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What’s next for the NFL after getting through Week 1? Fans at games, other looming concerns

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There really can be no debate: The NFL has aced its initial efforts to practice and play amid the coronavirus pandemic. Since training camp practices began in mid-August, only seven players have produced positive test results. There have been no team outbreaks, and the only scare was caused by a contaminated private lab in New Jersey.

The success prompts two natural questions. First, are there any remaining obstacles to playing a full 2020 season, as league officials have said for months they plan to do? And second, can the protocols be loosened in any way while maintaining the current results?

The answer to the latter seems obvious. There is a strong internal push to get fans in more stadiums, wherever local and state regulations allow it. Ticket revenue is one motivation, of course, but fans would also enliven the otherwise awkward and sterile game atmosphere in empty stadiums. Commissioner Roger Goodell did not hide this ambition during a media call earlier this month.

“I believe,” Goodell said, “that we will be having a lot of teams that start with no fans at the beginning of the season, and [then] evolve to fans.”

Three teams hosted fans last weekend, in reduced capacities — Kansas City, Jacksonville and Denver — and four more will do so in Week 2. Goodell pledged to take a “cautious approach” and to cooperate with public health officials on all safety measures. To be sure, with the first 20 feet of seats in every stadium tarped off, players and coaches assuredly will maintain a safe distance from fans.

Regardless, some epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists said there is no way to eliminate the risk of bringing together thousands of people in a football stadium, ensuring there is a chance — however slight — that an NFL game could trigger community outbreak. Thursday, the Kansas City Chiefs announced that one guest at their Sept. 10 opener has since tested positive for COVID-19.

“Sports leagues like to talk about this in a binary way,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “It’s safe, or it’s not safe. The truth is that everything should be viewed over the risk continuum. More people equals more risk. And it still hasn’t been explained what is the benefit supposed to be. There’s money for the teams. There’s maybe a little bit of mental benefit for the people who get to go to the games. But I don’t think that outweighs even a minor threat to the rest of the community.

“I’m not telling people they can’t have football. I’m not telling them they can’t watch it at home. I’m saying, please just don’t go to the stadium. I don’t think, with all the sacrifices that so many other people are making, that’s an unreasonable request.”

Let’s take a closer look at both of our initial questions, utilizing the expertise of an epidemiologist, an infectious disease expert and an ethicist.

Fans in the stadium

In June, researchers at West Virginia University found a link between seasonal flu deaths and the presence of professional sports in United States cities — and their oft-packed stadiums — from 1962 to 2016. Because the flu spreads in similar ways to COVID-19, one of the authors of the paper said: “Opening pro sports games to fans is probably a terrible idea, in terms of public health.”

Three months later, more is known about limiting COVID-19 transmission. NFL teams are cutting capacity by 80% or more. The Chiefs, for instance, announced attendance of 15,895 at Arrowhead Stadium for their opener, about 20% of capacity. Others are planning for similar restrictions. They are also implementing measures that include mandatory face coverings, symptom checks, dedicated entrances and separated “pods” in the stands.

Those policies might reduce the chance of spread, but they won’t eliminate it. Contact tracing in Kansas City forced 10 people into quarantine who came into close contact with the individual who tested positive. It could take up to three weeks to know whether the disease spread among them or to anyone else associated with the game. And while teams can ensure that fans enter their assigned gate and are wearing masks at that point, they will have less control over enforcement of masking and physical distancing throughout a three-hour game.

“It has been documented in scientific literature that certain activities such as singing or yelling could lead to aerosolization of the virus,” said Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “[That allows] the virus to stay suspended in the air and travel further, and that could facilitate super-spreader events. These activities, even at reduced stadium volume, could lead to outbreaks. The invitation of fans into football games that already involve large groups of players who are in close contact for hours is extremely risky. There is otherwise no data to support a certain number of fans that would be safe, and this should be heavily considered before allowing fans into a stadium during an uncontrolled pandemic.”

The NFL has a bigger obligation than simply to comply with local regulations, said Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

“When you make a decision like this, it’s not just about the players and the coaches and the teams and the fans,” Heider said. “It’s every person those people come into contact with. That’s where it gets much more difficult. As ethicists, we would ask, ‘What is the good here? If I’m trying to maximize good and minimize harm, what’s the benefit of opening the stadiums up? And is that benefit worth a human life? More than one human life? Or a resurgence in the virus in the community?'”

The Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars, who hosted 14,100 fans in their Week 1 opener, both play in outdoor stadiums. In Week 2, two teams with hybrid facilities — the Dallas Cowboys‘ AT&T Stadium and the Indianapolis Colts‘ Lucas Oil Stadium — will enter the fray. Both stadiums have retractable roofs and sides. The Cowboys haven’t confirmed how many fans they’ll admit, but the Colts have capped their attendance at 2,500. Binney called indoor stadiums “far more dangerous for transmission of COVID-19,” even if the roof and/or sides are open.

Ultimately, Heider said, teams have a “social responsibility” to their community even if it conflicts with what some fans might want.

“It’s a tough decision,” Heider said. “You hope each NFL team is really sitting down and having a serious discussion and analysis of what the ethical implications are, and what the long-term implications are, and if it’s worth it to have X number of fans in the stands.”

Complacency and community load

Binney was pessimistic about the NFL’s pandemic approach when training camp began. The league had decided against the kind of “bubble” environment employed to great success by the NBA, WNBA, NHL and professional soccer. The NFL’s protocols were closer to those of Major League Baseball, which suffered through a series of team outbreaks early in its return.

NFL players, coaches and staff would be subject to extensive masking and social distancing requirements while at the team facility. But as with those in baseball, they would be exposed to communities that in some cases were hosting raging virus spikes. Four summer hot spots — Florida, California, Texas and Arizona — are home to nine of the NFL’s 32 teams.

This week, Binney admitted he is “stunned” at how well the league has fared.

“And I’m happy to be stunned,” he said. “It has exceeded all of my expectations and, I think, many people’s expectations. What we have seen is that these protocols can work for a period of several weeks when people are very vigilant. I have no reason to believe that the protocols are going to start to fail, but it’s important to make the point that they’re constantly in a very fragile situation, and constant vigilance is required.”

Indeed, complacency might represent the NFL’s biggest obstacle to continuing its season unabated. To this point, it’s clear that NFL personnel are largely staying away from the kind of risky behavior that can increase the chances of infection. Daily testing and digital contact tracing, both cornerstones of the league’s protocol, can help minimize the spread of a single infection, but those measures can get overwhelmed if a large number of people are infected simultaneously.

“An outbreak really can happen at any time,” Binney said. “We’ve seen it in college football over and over and over again. If you don’t follow the protocols and you’re not careful, you can do something that would cause the virus to spread through the entire team. That can happen.

“But also, when a case does happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody did something risky. Cases can arise even if you’re doing your level best. Imagine a coach’s kid is in day care. Another kid gets infected, or a teacher there is infected, and infects the kid. The coach comes home, hugs his kid and gets COVID-19. He didn’t disobey any protocols. He did the best he could and still got infected.”

The chances of such a scenario would increase if community cases rise, as many public health experts are predicting this fall as the flu season arrives and cooler weather forces more people indoors.

“The United States continues to have uncontrolled community transmission in many areas around the country,” Weatherhead said. “Further uncontrolled community spread, and development of new hotspots, could jeopardize the success of football this fall and winter season, as well as jeopardize the health of players, coaches and community members. The higher the rates of community viral transmission, the greater the risk playing football will have for the athletes, staff and the community.”

During the four testing periods that began Aug. 12, the NFL has had zero, four, one and two players produce confirmed positive results, respectively. There has never been more than 10 personnel from other areas of the team to produce confirmed positive results in a single period. In reality, the NFL has some wiggle room before an increase would jeopardize the current game schedule.

“The hope,” Binney said, “is that daily testing and continued vigilance will still prevent outbreaks. So even if there is a seasonal worsening, maybe they go from one or two cases per week to maybe five or six cases but they’re all isolated on different teams. So that would be an increase in cases, but not enough to derail the season. That would be the hope.”

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Seattle Seahawks’ Chris Carson, Jamal Adams highlight injury concerns

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The Seattle Seahawks list running back Chris Carson and All-Pro strong safety Jamal Adams as questionable for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.

That’s just the start of the injury concerns in Seattle’s backfield and secondary.

Carson’s primary backup, Carlos Hyde, is listed as doubtful, and No. 3 running back Travis Homer is also questionable. All three were injured in Seattle’s overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week. Homer (knee bruise) was limited Friday. Carson (foot sprain) and Hyde (hamstring) didn’t practice all week.

They’ll work out on the field before Sunday’s game, according to coach Pete Carroll.

“We’re going all the way to game time on all three guys and just see what happens then,” Carroll said. “We did not practice them this week and that was just to give them every single day to have a chance to get back.”

Rookie fourth-round pick DeeJay Dallas is the Seahawks’ only healthy tailback. They also have fullback Nick Bellore on their 53-man roster but no other running backs on their practice squad they could elevate for game-day depth. Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have said this week that the Seahawks’ backfield situation might force them to get creative Sunday and use other skill players at running back.

The Seahawks (5-1) brought in Alex Collins to begin COVID-19 testing Friday, but he won’t be eligible to join their practice squad until next week at the earliest.

Dallas has a total of 41 scrimmage yards on six touches in four games.

“He’s had an excellent week,” Carroll said. “He’s really right in the middle of the plan. He’s really jacked about the opportunity to carry the load if that would be what happens in this thing. He had a good week. Later as the week wore on, I was making sure we were taking care of him. I didn’t want to overwork him. He wanted to take every snap and we didn’t let him do that, but he’s ready to play.”

Defensive tackle Damon Harrison could make his Seahawks debut Sunday — a potential boost for a defense that’s allowed the most yards through six games in NFL history. Carroll stopped short of declaring that the 31-year-old veteran would play but said he had his best week “without question.” Harrison, a first team All-Pro in 2016, hadn’t played since last season when he joined Seattle’s practice squad on Oct. 7.

“This week really … would make you think that he’s ready to come back and play,” Carroll said. “He’s getting there. The first couple weeks, that wasn’t the case. He was just getting back in shape. He’s lost some weight. He looks a lot better moving around. He’s on his stuff. He knows what he’s doing. He’s in it. So I’m really fired up that he’s competing to get on the field right now.”

The Seahawks could either sign Harrison to their active roster indefinitely — they have two open spots — or elevate him for game day.

“This week or next week, he’s ready to play,” Carroll said. “So he would play whatever the game plan allowed him to, so there would be no play count on him. But he’s a situational player and does a great job inside tying things up. Our guys are doing OK in there and battling. We don’t have any issues rotationwise right now, but he’s really made a big step forward this week.”

The Seahawks list left guard Mike Iupati (back) as doubtful and defensive end Benson Mayowa (ankle) as questionable. Mayowa was limited Friday.

Adams was limited also Friday as he practiced for the first time since injuring his groin in Week 3. He was set to practice earlier in the week before coming down with a non-COVID illness. Adams was sent home, per NFL guidelines, and returned to the team’s facility Thursday afternoon after testing negative.

Carroll called it a “real good sign” that Adams practiced Friday but acknowledged the team’s reservations about playing Adams on Sunday after just one practice over the past month.

“It’s a big concern,” Carroll said. “That’s a lot to ask. He’s worked out great in his conditioning work and all that. The fact that he had to miss a couple days here really kind of threw a wrench into the works for a smooth comeback, so we’ll have to see what happens at game time.”

The Seahawks ruled out cornerback Shaquill Griffin (hamstring/concussion) and list nickelback Ugo Amadi as questionable. Adams’ backup, Ryan Neal, is also listed as questionable, though Carroll said he “looks pretty good.” Tre Flowers will likely start for Griffin. Seattle has Linden Stephens and Damarious Randall as options at nickelback and strong safety, respectively. Carroll said D.J. Reed is ready to be activated off the non-football injury list. The former 49er can play cornerback, nickelback and free safety.

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Fantasy football last-minute pickups for NFL Week 8

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The roster percentages for this column are updated every Friday morning, and any players from Thursday’s Falcons-Panthers game have been taken out.

Each week of the NFL season, we will identify fantasy football waiver-wire pickups specifically for those of you looking for streaming options in deeper formats (including IDP leagues). These are players available in a majority of ESPN Fantasy leagues who have enticing matchups in the week ahead that make them worthy of consideration for your lineup.

While you might notice some overlap with Field Yates’ pickup column that publishes on Mondays, an important distinction is that the options mentioned in this column are focused solely on this week’s matchup and not the players’ values for the remainder of the season.

Do you need replacement options for injured players? Or are you merely dealing with depth issues? A roundtable of fantasy analysts and NFL Nation reporters will join me to identify some choice names to consider each week.

Here are some of our favorites for Week 8:

Quarterback

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers (26.0% rostered; at Seahawks)

Speaking of historically generous pass defenses facing efficient offenses, this setup for Garoppolo should see him bounce back nicely from last week’s poor fantasy showing. Seattle is sitting 29th in pressure rate, so Jimmy G should have time to throw. Even with a depleted crew of receivers and a thin backfield, there are enough playmakers still in the mix to support Garoppolo in this soft matchup. -J.M.

Running Back

Carlos Hyde, Seattle Seahawks (44.9% rostered; vs. 49ers)

I know Hyde isn’t an exciting young back with breakout potential, but luckily there are no “style points” in fantasy. And he should definitely get the volume as long as Chris Carson is out of the lineup. Hyde had 15 carries for 68 yards and a TD in Week 7 — not to mention 1,070 yards in Houston last season. ESPN Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson said they have a couple of other pass-catching backs they might use in a rotational role, but they specifically liked Hyde in free agency because he has “the size and physicality to approximate what Carson gives Seattle on early downs.” -Mike Triplett, NFL Nation Saints reporter

Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills (36.5% rostered; vs. Patriots)

Far more efficient last week than peer Devin Singletary and with nearly equal touch and snap rates in the win over the Jets, Moss is seemingly rising in the Buffalo backfield. Earning an endorsement for a second straight week in this space, there are some key positives to consider with the rookie. Moss was the primary goal-line back earlier in the season, while the team has rarely deployed Singletary in such scenarios since the start of last season. Another angle in his favor is New England has struggled against the rush, allowing a generous 4.6 yards per carry to backs and more than 24 fantasy points per game to backfields, leaving room for both Buffalo backs to flirt with flex value this weekend. -J.M.

Wide Receiver

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (57.0% rostered; at Seahawks)

The talented rookie wideout has everything going for him this week. He is coming off a career-best performance against a tough New England Patriots defense, Deebo Samuel will miss Week 8 with an injury, and the 49ers face the hapless Seahawks secondary, which has allowed the most fantasy points to wideouts (by a mile) this season. -Tom Carpenter, ESPN Fantasy editor

A first-round draft pick who just tapped into his potential in Week 7 is enticing enough. But throw in the fact that the 49ers’ leading receiver, Deebo Samuel, is expected to miss this week’s game with a hamstring injury. Then consider that San Francisco is about to face a vulnerable Seahawks pass defense that has allowed by far the most fantasy points to WRs this season. Finally, ESPN 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner said Aiyuk has been growing more comfortable and taking on a bigger role in the offense in recent weeks. This feels like a no-brainer as a Week 8 pickup with the chance to be a savvy long-term addition as well.-Triplett

Donovan Peoples-Jones, Cleveland Browns (1.6% rostered; vs. Raiders)

If you play in a 12-to-14-team league with non-PPR scoring, I would give Peoples-Jones a look as a WR3/4. The rookie out of Michigan caught all three of his targets for 56 yards and a game-winning score in Week 7 against the Bengals. And with Odell Beckham Jr. down for the season with a knee injury, Peoples-Jones will get snaps in Cleveland’s three-WR sets. He has the skills to create explosive plays, and there will be opportunities here versus the Raiders’ zone-heavy defensive scheme. -Matt Bowen, NFL writer and analyst

Preston Williams, Miami Dolphins (33.2% rostered; vs. Rams)

If you’re scanning the wire, you want upside and what better way to find it than with a super-sized receiver in a new-look offense? Williams has scored in three of his past four games and logic would suggest that the Rams will do everything they can do to take away Tua Tagovailoa‘s primary read in DeVante Parker. With Los Angeles on short rest and Miami off its bye, look for a creative game plan to get this 6-foot-5 athlete in favorable spots for his rookie signal-caller. -Kyle Soppe, ESPN Fantasy researcher

Tight End

Trey Burton, Indianapolis Colts (8.9% rostered; at Lions)

The Colts’ bye this past week sort of hid Burton’s breakout Week 6 performance from the fantasy market. Since coming back from injury, Burton has been a key target for Philip Rivers and creative usage even saw him score on the ground in that epic comeback against the Bengals a few weeks back. Next up is a meeting with a Lions back seven that has been solid in coverage against tight ends, but Burton’s healthy target share should support another solid showing.-J.M.

Richard Rodgers, Philadelphia Eagles (21.5% rostered; vs. Cowboys)

The Eagles lean on their tight ends to move the chains more than any other team in the league. Even when down to third string on the depth chart due to injuries, Philly allocated eight targets to Rodgers this past week. Next up is a Dallas defense allowing 14.8 fantasy points to tight ends. In a uniquely good week for streamers at this position, Rodgers is among the most bankable given his place in such a friendly scheme.-J.M.

Defense/Special Teams (D/ST)

Denver Broncos (30.2% rostered; vs. Chargers)

Denver’s defense has tallied 14 sacks in its past three outings and prior to facing the Chiefs had been solid this season in terms of points allowed. While rookie slinger Justin Herbert has been fairly awesome thus far, it’s worth noting the Chargers have yielded the third-highest pressure rate to opposing defenses in the league, setting up some big-play potential for this group.-J.M.

New Orleans Saints (52.9% rostered; at Bears)

The Saints have struggled to produce big defensive plays since the opener against the Bucs, but they are facing a Chicago offense struggling to move the ball this season, as the Bears’ offense ranks in the bottom five in both yards and points per game.-J.M.

Individual Defensive Players (IDP)

Defensive Line

Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles (13.8% rostered; vs. Cowboys)

With two big games in a row and Graham really heating up off the edge, this matchup against a patchwork Dallas offensive line offers potential for a big line from the proven vet. -J.M.

Linebacker

Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco 49ers (4.5% rostered; at Seahawks)

The 49ers have faced injuries in the front seven throughout the season, vaulting players such as Greenlaw into bigger roles. He has tallied at least six tackles in three straight games and given he’s on the field often, there’s a good chance he extends this streak to four games.-J.M.

Defensive Back

Ryan Neal, Seattle Seahawks (8.4% rostered; vs. 49ers)

Seventeen total tackles the past two weeks signals Neal is both heavily targeted in the passing game and is helping stop runners that leak past the front seven. With a uniquely steady target and tackle rate, Neal is in a nice spot this week against the rival 49ers.-J.M.

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Culture over cash: Ravens beating odds by keeping All-Pro talent – Baltimore Ravens Blog

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When the Baltimore Ravens announced they had signed Ronnie Stanley to a five-year deal Friday, this was far more than a celebration of keeping the best left tackle in the NFL. It represented another victory lap for the Ravens’ culture.

It’s remarkable that Baltimore was able to sign two All-Pro players — Stanley and Marlon Humphrey — to long-term deals in the same month. It’s unreal that the Ravens were able to retain both without making them the highest-paid players at their positions.

Stanley and Humphrey believe this is the start of a special time in Baltimore. With Lamar Jackson in his second full season as a starting quarterback, there’s a feeling inside the locker room that the Ravens are beginning an extended run as a Super Bowl contender.

For Stanley and Humphrey, the top priority wasn’t about breaking the bank. It was more important that they didn’t break up this team.

“We all know we’re a family here,” Stanley said. “I think all the guys are on the same page on what we’re trying to build here in Baltimore and that’s long-term success.”

Ravens officials faced an untimely predicament this year when Laremy Tunsil shattered the market value for offensive tackles in April with a three-year, $66 million contract and Jalen Ramsey did the same at cornerback in September with a five-year, $100 million deal. Tunsil and Ramsey used the leverage of being traded to their teams before signing a long-term deal and knew neither the Rams nor the Texans would allow them to walk.

Tunsil’s $22 million-per-year average was $5.5 million higher than that of any other left tackle, and Ramsey’s $20 million-per-year average was nearly $3 million more than that of any cornerback. Baltimore knew there was no way it could keep this team intact if it surpassed these deals. So, the Ravens offered Humphrey and Stanley deals that fell just below top of the market — and crossed their fingers.

On Oct. 1, Humphrey signed a five-year, $97.5 million extension ($19.5 million per season). On Friday, Stanley agreed to a five-year, $98.75 million extension ($19.75 million per year).

“For me, being the highest paid never really was a factor,” Humphrey said earlier this month. “The biggest thing for me was just staying a Raven. I remember when I first got here, me and [wide receiver] Chris Moore used to joke around saying that we’re Ravens for life. And it’s a very good feeling to actually be one.”

When Eric DeCosta took over for Ozzie Newsome as Ravens general manager in January 2019, he emphasized that he wanted to keep young talent before reaching free agency.

The month of March has long become a frustrating period for the organization. Limited by cap space, the Ravens couldn’t come close to outbidding teams for the likes of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, center Ryan Jensen, guard Kelechi Osemele, offensive tackle Rick Wagner and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

In his 20 months as general manager, DeCosta has signed nearly a dozen players to extensions including kicker Justin Tucker and cornerback Marcus Peters. But the biggest achievement was holding on to a top defensive playmaker in Humphrey and Jackson’s blind-side protector in Stanley.

“I’m proud of the fact that guys want to be here, for sure,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m proud of the fact that guys want to come here. That’s kind of been established for quite a period of time. We’re just trying to do things the right way.”

Signing Stanley and Humphrey were just the first significant steps in keeping this core of Ravens players together. This offseason, Baltimore might have to use the franchise tag on one of its top pass-rushers (Yannick Ngakoue appears to be the prime candidate over Matthew Judon).

Jackson, reigning NFL MVP, has outplayed his rookie contract and could command a new deal over the next two years. Tight end Mark Andrews and and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. will be free agents in 2022.

“I feel the Ravens do a really good job of picking out good talent and trying to keep that culture the way it’s always been,” Stanley said. “It’s just Ravens football.”

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