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The NFL offseason is already heating up — we’ve had two big trades, and Blake Bortles has been taken off the quarterback market — but March 14 is when the real fun begins. That’s when free agency kicks off (4 p.m. ET), and it’s when the trades involving Alex Smith and Marcus Peters become official.

Over the next two weeks, our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders is taking a closer look at the upcoming free-agent market, answering questions on the biggest topics in the league.

We’re starting Monday with a deeper look at the Vikings, whose top three quarterbacks from 2017 — Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford — are all free agents. Minnesota also might be in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes.

Which quarterback will take the most snaps for Minnesota in 2018?

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Keenum. We’ll have to see whether Bridgewater can make it through a full offseason, training camp and preseason and win the job. Once he does those things, he will have to do what might be the hardest thing for him to do, which is play the most snaps. So, while I think Bridgewater could be the most likely quarterback to re-sign with Minnesota, I’ll lean toward Keenum as more likely to play the most snaps, at least until we have more information.

Courtney Cronin, ESPN Vikings reporter: Bridgewater. I predict the Vikings will end up getting outbid in the Cousins sweepstakes, thus leading them to re-sign two of their pending free-agent quarterbacks. Though Minnesota might franchise tag Keenum, it would make sense to use its cap space to work out deals with Keenum and Bridgewater. The Vikings typically don’t have quarterback competitions in training camp, but given the unique nature of their situation, both Bridgewater and Keenum will have a chance to duke it out in camp. It might not be in the beginning of the season, but by some point in 2018, I believe Bridgewater will emerge as the starter.

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Bridgewater. I expect the Vikings to explore the market for Cousins. But with the Jets, Broncos and possibly more teams jumping into the mix, the price tag is going to rise quickly. That’s why I’m looking at a situation in which coach Mike Zimmer & Co. attempt to bring back both Bridgewater and Keenum. With Bridgewater healthy and prepped to go through the entire offseason program, the former first-round pick will edge out Keenum in a daily camp battle for the starting spot.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Keenum. Part of the Vikings’ public ambivalence could be related to leverage. Declaring a quarterback your guy means you have to pay him that way. There is no doubt that Zimmer loves Bridgewater, but the Vikings know how rarely in their history they have gotten a performance like the one Keenum gave them in 2017. We have no information at the moment that would allow us to project Bridgewater as the superior quarterback.

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Cousins. The Vikings were publicly reticent throughout much of the 2017 regular season to fully and entirely commit to Keenum as the guy, which suggests to me that the team won’t overextend to keep him. Cousins, meanwhile, is the rare available quarterback who can shift the winds of a franchise, helping Minnesota — armed with the financial resources to acquire him — elevate to another level.

Mina Kimes, senior writer: Bridgewater. The Vikings have enough cap space to make a run at Cousins, but I think they’ll back off when his price tag reaches uncharted territory; Cousins is better than Keenum and Bridgewater, but he’s not that much better. It’s hard to forecast when Bridgewater will take Keenum’s job (I expect the team to keep both quarterbacks), but I still think Bridgewater is Minnesota’s long-term plan.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Bridgewater. My projected scenario is one in which the Vikings bring back Keenum and Bridgewater, and Bridgewater eventually takes the job away from Keenum — either in a training camp competition or after Keenum struggles during the regular season. All of this, of course, assumes the Vikings don’t sign Cousins. If they break the bank for a quarterback, I’d change my answer to Cousins.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Keenum. My guess is that other teams will look at Keenum and say, “Yes, he had one fantastic year, but what is his regression going to look like in our system?” The Vikings are the one team that can look at Keenum and know they have seen evidence he can play well for them. In the same system with the same teammates, there’s a better chance he can continue to play at 2017’s high level.

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Tony Finau gets surprise FaceTime call from Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady during Masters rain delay

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AUGUSTA, Georgia — Tony Finau got quite the surprise during Saturday’s lengthy weather delay in the third round of the Masters Tournament.

While Finau was waiting for the rain to stop, he hung out in the caddie house at Augusta National Golf Club. Jimmy Dunne, a member of the club, handed Finau his cell phone.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion, was on FaceTime on the phone.

“That was a pleasant surprise,” Finau said. “He said, ‘Great playing,’ and he was following. He was surprised we stopped. He said in the NFL when it rains you don’t stop. I let him know, ‘Yeah, maybe we’re not as tough as you guys,’ but he said, ‘No, that’s not the case.’ We had a good laugh about that.”

Finau said he had met Brady once before in 2017, when Brady was still playing for the New England Patriots. Finau said he grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, but now mostly cheers for individual NFL players.

Finau didn’t say whether Brady gave him a pep talk during the weather delay, which lasted more than an hour.

He shot 1-over 73 in the third round and is 8 shots behind leader Hideki Matsuyama going into Sunday.

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Texas A&M Aggies QB Kellen Mond has ‘upside’ as intriguing Day 2 NFL draft option, scouts say

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Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is considered an intriguing Day 2 option for teams out of reach of the top quarterbacks in April’s draft.

“There’s upside there,” said one longtime NFC scout. “If anything I would have liked to see him let loose a little more.”

And teams are doing their research on the four-year starter. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher tells ESPN that he’s had extensive talks with about 10-to-15 teams about Mond. Those teams value his experience, ability to lead and win games, Fisher said. Mond helped A&M win 32 games on his way to a school-record 9,661 passing yards with 71 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Experience could be especially important to teams who saw Mitch Trubisky and Dwayne Haskins struggle after starting one season in college.

“He does all of the things you need to judge a first-round player,” said Fisher, who has coached Mond since 2018. “He helped change the culture — winning more games, taking a stand, showing he’s a guy who can fight through adversity, took criticism, eliminated any distractions and continued to get better.”

Scouts say Mond has plenty of arm and athleticism but probably looked for the check down too often. They believe he can go vertical and play less conservative. Fisher said Mond’s biggest area for improvement is timing on intermediate throws, but he’s come a long way there. Fisher adds he gave Mond all the responsibility a quarterback could handle, from setting protections to audibles to deciphering third and fourth reads post-snap.

As a senior, Mond completed 188-of-297 passes (63.3 percent) for 2,282 yards and 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. Mond, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Stanford’s Davis Mills are part of the second tier outside the five surefire first-round quarterbacks.

“He’s vastly improved every year,” Fisher said. “Look at the body of work, the competition he’s played against. He really worked his mechanics, has done a great job with his body, his core footwork and balance – that allows him to be so much more efficient. He studies the game, learns very well – an intelligent young man, understands concepts and attacks coverage. He started having fun with it once he grabbed a hold of the offense, where he was the first one on the plane breaking down film with me after a game.”

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If Jaguars want an impact tight end, they’d better act quickly in the draft – Jacksonville Jaguars Blog

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Coach Urban Meyer was pretty clear the Jacksonville Jaguars needed a pass-catching tight end, and since they didn’t sign one in free agency it’s equally clear it will be a priority in the draft.

The Jaguars had better pick one in the first three rounds, though, because recent history shows that it’s hard to find an impact tight end after that. It’s not impossible — Antonio Gates was undrafted, Delanie Walker was a sixth-round pick, and George Kittle was a fifth-round pick, for example — but drafting one early is a much better option.

In looking at the highest-producing tight ends over the past 20 years, 13 of the top 20 in terms of receptions were first- or second-round picks. Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s all-time receptions leader among tight ends (and third overall), was a first-round pick. Rob Gronkowski, who has the third-most TD catches among tight ends since 2001 with 86, was a second-round pick. Zach Ertz, who holds the single-season record for most receptions by a tight end (116 in 2018), was a second-round pick.

Four more of the top 20 were third-round picks, including Jason Witten, whose 1,228 receptions are second only to Gonzalez among tight ends and rank fourth overall in NFL history, and Travis Kelce, who surpassed 100 catches twice in the past three seasons. Jimmy Graham and Jared Cook also were third-round picks.

Only three of the top 20 players were taken after the third round: Gates, Walker and Owen Daniels (fourth round).

So the Jaguars’ best chance of landing a tight end that can be a major part of the passing game — something that hasn’t happened much around here, and certainly never to the extent of what the players mentioned above have done — is to find one by the end of Day 2 of the draft. The Jaguars have five picks in the first three rounds (two each in the first and second rounds) and are likely taking quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall.

Florida’s Kyle Pitts will almost assuredly be long gone by the time the Jaguars pick 25th, but there are some other intriguing prospects — such as Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Boston College’s Hunter Long and Miami’s Brevin Jordan — that the Jaguars could target in the second or third round. Freiermuth could be the pick to start the second round.

There’s no guarantee about any of those players and the Jaguars shouldn’t force the pick, but if they do have good evaluations on any of them and believe they can be impact players, then it’s better to take them in the second or third rather than waiting at the position or hoping they slide.

The Jaguars’ draft history with tight ends is … not good. They’ve drafted nine since the team’s inception (including Derek Brown in the 1995 expansion draft), but just two earlier than the fourth round: Marcedes Lewis (28th overall in 2006) and Josh Oliver (third round in 2019). Lewis is the franchise’s all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (375), receiving yards (4,502) and TD catches (33), and he’s third overall in the first two categories and second only to wide receiver Jimmy Smith in touchdown catches.

Oliver played in four games and had just three catches in his first two seasons because of injuries, and the Jaguars traded him to Baltimore last month for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2022.

Of the remaining nine players in the franchise’s top 10 in terms of tight end receptions, six were either free-agent signees, signed off the street, or acquired via trade: Kyle Brady, Pete Mitchell, James O’Shaughnessy, Julius Thomas, Clay Harbor and Tyler Eifert.

After Lewis, the best tight end the Jaguars have drafted is George Wrighster, a fourth-round pick in 1990 who went on to catch 94 passes for 850 yards and nine touchdowns in his six-year career.

Jaguars tight ends have rarely been prominent parts of the passing game. Only three in franchise history have caught 48 or more passes — an average of just three per game over 16 games — in a single season: Mitchell (52 in 1996), Brady (64 in 2000) and Lewis (58 in 2010 and 52 in 2012).

Three catches per game, even for a run-oriented team, isn’t asking too much. Especially since the Jaguars haven’t exactly had dynamic receivers since Jimmy Smith retired after the 2005 season. They’ve had only three receivers record 1,000-yard seasons since then (Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in 2015 and DJ Chark Jr. in 2019) and have had only two players with 70 or more catches in a season (Robinson in 2015-16 and Chark in 2019).

Tight end is a priority in the NFL today more than ever and the Jaguars should treat it as such.

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