants and the Tennessee Titans at the Denver Broncos.

Who’s the biggest winner from the schedule release? Which games should you circle on your calendar? And which rookie debut will be the most interesting? Our panel of NFL experts weighs in.

Skip to a question:

Which matchup do you have circled on your calendar?

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Chiefs at Saints, Week 15. Two of the NFL’s best offenses in a potential Super Bowl preview. Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, plus the playcalling of Andy Reid and Sean Payton. Plan for a shootout here.

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Chiefs at Ravens, Week 3. That matchup was stellar a year ago, and these two are bound to be among the most exciting teams in 2020. Watching what Lamar Jackson and Mahomes do is a must each week, and this time you can catch them both at once.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Chiefs at Saints, Week 15. Love that this game is scheduled for late December, by which time it’s easy to imagine both of these teams gearing up for potential playoff runs and maybe a Super Bowl matchup against each other.

Jason Reid, senior writer, The Undefeated: Texans at Chiefs, Week 1. Talk about starting off right with a superstar quarterback matchup. Kansas City’s Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson are the breakout members of the 2017 NFL draft class. Bears executives probably shouldn’t watch this one. Remember: Chicago made Mitchell Trubisky the first QB selected in 2017.

Aaron Schatz, editor of Football Outsiders: Buccaneers at Saints, Week 1. The Saints top my projections yet again this year, and the Bucs should be hugely fun to watch with their new-look offense. And of course, we haven’t gotten much of Brees against Tom Brady in our lifetimes, and now we get it twice in one season.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Texans at Chiefs, Week 1. How can we look past the annual kickoff game? The Texans blew up their roster after losing a 24-0 second-quarter lead to the Chiefs in the divisional playoff round. Can they get any closer to the Chiefs? Or will they once again be humiliated?

Field Yates, NFL analyst: Chiefs at Ravens, Week 3. While I’m keenly aware of the fact Mahomes and Jackson will play precisely zero snaps on the field at the same time, any game in which these two are involved is more than enough to get excited about.


Who is the biggest winner of the schedule?

Bowen: The Buccaneers. With Tom Brady signing to play for Bruce Arians’ team, Tampa takes over the national stage this season, logging five prime-time slots.

Fowler: Brady. The prime-time party comes to him. He dominated the night-game circuit for much of the past two decades, and this slate of games might be his most hotly anticipated yet. Everyone wants to watch him throw to Gronk in Buccaneers colors.

Graziano: The Patriots. Five prime-time games even without Brady. Two games at home to finish the season. Their L.A. games in back-to-back weeks so they can stay out there in between. Second-half road games are in Houston, L.A. and Miami, so no road games in cold weather. Lots of folks are going to pick Buffalo in the AFC East, but New England’s schedule seems to set up in a helpful way for the 11-time defending division champs.

Reid: The Chiefs. Why? Because the schedule release marks the official beginning of their bid to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Forget the deep dives into home games, prime-time games, potential cold-weather games, etc. Just show the Chiefs the schedule. And then let Patrick Mahomes get to work.

Schatz: The Ravens. They appear to have a smooth road through December — home against Jacksonville and the Giants, then at Cincinnati — which could allow them to rest some players for the postseason.

Seifert: Las Vegas. After losing out on hosting the 2020 NFL draft, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vegas was richly rewarded with four prime-time games at Allegiant Stadium. One of those is a Monday Night Football game that will be simulcast on ABC and ESPN. Las Vegas will get the immediate headlines and attention it sought when it lured the Raiders from Oakland.

Yates: The Raiders. The Raiders had an incredibly difficult slate last season in which they did not play a game in Oakland in what felt like a three-month stretch. This year, they have four prime-time games, all in Vegas. The league’s newest city will have plenty of attention on it.


Post-draft win totals are out. Which over or under do you feel best about picking right now?

Bowen: Steelers over 9.0. The Steelers feature one of the NFL’s top defenses, a unit that can create pressure and take the ball away. Now pair that with an offense that gets a major boost from the return of Ben Roethlisberger. I see Mike Tomlin’s team getting to the 10-win mark in a tough and physical AFC North.

Fowler: Packers over 8.5. No respect for a team that won 13 games last season. I’m not anticipating the Packers to duplicate that performance, but this is an improving defense, and the quarterback is about to have the best spite season in NFL history after the team drafted Jordan Love in the first round.

Graziano: Texans over 7.5. Only once in six seasons in Houston has Bill O’Brien failed to win at least nine games. I hate the DeAndre Hopkins trade as much as anyone, but betting against O’Brien in the AFC South isn’t a great way to make money.

Reid: Chiefs over 12.0. Complete team with the game’s best quarterback and a future Hall of Fame coach who’s coming off his first Super Bowl title. Yeah. I’m all-in on that over.

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1:31

Adam Schefter breaks down the flexibility of the 2020 NFL schedule in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Schatz: 49ers under 10.5. Those Caesars Sportsbook totals look pretty accurate to me. I’ll go out on a limb with San Francisco. I can’t deny the good talent and strong coaching, but there’s a good chance the 49ers are going to hit the Plexiglas Principle after improving so much last season, especially on defense, where teams tend to see more regression toward the mean.

Seifert: Bears under 8.5. How many times can a team change gears at quarterback? Nick Foles gives the Bears a better chance than Mitchell Trubisky, if that’s the way their presumed training camp competition is resolved. But in a division that includes the Packers, Vikings and an improved Lions team, this could be a tough year for the Bears.

Yates: Packers over 8.5. I know they’ve been a popular target for questioning this offseason and that their point differential last season was not reflective of a typical 13-3 team, but I do think they are going to have a winning record this season. That doesn’t feel like much of a bold call for a team led by Aaron Rodgers.


Which rookie debut are you most interested in?

Bowen: QB Joe Burrow, Bengals vs. Chargers. Burrow has high-level traits, but adapting to NFL defenses is a major part of the transition process for rookie quarterbacks. Here, the No. 1 overall pick opens up against a Chargers defense with disruptive pass-rushers and maybe the league’s best overall secondary. Welcome to the league.

Fowler: DE Chase Young, Redskins vs. Eagles. While everyone is closely examining the rookie quarterbacks, I’ll be watching Young bring Carson Wentz to the turf in a vintage Washington performance. I expect the Redskins to be much improved under Ron Rivera, and Young will lead a Pro Bowl-caliber charge.

Graziano: Burrow. It has to be Burrow against a strong Chargers defense that should be healthier than it was last season. Joey Bosa up front, Derwin James on the back end. Rookie Kenneth Murray manning the middle. Burrow jumps in feetfirst.

Reid: Burrow. I’m noticing a trend of the No. 1 pick against the Los Angeles Chargers, which definitely makes sense. Burrow will start out against a strong Chargers defense. And although one game does not a career make, his first game will draw a lot of interest for obvious reasons.

Schatz: Burrow. Look, the guy’s coming off one of the greatest seasons in college football history. Of course we want to see how he’s going to do at the next level.

Seifert: Justin Jefferson, Vikings vs. Packers. Everyone wanted the Packers to draft Jefferson to give Aaron Rodgers a polished new weapon. Instead, the Vikings drafted him to replace Stefon Diggs and the Packers drafted backup quarterback Jordan Love. That’ll be a fun subplot to the teams’ Week 1 matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Yates: Burrow. I could aim for some sort of witty justification of why it’s not Burrow, but why bother? He has a chance to completely rewrite the direction of the Bengals, and that all begins against the Chargers.


Bonus: What’s your early Super Bowl LV pick?

Bowen: Chiefs over Saints. The Saints loaded up for one more run at this thing with Drew Brees. But I’m staying with the Chiefs here. The band is getting back together on offense in Kansas City, and I expect the defense to make a big jump in Year 2 under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Fowler: Ravens over Seahawks. Lamar Jackson figures everything out, and the Ravens’ loaded roster does the rest. Seattle escapes the NFC after a vicious fight with the Saints, and Jackson scrambles and tosses his way to 400 yards in a near-perfect effort on the biggest stage. It won’t be enough.

Graziano: Saints over Ravens. Third year in a row I’m picking the Saints. It has to work at some point, doesn’t it? As for Baltimore, it’s scary to imagine what John Harbaugh and Greg Roman are going to be able to come up with to elevate this offense again in Jackson’s third year. Their playoff flop will only make them hungrier.

Reid: Chiefs over Saints. I could provide a lot of sharp analysis here to make myself look really smart. Instead, I’ll sum it up in one word: Mahomes.

play

5:17

Ryan Clark predicts Tom Brady’s Buccaneers to go 11-5 as their 2020 schedule is released.

Schatz: Saints over Chiefs. The Saints, Chiefs and Ravens lead the early Football Outsiders projections. I think this is the third year in a row I’ve picked the Saints to win it all, and I’m just going to keep doing it until Brees slips or the Saints finally get over the hump instead of suffering a painfully close playoff loss.

Seifert: Chiefs over Buccaneers. There is so much youth and blue-chip athleticism on the Chiefs’ roster that it’s really not that hard to envision them as a repeat champion. (Remember, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game in 2018.) And the Buccaneers? Can’t bet against the reunited combination of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, along with a really good defense led by coordinator Todd Bowles.

Yates: Saints over Chiefs. The two most complete teams in the NFL. See you in Tampa in February.

Published at Fri, 08 May 2020 02:05:14 +0000

The NFL schedule is out, and we predict wins and losses for every game

The NFL schedule is out, and we predict wins and losses for every game

The 2020 NFL schedule has been released.

The regular season kicks off with the Houston Texans visiting the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday, Sept. 10 (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). The opening doubleheader for Monday Night Football will feature the Pittsburgh Steelers at the New York Giants (7:10 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Tennessee Titans at the Denver Broncos (10:20 p.m. ET) on Monday, Sept. 14. Check out the full week-by-week schedule here.

The New England Patriots, minus Tom Brady, have the hardest schedule. The Baltimore Ravens have the easiest, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.

NFL Nation reporters break down the 2020 regular-season schedules for all 32 teams, with predicted records from each reporter. Each reporter’s record prediction has been made independent of his or her colleagues’ predictions.

Scan through all 32 teams by division, or click here to jump ahead to your team:

Jump to:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE
NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

NFC EAST

Full schedule | Predicted record: 10-6

If the Cowboys want to return to the playoffs in coach Mike McCarthy’s first season, they must get off to a fast start. Of the first nine opponents, only two made the playoffs last season (Seattle, Philadelphia), and the Cowboys have three consecutive home games in October. Read analysis from Todd Archer


Full schedule | Predicted record: 6-10

The Giants get a pair of Monday night home games, including the opener against the Steelers and in Week 8 against Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Read analysis from Jordan Raanan


Full schedule | Predicted record: 10-6

There are a pair of three-game stretches that stand out and will help shape how the season goes. The first is the October gantlet featuring the 49ers, Steelers and Ravens, and the other is a December trip to Green Bay sandwiched by home games against the Seahawks and Saints. Read analysis from Tim McManus


Full schedule | Predicted record: 6-10

After a disastrous 3-13 season in 2019, it’s clear the NFL isn’t anticipating much from Washington in Ron Rivera’s first season, with no prime-time games and only one prominent game — at Dallas on Thanksgiving, for the third time in five years. Read analysis from John Keim


NFC NORTH

Full schedule | Predicted record: 7-9

The Bears have a chance to race out of the gate. None of Chicago’s opening four opponents (Lions, Giants, Falcons, Colts) made the playoffs last year. Read analysis from Jeff Dickerson


Full schedule | Predicted record: 8-8

Going on the road for four of the first six games is not ideal, nor is the early bye week that breaks up some of those road games. But the Lions avoid having to go to Green Bay in December, which is big. Read analysis from Michael Rothstein


Full schedule | Predicted record: 11-5

Four of the first six are on the road, one of those is against Tom Brady, another against Drew Brees. For the first time in franchise history, the Packers will open a season at the Vikings and the first season-opening meeting between the two teams since a Monday Night Football opener at Lambeau in 2008. Read analysis from Rob Demovsky


Full schedule | Predicted record: 10-6

The Vikings’ path toward getting back to the playoffs includes hosting the Packers in the season opener for the first time in the team’s 60-year history. It also features one of the toughest road schedules in the NFL with three prime-time games away from U.S. Bank Stadium. Read analysis from Courtney Cronin


NFC SOUTH

Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

The Falcons have a tough start out the gates in facing the Seahawks, Cowboys and Packers in the first four weeks. Both Seattle and Green Bay made the playoffs last season, and defending Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers will be a tall task for the rebuilt Falcons’ defense. Read analysis from Vaughn McClure


Full schedule | Predicted record: 6-10

Opening at home against a Raiders team that also is in rebuilding mode with three straight losing seasons gives coach Matt Rhule a chance to win his first NFL game and set the tone for a very young roster. Read analysis from David Newton


Full schedule | Predicted record: 12-4

The NFL didn’t wait long to shine a spotlight on the new Tom Brady-Drew Brees rivalry in the NFC South. The Buccaneers are scheduled to come into the Superdome in Week 1 for the national late-afternoon game on Fox. Read analysis from Mike Triplett


Full schedule | Predicted record: 11-5

The Bucs will face all teams in the NFC North and AFC West in 2020. Brady is a career-best 17-3 (.850) against NFC North opponents, but some of his biggest challenges have come against the AFC West, going 29-16 (.644). Read analysis from Jenna Laine


NFC WEST

Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

The Cardinals’ schedule is streaky. There are homestands of two, three and two games, with road trips of three and two games. Starting the season in San Francisco will give Arizona an early measuring stick. Read analysis from Josh Weinfuss


Full schedule | Predicted record: 8-8

SoFi Stadium will make its debut in prime time with the Rams hosting the Cowboys. It’s no coincidence that Jerry Jones’ squad will be the first to visit Stan Kroenke’s $5 billion masterpiece, given Jones played a crucial role in the Rams’ relocating to L.A. from St. Louis in 2016. Read analysis from Lindsey Thiry


Full schedule | Predicted record: 11-5

The 49ers have no shortage of entertaining matchups. The stretch from Oct. 18 to Nov. 15 looks potentially daunting with games against the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers and Saints in consecutive weeks, and three of those are on the road. Read analysis from Nick Wagoner


Full schedule | Predicted record: 11-5

With a megastar quarterback in Russell Wilson, the Seahawks still have plenty of prime-time appeal, even if their roster is no longer as nationally recognizable as it once was. Hence, four appearances in prime time beginning in Week 2 against the Patriots (Sunday night). Read analysis from Brady Henderson


AFC EAST

Full schedule | Predicted record: 12-4

Bills fans clamored all offseason for more nationally televised games. Buffalo will play four prime-time games this season, including a Thursday Night Football showdown with the Chiefs, Monday Night Football matchups with the 49ers and Patriots, and a Sunday Night Football game against the Steelers. Read analysis from Marcel Louis-Jacques


Full schedule | Predicted record: 7-9

In Year 2 of their rebuild, the Dolphins have their work cut out if they want to make a surprise playoff run. They start with four of their first six games on the road, including back-to-back road contests vs. the 49ers and Broncos and an opener in Foxborough, Massachusetts, against the new-look Patriots. Read analysis from Cameron Wolfe


Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

It is 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham‘s job to lose as Brady’s successor, and if he follows through and seizes it, he will get an early baptism in two of the toughest road environments in the NFL — at Seattle in Week 2 and at Kansas City in Week 4. Read analysis from Mike Reiss


Full schedule | Predicted record: 7-9

The first two games are a nasty way to start for the Jets, whose rebuilt offense will face two of the strongest defensive teams in the league — the Buffalo Bills (No. 2 in total defense) and San Francisco 49ers (No. 8). Read analysis from Rich Cimini


AFC NORTH

Full schedule | Predicted record: 12-4

Reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens will command the national spotlight like few other teams in franchise history. The Ravens are scheduled to play five prime-time games for just the second time in their 25-year existence (the other time was 2011). Read analysis from Jamison Hensley


Full schedule | Predicted record: 5-11

Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow‘s debut could be a rare season opener at Paul Brown Stadium when the Bengals host the Chargers. Going back to 2010, this is only the second home opener Cincinnati has had in Week 1. Read analysis from Ben Baby


Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

The Browns now know the path to ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought, which has reached 18 years. And they’ll have an opportunity for a Week 1 statement at defending AFC North champion Baltimore. Read analysis from Jake Trotter


Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

The Steelers start off with a bang in Monday Night Football against the Giants for Ben Roethlisberger’s return and Joe Judge’s debut as a head coach. A week later, Roethlisberger will make his Heinz Field return on Sept. 20, almost a year after his 2019 season ended because of an elbow injury. Read analysis from Brooke Pryor


AFC SOUTH

Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

The Texans will play seven games against teams that made the playoffs in 2019: Baltimore, Green Bay, Kansas City, New England, Minnesota and Tennessee (twice). Read analysis from Sarah Barshop


Full schedule | Predicted record: 10-6

Philip Rivers, who is in his first season as the starting quarterback for the Colts after 16 years with the Chargers, will have an opportunity to get his new team off to a strong start. Six of the Colts’ first seven games are against teams that missed the playoffs last season. Read analysis from Mike Wells


Full schedule | Predicted record: 4-12

The Jaguars have a manageable start to the schedule, with four of their first six games against teams with losing records in 2019. They’ve got a brutal December, though, with games against 2019 playoff teams in three consecutive weeks beginning in Minnesota on Dec. 6. Read analysis from Michael DiRocco


Full schedule | Predicted record: 10-6

After having just one prime-time game last season, the Titans are featured on the big stage three times this year. It all starts with a Monday night game against the Broncos in the season opener. Read analysis from Turron Davenport


AFC WEST

Full schedule | Predicted record: 9-7

Despite four straight playoff misses, the Broncos get some prime-time duty. The nation will get an early look at quarterback Drew Lock and the Broncos’ revamped offense as they open the season as part of Monday Night Football’s doubleheader — against the Titans — and then have a Thursday night appearance in Week 4 against the Jets at MetLife Stadium. Read analysis from Jeff Legwold


Full schedule | Predicted record: 12-4

The Chiefs will face defending division champion opponents in three of their first four games. The Thursday night opener against the Texans at Arrowhead Stadium features an opponent the Chiefs split with in two home games last season. Read analysis from Adam Teicher


Full schedule | Predicted record: 7-9

The rebranded Las Vegas franchise has six kickoffs at 10 a.m. PT and a pair of two-game roadies in the middle of the season, but it also has three of its last four games in the comfort of its new, state-of-the-art Allegiant Stadium. Read analysis from Paul Gutierrez


Full schedule | Predicted record: 10-6

The Chargers open the season on the road facing the Bengals and No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow, then must turn around for their SoFi Stadium debut to host Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, whom they won’t see again until Week 17. Read analysis from Lindsey Thiry

Published at Fri, 08 May 2020 02:27:41 +0000

NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus post-draft winners for every team

NFL Power Rankings: 1-32 poll, plus post-draft winners for every team

The NFL draft is typically about who’s next for each team. But while veteran players might receive more competition from the annual influx of rookies, the newbies can actually provide some help and positive clarity for the vets, too.

That’s where we went with this edition of the NFL Power Rankings, as several established NFL players got a boost from their teams’ drafts. Whether it’s quarterbacks getting new playmakers, defenders getting help with their jobs, or indirect votes of confidence, some vets really like the way the draft went down.

How we rank in our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluated how teams stack up throughout the season.

Jump to:
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND
JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN
NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF
SEA | TB | TEN | WSH

Post-free-agency ranking: 1

Player who benefited: QB Patrick Mahomes. Drafting RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire not only gives the team another threat, but is another sign that the Chiefs are committed to surrounding Mahomes with top offensive skill players. Kansas City won a Super Bowl with Damien Williams as the featured back, and other capable runners are on the roster, but the Chiefs weren’t satisfied. They felt like they had to take it up another notch, and Mahomes is the main beneficiary. — Adam Teicher


Post-free-agency ranking: 2

Player who benefited: OLB Jaylon Ferguson. The third-round pick had a quiet rookie season with 2.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits, but his grip on keeping a starting job strengthened after the Ravens surprisingly didn’t select an edge rusher with any of their 10 draft picks. Baltimore passed on AJ Epenesa and Yetur Gross-Matos in the first round and chose not to take Zack Baun or Josh Uche in the second. The Ravens could sign a veteran pass-rusher before the season, but the draft provided a vote of confidence in Ferguson. — Jamison Hensley


Post-free-agency ranking: 3

Player who benefited: QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Let’s not overcomplicate this. The 49ers lost an All-Decade left tackle when Joe Staley retired, and they replaced him with seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams in a Day 3 trade. Williams should help keep Garoppolo upright and give him more time to throw to receivers like Brandon Aiyuk, the No. 25 overall pick who will be charged with replacing much of Emmanuel Sanders‘ production. Staley and Sanders are big losses for the offense and, by extension, Garoppolo. But the Niners did well to add Williams and Aiyuk, both of whom have the ability to make Garoppolo’s life easier. — Nick Wagoner


Post-free-agency ranking: 4

Player who benefited: RB Alvin Kamara. We already knew how important Kamara is to the Saints as he heads into the final year of his contract. But he is even more vital now as both a runner and receiver after the Saints didn’t address either position in the draft. (ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported that they were considering RB Jonathan Taylor in Round 1, among other possibilities.) As a bonus for Kamara, the Saints used their first-round pick on center Cesar Ruiz, whose highlight package is filled with him blowing up huge running lanes. — Mike Triplett


Post-free-agency ranking: 6

Player who benefited: WR David Moore. And for that matter, Phillip Dorsett. Moore and Dorsett look like the most realistic candidates to be Seattle’s third receiver behind Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. They might have had competition if the Seahawks had drafted a receiver earlier than the last pick of the sixth round, where they took Florida’s Freddie Swain. Seventh-round pick Stephen Sullivan looks more like a tight end and a development prospect than someone who will have a significant role right away. That’s good news for Moore and Dorsett, who are scheduled to be free agents next offseason. — Brady Henderson


Post-free-agency ranking: 5

Player who benefited: WR Allen Lazard. The former undrafted free agent finished last season as WR2 behind Davante Adams, but just about everyone expected the Packers to make significant additions to the position group. Yet all they’ve done so far is sign Devin Funchess, who missed most of last season because of an injury. Lazard might lack speed and burst, but he stands above the rest of the Packers’ wideouts at 6-foot-5. Said coach Matt LaFleur after the Packers did not draft a single receiver: “Allen Lazard, the things he brought to us from a physicality standpoint, he made a bunch of big plays.” — Rob Demovsky

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Stephen A. Smith breaks down why the Buccaneers have the best shot of getting past the 49ers in the NFC.

Post-free-agency ranking: 10

Player who benefited: QB Tom Brady. The Bucs got the 42-year-old quarterback one of the top tackles in the draft, Tristan Wirfs; he can start at right tackle from Day 1. They also added Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a complete back and strong pass-blocker; dynamic receiver Tyler Johnson, who was a steal in the fifth round; and speedy running back Raymond Calais. And they did all this without neglecting their defense. Plus, they used their fourth-round pick to trade for Rob Gronkowski on the eve of the draft, so that counts, right? — Jenna Laine


Post-free-agency ranking: 7

Player who benefited: WR Kalif Raymond. The Titans were believed to be interested in adding speed at receiver, specifically a vertical threat on the outside. But they didn’t use any picks to add a wideout, so Raymond stands as their top vertical threat and has a good shot at being the fourth receiver. He showed that he’s a legitimate downfield option last season, when he hauled in two touchdown receptions that were over 40 yards — including one in the playoffs. Raymond was also in the mix for punt return duties last year, and the Titans didn’t draft a player with significant punt return experience. — Turron Davenport


Post-free-agency ranking: 8

Player who benefited: WR Adam Thielen. The Vikings drafted Stefon Diggs‘ heir apparent when they took Justin Jefferson No. 22 overall, and the LSU star immediately fills the No. 2 receiver opening. Jefferson had 100 receptions out of the slot last year and is primed to catch a lot of passes from Kirk Cousins in 2020, but it’s the attention he’ll draw from defenses that could help Thielen see less bracket man coverage. The Vikings also added K.J. Osborn and Quartney Davis in the draft. Minnesota might have defined roles for their top four receivers for the first time in years. — Courtney Cronin

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Booger McFarland says the Cowboys are wasting time by not already having a deal done with Dak Prescott.

Post-free-agency ranking: 11

Player who benefited: QB Dak Prescott. We don’t know when or if Prescott will show up for the virtual offseason program as he awaits a long-term contract, but whenever he is back, how can he not benefit from the addition of CeeDee Lamb in the first round? With Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Lamb, the Cowboys might feature the best three-receiver group they have ever had. Add that to Ezekiel Elliott, a good offensive line (even without Travis Frederick) and new coach Mike McCarthy, and the offense should flourish, which means Prescott will flourish. Quarterbacks across the league should envy the position Prescott is in. — Todd Archer


Post-free-agency ranking: 9

Player who benefited: QB Josh Allen. Although A.J. Klein is a candidate, given that the Bills did not draft anyone to take snaps away from him at linebacker, GM Brandon Beane got Allen three new playmakers for Buffalo’s quietly ascending offense. Gabriel Davis and Isaiah Hodgins are high-point receivers with wide catch radiuses, and RB Zack Moss should be able to handle short-yardage situations so Allen doesn’t have to. The Bills are committing to Allen as their quarterback and have invested more in their offense this offseason than they have in the past decade. — Marcel Louis-Jacques


Post-free-agency ranking: 12

Player who benefited: TE Zach Ertz. The Eagles invested heavily in speed receivers, using draft picks on Jalen Reagor, John Hightower and Quez Watkins and trading for Marquise Goodwin. Add them to DeSean Jackson, and you have a group that will stretch the field and open things up underneath for Dallas Goedert and Ertz, who was double- and triple-teamed last season with few dynamic playmakers around him. The influx of receiver talent will help Carson Wentz too, though the Jalen Hurts selection in Round 2 makes it hard to select Wentz as the player who benefits most from this draft. — Tim McManus


Post-free-agency ranking: 14

Player who benefited: QB Philip Rivers. The Colts added to their skill positions to help Rivers out, using their first two draft picks on receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor, whom they traded up to get. They also selected receiver Dezmon Patmon later in the draft. Pittman and Taylor should make an immediate impact. Pittman has the size to go with the speed of T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell at receiver. Taylor will share the workload in the backfield with Marlon Mack, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. — Mike Wells


Post-free-agency ranking: 15

Players who benefited: QBs Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph. The quarterbacks came away from the draft with new playmakers and more job security. Roethlisberger got Martavis Bryant 2.0 with WR Chase Claypool, and the team didn’t draft a quarterback, further solidifying Rudolph’s job as the backup and potential heir apparent whenever Roethlisberger retires. Rudolph had a rocky 2019 season, but the team believes in developing him with the help of new QB coach Matt Canada. All of the moves signal that they believe Roethlisberger will be at full strength whenever the season starts, and they want to make his job as easy as possible. — Brooke Pryor

Post-free-agency ranking: 13

Player who benefited: QB Jarrett Stidham. When the Patriots passed on QB Jordan Love at No. 23, and then passed on every other quarterback for the rest of the draft, it further cleared the path for Stidham to elevate from QB2 to QB1. Bill Belichick isn’t just going to hand him the job, though. Stidham still has to beat out veteran Brian Hoyer. — Mike Reiss


Post-free-agency ranking: 16

Player who benefited: RG Zach Fulton. Because of his $7 million salary, Fulton was a candidate to be released before the season if Houston could find a cheaper option. But the Texans did not draft a guard — Charlie Heck is expected to play tackle — and Fulton’s spot could be safe, unless Houston finds a veteran free agent or feels comfortable giving the job to Greg Mancz or Senio Kelemete. Coach Bill O’Brien has called this a “veteran-type year” due to the restrictions of the virtual offseason program and unknowns about when the team will be able to return to the field, which would help Fulton’s case. — Sarah Barshop


Post-free-agency ranking: 17

Player who benefited: QB Jared Goff. The Rams moved on from two key players when they released running back Todd Gurley and traded receiver Brandin Cooks. Gurley was Goff’s every-down back, and Cooks was the speedy deep threat who stretched a defense. But with their first two picks in the draft, both in the second round, the Rams selected Florida State RB Cam Akers and Florida WR Van Jefferson. The team also picked up tight end Brycen Hopkins in the fourth round. They are expected to contribute as rookies, and their addition ensures that Goff will again have a full arsenal of playmakers. — Lindsey Thiry


Post-free-agency ranking: 18

Player who benefited: RB Todd Gurley. The Falcons didn’t draft a running back, although GM Thomas Dimitroff hinted that the team might look for another explosive threat out of the backfield. Maybe that indicates how confident the Falcons feel about Gurley’s left knee and his ability to contribute, despite being released by the Rams. Or maybe that means the Falcons are confident in Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison, the group of backups behind Gurley. Whatever the case, the Falcons have to improve a running game that ranked 30th in the league last season (85.1 yards per game). — Vaughn McClure


Post-free-agency ranking: 21

Player who benefited: OLB Chandler Jones. The Cardinals set out to upgrade their defense and overhauled most of their front seven. No one will benefit more than Jones, who had 19 sacks last season with a fraction of the talent he’ll have around him in 2020. Arizona added LB Isaiah Simmons in the first round and signed DT Jordan Phillips, LB De’Vondre Campbell and LB Devon Kennard. DT Corey Peters and LB Jordan Hicks return. Jones will be surrounded by players who can get to the quarterback, which will force offensive lines to decide who to double-team and who to leave one-on-one. — Josh Weinfuss

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Stephen A. Smith sees the Browns as the biggest threat to the Ravens in the AFC North.

Post-free-agency ranking: 21

Player who benefited: It has to be QB Baker Mayfield, right? In selecting OT Jedrick Wills Jr. with the No. 10 pick, the Browns believe they’ve solved their issues protecting Mayfield’s blind side. No AFC QB was sacked more often per pass attempt than Mayfield last season. In adding Wills and right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency, the Browns figure to be among the league’s most improved teams at protecting their QB. — Jake Trotter


Post-free-agency ranking: 19

Player who benefited: S Deon Bush. The Bears bypassed drafting a starting-caliber safety — Grant Delpit or Antoine Winfield Jr. — and instead took tight end Cole Kmet in the second round at No. 43. Bush — chosen in the fourth round by the Bears in 2016 — spent the past four seasons as a reserve defensive back/special-teamer but now appears the favorite to open on the first team, next to Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson. The Bears also signed veteran Jordan Lucas to a one-year deal in free agency, but Bush’s contract contains the second-most guaranteed money of any safety on Chicago’s roster, behind Jackson, in 2020. — Jeff Dickerson


Post-free-agency ranking: 20

Player who benefited: QB Derek Carr. Though that also means there are no more excuses to fall back on, should the Raiders quarterback falter this season. Carr averaged a league-low 6.2 air yards per attempt in 2019, and the Raiders never truly recovered from the Antonio Brown misadventure (even if RB Josh Jacobs, TE Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow were revelations). So by giving Carr the fastest player in the draft (WR Henry Ruggs III) and the most versatile (RB/WR/QB Lynn Bowden Jr.), as well as a big, physical, red zone threat (WR Bryan Edwards), the bar is raised. — Paul Gutierrez


Post-free-agency ranking: 23

Player who benefited: QB Drew Lock. It’s no contest. The Broncos drafted three receivers, including Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler with the team’s first two picks; a tight end, Albert Okwuegbunam, who ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the combine; and a starting center, Lloyd Cushenberry III. Denver then signed two more wide receivers after the draft concluded. That is in addition to signing guard Graham Glasgow and running back Melvin Gordon in free agency. If you needed proof the Broncos are giving their second-year quarterback every chance to succeed, just look at their offseason moves. — Jeff Legwold


Post-free-agency ranking: 24

Players who benefited: OTs Sam Tevi and Trey Pipkins. It was widely predicted that the Chargers would look for their future left tackle in the draft. However, they did not select an offensive lineman, despite trading up to make a second first-round pick (linebacker Kenneth Murray). Their decision not to draft an offensive lineman must point to their confidence that an internal candidate is ready to take over. Tevi’s and Pipkins’ names have been the two most often mentioned by Chargers coach Anthony Lynn and general manager Tom Telesco. — Lindsey Thiry


Post-free-agency ranking: 25

Player who benefited: WR Albert Wilson. Penciled in as the Dolphins’ slot and No. 3 receiver, Wilson seemed to jump off the roster bubble after the draft. Miami didn’t draft a single pure receiver among its 11 picks; Navy’s versatile Malcolm Perry was selected in the seventh round, but it might be a year or two before he can develop into a reliable option. Wilson, coming off two injury-stricken seasons, showed enough explosiveness and yards-after-catch ability in December to prompt the Dolphins to bring him back for Year 3. — Cameron Wolfe


Post-free-agency ranking: 26

Player who benefited: QB Sam Darnold. The Jets’ first two picks, LT Mekhi Becton and WR Denzel Mims, were made with Darnold in mind. In Becton, Darnold should have his blindside protector for the next decade. The move caps an offensive line overhaul that likely will result in four new starters. Becton will have growing pains, but his upside is tremendous. Mims can be Darnold’s new Robby Anderson, perhaps better — a long, lean receiver with deep speed. GM Joe Douglas said he wanted to deliver protection and playmakers for Darnold. Looks like he delivered. — Rich Cimini

Post-free-agency ranking: 27

Player who benefited: DE-OLB Brian Burns. Adding first-round pick Derrick Brown at defensive tackle next to Pro Bowler Kawann Short is going to create a lot of inside push and demand a lot of double-teams. That leaves Burns, last year’s first-round pick, with more room to get to the quarterback. Look for a lot more Spider-Man celebrations out of Burns, who impersonates his superhero with “Spidey” poses after each sack. He had 7.5 last season as a rookie, despite dealing with a wrist injury that forced him to wear a cast or a brace for much of the season. Quarterbacks beware. — David Newton


Post-free-agency ranking: 29

Player who benefited: OT Taylor Decker. The Lions didn’t draft an offensive tackle; that could signal the team’s future plans for Decker, who is entering a contract year. Depending how things play out, it could mean a long-term extension for the former first-round pick. Detroit focused more on the interior of the offensive line by drafting guards Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg, giving Decker some potential long-term help. Add in speedy running backs D’Andre Swift and Jason Huntley, and it ended up being a good draft for Decker. — Michael Rothstein


Post-free-agency ranking: 28

Player who benefited: QB Daniel Jones. The Giants committed to protecting Jones well into the future. And not just with tackle Andrew Thomas at No. 4 overall. They drafted three offensive linemen in the first five rounds for the first time in the modern draft era. Thomas, tackle Matt Peart and guard/center Shane Lemieux are now part of the draft class that will forever be known as GM Dave Gettleman’s last stab at fixing this offensive line “once and for all.” The idea is for an improved line to protect Jones and Saquon Barkley. Hard to argue with the logic. — Jordan Raanan


Post-free-agency ranking: 32

Player who benefited: RT Bobby Hart. When the Bengals passed on an offensive tackle early in the draft, it cemented the notion that Hart had great odds of holding on to his starting spot. Hart has been subjected to a lot of criticism from the fan base, but he battled through it to impress the coaching staff and earn a vote of confidence this offseason. — Ben Baby


Post-free-agency ranking: 31

Player who benefited: DE Montez Sweat. The Redskins, and Sweat, believed the switch to a 4-3 defense was going to be a big boost for him. But the arrival of end Chase Young will provide significant help as well. Teams will slide the protection more often than not in Young’s direction, freeing up the opposite side for more one-on-ones. Both Sweat and Young also have the ability to factor on inside rushes too, because of their power and length. Sweat finished with seven sacks as a rookie, but Young’s addition will increase his ability to make a bigger impact in his second season. — John Keim


Post-free-agency ranking: 30

Player who benefited: DE Josh Allen. With the team trading Calais Campbell and the uncertainty about Yannick Ngakoue‘s status, Allen was all alone in the pass rush, a daunting task for a second-year player. But the Jaguars drafted K’Lavon Chaisson with the No. 20 pick, so teams can’t just game plan around stopping Allen. Chaisson is still raw, but he has the ability to create problems for opposing offenses. Plus, the addition of Chaisson means the Jaguars are going to use more 3-4 concepts, which also will help Allen, who more than held his own dropping into coverage in college. — Mike DiRocco

Published at Thu, 30 Apr 2020 23:12:51 +0000

Alex Smith’s comeback: Inside the fight to save the QB’s leg and life

Alex Smith’s comeback: Inside the fight to save the QB’s leg and life

On Nov. 18, 2018, Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith was injured in the third quarter of a Week 11 game against the Houston Texans. The injury was severe. This is a first-person account, from Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, to ESPN’s Stephania Bell, of the untold story of what happened next.

Warning: This story contains graphic images.

“Our first priority is we’re going to save his life. And then we’re going to do our best to save his leg. And anything beyond that is a miracle.”

Alex isn’t Alex anymore.

It’s been 57 hours since my husband was carted off the field with a compound fracture in his right leg in a Week 11 game, but now it’s Wednesday at midnight and he’s not just an injured football player — he’s the patient who’s drifting in and out of consciousness as doctors try to figure out what’s wrong. Of course, I just want to talk to Alex. But he’s … he’s not there.

They’re thinking he has a blood clot, a pulmonary embolism. Then we’re doing a cardiogram. Throughout the night, it’s test after test after test. Alex’s fever is through the roof. His blood pressure is dropping.

Everyone — the nurses, the doctors — every person is in this room and can hear me asking, “Is everything going to be OK?” They are saying, “We just need to find the root of the problem.”

Finally, we learn he has an infection.

The doctors are telling me, “He’s septic. It’s in his blood. But we don’t know what type of infection it is.”

Dr. Steve Malekzadeh, one of Alex’s trauma surgeons, comes in early the next morning. It’s Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. He would tell us later he came in because he couldn’t sleep. He knew something was off. He unwraps the bandages from Alex’s leg, even though it had been unwrapped just a few hours before. At that time, it looked normal, at least as normal as post-surgical fracture sites look.

But now his leg is black. The blisters are huge. It’s clear the infection is in his leg. It’s something I couldn’t fathom seeing in a war movie, only now it’s my husband. It’s my worst nightmare.

Dr. Malekzadeh says, “We have to go back. We have to take him into surgery again.”

Alex’s parents are there. The Redskins were in Texas playing the Cowboys that day, but Dr. Robin West, the head team physician, flew back from Dallas to join in on the surgery. I couldn’t even tell you how long it was, but it felt like we were waiting for an eternity.

The doctors finally walk in, and they look defeated. Like they had opened Pandora’s box. “He has a bad infection,” they say. “There was colonization of the bacteria all through his soft tissue. We removed a big portion of the anterior compartment.”

“What does this mean?”

“Well, we had to take off a lot of skin, a lot of muscle tissue.”

“So, is it fine? Is it done? Is the infection gone?

“No. We have to go back tomorrow. And we’re going to do it again. We think this looks like necrotizing fasciitis.”

We all look at each other in disbelief. Necrotizing fasciitis? Like, flesh-eating bacteria? This was something I only knew about from reading about it online.

Now it’s Friday, and they are going back in to cut out more tissue. Then, the cultures came back and, sure enough, it’s necrotizing fasciitis. There is one really rare bacteria in his bloodstream, aeromonas hydrophila, a bacteria typically found in freshwater or brackish water.

So Alex has a flesh-eating bacteria that’s eating away his at his leg. He’s septic and, essentially, dying. We’re being inundated with medical language. Family, friends, everybody is on high emotion.

And I just need some grounding. I need someone to sit me down and tell me exactly what’s going to happen. I send Robin (West) a text and ask her if we can meet privately and talk.

We head to the cafeteria annex, which had become my private escape. I said, “Please, can you just break this down for me? My husband is laying here. And he’s dying. And it’s coming from his leg. I just need to know — why can’t we just — cut it off? I need to know if I’m going to be able to leave this place with him with me. I can’t go home to my children without him with me. We need to make sure he’s OK.”

And these were her exact words. I can still hear them.

She said: “Elizabeth, we’re doing the best we can. And right now, our first priority is we’re going to save his life. And then we’re going to do our best to save his leg. And anything beyond that is a miracle.”

How’d we get here?

So let’s back up a little.

Nov. 18, 2018, started out like any other home game day. Alex and I, we have a routine. He spends the night before the game at the team hotel. The kids and I, we wake up, do our breakfast, shower, get ready. We’ll jump in the car, pick up friends and family in D.C., then head to the stadium. Right before I get to the stadium, Alex gives me a call. He’s warming up on the field. We do our little pep talk. We always say the same thing, “Love you,” then hang up. It’s football, and though Alex is only 34 at this point, it’s his 14th year in the league.

Everyone is tailgating and having a great time. We head into the stadium for kickoff. And that day was just like any other game.

Until, the play. We all stand because we realize it’s Alex down. He’s lying there, and I see that he grabs for his leg. I’m thinking, is it his ankle? Is it his knee? Our 7-year-old, Hudson, tugs at me. I look down and he’s welling up with tears. He says, “Mom, the cart’s coming.” And he knows that when the cart comes, it’s serious. To everybody else, this is a player that’s down. Cart’s coming. Game’s gonna go on. But for me, our children, Alex’s parents, this is more than that.

My in-laws take the kids, and I head to the tunnels. When I get down there, I hear screaming. In the medical room there are people crowded around Alex — the doctors, [Redskins owner] Mr. [Dan] Snyder, all the medics. Alex screams as they try to readjust his leg. I’ve never seen him like that before. But in my mind, I’m just thinking, let’s go. Let’s get him on that ambulance, get him the surgery, get this fixed.

As we ride in the ambulance, Alex says, “Pull up the score. How’s [Redskins backup] Colt [McCoy] doing?” He wants to know all the formations. This is typical Alex. He’s worried about the team, which is still in first place at 6-3, and how they are doing. He wants to make sure everyone else is OK.

They are ready for us when we get to the hospital. There’s a trauma bay open and they get imaging of his leg. Dr. Michael Holtzman is working that night. Dr. Malekzadeh is on call. Dr. West had said to us on the way in, “If you have any trauma, these are the best two guys you want working.”

Before Alex goes into surgery, the doctors show us the CT scan and say, “This is a really severe fracture.” It’s a spiral fracture that starts down in the ankle joint and spirals all the way up through the tibia to the knee. And the fibula is broken. Because of the length of Alex’s tibia, they are going to have to put in a few plates and quite a few screws. “It’s pretty common practice,” they tell us. “You’ll go in there, maybe be in the hospital for two days, do a little bit of rehab and then you’re on your way.”

After surgery, the doctors say it went as well as they could have hoped and everything looked good inside his leg. The bones are lined up great. I even have pictures; it looks beautiful. Since Alex had suffered a compound fracture (a complex fracture with the bone breaking through the skin), they say there is a risk of infection. They had pulled out a little bit of dirty sock from the wound. But, he’s on antibiotics.

Alex has a mild fever and is in a fair amount of pain the next day, but that was to be expected with a huge fracture repair involving three plates and 20-some-odd screws and pins. The doctors say they will probably keep him on some form of pain medication for the next couple of weeks, and we expect to head home on Tuesday.

But Tuesday afternoon Alex is still having a fair amount of pain and running a mild fever. Dr. West stops by to see him before she heads out of town with the team for a Thursday game. Dr. West says, “Why don’t you just stay one more night?” Alex resists; he just wants to get home and sleep in his own bed, but Dr. West convinces us to stay. Thank goodness she did because that night he spikes a high fever.

Dr. Holtzman comes in the next morning and unwraps his leg and says it looks pretty normal. Blisters are normal, bruising is normal. But throughout that day, Alex gets progressively worse. By Wednesday night, well, we know we’re not going home.

Saving a leg

The doctors make it their mission to save Alex’s life and his leg. They say, “You know what? We’re going to go in every single day.” And for a week they go in every day for a debridement — cutting skin, tissue and muscle — until the infection is gone, until they’re certain.

At night, I sit with Alex, not sleeping, and they come in with a pen, a Sharpie. And they write over his leg, where the infection looks to be tracking up. Every 20 minutes another resident comes in and writes — it’s coming up a little bit further. And eventually they take him into the operating room to cut into his thigh to see if the infection is actually moving up that high.

As I’m sitting there watching the infection move up his leg, I’m just trying to make sure that my husband’s life is not in danger. I understand now, from the doctor’s perspective, had they amputated at the time, it would’ve been above the knee. And it’s a different quality of life whether you amputate above or below the knee.

Thankfully, the necrotizing fasciitis never gets above his knee. Alex still has his leg … well, what remains of it.

After eight debridements, Alex has this completely exposed tibia. He has no anterior compartment. He is missing everything from his knee to his ankle and from side to side. The way the doctors explain his situation is Alex no longer has a sports injury. He has what would be more comparable to a military blast injury.

Alex doesn’t look at his leg. He doesn’t want to see it.

At that point, Dr. Vineet Mehan, the plastic surgeon, comes in with the orthopedic surgeons and says, “Here are your options. We want to lay out everything you could do.”

For the first time Alex is really awake and listening.

“Obviously, one is amputating.”

“Two is a muscle transfer. One transfer option would be your lat.”

Alex said: “You’re not taking my lat. I need that to throw. It’s everything. You can’t take my lat.”

It had to be a large muscle because Alex’s tibia was so long.

“We can take part of your quad on your left leg.”

But they also tell him it might not work. In addition to transferring the muscle, you have to connect arteries and veins and all these things. It’s microvascular surgery. And when you do that, like an organ transplant, it’s not guaranteed to take. If it doesn’t take, you’re going to an amputation. And if you have an amputated right leg, now your left leg is weakened. You have to use that leg for the rest of your life.

“It’s not to say that you couldn’t be athletic and have a prosthetic because there are amazing athletes that have prosthetics,” the doctors say. “But we wouldn’t want to try that surgery and — if it doesn’t work — weaken the leg that you would have to use for the rest of your life as the strong leg.”

Alex’s parents and I look at each other. “What do you do?”

Alex is participating more in the conversation, and he’s a fighter. Give him a challenge and he wants to go. As soon as he hears about the transfer, he’s like, “Let’s do it. Let’s go.”

After the muscle transfer surgery and a week of recovery, Alex is finally discharged home in a wheelchair with his leg fixated upward. It’s now two weeks before Christmas.

The first few weeks out of the hospital are hard. We had to outfit our house to be wheelchair-accessible for Alex to get around. He can’t let his leg down. He needs help with everything, whether it be to get out of bed or go to the bathroom. He can’t really shower. Alex came home with a PICC line, so I give him his antibiotics every day. The kids all want to care for him, too.

Every time I line up the meds for his shots, our daughter, Sloan — 2 years old at the time — helps me push the shots. Our boys help push Alex in the wheelchair. If anyone comes over, our middle son, Hayes, says, “Don’t go too close to my dad’s leg.” He has hand sanitizer ready. They understand. They’re just so excited we are all together again.

Once Alex starts bearing weight on his leg, he begins going to physical therapy five, sometimes six days a week. Some days he’ll finish PT and say to me, “I think I want to head out to the practice facility and get a little more upper-body work in.” His mental fortitude is ridiculous. He pushes himself every day.

It’s absolutely incredible how far he’s come.

Looking forward

Between the debridements, the muscle transfers and microvascular surgery, the skin grafts, the external fixator shortening and removal, and, finally, the replacing of the large circular bone-stabilizing frame with a titanium rod, Alex would undergo 17 total surgeries and endure four separate hospital stays over a period of nine months.

There’s no doubt that this is a challenging time, especially for Alex. But through it all, he keeps great perspective. At one point when we’re in the hospital, shortly after he came so close to losing his life, Alex tells me out of nowhere that everything is going to be OK.

“Do you know how many people would love to trade positions with me?” he says at the time. “Millions of people would love to be where I am right now. Do you know the life that we live and the blessings we have?”

“What?” I say, in disbelief.

“And we can’t take it for granted, not even for a minute,” he says. “Perspective.”

I have to admit he’s right.

As I think back on the experiences of the past 15 months, I feel so fortunate. We’ve had so much support from family and friends who helped us, especially with the kids, by just loving them and wrapping their arms around them. It’s not to say that we weren’t there, because they saw us every day. But they helped keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible, which was so important to me. Early on there were many nights I spent at the hospital, and I became friends with a lot of nurses. And the doctors were amazing — they genuinely cared. There were days we all broke down together and days we all cheered and laughed.

Alex and I joke that everyone wants their daughter to grow up to be Dr. West. Not only is she an incredible doctor, mother, woman — she’s a friend. Dan Snyder and the entire Redskins organization have been incredibly supportive throughout the entire process, ever since the moment Alex was injured. I don’t think I could ever have imagined a better team than what we were given.

There have certainly been moments along the way that have reinforced the concept of perspective. Traveling to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in February 2019, for instance. What a humbling experience. It just put Alex’s injury in a whole different light. There have been so many soldiers who have had this type of injury. And it is because of them — not only fighting for our freedom but through their injuries, the medicine and the technology learned as a result of caring for them — an athlete is reaping these benefits. It’s incredible.

It may have been intimidating for Alex at first when we arrived. He said, “There are people here that are Army Rangers, Special Forces … do you know what kind of badasses they are?”

They’re doing things that an NFL player couldn’t do. But they had that mental fortitude and that perseverance; they were going to get through it. And I think it gave Alex that extra little, “I can do this. I got this.” I don’t think it’s easy for anyone, especially an athlete to go from the peak of your profession to not being able to walk. I think you need motivation to get back to that spot. To watch him light up, to get that inner drive again, it was pretty awesome. On the way home from San Antonio was the first time since the injury that Alex talked about playing football again.

When I think about Alex returning to football, there’s part of me that wants him to do whatever he has the inner drive to do. If that means stepping back on the football field and throwing on those pads, then I want him to prove that to himself. But obviously there’s part of me asking, “Is it worth ever doing that again? Do you know what we just went through?”

But, I know at the end of the day this is his fight — physically, emotionally and mentally. I want him to have something to fight to get back to. And I support him.

Published at Wed, 29 Apr 2020 17:31:04 +0000