While most of the prominent MLB free agents have found their homes already this offseason, there are still plenty left who can help teams. Here’s the ideal landing spot for the top remaining free agents.
Cashner looked good early last season in Baltimore, going 9-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 17 starts before he was traded to Boston. The move to Boston was a nightmare, with an ERA above 6.00, but Cashner’s comfort with the O’s was apparent. He would give a team some much-needed innings as he tries to get back on track at age 33.
Castellanos went on a tear after getting traded to the Cubs last year, hitting .321-16-36 with a 1.002 OPS in only 51 games. He’s obviously comfortable at Wrigley Field and would give the team a big bat it needs, especially if the rumors of a Kris Bryant trade come through. Of course, Chicago’s apparent hesitance to spend money this offseason is a major obstacle.
Houston has already re-signed Martin Maldonado, but he’s hardly a viable starting catcher at this point. Chirinos did an excellent job for the Astros last year, hitting .238-17-58 with improved defense. Entering his age 36 season, Chirinos isn’t a great long-term option but should have another good year as a starter remaining.
As Texas opens its new ballpark, the Rangers have already spent big this offseason with additions like Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. The offense still needs a boost, and Donaldson can certainly provide it. The Rangers fell short in their attempt to sign Anthony Rendon, but Donaldson is a nice consolation after rebounding from a calf injury to hit 37 home runs last year.
Dozier has fallen out of favor late in each of the last two seasons, but he still has something left, as shown by his .771 OPS last year. While his defense has slipped in his early 30s, Dozier can still be a nice addition for a needy team like the Red Sox. Signing him would allow the team to move Michael Chavis to first base full time and use new acquisition Jose Peraza in a utility role. Perhaps the Green Monster would also help Dozier’s home run total.
Every Thanksgiving, most of us eat turkey. However, there’s another kind of turkey out there. In this, being a turkey is equivalent to being a goat. Not the “GOAT” but the opposite. These are the folks in the world of sports who were turkeys for one reason or another. Some of them had high points too. You can still be a turkey in a moment and then just hope to redeem yourself.
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Brown is, without a doubt, the biggest turkey of the calendar year 2019. Frankly, if you consider the serious allegations levied against him, the word “turkey” isn’t strong enough. For starters, he got himself booted by the Raiders, who had traded for him this offseason, with various antics. This includes threatening to retire if he couldn’t keep using his old helmet. Then he signed with the Patriots and played one game. After the allegations came to light, Brown got cut by the Pats, and since then he’s alternately yelled at the NFL and threatened to retire or walk that back and say he still wants to play. We’re honestly sick of Brown at this point and would prefer if we have, in fact, seen the last of him. 2 of 25
The Houston Astros front office
The Astros were on their way to the World Series, and things should have been great for them. Then, Brandon Taubman opened his mouth. He found a group of female reporters and aggressively yelled in their direction about how glad he was the Astros had acquired Roberto Osuna, a pitcher who has been suspended for domestic violence. When Stephanie Apstein reported on what she had seen happen, the Astros accused her of making up the story. Dozens of witnesses came out to support her, eventually requiring the Astros to fire Taubman and admit the heinousness of their actions. 3 of 25
The Athletics were taking a big risk when they drafted Kyler Murray ninth overall in the 2018 MLB Draft. Given his college football career, he was a raw baseball player, but they couldn’t have seen where things were going to end up. Murray excelled with the Oklahoma Sooners and won the Heisman. Suddenly the NFL was a real option, and Murray decided to eschew the A’s to enter the NFL Draft. It paid off for him, as he was drafted first overall. The Athletics? They lost a top-10 pick for nothing.
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Speaking of Murray, he played into Rosen’s year as a turkey. Stuck behind a terrible offensive line in Arizona in 2018, the first-round quarterback struggled mightily. Still, the Cardinals would give him time, right? Not so much. Arizona drafted Murray and then traded Rosen to the Dolphins…who are the worst team in the NFL. He struggled once again behind a terrible offensive line and found himself benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick. 5 of 25
Davis was clearly not happy in New Orleans, and he was looking for the quickest way out possible. He basically shut himself down to avoid getting injured playing for the Pelicans while waiting for a trade. Davis also memorably wore a shirt that said, “That’s all, folks!” to the arena and then claimed he hadn’t chosen the shirt and it wasn’t meant as a message to New Orleans. Now Davis is a Laker, so nobody really believes that. 6 of 25
Davis once hit 50 homers in a season. It’s good to remember that at a time like this, as we watch his career spiral down the tubes. On the year, the former slugger hit .179, a woeful batting average. However, the nadir of his season came early when the Oriole had a 54-at-bat streak in which he didn’t get a single hit. That set a new MLB record.
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There are a lot of ways we could go with this. Let’s start with that Saints-Rams NFC championship game. You remember the inexplicable non-call for pass interference that may have helped the Rams go to the Super Bowl. This decision was so reviled that the NFL made pass interference a reviewable call this season. However, refs are EXTREMELY reluctant to change any of their calls on possible pass interference penalties. Challenging pass interference has basically become a desperate act thanks to the referees.
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The Rams offense in the Super Bowl
Sean McVay turned the Rams into an offensive juggernaut in the 2018 season. He basically turned Jared Goff’s career around and got Los Angeles to the Super Bowl. There, McVay and company simply couldn’t solve the Patriots defense. Bill Belichick got the better of McVay, as the Rams managed only three points in the entire game and only 260 total yards of offense. 9 of 25
Gruden is a turkey, but he’s also a bit of a scapegoat. He was the first head coach fired during the 2019 NFL season, as he was unable to turn Washington around. However, that whole franchise is an annual turkey. From the insistence on keeping its problematic name to the Trent Williams fiasco, Daniel Snyder’s franchise will be a turkey as long as he’s owning it.
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Florida State has won titles in the past — not the distant past either, as Taggart’s predecessor in Tallahassee, Jimbo Fisher, won a title. When Fisher left for Texas A&M, Taggart left Oregon after one 7-5 season in Eugene. Taggart’s decision didn’t really work out. The Seminoles missed out on a bowl game in 2018, and this year Taggart was fired in the middle of his second season.
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This isn’t about anything LeBron did on the court. Sure, the Lakers missed the playoffs last year, but he’s off to a great start this season. No, it’s about his comments related to Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet that caused a huge controversy in China. James took Morey to task, seemingly mostly to protect his financial interests. It was a bad look for a guy who has positioned himself as a progressive voice of change. Also, he tried to trademark “Taco Tuesday,” which was ridiculous. 12 of 25
New York Knicks
There’s a lot of reason the Knicks team could be considered a turkey. New York was terrible last season and then didn’t win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. Hey, at least the Knicks had a ton of money for free agency. Would they sign Kevin Durant? Kyrie Irving? Both. The answer was none. New York’s biggest free-agent get was Julius Randle, and the Knicks are still terrible.
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He went from hero to turkey in one season. Mayfield was the first-overall pick last year and gave the Browns hope to finally make the playoffs this year. They added guys like Odell Beckham, and spirits were high in Cleveland. Then they came out of the gate struggling. Mayfield started out particularly poor, and now the Browns could miss the playoffs once again, although he does have them on a three-game win streak. Freddie Kitchens is also a bit of a turkey. 14 of 25
Pour one out for another group of people who thought they could create a new football league. At least the AAF didn’t try to challenge the NFL, as it played during the NFL’s offseason. Well, it wanted to. The AAF ran out of money before it could even finish one season, ending the dream almost as quickly as it began.
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Two words: Double doink. The Bears have a history of kicking issues. Parkey had the role last season, as the Bears headed into the playoffs as the third seed to take on the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles. Chicago was down 16-15 when Parkey stepped up to try a 43-yard field goal as time expired. While the kick was ever-so-slightly blocked, at the moment all we saw was Parkey’s kick hitting the left upright and the crossbar and then bouncing out. The kick was no good, the Bears lost, and the term “double doink” entered our lexicon.
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Maximum Security won the Kentucky Derby…until he didn’t. The horse finished in first place, but there was controversy. A complaint was lodged by two different jockeys. It was decided that Maximum Security had swerved in a way that kept other horses from running the race properly. Maximum Security was disqualified, and Country House was named the Kentucky Derby winner.
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Yeo was brought in to be the coach in waiting for the Blues when Ken Hitchcock was head coach. When Hitch got fired, Yeo took over. After missing the playoffs in the 2017-18 season, Yeo got fired 19 games into the 2018-19 season by the Blues. Craig Berube took over as the head man for St. Louis, and all the team did was win its first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
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Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay had an all-time great regular season in the 2018-19 campaign. The Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy with 62 wins, making them the third team to ever have that many wins in a season. Nikita Kucherov won the Hart as MVP, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina. Tampa entered the playoffs as the favorite to win it all. Instead, the Lightning flamed out in the first round, getting straight-up swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
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Leach likes to speak his mind. That’s how he earned the reputation as a delightful eccentric with an affinity for pirates. Sometimes, though, Leach should consider saying a bit less, like, say, after Washington State lost to Utah in September. In addition to calling the team “very soft,” he called his players “fat,” “dumb,” and “entitled.” Maybe the millionaire veteran head coach shouldn’t be telling the teenagers and 20-somethings playing for free that they are “entitled,” much less fat and dumb. 20 of 25
Duval has had some great days on the PGA tour. He won the 2001 British Open, but the 2019 British Open went much worse for him. On the par-5 seventh hole he posted a 14. That’s right: Duval had a nonuple bogey. He finished that round shooting a 91. Shockingly, he did not end up winning the tournament.
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U.S. men’s soccer
The U.S. failing to quality for the 2018 World Cup was a nadir, but the soccer program has not risen above turkey status in 2019. It may have been only a friendly, but the American’s 2-0 loss to Canada was still a shocking disappointment. This was the first time Canada has beaten the United States in men’s soccer in 34 years. These kinds of losses can’t be happening for a team looking to recapture its old glory.
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Ayton didn’t win Rookie of the Year last season after being the first-overall pick by the Suns. He will always have to live down being taken before Luka Doncic. However, Ayton did show promise. Unfortunately, that promise hasn’t been on display in the 2019-20 NBA season. After the season opener, Ayton was suspended 25 games for a PED violation. 23 of 25
As long as Emmert is the Ppesident of the NCAA, he’s going to be a big, giant turkey. He’s been fighting the fight to keep college athletes from getting paid for years. This came to a head in 2019 thanks to California’s new law that will allow athletes to profit off their images and names. Naturally Emmert is against it. He also went as far as to once again trot out the old line that because many college athletes get scholarships they aren’t necessarily “not paid” for the millions of dollars they bring in for revenue.
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Bauer has a history of creating controversy, mostly off the field. His political views are often an issue, and he’s not above attacking people, especially women, who criticize him online. However, let’s stick to one particularly goofy and dumb moment from the 2019 MLB season. When Bauer was about to be pulled from a game, he turned toward the outfield and whipped the ball over the fence instead of handing it to his manager, as is tradition. Shockingly, Cleveland had enough of him, and ended up dealing Bauer to Cincinnati.
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Tennis seems to be the sport for meltdowns. Greek tennis player Tsitsipas had perhaps the meltdown of the year on the tennis court. The eighth seed had some issue with his first-round opponent at the U.S. Open, Andrey Rublev. Tsitsipas lost to his unranked opponent, which is bad enough as is. However, during the match he had plenty to say to chair umpire Damien Dumusois. In particular, he accused the umpire of having an agenda against him, going as far as to say, “You’re French, probably. You’re all weirdos.”
In the AFC, the Ravens — who defeated the 49ers– took the lead in the race for No. 1 seed when the Patriots fell to the Texans in the Sunday night game. Here’s Yardbarker’s Week 13 whip-around:
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HOUSTON 28, NEW ENGLAND 22
PATRIOTS (10-2): From owner Robert Kraft hoping to lure Rob Gronkowski out of retirement, to the rumblings of Tom Brady being against the Antonio Brown release, signs of Patriots unease with their aerial weaponry have persisted. New England’s offensive woes, James White’s garbage-time routine notwithstanding, continued in Houston. The Patriots’ weeks-long concern about their receiving situation manifested itself in a discombobulated effort. From 2007-18, the Pats featured at least two reliable receivers (in addition to White). Although both Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett returned to action Sunday, the Patriots’ current optimal lineup appears to contain one. The Texans gave Julian Edelman deserved attention and frequently forced Brady into awkward pocket shuffling. Brady (24-for-47, sub-7.0 yards per attempt for a fourth straight game) struggled against the Texans’ No. 26 DVOA pass defense. When the Pats’ defense runs into a high-caliber offense, as it did Sunday and will against the Chiefs, can Brady’s limited air support (and suddenly average rushing complement) keep up? GAME GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: vs. Chiefs (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
TEXANS (8-4): The Texans’ superior individual talent overwhelmed New England for the majority of the game. Most encouraging for Houston was the way Deshaun Watson performed against the Patriots’ vaunted pass defense. Watson repeatedly exploited New England’s linebackers in pass coverage, and when he had chances to take deep shots, he was able to hit them. The Patriots had allowed just four passing touchdowns entering the game, but Watson had three, and caught one from DeAndre Hopkins, to boot. Perhaps most striking was Bill O’Brien’s level of trust in his quarterback. The Texans didn’t attempt their 20th carry of the game until late in the fourth quarter, despite the stats suggesting New England’s run defense was its weakness. Watson rewarded O’Brien’s faith with the best game of his season, accounting for quality of opponent. If he continues playing this way, the Texans can beat anyone in the NFL.GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Broncos (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
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BALTIMORE 20, SAN FRANCISCO 17
49ERS (10-2): In defeat, San Francisco may have done more to solidify itself as the class of the NFC than it did in any of its victories. The 49ers, who had a chance to win until the waning minutes, made QB Lamar Jackson (101 yards rushing) and Baltimore earn every yard. More impressive was San Francisco’s ability to move the ball on the Ravens; RB Raheem Mostert churned out 146 yards rushing, and despite terrible weather conditions, QB Jimmy Garoppolo was efficient (15-for-21, 165 yards), although his fumble did translate into a Ravens touchdown. Considering the degree to which Baltimore was throttling quality opponents, and the conditions favoring the Ravens’ running game and misdirection tendencies, San Francisco’s defensive performance, particularly in the second half, was encouraging. The Niners are primed for the Week 14 showdown against the Saints (10-2). GAME GRADE: B + | NEXT: at Saints (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
RAVENS (10-2): Credit kicker Justin Tucker and the Ravens for persevering in terrible, rainy conditions. Tucker, who has missed only one field goal this season, booted the winning, 49-yard field goal as time expired. The 49ers’ excellent secondary took away Lamar Jackson’s deep passing, and San Francisco focused on stopping the Ravens’ running backs (77 rushing yards) more than it did the second-year QB, who was superb with his ball handling and play fakes. Jackson’s legs were the cheat code, as he led Baltimore in rushing (101 yards) by a wide margin. (He has rushed for more than 100 yards four times this season.) San Francisco’s defense played well, but no team can take away all the Ravens’ high-powered, multidimensional offense. GAME GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: at Bills (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
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PITTSBURGH 20, CLEVELAND 13
BROWNS (5-7): Minus defensive end Myles Garrett, suspended indefinitely for his role in the brawl the last time these teams played, Cleveland generated little pass rush. End Olivier Vernon’s limited role also cost the Browns, who dealt with other, lesser injuries on the D-line, as well as injuries in the secondary. As this game progressed, the Steelers exploited these weaknesses with deep passing and then eventually with a power running game that took its toll on a depleted unit. After being held to two yards in the first quarter, the Steelers racked up 321 in the final three quarters. Garrett’s absence may have cost the Browns a win. Cleveland’s playoff hopes are on life support. How embarrassing is it to lose to third-string rookie QB “Duck” Hodges. GAME GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: vs. Bengals (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
STEELERS (7-5): Lacking playmakers nearly all season, the Steelers may finally have found one in wide receiver James Washington, who went duck hunting last week with his quarterback, Delvin “Duck” Hodges. Heading into the rematch with the Browns, Washington had caught three or more balls in each of his last four games, accumulating 306 receiving yards in that stretch. Against the Browns, Washington led the Steelers with 111 yards receiving. He ran free deep late in the game, but Hodges didn’t see him. Washington is built almost like a running back, but with long legs and a high waistline. He builds up speed downfield and shows great ball skills, finding the football from tough body positions. As usual, the Steelers — one of the best teams in the league at drafting receivers — are developing their wideout talent. GAME GRADE: B | NEXT: at Cardinals (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
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LA RAMS 34, ARIZONA 7
RAMS (7-5): Los Angeles has waited for this version of QB Jared Goff (424 yards passing) to show up, and as impressive as he was, it may be too little, too late. The Rams must hope division rival Seattle helps them out by handing Minnesota a loss Monday night, or else the Rams will remain two games back for the final wild-card spot with four games to play. Goff was well-protected all game, with the Cardinals sacking him just once. Protection was one element the Rams have missed all season, and a productive Todd Gurley was the other. Gurley was sharp, with 95 yards on just 19 carries, and Los Angeles was able to run the ball almost at will against Arizona, which came into the game 23rd in the league in yards allowed. The Rams still have a difficult road, but they at least showed that the dominant offense that carried them to a Super Bowl appearance isn’t completely gone. GAME GRADE: A + | NEXT: vs. Seahawks (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
CARDINALS (3-8-1): Arizona might be tempted to use the 2020 draft to surround QB Kyler Murray with weapons, but it really needs help on defense above all else. During their current five-game losing streak, the Cardinals have allowed 31.8 points and 473.8 yards per game. The secondary is dreadful, as it entered the Rams game last in the NFL in yards and touchdowns allowed. Yet somehow it performed even worse than its normal standard against LA.; Jared Goff threw for 424 yards. Arizona is powerless to stop tight ends: Rams TE Tyler Higbee had seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. While wins and losses aren’t paramount, this loss represents a major step backward in the Cardinals’ development. GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Steelers (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
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GREEN BAY 31, NY GIANTS 13
PACKERS (9-3): The book for beating the Giants’ defense — which is solid against the run — is to attack it through the air. But the ugly, snowy conditions in East Rutherford, N.J., figured to play to New York’s advantage. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, however, showed off his veteran guile, dealing superbly with the poor weather (four TD passes). “I admit I was a little worried that it might be more rain than snow,” he told reporters after the game. “When those big flakes were falling down, I felt pretty good about our chances.” There is an art to throwing the ball in wind, cold and precipitation, and clearly Rodgers understands this. But there is also value in having immense arm talent, which Rodgers still has to rival just about any passer in the game. GAME GRADE: B + | NEXT: vs. Redskins (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
GIANTS (2-10): Daniel Jones, who tossed three interceptions, continues to be a turnover machine. The rookie QB has 21 turnovers in 11 games, 10 fumbles lost and 11 interceptions. Jones also recorded his league-leading 15th fumble, but the Giants recovered it. His effectiveness has also dwindled, as Jones is averaging 6.0 yards per attempt over his past eight starts (in which the Giants are 0-8) after posting an impressive mark of 8.4 over his first two starts (in which the Giants went 2-0). Three of New York’s final four games are against teams ranked in the bottom half of takeaway rate. Jones must secure the football to build some hope surrounding his potential going into 2020.For those counting, this is the third straight season the Giants have lost 10 or more games.GAME GRADE: D | NEXT: at Eagles (Mon., Dec. 9)
— Michael Nania
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MIAMI 37, PHILADELPHIA 31
EAGLES (5-7): Philadelphia’s solid pass defense, which entered Week 13 ranked 10th in DVOA, was surprisingly torched by QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WR DeVante Parker. Fitzpatrick threw for 365 yards on 39 pass attempts, averaging an impressive 9.4 yards per attempt. Parker had a dominant performance, making highlight grab after highlight grab (seven catches for career-best 159 yards) and scoring two touchdowns. The Eagles’ pass rush did its part, racking up 11 quarterback hits, but the secondary failed to take advantage, consistently losing in contested catch situations. Three of Philadelphia’s final four games are against the Giants (twice) and Redskins (once), so there is no excuse for the pass-defending struggles to continue against bad competition. GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Giants (Mon., Dec. 9)
— Michael Nania
DOLPHINS (3-9): During a season designed to be one of the worst in franchise history, the Dolphins have observed a breakout from a player they hoped would produce years ago. Once in danger of being traded or cut, DeVante Parker has become the consistent wide receiver the franchise’s previous front office envisioned. Parker’s seven-catch, 159-yard, two-touchdown game elevated the Dolphins to their season’s best win and further solidified the 2015 first-round pick’s status as a dependable target. Parker out-jumped Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby for two chunk plays – the first such sequence including some careful sideline steps on a 43-yard touchdown – and made a contested touchdown catch against Jalen Mills in a major upset. Dolphins GM Chris Grier gave Parker a two-year, $13 million deal this offseason; he’s outplayed that contract. The ex-doghouse occupant now has a career-most 854 receiving yards. Still just 26, Parker now profiles as a cornerstone player for a team lacking them. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: at Jets (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
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KANSAS CITY 40, OAKLAND 9
RAIDERS (6-6): Facing a Chiefs defense that counts cornerback as its lowest-profile spot, investment-wise, the Raiders completed a grand total of four passes (for 34 yards) to wide receivers. While Oakland’s receiving corps was supposed to include Antonio Brown and just lost Hunter Renfrow, such an outing is unacceptable for an NFL offense. Nominal No. 1 wideout Tyrell Williams has caught three passes for 27 yards over the past two games. Williams must produce if the Raiders are to have a shot at reviving their playoff hopes. The ex-Charger wideout’s four-year contract contains no fully guaranteed money after 2019. If Williams cannot help Derek Carr’s Darren Waller-dependent aerial corps down the stretch, the Raiders will balk at his $11 million base salary next season. The Antonio Brown trade deterred Jon Gruden and Co. from targeting a receiver early in the draft, hurting this year’s team. Gruden and GM Mike Mayock will be prepared to draft one early in 2020. GAME GRADE: D-minus | NEXT: vs. Titans (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
CHIEFS (8-4): Kansas City employed one of this decade’s premier safeties for years, but Eric Berry’s injuries proved costly. Daniel Sorensen and a hobbled Berry started last season’s AFC Championship Game, but the Chiefs could not stop Tom Brady in crunch time. The Chiefs threw key resources at the problem this offseason, adding Tyrann Mathieu on a position-record-tying $14 million-per-year contract and drafting Juan Thornhill in the second round. Mathieu and Thornhill justified the investments Sunday, forcing the Raiders to play catch-up. Each intercepted a pass; both picks led to touchdowns. Mathieu’s coverage fooled Derek Carr and set up Darrel Williams’ first-quarter score, and Thornhill took a Carr pass back for a 46-yard second-quarter TD. None of Thornhill’s 13 INTs at Virginia went for touchdowns. His second NFL pick helped compensate for the Chiefs’ 259 yards Sunday and highlighted the potential the franchise sees in a Mathieu-Thornhill long-term tandem. GAME GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: at Patriots (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
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DENVER 23, LA CHARGERS 20
CHARGERS (4-8): What a way to squander a game. The Bolts allowed the Broncos to kick a walk-off field goal after a one-play drive that began at Denver’s 28-yard line. After the Chargers tied the score, cornerback Casey Hayward barreled into Courtland Sutton to give a listless Broncos offense 37 yards. While the call was questionable, the Bolts’ penchant for unique losses is not. Facing a Broncos team also excellent at crafting final-minute defeat blueprints, the Chargers did their best to help their opponent by mismanaging the clock and committing two false-start penalties on a late fourth down. The Chargers are closing out a largely wasted decade – one featuring numerous endings such as Sunday’s in Denver – and with QB Philip Rivers near the end of his NFL career, the perennial underachievers will enter the 2020s with far less certainty. GAME GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: at Jaguars (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
BRONCOS (4-8): Trading Pro Bowl wideouts in each of the past two Octobers, Denver depleted its pass-catching situation considerably. Courtland Sutton has helped compensate, the 2018 second-round pick joining Phillip Lindsay as a cornerstone piece on an offense largely lacking them. Propping up Drew Lock like he did Brandon Allen in his debut, Sutton has now produced with three quarterbacks this season. His first-half work – highlighted by one of this season’s premier catches – saved a Broncos offense that (again) accomplished little after halftime. Lock averaged a Paxton Lynch-ian 4.8 yards per attempt; 74 of the rookie’s 134 yards went to his 6-foot-4 weapon. Sutton’s deft tumble to draw a game-deciding pass interference penalty also halted the Broncos’ trend of late-game collapses. While not on Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders’ levels yet, Sutton is on his way. The jump-ball maven is on pace to eclipse 1,200 yards and makes for a stealth Pro Bowl candidate in a down season for AFC receivers. GAME GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at Texans (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
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TAMPA BAY 28, JACKSONVILLE 11
BUCS (5-7): Tampa Bay’s defense was dominant, forcing QB Nick Foles and his four-year, $88 million contract to the bench in just his third start since returning from injury. The Buccaneers racked up five sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Leading the unit was OLB Shaquil Barrett, who picked up two sacks to bring his total to a league-leading 14.5. Barrett had four quarterback hits, giving him nine over his past two games. The Buccaneers also lived up to their No. 1 ranking in run defense DVOA, holding Jacksonville to 47 rushing yards on 2.9 yards per attempt. Head coach Bruce Arians’ team has a nearly even point differential at -6 and is 5-7 despite a 2-4 record in close games (decided by seven points or fewer). He has the Bucs playing around an average level, a step up from where they were the previous two seasons. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Colts (Sun.)
— Michael Nania
JAGUARS (4-8): Nick Foles was abysmal against a Buccaneers defense that entered the game second-worst in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Foles threw an interception, lost two fumbles, including one that was returned for a touchdown, and was completely ineffective before giving way to Gardner Minshew to start the second half. Foles got $88 million from the Jaguars, including $50.125 million guaranteed, but Minshew has looked like the better, more effective player this season. Foles isn’t going anywhere, because he has a $33.875 million dead cap hit for 2020, but while the Jaguars don’t have much to play for as a team the rest of this season, Foles needs to finish strongly to prove that Jacksonville made a smart investment. If Foles fails to inspire, Jacksonville will have to consider making the starting quarterback job an open competition next season. GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Chargers (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
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CINCINNATI 22, NEW YORK JETS 6
JETS (4-8): On a day when the Jets’ mini-resurgence died, their offensive line showed why GM Joe Douglas will conduct an offseason overhaul. Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap dominated Jets right tackle Brandon Shell, a former starter back in the lineup due to injuries. Dunlap registered three sacks; Sam Hubbard beat guard Tom Compton for another. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum committed three of the O-line’s seven penalties, including a holding infraction that resulted in a safety. Le’Veon Bell’s dreadful 2019 continued with a 10-carry, 32-yard day against Cincinnati’s 32nd-ranked run defense. Beachum had played better in recent weeks but joins Shell as a free agent-to-be, and no guaranteed money remains on injured right guard Brian Winters’ deal. All five of the Jets’ Week 1 O-line starters are good bets to be elsewhere next season. A 16-point loss to an 0-11 team should accelerate Douglas’ long-anticipated revamp of the perennially poor unit. GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Dolphins (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
BENGALS (1-11): This downtrodden franchise has plenty of needs. Defensive line might not be one of them. Against the Jets, end Carlos Dunlap demonstrated he can abuse lesser offensive tackles. Tackle Geno Atkins may have lost a slight step, but he remains a potent interior disruptor. Andrew Billings is a nice complement on early downs to Atkins, excelling against the run with his great strength and power. Hubbard and Carl Lawson are young up-and-comers off the edge. With Cincinnati’s first win, the pressure may be off for the Bengals, who can focus now on securing the No. 1 overall pick. Kidding. (I think.) GAME GRADE: B | NEXT: at Browns (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
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TENNESSEE 31, INDIANAPOLIS 17
TITANS (7-5): Tennessee showed off its new-found resilience and offensive explosiveness under QB Ryan Tannehill. Despite a 17-7 deficit and lots of pressure (six sacks), Tannehill did not blink. The Titans’ offensive prowess was most on display after Tennessee intercepted Jacoby Brissett while up 24-17. Tannehill then hit Kalif Raymond for a 40-yard touchdown to effectively ice the game. That the Titans went for it all on 3rd-and-6 instead of playing conservatively shows how much faith they have in their quarterback, who replaced the ineffective Marcus Mariota in Week 7. Tennessee is still out of playoff position, but should it get in, the Titans will be dangerous because of their offense. Imagine that. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: at Raiders (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
COLTS (6-6): Another game, another kicking disaster for the Colts. Adam Vinatieri was already 1-for-3 on field goals when he lined up for a 46-yarder that would have put Indianapolis ahead 20-17. But the kick was blocked — why, of course — and returned for a touchdown. Indianapolis’ efforts to come back were further hampered by a Jacoby Brissett interception. Head coach Frank Reich’s loyalty to Vinatieri has cost the Colts multiple games; if Indianapolis got even slightly better than league average kicking, it would be at least two and possibly three or four games better in the standings. The Colts probably will miss the playoffs; they have no one to blame but themselves. GRADE: D-minus | NEXT: at Bucs (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
12 of 16
WASHINGTON 29, CAROLINA 21
REDSKINS (3-9): Washington took full advantage of Carolina’s 31st-ranked DVOA run defense. The Redskins racked up 248 yards on 30 rush attempts, averaging a 8.3 yards per rush. They rushed for three touchdowns, two by Derrius Guice and one by Adrian Peterson. Guice picked up 129 yards on 10 carries, finally breaking out after averaging 24.7 yards per game on 2.7 yards per carry over his first three career games. The run game bailed out rookie QB Dwayne Haskins, who was extremely ineffective (3.8 net yards per pass attempt). At least he didn’t take a selfie with a fan during this game. GAME GRADE: B+ | NEXT: at Packers (Sun.)
— Michael Nania
PANTHERS (5-7): Ron Rivera’s defense continues to be embarrassed against the run. Carolina, which entered Week 13 ranked 31st in both run defense EPA and DVOA, was shredded on the ground by a Redskins offense ranked 30th in rush offense DVOA. Washington ran for 248 yards, more than 100 yards greater than their previous season-best. The Panthers have yielded a league-high 22 rushing touchdowns and have given up at least 100 yards on the ground in all but two games. Each of Carolina’s final three games will be against teams that currently rank in the top half of rush offense DVOA. More humiliating efforts in run defense could be on the way, potentially sending Rivera out the door. GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: at Falcons (Sun.)
— Michael Nania
13 of 16
NEW ORLEANS 26, ATLANTA 18
SAINTS (10-2): The pass rush went berserk on Thanksgiving, taking down Matt Ryan for nine sacks (tying his career-high). That total also tied the Saints’ franchise record, set in 2001 (at Falcons) and 1985 (vs. Rams). End Cameron Jordan led the charge with a career-best four sacks, bringing his season total to a career-high 13.5. Through games played Thursday, New Orleans was tied for third in quarterback hits per game (7.0) and ranked eighth in sack rate (8.0 percent). The Saints’ dominant pass rush will be tested down the stretch as New Orleans seeks the NFC’s top seed. Two solid offensive lines await in the next two games (49ers and Colts). GAME GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. 49ers (Sun.)
— Michael Nania
FALCONS (3-9): Against New Orleans, Matt Ryan averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt over 50 passes and threw two interceptions. While not entirely his fault, Ryan is playing some of the most ineffective football of his career, posting a 77.8 passer rating (league average 91.2 through Thursday) and averaging 5.0 net yards per attempt (league average 6.3) over his past five games. On the season, Ryan has averaged 5.9 adjusted net yards per attempt (which adjusts for sacks, touchdowns and interceptions), slightly below the league average of 6.2. It is the worst season mark compared to league average that Ryan has posted in his career. Perhaps Atlanta should bench him and keep him healthy for 2020. GAME GRADE: C– | NEXT: vs. Panthers (Sun.)
— Michael Nania
14 of 16
CHICAGO 24, DETROIT 20
BEARS (6-6): Don’t celebrate yet, Bears fans, but QB Mitch Trubisky is playing better. In the first eight games, he mostly dinked and dunked. Over the past month, he has thrown deeper downfield. Trubisky was especially effective working the intermediate portions of the field against the Lions, who dared him to beat them downfield by playing mostly man coverage. Oddly, the Lions rarely sent added pressure. Trubisky’s lone interception, to CB Darius Slay early in the second half, was a poorly placed throw against tight man coverage. But other than that, Trubisky was solid, with several impressive throws to Anthony Miller (nine catches for 140 yards), who abused cornerback Justin Coleman. GAME GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Cowboys (Thurs.)
— Matt Williamson
LIONS (3-8-1): There were several positives for the Lions. Their wideouts owned Chicago’s cornerbacks in the first half, and the pass protection — it was a smart move to double up against Khalil Mack — was solid for rookie QB David Blough, who made his first career start. Blough stood strong in the pocket, allowing Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones time to set up the Bears corners. Blough’s poise was noteworthy and his accuracy (22-for-38 for 280 yards) stood out. He often looked for TJ Hockenson (11 targets), a smart move, although the rookie tight end had only six catches for 18 yards. Detroit’s offense dried up in the second half after Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano made adjustments to help Chicago’s cornerbacks and Mack came to life. GAME GRADE: C | NEXT: at Vikings (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
15 of 16
BUFFALO 26, DALLAS 15
BILLS (9-3): After using Ed Oliver on most of their defensive snaps during the season’s first half, the Bills demoted their first-round pick entering November. Oliver’s resurgence over the past three weeks showed why Buffalo used the ninth overall pick on him. Despite coming off the bench for the fifth straight game, the rookie defensive tackle unveiled a ceiling few Bills have possessed this century. The compact interior rusher sacked Dak Prescott twice – the first featuring a game-changing strip – and registered a tackle for loss. After going nine games without sacking a quarterback, the ex-Houston Cougars tackles-for-loss dynamo has four in Buffalo’s past three games. Rarely given nationally televised opportunities, the Bills made the most of this one. Oliver’s dominance of Cowboys backup left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo helped change the narrative of the Bills being a product of weak competition and served notice that they won’t be a wild-card pushover. GAME GRADE: A+ | NEXT: vs. Ravens (Sun)
— Sam Robinson
COWBOYS (6-6): Dallas continued its struggles against elite competition, falling to 0-5 in games against teams that currently have a winning record. The same issue that plagued Jason Garrett’s squad in previous games against strong opponents was evident against Buffalo: turnovers. The Cowboys coughed up the football twice in the first half, setting up Buffalo with a lead it would not relinquish. Dallas failed to take the ball away from Josh Allen’s offense. In its five games against winning teams, Dallas has lost the turnover battle 10 to one. Good news for the Cowboys: Three of Dallas’ final four games are against .500 or worse teams — the lone exception is the Rams (7-5). GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: at Chicago (Thurs.)
— Michael Nania
16 of 16
MONDAY: MINNESOTA AT SEATTLE
VIKINGS (8-3): The offensive line is far better than it was in 2018, but it is still inconsistent, and it will face a Seattle defense boosted by the returns of end Jadeveon Clowney and tackle Jarran Reed, Seattle’s two best defensive linemen. This game sets up well for Kirk Cousins, who is light years better than most seem to realize (2,756 yards passing, 70.6 percent complete percentage). Wide receivers and tight ends have put up a lot of production against Seattle, so look for a big game from Cousins if his O-line can deliver a solid game. NEXT: vs. Lions (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
SEAHAWKS (9-2): Although he has only three sacks, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, returning from an injury, will be a welcome addition. Per Pro Football Reference, Clowney ranks eighth in the league with 14 hurries, despite being sent on a designed blitz just once all season, and nine quarterback knockdowns (11th in the NFL). The Vikings have balance on offense, but their resurgence after a slow start is largely connected to Kirk Cousins’ improved play. Clowney’s ability to disrupt the pocket against Minnesota – even if he can’t generate sacks – is integral to Seattle’s defense holding up. Clowney might not be filling the stat sheet with traditional counting stats, but there is no denying that his return gives an otherwise mediocre Seahawks defense (21st in the league entering Week 13) some teeth. NEXT: at Rams (Sun.)
The running back position’s prestige peak occurred decades ago in the NFL. Most teams have steadily devoted fewer resources to acquiring starters at the position, leading to the job’s plummeting value, but major recent investments have thrust running backs into a strange place.
From July 2018-September 2019, contracts given to Todd Gurley (Rams), David Johnson (Cardinals), Le’Veon Bell (Jets) and Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) transformed a stagnant running back market. Those deals, for the most part, have not benefited the teams. Injuries altered the trajectories of Gurley and Johnson, and Bell has predictably struggled behind a terrible offensive line.
But the next wave of impact talents took the baton; many of this season’s premier backs came from the 2017 draft class. Christian McCaffrey (Panthers) and Dalvin Cook (Vikings) are surging toward All-Pro status, and Aaron Jones (Packers) is not far behind. Pro Bowl rosters will include them and Leonard Fournette (Jaguars), with Alvin Kamara (Saints), Marlon Mack (Colts) and former undrafted free agent Austin Ekeler (Chargers) vying for invites. Add Chris Carson (Seahawks), Joe Mixon (Bengals) and former rushing champion Kareem Hunt (Browns), and that 2017 running back class looks like one of the deepest in the common-draft era (1967-present).
That group has produced this season’s top three in yards from scrimmage, four of the top six touchdown scorers and five of the top seven in rushing yards per game. Despite some previous big-ticket backs’ stocks dropping, the position remains in good hands.
With Bell and Elliott waging memorable contract standoffs, next year promises to be one of the most interesting offseasons involving a single position in modern NFL history. All 2017 draftees become extension-eligible in January. The flood of re-up candidates set the stage for a macro reassessment of the modern running back, following a grim decade for the position. But it wasn’t always like that.
In the 1990s, 35 running backs became first-round picks. Teams’ thinking did not change much in the 2000s, when 32 backs were first-rounders. This decade’s final tally? 16, with none going in the 2013 or ’14 first rounds. Despite the impressive work the 2017 draft class has shown this season, the contract-seeking backs’ signing windows will open in the worst era for such investments.
Elite running backs’ salaries once comprised bigger chunks of teams’ payrolls. Terrell Davis signed for $7.8 million per year with Denver in July 1998, when the salary cap was barely $52 million. That salary would have ranked top five among running backs in July 2018, when the cap stood at $177 million. The needle did not move too far until the summer of 2011, when Chris Johnson signed a $13.5 million-per-year deal with Tennessee, and Adrian Peterson broke through with a $14.2 million-AAV pact with Minnesota. Those contracts soon became relics.
Peterson’s six-year, $85.3 million contract topped the market for years. Teams stopped rewarding ball-carriers on that level, as prices for other positions — including offensive linemen, who have longer shelf lives than the players they block for -– steadily rose. When Peterson’s contract came off the Vikings’ books, the highest-paid running back salary stood at barely $8 million.
Select franchises have taken renewed interest in the position, with Elliott, Fournette and Saquon Barkley (Giants) going in the top five from 2016-18. But the injuries to Gurley and David Johnson, and Bell’s $13.25 million-per-year Jets deal generating 3.1 yards per carry through nine games surely have franchises reevaluating running backs’ worth. How they proceed in 2020 will be telling.
The Panthers and Saints, respectively, rely on the versatility McCaffrey and Kamara provide. They are the modern prototypes, working as premier aerial weapons as well as between-the-tackles runners. McCaffrey is on pace to threaten Chris Johnson’s season scrimmage yards record (2,509); Kamara has made two Pro Bowls and joins Michael Thomas in a dual-engine Saints offense. Although Fournette has a throwback skill set, he drives the Jaguars’ offense.
Expect extension talks to commence between these three and their respective South division teams next year, with McCaffrey and Kamara possessing intriguing leverage for big-money deals. The others’ negotiating positions — including that of Cook, who plays in a system notorious for running back turnover — are not as powerful.
Elliott holding out after three years and landing a record $15 million-per-year extension should provide a blueprint for McCaffrey and Kamara. Although McCaffrey can be controlled through 2021 via the fifth-year option, he should strongly consider holding out in 2020 rather than risk greater mileage and/or an injury decreasing his value. Fournette’s deal also has a fifth-year option, but because he has not demonstrated McCaffrey-like value, the Jaguars should have more time to consider their options.
The Cook-Kamara-Jones-Mack-Mixon-Carson contingent will enter 2020 on expiring contracts, forcing their teams to make decisions. The uncharted territory between the top tier (north of $13 million annually) and the stratum of Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (approximately $8 million AAV) figures to be explored. It would behoove teams seeking to retain their backs long term to strike early, with the prospect of the next CBA changing the landscape.
As the cap keeps spiking by around $10 million each year, the gulf between the Tier 1 and Tier 2 running back salary spectrum will represent better value than it did during the mid-2010s. However, organizations may play hardball with their backs because of the position’s replaceability, short lifespan and the fallout from the mistakes of the Rams, Cardinals and Jets. Some of these players will then advance to free agency in 2021, making that market unusually interesting.
On the field, this class is on track to push that of 2008 — which produced Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Jonathan Stewart and Ray Rice — as the 21st century’s best. With nearly a third of next year’s depth charts likely to have a 2017 draftee or UDFA in first-string running back slots, the 15 months between January 2020 and March 2021 will bring major developments for one of the NFL’s most recognizable positions.
And the latest rising talents will play pivotal roles in how the NFL views the running back position in the 2020s.
The Colts stunned the Chiefs in Kansas City. Green Bay built a big early lead on the road and held off the Cowboys. Wow, Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (237 scrimmage yards) is good. Here’s Yardbarker’s Week 5 whip-around.
1 of 16
INDIANAPOLIS 19, KANSAS CITY 13
COLTS: (3-2): Indianapolis’ defense turned in a heroic performance against PATRICK MAHOMES and the Chiefs. The D-line played the biggest part. Indy was without Malik Hooker, Darius Leonard and Clayton Geathers, but Justin Houston, Grover Stewart and the rest of Indy’s front-seven owned the line of scrimmage. The Colts harassed Mahomes and, in particular, suffocated Kansas City’s running game. It was an impressive and surprising effort; Indianapolis allowed three of its first four opponents to rush for at least 100 yards, and Oakland dominated them on the ground in Week 4. The Colts now get a much-needed bye week to get healthy, before they host Houston in a game that could shape the AFC South race. If the Colts win that one, they could easily be 7-2 by the time a mid-November divisional crucible begins. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: Week 6 bye, vs. Texans (Sun., Oct. 20)
— Chris Mueller
CHIEFS: (4-1): The first of many national showcases for this Chiefs team illuminated an uncomfortable reality. They may not be sufficiently improved defensively to capitalize on Patrick Mahomes’ brilliance. When the reigning MVP is compromised or is missing enough key players, the Chiefs’ foundation becomes shaky. The Chiefs entered Sunday night’s game 31st in run defense, and the Colts turned the clock back to expose it. Kansas City used considerable capital on defensive augmentations this offseason but had no answer for Indianapolis’ rushing onslaught. The Chiefs, who did lose key defensive tackle Chris Jones, gave up 180 rushing yards – the third straight game in which they have allowed at least 180. Considering the Chiefs are also below average on pass defense and rush offense, they are again asking Mahomes to walk a tightrope. For a team carrying the NFL’s best contract, its defense still being one of the league’s worst is troubling.GAME GRADE: D + | NEXT: vs. Texans (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
2 of 16
GREEN BAY 34, DALLAS 24
PACKERS (4-1): It’s about time the coaching staff trusted AARON JONES enough to feed him touches. It took Jamaal Williams (concussion) going down, but hey, maybe everyone can now see he is far and away the best running back option. After the Packers took a big early lead, Jones got a little breather here and there in the second half, but still finished with 182 total yards against an excellent defense. He has natural running skills and is developing as a pass-catcher. This game also showcased Jones’ improvement as a route runner, and he’s getting better in pass protection. Without Devante Adams (turf toe), Aaron Rodgers spread the ball around, with nine Packers catching at least one pass. It’s telling that Jones not only led the Packers in rushing but also was Green Bay’s leading receiver (seven catches for 75 yards) by a significant margin. GAME GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Lions
— Matt Williamson
COWBOYS (3-2): With Dak Prescott’s contract looming, it’s impossible for his performance not to be the focus. Although he made this game interesting down the stretch, he finished with three interceptions, the 10th multi-interception game of his career, now early in his fourth season. Prescott threw for 463 yards, 226 to Amari Cooper. But much of that yardage came in the second half, when the Packers’ defense seemed to let up. Green Bay’s defense was especially impressive in blanking the Cowboys in the first half. Cooper, the former Raiders receiver, has been a wise investment for Dallas, but whether he’s enough to help turn Dak into a top-line starter remains to be seen. Two weeks in a row against considerable competition, Dallas was found lacking. Are the Cowboys willing to settle for “just OK”? GAME GRADE: C | NEXT: at Jets
— Mike Tunison
3 of 16
CAROLINA 34, JACKSONVILLE 27
JAGUARS (2-3): Jacksonville’s run defense had been trending in the right direction the past two weeks, holding the Titans and Broncos to a combined 159 yards in two wins. But the Jags’ run D was a no-show against Carolina. CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY gouged Jacksonville, especially on an 84-yard gallop that saw more than half the defense over-commit to a fake. Even McCaffrey’s backup, Reggie Bonnafon, hit for a 59-yard TD. Jacksonville’s aggressiveness was its problem on that play, too. Multiple members of the front-seven over-pursued because of an end-around fake; the Jaguars’ secondary had no chance to catch him because all the players took a bad angle. Gardner Minshew (374 yards passing) played well enough, but if the Jaguars are going to win the AFC South, they must get more from the defense. GAME GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: vs. Saints (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
PANTHERS (3-2): Christian McCaffrey continues to add reasons why he’s an elite back and in the discussion for the best in the game. Sunday’s performance was historic in many ways. The third of his three touchdowns was an 84-yard run, the longest in franchise history. (According to NextGen Stats, he reached a max speed of 21.95 mph on the TD run, his fastest touch since 2018.) McCaffrey’s performance was one of only 18 since 2000 by a running back that resulted in at least 237 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. That means you’re talking about a roughly once-a-year type of outing, usually done by only the best of the best. The only downside was a sequence in the red zone in the fourth quarter when the Panthers tried to get him a passing touchdown (he had one in his career before Sunday) on third down and it didn’t work out. Then McCaffrey was stuffed on a fourth-down attempt. Carolina held on, but it slightly marred an otherwise excellent game. GAME GRADE: B+ | NEXT: at Bucs (Sun.)
— Mike Tunison
4 of 16
BALTIMORE 26, PITTSBURGH 23 (OT)
RAVENS (3-2): In an overtime game, the Ravens had the ball 13 minutes, 26 seconds longer and ran the ball 40 times. Despite being the much fresher unit, Baltimore’s defense was far from impressive. This is more than just an isolated incident for the once-exceptional unit, as it has been abused four weeks in a row. Pittsburgh’s offensive box score isn’t telling (269 yards), because the unit still seeks an identity. It lost MASON RUDOLPH (concussion) to a vicious hit by Earl Thomas, which put third-stringer Devlin Hodges at the offense’s controls. Yet the Steelers still averaged 5.3 yards per play, a yard and a half more than Baltimore. The run defense is a problem without question, but the area of most concern is Baltimore’s pass rush. This is a blitz-heavy scheme, but the Ravens’ secondary is uncharacteristically poor, and the lack of pure pass-rushers hurts. Terrell Suggs, where are you? GAME GRADE: C+ | NEXT: vs., Bengals (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
STEELERS (1-4): Going back to 2017, Pittsburgh has rushed the passer as well as or better than almost every defense. The Steelers had 52 sacks last season, 56 in 2017. It’s what Pittsburgh (19 sacks) does best this season, too. The Steelers’ rush (five sacks) on Lamar Jackson was superb. But what stood out in Week 5 was their pass-rushing plan. Not only did the Steelers push the pocket really well, but for the most part, they kept Jackson bottled up by staying in their rush lanes. We didn’t see a lot of games or stunting. Jackson (14 carries for 70 yards) got loose here and there. The execution of a pass-rush plan, an underrated important aspect of playing great defense, was impressive. GAME GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: at Chargers (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
5 of 16
NEW ENGLAND 33, WASHINGTON 7
PATRIOTS (5-0): Jamie Collins went from athletic Patriots linebacker to a freelancing player deemed unnecessary during the team’s Super Bowl LII run; the Pats traded him to the Browns in 2016. Cleveland soon gave the outside linebacker a position-record $12.5 million-per-year contract that he did not live up to. Now back in New England on an incentive-laden deal and counting only $3 million against the cap, he has become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Against Washington, Collins continued his resurgence by recovering a second-quarter fumble and forcing another on an impressive inside rush that resulted in a fourth-quarter sack of Colt McCoy. A player the Browns cut has been one of the NFL’s best this season, finishing Week 5 with 4.5 sacks (an NFL-high for off-ball ‘backers) and a career-high three interceptions. For a Patriots team coming off perhaps the Super Bowl’s greatest defensive showing, Collins looks like a frightening luxury. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Giants (Thurs.)
— Sam Robinson
REDSKINS (0-5): In a game the Patriots were bound to win in a laugher, especially amid the swirling rumors of JAY GRUDEN’S impending dismissal, the Washington defense put on a better performance than anyone had a right to expect, even if the final score doesn’t indicate as much. Washington limited Tom Brady to completing three of his first seven attempts en route to taking an early lead, the Pats’ first deficit of the season. A fourth-down stop and a red-zone interception by Montae Nicholson, after the Washington offense had just turned the ball over on its own side of the field, kept the game competitive longer than perhaps it should have been. Think Washington fans are disenchanted? Asked by the Washington Post what he thought about the predominately New England crowd at FedEx Field, Brady said, “I thought it was pretty amazing. That felt like a home game.” Gruden, as expected, was canned early Monday morning. GAME GRADE: C | NEXT: at Dolphins (Sun.)
— Mike Tunison
BUFFALO 14, TENNESSEE 7
BILLS (4-1): With Miami on tap after a Week 6 bye, Buffalo is firmly in contention. The Bills again received spotty offense but have become a matchup nightmare for opposing aerial attacks. After stifling Tom Brady in one of the worst games of his career, Buffalo smothered Marcus Mariota. The Bills’ front seven did not sack Brady but dropped Mariota five times, four by inside rushers. Defensive tackle JORDAN PHILLIPS had a three-sack first half. Buffalo recently lost promising D-tackle Harrison Phillips (torn ACL) for the season. On Sunday, defensive end Trent Murphy (head) and linebacker Matt Milano (hamstring) left with injuries in the second half. Yet Buffalo still held the Titans to 4-for-14 on third downs. The Bills are headed in the right direction in Sean McDermott’s third season. This is a better team than their fluky 2017 playoff squad. GAME GRADE: B + | NEXT: Week 6 bye, vs. Dolphins (Sun., Oct. 20)
— Sam Robinson
TITANS (2-3): It was reasonable to assume that a matchup of two of the league’s top-five scoring defenses would produce a low-scoring game. But the Titans must be kicking themselves because of their kicker. Cairo Santos missed all four of his field goals — 50- and 53-yarders, a 36-yarder, and a 33-yarder that was blocked — and those misses were the difference. Santos came into the game 41-for-44 from 30-39 yards and 8-for-15 from 50-plus yards for his career. Titans coach Mike Vrabel says he still has confidence in him. Santos’ difficulties obscured the fact that Marcus Mariota and the offense were sloppy, had touchdowns nullified by penalties and several drives stifled by sacks. The Titans were penalized eight times for 60 yards and allowed five sacks, despite left tackle Taylor Lewan’s return from a four-game PED suspension. GAME GRADE: D | NEXT: at Broncos (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
7 of 16
DENVER 20, LA CHARGERS 13
BRONCOS (1-4): Denver could not curtail the Jaguars’ momentum in Week 4 but managed to stop the Chargers from stealing the win. Los Angeles, however, would have operated differently in the second half had cornerback Kareem Jackson, a former Texan, not provided Denver’s defensive play of the year. Jackson derailed the Bolts’ fourth-and-goal play by forcing an Austin Ekeler fumble near the pylon in the second quarter. This ensured the Broncos carried a 17-0 lead into halftime. Pro Football Focus’ No. 12 cornerback entering Sunday, Jackson made a Broncos-high 10 tackles and helped a Bradley Chubb-less defense hold PHILIP RIVERS to 4.4 yards per attempt. GAME GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: vs. Titans (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
CHARGERS (2-3): Despite having Mike Williams and Melvin Gordon back in the lineup, the Bolts could not produce enough against a Broncos team down Bradley Chubb, starting linebacker Josey Jewell and would-be starting cornerback Bryce Callahan. Los Angeles totaled 246 yards – 120 fewer than any output of their previous 2019 outings – and were outrushed 191-35. A week after the Jaguars erased a 14-point Broncos lead largely with Leonard Fournette’s 225-yard day, the Chargers were not patient enough with the run. Philip Rivers threw two interceptions. Keenan Allen, the NFL’s receiving leader after Week 4, caught four passes for 18 yards. This profiled as a non-threatening spot for the injury-plagued team, but the Chargers are plagued by inconsistency. LA, which played at home before a big Denver contingent, is in trouble amid a crowded AFC middle tier. GAME GRADE: D + | NEXT: vs. Steelers (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
8 of 16
ARIZONA 26, CINCINNATI 23
CARDINALS: (1-3-1): KYLER MURRAY and Kliff Kingsbury each got their first win in the NFL, and it isn’t hard to pinpoint why. Arizona’s offensive line kept Murray upright almost the entire game. The Cardinals allowed only one sack despite coming in having surrendered 20, most in the league through four games. Murray did his part, too, managing to get rid of the football under pressure. The lack of negative plays was a major factor in helping the Cardinals establish rhythm and consistency. He was also more decisive as a playmaker, and he led a 266-yard team rushing effort with 93 on his own. Arizona piled up 514 yards, and while Cincinnati is one of the league’s worst defenses, it was still a big step forward for Murray and Kingsbury. Notable: Arizona prevented a score by a tight end for the first time this season. GAME GRADE: B + | NEXT: vs. Falcons (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
BENGALS (0-5): It’s clear the Cardinals are the better of these two poor teams. Here’s the deal with Cincinnati: Its offense has only two players! Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd; that’s it. Andy Dalton is a professional quarterback, and tight end Tyler Eifert can occasionally make plays, but this team has a putrid offensive line, and every defense the Bengals face (at least until injured A.J.Green returns) is going to make life extremely difficult on Mixon and Boyd. These two touched the ball 30 times, accounting for 232 of Cincinnati’s 370 yards. The offense is far too dependent on them. Hey, I thought head coach Zac Taylor’s forte was offense. GAME GRADE: D+ | NEXT: at Ravens (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
9 of 16
HOUSTON 53, ATLANTA 32
FALCONS (1-4): Atlanta’s secondary will be having nightmares about Will Fuller for weeks to come. Part of the Texans receiver’s monster day had to do with several miscommunications in coverage by the Falcons, including both of his first-half touchdowns. Fuller didn’t just reap the benefit of broken plays, he also just straight-up smoked an overmatched Atlanta secondary when defenders had the right idea about where they needed to be. Fuller had 14 catches on 16 targets for 217 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a day that looks almost effortlessly easy; Atlanta’s listless coverage helped make it that way. GAME GRADE: D-minus | NEXT: at Cardinals (Sun.)
— Mike Tunison
TEXANS (3-2): If this is what life is like for DESHAUN WATSON with a clean pocket, his offensive line should be the most motivated group on the planet. After an opening three and out, the Texans piled up six touchdowns and two field goals, with only the end of the first half stopping another drive. Watson finished with five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating, consistently shredding the Falcons’ defense with deep shots downfield. This came one week after the Texans didn’t complete a pass longer than 14 yards in a loss to Carolina. Watson’s performance and the line’s protection were by far the most encouraging aspects of the game for Houston, but Will Fuller’s career day was close behind. If he can function as a truly dangerous second option behind DeAndre Hopkins, Houston will be the team to beat in the AFC South. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: at Chiefs (Sun.)
— Chris Mueller
10 of 16
NEW ORLEANS 31, TAMPA BAY 24
BUCS (2-3): Coming off a 55-point outing in a win over the Rams, the Buccaneers must have figured they wouldn’t need quite that many offensive fireworks to top a Brees-less Saints team, although obviously one would like to keep the offense humming regardless. It can be hard to be effective to that degree when your top receiver, Mike Evans, finishes the game with no catches on three targets. Perhaps that’s a credit to Marshon Lattimore, but wideouts considered among the game’s best don’t usually pull disappearing acts such as that. GAME GRADE: D + | NEXT: vs. Panthers (Sun.)
— Mike Tunison
SAINTS (4-1): The idea during Drew Brees’ absence is that the Saints were hoping for just good enough quarterback play to tread water and eke out a few wins. That has been the case for the most part. New Orleans got good QB play and then some against the Buccaneers, as Teddy Bridgewater threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns. One of the knocks against Bridgewater is that he tends to play the short game and not get a lot of air under the ball. Against the Bucs, he had an impressive strike for 33 yards to Ted Ginn for a score and another to Josh Hill on a 26-yard play. GAME GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: at Jaguars (Sun.)
— Mike Tunison
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MINNESOTA 28, NY GIANTS 10
VIKINGS (3-2): The Vikings have one of the league’s best running games, making play-action rollouts a highly effective tactic by KIRK COUSINS. Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison combined for 184 rushing yards on 28 attempts against New York. Cousins isn’t a great athlete, but he does move well and certainly can throw effectively on the run. Designed quarterback movement off play action played to Cousins’ strengths and put the Giants’ suspect linebackers in compromised positions. This game plan had assistant coach Gary Kubiak written all over it — keep an eye on this the rest of the season. GAME GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Eagles (Sun.)
— Matt Williamson
GIANTS (2-3): There are plenty of takes to be had about Daniel Jones coming back to earth following his excellent first outing two weeks ago in Tampa. Sunday’s loss makes it clear there are plenty of issues with the roster even if the Giants get a serviceable performance from their starting quarterback. Before Week 5, Kirk Cousins hadn’t thrown for more than 233 yards in a game. He had that before the end of the first half against the Giants. New York’s secondary was ripe for the picking all game, and it shows in the nearly flawless performances that Cousins (306 yards passing) and Adam Thielen (seven catches and 130 yards) put up in a one-sided game. GAME GRADE: D | NEXT: at Patriots (Thur.)
— Mike Tunison
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OAKLAND 24, CHICAGO 21 (LONDON)
BEARS (3-2): Allen Robinson, who had seven catches on eight targets for 97 yards and two touchdowns, is easily Chicago’s best offensive player. That showed in a big way in Week 5. For the better part of this game, the Bears surprisingly lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. Chicago was also hampered by penalties, poor blocking, a lackluster running game and less-than-stellar defense. But Robinson was spectacular. Rarely is he mentioned as an upper-echelon wide receiver, but he excels at all levels of the field, is good after the catch and often dominant at the catch point. He has bailed out Chicago QBs all season. GAME GRADE: C | NEXT: Week 6 bye, vs. Saints (Sun, Oct. 20)
— Matt Williamson
RAIDERS (3-2): With the Raiders producing one winning season since 2003, the bulk of their drives in this era have not been particularly consequential. A drive in London may go down as a season-changing march. Jon Gruden pulling the trigger on a fake punt on a fourth-and-1 from his own 27-yard line ignited a Raiders team on the verge of blowing a 17-point lead. The direct snap to safety Erik Harris doubled as a turning point, with the Raiders then piecing together a 13-play, 97-yard, go-ahead drive against the Bears’ top-tier defense. DEREK CARR, No. 22 in QBR through four games, led the drive without hitting Tyrell Williams or Darren Waller. Oakland rookie tight end Foster Moreau contributed 41 yards on the possession, including a diving grab to set up Josh Jacobs’ game-winner. GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: Week 6 bye, at Packers (Sun., Oct. 20)
— Sam Robinson
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PHILADELPHIA 31, NY JETS 6
JETS (0-4): Their offensive line struggles in recent years having bled into 2019, the Jets made changes before Week 5. Despite the two new starters – left guard Alex Lewis and right tackle Chuma Edoga – the Jets gave up 10 sacks to the Eagles. For a team that has seen two quarterbacks go down, this made a third consecutive Jets game nearly unwatchable. One of those sacks resulted in a touchdown, with Eagles in-season cornerback acquisition Orlando Scandrick ripping the ball from Luke Falk and sprinting for a touchdown. The Jets last allowed 10-plus sacks in a 2012 game against the Chargers, when another backup quarterback – Greg McElroy – was concussed. Falk made it through this game but again finished with a dreadful stat line – 15-for-26, 120 yards, two interceptions. The Jets cannot be properly evaluated until Sam Darnold returns, but their stretch without him exposed plenty of flaws that stand to hinder the starter’s development when he comes back. GAME GRADE: F | NEXT: vs. Cowboys (Sun.)
— Sam Robinson
EAGLES (3-2): Philly was more or less on autopilot in what was always an expected win. The offense (446 yards) plowed through New York with a run-heavy opening drive to take a touchdown lead. From there, the Eagles’ defense forced the turnovers, including a 52-yard pick-six by linebacker NATE GERRY on the ensuing Jets possession, that have been missing in their early season struggles. Still, a big part of being a playoff team is taking care of business when you have the opportunity, so that’s an encouraging sign for an Eagles team that has been erratic and faces a difficult six-week stretch ahead (at Vikings, at Cowboys, at Bills, vs. Bears, vs. Patriots, vs. Seahawks). GAME GRADE: A | NEXT: at Vikings (Sun.)
— Mike Tunison
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MONDAY: CLEVELAND AT SAN FRANCISCO
BROWNS (2-2): Cleveland got a huge win in Week 4 at Baltimore, but the Ravens no longer have a strong pass-rushing defense. The Browns’ troubled offensive line is going to face a far stiffer challenge on the road against the Niners, who are coming off a bye. It isn’t getting the national credit, but San Francisco’s defensive front is among the best in football. Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa has just one sack, but he is stout. Keeping BAKER MAYFIELD clean should prove to be the most challenging aspect of this game for the Browns. The second-year QB is much more effective when he gets rid of the ball quickly. | NEXT: vs. Seattle (Sun., Oct. 13)
— Matt Williamson
49ERS (3-0): San Francisco comes off an early bye week with a chance to start asserting itself as the team to beat in the NFC West. There will be no worries about looking past the Browns, even with a road showdown with the Rams looming in Week 6. The Niners’ defensive front has been a major strength so far this season, with the team ranking fifth in the league against the run and fourth in yards per carry allowed. It will face their toughest test of the season in the form of Nick Chubb and the Browns, who found their stride against Baltimore in Week 4. Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair, DeForest Buckner and Nick Bosa have been productive in terms of generating tackles for loss, and have consistently forced opponents to play from behind the sticks. NEXT: at Los Angeles Rams (Sun., Oct. 13)
Sunday’s NFL action represented the first full slate of the season as 14 games took place around the league. It did not disappoint.
The early games included tremendous performances from NFC rivals taking on hostile road crowds. That included the Dallas Cowboys doing their thing in D.C., and the San Francisco 49ers showing that the NFC West might be more competitive than originally thought.
Over in the AFC, the New England Patriots absolutely dominated a horrible Miami Dolphins team while the Pittsburgh Steelers proved that they are a shell of their former selves.
It’s in this that we look at the biggest takeaways from Sunday’s Week 2 NFL action.
Broncos offense is a hot mess
We knew that Sunday’s home game against the Chicago Bears was going to be a low-scoring affair. Both the Broncos and Bears boast tremendous defenses with questionable offense. We didn’t realize just how bad the Joe Flacco-led Broncos offense was going to be. Was Week 1 against the Raiders an exception to the rule? Sunday’s game proved that it wasn’t.
Denver tallied a total of six points through the first 59 minutes of the game before converting on a touchdown and two-point conversion to take the lead before blowing it on defense en route to a 16-14 loss. All said, the Broncos’ offense converted on 3-of-14 third-down opportunities in the loss. That’s just not going to get it done. Now 0-2 on the season and averaging 15 points per game, it’s time to start talking about the Broncos’ offense as one of the worst in the NFL.
Houston, we have a problem
It’s simple. The Texans need to do a better job protecting Deshaun Watson. We can use all the excuses available to mankind. That’s fine. But unless Watson stays upright on a more consistent basis, he’s not going to last this season. The third-year quarterback was hit 11 times and sacked six times against the Saints last week. Despite coming out on top 13-12 against a hapless Jaguars team on Sunday, Watson was hit seven times and sacked another four times.
The backdrop is real. Houston lost recently acquired starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil to an ankle injury. He was added ahead of Week 1 to help rebuild a devastated and talent-stricken Texans offensive line. No matter the severity of Tunsil’s injury, these Texans must do a better job protecting Watson. It’s that simple.
This just in: Kyler Murray is good
For the first time since Cam Newton back in 2011, a quarterback has accounted for 300-plus passing yards in each of his first two NFL starts. Shockingly, Murray has accomplished this feat in consecutive road starts to begin his career.
It might not have been good enough to come out on top against the Ravens on Sunday, but Murray continues to prove that the NFL game is not too big for him. The reigning Heisman winner completed 25-of-40 passes for 349 yards without an interception. Since struggling through the first two quarters last week, Murray has been on fire. It’s going to be fun watching him play moving forward on the season.
Chargers blow a chance at 2-0
Following a win over the Indianapolis Colts last week, most figured that the Chargers would not have an issue on the road against the Lions on Sunday. Almost immediately, that proved not to be the case. Philip Rivers and Co. scored a grand total of 10 points in a three-point loss that was capped off by this game-winning touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Kenny Golladay.
It’s games like these the Chargers can’t afford to lose in an AFC West headed by the Kansas City Chiefs. And in reality, it was the offense that failed to step up. In fact, the Chargers’ defense was game against Detroit. It just wasn’t to be. And this loss could come back to haunt Los Angeles moving forward on the season.
Kirk Cousins continues to be a joke
Minnesota was able to win last week against the Falcons despite seeing Cousins attempt 10 passes. That was in no way going to be the case against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers and Co. opened up a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. While Minnesota’s defense picked it up and held the Packers scoreless the rest of the way, Cousins was absolutely atrocious under center.
The high-priced quarterback completed 14-of-32 passes for 230 yards. He threw two interceptions, including a pick in the end zone with Minnesota driving for the potential go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter.
It’s getting to the point that Minnesota can’t rely on Cousins to be anything more than a game manager. Sunday’s loss to the Packers magnified this to a T. Defenses know if they put the game in Cousins’ hands, the quarterback will not be up to the task.
Julio Jones saves Falcons’ season
Teams that start the season 0-2 since 2007 have made the playoffs just 11 percent of the time. That’s what the Falcons were facing at home Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. Taking on an injury-depleted squad, Atlanta almost gave this game away. That included a 13-play, 73-yard touchdown drive by Philadelphia to take the lead with just over three minutes left.
All looked lost for Atlanta. It was facing a fourth-and-three with the game on the line. That’s when Jones stepped up and hauled in a 54-yard game-winning touchdown to help Atlanta pull it out by the score of 24-20. He had put up another tremendous catch earlier in the game, too, finishing with 106 yards on five receptions. Jones saved Atlanta’s season Sunday night. It’s that simple.
No shame in Pats’, Antonio Brown’s game
Not only did Antonio Brown make his Patriots debut Sunday against the Dolphins, the team featured him early. That included Brown making multiple catches on the first drive and coming away with a touchdown in the first half. All said, Brown caught 4-of-8 targets for 56 yards with a touchdown.
The backdrop here is interesting, to say the least. It was just last week that Brown’s former trainer filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming multiple instances of sexual assault. Given these accusations, the Patriots’ decision to have Brown active for Week 2 tells us exactly where they stand on the situation. Only time will tell regarding the team’s stance moving forward. For now, Brown promises to play a huge role on offense in New England as the season progresses.
Cowboys have no problems with Redskins
It started out slowly for Dallas against the Redskins in D.C. Sunday. For the second consecutive game, the Cowboys found themselves trailing early against a lesser opponent. But much like what we saw last week against the Giants, Dak Prescott and Co. picked it up big time from that point on.
Prescott followed up a flawless opener by completing 26-of-30 passes for 269 yards with three touchdowns and a pick. He added to a rushing attack that went for 213 yards. Meanwhile, Dallas bottled up the Redskins running game to the tune of 47 yards on 17 attempts. It led to another lopsided win for Dallas. This time, by the score of 31-21. Could this team now be the class of the NFC? The Cowboys are certainly looking like it right now.
28 men have tried, 28 have failed. After Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Dustin Poirier at UFC 242, he improved to 28-0 and looked unstoppable in the process.
For middleweight champion, Robert Whittaker, he doesn’t believe the Russian will lose for a long time. He says his skill set is super impressive given everyone knows what he will do, but they can’t stop it. That of course, is the wrestling.
“I don’t see Khabib losing anytime soon,” Whittaker said on his Grange TV podcast. “I just can’t. He put work on Dustin (Poirier). Dustin is a great fighter. And, you know, every opponent that goes in there to fight Khabib knows what Khabib is going to do. They know. So I’m sure Dustin worked wrestling defense rigorously, like the entire camp.”
In the fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov kept on coming forward and going for takedowns and throwing strikes. He didn’t appear tired at all, and even escaped a tight guillotine choke.
Yet, for Robert Whittaker, the takedowns and escaping the choke was not the most impressive thing for the middleweight champ. Instead, it is the Russian’s chin.
“Khabib is something else,” Whittaker said. “His cardio, his subtle technique, his arm endurance, his stamina, and what blew me out of the water was his chin. He copped one of Dustin’s textbook left hands on the button of his chin.”
Of course, Khabib Nurmagomedov has taken some heavy shots from both Poirier and Conor McGregor in his past two fights. Yet, he kept on walking forward. For Whittaker, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s ability to take a heavy shot, his cardio, and wrestling is so impressive that no one will be able to beat him. So, the Aussie champ expects the Russian to reign supreme over the lightweight division for quite a long time. And, there is no reason to doubt Whittaker right now.
With NHL training camps starting to get under way and the start of the 2019-20 NHL season less than a month away, it is time to look back at the offseason and see what every team did to improve. We assign a grade for all 31 NHL teams. See which teams received a passing mark and which teams did not make the grade.
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Anaheim Ducks: D
This could be another long season for the Ducks. Their big move this summer was buying out Corey Perry’s contract, and they really didn’t add anything to a team that was one of the worst in the NHL last. year. Ryan Kesler won’t play, Ryan Getzlaf is a year older, and it is going to be up to John Gibson and Ryan Miller in net to carry this team to respectability. They are a great goalie duo, but they may not be great enough to do the impossible. 2 of 31
Arizona Coyotes: B
Acquiring Phil Kessel has given the organization a much-needed boost at the box office and has the potential to do the same on the ice. The Coyotes have not had an impact offensive player like this in more than a decade. His addition, the under-the-radar pickup of Carl Soderberg and what will hopefully be some better health luck might be just enough to get this young, exciting team over the hump and back to the playoffs. They also committed to another part of their young core by signing Clayton Keller to a huge long-term contract extension. 3 of 31
Boston Bruins: C
Not much here to evaluate. The Bruins lost a couple of depth players to free agency but are mostly returning the same team that was one game away from winning the Stanley cup. They might take a step back just because it is difficult to go through that postseason gauntlet two years in a row, but they are still going to be a contender. They just have not really added much this offseason.
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Buffalo Sabres: B
They paid a huge price to re-sign Jeff Skinner, but he seems to work really well with Jack Eichel. Marcus Johansson, Colin Miller and Jimmy Vesey are nice complementary additions to the core of Eichel, Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin. It was a good offseason and they should be a better team, but I am not sure they added enough to close the gap between them and the top teams in the Atlantic Division or the top wild-card teams in the Eastern Conference. 5 of 31
Calgary Flames: D
The Flames were outstanding a year ago, but a lot of things went right to help them climb to the top of the Western Conference standings. Will all of that happen again? Their big offseason moves were bringing in Cam Talbot to replace Mike Smith in net and trading James Neal for Milan Lucic. Hardly the type of moves that should excite fans and convince them that the team can take the next step this season. 6 of 31
Carolina Hurricanes: A
They will be without some important players from last year’s team (Justin Williams, Curtis McElhinney, and Micheal Ferland) but they did find some solid replacements in Erik Haula, Ryan Dzingel and James Reimer. They also added to an already stacked defense by signing Jake Gardiner to a four-year contract in early September. Their biggest offseason win, though, was the Montreal Canadiens signing Sebastian Aho to a restricted free agent offer sheet they were easily able to match, helping them avoid a summer of painful contract negotiations and getting their franchise player locked in on a team-friendly contract. 7 of 31
Chicago Blackhawks: B
The Blackhawks are banking heavily on their core still being good enough to win. Instead of making big changes and going for a rebuild, they worked to improve their defense with Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan and the addition of goaltender Robin Lehner. The Blackhawks were one of the worst defensive teams in the league a year ago and are hoping these additions can help them improve enough to complement their offense. 8 of 31
Colorado Avalanche: A
The Avalanche are beginning to emerge as a power in the Western Conference with their young core of superstars led by Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. They added to that this summer with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Nazem Kadri to bolster their forward depth. Combined with a young defense that will feature Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and eventually Bowen Byram (No. 4 overall pick this summer), they should be a Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future. 9 of 31
Columbus Blue Jackets: D
This is a tough one. Gustav Nyquist was a strong free agent addition, but this team was gutted in the offseason with Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene all moving on. They still have a strong core of young players, especially on defense with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, but goaltending is going to be a huge question mark. 10 of 31
Dallas Stars: B
The Stars were the most top-heavy team in the NHL last season and needed to do something to address the lack of depth. They hopefully did that with the additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. Their impact will ultimately depend on how much both players have left in their tanks in their late 30s, but they at least tried to address their biggest shortcoming from a year ago. 11 of 31
Detroit Red Wings: C
This is only so high because they managed to get Steve Yzerman to return to Detroit and oversee this rebuild. He is one of the league’s top general managers and should give Red Wings fans reason for long-term hope. In the short-term? This is almost the exact same team that has been one of the league’s worst for three years now. Yzerman has a full cupboard of draft picks and some intriguing young talent in the system, but the NHL roster is as weak as it has been in years. 12 of 31
Edmonton Oilers: D
Ken Holland has his hands full with this rebuild. The team made a couple of OK depth signings and took a chance on James Neal rebounding from a down year in Calgary (dumping Milan Lucic’s albatross contract in the process), but Edmonton needs a lot more than that. The roster around Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is as weak as it has been over the past two years and there is little reason to think the results on the ice are going to be any different. This looks like another wasted year of McDavid’s prime. 13 of 31
Florida Panthers: B
There are real questions about how long Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract will be a good value, but in the short term he satisfies Florida’s biggest need. This team is good enough to make the playoffs this season with competent goaltending, and Bobrovsky should be able to provide that. Along with a franchise goalie, the Panthers also lured Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville to Florida and made a couple of solid depth signings with Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman. With Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau back, anything short of the playoffs would be a disappointment. 14 of 31
Los Angeles Kings: F
Other than hiring Todd McLellan as head coach, the Kings did nothing to fix what was one of the NHL’s worst teams a year ago. They have been stale for more than four years now and have been badly in need of a rebuild. That process still has not started. They are banking heavily on bounce back years from Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, and while all three should be better than they were, improvements from them alone will not be enough to get them back in the playoffs. 15 of 31
Minnesota Wild: D
Mats Zuccarello is a decent enough signing, but he is another big-money player on the wrong side of 30, something the team already has too many of. The Wild also fired general manager Paul Fenton after just one miserable season, making the organization look like it is kind of directionless. Fenton was replaced by Bill Guerin. Guerin is obviously an unknown, but he is going to have a lot of work to do in cleaning up the mess Fenton left behind. 16 of 31
Montreal Canadiens: D
want to give them credit for being bold and signing Carolina’s Sebastian Aho to a restricted free agent offer sheet, but it was such a lame effort that was so easy for the Hurricanes to match that I can’t even give them credit for that. In fact, it makes me actually lower their grade. As if that wasn’t enough, they also made a run at free agent Jake Gardiner only to have him turn them down to sign with, you guessed it, Carolina. Their big addition was Ben Chiarot. Jesperi Kotkaniemi could be ready for a breakout season, but there might be some regression from Max Domi and Tomas Tatar. 17 of 31
Nashville Predators: C
Matt Duchene is a big addition and gives the Predators another top-line forward and hopefully someone who can help fix their awful power play. But to get him they had to dump P.K. Subban’s entire contract, which meant they received almost nothing for him. They have plenty of depth on defense, and they did need forward help. I just don’t know if they are a significantly better team today than they were before that sequence of transactions. 18 of 31
It’s fair to say the 2019 MLB season has been the year of the rookie. All around the league, first-year players have burst onto the scene to make immediate impacts, and in some cases have become instant stars. Just look at what some of these guys have done:
The Mets’ Pete Alonso currently leads the majors with 47 home runs.
Before he got hurt, San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. was hitting .317 with 22 homers and 53 RBI in only 84 games.
Houston’s Yordan Alvarez has crushed 22 long balls in only 240 at-bats.
Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hasn’t quite dominated the way he did in AAA, but he’s shown immense power and potential, and the show he put on at the Home Run Derby will be talked about for years.
Atlanta’s Mike Soroka is a legitimate NL Cy Young candidate.
The Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds is hitting .328 and could well win the batting title.
The list goes on and on. Keston Hiura, Christian Walker, Eloy Jimenez, Austin Riley, among others look like cornerstone everyday players in the big leagues.
This unprecedented wave of talented players making their debuts all around the same time got us thinking. Let’s take a look at 10 players who could make a similar rookie impact in 2020.
1. Luis Robert, OF, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox system has been strong for several years now, and while Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and the above-mentioned Jimenez have already thrived in the big leagues, Robert figures to join them in the near future. The native Cuban dominated three separate minor league levels in 2019, hitting .328 with 32 homers and 92 RBI while stealing 36 bases and adding 31 doubles and 11 triples. He was recently named the minor league Player of the Year by USA Today, and it’s a reasonable assumption that he’ll be patrolling center field at Guaranteed Rate Field very early next spring.
2. Gavin Lux, IF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Lux’s status on this list is a bit tenuous, as he was just promoted to the big leagues this week, and it’s likely going to be close whether or not he accumulates 130 at-bats and loses his 2020 rookie status. Provided he doesn’t, he should be the hands-down favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year next season. In the minor leagues this season the 21-year-old slashed an astounding .347/.421/.607 while crushing 26 homers and driving in 76 runs. He’s a natural shortstop who has played second in his early exposure in the big leagues, a position that may become his ultimate home given the presence of Corey Seager. Regardless at what side of the second base bag he lines up defensively, Lux can flat out hit, and it’s no surprise the Dodgers wanted to give him a look down the stretch to see if he can make a push for a postseason roster spot. 3. Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston Astros
Houston has been waiting for the talented left-handed slugger to go from dominant minor leaguer to dangerous middle-of-the-order bat in the big leagues, and it seems fair to assume that transition will finally occur next season. With AAA Round Rock in 2019, Tucker hit .266 with 34 homers and 97 RBI — the third consecutive minor league season he drove in over 90 runs. Perhaps even more impressive is the 30 stolen bases he racked up, as no matter what level you’re playing in, it’s incredibly difficult to produce 30/30 seasons. Tucker’s blend of power and speed have long made him desirable to other teams in trade discussions, but the Astros have consistently hung up the phone before talks could get off the ground. His organization’s belief in him hasn’t been deterred, however, and it’s time for the 22-year-old to reward its patience.
4. Carter Kieboom, IF, Washington Nationals
The Nationals took Kieboom in the first round out of high school three years ago, and he’s done nothing but shoot through their system since. In 412 at-bats in AAA this year, the young infielder hit an impressive .303 with 16 homers and 79 RBI while also tallying 24 doubles and 203 total bases. Injuries necessitated a brief big league promotion in late April, and while he did hit his first two big league homers during that 39 at-bat stint, Washington shipped him back to Fresno when it got some veterans back. Next season, however, the Nats figure to have an opening at second base, as Brian Dozier signed only a one-year free agent pact last winter, and his performance has not warranted Washington doubling down, especially given the presence of Kieboom, who conceivably will team with shortstop Trea Turner to form this team’s long-term double play combination.
5. Casey Mize, SP, Detroit Tigers
Mountcastle is far from a perfect prospect, but his power potential is simply hard to ignore. In a little over 500 at-bats for Baltimore’s AAA affiliate in Norfolk, the 22-year-old hit .312 with 25 long balls and 35 doubles. His .527 SLG percentage finished sixth in the International League, and it’s easy to see why the Orioles are high on his bat. That said, Mountcastle does have things to work on. For starters, he doesn’t really have a defensive position. He played third base in 2018 and predominantly first this season while also mixing in some work in left field. A future as a big league DH could very well be in the cards. Plate discipline is also of some concern as the big right-handed slugger walked only 24 times all year, making his .344 OBP simply remarkable. All told, while Mountcastle is raw, the O’s are in no position to not take a flier, and if he gets consistent at-bats in 2020 it may just become too difficult to get him out of the line-up.
8. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
The son of longtime major league third baseman Charlie Hayes, Ke’Bryan has blossomed into quite the hot corner prospect. In 110 games in AAA this season the Pittsburgh’s first-round pick from back in 2015 hit .261 with 10 homers and 55 RBI, but those numbers only tell some of the story. His 31 doubles, 13 steals and renowned defense at an important position help paint the picture of a solid player who can do just about everything on a baseball diamond. The Bucs have started Colin Moran or Jung-Ho Kang most nights at third base this season, and while Kang is no longer in Pittsburgh, Moran is not someone who should block the team’s best position player prospect. Hayes doesn’t profile as a can’t-miss star, but he should be an above-average everyday third baseman for a long time, potentially beginning as soon as next opening day.
9. Justin Dunn, SP, Seattle Mariners
Dunn came to Seattle in the much-discussed winter trade with the Mets that netted the Mariners outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic, and while that alone would seem to make the deal a heist for the M’s, the righty has the potential to make this one of the most one-sided trades of all time. In 25 starts in AA in ’19, the Boston College product worked to a strong 3.55 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP while punching out 158 hitters in 131.1 innings and limiting the opposition to a .236 batting average. Scouts don’t look at Dunn as a future big league ace or even a No. 2, but a strong showing in spring training would put him in discussion for a rotation spot, and it’s certainly feasible he could become a key cog in Seattle’s starting five sometime in 2020.
10. Nate Pearson, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto is a team to buy stock in, as with youngsters Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio already contributing to the parent club, the organization’s farm system has more talent coming. Pearson paces that group. In 25 minor league starts this season the right-hander posted a 2.30 ERA in 101.2 innings while delivering an 0.89 WHIP and a .176 batting average against. He struck out well over a batter/frame while issuing only 27 free passes all season. And on a team with little to be excited about on the mound, particularly after Marcus Stroman was traded for New York, Pearson is quickly going to become a name to know among baseball fans in Canada.
Yardbarker NFL writers Michael Tunison and Chris Mueller address some of the hottest issues in the league. This week’s topic: Which quarterbacks shined brightest and tumbled farthest in Week 1?
Mueller: Week 1 in the NFL, as you may have heard, is the time for snap judgments, many of which end up being wrong. Still, it was hard not to be impressed by several quarterbacking performances and underwhelmed, to say the least, by others. The goal, of course, is to figure which efforts are a harbinger of things to come and which are blips on the radar.
First, the good. I was skeptical about Baltimore’s newfangled offense, both in terms of what form it would take, and whether or not Lamar Jackson could stay healthy enough and improve enough as a passer to make it work. And while the Dolphins are doing everything short of actively throwing games in an effort to tank, what Jackson (324 yards passing, five TDs) did to them in Week 1 was still stunning.
Jackson has always thrown a good deep ball, and the Ravens had things schemed up such that he had multiple opportunities to cut it loose, and he took full advantage. His 83-yard TD pass to Marquise Brown was beautifully arced, and even took into account a bump that Brown had to fight through well into his route. Far more impressive was his first touchdown hookup with Brown, a 47-yard play that saw him place the ball perfectly on a slant route, giving Brown a chance to catch the ball out ahead of his body and in stride, and go the distance.
If the pass had been thrown anywhere else, it might still have been a completion, but it wouldn’t have gone for a score. Again, it was only Miami; teams will adjust, and Jackson — who faces Arizona in Week 2 — won’t always have all day to throw, but if he keeps up a pace anything remotely close to this, Baltimore might successfully defend its AFC North title.
On the flip side, I’d be concerned if I were a Chicago Bears fan. The defense is great, but Mitchell Trubisky did nothing to impress in the 10-3 loss to Green Bay in Week 1. Pro Football Focus’ passing grade for Trubisky was 53.8 — a bad number, yet one that still seemed generous. He was terrible under pressure, terrible against the blitz, and showed no ability to make big plays. The Bears went 3-for-15 on third downs, and Trubisky — who faces a good Broncos defense on the road in Week 2 — consistently failed to fit the ball into tight windows.
Chicago’s chances of being a serious NFC title contender hinge on Trubisky making big strides, and for one game, he looked overmatched. His interception wasn’t an unlucky one, either. He stared down Allen Robinson, and made it easy for Adrian Amos to play center field and make the pick. The staredown was enough of a rookie mistake.
What’s just as bad is the fact that Trubisky, knowing he had two downs to get 10 yards, could have thrown underneath and taken a chunk, then had a more manageable do-or-die fourth down. He didn’t, and the game was functionally over after that. This is Trubisky’s third season — we need to see much more.
Tunison: Probably the most overlooked of the new head coaches going into 2019 was the Bengals’ Zac Taylor, who had come over from the Rams, for whom he served as quarterbacks coach in 2018. There are several reasons for why this might be — the Bengals are hardly the most popular franchise in the league, but also because even in Marvin Lewis’ protracted stretch of moderate success, there was an understanding that the team hit its ceiling. In part, that was due to good but not great coaching, but also good but not great quarterbacking.
In some ways, the Bengals are caught in the same purgatory a team like the Lions is: They have a middle-of-the-pack starting quarterback who is just good enough to keep his job forever, but never contend for a championship. Andy Dalton is in his ninth season. How did that happen? There have been a few times his status as starter has been threatened, but ultimately the Bengals decided to ride it out.
Clearly the idea of hiring a coach with a background helping QBs was a last-ditch effort to make an honest go of it with Dalton. In Week 1, though the team ultimately fell short in Seattle, he looked pretty good. He threw for two scores and 418 yards. The main concern was a lack of protection, as he was sacked five times, including one on the final possession that resulted in a fumble that iced the game.
This was without the services of A.J. Green and left tackle Cordy Glenn. The Seahawks no longer have the Legion of Boom, but still on the road, given the circumstances, this was about as encouraging as it could be for Dalton, save for perhaps also coming away with a victory.
On the flip side, there’s Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense. They dumped Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator and brought back Dirk Koetter, whom the Falcons had success before he had an unremarkable stint as the Bucs head coach. With a supposed return to offensive competence, the Falcons responded with 12 points in Week 1 against Minnesota, and Matt Ryan had his first multiple-interception game since December 2017.
Atlanta stunk up the joint in the first half, trailing 21-0 at the break. This is a team with immense talent on offense, one of the best receiving tandems in the league, and a quarterback who falls just outside the accepted group of elites. Ryan had a chance to possibly get Atlanta into the game early in the second half, only to throw a red- zone interception on the first possession of the third quarter.
On the second-down play, it was hard to tell whether Ryan was trying to throw it out of the back of the end zone and live for third down or make a sincere attempt to fit one in. Either way the result was essentially a game-ending blunder. Ryan is obviously secure for the foreseeable future, but there’s only so much blame that can be pinned on coordinators for the failure of what should be a dynamic offense.
Mueller: What’s most interesting to me about all of the quarterback-centric stories lately is how many of them seem to involve the play-caller as a co-star. Maybe it’s just my memory failing me, but it feels like the fascination with hotshot offensive coordinators or head coaches is a recent trend. Sure, there was Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense, and Air Coryell further back, but aside from Norv Turner and maybe Mike Shanahan, it never felt like the guys calling the plays in the ’90s and early-2000s had household-name status.
With Taylor in Cincy, you almost get the sense that he’ll get more credit than Dalton, because there is a perception that Dalton is already known, and any growth will be Taylor’s doing. Same thing in Arizona, where it’s Kyler and Kliff, not just Kyler. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I don’t want to sound like I’m bemoaning it, either. Feels like a position long described as the most important in all of sports is finally getting the kind of treatment commensurate with such a designation. If you’re trying to find a franchise QB, might as well go all-in on trying to maximize his talents. If that means hiring as head coach a guy they’re comfortable with, like Freddie Kitchens for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, or surrounding them with players who complement what they do well, like Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, so be it. Better to risk spectacular failure than deal in half-measures.
Tunison: I think the playcaller as co-star trend began, as many recent coaching trends have, with Rams head Sean McVay. He came to Los Angeles having been hailed with guiding Kirk Cousins to respectability in Washington, where he was offensive coordinator, and the idea was that he could do the same with Jared Goff, who was already being discussed as a bust after a disastrous rookie campaign during the last year of Jeff Fisher’s regime. That was probably unfair given that it was just one abbreviated season, and Fisher had an impressive track record of destroying quarterbacks in pedestrian offenses.
Yet McVay has not only rescued Goff, he has gotten almost the entirety of the credit for his success. Part of that is because fans and media can point to the fact that McVay has been said to essentially read defenses for him and call plays up until the point that the coach can no longer communicate with the quarterback over the helmet mic before a play. That perception solidified with last season’s Super Bowl loss, when the Patriots developed a strategy to call a second defensive play after Goff could no longer talk with McVay pre-snap. We all saw how muddled the Rams’ offense was in that game.
Some of that criticism seems valid and yet also somewhat of an oversimplification. Goff, after all, still has to make the throws, and he’s not going to the first read on every play, so no matter how savvy the guidance is from McVay, he has to do at least some of it himself. Moreover, if this strategy were so simple and effective, why has it not been emulated league-wide yet? McVay is billed as a wunderkind, but I doubt his offensive acumen is that much more pronounced than a lot of other head coaches around the league.