Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie confirmed the trade Monday. Oakland will now have three first-round picks in 2019 after also getting the Chicago Bears‘ selection in last month’s Khalil Mack trade.
“I got a call from [Cowboys vice president] Stephen Jones this morning, he put it on the table, what he wanted to do, and he wanted the player, and he gave me the pick, and that’s what it came down to,” McKenzie said.
Cooper, the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, has 22 catches for 280 yards and a touchdown in six games this season. He opened his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and made the Pro Bowl twice, but his numbers have fallen the past two seasons.
“I hate to see good players go, but I was on the practice field when Reggie came to me and said the Cowboys would do this for a No. 1 and I said, ‘Let’s do it,'” Raiders coach Jon Gruden told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. “We’re going to try to build this thing the right way. We now have five No. 1 picks in the next two years, so I’m excited about that.”
McKenzie said there had been interest in the 24-year-old Cooper from multiple teams this season, but he was holding out for an offer of a first-round pick, which the Cowboys delivered.
“I think he’s a first-round player, that’s why I had to get that first-round pick,” McKenzie said. “Now, has he been inconsistent? Absolutely. But, has he shown greatness? Absolutely. The consistency is something that I’m sure he’s worked on, and this guy’s still a young player. I think he’s going to do well down in Dallas.”
The 3-4 Cowboys had been doing their due diligence on receivers leading into the trade deadline and had zeroed in on Cooper, who became available in recent weeks with the Raiders’ 1-5 start in the first season of Gruden’s second stint as head coach.
The Cowboys placed Williams on injured reserve with a foot injury Oct. 6. Last week, Williams was suspended for three games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Veteran Brice Butler, who was signed Sept. 18, was released Monday to make room for Cooper on the roster.
The passing game has struggled for most of the season, ranking 29th in the NFL. Beasley leads the Cowboys with 33 catches for 350 yards and two touchdowns; no other wide receiver has more than 13 catches.
Gallup caught a 49-yard touchdown pass in Sunday’s loss to Washington and has 10 catches for 190 yards. Hurns has 13 catches for 158 yards and had his most productive game of the season against the Redskins with five catches for 74 yards.
Austin has been the big-play threat, with seven catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns, but he is expected to miss multiple weeks with a groin injury.
The last time the Cowboys made a major in-season trade for a wide receiver was in 2008, when they acquired Roy Williams and a seventh-round pick from the Detroit Lions for their first-, third- and sixth-round picks.
Williams did not live up to the expectations after the trade, topping out at 38 catches for 596 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009. The Cowboys released Williams after the 2010 season.
Cooper is set to play 2019 under a fifth-year option worth roughly $13.9 million.
Salary-cap space will not be an issue for the Cowboys, although they want to re-sign leading pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, cornerback Byron Jones and can look at long-term deals for Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott as early as this offseason.
If Cooper provides Prescott, who is signed through 2019, with the outside threat the Cowboys have lacked this season, the quarterback’s chances of landing a big deal would increase.
Cooper is in the NFL’s concussion protocol after suffering the injury Oct. 14 in Oakland’s loss to Seattle in London.
The initial reaction to this move has been diametrically opposed to the chatter we saw the last time Gruden traded away one of general manager Reggie McKenzie’s star selections. When the Raiders traded Mack to the Bears for a package built around two first-rounders, the NFL world seemed shocked that the Raiders would settle for such a pittance. This time, Gruden and the organization have been lauded for nabbing a premium asset while getting rid of a player they clearly didn’t intend to re-sign.
When I wrote about the Mack trade, I tried to understand why the Raiders could justify getting rid of him. This time around, let’s look at things from the Cowboys’ perspective. What’s their logic in going after Cooper? Can we piece together a scenario in which they’re better off in the short term or long term by swapping their first-rounder for Cooper?
This trade isn’t really about Cooper. It’s about Dak Prescott and whether the Cowboys want to commit to Prescott at the going rate for a franchise quarterback once his contract is up after 2019. After a stunning 2016 season, Prescott took a step backward in 2017 and hasn’t been much better so far in 2018. The Cowboys have essentially wasted Prescott’s rookie contract with salary-cap missteps and injuries to would-be offensive contributors.
The biggest problem for Prescott, at least in 2018, has been the issue many expected before the season: He’s saddled with an absolutely abysmal group of receivers. Prescott does get to play with Ezekiel Elliott, but I ranked Dallas’ weapons 30th heading into the season, even with Zeke. Prescott’s best wideout this season has been slot receiver Cole Beasley, with the likes of Tavon Austin, Michael Gallup and Allen Hurns failing to consistently make plays. Top tight end Geoff Swaim, who had nine catches in his first three seasons, was on pace for 55 targets before he went down with a knee injury on Sunday.
No receiving corps in the league looked less imposing on paper heading into the season, and the Cowboys have lived down to expectations. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats reveal what Dak is dealing with, as the league tracks the yards of separation between a receiver and the closest defender when a pass arrives. Just 36.4 percent of Prescott’s passes have gone to open receivers (3-plus yards away from a defender) this season, the lowest rate in the league among quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts. The league average is 45 percent. Prescott’s average pass goes to a receiver with 2.9 yards of separation. Again, that’s last among the 22 qualifying passers. Just 43.9 percent of Prescott’s pass yards have been generated by receivers after the catch, which ranks 21st out of 22 passers.
Once Cooper clears the league’s concussion protocol, he should be a receiver capable of creating one-on-one separation for Prescott. Cooper has been targeted only 32 times this season, but he has averaged 3.4 yards of separation on throws 6 or more yards downfield, which is the best rate in the league. Over the past three seasons, Cooper ranks 16th in average separation at target among receivers with 200 or more targets, alongside wideouts such as Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr., Adam Thielen and Antonio Brown.
Beasley also ranks highly in the separation stat, in part because he’s running routes out of the slot and rarely being thrown contested passes. The division of labor in the slot might become a problem for these Cowboys. When Cooper struggled to start the 2017 season, the Raiders helped spark their star wideout back to life by moving him into the slot, where he posted most of a 210-yard, two-touchdown game against the Chiefs. The Cowboys would likely be smart to give Cooper plenty of reps in the slot, but they would be doing so at the expense of Beasley.
Dallas can’t realistically evaluate whether Prescott is its quarterback of the future with the Cowboys’ pre-trade wideout corps. Trading for Cooper gives them a credible wideout with which to analyze Prescott. Cooper’s numbers have slipped over the past two seasons, but the former Alabama star hasn’t suffered the sort of lower-leg or foot injury that would sap his athleticism, and he doesn’t turn 25 until next June.
Unless there’s some missing piece of evidence, it’s difficult to figure out why Cooper has declined the past two seasons. Some of the blame has to go to the Raiders’ coaching staff. They let offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave leave after the 2016 season to promote quarterbacks coach Todd Downing, in part to prevent Downing from leaving for a coordinator’s job elsewhere. Downing was an absolute disaster in his season at the helm. Gruden is now the de facto offensive boss, and while Cooper hasn’t been 100 percent for much of the season, he racked up two 100-yard games in his first four starts before the trade was made.
Adam Schefter breaks down the Raiders’ trade of Amari Cooper to the Cowboys for a first-round pick.
The clock on a Prescott extension is ticking. If the Cowboys were absolutely sure they wanted to stay in the Dak business for the next several seasons, they would sign Prescott to an extension this offseason in advance of the final year of his rookie deal. It’s the same fourth-year timeframe the Raiders had with Derek Carr and the Seahawks used with Russell Wilson, each of whom were also mid-round picks without fifth-year options attached to their rookie contracts.
On current production, I’d lean toward the Cowboys giving Prescott an extension without the Cooper trade, but Dallas has reasonable concerns about whether Prescott can elevate his game with better wideout play. There isn’t really a recent precedent for a team moving on from a passer as effective as Prescott has been after his rookie deal without a serious injury involved, although in a league in which rookie contract quarterbacks are essentially keys to unlocking Super Bowl rosters, we’ll see a team go for it in the next few seasons.
Trading for Cooper now gives the Cowboys a season and a half to figure out whether Prescott is their guy. If Prescott works out, the Cowboys can use the threat of the franchise tag in 2020 to keep Prescott around in advance of a long-term deal, though that runs the risk of creating a Kirk Cousins-in-Washington problem. If not, the Cowboys can go after a new quarterback without having committed to Prescott in the long term, though they’ll be down a first-round pick in the process.
The problem with that math, of course, is that the Cowboys also have to figure out what to do with Cooper. They’re on the hook for only $411,765 this season, but Cooper’s fifth-year option comes in at $13.9 million in 2019. Even that represents a discount in a market in which Sammy Watkins is getting $16 million per year in free agency, but do the Cowboys really want to pay Cooper something north of $20 million per season to keep him from hitting free agency in 2020?
Making these time frames work is tough because the Cowboys can’t franchise — or threaten to franchise — both Cooper and Prescott in 2020. They can sign one of them this offseason to free up the franchise tag in 2020, but they would either be locking up Cooper to an extension after half of a season in Dallas or signing Prescott before they’re sure he’s their guy.
Given that the Cowboys already committed a first-round pick to acquire Cooper and are set to pay him nearly $14 million next year, my suspicion is that they’ll lock him up to an extension this offseason. They already have more than $111 million in projected cap space for 2019, and while Cooper isn’t a sure thing, the free-agent market isn’t likely to deliver a better option.
The top available wideouts in the 2019 free-agent class are likely to be veterans such as John Brown, Chris Hogan and Golden Tate. The guys from the 2014-15 drafts who aren’t yet re-signed and are likely to hit free agency this offseason aren’t inspiring. Would you rather pay Cooper $18 million per year on a new deal or spend $14 million per season to sign Devin Funchess? Players with questions, such as Kelvin Benjamin, Quincy Enunwa, and Robby Anderson, could go for $10 million or more per season. You can understand why the Cowboys looked at their options and preferred the idea of paying a premium to sign Cooper, who is younger and has a more inspiring track record than just about anyone they could’ve gone after in free agency.
There’s also a benefit for the Cowboys in terms of competing for the NFC East, which looks up for grabs after the Eagles got off to a slow start. With the Giants quickly fading out of the race and turning it into a three-team battle, the 3-4 Cowboys have seen their odds of winning the division jump from 22.2 percent before the season to 30.7 percent after seven weeks, per ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Cooper isn’t going to swing the division on his own, but the trade addresses the weakest point of Dallas’ roster with enough time for the Cowboys to seriously shift things over the final nine games of the season. Does Cooper win them the game over the Texans, in which the Cowboys could barely move the ball in the second half? Is he enough of a weapon for Jason Garrett to trust Prescott with 52 seconds left in Sunday’s loss to Washington? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to argue that the Cowboys aren’t in better shape than they were yesterday.
Of course, it’s easy to improve when a team gives up a first-round pick, and the Cowboys incur an opportunity cost by not being able to get a player at relatively low cost over the next four seasons. Just as the Mack trade left the Bears implicitly pricing their star edge rusher at something north of $30 million per season, the Cowboys are likely going to be paying Cooper something close to $23-24 million per year when factoring in a new deal and the value they forfeited with a first-round pick. Cooper can make that work if he turns back into a superstar, but the Cowboys aren’t likely to realize much (if any) surplus value on this contract. They’ll also miss out on adding a first-rounder to help in the secondary or along the offensive line, where their once-vaunted unit has been ripped apart by injuries the past two seasons.
The very long term
As for Oakland’s side of things, it’s easier to understand. When you’re having a fire sale, you sell things. The Raiders quite clearly didn’t intend to give Cooper an extension after the 2019 season, and they’re better off trading a guy sooner rather than later if they don’t want to pay a premium. Getting rid of Cooper limits the extent to which the Raiders can evaluate Derek Carr, but the trade seems to confirm that Gruden might have already made up his mind about Carr.
If he doesn’t think his team can win and wants to rebuild the team in his image, going after draft picks makes sense. My concern would be less about the picks and more about the veterans. In the early days of the McKenzie era, Oakland struggled to attract veteran free agents because nobody wanted to come play on a miserable team in an antiquated stadium. The Raiders had to target veterans who were past their primes or massively overpay midtier starters until they showed signs of life with Carr, Cooper and Mack in 2015. One year later, with the help of additions such as Bruce Irvin and Kelechi Osemele, the Raiders went 12-4 and won the division.
Now, though, the Raiders are back to square one. Why would any veteran player want to come play for the Raiders under Gruden when they’re clearly not committed to winning in the near future? The Raiders don’t really have any promising, young players left on the roster who aren’t on veteran contracts, but if Cooper had stuck around, why would he want to play for a coach who doesn’t seem to want to pay young players who break out on their rookie deals? Who would play for the Raiders right now if given a choice to play anywhere else in the league? It’s fair to wonder whether Gruden, who has publicly thrown players such as Carr and Rashaan Melvin under the bus in recent weeks, has poisoned the well.
If you go to Las Vegas, you’ll see a billboard towering above the future site of the Raiders’ stadium, advertising the arrival of its future tenants. Most team billboards have a shot of the star quarterback or a dynamic skill-position player. The only person depicted on the Raiders’ billboard is the coach. Given what we’ve seen from Gruden so far, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be the only current member of this organization actually making his way to the desert for the team’s projected debut in 2020.
He would be eligible to return for the Christmas Eve game against Denver in Week 16.
Lynch suffered the injury during the Raiders’ Week 6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in London. He was trying to pull his right leg out of the grasp of Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin when linebacker Austin Calitro leveled Lynch, who landed awkwardly and stayed on the Wembley Stadium pitch for a moment before gingerly jogging off the field.
Lynch, 32, has rushed for a team-high 376 yards on 90 carries (4.2-yard average) and three touchdowns in 2018. He also has 15 receptions for 84 yards.
The five-time Pro Bowler’s two-year contract is up after this season; it pays him a fully guaranteed $2.5 million in base salary after he restructured it this offseason, though it carries a salary-cap number of more than $4.45 million for 2018, per ESPN Stats & Information data. Lynch received a $1 million roster bonus on the 11th day of the league year, and he already has accrued $281,250 in roster bonuses ($46,875 per game on the Raiders’ 46-man roster, with a max of $750,000). He would miss out on $468,750 in bonuses if he did not play another game this season; he stood to earn up to $3.75 million in yards and touchdown incentives.
With Lynch out, veteran Doug Martin figures to become the No. 1 back for Oakland (1-5), which returns from its Week 7 bye to host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
DAVIE, Fla. — Brocktober will continue for the third consecutive game.
Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase said Monday that Brock Osweiler will start at quarterback Thursday at Houston, and Ryan Tannehill will miss his third game. Tannehill is dealing with a shoulder injury that has prevented him from throwing.
Gase said Tannehill is in a “good spot” and the Dolphins (4-3) plan for him to throw this week; he added that there’s no guarantee it would be a real football, and it could be a Nerf football.
Miami still expects that Tannehill won’t need surgery, that he will return this season and he will be the starter when he does.
Osweiler gets a chance to play the Texans for the first time since they traded him to the Cleveland Browns last summer. He confirmed he hasn’t talked with Texans coach Bill O’Brien since the deal, but Osweiler sidestepped questions about his relationship with O’Brien and his Texans tenure.
Gase said there is a “high possibility” that Wilson’s season is over after he suffered a hip injury Sunday versus Detroit. Wilson traveled Monday to see a specialist, and the Dolphins expect to get confirmation by Tuesday afternoon on his injury.
On a positive note, Gase said he hadn’t heard anything to indicate that Wilson’s injury would be career-ending and that the speedy receiver was in good spirits when they talked after the game.
Stills has a groin injury and is still being evaluated. It’s possible he could be out beyond Thursday.
That means the Dolphins will have to go back to DeVante Parker, who was in the news Sunday after being a surprise inactive Sunday, with his agent Jimmy Gould calling Gase “incompetent” and accusing the coach of lying when he said Parker wasn’t “completely healthy.”
Gase confirmed again it was a coaches’ decision to keep Parker out of the lineup Sunday in favor of having players like rookie running back Kalen Ballage active, adding that he expects Parker to play Thursday.
“We don’t have any more receivers so I’m sure he’s going to play,” Gase said.
As far as Gould’s comments, Gase said they “don’t really bother me.” He said he talked with Parker briefly Monday morning.
The Patriots, who visit the Buffalo Bills on ESPN’s Monday Night Football on Oct. 29, have just two other running backs on their 53-man roster: White and Kenjon Barner.
In his standard day-after-game conference call, head coach Bill Belichick said he didn’t have anything to add about Michel’s status, noting that the team will update its injury report the next time it is required to do so later this week.
In his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI, Belichick said that the team will explore the possibility of adding a running back.
“We’ll take a look at that over the next day or two and try to figure it out so when we start practicing for Buffalo, we’ll be ready to go. We’ll look at our options and see what we feel like the best thing is [and] see how long we think Sony might be out.”
Alexander underwent an MRI on Monday to confirm the diagnosis.
Alexander suffered the injury with 18 seconds left in the first half of the Bucs’ 26-23 victory Sunday. He was blitzing quarterback Baker Mayfield and planted his foot, going down without contact. Players on both teams immediately knelt down. Alexander was able to leave the field under his own power.
“He said to us before we left out there for halftime, he was like, ‘Never take anything for granted,'” Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said Sunday. “We see the passion he plays with. We see the heart he puts in the locker room. We are going to have his back just like we had his back today.
“I love Kwon. We’re going to miss him, and I know he is going to make an amazing comeback. That’s just the type of person that he is, and his work ethic has been strong since he’s been here.”
The timing couldn’t be worse for Alexander, who is set to become a free agent next season and has been trying to negotiate a new contract.
The Bucs are now razor-thin at linebacker. Rookie Jack Cichy, who stepped into Adarius Taylor‘s strongside spot (Taylor slid over to Alexander’s middle spot), also left with a knee injury and did not return. Last year’s starting strongside linebacker, Kendell Beckwith, is still recovering from ankle surgery after an offseason car accident.
The team did re-sign linebacker Devante Bond this week to provide more depth. Bond had been waived after suffering a foot injury during the preseason and received an injury settlement.
PHILADELPHIA — What was organic last season seems forced this time around.
In the wake of the Eagles’ collapse against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, coach Doug Pederson said his message to his players in the locker room was that the “pressure’s off of us.”
“Nobody on the outside world is giving us a chance to do much of anything,” he said. “Pressure’s off, so we can go play, have fun, relax.”
The Eagles famously rode the “underdog” theme all the way to a Super Bowl championship in 2017, complete with dog masks the players broke out following each upset win in the postseason — an image the Panthers used to troll Philly following Sunday’s meltdown.
During his epic parade-day speech on the Art Museum steps, center Jason Kelce rattled off a long list of players and execs who had been counted out, capped by a rendition of the chant, “No one likes us. We don’t care.”
It was an easy, natural identity for the Eagles to embrace, considering they were in fact underdogs in every playoff game they played.
It’s more difficult now that they’re the Super Bowl champs. This isn’t a team that is being discounted — not even after it blew a 17-0 lead to Carolina to fall to 3-4. The NFC East is still up for grabs. Most believe the middling division will come down to the wire and the Eagles will be right in the mix for the crown.
Pederson went on to offer some context around his messaging.
“Number one, I think no one has really given us a chance anyway,” Pederson said. “Whether we’re putting pressure on ourselves to perform, to play, whatever it is, live up to a certain expectation, I think that’s the point where I think that no one has given us that type of — maybe with the amount of injuries or whatever it is — given us much credit going into games.
“And I think sometimes we force issues. We try to press just a little bit instead of just — we don’t have to go searching for plays. When the plays come, let’s just make the plays that come to us, and right now, we’re not doing that. So I think that’s the pressure that’s off of us, and we just have to get back to playing and executing better.”
It’s a sharp pivot from the “embrace the target” mantra that he has been pushing since the offseason. Pederson stressed that this group is not going to sneak up on anyone and, as defending champs, will get the opponent’s best shot every week. It’s hard to sell that the Eagles are being dismissed now — injuries and slow start aside — when they’ve been favored in every game they’ve played to this point.
What stands out when you get past the fact that the message doesn’t fit are some of the phrases Pederson used in his explanation: “we try to press,” “we don’t have to go searching for plays,” “we force issues.”
“Sometimes I think players and coaches just put added pressure when they don’t have to, and that’s something that we’ve got to — it starts with me there, just to make sure we’re doing everything, even during the week, getting ourselves in position to win games,” he said.
What seems clear is that Pederson believes his team is trying to do too much and needs to find a way to relieve some of the pressure that is keeping them from performing freely.
It actually seemed like the joy and swagger the Eagles played with last season had returned last week against the New York Giants, and it spilled over for three quarters Sunday. The celebratory touchdowns were back. During one TV timeout, the Eagles’ kickoff unit formed a dance circle, with each player getting a chance to jump in the middle and show off his moves. The fun-loving, dominating squad was back … until everything evaporated in the fourth quarter.
NEW YORK — It was a Tuesday afternoon in early October and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was sitting in the back seat of an old-school yellow taxicab stamped with logos for Campbell’s Chunky Soup and the NFL’s Play Football initiative. This was supposed to be his off day, a respite from the craziness of a promising — but often frustrating — rookie season filled with losses.
Barkley was filming a commercial, and he was set to pop out of the cab to surprise the Cardinal Hayes High School football team in the Bronx.
As the young Giants star waited, he admitted to nerves. Barkley had been in the NFL for only a short time. Maybe the rookie would be an unfamiliar face.
“You never know. That’s embarrassing if nobody notices and is like, ‘Who is this cat?’” Barkley said.
It didn’t go that way. He was met with a reaction befitting a rising star.
It’s this vulnerability — and more — that makes Barkley such a likable and impressive addition to the Giants. At 21, he’s as self-effacing as he is talented, with the world seemingly at his disposal.
As an example, Barkley works with the Covenant House of Newark, New Jersey, to get tickets for every Giants home game for three homeless children. Then he goes out of his way — win or lose — to spend 15 minutes or so with them after the games.
All that attention he’s receiving from being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and having early success hasn’t blurred his focus.
“So far, what I’ve seen is he has handled it like a real pro,” Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson said recently.
Barkley entered Week 7 leading all NFL running backs with seven runs of 20-plus yards. He was tied for the league lead with three rushes of 40-plus yards.
To Barkley, those are just numbers. After rushing for 130 yards and adding another 99 yards receiving last Thursday night, he was hardly content. In his estimation, it meant nothing because the Giants had lost 34-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The jump cuts that made defenders look silly and the 50-yard touchdown weren’t any sort of consolation prize. Not for this rookie running back, who became just the second player in NFL history to top 100 total yards in each of his first six career games.
Barkley will have a chance to tie Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt’s record on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Atlanta Falcons. He has already proved capable of doing things on the football field through his first six games that leave everyone, including the opposition, in awe.
“Saquon is a beast,” Eagles running back Corey Clement said. “It’s hard not to say it. If I was saying anything otherwise, I’d be a hater.”
That’s what makes the situation in the Bronx all the more extraordinary. Barkley seems to be keeping it together despite all that has come at him over the past year — praise, fame, money, on-field success and a newborn daughter. His trademark smile, flashed for the teenagers during the commercial shoot when they trailed him with their phones, seemed sincere.
“That’s what it’s about,” Barkley said. “I was able to have genuine conversations with some kids, give them stories about how I got here, what drives me, what motivates me. That is something I want to continue to do.”
He took as much away from that moment as the young men he was there to advise.
Life was different at Penn State, where Barkley was the big fish in a small pond. He was a student tucked into a campus in central Pennsylvania, an amateur getting a taste of what was about to come.
“I was able to have genuine conversations with some kids, give them stories about how I got here, what drives me, what motivates me. That is something I want to continue to do.”
A lot has changed since. Barkley signed endorsement deals with Nike, Pepsi and Visa, among others. He’s financially set, and even bought a new home for his parents in his hometown of Whitehall, Pennsylvania, and vowed to save or invest all his paychecks, a la Marshawn Lynch and Rob Gronkowski.
Barkley quickly became part of a circle that includes Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. They have become fast friends, even hanging out before the draft. He has a close-knit team that begins with his family and childhood friends.
They’re all within a reasonable car ride. New York/New Jersey is Barkley’s new home. He lives in an apartment on the Jersey side with a picturesque view of Manhattan. His girlfriend, Anna Congdon, and their 6-month-old daughter, Jada, live with him.
The days of being a faceless star are gone. Barkley notices the stares, points and pictures when he’s out and about. He oddly doesn’t view himself as famous, but more as a recognizable face or body. He knows his every move matters — on the street, at home, or on the sideline.
“It’s different than in college. More of a spotlight. National attention,” Barkley said. “It reminds you that you have to be responsible. There are people that view you in a different way, look at you in a different way and you are a role model to some kids. You have an impact on kids. Little things like what you say. Things you’re doing. And you have to be aware of that.”
It’s all still strange, in a way you would imagine when people continually ask to see your quads and calves. That happens to Barkley more than he ever expected.
He’s had people approach him in airports and say, “Hey, nice legs.” He’s almost unsure how to respond. He usually just replies with a thank you. While the exchange is odd, he figures compliments come in different forms. This is his new norm.
Barkley believes being a father helps keep him grounded.
“He’s a good dad,” Barkley’s mother, Tonya Johnson, added. “He changes diapers. So far, so good. He’s doing what he needs to do.”
No matter how disappointing a loss might be, there are always those private moments when baby Jada looks at him without any idea he’s something special. The yards and touchdowns don’t matter to her or his family.
“[Fatherhood] humbles you. Brings you back down to life,” Barkley said. “Makes you understand what really matters. The spotlight, attention, all that doesn’t really matter. You go home to your daughter, even after a loss when you’re upset and you don’t want to talk to anybody. You see her crack that smile, and it changes your day.”
Shepard, who’s also a new father, has admired his teammate’s approach.
“He’s a great father to his daughter,” Shepard said. “Very family-oriented. That is what I admire most about him, how close he is with his family. He always talks about his daughter.”
Shepard says Barkley is sneaky funny. He talks a lot. Never shuts up, really, but is always upbeat, and there is rarely a dull moment when he’s around.
This is the beauty of Barkley, capable of being as measured and reserved when needed off the field, explosive and elusive when on it. As the football legend grows (and the early returns suggest he’s destined for big things), so will the pressure, demands and fame.
“I tell him, ‘Don’t think about what other people think of you,’” his mother said. “Think about what you would want for yourself, and you also have a child. Because people are going to judge you regardless. But you have a child, be the role model you want for your child.”
Barkley said: “There will be times when I mess up. I’m human, but I want to be a role model for the good things I do and the bad things I do. And the times I do make mistakes, learn from those mistakes.”
Beckham, who is just two lockers down, is an example of how difficult stardom can be. Beckham has compared it to living life as an animal on display at the zoo.
Barkley has said since he was drafted that his approach was to be himself.
The nerves before getting out of the taxi and surprising a high school football team? It shows he’s doing pretty well so far.
The unit put on its worst performance of the season with a national audience watching, allowing 551 yards in a 45-10 loss to the Chiefs. But the final score didn’t show just how bad it was. Then again, losing by 35 says a lot.
Players missed tackles all night, allowed Chiefs players to get wide open for scores and essentially looked like they were a step behind the other team all night. Even linebacker Vontaze Burfict, arguably one of the Bengals’ best defensive players, looked completely inept when matched up against the speed of the Chiefs’ offense. Burfict had only two tackles before leaving in the third quarter with a hip injury.
The Bengals have a problem, and it’s not going to go away. While they might be able to pull out wins when their defense is generating turnovers, they don’t match up well against any type of speed or quick-paced offense. On nights like Sunday, when the Bengals’ offense also isn’t clicking, the issue becomes even more obvious.
For whatever reason, the Bengals’ defense has not gotten going under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and it’s hard to say what percentage falls on the players vs. the scheme. There’s not exactly a solution waiting in the wings either.
The Bengals’ defensive line has failed to get any pressure the past two games, and both their linebacker and cornerback depth are razor thin outside of the starting players.
That’s not to say the offense shouldn’t take its share of the blame. The Bengals failed to capitalize on several breaks against a porous defense that came into Sunday’s game ranked last in the league. A kickoff that went out of bounds and an interception by Shawn Williams gave the Bengals good field position, but the offense responded by going three-and-out both times. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw a pick-six and couldn’t get the ball to anyone but A.J. Green.
That’s not to mention the head scratching aborted punt that resulted in a quick Chiefs’ touchdown, or the decision to punt with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter when the Bengals were trailing 45 to 10. At that point, it seemed clear the Bengals had thrown in the towel.
The Bengals need to change their mindset, whether it’s a more aggressive scheme or a different approach. If there’s no savior on the roster, then it’s on the coaching staff to reassess what has gone wrong with the team in the past two weeks and figure out how to cater to the strengths of the players they have.
The Bengals couldn’t stop the Steelers in the final minute of last week’s loss, and they couldn’t stop the Chiefs at any point on Sunday. Unless they go back to forcing timely turnovers, it’s almost a given that the defense will cost them more games. The Bengals certainly have talent at key spots, and that’s why these performances are so puzzling.
If the Bengals want to be considered a legitimate playoff contender this year, they certainly have a long way to go before proving they’re in the conversation. So far, they haven’t proven anything yet.