Tuesday Morning Digest: Welcome to Win-Now Mode in the NFL
If you ignored the NFL and spent your Labor Day weekend at the beach, in the mountains, at a Harry Potter movie marathon or under a rock, don't worry: The Digest team never leaves the office. We can catch you up on everything, including:
• The Khalil Mack trade and other deals that brought win-now urgency back to the NFL
• Feel-good stories from the final round of cuts
• Not-so-feel-good stories from the final round of cuts
• Last-gasp efforts to make NFL rosters, some of which succeeded
• Preseason trends and data you can actually use
• Previews of the best, most exciting and most troubling units across the NFL
And much, much more!
Bears, Saints and Rams Bring Urgency Back to the NFL
The Bears signaled that they are in win-now mode when they liberated Khalil Mack from the Raiders in exchange for a pair of first-round picks.
Win-now mode? The Bears? What a preposterous plan. Matt Nagy is a first-year coach. Mitchell Trubisky isn't ready. The Bears should patiently build through the draft and wait for their opportunity after Aaron Rodgers gets old and the Vikings' veteran nucleus crumbles in (checks calendars and salary cap spreadsheets) 2021 or so...
OK, on second thought, grabbing one of the NFL's best defenders and hoping Trubisky makes a Carson Wentz leap in his second season may make a lot more sense for the Bears than biding their time indefinitely.
The Bears' sense of urgency isn't universally popular these days. Some teams (and many fans) prefer the self-denial and fad-diet trappings of faux Moneyball: Sure, the roster stinks, but check out our cap savings and draft capital! Root for our spreadsheets on Sundays! We'll have the last laugh when we win the final Super Bowl before the sun goes supernova!
Yes, two first-round picks are a premium price for one non-quarterback, even with a second-rounder coming back the Bears' way (among other, later picks involved in the deal). But the Bears added an All-Pro to their core. They're a danger to even the NFC's elite this year. The present matters.
The Bears aren't the only team to see this. Also bringing a win-now philosophy back to the NFL:
• The Saints acquired Teddy Bridgewater from the Jets in exchange for a third-round pick late last week. Bridgewater may be Drew Brees' heir apparent, but his one-year contract and the Saints' thorny cap situation mean there are no guarantees. The Saints are Super Bowl contenders who parted with a (use your Gollum voice here) precious mid-round pick for their version of Nick Foles. Because winning now matters.
• The Rams blew every cap dime they had on Aaron Donald's contract extension; they couldn't sign a rookie punter if they tried right now, and signing Donald meant deferring some mondo cap numbers to 2020 and 2021. The Rams have been assembling a Dream Team/Suicide Squad for months, of course, so they'll worry about 2020 if they survive that long. Donald gives them the scariest defense in the NFL right now, and right now matters.
Lots of other teams are in win-now mode, of course. The Packers aren't paying Aaron Rodgers to sell insurance. Doug Pederson was doing everything he could to leave the door open for naming Carson Wentz as the Eagles' opening night starter before the team finally conceded Monday that it would instead be Nick Foles. The Patriots have been urgent to win right away for nearly two decades, and it has worked out pretty well for them.
Win-now mode is scary, because it usually doesn't work. Of course, hanging the "rebuilding" shingle up is guaranteed to not work, which makes it a dangerously comfortable trap some teams fall into for years.
So welcome to win-now mode, Bears fans. No matter what happens, watching Mack will be more fun than waiting around for the 2020 draft.
Cutdown Weekend Digest
News and notes from a weekend full of surprises:
Cowboys release kicker Dan Bailey: At first glance, the Cowboys appear to be in decent cap shape for once: about $15 million left this year and $50 million next year, per OverTheCap.com. Now add a Khalil Mack-sized contract for Tank Lawrence to next year's figure. Then add an extension for Dak Prescott (you don't want him hitting free agency in 2020, do you?). Finally, the Cowboys have to pay an actual No. 1 receiver someday, whether that's Cole Beasley (a free agent next year) or, let's be real, someone better. Presto! That $50 million is gone, so the Cowboys need to save about $3 million by replacing one of the league's best kickers with a CFL guy.
Raiders waive Martavis Bryant, who is facing his third suspension in four years: The Raiders traded a third-round pick for a high-risk player and were surprised/disappointed when he exhibited high-risk player problems? That's...old school. Or something.
Panthers place left tackle Matt Kalil on injured reserve: More and more signs are pointing to the Panthers being bad this year.
Colts cut John Simon, Johnathan Hankins and other veteran defenders: Organization by procrastination made easy: First the new GM keeps a lame-duck coach for a year, then he hires a coach with a different scheme, so he must spend another year finding "system fits" to replace guys he acquired in the first year. It doesn't look great on the field or in the standings, but it's great for front-office job security.
Browns trade offensive lineman Shon Coleman to the 49ers for a seventh-round pick: High-round picks the Browns acquired in the Carson Wentz trade keep mysteriously turning into conditional late-round chump change. It's almost as if the Thanos Theory of Moneyball (Step 1: Make everything terrible in the name of acquiring resources. Step 2: Assume everything will sort itself out. Step 3: Be hailed as a savior 1,000 years in the future) doesn't actually work!
Bills release former Browns receiver Corey Coleman: The Bills will eat $2 million in guaranteed salary for their three-week rental of Coleman, a perennial fave of both Draft Twitter and Analytics Twitter who, incidentally, cannot play. If Sashi Brown, Jon Gruden and the Bills braintrust were locked in a bunker with a lifetime's supply of rations, they would trade each other can openers until they starved.
Making the Cut
Some surprising, exciting and inspiring long shots survived the final round of cuts this weekend and get to keep pursuing their NFL dreams. Here are some of Digest's favorites:
Josh Dobbs, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers: Dobbs' footwork and mechanics improved this offseason, so the Steelers waived longtime backup Landry Jones to make roster room for both Dobbs and rookie Mason Rudolph. Based on both preseason and camp observations, Dobbs is still likely to throw five touchdowns and five interceptions for every 10 pass attempts, but he's the closest thing the NFL has to an actual rocket scientist, so he can be trusted to MacGyver his way in to and out of predicaments.
Sharif Finch, edge rusher, Tennessee Titans: Finch's father died on July 30. He attended the funeral just days before his first preseason game, then he recorded a sack in that game, but an arm injury limited the undrafted rookie late in the preseason. With second-round pick Harold Landry injured, Finch should get some opportunities as a pass-rusher early in the season.
Poona Ford, defensive tackle, Seattle Seahawks: Ford was the Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He starred in Shrine Game and Senior Bowl practices but was not invited to the combine or drafted because the high-energy, 5'11" fireplug didn't fit the NFL mold. The Seahawks may still know a thing or two about how to use defenders who don't quite fit the mold.
Brett Maher, kicker, Dallas Cowboys: A 28-year-old kicker/punter who has bounced between NFL training camps and the CFL since 2013, Maher looked like little more than a camp leg for the Cowboys until the moment they released veteran Dan Bailey. Maher booted a 57-yard field goal in the fourth preseason game and has a 78.1 percent (including 9-of-13 from 50-plus yards) career conversion rate in Canada.
Jordan Mailata, tackle, Philadelphia Eagles: The massive Australian rugby star went from not really knowing how to crouch in a three-point stance at the start of rookie camp to playing in preseason games and outperforming veteran Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle. Mailata may remain in watch-and-learn mode early in the season, but the seventh-round pick suddenly has the inside track to someday replacing Jason Peters. Oh yeah: and he sings.
Efe Obada, defensive end, Carolina Panthers: Hat tip to Joe Person of The Athletic for sharing Obada's story. Obada was born in Nigeria, trafficked from the Netherlands to England as a child, was homeless for years and didn't start playing American football until age 22. He bounced around training camps for four years before finally making the Panthers roster. "All the suffering paid off," Obada told the Panthers website. "I want to make those people who believed in me proud." Efe, you've already made people who had never even heard of you until last week proud.
Last Chance Power Drive
The highways were jammed with broken heroes Thursday night. While most were just leaving for Labor Day weekend and avoiding the poisonously dull final preseason games at all costs, some were on the field taking one last shot at making an NFL roster. Here are some of the most heroic last-ditch efforts of the preseason. (Most, sadly, didn't amount to much.)
Paxton Lynch, quarterback, Denver Broncos
The numbers: 14-of-15 for 128 yards and two touchdowns. It was mostly flat passes and screens against Cardinals scrubs. It didn't erase Lynch's three preseasons as your sister's slacker boyfriend who claims he will start looking for a job next week. But Lynch's two touchdown passes, plus the gaudy stat line, were pretty enough to let him salvage a little dignity after a catastrophic preseason.
The result: John Elway waffled for a day before releasing Lynch on Sunday in favor of (yikes) Kevin Hogan. It takes a lot for Elway to admit a mistake, but Lynch gave him a lot over the years.
Danny Etling, quarterback, Patriots
The numbers: 18-of-32 for 157 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions, plus seven rushes for 113 yards and a touchdown. Etling sprayed most of his passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield, save for one deep strike to K.J. Maye. But he did run 86 yards for a read-option touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was part of a clever plan to disguise himself as a running back so Alex Guerrero didn't decide he's a threat to Tom Brady's immortality and cast a Ray of Enfeeblement spell on him.
The result: Etling gets to hide out on the Patriots practice squad for a year. If he plays his cards right, that can lead to years of future employment on Patriots farm teams in cities like Houston, Detroit and Nashville.
Keon Hatcher, receiver, Raiders
The numbers: Eight catches for 128 yards and three TDs. One of Hatcher's touchdowns came after he rolled over the defender attempting to tackle him and leapt to his feet before his knees could touch the ground. Hatcher went undrafted out of Arkansas last year after running a slow 40 at the combine but performed well throughout training camp.
The result: Hatcher made the roster, thanks to this effort and Martavis Bryant's release. One player's misfortune is another's opportunity: final cutdowns in a nutshell.
Byron Pringle, receiver, Chiefs
The numbers: Four catches for 122 yards, plus a 47-yard kickoff return. Pringle, a 25-year-old undrafted rookie who stood out at the Senior Bowl, had a quiet camp for the Chiefs before getting open for 62- and 40-yard deep balls Thursday. But he then left in the third quarter with a hamstring injury.
The result: The injury landed Pringle on the IR. He's done for the season and could be released pending an injury settlement. (Older rookies don't get a lot of second chances, unfortunately.)
Nathan Stupar, linebacker, Saints
The numbers: Three sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. A 30-year-old career special teamer, Stupar played most of the final preseason game, got some sacks when he was unblocked up the middle on blitzes, intercepted a pass thrown at his chest but fumbled during the return, and hustled downfield to retrieve an opponent's fumble. As a journeyman who looked like Mike Singletary in a glorified scrimmage, Stupar was the living embodiment of the final week of the preseason.
The result: As a core special teamer, Stupar was unlikely to get cut, but cap-strapped teams like the Saints sometimes face tough decisions on veteran role players, so the monster game may have saved Stupar from going the way of Danny Bailey.
Inside the Numbers
Data you can use, when you can use it. Because even preseason data is useful for something:
The top five rushers in the NFL last season combined for 36 carries for 117 yards (3.3 per carry) and one touchdown in the preseason: Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley didn't play, so that's mostly Mark Ingram (who will be suspended for the first three games) with a little bit of LeSean McCoy and Kareem Hunt mixed in. The preseason doesn't matter much to established running backs.
The top five running backs in this year's draft class combined for 81 carries for 178 yards (2.2 per) and three TDs in the preseason: That's mostly Nick Chubb (45-140-2). Saquon Barkley and Rashaad Penny played sparingly between minor injuries. Sony Michel didn't play at all. And Ronald Jones carried 28 times for 22 yards, which is just over two feet per carry, which is equivalent to reaching the line of scrimmage and falling forward. But maybe the preseason doesn't matter to top rookie running backs either. Maybe nothing matters to anyone. Hope you enjoyed your fantasy drafts!
Teams were 74-of-153 (48.4 percent) on preseason fourth-down conversions, averaging 1.2 conversions per game: Teams only averaged 0.95 conversion attempts per game last year in the regular season, with a nearly identical rate last preseason (lest you think teams go for it more in the preseason for practice purposes). The uptick amounts to about one more conversion attempt for each team every four games, which should be noticeable on Sundays. It's all thanks to Eagles copycatting, not the decades of analytical evidence that prove convincingly that teams should go for it more.
The Raiders were 0-of-0 on fourth-down attempts in the preseason: Punting is old school.
The Falcons were 1-of-8 on fourth-down attempts in the preseason: Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman didn't play, and there's some backups-on-backups action in the data. But we were searching for evidence that Steve Sarkisian is going to be a better situational play-caller, folks, and instead, we found this.
Teams averaged 2.7 kickoff returns per game in the preseason: The regular-season average was 2.0 for the last two years. Granted, preseason rates are generally higher, and the return rate dropped throughout the preseason (it was up near three returns per game after two weeks). Still, the NFL's latest attempt to make kickoff returns safer is almost sure to result in more kickoff returns.
Officials called 71 use-of-helmet penalties this preseason: There were 51 in the first two weeks, before NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent announced the league would not change the policy at all (and, by the way, we're totally changing it).
Eagles were flagged for six use-of-helmet penalties this preseason, the highest figure in the league: No, the Eagles aren't dirty and the league isn't picking on them. But look for radically different interpretations of the rule among officiating crews this season, which is the inevitable result of creating a vague, unenforceable rule and then revising it via contradictory memos.
(All stats compiled from NFLGSIS.com)
With the preseason over, we can finally focus on wagering on good old-fashioned meaningful games! Here's our Week 1 slate (all lines via OddsShark on Monday):
Line to Love: Cincinnati Bengals +3 at Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are going to stink this year, folks. And the Bengals are going to be wild-card also-rans. This is also a Sunday early game against a non-division foe; the Bengals built their mini-empire a few years ago atop games like these. Take the Bengals and the points before the line moves away from the Colts when casual wagerers stop dreaming of Andrew Luck and start to realize they can only name about two other players on the Colts.
Over to Love: 42 for Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos. Two trends should lead to a subtle league-wide increase in scoring this year: the new helmet rules (randomly adding 15-yard penalties to the mix) and the increase in fourth-down conversions (which any analytics expert or video gamer can tell you is better for offense). Don't expect these trends to turn the NFL into the NBA, but piggy-back them atop a "defensive duel" like this one between teams whose defenses peaked two years ago, and you'll have an improved probability of clearing a modest number.
Line on the Run, Part I: Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens moved from three-point to seven-point favorites as the preseason wore on and the public realized (a) the Ravens are pretty good, and (b) the Bills are a glorified expansion team. But beware. Never, ever, ever, ever bet on the Ravens to win by more than a field goal, and don't trust the Bills to cover anything until we can gauge just how terrible they truly are.
Line on the Run Part II: Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders: The Rams went from three- to five-point favorites as news broke of the Aaron Donald signing and the Khalil Mack trade. There's probably another point or two of adjustment left; the Rams look pretty tasty until it gets to about -6.5. The Bears-Packers line didn't move much after the Mack deal (the Packers are touchdown favorites, give or take), which means that while the house isn't sure how good the Bears will be, it's starting to realize how bad the Raiders will be.
Thursday Night Action: Atlanta Falcons +2.5 at Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons were getting three points before reports that Nick Foles would start for the Eagles. It's moved as low as one point on some sites now. This game could end up a pick 'em as the Eagles' injury situation becomes clearer. The Falcons aren't a terrible straight-up play, but that three-point cushion made this play much more appealing. There are safer plays this weekend.
Monday Night Action: New York Jets +6.5 at Detroit Lions. The Jets were 8-6-2 against the spread last year despite a popgun offense, with lots of 25-20 and 31-28 covers in losses before the whole operation came unglued late in the year. Todd Bowles' conservative approach makes the Jets enticing road dogs against middleweight opponents, because low risks often yield low score differentials. Also, the Jets are better than they were last year, and this line suggests that the house hasn't caught on yet.
Preview 2018: NFL's Best Situations
The first installment in Digest's three-part season preview looks at league's best situations for each position (or, where it makes sense, unit):
Quarterback: New Orleans Saints. We'll take Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater over the Eagles' Opening Day Mystery Box, the Aaron Rodgers-DeShone Kizer Experience and Tom Brady and his non-threatening wingman.
Running back: Atlanta Falcons. Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley are all great. But the depth, experience and versatility of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (plus Ito Smith and an actual fullback) are better.
Receiving corps: Kansas City Chiefs. If you have a solution for Tyreek Hill's pure speed, Sammy Watkins' size-speed combination and Travis Kelce's mismatch capabilities, we'd love to hear it.
Offensive line: New Orleans Saints. Ranked second in the NFL in both run- and pass-blocking (to two different teams), according to Football Outsiders, the Saints also ranked first in the NFL in returning all five healthy, in-their-prime starters this year.
Pass rush: Jacksonville Jaguars. Dante Fowler recorded eight sacks last year. He'll be suspended for the first three games of the season, but the Jaguars are so deep with pass-rushers that they won't even notice he's gone.
Run defense: Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are so deep on the defensive line that Michael Bennett's a backup.
Pass coverage: Minnesota Vikings. Deeper, more versatile and less dependent on support from the pass rush than the Jaguars. And we're not just saying that to cheese off Jalen Ramsey.
Special Teams: Baltimore Ravens. Don't worry about Justin Tucker's preseason slump. The team's plan to score some actual touchdowns this year just threw him off a little.
Coaching: New England Patriots. Duh.
Preview 2018: NFL's Most Exciting Situations
In Part 2 of Digest's season preview, we turn from the best situations at each position or unit to the most exciting.
Quarterback: San Francisco 49ers. There are lots of exciting new quarterbacks and old quarterbacks in new situations this year. But only Jimmy Garoppolo nearly brought an empire to its knees last year.
Running back: Tennessee Titans. Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis could emerge as the ultimate Thunder-'n'-Lightning combination. Or they could turn out to be a situational backup and a product of Patriots magic. It's going to be fun finding out.
Wide receiver: New York Giants. Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram are healthy and happy, with a real running back and offensive line to take a little pressure off.
Offensive line: Cincinnati Bengals. Cordy Glenn, Bobby Hart and Billy Price will stabilize a unit that fell into neglect for two seasons, which may make the Bengals relevant again.
Pass rush: Houston Texans. A couple of guys named JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are back. Perhaps you've heard of them.
Run defense: Los Angeles Chargers. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are amazing, but the Chargers lost games last year when opponents just ran right between them for big plays. Rookies Derwin James and Justin Jones lead an effort to shore up the middle of the defense.
Secondary: Los Angeles Rams. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib can be as great as they choose to be.
Special teams: Seattle Seahawks. Rookie Michael Dickson looked like a cheat-code punter in the preseason, and the Seahawks are thin at most positions but stacked with dynamic return men. Also, for inexplicable reasons: Sebastian Janikowski's here.
Coaching: Chicago Bears. The Matt Nagy-Mark Helfrich-Vic Fangio staff has potential as an innovation laboratory, assuming the Bears can adjust after three years of running your high school offense.
Preview 2018: NFL's Most Troubling Situations
In the final part of Digest's season preview, we turn to the league's most troubling situations:
Quarterback: Jacksonville Jaguars. Don't worry if Blake Bortles keeps serving up first-quarter turnovers like he did in the preseason, Jaguars fans. He's backed up by...Cody Kessler? Oh. Uh oh. Feel free to worry.
Running Back: San Francisco 49ers. The Jerick McKinnon injury leaves Alfred Morris and Matt Breida as the top running backs. How can Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo exploit mismatches coming out of the backfield when there are no mismatches coming out of the backfield?
Receiving corps: Dallas Cowboys. The only Cowboys receiver or tight end who could make the current Patriots roster is Cole Beasley, who would then be cut at the end of Julian Edelman's suspension.
Offensive line: Houston Texans. The Panthers offensive line could be worse if everything goes wrong, but the Texans line will be pretty bad even if everything goes right. And the Bills don't count because they have already surrendered for 2018.
Pass rush: Oakland Raiders. Khalil Mack and Mario Edwards (quietly released and scooped up by the Giants) accounted for 14 of the team's 31 sacks last year. They've been replaced by late-round projects and 30-plus-year-olds named Frostee Rucker.
Run defense: Kansas City Chiefs. Porous last year, younger and not as deep this year.
Secondary: New England Patriots. The same guys who got torched in the Super Bowl are back and haven't gotten any faster.
Special teams: Minnesota Vikings. Rookie kicker Daniel Carson was erratic in the preseason, and punter Matt Wile was a weekend waiver-wire claim. But it's not like the Vikings have a history of playoff special teams disasters or anything...
Coaching: Oakland Raiders. After an offseason of decisions that fueled his critics and didn't sit well with his players, Jon Gruden better really bring it as a play-caller.
The NFL has issues. Digest has answers. And contradictions.
Jerry Jones tells a Dallas radio station that an 18-game regular season would be safer for players.
Point: That's right, Jerrah. And if they were paid minimum wage and had to purchase their own health insurance, they wouldn't want to hit each other all that hard, which would make the game even safer! You're a financial wizard and a humanitarian!
Counterpoint: Taking a millionaire fame-hound at face value when he makes obviously false and self-serving statements is soooooo 2016, people.
Chiefs to actively discourage tailgating outside Arrowhead after kickoff.
Point: First, they take away our right to binge-drink in the parking lot outside of sporting events we have no intention of attending. Then come the concerts, Ren Faires and weddings. Suddenly, we can't do keg stands and blast Smashmouth in the mall parking lot when the new iPhones we don't plan to purchase get released. Next thing you know, we're a British colony again. Slippery slope, people.
Counterpoint: If NFL teams are really going to start turning away potential customers because they don't like their behavior, they should start with the trolls who disparage players on the Internet, not the guys grilling kielbasa in Priest Holmes jerseys in the parking lot.
Browns release Mychal Kendricks, who admitted to insider trading.
Point: Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to federal authorities sniffing around the team looking for financial shenanigans. Because, you know, been there, done that.
Counterpoint: Authorities immediately exonerated former Browns general manager Sashi Brown from any wrongdoing when they discovered that the alleged perpetrators actually made a profit.
Point: The court rejected the NFL's writs of "Nuh-uh," "We didn't do it," "It wasn't us" and "You can't prove it."
Counterpoint: There's a long legal road ahead as Kaepernick's attorneys try to prove that NFL teams are conspiring to keep him out of the league and not just staggeringly incompetent when it comes to choosing and evaluating quarterbacks. Rumor has it that both sides plan to enter Thursday's final preseason games into evidence.