Tuesday Morning Digest: Patriots, Packers and the Art of Postseason Peaking

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 27, 2016

Tuesday Morning Digest: Patriots, Packers and the Art of Postseason Peaking

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    Has Week 16 become the new Week 17?

    The NFL likes to hold off as much playoff drama as possible for a Week 17 grand finale. But the teams themselves had holiday plans. The Chiefs made rump roast of the Broncos' playoff hopes, the Texans cashed in their AFC South E-ZPass when Marcus Mariota got injured, the Colts did Colts things and the Dolphins...took care of their own business despite injuries? That can't be right. (Double-checks.) Yep, that happened too.

    Now the AFC playoffs are all set but the seedings, and the NFC is down to just three teams playing for two available slots. The Patriots (basically) and Cowboys are already on home-field advantage cruise control. But none of that means you can skip Week 17 with a New Year's Day hangover! Digest is here to tee up next week's biggest games and offer an early look at some playoff storylines with features like:

    • A Packers-Lions preview with guaranteed Nostradamus-like accuracy (you can interpret that a variety of ways).
    • The skinny on Norman-OBJ 2.0, or 3.0, or whatever.
    • What Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree must do to save the Derek Carr-less Raiders.
    • The secret to knowing when to rest starters and when to play for momentum in meaningless games.
    • Regifting opportunities for unwanted quarterbacks.

    And much, much more!

Top Story: The Art of the Peak

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    The Vikings were the lords of September. The Bills ruled early October. The Broncos still looked poised to defend their championship in mid-November. Even the Titans had a moment in December.

    None of those teams will appear in the playoffs. To reach the playoffs, you have to peak at the right time.

    The Packers have won five straight games. Their November troubles are a distant memory. The Steelers have won six straight. Do you even remember Ben Roethlisberger's injury or their four-game losing streak? The Falcons are 4-1 and have outscored their last five opponents 182-91. Their lost shootouts of the early season are long forgotten. After Kansas City's 33-10 blowout of the Broncos on Sunday night, no one is going to suggest that the Chiefs lack big-play capability anymore. 

    Peaking at the right time is not about magical "momentum" juju. It's about doing the things smart organizations and coaching staffs do to get better when other teams are fading:

    Adding Playmakers: The Chiefs are obviously a very different team when Tyreek Hill rushes seven times for 163 yards and two touchdowns in a two-week span. The Packers offense became much more dynamic when Ty Montgomery assumed a regular role. Taylor Gabriel's screen-and-whoa capability added an important new dimension to the Falcons offense.

    Developing on the Fly: The Falcons defense has improved gradually during the season, with young players like Vic Beasley, Ricardo Allen and Deion Jones playing better now than they did early in the year. The Falcons offense is also getting impressive Rando of the Week efforts from deep-bench players like Aldrick Robinson and Josh Perkins. The Steelers have performed a similar trick, with Artie Burns and Sean Davis improving in the secondary while Eli Rogers and others step up in spot duty on offense. In Green Bay, the Davante Adams wisecrack industry has completely dried up.

    Getting (and Staying) Healthy: The Packers were without Clay Matthews and had a rotating roster of injured defensive backs at midseason. Everyone is healthy now, and suddenly, Green Bay is a much better team. The Steelers' midseason fade coincided with Roethlisberger's injury and too-quick return. Luck is a huge factor when it comes to injuries, of course. But good organizations know how to muddle through an injury crisis without destroying the program.

    No team in NFL history has been better at peaking at the right time than the New England Patriots, of course. They approach September the way a marathoner approaches the first five miles or the Michael Jordan Bulls approached the start of the NBA season. They juggle linemen, allow a third-string quarterback to absorb a loss as a necessary evil and even shock the world by trading away starters. New contributors step right up when old ones are injured or jettisoned. The December Patriots are always more formidable than the early-season Patriots, and they only get scarier after New Year's.

    But clearly the Packers and Steelers know a little bit about this "peaking properly" business too. So does Andy Reid. And the young Falcons are proving to be quick studies. All of them are peaking just in time to play in January (if the Packers finish the job next week). We'll soon find out if anyone can keep peaking through February.

Digestible Nuggets

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    This week's nuggets offer some sage advice on how to handle meaningless Week 17 games.

    • Injuries are real. Fatigue is real. Momentum is magical fairy-tale storytelling nonsense, especially when talking about events that take place weeks apart, like football games (as opposed to, say, back-and-forth possessions in a college basketball game). Risking important starters to injury in the name of momentum is like driving without your seat belt because your parents did it without getting seriously injured and you hope to keep the streak going.
    • The two most important Cowboys players were in college last year. College players are accustomed to not playing for several weeks, then ramping back up for bowls or championship games. They are not used to the fatigue of a 16-game season or playing into late January and February. Exposing both of them to injury and exhaustion because you like the "rhythm" of your offense is old-school silliness. But you do you, Jason Garrett.
    • Tom Brady almost always plays in Week 16 games, though he has given way to Jimmy Garoppolo or Brian Hoyer at midgame in meaningless situations in years past. Brady and Bill Belichick have also earned platinum-level benefit of the doubt when it comes to deciding what's best for the Patriots. That said, the Dolphins still have something to play for (a potential trip to Houston instead of Pittsburgh, depending on seedings), so the Patriots should consider whether a slight patina of playoff rust is worth the risk of Week 17 exposure to a motivated Ndamukong Suh.
    • Week 17 is a good time to determine whether your team is still with the coach's program. There's a lot of murmuring around Mike Zimmer after the Vikings' tailspin and the secondary's decision to go "renegade electoral college" about Zimmer's game plan against the Packers. At least the Vikings had the excuse of an almost-epic injury plague. In Denver, John Elway should take the temperature of the Broncos locker room after what we have seen and heard in the last three weeks. Remember that Gary Kubiak's Texans teams went from the playoffs to rock bottom like a television thrown from a hotel window.
    • After the injuries to Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota, is there any point in Carson Wentz playing Week 17? Andrew Luck? Drew Brees? Perhaps Jared Goff needs the reps and evaluation time (though that may be a case of just piling up bad habits), but any other quarterback who is the established 2017 starter for an eliminated team is just risking injury by playing next week. Please don't say that teams owe it to their season-ticket holders to play the starters. Season-ticket holders know the risk when they pay full price to see a New Year's Day Bills-at-Jets game.
    • Speaking of the Jets, if Christian Hackenberg doesn’t get some Week 17 playing time, what faith should anyone have in general manager Mike Maccagnan's ability to find the next Jets quarterback?

Player Spotlight: Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, Wide Receivers, Raiders

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    What They Must Do

    Having catalyzed the 2016 rise of Derek Carr from "pretty good young quarterback" to "serious MVP candidate" with 162 combined receptions for 2,056 yards and 12 touchdowns, Crabtree and Cooper must keep the Raiders viable in the playoffs with Carr injured and Matt McGloin at quarterback.

       

    What It Means

    Statistically, Crabtree and Cooper may be the best one-two punch at wide receiver in the NFL; the Saints are the only other team whose top two wide receivers (Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas) each have over 75 catches and 900 yards. Crabtree and Cooper also complement each other's playing styles well, with the veteran Crabtree in a possession and red-zone role and Cooper as the big-play threat on both bombs and screen-and-run plays.

    But each has had some problems this season. Crabtree leads the NFL with 13 dropped passes, according to Pro Football Focus. He dropped a short, easy third-down pass in the flat against the Colts on Saturday. Like many great receivers with the dropsies, Crabtree is more likely to drop easy, wide-open passes than contested ones.

    Cooper, meanwhile, still disappears for stretches, as his six-catch, 57-yard, zero-touchdown two-week effort against the Chiefs and Chargers a few weeks ago illustrated. Tight coverage like the kind Casey Hayward of the Chargers applied appears to frustrate Cooper, who also doesn't always look like Captain Courageous when going for balls in traffic.

    Cooper gave the Raiders an encouraging sign late in the Colts game when he outleaped double coverage to make a game-ending 3rd-and-long reception from McGloin. McGloin hasn't seen meaningful action since the Raiders' top receivers were Rod Streater and Denarius Moore and the entire roster was terrible. With so many questionable quarterbacks in the AFC playoff brackets, McGloin could be good enough to win a game or two if Crabtree hauls in the easy ones and Cooper does a better job fighting for the hard ones.

       

    What's Next

    A win next week earns the Raiders a much-needed first-round bye. But Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib of the Broncos will be playing for their dignity, providing Crabtree, Cooper and McGloin with the perfect pre-playoff shakedown.

Game Preview: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions

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    What's At Stake

    A home playoff game for the winner, while the loser will be knocked out of the playoffs if Washington wins. 

    What to Expect

    The Packers defeated the Lions 34-27 in Week 3 before the "What's Wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" narrative (caused by defensive injuries and a complete lack of skill-position talent behind Jordy Nelson) fell upon the nation like a shroud. Rodgers threw four touchdowns and led the Packers to a 31-3 lead before Matthew Stafford led the Lions on a dress rehearsal for what would become their signature late-game comebacks, falling just short when their defense couldn't stop a late Packers clock-killing drive.

    The Lions soon mastered the art of winning close games in inexplicable ways. The first half of Monday night's Cowboys game illustrated the strangeness of the Lions' success. They started two rookies on the offensive line and former third-stringer Zach Zenner at running back yet somehow ran the ball quasi-effectively. With Darius Slay injured (his status for next week is unknown), a rogue's gallery of nickel and dime defenders started in the secondary, yet the defense forced a few stops against one of the league's toughest offenses.

    But the second half demonstrated the Lions are better suited for hanging tough and winning late against opponents like the Rams and Jaguars than matching the talent of the NFL's top contenders. Slay's absence left them with no one to cover Dez Bryant, and both the offensive and defensive lines wore down after early success.

    The Lions are a well-coached and well-quarterbacked team with .500-caliber talent. They are facing a Packers opponent with better talent at just about every position group whose midseason slump is becoming a distant memory. At this point, all the Lions have going for them is their edge in the standings and moxie. And the Packers have plenty of moxie.

    Bold Prediction

    Packers 31, Lions 17. It was a tremendous run, Lions.

Player Spotlight: The Seattle Sabotage Squad

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    Who They Are

    No, it's not a team of supervillains tasked with saving the world despite murky special effects and an incoherent script. It's the Seahawks offensive line, tasked with saving Russell Wilson despite a complete lack of talent and the murky, incoherent decisions of the coaching staff and front office. The Seahawks line has been terrible for two years but has deteriorated to the point where if the linemen turned around and starting chasing Wilson themselves, he would at least know not to get his hopes up.

       

    What They Must Do

    Block, occasionally.

    Wilson suffered six sacks each in losses to the Buccaneers and Cardinals. Poor line play contributed to Wilson's five-interception fiasco in the loss to the Packers; Pro Football Focus charged linemen George Fant, Mark Glowinski, Germain Ifedi and Bradley Sowell (center Justin Britt is the Will Smith character everyone likes) with 16 total hurries in that game. The Seahawks have averaged 2.4 and 2.9 yards per rush in the last two games, respectively, so run blocking is also a major problem.

       

    What It Means

    Last year, the Seahawks offensive line got worse and worse until it became a cosmic obstacle facing human achievement, like the black obelisk of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wilson met the challenge and evolved into an interplanetary space baby of a quarterback, capable of doing the seemingly impossible.

    But how can the nicked-up, merely mortal and visibly frustrated Wilson overcome sequences like this one from the second quarter of Saturday's Cardinals loss?

    • Wilson drives Seahawks 74 yards to the 1-yard line on a keeper and two pinpoint passes.
    • Thomas Rawls is stuffed for no gain.
    • Wilson is stuffed on a sneak for no gain, with his line driven back into his face.
    • A third-down rollout pass falls incomplete because bad blocking leaves Wilson no time or space to roll out.
    • Fourth-and-1, six offensive linemen, two tight ends and one fullback, and somehow a Cardinals defender shoots unblocked through the middle of the line to sack Wilson.

    The Seahawks offensive line makes Seattle the weakest division winner in the NFL right now. And no, I did not forget about the Houston Texans.

       

    What Happens Next

    The Seahawks will host at least one playoff game and can increase their chances of hosting two (or snatching a first-round bye if the Falcons lose next week) by beating the 49ers. The moment they leave Seattle in the postseason, the Seahawks will lose. Maybe they will finally stop populating their line with castoffs and B-listers next year.

Game Preview: New York Giants at Washington Redskins

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    What's At Stake

    The Redskins need a victory to make the playoffs. Two games in five days highlighted their predicament nicely, showcasing them at their worst (flat and mistake-prone against the Panthers on Monday night) and their best (rolling over the Bears 41-21 on Christmas Eve).

    The Giants have clinched a wild-card berth and are out to prove they have supplanted the Seahawks as the top all-defense, no-blocking contender in the NFC.

       

    What to Expect

    The big story this week will be Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Josh Norman II, or III if you start the count when Norman was in Carolina last season. The Week 3 Norman-OBJ tussle lived up to the (considerable) hype, with Beckham catching seven passes for 121 yards while Norman recorded two passes defensed, nearly intercepted a pass and helped Washington engineer a 29-27 win. Beckham also started his Kermit-and-Piggy-esque troubled romance with the kicking net during that game. The shippers now have him involved with the wall of the MetLife Stadium tunnel, who is much less forgiving.

    With all eyes on Norman and OBJ, Washington cannot afford a repeat of last Monday night, when Ted Ginn Jr. got wide-open on over-the-hill safety Donte Whitner while Norman drifted back in zone coverage. The Redskins have looked dominant at times this season but remain one impact player, schematic adjustment or coaching concept away from true contention.

    That's not a great place to be with a potential nine-figure contract decision looming for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Washington's QB has spent two years building his reputation on the fault line between greatness and tantalizing frustration. A win against a Giants defense that frustrated the Cowboys and Lions in recent weeks would not only send Washington back to the postseason, but also go a long way toward justifying the contract drama that is sure to follow him through the offseason.

    Eli Manning has lived his life on the greatness-frustration borderlands, of course. Just when the Giants were looking like fashionable stealth contenders, he delivered a three-interception derailment Thursday night against the Eagles. The Giants defense can take care of itself if the offense doesn't negate its own explosive potential with turnovers, penalties and general wheel-spinning.

       

    Bold Prediction

    Redskins 24, Giants 20, with an emotional Beckham spectacle that makes Times Square on New Year's Eve look subdued by comparison.

Unsung Heroes of the Week: Matt Moore and the Dolphins Backups

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    What They Did

    Matt Moore has led Miami to three straight wins (starting with his late-game scoring drive in relief) with Ryan Tannehill injured, but he hasn't done it alone. The Dolphins have been without multiple opening-day starters such as center Mike Pouncey, safety Reshad Jones, linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins and others for weeks. They were also without starting cornerback Byron Maxwell on Saturday, but they still outplayed and outexecuted the Bills in Buffalo for a 34-31 overtime victory.

       

    What It Means 

    If you were told in August that Moore would be starting the final three games of the Dolphins' season, you would assume it meant the Dolphins would collapse and spend late December scouting college quarterbacks to draft with their top-10 pick. Tannehill was both incredibly average and durable for four full seasons; Moore attempted just 11 passes from 2013 through 2015.

    But Moore wasn't atrophying on the bench. He has done precisely what veteran journeyman quarterbacks like him are supposed to do but rarely do: keep his team competitive every week by making the throws he has to make and managing the situation.

    The Dolphins' situation is the other pleasant surprise. Kraig Urbik, the team's third center of the year, is playing well enough to keep the Jay Ajayi running game humming. A variety of substitutes have rotated through at safety, linebacker and the other offensive line positions. Not all of the replacements have been outstanding, but Miami wasn't the team giving up 200 rushing yards to one player or struggling to get 11 defenders on the field last Saturday. Adam Gase has done a great job coaching the Dolphins. The front office appears to have finally discovered the value of role players and bench players. And Moore has proved there is still some value to stashing an old quarterback on the bench.

       

    What Happens Next

    Next Sunday's Patriots game can only toggle the Dolphins between wild-card seedings. The real action is in the rehab center, where Tannehill prepares for a potential ride to the playoff rescue. Now, there's something you really never thought you would read.

Awards Digest

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    This week, we hand out some official Monday Morning Digest 2016 Season Awards.

       

    Offensive Line of the Year: Dallas Cowboys

    By the way, "Offensive Line of the Year" is an NFL Honors award now, with Ford as the official sponsor. Someone should get these guys a fleet of F-150s, but Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are still in the John Deere 4x4 tax bracket. Paging Tony Romo!

       

    Pass Rush of the Year: Denver Broncos

    Von Miller and friends receive a trophy engraved with "We Weren't the Problem."

       

    Run Defense of the Year: Los Angeles Rams

    Aaron Donald and the gang stuffed opposing ball-carriers for no gain or a loss on 30 percent of rushes through Week 15, according to Football Outsiders. Rams intrasquad practices must have consisted of the offense trying helplessly to escape the far corner of the practice field.

       

    Secondary of the Year: New York Giants

    Sorry, Broncos and Legion of Boom. Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins and the deep Giants secondary were making Prescott and Matthew Stafford look bad late in the season, while you guys were picking fights with reporters, your opponents' benches and your own offenses.

       

    Undrafted Rookie of the Year

    Redskins running back Rob Kelley enters Week 17 with 671 yards and six touchdowns.

       

    All-Purpose Special Teamer of the Year: Eric Weems, Falcons

    Weems returned kicks (23.0 yards per return) and punts (11.1) while recording nine special teams tackles and six assists, according to NFL GSIS. An all-purpose special teamer like Weems takes pressure off a pure speedster like Taylor Gabriel to contribute in the return game. The Falcons offense reaped the dividends this year.

       

    Executive of the Year: Reggie McKenzie, Raiders

    The definition of good management: building a 12-win roster while receiving complaints that you aren't spending enough money.

       

    Coordinator of the Year: Kyle Shanahan, Offense, Falcons

    Los Angeles realtors are already making cold calls.

       

    Position Coach of the Year: Carnell Lake, Secondary, Steelers

    Lake coached up rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis into capable starters, even though Burns was hurt for much of training camp and Davis had to bounce between cornerback and safety because of injuries.

       

    Mystery Touch Player of the Year: Dontari Poe

    From his Hungry Pig Right touchdown catch/run early in the season to Sunday's coal-in-the-Broncos'-stocking pull-up jump shot, Poe has added a dimension of pure goofiness to the often-plodding Chiefs attack. Just don't ask why Kansas City would waste a surprise trick play that could net it a touchdown in the playoffs when leading 27-10 after the two-minute warning. It's one of those Andy Reid clock-management mysteries.

Fantasy Digest: 2017 Sneak Preview

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    It's too late to talk about the fantasy playoffs and too early to talk about playoff fantasy. So let's take a sneak peek at the 2017 fantasy draft class.

       

    Running Backs Are Back

    No more drafting Antonio Brown first overall and carping about "committee backfields" next year. Running backs will take their rightful place atop next year's draft board. A likely 2017 fantasy top five: 1) Ezekiel Elliott, 2) David Johnson, 3) Le'Veon Bell, 4) Melvin Gordon, 5) DeMarco Murray. LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, Jordan Howard and (with a new head coach) Todd Gurley will also fly off boards in the first round.

       

    Rookie Running Backs Are Also Back

    Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and D'Onta Foreman lead a deep rookie running back class that should also get lots of early-round fantasy attention. Get ready to leap on any of these guys who lands on a good team with a bad running back situation. Like the Broncos.

      

    Sleepers and Keepers

    If you are in a keeper league, hold on to C.J. Prosise, who looked great before getting hurt in Seattle, and Kenneth Dixon, an all-purpose back who spent Christmas Day plowing through Steelers tackles. Tyler Boyd appears poised to become Andy Dalton's possession target for the Bengals. Quincy Enunwa will get lots of sleeper love if the Jets find a quarterback, but Robby Anderson (despite getting shut out in Saturday's humiliation by the Patriots) could become the pesky possession receiver who keeps you alive in points-per-reception leagues.

       

    Bad-Team Rebounders 

    The Jaguars and Rams have too much talent to be as bad as they were this season. The Browns have too good a coaching staff, too many draft picks and too much cap space to remain as talentless as they were this year. In addition to Gurley, monitor Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee in Jacksonville, the Rams receivers and Jared Goff in Los Angeles, Duke Johnson and Corey Coleman in Cleveland as well as any free agents or top rookies as potential 2017 fantasy breakout/comeback players.

    You'll notice the 49ers weren't mentioned among the quick-turnaround teams. That was purely intentional.

Unwanted Quarterback Return Policy

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    'Tis the week for returning unwanted gifts. Unfortunately, NFL teams cannot return unwanted or unneeded quarterbacks for salary-cap store credit. The best they can do is regift them or keep them around to clutter up the depth chart.

    Here's a rundown of some of the quarterbacks whose teams are carefully re-boxing them and pinning receipts to their jerseys. Few of them will wind up in their ideal situation in 2017.

    Matt Barkley

    Where He Should Go: Right back to his role as either a mediocre third-stringer or the most popular quarterback on the waiver wire.

    Where He Will Go: Into the "skilled veteran backup" pool, because teams will pay far more for a quarterback with 12 interceptions in six games than for one with zero interceptions in zero games, for some reason.

       

    Jay Cutler

    Where He Should Go: Cutler would be the ultimate punishment for the Bills if they decide to part ways with Tyrod Taylor. They just need to be upfront with head coaching candidates. Just so you know, we're already making nutty roster decisions that will sabotage you from the day you walk in the door.

    Where He Will Go: Dude has spent most of his career wearing a Future Jets Mistake T-shirt.

       

    Ryan Fitzpatrick

    Where He Should Go: To the media, where Fitzpatrick would shine as an intellectual-leaning bearded analyst for a forward-thinking outlet that tailors its content to millennial tastes. Wait, that sounds like my role at Bleacher Report. Abort! Abort!

    Where He Will Go: Fitzpatrick would make a great mentor to Jared Goff in Los Angeles. Seriously! 

       

    Jimmy Garoppolo

    Where He Should Go: Back to New England to bide his time comfortably as the Prince Charles of quarterbacks.

    Where He Will Go: The "Josh McDaniels Wants to Trade Second-Round Pick for Garoppolo" headlines and articles have already been written. We're just waiting to insert the proper team name.

      

    Mike Glennon

    Where He Should Go: Back to the depths of obscurity in which he dwelt before Adam Schefter's ESPN.com report that some teams see him as a potential eight-figure salaried starter.

    Where He Will Go: Back to the depths of obscurity because any coach or GM who tries to float Glennon as a franchise savior will get slapped silly by his owner with a rolled-up Brock Osweiler poster.

       

    Colin Kaepernick

    Where He Should Go: To Seattle as Russell Wilson's backup. His mobility and his playoff experience will help the Seahawks, and his political activism won't cause any mass boycotts in one of the nation's bluest regions.

    Where He Will Go: Somewhere where he will produce at least a 5-1 headline-to-highlight ratio. 

       

    Tony Romo

    Where He Should Go: Romo would be a great backup to Derek Carr with the Raiders, a team that needs an insurance-policy quarterback and actually has too much cap space for its own good.

    Where He Will Go: The siren song of Denver will prove too great, and John Elway will look like a genius when Paxton Lynch Prescotts the injured Romo in mid-September.

       

    Trevor Siemian

    Where He Should Go: Back to the bench, where his experience makes him an inexpensive, credible backup.

    Where He Will Go: Back to the bench, only to re-emerge in a few years as the second coming of Mike Glennon.

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