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PFT’s Week 15 picks

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Three weeks remain, and I’ve gradually built the lead back to four games.

But MDS has a chance to trim the gap down to one, if he’s right and I’m wrong on the three games on which we disagree.

And yes, Raiders fans, after four weeks of picking your team to lose, getting the exact score of two games right, missing a third exacta by one point, and correctly predicting the Raiders’ point total in all four games, MDS is picking your team to win this week.

Our picks on all Week 15 games appear below.  (Then again, where the hell else would they be?)

For last week, I eked out the win, 11-5 to 10-6.  For the year, I’m 134-73-1, a 64.4 percent accuracy rate.  MDS is 130-77-1, which keeps him at 62.5 percent.

Bengals at Eagles

MDS’s take: I’d been saying for weeks that the Eagles have given up on the season and wouldn’t win another game this year, and they proved me wrong with a spirited effort on Sunday, beating a Buccaneers team with playoff aspirations. So can they do that twice in a row? I don’t see it. Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins will lead a defense that will make life miserable for Nick Foles.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 24, Eagles 10.

Florio’s take:  The Eagles have now won more recently than the Phillies.  At least that can’t change until April.  Between now and then, the Eagles will change, plenty.

Florio’s pick:  Bengals 24, Eagles 17.

Giants at Falcons

MDS’s take: The Falcons are still the favorites to earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but I think the Giants are the better team. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Giants win in Atlanta in December and then do it again in January.

MDS’s pick: Giants 30, Falcons 20.

Florio’s take:  The Falcons need a win to prove they can win in the playoffs.  The Giants need a win to help ensure they’ll get to the playoffs.  This one feels like the NFC version of Texans-Patriots.

Florio’s pick:  Giants 31, Falcons 21.

Broncos at Ravens

MDS’s take: Baltimore’s decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron strikes me as a desperation move. The Ravens know they’re not as good as the three elite teams in the AFC, and the Broncos are going to demonstrate that on Sunday in Baltimore.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 24, Ravens 14.

Florio’s take:  The Ravens don’t match up well against Peyton Manning.  They never have.  Throw in a flat-tire offense that the Ravens are trying to change while the car is moving, and the late-season slide continues.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 28, Ravens 20.

Packers at Bears

MDS’s take: The Packers can clinch the NFC North with a win, and I think they’ll do just that. Lovie Smith has said from his first day as the Bears’ coach that his No. 1 goal is to beat Green Bay, and Smith’s seat will get even hotter when he fails to do that on Sunday at Soldier Field.

MDS’s pick: Packers 28, Bears 13.

Florio’s take:  If Jay Cutler doesn’t play, who’ll shove J’Marcus Webb when this one starts to go south?

Florio’s pick:  Packers 24, Bears 13.

Redskins at Browns

MDS’s take: The Redskins have been red hot lately, but the Browns are better than people give them credit for. Whether it’s Robert Griffin III or Kirk Cousins, the Redskins’ quarterback is going to have a tough time against Cleveland’s defense, and I like the Browns to win a close, low-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Browns 13, Redskins 10.

Florio’s take:  With or without RG3, the Redskins have found their groove and they’ll continue to push for the playoffs.  Still, this one could be the toughest challenge yet, notwithstanding wins over the Ravens, Giants, and Cowboys.

Florio’s pick:  Redskins 24, Browns 21.

Colts at Texans

MDS’s take: The Texans don’t have much time to lick their wounds after the epic beating they took in New England, but Houston is a more complete team than Indianapolis and should put the Colts away and clinch the AFC South.

MDS’s pick: Texans 24, Colts 17.

Florio’s take:  The Texans may have never won in Indy, but they’ve finally figured out how to beat Indy in Texas.  Besides, the Texans need the win to stay ahead of the Pats for the top seed — and the Colts for the division crown.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 28, Colts 17.

Jaguars at Dolphins

MDS’s take: Neither of these teams is particularly good, but the Dolphins at least look like they’re going in the right direction, while the Jaguars look like they need to be torn apart and rebuilt from the ground up.

MDS’s pick: Dolphins 20, Jaguars 7.

Florio’s take:  The Jags’ travel expenses will be low.  Their offensive output will be even lower.  And no one will notice.

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 20, Jaguars 10.

Buccaneers at Saints

MDS’s take: Drew Brees will turn in a big game against a depleted Buccaneers secondary, and the Saints will put together a solid win, too late for it to matter in the playoff race.

MDS’s pick: Saints 31, Buccaneers 21.

Florio’s take:  Not long ago, both of these teams had a real shot at the postseason.  Now?  Not.  Though the Bucs have held their own in the Bayou in recent years, the Saints will be buoyed by their bounty victory.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 27, Buccaneers 23.

Vikings at Rams

MDS’s take: Raise your hand if you actually predicted before the season that this Week 15 game would have playoff implications for both teams. I’m betting on both of these teams falling just short, but I’m impressed that Jeff Fisher and Leslie Frazier have their teams playing well into December. I see the Rams’ defense forcing Christian Ponder into three interceptions and the Rams ending the Vikings’ playoff hopes.

MDS’s pick: Rams 21, Vikings 16.

Florio’s take:  I broke from my vow to never pick the Vikings again this year after their Week 11 bye, and it turned out to be a smart move.  For a change.  So why not do it again?  The young Rams remain inconsistent, and they’re due to lay an egg like the one they popped out against the Jets last month.  Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson is making a run at history.  What better way to take a big chunk out of the gap between A.P. and E.D. (that nickname isn’t as cool as it used to be) than to do it against the team with which he set the record?

Florio’s pick:  Vikings 20, Rams 13.

Lions at Cardinals

MDS’s take: Neither team is playing particularly well, but at least the Lions are playing competitively. The Cardinals aren’t doing anything right.

MDS’s pick: Lions 20, Cardinals 6.

Florio’s take:  Something’s gotta give when a pair of crappy teams get together in Arizona.  The Lions are the lesser of two evils, thanks to the fact that they have the better of the two starting quarterbacks.  By far.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 31, Cardinals 17.

Seahawks at Bills

MDS’s take: Seattle catches a break here, as a bad road team is going not to Buffalo but to Toronto, where the pro-Bills crowd won’t be quite as raucous. The Seahawks strike me as a team peaking at the right time, and they’ll beat Buffalo handily.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 34, Bills 17.

Florio’s take:  The Seahawks are getting better on the road.  Especially when the road is more like the semi-neutral site that is Toronto.  The push continues for a playoff berth — and possibly the NFC West crown.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 33, Bills 20.

Panthers at Chargers

MDS’s take: Give credit to both of these teams: Late in a tough season, when it would be easy to mail it in, they’re both playing hard. So this should be a pretty good game, something you can’t often say about a December game when both teams have losing records. A big game from Philip Rivers will win it for the Chargers.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 31, Panthers 28.

Florio’s take:  Ron Rivera returns to San Diego, with inside information about the Chargers’ offense and a quarterback who seems to be finding his stride, again.  Sunday’s upset by San Diego over the Steelers was an aberration; the Panthers’ unexpected win over Atlanta wasn’t.

Florio’s pick:  Panthers 27, Chargers 20.

Steelers at Cowboys

MDS’s take: This might be the best game on a great NFL Sunday because both teams are desperate. Then again, the Steelers were desperate last week, too, and they laid an egg. Pittsburgh looks like it’s fading down the stretch.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 20, Steelers 13.

Florio’s take:  It’s a rematch of three prior Super Bowls, and each team’s ability to pursue another Super Bowl appearance rides on the outcome.  It’s hard to overlook that ugly home loss by the Steelers — and it’s even harder to ignore the sense that the Cowboys are finding a way to pull together after Saturday’s tragedy.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 27, Steelers 17.

Chiefs at Raiders

MDS’s take: This might be the worst game on a great NFL Sunday because both teams have nothing to play for other than possibly getting the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. I like the Raiders to win and the Chiefs to take another step toward the top pick.

MDS’s pick: Raiders 21, Chiefs 13.

Florio’s take:  It’s the latest renewal of a once-great rivalry, and it continues to disintegrate.  If the Raiders can win at Arrowhead, they can hold serve at home.

Florio’s pick:  Raiders 17, Chiefs 7.

49ers at Patriots

MDS’s take: In a potential Super Bowl preview on Sunday night, I think the Patriots will show they’re playing at another level from the rest of the league. Tom Brady will have a big game against a good 49ers defense, and Bill Belichick will have something up his sleeve for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 31, 49ers 17.

Florio’s take:  Another prime-time home game against a playoff-caliber team, another big win for a Patriots team that is poised to make another assault on a championship.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 34, 49ers 24.

Jets at Titans

MDS’s take: I don’t think the Jets are particularly good, but none of the teams they’re playing in December are particularly good, either. So I like the Jets to win this one, and probably win out to earn a surprising 9-7 record and even an outside shot at an AFC wild card berth.

MDS’s pick: Jets 14, Titans 10.

Florio’s take:  The Jets keep moving toward an unlikely playoff berth.  The Titans keep moving toward an inevitable house cleaning.  Mittens off for Bud Adams!

Florio’s pick:  Jets 14, Titans 10.

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Cardinals doing their homework on incoming quarterbacks

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The Cardinals know that the end is near for quarterback Carson Palmer. Because, as Cardinals G.M. Steve Keim said during a recent appearance on PFT Live, Palmer is willing to mentor a young quarterback, it makes sense to bring a young quarterback into the fold which Palmer is still playing.

It therefore also makes sense for the Cardinals to be taking a close look at the incoming crop of signal callers. Which, as explained by Kent Somers of azcentral.com, they are doing. They’ll be doing it with private workouts.

“I would stray away from Pro Days if I could,” Keim said, via Somers. “They’ve become so big that you don’t have the individual attention you need. You’re wasting some time.”

The Cardinals will be investing some private time in working out Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and presumably the rest of the quarterbacks at the top of the class.

“I think there are five or six really good arms in this draft,” coach Bruce Arians said, via Somers. “Whether there are five or six quarterbacks, that’s what we have to find out. I’m feeling more and more there are a couple of sleepers who, because of their offenses, didn’t show as much as they are capable of.”

In other words, folks are trying to make sure the perceived second or third cut of quarterbacks doesn’t include another Dak Prescott. Over the past decade or so, the Cardinals have done very well when acquiring established quarterbacks in the waning years of their careers (Palmer, Kurt Warner). They’ve struggled when drafting quarterbacks (Matt Leinart, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, Logan Thomas) or rolling the dice by trading for — and paying — and unproven guy (Kevin Kolb).

The stakes are high in 2017. The perennially downtrodden Cardinals have been competitive and relevant in recent years only when they’ve had Palmer and Warner. They need someone who will play as well as either guy, and stick around a lot longer.

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NFL to consider unlimited challenges, as long as they’re successful

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Under current NFL rules, a coach may challenge two calls per game, and if replay reviews prove him right on both of them, he gets a third challenge. Three is the limit.

If a proposal before the Competition Committee this week is approved, there will be no limit, and coaches can keep challenging as long as they’re successful.

Washington has proposed a rule that would permit an unlimited number of successful challenges. If the challenges are unsuccessful, the limit would still be two.

That rule proposal would seem to have a lot of headwind in an offseason in which the NFL has made faster-paced games a top priority. More challenges means more replay delays, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged that replay delays are a problem.

So it seems unlikely that the rule would be adopted. A team challenging four, five, six or more times a game could slow the game to a crawl, even if the coach is correct. Of course, the real issue is that officials shouldn’t be making enough mistakes that a coach could have four, five or six successful challenges in the first place.

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Talk in Buffalo that Doug Whaley could be on the way out

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Bills General Manager Doug Whaley appears to be on the hot seat, raising questions about who’s really calling the shots in Buffalo heading into the draft.

Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News writes that it seems only a matter of time before Whaley gets moved out. Sullivan suggests that owners Kim and Terry Pegula have decided to give more authority to new head coach Sean McDermott, and Whaley’s power is limited. Sullivan even suggests that it could be that the only reason Whaley hasn’t resigned is he wants the Pegulas to fire him so they’ll be forced to keep paying him until his contract expires.

The Bills have decided that McDermott, not Whaley, will address reporters at the official annual pre-draft media event. Typically the person who answers questions in that setting is the person who’s calling the shots, and the Bills choosing McDermott to talk to the media on the team’s behalf suggests that McDermott, not Whaley, is calling the shots.

A similar situation played out in Washington in February, when G.M. Scot McCloughan was kept away from the media. A month later, McCloughan was fired.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Whaley is the next NFL G.M. to lose his job.

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Roger Goodell sends ominous letter to Oakland mayor

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There are certain words and phrases a city would prefer not to hear from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the days before a critical relocation vote involving its local franchise.

Such language is now in the Oakland mayor’s possession.

Goodell reportedly sent a letter Friday to Mayor Libby Schaaf, a transmission Schaaf received after having sent the NFL her own letter in which she characterized the latest effort to keep the Raiders in Oakland as a “viable and responsible proposal.” Clearly, Goodell did not agree.

“Despite all of these efforts, ours and yours, we have not yet identified a viable solution,” Goodell said in the letter, which the East Bay Times reportedly obtained Saturday. “It is disappointing to me and our clubs to have come to that conclusion.”

Oakland and its partners submitted Friday a revised $1.3 billion development proposal that Goodell wrote is not “clear and specific, actionable in a reasonable time frame, and free of major contingencies,” according to East Bay Times.

A vote that could relocate the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas is expected as early as Monday at the NFL’s annual spring meeting in Phoenix. Twenty-four of the league’s 32 owners must vote in favor of the relocation for it to be approved.

It’d be the latest relocation for the league. On Jan. 12, the Chargers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles. The Rams moved from St. Louis to L.A. last year.

Goodell’s full letter has not been published in its entirety at this time, but its largest excerpt reads as follows, per the East Bay Times:

“We have been prepared for nearly two years to work on finding a solution based on access to land at a certain cost, without constraints on the location of the stadium or timing of construction, and clarity on the overall development,” Goodell wrote.

“However, at this date, there remains no certainty regarding how the site will be fully developed, or the specific and contractually-defined nature of the participation by Fortress or other parties. In addition, the long-term nature of the commitment to the A’s remains a significant complication and the resolution of that issue remains unknown.”

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Martellus Bennett pledges to donate jersey sales profit

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The Packers’ official online team store is full of jersey options for potential buyers, its stock including Aaron Rodgers’ top-selling No. 12, Jordy Nelson’s No. 87, Randall Cobb’s 18 and Clay Matthews’ 52.

Martellus Bennett’s jersey is not yet available.

There is added reason for that soon to change.

The new Packers tight end announced Saturday an incentive for fans interested in wearing his No. 80. He pledged on social media not to pocket a cent off whatever commission he’ll receive from jersey sales in 2017, allocating his profit instead to “after school programs that I’m working to put together.”

He added that his older brother, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, inspired him.

Michael pledged this month to donate all endorsement money earned in 2017 “to help rebuild minority communities through s.t.e.a.m programs, as well as initiatives that directly affect women of color in hopes that we can create more opportunities for our youth and build a brighter future.” He also committed 50 percent of his jersey profit to fund inner-city garden projects.

Fans generally have to be mindful when investing in a player jersey.

As a hypothetical, former Packers running back Eddie Lacy’s jersey was $99.95 to begin the year. After his contract expired on March 9, it’s down to $69.97. A player’s roster longevity is often directly correlated to the jersey’s value.

Martellus does not necessarily shine in that category. He is 30. As part of a three-year contract he signed this month, the Packers can avoid paying him a $2 million roster bonus if he’s released before the start of the 2018 league year. In 2019, he is due a $5.65 million salary.

But the factors to purchase his or his brother’s jersey now extend beyond that.

They’ve turned profit into philanthropy.

Notably, the brothers are neither the first nor surely last NFL players to make such commitments. Free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for example, announced he would donate all jersey profits in 2016 amid a surge in sales.

“The only way I can repay you for the support is to return the favor by donating all the proceeds I receive from my jersey sales back into the communities!” Kaepernick said on Instagram. “I believe in the people, and WE can be the change!”

Others around the league, including Chargers safety Darrell Stuckey, have donated game checks to specific causes.

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Eagles withdraw four of their five rule change proposals

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The Eagles were among the most active teams at proposing rules changes to be voted on at the upcoming league meeting, but now they’re pulling back most of their proposals.

According to CSNPhilly.com, the Eagles have withdrawn four of the five changes they had proposed.

The only rule change the Eagles aren’t withdrawing is the rule against players leaping over the line to block field goals or extra points. That idea has broad support and is expected to pass.

The proposals the Eagles are withdrawing include a rule giving long snappers additional protection, a rule expanding the definition of “crown of the helmet,” a rule that would give coaches more opportunities to make instant replay challenges and a resolution to allow teams to use alternate color helmets.

The Eagles withdrawing those proposals doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t eventually be taken up: The league could still ultimately decide to adopt one or all of those proposals. But it does mean the Eagles won’t be pushing for a vote next week.

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Bengals release LB Rey Maualuga

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The Bengals are the only NFL team Rey Maualuga has known.

That is about to change.

Cincinnati announced Saturday it has parted with its long-time linebacker. Maualuga, a second-round pick in 2009 out of USC, has spent his entire eight-year career with the club.

There were clues, however, there wouldn’t be a ninth.

The Bengals added former Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter a week ago. Maualuga, 30, is coming off a season in which he started a career-low six of 14 games played. In all, he started 104 of 114 games for Cincinnati, racking up 580 tackles, four sacks, seven interceptions and six forced fumbles.

Maualuga also was entering the final season of a three-year contract. It featured a $3.15 million base salary and $300,000 workout bonus due in 2017.

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How can NFL reconcile loving Las Vegas and loathing betting lines?

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A mere four years ago, the NFL wanted nothing to do with staging any games in Las Vegas. Then, once Las Vegas emerged as a viable candidate to lure the Raiders from Oakland, the nation’s gambling capital suddenly became acceptable for at least 10 NFL games per year.

No one seems to be troubled (or even curious) by the about-face. Indeed, hardly anyone ever questions how and why it happened — especially since Commissioner Roger Goodell insists that the league can shift its attitude toward Las Vegas without shifting its attitude toward gambling.

“We’re obviously very sensitive to that, but we’re also going to evaluate the Raiders case on the relocation application in what’s in the overall best interests of the league,” Goodell told reporters in January. “But one thing we can’t ever do is compromise on the game. That’s one of the things we’ll do is to make sure the policies we’ve created, if we did in any way approve the Raiders, I don’t see us compromising on any of the policies.”

Compare that to this shrug of the shoulders from an unnamed AFC owner in comments made to Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com.

“From a gambling standpoint? That’s a joke to even say that’d be a problem,” the unnamed owner told Breer. “That was an issue decades ago. Now? Sports gambling is going to be legal. We might as well embrace it and become part of the solution, rather than fight it. It’s in everyone’s best interests for it to be above-board.”

And so it could be that, just as abruptly as the league pulled a 180 on Vegas, the league may abruptly flip its flop on gambling. Which could make it much harder for the league to continue to sue each and every state that tries to adopt betting on sports.

“We oppose further state-operated gambling on individual NFL games because it presents a threat to the integrity of those games and to the long-term relationship between the NFL and its fans,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in 2009, as the NFL fought to keep sports betting out of Delaware. “If you make it easier for people to gamble then more people will. This would increase the chances for people to question the integrity of the game. Those people who are upset will question whether an erroneous officiating call or dropped pass late in the game resulted from an honest mistake or an intentional act by a corrupt player or official.”

Those people who are upset will question whether an erroneous officiating call or dropped pass late in the game resulted from an honest mistake or an intentional act by a corrupt player or official.

The owners who will convene in Arizona this weekend should consider that quote and ask themselves that question, especially with more than 50 players eventually living in a place where gambling will be everywhere they go.

While putting a team in a place where gambling is legal is technically different than embracing gambling, “Las Vegas” and “gambling” are too synonymous to permit the average perception-is-reality fan to engage in the mental gymnastics necessary to tell the difference between the two. Which precisely why, as recently as 2013, the league shunned Vegas.

Even without the quote from the unnamed AFC owner, it was going to be very hard to remove the stigma of gambling from the dropping of a franchise into Las Vegas. That quote will make it damn near impossible — especially as more and more similar quotes are harvested on- and off-the-record as reporters descend on Arizona to (hopefully) ask pointed questions about how the NFL plans to walk the tightrope between loving Las Vegas and loathing betting lines.

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Bengals re-sign Wallace Gilberry

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The Bengals re-signed running back and special teams stalwart Cedric Peerman this week and he’s not the only member of the 2016 roster returning after hitting free agency.

Defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry’s agents announced that Gilberry will be back with the team in 2017.

Gilberry first joined the Bengals in 2012 and played in Cincinnati through the 2015 season before heading to the Lions as a free agent last year. He played four games for Detroit before going on injured reserve and then landed back with the Bengals in November after the Lions released him.

Gilberry had 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks in five games for the Bengals last year and he had 17.5 sacks during his first stint with the team. That production as a pass rusher should have him back as a reserve behind starting defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.

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Jonathan Stewart: “Open arms” to Panthers drafting a running back

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The Panthers and running back Jonathan Stewart agreed to a one-year contract extension this week, but that didn’t do much to quiet the notion that the Panthers will be adding a running back in the draft this year.

Stewart is 30 and entering his 10th season with the team, so the team needs to think about a future without Stewart on top of the need to have a complementary back to help the team put together the kind of running game that coach Ron Rivera felt was lacking last season. Given those realities, it wouldn’t matter much if Stewart was opposed to the team moving in that direction but the veteran is on board with a youthful infusion to the backfield.

“I mean, it’s a good thing,” Stewart said, via the team’s website. “You always want fresh legs. Fresh legs mean a lot, especially in the fourth quarter. Having somebody potentially come in here … there are a lot of good running backs in this draft class, a lot of talent. Definitely open arms to get somebody in here that wants to win and understands that. We’re better as a fist than we are as an open hand.”

Running back isn’t the only area that Carolina is expected to address at some point in the draft. Stewart pointed out that “the main thing we have to do better is protect” quarterback Cam Newton. A better running game would help accomplish that and boosting the performance on the offensive line should remain a priority for the team heading into the 2017 season.

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Maccagnan won’t rule out drafting another quarterback

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The Jets won’t rule in Josh McCown as the team’s next starting quarterback, and they won’t rule out adding another rookie.

A year after spending a second-round pick on a quarterback who wore the team’s uniform during a regular-season game last year as many times as I did, G.M. Mike Maccagnan said Friday that the team could “potentially”draft another one. Maccagnan added that doing so wouldn’t mean they erred in drafting Christian Hackenberg a year ago.

“I don’t think taking a player at one position is a referendum on another player,” Maccagnan said, via Ralph Vacchiano of SNY.com. “I think the goal is to put together [the] best roster you can. Of course quarterback is a very, very important position in this process. But I wouldn’t necessarily view it as a referendum.”

It’s smart for Maccagnan to keep his options open. All teams are listening to everything every coach or G.M. is saying. If Maccagnan narrows his draft focus before the draft begins, it’s harder to get the guys he wants.

“Our plan is to basically find the best group of quarterbacks we can,” Maccagnan said. “We’ve obviously made a move in pro free agency. There’s still the college draft. All options are on the table at the quarterback position with us going forward.”

That’s the way it should be. For a team that hasn’t had a true franchise quarterback since the only time the franchise won a Super Bowl, the search for the next one should continue until the next one finally is found. Whenever that may be.

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Dave Gettleman: Moving up eight spots in Kony Ealy trade is “gold”

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The Panthers traded defensive end Kony Ealy to the Patriots this offseason in a deal that wound up bumping them up eight spots in the draft order as they added a third-round pick to get a second-round pick back from New England.

For some, moving up eight spots in the draft may not seem like a big return for a player drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft. As you’d probably guess from the fact that the Panthers made the trade, their General Manager Dave Gettleman is not in that camp.

“It’s a heavy draft and it was an opportunity for us to move up,” Gettleman said, via the Charlotte Observer. “To you guys, eight spots doesn’t seem like much. But to me it’s gold. … We just wanted to move up and get another second-round pick. I think it gives us more flexibility.”

Ealy seemed like a breakout candidate coming off three sacks, an interception and forced fumble in Super Bowl 50, but the 2016 season didn’t play out that way as Ealy’s production remained inconsistent. He became expendable when the Panthers re-signed several other defensive ends and brought Julius Peppers back, which led to Gettleman taking a chance to improve another position by dispatching Ealy.

Whether that’s likelier with the 64th overall pick than the 72nd is debatable, but Gettleman will quiet any quibbling by hitting big in April.

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Joe Thomas asks the key question on Kaepernick

Plenty of people have plenty of opinions about the ongoing unemployment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. One specific person’s opinion (more accurately, a question) caught my attention.

Browns tackle Joe Thomas had this to say in response to the item posted earlier today by MDS: “Most people can agree [Kaepernick’s] current unemployment is a combination of his anthem protest and his declining play, which is playing more into it?”

It’s a question raised earlier this week on PFT Live (the poll question appears below), and it gets to the heart of what’s happening with Kaepernick. If he were regarded as being as good as Tom Brady, Kaepernick already would be under contract; indeed, his 2014 contract with the 49ers never would have been restructured and he’d still be the starting quarterback there. (And Trent Baalke would still be the G.M. And Jim Tomsula or Chip Kelly would still be the head coach.) If Kaepernick were viewed as having no football abilities at all, the political aspects wouldn’t matter.

The problem seems to be that Kaepernick’s perceived skills currently fall into the gray area that prompts teams (owners, General Managers, coaches, whoever) to conclude that the baggage outweighs the bang. Otherwise, Kaepernick would have a job somewhere right now, either as the starting quarterback or at least in position to compete to be the starter.

The proof that he falls into the more-trouble-than-he’s-worth category comes from the manner in which Kaepernick was treated a year ago. Multiple teams were willing to trade for him, if he’d simply reduce the $12 million in fully-guaranteed base salary he was due to make in 2016. The Broncos, who steadfastly refuse to give up anything for Tony Romo now, were willing to trade for Kaepernick. The Browns reportedly were willing to cough up a third-round pick and to pay Kaepernick $7 million or $8 million for one year.

That interest came at a time when Kaepernick was recovering from not one nor two but three offseason surgeries. Surgeries that resulted in weight loss that kept him behind Blaine Gabbert for the first five games of the season.

So what has happened in the past year, other than Kaepernick embarking on a highly polarizing political position that landed his image on the cover of Time and his name on the lips of every NFL fan and millions of drive-by Super Bowl commercial watchers? Kaepernick started 11 games for a horrible team in a new offensive system, generating numbers that were far from horrible.

As a passer, Kaepernick completed nearly 60 percent of his passes, averaging 6.8 yards per attempt and throwing 16 touchdown passes against four interceptions. His passer rating was 90.7 — his highest such number since signing his long-term deal after the 2013 season.

As a runner, Kaepernick averaged 42.5 yards per game and 6.8 yards per attempt. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the leading rusher among quarterbacks in 2016, averaged 38.6 yards per game, in 15 starts.

Speaking of Taylor, his numbers for the year were comparable to Kaepernick’s. Completion percentage: 61.7. Average per attempt: 6.9 yards. Passer rating: 89.7. Touchdowns to interceptions: 17 to 6. Average per rush: 6.1 yards.

Taylor emerged from the season with a two-year, $30.5 million contract to remain with the Bills despite an overhaul to the coaching staff. The Bills, with former Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison now on board, presumably could have had Kaepernick for considerably less than that. And Dennison comes from one of the teams that was ready to trade for Kaepernick a year ago.

Which brings me back to the Browns. A year ago, they wanted him. Now, after a season with a two-win team in an offense new to him while recovering from three surgeries with numbers that compare to those generated by Tyrod Taylor (a guy in whom the Browns reportedly were interested), the Browns want nothing to do with Kaepernick.

There are two possible explanations for this. One, the Browns are being the Browns, again. Two, Browns ownership wants nothing to do with Kaepernick.

Given that the Browns wanted Kaepernick a year ago, and in light of how he performed a year ago, Door No. 2 is a fair response.

Beyond Cleveland, it’s fair to ask why other teams see nothing in a guy in whom multiple teams saw something a year ago. The Broncos don’t want him. The Jets don’t want him. The Texans apparently don’t want him. The Bills, who could have had him for less than Taylor, didn’t want him. The Bears, who are paying Mike Glennon $15 million per year (it’s still not clear whom they were bidding against), didn’t want him.

While Kaepernick may not currently be better than 20 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, he’s a better option for multiple teams than what they currently have. Which means that his ongoing unemployment absolutely, positively is more about politics than football.

So, Joe, there’s your answer. And if you hope to have a shot at finally getting to the postseason, maybe it’s time to start publicly pushing for Kaepernick as the alternative to Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, anyone else available via free agency, or any of the rookies in the 2017 draft.

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Davis Webb says “double-digit” teams told him he’s a first-rounder

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When discussing the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft, attention has largely been focused on North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes’ former backup in Lubbock says that he’s hearing there’s room for one more in that group. Davis Webb transferred to California for the 2016 season and put together a performance he says has impressed NFL scouts.

Webb held his pro day workout on Friday and said after it was over that he’s gotten a lot of positive feedback during his conversations with teams.

“I’ve talked to a lot of NFL people,” Webb said, via ESPN.com. “And double-digit teams have told me I’m a first-round guy. Every meeting I’ve had, they’ve said I’m one of the best quarterbacks on the board.”

That’s not where most members of the draft industry have pegged Webb coming off the board, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a projected second day pick wound up landing in the first round. Webb said he has 12-15 meetings and/or workouts scheduled with teams heading into the draft and the results of those will likely be a big factor in where he winds up coming off the board.

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Isaac Rochell drawing interest from Cowboys, Panthers

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A day after the Notre Dame Pro Day workout, former Irish defensive lineman Isaac Rochell paid a visit to PFT Live to discuss his pre-draft experiences.

As to the issue that always slides to the top of the stack in the weeks before the selection process, Rochell said he has attracted the most interest so far from the Cowboys and Panthers.

Dallas definitely needs defensive players, after a mass defection in free agency. A team captain as a senior, Rochell said he’s working on his pass rush as he gets ready for the next level. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com suggests that the best fit for Rochell could be defensive end in a 3-4 system — and that he could become a starter in the NFL if he can develop the right pass-rushing skills.

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