Team Notes week 1 2018
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF
Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...
Arizona CardinalsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
According to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss, the play that showed the rest of the NFL that David Johnson is back was almost a year in the making.
At the start of the second quarter of the Cardinals' second preseason game, Johnson carried several Saints defenders into the end zone to cap off a 9-yard touchdown. As Weinfuss suggested, "It was quintessential Johnson. He used both his upper and lower body, putting his power on display. Any question of whether he was ready to return after missing 15 games last season went straight out of the Superdome that night."
But Weinfuss went on to note that Johnson probably wouldn't have been able to do that in 2017.
Last training camp, David and his wife decided to ditch animal products and start a vegan diet after watching two documentaries on Netflix: "What the Health" and "Forks Over Knives."
Johnson hated it.
He had to eat foods he'd never imagined himself trying, like avocados, lentils and quinoa. While his teammates were chowing down on cheeseburgers, Johnson ate bean burgers. Everywhere David ate, his options were limited to just one, maybe two, items on the menu.
"It was very hard," Johnson said. "It was the toughest thing I ever had to do outside of football was trying to figure out what to eat."
Still, as he eliminated meat, poultry, fish and dairy from his diet, Johnson admittedly felt the benefits of his new lifestyle.
"I'm not going to lie, my body felt great," Johnson said. "I felt energized. I felt like my body was recovering, but I just couldn't keep the weight on."
The longer he continued a vegan diet, the more weight Johnson lost. He dropped 14 pounds in less than two weeks, weighing in as low as 210. With the weight went Johnson's muscle mass. For a power runner, it was the worst possible scenario.
Johnson said goodbye to his vegan diet after three weeks.
His first bite of meat after the brief hiatus "felt great."
"It tasted so good," he said. "I think I ate meat like four days in a row -- steak, burgers. I think I went on a binge, which I felt afterward, but it felt great eating meat."
Even though meat was again a staple of his diet, Johnson still had to deal with the quick weight loss. And then suddenly he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. He suffered a fractured wrist in the third quarter of Arizona's 2017 opener against the Detroit Lions and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve.
While he plotted his return, Johnson still had to figure out how to regain the weight he lost.
Johnson loves being in the weight room almost as much as he loves being on the field. But a bum wrist made lifting weights -- and packing those pounds back on -- difficult. Cardinals strength coach Buddy Morris devised a plan that would both satiate Johnson's need to pump iron and rebuild the lost muscle through a series of exercises and lifts using straps and machines. Johnson regained the weight quickly, and a year later, he's maintained it.
He'll start Week 1 at 224 pounds, right in the range he wants to play at and the same he weighed as a rookie.
"I think I do feel a little bit better than last year going into camp," Johnson said. "I think the biggest thing, though, is that I'm learning what to do to recover faster. I'm getting more massages, eating, maintaining the diet and really just figuring out ways to stay in shape. Plus, [new coach Steve] Wilks' routine is a little different than [Bruce Arians'] so that also might factor into it."
The difference has been noticeable.
"David looks good," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "He does. He's out there making those famous jump cuts, catching the ball out of the backfield.
"He always looks good. Whenever he's on the field he looks good. I remember watching him as a rookie in '15 and just being blown away by some of the things he was able to do in terms of the route-running and just his vision and how patient he was for a guy that young -- setting up his blocks and finding the next level. You watch him on tape in games and very rarely do you ever see him going backwards. When he hits guys, it's always 2 yards forward, 3 yards forward after contact. That takes its toll on a defense and it really inspires his teammates, because all you have to do is give him a crack, literally."
While he has bulked back up, Johnson has married his old and new diets.
He still eats meat but has incorporated some vegan aspects into his daily eating habits. Those foods he once hated, he now loves, and he's made avocado, lentils and quinoa part of his diet. Finding a balance with his diet, preparation and recovery has made Johnson's return to the field one of the most anticipated comebacks of 2018.
And that run in New Orleans only added fuel to the hype.
"That's impressive to see that dude look like that and still move like he did when he was vegan," Humphries said. "You see him yoked up like that and he still moves like he did.
"That dude's a freak."
Johnson expects to pick up where he left off two years ago, when he made a strong case for MVP. He's again set his sights on 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards after coming up 121 receiving yards short of being the third player in NFL history to hit the historic plateau.
Anything after 1,000 rushing yards is just a "bonus," he said.
As long as he's healthy, Johnson's season will be continually compared to what he did in 2016. And, for now, he doesn't mind that.
"It's good, but I actually want to be better than 2016," Johnson said. "I make my standard a lot higher than whatever everybody else is trying to compare me to. I think I can do a lot better than what I did in 2016, personally."
That's just fine with fantasy owners. ...
Other notes of interest. ... When Brice Butler signed with Arizona this past spring, he was believed to be the ideal complement and No. 2 receiver to Larry Fitzgerald. However, it was not to be. Butler didn't live up to the expectations throughout the offseason and training camp, and it cost him. The wide receiver room was wide open this year, so it took major inconsistencies to cost Butler a roster spot.
With Butler and Greg Little both released, Chad Williams is listed as the starter opposite Fitzgerald -- but rookie Christian Kirk and J.J. Nelson will get their looks working off the bench. ...
As the Sports Xchange recently suggested, from starter to third string, the Cardinals' main trio of quarterbacks would appear to be as good as any other threesome in the league. It has name recognition and talent. The only real issue, of course, is Sam Bradford's health. He's only played a full 16-game schedule twice in his career and has a very troublesome left knee that could derail his season - and most likely his career - with one hit or dangerous misstep.
According to Weinfuss, it's not surprise that Arizona kept Mike Glennon. If something were to happen to Bradford, the Cards would need a veteran backup to the rookie Josh Rosen. Instead of trying to find one on the open market on short notice, they now have one on the roster.
If there's one weak link more than anywhere else on this team, it's here, where Jermaine Gresham is recovering from an Achilles injury and Ricky Seals-Jones is the only other real viable option as a starter. Gresham was on the practice field Monday to open Week 1. We'll follow up on his status as needed via Late-Breaking Update.
QBs: Kyler Murray, Brett Hundley
RBs: Kenyan Drake, David Johnson, Chase Edmonds
WRs: Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, Damiere Byrd, Pharoh Cooper, Andy Isabella, Trent Sherfield, KeeSean Johnson
TEs: Charles Clay, Maxx Williams, Dan Arnold
Atlanta FalconsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As Associated Press sports writer George Henry reminded readers, Julio Jones did not take a snap in preseason and the two-time All-Pro receiver is not the least bit concerned.
When the visit Philadelphia to open the NFL schedule on Thursday night, Jones says he will be fully healthy to face the defending champions.
After playing through a hip flexor, a back injury and an ankle injury last year, Jones says he feels better than he has to begin a season since 2015, the breakthrough year that stands as his best statistically.
Head coach Dan Quinn held Jones and two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman out of preseason games to avoid potential injuries. Freeman was sidelined twice by concussions last year. Jones has undergone right foot surgery twice and was on the injury report for much of 2017.
Jones and Freeman have not missed practice since training camp began six weeks ago.
"Q has the utmost respect for us and confidence in us that we'll be ready to go," Jones said Monday.
"He put it in our corner to come out here at practice and just go full speed and make it like game-time. Once you go out here and practice like that, the game will be easy for you."
Despite the injuries, Jones did not miss a game last season, catching 88 passes for 1,444 yards to help the Falcons earn a wild-card playoff victory before the season ended the following week on fourth-and-goal at the 2 in Philadelphia.
The last play fell flat. As quarterback Matt Ryan rolled right, Jones was lined up opposite cornerback Jalen Mills. Jones fell down and had trouble getting back up with Mills draping him, but got to his feet again as Ryan prepared to target him in the right corner of the end zone.
Jones turned to face Ryan and jumped higher than Mills, but the ball sailed through his hands . The Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl. Atlanta, which lost the Super Bowl in stunning fashion the year before, went home disappointed.
"They're all right, they're all right," Jones said when asked about Philadelphia's secondary. "They can cover well. We played them last year, and they were victorious. But that was last year. We don't speak on last year and things like that."
Jones had an unusual offseason, skipping a mandatory minicamp and sending word that he wanted a new contract entering the third season of a five-year, $71.5 million deal.
The Falcons made a slight adjustment and promised to discuss the situation in 2019 and get Jones a contract that ranks among the best at his position. He reported to camp on time.
Entering his eighth year, Jones has a chance to become the first receiver in history with at least 80 catches and 1,400 yards receiving in five straight seasons.
But he caught only three touchdown passes last year, his career low in a full season, and the Falcons were criticized for not getting him the ball enough in the red zone.
Ryan targeted him 22 times inside the 20-yard line, but Jones had just six catches.
"I'm going to go out there and put my best foot forward and give my all," Jones said. "It doesn't matter what it is. I'm not a stat person. I'm just trying to go out there and try to be the best teammate I can be. ..."
For the record. ... Atlanta ruled out cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and Blidi Wreh-Wilson along with backup guard Ben Garland in advance of Thursay night's game. Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole will be in the lineup at corner. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Ryan, who signed a six-year, $150 million contract extension on May 7, is set to enter his 11th season in the NFL. The Falcons know that Ryan is most effective when he can step up in the pocket and deliver the ball.
With shaky play from the guard position, Ryan rarely had a firm pocket last season. Ryan was on the move too much. He rushed for 143 yards, the second-highest total of his career. He had 145 yards in the 2014 season.
The good news? Atlanta's offensive line play should be much better this season. ...
As the Sports Xchange recently noted, new running backs coach Bernie Parmalee's task is to keep the Freeman-Tevin Coleman running back combination potent. Freeman suffered two concussions and a knee injury last season. It was the toughest season of his young NFL career. After back-to-back seasons of compiling more than 1,500 all-purpose yards, he had 1,182 last season. Coleman rushed for a career-high 628 yards and five touchdowns last season. He also caught 27 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said he under-utilized the running backs in the passing game last season.
At tight end, Austin Hooper, who spent extra time in the offseason working with Ryan, hopes to have a breakout season as a pass-catcher and has improved in the run game.
But with Jones, Mohamed Sanu and rookie Calvin Ridley, the Falcons have a talented trio of wide receivers. Jones, who was coming off foot surgery, had a 59.5-percent catch ratio (148 targets, 88 catches), which was the second-lowest since his rookie season, when he had a 56.8-percent catch ratio. Sanu had a 69.8-percent catch ratio as he hauled in 67 of 96 targets and had 703 yards and tied a career-high with five touchdowns. Ridley will be expected to add some big-plays to the attack.
Justin Hardy is a solid fourth receiver and both running backs will also contribute.
According to ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure, place-kicker Bryant, at age 43, still appears to have some leg left despite being held out a lot of the preseason action.
As for Thursday night's game, Atlanta ruled out cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and Blidi Wreh-Wilson along with backup guard Ben Garland. Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole will be in the lineup at corner.
QBs: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Brian Hill, Qadree Ollison, Kenjon Barner
WRs: Julio Jones, Russell Gage, Justin Hardy, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake
TEs: Austin Hooper, Jaeden Graham, Luke Stocker
Baltimore RavensCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
According to Baltimore Sun staffer Edward Lee, if expectations around the Ravens' three new wide receivers are high, they seem to match what Michael Crabtree has been telling John Brown and Willie Snead.
"Crab tells me every day, 'We're going to be doing something serious this year,'" Snead said. "And I believe it, too."
Clearly, the Ravens felt changes were necessary. Wholesale changes.
Out went Mike Wallace (to the Philadelphia Eagles), Jeremy Maclin (to free agency) and Michael Campanaro (to the Tennessee Titans) and in came Crabtree (from the Oakland Raiders), Brown (from the Arizona Cardinals) and Snead (from the New Orleans Saints).
As Lee noted, all three receivers joined the organization with some baggage.
Brown, who signed with the Ravens as an unrestricted free agent, is trying to overcome a series of health problems, including a cyst on his spine and sickle-cell anemia, and recapture the explosiveness that contributed to him accumulating 1,003 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2015.
A three-game suspension for an alcohol-related incident to begin the year and a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two more games sent Snead -- who joined the Ravens on April 20 -- to his worst season as a pro in 2017, setting career lows in receptions (eight), yards (92) and touchdowns (zero). Crabtree, who signed March 16, has finished with less than 700 yards in three of his past five seasons.
Joining the No. 29 passing offense in the league last season might not seem like the optimal destination for a rejuvenation, but Brown said last year's dismal showing did not dissuade him from signing on the dotted line March 15, one day after free agency officially opened.
"We know what the situation was last year with the receivers," he said. "So we set a high bar for ourselves. ... Everybody is just feeling good about the situation. That's what we plan on doing -- making plays and changing the offense."
Entering his 10th season as a pro, Crabtree is easily the most experienced wide receiver in their meeting room. Brown and Snead have each played five seasons in the league, and they have already begun sharing advice with their younger teammates.
Flacco, who had a career-low yards per pass attempt (5.7 yards) last season after missing the entire preseason because of a back injury, seems to be enjoying the new weapons at his disposal. Brown has emerged as his favorite target on long-distance throws, Crabtree has been a midrange monster and Snead has attacked the underbelly of defenses concerned with Brown and Crabtree's long runs.
Flacco's connection with the threesome has not gone unnoticed.
"They make more plays," free safety Eric Weddle said. "Over the middle. ... Those contested balls where usually we're coming down with them [or] breaking them up, they're coming down with them. Tough catches, where you go back and watch film and you say, 'Man, that's going to be a catch in the game. We couldn't have done any more as a defense.' It's nice for us, and it's nice to see Joe back there confident and hit that back foot and just fire it in there, not worried about it, not worried about the protection, not worried about the receiver. Whoever he's throwing to, just fire it in there, and he's confident those guys are going to make it. It's exciting to watch how far they've come."
Crabtree, Brown and Snead have stressed that they will be only as successful as the entire offense is. Brown downplayed any notion that the trio will resurrect Flacco's career.
"Joe struggled with a few injuries, but it doesn't matter who's in the game," Brown said. "I feel like he can make anybody look good, and he's looking real good, and he's healthy.
Remember, Flacco showed off a big arm from 2010 to 2012. Over that time, Flacco's 46 completions on passes of 25 yards or longer ranked third in the NFL. Only Drew Brees (60) and Aaron Rodgers (48) connected on more throws of that length. The Ravens know Flacco can stretch the field with the best quarterbacks. The difficulty was finding the right combination. With Brown, Baltimore sees the potential.
Last year, Baltimore's top three receivers -- Wallace, Maclin and Breshad Perriman -- were among the league's fastest, but Flacco managed a career-worst 5.72 yards per attempt. According to observers, the difference this time is Flacco's confidence in Brown. Throughout this offseason, Flacco has thrown the ball to Brown, even though it looks like there is tight coverage.
This jibes with what BaltimoreRavens.com's Ryan Mink told me during a recent appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, in which he called Brown a "dominant" force early in camp. The bottom line is that Brown's upside and the Ravens' lack of weapons are enough to make him a viable late-round flier in 2018 fantasy drafts. ..."
It's worth watching that connection. ...
In a related note. ... The Ravens decided to keep Robert Griffin along with Flacco and Lamar Jackson. Griffin's status was uncertain after Jackson finished strong in the preseason. But Griffin provides a more experienced backup option if Flacco suffers an injury.
According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, Griffin definitely earned the spot by how he performed in training camp and the preseason. It marks the first time since 2009 that Baltimore has carried three quarterbacks. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Alex Collins and Javorius Allen are a solid one-two punch in the backfield. Collins had a breakout season after being promoted from the practice squad, finishing with 973 yards on 212 carries with six touchdowns. He also ranked ninth in the league with 4.6 yards per carry. Allen, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was productive in a backup role and could be a force if he continues to progress.
The Ravens can lean on Collins on the early downs and turn to Allen in passing situations.
Kenneth Dixon survived the final cutdown because of his potential. According to Hensley, Dixon just hasn't looked like the same explosive runner since suffering a season-ending knee injury last summer.
At tight end, Hayden Hurst, the Ravens' top pick in this year's draft, could miss two to three games after having surgery for a stress fracture in his foot. He had been running with the starters and was Baltimore's top pass-catching tight end. Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are praised more for their blocking than their pass-catching. Mark Andrews, a rookie third-round pick, is the best tight end target with Hurst sidelined.
QBs: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Trace McSorley
RBs: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
WRs: Marquise Brown, Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore, Jaleel Scott
TEs: Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Hayden Hurst
Buffalo BillsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Bills named Nathan Peterman their starting quarterback in a job the second-year player is expected to hold until rookie first-round pick Josh Allen is deemed ready.
The Bills made the announcement on their Twitter account before practice Monday morning as the team prepares for its season opener at Baltimore on Sunday.
Peterman put up the best numbers during the preseason. He was involved in an offseason-long, three-way quarterback competition that was cut to two Saturday when free-agent addition AJ McCarron was traded to Oakland.
The decision to start Peterman is an indication Allen needs more time to develop after an inconsistent preseason.
In his first outing with the starting unit in the first preseason game, Peterman was 9-10 passing for 118 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He followed that up with an 8-10 passing performance for 113 yards and a touchdown working with the third string in Cleveland.
Then in his third and final preseason appearance, Peterman went 16-21 for 200 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati.
By the time the preseason was over, Peterman's completion percentage was an astounding 80.5 percent. Neither Allen nor McCarron eclipsed the 55 percent threshold for completion percentage.
Perhaps most impressive about Peterman's accuracy was his ability to consistently place the ball in either an area where only his receiving target could make a play on the ball or put the ball in a spot where his target could make a play after the reception.
"I think he's been accurate. We noticed that in college as well, but he gives the guys a chance to run after the catch, which is important," said head coach Sean McDermott.
In addition to his rhythm passing in which he gets the ball out quickly, Peterman also demonstrated an improved ability to push the ball downfield. Peterman averaged a gaudy 10.5 yards per attempt in the preseason. A figure of eight or higher is considered very good.
Peterman also took the fewest sacks (2) among the three quarterbacks and had the highest touchdown percentage.
"When you look across all the games, including practice, he has shown that consistency, which is good to see," said McDermott late last month. "A young player just in the start of his second season who has shown some poise and some understanding of how the NFL works in terms of defensive schemes. So I've watched him grow and develop, which is good to see. Still more work to do, but I think he has been consistent, which is important at the quarterback position."
In three appearances, Allen went 24 of 44 for 210 yards and two touchdowns. The 22-year-old struggled in a 26-13 loss to Cincinnati on Aug. 26 in his only preseason start.
Buffalo traded up five spots in the draft order to select Allen with the seventh pick.
Peterman is a fifth-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, and is best remembered for throwing five interceptions in the first half of his first start in a 54-24 loss at the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 19.
Peterman will get an opportunity to face the Chargers again on Sept. 16, when Buffalo hosts Los Angeles. ...
Meanwhile, as Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith reminded readers, when NFL players have been accused of domestic violence, the league has employed the commissioner's exempt list as a way to take a player off the field without actually suspending him.
But that will not happen with running back LeSean McCoy.
Although McCoy was accused of involvement in an attack on his ex-girlfriend, the NFL confirmed to the Washington Post that there is no change to his status and he is eligible to play in Week 1.
McCoy has not been criminally charged and has denied wrongdoing. ...
Worth noting: Chris Ivory appears to be McCoy's handcuff, but Marcus Murphy took the snaps behind McCoy in Monday's practice. ...
Other notes of interest. ... As the Sports Xchange recently noted, Kelvin Benjamin is a solid player who will be the primary target, but he's not really a No. 1 type receiver. He's not that fast, and he does his best work over the middle on possession routes, using his huge catch radius to make plays. The Bills don't have a burner and that limits their big-play capability. Zay Jones is coming off a disappointing rookie season, then missed all of the offseason as he rehabbed from knee and shoulder surgery, making him a big unknown.
Reliable veteran Jeremy Kerley figures to get the most time as the slot receiver, but the wideout position in general isn't a strength. ...
Charles Clay will be an interesting player to watch. He has been a bit of an underachieving player in his first three seasons with the Bills, so the hope is that he can find a more prominent niche in new coordinator Brian Daboll's offense. The two were together in Miami when Clay was a rookie in 2011.
A few final notes here. ... McDermott on Monday told reporters Ryan Groy will start at center over Russell Bodine. The starter had been unsettled through camp. Groy has big shoes to fill in following Eric Wood, who was forced to retire due to a neck issue. ... McDermott also said tight end and former quarterback Logan Thomas will serve as the emergency third quarterback, although McDermott did not rule out G.M. Brandon Beane adding another quarterback.
QBs: Josh Allen, Matt Barkley
RBs: Devin Singletary, Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon
WRs: John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, Andre Roberts, Duke Williams, Robert Foster
TEs: Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Tommy Sweeney, Lee Smith, Jason Croom
Carolina PanthersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Carolina Panthers made the playoffs last season but that doesn't mean they were happy with how the season went.
They failed to win the NFC South, settling for a wild-card spot in the playoffs and a first-round loss to divisional rival New Orleans.
So head coach Ron Rivera has been retooling things since walking out of the Superdome. There's a new offensive coordinator with Norv Turner and a new defensive coordinator with Eric Washington (because Steve Wilks became the Arizona Cardinals head coach) and a renewed emphasis to shore up just about everything in between.
"See how we handle some things with the new coordinators," Rivera said. "There are a little bit different nuances that Norv has than what Mike (Shula) had. Those are the things they're going to have to understand."
As the Sports Xchange recently noted, Cam Newton had a choppy preseason in 2017 to say the least as he was coming off shoulder surgery, creating a severe reduction in his practice repetitions. Given that the Panthers have a new coordinator, Newton's role could be evolving.
Newton has broken all sorts of QB rushing records, and he's had some success in the air. But many still aren't sold on his ability as a passer, due in large part to Newton's inconsistent accuracy during his seven NFL seasons.
So it's worth noting Turner's greatest successes have come working with pure pocket passers.
"I always think it's important for the quarterback when you're in the pocket, the things you're doing to be very quick with the ball, be specific, get the ball out, and I think that's where we can help Cam," Turner said upon arrival in Carolina.
Whether that is the case or not, Newton will be looking to have a more productive offseason this year after last spring's shoulder surgery prevented him from going through a regular training camp and even limited his work across the first month of the season.
Keeping Newton healthy will continue to be a priority, and a revamped Panthers receiving corps (with first-round wideout D.J. Moore added to the mix) could even help the QB's passing numbers.
But the offensive line is a concern.
As Charlotte Observer staffer Jourdan Rodrigue reported, with just a week until the Panthers open their regular season at home against the Cowboys, there was good news and bad news regarding the offensive line.
Starting left tackle Matt Kalil was placed on injured reserve by the team, meaning he will miss at least the first eight games before being eligible to return.
Kalil had an arthroscopic scope on his right knee on Aug. 21 and had not practiced since.
But there was some good news on Sunday. Right tackle Daryl Williams and guard/tackle Amini Silatolu both returned to practice.
Williams, who is in a contract year, has made a lot of progress in his rehabilitation of a torn MCL and dislocated patella. The team escaped putting him on injured reserve to begin the season. Williams remains week to week. It's unlikely he gets the start against Dallas on Sunday with the team likely wanting to be cautious.
Silatolu has been day to day while rehabilitating a torn meniscus. He adds depth along the line, but it's unlikely the Panthers would play him as a starter at left guard, where he was competing in training camp, in place of a healthy Greg Van Roten.
Carolina will evaluate its options on the offensive line this week. The staff might not want to put Silatolu or Williams on the field so quickly after knee injuries, despite what has appeared to be a quick recovery for both.
With Kalil out, second-year guard/tackle Taylor Moton will likely start at left tackle. And Robinson could very well be featured on the right, should the team choose to be cautious with Williams.
The situation merits our attention in coming days, so I'll be following up as needed via Late-Breaking Update. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Christian McCaffrey's role was the topic of much discussion over the summer. Indeed, with McCaffrey expected to play a bigger role in the ground game, the addition of 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson and new coordinator Norv Turner asking Newton to look to pass before running, ESPN.com's David Newton warned reader not to expect the QB to lead the team in rushing again this season.
Anderson is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season with the Denver Broncos, so despite releasing the franchise's all-time leading rusher in Jonathan Stewart there's no decline expected. In fact, the group needs to pick up the pace, particularly in terms of the ground attack.
Remember, Rivera and Turner both suggested this offseason that McCaffrey can handle 25-plus touches a game, which might seem a bit unrealistic. Still, McCaffrey offers so much more than a traditional tailback and he's more equipped to be a factor catching the ball that fantasy managers who drafted him in PPR leagues have a true high-end threat. The explosive plays we saw McCaffrey deliver in August add to the promise. ...
At wideout, Devin Funchess became the No. 1 receiver last season after the trade of Kelvin Benjamin, so he'll have to prove he's cut out for that across the long haul. Torrey Smith, who arrived in a trade from the Philadelphia Eagles, is an ideal addition, with experience and explosiveness that has frequently been lacking among the wideouts. The Panthers used their first draft selection on Moore, so count on him being in the mix as well after a strong preseason.
The key could be Curtis Samuel, a second-year pro who had an injury-riddled preseason and regular season last year as a rookie. His speed, if used right, is a difference maker. Samuel, however, had a small procedure to fix an irregular heartbeat, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday. Samuel is out this week against the Cowboys but this doesn't sound like a long-term issue.
Moore hit a bit of a wall because of the volume of plays he has been asked to learn. "We want him to stop thinking so much and just let his God-given ability take over," receivers coach Lance Taylor said.
Jarius Wright also proved to be a versatile veteran whose familiarity with Turner's offense made him a factor this summer, something that could extend into the regular season. ...
At tight end, Greg Olsen is one of the best in the game and his presence tends to be a comfort for Newton. According to The Athletic's Joseph Person, Olsen ran fluidly throughout camp, got open and caught most everything thrown at him. Person added: "One of Newton's favorite targets appears to be back. ..." In addition, Person reported that because of an injury to Chris Manhertz, rookie tight end Ian Thomas got additional work this summer.
Manhertz passed his physical on Friday and was added to the roster was a good sign. He likely won't make a big contribution the first few weeks, but having Thomas playing at a high level makes that a non-issue barring an injury.
QBs: Will Grier, Kyle Allen, Cam Newton
RBs: Christian McCaffrey, Reggie Bonnafon, Mike Davis, Jordan Scarlett, Elijah Holyfield
WRs: D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright, Brandon Zylstra, Chris Hogan
TEs: Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz
Chicago BearsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN's Mike Clay noted, a new coach (Matt Nagy), second-year quarterback (Mitchell Trubisky) and rebuilt offense (Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel) have many comparing the 2018 Bears to the 2017 Rams.
Clay believes there could be some merit, if -- a big if --Trubisky makes a big second-year leap.
Players responsible for 78 percent of the 232 targets distributed to Bears receivers last season are no longer on the roster. Clay added that Trubisky survived his rookie season in a conservative, run-heavy offense that was lacking playmakers.
The Bears have gone to great lengths to change that.
The concerns on offense center on Trubisky, who has only 12 starts into his NFL career.
The hope is young players such as Trubisky and running back Jordan Howard will continue to grow and a rising defense that now features an elite pass-rusher in Khalil Mack can serve as the backbone for an organization in desperate need of a turnaround. There is optimism, especially after the trade for Mack and finally coming to terms with rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, but it remains to be seen if there is enough talent overall to make a run at the NFC North in Nagy's first year.
Nagy said Sunday that he will be "smart" but aggressive in getting Khalil Mack up to speed in time to play next Sunday night at the Green Bay Packers.
Nagy said Mack will practice Monday and the Bears are "going to do everything we can to get him to a point to where he can play."
Asked to clarify the likelihood of Mack playing in Week 1, Nagy answered, "Hopefully pretty good."
Getting back to the offense. ... As Chicago Tribune staffer Brad Biggs pointed out, caught up in the hyper focus on Trubisky, the totally revamped corps of wide receivers, the addition of Burton and Nagy's new playbook has overlooked one thing this summer, it's that the Bears should have a very good running game.
Indeed, for all the focus and attention paid to the changes that will be made in the passing game, it's worth noting that Nagy's former team, the Chiefs, have profited from a top-10 rushing offense in four of the five years Andy Reid has been there. Even better, they ranked in the top four in yards per carry in four of those five seasons.
The Bears were not top 10 in rushing in any of the last five seasons, although they were top 10 twice in yards per carry.
According to Biggs, that's great news for those wondering how Howard, who rushed for 2,435 yards with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average in his first two seasons, will fare in the scheme.
"We do believe in the run -- trust me," Nagy said. "And 24 (Howard) and 29 (Tarik Cohen) and the rest of the guys understand the significance of it."
As for Howard's role?
"We'll do different things with (Howard) and we'll keep him on the field on third down -- I've told you that before. Whoever it is, however we do it, running the ball's important."
The Bears are transitioning from the outside zone running scheme they used during the John Fox era to more inside zone, but you'll still see a mixture of both. Howard's running style is well-suited to the inside zone game and he should benefit from the significant increase in snaps in the shotgun formation. Howard averaged 6.5 yards per carry on runs from the shotgun during his first two seasons, compared with 4.3 yards when the quarterback was under center.
As Biggs pointed out, Howard has excellent vision on plays that originate from the shotgun and he's able to time his cuts with the blocks, so more of that in this scheme should only benefit him.
"He can carry the load," Trubisky said. "We've seen him do it these last two years, we expect that from him going forward and he doesn't mind that at all. (If we) put a lot on his shoulders, he's going to carry us. He really has embraced this offense and done a lot. ..."
Other notes of interest. ... According to ESPN.com, Miller could become the type of game-changing receiver the Bears have needed for years. The rookie from Memphis has earned plaudits throughout camp for his growth on the field. He will have plenty of chances to shine within Nagy's system. With Robinson and Gabriel set to lead the way, Miller has shown in camp he could make an impact early and often working out of the slot with excellent hands and crisp routes.
And what about Burton?
According to Biggs, if the newcomer remains healthy, he certainly could challenge Martellus Bennett's franchise record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end at 916 (2014).
QBs: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel
RBs: David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen
WRs: Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson, Javon Wims, Riley Ridley, Taylor Gabriel
TEs: Jesper Horsted, J.P. Holtz, Bradley Sowell, Eric Saubert
Cincinnati BengalsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
Bengals fans wanted major changes after two non-winning seasons, but they didn't get them after the team re-signed head coach Marvin Lewis for a 16th season. There are still changes with new coordinators (Bill Lazor, offense, and Teryl Austin, defense) and a new staff of assistants.
As the Sports Xchange recently noted, since their last playoff appearance following the 2015 season, the Bengals have experienced a significant drop-off in their offensive production.
When they went 12-4 in 2015 and reached the playoffs for the fifth straight season, Cincinnati ranked seventh in the league with 419 points and 15th in total yards. In the last two seasons, the Bengals are 13-18-1 and offense is a key reason for the decline.
In 2016, the Bengals ranked 24th in points and last season they dropped to 26th for their lowest ranking since going 2-14 in 2002. While Andy Dalton has appeared in every game the last two seasons, the quarterback has endured 80 sacks.
The combination of Dalton being unable to avoid oncoming pass rushes and ineffective offensive line play resulted in the underwhelming performances and shoring up that area were a priority for Cincinnati.
The Bengals hired Frank Pollack to coach the offensive line after he did the same for the Dallas Cowboys and he was part of a major reconstruction of the coaching staff.
Then there's the personnel.
The hope is Cordy Glenn is as good as advertised after taking over at left tackle a year after the departure of Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals also hope Billy Price can provide Dalton with ample protection at center after using their first-round pick on a center for the first time since selecting Dave Rimington in 1983.
Glenn, Clint Boling and Price are sure starters, but the right side of the line is a still somewhat of a puzzle.
Still, if the reformed offensive line is as effective as the Bengals believe, it could give Dalton plenty of time to connect with receivers A.J Green and Tyler while developing chemistry with young receivers such as John Ross.
Last season, Dalton threw 25 touchdown passes but his 3,320 passing yards were the second-lowest of his career and the lowest of any season where he did not miss a game.
"There's going to be years like that," Dalton said. "(Can't) get as frustrated like I did last year just got to stay who I am and continue to play."
After two years of disappointing line play, Dalton and the Bengals are hoping the changes result in the effective offense they were accustomed to and give them a chance to play beyond Week 17. ...
Indeed, ESPN.com's Katherine Terrell predicts the Bengals' offense will bounce back in a big way.
Of course, everything depends on the play of Dalton, who hasn't been able to recreate the success of 2015. But with a capable left tackle in Glenn and weapons such as Joe Mixon and Green, the offense should climb out of the cellar. If the Bengals can keep Tyler Eifert healthy, they have a shot to be a threat in the red zone again.
For what it's worth. ... Mixon signaled he was ready for a Year 2 surge with a dazzling 24-yard touchdown catch in Cincinnati's preseason opener. Terrell said there is no question Mixon is "the guy" at this point with Jeremy Hill now in New England.
Mixon will split some touches with runner/receiver Giovani Bernard. But Mixon can catch the ball, too -- and he was actually lined up as a receiver on the above-mentioned TD catch. ...
Green remains effective after totaling over 1,000 yards for the sixth time in seven seasons. He turned 30 during training camp and while others get big contracts, he is focused on rebounding from an inconsistent season. There were uncharacteristic drops, the fight with Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey and it is up to new receivers coach Bob Bicknell to bring him back to normal and possibly get him to be an All-Pro for the first time in his career.
"He has to be better at deep balls," Lewis said. "We weren't good enough. Got to be better. Got to be better. Got to be better releasing off the football. We've got to coach him better. We have to throw and catch it better. I think we threw it to him enough. I think we have to create opportunity, but he was the best in the National Football League. Last year we weren't."
The numbers don't lie concerning Dalton's long passes. Green tied for the fewest receptions of at least 25 yards in his career by hauling in only six. ...
Also. ... It's easy to forget following a dreadful rookie season, but Ross ran a record 4.22 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL combine. He was selected ninth overall in the draft but battled injuries while playing only 15 snaps in three games. ESPN's Mike Clay reminded readers of Ross' elite speed and probable role increase supply him with plenty of post-hype upside.
As for Eifert?
We all know the knock. He's only been on the field for 39 of a possible 80 games since he entered the league. That includes fewer than three games two of the past four years. When healthy, however, the upside is there. As Clay reminded readers, Eifert missed three games in 2015, but still led tight ends in the league with 13 touchdowns. He missed eight games in 2016, but scored five touchdowns and ranked seventh at the position in fantasy points per game.
So, yes. Durability a major concern, but he appears to be healthy and ready to roll for Week 1. If not? Tyler Kroft did not disappoint last season by totaling 42 receptions for 404 yards and seven touchdowns. The seven TDs were sixth among tight ends and his 42 catches ranked him 21st at the position.
By the way, Eifert is practicing in full this week. ...
QBs: Andy Dalton, Ryan Finley, Jake Dolegala
RBs: Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Trayveon Williams
WRs: Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Alex Erickson, Stanley Morgan Jr., Damion Willis
TEs: Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah, Cethan Carter, Drew Sample
Cleveland BrownsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
Josh Gordon was back on the practice field Monday in preparation for Sunday's opener against the Steelers. ... Gordon hadn't practiced since June 13, and of the four aforementioned players, he had been idle the longest because he's the only one who didn't practice in training camp. He missed a little more than the first three weeks of camp while receiving treatment related to his public struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. He returned to the Browns on Aug. 18 and received approval from the NFL to begin practicing on Aug. 25.
However, a tweaked hamstring prevented him from truly participating until Monday.
According to Cleveland Gordon went through agility drills and caught some passes from the QBs before the media was ushered out after 30 minutes. He showed no ill effects from the hamstring that's had him mostly working off to the side with trainers for the past week.
It was great news for the Browns, who are solely focused on beating the Steelers.
Gordon will likely be ready for a bigger workload on Wednesday when the Browns begin installing the full game plan for the Steelers.
Other Browns who returned to the field Monday included Seth DeValve (quad), Genard Avery (hamstring) and Damarious Randall (knee). Cornerback E.J. Gaines is still idle with his sprained knee, and linebacker James Burgess is idle with his concussion.
As for Gordon, Tyrod Taylor said he believes he'll still have good chemistry with the 2013 Pro Bowl receiver.
"We had a chance to do some things the last two days," Taylor said last week. "More importantly is that we're communicating and talking the same language once we get out there so both of us just being playmakers can go out there and react. Of course, you definitely have to spend time with him throwing. He is a talented guy. You put the ball around him, and he is going to make a catch. Just continue to keep building the chemistry mentally and physically."
A couple of scenes on the fourth episode of Hard Knocks Tuesday night revealed that Gordon feels genuinely comfortable with the new offense.
"Not too many new plays, which works good for me," he said to a fellow receiver while sitting at his locker when he first got back. "I'm a low-key surprised, though. Pretty much like the same s----. You've all been doing this for a month, two months? I pretty much know all of these, so I'm straight. They might as well let me practice today, give you all a break. I'm going to talk s-- from the sidelines today.
I can't wait to get back out there."
He also told Fox sideline reporter Kristina Pink that he was on board with Jackson's decision not to start him against the Steelers.
"It makes sense," he said. "You definitely don't want to come from a place of entitlement, and that's not where I'm coming from. I think anybody should have to step in and earn the right to play football in the National Football League. That doesn't put me beyond that. I'm not above reproach in any type of way."
For the record, head coach Hue Jackson said rookie Antonio Callaway will start against the Steelers and he reiterated Gordon won't. Jackson added, however, Gordon, Randall, DeValve and Avery should be able to play Sunday.
Gordon told reporters on Wednesday that he has no limitations and is 100 percent. The wideout believes he can have big impact against the Steelers even without starting.
Needless to say I'll be following Gordon's progress closely in coming days. Watch the Late-Breaking News section for more. ...
Worth noting. ... The offensive line is still in limbo. Jackson would not reveal his starters on the line's left side following Monday's practice. Jackson may move Joel Bitonio back to left guard after sliding him to left tackle during training camp.
Jackson insists his goal is to "put the best five guys out there."
Bitonio said he's ready to play either position and will do whatever Jackson wants. Bitonio believes Jackson will announce his decision Wednesday.
If Jackson moved Bitonio back to guard, undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison could start at left tackle. Rookie Austin Corbett has been playing in Bitonio's old spot during the exhibition season.
Bitonio called the 6-6, 295-pound Harrison the team's most athletic lineman. The Browns have been looking for a left tackle since 10-time Pro Bowler announced his retirement in March.
Beyond that. ... The Browns had a plan when preseason started, and they have followed that plan. Taylor begins the season as the starter and will hold the job as he long as he performs and/or the team wins. Rookie Baker Mayfield's play was impressive through the entire preseason, but Taylor is locked into the starting role -- at least as long as the team is playing well enough.
At running back, the team has talent and depth. Carlos Hyde is the unquestioned starter. He looked lean, quick and active from OTAs right through preseason. The depth here will not affect Duke Johnson, who figures to get similar touches as a year ago. Remember: New offensive coordinator Todd Haley had Le'Veon Bell in his backfield when he had the same job with the Steelers.
Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb have similar running styles; they aren't particularly shifty, but both can break tackles. Neither is a home-run hitter, but both will be tough to trap in the backfield because both are downhill runners. Johnson is dangerous as a receiver and could lead all backs in total yardage.
Jarvis Landry led the NFL with 112 catches last year and Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013. No wonder Haley is excited. Add speedy Rashard Higgins to the mix with Landry, Callaway and Gordon and the Browns' offense can be special.
The Browns have high hopes for tight end David Njoku. The key is simple: Catching the ball. Njoku caught 32 passes as a rookie last season and led the Browns with four receiving touchdowns. He made some spectacular catches, but also dropped balls that hit him in the hands.
Blocking specialist Darren Fells has been a good addition, and DeValve won the spot over Devon Cajuste despite missing significant time with an injury.
PK Zane Gonzalez needs to improve on his rookie season when he had some erratic moments.
QBs: Baker Mayfield, Garrett Gilbert, Drew Stanton
RBs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson
WRs: Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Damion Ratley, Taywan Taylor, Rashard Higgins, Derrick Willies
TEs: Demetrius Harris, Ricky Seals-Jones, David Njoku, Stephen Carlson, Pharaoh Brown
Dallas CowboysCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Todd Archer asked, "Are the Cowboys closer to the 13-3 2016 team that had the best record in the NFC or the 9-7 2017 team that missed the playoffs?"
The Cowboys strength remains in the running game even with Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick out to start the year with Guillain-Barre syndrome. Ezekiel Elliott did not have a preseason carry, but he had his best training camp.
In fact, Archer predicts that Elliott will lead the NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. He led the NFL with 1,631 yards on the ground as a rookie, so winning the rushing title is not too much of a stretch. But considering the holes left by the absences of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, he will do more in the passing game in 2018. Elliott recorded 58 catches for 632 yards in 25 games in his first two seasons.
Archer believes Elliott could match those totals in 2018.
One thing is certain: Elliott, who missed six games last year due to a NFL suspension and is motivated to have a big year in 2018.
Running backs coach Gary Brown told Elliott to get in great shape and get ready to dominate because he will be counted on to do the heavy lifting on offense.
"To come in and be in the greatest shape of your life and get ready to dominate because we understand what the game plan is going to be for these defenses early in the year," said Brown when asked what he has told Elliott. "Until our receivers start killing these guys because we are not getting enough respect. We have a lot of great receivers out here; he is going to have to deal with a lot of loaded boxes. So come in and be in the best shape of your life. Be ready to get a lot of carries early. It is going to be a situation where defenses are going to try to stop us. They are going to try their best, but they are not going to be able to."
He is certainly motivated to make up for what he feels was a lost season in 2017 when he missed six games due to an NFL suspension after fighting with the league in federal court through the first eight games.
Brown says Elliott has been changed by his experiences over the last year. He has matured. He has taken on a leadership role on the team. But he also wants to take advantage of an opportunity to develop into one of the best backs in NFL history.
"Last year changed him a lot," Brown said. "He realizes this is a very special opportunity that he has, especially to (be) one of the best backs to ever play. He has that opportunity. He understands that now. He is going to take advantage of everything he does. ... Zeke is in a really good place right now."
If he plays a full 16 games, combined with a heavier workload as a runner and receiver, there is a chance Elliott could put up historic numbers in 2018.
Meanwhile, as ESPN's Mike Clay reminded readers, Bryant and Witten were responsible for 42.7 percent of the Cowboys' receiving yardage since the two teamed up in 2010. Both are gone, leaving 2018 third-round pick Michael Gallup to compete for targets with Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Deonte Thompson, Tavon Austin and a bunch of questions at tight end.
Hurns is the only member of the Cowboys receiver corps who has had a 1,000-yard season, so he'll need to be a leader in a committee approach. Gallup caught 100 balls in 2017 and was Pro Football Focus' top-graded wide receiver.
The Cowboys signed Thompson in the offseason because of his previous relationship with receivers coach Sanjay Lal. So it comes as no surprise that the Cowboys brought back Thompson after cutting him Saturday. The Cowboys announced the move Monday. Thompson, who signed a one-year deal that included a $1 million signing bonus in the offseason. He missed part of training camp with an Achilles strain.
Austin will split his time between running back and receiver.
Rico Gathers is on the roster even after he was arrested and charged with marijuana possession last Friday. Gathers caught 10 passes for 83 yards in the preseason and is a favorite of owner and general manager Jerry Jones. He is still learning the game after a successful basketball career at Baylor, but the Cowboys figure he might be able to help in certain situations, despite his lack of experience, especially in pass protection.
He enters the season, however, as the fourth tight end behind Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. ...
Since 2011, the Cowboys had comfort in the knowledge that Dan Bailey was their kicker, but they opted to go with Brett Maher, who has never kicked in a regular-season game. Only Justin Tucker at 90.2 percent has been more accurate than Bailey, who has made 88.2 percent of his kicks. There was no indication Bailey was in trouble, although Maher did have a strong camp and connected on a 57-yarder in the final preseason game against the Houston Texans.
Bailey has made 11 game winners in his career. Bailey was set to make $3.4 million this year. Maher will make $480,000.
Meanwhile, the pressure will fall on head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Dak Prescott this season.
For Garrett, the focus is on his job security. For Prescott, it is about securing a big-time contract without high-end receiving talent.
One last note here. ... Garrett said Monday that Frederick hasn't had any "drastic setbacks" while getting treated for Guillain-Barre syndrome. The disorder attacks nerves and causes weakness in various parts of the body. Joe Looney is expected to start when the Cowboys open the season Sunday at Carolina.
The 27-year-old Frederick traveled with the team to the final preseason game in Houston and is attending meetings. He has started all 83 games, including three playoff games, over five seasons.
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard
WRs: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Devin Smith, Ventell Bryant
TEs: Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz
Denver BroncosCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
Royce Freeman is set to become the first rookie running back to start a season opener for the Denver Broncos since Hall of Famer Terrell Davis in 1995.
"It's an honor to be mentioned with a man of that caliber, a player with that type of legacy around here," Freeman said.
Head coach Vance Joseph chose the third-round pick from Oregon as his starter Monday ahead of veteran Devontae Booker and fellow rookie Phillip Lindsay, who coincidentally was handed Davis' old No. 30 jersey.
"That being said, it's going to be by packages, also," Joseph told the Associated Press. "So, Royce is our leading runner, but on third down you'll probably see Booker and obviously having a package for Phillips is going to be important."
Freeman reacted with humility after his position coach, Curtis Modkins, informed him he'd start Sunday against Seattle.
"It's an honor to be named a starter for this football team," Freeman said. "It makes me want to work harder."
Freeman had plenty of miles on his football odometer coming out of Oregon, where he was a four-year starter and rushed 947 times for 5,621 yards and 60 touchdowns in addition to catching 79 passes for 815 yards and four TDs.
General manager John Elway said that proved he's durable, and Freeman also proved his worth as a pass protector for Case Keenum during training camp and the preseason.
Joseph lauded Freeman's maturity, saying he can "carry the load from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. He was really good in 'pass-pro.' That's your biggest worry about having a young halfback playing with a veteran quarterback, but he's shown the IQ and the maturity to be a great 'pass-pro' guy."
Joseph said Freeman's build and resume -- he packs 238 pounds on his 6-foot frame and started 45 games in college -- show he can handle heavy workloads, too.
"That's what he showed at Oregon. He was their main guy. He had a lot of work. He stayed healthy through the work. And that's also an issue for most young backs, can they carry the load for 16 weeks?" Joseph said. "And I think with his background, his body type, he should be able to carry the load for 16 weeks."
Freeman was second-string behind Booker in the preseason, but he led the team with three touchdown runs, one in each of Denver's first three preseason games before sitting out the exhibition finale.
Now he's in prime position to carry those performances over to the regular season.
Beyond Freeman, the Broncos deemed quarterback, at which three different starters played turnover-prone football behind spotty protection last season, the top item on the offseason to-do list and signed Keenum. According to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold, the Broncos believe Keenum is ready to be a franchise quarterback in an offense that will have more athleticism with the additions of rookies Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton and Freeman.
There are also former Pro Bowl selections Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to help the offense get rolling.
But Keenum might want to get off to a strong start. As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio noted, "Pro football remains a meritocracy, and there's no place where that statement is more true than in Denver. Especially at the quarterback position."
The team led by a Hall of Fame quarterback in Elway won't hesitate to put the best guy on the field and, as they showed on Sunday, the worst guy out to pasture. Even if he arrived via the a trade up in the first round of the draft. After losing a fair-and-square quarterback competition in 2016 and 2017 to former seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch fell behind last year's Mr. Irrelevant, Chad Kelly.
And Lynch has now fallen off the roster.
So with Kelly bypassing the guy in whom Elway invested a first-round pick, the next question becomes whether, and when, Kelly will skip past Keenum. Much of that depends on Keenum, and obviously plenty depends on Kelly. But Elway won't tip the scales in Keenum's favor simply because they paid Keenum a bunch of money.
The moment Elway thinks Kelly gives the Broncos a better chance to win, Kelly will be the guy.
That said, both Elway and Joseph have said Keenum's bumpy ride in the NFL, to go with his experience in the playoffs, was what appealed to them as the Broncos starter.
Keenum has been waived three times in his career, been traded and waited until now, his sixth NFL season, to be a team's unquestioned starter in a season opener. He is coming off his best season as a professional, when he threw for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns in 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings in relief of the injured Sam Bradford.
"He's just been through some things," Joseph said. "He knows the job comes with tough things, and you have to have the mentality to recover from tough things."
Still, as ESPN's Dan Graziano put it: "Keenum was a great story last season in Minnesota, but let's see it again before we feel like the arrow is all the way up. ..."
At wideout, Thomas and Sanders remain an effective and productive duo when healthy. The intrigue rests behind them on the depth chart, where 2018 draft picks Sutton and Hamilton could be a future starting duo. Sutton, in particular, is coming off a strong training camp and exhibition season and appears to be first in line to contribute behind the starters.
In fact, Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. told reporter that Sutton is on par with DeAndre Hopkins and Dez Bryant with his ability to win 50-50 balls.
At tight end, starter Jeff Heuerman gained an advantage buy getting repetitions with Keenum throughout OTAs, but he is in the final year of his contract and hasn't produced as the Broncos hoped he would have after struggling with injuries his first two seasons. The primary hope for the position rests with Jake Butt, who missed his rookie season in 2017 because of a torn ACL suffered at Michigan. He shined during OTAs and could become the red-zone threat the Broncos have lacked from the position the last two seasons.
QBs: Drew Lock, Brandon Allen
RBs: Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, Theo Riddick
WRs: Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Daesean Hamilton, Fred Brown, Juwann Winfree, Diontae Spencer
TEs: Noah Fant, Jeff Heuerman, Troy Fumagalli
Detroit LionsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Detroit Lions aren't anyone's pick to win the Super Bowl this year. Not coming off a season in which they won nine games and fired their head coach, and not playing in a division against teams that have arguably the best quarterback (Green Bay Packers) and defense (the Minnesota Vikings) in football.
But optimism is high in Detroit as the Lions get ready to open the Matt Patricia era, and much of it centers around a new head coach and the championship pedigree he's bringing to the field.
A three-time Super Bowl champion as an assistant with the New England Patriots, Patricia spent the spring installing a new defense - the one he ran the last six seasons as Bill Belichick's understudy - and laying out his win-now expectations.
From a fantasy perspective, we all know what to expect from Matt Stafford and his receiving corps -- Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and emerging talent Kenny Golladay: Consistent high end production has been a given.
That can't be said of the rushing attack.
Indeed, as the Detroit News noted this week, much has been made of the Lions' rushing struggles over the past decade and especially last season when they averaged 3.4 yards per carry to their opponents' 4.2.
New offensive line coach Jeff Davidson thinks that improvement can happen when the line gets back to run-blocking basics.
"To leave it in simple terms, we have jobs for everybody on every play, and guys that are responsible for blocking certain members of the defense, we have to make sure they stay on their blocks," Davidson said. "That's where we start. I'd love to say that it's always that easy."
Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter warned about only focusing on one facet of the offense during the offseason. His was more concerned about improving the offense as a whole.
"Every year is its own year," Cooter said. "I don't live in the, 'Last year we were this, so this year we need to change this one thing or upgrade this one thing.' It's a brand new year. It's a fresh year.
"Whatever we did well in the past or poorly in the past, it doesn't mean we get to pick back up right there. Something we might have been real good at, we better not just put that in our back pocket and say, 'Hey, we got that locked up.' There's a lot we're trying to improve. Last year's evaluations were made in the offseason and dealt with."
Meanwhile, after rooking running back Kerryon Johnson turned in an impressive preseason performance, making electric moves while averaging 4.5 yards per carry, we got a sense of the potential he showed the Lions.
According to Detroit Free Press reporter Carlos Monarrez, Johnson could start out as the backup to LeGarrette Blount. Or not.
Cooter liked what he saw from Johnson in the preseason, and likes the trajectory he's on. Cooter said he's going to kind of let Johnson's role develop and define itself based off the rookie's play early on in the season. Whatever the case, Blount, Johnson and Theo Riddick should all have game-day roles and it's possible Ameer Abdullah will as well if the Lions decide to make him their kick returner.
The pecking order here is something we'll be watching closely in coming days. Keep an eye on the Late-Breaking News section for more on this one. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Ten years into his NFL career, Stafford is beginning to get his due as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He's made 112 straight starts, thrown for nearly 35,000 yards and delivered more than his share of late-game heroics.
Stafford needs to take fewer sacks and he lost far too many fumbles last season (seven), but the Lions have clearly built their team around Stafford and will go only as far as he can take them.
It's worth noting the Lions were the only team to have two wide receivers top 1,000 yards receiving last year, and this group should be even better this fall. Tate is in a contract year, and as he approaches his 30th birthday has shown no signs of slowing down. Jones had the most productive season of his career last fall while emerging as one of the best deep threats in the game (18 yards per catch).
As ESPN's Mike Clay reminded readers, Golladay averaged a hefty 17.0 yards per reception on 48 targets during an impressive rookie season. The 2017 third-round pick is 6-4, 218 pounds, with 4.5-second 40 wheels. Clay added that Detroit makes heavy use of three-wide-receiver sets, which will keep Golladay on the field, especially near the goal line, and allow him another step forward in his second season.
Meanwhile, it doesn't appear that one player has emerged to take over the No. 1 tight end role. Cooter is still plugging certain guys into different roles and is keeping an open mind when it comes to his No. 1. He likes the versatility of the group. Will someone step up early and force Cooter to leave him on the field?
Luke Willson, who is dealing with a knee injury, is still considered the starter. Hakeem Valles was one of the feel-good stories of training camp. He spent most of last season on Detroit's practice squad and outplayed every other tight end on the roster to earn a roster spot.
QBs: David Blough, Kyle Sloter
RBs: Kerryon Johnson, Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson, J.D. McKissic, Paul Perkins
WRs: Kenny Golladay, Danny Amendola, Chris Lacy, Travis Fulgham
TEs: Jesse James, Logan Thomas
Green Bay PackersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
While just about everything has changed around the Packers since the end of last season, when their run of eight consecutive playoff appearances ended, two major components remain the same: Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy.
The QB-coach combination, whose last -- and only -- Super Bowl came more than seven years ago, might be under more pressure than ever. Team president Mark Murphy changed GMs, shoving aside veteran Ted Thompson for the youthful Brian Gutekunst, while McCarthy changed both coordinators, with Joe Philbin returning to run the offense.
Of course, the Packers and Rodgers agreed to terms on a four-year, $134 million extension late last month. With a new deal in his back pocket, there will be no distractions for Rodgers and the Packers when they host the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field this week.
It's hard to downplay Rodgers' importance to the Packers -- and to fantasy owners.
On his career, Rodgers has passed 38,502 yards, 313 touchdowns with 78 interceptions for a 103.8 passer rating. His passer rating and TD-INT ratio ranks as the highest in NFL history (minimum 2,000 attempts).
He's also a boon to his supporting cast.
Since 2008, the Packers average 27.7 points per game with Rodgers, but 20.2 points per game without him.
In 2017, the Packers and Fantasy Nation endured nine games without Rodgers, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 6.
Now healthy and enjoying the security that comes with a contract like this, the path is clear for Rodgers to make another run at being fantasy's and the NFL's best quarterback.
Worth noting. ... The last time Rodgers broke his collarbone (2013) he came back the next season to win his second MVP. Rodgers has a dynamic pass-catching tight end again in Jimmy Graham. With Graham's size and athleticism and the emergence of Davante Adams, plus a hungry Randall Cobb in a contract year, it might all align perfectly for Rodgers for repeat that MVP effort.
While Rodgers clearly isn't going anywhere, with McCarthy under contract for only one more season after this one, it's a big year.
The question is does he have a roster deep enough to make another run?
At running back, Aaron Jones has been suspended the first two games for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. When Jones returns, look for him and Jamaal Williams - both second year players - to split carries.
Last year, Jones was arguably the most explosive running McCarthy has ever had. Jones averaged a whopping 5.53 yards per carry and had runs of 20 yards or more, on six of his 81 carries (7.41 percent). Williams was kept in mothballs the first half of 2017, then averaged 17.8 carries and 65.3 yards per game over the final eight games without fumbling once.
The knock on Williams, though, is he lacks explosiveness.
Ty Montgomery was the Packers' preferred starter at running back when 2017 began. But Montgomery couldn't stay healthy, suffered rib and wrist injuries, and was passed by the two rookies.
Getting back to the wideouts, in the last two years, Adams has 22 touchdowns - the most by any receiver in the NFL. Adams is also the only player in football with at least 70 receptions and 10 touchdowns in each of the last two years. Adams passed former teammate Jordy Nelson as Green Bay's No. 1 receiver early in 2017 and went to the Pro Bowl for the first time last season.
The diminutive Cobb is unlikely to ever match his 91-catch, 1,287-yard, 12-touchdown season of 2014. But Cobb has averaged 68 receptions, 697 yards and five touchdowns over the last three years.
Green Bay selected J'Mon Moore in the fourth round of April's draft (pick 133), Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the fifth round (174) and Equanimeous St. Brown in the sixth (207). But they're all stuck behind current No. 3 man Geronimo Allison, who has 35 catches over the last two seasons.
The Packers placed WR Jake Kumerow on injured reserve. He would be eligible to return in Week 8 if the Packers wanted to use one of their return moves on him.
As noted above, the Packers signed Graham in free agency, and he has the potential to be Green Bay's best player at that position in years. Graham doesn't run like his early days in New Orleans, but is coming off a 10-touchdown season. The free-agent addition of Marcedes Lewis should be an enormous positive, too. Green Bay hasn't had a tight end who's been a hammer in the run game since Mark Chmura 20 years ago, but Lewis could fill that extremely important role.
Lance Kendricks had a disappointing first year in Green Bay, but he remains in the mix as a receiver.
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Tim Boyle
RBs: Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, Tyler Ervin, Dexter Williams
WRs: Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison, Allen Lazard, Jake Kumerow
TEs: Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan, Jace Sternberger
Houston TexansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop notes, Houston's roster will get back quarterback Deshaun Watson, defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus this season, which will make an immediate difference from the 2017 team, which finished last in the AFC South at 4-12.
If All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Watson stay healthy, the Texans' offense has a chance to win every matchup on its schedule.
Worth noting, O'Brien isn't sticking with the same game plan and schemes that Watson utilized to throw 19 touchdown passes as a rookie for the most by any quarterback in NFL history through his first seven games. The Texans averaged 34 points in his first six starts, including 39 per game in his last five starts.
O'Brien is intent on upgrading that production.
"Coach O'Brien is not one of those guys that's stuck in his ways," Watson said. "He's open for change and new wrinkles, any way to be better and more efficient on offense. He asks me for ideas, and I ask him for ideas. I wouldn't say he's trying to change something that wasn't broken, but he's just saying that we were very simple last year.
According to ESPN's Mike Clay notes, Watson, who had a ridiculous 21 touchdowns in 26 quarters as a rookie, has room to improve -- he tossed eight interceptions and was off-target on a league-worst 24.0 percent of his throws -- but he has shown flashes of elite upside as both a passer and rusher.
Meanwhile, Barshop predicts that Hopkins will end the season as the NFL's most productive wide receiver. In 15 games last season, he had 13 touchdown catches (first in the NFL) and 1,378 receiving yards (fourth). Perhaps most impressive, he did it while playing just seven games with Watson.
Hopkins said he thinks he and Watson will be the best quarterback-receiver pair in the league this season.
Beyond Hopkins, the Texans' receiving corps is stronger than the group was a year ago at this point, especially with a healthy Will Fuller, who caught seven touchdown passes and clicked with Watson before he got hurt. Bruce Ellington is dangerous after the catch. Rookie Keke Coutee missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, but now that he is back, he should get opportunities in the slot.
Fuller, who was bothered by a sore hamstring late in August, was on the practice field Wednesday. ...
With the retirement of C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin will be the starting tight end and will be even more involved in the passing game. Houston drafted two tight ends -- Jordan Akins (third round), who is expected to be more of a receiving threat, and Jordan Thomas (sixth round), whom the Texans want to develop into a blocking tight end.
At running back, Lamar Miller reported to camp leaner and quicker and hoping to rebound from his career-worst performance in 2017. His longest run was 21 yards, the reduced weight is an effort to increase his explosiveness.
Miller is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield and more durable than advertised.
D'Onta Foreman, a third round pick in 2017, will start the season on the PUP list, as he is still recovering from a torn Achilles, leaving veteran Alfred Blue to back up Miller early on. ...
Ka'imi Fairbairn is a good young kicker. He hit his first 11 field goals, but dealt with some consistency issues as the season went on. He connected on 20 of 25 field goals and made 3 of 4 from beyond 50 yards. He missed three extra points. He's dealt with an injury this summer, but will be ready for this week's game against the Patriots.
QBs: Deshaun Watson, AJ McCarron
RBs: Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, Buddy Howell, Taiwan Jones
WRs: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, DeAndre Carter, Keke Coutee
TEs: Darren Fells, Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas
Indianapolis ColtsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Mike Wells framed it, "All eyes will be focused on quarterback Andrew Luck after he missed last season while recovering from right shoulder surgery. ..."
No doubt about that. ...
Luck spent the first three years of his career as one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL before injuries started piling up in 2015. The Colts have missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons while Luck sat out 26 games. Luck is back, but the question remains:
Can he regain his elite form, or will his shoulder continue to hinder him for the rest of his career?
Meanwhile, the Colts said last week that Luck would return from a minor foot injury at Monday's practice and things have gone as expected on that front.
Luck was working with the team as they start their week of work heading into Sunday's game against the Bengals. As long as Luck avoids other injury, that game will mark his first regular season start since the end of the 2016 season
While Luck's on track to play, the chances that he'll share the backfield with Marlon Mack don't look so good. Per multiple reports, Mack has not beeb on the field with the Colts as he continues to deal with a hamstring injury he suffered in the first preseason game. Head coach Frank Reich said over a week ago that Mack could miss this week's game.
The Athletic's Stephen Holder advised his Twitter followers he would be suprrised if Mack comes close to playing this week.
Veteran Robert Turbin is suspended the first four games for violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy and does not count against the 53-man roster.
Rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins join Christine Michael and Mack on the Colts' active roster. They also visited with Fitzgerald Toussaint on Sunday.
In case you missed it, Colts running backs are averaging a league-worst 3.81 yards per carry and rank last in fantasy points in the past seven seasons. According to ESPN's Mike Clay, Wilkins, who posted impressive efficiency numbers at Ole Miss, is the most well-rounded of the group.
He's an intriguing sleeper and appears to be on track to start the opener. ...
At wideout, T.Y. Hilton remains as one of the league's best big-play receivers. He caught 57 passes for 966 yards and four touchdowns in 2017. Ryan Grant beat out Chester Rogers for the No. 2 spot. Rogers has flashed in limited playing time after struggling with injuries last season and will serve as the No. 3.
There's a lot of unknowns after Hilton, Grant and Rogers. The Colts lost rookie Deon Cain to a torn ACL on Aug. 9.
At tight end, Jack Doyle continues to impress as a starter. A former undrafted signee by the Titans, the Indianapolis native has returned home and become a fixture at the position. Doyle hauled in 80 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns last season. The addition of Eric Ebron as a veteran free-agent signing from Detroit should give the Colts offense some much needed flexibility. He will line up at tight end, H-Back and sometimes as a receiver. ...
Adam Vinatieri should be the NFL's all-time points leader by the time he turns 46 in December.
Of course, Reich takes over as head coach in his first chance to run a franchise. Three new coordinators Nick Sirianni (offense), Matt Eberflus (defense) and Bubba Ventrone (special teams) top the list of new assistant coaches.
The offensive scheme will be multiple and the plan is to go at a much quicker pace. As for the defense, Indianapolis is going back to a familiar look with a 4-3 Cover 2 alignment. Eberflus, though, plans to add a few tweaks of his own to the scheme to make better use of the Colts' personnel.
But there's no doubt the team's success hinges on Luck's return to form and we'll all be watching for indications that's the case in coming days and weeks.
QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Brian Hoyer, Chad Kelly
RBs: Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins, Nyheim Hines, Jonathan Williams
WRs: T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal, Marcus Johnson, Dontrelle Inman, Ashton Dulin, Chad Williams
TEs: Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox
Jacksonville JaguarsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As Associated Press sports writer Mark Long noted this week, it wasn't too long ago that veteran receiver Donte Moncrief was buried on Jacksonville's depth chart.
Moncrief had fallen behind Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and even rookie DJ Chark after missing a week of practice because of a sore knee.
Now, four weeks later and following a devastating injury to Lee, Moncrief might be the team's go-to guy heading into the season opener at the New York Giants.
In case you missed it, the Jaguars trusted Moncrief enough to give him a one-year, $9.6 million contract in free agency. The deal was fully guaranteed, a move general manager Dave Caldwell felt he had to do with so much uncertainty at receiver.
Jacksonville figured Allen Robinson was gone, was unsure Lee would re-sign, and planned to part with Allen Hurns. The team also had no idea it would get Chark in the second round of the draft.
So the Jags targeted Moncrief, hoping his big-play ability would help spread out defenses designed to slow down Jacksonville's run-first approach.
The 6-2 Moncrief caught 152 passes for 1,875 yards and 18 touchdowns in four years with Indianapolis. He missed 11 games the last two seasons because of shoulder and toe injuries. He also endured quarterback chaos, with Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Hasselbeck, Scott Tolzien and Josh Freeman throwing him passes.
"Just having a chip on my shoulder to go out and show what I actually can do and have a healthy year and come out here and compete and show the league what I've got," Moncrief said. "I know what I'm capable of and I'm going to hold myself to it."
Jacksonville is counting on it now, especially without Lee.
Still, the team believes Cole, Westbrook and Chark have star potential.
Cole, who along with Moncrief was listed as a starter on the team's depth chart released Tuesday, was an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan in 2017, a guy admittedly awe-struck by playing in packed NFL stadiums. He was barely noticeable on the field early, catching eight passes for 111 yards in the first seven games. He finished with 42 receptions for 748 yards and three touchdowns, plus a few huge plays in the postseason.
Westbrook, a fourth-round draft pick from Oklahoma in 2017, missed the first nine games of his rookie year because of a sports hernia, caught 27 passes for 339 yards and a TD in seven games.
Cole and Westbrook were in the starting lineup late last season, and it wasn't an ideal situation.
"There were times last year where you kind of got that look in the huddle where it is like, 'Hey, I have no idea what you were talking about,'" quarterback Blake Bortles said. "Looking at them this year, they are running out of the huddle before I can finish saying the play because they know what they have."
The Jags expected those guys to make strides in their second seasons, but they didn't want to have to rely on it.
Moncrief, meanwhile, welcomes the pressure of having to perform, especially on a one-year contract that essentially has him prepping for free agency again.
"Everybody in that room can play," Moncrief said. "It's just about stepping up when you're ready to go. ... I just tell them you've been doing this since you were little. It's just football. Make plays, catch the ball, go block, and let everything else fall in place.
"We've got to be special in that room. ..."
In addition, Austin Seferian-Jenkins should be a more consistent part of the pass game than what the Jaguars have gotten over the past several seasons. With Ben Koyack being waived/injured, Seferian-Jenkins is also the team's best blocking tight end (although he is scheduled to miss Wednesday's practice with a core muscle injury; more on that via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses).
Of course, much will depend on their trigger man and in making the most of their opportunities.
Bortles completed 67 percent of his passes in the preseason but also threw three interceptions. Overall though, he had a very good camp.
But a run-first game plan will likely be a limiting factor for all involved in the passing attack.
Indeed, as ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco notes, Leonard Fournette seems to be poised for a big season.
Fournette's rookie season resulted in 1,040 yards on 268 carries (3.9 average) and he could be in line for a 300-plus carry season. He's dropped 10-12 pounds from a year ago and at 223, will play at the weight he was at for LSU two years ago when he was one of the country's best college running backs. He needs to play 16 games this year after missing three games (two due to injury, one to team violation) a year ago.
This season he knows the offense better and should be more involved in the pass game in his second season.
Worth noting. ... The Jaguars used a combination of two of their top three backs -- Fournette, T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant -- on the field at the same time a lot in the preseason and that's something they didn't exploit last season. With the departure of Chris Ivory, Yeldon moves into sole possession of the backup spot and should greatly increase his numbers of 49 carries for 253 yards after he gained over 1,200 yards in his first two seasons.
Grant showed in the playoffs that he needs to get the ball more after he caught three passes out of the backfield in the AFC Championship Game against New England and turned them into first-half gains of 20, 24 and 15 yards.
And finally. ... The Jaguars were one of the NFL's biggest surprises last season, winning the AFC South and coming within 10 minutes of reaching the Super Bowl. All but five starters return, and 12 of the top 14 players on the league's second-ranked defense are back (including eight who have appeared in a Pro Bowl). Among that group are cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, DEs Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, and LBs Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.
As DiRocco put it, "With a slimmed-down Fournette, a more confident and comfortable Bortles, and the addition of All-Pro LG Andrew Norwell, the offense should no longer be a question mark."
QBs: Gardner Minshew, Nick Foles, Josh Dobbs, Phillip Walker
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo
WRs: D.J. Chark, Dede Westbrook, Chris Conley, Keelan Cole
TEs: Ben Koyack, Nick O'Leary, Seth DeValve
Kansas City ChiefsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Kansas City Chiefs spent big money on free agents Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens as well as investing five draft picks in a porous defense yet the spotlight shines on the 22-year-old future face of the franchise, a fact not lost on quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
"You watch 'SportsCenter' or watch other networks and you see that stuff but for me, I'm just trying to come in and play football," said Mahomes, the team's first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft. "As a kid you dream of moments of being able to go play in NFL games and so I'm just enjoying that and trying to win a lot of games doing it."
Head coach Andy Reid saw enough from Mahomes during his rookie campaign, including a Week 17 start, to trade Alex Smith to Washington. Mahomes solidified that confidence during offseason workouts in which Reid pressed him with blitzes and exotic coverage looks. Mahomes continued to flash during exhibition play.
"One of the things that we did was we wanted to come in and make sure we challenged him and I thought he handled that very well," Reid said, even better than I expected. I really thought he handled the whole thing very well. It was pretty smooth."
As ESPN's Mike Clay notes, Mahomes threw for 9,705 yards during his final two seasons at Texas Tech. He added 741 rushing yards and 99 all-purpose touchdowns during the span. Even though Mahomes barely played last season, he's 6-2, 225 pounds with a huge arm and terrific playmaking ability.
Reid and general manager Brett Veach hope to ease the transition for Mahomes by surrounding him with explosive offensive options. Watkins joins Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill on an offense that ranked sixth in the league in scoring and fifth in total yards a year ago.
"We can attack everywhere on the field with different guys," Mahomes said. "That's the kind of the thing we get whenever we have guys like Travis Kelce who's a tight end but basically a receiver. And then you have guys like Sammy Watkins who's a big receiver, then you have a small receiver with Tyreek Hill. We have guys everywhere that can really hurt defenses in every aspect of the game."
The Chiefs offense under Smith thrived in part by protecting the football. The Chiefs led the league last year with just 11 turnovers. Only New England had fewer turnovers than Kansas City during Smith's five seasons as quarterback.
As the Sports Xchange recently suggested, finding the balance between his aggressive instincts and self-preservation remains an unknown quantity with Mahomes.
Despite the uncertainty, ESPN.com's Adam Teicher predicts the Chiefs will lead the NFL in scoring this season. Based on the lackluster (to put it kindly) showing by their defense in exhibition play, that might be a requirement. ...
Other notes of interest. ... Hunt exploded on the scene last year, leading the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards. Newly minted offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy believes Hunt can build on his rookie season, especially in the passing game where he racked up 53 catches for 455 yards. The Chiefs built a stable of reliable backups during the offseason as a hedge against the return of Spencer Ware, who suffered a serious season-ending knee injury last August, but it appears Ware is good to go at this point. ...
Reid's West Coast offense runs through the tight end, a premise backed up by the consecutive 1,000-yard seasons posted by Kelce. The Chiefs hope the addition of more firepower at receiver opens up the field for Kelce, who frequently faces double or bracket coverage.
Hill stamped his name as the team's No. 1 receiver last year with 75 catches for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns. Watkins delivered 39 catches for 593 yards last season with the Rams, but the Chiefs believe a full healthy offseason for first time in his career should pay dividends. Chris Conley showed impressive form in his return from a season-ending Achilles injury suffered in Week 5 last year. After that, the Chiefs have a lot of speedy receivers without much on their resume. Demarcus Robinson continues to tantalize with his size and athleticism, but needs to build on a sophomore campaign that included 21 catches for 212 yards.
On the injury front. ... With less than a week until the Chiefs' season opener against the Chargers, Eric Berry's status is unclear. Hindered by a sore heel, the All-Pro safety hasn't practiced since August 11, and he didn't play in the preseason. Asked if Berry would be ready to go on Sunday in Los Angeles, Reid was non-committal.
"We'll see," he said Monday. "It's day-to-day. We'll see how it goes."
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Matt Moore, Chad Henne
RBs: Damien Williams, LeSean McCoy, Darwin Thompson
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle
TEs: Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Deon Yelder
Los Angeles ChargersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As Associated Press sports writer Bernie Wilson noted this week, an 0-4 start put the Los Angeles Chargers in a hole too deep to escape last season.
Head coach Anthony Lynn wants his new team to spend September building instead of digging.
The first few weeks of this season are particularly important to Lynn and the Chargers, a popular pick to win the AFC West and to earn their franchise's second postseason appearance since 2009.
The Bolts went 9-3 after their dismal start to their relocation season, but it wasn't enough to make the playoffs. Lynn seems confident his veteran players learned the importance of early season urgency from last year's setbacks.
"We'll see how we start, but hopefully we start faster than we did last year," Lynn said Monday after the Chargers began preparations for Sunday's home opener against Kansas City.
The Chargers weren't exactly terrible to begin last season: Three of those four losses were by seven total points, and the Chargers were undone twice by missed field goals in the final seconds. But they didn't match the level of play they hit frequently later in the year , when the NFL's top passing offense and an aggressive defense combined to turn the Bolts into one of the NFL's best teams.
"You can't take wins and losses from last season," Lynn said. "I wish you could, but you can't. But you can certainly bring the culture over, and I like the attitude of the players."
The Chargers also feel they've got a reliable kicker after last season's missteps. The team that cycled through four kickers last season is going with Caleb Sturgis, who was the champion Philadelphia Eagles' kicker at the start of last season before getting hurt and missing the bulk of the year.
The Chargers also appear to be getting healthy after several regulars were slowed by injuries during the preseason.
Defensive end Joey Bosa, receiver Tyrell Williams, rookie defensive tackle Justin Jones and cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams all participated in the Bolts' first practice of the week Monday. Bosa and Hayward, two of their most important defensive players, are expected to be ready to play Sunday.
"My only concern is a boxer needs so many sparring rounds before you go fight, and these guys have been out," Lynn said. "So getting them caught up and back in the fold is my only concern."
Tight end Antonio Gates was in the locker room after signing a one-year deal to return for his 16th season with the Chargers, but he won't return to practice until Wednesday. Lynn is waiting to evaluate the 38-year-old star's readiness before he determines Gates' role this weekend.
"I just want to see his conditioning," Lynn said. "I don't want to put him in a position where he goes out there and hurts himself, and that sets us back four or five weeks. I just don't see us doing that. But Antonio, he's a pro. He'll let me know how he feels at the end of the week and about how his pitch count can be, and we'll talk about it."
The Chargers waived rookie running back Justin Jackson to make room for the return of Gates.
Kansas City will be a particular challenge right away for the Chargers, who were beaten soundly twice by the AFC West champions last year. Kansas City essentially sewed up the division with a 30-13 home victory over Los Angeles on Dec. 16 -- the Chargers' only loss in seven games to close the season.
Nearly every playmaker from last season's team is back, and they all remember how it felt to be playing catch-up all season long.
"We definitely want to get it going from the start this year, and not wait to get to where we need to go," running back Melvin Gordon said recently. "We've got to be ready. ..."
Other notes of interest. ... Melvin Gordon looks to build on his breakthrough season as he not only notched his first 1,000-yard rushing season but he was ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in scoring, first downs and yards from scrimmage. Austin Ekeler, who made the team as an undrafted free agent, was productive and fairly reliable, although he did have a huge fumble that helped cost the Chargers a game. But he's a solid backup and has good hands out of the backfield. ...
As ESPN's Mike Clay noted, a league-high 81 percent of Chargers' offensive touchdowns have been scored through the air since 2012. Especially with tight end Hunter Henry out for the season, the 6-3, 218-pound Mike Williams should see plenty of opportunities near the goal line.
The 2017 No. 7 overall pick struggled with 11 catches in 10 games as a rookie, but will play a larger role in his second season.
In fact, even with Gates back, ESPN.com's Eric Williams predicts that Mike Williams will finish with 10 touchdowns.
Yes, Keenan Allen remains the No. 1 WR for the Chargers, and Rivers likes to spread the ball around. However, Williams has been impressive in the red zone in practice, and his wide catch radius gives Rivers a big target. Double-digit touchdown catches is not out of the question if Williams can stay on the field for 16 games in his second season.
For what it's worth, Williams said it's "totally different" now that he's fully healthy from a herniated disc he sustained at the beginning of training camp last season. "I'm able to go out there and make those plays I couldn't make last year, make the contested catches," he said. "The confidence just comes from being out there. I'm back out there having fun. ..."
Allen was sensational and that was never more evident than over a three-game span in which he set an NFL record by catching at least 10 passes for 100 yards receiving and scoring a touchdown. He deserves to be mentioned among the league's elite receivers.Tyrell Williams is a great complement to Allen and Travis Benjamin has the speed to stretch defenses.
And finally. ... Henry suffered a torn ACL in May and is expected to miss the entire season, but the Chargers aren't ready to declare him out just yet.
The Chargers put Henry on the physically unable to perform list, not injured reserve, which suggests they think there's some chance he could play at some point this season.
That "some point" would probably be no earlier than December, which would be a seven-month recovery. That's fast for a torn ACL, but not unheard of.
If Henry is progressing well in his recovery and the Chargers are in playoff contention, it's possible he could play late in the 2018 season. Even if it's more likely that we won't see him until the 2019 preseason.
QBs: Philip Rivers, Tyrod Taylor, Easton Stick
RBs: Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Detrez Newsome, Troymaine Pope
WRs: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Andre Patton, Jason Moore
TEs: Hunter Henry, Virgil Green, Lance Kendricks
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry framed it: "The Rams won the offseason, and now it's Super Bowl or bust."
Their offense, featuring reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, acquired a new weapon in receiver Brandin Cooks, who will provide a deep target for quarterback Jared Goff. But it's the defense that has made the biggest gains following the contract extension of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, plus the acquisitions of All-Pros Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh.
Indeed, these are exciting times to say the least, as the Rams have emerged as a viable Super Bowl contender after stunning the NFL with one of the most dramatic turnarounds in league history while going from last to first in the NFL West to claim a division title and home playoff game.
From that 11-5 team and the top-ranked offense in the NFL, the Rams return 10 of 11 offensive starters while adding the explosive, productive Cooks as a difference-making newcomer.
On paper, the Rams have the look of an NFC power. And with second-year head coach Sean McVay adding and expanding to his innovative offensive scheme, there is reason to believe the Rams are perched at the doorstep of a prolonged playoff run.
In fact, Thiry is predicting the Rams will win the NFC championship and advance to the Super Bowl. Their offense led the league in scoring last season, averaging 29.9 points per game. But it was their defense that kept them from advancing past the first round of the playoffs. That won't be the case with the addition of Peters, Talib and Suh. ...
As for the skill players. ... Goff is coming off a breakthrough year in his second season in which he completely silenced critics who considered him a bust after a rough rookie season. And while the 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns he threw for were impressive, there is reason to believe he'll be even better operating in McVay's offense for a second straight year and playing around a bevy of playmakers.
After a dismal sophomore season, Gurley re-emerged as an NFL force by rushing for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns and catching 64 passes for 788 yards and six scores. It earned him NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors and gave the Rams a unique, three-down back who could punish opponents on the ground and in the air. Expect all of that to continue. That leaves little for his backups, and while Malcolm Brown is entrenched as his primary relief, keep an eye on John Kelly, a rookie from Tennessee who looked good during the offseason.
The Rams have intact one of the top, young wide receiver groups in the NFL with Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp offering youth, production, nuance and accountability. And all three are under contract for at least the next three seasons. Cooks replaces Sammy Watkins, and on some levels offers an upgrade over the explosive Watkins. Josh Reynolds is expected to grab a niche role in the red zone, where his length and catch radius should flourish.
The Rams would like more production from their tight ends after Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett combined for just 41 catches for 539 yards. Everett's development as a highly athletic downfield weapon will help in that regard, and there is still hope for Higbee as he enters his third year.
As ESPN's Mike Clay notes, the Rams called pass on 75 percent of Everett's rookie-season snaps. The 2017 second-rounder played 441 fewer snaps than Higbee but was only 63 behind in pass routes. Everett is undersized but is a terrific athlete who dominated at the 2017 combine. He'll play a larger role in his second season and shouldn't be overlooked in the Rams' high-scoring offense.
And finally. .. Greg Zuerlein returns after undergoing season-ending back surgery last December. He's a great asset for the Rams and fantasy managers.
QBs: Jared Goff, Blake Bortles
RBs: Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Josh Reynolds, Mike Thomas, Nsimba Webster, JoJo Natson
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Johnny Mundt
Miami DolphinsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe reports, this Dolphins team has a completely different energy and level of expectation after jettisoning Ndamukong Suh, Jarvis Landry and Mike Pouncey. There were rumblings of a rebuild centered on drafting a young QB, but they stuck with Ryan Tannehill and are betting he regains his 2016 form now that he's healthy.
It's now or never for Tannehill, who is 30 and entering Year 7. Head coach Adam Gase believes in him, but wins will tell the story.
A sub-par 2018 season could signal a true rebuild with changes at QB and possibly other key jobs.
Meanwhile, Tannehill's success this season could be closely tied to running back Kenyan Drake's success. Miami also has running back Frank Gore, who will be an often-used No. 2 behind Drake (the two are listed as co-starters on the team's initial, official depth chart).
In Tannehill's best two seasons, 2014 and 2016, he had 1,000-yard rushers. In 2014, it was Lamar Miller (1,099 yards), and in 2016 it was Jay Ajayi (1,272 yards).
At first glance that's not a big deal because that's probably the case for a number of quarterbacks.
But Tannehill, who has missed the last 19 regular-season games due to a pair of left knee injuries, has had career-best numbers in touchdowns (27 in 2014), interceptions (12 in 2014 and '16) and passer rating (93.5 in 2016) with 1,000-yard rushers.
In 2014, Miami was 12th in rushing at 117 yards per game, and in 2016, Miami was ninth at 114 yards per game.
Whatever formula Miami has to use, it's apparent from anecdotal evidence that a good running game is the best thing Miami can do for Tannehill.
It's unclear if Drake can be a 1,000-yard rusher, but if he can amass 1,000 yard from scrimmage that would be acceptable.
Reasons for optimism?
As ESPN's Mike Clay notes, Drake is averaging 4.96 yards per carry, including 2.30 after contact, since entering the NFL as a 2016 third-round pick. Both are in the top five at the position during the span. Following last season's trade of Ajayi, Drake racked up 152 touches and was fantasy's No. 7 running back.
He shouldn't have much trouble fending off the 35-year-old Gore for lead-back duties.
In fact, Wolfe predicts that Miami will have a 1,000-yard receiver (Kenny Stills) and a 1,000-yard rusher in Drake this year.
Wolfe notes that Stills had 847 yards on 58 catches last season with Jay Cutler, but he should benefit from Landry's 112 receptions being spread around the receiver group. Wolfe further noted that Drake led the NFL in rushing after Week 12 (444 yards in the last five weeks of the season). Wolfe believes Drake has the ability for similar production over a 16-game period.
The last time the Dolphins had a pair of 1,000-yard playmakers (Landry and Ajayi in 2016), they made it to the playoffs. ...
According to the Miami Herald, the Dolphins' top three receivers remain DeVante Parker, Stills and Danny Amendola. Jakeem Grant backs up Parker; Albert Wilson is listed behind Stills. That makes sense, as Wilson is a flanker and Grant has played split end this summer.
Parker has been out the last three weeks with a broken middle finger, and a source told the Herald's Armando Salguero that while Parker is feeling substantially better, but is unlikely to play this weekend.
I'll have more on his status via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...
At tight end, rookie Mike Gesicki, the second-round pick from Penn State, opens the season listed behind starter MarQueis Gray and No. 2 A.J. Derby. Still Gesicki seems to fit the Gase offense perfectly. Expect him to see work in the red zone despite his third-team status. Durham Smythe, the fourth-round pick from Notre Dame, also seems a perfect fit as an in-line blocker and occasional receiver.
Jason Sanders fought off admirable competition from Greg Joseph to win the starting kicker job. This will be the Dolphins third opening-day kicker in as many years. It will be intriguing to see if any veteran names like Dan Bailey tempt the Dolphins. ...
Finally. ... The Dolphins have played against running back Brandon Bolden for the last six years, but they'll get him on their side this season. Bolden signed with the Dolphins on Tuesday. The move comes four days after he was released by the Patriots as part of their cut to 53 players.
Bolden got some run on offense over the first four years of his career, but he has had just 14 carries and three receptions over the last two seasons. The bulk of his work has come as a special teamer and that figures to be the case in Miami as well given the presence of Drake, Gore, Senorise Perry and Kalen Ballage on the roster.
QBs: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Rosen
RBs: Patrick Laird, Samaje Perine
WRs: DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns, Isaiah Ford, Mack Hollins, Trevor Davis
TEs: Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe
Minnesota VikingsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As the Sports Xchange recently noted, no other NFL team is under as much pressure as a Minnesota Vikings squad presumed by everyone to have everything lined up perfectly for its first Super Bowl appearance since Jan. 9, 1977.
A year ago, the Vikings went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game with Case Keenum, a journeyman quarterback making $2 million, playing all but six quarters in relief of Sam Bradford. Then they lost Keenum, Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater - three quarterbacks with a combined 146 NFL starts - to free agency.
Six months after missing out on playing the Super Bowl in their own stadium, the Vikings and their fans are banking on a Super Bowl trip to Atlanta in February. Their top-ranked defense appears to be even stronger, phenom running back Dalvin Cook is healthy again and, oh yeah, they threw a record $84 million guaranteed at the premier free agent that every quarterback-starved team in the league coveted.
"We'd be here a long time if I were to read off the grocery list of reasons why this (team) is the right fit," said new quarterback Kirk Cousins, the former Redskin who turned down the Jets' offer of $90 million guaranteed. "For the sake of time, I'll just say winning. It's the best chance to win."
But it won't be easy.
Offensively, the Vikings need Cousins and new coordinator John DeFilippo to get up to speed immediately and develop the kind of chemistry that Keenum struck with Pat Shurmur, who left the Vikings to become the Giants' head coach. DeFilippo hasn't overhauled Shurmur's offense, but he is tailoring it to Cousins' strengths, which includes a stronger deep ball than Keenum was able to muster.
Another key will be red-zone offense. A year ago, only four offenses scored more than the Vikings' 5.11 points per red-zone trip, according to Football Outsiders. In a 38-30 win over Cousins and the Redskins, the Vikings scored five touchdowns inside the 10-yard line. Meanwhile, the Redskins ranked ninth, 28th and 14th in points per red-zone trip with Cousins at quarterback.
But the Vikings have surrounded Cousins with everything he needs to win now: a healthy running back in Cook, the NFL's top receiving duo in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The offensive line holds the unheralded key and must not fade late in the season like it did last year. The right side of the line is the place to watch. Pat Elflein was activated off the PUP list, meaning his return shouldn't be far off. In the meantime, the Vikings will look to Brett Jones or Danny Isidora to fill in at center for Week 1 and possibly longer.
Defensively, head coach Mike Zimmer's star-studded unit returns 10 of 11 starters from the group that led the league in yards and points allowed.
From a fantasy perspective, Cook is worth watching. As ESPN's Mike Clay noted this week, Cook ranked second to only Todd Gurley in carries through Week 3 of his rookie season. Cook tore his ACL in Week 4 but had racked up 85 touches and was the No. 8 fantasy running back prior to the injury.
Cook was on the field for 69 percent of Minnesota's offensive snaps and averaged an impressive 4.78 yards per carry.
According to ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin, if injuries along the offensive line can be remedied, Minnesota should have no problem giving Cook what he needs to lead the league in rushing. The Florida State product is everything a team could hope for as a dynamic, pass-catching three-down rusher. The Vikings' leading candidate for Team MVP is also well-placed to contend for Comeback Player of the Year honors.
For the record, Zimmer confirmed Wednesday that Cook is "ready to roll" for Sunday's season opener against the 49ers.
According to The Athletic, Zimmer added that Cook's foot quickness and acceleration are back to normal, but there are still those who expect some degree of caution -- which could lead to Latavius Murray contributing more heavily early on. ...
Beyond that. ... The Vikings don't have a prototypical No. 1 receiver, but they do have one of the best 1A and 1B tandems in football. Thielen and Diggs combined for 153 catches for 2,125 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Laquon Treadwell, whose lack of speed makes it difficult for him to separate, has looked good as the No. 3 receiver this offseason. This is a make-or-break year for the disappointing 2016 first-round pick.
Rudolph has looked good as he recovers from surgery to repair a bum ankle that hobbled him down the stretch last year. Cousins discovered quickly in offseason drills that he can trust throwing to a covered Rudolph, who is a mismatch with a huge catch radius. ...
And finally. ... Daniel Carlson, a fifth-round draft pick, is the highest-drafted kicker in team history. He beat out Kai Forbath to win the job, but Carlson made a career-low 74.2 percent of his field goals at Auburn last year. His grip on the job will obviously require a better success rate than that.
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah
WRs: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Olabisi Johnson, Laquon Treadwell, Davion Davis
TEs: Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr., Brandon Dillon, Tyler Conklin
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss note this week, the Patriots have their key pillars in place after an offseason of questions regarding Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
The question now becomes how they bounce back from a Super Bowl loss highlighted by Belichick's decision not to play cornerback Malcolm Butler.
They look to join the Bills (4) and Dolphins (3) as the only teams to advance to three consecutive Super Bowls, and hope to do so with a notable change at left tackle and a linebacker spot that showed up as a vulnerability in 2017 and wasn't aggressively addressed.
Also, can the 41-year-old Brady keep defying Father Time?
With that last point in mind, it's worth noting the last time the Texans rode into town, their pass rush tormented Brady. They pestered him to the tune of eight quarterback hits and five sacks -- including three that forced fumbles.
Brady, however, got the last laugh last season, throwing for 378 yards and five touchdowns in the 36-33 win as he outdueled rookie Deshaun Watson in that Week 3 game.
As Boston Herald staffer Karen Guregian noted, with Jimmy Garoppolo no longer around as the backup, the offensive line has to do a much better job protecting the quarterback.
Brady can't be exposed to so many hits.
Patriots offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia is well aware of that, and well aware of the threat the Houston front poses. He said Sunday it was going to be a huge challenge for the Patriots line, especially with the four "dynamic" players Houston boasts.
"They did get to him (last time). Hey, they're good. They're capable of doing that any time," Scarnecchia said. "Hopefully we keep the wolves at bay. They're pretty darn good."
It wasn't the best news having Brady's blind side protector Trent Brown missing from practice Sunday. The left tackle was seen walking through the locker room earlier in the day. Brown had surgery on his right shoulder last December but has been healthy and a regular participant throughout the preseason. He's looked more than capable of assuming the job that was left open after Nate Solder's departure via free agency.
If Brown misses more time this week, and is at risk of not playing against the Texans, that's a potential disaster.
Right now, it doesn't seem that dire, just something to monitor as the week progresses.
Right tackle Marcus Cannon, meanwhile, appears on track to be ready to play on Sunday according to Scarnecchia. They're going to need all hands on deck.
Last season, Brady was sacked 35 times. At one point early on, he was playing with a bad shoulder given all the hits and takedowns. In 2016, a Super Bowl-winning season, he was sacked just 15 times. The fewer times he's sacked, the fewer times he's hit, the better off the Patriots are going to be.
The Texans are going to test Scarnecchia's line right away. Then it won't get any easier with the Jaguars, who had 55 sacks last season, second best in the NFL.
With Brian Hoyer in the bullpen, the Patriots can't afford having Brady become a human punching bag. Not like last year's game with the Texans. ...
Other notes of interest. ... As ESPN's Mike Clay noted, rookie RB Sony Michel ran for 5 yards or more on 48.7 percent of his carries at Georgia last season. That was highest among all backs drafted, as was his 7.87 yards per carry.
The Patriots' running back-by-committee approach is no secret, but only Saints backs have produced more fantasy points in the past decade. Michel is a good bet to pace New England in carries -- even if he gets off to a slow start after missing a chunk of August due to ongoing knee issues.
Beyond Michel and Rex Burkhead, who despite an extended absence in August appears to be in line for a front-line role to open the season, Jeremy Hill beat out Mike Gillislee for the power role as he hopes to revive his career after four years with the Bengal.
"Jeremy's had a good spring and a good summer," Belichick said. "Again, new system, some different responsibilities, some different type plays, I think, than what he has been used to running, but he certainly adapted quickly and was able to pick up our offense and our techniques and some of the things that come with it pretty quickly. He's a smart guy and he has experience in this league, so he understands defenses and run reads and things like that.
"But he's done a good job in all the areas we've asked him to work in -- running the ball, passing game, special teams. So, I think he has some versatility and has some experience, obviously, and had production for us, not only in preseason games but also in practices."
Hill averaged 4.1 yards per carry during the preseason, Gillislee 3.0.
"Obviously, in preseason, there were flashes," Hill said on Sunday. "But for me, I think there's so much more I can do and so much more I think I can do to help this team. So (I want to) just continue to work on that."
Burkhead and Michel will likely share the load as early-down options both as runners and in the Patriots' pass-first offensive approach. But James White remains one of the most productive third-down options in the game with a combined 156 catches the last three seasons and his role early in the season, while Julian Edelman serves his four-game suspension for violating the leagues' policy on performance-enhancing drugs, will likely be robust.
Burkhead took to the practice field Tuesday for the third consecutive week, a sign he could be ready to overcome the slight tear in his knee that originally sidelined him in camp. Despite missing so much time, running backs coach Ivan Fears believes that when Burkhead returns he can make an immediate impact.
"Yes, I do. Rex is a hard worker, man. Really, really hard worker," Fears told MassLive.com on Sunday. "So it's no doubt [once he's done] rehabbing, I know that he's going to come out and give you everything he's got. He's going to be ready to go."
So will Burkhead be ready Sunday?
"I hope so," Fears said. "I don't call that shot. I'm sure hoping so. I'd really like to have him here for this game."
As for Michel, he's a week behind Burkhead after being sidelined for a week longer. The rookie partook in two padded practices in all of August, the first he left early with a bad knee. New England has since handled its prized first-round pick with caution. ...
Meanwhile, last year's leading receivers Brandin Cooks (65 catches) and Danny Amendola (61) are now in Lops Angeles and Miami, respectively. Chris Hogan should be the No. 1 returning option, but he missed seven games over the second half of last season with a shoulder injury and didn't have a great spring. Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson have yet to put together full, productive seasons.
The Patriots added receiver Chad Hansen, who was claimed off waivers Sunday, but it seems unlikely he'll get up to speed quickly enough to make an immediate contribution.
So in addition to White, it's safe to assume Gronkowski will help cover for the shortfalls at wideout.
Eight years into his career, the All-Pro Gronkowski is considered a future Hall of Famer. Coming off his fourth 1,000-yard season and sixth year with eight or more touchdown catches, the oft-injured Gronkowski admitted to considering retirement this offseason. But he's back as one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the game.
Beyond that there is little on the depth chart. Dwayne Allen struggled mightily to catch the ball a year ago in his first season in New England and the blocking backup had to take pay cut from his $4.5 million salary to even remain on the roster. Former undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister, however, might be a player to watch.
QBs: Tom Brady, Jarrett Stidham, Cody Kessler
RBs: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris
WRs: Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers
TEs: Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo
New Orleans SaintsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
According to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, the Saints might have their most balanced roster in the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era, thanks in large part to a draft class for the ages in 2017 that produced Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara, Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore and standout starters Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Williams.
With an improved run game and defense, New Orleans doesn't need Brees to be Superman anymore -- which gives him a chance to add a second Super Bowl ring just after his 40th birthday in January.
The Saints kick off the 2018 season Sunday when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at noon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and they'll do it with a new body in the backfield.
They signed veteran Mike Gillislee to a one-year contract on Sunday to help fill the void during Mark Ingram's four-game suspension to start the season.
The pairing makes perfect sense one day after Gillislee was released by the New England Patriots and one day after the Saints surprisingly released third-year running back Jonathan Williams, whom they later signed to their practice squad on Sunday, along with running back Dwayne Washington.
"He's a player we're familiar with," Payton said of Gillislee. "The vision is a first- and second-down runner that has given (teams) hard yards. He's a guy that can be physical, he can handle a workload. So the vision for the player is not to bring him in and throw him the ball 15 times in a game."
Gillislee, 27, actually began last season as a primary running back for the Patriots and scored three touchdowns in their season opener after he signed a two-year, $6.4 million contract with them as a restricted free agent. But he lost touches later in the season to Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White in a crowded New England backfield.
The Patriots let Lewis get away in free agency this year, but they added a similar power runner in veteran Jeremy Hill and drafted running back Sony Michel in the first round.
The Saints, on the other hand, had just two true tailbacks on their 53-man roster as of Sunday morning after they released Williams and placed Ingram on the reserve/suspended list for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Kamara will obviously be the Saints' leading man after winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season. But Gillislee should also see plenty of action as Kamara's backup after head coach Sean Payton made it clear that he doesn't want to overwork Kamara during Ingram's absence.
Gillislee, 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, began his career as a fifth-round draft pick with the Miami Dolphins in 2013 and also spent time with the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills. He has 1,248 career rushing yards, 94 career receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns.
The newcomer was listed as No. 2 on the initial depth chart released on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, as Triplett noted, the Saints kept six receivers -- including WR/return specialist Tommylee Lewis on their final roster. But they typically use only four receivers on offense during a game.
So it will be interesting to see how they deploy their top receivers in Week 1: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Cameron Meredith, Tre'Quan Smith and Austin Carr. It could come down to a choice between Meredith and Carr at slot receiver.
Meredith, who was signed as a restricted free agent after suffering a major knee injury with the Chicago Bears last season, finally had a breakout performance in the Saints' fourth preseason game with two catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. But he had zero catches in two preseason games before that, after he missed some time early in training camp with a minor injury.
So it's not out of the question that the Saints could use Carr ahead of Meredith early in the season.
And Smith is an interesting prospect. As ESPN's Mike Clay pointed out, the newcomer averaged 13.6 yards per target at UCF last season, tops in this year's rookie class. He is an intriguing size/speed prospect, as he stands 6-foot-2, 210 pounds with long arms and 4.49 wheels.
Smith will open his career buried on New Orleans' depth chart, but he's an injury away from a significant role in a Brees-led offense. ...
At tight end, G.M. Mickey Loomis said the decision to bring back the 37-year-old Ben Watson had more to do with his performance in 2017 with the Ravens than his familiarity with the Saints. "He played well," Loomis said. "Look, familiarity (with our system) is just a little piece of that factor. It's more about his ability as a player, and what was demonstrated last season, and what we feel like he can do for us in the upcoming season."
Last season Watson had 61 catches for 522 yards and four touchdowns for the Ravens. Meanwhile, all of the Saints' tight ends last year combined for 45 catches, 476 yards and four touchdowns. And Watson compiled his stats after missing all of 2016 due to a torn Achilles tendon.
Remember, Watson had the best season of his career in 2015 with the Saints. He posted 74 catches for 825 yards, stepping up after the team traded Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks. Nobody should bank on Watson duplicating that success, but consistent mid-level production? That's realistic.
One of the biggest surprises of final cutdowns came in the return game, since it looked like veteran receiver/return specialist Brandon Tate had a good grip on this role after signing on Aug. 1. Instead, it looks like the Saints will stick with last year's primary return man, Lewis, especially after Wednesday's release of rookie running back Boston Scott, who was also in the mix for both the kickoff and punt return roles. Ginn is also an experienced punt returner. And they might use Kamara on kickoffs if they need some juice late in the season -- though they don't want to overwork him.
QBs: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington
WRs: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Tre'quan Smith, Deonte Harris, Emmanuel Butler
TEs: Jared Cook, Josh Hill
New York GiantsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Giants are looking to bounce back from a disastrous 3-13 season. They get back wide receiver Odell Beckham (broken ankle) and add running back Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall pick) to an offense led by Eli Manning that hasn't scored 30 points in a game since the final week of the 2015 season.
Barkley should add a new dimension behind a revamped offensive line.
The defense has talent but collapsed last year. A spike in production is possible, if the Giants remain healthy.
The good news?
Barkley's first NFL game should come with no limitations.
Barkley hasn't played since the New York Giants' preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns. He tweaked his hamstring on Aug. 13 and wasn't a full participant in practice until last week.
But as ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan reports, the No. 2 overall pick has looked good ever since, and doesn't expect the hamstring to have any impact on him in Sunday's season opener when the Giants host the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I definitely think I'm ready for a full [workload] the way I've been preparing and practicing," Barkley said Monday after the Giants began preparations for the Jaguars.
It's still unclear what a full workload will be for Barkley.
He barely played in the preseason. The Giants are expected to sporadically sprinkle running backs Wayne Gallman and Jonathan Stewart into the game.
Tight end Evan Engram was cleared through the concussion protocol on Wednesday (after working on a limited basis Monday). Engram will be available for usual duty this weekend. Outside linebacker Olivier Vernon (ankle) appears to be the Giants' biggest concern. He was not at practice on Monday. All three are expected to play key roles for the Giants this season.
Barkley should start at running back against the Jaguars.
He insists the hamstring is no longer a problem, and the layoff shouldn't affect his conditioning despite playing just six snaps in the preseason.
"I feel in really good physical football shape because in practice doing extra stuff with [Stewart] on the sideline, running and conditioning there," Barkley said. "I was running the whole time I was out. That's more like running track speed, conditioning shape. The first day I got back I was a little winded because. ... The best comparison is like a high school basketball player they understand going from football condition to basketball season. Two completely different conditioning. But I definitely feel pretty good in football shape right now."
Barkley spent the spring and summer running with the Giants first-team offense. He looked especially dangerous as a receiver, at times catching passes against cornerbacks while lined up wide as a wide receiver.
Barkley's first carry of the preseason also went for 39 yards. He finished the preseason with four carries for 43 yards, all in the opener against the Cleveland Browns.
"I just want to play," Barkley said after a short practice Monday. "It's finally here. The season is finally here. I didn't get to play as much as I would like in the preseason, but now it's here and it counts now, so I am just excited to get on the road. You can tell, the energy of the team is high and we're all just excited for this game and this season."
Barkley has set some personal goals, but he hopes to focus on his next play.
"I'm not a numbers type of guy who says I need this many yards, this many touchdowns," Barkley said. "My goal is to attack every single day and get better every single day. The rest of the stuff will take care of itself."
New coach Pat Shurmur caught Barkley off-guard when he talked about the return game Monday. The Giants waived returners Kalif Raymond and Hunter Sharp over the weekend and were awarded Kaelin Clay on waivers. Clay has handled return work in games and would seem to be the best option Sunday.
If they are ready, Shurmur said that Beckham and Barkley would be options. He did not mention Cody Latimer, who also has experience as a returner.
"I'll be eager to definitely be in the mix of kickoff return. I did it in college," said Barkley, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season. "I was able to help my team out in college in that area. If they, or if I show that I'm capable of doing that for the Giants, why not? It's definitely something I feel comfortable with."
Don't count on it this early in the season. ...
As for expectations for Barkley?
Of the past eight running backs selected in the first round, six (or 75 percent) finished their rookie season top 10 at the position in fantasy points. ESPN's Mike Clay believes Barkley is a strong bet to improve that percentage. He will be a workhorse and his receiving prowess (54 catches last season) gives him a high floor and ceiling.
In fact, Raanan predicts Barkley catches 80 passes this year. "Think David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell," Raanan wrote. "That is the type of impact the rookie running back will have on the Giants' passing game, especially with Manning unable to evade pressure and needing to rely on his safety outlet. Safeties and linebackers can't cover Barkley."
I will, of course, follow Barkley's progress closely in coming days; watch for more on the rookie running back and Engram via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses. ...
Other notes of interest. ... The Giants and Beckham agreed to a five-year, $95 million contract extension that makes him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. Beckham, coming off a season-ending ankle injury, has been deemed healthy this offseason, with the Giants targeting Week 1 to unleash their star receiver.
As NFL.com's Kevin Patra notes, since bursting onto the scene as a rookie, OBJ has displayed the game-changing talent to tilt the field whenever he plays. A tantalizing combination of speed, route running acumen, jump-ball ability, and sticky hands, Beckham can make even the best defensive back's head spin.
Beckham's worth to the Giants was underscored by his absence in 2017. Without Beckham's ability to single-handedly turn simple slant catches into big-play scores, the Manning-led passing game became one of the least-efficient attacks in the NFL last year.
Meanwhile, Sterling Shepard is going to get an expanded role this year as an outside receiver. With the outside role being more physical than in the slot, will Shepard, who last year had injury issues of his own, be able to hold up? That will be a key. The addition of Latimer, who will be the third receiver, could be helpful as well.
At tight end, Engram is the headliner as a playmaker after a strong rookie season while Rhett Ellison provides the blocking component.
And finally. ... PK Aldrick Rosas was perfect this preseason, which earned him another chance at the job.
QBs: Daniel Jones, Eli Manning, Alex Tanney
RBs: Saquon Barkley, Wayne Gallman, Javorius Allen, Elijhaa Penny, Austin Walter
WRs: Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, Darius Slayton, Cody Latimer, Cody Core, Da'Mari Scott
TEs: Kaden Smith, Rhett Ellison, Scott Simonson
New York JetsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As Associated Press sports writer Dennis Waszak Jr. reported, Todd Bowles finally revealed the big decision that everyone expected: Sam Darnold will start at quarterback in the New York Jets' season-opening game at Detroit next Monday night.
The 21-year-old Darnold will also make some NFL history by becoming the youngest quarterback to start in Week 1 since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. At 21 years and 97 days, the rookie surpasses Drew Bledsoe (21-203), who held the distinction since starting for New England in 1993.
Waszak went on to note the announcement Monday by Bowles comes as no surprise as the rookie was solid while starting the Jets' second and third preseason games. New York traded Teddy Bridgewater to New Orleans last week, and Darnold then sat out the preseason finale at Philadelphia -- clear signals the No. 3 overall draft pick would be under center against the Lions.
Darnold was given every opportunity to win the job in a competition with Bridgewater and incumbent Josh McCown, and he didn't disappoint. He went 29 of 45 for 244 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the preseason. Even more impressive to Bowles and the coaching staff was Darnold's ability to quickly digest the playbook and not repeat mistakes.
Still, Bowles declined to make his decision official until seven days before the opener.
Darnold will not be the youngest quarterback to start in NFL history, though. That's still Tommy Maddox, who was under center for Denver at 21 years, 81 days old in Week 12 of the 1992 season.
But Darnold will get a chance to make an early impact on a team that has been searching for a consistently productive franchise quarterback since the days of Broadway Joe. Richard Todd, Ken O'Brien, Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez certainly had their moments, but none was able to sustain success or keep a frustrated fan base energized and hopeful over a long period.
The Jets hope Darnold ends that drought.
Oh, and then there's the Super Bowl, where the franchise hasn't been since Joe Namath famously delivered on his guarantee in 1969.
First things first, though. Darnold needs to get ready for the Lions. The former USC star will have a baptism by fire with three games in 11 days. The Jets play their home opener on Sept. 16 against Miami, followed by a Thursday night game at Cleveland four days later.
Bowles and his coaching staff clearly believe Darnold will be able to handle the quick turnaround.
The youngster's mental approach to the game has impressed NFL teams since he started playing in college. Despite starting just 24 games at USC, Darnold displayed the all-around potential of an elite starting QB. That was a major reason the Jets traded up three spots to No. 3 overall, hoping Darnold would fall to them.
After Cleveland took Baker Mayfield first and the Giants went with Saquon Barkley at No. 2, the Jets had their guy.
Darnold was impressive in the offseason and raised the Jets' hope that he could progress quickly enough to start right away. After a three-day holdout at the start of training camp to settle his rookie contract, Darnold returned to the team and practiced immediately while showing only minor signs of being rusty.
Just a few weeks later, it was clear that Darnold would be leading the franchise when the regular season kicked off.
Of the five first-round QBs from this year's draft, Darnold is the only starter for the opener. Mayfield, Josh Allen (Buffalo), Josh Rosen (Arizona) and Lamar Jackson (Baltimore) will be backups.
So what are realistic expectations for Darnold?
ESPN.com's Rich Cimini compared the newcomer to Carson Wentz in 2016.
Drafted second overall by the Eagles, Wentz was handed the starting job when Sam Bradford was traded late in the preseason to the Minnesota Vikings, who were desperate to replace the injured Bridgewater. Wentz started off great as a rookie, cooled off around midseason and finished with pedestrian rookie numbers -- 16 starts, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
The Eagles finished 7-9, but there was optimism because they knew they had found their franchise quarterback.
We know what happened last year. Wentz played at an MVP level before suffering a late-season knee injury, robbing him of the chance to finish the Eagles' Super Bowl journey.
The Jets would be thrilled if Darnold follows Wentz's career arc, sans knee injury. Their plan is to give Darnold his on-the-job training this season, hoping for team improvement as well. In 2019, they can bolster his supporting cast with $90 million in cap room, setting themselves up for a serious run.
Still, Cimini predicts that for the third consecutive year, the Jets won't have a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver or a double-digit sacker. But they will get a big season out of their second-year safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, who will combine for at least eight interceptions.
Cimini further predicted, "Adams will return one of them for a touchdown, ending the team's five-year streak without a defensive touchdown -- the longest drought in the league. Adams will be their only Pro Bowl player. ..."
Other notes of interest. ... The Jets have two running backs of comparable ability. Over the last two seasons, Bilal Powell has 2,052 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns; Isaiah Crowell has 2,306 and nine touchdowns. Powell is better in the passing game, Crowell brings a little more thump in the running game. Look for them to split the workload.
Meanwhile, Bowles said late last month that running back Elijah McGuire would not be ready to play in Week 1 due to a foot injury and suggested he might be a candidate for injured reserve with a chance to return later in the year. That's the route the Jets have decided to go. The team announced on Monday that McGuire has been placed on injured reserve and he'll be eligible to be designated for return after six weeks on the list. He will be eligible to play again after eight weeks.
As Cimini noted, the Jets' wide receivers catch a lot of flak for not having a true No. 1, but it's the only group in the NFL with four players that have produced at least one 800-yard receiving season in their careers. The crafty Jermaine Kearse will become Darnold's security blanket once he recovers from an abdominal injury, which may take a few weeks.
Until then, Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa will shoulder the load with Terrelle Pryor a wild card.
The Jets may have the most unproven tight-end corps in the league with Eric Tomlinson, Jordan Leggett, Chris Herndon and Neal Sterling boasting only 26 combined career receptions. That's the bad news; the good news is Herndon and Leggett have intriguing upside. Herndon is the better all-around prospect because he can block; don't be surprised if he's starting by midseason.
The Jets' kicking situation remains fluid. Jason Myers practiced with the team on Monday, but they also worked out free agent Dan Bailey, a surprise cut of the Cowboys. His field-goal percentage dipped in 2016 and 2017, due to injuries, but he was solid in camp this summer. It may take a day or two for the Jets to sort it out.
QBs: Sam Darnold, David Fales
RBs: Le'Veon Bell, Bilal Powell, Ty Montgomery, Kenneth Dixon, Josh Adams
WRs: Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder, Braxton Berrios, Tim White, Demaryius Thomas
TEs: Daniel Brown, Trevon Wesco
Oakland RaidersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As Raider Nation continues to try to make sense out of the team's decision to part ways with All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack, Oakland's players are trying to stay focused on the upcoming season.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Derek Carr talked about the impact Mack's trade has had on him.
"It's not what anybody wanted," Carr said about the trade. "I think that's clear. But it is what it is. It's probably the business ... it's one of those sucky things that happen. The hardest part for me, obviously, you lose a good football player, but he's my brother, man. That's one of my best friends, so I think the hardest part is I don't get to see one of my best friends every day."
It's clear the trade and Mack's subsequent signing of a six-year, $141 million contract with the Bears has shaken the Raiders with a week to go before the team's Sept. 10 opener against the Los Angeles Rams. It's a far from ideal situation, but cutting ties to Mack was something coach Jon Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie felt was necessary once they were convinced his holdout would stretch into the regular season and they could land a king's ransom in return. As McKenzie noted, trading Mack wasn't part of the Raiders' plan for the 2018 season.
Still, how will the Raiders respond?
With a first-year head coach directing a new-look defensive unit that has been depleted of its biggest star, will the Raiders challenge for the AFC West title or be a 2018 afterthought with an eye focused on the future?
Whatever the case might be, the Raiders will need to quickly digest and move on from one of the most shocking trades of all-time.
Of course, the Mack news comes in the context of Gruden's arrival.
As ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez put it, "The Raiders are trying to make right what once went wrong -- bringing back Gruden to coach a team he never wanted to leave when the late Al Davis traded him to Tampa Bay in 2002."
And because he has spent the past nine seasons in ESPN's Monday Night Football booth, critics wonder if the game has passed him by. Raiders owner Mark Davis, who chased Gruden for six years, doled out a 10-year, $100 million contract and hopes his new coach will right Carr.
The Raiders' fortunes for a rebound season with a rebuilt roster reside in the relationship between Gruden and Carr and how quickly the defense gets used to playing without Mack. ...
Gruden's offense is dink-and-dunk with plenty with power running and the occasional deep shot. Given that, it's worth noting Marshawn Lynch looked like the "BeastMode" of old when the Raiders began feeding him the ball in the last seven games of the season. Lynch finished just 10 yards shy of leading the league in rushing over the final five weeks, averaging 5.2 yards per carry from Week 13 through Week 17.
Following the signing of running back Doug Martin, rumors swirled that it might spell the end to the Lynch experiment in Oakland, but he now appears to be set to be as Gruden's lead back. Indeed, Gruden said he needs "full-time Lynch" for the Raiders to succeed in 2018. ...
Wideout Amari Cooper slumped badly last season with 48 receptions for 680 yards and seven touchdowns, with much of his production coming off one monster game against the Chiefs. He played quietly through foot issues and has struggled in the second half of the season in all three years. He will be a focal point of a Gruden offense. There are concerns about Jordy Nelson's ability to separate, but he's a steadying veteran presence.
Meanwhile, veteran wide receiver Brandon LaFell signed with the Oakland Raiders on Monday, the team announced.
The Raiders waived wide receiver Johnny Holton in a corresponding move.
The Raiders on Saturday waived wide receiver Martavis Bryant after trading a third-round pick in the 2018 draft to the Pittsburgh Steelers to acquire him. General manager Reggie McKenzie said the team moved on from Bryant because he missed "a lot of practice time with minor ailments."
Bryant, however, also is facing a suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, sources told ESPN's Dan Graziano.
The Cincinnati Bengals released LaFell in August. He was set to enter the final year of a three-year contract signed in 2015.
LaFell, 31, caught 52 passes for 548 yards and three touchdowns last season.
At tight end, Jared Cook will find himself flexed and put in positions to get preferred matchups, something that didn't happen as often as the Raiders would have liked last season. If he can consistently catch the ball, there's no reason he couldn't put up a career year statistically.
And finally. ... A groin injury landed UDFA licker Eddy Pineiro on Injured Reserve and Mike Nugent, the veteran camp leg, has been thrust into the role.
QBs: Derek Carr, Mike Glennon
RBs: Josh Jacobs, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington
WRs: Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones, Keelan Doss
TEs: Darren Waller, Derek Carrier
Philadelphia EaglesCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
Carson Wentz's season debut will have to wait at least one more week.
The Eagles confirmed on Monday that Nick Foles will start at quarterback for their season opener against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night.
"Nick Foles is the starter and we have complete confidence, obviously, in what he can do," head coach Doug Pederson told PhiladelphiaEagles.com's Dave Spadaro. "We're ready to go with Nick."
Wentz has not taken a snap since tearing his ACL and LCL in Week 14 of the 2017 season. The Eagles have slow played his recovery and rehab from offseason knee surgery. The decision to start Foles in the opener indicates Philadelphia is taking a cautious long-term approach to Wentz's return to the field.
This is the way things looked to be going. Pederson had been mum on the subject for days and was not increasing Wentz's reps in practice. Recently, the doctor who repaired Wentz's knee, Dr. Jim Bradley, suggested the Eagles take "a cautious approach" to Wentz's recovery. As he put it, "What's a few games over 12 to 15 years?"
As far as the eye test goes, teammates agree that Wentz is passing with flying colors. Last Thursday, right tackle Lane Johnson said that he would be a bit surprised if Wentz weren't the starter against Atlanta, based on what he has seen.
"It's pretty remarkable how he's progressed," tight end Zach Ertz said recently. "You would never expect, just looking at him, that he would have had such a big surgery just eight-and-a-half months ago. He looks great. He looks like he always does. He's moving well -- surprisingly well, honestly. I don't know if anyone expected him to be this far along, but he looks really good."
Wentz has been champing at the bit to get back out on the field, as you might expect, but has reluctantly accepted that this decision is largely a medical one and is out of his hands.
Given all that's on the line, it's no surprise the Eagles are playing it conservatively.
Foles, the Super Bowl LII MVP, will be making his first regular-season home start since leading the underdog Eagles to its first Super Bowl title over the New England Patriots.
Foles is familiar with this Atlanta team.
In Philly's victory over the Falcons in last year's Divisional Round, Foles completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 246 yards.
But the backup quarterback has yet to regain his form from last year's otherworldly postseason run. Foles notably struggled on national television against the Browns during Philly's Week 3 "dress rehearsal" game. The QB completed 61.5 percent of his passes in the preseason for 171 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT and a 48.7 passer rating. Foles also took six sacks, including a safety.
There's no telling what version of Foles the Eagles will get on Thursday night.
But whatever it is will be, in their eyes, preferable to trotting a hesitant Wentz and his fickle knee and risking catastrophic injury.
Meanwhile, Nate Sudfeld will be the No. 2 quarterback on Thursday night and Wentz will be inactive.
Now the focus is having the offense, which failed to get untracked in the preseason, up and running efficiently against Atlanta.
There are plenty of weapons here, starting with the line of scrimmage. Jason Kelce anchors the offensive line, which gets Jason Peters back at left tackle and features the NFL's best right side with guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Lane Johnson. They'll go against a quick, powerful, and aggressive Atlanta front. The Eagles want to establish the running game, spread the football around, create some good matchups, and stay out of the third-and-long game.
According to Spadaro, Sproles is an X-factor here. He may not get a lot of touches, but he is someone the Falcons will have to account for, no matter where he lines up in the formation. Asked about his role and whether he's expecting to move around the offense, Sproles offered only a sly smile and a brief answer: "We'll have to see on Thursday."
Meanwhile, Jay Ajayi injury is one to consider here. He reported to training camp in the best shape of his life and then suffered a setback with a lower-body injury that, he said on Sunday, has set him back.
Although Ajayi was back on the practice field Monday and Tuesday (he was a full participant) and was removed from the final injury report, it's fair to wonder how many touches can he provide on a night that is expected to be hot and humid in South Philadelphia?
The good news is that the running game is buffeted by Corey Clement, Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood, and all of them have big-game NFL experience.
The tight end position, with Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert, figures to be used extensively in this game.
In the end, no matter who the quarterback is, the success of the Eagles' offense will come down to the full cast of players starting up front and it’s a strong bunch. ...
For the record, Pederson reiterated on Tuesday that Wentz has yet to be cleared for contact by the Eagles medical team. Pederson did say he believes Wentz's clearance is coming sooner rather than later, however.
"Close," Pederson said, via Eliot Shorr-Parks of WIP. "I'm no doctor, no expert. Still leaving it up to the medical team. He's had some great workouts here in the last few days. We'll see."
Pederson said Wentz wants to be on the field, "but he also knows that the longevity of his career, he and I, hopefully we're in this thing for the long run."
Also worth noting. ... The Eagles cut veteran wide receiver Markus Wheaton on their way to 53 players, but they reversed course on Tuesday.
Wheaton is back with the team after they placed tight end Richard Rodgers on injured reserve. Rodgers has a knee injury and could return after eight weeks on the list should the Eagles decide to use one of their two return slots.
Wheaton's return comes a day after two Eagles wideouts missed practice. Alshon Jeffery will not play Thursday as he continues to make his way back from shoulder surgery and Mack Hollins has been sidelined by a hip injury that will also keep him out this week.
The Eagles kept four other receivers on the roster when they made their cuts on Saturday.
Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace, Shelton Gibson and DeAndre Carter round out the receiver group in Philly.
QBs: Carson Wentz, Nate Sudfeld, Clayton Thorson
RBs: Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, Jay Ajayi
WRs: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Greg Ward, Robert Davis, Nelson Agholor
TEs: Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Josh Perkins
Pittsburgh SteelersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Pittsburgh Steelers stressed all summer the need to avoid the kind of off-the-field distractions they couldn't seem to shake in 2017.
So much for that.
While the two-time defending AFC North champions hit the practice field on Monday to prepare for their Week 1 opener in Cleveland, All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell was nowhere to be found. And he still hadn't showed up when the team reconvened to begin preparing for their Week 1 game against the Browns on Wednesday.
Bell still hasn't signed his one-year franchise tender or given any indication on when he might show up.
"The team is so locked in and focused on what we've got to do at hand this weekend that whenever he comes, we'll welcome him with open arms," center Maurkice Pouncey said Tuesday. "Hopefully he's in shape and ready to run the football."
As Associated Press sports writer Will Graves reminded readers, a year ago Bell skipped training camp, showed up on Labor Day and was ready to play in the opener, though he and the entire offense looked sluggish in narrow 21-18 victory over the Browns. Bell finished with 32 yards on 10 carries in Cleveland and didn't really get rolling until October.
"I think the whole offense started out kind of slow last year," Pouncey said. "To point out one thing at one person because he wasn't here (for camp) is totally wrong."
Bell recovered in time to lead the NFL with 406 touches and likely would have won the league rushing title if he wasn't held out of a meaningless finale with Pittsburgh's playoff position already secure.
The Steelers placed the franchise tag on him for a second straight spring hoping a long-term deal could be worked out. When the two sides failed to reach an agreement by the July 17th deadline, Bell offered an apology while promising that "2018 will be my best season to date."
At the moment, it's a season that currently lacks a starting point -- and the situation got increasingly contentious when Bell didn't show up Wednesdasy.
If Bell is not available -- and at this point it's hard to imagine him playing, the Steelers will turn to second-year running back James Conner. The former Pitt star ran for 100 yards during limited action in the preseason and has won raves from his teammates for his improvement as both a blocker and a receiver.
"I feel like James has been in a great spot this entire camp," Foster said. "He's the one that's taken all the reps. And we've got (Stevan) Ridley who is an experienced hard downfield runner too. We'll be fine in the run game and focus on those guys over there."
Head coach Mike Tomlin also said he feels more comfortable with Conner this year.
“James -- the status and condition and approach of James,” Tomlin said. “Being a rookie who missed a lot of time due to soft tissue injuries and lack of general readiness to a guy who’s done the things that we outlined.”
I will have much more on this when Late-Breaking Updates commence early Thursday morning, but it's worth noting the Steelers have a two-week roster exemption they can use on Bell, who won’t get paid until he’s on the 53-player roster. They could save $856,000 this week and another $856,000 next week if they choose that route. Bell is due to make $14.55 million under the one-year franchise tag, which he has yet to sign.
Meanwhile, though he doesn't know when Bell is showing up, Tomlin is more sure of what to expect from wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown hurt his quad in early August and the team took a slow approach to bringing him back over the remainder of the summer. Brown did not return to practice until Monday, but it seems that approach has paid off as hoped for the wideout.
Tomlin said, via multiple reporters, that Brown will be “full go” when the Steelers face the Browns on Sunday.
Whatever Bell decides to do in the coming days, that’s good news for the Steelers offense as Brown has averaged seven catches and 109 yards while scoring seven touchdowns in his 12 games against the Browns.
In addition, while Bell is missing, Josh Dobbs is still around. The second-year quarterback capped a stellar training camp by edging veteran Landry Jones for the right to be Ben Roethlisberger's backup.
Dobbs, who threw for a touchdown and ran for another in the exhibition finale against Carolina, said he wasn't sure he made the team until offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called him just minutes before rosters were trimmed from 90 to 53.
"I thought I played well when my opportunities came," Dobbs said. "I didn't know how it was going to shake out but I felt we prepared well and played well. We've just got to continue to improve moving forward."
Rookie Mason Rudolph will be the third-stringer for now behind Dobbs and the 36-year-old Roethlisberger, who has been remarkably durable in recent seasons. Roethlisberger has missed just five games because of injury since the start of 2013.
Speaking of Big Ben. ... ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler predicted this week that Roethlisberger will win his first MVP award this season.
Roethlisberger entered camp in better shape and plans to set a tone. He's entering a de facto contract year and desperately wants to get a third Super Bowl, and his first alongside this offensive line. He's tight with coordinator Randy Fichtner and plans to run a lot of no-huddle, which should result in big yardage totals.
He has averaged 14.3 interceptions per season since 2015, so if he gets that number down to single digits -- coupled with another double-digit-win season -- he'll be firmly in the mix and just might win it.
Brown (and Bell) will obviously help in that regard. Brown is coming off yet another All-Pro season and is on the verge of 10,000 receiving yards for his career. In addition, JuJu Smith-Schuster had more receiving yards than any other rookie last season and can be effective as an outside receiver or from the slot. James Washington, a rookie second-round pick, is expected to be the No. 3 receiver. He was known for being a deep threat at Oklahoma State and will fill that role for the Steelers as well with Martavis Bryant no longer with the team.
At tight end, Jesse James opens the season as the only healthy body at the position. But Vance McDonald seems to have some upside.
As ESPN's Mike Clay noted, following a nondescript regular season, McDonald doubled his previous career high with 16 targets in the divisional round of the 2017 playoffs. The 2013 second-round pick is 28 years old and has never completed a full 16-game season, but he's positioned extremely well for a "late" breakout. According to Clay, McDonald, who hopes to return from a foot injury to practice this week, has TE1 upside as Roethlisberger's primary tight end target.
And finally. ... Chris Boswell is now one of the league's highest-paid kickers after signing a new deal in August. Boswell made the Pro Bowl after making 92 percent of his field-goal attempts last season.
QBs: Devlin Hodges, Mason Rudolph, Ben Roethlisberger
RBs: James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds, Kerrith Whyte
WRs: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Johnny Holton, Deon Cain, Tevin Jones
TEs: Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett, Zach Gentry
San Francisco 49ersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
In the split-second it took for running back Jerick McKinnon to plant his right foot on a routine practice play and fall awkwardly to the ground, a lot of the 49ers' plans changed for the upcoming season.
"We all know we have to pick it up because our goal is we want to get to a Super Bowl, eventually," Matt Breida said. "And we got to take our first step this year. Our first goal is to get to the playoffs. We all feel like we have to step it up."
McKinnon on Monday was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL in his right knee. Whereas he was signed to a lucrative free-agent contract to be Jimmy Garoppolo's most versatile offensive weapon, the 49ers are likely to view their offensive approach a bit differently now.
Veteran Alfred Morris earned a roster spot as insurance after second-year players Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols failed to impress head coach Kyle Shanahan and the organization. Morris will be paired with Breida to share the duties in the backfield as McKinnon spends the season rehabbing to be at full strength for 2019.
McKinnon said he is optimistic Morris and Breida can accomplish good things in tandem.
"I think they work really well together," McKinnon told NBCSports.com's Matt Maiocco. "They're two different backs. And they both have a lot of upside. Coach Shanahan and the rest of the coaches do a good job of putting us in position to be successful."
Morris and Breida are a contrasts in styles and experience.
Morris, 29, enters his seventh NFL season. He entered the NFL in 2012 with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator in Washington. A tough inside runner, Morris gained nearly 2,900 yards and 20 touchdowns with Shanahan in two seasons.
Breida, 23, made the 49ers' roster as an undrafted rookie. He appeared in all 16 games last season and averaged 4.4 yards a carry while catching 21 passes. Breida appears capable of providing more big plays for the 49ers' offense.
"Matt's obviously faster than Alfred," McKinnon said. "Alfred's been in this scheme before. Alfred's been to the Pro Bowl in this scheme. When I see him run, I can see why he's so successful, because he makes a lot of the right cuts and smart moves and puts the ball where it needs to be placed.
"I think he's going to help Matt come along. It's only going to make them both better. When you got two backs, iron sharpens iron."
Morris, who signed with the 49ers just three weeks ago, has never seen Breida play because Breida just returned to practice this week from a separated shoulder. But Morris has used him as a resource as he adjusts back to Shanahan's offensive system. Morris said Breida and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are the two players he leans on for knowledge about the offense.
"He's definitely a change-of-pace type of guy," Morris said of Breida. "I think he can carry the load if he had to. It would be a different role for him. But I think mentally he has the capacity to do that."
Said Breida, "Alfred has been in this offense before. He's asking me questions, but I'm asking him questions, too."
Ultimately, the big question is how Shanahan will deploy Morris and Breida. It could be a weekly adjustment, as Shanahan looks for the right matchups against a given opponent, beginning Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Right now, neither Morris nor Breida knows exactly what to expect.
"We'll see how they use us, if it's a one-two thing or we kind of spell each other," Morris said. "I don't know what they're going to do. We'll just see. We'll figure it out this week and go from there."
A key piece to Shanahan's offense, Juszczyk won't lack for playing time, serving as a lead blocker in the run game and a safety valve capable of the occasional big play in the passing game.
In general, a Week 1 matchup against a very tough Vikings defense isn't favorable.
Still, general manager John Lynch expressed optimism about the team's roster even with McKinnon gone.
"We've got a lot of good football players here," Lynch said. "We're proud of our 53-man roster, and next week we're going to be really excited looking to take on the Vikings."
With Breida coming off that shoulder injury, don't be surprised if Morris, who is fully-versed in Shanahan's scheme from their time together in Washington, gets the Week 1 start. I will, however, watch this situation closely and follow up via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...
Meanwhile, the prospect of a full season with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has the 49ers' faithful dreaming big after five straight wins to finish last year.
Garoppolo's teammates call him "Franchise," and he's now faced with the task of living up to all those expectations.
As ESPN's Mike Clay notes, Garoppolo averaged a league-best 8.76 yards per attempt on 178 throws with San Francisco last season. He completed 67 percent of his passes, tossing seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Despite the poor TD-INT ratio, Garoppolo was eighth at the position in fantasy points in five starts.
An improved supporting cast will allow Garoppolo to take another step in his first full season with the team.
At wideout, Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin will start on the outside with Trent Taylor as the primary slot option and rookie Dante Pettis providing the versatility to step in to any spot and return punts.
Second-year tight end George Kittle looked poised for a breakout season before a shoulder injury in the preseason opener. He's on track to return for Week 1 and play a prominent role in the offense. Garrett Celek is a solid, reliable type who is the best blocker in this group.
The 49ers didn't bring in any real competition for Robbie Gould, arguably their Most Valuable Player runner-up last season. His only concern: At age 36, he might not be able to keep up with all the opportunities.
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard
RBs: Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson
WRs: Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Richie James, Jordan Matthews
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Levine Toilolo
Seattle SeahawksCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
The Seattle Seahawks spent the offseason overhauling a roster that was responsible for much of the team's lofty successes over the last six years.
Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are all gone from the defensive side of the football. Earl Thomas intends to end a summer-long contract holdout Wednesday and it's not clear if he'll be ready to move into the lineup immediately. That could leave Seattle down five key defensive players from the team that enjoyed back-to-back Super Bowl trips in the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Add in new offensive and defensive coordinators in Brian Schottenheimer and Ken Norton Jr., and a new offensive line coach in Mike Solari, and the Seahawks are a much different looking team than the group that has played together for most of the last half decade.
What that is going to produce on the field in 2018 is wholly uncertain, though head coach Pete Carroll has maintained his trademark optimism.
"I'm excited about it," he said of the changes. "I'm excited about the challenge of the newness and the opportunity to get better. I want to personally be challenged by our guys and I want to personally challenge them. That will translate to challenging our players to see things differently and in a new way. It felt like this was the right time, and the opportunity to get some guys that were available obviously made that an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Still, as ESPN.com's Brady Henderson suggested, not since 2011, Carroll's second season in Seattle and a year before Russell Wilson arrived, have expectations for the Seahawks been so low.
They refute the notion that they're in rebuild mode after a 9-7 season and the departures or absences of those key defenders, plus Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson.
Whatever you want to call it, the Seahawks have their work cut out for them as they try to climb back atop an increasingly strong NFC West with a roster no longer as loaded with Pro Bowl talent.
Among the key issues this offeason was fixing the running game.
Seattle's running game struggles last season were blatantly apparent. Only one touchdown was scored by a running back all season and the group was wholly incapable of gaining positive ground inside an opponent's 20-yard line. Seattle beefed up its offensive line, changed line coaches and offensive coordinator and added a first-round running back to the mix (Rashaad Penny), but it still must all come together and make positive strides.
Of course, as the team looks to fix its rushing attack, the running back spot will be the most intriguing battle of camp.
As Henderson noted, Chris Carson has looked like the Seahawks' starter all offseason even though they drafted Penny in the first round. Penny is expected to be ready by Week 1 after breaking his finger during training camp and will still have a role in Seattle's offense even if he's not the first option.
As ESPN's Mike Clay reminded readers, Penny posted a dominant 128.6 elusive rating, according to Pro Football Focus, during his final season at San Diego State. That topped the position, as did his forced missed tackle rate of one every 3.5 touches. Penny averaged 7.78 yards per carry and led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards.
Clay believes the rookie will quickly find a role with Seattle, but Henderson, in predicting the Seahawks will have a top-five rushing offense, added that Carson will lead the way.
Whoever is leading the way, that would constitute a massive jump for a team that finished 23rd and 25th in rushing the past two season.
C.J. Prosise and Mike Davis will provide depth after J.D. McKissic (foot) was placed on injured reserve. Prosise remains an intriguing talent, but has struggled to stay on the field due to numerous injuries. ...
Meanwhile, Doug Baldwin is expected to be ready for Week 1, though he said the knee injury that sidelined him for all but the first couple days of training camp will need to be managed throughout the season. Brandon Marshall developed a nice connection with Wilson over the summer and, equally as important, got healthy and stayed that way after being sidelined during minicamp with a hamstring injury. He'll give Wilson the big target that he lost when Graham left for Green Bay.
Ed Dickson was the presumed starter when Seattle signed him in free agency, but he was sidelined for all of camp and is on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list (much to his dismay). Nick Vannett has been Seattle's No. 1 tight end in Dickson's absence, but rookie fourth-round pick Will Dissly also is expected to play regularly. ...
The Seahawks acquired Brett Hundley in a trade with the Green Bay Packers last week, so he gets the backup job that Austin Davis and Alex McGough were competing for all offseason. Carroll described Hundley as something the Seahawks believe could keep their offense moving if he ever had to step in. Of course, Wilson has not missed a game in his six seasons.
The Seahawks believe Schottenheimer will make Wilson better.
That would be no mean feat.
Wilson led the league with 34 touchdown passes and led the Seahawks with 586 rushing yards. At times, Wilson had to make miracles happen for an offense that was incapable of running the football by conventional methods. After playing through multiple leg injuries in 2016, a healthy Wilson left plays on the table at times by scrambling to make the home-run play instead of staying patient and making throws from the pocket.
Wilson often appeared to rely too much on his athleticism to make plays on the fly instead of staying within the structure of the offense.
But he doesn't do this without reason: His athleticism and mobility make Wilson all but impossible for opposing defensive coordinators to contain.
And again, his 2017 successes came without a legitimate rushing attack while working behind one of the worst pass-blocking offensive lines in the league. As long as the Seahawks continue to lean on him so heavily, fantasy owners looking to roll with Wilson should do so with confidence. ...
And finally. ... Sebastian Janikowski, the long-time Raider, gives the Seahawks an upgrade from Blair Walsh, whose disastrous second half of 2017 contributed to Seattle missing the playoffs.
QBs: Russell Wilson, Geno Smith
RBs: Travis Homer, Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin
WRs: Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, David Moore, John Ursua, Malik Turner, Jaron Brown
TEs: Jacob Hollister, Luke Willson
Tampa Bay BuccaneersCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
According to Tampa Bay Times staff writer Rick Stroud, it hit Mike Evans when he pulled his car into team headquarters Monday morning and the parking space next to him was empty.
"We park by each other and I forgot he was going to be gone this week and he just wasn't there and I pulled right in and I just thought about, man, he's going to be gone these three weeks," Evans said. "It'll be tough. That's my boy, but he'll be back."
For the first time in more than three seasons, quarterback Jameis Winston didn't come to work Monday and his absence was immediately felt by coaches and teammates as they began to prepare for Sunday's game at New Orleans.
Winston is serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's player conduct policy. An eight month investigation revealed that in March of 2016, Winston groped a female Uber driver in Arizona.
"It was a little bit (weird)," head coach Dirk Koetter said. "I think I noticed it most when I went in the quarterback room when we broke down for individual meetings. It's been a long time since Jameis hasn't been camp out in the front row next to his computer. It was a little bit strange but we knew this was coming. We planned for it and now we've just got to do it."
The plan is to start 35-year-old veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in Sunday's season opener against the Saints. Then the Bucs will host the Super Bowl champion Eagles in the home opener and the Steelers on Monday Night Football.
"It's different," tight end Cameron Brate said. "He's been the starting quarterback for three years now. Kind of miss him talking all practice and his leadership at the quarterback position. But Fitz is a vet. He's done it for over a decade. He's a great leader, too, and he kind of leads in his own way. We're excited to get going here with Fitz."
Whereas Winston is loud and animated on the field and in the meeting rooms, Fitzpatrick is much more laid back with a quick sense of humor.
"Cerebral. Obviously. Calm, cool, collected," quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said of Fitzpatrick. "He's the type of guy people end up liking the first time they meet him. He's got a good sense of humor. He's dry with his wit. Being a Harvard guy, that's part of it. And obviously, he's been around the block."
Right tackle Demar Dotson said Winston's presence is felt by every employee at the Bucs' training facility.
"One thing I love about him most, not just as a football player, but the way he conducts himself around the building," Dotson said. "He'll go up to, let's just say the lawn guy, but he'll call him by their name. It might be Nate who pushes the trash can around here, and he's like, "what's up, Nate?" Where most people wouldn't know these people's names but he takes a family approach and calls people by their names. What can that do for someone like Nate, who can say, "Hey Jameis calls me by my name.' I respect him more for that than as a football player."
But it's the football player the Bucs will miss Sunday against the Saints. Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter for Tampa Bay last season, beating the Jets and Dolphins before losing to Atlanta.
"That was probably the biggest difference for me," Bajakian said. "We've been out here on the field where he's been out or limited before. But the offensive meeting room, when that seat is empty, it almost feels like something is off."
For what it's worth, neither Koetter nor general manager Jason Licht would commit to Winston as a starter in Week 4. ...
Meanwhile, Peyton Barber will open the season as the starter and line up in short yardage situations and at the goal line, while rookie Ronald Jones will serve as the the backup and Rodgers as their third-down back (Jones is listed behind Rodgers on the team's official depth chart).
As ESPN's Mike Clay notes, Jones entered the combine with concerns related to his size, but those were mostly put to bed when he weighed in at 205 pounds. Jones is coming off a season at USC in which he averaged 5.9 yards per carry and scored 19 touchdowns on 261 carries. But his struggles in the passing game as well as in securing the ball -- and gainging yardage as a rusher -- were obvious all summer.
He has work to do before moving ahead of Barber -- if he's able to do that this year.
At wideout, ESPN.com's Jenna Laine predicts that ris Godwin will surpass DeSean Jackson for the second-most receiving yards, finishing with 750 -- second-most on the team behind Evans. Laine explained that Godwin was arguably the most consistent receiver during the offseason and training camp, and he showed strong chemistry with both Fitzpatrick and Winston.
For the record, Godwin and Jackson are listed as costarters on the initial depth chart.
O.J. Howard is the Bucs' run-blocking and pass-catching tight end, while Cameron Brate serves primarily as a pass-catcher.
QBs: Jameis Winston, Ryan Griffin
RBs: Ronald Jones, Peyton Barber, Dare Ogunbowale, T.J. Logan
WRs: Breshad Perriman, Justin Watson, Cyril Grayson, Spencer Schnell, Chris Godwin
TEs: Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, Tanner Hudson
Tennessee TitansCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As ESPN.com's Turron Davenport notes, the Titans won a playoff game last season but replaced coach Mike Mularkey with former Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel. The most significant task will be finding a way to help Marcus Mariota become an elite quarterback.
While Mularkey's approach was huge in helping to turn around a losing culture that had permeated the organization for several years and through several coaching regimes, his stubbornness in clinging to Terry Robiskie's run-based, conservative offense in the midst of a changing NFL proved to be the impetus for change.
In replacing Mularkey, G.M. Jon Robinson tapped someone he was familiar with from his time in New England, hiring Vrabel, who is only seven years removed from being a player himself, and brings the type of intensity and hands-on approach to coaching that is hard not to notice on the practice field.
Vrabel's intense attitude has reflected in everything he has touched within the organization thus far, from his coaching style even down to his media sessions.
The biggest thing that Vrabel will be charged with doing - something that Robinson said would be an emphasis with whoever was the Titans new coach - is to operate an offense around the skill set of Mariota while still protecting him from injury.
Mularkey's offense was based around the running of DeMarco Murray, who was released in the offseason and later opted for retirement.
Vrabel and the Titans will now tailor the offense around a West-Coast style passing attack with Matt LaFleur at the controls. LaFleur was one of the other head coaching candidates to be interviewed by Robinson when Vrabel was hired, and Robinson suggested that Vrabel reach out to LaFleur as offensive coordinator.
LaFleur held the same position with the Rams last season, as Jared Goff morphed from colossal disappointment as a rookie to a big-time playmaker in his second year. But he did not have play-calling duties in L.A., something that he will have in Tennessee.
LaFleur has an eager student in Mariota, even though there were bumps in the road during the offseason.
Still, if second-year receiver Corey Davis can stay healthy, he'll help Mariota reach that goal. Davis appears to beready to show he can be the Titans' lead receiver. A league-high 32.8 percent of balls thrown in Davis' direction were "off target" last season. As ESPN's Mike Clay pointed out, the 2017 fifth overall pick was on the field for 85 percent of the team's pass plays when active but didn't score his first touchdown until the playoffs.
Improved efficiency, thanks to LaFleur, means the sky is the limit for 6-3 Davis in his second season.
The team's wideouts were once considered a weakness, but the return of Rishard Matthews bolsters it. Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe give Tennessee production and depth in the slot as well as on the outside.
The addition of free-agent running back Dion Lewis gives Tennessee a legitimate pass-catching threat to go along with Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker.
Walker and Jonnu Smith will see a lot of action in two-tight-end packages. They present matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Expect Mariota to be more aggressive and take shots on unscripted, off-schedule throws.
On the ground, Derrick Henry and Lewis will get the bulk of the carries. They bring two different styles that complement each other, giving the Titans a potent rushing attack.
Defensively, Jurrell Casey, Kevin Byard, Adoree Jackson and free-agent CB Malcolm Butler round out what should be a solid 53-man roster.
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota
RBs: Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis, Dalyn Dawkins, David Fluellen
WRs: A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Tajae Sharpe, Adam Humphries, Kalif Raymond
TEs: Jonnu Smith, Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt
Washington RedskinsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 5 September 2018
As Associated Press sports writer Stephen Whyno noted, whether it's his personality, his depth of NFL experience or the long-term contract that previous starter Kirk Cousins never had in Washington, Alex Smith has already assumed the place of unquestioned leader and made players sense an entirely different vibe around the team.
"(It's about) putting yourself out there, being real and nothing fake, nothing phony but getting to know the guys, letting your guard down," Smith said. "I'm more conscious of it as I've gotten older about that, about the responsibility as a teammate, being a good teammate."
No one around the Redskins is calling Cousins a bad teammate, and team brass is reluctant to compare him and Smith on or off the field. But ever since Smith took the field in practice in burgundy and gold, he has been the subject of glowing praise about his ability to lead.
"He's always been a leader," left tackle Trent Williams said. "You could tell he's comfortable in that role. He's what we needed."
A series of one-year contracts made Cousins unwilling or unable to fully fill that void. After signing a guaranteed $84 million, three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings, Cousins felt he finally had a "license to lead" that was never there with the Redskins, who took him in the same draft as Robert Griffin III, made him compete for the starting job and never agreed to a long-term contract.
Washington not only acquired Smith from Kansas City but signed him to a $94 million, four-year extension with $71 million guaranteed and put the pressure on him to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season. That's as much as license to lead as anything, but the 34-year-old brushed off the trappings of that kind of security.
"All you're guaranteed is a year at a time here and even game by game," Smith said. "I appreciate so much the opportunity I have today and right in front of me and I'm not really thinking past that. Contract, all this and that, I'm not feeling any kind of comfort in that. No. I've got a huge sense of urgency to go out there and to go right now, to go today. I'm not waiting on anything. So it doesn't change my approach at all."
It's that approach that quickly won Smith the respect of teammates, who spent the opening days of training camp talking about things feeling "different" this year.
This was a team with Jay Gruden entering his fifth season as head coach with almost the same core of players except at the most important position.
"We got a lot of leaders on this team, especially with your quarterback," safety D.J. Swearinger said. "When you get a guy like Alex Smith in here, a lot changes. ... He's changed the leadership of how the offense approaches (the game). When they break the huddle, it's a different bounce. It's a different way he comes on the line and commands the offense."
That's what senior vice president of player personnel and retired QB Doug Williams thought the Redskins were getting in Smith, who is coming off a season in which he set career highs with 4,042 yards passing and 26 touchdowns. Cousins threw for 4,000 yards the past three seasons, but Washington wanted a long-term answer and found it in Smith.
"What we've seen since he's been here is everything that we thought, that Jim (Tomsula) was talking about, from a leadership standpoint," Williams said.
"When he walked in the building, you could feel Alex Smith taking control of the locker room and being part of what we were looking for from a stability standpoint."
The practice field has been the setting for Redskins players getting an up-close look at Smith. Cornerback Josh Norman bemoaned not being able to get enough work in because Smith was too accurate and wouldn't make mistakes, and Swearinger called him the kind of player defenders hate to face.
Gruden, a former QB himself and an offensive guru, sees Smith as someone who can run his playbook and is also tailoring some things to him to maximize his mobility and decision-making prowess.
"Really what CAN'T he do?" Gruden said. "We're just trying to come up with a plan of attack that utilizes his skillset and make him as comfortable as possible."
Smith looks and feels comfortable off the field, too. In addition to players admiring how the playbook has grown because of his addition, Thompson and said Smith "seemed to just fit in with us right away."
Gruden said Smith "doesn't walk in here like he's king. He's walking in here like he's one of the guys." As one of the fittest players on the team, Smith sets a work ethic example, and his personality is such that Gruden thinks he could play a pickup basketball game with anyone and fit in.
Perhaps that's why his transition to Washington has been so seamless that Williams said it feels as if Smith has been around a long time. The Redskins hope he actually is.
"He has the charisma, he has the character, he has everything that you want in a quarterback," Williams said. "And that's what they're supposed to be: a face of the franchise, and I can tell you this: Alex Smith fits that mold as the face of a franchise ..."
Meanwhile, ESPN.com's John Keim reports the offense, which hasn't been together in full this preseason, should receive a boost for the regular-season opener. Tight end Jordan Reed and third-down back Chris Thompson are on pace to at Arizona.
Gruden said both players, who fill important roles on offense, should be available. Thompson is recovering from a broken fibula; he also tore a ligament and had screws inserted into his leg. Reed played only six games last season and needed surgery to repair both of his big toes.
Thompson appears a little further ahead than Reed.
"Chris looks fantastic," Gruden said. "He's been great -- his pass blocking and obviously his routes, and he's hitting the hole. He looks great. He's ready to go. Jordan is getting there. The more he works and more he runs. ... Just getting in and out of his cuts, getting a feel with [Smith] and the different formations. He's on pace to be ready."
Reed only played in six games last season; when he's on the field with Vernon Davis, the Redskins are at their best. But Reed has played more than 12 games only once in his career. ...
All that said, neither Thompson nor Reed are on the Week 1 injury report. ...
The Redskins' running-back position has been hit with injuries this summer. Rookie Derrius Guice suffered a torn ACL in the preseason opener, taking away one of Washington's playmaking hopes. Backups Samaje Perine (ankle) and Byron Marshall (knee) then were hurt in the second game. Though Perine is now back practicing, Marshall remains sidelined.
Because of those injuries, the Redskins signed Adrian Peterson, who is expected to start the season opener.
But Thompson plays a crucial role for Washington. Before getting hurt in Week 11, Thompson had rushed for 294 yards and gained another 510 receiving. There was some concern earlier in camp about how much work he could handle early in the season, but Thompson said Monday he can resume a full workload in the team's third-down packages.
Reed has been practicing with the starters for several weeks, gradually increasing his snaps. But, like Thompson, he hasn't participated in a preseason game. His toe injury led to other leg issues last season, limiting him to a career-low 27 receptions and two touchdowns. With Reed, the Redskins are dangerous in their two-tight-end package.
His presence enables Vernon Davis to get more favorable matchups. Last season, Davis averaged 22.25 yards on 12 catches in games played with Reed and 12.7 yards when Reed wasn't available, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
Beyond that, the Redskins need Josh Doctson to take a big step; he did not have the sort of summer that would foreshadow one but perhaps the season will be different. Newcomer Paul Richardson's speed will make a difference, but as much on crossers as throwing down the field.
In the end, Crowder will provide Smith a safety net -- a job that should allow him to lead the team in catches this season.
PK Dustin Hopkins had a strong 2015, making 89.3 percent of his field goals. But in the last two years combined, he's made a combined 81.3 percent. That must improve.
QBs: Case Keenum, Colt McCoy, Dwayne Haskins
RBs: Adrian Peterson, Chris Thompson, Wendell Smallwood
WRs: Terry McLaurin, Steven Sims, Kelvin Harmon
TEs: Jeremy Sprinkle, Hale Hentges