Monday Morning Digest: Flurry of Moves Boost Some Teams, While Others Flounder
Labor Day Weekend used to be a sleepy time for the NFL. But that was before the league scheduled the 90-to-53-man roster cutdown as a three-day frenzy only slightly more chaotic than a scene from The Purge.
When the smoke cleared, polarizing big-name players like Brock Osweiler and Sheldon Richardson found new homes, former superstars like Victor Cruz found themselves out of work, and undrafted dreamers like Younghoe Koo found themselves on rosters.
But unfinished business and big questions still loom, with a ruling on Ezekiel Elliott's suspension appeal due on Tuesday, Andrew Luck earning a last-second reprieve from the PUP list, and Odell Beckham just healthy enough to tease the possibility of a Week 1 return.
Couldn't keep up with the last-minute mayhem? Digest is here to break down all the moves and get you ready, finally, for some real NFL football.
From Elliott to Kaepernick, Questions Cloud Start of Season
Rosters are set. Games that matter are just hours away. Yet players, teams and the NFL still face some major unanswered questions on the eve of the 2017 season.
Here are five individuals who will spend this year in the spotlight. The answers to their questions will shape the NFL season in unpredictable and potentially far-reaching ways.
- Will his suspension be upheld? If not, what does the league do next? If it is, can the Cowboys survive a brutal early schedule (including the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and Packers) without him and remain in the Super Bowl conversation? Either way, how much legal rigamarole are we in store for?
- Sordid details of all kinds will keep coming to light as various interested parties—from Elliott and his accuser to the compulsive corner-cutters of the NFL to the flailing NFLPA lawyer—up and go on the offensive. Will anyone come away without looking like they just crawled from a sewer behind a toxic waste dump?
- When will he return from his sprained ankle? Video evidence showed he was able to dance on the ankle late last week, but he did not appear close to full boogie. If he is unavailable for the opener, can the Giants beat the Cowboys without him?
- From his start-of-camp contract requests to the stadium-tunnel passion plays he performs when things aren't going his way, Beckham has become the Giants' mood ring. How high does his touchdown-to-tantrum ratio have to be to keep the Giants in the Super Bowl conversation? And if he keeps finding the limelight for the wrong (or just strange) reasons, what impact will it have on the other combustible personalities in the locker room, or the buttoned-down ones who run the organization?
- Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward suddenly no longer fits the Broncos system or budget. But Brock Osweiler does. Does that make it sound like Elway has a well-conceived plan for the 2017 season?
- Does adding Osweiler to the Trevor Siemian-Paxton Lynch experience solve Elway's quarterback dilemma or just compound it?
- If Elway wasn't a famous, beloved Hall of Fame quarterback, would he receive more criticism for the fact that the Broncos roster has been quietly eroding since the Super Bowl? I think we all know the answer there.
- When will we see him play again? Will it be too late for the Colts or will it be too soon for Luck? Rushing him back to save pace would, after all, be par for the organization's course.
- Without Luck, are the Colts just the Jets of the Midwest? If they join the ranks of dedicated bottom-feeders, what will it do for competitive balance? After all, three or four teams "tanking," all of them in the AFC, will result in some wacky standings and is almost certain to impact playoff berths.
- How bad will some team's quarterback situation have to get before he is given the opportunity to pursue his career?
- When do we stop pretending that this is all about football? When Osweiler gets his seventh chance?
- If Kaepernick does get signed, what happens then? Rallies? Marches? Boycotts? Trump tweets? Tiki torches? America has more problems to sort out than the NFL does, and even a progressive-minded organization has reason to be a little skittish in the current climate. It would be a refreshing step in the right direction if some team at least showed the courage to admit as much.
From big names to big surprises, a look at the weekend's biggest releases...and the shrewd-to-shocking signings that followed.
Brock Osweiler (released by Browns, signed by Broncos)
The Texans gave up a second-round pick to get rid of him. The Browns would rather eat $16 million than keep him. The Broncos rejected him when he succeeded but welcomed him like the Prodigal Son when he failed. Osweiler isn't a quarterback. He's the Riddle of the Sphinx.
T.J. Ward (released by Broncos, signed by Buccaneers)
The Broncos suddenly downshifted into Moneyball mode on their star-studded defense, the unit that is supposed to lead them to the Super Bowl with Huey, Dewey and Louie at quarterback. The Buccaneers wisely swooped in and signed Ward (pictured), who can help them as an in-the-box enforcer at safety and could otherwise have landed with a division rival.
Victor Cruz (released by Bears)
Years of nagging injuries robbed him of what made him special. Watch video of him salsa dancing in the end zone in 2011 and it will make you feel 100 years old.
Chris Johnson (released by Cardinals)
Speaking of feeling 100 years old, the CJ2K season was eight years ago. Johnson did a remarkable job re-branding himself from overhyped one-hit wonder (who actually had several more productive years) to a stabilizing, veteran, committee back. He's at the end of the road, but it would be great to see him pick up the 463 rushing yards he needs to retire as CJ10K.
Matt Jones (released by Redskins, signed by Colts)
Talented fumbler. Coaches like Chuck Pagano think they can fix talented fumblers. It's one of many things they are wrong about.
Brian Schwenke (released by Colts)
The Colts fouled up their center situation almost as transcendentally as they fouled up their quarterback situation.
Alex Boone (released by Vikings)
The Vikings saved over $3 million in cap space by cutting a reliable, eighth-year guard. Let's hope replacement Nick Easton and a big wad of cap savings can protect Sam Bradford.
Cedric Thornton (released by the Cowboys)
The Cowboys signed Packers defensive tackle Brian Price off waivers as a cheaper alternative. The Cowboys have the Seahawks offensive line of defensive lines.
Mike Nugent, Cody Parkey and Josh Lambo were among the veteran kickers released in favor of cheaper alternatives. Some, like Nugent, are finished. Others, like Lambo, will get picked up by some team enduring a kicker slump, probably to bail out one of those cheaper alternatives.
Eric Winston and Wallace Gilberry
The Bengals released a pair of veteran insurance policies on the offensive and defensive line that they have been holding onto forever in true Bengals fashion. Either Winston or Gilberry could be back if the youngsters who supplanted them prove they aren't up to the task. Possibly by Week 2.
The frenzy to reduce rosters from 90 players to 53 in just three days led to some surprising trades. Here's a rundown of the weekend's most noteworthy deals.
Patriots trade QB Jacoby Brissett to Colts for WR Phillip Dorsett
If the Patriots want one of your receivers, it means he is better than you think he is. If they are offering you one of their Brady Buddies, it means that he is not as good as you think he is. But if you cram your head in the sand for the entire spring and summer while your franchise quarterback squeezes plush toys instead of throwing spirals, you take what you can get.
Jets trade DT Sheldon Richardson to the Seahawks for WR Jermaine Kearse and a conditional second-round pick
The Seahawks get the most out of high-maintenance defenders like Richardson (pictured), whereas the Jets allow them to let their freak flags fly, play them out of position for no apparent reason, then sour on them when they become incorrigible.
In return, the Jets give a second rick pick (woo-hoo!) to the front office that drafted Christian Hackenberg in the second round (d'oh!). Kearse is a great blocker for a wide receiver, which is exactly like being a blind date with a great personality.
Steelers trade WR Sammie Coates and spare change to the Browns for a sixth-round pick
Coates is a one-dimensional run far/jump high player, but the Browns need all the dimensions they can get. This is the first evidence that the Browns plan to play football on Sundays instead of standing in the middle of the field bragging about their cap space.
Patriots trade CB Justin Coleman to the Seahawks for Cassius Marsh
You know the stepdad who is sent to the grocery store to buy vegetables and comes home with 30 pounds of beef jerky? Seahawks general manager John Schneider is like that, but offensive linemen are the veggies and defenders are the jerky.
Seahawks trade CB Tramaine Brock to the Vikings for a seventh-round pick
In fairness, the Seahawks might eventually draft an offensive lineman with that seventh-round pick.
Steelers trade CB Ross Cockrell to the Giants for a conditional draft pick
The Giants are now just flat-out copying their defense and offensive line strategies from the Seahawks.
Broncos trade OL Ty Sambrailo to Falcons for a fifth-round pick
Another early-round pick vanishes into the void of ineffectiveness as Broncos fans huddle in the corner mumbling, "John Elway is a great talent evaluator. John Elway is a great talent evaluator. John Elway is a great talent evaluator..."
Chiefs trade DL David King to the Titans for a seventh-round pick
This is a tiny deal, but kudos to both teams for getting value out of the fourth preseason game. King played nearly the whole game for the Chiefs against the Titans, who clearly liked what they saw. King gets a job, the Titans get depth, the Chiefs get some token return on the investment.
Bills trade CB Kevon Seymour to Panthers for WR Kaelin Clay and change
Rando for rando, basically. But it's telling that on the eve of the season, the Bills' priorities remain getting rid of Doug Whaley's players, acquiring draft capital and fielding a competitive team, in that order.
Congratulations, You Made a Roster!
It's impossible to list all of the undrafted rookies and minicamp marvels who made good by surviving the cut this weekend. But here are some names most of us did not expect to see on the final 53-man rosters, including one big name we wrote off to an injury curse months ago.
Mike Williams, Chargers
The Chargers' first-round pick was taken off the PUP list, meaning he can practice with the team. The Chargers hope he can recover from his May back injury and be ready to contribute by midseason. Williams' progress is a pleasant surprise for a team accustomed to miserable injury news. Also a pleasant surprise: The Chargers are stacked with enough healthy receivers that there is no need to rush Williams back.
Corey Clement, Eagles
The Eagles opted to keep five running backs on the active roster, making room for both travel-sized collegiate superstar Donnell Pumphrey (who had a rough preseason) and undrafted Wisconsin rusher/South Jersey native Clement (who was the Eagles' best back at times, LeGarrette Blount included). Five running backs may seem like an extravagance, but remember that Darren Sproles is also a returner and slot receiver, a role Pumphrey is also being groomed to fill.
Keelan Cole, Jaguars
Cole, undrafted out of mighty Kentucky Wesleyan, caught a 97-yard touchdown against the Patriots in the first preseason game and also produced some impressive punt returns. Cole did drop a touchdown pass from Chad Henne against the Buccaneers, but if he was flawless, the Jaguars wouldn't know what to do with him.
Kendrick Bourne, 49ers
Bourne played second fiddle to Cooper Kupp at wide receiver for Eastern Michigan, ran a tortoise-like 4.68-second sprint at the combine and joined the 49ers late because he had to finish his coursework. That he hustled his way to a roster spot over a veteran the team spent real free-agent cash on (Jeremy Kerley) speaks volumes about the 49ers' ability to put competition over pedigree while rebuilding the roster.
Austin Carr, Saints; Kasen Williams, Browns
Carr was a preseason standout at wide receiver for the Patriots, just as Williams was for the Seahawks—two difficult rosters to crack. Both bounced back from Sunday cuts with new opportunities. Carr lands on a Saints team with an outstanding receiver-development track record. Williams was scooped up by the Browns, where the road from the waiver wire to the starting lineup is always short.
Younghoe Koo, Chargers
Koo, who was born in South Korea and did not learn to speak English until he was 12 years old, beat Josh Lambo for the Chargers' kicker job.
Shane Smith, Giants
Smith, an undrafted rookie and converted linebacker, will be the Giants' fullback this year. The Giants didn't even have a fullback last year. Smith's jobs will be to play special teams and chase down the pass-rushers whom the Giants' offensive line can't handle. He'll be a busy guy.
Not all of this weekend's news involved cuts or trades. Here are some other developing stories as the season approaches:
Aaron Donald holdout continues
A quick reset: Donald is chafing against the rookie compensation system that will make him one of the NFL's most underpaid players for the next two years, while the Rams are seeking a solution that doesn't disrupt that very compensation system, which pretty much forms the spine of current NFL cap management, especially for a rebuilding team full of youngsters.
It's a thorny situation, but coach Sean McVay said he is pursuing Donald like "he is chasing a girl in high school" (per Alden Gonzalez of ESPN). That would sound creepy if McVay (pictured) didn't look like he should be hanging up posters in his freshman dorm instead of trying to solve the NFL's wage disparity issues. Come to think of it...that makes it sound a little creepier.
Washington places Su'a Cravens on exempt/left-team list as the young defender contemplates retirement
The Redskins talked Su'a Cravens out of retirement, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Cravens, who complained of impaired vision after a Week 4 concussion last season and has also had knee problems, deserves the extra time to make his decision, and the Redskins were wise to give him some time and space to mull things over. Playing football reluctantly is usually a terrible idea for everyone involved.
T.J. McDonald signs four-year, $24 million contract with the Dolphins
McDonald will miss eight games with a substance-abuse suspension. The Dolphins clearly love the 26-year-old's potential as an impact player and must be satisfied that there will be no other off-field surprises.
Willie Snead suspended for three games for substance-abuse-policy violations
The Saints aren't as loaded on offense as they used to be. Michael Thomas is a budding superstar, but Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman and Coby Fleener aren't exactly Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham. The Saints face the Vikiongs, Patriots and Panthers without Snead. It could be a bumpy ride.
Tamba Hali will start the year on the PUP list with an undisclosed injury
The 34-year-old pass-rusher ripped the team in July for marginalizing him late in the season. Hali did not play in the preseason and was only slightly more visible than Andrew Luck during practices. The nature of his injury is unknown. This is the kind of mystery that becomes a season-swallowing scandal in New York. But Kansas City is a quiet market, so Andy Reid can simply distract questioners with Patrick Mahomes before rendering them comatose with Alex Smith.
Player Spotlight: Patrick Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes capped off an outstanding preseason with a sizzle-reel performance against the Titans that made him look like the second coming of Brett Favre.
Close inspection of Mahomes' effort against the Titans reveals some dangerous decisions and near-interceptions, neither of which make the rookie less Favre-like. Most Chiefs fans aren't clamoring for Mahomes to replace Alex Smith just yet. They are waiting for the first 14-play, 65-yard drive that ends in a field goal.
What It Means
- The Chiefs are handling their quarterback situation the way good organizations are supposed to, and no one knows how to deal with it. They picked the under-prepared, extreme-upside Mahomes a year before they needed him so he could learn behind a real NFL veteran. Staying on schedule and giving Mahomes a year on the bench only feels radical or overly cautious because teams never do it.
- Mahomes' let-'er-rip preseason speaks well of his potential. It was also an entertaining change of pace from the game plans full of screens and rollout tosses most quarterbacks executed so they could produce high completion rates at 3.5 yards per attempt. (Though Mahomes did throw some high-percentage stuff, too.) In college and the preseason, Mahomes wasn't afraid to throw late across his body into the middle of the field to make plays. If he starts too soon, he will learn why 99.9 percent of quarterbacks are rightfully afraid of those throws.
It's best for a rookie quarterback to leave 'em wanting more at the end of the preseason. The Chiefs will remain in their 9-11 win groove with Smith at the helm. Mahomes could propel them further, or he could throw 25 interceptions and get sacked 50 times (to go with some miracle touchdowns).
The Chiefs have the luxury of waiting for Mahomes' risk-reward ratio to improve a bit. The reward looks like it will be worth the wait.
Team Spotlight: Houston Texans
Hurricane Harvey forced the Texans to reset their priorities and back-burner football. J.J. Watt raised tens of millions of dollars for the relief effort and coordinated the delivery of supplies to flood victims. The Cowboys hosted a telethon instead of hosting the Texans in a preseason game, allowing Texans players to tend to their homes and families and join in relief efforts.
The Texans front office, meanwhile, made DeAndre Hopkins the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL while extending the contracts of safety Andre Hal, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and fullback Jay Prosch. The spending spree points to a post-Harvey future when the Texans can compete for the AFC South title—and perhaps more—with their playoff nucleus under contract for the long haul.
What It Means
- It's impossible—and a little trite—to gauge the on-field impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Texans. But this is a football feature and the Texans made football decisions this weekend, so we are talking football. Mostly.
- There's symbolic value in signing players like Hopkins to long-term contracts in the wake of tragedy. It makes good football sense to extend veterans before they reach the market, too. The Texans are making good use of money that would otherwise have been wasted on Brock Osweiler.
- Tom Savage is the right choice to start the season at quarterback with the Texans dealing with so much emotion and uncertainty. Rookie Deshaun Watson will be ready to go when a sense of normalcy returns.
- The Jaguars have offered to swap home and road dates, hosting the September 10 season-opener and visiting the Texans on December 17. The Texans and NFL should do everything possible to facilitate the switch, and not just to avoid the demand on Houston's resources. There's even football incentive for doing the right thing: The Texans will then host the lowly Jaguars in the heat of the playoff chase.
- Watt's charitable efforts represent what is best about football in America: the sport's ability to galvanize and rally a community, its power to transcend society's fractures and fissures, its power to bring hope and healing. Watching Watt announce increasingly stratospheric fundraising goals on the internet was one of the few things everyone could unequivocally cheer for in recent weeks.
Hurricane relief is measured in months and years, not days. The Houston region will be rebuilding long after the cameras leave. In the meantime, the Texans will play some football. With Watt and Hopkins leading the offense and defense, a veteran core under contract and an impressive rookie in the wings, it should be some pretty darn good football. The Texans may not be a Super Bowl team just yet. But they represent their city, state and nation very well.
Quick takes on quarterback developments to emerge from this weekend's action
- The Vikings placed Teddy Bridgewater (pictured) on the regular-season PUP list, meaning he cannot practice for the first six weeks of the season but could return after that. It's possible that Bridgewater could be game-ready by late in the season. Just something to think about if Sam Bradford once again leads the league in completion percentage and excuses for not really moving the offense with his nonstop stream of micro-passes.
- The Vikings also added Kyle Sloter to their practice squad. Sloter is a long-term size-speed-arm project who outplayed both Broncos quarterbacks at times in the preseason. Just someone for Broncos fans to remember fondly when Osweiler has three passes tipped at the line during a midseason start.
- The Redskins released Nate Sudfeld, exposing him to waivers before bringing him back to the practice squad. Just a reminder that the team has no real quarterback of the future while the market value for Kirk Cousins goes through the roof.
- The Panthers signed rookie Brad Kaaya off waivers from the Lions to be their third-stringer, which is the sort of thing the Redskins should have done to at least pretend they are serious about finding a quarterback alternative for the future.
- The Ravens lost pesky, fun-to-watch third-stringer Josh Woodrum to the Browns during waivers. Just something to think about if Joe Flacco gets hurt and the Ravens are reduced to watching Ryan Mallett get strip-sacked for the rest of the season.
- Geno Smith beat Josh Johnson for the Giants' backup job. Smith had a strong preseason and could can be an effective change-up to Eli Manning in the Giants' talent-laden offense if needed for a game or two. Smith's past only makes him a punchline if (a) you really think the Jets have any clue how to develop players, and (b) you ignore the fact that guys like Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett are still on rosters.
- The Cowboys released Kellen Moore, who appeared to be on permanent scholarship until Cooper Rush arrived and was even spunkier and pluckier at the ends of preseason games. Rush is a modest upgrade (Moore had the physical tools of a quality control assistant). It could be said that the Cowboys are in big trouble if they lose Dak Prescott, but every team with a good quarterback is in trouble if they lose him.
- Bold Andrew Luck prediction: He will win Comeback Player of the Year in 2018.
Fantasy Digest: Sorting out Rookie, Sleepers and Handcuffs at RB
Whether your fantasy league drafts at the last minute or you are still tweaking the depth chart, this final rundown of running back news will help you get the edge you need.
Big-name rookie running back rankings
1. Dalvin Cook is very good, and the other Vikings running backs have established track records for not mounting a threat. 2. Christian McCaffrey will be a PPR and all-purpose yardage champ no matter how hard Mike Shula tries to screw things up. 3. Joe Mixon will have opportunities leeched by Gio Bernard (makes sense) and Jeremy Hill (it's a Bengals thing). 4. Leonard Fournette is stuck on the Jaguars, where he will have Todd Gurley's second year before he gets to enjoy Todd Gurley's first year.
Big-name old running back rankings
1. Marshawn Lynch will earn both his fantasy and real-world living with short touchdowns. 2. LeGarrette Blount will get lost in the crowd for the Eagles. 3. Adrian Peterson will get squeezed for carries by Mark Ingram and impressive rookie Alvin Kamara. 4. Jamaal Charles will produce a bunch of five-catch, 35-yard stat lines for the Broncos' unseasoned-broth offense while he is healthy.
Popular LeSean McCoy handcuff Jonathan Williams was suddenly cut by the Bills on Sunday.
Long-time Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert may get the change-up (and some goal-line carries) in Buffalo, where they take recreating the magic of the 2015 Panthers pretty literally.
Tiny Tarik Cohen saw a lot of preseason action and has value as both a Jordan Howard insurance policy and possible all-purpose back.
Undrafted Matt Breida appears to be Carlos Hyde's primary backup for the Niners. Fourth-round pick Joe Williams had a case of the preseason fumbles.
Kerwynn Williams, owner of one of the most remarkable transaction histories a fourth-year player has ever assembled, is officially David Johnson's backup. But if you are looking for a handcuff with sleeper potential, select 230-pound bruiser Elijhaa Penny, who has more upside and goal-line potential.
Kareem Hunt is not the second coming of David Johnson, despite what you may be hearing from fantasy speculators and draftniks. But he is a capable all-purpose big back who will get a lot of opportunities behind a very good Chiefs line.
Aaron Jones outplayed fellow Packers rookies Jamaal Williams and Devante Mays, but all three made the roster. Jones is the most polished receiver of the trio, making him the most likely rookie to emerge as Ty Montgomery's change-up.
Terrell Watson beat fumble-tastic Knile Davis for the right to serve as Le'Veon Bell's backup and potential handcuff, with rookie James Conner still in the mix. Watson, who has bounced from practice squad to practice squad for years, is a heck of a north-south runner. But look for the Steelers to run Bell into the ground now that he is back in the fold.
Super Bowl Contenders Digest
Let's wrap the final Digest of the endless preseason by surveying the field, grouping the contenders (real and wannabe) by category, and getting real about each team's Super Bowl chances.
Favorite: New England Patriots
It's impossible to argue that the Patriots won't reach the Super Bowl, without either resorting to classical Greek rhetoric (All men are mortal. Tom Brady is a man. Therefore...) or shifting nervously in your seat like a drunk trying to bluff at poker.
Green Bay Packers
From signing a real-live free agent in March (Martellus Bennett) to adding Ahmad Brooks during this past week's sidewalk sale, this year's Packers look more aggressive than the stay-the-course playoff also-rans of the past.
The offense is already humming. The defense is searching for 11 healthy, non-suspended bodies. The fate of the Cowboys as Super Bowl contenders rests on Ezekiel Elliott's spin on the NFL's Wheel of Morality. But the Cowboys should cruise to the playoffs.
There's only one team that's not laying down and waiting for the Patriots to run over them. The Steelers traded for tight end Vance McDonald and signed Joe Haden this week, adding depth, experience and playmaking on both sides of the ball. None of it is enough to overcome the Patriots. But someone has to play them in the AFC championship game.
The Cardinals are lying in wait in a winnable division with a veteran quarterback, lots of weapons and a swarming defense. The Chiefs were buyers during last week's August Tanking Team Flea Market. But they still look like their one-and-done wild-card selves. The Chargers are just good enough to be pesky victims of circumstance (injuries, relocation, a schedule full of early East Coast games). The Titans were early-camp darlings but ended the preseason looking flat and listless.
All Offense, Not Enough Defense
The Falcons still have not quite sorted out their secondary. The Raiders don't have a secondary to sort out. The Saints defense has looked darn good in the preseason, but it takes more than a few exhibitions to knock them off this list after four years of losses by 45-32 and 41-38 final scores.
All Defense, Not Enough Offense
This is the Ravens' permanent address. The Broncos and Texans have been subletting since they started just defaulting to starting quarterbacks.
Everything but the Blocking
The Seahawks are still conducting their Worst Possible Offensive Line/Best Possible Rest of Roster experiment. The Giants will try to beat them at their own game this year. The Vikings, Panthers and Lions all tried to improve their offensive lines by overpaying for each other's linemen; the results (particularly in Minnesota) were evident in the preseason. The Bengals' preseason highlight was Kevin Huber executing Harlem Globetrotter moves just to get a punt off, which is hardly an endorsement of their rebuilt offensive-line depth chart.