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Justin Herbert hopes Senior Bowl helps him like Carson Wentz



MOBILE, Ala. — Justin Herbert quickly rattled off the list of names: Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Daniel Jones. Quarterbacks who reversed the trend of skipping the Senior Bowl in recent years — and used the January showcase to help turn them into top-6 overall draft picks.

Of course Herbert would love to follow suit as one of the more polarizing prospects in this year’s NFL draft. Some analysts still consider him a potential top-5 pick because of his big arm, athleticism and 6-foot-6, 227-pound frame. Others could see him dropping because of some inconsistency he showed after deciding to stay for his senior year at Oregon.

But more than anything, Herbert insisted, he came to the Senior Bowl, this week because he grew up watching this game and it was an honor to be invited.

“I think I was just more excited and thrilled for the opportunity,” Herbert said before he took the practice field for the first time on Tuesday. “Not a whole lot of people get this invite. To come here, it’s special. And I’m gonna do my best and have some fun.”

Of course this is a big week for every quarterback here in Mobile. Utah State’s Jordan Love will get the opportunity to prove he is a clear first-round pick while playing alongside a higher level of talent. Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts is trying is trying to prove the same by showing his game can translate to the next level. But Herbert has been the top-ranked guy in this group all year long. And ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay made it clear that the pressure is on him this week to “look the part.”

“The best players always find a way to stand out by the end of the week, and (Herbert) needs to separate himself from the pack,” McShay wrote in his Senior Bowl preview.

When asked a couple of times Tuesday what distinguishes him from other top QB prospects like Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa (who aren’t participating in the Senior Bowl), Herbert said he hasn’t studied them closely enough to “truly give a good comparison.”

“But what I can tell you about myself is I work extremely hard, I prepare very well, and I think arm strength is a big thing I pride myself on as well,” said Herbert, who finished his senior season with 3,471 yards, 32 touchdown passes and six interceptions.

Herbert also flashed his running ability late in the season. Three of his four rushing TDs came on designed runs during the Ducks’ 28-27 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Herbert said he got a better feel for the offense, became a better decision-maker and did a better job of flipping plays at the line of scrimmage.

So all in all, Herbert said it was “a great decision” for him to go back to school instead of entering the draft last year.

“We accomplished everything that we wanted to. We won a Pac-12 championship, we won a Rose Bowl, we did the things that we wanted to,” Herbert said. “We didn’t win every game, and it’s tough, we would have liked to. But we got better, we stuck together and were really excited with the way we (finished).”

Unfortunately Herbert didn’t quite do enough to cement himself as one of the top 1-2 QB prospects in the draft while Burrow soared past him in that race. Herbert battled some inconsistency — especially during a stunning late-season loss to Arizona State. He still needs to prove he can progress further into his reads. And he said he has worked in recent weeks on footwork and mechanics, while acknowledging that “never taking a snap from under center in college is big” when it comes to NFL evaluations.

Herbert, who has already met with several NFL teams here in Mobile, also said that he thinks teams are “worried about leadership and me being a pretty quiet guy” — a narrative he’d like to start proving wrong this week.

“I would say I’m not too quiet, and unfortunately I’ll talk your ear off. And so there are these things I want to be transparent with and give a good representation of myself,” said Herbert, who admitted to being quiet and shy early in his college career before he “forced myself to be uncomfortable.”

“I kind of found myself and where I fit in with the offense,” said Herbert, who considers himself somewhere in between an introvert and extrovert. “There are shades of both in me. That’s something I’ve really worked on and the coaches have done a great job of pulling that out of me.”

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2020 NFL Week 1 stats and nuggets you might have missed



Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season is in the books, and unsurprisingly, what happened on Sunday (and even Thursday and Monday) can be a blur. Every week of the season goes by quickly and leads to information falling through the cracks, but that information is more meaningful in Week 1 for a couple of reasons. One is that we get to see what a team’s actual plans are after hearing them talk for months. The other is that there are still 20 more weeks of football to go, so getting ahead of the curve on what’s happening across the league has more value.

With that in mind, after digesting all of the action, I took a trip around the NFL to point out some interesting pieces of information that might have been buried underneath the big stories. Some of it might help your fantasy team. Others will, I hope, just make you a more informed fan. At least one of them is very silly. I found 14 nuggets, and let’s start with something that could make one of the league’s best offenses even better:

Jump to an interesting storyline:
The Falcons were putrid on fourth down
A star receiver’s role was unexpected
Could a young pass-rusher break out?
The kicking was abysmal, but don’t fret yet
A Cowboys replacement had a rough day
A rookie top-10 pick was picked on

If you watched any highlights of the weekend’s action, you probably saw the Ravens tight end’s spectacular touchdown catch to open the scoring of the early games on Sunday. Andrews was the second-most productive fantasy football tight end in 2019, racking up 852 yards and 10 touchdowns in 15 games.

The only thing holding him back from taking another step forward seemed to be his usage rate? Whether it was a tight end rotation, nagging injuries or concerns over his Type 1 diabetes, the Ravens seemed hesitant to use Andrews on a full-time basis. The 2018 third-rounder didn’t play more than 55% of the offensive snaps in any game across his first two seasons. Travis Kelce, for comparison, played 95% of the offensive snaps for the Chiefs in 2018 and 92% last season.

In Week 1, though, Baltimore finally unleashed Andrews. He played a career-high 71% of the offensive snaps against the Browns despite the fact that the game had turned into a blowout by halftime. If we take out the fourth quarter, when Andrews mostly sat as the Ravens held a huge lead, the 25-year-old set a career high for snaps (36) and tied the second-most routes (21) he has run as a pro. If Andrews is going to play this frequently, it dramatically raises his ceiling and allows him to compete with Kelce and George Kittle as the NFL’s most productive tight end.

The Vikings got away from play-action

Kirk Cousins had what was arguably the best season of his career in 2019, buoyed by a massive dose of play-action. More than 30% — 31.3%, to be exact — of Cousins’ pass attempts came off play-action, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league. The Minnesota quarterback was a different passer with a play fake attached, as he averaged 9.6 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 130.1 after play-action. Without it, he fell back to earth, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt while delivering a passer rating of 97.0.

Analytics-friendly offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski left to become Browns coach over the offseason, leaving the playcalling job to longtime coach Gary Kubiak. Kubiak’s offenses in multiple stops have always been built around heavy doses of outside zone and play-action stemming from that core run concept, so I didn’t expect to see many schematic changes to the Minnesota offense in 2020.

Well, in Week 1 against the Packers, Cousins threw 25 passes. Just one of those passes — a 37-yard touchdown to Adam Thielen in the fourth quarter — incorporated play-action, which is a 4% play-action rate.

Now, it’s fair to note that the Vikings trailed for most of this game, and 20 of Cousins’ 25 pass attempts came in the second half. Last season, they mostly abandoned the play-action game once they got down by a significant margin; Cousins threw just four play-action passes while his team was down 10 or more points in the second half out of 68 total passes. You would figure that play-action passing would lose its effectiveness once there was little reason to run, but it doesn’t; quarterbacks in those situations in 2019 posted a passer rating of 97.2 with play-action and just 82.4 without.

We’ll get a better sense of Kubiak’s plans in Week 2, given that the Vikings are likely to throw the ball more than five times in the first half in their game against the Colts. If Cousins’ play-action rate was a one-season spike, though, expect his overall numbers to fall accordingly. And if you want another coach to pick on, just two of Jets quarterback Sam Darnold‘s 35 pass attempts in the Week 1 loss to the Bills incorporated play-action.

One player who didn’t get as much playing time in Week 1 as I might have expected was the veteran Patriots wide receiver. Virtually an every-down player when healthy going back through 2013, Edelman’s role as a primary weapon for the Pats seemed to be solidified when Bill Belichick cut Mohamed Sanu at the end of training camp.

Instead, on Sunday, Edelman played just 58% of the offensive snaps during New England’s 21-11 win over Miami. The 34-year-old was on the field when the Patriots lined up in 11 personnel alongside fellow wideouts Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry, but when they went with two wide receivers, Edelman was the one who typically gave way. They played 27 snaps with two wideouts on the field, but while Byrd took 25 snaps and Harry 24, Edelman took just five. From 2017 to ’19, Edelman was on the field about 41% of the time in two-wideout sets, not accounting for injuries.

He’s known best for his work as a slot receiver, but he did take about 38% of his snaps and 31% of his targets as an outside receiver a year ago, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Even given that Edelman can play outside, you can understand why the Pats might prefer Harry and Byrd given Harry’s size (6-foot-4) and range as a blocker and Byrd’s speed (4.28 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2015). Byrd wasn’t targeted on Sunday, but you would figure that Josh McDaniels & Co. will use the former Panthers wideout as a threat to occupy opposing safeties who might creep into the box to stop the running game. His speed also makes him a threat coming across the formation in motion before the snap.

If you have Edelman on your fantasy team, is this an argument to move on from the veteran wideout? I’m not sure. The Pats still worked out of their 11 personnel more frequently than any other grouping, which allowed him to lead the team in targets with seven. He caught five passes for 57 yards and dropped another would-be deep completion for 20 more yards. While the Patriots didn’t throw the ball much in Week 1, Edelman also had a higher share of his team’s air yards than anybody else in the league (60%). Edelman can still be valuable playing 55% of the offensive snaps, but it reduces both his ceiling and his margin for error. It’s something to monitor over the weeks to come.

If you want to see how much losing one player can impact things, consider what happened to the Cowboys in the loss to the Rams on Sunday night. With an offense rightfully regarded as one of the scariest in football on paper, they lost a starter for the year when tight end Blake Jarwin went down with a torn ACL. The job then turned to 2018 fourth-rounder Schultz, who played just 10% of the offensive snaps as Dallas’ third tight end a year ago. It didn’t go well.

It would be too aggressive to say that the backup tight end cost the Cowboys the game, but he badly hurt their chances. When they drove into the red zone trailing 20-17 early in the fourth quarter, they faced a second-and-6 from the Rams’ 14-yard line. Schultz ran a crossing route and settled against zone coverage, but Dak Prescott‘s pass bounced through his hands. It was a tough catch with the ball traveling away from his body, but it’s one he would expect to bring in.

What happened two plays later was more meaningful. If you’re wondering why CeeDee Lamb‘s route was short of the sticks on fourth-and-3, well, here’s why. The Cowboys ran what’s known as mesh, an Air Raid concept built around two crossing routes and a wheel route coming out of the backfield. The goal in running the two crossing routes is to get the receivers close enough to pick off man-to-man defenders; coaches literally teach their receivers to get close enough that they can high-five as they pass by each other.

The job of the deeper crossing route on mesh is to set the depth of the shorter route working underneath it. In a fourth-and-short situation like this, they wanted both crossing routes to be past the sticks so that their receivers could each run their routes and catch the ball at or past the first-down marker. Schultz, running the deeper crossing route, needed to run his route one yard past the sticks to leave Lamb enough space to run his crossing route at the sticks. Instead, as you can see from the NFL Next Gen Stats play animation below, Schultz ran his crossing route three yards deep, forcing Lamb to run his route two yards downfield, one yard short of the sticks:

Schultz finished up by dropping another pass on the game’s final drive. For all of those superstars the Cowboys have on offense, one injury played a key role in causing them to fall short against the Rams. Schultz will need to step up in his new role as the team’s starting tight end.

The Giants stood still

Another surprise from the Minnesota offense is how static the Vikings were before the snap. As ESPN sports analytics writer Seth Walder noted, the Vikings didn’t have a single instance of a player running in motion at the time of their snaps in Week 1, the only team in football without one.

If we expand the horizon to look at any sort of pre-snap motion, the isolated team is somebody different. Every offense in the league used some sort of motion between lining up at the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball at least 22.6% of the time … beside the Giants, who moved only 9.4% of the time before the snap in their first game under coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. (The Jets, again, were second at 22.6%.)

Walder’s research found that offenses that use more motion at the snap are more successful than those that stay static. Those results actually weren’t better on a play-by-play basis in Week 1, but you might also note that the 12 teams that used motion most frequently during the debut weekend also won their games.

Motion for the sake of motion doesn’t mean anything, but offenses can gain edges by incorporating pre-snap motion into their schemes. The Ravens, who used motion more than any team last season, used late motion before the snap to help create numbers advantages in the running game. Passing attacks can use it to identify coverages and to force teams into defensive checks they can then exploit. We’ll see what happens in the weeks to come for the Giants, but given what we saw against the Steelers on Monday night, they could use all the help Garrett and Judge can muster.

Holding disappeared, and TDs set a record

With the public expecting sloppy football after a preseason-less summer, the NFL seemingly responded by instructing officials to ignore a penalty fans love to hate. As ESPN reporter Kevin Seifert noted, officials flagged players for holding just 18 times in Week 1, which is down 78% from the opening week a year ago and the lowest number we’ve seen going back through 2001, which is as far as ESPN Stats & Information’s holding data extends. In all, this was the second-least penalized weekend since 2001.

Are there other factors that could explain at least some of the drop-off in calls? Maybe. Quarterbacks didn’t hold onto the ball quite as long in Week 1, as their average pass traveled just 7.39 yards in the air, with the ball coming out after an average of 2.65 seconds. Last season, the average pass traveled 7.96 yards and came 2.77 seconds after the snap. Those might not seem like big differences, but they can add up over the course of a game. With that being said, that alone isn’t enough to explain the massive decline in holding calls.

As you might expect when you take out a crucial penalty that hurts only the offense, scoring was up in Week 1. Teams scored a record 87 touchdowns in Week 1. While they racked up 85 touchdowns even amid the holding calls this time last season, a reduced rate of holding calls should help scoring until the league decides to re-enforce its usual rules.

With the smarter teams in the league realizing that holding was called at a reduced rate in Week 1 around the league, it wouldn’t shock me if scoring went up leaguewide in Week 2. Any coach who is paying attention should be encouraging his offensive linemen to be aggressive holding star pass-rushers and run-stuffers until the league cracks down. It’s possible that the NFL does that after one week, but unless the league was giving teams a one-week respite, there is going to be an opportunity for offenses to take advantage of the relaxed rules this weekend.

The fake punt wasn’t the problem for the Browns

Just about everything went wrong for the Browns in the loss to the Ravens. Their much-vaunted new offense under coach Kevin Stefanski looked a lot like the flawed attack from last season, combining mental mistakes with sloppy football and erratic decision-making from quarterback Baker Mayfield while scoring just six points. Even worse is that they lost rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. to a shin injury during the game; both center JC Tretter and their top three tackles (Wills, Jack Conklin and Chris Hubbard) are questionable for Thursday night’s game against the Bengals.

One thing that should have gone right, though, was the decision to call for a fake punt in the second quarter. The Browns tried their fake on fourth-and-4 from their own 31-yard line in the first quarter, and while some would argue that it was too early in the game to try a fake punt, the best time to try one is when the other team least expects it. They were significant underdogs against a dominant offense; they desperately need to create opportunities to hold onto the football.

On the play, as you can see from NFL Next Gen Stats animation below, Cleveland got the look it wanted. The problem is that it had two players to block Ravens linebacker L.J. Fort (58) and neither Andrew Sendejo (23) or D’Ernest Johnson (30) was up to the task:

To be fair, you could argue that it’s a bad idea to try to block the 230-pound Fort with the 204-pound Johnson or the 200-pound Sendejo. Johnson never really got his hands on Fort, and the linebacker simply shoved Sendejo aside. In terms of the look, though, if either player is able to engage with Fort, the Browns pick up the first down. Instead, Fort laid out punter Jamie Gillan, who fumbled and handed the ball back to the Ravens.

The Falcons couldn’t do anything on fourth down

Atlanta looked outmatched in its matchup against Seattle. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris apologized after the game for not taking the Seahawks’ passing offense seriously enough in preparing the Falcons’ game plan. Quarterback Russell Wilson responded with one of the best — and most pass-happy — games of his career.

The Atlanta offense chipped in with a couple of late touchdowns to make the final score look more presentable, and quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a week-high 450 passing yards, but the Falcons scored just 12 points through the first three quarters of Sunday’s loss. One of the reasons why? They went 0-for-4 on their fourth-down attempts. Since 2001, no team has failed more than four times in a single game on fourth-down conversion tries. It brings back memories of their 24-2 loss to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs, when Ryan & Co. went 0-for-3 on crucial fourth-down tries.

I have absolutely no issue with any of Atlanta’s decisions to go for it. None of the plays came on fourth-and-1, when it’s almost always a gimme to try to keep possession by going for it, but teams are almost always too conservative in fourth-down situations. Given the strength of its offense and how little its defense seemed to be doing to stop the Seattle offense, it made total sense to be aggressive on fourth-and-short.

The plays themselves also deserved better. On the first fourth-down attempt, Todd Gurley was wide open in the flat for a first down, only for Ryan’s pass attempt to be knocked down at the line. The next try was a fake punt on which Sharrod Neasman actually got to the first-down marker, only for Marquise Blair to force a fumble the Seahawks recovered. Ryan was sacked on the third attempt and threw the fourth attempt just ahead of an open Calvin Ridley.

After the game, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter surprisingly said the right thing, suggesting that the numbers supported Atlanta’s decisions and that they would lead to better outcomes in the long run. (I say surprisingly because Koetter was not as open-minded about the numbers during his time as Buccaneers coach.) The Falcons were worse off for going 0-for-4, but going for it in those situations gave them their best chance of overcoming what was a dominant Seahawks offense.

I’ll be interested to see what happens in the weeks to come. They went for it a lot on fourth down in 2019, in part because they were often trailing in the second half and needed to hold onto the football to get back into games. What happens the next time they find themselves in a fourth-and-short situation when the numbers say it’s smart to go for it? Will they be as aggressive as they were on Sunday? Or, after a four-play run, will they ignore the numbers and play conservative football?

The kicking was awful

Another leaguewide trend that could be a product of the offseason is the disastrous week we saw from kickers, which was punctuated by Stephen Gostkowski‘s four missed attempts during the late game Monday night against the Broncos. Gostkowski missed an extra point, had one field goal blocked and pushed two others; in the thin air of Denver, no team had failed on three field-goal attempts in one game since 1987 before the Titans did it. (Here’s where I note that we highlighted Tennessee’s kicking as its Achilles’ heel heading into the season, although that was before the Titans guaranteed Gostkowski $2.5 million.)

Overall, kickers leaguewide hit on just 71.6% of their field goal attempts in Week 1. This was the lowest success rate in the opening week of the season since at least 2001 and the 11th-worst mark for any individual week over that time frame. Nine of those seasons came in the first three years of our sample; since the start of 2005, just one week (Week 11 of the 2019 season) has failed to top a success rate of 72%.

Thinking about this one critically, I’m not sure I chalk it up to much more than randomness. Were kickers really rusty? It’s possible, but they should have gotten plenty of action during practices in camp. They didn’t get to try any attempts during the preseason with the summer spectacle canceled, but for most veterans, that amounts to somewhere between six to 10 kicks over four weeks. Could those kicks really mean all that much? Inexperienced kickers might have felt the pressure of taking their shots in meaningful games, but Gostkowski has kicked in 28 playoff games and six Super Bowls. Was he really feeling the strain of kicking under the bright lights in Week 1?

My guess is that the kicking will bounce back to form in Week 2. We’ve had early-season panics about kickers in the past, and they lasted two or three weeks before things got back to normal. Nearly 18% of the attempts in Week 1 were also greater than 50 yards away, which is on the high end and makes successful attempts less likely. If they are still struggling to hit 75% of their field goals by the time we hit October, I’ll be more concerned.

One highlight for the Falcons on Sunday was the play of their former first-round pass-rusher, who appeared to be losing backers in Atlanta after the organization decided to decline his fifth-year option this spring. Atlanta didn’t get much going on Sunday in the loss to Seattle, but it was probably McKinley’s best game as a pro. The UCLA product sacked Russell Wilson once, but he knocked down the superstar quarterback on six occasions, leading all players in Week 1. The total represents nearly half of the 13 knockdowns he racked up across 14 games last season.

Defensive linemen can occasionally get extra hits on Wilson because the star quarterback extends plays for so long and lets defensive linemen chase him down before hitting an open receiver, but that wasn’t really the case on Sunday. McKinley’s sack and three of his knockdowns came against Wilson in the pocket. (In fact, the sack was the easiest of the bunch, with Wilson seemingly on a different page from his offensive line and not realizing McKinley would come unblocked off the edge.) McKinley did have two hits on a scrambling Wilson, but one forced a throw short of the sticks on third down, giving the Falcons’ defense a rare stop in the first half.

ESPN’s pass-rush win rate metric agrees with the knockdown totals, as it suggests McKinley won 31.3% of his battles against Seattle’s tackles on Sunday, the 11th-best rate in the league. The only players who won more battles are mostly stars, including Falcons teammate Grady Jarrett, Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett and Steelers edge rushers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. It’s just one game, but if McKinley keeps this up, he’s going to have a breakout campaign.

I haven’t seen an NFL player who was wearing less on the field than the Raiders rookie cornerback did on Sunday. Is this a common thing I haven’t noticed before?

While his teammates are wearing knee pads, pants and football socks/stockings pulled up to their knees, Arnette decidedly is not. In a quick search, it appears that he didn’t typically wear long pants or knee pads at Ohio State, although he did wear football socks some of the time. NFL players are obligated by the rulebook to wear pants, knee pads and stockings, although players typically reduce their pads to be as small and light as possible. Kickers and punters aren’t subject to the same rules, but I can’t recall a player wearing what amounted to shorts and calf-high socks the way Arnette did on Sunday.

Personally, if Arnette thinks he’ll play his best football without any of that protective gear, he should be allowed to give it a shot. In his pro debut, though, it didn’t help. The No. 19 overall pick was having a solid game until he was torched by Panthers wideout Robby Anderson on a double-move for a 75-yard touchdown.

It was Myles Gaskin, who played a team-high 63% of the snaps in the Week 1 loss to New England. The Dolphins, who signed Howard to a two-year, $10 million deal this offseason, announced that he was dealing with a hamstring injury during the game before retracting the statement as a mistake, but the veteran finished with just 7 yards on eight carries. Breida, for whom the Dolphins traded a fifth-round pick to acquire from San Francisco, had just five carries for 22 yards. Gaskin took nine carries for 40 yards and handled the bulk of the receiving work, adding four catches for 26 yards.

The Dolphins insinuated afterward that they might be playing something in the way of a hot-hand approach, but their decisions might be dictated by game script. Howard isn’t much of a receiver, so if the they find themselves trailing in the second half, the carries might end up getting split between Breida and Gaskin. Breida posted gaudy yards-per-carry figures in San Francisco, but a closer look at the numbers suggests he was a home run hitter. Removed from the Kyle Shanahan scheme, every week he doesn’t hit a home run might push more of the workload Gaskin’s way.

The Bills lost both of their star linebackers

Just about everything went right for the Bills on Sunday, as 27-17 fails to tell the story of just how completely they dominated the Jets on both sides of the ball. It took a pair of fumbles from Josh Allen, two missed field goals from rookie kicker Tyler Bass and a touchdown by the Jets with 54 seconds left to go to make the score look presentable. New York isn’t stiff competition, but great teams blow out bad teams, and the Bills did that in Week 1.

One of the few things to worry about after the game involves the Buffalo defense. It has a pair of excellent linebackers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, but neither player finished the game. Milano left after 21 snaps with a hamstring issue, while Edmunds exited with a shoulder injury after 36 snaps. Neither player practiced Wednesday, and their status is unclear for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins.

While the Bills were able to deal with Milano missing three games in 2018, injuries haven’t really been a problem for the defense under coach Sean McDermott. They have ranked eighth, sixth and third in defensive adjusted games lost from 2017 to 2019. They’re already down cornerback Josh Norman, who would have been in a battle with Levi Wallace for one starting job, while defensive tackle Vernon Butler missed the Jets game with a hamstring injury.

The Bills are incredibly deep up front, and they supplemented their linebackers group by replacing the retiring Lorenzo Alexander with former Panthers and Saints linebacker A.J. Klein. Klein can fill in at one spot, but backup linebacker Tyrel Dodson also left the Jets game with a neck injury and was limited in practice. Klein and Dodson are likely to be the starters on Sunday if Edmunds and Milano can’t go. It might not matter all that much against the Dolphins, but the Bills will want their star linebackers in the lineup for the Week 3 matchup against the Rams. Their roster is stocked, but they can’t afford to lose many more stars before expecting a noticeable drop-off against better offenses.

Isaiah Simmons didn’t have the most auspicious NFL debut

The Cardinals drafted Clemson hybrid defender Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick in April in the hopes of adding a versatile chess piece to their defense. His mix of size, speed, athleticism and football intelligence flummoxed opposing offenses in college, but he was the one who was overmatched in Week 1.

The Cardinals played Simmons on only 18 defensive snaps in the win over the 49ers, and when you take a closer look at his performance, you can understand why. On his very first defensive snap, he allowed a 5-yard out to George Kittle. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Simmons horse-collared Kittle at the end of the play to add 15 yards on his total. On the next snap, Kittle blocked him seven yards upfield on a stretch play. Three Simmons snaps later, this happened:

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is going right after Simmons on this play. He brings Kittle across the formation before the snap and then uses the reduced split of Dante Pettis to help set natural picks on Simmons as he chases after Raheem Mostert. Simmons thinks the route is going to go outside and begins to sell out to get there, but when Mostert reveals that he’s on what’s known as a Texas route and cuts toward the middle of the field, the rookie is toast. Mostert runs right by Chris Banjo for a 76-yard score.

Simmons would play only 13 defensive snaps between that touchdown and San Francisco’s other score, which also came at his expense. Shanahan again manufactured a concept designed to take advantage of Simmons’ inexperience by stacking receivers near the goal line. You can see it clearly from the animation from NFL Next Gen Stats:

The Cardinals defend these stacks of receivers with what’s known as banjo coverage, where each defender is given a rule to take a certain receiver depending on where and when they break out of their route. This is also the name of the Cardinals safety wearing No. 31, and Banjo taps Simmons on the shoulder as he comes over to let Simmons know that he’s going outside of him and taking the first receiver to break in that direction.

Banjo successfully defends Kittle (85), but this is really a pick play on Simmons (48), who is supposed to take Jerick McKinnon (28). As it turns out, the pick by Ross Dwelley (82) wasn’t even necessary, as Simmons just stays inside and ends up doubling the tight end with Jordan Hicks (58). McKinnon is left wide-open for an easy score. The Cardinals left Simmons on the bench for the 49ers’ 12-play drive at the end of the game.

Linebacker is a tough position to play, and I don’t think this game tells us much about what kind of pro Simmons will or won’t become. It’s just a reminder of how quickly a college star like him can become a target in the NFL. Things get a little easier over the next few weeks with the Jets, Giants, Eagles and Dolphins on the schedule, but expect those teams to test Simmons when he’s on the field.

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Baker Mayfield vs. Joe Burrow, Part I



Lincoln Riley could barely believe it.

A budding offensive coordinator at East Carolina at the time, Riley had just unsuccessfully tried convincing Baker Mayfield to transfer to East Carolina from Texas Tech. Mayfield had walked on at Oklahoma instead. But Riley saw a similar opportunity in this other overlooked quarterback.

Following his junior season of high school in 2013, Joe Burrow had only one college scholarship offer. He didn’t consider it real, either, since it came from Ohio University, where his father, Jimmy, was defensive coordinator.

“I remember watching the film and thinking the guy had an outstanding skill set,” Riley told ESPN. “Surprised at the time that he wasn’t being recruited a little bit more heavily by the more normally prominent programs.”

Not long after Riley offered Burrow his second scholarship, the prominent programs came calling, including Ohio State, which ultimately landed his commitment a couple months later. The following year in 2015, Riley joined Mayfield at Oklahoma, first as offensive coordinator, then two seasons later as his head coach.

Beginning with Riley’s clairvoyant interest, Burrow and Mayfield followed strikingly comparable career paths, defined by swagger and self-confidence. They both transferred, led their respective schools to the College Football Playoff, won the Heisman Trophy and were No. 1 overall NFL draft picks. Upon arrival at their respective losing franchises in Ohio, they were immediately anointed as football saviors.

In a Thursday night matchup, which pits Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals against Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network), the two quarterbacks face off in a reinvigorated in-state rivalry. Both look to position perennial losing teams as the primary challenger to the Baltimore Ravens‘ and Pittsburgh Steelers‘ long-held dominion over the AFC North division.

“They both had a ton of success at the college level,” Riley said. “Two high-quality players who are going to be two strong leaders for those organizations.”

In recent decades, the Battle of Ohio has featured two of the NFL’s most woeful franchises. The Browns haven’t reached the playoffs in 18 years and the Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1991. Both respective droughts are the longest of their kind in the league.

To change those fortunes, both franchises are banking their young quarterbacks will find their way.

ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said he has high expectations for both QBs. And while Burrow and Mayfield are both exciting players who are accurate passers, Orlovsky said, the way each player approaches the game is vastly different.

“Joe is a way more instinctual and reactionary player. Baker’s a much more in-structure player,” Orlovsky said. “I think Joe sees the field outside-in, where Baker sees the field inside-out.”

After a breakout rookie season in 2018, Mayfield surprisingly struggled during Cleveland’s disappointing 6-10 finish last season. The pressure on him and the Browns was only amplified after Mayfield tossed an interception on the Browns’ first drive on the way to a 38-6 season-opening shellacking by Baltimore on Sunday.

Burrow, meanwhile, nearly led Cincinnati on a game-winning drive against the Los Angeles Chargers in his NFL debut on Sunday. A 3-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green was nullified by offensive pass interference. On the next play, Cincinnati’s Randy Bullock missed a game-tying 31-yard field goal with 2 seconds left after injuring his calf, and the Chargers escaped with a 16-13 victory.

Mayfield didn’t see Burrow’s first NFL appearance, but was impressed watching several of his games at LSU. Mayfield said he likes Burrow’s demeanor as a field general, his decisiveness and quickness in getting the ball out of his hand and giving his receivers a chance to make plays.

“Obviously, I think he’s an unbelievably talented guy,” Mayfield said. “But I think his teammates love him and they really fight for him. That is what you can tell on TV.”

The respect between the quarterbacks is mutual. Burrow got a firsthand look at Mayfield’s skills when Oklahoma traveled to Columbus in 2017 and beat Ohio State 31-16 in a showdown of top-five teams as Burrow watched from the bench in his final year with the Buckeyes. After the game, with Burrow in the locker room with the rest of his teammates, Mayfield planted a crimson Sooners flag at midfield.

“I think he’s a great player,” Burrow said. “Obviously what he did at Oklahoma and what he did in his first couple of years in the NFL, he’s been playing really well. I’m excited to compete against him.”

Mayfield serves as a template and, potentially, a cautionary tale for the Bengals rookie. Mayfield holds the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes set in 2018. But as 2019 showed, linear success for NFL quarterbacks is not always guaranteed.

After a loss in his debut, Burrow noted that he’s more concerned about winning than chasing Mayfield’s rookie record.

“The more touchdowns I throw, I think the more games we’re going to win,” Burrow said. “I’m not really focused on breaking any records. But I need to hit some touchdown passes if we’re going to win games, for sure.”

First-year Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said the self-belief Mayfield and Burrow each possesses is a crucial quality, especially when authentic. Stefanski added that genuine inner confidence is more important to teammates than a false sense of bravado. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he sees that trait in both quarterbacks, as well.

“It’s some guys just have that natural [demeanor] and tangibles that guys gravitate to and they don’t have to try to be somebody they’re not — they just naturally have it,” said Taylor, who, as a native of Norman, Oklahoma, has followed Mayfield’s career over the years. “You see that with Baker. You see that with Joe. When you got one like that, it’s pretty special.”

Players on both sides of Thursday’s game said they know how special Mayfield and Burrow can be as teammates. That includes Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who starred with Mayfield at Oklahoma, and Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, who was in the same Ohio State recruiting class as Burrow.

Browns wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry became fans of Burrow as he led their alma mater on its historic 2019 run. Beckham was even spotted on the field giving cash to Burrow and other LSU players after the title victory over Clemson.

“Obviously, I don’t want him to beat us,” Beckham said, “but anywhere else or any other game he plays, I’m always rooting for him.”

As Riley and other college coaches continue to deal with the pandemic-plagued season, those in the AFC North will get a look at what Riley has experienced firsthand over the years. Two years after coaching Mayfield in a College Football Playoff, Riley coached against Burrow, who dismantled the Sooners in last season’s playoff semifinal.

Such college success propelled Mayfield and Burrow to their respective NFL teams. And if they can play up to expectations, Thursday’s meeting could be the first of many in the Buckeye State.

“It’s pretty awesome to see what those guys have done,” Riley said. “It should be fun to watch over the next several years.”

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After drops, Broncos’ Jerry Jeudy determined to prove ‘failure is growth’ – Denver Broncos Blog



ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There is a welcome-to-the-NFL moment, and then there is what Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy had this past Monday.

After a training camp in which Jeudy, the Broncos’ first-round pick in April’s draft, received compliments for his work, approach and potential on a daily basis, his game debut featured something he never expected.

Two drops — and not just two drops that might have been tough catches but two drops in key situations on well-thrown passes. There’s an argument to be made that if Jeudy had caught one of them, dropped in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Broncos would be 1-0 right now.

“Drops happen. Those plays are ones I usually make,” Jeudy said. “When that happened, I was focusing too much on running with the ball [more] than catching the ball. That’s what happened. Took my eyes off the ball. … Two dropped passes in my first game. [People] might think I’m nervous. That’s really not the case. It was just not concentrating on the ball. … It doesn’t really mess up my mind — for real.”

Any review of his résumé or discussions with coaches and teammates will quickly reveal that the list of things Jeudy has done to get to the NFL doesn’t include pouting, moping or feeling sorry for himself. Or, as he put it Tuesday on social media, “failure is growth.”

One thing, beyond his oh-so-obvious talent, that has stood out to teammates is that the 21-year-old Jeudy is all about business when it comes to football. Several Broncos players said during training camp that they arrived to the team’s facility thinking they were among the earliest, only to find Jeudy already watching game and practice video.

In the big picture, Jeudy’s debut was a fairly successful affair, with four catches for 56 yards. The Titans thought enough of the rookie that they had former Patriots Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler across from Jeudy for more than a few of the pivotal snaps in the game.

The drops, however, including the one with just more than four minutes remaining, weighed heavily on the rookie.

“In college football, you get 90-plus plays, and in the NFL, there’s a minimal amount of plays that you get to run, and you have to bring an extreme focus all the time,” quarterback Drew Lock said. “Because I feel like I know Jerry, he wanted to do well so bad that he kind of forced some things on himself. It’s kind of what I did in my first start. I forced a couple balls into some windows because I wanted to win so bad. … It comes down to he learned his lesson. There’s a certain way you can come in and stay relaxed play-by-play.”

Lock said that Jeudy apologized to his teammates and likened the drops to a good shooter in basketball who missed “a couple layups.” Jeudy was one of the most sure-handed prospects in the draft, with many personnel executives saying he was the best route-runner in an extraordinarily deep class of wide receivers. He showed those skills Monday against the Titans.

ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick, a former NFL defensive back and longtime personnel executive, repeatedly used the word “special” to describe Jeudy’s ability to set up even veteran defensive backs, saying, “if you’re not patient, Jerry Jeudy will make you look silly.”

“I felt pretty comfortable. Other than the two drops, I thought I did a good job,” Jeudy said. “I was getting open, getting separation.”

Depending on how quickly Courtland Sutton returns from his shoulder injury, the Broncos are going to have to lean on Jeudy. With Sutton out of the lineup, Jeudy was the only one of the team’s wide receivers who had more than 30 yards receiving in Monday’s game, and he was the only wide receiver who was targeted more than five times by Lock.

Sutton was back in practice Wednesday and might be back — if somewhat limited — for Sunday’s game against the Steelers. Jeudy says he has already moved on to Week 2.

“Two drops. It was two critical drops, one on third down and one that could have changed the momentum of the game,” Jeudy said. “And I felt like I failed my team on those two plays, but me learning from that, going out, practicing hard, focus on catching the ball, focusing on the little details … those two drops probably helped for not dropping passes the whole season.”

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