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A team is never as good as it thinks it is; on the flip side, certain seasons are never quite as bad as they seem.
A happy medium is found between those two points. This is where hope blossoms. A reason for hope always exists even during the most tumultuous campaigns.
The thought of a quick turnaround or sustained success always seems feasible when certain individuals played well enough or an organization is positioned in a certain manner.
Seven playoff teams this year didn’t make the postseason in 2017. That’s how quickly things can change.
Hope drives the NFL because there’s always next year. Every team has a reason for hope in 2019—whether it’s competing for a Super Bowl LIII appearance in February or preparing for the offseason.
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The Arizona Cardinals (3-13) entered the offseason as the NFL’s worst team.
“If I look back and think to myself, ‘You’re the general manager with the No. 1 pick in the draft,’ it’s embarrassing as hell,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said last week, per Pro Football Talk’s Charean Williams. “But I promise you in April, we’re not going to feel that way.”
Nor should they.
The top pick is a wonderful asset. The Cardinals could land an elite edge-rusher like Ohio State’s Nick Bosa to pair with Chandler Jones, find a bodyguard like Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams to protect quarterback Josh Rosen or trade out of the pick and obtain a treasure trove of draft capital. Plus, the Cardinals will have the top pick in each subsequent round.
Rosen’s presence creates flexibility. Arizona has addressed the game’s most important position despite the 21-year-old quarterback’s disappointing 11-14 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Arizona ranked 28th overall in quarterback sacked percentage in 2018, so Rosen needs help. In fact, defenses sacked the rookie 45 times (seventh-worst in the league) even though he only started 13 games.
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The Atlanta Falcons haven’t been quite the same since Kyle Shanahan left in 2017.
Two trying seasons saw the offense go from the league’s best in points scored under the previous coordinator to an inconsistent group. Steve Sarkisian failed to utilize the talent to its fullest potential, and head coach Dan Quinn fired Sarkisian after the 2018 season.
Now, the Falcons could get back to being an elite offense. They already have the talent in place, particularly at wide receiver.
Julio Jones led the NFL with 1,677 receiving yards, and a new contract extension seems to be forthcoming.
“He and I and the organization are in a really good place right now,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, per Matthew Tabeek of the team’s official site. “We thought he had a standout season. He continues to lead both on and off. His leadership is exemplary, as far as how he approached things this year. Just really excited about how he took it all on.”
Calvin Ridley, meanwhile, led all rookies with 821 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions.
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The Baltimore Ravens are full-speed ahead with Lamar Jackson as their starting quarterback instead of Joe Flacco, and the organization couldn’t have made a better decision.
“Lamar is our quarterback going forward—no question about that,” head coach John Harbaugh said after Jackson’s lackluster performance Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, per ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley.
The rookie struggled for three quarters in his first playoff game. He finished 14-of-29 passing with two turnovers (not including a pair of fumbles the Ravens recovered). Yet, he brought Baltimore within striking distance in the fourth quarter.
Jackson is something different at quarterback. His athleticism forces defenses to readjust. His mere presence creates more space in the running game, which allowed undrafted free agent Gus Edwards to run for 654 yards over the final seven weeks of the regular season.
The 22-year-old signal-caller has plenty of room for improvement. His footwork and his consistency as a passer (58.2 percent completion rate) must improve as he matures. Until then, the Ravens can tailor their offense to his unique skill set and drive defenses up the wall.
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The Buffalo Bills spent last offseason searching for their franchise quarterback. The organization used the seventh overall pick to select Josh Allen, who had many critics for his lack of accuracy and consistency. His physical tools are off the charts, though.
As the Bills leaned on one of the league’s best defenses (second overall in yards allowed per game), Allen grew as a player and earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after the regular season’s final weekend.
“I definitely think as the year went on, we improved,” Allen said, per the Buffalo News‘ Jay Skurski. “I think we kind of found ourselves and who we are in the last six, seven games.”
Allen, 22, proved to be a true dual-threat over the last six games with 1,259 passing yards, 476 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns. If the Bills add more talent to the skill positions, the young quarterback can maximize his talent.
“He’s going to be a totally different player,” safety Micah Hyde said. “He’s going to be obviously better than what he was finishing the season. From the Year 1 to Year 2 gap, I’m really excited to see what he’s able to do.”
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The primary takeaway from the Carolina Panthers’ season is that the coaching staff learned how to properly utilize Christian McCaffrey.
As a rookie, McCaffrey carried the ball 117 times for 435 yards while catching 80 passes for 651 yards. Two things immediately became clear: He wasn’t getting enough touches, and the Panthers shouldn’t be afraid to use the 2017 eighth overall pick in a variety of manners.
McCaffrey set a franchise-record 1,965 yards from scrimmage (breaking DeAngelo Williams’ total of 1,636 from 2008) and finished third overall. As a runner, the Panthers back finished sixth with 1,098 yards. He also broke the NFL’s record for most receptions by a running back with 107.
“I think the way that he’s being utilized highlights his skill set,” head coach Ron Rivera said in November, per 247Sports’ Steven Taranto. “He’s got good hands out of the backfield, he’s elusive in terms of [as] a receiver and a runner. He runs the ball well, I think in a style that protects himself.”
If quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder injury has any long-term ramifications, the Panthers can rely on McCaffrey as their offensive centerpiece.
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Defense isn’t sexy anymore. That’s OK. The Chicago Bears aren’t afraid to get ugly early.
As the rest of the league races to score more points, the Bears have no problem finding ways to slow down or even stop them. Chicago’s group is exciting with difference-makers at every level.
Akiem Hicks is one of the NFL’s most powerful defenders at the point of attack and ranked second on the team with 7.5 sacks. After being traded by Oakland prior to the start of the regular season, Khalil Mack finished only a half-sack behind the entire Raiders team with 12.5.
Rookie linebacker Roquan Smith displayed exceptional sideline-to-sideline range. Cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson both earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors.
The unit ranked third overall in total defense (299.7 yards allowed per game) and first in run defense (80.0 yards allowed per game). No other squad came close in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), according to Football Outsiders. The site’s Bryan Knowles noted Chicago’s defense had the best 3rd-and-long DVOA of any team recorded since 1986.
The Bears hold contractual control over eight of their 11 defensive starters through the 2020 campaign.
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The Cincinnati Bengals have two exciting offensive players, and their names aren’t A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.
The organization revolved around its quarterback and star receiver for seven seasons until a pair of rising skill-position standouts came to the forefront during the team’s disappointing 2018 campaign (6-10), which ended with both Dalton and Green on injured reserve and head coach Marvin Lewis’ dismissal.
Running back Joe Mixon finished fourth overall with 1,168 rushing yards despite having the least amount of carries (237) among the top-five backs. He also tied for second with 11 carries of 20-plus yards.
Like Dalton and Green, Tyler Boyd ended his season on injured reserve. However, the third-year receiver caught a team-leading 76 passes for 1,028 before succumbing to a sprained MCL.
While the franchise’s starting quarterback and seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver aren’t done, the Bengals now have other options to build around. Dalton’s 2019 salary-cap hit doesn’t include any dead money, and Green turns 31 years old in July.
The Bengals’ shift toward becoming Boyd’s and Mixon’s squad has already began.
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The Cleveland Browns haven’t been this hopeful since the team returned to the league in 1999. Baker Mayfield is the obvious reason why, but it’s due to more than finally finding their franchise quarterback.
The Browns are littered with young talent.
Of course, everything starts with Mayfield, who set an NFL record with 27 touchdowns during his rookie campaign. He already earned Offensive Rookie of the Year status from Pro Football Focus. The Browns became one of the league’s most explosive offenses with the first-year signal-caller. More importantly, he helped change the culture of a winless team to one competing for a playoff spot until Week 16.
Running back Nick Chubb flirted with 1,000 rushing yards despite not being a full-time starter until Week 9. Defensive end Myles Garrett finished sixth overall with 13.5 sacks. Cornerback Denzel Ward made the Pro Bowl in his first season. The offensive interior barely allowed any pressure.
The Browns finally have the core components in place to enter a long-term window toward success.
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The Dallas Cowboys feature the league’s best set of linebackers.
Normally, the previous statement wouldn’t elicit much excitement since the position isn’t valued as highly as it used to be. However, the linebackers are a little different than the rest of the league’s because all three are true three-down defenders.
As the NFL trends toward heavy usage of defensive sub-packages because coordinators are afraid to get caught in mismatches, the Cowboys can remain in their base look and allow the combination of Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee (when healthy) to defend the run or work in space.
Vander Esch is 6’4″, 255 pounds and ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine. His combination of size and speed led to a team-leading 140 combined tackles.
Smith flashed top-five potential during his time with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish before suffering a devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. Fully healed in his third season, Smith has put his athleticism and overall range on display.
Lee has always been one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers. The 32-year-old is instinctive, and his experience helps.
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The Denver Broncos might have suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the 1971-72 campaigns and saw head coach Vance Joseph fired afterward, but the infusion of young talent from last year’s draft class will make this an intriguing job for the next coach.
Denver started the draft well by selecting edge-rusher Bradley Chubb with the fifth overall pick and smartly signed running back Phillip Lindsay as an undrafted free agent.
Chubb led all rookies with 12 sacks and proved to be an ideal bookend to seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller.
“When I think of the Von I was, as a player and a person, in 2011, and I look at him, it’s so different,” Miller said last month, per ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold. “Bradley is so much beyond that in how he goes about things.”
On the other side of the ball, Linsday rushed for 1,037 yards and became the first undrafted offensive rookie named to the Pro Bowl.
Denver also drafted its second-leading receiver in Courtland Sutton, its second-leading rusher in Royce Freeman and a nine-game starter in linebacker Josey Jewell.
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Hallelujah, the Detroit Lions’ streak for rushing futility finally ended this season when Kerryon Johnson ran for 101 yards in a Week 3 victory over the New England Patriot after nearly five years of not having any back eclipse the 100-yard plateau.
“So that’s huge, and more than anything, I hope it’s something we can build on,” left tackle Taylor Decker said after the game, per ESPN.com’s Michael Rothstein. “If you can establish a good run game, you know, we’re going to be a hard offensive team to stop.”
Johnson ran for 158 yards the following month against the Miami Dolphins. In total, 43rd overall pick in the 2018 draft ran for 641 yards in 10 games (seven starts) before a knee injury forced him onto injured reserve.
His rookie performance is vital on two levels.
First, Detroit didn’t finish bottom-five in rushing offense for the first time since the 2013 campaign. Second, Johnson is a dynamic presence in the backfield. His 5.4 yards per carry tied for first among rookies with 100 or more carries. Also, his 32 receptions ranked fourth among first-year running backs.
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Usually, this spot is reserved—and still could be—by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but growing concern over his inability to be coached coupled with a first-time head coach in Matt LaFleur make matters in Green Bay interesting.
Despite these potential issues, Rodgers is a selling point since he remains one of the league’s best quarterbacks. However, we can turn our attention toward an improved defense, specifically a pair of rookie cornerbacks.
The Packers went from 23rd to 12th overall in pass defense, even taking the explosion of prominent passing attacks into account.
Jaire Alexander showed exceptional coverage skills and graded fourth-best among first-year cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Josh Jackson, meanwhile, finished second on the team with 10 defended passes (one behind Alexander). Both ranked top-seven among rookie defensive backs.
The additions of Alexander and Jackson speak to a much larger and more important point: General manager Brian Gutekunst identified an area of need and properly addressed it. It’s a simple concept yet not always easy to achieve.
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Could Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt return to the player who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards before injuries marred his 2016-17 campaigns?
The answer proved to be a resounding yes.
Watt’s 16 sacks finished second behind the Aaron Donald’s ridiculous 20.5 output. The Texans defensive lineman earned his fifth Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections as a result. But he’s far from reaching his best.
“I’m by no means as good as I’m going to get yet, but that’s because there’s still a lot of learning and growing left to do,” Watt told the Houston Chronicle‘s Aaron Wilson in October.
The Texans front office must decide whether it’s going to make a significant long-term investment in Jadeveon Clowney this offseason. Either the organization retains the 2014 No. 1 overall pick—which seems likely—or it can move on, knowing it still has a difference-maker up front.
Houston will need its franchise cornerstone to carry the burden for a little longer until the team can properly build a competent offensive line to block for quarterback Deshaun Watson (league-high 62 sacks) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
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The Indianapolis Colts are still alive in the playoffs and set to battle the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday. They’re positioned better than any other team once their current run ends.
First, quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy and playing like the can’t-miss prospect evaluators once believed him to be.
Luck’s offensive line has grown into the league’s best (only 18 sacks allowed). Rookie left guard Quenton Nelson is an absolute powerhouse and already earned first-team All-Pro distinction. The running game is going. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is still producing (1,260 yards, six touchdowns in 14 games).
Defensively, the Colts are led by another All-Pro rookie, Darius Leonard. The 36th overall pick led the NFL with 163 combined tackles during the regular season. Coordinator Matt Eberflus is maximizing the rest of the defensive talent in a system in which the sum of its parts is greater than the individuals.
Yet, the most impressive number anyone can mention is Indy’s league-leading $122.4 million in available cap space once the season ends.
Whether the Colts continue to win or fall short this weekend, sustained success seems inevitable.
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A 5-11 record after making the AFC Championship Game the previous season makes the Jacksonville Jaguars the NFL’s most disappointing squad. Yet, the Jaguars’ downfall could turn into a blessing in disguise.
Jacksonville’s front office now knows without a shadow of a doubt Blake Bortles isn’t a starting-caliber quarterback. After head coach Doug Marrone benched Bortles for backup Cody Kessler, the Jaguars’ search for a starting signal-caller started anew.
The poor record provided Jacksonville with the seventh overall draft pick and a chance to select a talented quarterback prospect. Granted, the New York Giants pick sixth. However, the Jaguars could trade ahead of New York to grab their quarterback of choice or wait to see who is still available.
Jacksonville could also pursue a veteran with Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, Teddy Bridgewater and Tyrod Taylor expected to be available. The Jaguars remain a desirable destination because of their talented roster.
Thus, the short-term negative of finding out Bortles isn’t worth playing could easily turn into a long-term positive.
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Patrick Mahomes became a superstar in his first season as a starting quarterback.
“He’s been the MVP,” Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said, per ESPN.com’s Adam Teicher. “He’s done good. … He is so deserving. In a world of great players, for him to do the things he’s done is phenomenal and he will continue to do that. He still has room to grow.”
Reid’s final statement is jarring.
The second-year signal-caller put together one of the greatest seasons in NFL history with 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns…and he’s going to get better?!
The Chiefs are Super Bowl contenders now. Mahomes, who is only 23 years old, will keep them in the championship hunt for years to come.
Amazingly, Reid’s squad can improve even after finishing the regular season tied for the league’s second-best record at 12-4.
The defense ranked 31st overall by allowing 405.5 yards per game. If Kansas City spends the offseason addressing that side of the ball while Mahomes continues to mature, the Chiefs will be near-impossible to beat in 2019 and beyond.
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Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James has everything a team wants in a modern defender: size (6’2″, 215 pounds), speed (4.47-second 40-yard dash), athleticism and scheme diversity.
“What he’s brought to the table for us just as a skill set and the flexibility it offers us, I mean, I can’t say enough about it,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said before Sunday’s 23-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, per the Associated Press’ Joe Reedy. “People talked about his energy, his fear and his love for the game, but I’d be lying if I said I thought it was to this level.”
James is the ultimate multipurpose defensive weapon since he can play linebacker—as he did against the Ravens—blitz opposing quarterbacks, drop into the deep third or half and cover the slot. The rookie led the Chargers with 105 total tackles and 13 defended passes. Throw in 3.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions for good measure.
Pro Football Focus named James its Defensive Rookie of the Year. According to the site, the safety finished third among his peers in coverage grade and second in pass-rushing grade.
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Look around the league and see how it’s been inspired by the Los Angeles Rams’ approach under head coach Sean McVay. Just about every team searching for a new head coach wants the next innovative young offensive mind to follow in the Rams’ footsteps.
But the Rams organization’s recent success is about so much more.
“It’s all about surrounding yourself with great people,” McVay told reporters at last year’s combine.
General manager Les Snead has done a wonderful job building the roster. Wade Phillips is counted among the league’s best defensive coordinators.
More importantly, the Rams lineup is loaded with the league’s best player in defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a franchise quarterback in Jared Goff, arguably the league’s best running back in Todd Gurley, the game’s most consistent left tackle in Andrew Whitworth, a perennial 1,000-yard receiver in Brandin Cooks, another 1,000-yard receiver in Robert Woods and a ballhawk in cornerback Marcus Peters.
Some of these pieces will undoubtedly change over the years, but the culture is built to last.
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Once an organization transitions from its previous head coach and appears to be entering a rebuilding phase, the first thing its front office must do is identify anyone on the roster worthy of retention to build around beyond the upcoming season.
The Miami Dolphins are in a predicament after jettisoning some of their top players in the name of a culture change under the previous coach, Adam Gase. Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey and Ndamukong Suh are gone. The team will probably move on from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, defensive end Robert Quinn and wide receiver DeVante Parker this offseason as well.
Aging veterans such as Cameron Wake and Frank Gore shouldn’t even be considered.
However, three of the four premium positions could be set for the foreseeable future. Cornerback Xavien Howard developed into a Pro Bowl performer in his third season. Laremy Tunsil established himself as a cornerstone piece at left tackle. Charles Harris, whom the team selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, deserves more opportunities.
These three along with whomever the Dolphins sign or draft to play quarterback will become the team’s foundation.
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Questions could (and should) be raised about whether the Minnesota Vikings got enough from quarterback Kirk Cousins this season after he signed a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract.
Cousins didn’t play poorly, per se. After all, he completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 4,298 yards and a career-high 30 touchdowns. Expectations may have been out of a whack because of the contract and the Vikings’ 13-3 record in 2017.
The disappointment can be easily shrugged off since Cousins’ presence now serves as a positive for the franchise.
With the search for a quarterback finally over, the entire organization can concentrate on other problem areas, like the offensive line, for example. A bolstered front will only help Cousins in his second season. Furthermore, he should have developed a comfort level working with his new teammates. Finally, whoever is hired as the offensive coordinator can tailor the offense to Cousins’ strengths as a passer after fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo leaned far too heavily on 11 personnel.
The Vikings are no longer searching for a quarterback; they’re now building around one.
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As long as Tom Brady is the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback, the offense must feature a strong offensive interior to prevent the pocket’s depth from collapsing.
Left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are among the league’s elite combinations.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mason is the NFL’s best guard. Andrews has been outstanding the last two seasons. Thuney has served as the unit’s iron man and missed only 12 snaps throughout his three-year career, per SB Nation’s Bernd Buchmasser.
The team already signed Mason to a five-year, $45 million contract extension. Thuney and Andrews won’t become free agents until 2020 and ’21, respectively. Right tackle Marcus Cannon is signed for three more years. As long as the Patriots retain left tackle Trent Brown this offseason, their offensive line can continue to build upon its success while adding first-round pick Isaiah Wynn to the equation.
Eventually, Father Time is going to get Brady and the team will need to transition to a younger option—which is why keeping a strong front five together is even more important.
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The New Orleans Saints made six draft selections among the top 50 picks in the last three classes. They are, as follows: defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, wide receiver Michael Thomas, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, right tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, safety Marcus Williams and defensive end Marcus Davenport.
That’s a phenomenal run for general manager Mickey Loomis.
Rankins tied for fifth among defensive tackles with eight sacks. Thomas set the Saints’ single-season receiving record with 1,405 yards. Lattimore is the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ramcyzk is already counted among the league’s best right tackles. Williams has been a constant along the defense’s back line. Davenport finished his first regular season with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.
The team’s core, including running back Alvin Kamara, is almost entirely under rookie contracts. A balloon payment is coming, but the Saints aren’t going to complain because the heart of their team features seven players who are 25 years old or younger.
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Running back Saquon Barkley isn’t the answer to all of the New York Giants’ problems, but he hides plenty of them.
Barkley led the league with 2,028 total yards from scrimmage despite playing behind a subpar offensive line. The 21-year-old also broke Reggie Bush’s rookie record with 91 receptions by a running back. Barkley earned a Pro Bowl nod and may have the inside track to become the Associated Press’ NFL Rookie of the Year.
With Barkley and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in place, part of the puzzle is complete. How the Giants handle Eli Manning’s standing as the starting quarterback is the next piece.
After finishing with a 5-11 record, New York just may have lucked into a situation where the top prospect at the game’s most important position will be available to the organization in April.
The Giants own the sixth overall draft pick with no quarterback-needy teams in front of them. This means they’re in perfect position to select Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, or whoever emerges as the top quarterback prospect, to pair with Barkley for the long haul.
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Move over Broadway Joe, because you have company.
“We’ve got some great young players, including and especially Sam [Darnold],” New York Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said, per ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini. “We haven’t had what we think is a franchise quarterback in a good long time.”
Now, the Jets are finally set at quarterback after years of Chad Pennington, Vinny Testaverde, Brooks Bollinger, Kellen Clemens, Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Mike Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty. A finer bunch of journeymen, has-beens or never-weres can’t be found.
So it surely comes with much relief the Jets seem to have found their long-term answer behind center.
The 21-year-old signal-caller improved as the season progressed and finished with his best performances. Darnold completed 64 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception during the final four contests. Pro Football Focus graded him as one of the league’s best quarterbacks overall in that stretch.
Considering Darnold’s age and the Jets’ $102.8 million in available salary-cap space to improve his surrounding cast, the young quarterback’s potential is limitless.
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Despite everything that went wrong for the Oakland Raiders this season, head coach Jon Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock have a chance to redeem the franchise.
Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper cannot be immediately (if ever) replaced. What the Raiders received in return presents the team with tremendous draft flexibility, though. Three first-round picks can go a long way to rebuilding a crumbling roster.
Granted, two of those selections will be in the last nine picks of the opening frame. Still, few teams obtain the level of early-round ammunition the Raiders currently possess.
It starts with the organization’s own pick. The Raiders “earned” the fourth overall selection after a 4-12 campaign. Fortunately, the upcoming draft class is jam-packed with defensive line talent since the Raiders were the league’s worst at applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Mayock can further supplement or address the offensive skill positions later in the first or second round to complement existing talent, including quarterback Derek Carr and a solid offensive interior featuring Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele.
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An old football cliche states, “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none.”
Most teams search for one quality starter, but the Philadelphia Eagles feature a 26-year-old franchise-caliber signal-caller in Carson Wentz and the reigning Super Bowl MVP in Nick Foles.
A decision is forthcoming because of two factors. First, Foles and the Eagles are still playing, and the supposed backup’s playoff magic can’t be denied. Second, the 29-year-old signal-caller has a mutual option with the team worth $20.6 million in 2019.
The Eagles will be in a rare position to choose from two quality quarterbacks this offseason. Head coach Doug Pederson already made a proclamation in Wentz’s favor despite his injury history.
“He understands,” Pederson told reporters of Wentz. “He knows the situation he’s in. He’s trying to get healthy. But at the same time, I want him to understand that, hey, he’s our guy. He’s the guy we drafted and moving forward, he’s our quarterback.”
The fact that the Eagles have this dilemma at all is a positive, not a negative.
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Change is coming to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
In fact, it already started with coaching staff turnover, and more is on the way. Running back Le’Veon Bell is set to enter free agency, and the impasse between the organization and star wide receiver Antonio Brown could result in him being traded.
Losing talent of Bell and Brown’s caliber could be devastating, but the Steelers play the long game by drafting and developing talent. They have their replacements already on the roster.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, not Brown, led the Steelers with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards on his way to his first Pro Bowl. He has 2,343 receiving yards in just two seasons.
James Conner, meanwhile, more than adequately filled in for Bell with 1,470 total yards from scrimmage in only 13 games. He’ll open the 2019 Pro Bowl as the AFC’s starting back.
This is how Pittsburgh operates. When veterans start to age, cost too much or become a problem, the organization moves on since it usually has contingencies in place.
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Not a lot went right for the San Francisco 49ers this season, as both quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon suffered season-ending injuries early in the process and the team finished 4-12.
Even in adverse circumstances without the team’s starting signal-caller, George Kittle developed into a dominant tight end on the same level as the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce. In fact, he eclipsed both this season.
Kittle set an NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards by a tight end. He broke the record Kelce held for a matter of hours after surpassing Gronkowski’s 2011 performance. The second-year tight end earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro nods.
The record-setting number is impressive but doesn’t provide a complete picture of Kittle’s performance. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers target set another tight end record with 873 yards after catch. He also led his position with 2.83 yards per route run, 9.9 yards after catch per reception and 17 avoided tackles. Plus, he’s a competent in-line blocker.
Imagine how good Kittle will be when the 49ers offense is complete.
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The Seattle Seahawks offensive is finally fixed. This fact alone should warrant a local holiday after years of Russell Wilson running for his life behind a porous group.
Head coach Pete Carroll hired Mike Solari to be his offensive line coach last offseason, and the experienced assistant helped meld a rudderless group. A few changes were needed.
The organization signed D.J. Fluker, and he finally realized his first-round potential as the starting right guard. The same can be said of Germain Ifedi at right tackle.
“He’s just growing, learning, knows what he can do and what he can’t do better, and he’s much more consistent,” Carroll said of Seattle’s 2016 first-round selection, per John Boyle of the team’s official site.
J.R. Sweezy getting reinserted at left guard—after being released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—became the final piece to turn the Seahawks into a solid front.
As a result, Seattle morphed into the NFL’s top ground attack, with four different players rushing for 300 or more yards.
Both starting guards need to be re-signed this offseason to ensure the team’s positive gains continue.
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A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers owned the league’s worst defense at all three levels. It’s still a below-average unit, but the acquisitions made this season along the defensive front have the group trending in the right direction.
The Buccaneers made a concerted effort to improve along the trenches after finishing dead last with only 22 sacks in 2017.
First, the team traded for two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. He rewarded the organization with a 12.5-sack campaign—which proved to be his best effort since the 2014 season.
Twelfth overall pick Vita Vea started the season with an injury and didn’t play until Week 4, but he improved greatly by year’s end. The 347-pound defender isn’t just a run defender; he can collapse the pocket, which he showed by accumulating three sacks and multiple pressures over the last six contests, according to Pro Football Focus.
Carl Nassib developed into a pleasant surprise after being released by the Cleveland Browns during the final round of preseason roster cuts. Nassib finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks and displayed a relentless motor off the edge.
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James Kenney/Associated Press
Exotic smashmouth found its way back to the Tennessee Titans. The organization can longer kid itself about who serves as the focal point of its offense. It’s running back Derrick Henry.
Concerns over Marcus Mariota’s fragility and lack of overall development stunted the Titans’ growth until head coach Mike Vrabel realized the roster is built for a ground-and-pound approach instead of a spread approach.
Henry’s production over the final four weeks of play compared to the rest of the season is eye-opening.
The 247-pound back ran for 474 yards through 12 games. The Titans then shifted gears with him leading the way. Henry accumulated 585 yards down the stretch.
The offensive line’s strength is firing off the ball and winning at the point of attack. The unit is not nearly as good protecting Mariota for an extended period of time.
Now the coaching staff realizes the offense’s strength, and it can rely on the running game from the get-go of the 2019 season.
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Mark Tenally/Associated Press
A 33-year-old running back shouldn’t provide hope for any franchise. But that’s exactly where the Washington Redskins are after having their roster decimated by injuries.
Besides, Adrian Peterson became one of the league’s pleasant surprises as the NFL’s eighth-leading rusher with 1,042 yards.
“If you watch football, if you know anything about football, then you know that he’s still got a lot left,” Peterson said of himself, per ESPN.com’s John Keim. “If you can’t see that, you’re blind.”
Washington can extend Peterson’s shelf life by re-signing him and pairing the 12-year veteran with Derrius Guice, who was supposed to be the team’s workhorse before suffering a torn ACL in his first preseason contest.
A backfield that features Peterson mentoring Guice with Chris Thompson sprinkled into the mix would be formidable.
“I haven’t been able to see him work and his work ethic and how he handled his business,” Peterson said of Guice. “But we talked about getting him down to Houston, so hopefully he comes down and I’m able to see what he’s all about when it comes to putting in work. Show him a couple things.”