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Carson Wentz returns to dominant MVP form as Eagles smother Giants


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz looked like his old MVP-caliber self Thursday night, slicing through the New York Giants defense to post three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 122 quarterback rating as the Eagles rolled past their division rival, 34-13, improving to 3-3 in the process.

It was clear Wentz was back to form right out of the gate. Facing a third-and-7 at the Giants 13-yard line on the Eagles’ first possession, Wentz rolled out right, extended the play and then threw across his body and into the back of the end zone to a tightly-covered Alshon Jeffery for the touchdown.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he took 6.77 seconds to throw that touchdown pass, the third-longest by any player on a TD this season.

Wentz found Jeffery again in the second half and also threw one to tight end Zach Ertz.

Suddenly, an offense that sputtered through the first five games looked like its old self. The Eagles had failed to post 24 points in a single game entering Thursday. They hit that mark before halftime. They had slipped towards the bottom of the league in red zone and third-down efficiency, but bounced back by scoring four times in the red zone and converting nine third downs.

Wentz, playing in his fourth game since returning from an ACL/LCL injury, was the catalyst. He went 10-of-10 for 155 yards and two touchdowns on third down through the first three quarters. Coming in, he was completing 44 percent of his third-down passes.

Granted, the Giants have been somewhat giving on defense this season — they ranked 19th in average points allowed coming in (25.6) — but the Eagles’ offense was dealing with some issues of its own. Right tackle Lane Johnson was playing through a high ankle sprain suffered just four days prior against the Minnesota Vikings and was unable to finish. Standout left tackle Jason Peters also left early with a biceps injury. And Philly was down two of its top running backs with Jay Ajayi on injured reserve (ACL) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) still working himself back.

The mounting injuries are a concern for the Eagles, whose schedule picks up with games against the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints over the next four weeks.

But on Thursday, the 2017 Eagles offense showed up, and just in time to potentially save the 2018 season.



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Preseason poll, ranking MVP, rookie, player, coach of the year for the 2018 season


“Who’s going to win?” is the question of the moment in the NFL. As preseason football blessedly fades away and attention turns to the real games around the corner, everybody wants to know who’s going to win.

Who’s going to win the division? Who’s going to win the conference? Who’s going to win the Super Bowl?

Here, we’re a little more individual-focused. This particular piece takes up the question of who’s going to win the awards. You know, MVP, Coach of the Year, rookies of the year. That kind of stuff.

Yes, it’s prediction season all the way around. And as we look forward to the NFL season, here are our panel’s best guesses for which individual NFL humans will take home the hardware when the 2018 season is over.

Our preseason voting panel: Bill Barnwell, Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Dan Graziano, Mina Kimes, Vince Masi, Mike Sando, Aaron Schatz, Adam Schefter, Kevin Seifert and Field Yates.

Scan through the entire list, or jump ahead to a specific award by clicking here:

MVP | Coach of the Year | Defensive Player of the Year | Offensive Player of the Year | Defensive Rookie of the Year | Offensive Rookie of the Year | Comeback Player of the Year


MVP

In an extremely close vote, Rodgers edges New England’s Tom Brady by three points. Seven of our 11 panelists threw him a first-place vote. He’s coming off a season in which he missed nine games for health reasons, so he’s eligible for another one of these awards, as you’ll see below. But in picking Rodgers to win the big one, our panel has some historical support. The last time Rodgers missed a large chunk of a season due to injury was 2013, and he came back the following year to throw for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns, and secure his second MVP award. A big comeback at age 34, and a return to the playoffs for the Packers, could secure Rodgers a third.

The reigning MVP will play at age 41 this year, but there’s no reason to expect a drop-off in performance until we see one. Brady led the league in passing yards last year, and had 32 touchdown passes to eight interceptions. If he leads the Patriots to their customary 12-plus wins, he’ll be credited for carrying a tattered wide receiver corps and and surviving behind a depleted offensive line. Those things work in your favor when it comes time to vote, and could deliver a fourth MVP trophy for Brady.

The Saints are a preseason Super Bowl favorite, and Brees appears set to break Peyton Manning’s career passing yardage mark during the season. There will be a lot of attention on the 39-year-old Brees, who has never won an MVP award but could break that hex if the Saints build off of last year’s success and secure one of the NFC’s top two seeds.

Elliott got a second-place vote, a third-place vote, a fourth-place vote and two fifth-place votes from our panel, and he’s an intriguing pick. NFL award voting favors quarterbacks, as Elliott himself found out when he unjustly lost the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year award to teammate Dak Prescott. But if the Cowboys unseat the Eagles as NFC East champs this year, it would likely be because they leaned heavily on Elliott to drive their offense. History shows a running back has to have something close to a record-setting season — probably in a year when there aren’t a lot of strong quarterback candidates — to win MVP. But Elliott is the kind of player in the kind of situation that could make it happen.

Expectations are high for young Watson, who grabs two third-place votes and a fourth-place vote to edge out Todd Gurley II, Carson Wentz and Ben Roethlisberger for the fifth spot in our preseason MVP poll. Watson played like the best player in the league during the brief, pre-knee-injury portion of his rookie season, and the belief is that he’ll make a full recovery and be in position to build on that performance. Returning the Texans to the top of the AFC South would make Watson a strong candidate.


Coach of the Year

1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

It’s literally impossible to predict this award before the season starts, because it always seems to go to a coach whose team outperforms preseason expectations. And if we knew who that was going to be … well those expectations would be higher, wouldn’t they? So we default here to the best coach of all time, who could win it every year and it wouldn’t be an upset. We feel pretty confident the Patriots are going to be good, though, which means Belichick probably has a hard time winning it.

The last coach to win this award in back-to-back years was Washington’s Joe Gibbs, who won it in the strike-shortened 1982 season and then again for going 14-2 the following year. Baltimore’s Don Shula tied for the award with George Allen in 1967 and then won it again in 1968. And the Giants’ Allie Sherman won it back-to-back in 1961-62. That’s the whole list of coaches who’ve won Coach of the Year in consecutive seasons, a group McVay would join if he won it this year. The Rams are a consensus favorite to win the NFC West, which means they’d have to be mega-great to get their coach this award two years in a row.

Sure, the defending Super Bowl champions coach is on here, because we know he can coach and we figure his team is probably going to be good enough to put him in the discussion. But again … come on. What would the Eagles’ record have to be this year for Pederson to win this award over someone whose team comes out of nowhere to go 10-6?


Defensive Player of the Year

1. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Now, here’s an award you can win back-to-back. J.J. Watt just did it in 2014 and 2015. In fact, Watt won it three years out of four, because he was the 2012 winner as well. Donald could join that company for similar reasons — because what he delivers as a pass-rusher from an interior defensive line position makes him a truly unique player whose skills and performance can elevate him above a crowded field. If he wins it two years in a row without attending training camp, though … that could be bad news for coaches who want their star players in camp.

The up-and-comer in the group, Bosa has 23 sacks in 28 games in his first two seasons in the league. He’s paired with another fearsome edge rusher, Melvin Ingram, which helps draw attention away from him. Imagine him winning Defensive Player of the Year three months before his brother is the first pick in the NFL draft?

Another emerging star from the 2016 draft class, Ramsey is already regarded as one of the best corners in the league. Having A.J. Bouye starting opposite him could have a similar effect to the one we discussed about Bosa and Ingram. If that’s the case, and if Ramsey improves on his interception totals (six in two years so far), he would make himself a candidate for this award. And then maybe we could find out what he really thinks about all the quarterbacks in the league. Oh wait.


Offensive Player of the Year

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

If you believe in a Rodgers comeback, you believe he has the ability to win this award. When healthy, he’s the best quarterback in the league, and how can the best quarterback in the league not be considered for offensive player of the year? The only thing that might hold him back is if he does indeed win MVP and voters want to reward someone else here.

2. Todd Gurley II, RB, Los Angeles Rams

The above scenario is what happened last year, when Gurley took home this award while Brady won MVP. Gurley obviously has the ability to be a yards-from-scrimmage monster who helps the team in the run game and the passing game, and that makes him a perennial candidate here.

The same can be said for this guy, who heads into (yet another) contract year, but this time may be able to taste real free agency next summer. Bell has no shortage of motivation, and assuming he returns to the team along the same schedule as last year and doesn’t skip a beat, he’ll rack up rushing and receiving yards at a rate that puts him in contention for this award. He finished third in our poll just ahead of Brady and Elliott.


Defensive Rookie of the Year

No defensive rookie is in a better position to succeed statistically than Chubb, who’s not likely to see many double-teams with Von Miller playing on the other end of the line. If he can join the rare company of men who’ve delivered double-digit sacks in their first seasons, Chubb could basically be a lock for this award.

All eyes will be on Smith, who stayed away from training camp a long time while his contract was worked out. He long has been viewed as an instant-impact kind of guy, and he’ll shoulder a lot of responsibility in the Bears’ defense. That unit could be better than people think, and if it takes a huge jump this year, Smith is likely to get a good chunk of the credit.

3. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers believe James is a do-everything kind of safety who can help them in a variety of ways. A defense that’s ultra-strong up front and has good cornerbacks as well could put James in position to shine right out of the gate.


Offensive Rookie of the Year

The Giants have not had a top-10 rushing offense since 2010. In the seven years since, they rank 30th in the league in rushing yards, ahead of only Arizona and Detroit. The last time they had a back rush for 1,000 yards in a season was 2012, when Ahmad Bradshaw had 1,015. As the much-ballyhooed No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Barkley is charged with fixing all of that. No rookie should get the amount of opportunity Barkley gets to show what he can do. The Giants — and our panel, who picked him unanimously here — believe he has the ability to do it big.

It appears Freeman will open the season as the starting running back for the Broncos, who also have been looking for a lasting answer there. They had a 1,000-yard back last year in C.J. Anderson, but five different players have led the Broncos in rushing over the past six years, and they would like someone to deliver some consistency of performance. The Oregon product is coming off a big camp and will get a shot at the job.

If Darnold really does start Week 1 for the Jets, and if the Jets have a surprisingly good year, this will be one of the biggest stories of the season and thrust young Sam into the discussion for this award. It feels more likely that it’ll go to one of the running backs slated for a high volume of carries, but the spotlight on Darnold will ensure that he’s never out of the minds of the voters — as long as he plays well.


Comeback Player of the Year

The preseason favorite because what he’s coming back from happened two years ago, and a return to his pre-injury form would be a welcome relief after the stops-and-starts of 2017.

2. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

Another player who has been eligible for this award too many times in recent seasons. Can Watt, who appears bound for the Hall of Fame, once again be the player he was early in his career? Or are we destined to see some lesser version of him from here on out?

3. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

Our panel picked Rodgers for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. It suffices to say that, if he returns from his injury and wins both of those awards, you’d probably have to give him this one too.



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Will Deshaun Watson of Houston Texans, Carson Wentz of Philadelphia Eagles regress in 2018? NFL MVP


The two most impactful quarterbacks of 2017 both ended their seasons on the sidelines with torn ACLs. Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz put together highlight-reel campaigns before being struck down with knee injuries.

Watson’s injury came in practice after six starts, while Wentz’s season ended as he was attempting to scramble for a touchdown against the Rams in December. Their injuries were not the same — Watson’s was strictly an ACL tear, while Wentz also tore his LCL and had damage to his IT band — but the stories are similar enough: Young quarterback emerges as a superstar only to suffer a serious knee injury.

Thankfully, both are progressing through their rehab processes. Watson has made his way back to the field during the preseason, and while Wentz is still a question mark for Week 1, the Eagles shouldn’t need to rush him back, with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles available in reserve. Both Watson and Wentz should have bright futures and long careers ahead.

We can’t predict exactly how Watson and Wentz will recover from their knee injuries, but what we can do is take a closer look at how they performed in 2017 to infer what they’ll do on the field in 2018. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about both of these stars, but there are also elements of their games that are unlikely to pop up again — both good and bad. Let’s start with Wentz (and if you want to skip ahead to Watson, click here).


Wentz was the favorite to take home MVP before he suffered that knee injury against the Rams, as the former second overall pick had thrown a league-leading 33 touchdown passes and had an NFL-best touchdown-to-interception ratio of 33-7. Wentz was fifth in passer rating, but his 75.9 Total QBR was tops among quarterbacks who were eligible for the passing title. Wentz’s Eagles were 11-2, tied with the Steelers for the best record in football.

Maybe you preferred Tom Brady. That’s fine. At the time he went down, though, Wentz had graduated from an inconsistent rookie season into a legitimate superstar passer in Year 2.

Even if Wentz hadn’t torn up his knee, I think he would have struggled to maintain that level of play in 2018. He is still going to be a very good quarterback, but there were some elements of his game from a year ago that will be tough for him to recreate, no matter how good he gets. Wentz stood out by …

Moving the chains (and more) on third down

He was an absolute monster on third down in 2017. Wentz finished the season with a 123.7 passer rating on third down, which topped the league by a full 13 points. His 90.5 Total QBR in those same situations was 19 points better than anybody else’s. Wentz racked up 9.5 yards per attempt on third-down passes, more than a full yard ahead of anyone else. You get the idea.

If we go back through recent history, his numbers still stand out. We have Total QBR numbers back through 2007, and Wentz’s third-down mark was the ninth-best in that time frame. Look at the top 20 in that category, and you’ll find multiple seasons from Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. It’s the sort of company in which you would expect to see a franchise quarterback such as Wentz.

Very few of them, though, could keep up their third-down performance on an annual basis. During those top-20 seasons, our dominant third-down quarterbacks posted an average Total QBR of 88.3. The following season, those same passers were able to muster an average Total QBR of only 58.4, far closer to league average. (This excludes players who didn’t play a significant number of snaps the following year due to injury.) Just one of the quarterbacks — Manning between 2008 and 2009 — improved on his mark from the prior year.

The same is true for passer rating. Taking the top 20 passers since 2001, we find that their average passer rating on third down during their chain-moving campaigns was 118.6. During the following season, that mark fell to an average of 90.2. Just four of the 20 quarterbacks topped a passer rating of 100 on third down the following season. To put that in context, the league average for passer rating on third down in that time frame was 83.0.

The Eagles should feel the impact of Wentz regressing toward the mean on third down. Football Outsiders has noted for years how offenses that raise their game on third down struggle to keep it up for multiple seasons, and that was the case for the Eagles in 2017. As the Football Outsiders Almanac notes, the Eagles’ offense was 13th in DVOA on first down and 20th on second down before leading the league on third down. At the time of Wentz’s injury, the Eagles were converting 45.3 percent of their third downs, which would have been the third-best mark in football over a season.

Wentz’s injury might impact Philadelphia’s effectiveness on fourth down too. You probably remember the “Philly Special,” but even before the playoffs, the Eagles went 15-of-21 on fourth down last season. Their 71.4 percent conversion rate was third best in the league, and Wentz played an enormous role in that success. He ran for a league-high seven conversions in seven tries on fourth down.

Will coach Doug Pederson be as aggressive in putting his quarterback’s body at risk on fourth down? And if not, will teams be able to create turnovers by stopping the Eagles on fourth-and-short?

Dominating in the red zone

Wentz was devastating when defenses were backed up against their own goal lines. He threw 22 red zone touchdown passes — without a pick — and took zero sacks. His 96.7 Total QBR and 116.0 passer rating were best in the league among qualifying passers through Week 14. This after a rookie season in which Wentz posted a 35.8 Total QBR in the red zone, which was 27th in the league. His passer rating of 90.0 was better, but it pushed Wentz to only 21st in the league alongside Trevor Siemian.

When Wentz went down, the Eagles were averaging 5.46 points per trip to the red zone. (These numbers count field goals as worth three points and touchdowns worth 6.95 points.) That was the best mark in football, though Philadelphia dropped to 5.20 points per trip after Wentz was replaced by an initially ineffective Foles. The Jaguars were the only team to top Pederson’s offense, with Blake Bortles & Co. averaging 5.35 points per excursion into the red zone.

Regardless of whether you use 5.46 or 5.20 as the Eagles’ baseline for 2017, it’s tough to stay that effective in the red zone. From 2001 to ’16, 98 teams averaged five points or more per trip inside the 20. The following season, just 29 of those 98 teams were able to keep their inside-the-20 success going. The list includes four Manning-era Colts teams and eight Brady-led Patriots teams, though there’s only two Rodgers seasons and nary a back-to-back appearance from the likes of Brees, Ben Roethlisberger or Russell Wilson.

Those 98 offenses declined by an average of just under a half-point per drive in the red zone. On the whole, the offenses lost an average of 39 points from the previous season, and they won an average of one fewer game than they did the prior season. The Eagles might be slightly less sensitive to a red zone decline on offense because their defense is so good, but it would be an impressive feat if Wentz could do as much in the red zone as he did last season before getting hurt.

Cutting back on interceptions

As a rookie, Wentz threw interceptions on a respectable 2.3 percent of his passes. That’s good for a debuting passer, but it’s not quite as impressive when you consider that Wentz’s average pass traveled only 7.3 yards in the air, which was 26th in the league. Shorter passes are less likely to be intercepted than deeper throws, which was true for Wentz. While just 15.6 percent of his throws were “deep” passes traveling 16 or more yards downfield, those passes accounted for seven of his 14 picks.

The Eagles took the training wheels off Wentz last season and let him chuck it downfield. His average pass went 9.8 yards in the air, the second-highest mark in the league behind that of Jameis Winston. Typically, we’d associate that with more interceptions, but Wentz actually reduced his interception rate. He was picked off on only 1.6 percent of his pass attempts, the eighth-best mark in the league.

It’s incredibly tough to throw deep that frequently without getting picked off at even a league-average rate. Going back through 2007, there have been 18 players whose average pass attempts traveled between 9.5 and 10 yards in the air, including Wentz. The other 17 passers in this group combined to post an interception rate of 3.1 percent, nearly double Wentz’s mark. (If we expand the group to a larger sample and include passers whose average throw was between 9 and 10 yards, the interception rate remains 3.1 percent.)

Wentz’s 1.6 percent interception rate is tough for any quarterback to keep up, let alone a passer picking up chunks of yardage like Wentz. The signal-callers who have kept their interception rates this low are either relatively conservative quarterbacks (Brady, Alex Smith) or passers who sacrifice interceptions but have higher-than-average sack rates (Tyrod Taylor). Wentz does not yet fit into either category.

Football Outsiders also notes that Wentz had six dropped interceptions last season. When you add those in for every passer and remove the interceptions on Hail Mary attempts and tipped or dropped passes, Wentz’s 2.8 percent adjusted interception rate is tied for 14th in the league alongside that of Eli Manning.

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Adam Schefter details the latest on Philadelphia’s QB situation as it chooses between Carson Wentz and Nick Foles as the starter for Week 1.

Improving on deeper passes

If anything, I think this is the place Wentz could continue to grow. As a rookie, he struggled on deeper passes, finishing 24th in QBR and 26th in passer rating on throws 16-plus yards downfield. Through the first four weeks of last season, Wentz wasn’t much better. As an example, he missed Torrey Smith for what should have been a long touchdown on his first attempt of the season. As of Week 4, Wentz was 19th in QBR and 20th in passer rating on deep passes.

As the season progressed, though, Wentz noticeably improved. From Week 5 on, Wentz posted the league’s sixth-best QBR on deep passes and was seventh in passer rating. Smith ended up having an uneven season, and Wentz could have gotten a little more help; his receivers dropped 3.2 percent of his deep throws from Week 5 on, slightly above the league average of 2.8 percent. If he can continue to be that guy on deep passes for an entire season and get an upgrade on Smith with extra snaps from Mack Hollins and Mike Wallace, Wentz might be able to overcome the likely regression he should expect in other places.


As good as Wentz was, Watson was better in a smaller sample. Lower the limits to 200 pass attempts — Watson had 204 — and the Texans star led the league in yards per attempt (8.3) and Total QBR (81.3). He succeeded with a stat line that looks more like a top passer from the 1970s than one from today, which seems remarkable given that Watson is about as modern of a quarterback as it gets. Understanding what he will do in 2018 starts with the fact that …

Watson succeeded despite an astronomical interception rate

It’s virtually impossible for a quarterback to be good while throwing interceptions as frequently as Watson did last season. He threw eight picks on those 204 attempts, which was good for an interception rate of 3.9 percent. Only Siemian and DeShone Kizer threw interceptions more frequently with that 200-pass minimum. The Clemson star was on pace for a 486-pass season, which would have resulted in 19 interceptions over a full campaign.

Despite the fact that he threw a ton of interceptions, Watson was great! He posted the best passer rating by a quarterback with an interception rate between 3.5 and 4 percent since Y..A. Tittle in 1963. The group of passers who topped a 100 passer rating with this sort of interception rate includes Watson, three passers from before the AFL-NFL merger of 1970 and Chris Chandler’s 1998 campaign. Just below them are more familiar names, including Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign in 2004 and Tony Romo‘s first two seasons as a starter.

Usually, you can be good or you can throw interceptions. Watson did both.

The good news is that I think Watson should be better at avoiding interceptions as his career goes along — and even as early as 2018. For one, two of his interceptions came on Hail Mary attempts, which shouldn’t be treated as meaningful. Watson had two dropped interceptions, per FO, so his adjusted interception rate is in the same ballpark, but the added interceptions for other quarterbacks push him to 29th-best in the league, ahead of seven other passers.

In watching those picks, there’s a line running through the decisions: Watson often got greedy and tried to make off-schedule throws without setting his feet and getting his body moving forward and/or tried to squeeze his passes into impossible windows. He scrambles around the pocket before making a late throw into the end zone. He rushes a throw under pressure and sails a pick-six to Jason McCourty. The Texans run play-action and roll Watson out to the boundary and flood it with receivers, leaving no room and a pick for Richard Sherman when Watson throws off his back foot.

Those are the sorts of things rookies do. Watson’s decision-making should get better as he continues to grow, just as Wentz’s did a year ago.

Bill O’Brien should (hopefully) be more aggressive

The Texans coach deserves credit for reshaping his offense around Watson’s skills, but his late-game decision-making didn’t fit the offensive juggernaut O’Brien had constructed. You can’t buy a Ferrari and spend your entire drive across the country in the right lane. In doing so, O’Brien cost the Texans possible wins against the Patriots and Seahawks.

After Watson spent most of Week 3 decimating the Patriots’ defense, O’Brien went conservative at the exact moment when his former boss Bill Belichick would have tried to seal things. The Texans faced a fourth-and-1 from the Patriots’ 18-yard line with a two-point lead and 2:28 to go. The Patriots were down to one timeout and would have had two chances to stop the clock, so a conversion would have given the Patriots the ball back with no more than 30 seconds left (and possibly ended the game with a touchdown or a second conversion). Instead, the Texans kicked a field goal to turn a two-point lead into a five-point lead and dared Tom Brady to drive down the field on their defense. He did so with 23 seconds to spare.

Five weeks later, O’Brien got conservative in a different way. Watson ran for a first down to get the ball to his own 20-yard line at the two-minute warning with a four-point lead. The Seahawks had all of their timeouts, but one first down would have basically wrapped up the game. In a game in which Watson had thrown for 407 yards and run for 62, O’Brien … handed the ball to Lamar Miller three times. The Seahawks used their three timeouts, and on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line, O’Brien decided that the chances of punting with his defense keeping the Seahawks from scoring a touchdown were better than his chances of either converting a fourth-and-two or stopping the Seahawks from punching the ball in the end zone from 28 yards out. The Seahawks scored in three plays.

Doug Pederson’s success going for it on fourth down in 2017 should encourage coaches with great offenses to trust them on fourth-and-short in key moments. (Likewise, as Pederson noted, coaches should learn from Doug Marrone’s letting the Patriots off the hook in the AFC Championship Game.) Coaches work too hard during the week to hurt themselves with poor decisions on fourth-and-short. Yes, they’re going to take some heat if they go for it late in a game and the decision doesn’t go their way. But Pederson showed throughout last season that the upside is worth the risk. The Texans have to place their faith in Watson & Co.

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Stephania Bell and Field Yates discuss what to expect from Deshaun Watson as he works his way back from an ACL tear.

Watson’s receivers did incredible work

As much as Watson’s interception rate made him look like a quarterback out of the 1970s, his average pass distance only furthers the story. Watson averaged a whopping 11.1 air yards per throw during his time as a starter, which is something out of a Joe Namath stat line. That’s the third-deepest average pass in a 200-attempt season since 2006, and the two guys who topped Watson were famously unique: Tim Tebow (2011) and Michael Vick (2006).

Typically, when you see a passing offense with a lot of deep passes, you get a lot of drops. Receivers dropped 6.6 percent of Tebow’s passes and 7.0 percent of Vick’s throws during their respective seasons. They’re not alone. When you look at the quarterbacks whose average pass distance has traveled 10 yards in the air or more since 2006 before Watson, the average drop rate for those quarterbacks was 4.9 percent.

Watson’s drop rate was 1.0 percent. One percent! Part of that is the nature of a smaller sample, but 1.0 percent is the lowest drop rate we’ve seen for any quarterback with 200 or more pass attempts since 2006, when ESPN’s drop data starts. The previous low was 1.7 percent, coincidentally set by the Texans’ Matt Schaub in 2013. Marcus Mariota and Matt Ryan were at 1.8 percent in 2016. None of those passers was throwing anywhere near as deep as Watson was last season. There’s no way that’s going to keep up in 2018.

Watson was incredible on play-action

This shouldn’t be a surprise given Watson’s abilities as a runner. Opposing defenses simply couldn’t deal with Houston’s play-action game last season. When he faked a handoff, Watson averaged 10.3 yards per attempt, with a 124.3 passer rating and a staggering 95.6 Total QBR. The latter number led the league and was the fourth-best QBR by a passer with 50 or more play-action attempts since 2007.

Watson should still be effective on play-action in 2018, but it will be tough for the second-year passer to be as good.

The Texans’ schedule was relatively easy

Watson came in for the second half of a brutal loss to the Jaguars in Week 1, but after that, he faced a pretty middling group of defenses before the ACL tear. His final start was against a Seahawks defense that finished the season 13th in defensive DVOA and was likely better earlier in the season, before dealing with the injuries that seemed to afflict nearly every one of the star contributors. Otherwise, Watson’s starts were against below-average pass defenses, including the Bengals (17th), Patriots (21st), Chiefs (23rd), Titans (24th) and Browns (26th).

I’m not so sure, though, that Watson’s schedule will be much tougher in 2018. Although it’s not a specific projection of defensive performance, both the ESPN Football Power Index and Football Outsiders project that Watson’s Texans will face the league’s second-easiest schedule this season. Watson will have to play the Jaguars twice, but he gets the 32nd-ranked pass defense of the Colts twice too.


What’s next

Both Watson and Wentz should be very good if they stay healthy in 2018. The way that they succeed, though, is extremely likely to look different from the way we saw them bust out in 2017. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect both to produce slightly less impressive numbers than the figures we saw last season. If they’re both healthy heading into the postseason, though, I suspect their organizations will happily make that trade. Health concerns — particularly for Watson, who has now torn each of his ACLs — should be the only obstacles between these two franchise quarterbacks and MVP contention in the years to come.





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Cam Newton has to be ‘drippin’ with consistency to get back into MVP talk – Carolina Panthers Blog


SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Cam Newton sported a pair of fashionable sunglasses as he strutted through rows of teammates already on the grass stretching at the start of Sunday’s practice.

“Let me tell you something,” the Carolina Panthers quarterback said. “Ain’t nobody drippin like I’m drippin.”

Drippin means something that is awesome or super cool.

Newton doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing his personality, which can be perceived as anything from cool to flamboyant to arrogant. To him it is all about loving life and loving the game that has made him one of the NFL’s most polarizing players.

But what Newton, 29, wants more than anything is to be the best player in the NFL like he arguably was in 2015 when he won the league MVP award.

He wants to be remembered for winning Super Bowls and having fun doing it in a way no quarterback before him has. He came close three years ago in Super Bowl 50, where Carolina lost 24-10 to Denver in the season known for the quarterback’s “dab.”

Yet when you look at MVP candidates for 2018, Newton’s name either doesn’t come up or is way down the list topped by Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and Drew Brees, to name a few.

Newton’s stock has been on a downward spiral since his abrupt exodus from his Super Bowl 50 news conference wearing a black hoodie and an angry scowl.

He completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes during a 6-10 2016 season and was the third-best quarterback in the NFC South behind New Orleans’ Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan a year ago, even though the Panthers went 11-5.

But coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers believe Newton can return to MVP form. They spent the offseason rebuilding the wide receivers corps and surrounding the franchise quarterback with the talent it takes to do what he did in 2015 when he threw a career-high 35 touchdown passes and rushed for 10 more.

They fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and hired offensive guru Norv Turner, 66, who helped make Troy Aikman into a Hall of Famer and Philip Rivers into a future Hall of Famer, who helped Sam Bradford to an NFL-single-season record 71.6 completion percentage in 2016, who helped Brad Johnson and Gus Ferrotte become better than average.

Newton obviously believes in himself. In his recent return to Instagram, he posted a picture of himself holding a big cigar with the caption, “BETT1NG EVERYTH1NG on ME.”

Getting more consistent

Rivera, for one, wouldn’t bet against Newton returning to MVP form — if everyone around the first pick of the 2011 draft plays well.

“It’s not just about him making plays,” Rivera said. “That’s one of the biggest misnomers everybody has. They think, ‘Oh, this guy has got to do this, this guy has got to do that.’

“He said it when he won the league MVP, this is because of the team,” Rivera recalled. “He hit the nail on the head 100 percent.”

The percentage the Panthers are focused on now is 65 to 70 as opposed to Newton’s career completion percentage of 58.5. Turner set that as the goal and Newton said it’s realistic he can reach it.

Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, Norv’s son, said consistency is the biggest thing that stands between Newton and being a legitimate MVP candidate.

“And the way that you do that is to follow the game plan, take what the defense gives you and not try to make the big play all the time,” he said. “Just get the ball out of your hands and continue to make good decisions.

“Just know, if it’s not there and doesn’t look good then we know where our outlets are. He’s done a really good job of doing that and completing a high percentage.”

Be yourself

Newton is in a happy place in his life. He became a father for the third time — fourth when counting his stepdaughter — early in July. He likes the direction the offense and team are headed after the offseason changes.

He likes new owner David Tepper, even though Newton has been a strong advocate of former owner Jerry Richardson.

“I’m at a point in my life where it’s refreshing,” Newton said.

Newton’s teammates see that. Ask them what he has to do to return to MVP form and they give an answer that goes beyond improving footwork and accuracy.

“Just be himself,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “Obviously, his talent and work ethic speaks for itself. He has the tools around him. We just have to elevate our game, because we know he’s going to bring it.”

Smith was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia to bring more speed to the offense like Newton had in 2015 with Ted Ginn Jr. The Panthers also signed speedy free agent Jarius Wright and drafted D.J. Moore in the first round.

Newton has to get the ball into the hands of those players, in addition to Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and second-year running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the team in catches last season with 80.

Newton also has to rely less on the legs that have made him the top rushing quarterback in the NFL since 2011 and more on the players around him, although there are no restrictions on him running if a play is there.

“Cam just has to be Cam,” said running back C.J. Anderson, who was on the Peyton Manning-led Broncos in Super Bowl 50. “The biggest way for anybody to be MVP is the weapons around him have to show up.”

For Newton that means getting it out of his head that if the first or second pass option isn’t there he has to take off running. He has to go consistently through the progressions.

“We have a lot of talent on the offensive side and guys that can take it 2 yards and turn it into 20 yards,” Newton said. “It starts with me and I have to be able to trust those guys and get the ball to them.”

Scott Turner spends a lot of time talking to Newton about being consistent with his eyes and working his feet so they’re in position to work with his eyes.

“I felt like watching his tape [from past years] if we could get those things, he’d be pretty good,” he said.

Let the music play

It was the first of a three-day minicamp in June and Newton had a big smile as he connected his phone’s playlist to the giant speakers on the practice field behind Bank of America Stadium.

Music at practice isn’t unusual during warm-ups. But when warm-ups ended, the music didn’t stop. It continued throughout the two-hour workout, a trend that has continued in training camp and will continue into the season.

Newton approached Rivera and Scott Turner with the idea, and they agreed to give it a try.

“It kind of brings energy and keeps him upbeat in practice,” Scott Turner said. “The one thing he said is at the game it’s never really totally quiet.”

Newton calls the music an important part of his transition into a new offense.

“I could care less what music is being played,” Newton said. “I’m just saying we try to mimic the game as much as possible. We can get into somewhat of a monotony of going through certain things every single day.”

With Newton, there’s seldom monotony, music or not. He’s always into something during practice, from jawing with outside linebacker Thomas Davis to accepting a giant Bojangles box from a fan as he did during Thursday’s first practice and then pretending to share a chicken snack with the other quarterbacks.

Scott Turner doesn’t mind the side antics, because Newton usually is focused when the time is right. That side of Newton also makes him harder to describe than most quarterbacks.

“It’s hard, because he’s a very complex guy,” Scott Turner said. “To me, as a football player, you think of his playmaking ability and explosiveness, the chances to make big plays. As a person, fun and energetic.”

Still a kid at heart

Late in Sunday’s practice, Newton sprinted about 60 yards to the end zone, then turned to joke with reporters who were in the shade avoiding the blazing sun.

“All y’all need is some lemonade,” Newton said with a grin.

Scott Turner wasn’t surprised by it.

“The thing I love about him — and it’s refreshing — is he’s comfortable in his own skin,” he said. “That’s who he is. He brings a lot of energy to practice. His teammates feed off that a lot. I like it.”

Scott Turner has worked with other mobile quarterbacks such as Teddy Bridgewater at Minnesota. But he’s never worked with anyone like Newton, and doubts he ever will again.

“I don’t think there’s anybody like him out there,” he said.

There’s definitely not a quarterback with Newton’s size (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) who is as athletic and mobile. There’s also not a quarterback who dances after touchdowns or during pregame warm-ups like Newton.

He’s been called a big kid, and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“I’m always having fun,” Newton said. “There never has been a time that has altered. There has been times it’s been jaded a little bit, but that’s my life.”

Betting on himself

Newton cracked a joke when asked about Tepper and the $2.275 billion the hedge-fund expert spent to purchase the team.

“You see what it sold for and you’re like, ‘Geez,'” Newton said making a funny face. “I think I’m due for an upgrade.”

Newton, who prior to the 2015 season signed a five-year, $103.8 million extension that runs through 2020, still is one of the best quarterback bargains in the NFL as the 16th highest-paid at the position. His statistics might be on the decline, but not his confidence level and ability to make fun of situations.

That he’s been healthy and able to participate fully in all offseason conditioning sessions has helped not only him, but those around him after a 2017 offseason in which he was limited because of shoulder surgery.

“One would hope that’s a good sign for us,” said Olsen, Newton’s favorite target, who missed much of last season with a foot injury.

Newton looks like he’s in better shape than he was a year ago when he reported to camp in what he called the best shape of his career after shedding more than 15 pounds.

Yet Newton still isn’t in the MVP conversation. Fox Sports radio host Colin Cowherd predicted the Carolina quarterback and his team will be one of 10 potential “Dumpster Fires” in 2018. NFL executives ranked Newton as a second-tier quarterback at 11th overall in ESPN’s NFL QB Tiers projectInsider.

Wide receiver Devin Funchess said his quarterback is “ready to rock.”

The sunglasses at practice were only another example of how Newton is approaching this season with perhaps more swagger than he had in 2015, the last time he entered camp fully healthy.

He wasn’t mentioned in preseason MVP talk that year, either, by the way.

“I feel great,” Newton said. “My body feels great. I’ve always got to mention to [Thomas Davis] that I even look great.”





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NFL MVP way-too-early 2018 predictions for all 32 teams


Who will be your team’s most valuable player in 2018?

NFL Nation reporters make their way-too-early predictions for all 32 franchises.

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West


AFC EAST

Running back LeSean McCoy

If I sound like a broken record, it’s because McCoy has arguably been the Bills’ MVP since he arrived in 2015, and they might have to lean on him more than ever in 2018. With the quarterback job up for grabs among AJ McCarron, Nathan Peterman and rookie Josh Allen, it would be going out on a limb to say that Buffalo will have a competent passing game. McCoy could have trouble running behind an offensive line that lost Eric Wood and Richie Incognito this offseason, but he figures to be a vital cog for another season in a rebuilding offense. — Mike Rodak

Cornerback Xavien Howard

The easy choice is Ryan Tannehill, but the idea here is to get ahead of the curve on Howard before everyone else catches up to his potential to be a legitimate No. 1 shutdown cornerback. I watched him play arguably the best game of his career last December against Brandin Cooks, and those who study more of Howard’s tape relay that his final six games in 2017 stack up favorably against most NFL corners. Ask any defensive coordinator the value of a cornerback who can match up against an opponent’s best receiver, and they’ll tell you it’s invaluable. — Mike Reiss

Quarterback Tom Brady

The reigning NFL MVP will turn 41 on Aug. 3 and is coming off a Super Bowl LII performance in which he threw for 505 yards. While there is no guarantee that he will simply pick back up where he left off, the odds that will be the case in 2018 seem favorable. It helps that Brady appears to have an excellent supporting cast around him. — Mike Reiss

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson

The offense is in transition, especially at quarterback, so there are no obvious candidates on that side of the ball. Johnson, who received a massive free-agent contract with $34 million guaranteed, is the most accomplished player on defense and should be an ideal fit in the Jets’ press-man scheme. If he can revert to his ball-hawking days with the Rams — he had seven interceptions in 2015 — he’ll be a shoo-in for team MVP. — Rich Cimini

AFC NORTH

Quarterback Joe Flacco

Sure, the more popular picks would be running back Alex Collins, linebacker Terrell Suggs or even kicker Justin Tucker. But Flacco has more motivation to produce this season. The Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round, and Flacco needs to get out of his five-year rut if he wants to see that $18.5 million base salary in 2019. Here’s betting that Flacco plays inspired football. The last time he faced this type of pressure was in 2012, and he responded by being the Super Bowl MVP. No one is predicting that performance, but Flacco will be an MVP again — this time, the MVP of the Ravens. –Jamison Hensley

Wide receiver A.J. Green

Green described himself as having a “crummy” season in 2017 due to drops, turnovers and an ejection for fighting in a loss to the Jaguars. He still had 1,078 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, but he’s due for a bounce-back season. Green is arguably the best player on the team when he’s healthy, and he’s undoubtedly going to be Andy Dalton’s top target again. If the Bengals can bring their offense up from the cellar, Green will probably be in line for a routine good season. — Katherine Terrell

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor

In Buffalo, Taylor stayed on the field and didn’t throw interceptions. If he can start 16 games, avoid turnovers and win some games, he’ll give Baker Mayfield time to grow. That all will be immensely valuable to the Browns for this season and the future. — Pat McManamon

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell have won the past four team MVPs, as voted on by the locker room, but 2018 is set up for Roethlisberger to earn plenty of votes. He was one of the league’s hottest quarterbacks late last season, and with Martavis Bryant gone, Big Ben will be tasked with elevating the play of the supporting cast. While he’s motivated to win the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl, the quarterback also expects negotiations on an extension to commence next offseason. A healthy season with robust numbers always helps in a contract year. — Jeremy Fowler

AFC SOUTH

Quarterback Deshaun Watson

Watson’s impact was evident last season, when the Texans went 3-3 in his six starts and 1-8 after he tore his ACL. If the Texans are going to be any good and contend for a playoff spot, it will be because Watson and the offense take another step forward. — Sarah Barshop

Quarterback Andrew Luck

Of course, this all depends on whether Luck is on the field. The organization — from owner Jim Irsay to the coaching staff to Luck — believes the Colts will have their franchise quarterback back. He has proven over and over again that he’s able to cover up roster flaws, even when he spent nearly two seasons battling his right shoulder injury. He’ll likely do the same thing in 2018 — as long as he plays — with the rebuilding roster. — Mike Wells

Cornerback Jalen Ramsey

Ramsey is just two seasons into his career, and he’s already a first-team All-Pro and regarded as one of the NFL’s best players. He draws the opponent’s top receiver each week and essentially takes away half the field, which makes going up against the Jaguars’ defense even tougher. Ramsey is headed for Darrelle Revis/Deion Sanders territory and could be even better because he’s bigger and more physical than either. — Mike DiRocco

Quarterback Marcus Mariota

This has to go to Mariota if the Titans plan to become true contenders. He is and always will be the most important Titan. Coming off his worst season as a pro, Mariota has increased pressure to live up to the role of franchise QB and show he’s worth the nine-figure contract extension he should command next offseason. The good news is Mariota is fully healthy this offseason and has many of the appropriate pieces around him to succeed, most notably a more progressive, creative offensive coordinator in Matt LaFleur. — Cameron Wolfe

AFC WEST

Linebacker Von Miller

Case Keenum will certainly make his case to be the team MVP in what the Broncos hope will be an offense that pulls itself out of 2017 struggles. But Miller is at the peak of his powers, and they’ve set the table to set him free in the pass rush with the addition of Bradley Chubb and the return of a healthy Shane Ray. Ray, who had three wrist surgeries last season and finished with just one sack, is also in a contract year now that the Broncos did not engage his fifth-year option. All that together means Miller could threaten his career high in sacks: 18.5 in 2012. — Jeff Legwold

Safety Eric Berry

Good things always seem to happen for the Chiefs when Berry is in their lineup. They’ve made the playoffs in four of his five full seasons but missed in two of the three in which he was out with an injury or illness. — Adam Teicher

Cornerback Casey Hayward

The Chargers have several options to choose from, but with the arrival of first-round pick Derwin James, they should have one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL, and Hayward is the centerpiece. The Vanderbilt product’s 11 interceptions since 2016 are tied with Marcus Peters for tops in the league. With the return of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, along with the addition of second-round selection Uchenna Nwosu, the Chargers’ pass rush will generate plenty of opportunities for Hayward to make plays. — Eric D. Williams

Quarterback Derek Carr

Did you forget that he finished tied for third in league MVP voting in 2016? Sure, Carr regressed after signing that five-year, $125 million contract last season, but he was also coming off a broken pinkie on his passing hand and a broken right leg. Then he broke three bones in his back in Week 4 last season. Yes, Jon Gruden is in Oakland to jumpstart Carr, who has two new weapons, Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, to go with Amari Cooper, Jared Cook and Marshawn Lynch. “He’s got the right stuff,” Gruden said at the combine. “He’s going to be a great leader for us.” — Paul Gutierrez

NFC EAST

Running back Ezekiel Elliott

The Cowboys are operating under a Dak Prescott-friendly narrative to help their third-year quarterback, but nobody can help him more than Elliott. The running back led the NFL in rushing as a rookie, when the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016. He ran for 983 yards in 10 games last season, missing six because of a suspension. Jerry Jones believes Elliott will be freed from the burden of suspension talk and look more like the runner he was in 2016. The Cowboys need that guy to control the tempo of the game and keep the offense in balance. The past two times they made the playoffs, they have been driven by the running game. They need to have that formula again in 2018. — Todd Archer

Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

As long as Beckham is on the field, he’s the Giants’ best player. He’s coming off a broken ankle but is running and cutting without much restriction in training. The injury isn’t expected to have any long-term drawbacks, either. Beckham had at least 90 catches for 1,300 yards and at least 10 touchdowns in each of his first three NFL seasons. His return alone makes the Giants an exponentially improved team. — Jordan Raanan

Quarterback Carson Wentz

Wentz was a front-runner for league MVP in 2017 before he tore his ACL and LCL in December, and he intends to pick up where he left off as early as Week 1 against the Falcons. There could be a few bumps early as he gets re-acclimated, but Wentz should round into form by long and is motivated to taste the Super Bowl experience himself after being forced to watch from the sideline last season. — Tim McManus

Quarterback Alex Smith

Jordan Reed could be that guy, but the problem for him is staying healthy. The easy pick right now is Smith, and it makes sense for a number of reasons. He has helped settle a position that, despite having the same guy start for three years, was in a state of flux with all the contract talk. That will help in the locker room, as will Smith’s regular-guy demeanor. And if the Redskins become better at running the ball and stopping the run, they’ll need a QB who puts them in good spots. Smith is capable of doing more than just that, but his penchant for not turning the ball over fits well with the direction of this team. — John Keim

NFC NORTH

Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky

The Bears upgraded their talent level on offense, but none of that matters unless Trubisky makes a giant leap in Year 2. Chicago’s entire offseason has been about Trubisky. Now it’s up to the former second overall pick to use these newly acquired resources and turn the Bears’ offense — ranked 30th overall in 2017 — into a respectable unit capable of competing with the likes of Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit. — Jeff Dickerson

Quarterback Matthew Stafford

Yes, this is the easy answer, but for the Lions, it’s also the correct one. Stafford has been the team’s MVP the past three seasons, and if Detroit is going to have success in 2018, it’ll again be because of the guy the Lions are potentially paying $135 million over the next five years. The offense is built around Stafford, and he’s not only the most valuable player Detroit has and one of the top two or three players on the team (defensive backs Darius Slay and Glover Quin being the others). He’s also the most indispensable. — Michael Rothstein

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers is coming off the worst injury of his career as a starter — a broken right clavicle that cost him more than half of last season. But the last time he broke his collarbone (his left clavicle) in 2013, he won his second NFL MVP the following season, when he threw 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions in a 12-4 season that ended in the NFC Championship Game. There could be some symmetry this season, with Rodgers poised for a run at matching Brett Favre’s MVP total. — Rob Demovsky

Quarterback Kirk Cousins

While this early designation could have been placed on a handful of players on both sides of the ball — particularly on defense, with safety Harrison Smith — if Cousins can take this team to the next level like the franchise expects, he’ll undoubtedly be the MVP by season’s end. Cousins has a host of playmakers at his disposal, and it’s his job to elevate their game. He did that not long ago in Washington with the likes of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. If he can bring that level of excellence to Minnesota, the Vikings will be in good shape for another deep playoff run. — Courtney Cronin

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons

Wide receiver Julio Jones

Jones continues to be arguably the most dangerous threat in the game when fully healthy. The addition of rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley as an explosive playmaker should make things easier on Jones, as opposing defenses won’t be able to devote all the attention to him. Jones looks to top 1,400 receiving yards for the fifth straight season. The Falcons just need to get him in the end zone more, after he had only three scores last season. — Vaughn McClure

Quarterback Cam Newton

Who else could it be? Teammates have been saying for years that “as Cam goes, so go the Panthers.” Well, the Panthers gave Newton a new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, a new wide receiver corps headlined by Torrey Smith and first-round draft pick D.J. Moore, and a new running back in C.J. Anderson to complement Christian McCaffrey. All the pieces are in place for Newton to possibly return to his 2015 NFL MVP form. — David Newton

Quarterback Drew Brees

The future Hall of Famer is no longer the obvious choice in this category after breakout seasons by defensive end Cameron Jordan, running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, wide receiver Michael Thomas and the entire offensive line that led the Saints back to the playoffs last season. Brees doesn’t have to do it all by himself anymore on this balanced roster. But it’s worth a reminder that the 39-year-old still can do it when needed, like he did in last year’s playoffs. I expect a return to something like 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. — Mike Triplett

Quarterback Jameis Winston

The Bucs need a lot of help on defense, but if Winston can protect the football and make smart decisions, he’ll be the team MVP. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bucs are 3-14 (.177 win percentage) when Winston commits two or more turnovers in a game in the course of his 45 career starts, compared to 16-17 (.485) in games in which Winston throws one or fewer picks. — Jenna Laine

NFC WEST

Running back David Johnson

The last time Johnson was healthy for the vast majority of a season, he put up league-MVP-caliber numbers and was the runaway team MVP when he ran for 1,239 yards and caught 879 yards while scoring 20 touchdowns in 2016. After missing the final 15 games last season, Johnson is healthy and poised to be the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ offense yet again. He’ll have a little help in the form of a fullback, so he won’t be taking as much of a beating as he has in the past, which will preserve his body and allow him to produce at an MVP-caliber level yet again. — Josh Weinfuss

Running back Todd Gurley

Gurley had a strong case for league MVP last season and will continue to be a big part of this offense. He led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,093) and touchdowns (19) in 2017 while ranking third in touches (343) despite resting for the regular-season finale. He’s the backbone of the Rams’ running game but also a major focus of their passing attack. That isn’t expected to change. “I think what Todd did is he showed why he’s a complete back, and to take him off the field, he better be pretty tired,” coach Sean McVay said. It would be just as easy to make a case for reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, of course. — Lindsey Thiry

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo

The 49ers’ success will largely come down to whether Garoppolo can be as good or better than he was at the end of last season and deliver a return on the team’s massive investment in him. With Garoppolo under center, the Niners went 5-0 and improved in nearly every important statistical category. Now, he will have a full offseason in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense and an improved supporting cast. Expectations will be high, but if Garoppolo can meet them, he’s the easy choice for team MVP. — Nick Wagoner

Quarterback Russell Wilson

Wilson led the NFL with 34 touchdown passes last season and was in the running for league MVP while carrying an offense that couldn’t run the ball. The Seahawks still have two stars on defense in middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas, and Seattle made several moves this offseason geared toward fixing its broken running game. If those work out the way the team hopes, not as much will be on Wilson’s shoulders in 2018. Even then, it’s hard to imagine anyone being more valuable to the Seahawks than their quarterback. — Brady Henderson



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Atlanta Falcons paid Matt Ryan for his MVP season – Atlanta Falcons Blog


Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan becoming the highest-paid player in the league — at least for now — shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

When Ryan put together his MVP season in 2016, owner Arthur Blank made it clear Ryan would be rewarded for putting the Falcons in position to win a Super Bowl. The Falcons ultimately fell short, losing to the New England Patriots.

“He needs to be compensated well, certainly,” Blank told ESPN prior that season’s Super Bowl. “And he will be.”

As of today, Ryan is the league’s highest-paid player thanks to a five-year contract extension ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported is worth $30 million per year and $100 million guaranteed. He tops other quarterbacks such as Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers) and Kirk Cousins (Minnesota Vikings), who don’t have as many postseason wins combined as Ryan.

Ryan’s deal likely will be surpassed by Aaron Rodgers when he and the Green Bay Packers reach a deal on an extension. Whatever the case, the Falcons certainly believe Ryan is the guy who will lead them back to the Super Bowl.

Ryan, who turns 33 two weeks from Thursday, has a 4-6 all-time playoff record. Critics say he is a tad below the elite quarterback level which includes the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Rodgers because Ryan has yet to win a Super Bowl. Being close doesn’t count when you consider Ryan and the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.

The Falcons firmly believe Ryan has what it takes to not only get the Falcons back to the Super Bowl, but bring back a championship. The offense wasn’t as dominant last season as it was during the Super Bowl run under Kyle Shanahan, now the head coach in San Francisco. However, the Falcons expect a big jump for Ryan and the rest of his teammates in Year 2 of Steve Sarkisian’s offense. As Ryan has said repeatedly, it’s all about finding consistency.

Arming Ryan with new weapons should help. The Falcons drafted wide receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round with hopes his speed and sharp route running will complement Julio Jones. Of course, the Falcons have the talented backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, with rookie Ito Smith now added to the mix. And the addition of a true blocking fullback — either Daniel Marx from Stanford or Luke McNitt — could help the running and passing games alike.

There remain questions about the offensive line, particularly at guard, where the Falcons don’t seem built to contend with some of the better interior defenders in the league (Aaron Donald/Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox/Michael Bennett come to mind). And there is growing concern about Jones’ absence from voluntary workouts and the possibility of the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver being on the verge of a contract dispute.

If those issues don’t become major obstacles, and Sarkisian finds the right variety in his playcalling to reignite an offense that scored a league-high 33.8 points per game two seasons ago, Ryan could be right back in the MVP conversation.

Individual awards, however, mean little if they don’t lead to a championship, something the Falcons have never enjoyed in their history. Ryan doesn’t want a lack of a Super Bowl victory hanging over his head for the remainder of his career, no matter how much money he collects.

The Falcons, under coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, have built a top-five defense based on speed and physicality. The moves made on Day 3 of the draft were all about bolstering special teams.

Yet the bulk of the burden falls on Ryan to make plays and put the Falcons over the top.

“We’re closer than maybe some other people think,” Ryan told ESPN last month. “To get over the hump, we’ve got to make the plays. And I’ve got to make the plays when they present themselves.”



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Mark Rypien, former Super Bowl MVP for Washington Redskins, says he attempted suicide


Former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI, says he once tried to kill himself — the result of mental health issues stemming from his football days.

Rypien detailed his problems for Spokane TV station KHQ and The Spokesman-Review, hoping it leads to more awareness of problems from playing football.

“I suffer from a complex stew of mental health conditions,” Rypien told KHQ-TV. “Dark places, depression, anxiety, addictions, poor choices, poor decisions, brought about from dozens of concussions and thousands of subconcussive injuries from playing this sport.”

Rypien told the outlets, in separate interviews, that he was speaking out after the January suicide of Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski and the death earlier this month of Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) High School principal Troy Schueller from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Rypien played collegiately at Washington State. His cousin, former NHL player Ryan Rypien, also suffered from depression and died in an apparent suicide in 2011.

“Let’s address this now,” Rypien told the Spokesman-Review. “Let me share my story so others can share theirs. Let’s get rid of this silence that happens when you’re caught up in this cycle and you don’t know how to find the help I’ve been afforded.

“My story is impactful because people see me in a different light. I want them to see me in an accurate light. I’ve been down the darkest path. I’ve made some horrible, horrible mistakes. But I’ve given myself a chance to progress forward.”

Rypien said those poor choices included going to Spokane spas that were shut down as part of a prostitution sting in 2012. He also attempted suicide on the same day as his daughter Angie’s birthday. Rypien said he swallowed 150 Advil pills and then drank a bottle of merlot.

When his wife, Danielle, found him, she poured hydrogen peroxide and charcoal down his throat, inducing him to vomit the pills.

“It was the thought that people aren’t going to miss me,” Rypien told the newspaper. “My life is as s—ty as it could ever be. I was shameful and guilty of poor decisions, shameful and guilty of being depressed all the time. I didn’t want to be around anymore. I didn’t look at how this would affect my kids, my grandkids, my wife, my family.”

Rypien played 11 seasons in the NFL, helping the Redskins win the Super Bowl after the 1991 season and earning game MVP honors. He played for five other teams after he left the Redskins following the 1993 season.

“My story is impactful because people see me in a different light. I want them to see me in an accurate light. I’ve been down the darkest path. I’ve made some horrible, horrible mistakes. But I’ve given myself a chance to progress forward.”

Mark Rypien, on mental health issues he links to his football career

In 2012, he was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. Rypien claimed he suffered repeated traumatic head injuries and sought money as well as medical care from the NFL. Rypien also said his daughter suffered concussions while playing in the Lingerie Football League.

Rypien, who said he was diagnosed with three concussions, now says he wouldn’t want his grandchildren to play football.

“People think you have to be knocked out to have a concussion,” Rypien told the newspaper. “There are hundreds of times you shake it off and get back in there. It’s all about the cumulative hits. That’s what cause brain damage.”

In November, police were called to his home for a domestic dispute. His wife declined to tell police what happened, telling the newspaper she worried what would happen to her husband if he were locked up.

“They had warned us when they put him on it,” Danielle Rypien told the newspaper. “We’re not talking about an antidepressant. We’re talking about an antiseizure med they added to his antidepressant, and it was the second one they had tried. The first one was also a disaster. They had warned us … maybe he’ll adjust into the medication after a rough patch, but expect weirdness.

“This is not a snapshot of our relationship. This was a unique and crazy night.”

Mark Rypien said he has strong support now from a number of counselors and doctors in addition to his family. He has been tested at the Cleveland Clinic’s Neurological Institute, the only part that is paid for by the NFL’s trust, according to the newspaper.

Because of that support, the Rypiens hope he can now can control his issues better than in the past.

“But I might get worse,” Rypien told the newspaper. “I’ve got strategies to get me through the next day, the next year, 10 years. But I don’t know.”



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Baltimore Ravens add at WR, sign Grey Cup MVP DeVier Posey


OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens went across the border to start filling out their wide receiver group.

DeVier Posey was signed by the Ravens on Tuesday, a little over two months after he was the Grey Cup MVP in the Canadian Football League.

Posey led the Toronto Argonauts to the championship by catching seven passes for 175 yards. The highlight of the game was Posey’s 100-yard touchdown, the longest passing play in Grey Cup’s 105-year history.

In his second season with the Argonauts, Posey finished with 52 receptions for 744 yards and seven touchdowns. He was coached by Marc Trestman, the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016.

A big focus this offseason will be the Ravens’ wide receiver position. Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro are free agents, and Jeremy Maclin is expected to be cut. The only receivers who are assured of returning this offseason are Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore, and Perriman isn’t guaranteed a spot on the regular-season roster.

Posey’s time in the NFL has been forgettable. A third-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2012, he tore his Achilles in a playoff game as a rookie. Posey was traded to the New York Jets in 2015 and was cut at the end of the preseason. In 2016, he spent time with the Denver Broncos before getting released at the end of the preseason.

Posey has 22 career receptions in the NFL for 272 yards and no touchdowns. His last catch in the NFL came in December of the 2014 season.





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2018 NFL MVP, Defensive Player of Year, Super Bowl LIII predictions


The 2017 season is over, and we’re already looking ahead to 2018.

We asked six ESPN NFL Insiders to give us their 2018 Super Bowl pick and predictions on next season’s MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and more. We even threw in a bonus question on the offseason’s hottest topic — the future of Kirk Cousins.

Their answers are below:

Quick links: Power Rankings | 10 predictions for ’18 | What’s next for Foles?


Who’s your pick to be 2018 MVP?

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. The league’s most talented player returns at full health to a playoff-caliber team. With legit weapons at wide receiver and enough balance on offense to dial up some play-pass opportunities, Rodgers can rack up MVP numbers.

Dan Graziano, NFL writer: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints. I think New Orleans is poised to repeat its stellar 2017 season, and I have a suspicion that Brees is motivated by the idea of trying to outdo Tom Brady in his late 30s/early 40s. Think about it — he let Sam Bradford have the single-season completion record for exactly one year before taking it back.

Mina Kimes, senior writer: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. He was my pick at the beginning of the 2017 season, and he carried an injury-riddled roster to a 4-1 start before breaking his collarbone in Week 6. The Packers should benefit from better health and an injection of fresh talent and ideas.

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots. He should be in position for another strong season with Julian Edelman returning and Brandin Cooks entering his second season in the offense. Rob Gronkowski‘s durability is a concern, however.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. He’s the best player in the league who isn’t over 40.

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. It’s always good business to forecast success for Rodgers, as he was perhaps the league’s MVP at the time of his first collarbone injury in 2017, which effectively ended his season. With a capable group of pass-catchers in 2018, Rodgers should again be in the MVP discussion.

Who’s your pick to be 2018 Defensive Player of the Year?

Bowen: Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars. The physical coverage ability, the ball skills, the swag. Ramsey is quickly developing into a star. And with that Jaguars pass rush, Ramsey will be in a position to make impact plays on the ball for a Super Bowl contender.

Graziano: Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers. I expect Bosa’s third year to be the year he joins the elite pass-rushers in the league, and he noses out Von Miller and Aaron Donald for this award.

Kimes: Cameron Jordan, DE, Saints. Jordan was an absolute beast in 2017, finishing the season with 13 sacks (tied for fourth in the NFL), nine batted passes (first) and 11 pass breakups — distinctive stats for a defensive end. As the Saints’ defense continues to grow as a unit next season, look for him to rack up big pass-rushing numbers.

Sando: Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona Cardinals. Jones was sensational this season, and he could be even better with a defense-minded coach in Steve Wilks.

Schatz: Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers. Voters often give this award to the top pass-rusher of the year, and Bosa seems like a good bet to hold that title in his third season.

Yates: Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks. There was a compelling case to be made for Wagner to be in the conversation for this award in 2017, as he was marvelous for Seattle during a year in which his team needed him to take on an even more prominent role with injuries to key veterans around him. He’s a tackling force.

Who’s your pick to play in Super Bowl LIII?

Bowen: Patriots vs. Packers. Until the rest of the AFC catches up to Brady and Bill Belichick, I’m sticking with the Patriots as the favorite to reach the Super Bowl. With a healthy Rodgers back in the mix, however, and a positive shift in the Packers’ defensive culture under new coordinator Mike Pettine, Green Bay is my early pick to take home the title.

Graziano: Steelers vs. Saints. This is the matchup I picked in my let’s-get-nuts, way-too-early 2018 predictions, so for consistency’s sake we’ll stick with it. Two of 2017’s most disappointed divisional-round losers make it all the way this time, and New Orleans delivers to cap Brees’ big year.

Kimes: Patriots vs. Saints. New Orleans just had one of the best drafts in recent memory; young stars such as Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams should improve next season, and Brees sustained a high level of play. For the AFC, I’m sticking with the Patriots until the Jaguars upgrade at quarterback.

Sando: Patriots vs. Eagles. There’s no sense in picking against the Patriots until they stop becoming a consistent force. The Eagles have the roster to contend. They also have Carson Wentz returning at some point. Why not a Super Bowl rematch?

Schatz: Patriots vs. Saints. New Orleans is my pick to win. The quality of the young talent on the improved Saints defense should stave off regression, and Sean Payton and Brees still run one of the best offenses in the league. It might take a Super Bowl appearance for people to finally realize just how good Michael Thomas is. As for the Patriots, it’s boring to keep picking them, but at this point why would you take anyone else?

Yates: Patriots vs. Vikings. The Patriots have shown a track record of sustained success and are primed to return the core of their roster in 2018. Minnesota, meanwhile, has made decided strides almost each season under coach Mike Zimmer, though the team must solve its quarterback quandary this offseason.

Who’s your pick to be 2018 Coach of the Year?

Bowen: Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo‘s five-game run to end the season was a preview of what we can expect from the 49ers in ’18. He’s a perfect fit for Shanahan’s offense. If the 49ers can continue to bolster the roster this offseason, look for Shanahan’s team to be in a position to make a December push for a playoff spot.

Graziano: Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders.This award always seems to go to a coach whose team makes the biggest turnaround, and I think the Raiders are primed to rebound in 2018. Gruden will get credit for changing the culture and getting Oakland back to the playoffs.

Kimes: Kyle Shanahan, 49ers. Coach of the Year tends to go to the man at the helm of the most improved team. With Garoppolo, a few talented young guys on defense, and an ocean of cap space heading into the offseason, San Francisco seems primed for a big leap.

Sando: Jon Gruden, Raiders. Structure and discipline help the Raiders rebound from a 6-10 season to win the AFC West.

Schatz: Josh McDaniels, Indianapolis Colts. No, it’s not official yet, but McDaniels is expected to be announced as Indianapolis’ coach this week. He’ll get some of the credit if the return of Andrew Luck boosts the Colts back into the playoffs.

Yates: Kyle Shanahan, 49ers. The 49ers saw a meteoric rise once Garoppolo became the starting quarterback. If that persists and the team puts together another aggressive offseason under general manager John Lynch, San Francisco could challenge for the playoffs.

Which player will rank No. 1 in fantasy scoring in 2018?

Bowen: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans. With Deshaun Watson back on the field, Hopkins is in the discussion with Antonio Brown as the top fantasy wide receiver. Look at the high target volume, the red zone opportunities and the Texans’ play-action passing game that creates open windows down the field. Hopkins can put up monster numbers in 2018.

Graziano: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers. Carolina addresses the receiver position, the second year of Christian McCaffrey keeps the short passing game humming, and as always, Newton adds significant value with his running ability.

Kimes: David Johnson, RB, Cardinals. Because of the timing and nature of Johnson’s wrist injury, I don’t think he’ll have any trouble returning to form. And with the Cardinals’ quarterback picture is still murky, I’m betting they’ll lean heavily on their running game next season.

Sando: Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints. New Orleans knows what it has in Kamara and will make full use of him right from the start.

Schatz: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams. Now that the Rams know how much they can use him in the passing game, I don’t see that usage disappearing. David Johnson returning to Arizona from injury is a dark-horse contender.

Yates: Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers. Business has been boomin’ since 2010. Do we really think that’s going to change in 2018?

Bonus: Where will Kirk Cousins be playing in 2018?

Bowen: New York Jets. The Broncos will make a hard push to land Cousins, but I see the veteran signing with the Jets. New York has the cap space, a major need at the position, and Cousins could mesh with new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates.

Graziano: Jets. I think they’ll go over the top to outbid the Vikings and Browns and break records with the Cousins contract. I expect it to go over $30 million per year and approach $100 million in guarantees.

Kimes: Denver Broncos. John Elway needs to resuscitate the offense before the defense’s window closes, and he probably won’t be comfortable starting whoever falls to Denver in the draft after Cleveland and New York pick their quarterbacks. Money will certainly factor into Cousins’ decision, but by all accounts, he wants to win — and Denver is the most playoff-ready team contending for his services.

Sando: Jets. All the teams desperate for quarterbacks have some drawbacks. There is no perfect fit. Arizona and Denver are logical destinations. Both teams should have interest. Jacksonville and Miami are a couple of dark-horse teams to watch.

Schatz: Broncos. No team needs Cousins as much as the Broncos. They have a couple of good receivers, and they have a great defense. Denver badly needs an upgrade at quarterback, and that defense offers Cousins a chance to win.

Yates: Broncos. A rare opportunity arose in 2012, prompting Elway to swoop in and sign Peyton Manning. It’s different circumstances — and Cousins doesn’t have nearly the pedigree that Manning did — but few foresaw Cousins hitting the open market, opening the door to Elway once again making a quarterback splash.



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Tom Brady of New England Patriots claims NFL MVP honors


MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Forget that Tom Brady shattered NFL records as a 40-year-old quarterback in the 2017 season, playing some of his best football in his 18-year career.

Brady didn’t just dominate the 40-year-old age bracket; his excellence extended across the entire NFL, and on Saturday he became the oldest player to win the AP NFL Most Valuable Player award.

Brady earned 40 votes in balloting by a nationwide media panel, easily winning over Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (8) and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (2).

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman accepted the award on Brady’s behalf at the NFL Honors awards ceremony in Minneapolis.

“There’s no quarterback I’d rather have on my team than Tom Brady,” Pats coach Bill Belichick said leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl LII showdown against the Eagles. “I’m glad I have him.”

Brady, who also was the NFL’s MVP in 2007 and 2010, will try to win his sixth Super Bowl title Sunday. The last NFL MVP to win the Super Bowl was Kurt Warner in the 1999 season.

Voted first-team All-Pro for the 2017 regular season, Brady was 385-of-581 for a league-high 4,577 yards, with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions while leading the Patriots to a 13-3 record.

In addition to being the oldest to win AP NFL MVP, Brady is the oldest QB to start in the Super Bowl, and the oldest to lead the NFL in passing yards. Fran Tarkenton, with 3,468 yards in 1978 at age 38 with Minnesota, previously held the distinction.

Brady’s historic season at 40 has been a topic that has followed him all season, which he has embraced by highlighting his commitment to his craft and producing the documentary “Tom vs. Time,” with the first four installments released in the week leading up to Super Bowl LII.

“I learned that I need to invest in my body, and invest in the things that are going to make me feel good, or else I would have stopped playing 10 years ago. I don’t think there is any way you can continue to play if your body can’t do it,” he said.

Brady joined 12 other quarterbacks since the 1970 merger to start an NFL game past the age of 40. The oldest player to attempt a pass in a game was George Blanda at age 48 as a member of the Oakland Raiders in the final game of his career on Dec. 21, 1975.

Brady also became the fourth Patriots player to play at 40, joining quarterbacks Doug Flutie (43 in 2005) and Vinny Testaverde (43 in 2006), and linebacker Junior Seau (40 in 2009).

As for why he can continue to play, he said in the days leading up to Super Bowl LII: “I just think I love the game. It’s easy to do this when you love it. I think the point is, if you find something you love to do, it never feels like work. I found football, and I found it at a young age, and I just loved it. “It’s hard to explain – I just love the preparation, I love the offseason, I love the film work. I think a big part of it is because my body feels good and I’ve worked hard [at that]. … I think for a lot of older players, their body doesn’t respond. And football is no fun when you’re hurting.”

On Sunday, at 40 years and 185 days, Brady will become the oldest non-kicker to play in a Super Bowl.



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