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Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It’s the rare backfield by committee that is actually a good thing for fantasy managers. Every Tuesday, we’ll ask our NFL Nation reporters a series of burning questions to help inform your waiver-wire pickups and roster decisions.

Receivers Jarvis Landry, Deebo Samuel and DeVante Parker all set season highs for receiving yardage on Sunday. But they did it from the bench in several leagues. Landry and Samuel were started in less than 25% of ESPN fantasy leagues, while Parker was started in 62%.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Vikings rookie receiver Justin Jefferson has now had three standout performances in a row after a boom-or-bust start to the season. But he was started in only 69% of ESPN leagues in Week 12 and will still come with slight question when fellow WR Adam Thielen returns from the COVID-reserve list.

The question with all of them is: Can you trust them in your starting lineups once the fantasy playoffs begin? As always, our team reporters are here to help.

Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

The first-round pick sure feels like a must-start at this point. He caught seven passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns Sunday for his third straight outing of at least 17.6 fantasy points in ESPN PPR leagues. And he now has four games with 20-plus points this year.

However, Thielen was also looking like a must-start before he went on the COVID-reserve list (he led the NFL with 11 TD catches through Week 11). And the run-heavy Vikings rank 29th in the league with just 29.1 pass attempts per game.

Still, Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin insisted, “I think it’s very possible for two receivers to produce in Minnesota’s offense once Thielen returns.”

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that Jefferson’s big numbers against the Panthers came on a day where Dalvin Cook struggled to produce his usual amount on the ground,” Cronin said. “Minnesota is a run-first team, but that’s not always going to work. And at this point of the season, the Vikings would be wise to rely more on Jefferson and Thielen to try and preserve Cook for a playoff push.

“But how can both Jefferson and Thielen each have big outings on the same day? For one, Minnesota has gotten comfortable running deep crossing routes with both of them to try and get a safety to bite on one receiver’s route while the other is usually left with a one-on-one matchup. That’s nothing new for this offense, as the Vikings used the same strategy with Thielen when Stefon Diggs was around.”

If forced to choose one of them entering Week 13, Cronin said she would go with Jefferson, who accounts for 33% of the Vikings’ receiving yards.

“He’s shown he can handle the workload of a No. 1, and I don’t see any reason for his spike in targets to decline anytime soon,” Cronin said.

It took the five-time Pro Bowler 11 games to finally catch his first TD and notch his first 100-yard game of the season (8-143-1). But Cleveland Browns reporter Jake Trotter gave him a strong endorsement going forward.

“Landry had been relatively quiet in three games following the season-ending injury to Browns wideout Odell Beckham Jr. But that also came in three straight miserable-weather games,” said Trotter, who pointed out that only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had been targeted more than Landry without scoring a touchdown this season heading into the weekend. “Sunday in sunny Jacksonville, he showed what he can still do.”

“Even playing in a run-first offense, Landry is going to continue to get the bulk of targets from Baker Mayfield going forward. And he will be a receiver worth starting as you, like the Browns, attempt to make their push to the playoffs.”



Stephania Bell and Field Yates express how impressed they were by Deebo Samuel in Week 12, and both expect Samuel to find similar success in the 49ers’ offense.

The 49ers’ second-year receiver returned from a hamstring injury in dynamic fashion Sunday, catching 11 passes for 133 yards. But he comes with the full gamut of questions because of his injury history and the constant moving parts in San Francisco’s offense. Rookie Brandon Aiyuk had started to establish himself as the Niners’ go-to receiver before missing Week 12 on the COVID-reserve list.

“Here’s the thing. It’s so hard to predict how the Niners are going to operate when fully healthy on offense because — wait for it — they’ve never been fully healthy on offense this season,” 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner said. “And when Aiyuk returns, they still won’t be, because they will be missing tight end George Kittle and QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

“It’s important to note that, because I think if the circumstances were different at quarterback, both Aiyuk and Samuel would be guys you could trust to start. … They should and will, eventually, complement each other well. But with Nick Mullens at quarterback, I find it hard to give both of them a big thumbs up every week, because he’s just not consistent enough to get the ball to both of them regularly.”

Wagoner said he thinks Samuel could be the more reliable fantasy option when healthy, because “he’s so good at so many things, which allows the Niners to get the ball in his hands in so many different ways.” He said Aiyuk is similar, but he’s more of a refined receiver, which means he might “have to rely more on the guy delivering the ball to produce.”

Parker has clearly established himself as the Dolphins’ No. 1 receiver, especially since Preston Williams has battled injuries. But Dolphins reporter Cameron Wolfe also thinks Parker’s fantasy value might be tied to the starting QB. Both of Parker’s 100-yard games this season have come with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick under center — including Sunday’s eight catches for 119 yards. But rookie Tua Tagovailoa is expected to get the job back when healthy.

“Parker has performed better with Fitzpatrick because the veteran has shown more of a willingness to throw him those 50-50 balls,” Wolfe said. “As we saw Sunday, Parker can be a fantasy WR1 when given the chances. But Tagovailoa admittedly is trying to get more comfortable with throwing to receivers, like Parker, who don’t get much separation. So, if Fitzpatrick is starting, Parker is ‘set it and forget it’ for me. If it’s Tagovailoa, I’d be a little more hesitant to start him at this point.”

Now for the rest of our weekly tour around the league:

Elliott finally had his first 100-yard rushing game in Week 11. Then, he followed up with his biggest dud of the entire year on Thanksgiving Day (10 carries for 32 yards, one catch for seven yards, his fifth lost fumble of the season).



Field Yates thinks it will be tough sledding for the rest of the season for Ezekiel Elliott and the banged up Cowboys.

“I’m not sure you can trust Elliott in fantasy lineups down the stretch, and I say that mostly because of the offensive line,” Cowboys reporter Todd Archer said. “Zack Martin is out ‘multiple weeks’ with a calf injury, and Cam Erving is also out multiple weeks. Elliott’s season has been a major disappointment on a number of fronts, including his inability to protect the ball. But the line inconsistencies have been a major part of it, as well.

“Three of their last five games are against teams with run defenses ranked in the bottom half of the league. Two are in the top 10. But how confident would you be in the ability to run the ball behind a line of Brandon Knight, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Connor McGovern and Terence Steele?”

Another week, another leading receiver for the Jaguars. This time, it was rookie fifth-round draft pick Collin Johnson, who caught four passes for 96 yards and a TD — essentially doubling his totals to 11-165-2 on the season. But when I asked Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco if the team is just messing with fantasy managers at this point, he wasn’t so quick to dismiss Johnson’s breakout. Especially if veteran backup Mike Glennon gets more starts at QB.

“Johnson is an intriguing guy and might be worth a pickup in deep leagues if Glennon continues as the starter,” said DiRocco, who pointed out that coach Doug Marrone hasn’t named a QB yet for this week. “Johnson said those two worked together on the scout team this season and developed a pretty good chemistry. DJ Chark [ribs] and Chris Conley [hip] are banged up, and their availability is unclear. Johnson will get more reps if either is down, and he will be targeted more if Glennon is in the lineup.”



Stephania Bell voices her concerns over Josh Jacobs’ ankle injury and Field Yates asserts that Devontae Booker should be a top waiver-wire add this week.

Good news for Jacobs’ fantasy investors: Coach Jon Gruden told reporters Monday that Jacobs was “confident he’s going to be able to play” this week at the New York Jets after he suffered a sprained ankle Sunday at Atlanta. Unfortunately, Jacobs didn’t produce much while playing hurt this past week (seven carries for 27 yards and three catches for 17 yards).

“Hopefully, our man Josh Jacobs is ready to roll,” Gruden said, though he acknowledged that, “I don’t think he was 100 percent yesterday. I think he tried to fight through it.”

That included a hip issue that popped up on the Raiders’ injury report late last week, according to Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez.

Backup RB Devontae Booker could be a smart waiver-wire pickup because of the uncertainty — and because of Booker’s growing role in recent weeks. But Gutierrez said Gruden also intimated the Raiders could get backups Jalen Richard (illness) and Theo Riddick (COVID-reserve) back in the lineup this week.

Akers hasn’t exactly gotten the same kind of breakthrough opportunity as other rookie RBs in recent weeks. But this is as close as we’ve seen in Los Angeles’ three-headed timeshare.

Akers ran for a career-high 84 yards on nine carries Sunday and scored his first rushing TD after catching his first TD pass a week earlier. He still ranked third in snaps behind Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson, but it was a closer split of 25-20-17.

“Akers’ recent usage in the red zone proves that the second-round pick from Florida State is earning trust from Rams coach Sean McVay in critical situations,” Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry said. “And after Akers broke off a 61-yard run late in the game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McVay continue to increase his touches to maximize his potential late in his rookie season.”

Speaking of backfields that are hard to decipher, Wolfe said there is “so much unknown” in Miami, where both Gaskin (knee) and Ahmed (shoulder) could return to the lineup soon.

“My early expectation is for it to be Gaskin returning to the starting lineup and getting the first bite of the running-back-by-committee load, with Ahmed and DeAndre Washington sharing the other bites,” Wolfe said. “But I do think they will have more trust in Ahmed/Washington than they did with veteran backups Jordan Howard and Matt Breida early in season — which feels weird to say. That might mean more of split, rather than Gaskin just being the no-doubt guy.”



Field Yates and Stephania Bell agree that Alvin Kamara is being underutilized in the Saints’ offense with Taysom Hill at QB.

As ESPN’s Saints reporter, I wouldn’t worry about a timeshare developing in New Orleans’ backfield (Latavius Murray‘s first 100-yard rushing game of the season came as a direct result of the Saints’ switch to a run-heavy game plan after they found out Denver would have no quarterbacks available). I also don’t think Kamara’s lingering foot injury is a major issue.

However, there is legitimate reason to worry about Kamara’s volume in the passing game while Drew Brees remains sidelined. Kamara has just one catch for minus-2 yards in two games with Taysom Hill at QB — partly because Hill has attempted a total of 39 passes in those two games and partly because Hill looks to throw downfield more than Brees. Hill is also more likely to vulture TD runs away from Kamara (Hill has four of them over the past two weeks). So while Kamara is still a must-start in every league format, he might not be worth the same elite price in daily leagues until Brees comes back.

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WR Jamison Crowder agrees to pay cut to remain with New York Jets, source says



FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — New York Jets wide receiver Jamison Crowder, the team’s leading receiver the last two seasons, avoided the possibility of being released by agreeing to a pay cut, a source confirmed Monday.

Crowder was due to make a non-guaranteed $10 million in base pay for 2021, the final year of a three-year, $28.5 million contract. Details of the renegotiated contract weren’t immediately available, but the new deal is expected to significantly lower his $11.4 million cap charge.

The Jets are among the league leaders in cap space (about $27 million), but they approached Crowder recently about a reduction. Crowder, who turns 28 on Thursday, skipped the voluntary portion of the offseason as the two sides haggled over the contract. NFL Network first reported the agreement.

The Jets’ mandatory minicamp starts Tuesday, and Crowder is expected to attend.

Coach Robert Saleh was optimistic that a deal would get done, saying 10 days ago that “Jamison’s definitely got a role here and we’re excited to have him.”

After signing receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole in free agency, and drafting Elijah Moore in the second round, the Jets had the leverage in talks with Crowder. He led the team with 59 catches and 699 yards in 2020, but his production was down because he missed four games due to leg injuries. The Jets also finished 32nd in total offense for the second straight year.

Even though Crowder is back, it will be interesting to see if his role diminishes in the regular season. Moore, selected 34th overall, has impressed the coaches in offseason practices. Like Crowder, he’s a slot receiver.

In another contract-relation development, safety Marcus Maye reported to the facility Monday ahead of the minicamp. Maye, who signed his franchise-tag tender ($10.6 million) earlier in the offseason, skipped the voluntary practices as the two sides attempt to negotiate a long-term deal. The deadline is July 15. If they can’t agree to a deal, Maye will play the 2021 season for the amount of the tender.

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Cam Newton expected to practice at New England Patriots minicamp after hand injury during OTAs



FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Ten days after sustaining a minor injury on his right throwing hand, New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton is expected to take part in the team’s mandatory minicamp beginning Monday, according to coach Bill Belichick.

Newton had not been present at last Thursday’s practice when reporters were present, but returned the following day. The hand apparently responded well.

“He practiced last week. I’d expect him this week too,” Belichick said Monday.

Newton has been taking top repetitions in spring practices, with Belichick having previously declared him the team’s quarterback. Belichick previously left open the possibility that Newton could face a challenge for the starting job when the team shifts from a spring teaching mode to more of an evaluation mode at the start of training camp in late July.

In Newton’s absence last Thursday, third-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham was the first player to take snaps, followed by veteran Brian Hoyer and then first-round draft pick Mac Jones.

Jones was complimentary of Newton, noting that he gave him the nickname “Mac and Cheese” while calling him a “good mentor.”

Another notable storyline at Patriots mandatory minicamp surrounds cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore is scheduled to earn a base salary of $7 million in 2021, which is below market value for a player of his caliber, and Belichick deflected a question when asked if he’s seen Gilmore at camp.

Gilmore is not present, according to the Boston Globe.

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Dan Marino on Tua Tagovailoa leading Miami Dolphins to a Super Bowl



MIAMI — Seeing Miami Dolphins fans wearing his jersey take over Hard Rock Stadium never gets old for Dan Marino. Even 21 years after retirement, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback is still the man in Miami.

“I was able to play here so long and to see the fans still care after all this time. It’s special and I love it,” Marino told ESPN. “It’s important to me. I’m happy they still do it.”

But Marino also knows the pressure of replacing him has magnified as the Dolphins have failed time and time again during the past two decades to find their franchise quarterback. Miami has had 22 starting QBs since Marino retired in 2000, and the current one — Tua Tagovailoa — has the potential to finally be the answer.

Tagovailoa has the star power — finishing in the top five of all players in jersey sales as a rookie. He’s already a folk hero in Hawaii and Alabama, where he was born and played college football, respectively. But after an up-and-down rookie season (14 touchdowns to 5 interceptions with 6-3 record, but an average of 181.4 passing yards per game and hesitancy throwing the deep ball), questions remain about whether he will be the right guy to lead the Dolphins to an elite level.

The Dolphins are counting on a big Year 2 jump. If Tagovailoa shows he can lead this team to championship contention, fans might be as all-in on the Tagovailoa-led future as they are on the Marino-led past.

“I hope he does,” Marino said. “It would be awesome for everybody, wouldn’t it? The most important thing is to be yourself, be who you are and work your butt off. It’ll work out.”

The focus around Tagovailoa this offseason has been about his confidence. He admitted recently that last season he “wasn’t comfortable calling plays, checking plays, alerting plays” and he “didn’t know the playbook really, really good.”

Both comments led to widespread criticism from multiple media outlets, but Dolphins coach Brian Flores said it was overblown: “Honestly, I just think he’s comparing last year to where he is right now, and I get it. I understand that. I remember being a first-year position coach and coming out of that year, going into the spring, going into the next season and saying, ‘I could’ve been better last year. I should have been better. I’m better now.'”

Early Tagovailoa reviews are positive as the Dolphins head into mandatory minicamp this week. Wide receiver DeVante Parker said Tagovailoa’s “mechanics and footwork look different,” plus the “ball comes out faster.” Tagovailoa, listed as 6 feet, 217 pounds as a rookie, also looks stronger and bigger. He says he’s more comfortable with this playbook and scheme under co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville. Tagovailoa also says his hip feels “10 times better” than it did this time last year coming off his career-threatening dislocation and wall fracture at Alabama in November 2019.

During a wide-ranging conversation with ESPN, Marino discussed what he has seen from Tagovailoa, his view of how being an NFL quarterback has changed since his playing days (1983-1999) and his roller-coaster health journey, which includes two recent knee surgeries and a return to a diet plan to help him lose weight.

Tagovailoa ‘has all the talent in the world’

Marino, who has worked for the Dolphins as a special adviser since 2014, knows a lot about Year 2 jumps given his second season — 1984 — is considered one of the best QB seasons of all time. He also gets an up-close view of Tagovailoa and the offense by attending practices and meetings throughout the year.

“He’s been great. He’s been awesome. He has all the talent in the world. Now it’s just about him developing the relationship with the other players,” Marino said of Tagovailoa. “It’s been tough because he didn’t have OTAs last year, a lot of the summer camp or the chance to play in exhibition games. All those things delay you somewhat. I’ll tell you, he works his butt off. I’m really excited about him, his future and our future as a team.”

The quarterback made clear he’s not “Coach Marino,” just “someone who can help at times with my view of certain things.”

Over the past year, Tagovailoa said he valued Marino’s occasional insight added during quarterback meetings. Count Marino among those who believe Tagovailoa will be much improved.

“As time goes on you, you get a better handle [of things]. You know your people. That’s what OTAs is about, getting your timing down,” Marino said. “He played a lot last year and when he played, we won games. We almost got in the playoffs. All that is a positive. You try to build from the positives.

“He wants to be really good. And in time, he’s going to get there because that’s what type of kid he is.”

‘I would guarantee you 6,000 [yards]’

Marino smiles when you mention 1984.

He doesn’t say it directly, but it’s an easy guess it was his favorite season as a pro — winning MVP, reaching Super Bowl XIX, breaking the passing-touchdown record (48) and becoming the first NFL QB to eclipse 5,000 passing yards (he finished the 1984 season with 5,084). Peyton Manning eventually broke both records and remains the record holder after his historic 2013 season (55 touchdowns, 5,477 yards) with the Denver Broncos.

“I look back at it sometimes and I feel like we were doing something very special back then as a group, as a team, as an offense, as individuals that no one did for 30 years [afterward],” Marino said. “Now guys are throwing for 5,000 yards all the time, so it’s going to happen on a more consistent basis. But to me, it’s still a special deal from 37 years ago.”

With the NFL shifting to 17 games, records will be broken. There have been 12 5,000-yard seasons, with 10 of them coming within the past decade, and Marino believes a 6,000-yard season will happen. Then he pauses and his competitive QB spirit comes out.

“If I was still younger with [Mark] Duper and [Mark] Clayton, I would guarantee you 6,000,” Marino said. “But I don’t have to do it now. I don’t have to prove it.”

Marino says the game has evolved quite a bit since his playing days. He lists the advanced access to doctors, health information, training techniques and food options, all of which have created the widespread perception of bigger, stronger faster players. But in terms of quarterback play, he sees only one significant difference.

“How to deal with protections at the line of scrimmage — defenses have changed some with multiple blitzes and different personnel — we did some of that stuff, but it’s a lot more complicated now than it was in the early ’80s,” Marino said. “As far as throwing it and reading the coverage, that hasn’t changed. It’s still 11 guys on 11 guys.”

Marino then turns it back to these current Dolphins. Coming off a 10-6 season in which they narrowly missed the playoffs, there’s another reason for Marino’s Dolphins optimism: Flores. Marino played for arguably the greatest coach of all time in Don Shula, so his perspective on Flores is valuable.

“Coach Flores has been incredible,” Marino said.

“As far as discipline and guys playing hard for him, that’s all there. I don’t think that’s going to change. He’s been a great addition for us. Guys, they want to follow him.”



Chris Canty explains how Tua Tagovailoa can improve in his second year as the Dolphins’ QB.

‘Trying to impact the game any way I can’

Marino walks a lot better these days with two new knees. He had spent more than a decade fighting it off but finally gave in, getting knee replacement surgery last November and again in March when the pain worsened.

“It was from playing football since a little kid. All the operations, plus playing on the real turf that was like concrete. I did all the scopes, there was no cartilage left. It was getting pretty bad,” Marino said.

“But I feel better now. Maybe I’ll play again. I’m 59 years old. I can still throw a fade route.”

Today, Marino says he’s in a better place. His Achilles, which he tore in October 1993 against the Cleveland Browns, wasn’t repaired properly and still bothers him. But he got his knees done so that he could move around well with his grandkids. He’s 20 to 25 pounds heavier than his playing weight and the Nutrisystem spokesman has a summer goal of eating better to lose some pounds.

Transitioning away from football can be a challenge, Marino admits. He was able to have a smooth lane to a broadcast career for CBS and HBO, and then landed the adviser role with the Dolphins, but he believes the most difficult part for players is maintaining their physical and mental health outside of a team structure.

“It’s about enjoying your life every day,” Marino said. “We all have family situations. I’m going through stuff with my one sister now where it’s not easy and it’s not going to be good. You just have to do the best you can, be as open as you can, the whole talking about life is so important.”

Marino admits former players all talk about those scary three letters — CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He says it certainly “hits your mind,” but he is blessed it “hasn’t impacted me at all, but it does impact players. It’s part of our life — we choose to play the game of football.”

In the nearly 45-minute chat, Marino’s competitive nature pokes through a few times. When his 1983 QB draft class that included Broncos great John Elway and Buffalo Bills legend Jim Kelly is brought up, Marino notes they don’t compete anymore at their ages (Kelly is 61 and Elway is 60). Then he pauses, tries to resist the zinger, but decides to let it loose.

“When we’re together, we always have a good time,” Marino says. “John is still a pretty good golfer. I’m not sure I can beat him in golf. But I know I can beat up on Jim Kelly for sure.”

As far as football, he gets his joy watching Tagovailoa and these Dolphins. His adviser role doesn’t put too much stress on him, but it also makes him a part of an ascending Dolphins team that seems poised for a playoff appearance in the near future.

“Sitting in a meeting here or there, being around the coaches, being around practice, trying to impact the game any way I can. I love football. I’m blessed at my age to still be a part of the whole thing,” Marino said. “Try to see our Dolphins be better, make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl someday. If I can be a small part of that, it would mean the world to me.”

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