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Misery loves company – Woeful Jets, Giants meet in Week 10

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The black cat should have waited until Sunday to make its MetLife Stadium debut (1 p.m. ET, Fox). It would have been the perrrrrfect touch for a football game between the stadium’s coinhabitants.

The New York Giants and New York Jets are a combined 3-14, making this one of the sorriest seasons in New York football history. The .176 winning percentage is the second lowest in the history of the rivalry, covering 13 regular-season games. Both teams were 0-3 when they faced off in 1996.

This is a Jets home game, but the stadium figures to be a 50-50 split — and it could get ugly. Both fan bases are frustrated and angry, and there probably will be more than a few fans with green and blue bags over their heads. This will be a double-bag game.

ESPN reporters Jordan Raanan (Giants) and Rich Cimini (Jets) stack up each team’s current futility and hopeful future:

Misery index

Giants: Think the Jets have been bad? They might have the worse record right now and are coming off a loss to the Dolphins, but no team has more losses since the start of 2017 than the Giants. Top that! The Jets at least have some injury excuses for their defensive inconsistency. The Giants are devoid of premium talent on that side of the ball. It’s possible Leonard Williams (whom the Jets just dumped and had no interest in re-signing) became the Giants’ best defensive player by default when they traded for him last week. It shouldn’t be a surprise the Giants are bad. They have more than $60 million this season against the salary cap either earmarked to players not on the roster or who are stuck on the bench. That’s not good. Neither is being 2-7 or worse for the third straight season. The Jets can’t say that.

Jets: It hasn’t been this high since 1996, when the franchise bottomed out with a 1-15 season. It takes more than bad football to max out on the index, and the current Jets have obliged with a tragic comedy of misfortune. They’ve had illness (Sam Darnold), a killer injury (C.J. Mosley), off-the-field controversy (Kelechi Osemele) and a player-management feud (Jamal Adams). As for the football, they have been an undisciplined team that can’t score (eight offensive touchdowns) and gets blown out (five losses by at least 14 points). The Jets occupy last place in the AFC East, and that’s doubly alarming because one team (Miami Dolphins) is constructed not to win.

Coach

Giants: The pressure is building on Pat Shurmur. He needs to win Sunday or his future will become a hot topic. Those on the outside don’t realize the disdain that exists at the top of the Giants’ organization for their crosstown rival. Heading into the bye week on a six-game skid following a loss to the lowly Jets would undoubtedly spark a conversation about Shurmur at the end of the season. Shurmur might believe “he’s built for this,” but he needs to win some games over the final eight weeks and have quarterback-of-the-future Daniel Jones show progress to state his case. That could be Shurmur’s saving grace because he’s 7-18 since taking the Giants’ job and has the seventh-lowest winning percentage of all time among NFL coaches.

Jets: Adam Gase set a record: fastest coach to the hot seat. The fan base wants him out now, but ownership will try to be patient with Gase, who inherited a mediocre roster. On paper, the schedule should allow for a few wins, as their next five opponents have a combined record of 8-34. What’s more, the Jets could face rookie quarterbacks in three of the next four games — Jones, Dwayne Haskins and Ryan Finley. If Gase can’t get to four wins, it’s a big problem, which could result in a one-and-done.

Quarterback

Giants: This is seemingly the Giants’ lone hope. They have Jones, whom they are sold on as the franchise quarterback. The only thing that might hold him back is turnovers. Jones is tied for the league lead with 16 … in seven starts. What the Giants need beginning Sunday is for Jones to start showing signs of progress in this area. He can talk about improving his ball security and decision-making (which he does on a weekly basis), but until it happens, it’s an area of concern. What should work in Jones’ favor is he faces defenses in the bottom half of the league against the pass in five of the final seven games.

Jets: So much for the theory Darnold would take a giant leap in Year 2 under the tutelage of an offense-minded coach, a la Jared Goff and Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams. Darnold is mired in a three-game funk, although he did shows signs of breaking out last week (one ugly interception notwithstanding). The Jets’ remaining schedule is tailor-made for a struggling young quarterback, as the team faces five pass defenses ranked in the bottom half. The organization is “100 percent” committed to Darnold, according to general manager Joe Douglas. That probably won’t change, but a rebound would make everybody feel better in the offseason.

Defense

Giants: The Giants’ defense is devoid of premium talent. The team doesn’t have that defensive eraser or somebody who really scares opposing offensive coordinators. The fact that James Bettcher has this unit ranked ahead of four other teams should almost be considered an accomplishment. With three rookies and young players all over the place, the hope is the defense improves as the season progresses — especially on the back end where rookies cornerbacks DeAndre Baker and Corey Ballentine are playing key roles. It will help that the Giants get to face the 28th-, 30th-, 31st- and 32nd-ranked offenses down the stretch with the Redskins, Bears, Dolphins and Jets on the schedule. That should boost confidence and aid their development.

Jets: Statistically, the Jets have a middle-of-the-pack defense, a small miracle when you consider the personnel and injury issues. Despite major problems at cornerback and linebacker, the defense might be able to hang around because it faces only two more dangerous quarterbacks — the Raiders’ Derek Carr and the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson. Then again, the Jets couldn’t handle Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew II, so you never know. Mosley could return late in the season, but it will be too late to change the narrative. Let’s face it, this unit will require a lot of work in the offseason.

2020 NFL draft

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All the NFL running backs who could get paid in 2020, and why recent deals look like disasters

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The 2017 running back class is something special. Five of the league’s seven leading rushers — Christian McCaffrey (first), Dalvin Cook (second), Marlon Mack (fifth), Leonard Fournette (sixth), and Chris Carson (seventh) — are from the 2017 draft. McCaffrey is tied for the league lead in touchdowns with Aaron Jones, who is also from that 2017 class. Alvin Kamara and James Conner have struggled with injuries, but they’re also 2017 studs. Throw in undrafted free agent Matt Breida and 10 of the league’s 32 starting backs are from the 2017 class, and that’s without getting to secondary options such as Tarik Cohen, Kareem Hunt and Austin Ekeler.

Many of those backs are going to get paid. The 2017 class becomes eligible for extensions for the first time this offseason, but it’s a strange time to be a running back. Running back salaries were grossly depressed before a recent run, but in 2019, virtually every back on a significant long-term contract has struggled to reproduce his prior form. Contracts few would have argued with at the time they were signed are now underwater. Backs who looked like stars have turned into ordinary, replacement-level runners.

I find this juxtaposition interesting. It’s easy to talk about not paying running backs in the abstract, but just about every team knows it can probably get away with shuffling players in at the position, and many still hand out multiyear deals to veterans anyway. A draft class full of successful backs in the mid-to-late rounds is about to ask for a lot more money. Teams that have witnessed expensive backs fail in 2019 are going to have to decide whether they’re going to rely on academic principles or fall in love with their guy as the exception to the rule.

Let’s look at the backs who are playing on contracts worth more than $15 million and see what has happened to them, both over the course of their current deal and specifically in 2019. Then, I’ll get to the backs from 2017, project what their teams will do, and try to give some insight into what each organization with a 2017 draftee should do with their existing starter. Naturally, let’s start with the most expensive running back in football.

Jump to a RB who got paid:
Barkley | Bell | Elliott
Freeman | Gurley | Johnson

Jump to a RB who could get paid soon:
Carson | Conner | Cook
Fournette | Gordon | Henry
Jones | Kamara | McCaffrey

The big-money backs

The deal: Six years, $90 million

I covered Zeke’s season in my column on Monday, when I noted how he has created far fewer big plays and hasn’t been as efficient in 2019. The arguments that Dak Prescott needed an effective Elliott to move the ball as a passer weren’t supported by past evidence and look downright foolish now.

Elliott isn’t holding the Cowboys back by any means, but they have actually been slightly more efficient on offense with backup Tony Pollard on the field than him. Elliott has been on the field far more frequently, but the offense has generated 0.21 points of additional expected points per play with Pollard on the field and 0.17 points with Elliott in the lineup.

That doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a full game’s worth of snaps, it factors out to about 2.6 points for the Cowboys. That stat doesn’t tell the whole story, but the most expensive back in football should look more productive than a rookie fourth-rounder who will make $3.2 million over the next four years. (Elliott, by comparison, is penciled in for just over $50 million over that same time frame.)


The deal: Four years, $57.5 million

Gurley’s enormous volume as a runner and receiver and gaudy touchdown totals made him a fantasy darling and an MVP candidate during 2017 and the first half of the 2018 season. He seemed like the most important part of the Rams’ offense, which is why it was no surprise when Los Angeles signed him to a massive extension after his third season. If any player was an argument against the idea that teams could just plug any running back into a scheme and succeed, it was Gurley.

Well, when he got hurt in November 2018, the Rams signed C.J. Anderson off the street and saw the burly former Broncos starter play just as well for the minimum as Gurley had. After Gurley returned, the Rams used Anderson as the focal point of their timeshare during the playoffs. With the offensive line struggling and Gurley dealing with a long-term knee issue, his role in the offense has been reduced, and he has been far less efficient. After nine games last season, Gurley was averaging 4.8 yards per carry, 136.7 yards from scrimmage per game, and had 16 touchdowns. In 2019, he’s averaging 4.1 yards per carry, 71.3 yards from scrimmage per game, and has eight touchdowns.


The deal: Four years, $52.5 million

The famous phrase surrounding Bell was that the Steelers wanted to “pay the position, not the player.” The implication, of course, is that Bell transcends the running back position. While he attracted a ton of volume as a receiver in Pittsburgh, the argument that he deserved to be paid like a combo of a running back and wide receiver didn’t stand serious scrutiny. The Steelers did just fine at running back without Bell in 2018.

Bell’s stint in New York has been a disaster. Surrounded by a dismal offensive line and with a coach who might not want him altogether, the three-time Pro Bowler has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and has yet to top 70 rushing or receiving yards in a game. His longest play of the season has gone for only 21 yards, and while he was incredibly efficient in Pittsburgh, Bell ranks dead last in DVOA and 28th in success rate, which measures how frequently a back keeps his offense on schedule. DVOA doesn’t tell the whole story for running backs, but Bell hasn’t remotely moved the needle in his first season in the Big Apple.


The deal: Five years, $41.3 million

Freeman spent 2015-16 as the primary back in a Kyle Shanahan offense, which is a license to print money. After racking up 3,175 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns during those two seasons, the Falcons locked him up by giving him $17.3 million in guarantees and just over $22 million in 2017-19.

Over that time frame, Freeman has totaled 1,926 yards from scrimmage, with 11 touchdowns and seven fumbles. After a lost 2018 season, he was averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season before going down because of a foot injury. He already has missed 17 games over the past three seasons and might miss Sunday’s game with the Bucs. The 27-year-old will almost surely be a cap casualty for the Falcons this offseason.


The deal: Three years, $39 million

The Cardinals guessed wrong. After a brilliant 2016 season in which I thought Johnson should have been an MVP candidate, the Northern Iowa product suited up for only 46 snaps in 2017 before going down because of a season-ending wrist injury. With Johnson entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, the cap-strapped Cardinals responded to the Todd Gurley deal by signing Johnson to a three-year extension with $24.7 million in guarantees, despite the fact that he had really been a productive starter for only one year at the pro level.

It hasn’t gone well. Johnson racked up 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in 2016. He has produced 2,011 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in 2018-19, but that has come over 24 games and required 48 more touches. He has averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and lost his starting job to Kenyan Drake, who only arrived two weeks ago. Disconcertingly, the Cardinals will owe $10.2 million in guaranteed money to Johnson for 2020, which will trigger an additional $2.1 million in guarantees for 2021.


The deal: Four years, $31.2 million

The undeniably gifted Barkley is on a fully guaranteed deal after being taken with the second overall pick by the Giants in 2018. While he has shouldered a huge workload amid dismal quarterback play from Eli Manning and Daniel Jones, he hasn’t been able to single-handedly propel the offense forward. Barkley has been the ultimate boom-or-bust back, ranking 41st out of 47 backs in success rate in 2018 and last out of 35 qualifying backs this season.

In 2018, Barkley had seven runs of 40-plus yards on 261 runs. While slowed by a high ankle sprain this season, he has only one in 101 carries. If you need to break 40-plus yard runs once every other week to create value, the track record of guys in the NFL who have been able to pull that off for an entire career is mostly just Barry Sanders, and that’s in part because he was able to stay healthy.

The Giants and hog-molly enthusiast Dave Gettleman passed on Quenton Nelson to draft Barkley, and Nelson is arguably the best interior lineman in football. They passed on Lamar Jackson, and Jackson is the most valuable runner in the league. The Giants ranked 16th in rush offense DVOA last season and are 20th this season. Barkley is an incredible athlete and has little to work with, but that doesn’t mean he was the right pick.


The deal: Four years, $30 million

A bizarre signing when it went down in 2018, McKinnon will end up collecting $16 million without ever taking a regular-season snap in a 49ers uniform after tearing his ACL during workouts in 2018 and aggravating the injury this summer. The 49ers have done just fine with Tevin Coleman and a trio of undrafted backs in Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson this season.


The deal: Four years, $27.2 million

By virtue of being drafted with the fourth overall pick, Fournette ended up with one of the largest running back contracts in football when he was signed. The Jaguars drafted him after throwing asset after asset at running back and hoped to solve their problem for good. In the process, they passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. That alone makes the Fournette pick a disastrous example of opportunity cost. As you’ll see, he might be the 10th-best runner in his own draft class.



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Can the XFL really make spring football work? How its draft showed the way

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STAMFORD, Connecticut — The clock hit 10 a.m., and the side discussions stopped. The window blinds were closed. Oliver Luck took his seat at the table in a conference room decorated with artificial green turf and guarded by a sign that read “XFL Draft In-Progress. Silence Upon Entry!” Luck cleared his throat to kick off the most important event yet in the birth of a new football league.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned toward a camera. “Welcome to the XFL draft. This is a historic moment for all of us, and we appreciate the hard work that’s gone into getting us to this point. Good luck to everybody.”

And that was it. There were no fireworks. No music. No cheering crowds. Not even a live internet stream. Just 35 words of serious business from the league commissioner followed by two days of drafting 561 players — the starkest indication yet of the XFL’s determination to avoid buzz and project itself as a serious football enterprise. The XFL draft, which began last month and will continue Friday with a supplemental round, was structured for maximum efficiency and parity, at the expense of pageantry and recognizable names that would have drawn more attention.

“Football is kind of a serious game,” Luck said, “and what I’ve been saying all the time, so much that people think it’s tongue-in-cheek, is that we’re doing this for the love of the game. It’s for the love for football. And that really is it. That’s what we want to be for. I’m not a gimmicky person.”

When he launched the league in 2018, XFL owner Vince McMahon made clear that he would not replicate the renegade conceit and general swagger of the XFL’s first incarnation, which folded after its only season in 2001. A day spent in the XFL’s offices last month, observing the draft and talking to executives, demonstrated how buttoned-up this league intends to be.

The draft established, for instance, that the XFL will not market itself using big names. Its signature signing was quarterback Landry Jones, a backup for parts of six seasons in the NFL. The league was thrilled to sign quarterback Cardale Jones, best known for leading a 2015 championship run at Ohio State. Most recently, Jones was released from the Seattle Seahawks‘ practice squad. Many of the recognizable names in the player pool — from running backs Trent Richardson and Matt Jones to quarterback Zach Mettenberger — went undrafted. And the league had no interest in Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, a 2014 NFL first-round pick with experience in the CFL and AAF.

Among the top XFL player profiles, Luck said, is a sizable chunk who spent multiple years on an NFL practice squad but failed to earn a promotion. Those players could use the XFL as a springboard to better opportunities. As an example, Luck pointed to the path of a cornerback named Keith Reaser, who spent parts of 2017-18 with the Kansas City Chiefs, starred in the AAF last spring and then re-signed with the Chiefs for a guaranteed $75,000 bonus. (Reaser is currently on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles in training camp.)

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DeAndre Hopkins evolves into a first-down machine for Texans – Houston Texans Blog

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HOUSTON — If you ask Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins who his favorite NFL receiver is right now, it might not be who you think.

The reason for his choice is not because of a similar skill set or any familiar background. It’s because he makes plays and, in turn, his team wins.

It’s Julian Edelman.

The New England Patriots wide receiver, who is in his 10th year in the NFL, has won three Super Bowls and “always has a knack for getting the extra four or five yards,” Hopkins said. “He’s one of my favorite receivers in the NFL because of that. Because he keeps the chains moving.”

It’s not that Hopkins hasn’t always had his focus on winning; that’s always been the goal. “You’re either a champion or you’re not a champion,” Hopkins said. “So, anything else is really disappointing to me personally because I love winning.”

But he hasn’t always believed he could depend on others during his first seven seasons. He’s had plenty of quarterbacks throwing the ball his way and hasn’t always had much help, becoming the focal point of opposing defenses.

“I don’t have to carry as much of a load as I used to, and I think that’s a good thing,” Hopkins said. “We can depend on other players. … Obviously, it makes the team better.”

That load Hopkins used to carry? It comes from playing with nine different starting quarterbacks in his first four seasons before the Texans drafted Deshaun Watson.

Despite playing with a long list of quarterbacks, Hopkins has hit several milestones this season. On Sunday against the Ravens, Hopkins became the 74th receiver in NFL history with 600 career receptions. He’s the second-youngest to hit that mark, trailing only Larry Fitzgerald. In Week 8, Hopkins became the third-youngest player, behind Randy Moss and Fitzgerald, to reach 8,000 receiving yards.

This season, Hopkins has 75 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns. His receptions total ranks second in the NFL, but he’s averaging the fewest yards per catch of his career.

But through Week 11, Hopkins is tied with Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans with 47 catches that have earned a first down. Only New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas has more. In the Texans’ loss to the Ravens on Sunday, five of Hopkins’ seven catches moved the chains.

“[He’s] a guy that can go out there and catch every ball, knows what we need, especially on third down, and a guy that finds ways to get open even if he’s doubled,” Watson said.

Hopkins is physical against man-to-man coverage, which is usually what teams see on third down. He also “knows the offense cold,” according to Texans coach Bill O’Brien, so the team can move him around at the line of scrimmage.

“He’s not always going to be in one spot. He can line up in a lot of different spots, so I think that helps when you’re trying to locate him and double him and things like that,” O’Brien said. “Eventually, you’re going to find him, but I think him knowing the offense and understanding what we’re trying to do as well as he does helps him a lot.”

Another receiver Hopkins hugely respects and values the opinion of is former All-Pro and current NFL Network analyst Steve Smith. The pair have grown close, and while they had different builds and styles in their careers, there is a mutual respect.

“He’s a wide receivers coach’s dream and a defensive coordinator or secondary coach’s worst nightmare,” Smith said.

Smith said one of the reasons Hopkins has had more success making first downs this season is because “he can go down there and do his work and not [have to focus] on catching a zillion balls because that’s the only way they can win.

“Coach O’Brien and the staff have methodically, year by year, added more pieces to relieve the performance pressure on DeAndre Hopkins, which allows him to play better, too,” Smith said. “But sometimes you’re going to have some streaks where he’s not getting the production that we’re accustomed to seeing.

“But he also has the ability to make plays that don’t come on the stat sheet. … That is a factor that Bill O’Brien has that luxury in his back pocket to say, ‘Well, we know they’re going to have two or three guys covering D-Hop, so that gives us an opportunity to run this trick play or run an isolation play with one of our tight ends or one of our other wide receivers or one of our running backs or give an opportunity for Deshaun to do his magic.”

Hopkins has been facing double- and even triple-teams his whole career, but the Texans are now equipped to take advantage of the extra attention. Houston ranks seventh in the NFL in yards per game. The Texans are running the ball the best they have in recent years, averaging 140.7 rushing yards, which is fifth-best in the NFL. Running back Carlos Hyde is on pace for the best season of his career, with 769 yards and four touchdowns on 158 carries. When healthy, Houston has solid Nos. 2 and 3 receivers behind Hopkins: 2016 first-round pick Will Fuller and recent addition Kenny Stills, who is averaging 15.2 yards per catch this season.

One of those instances came in Week 5, when the Texans scored 53 points against the Atlanta Falcons. Hopkins had seven catches for 88 yards. But Fuller had the best game of his career, catching 14 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns. Fuller credited Hopkins with taking away defenders.

“Obviously, I’ve caught a lot of balls over the years for that to happen,” Hopkins said. “It just hasn’t happened overnight for a player to get that much attention. Anything that helps this offense win, I’m all for it.”

It’s not just Fuller and Stills who are making plays. Tight end Darren Fells, who signed with Houston this offseason, has topped his career-high in catches and touchdowns and has two games this season when he has caught two touchdowns.

And Hopkins is on pace to catch 120 passes, which would be a career high.

“I have multiple friends on other teams who after a game, they’ll tell me the game plan … part of the game plan is to stop you,” Hopkins said. “It’s a respect factor.”

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