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NFL Kareem Hunt’s Career Night Comes in First Game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After most of his teammates left the field, after the national TV interview ended, Kareem Hunt finally headed to the locker room some time after midnight, his jersey stained with grass and a commemorative game ball tucked in hand.

He made only a few steps into the tunnel before Chiefs fans stopped him: “Kar-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeem!” Hunt signed some memorabilia for the fans and then trotted up the tunnel. Once he turned the corner, he took a long look at the game ball in his hands and then let out a long exhale.

The Chiefs had just shocked the NFL by handing the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots a 42-27 loss at home on the opening night of the season. Hunt, a rookie running back, a third-round pick from the University of Toledo, had led the Chiefs to victory. He compiled 246 total yards, setting an NFL record for the most yards from scrimmage in a players’ first career game, and scored three touchdowns. Over the course of the past four hours, Hunt went from an unproven rookie to bona fide star.

Hunt certainly looked like a rookie at the start of the game. On his very first career carry, Hunt took a handoff, started heading upfield, and found himself caught in a pile. Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore was wrapping his legs, and safety Jordan Richards was grabbing his waist, when Richards’ left hand happened to push the ball out of Hunt’s grasp. The Patriots recovered, as Hunt, laying on the ground, frantically swiped at the ball.

“I was more in shock than anything,” Hunt said. “I couldn’t believe it. I feel like I got too lax with the ball. I thought I was going to be down. … It just came right out.”

Hunt had carried the ball 782 times over four years at Toledo — and he’d only fumbled once, in a game his freshman year against Western Michigan. He still remembered the fumble, from four years earlier. He also remembered that he’d recovered it himself.

Hunt hung his head and started jogging off, clearly upset. He’d only made it a few steps when Bennie Logan, the Chiefs’ fifth-year veteran defensive tackle, grabbed him by the jersey, as he was coming onto the field. We’ve got your back, Logan told him. You’re good.

“He was down on himself; he knew what he had done,” Logan said after the game. “But you’ve got to rally around him. Just keep him boosted up. He’s just a young guy. He’s going to be a big help for us going through the season, so you don’t want to kill his confidence.”
Once Hunt reached the sideline, though, Hunt had to face the wrath of Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs running backs coach. Bieniemy coached Adrian Peterson in Minnesota when he was a rookie, when Peterson fumbled 20 times in his first three years in the NFL. Bieniemy had been challenging Hunt to be better, especially since Spencer Ware had injured himself during the third preseason game, making the rookie the starter. On the sideline after the fumble, Coach Andy Reid said, Bieniemy and Hunt “were getting after each other a little bit.” Then Reid and Charcandrick West, Hunt’s backup, stepped in and “calmed the storm,” Reid said. Sit down, relax. You’re getting the ball the next play, Reid told Hunt. Get yourself ready to go.

The defense, in turn, did have Hunt’s back. After the Patriots marched to the Chiefs’ 10 yard-line, they found themselves in a 4th-and-1 situation—and Bill Belichick went for it. The Patriots ran Mike Gillislee up the gut, and Logan and the Chiefs front swallowed him up.

True to his word, Reid gave Hunt the ball on the very next play. Hunt took the handoff, broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, and burst ahead for nine yards. Four plays later, Hunt caught a swing pass for five yards and shouldered Malcolm Butler as he went out of bounds. Then Hunt took a handoff around the right side and ran over Duron Harmon.

Hunt was picking up steam. This was why the Chiefs moved up in the third round to snag Hunt in the draft, No. 86 overall. Last year, when Reid was preparing his game plans each Thursday night, he’d have on the weekly MAC game in the background, which meant that he’d seen several Toldeo games—and Hunt routinely caught his eye. In 13 games that season, Hunt compiled 1,878 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. “He seemed to get stronger as the game would go on,” Reid says now. “And they fed him and fed him and fed him.”

That’s what Reid did Thursday: he kept feeding Hunt. Hunt carried the ball 17 times for 148 yards and one touchdown, grabbing chunks of yards here and there, showing a great mix of vision, speed, and power. After his very first game, Hunt seemed to already have a rapport with the offensive line. “Sometimes you have leverage on a guy, and [the blocker] knows exactly what’s about to happen,” said Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the Chiefs right guard. “[The running back] is going to pinch back inside, make the cut, as you finish the block. It’s just a great feeling when you know where he’s at. It’s pretty impressive that after only his first game you’ve got that feeling, that connection between the line and the running back.”

Then once Hunt hit the open field, he showed his elite level speed. When the Chiefs had the ball, down six points, at the start of the fourth quarter, Hunt ran a route up the seam past Marsh Cassius, a backup linebacker the Patriots had just acquired in a trade, and Alex Smith hit Hunt in stride, for an easy 78-yard touchdown. Later in the fourth, when the Chiefs needed to put the game away, Hunt took a carry around the left end for 58 yards. “He had an amazing college career, and that carried over,” West, the veteran backup, said after. “You don’t wake up and forget how to play football. That’s what we expect from him. That’s why we drafted him.”

Once Hunt reached the locker room, reporters mobbed him, and he answered every question wearing a big grin. The only thing that could damper his mood was, every now and then, he said, when he’d remember that fumble from his first career carry. “I’m excited and still a little bit, you know, kind of disappointed in myself, because I let one go—slip,” Hunt said. He still couldn’t help but beam as he spoke. “I still think about it a little bit. But I ain’t going to forget about it now. I’m going to be cautious and learn from my mistake and just keep coming.”

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NFL still a giant as it prepares for new season but storm clouds gather

The NFL is set to haul in $14bn this year. But the league is beset by racially charged protests, a ratings dip and players brain damaged by the contact sport.

William Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger was America’s first pro football player: he earned $500 for a single game for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association in 1892. Thirteen years later, he saved the game itself. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt was under pressure to ban football after several much-publicized player deaths. But Pudge, a friend of the president, is thought to have talked Roosevelt into giving the game a second chance, suggesting the introduction of padding and helmets and outlawing some brutal “pig pile” tactics such as the flying wedge.

Given current events in the US, many Americans may wish they had a president like Roosevelt. And as storms swirl around the country’s most profitable league, many in the NFL wish they had an advocate like Pudge. It’s an ominous sign when most of the publicity concerning America’s richest league – its revenue is expected to reach $14bn this season – isn’t about sports. As much as the league office would like to shift the conversation away from racial politics, domestic violence and the perception of declining quality of play, these and other issues dog the NFL as it prepares for the opening game of the season on Thursday night.

On the first day of the season, no NFL team has signed Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who led them to the Super Bowl in 2013. Last year, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of the treatment of African Americans sparked a national controversy and touched a nerve in the NFL, in which nearly 70% of the players are black.

Kaepernick’s stand has polarized NFL fans in the same way the Trump presidency has America. Groups of (mainly) white fans have lobbied team owners not to sign him, saying his protest dishonors military veterans and the flag. On the other side, his supporters say teams are guilty of blackballing a player who has made a stand against racial injustice. Last month, the dispute literally landed on the NFL’s doorstep: a crowd of supporters rallied outside league headquarters in Manhattan waving signs that read “Hey NFL, grannies say thank you Colin Kaepernick” and “Should speaking out against injustice cost you your job?”

But the Kaepernick issue is far from the league’s only problem. Domestic violence is not new to football. In 1994, the Washington Post reported that 140 current and former professional or college football players had been reported to police for violent acts against women from 1989 to 1994 alone. Then, in 2014, in the wake of public outcry against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s light punishment of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice, who was caught on video punching his girlfriend, the league adopted a much tougher policy against domestic violence, including the provision that a player can be disciplined even if he is not legally charged.
But the NFL has bungled and mishandled many cases. Some players have landed longer bans for smoking weed than those faced by players who have hit their girlfriends. In this season’s most publicized domestic violence incident, the Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott – one of the league’s best young players – saw a six-game suspension for allegations that he attacked a former girlfriend upheld (he will still play this Sunday, as his case is reviewed). Elliott was never charged by police. The NFL handed down the punishment after its own year-long internal investigation, but some wonder why, after years of ugly domestic violence incidents, the punishment was so light. To make matters more muddled, the NFL appeared to ignore the advice of its own investigator that Elliott should not be suspended, and the player’s appeal is heading for court.

Not that these problems will necessarily affect the league’s bottom line: the Sports Business Journal estimates NFL revenues will be up $900m this year. As the late Steve Sabol, president and co-founder of NFL Films, told me in a 2012: “I honestly don’t think the fan who turns on their TV at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon in the fall is conscious of the fact that the team he’s watching has players who beat their spouse or girlfriend.”

Then there are the problems on the field. Complaints that the quality of play in the NFL is declining are apparently more than a matter of perception. Teams have started to discard veterans, who must be paid more than younger players under league rules, and bring in cheaper, inexperienced players who haven’t had time to perfect their craft. According to Football Outsiders, the average age of a pro player has dropped to a record low of 26.6 years, down nearly a full year over the last 10 seasons. That means teams are left with players who have yet to absorb the complex playbooks that are crucial to success.

The Baltimore Ravens head coach, John Harbaugh, told the Ringer: “[There’s] just not a lot of technique anywhere. This is a real serious concern, not just for the quality of the game, but for the well-being of these young guys coming into the NFL.”

On the flip side, the legendary football writer Dan Jenkins doesn’t think Harbaugh’s concerns are shared by viewers: “Do you think a viewer cares that a wide receiver who makes a spectacular catch and run for a 60-yard touchdown was able to do that because a safety who was supposed to cover him turned the wrong way? All that matters to someone watching is that the play was exciting.”

Nonetheless, it’s a fact that ratings for regular and postseason NFL games (with a few exceptions) were down 9% last season – about a million viewers a game – and most analysts agree we’re looking at a trend. One reason for the decline, Brian Goff wrote in Forbes, was politics and baseball: “The presidential debates [in 2016] lopped about 3 million viewers while the World Series reduced viewership by 5 million in 2016 and 4 million in 2015.”

Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg cites another culprit – London. “It’s a small factor, maybe, but a real one. As recently as 2012, the NFL played one game in London. In 2013 it was two. In 2014 and 2015: three. This year, four. That means four games were played in the early Sunday morning time slot, which is not a place to build a large TV audience.”

Rosenberg cautions, though, that “for decades now, we’ve had a simple calculus: the higher the TV ratings, the more people care. It has never really been that simple. Baseball, for example, has experienced booming popularity even as national TV ratings have declined.”

The TV audience for the NFL has also become older too – the average viewer’s age in 2016 was estimated at 50, four years older than in 2006 – but that may not mean younger people are not watching at all. In a recent story in Sports Business Daily, Jeramie McPeek, the former longtime digital media executive for the Phoenix Suns who founded his own social media consultancy, argues that the main reason for the loss of younger TV viewers isn’t lack of interest but “smartphone and tablet usage by younger people who are on Snapchat or Instagram all day and watching a lot of videos on YouTube and Netflix. Rarely are they watching TV and they are on their device constantly where they can watch videos on demand.”

But by far the biggest problem for the NFL is something that is costing men their lives. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining the brains of deceased NFL players showed that 110 out of 111 had signs of the degenerative brain disease CTE (in mitigation, the brains were donated by family members, most of whom said their loved ones had reported CTE symptoms during their lifetimes).

“We can’t say from this sample whether the rate of CTE in pro players is 1% or what; we have no idea,” Dr Ann McKee, who led the study, told the New York Times in 2016. But, she added, “I don’t think it’s extremely rare. I would have to have some golden touch to see this many, if it were.”

The problem is that as football became more sophisticated, so did the padding, helmets and other protective gear. What no one foresaw, though, was that the helmets and padding didn’t so much protect players as turn their bodies into weapons, much in the way gloves allowed boxers to deliver harder punches, more often without fear of injuring their hands. That destruction is becoming more visible, too: one of the league’s most famous players, Cam Newton, was visibly shaken after taking brutal hits to the head during last season’s opening game, which was broadcast to millions on national television. Later in the season, another of the league’s brightest stars, Newton’s team-mate Luke Kuechly, was carted from the field, disoriented and in tears. Many wondered what effect the injury would have on Kuechly in 20 years’ time.

Players are noticing, too: last season the San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after just one season due to concerns over football’s effect on his health, and others have followed. The wife of the NFL’s best-known player, Tom Brady, wants him to retire in order to protect his body. It’s hard to blame them. CTE can only be diagnosed after death, but some of the testimony of former NFL stars is heartbreaking as they describe their lives after football. “You try to [say] ‘All right, I’m gonna get a little more sleep, maybe it’s something I did last night, maybe something I drank,’ or whatever it is,” said the Super Bowl winner Warren Sapp, who is now 44. “You try to find a reason that it’s not that it’s my brain. That I’m not deteriorating right before my own eyes. It’s the most frightening feeling, but it’s also a very weakening feeling because you feel like a child.”

On 7 January this year, the final approval was put on a billion-dollar settlement agreed to by the NFL as the result of a lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 players and their families. By the 4 August deadline, more than 18,400 players and associates (out of a potential 21,000) had filed for compensation. But many believe this is merely the first wave of lawsuits from youth to high school to college football programs that could end up driving the game out of existence.

It may not be long before studies like McKee’s begin to limit the number of players playing organized football. As Forbes’ Bob Cook, whose son plays high school football, wrote after the the study was published: “The decision as parents is this: are we comfortable enough with the risk to put our kids on the field?”

All those problems may have had even Pudge struggling to save the game. Increasingly, his descendants may opt for the quieter – and safer – pastures of baseball and soccer.
(Allen Barra)

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NFL Preview: Team-by-Team Scouting Reports

The film that NFL coaches circulate—the so-called All-22 tape—is silent. There are no on-screen graphics, no close-ups between snaps. One camera captures the field from a sideline, the other from behind the line of scrimmage. Football is presented as a geometric exercise. And it’s riveting.

That film is how I watch 90% of NFL games. Through that, I’ve come to learn that the difference between good teams and bad ones is as subtle as the difference between white and eggshell white. Any outfit I project for even six wins could very well make a Super Bowl run. Truly. I had to choose 20 teams to miss the playoffs, and 15 of those left me uneasy.

At least I feel great about the teams I did project to make the postseason. The Giants have a star-studded D and a markedly improved offense. The Bucs, too, bolstered an already rising O. The Vikings have the NFC’s best defense … unless the Seahawks do … or maybe it’s the young Falcons.

The final obstacle on Atlanta’s path to Super Bowl LI, Green Bay, appears even more dangerous than before. Aaron Rodgers’s weapons have matured, and his arsenal has expanded. And it’s hard to imagine that the Packers’ D, after some secondary tweaks, won’t be stronger. Is it an exceptional unit? No. But can it hold foes under 30 points? You bet. That’s all Rodgers needs to take Green Bay to its first Super Bowl since 2010.

In the AFC you could do worse in your fantasy draft than to choose Steelers exclusively—Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown … and now receiver Martavis Bryant is back. All of that, plus a top three O-line and an improving young defense? Sheesh. Meanwhile, the D in Baltimore got stingier, inching toward classic Ravens status. The Chiefs are the best-schemed team in their division, the Raiders the most talented. The Titans are an intriguing mix of both.

Of course, none of these teams compares with the Patriots, that franchise you either outright love or outright hate. I searched for the courage to pick against New England, but common sense kept getting in the way. A team that went 17–2 one year ago has gotten better on both sides of the ball, even if you consider Julian Edelman’s ACL tear. Rob Gronkowski appears to be healthy; electrifying receiver Brandin Cooks arrived from the Saints; and with the additions of Rex Burkhead (Bengals) and Mike Gillislee (Bills), there are now more capable runners on this roster than in the entire central time zone. Then there’s the D, which gave up a league-low 15.6 points per game last year, then added a stud corner, Stephon Gilmore. (Have we even mentioned Messrs. Brady and Belichick?) I’ll go with the Pats over the Pack, who, while talented, run too hot and cold.

Below are my team-by-team scouting reports, in order of how I think each team will finish in the division.

New England Patriots
Projected 2017 Record: 14–2, No. 1 in AFC East
2016 Record: 14–2

Part of what is so impressive about Tom Brady is that he’s succeeded in a variety of systems. In 2016, over the course of 19 games, the Patriots transitioned from an almost strictly horizontal passing attack to one that was a little more vertical. Wide receiver Chris Hogan, picked up last offseason, played a big role here. Second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell did too, on the perimeter. It looks as if New England will continue going in this direction, with Rob Gronkowski back healthy and speedy receiver Brandin Cooks added from the Saints.

• The beauty of the offense is that it doesn’t have to be vertical. The receiving skills of pass-game running back JAMES WHITE (and maybe in his place, at some point, former Bengal Rex Burkhead) help create a potent “spread empty formation” package, with five pass catchers flanked out wide. From this you see the underneath routes that Brady uses to dink and dunk defenses to death. (That’s what happened in Super Bowl LI; Brady’s longest completion was 28 yards.) Cooks has the quickness to prosper in their underneath passing game.

• Losing Julian Edelman for the year with an ACL injury hurts. But the Patriots have the depth to replace him, starting with Danny Amendola, who made three huge catches in Super Bowl LI that were essential to New England’s comeback.

• This is a bend-but-don’t break defense. The Patriots don’t usually blitz until their opponent gets inside field goal range, and many of their coverages have two safeties back. That allows them to disguise and, more important, to double-team No. 1 receivers, which they almost always do.

• Their only real weakness is the pass rush. Maybe that improves this year with the continued development of defensive end Trey Flowers, a masterly technician entering his third season. But even then, they’re still thin here. New England has no threatening edge benders. It’s unusual for a team to play a conservative, coverage-based scheme, get little from its four-man rush and still finish with the No. 1 scoring defense. But that’s what the Patriots did last year.

Miami Dolphins
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 2 in AFC East
2016 Record: 10–6

The Dolphins will be just fine with Jay Cutler taking over for Ryan Tannehill, who is out for the year with a knee injury. The best season of Cutler’s career came in Chicago in 2015—his only one playing for Adam Gase, who was the Bears’ coordinator. Historically, Cutler’s poor decisions and mechanic deficiencies tend to come late in downs; Gase’s system will require that Cutler get the ball out early.

• No NFL coach loves any formation more than Gase loves an unbalanced three-by-one (three wide receivers to one side and a tight end alone on the other). The unusual distribution forces a defense to reveal if it is in man or zone coverage. It also creates opportunities to flood one side of the field or set up downfield crossing patterns. The problem with the Dolphins’ three-by-one sets in ’16 was that they had no tight end threat, which meant that Tannehill almost never threw to the weak side. That’s why Miami essentially traded left tackle Branden Albert to the Jaguars for Julius Thomas, whom Gase used so effectively as the coordinator in Denver.

• Miami felt comfortable dealing Albert because of last year’s first-round pick, Laremy Tunsil. His athleticism is unbelievable. The Dolphins should now be even better in their staple wide receiver screen game—at least on passes to the left, where Tunsil can get out in front on the perimeter.
With Suh and Wake, the Dolphins’ front four is in good hands again.

• Miami has a zone-based rushing attack, which you wouldn’t think would suit 6-foot, 223-pound Jay Ajayi. Speed, which Ajayi lacks, may seem important in a zone scheme, but it’s less so than the ability to plant a foot and cut downhill. Here, Ajayi thrives. And once he gets rolling, he’s difficult to tackle.

• First-time defensive coordinator Matt Burke, replacing the departed Vance Joseph, has two disruptive tackles for his straightforward 4–3 zone scheme. One we all know: four-time All-Pro Ndamukong Suh. His less renowned counterpart is third-year man Jordan Phillips. At 6′ 6″ and 333 pounds, Phillips has the size to play nose shade (the gap between the guard and center) and the quickness to cross over a blocker and penetrate.

Buffalo Bills
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 3 in AFC East
2016 Record: 7–9

TYROD TAYLOR throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL, but that and mobility are all you’ll find in his “strengths” column. The quarterback’s weaknesses include accuracy at the intermediate levels, an inability to anticipate open receivers (he’s a see-it-and-then-throw-it type) and discomfort in the pocket when his early reads aren’t there. But Taylor’s biggest flaw is that many times, even when his early reads are open, he doesn’t get the ball out.

• When a QB is antsy in the pocket and doesn’t anticipate throws, his coach must design plays with simple either/or reads. What will help the Bills’ offense, though, is the outside-zone run schemes of new offensive coordinator RICK DENNISON, which will complement those pass designs. Play-action will be huge for Buffalo.

• How will LESEAN MCCOY fit Dennison’s scheme? The 29-year-old running back is gifted enough to thrive in any system, but he’s at his best dancing around to set up blocks. He’s done that well in his two seasons in Buffalo, when the rushing plays often featured pull blockers (usually Pro Bowl left guard RICHIE INCOGNITO). An outside zone scheme, however, doesn’t use pullers. Instead, the O-line moves in unison, and the back must wait for a hole to develop. This is not McCoy’s natural style, but with his speed and agility on the perimeter, he’ll still produce.

• The book on new coach SEAN MCDERMOTT: He prefers a 4–3 zone and, like his mentor, longtime Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, he selectively employs designer blitzes. Also like Johnson, McDermott will adjust his zone coverages to create subtle disguises or gain favorable matchups.

• Three significant concerns about the Bills’ defense: 1) It lacks edge rushers. JERRY HUGHES has the speed and fluidity to turn the corner, but second-year man SHAQ LAWSON must rely on technique and has room to grow; 2) the secondary is thin, especially at safety; and 3) cornerback is a question, too. First-round pick TRE’DAVIOUS WHITE is a rookie, and with Ronald Darby traded to Philadelphia, they will now work in newcomer E.J. GAINES from the Rams. If the new group doesn’t work, Buffalo will have problems.

New York Jets
Projected 2017 Record: 3–13, No. 4 in AFC East
2016 Record: 5–11

This offseason the Jets hired JOHN MORTON, the Saints’ receivers coach in 2015 and ’16, to be their offensive coordinator. This will be the first time Morton, 47, has directed an NFL offense, and it’s imperative that he incorporate New York’s running backs into the passing game. Not only are the Jets bereft of quality wide receivers, but they’re also playing with the same tight end group that last season combined for 18 receptions and 173 yards, by far the worst totals in the league at that position.

• When you lack dangerous receivers, your passing game must rely on play design. The effective designs exploit mismatches, but with the Jets’ roster, running back versus linebacker is the only chance for a favorable one—and that’s if MATT FORTE, 31, can still get the job done. He caught 102 balls for the Bears in ’14 but just 30 last year. Forte might be reaching the point where his receiving contributions are restricted to routes coming out of the backfield, which means he’s not offering much more in that regard than 28-year-old backup BILAL POWELL

• With the right players, coach TODD BOWLES schemes aggressively with matchup coverages and designer pressures—preferably those that attack up the middle, in the quarterback’s sight lines. Bowles knew he couldn’t run his full scheme last year, perhaps as early as Week 1. That’s when the Bengals’ A.J. Green toasted Darrelle Revis and Bowles realized he no longer had a corner who could shut down top receivers one-on-one. This offseason New York replaced Revis with free-agent signee MORRIS CLAIBORNE. The ex-Cowboy is intriguing, but not the kind of stopper who travels with No. 1 wideouts. And opposite Claiborne the Jets have penalty-prone veteran BUSTER SKRINE.

• Safeties can create disguised pressures and coverages; the more versatility you have there, the more multifaceted your D can be. In Bowles’s matchup zone, the safeties must cover tight ends man-to-man and be able to stay with wide receivers who enter their zone and then go vertical. Given these demands, it’s no surprise New York used the draft to shore up the position, picking JAMAL ADAMS from LSU in the first round and MARCUS MAYE from Florida in the second.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 1 in AFC North
2016 Record: 11–5

Meet the most dangerous offense in football. It can terrify defenses through the air with its four-receiver sets, utilizing the unprecedented collective speed of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey. (Oh, and the fifth eligible receiver in that grouping would be Le’Veon Bell.) Or, the Steelers can be a ground juggernaut, pounding the rock behind six offensive linemen or with extra H-backs and tight ends. That’s what they did last season when Bell rushed for 835 yards in Weeks 11 through 16.

• Ben Roethlisberger and the front five are the constants in the offensive packages. Roethlisberger has evolved into a field general, both before and after the snap. And at 35 he can still extend plays—in fact, he can do so even more easily than in years past, considering that his line, somewhat quietly, has become one of the NFL’s two or three best.

• Bell is the most patient runner the game has ever seen. He can afford to be patient because his acceleration and lateral quickness allow him to burst ahead the instant he sees daylight

• Defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked this offseason about the importance of playing more basic coverages and rushing only four. Presumably, he’d like to employ a little more man-to-man. In the AFC championship game against New England, Butler used strictly zone, and Tom Brady picked it apart.

• The departure of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Dolphins, is critical when you consider that no replacement was brought in. Instead, Pittsburgh is promoting fifth-year man Vince Williams. He’s a classic first- and second-down run-thumper, but he may have some trouble teaming with the electrifying Ryan Shazier in nickel coverage. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers do what they did four years ago and become a dime sub-package defense, with third safety Robert Golden essentially playing linebacker.

• The defensive line has a chance to be terrific. Cameron Heyward is a shrewd technician at end. Stephon Tuitt plays with effort and athleticism from the other end. Jason Hargave has equally impressive athleticism—which is rare in a 305-pound nosetackle.

Baltimore Ravens
Projected 2017 Record: 9–7, No. 2 in AFC North
2016 Record: 8–8

Joe Flacco needs to be more consistent than he was last year. His rifle arm will yield a handful of Wow! throws each week, some of which will result in big plays. But the Ravens can’t subsist on that; they want a quick, rhythmic passing attack. Flacco must rediscover his disciplined mechanics and decision making. He simply had too many incomplete passes, unrecognized open receivers and inexcusable interceptions in 2016.

• Baltimore needs to be much more run-oriented than it was a year ago. Yes, losing top zone runner Kenneth Dixon for ’17 with a left-knee injury hurts. But Terrance West, while less disciplined, is still capable of making defenders miss. Danny Woodhead has been signed from San Diego as a passing-down weapon—he can line up anywhere as a receiver, plus he’s great on check-downs—but he is also capable of running out of three-receiver sets, which fits Baltimore’s zone ground game. A run-oriented offense would give a boost to the receivers, who would face more basic coverages.

• Former Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson was a great free-agent pickup this offseason. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees played a lot of zone coverage in ’16, but with Jefferson, who can match up with tight ends anywhere on the field, Pees can use more man-to-man—and then deploy the expansive blitz packages that he loves.
Terrance West

• Baltimore’s was far and away the best run defense in football before it wore down after Week 13. Tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce were the main reasons. Both can anchor against double teams, and Williams can move shockingly well for a 6’1″ 340-pounder.

• Terrell Suggs is a Hall of Famer. He doesn’t just rush the passer. His edge-setting and ball-chasing in run defense are superb. And there isn’t a stat for this, but Suggs is adept at jamming tight ends as they come off the line, which compromises an offense’s spacing and timing. Also, teams are reluctant to run read-option against Suggs because, dating to the Super Bowl XLVII win over the 49ers, he has shown an eagerness to drill the quarterback whether he keeps the ball or hands it off.

Cincinnati Bengals
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 3 in AFC North
2016 Record: 6–9

Andy Dalton’s career has been full of highs and lows. Never was that truer than last season. When Dalton had room in the pocket he exhibited decent arm strength and savvy decision making. When he didn’t, he floundered. The problem: Dalton doesn’t have a great feel for nuanced pocket movement. He lacks Tom Brady’s sense for sidestepping defenders and giving himself space. This is why he ends up mired in muddy pockets more than he should.

• The O-line didn’t help Dalton much. Last year the interior group struggled to pick up pass-blocking assignments on the fly—and that was before it lost its top talent, right guard Kevin Zeitler, to the Browns this offseason. On the edges, young right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi simply couldn’t handle the bull rush. Now he’s being asked to replace one of the league’s steadiest left tackles, Andrew Whitworth. (Yikes.) That means the new right tackle will be 2015 second-round pick Jake Fisher, who didn’t get on the field regularly last season despite the struggles of Ogbuehi and washed-up veteran Eric Winston. (Double yikes.)

• The Bengals drafted running back Joe Mixon in the second round from Oklahoma, and his arrival may mean the end of Jeremy Hill’s days as a lead back. Besides being more decisive on runs, Mixon, a gifted receiver, can give the offense more options on first and second down.
Cincinnati Bengals wideout A.J. Green.

• Tyler Eifert, returning from a back injury, is an important piece in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. Mismatch-making tight ends like Eifert are valuable because where they line up often forces a defense to reveal its coverage.

• Paul Guenther is one of NFL’s best blitz designers, and yet he blitzed the least of any defensive coordinator last year. Coach Marvin Lewis is comfortable playing straightforward zone, but it would behoove the Bengals to return to the pressure concepts they ran under previous coordinator Mike Zimmer. This defense doesn’t have consistent edge rushers. Left end Carlos Dunlap is long and talented but, inexplicably, he disappears for stretches. At right end Michael Johnson, 30, disappears for weeks. It’s surprising that the Bengals didn’t do more to upgrade at that position.

Cleveland Browns
Projected 2017 Record: 4–12, No. 4 in AFC North
2016 Record: 1–15

This year’s Browns are better than last year’s, but their passing game may not improve much, and in today’s NFL, that’s enough to keep a team in the gutter. Obviously much hinges on second-round rookie Deshone Kizer, who is likely their starting quarterback. He flashed athleticism and throwing prowess at Notre Dame, but he can be inconsistent with his accuracy—which could be a problem as he adjusts to the pro game.

• Another passing-game problem: Cleveland has no proven targets. Last year’s top pick, Corey Coleman, had to learn the position from the ground up after coming from the spread offense at Baylor, where receivers don’t develop in that unconventional scheme. Starting opposite Coleman is free agent Kenny Britt, 28, whose drops and route-running glitches have kept him from becoming a consistent threat. And coach Hue Jackson’s system asks much of its tight ends, which means he’ll be leaning heavily on a first-round rookie, David Njoku from Miami.

• Drafting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the No. 1 pick was a no-brainer. Cleveland’s biggest deficiency on D last season was its pass rush. Every other passing-down lineman on the roster is better equipped to rush the quarterback from inside, rather than off the edge, where Garrett can excel. But if the rookie doesn’t produce right away, this defense is in trouble.
Brock Osweiler (l.) watches as DeShone Kizer goes through quarterback drills.

• The Browns’ second-biggest issue on D in 2016 was their safeties, who were out of position against the run and often missed tackles, especially out of looks such as Cover 2, where they began the play back deep. So it was no surprise that Cleveland selected hybrid thumper Jabrill Peppers out of Michigan with the 25th pick, then acquired ’14 first-round safety Calvin Pryor from the Jets. Once new coordinator Gregg Williams is able to trust his safeties, his play-calling will be more aggressive.

• If Williams feels his corners can match up, expect the Browns to blitz often. With athletes such as Peppers and former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins in the middle of the field and a weak pass rush (except, potentially, from Garrett), manufacturing more pressure makes sense.

Tennessee Titans
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 1 in AFC South
2016 Record: 9–7

Quietly, the Titans had an impressive offense last year, with an eight-game stretch in which they averaged 30.8 points. What stood out was their schematic diversity. They mostly went with an old-school, smashmouth approach that regularly included extra running backs and tight ends. But late in halves, when they were great, they used a spread with three or four receivers.

• They’ve added talent at WR, drafting Corey Davis of Western Michigan with the fifth pick and signing Eric Decker from the Jets, but it’s still not a fast group. Tennessee will have to continue manufacturing deep shots through play design. That means a first-down play-action passing game—something the Titans developed well last season.

• Marcus Mariota has the makeup to be a star, especially if he’s a complementary QB in a run-first offense. That said, he must be more consistent. His accuracy wavers, which is unusual for a passer with such a compact delivery. Early last season he also made too many poor, improvised decisions late in the down.

• Twelfth-year tight end Delanie Walker is invaluable. The Titans can line up in “13” personnel (one-back, three tight ends) and not sacrifice many of their offensive concepts because Walker can act as the second wide receiver. Last season the Titans played 87 snaps of 13 personnel, second to only the Chiefs (101). Their QB rating on 26 passes from this package was 125.8. Being able to play in 13 is a huge advantage for a run-based offense, because having three tight ends creates additional gaps for the backs.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.

• Coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense is defined by amoeba fronts (in which most box defenders stand up), and complex five-man blitzes on passing downs. In the secondary LeBeau now prefers man coverage—which is shocking for one of the founders of the zone blitz. That’s a gargantuan change for the 79-year-old.

• A name to remember: safety Kevin Byard. The 2016 third-round pick thrives as a blitzer (especially versus the run) and has shown hints of man coverage ability. The Titans like to play with three safeties, and it will be interesting to see how Byard meshes with free-agent pickup Jonathan Cyprien (Jaguars), who has a similar skill set.

Houston Texans
Projected 2017 Record: 9–7, No. 2 in AFC South
2016 Record: 9–7

No one would be surprised if Deshaun Watson got on the field as a first-round rookie coming off a national title at Clemson—but we shouldn’t expect it. Bill O’Brien’s offense is not easy to learn. The quarterback is responsible for multiple checks at the line of scrimmage, and many of his reads postsnap are highly contingent on the coverage. The Texans like to run routes, both underneath and downfield, in which the receiver reacts to the position of the safeties. It takes both field-reading acumen and confidence to make those throws. Brock Osweiler couldn’t manage it last season. But let’s remember that Tom Savage has been in Houston for four years and has a bona fide NFL arm. He has a good shot at starting for all of 2017.

• Savage will attempt throws into tight windows, which is important when your top receiver is DeAndre Hopkins. The five-year pro lacks the speed, quickness and twitch to consistently separate from defensive backs. But Hopkins compensates with strong hands and body control that make him the best contested-catch artist in football.

• The Texans had one of the best defenses in football last season, and now they get back arguably the best defensive player of all time in J.J. Watt. Assistant head coach Romeo Crennel and coordinator Mike Vrabel are great at using presnap alignments to create favorable matchups for pass rushers. They have three linemen who can’t be blocked one-on-one: Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.

• Clowney is a great physical specimen who, at 24, is developing as a player. This will be the year he fully carves out his NFL niche. He’s explosive going north-south and east-west, but the catch is, he can only go in one direction at a time. He doesn’t have the flexibility to turn his body low and bend around the edge. That’s why, in obvious pass-rushing situations, he’s better inside than outside.

• There may not be a more cohesive secondary than Houston’s. Cornerbacks Kevin Johnson, Kareem Jackson, and Johnathan Joseph are all proficient in matchup schemes, and safety Andre Hal is a converted corner with great coverage prowess in the middle of the field.

Indianapolis Colts
Projected 2017 Record: 8–8, No. 3 in AFC South
2016 Record: 8–8

No one in the NFL believes Andrew Luck is anything less than elite. Luck made more expert-level plays than any quarterback last year, extending plays and finding receivers late. But he also made too many negative plays. Luck can curtail these and help his developing offensive line (plus ward off the injuries that are starting to clutter his “work history”) by getting rid of the ball more quickly.

• Here’s the conundrum for the Colts, though: Luck is at his best when he extends plays. Most quarterbacks go sandlot when they prolong the action, but Luck understands which routes beat which coverages late, and he consistently spots receivers coming open by keeping his eyes downfield and moving within the pocket. His accuracy on tough throws is exceptional. You take these virtues away when you ask him to get rid of the ball sooner. Play-caller Rob Chudzinski must take care to build a quicker passing game that doesn’t rob Luck of his greatest strengths.

• It will help if Indianapolis’s young O-line gets better at protecting Luck. Starters Ryan Kelly (center), Joe Haeg (right guard) and Le’Raven Clark (right tackle) have just 16, 14 and three career starts, respectively, and they showed signs of growth last season: In the second half of the season, the Colts allowed an average of 2.25 fewer sacks per game than in the first.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

• There are two basic schools of thought on defense. One is to run a simple scheme and allow your guys to play fast. The other is to run a complex scheme and overwhelm opponents mentally. The Colts prefer the former, but it requires an effective four-man pass rush, which they don’t have—in fact, they’re not even close. Indy’s two best edge players, free-agent signees Jabaal Sheard (Patriots) and John Simon (Texans), wouldn’t even be on the field in passing situations for some teams. But coach Chuck Pagano and coordinator Ted Monachino know how to compensate: Their scheme is heavy in pressure packages and disguises. To play it you need rangy, versatile safeties and corners who can win one-on-one. That’s why the Colts drafted Ohio State safety Malik Hooker in the first round and Florida corner Quincy Wilson in the second.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 4 in AFC South
2016 Record: 3–13

There’s no nice way to say it: Blake Bortles was awful last year. His mechanics and decision-making regressed. It was hard to believe he was the same quarterback who in 2014 and ’15 inspired some to call him a young Ben Roethlisberger. If Bortles struggles again this year he will be on the bench by Halloween. His biggest problem is his throwing motion: It’s gotten longer. The longer the motion, the greater the chance of a mechanical glitch. Also, it simply takes more time for the ball to come out—often making what looked like a good decision turn into a bad one.

• Even if Bortles reworks his motion, he’ll never have the compact delivery of an Aaron Rodgers or a Matthew Stafford. So Jacksonville must run an offense with slower-developing pass routes. (The Buccaneers do this with Jameis Winston.) Naturally, downfield play-action is a heavy component of that kind of offense. Bortles and the Jags were spectacular with that in 2015. They must get back to it.

• The selection of LSU running back Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 pick suggests that Doug Marrone, in his first full season as the Jaguars’ coach, and new front-office czar Tom Coughlin want an old-school, run-first offense. A lack of athleticism along the interior O-line means Jacksonville’s ground game will feature more inside zone than outside zone plays.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.

• With the additions of marquee free agents A.J. Bouye (cornerback) and Calais Campbell (defensive lineman), plus the expected development of second-year men Yannick Ngakoue (defensive end), Myles Jack (middle linebacker) and Jalen Ramsey (corner), the Jaguars’ D could be stacked. The more talent you have, the simpler your scheme can be, and the faster your defenders can play. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash is expected to stick with their Seahawks-style Cover 3, which is about as simple as it gets.

• Ramsey is a superstar in the making. At 6′ 2″ and 208 pounds, he has the best physique of any corner to enter the league recently, and his build is ideal for a Cover 3 boundary cornerback—the Richard Sherman role. Bouye is another rangy corner, and he has great route recognition. It will be difficult to beat Jacksonville on the perimeter.

Oakland Raiders
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 1 in AFC West
2016 Record: 12–4

Raiders fans, don’t get apoplectic when you read this, but Derek Carr is not the savior of the NFL. He’s just an extremely talented 26-year-old quarterback who can run a wide-ranging offense and flick strong, tight-window throws anywhere on the field. MVP-caliber stuff? You bet. But understand: Carr did not play like an MVP last year until Week 8. Before that, he had been inconsistent in his mechanics and decision-making. This is actually good news for the faithful, because it suggests that Carr is in the early stages of his growth, and he could have an even better season in 2017.

• What first-time offensive coordinator Todd Downing wanted most this offseason was to acquire a tight end who was a true weapon in the passing game. (Incumbent Clive Walford is a backup.) Downing got that in former Packer Jared Cook.

• Remember: Marshawn Lynch last produced like a star running back in 2014. It will be interesting to see how he comes back after a season off. The Raiders have two excellent backups in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. Most likely the 31-year-old Lynch will lead the rotation as a first- and second-down back.

• Overall, the Cowboys have the NFL’s best offensive line—by far. The argument is whether Oakland has the best interior offensive line in football. Guards Gabe Jackson and especially Kelechi Osemele can displace defensive linemen in the ground game. Center Rodney Hudson is alert and technically sound blocking on the move.

• The Raiders have perhaps the least appealing group of linebackers in the NFL, so the defense must continue to be aggressive schematically. Raiders DC Ken Norton Jr. would presumably prefer the straightforward zone tactics that he learned as an assistant in Seattle. But that defense is about reading and reacting. Oakland’s linebackers would get exposed playing that kind of football.

• Instead of significantly addressing their linebacking corps in the offseason Oakland drafted cornerback Gareon Conley of Ohio State in the first round and safety Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut in the second. The better your defensive backfield, the more creative your scheme can be.

Kansas City Chiefs
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 2 in AFC West
2016 Record: 12–4

The plan is for Tyreek Hill to be an every-down player in 2017. This could fundamentally change the makeup of the Chiefs’ offense. The 5’10”, 185-pound Hill can be deployed anywhere as a wide receiver—including on the line by himself on the weak side, a la Dez Bryant or A.J. Green. He’s also dangerous in the backfield and even more so on gadget plays, which are a big part of coach Andy Reid’s brilliantly schemed, misdirection-based offense.

• Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. (That’s why they released the expensive Jeremy Maclin this offseason.) The scheme relies on route combinations creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity, making caretaker quarterback Alex Smith—call him a “point guard QB” if you feel that’s more respectful—a fine fit.

• The NFL’s two best three-tight end packages belong to the Redskins and the Chiefs. What do they have in common? An athletic, refined route runner who can line up anywhere (Washington’s Jordan Reed and KC’s Travis Kelce), and a No. 2 tight end who can also line up anywhere (Vernon Davis and Demetrius Harris). (The third TE tends to stay near the line.) Remove Kelce and the Chiefs’ attack is significantly less potent.

• No defense that has ever allowed fewer than 20 points a game has given up more yards than the 2016 Chiefs. This speaks to their D’s dependency on big plays. Kansas City’s 18 interceptions were tied with the Ravens and the Chargers for the league lead. What’s incredible is that the Chiefs did this in a matchup-based scheme. When they aren’t playing man coverage, they play an assertive matchup zone that often ends up resembling man coverage in its execution. Man-to-man defenders typically don’t get many picks because their eyes are on their receiver, not the quarterback or the ball.

• Second-year defensive end Chris Jones has a chance to be special. His initial quickness and raw strength are tremendous.

Los Angeles Chargers
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 3 in AFC West
2016 Record: 5–11

Philip Rivers threw a league-high 21 interceptions last season, but an unusually large number of those were due to wide receiver mistakes. That won’t be the case this year with the addition of Clemson first-rounder Mike Williams (if healthy) and the return of Keenan Allen from a torn right ACL. Speedy Travis Benjamin is back as a movable No. 3 receiver and big-play weapon; fourth-year pro Dontrelle Inman is one of the league’s best route runners and could blossom into a quality starter; and 6’4″, 205-pound Tyrell Williams, while needing refinement, has the size and speed to be a No. 1.

• It’s clear Melvin Gordon is most comfortable running out of a two-back formation: He settled down in his second season after the Chargers drafted his former Wisconsin fullback, Derek Watt. But over the course of 2016, Gordon also got tougher running out of one-back formations. That’s crucial, especially in San Diego’s offense.

• If the Chargers aren’t playing three receivers, they’ll use two tight ends—and look good doing it. They have a developing star in second-year pro Hunter Henry and the savviest of veterans in Antonio Gates, who is still one of the best at getting open over the middle.
Los Angeles Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa.

• Presumably, new coach Anthony Lynn wouldn’t have hired Gus Bradley as his defensive coordinator unless he wanted to run a Seahawks-style Cover 3 zone. But you have to wonder about the wisdom of adopting such a relatively basic scheme, given Los Angeles’s talent. The Chargers have what every defense covets: a pair of top-flight man-to-man corners in Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward, who should enable you to expand—not contract—your blitz packages.

• Joey Bosa, with only a dozen games under his belt, is already the third-best edge rusher in the NFL, behind Von Miller and Khalil Mack. (J.J. Watt is more a pure defensive lineman than an edge guy.) Bosa’s lateral quickness is incredible. So is his hand strength. And body control. And ability to transition from speed to power. It’ll be interesting to see where he lines up. Conventional wisdom says he’ll play defensive end. But those in the know suggest that Bosa might see snaps inside as a passing down 3-technique.

Denver Broncos
Projected 2017 Record: 6–10, No. 4 in AFC West
2016 Record: 9–7

First-time head coach Vance Joseph should follow Mike Tomlin’s example. Before he took the Steelers’ job, Tomlin had been an assistant on teams that ran classic 4–3 zone schemes. But the Pittsburgh defense he inherited was coordinated by the legendary Dick LeBeau and stocked with players who fit the franchise’s hallmark 3–4 disguised-blitzing attack. So, instead of trying to put his 4–3 stamp on his new club, Tomlin humbly let the D be—and rode it to two Super Bowl appearances in his first four years. Joseph, who most recently coached 4–3 zone-based schemes in Miami and Cincinnati, inherits a Broncos defense that has dominated with man coverage and blitzing. He should let it be.

• What stands out about Denver’s secondary is how well cornerbacks Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby handle picks and rub routes out of man coverage. That’s what carried them to victory in the 2015 AFC championship game, when their tight coverage forced Tom Brady to hold the ball and allowed the pass rush to take over.

• It won’t matter who won the QB job—Trevor Siemian, for now—if the Broncos don’t run the ball better; they ranked 27th in 2016. Expect more inside rushes under offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and new O-line coach Jeff Davidson, as opposed to the outside zone runs preferred by former coach Gary Kubiak.

• Like most young quarterbacks, Siemian struggles to process information quickly after the snap. But his upside is that he’s tough in the pocket. He keeps his eyes downfield with hits looming and willingly steps into throws. That’s a foundation he can build on.

• Paxton Lynch played only 10 quarters last season—not long enough to render a meaningful judgment on the 2016 first-round pick. But this much is clear: His physical traits are excellent. He has size (6’7″, 244 pounds), mobility and arm strength. He needs to tighten his throwing motion; poor lower-body mechanics caused his throws to lose power and velocity. Addressing this—which won’t be easy—would also improve his accuracy. Also, Lynch hasn’t shown Siemian’s comfort in the pocket, but that’s not uncommon for a raw prospect seeing his first NFL action.

New York Giants
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 1 in NFC East
2016 Record: 11–5

The first thing you look for every time you put on Giants film: How is their opponent defending Odell Beckham Jr.? Or, perhaps more accurately, how is it doubling Beckham? That won’t change this season, even with the signing of six-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall. Beckham will remain enemy No. 1 for defenses because there isn’t a greater big-play threat in football. But the big-bodied Marshall should also thrive in an offense that features slant routes.

• New York’s ground game, ranked 29th a year ago, must improve, but that won’t be easy in its three-receiver offense. Because the Giants have only six run blockers (the O-line and a tight end), they can create fewer gaps and deploy far fewer formations, restricting their rush designs. (On the bright side, they often face fewer defenders in the box.) Really, New York’s ground attack consists of two basic plays, run primarily out of shotgun: inside zone, with double teams right up the gut, and “power,” with a pulling guard.

• Eli Manning has always made the occasional boneheaded turnover, but he has more than compensated with his overall play. That said, he had far too many interceptions last year against underneath zone defenders in basic coverages, especially for a quarterback with his experience.

• The defense carried this team in 2016. Expect coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to be an even more creative, aggressive play-caller now that he has a better grasp of his personnel. Last season he was learning on the fly about CB Janors Jenkins, CB Eli Apple, DT Damon Harrison and DE Olivier Vernon (not a bad quartet of newcomers, by the way). Spagnuolo loves to blitz.

• One featured blitzer is third-year strong safety Landon Collins, who made first-team All-Pro last year. Collins is not good when he’s reacting; he struggles when forced to backpedal, which is why teams go after him in man coverage. But when he’s in attack mode, he’s as dangerous as almost any defender in football. Spagnuolo has been shrewd in figuring out how to use Collins, who last season responded with five interceptions, four sacks and consistently strong tackling against the run.

Dallas Cowboys
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 2 in NFC East
2016 Record: 13–3

The hype about the Dallas offensive line is entirely justified. In fact, not only do the Cowboys have the NFL’s best tackle (Tyron Smith), guard (Zack Martin) and center (Travis Frederick), but those men are the league’s three best offensive linemen, period. Smith is a superior athlete, and it shows in both pass protection and outside zone blocking. Martin is peerless at blocking while on the move. Frederick’s mechanics and initial quickness allow him to beat defensive tackles to a spot, sealing them inside—which is the key to much of Dallas’s ground game.

• It’s possible that the Cowboys will have a fourth elite O-lineman this season: third-year man La’el Collins, who is moving from left guard to right tackle after the retirement of Doug Free. Collins is a natural at working his run blocks up to the second level.

• Dak Prescott had a tremendous rookie campaign, but he played under perfect conditions. He had an O-line that provided clean pockets, a true No. 1 receiver to influence coverages (Dez Bryant), two effective underneath possession targets (Cole Beasley and Jason Witten) and the league’s leading rusher (Ezekiel Elliott). Prescott will have all of that again in 2017—except when Elliott misses games for his conduct suspension. At some point Dallas will have to lean on Prescott to make full-field progression reads and throws under duress. We’ll really find out about him when they do.

• Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli diversifies his coverages just enough to avoid being predictable. The Cowboys don’t blitz often, but when they do, it usually involves some sort of gap exchange, with defenders starting in one gap but attacking another. Such maneuvers are also a big part of their regular four-man rush.

• When you run as many D-line slants as the Cowboys do, it’s imperative that your linebackers have the speed, awareness and technique to scrape outside and cover the area away from the slant. Sean Lee is great at that. Damien Wilson and Jaylon Smith are capable as well.

• Dallas will be counting on first-round rookie Taco Charlton of Michigan. They badly need his speed off the edge.

Philadelphia Eagles
Projected 2017 Record: 8–8, No. 3 in NFC East
2016 Record: 7–9

Carson Wentz has that rare, Roethlisberger-ian ability to extend a play without breaking down its structure. We’ll see him do that even more in 2017. Last year the Eagles just wanted their rookie QB to make completions, so they called a lot of quick-strike throws, which Wentz, when he was comfortable, executed well. With an expanded understanding of the NFL game and of Doug Pederson’s offense, an improved receiving corps and more trust in his line, Wentz will approach top 10 QB status before long.

• There’s no need to be concerned about how Alshon Jeffery, signed from the Bears, will fit in in an offense that is structured around misdirection concepts, quick underneath throws and the occasional downfield route combination. Last season the Eagles asked Dorial Green-Beckham to fill the role that they are now handing to Jeffery. Both receivers have the same rare combination of size and speed, but Jeffery actually knows how to use it. Defenses should be on high alert for dig routes from Jeffery while speedy free-agent pickup Torrey Smith runs go routes.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

• Three things to know about Philadelphia’s O-line: 1) Right tackle Lane Johnson is critical. When he’s in—he missed 10 games last year for a performance-enhancing drug suspension—Wentz is much more comfortable; 2) Left tackle Jason Peters is declining athletically, but the team believes the 35-year-old, three-time All-Pro can gut out at least one more quality season; and 3) Center Jason Kelce is great on the move, but lacks the strength to battle in traffic. Defenses will exploit this by deploying a nosetackle against him.

• Philly’s defensive line depth and versatility are fantastic. Veteran free-agent pickup Chris Long can be a first- and second-down end, allowing first-round rookie Derek Barnett from Tennessee to focus solely on situational pass rushing. Former Raven Timmy Jernigan provides a second interior gap-shooting presence alongside Fletcher Cox. And Cox can actually line up at end sometimes, while Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry (both excellent pass rushers) slide inside. The only negative is the loss of tackle Bennie Logan, who signed with the Chiefs. He’ll be missed in run defense.

Washington Redskins
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 4 in NFC East
2016 Record: 8–7–1

Kirk Cousins’s performance was up-and-down both early and late in 2016. He didn’t always play with great vision and discipline. That’s troubling because he doesn’t have outstanding arm strength or athleticism, so he can’t consistently conjure big plays on his own. What Cousins does have is an understanding of coach Jay Gruden’s system—which might be the best-crafted in the NFL—as well as a willingness to make tough throws, even when defenders are bearing down. When he plays smartly, that’s enough to make Washington’s offense go.

• DeSean Jackson, who signed with Tampa Bay, was sometimes a headache, and keeping Pierre Garçon would have been expensive, but both receivers will likely be missed in Washington. Josh Doctson, last year’s first-round pick, and former Brown Terrelle Pryor might be bigger and more talented than Jackson and Garçon, but how do their skill sets fit? Jackson’s speed and Garçon’s fortitude on in-breaking routes complemented each other, and that factored heavily into how Washington constructed its route combinations.

• It’s a myth that you must run the ball well in order to execute play-action. It helps, but it’s not essential. Last season the Redskins ranked 21st in run offense, and yet their play-action game was once again among the best: According to Football Outsiders, they led the league with 10.4 yards per play-action pass play. Successful play-action starts with cohesive offensive line movement. If you display that, the defense will react accordingly.

• Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky ultimately wants to run a zone-based scheme, but he needs a much stronger pass rush. That’s why the Redskins spent a first-round pick on defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and a second-rounder on outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, both from Alabama.

• Josh Norman is a superb corner. He’s as physical as they come. He has fantastic awareness against receivers at the top of their routes. The concern is speed. Norman’s is not lacking, but it may not be quite enough for him to succeed consistently on an island against No. 1 receivers. That’s partly why he’s better in zone than in man.

Minnesota Vikings
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 1 in NFC North
2016 Record: 8–8

Everyone in the Vikings organization adores Teddy Bridgewater. And before his horrific left-knee injury last summer, they believed he was their future at quarterback. But here’s the cold, hard truth: Sam Bradford is markedly better than Bridgewater. Bradford has superior arm strength, accuracy and drop-back timing, and he—not Bridgewater—is the one Minnesota should worry about re-signing after this season.

• Did the Vikings overspend for Lions left tackle Riley Reiff (five years, $26.3 million guaranteed)? Probably. How about Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers (five years, $10.5 million guaranteed)? Probably, again. But anyone who watched this team in the second half of last year can’t blame them. After three offensive tackles went down and T.J. Clemmings—whose NFL future (if he has one) is as a backup guard—was put back in at left tackle, the passing game was reduced to screens and hasty three-step drop-backs. Bradford & Co. never had a chance.

• This will be a three-receiver offense. Minnesota is solid at wideout and, beyond seven-year veteran Kyle Rudolph, it has no proven tight ends or fullbacks. Rudolph is a flawed run blocker but a steady inside-aligned receiver who can get open with the right play design.

• The Vikings are predominantly a two-high-safety defense. The reason more teams don’t use this structure is that it leaves one less body in the box, which hurts against the run. Minnesota, however, has a trio of stingy run stoppers inside: oversized linebacker Anthony Barr, athletic linebacker Eric Kendricks and massively underrated nosetackle Linval Joseph. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter aren’t great edge-setters, but in a two-high scheme they don’t need to be. That job falls to either the cornerbacks or the safeties (depending on if it’s Cover 2 or Cover 4). Their DBs, especially free safety Harrison Smith, are sure tacklers.

• Kendricks is a key component of coach Mike Zimmer’s staple double-A-gap package. It’s imperative that the linebackers, who will walk up in the area between guard and center, have the ability to retreat into landmark zone coverage when the blitz is merely a bluff. Kendricks is tremendous here.

Green Bay Packers
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 2 in NFC North
2016 Record: 10–6

Aaron Rodgers is a paradox. At times he simply won’t look at his primary receiver. He’ll also hold the ball unnecessarily. And yet when he goes against these quarterbacking fundamentals, Rodgers doesn’t just avoid turnovers—he often makes spectacular plays. Still, the Packers’ offense operates better when Rodgers is playing on time and with discipline. He did that down the stretch last season and lit the world on fire.

• Jordy Nelson is the perfect receiver for Rodgers. Besides running Green Bay’s staple routes—such as slants and posts outside, and deep “over” routes from the slot—Nelson is tremendous on the back-shoulder throws that Rodgers loves, and he has a feel for how to get open when a play breaks down late. This is a big reason that 11 of Nelson’s league-leading 14 touchdown receptions last year came in the red zone.

• Let’s not forget: Rodgers and Nelson can come up with magic late in the play because of their offensive line. No front five was better at sustaining pass protection in 2016—not even Dallas’s. The Pack’s O-line does have some built-in advantages, though. Instead of blitzing Rodgers, defenses like to drop eight into coverage, which means there are only three defenders to block. Also, Green Bay sees fewer designer pass rush tactics such as stunts and twists; defenses are so concerned with keeping Rodgers in the pocket that they tend to have rushers simply charge straight up the field.

• When the Packers drafted cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones in the second round this spring, defensive coordinator Dom Capers beamed. That’s because Capers, the team’s nine-year defensive coordinator, can only run his preferred system when he has cover men he trusts. (Last year he had to play safe, two-high-safety schemes to aid his floundering cornerbacks.)

• Capers loves to play “big nickel,” even against running formations. He basically replaces a linebacker with a smaller, but more athletic, box safety. Former Packers great Charles Woodson and Micah Hyde (who signed with the Bills this offseason) both prospered in this role. In ’17 eight-year veteran Morgan Brunett should ably succeed them.

Chicago Bears
Projected 2017 Record: 6–10, No. 3 in NFC North
2016 Record: 3–13

It has been nearly three years since Mike Glennon started an NFL game, but when last seen with the Buccaneers he had improved at playing with defenders in his face. That’s a critical trait for an NFL quarterback, especially a pocket passer who is not particularly mobile. Glennon, who signed a three-year, $45 million deal in March, surely didn’t love it when the Bears traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky of North Carolina. But the 27-year-old will have his opportunities, and if he plays well he’ll be a starting QB (somewhere) in 2018.

• Who will be the targets for Glennon (or Trubisky)? With Alshon Jeffery gone to Philadelphia, Chicago has no No. 1 receiver. Kevin White, a ’15 first-rounder who was seen as a project out of West Virginia, where he always lined up on the right side, has played just four games in two seasons because of left leg injuries. And when White has been on the field he has looked slow and stiff, though that could be because he wasn’t fully healthy.

• Second-year back Jordan Howard is the best all-around zone runner in football. He can be a sustaining, defender-dragging ballcarrier on inside zone runs, working behind double teams. And he has a superb feel for turning the corner on outside zone runs, which make up the bulk of the Bears’ rushing attack. To play to this, the Bears like to feed Howard on pitches and sweeps.

• Eighteen-year NFL defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, in his third season with Chicago, prefers subtly disguised zone coverages, usually with two safeties deep. That means he can’t blitz often, which is why it’s important that the Bears have an effective four-man pass rush. Leonard Floyd, their first-round pick in ’16, has the length and athleticism to become a 15-sack-a-year guy.

• If you’re a two-high-safety zone defense with decent edge rushers, your defenders naturally have eyes on the quarterback and the ball, making it easier to generate turnovers by jumping routes and going for strip-fumbles after the catch. But the Bears, despite being zone-based, forced 11 turnovers last season, tied for the least in NFL history. If that doesn’t improve, Chicago will draft in the top five again in ’18.

Detroit Lions
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 4 in NFC North
2016 Record: 9–7

Fans like the idea that a physically limited quarterback can succeed with brains and accuracy. He can, but to a much lesser extent than they realize. In the NFL, the stronger a QB’s arm, the more throws that are available to him. If you don’t believe it, take a close look at the Lions. You’ll see an offense that’s defined by its quarterback’s cannon arm. Matthew Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made—he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover 2—but in coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s system, we’ve seen the 29-year-old QB play with more maturity. His bold throws are now also good decisions. Cooter has helped Stafford by using straightforward, static formations. The presnap stillness gives Stafford a clearer picture of the defense.

• Here’s hoping third-year running back Ameer Abdullah stays healthy—he went on injured reserve after Week 2 last year with a left Lisfranc injury. With Abdullah and Theo Riddick (the best inside receiving back in football), Detroit has two dynamic backfield weapons who can create their own space. Their shifty style of running fits Cooter’s single-back spread formations.

• Taylor Decker tore his right labrum in June, sidelining him for four to six months, and that hurts. The injury to one of the league’s best young left tackles—Decker has steady feet and strong hands—leaves the Lions with unappetizing options: reserves Corey Robinson and Cornelius Lucas and former Rams bust Greg Robinson.

• Last year opposing offenses completed 72.7% of their passes against Detroit, the highest rate in the NFL’s modern era. Surprisingly, the secondary never looked that bad on film. The corners, led by Darius Slay, were solid, and there was depth and versatility at safety. The real problem was that this D rarely made big plays, and that almost always stems from an ineffective pass rush. Indeed, the Lions ranked 30th in sacks.

• Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is worlds better than his two sacks in 2016 suggest. The fifth-year pro, long and athletic, thrives on stunts and twists. Ansah could play at the same level as last season and wind up with 12 sacks.

Atlanta Falcons
Projected 2017 Record: 12–4, No. 1 in NFC South
2016 Record: 11–5

The biggest question facing the Falcons is, What will the offense look like under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian? In spring there was talk of adding new wrinkles, but doing so is a dangerous game. On the one hand, the fastest way to fall behind in the NFL is to not evolve. On the other, how much do you want to change an offense that last year was one of the greatest in NFL history?

• Under OC Kyle Shanahan (now the 49ers’ head coach), the Falcons’ ground game and aerial attack were in perfect sync. The outside zone run blocking naturally helped sell the play-action game, which Atlanta used a league-high 27% of the time, according to Football Outsiders. This helped turn shrewd field surveyor Matt Ryan into the MVP.

• Expect to see Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman on the field together more often. Both are top 10 NFL ballcarriers, and both can split out wide and win as receivers. With both backs out there, defenses will struggle to identify which players to put on the field, let alone what coverage to call.

• The Falcons made Super Bowl LI because their young defense improved drastically. After allowing 28.3 points a game before their Week 11 bye, they gave up just 22.0 (including playoffs). The improvements were most apparent in the middle. Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and rookie strong safety Keanu Neal were much sharper mentally. Offenses had been attacking them with deep routes by inside receivers; once they figured out how to recognize those plays, the whole D stepped up.

• Amazingly, Atlanta’s secondary performed better after Desmond Trufant, a top five all-around corner, went down with a torn left pectoral in Week 9. Jalen Collins performed well outside, and Robert Alford traveled with No. 1 receivers all over, including into the slot. In fact, he outplayed Julian Edelman in Super Bowl LI. Collins has been suspended 10 games for a PED violation, but the Falcons still have quality depth with Brian Poole and Deji Olatoye. Expect Quinn to call on multiple backups. Last season he increasingly played man coverage and used a four-cornerback dime package.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected 2017 Record: 10–6, No. 2 in NFC South
2016 Record: 9–7

This may not be the year Jameis Winston becomes a top 10 quarterback, but expect a quantum leap. The Buccaneers understand exactly what Winston is: a smart (potentially brilliant) gunslinger whose release is a bit methodical. He doesn’t fit the quick-strike schemes that define so many of today’s offenses; he’s suited for the slower-developing plays that stem from five- and seven-step dropbacks. Coach Dirk Koetter’s shrewd downfield concepts will bring out Winston’s best.

• Winston needs to cut down on his interceptions. He threw 15 as a rookie and 18 last year (second only to Philip Rivers for the NFL high). Winston has the talent to compensate with big plays—as Eli Manning does, and Brett Favre did—and he’s not simply “mistake-prone” like his backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick. And Winston’s turnovers should decline with experience. Many of them are the result of overly aggressive decisions on reads that most young quarterbacks wouldn’t even know enough to consider.

• Tampa Bay has the three kinds of receivers that teams want in a downfield passing offense: a big wideout who can run corner and post patterns and win with the ball in the air (Mike Evans); a speedster who can attack safeties, opening up the intermediate levels (Desean Jackson); and a tight end who can work the seams and run the 5-to-15-yard routes (both first-round rookie O.J. Howard of Alabama and incumbent starter Cameron Brate).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.

• In the first half of last season the Bucs’ defense allowed 29.0 points and 398.9 yards per game. In the second half it surrendered 17.1 points and 337.0 yards. What changed? The players’ comfort with coordinator Mike Smith’s zone concepts. The back seven played with much better spacing and awareness, and Smith, in turn, became more comfortable dialing up coverage disguises. Expect more improvement in 2017.

• An effective zone-based D requires a strong four-man pass rush. Aside from signing former Redskins tackle Chris Baker in the offseason, GM Jason Licht did not address this unit. So he is counting on Noah Spence to make even better use of the edge-quickness and second-effort burst that he flashed as a rookie.

Carolina Panthers
Projected 2017 Record: 5–11, No. 3 in NFC South
2016 Record: 9–7

Carolina selected shifty, underneath weapons in the first two rounds of this year’s draft: Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Curtis Samuel of Ohio State. This suggests that coordinator Mike Shula will introduce more quick-strike concepts into their offense—which is like McDonald’s deciding to add pizza to its menu. The change is both radical and unnecessary. The Panthers have a run-first offense built for a deep-drop-back passing game; their wide receivers are all big-bodied plodders, not twitchy space-creators; and their offensive line needs the help of additional blockers for those deep drop-backs.

• Most important, quick-strike passing is not what Cam Newton does. He’s not a timing or anticipation passer. Accuracy has never been his strength, and it likely never will be, given how unrefined his mechanics are six years into his career. Newton is a power thrower, which fits best in a deep-drop-back offense.

• It would be foolish for the Panthers to limit Newton’s rushing attempts, which coach Ron Rivera has said he’d like to do. At 6’5″ and 245 pounds, the mere threat of Newton’s running is valuable because it gives the offense a numbers advantage in the box. The running dimension made Newton the league’s MVP in 2015. Take that away and you’re left with a below-average QB.

• Carolina’s defense is only as good as its four-man pass rush. When it’s clicking, it allows their soft zone coverages to work. When the rush doesn’t get to the quarterback, the voids in their coverages become too large. Last season the Panthers averaged 3.8 sacks in wins and 2.4 in losses.

• Julius Peppers is a Hall of Fame defensive end, but entering his 16th season, he’s a better interior pass rusher. That’s why the Packers played him at nickel defensive tackle last season.

• This will be Shaq Thompson’s third season, and it’s time for him to see more snaps. He’s as fast as any linebacker in football, and his coverage abilities are sensational. But he hasn’t been able to get on the field much, because Luke Kuechly is too great to take out and 34-year-old Thomas Davis isn’t slowing down. The plan is for Thompson to assume some of Davis’s reps in the nickel package. We’ll see.

New Orleans Saints
Projected 2017 Record: 6–10, No. 4 in NFC South
2016 Record: 7–9

One of the things that makes Drew Brees great is his ability to manipulate pass defenders with body language. He does this not only with pump fakes but also with shoulder rolls and misleading glances to one side of the field. This is quarterbacking at its highest level, and it is vital for a New Orleans offense that focuses its passing game almost exclusively inside the numbers.

• Left tackle Terron Armstead will miss part of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery for a torn left labrum. But the Saints can survive, because their scheme naturally helps blockers. For one, no NFC coach last year used formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that personnel grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they’re getting into their routes, but that’s fine because they can serve as check-down options, and Brees’s eyes don’t reach them until late in the play.

• Don’t be surprised when Adrian Peterson supplants Mark Ingram in the running back pecking order. The free-agent pickup is a great fit for New Orleans’s north-south ground game, which stylistically resembles the one Peterson thrived in as a Viking.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

• The defense has been bad for a while, even though the front office has been trying. Every year since 2011 the Saints have spent two of their top three draft picks on defense. The wet-noodle-to-wall approach has left them with a ton of depth—if we’re defining depth as highly drafted players who could carve out significant roles but also might provide nothing. Only five starters are proven and locked in: end Cameron Jordan, tackle Sheldon Rankins, cornerback Delvin Breaux (if healthy), and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell. That’s not to say New Orleans is in dire straits at every other position; it’s just that those spots are unsettled.

• Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen plays with a ton of personnel groupings, front seven alignments and coverage rotations. It’s no surprise the Saints drafted cornerback Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State in the first round. The better Allen’s corners are in solo coverage, the more creative he can be.

Seattle Seahawks
Projected 2017 Record: 11–5, No. 1 in NFC West
2016 Record: 10–5–1

Russell Wilson is difficult to analyze. He doesn’t always play on time in the pocket, which leads to missed opportunities and plays that break down. But when those breakdowns occur, Wilson can produce results that most quarterbacks couldn’t. He’s a great touch thrower, particularly on the move, including when he’s going left. That said, it’s hard to be a consistent team with a sandlot-style QB, and indeed the Seahawks have always been a week-to-week offense. To gain more consistency in the last couple seasons they’ve emphasized spread formations that demand Wilson get the ball out almost immediately. Wilson, to his immense credit, has responded well. He’ll never be a classic drop-back passer, but he’s become a much-improved quick-pocket passer.

• Seattle’s offensive line is as putrid as everyone says it is. Last season the front five struggled mightily against athletic D-lines—a real problem for a team that shares a division with the Rams and the Cardinals. Expect musical chairs up front again this season. The only sure thing is on-the-rise center Justin Britt.

• This defense has changed in the last two seasons under coordinator Kris Richard. It is no longer just a straight Cover 3 zone unit. Richard is a big believer in man-to-man. He’ll have Richard Sherman travel with top receivers, and he plays free safety Earl Thomas all over, not just in centerfield. It’s a fundamentally different D from the ones under Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley.

• There isn’t a better safety duo than Thomas and Kam Chancellor. They played only seven games together last season because of injury, and in those games the Seahawks allowed an average of 14.3 points and 202.3 passing yards. In the other games Seattle gave up 21.3 points and 244.0 passing yards. The Cover 3, which remains this defense’s foundation even if it’s used less frequently, works because of those two.

• Defensive lineman Frank Clark will be a superstar by season’s end. The third-year player’s initial quickness, change-of-direction agility and closing burst are just too dynamic to ignore.

Arizona Cardinals
Projected 2017 Record: 8–8, No. 2 in NFC West
2016 Record: 7–8–1

We can talk Carson Palmer all we want, but if the Cardinals’ offensive line doesn’t improve markedly, this team has no chance. Bruce Arians’s system features five-step timing drop-backs and often sends out all five eligible receivers, leaving the O-line without any blocking help. Last year Arizona allowed 127 quarterback hits, third most in the league. They’ve reshuffled their personnel but serious questions remain, including at left tackle, where 2015 first-rounder D.J. Humphries is taking over.

• Given that David Johnson is, along with Le’Veon Bell, one of the best receiving backs in football (and all-around running backs period), the Cards can really pressure defenses when they go to a four-receiver, one-back set—which they did more often than all but two teams last season. In that formation they have Johnson dictating matchups out wide or in the slot, top-notch possession target Larry Fitzgerald as a security blanket inside and three sheer speedsters (Jaron Brown, a healthy John Brown and J.J. Nelson) threatening deep. Few defenses have an answer for all of that.

• It’s so impressive that Fitzgerald, 34, has cemented his Hall of Fame credentials by becoming the league’s best blocking receiver late in his career. Arizona’s top running play involves Fitzgerald motioning down behind two line-of-scrimmage tight ends and blocking a second-level defender at the point of attack.

• No one noticed because the Cardinals weren’t winning last year, but their defense ranked third in net yards allowed per pass attempt (5.7) and also per rush attempt (3.6). It also recorded a league-high 48 sacks. But it will be difficult for Arizona to maintain that level in 2017. Five starters are gone, including emerging star safety Tony Jefferson (Ravens) and domineering defensive lineman Calais Campbell (Jaguars). To restock, the Cardinals brought in a mix of veterans (LB Karlos Dansby, SS Antione Bethea) and rookies (first-round ILB Hasson Reddick from Temple and FS Budda Baker, a second-rounder from Washington). Incorporating so many new starters into coordinator James Bettcher’s complex scheme could be challenging early on.

Los Angeles Rams
Projected 2017 Record: 7–9, No. 3 in NFC West
2016 Record: 4–12

Jared Goff needs to throw better, plain and simple. As a rookie he was inaccurate on too many routine plays. On passes 11 to 20 yards downfield, his QB rating was 27.9. But here’s the positive: Despite getting little help from his offensive line and receivers, Goff showed that he can be tough in the pocket. Early on he tended to take his eyes off his receivers to look at the pass rush, one of the ultimate no-nos, but he grew past that. He knew hits were coming, and he stood firm. That is a critical, encouraging sign.

• Running behind a revamped O-line that includes former Bengal Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, Todd Gurley should be better this year. But his poor showing in 2016 wasn’t all because of his blocking: Gurley didn’t see the field with the same clarity he did as a rookie.

• Acquiring Sammy Watkins from Buffalo addressed a major need. Before that trade, new coach Sean McVay, the former Redskins offensive coordinator, didn’t have a single mismatch-making weapon to build his pass designs around. Some might see Tavon Austin as one, but there’s a reason the ’13 first-round pick has gained only 410.5 receiving yards a year. Austin can get lazy on deep routes, and as a slot man he hasn’t shown the necessary nuance and patience to win underneath. At this point he’s a gadget player.

• Wade Phillips is as respected as any defensive coordinator in football today (maybe ever), but one quiet criticism you’ll hear is that he can be predictable in coverage against untraditional two-receiver formations. In Denver, Phillips’s linebackers would get in unfavorable matchups against running backs and tight ends. But Rams linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron are both ex-college safeties who can run, which means they’re better suited for pass coverage than Phillips’s Broncos ‘backers.

• Don’t worry about Aaron Donald transitioning to a new position in Phillips’s 3–4. The scheme still features 4–3-style, one-gap assignments for most linemen. It will be interesting to see how often Donald aligns at three-technique versus five-technique (the position J.J. Watt played for Phillips in Houston). But Donald’s initial burst is too explosive for O-linemen no matter where he sets up.

San Francisco 49ers
Projected 2017 Record: 4–12, No. 4 in NFC West
2016 Record: 2–14

When he was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers’ new coach, brilliantly used his formations to create mismatches, often unbalancing the field by having receivers to one side and backs and tight ends to the other. He also excelled at concocting routes for each side of the field that gave Matt Ryan different answers for different coverages. As long as Shanahan has a QB who knows where the ball should go—and Brian Hoyer, his placeholder starter, usually does—the Niners can field a competitive offense. It won’t be as pretty as Atlanta’s because they don’t have the talent at the skill positions, but it will be more consistent than Chip Kelly’s Colin Kaepernick–led attack of a year ago.

• What made Shanahan’s play designs so potent was the receiving abilities of Falcons tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, which allowed them to line up in one formation and shift to another. The shifts forced the defense to tip its hand; also, most D’s don’t have linebackers who could cover those backs. Carlos Hyde is a solid inside runner who can occasionally turn the corner, but he had only 163 yards receiving last year. If fourth-round rookie Joe Williams can become a threat out of the backfield, he’ll earn playing time quickly.

• Even though he would be among the lightest defensive tackles in the NFL at 273 pounds, that’s where No. 3 pick Solomon Thomas should play in passing situations. The 6’3″ Thomas can kick over to end on first and second down, but he lined up at tackle an estimated 85% of his snaps at Stanford. The 49ers’ other tackle is 2016 first-rounder—DeForest Buckner, who showed better leverage in the second half of his rookie season.

• New defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is a former Seattle assistant, and his Seahawks-style Cover 3 is a single-high safety zone coverage that has interior defenders drop to landmarks on the field. But it’s worth noting that last year the teams that used this scheme—Atlanta, Jacksonville and, of course, Seattle—all increased their man-to-man coverage late in the season, perhaps because offenses found ways to exploit the zone. That could signal a problem for the Niners, whose corners may not be good enough to play man regularly.

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Week 1 NFL picks against spread: Seahawks clip Packers; Raiders edge Titans

With the 2017 NFL season comes another exciting year of pigskin prognostications and football forecasts. That means 256 more regular-season chances to pick against the spread laid out by the fine folks in Vegas.

The best part about going into Week 1? Nothing is wrong yet. The worst part about going into Week 1? We’ve also got nothing right yet.

Hope you are ready for some pro football that actually counts. Here’s how we see this weekend’s full slate of games of going down.

STEELE: Week 1 NFL picks straight up
Week 1 NFL picks against the spread

Game of Midweek

Chiefs at Patriots (-9), Thursday 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC

The Patriots go from digging out of a major Super Bowl hole into massive Super Bowl favorites. The Chiefs aren’t the easiest opening opponent. But while their defense can cause a few snags for Tom Brady and the passing game, their own lack of offensive firepower will cost them. New England will find a way to contain Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. KC won’t have the same answers for Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski. Patriots win 30-17 and cover the spread .

Games of the Week

Seahawks at Packers (-3), Sunday 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX

Eddie Lacy returning to Lambeau Field vs. replacement Ty Montgomery is the distant undercard to the passing duel between Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. The Packers quarterback found comfort against the Seahawks’ defense last season, and Wilson, fully healthy, will be have his team at full speed to match. It’s an opening thriller worthy of the late window with Wilson, back near his final college stomping grounds, making the big decisive play late against the weaker defense. Seahawks win 27-24 .

Giants at Cowboys (-3 1/2), Sunday 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Even with Ezekiel Elliott in there to help Dak Prescott, this is a daunting defense for the Cowboys, as the Giants swept the season series as NFC East runners-up in 2016. This time, Eli Manning has Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram added to his receiving mix to exploit the Cowboys’ downgrades in the secondary. Dak will have a solid sophomore start, but streaky Eli starts hotter with the right matchup. Giants win 24-20 in the Upset of the Week .

Rest of the Week

Raiders at Titans (-2), Sunday 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Tennessee is thought to be this year’s Oakland, a successful rebuilding project-turned-AFC playoff team. But drawing the current Raiders is a difficult assignment early. The Titans will be able to move the ball well on the ground, but eventually, this turns into a shootout between young rising QBs Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr. The Raiders QB will earn his new big contract by using his more-established weapons to lead a game-winning drive late. Raiders win 31-27 .

Eagles (-1) at Redskins, Sunday, 1 pm. ET, FOX

Kirk Cousins is betting on himself in what’s likely his last year in Washington, while Carson Wentz is just getting warmed up, now loaded with legit outside wideouts in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Wentz will spread the ball around well in his Year 2 debut. Cousins is facing a good defense that improved on every level and will rattle him more consistently. Eagles win 27-23 and cover the spread .

Falcons (-7) at Bears, Sunday 1 p.m. ET, FOX

The only way to compare Matt Ryan and Mike Glennon is their tall, lanky frames and big arms. Otherwise, Atlanta’s current QB is the reigning NFL MVP, and Tampa Bay’s former QB is a good early bet to lead the league in interceptions if he somehow starts ahead of Mitchell Trubisky all season. The Falcons’ defense won’t be thinking “28-3,” but rather how much better it can be under Dan Quinn in Year 3 with so much young speed. You can bet Atlanta will pick on Chicago, taking it out on its first opponent since the Super Bowl. Falcons win 34-13 and cover the spread .

Steelers (-9) at Browns, Sunday 1 p.m. ET, CBS

There’s some positive buzz around Cleveland’s offense because beyond rookie QB DeShone Kizer, players such Isaiah Crowell, Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt will make it look more respectable for Hue Jackson. Unfortunately, archrival Pittsburgh counters with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. The Killer Bs will roll out well after a strong offseason, and former Browns corner Joe Haden will put the finishing touches on it. Steelers win 38-21 and cover the spread in the Lock of the Week .

Ravens at Bengals (-3), Sunday 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Joe Flacco is returning from a back injury (most likely), but Baltimore’s offense has been banged up everywhere throughout the preseason. Cincy is hoping Joe Mixon will provide a spark to its backfield in what sets up as a bit of an ugly defensive game. It’s at home in the early window, which means Andy Dalton can do his best work. His connection to A.J. Green is the difference in a field-goal fest. Bengals win 23-19 and cover the spread .

Cardinals (-1 1/2) at Lions, Sunday 1 p.m. ET, FOX

The Leos get little respect as a returning playoff team with Jim Caldwell, but there’s plenty of reason to keep respecting counterpart Bruce Arians. Detroit’s defense doesn’t have answers for Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald or David Johnson. Matthew Stafford faces a much trickier pressure package and secondary, especially when Ameer Abdulllah and the running game are contained. The Cards’ desert drive to Ford Field is fruitful. Cardinals win 27-23 and cover the spread .

Jaguars at Texans (-5 1/2), Sunday 1 p.m. ET, CBS

J.J. Watt already has been a big winner off the field in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, but you can bet he’s been itching to get back on the field and inspire Houstonians even more. This game is all about defense, as Watt adds to a terrorizing Texans group and the Jags jump to another level. There’s no way Watt lets up on Blake Bortles in the most important opener in franchise history. Texans win 23-10 and cover the spread .

Jets at Bills (-8), Sunday 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Buffalo has been breaking bad with some of the late preseason news, but it’s still not close to what happened downstate with New York’s AFC East fire sale. Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy up and running together are plenty to ground the Jets’ defense, and Josh McCown just can’t keep up against a Bills defense that will be motivated to make it a winning debut for Sean McDermott. Bills win 24-13 and cover the spread .

Colts at Rams (-3 1/2), Sunday 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS

Scott Tolzien vs. Jared Goff isn’t a joke. It’s a real Week 1 NFL QB matchup. Tolzien is filling in for Andrew Luck (shoulder) because Jacoby Brissett isn’t quite ready for those duties yet. As Luck lifts a team with plenty of weaknesses, Tolzien only highlights those weaknesses. With or without Aaron Donald, it’s hard to face a Wade Phillips-coached defense after a long road trip. Goff has to be better under Sean McVay and with Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Gerlad Everett now part of his support. But in this one, feeding Todd Gurley a ton will work fine vs. the Indy D. Rams win 24-17 and cover the spread .

Panthers (-5 1/2) at 49ers, Sunday 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX

After the two Seans, we’re up to our third rookie coach in a row as the Kyle Shanahan era kicks off in San Francisco. The talent is still lacking overall, but it’s gotten some good long-term upgrades defensively (Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster) and decent short-term upgrades offensively (Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin). The Niners will build on a feel-good offseason to show Shanahan is the answer, but the Panthers, with the defense back near elite again, Cam Newton back healthy and Christian McCaffrey back close to Stanford, are too much to handle in the end. Panthers win 24-20 but fail to cover the spread .

Saints at Vikings (-3 1/2), Monday 7:10 p.m. ET, ESPN

Minnesota’s limited offense gets a break early to explode on New Orleans’ ever-reeling defense. Sam Bradford will get big plays to both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielien, buoyed by Adrian Peterson replacement Dalvin Cook running and catching well in his NFL debut. As for Peterson, his revenge plans will be foiled, first by not playing much as Drew Brees needs to go pass-happier again, and then by seeing the Vikings hold on late because of Cook. Vikings win 27-24 but fail to cover the spread .

Chargers at Broncos (-3 1/2), Monday 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

With all due respect to the Raiders with Khalil Mack and the Chiefs solid on every level, the Chargers and Broncos are set up to have the two best defenses in the AFC West. Joey Bosa and Von Miller will make sure this battle is more about them than it is about Trevor Siemian and Philip Rivers. It’s a late-night, low-scoring special that pleases the “under” crowd, with Denver’s home field making the slight difference. Broncos win 17-16 but fail to cover the spread .

(Vinnie Iyer)

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Brexit a boost for possible London franchise, says UK head

LONDON- Britain’s departure from the European Union will make it easier for London to have an NFL franchise by removing some of the legal obstacles, the head of the U.S. sport’s British-based operations said on Wednesday.

Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL UK, said such a franchise was viable and realistic but with plenty of hurdles yet to overcome.

“The interesting thing about the decision to leave the EU, and I don’t want to get political whilst there’s loads of things that we don’t know, is that it actually makes a franchise in London easier to put up,” he said.

Kirkwood, speaking at a Sport Industry Breakfast Club meeting, pointed in particular to current EU-related issues with the NFL’s revenue-sharing model and drafting of players in a closed league.

Previous advice was that the NFL would be in breach of EU employment laws.

“If we were to put more than one (franchise in Europe), the contraventions would potentially be serious enough that we’d then have to change how we operate, which I don’t think is likely, or go back to the drawing board,” said Kirkwood.

“(Brexit) has definitely made an objective that is still quite complex to see how we actually get to it…a lot easier.”

There has been talk for years of the NFL, which is staging a record four games in London as part of its regular season starting this week, setting up a London franchise but it remains a distant dream.

Games have been played since 2007 at Wembley and Twickenham, with Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur’s new home scheduled to replace the rugby venue next year.

The London Series matches start on Sept 24 with the Baltimore Ravens against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are playing a home game in London for the fifth consecutive season, at Wembley.

The New Orleans Saints play Miami Dolphins on Oct 1 before Twickenham hosts the Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings v Cleveland Browns on Oct. 22 and 29 respectively.

After this year, 26 of the 32 teams will have played in London.

Kirkwood said the British fanbase had arguably reached a level required to support a franchise while Tottenham’s stadium has been designed with NFL in mind as well as soccer with locker rooms big enough for 53 players.

“We’re meeting pretty much on a weekly basis (with Tottenham). The stadium is looking brilliant. There does not appear to be a bad seat in the house,” he said.

(Alan Baldwin)

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Battles to watch in every NFL camp

While most the focus is on star quarterbacks and headlines are demanded by surprise injuries, the attention of those actually in each NFL training camp is on key battles that players, coaches and media in attendance see every day.

A survey of TSX insiders covering every team reveals those battles that are most discussed in each camp around the league.

Many of these are battles for so-called lesser positions, like the fifth wide receiver. That’s the case with the Dallas Cowboys, with Brice Butler, Andy Jones and Noah Brown. Or for backup or slot cornerback, a popular situation in many camps, including the New York Giants.

Some battles are just battles. In Cincinnati, the always-feisty linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who has a history of disciplinary problems, hit running back Giovani Bernard at the knees, which put an edge on things because Bernard is coming off a torn ACL. Oh yeah, and this was in a non-contact drill.

In Davie, Florida, the battle is between two men for two positions, as left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive end Charles Harris square off in each practice in a heated battle to keep their respective positions. Harris has speed, Tunsil technique. It is a fun battle to watch.

Here are the battles watched closely from every NFL camp, as reported by TSX insiders covering each team:


–Fifth receiver spot among Brice Butler, Andy Jones and Noah Brown. This will be tough, possibly forcing Cowboys to keep six receivers. Butler is having an amazing camp, not dropping a ball. Jones and Brown are younger and kept up with Butler catch-for-catch and both can also play in the slot.


–Backup slot cornerback. The Giants found out last year what life is like without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, their slot cornerback. He was forced from the wild-card game in Green Bay with a thigh injury, leaving the Giants with no quality depth. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers went right after the replacements, including former cornerback Trevin Wade, and the results weren’t pretty. The Giants didn’t draft to fill this position, but will instead look to younger guys, such as Mykkele Thompson and Donte Deayon, to compete for the job. If the Giants have an injury to cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins or Eli Apple, Rodgers-Cromartie is likely first to step in, which would leave that slot cornerback position open to whichever player is his backup.


–Shelton Gibson vs. Marcus Johnson for the sixth and final wide receiver spot. Johnson, a 2016 undrafted free agent who spent time on the Eagles’ practice squad last year, is having an excellent camp and appeared to move ahead of fifth-round rookie Shelton Gibson, who continues to drop too many passes.


–Junior Galette vs. Preston Smith at outside linebacker. Intriguing battle to watch on the right side as the Redskins try to generate a better pass rush. This is a big year for Smith, who dropped from nine sacks as a rookie, including a playoff loss to Green Bay, to 4.5 last year, when he was called out by coaches and teammates for his spotty production. Galette has the track record — 22 total sacks in 2013 and 2014 with New Orleans — but has missed two consecutive years with torn Achilles’ tendons. Galette still shows good burst and gave left tackle Trent Williams fits in the early part of camp. These two will have an advantage on outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who is suspended the first four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy.


–Bryce Callahan vs. Kyle Fuller at right cornerback. With Marcus Cooper still suffering from a hamstring injury, the Bears have looked largely at Callahan at right corner with a few glimpses of Fuller. Both players have solid zone skills, but Callahan appeared more willing to attack the ball in coverage than Fuller, and is more physical. Callahan has been a key contributor in the past as a nickel back, but was plagued by nagging injuries last year.


–Cyrus Kouandjio vs. Greg Robinson at left tackle. Kouandjio and Robinson are the two leading candidates to start at left tackle for the Lions this fall, and they split reps with the first-team offense at the team’s first padded practice of training camp Tuesday. The Lions are looking for a short-term replacement for Taylor Decker, who underwent shoulder surgery in June and is expected to miss the first half or so of the season. Both Kouandjio and Robinson joined the Lions on the final day of June minicamp, so this is the first up-close look coaches are getting at the players.


–Kevin King vs. Ladarius Gunter vs. Quinten Rollins at cornerback. The Packers added free-agent cornerback Davon House in free agency, and he appears to be a lock to start at one corner. The other job is entirely up for grabs. Gunter finished the 2016 season as the top corner in Green Bay’s decimated secondary. While Gunter competed well, his pedestrian 4.67 speed in the 40-yard dash was — and always will be — an issue. Rollins, Green Bay’s second-round pick in 2015, battled a groin injury and inconsistency last season. Opponents had a ridiculous 133.8 passer rating against Rollins. Foes also completed 71.4 percent of passes directed at Rollins, and he allowed seven touchdown passes. The Packers then drafted the 6-foot-3, 200-pound King with the first pick of the second round. Early on in camp, all three players played with the first team.


–Ryan Quigley vs. Taylor Symmank for punter. Don’t assume Quigley, the five-year veteran signed in free agency, will win the punting job this summer. Symmank has no regular-season games on his resume, but what he has is the superior leg strength. He spent the first week of camp booming punts. A couple of them were 57-yarders with over 5.0-second hang times. What Quigley has is a more controlled game that makes him better, at this point, when it comes to directional punting. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer isn’t blinded by straight power, preferring that his punters punt to specific spots with specific hang times so that the cover guys can do their jobs.


–Cornerback. Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the special teams knit-cap/scout team. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are working with the first-team. C.J Goodwin and Deja Olatoye were working with the second team. Collins took over for Alford at right cornerback down the stretch of last season after Trufant went out because of a pectoral injury. Alford moved over to left cornerback.


–Vernon Butler vs. Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. A second-year pro, Butler is taking a lot of the repetitions and looks good. If the 2016 first-round draft pick keeps up this pace, he could be ready to displace Lotulelei as the primary cog in the middle of the defensive line. Lotulelei had offseason shoulder surgery, so his durability could become a factor as well.


–Rookie No. 1 draft choice Ryan Ramczyk vs. Khalif Barnes at left tackle. This is a close competition to see who will start while Terron Armstead recovers from recent shoulder surgery. Ramczyk has received the most snaps with the first unit and has held his own, but the distribution of first-team snaps has more to do with the coaches trying to learn as much as they can about the rookie and accelerate his development than it does with a front-runner in the competition.


–Devante Bond vs. Kendell Beckwith at linebacker. The Bucs will have a new strong-side linebacker this season. Bond spent last season on injured reserve but is working with the first-team defense. Beckwith, at 6-3, 251 pounds, is larger than most Bucs linebackers but plays fast and physical. He also is a former teammate of MLB Kwon Alexander. After the first four days of camp, Beckwith probably improved as much as any player on the team.


–Running back. Head coach Bruce Arians wants more of a two-back system. David Johnson and Chris Johnson will get the bulk of that work. Behind them are five running backs competing for two or three spots. Entering the team’s first preseason game at the Hall of Fame, Elijhaa Penny seems to have the inside track on the No. 3 spot based on how he performed in training. Andre Ellington, was beset by injuries since joining the league in 2013. Rookie T.J. Logan looks like a shoo-in to make the team, at least as a kick returner, and could pose problems for Kerwynn Williams and rookie James Summers.


–Kayvon Webster vs. E.J. Gaines at cornerback. Three years ago, Gaines stepped up as a rookie to earn a starting role with the Rams and went into 2015 eyeing an even bigger year. But a foot injury in training camp cost him an entire season and he returned to mixed reviews last season. The Rams brought in Webster as competition, and the two have had a spirited battle for a starting position opposite Trumaine Johnson. Both are responding, with Gaines coming up with an interception on a tipped ball against Jared Goff on Monday, and Webster showing up big-time in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. Webster has a history with new Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, having played under him in Denver.


–Cole Hikutini, George Kittle, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek are in the competition for the starting position and roster spots at tight end. The rookies (Hikutini and Kittle) have held the advantage over the veterans in the early going. Hikutini put on a nice show Monday when given an opportunity created by Kittle’s hamstring injury. The duel for the starting spot — and roster spots in general — is wide open.


–The competition at running back appears to be a fierce one for the Seahawks this camp. Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise are the top trio of the group. The battle for fourth and fifth on the depth chart will take most of camp to figure out. Alex Collins, Mike Davis and Chris Carson have received plenty of work in the opening days of camp with each getting chances with the first-team unit.


–Reggie Ragland vs. Preston Brown at middle linebacker. The Bills need to figure out who is going to be the middle linebacker in the 4-3, and some believed Ragland — the 2016 second-round pick who missed his entire rookie season — would take control. He really hasn’t, and fourth-year veteran Brown is clearly entrenched, at least through five practices. Ragland could end up contending for the weak outside spot, but right now, Brown — who has led the Bills in defensive snaps played three years in a row — is out-pacing Ragland inside.


–Left tackle Laremy Tunsil vs. defensive end Charles Harris. These aren’t two guys battling for the same position. It is Miami’s last two first-round picks (Tunsil in 2016, Harris in 2017) going head-to-head in what is becoming the best matchup of training camp. It doesn’t happen often because technically, Harris is a second-teamer behind Andre Branch. But Harris is a pass-rushing specialist and every now and then in both 11-on-11 and one-on-one drills these two battle. Harris has used his quick first step to get around Tunsil a few times, but Tunsil used technique, strength and speed to gain a slight overall edge.


–Geneo Grissom, Kony Ealy and Deatrich Wise Jr. at defensive end. These three appear to be the front-runners to replace Rob Ninkovich at the vacated left end spot. Grissom is taking the first-team reps in camp, but hasn’t played any meaningful snaps in his first two seasons and was cut out of camp last year. Ealy was healthy, but not on the field to open camp because he had a “thing” with head coach Bill Belichick. Wise has been impressive in his first few workouts, but clearly has a long way to go toward a possible starting job or even rotational reps. This battle is wide open.


–No. 2 receiver. Literally every receiver in camp will get an opportunity to line up opposite No. 1 wideout Quincy Enunwa. Robby Anderson entered camp as the favorite, but had a couple of bad drops in the first practice and had a slight hamstring injury during the third workout. Chris Harper, a two-year veteran with 14 career catches, may have vaulted into the lead with a handful of impressive catches, including a 35-yarder on Tuesday that elicited applause from his teammates.


–Defensive end. The Ravens were hurt when Lawrence Guy signed with the New England Patriots in the offseason. However, this provided an opportunity for Brent Urban, Bronson Kaufusi and rookie Chris Wormley to battle for that starting role. Urban, a third-year player, is imposing at 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, but he must show he can stay healthy. Kaufusi, a second-year player, is also looking to bounce back after missing all of last season with a broken ankle. Wormley was a third-round pick from Michigan and is a solid fit in the Ravens’ 3-4 scheme.


–Not a position battle, but tempers flared Tuesday when linebacker Vontaze Burfict hit running back Giovani Bernard at his knees during a non-contact drill. Bernard is coming back from a torn ACL suffered late last season. Burfict, who has a history of disciplinary issues, appeared to shove running backs coach Kyle Caskey during the ensuing scuffle. “We are wasting time pushing and shoving,” head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters following Tuesday’s practice.


–Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving at right tackle. Both are getting plenty of practice time. Coleman is working at left tackle on days when Joe Thomas is rested. Coach Hue Jackson said Coleman’s work at left tackle isn’t hampering his growth at right tackle. The Browns need a right tackle to replace Austin Pasztor, who started 15 games last year.


–Backup inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich vs. L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson. It’s not a battle for a starting job, but it figures to be an important role this season. Vince Williams, who was the top reserve the past four seasons, steps into the starting role with Lawrence Timmons’ departure. Ryan Shazier has not been able to stay healthy in any of his first three seasons and Williams was called upon to start a number of games in his absence. When Williams missed practice Sunday and Monday due a heat-related illness, it was Matakevich who played with the first-team defense.


–Marcus Gilchrist’s arrival should inject competition into the safety position, which is in flux after Quintin Demps signed with the Chicago Bears this offseason. Gilchrist has starting experience and is healthy now. He could push Andre Hal or Corey Moore for a starting job if he learns the defense quickly enough.


–Wide receiver. Yes, T.Y. Hilton and Donte’ Moncrief are the Colts’ top two receivers. But the big question continues to be who will end up as the team’s No. 3 and No. 4 receivers. It appears to be a three-player race with Phillip Dorsett, Kamar Aiken and Chester Rogers fighting it out for the job. Dorsett, Indianapolis’ 2015 first-round draft pick, had issues with injuries his first two seasons in the league. Aiken was a veteran free-agent signee who spent his previous three seasons in Baltimore. Rogers, a former undrafted free agent from Grambling who impressed during training camp last year, had extensive work with the first-team offense over the final month of the 2016 season.


–Leonard Fournette vs. Chris Ivory at running back. The veteran Ivory is still running with the first unit, but it’s likely only a matter of time until Fournette replaces him. Ivory battled with T.J. Yeldon a year ago for the starting job, with Yeldon holding the upper hand with 13 starts to Ivory’s one start. But as far as production, Yeldon held only a 465-439 margin in rushing yards while Ivory led in average yards per attempt, 3.8 to 3.6. Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick, looked strong in training camp thus far, breaking off several lengthy runs with his size and speed. Yeldon is still in the picture, but will likely be used mostly as a third-down back.


–LeShaun Sims vs. Adoree’ Jackson at cornerback. With the revamping of the secondary, it was assumed that first-round pick Jackson would team with free agent Logan Ryan as the Titans’ starting cornerbacks. But Sims, who started the final few games last season as a rookie, isn’t going down without a fight. He has remained with the first unit through four days of camp work, and is keeping Jackson on the second team.


–No. 3 wide receiver. Bennie Fowler has the upper hand because of his size, experience and toughness. He went on a vegan diet over the offseason, which he said has him in the best shape of his career. Rookie Carlos Henderson struggled early but made some good catches Sunday and Monday. Second-year veteran Jordan Taylor is also in the mix, but he doesn’t fit the body template of a typical No. 3 receiver. Cody Latimer, the Broncos’ 2014 second-round pick, also is battling for playing time, but he continues to struggle with consistency.


–The Chiefs’ wide receiver group is among one of the tighter competitions in camp. Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley and 2017 fourth-round pick Jehu Chesson appear locks for what probably will be six active roster spots. Albert Wilson, De’Anthony Thomas, Demarcus Robinson and Seantavius Jones appear to be the front-runners for the final three spots. Wilson brings the most experience and is the oldest receiver on the roster at age 25. Thomas gets an edge due to his special teams value, especially in the return game. Robinson excelled during OTAs, but Jones has turned the most heads so far in camp. Marcus Kemp is a sleeper among the undrafted rookie free agents. The Chiefs also signed veterans Corey Washington and Robert Wheelwright this week.


–Kellen Clemens vs. Cardale Jones at backup quarterback. Clemens is everything a team wants in a backup in that he has winning experience as a starter and he is a solid teammate and a contributor in the quarterbacks’ room. But he’s also 34 years old, just one year younger than starter Philip Rivers. Jones was acquired just before camp and the former Ohio State star caught head coach Anthony Lynn’s eye last season when they both were at Buffalo, but is a project.


–Eddie Vanderdoes vs. Treyvon Hester at defensive tackle. Hester, a seventh-round pick, got a head start in that he was present throughout the offeseason program while Vanderdoes, taken in the third round, could not participate because his class at UCLA had not graduated.

Hester opened with the first team — in part because Jihad Ward and Mario Edwards Jr. were both injured — but after four days of practice, Vanderdoes appeared to have the upper hand. The Raiders are desperately seeking an interior pass rush.

–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
(By Frank Cooney)

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Nearly all NFL players in study show evidence of brain disorder CTE


Ninety-nine percent of former NFL players who donated their brain to science turned out to have the devastating disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, according to a new report.

Researchers found evidence of the degenerative brain disease in 110 out of 111 deceased National Football League players, said study co-author Dr. Daniel Daneshvar. He is a researcher with the Boston University School of Medicine’s CTE Center.

“A remarkable proportion of the athletes who played at the highest level develop neurodegenerative disease,” Daneshvar said. “This is incredibly concerning, because of the sheer numbers” of men who have ever played the game professionally.

Evidence of CTE also was found in 91 percent of brains donated by college football players, 88 percent of those from Canadian Football League players, and 21 percent of brains donated by high school players, the researchers found.

According to Dr. Gil Rabinovici, an associate professor of neurology with the University of California, San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, “CTE changes could also be detected in some individuals who played at the collegiate and even high-school level, suggesting lower levels of exposure may be sufficient to lead to brain injury.”

The report includes the autopsy results from 202 brains, with CTE diagnosed in 177 brains.

“In this study,” Daneshvar noted, “we more than double the total number of cases of CTE in the world’s literature.”

CTE tends to occur in people who experience repetitive brain trauma. It shows up at autopsy as aberrant protein clumps and other signs of brain damage, according to the nonprofit Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Previous studies have suggested that both full-fledged concussions and sub-concussive blows — jarring head impacts but not actual concussions — can contribute to the risk of CTE, Rabinovici said.

People with the disorder experience problems with thinking and memory, mood disorders, and behavioral problems, Daneshvar said. Lack of impulse control, aggression, depression, impaired judgment, memory loss, paranoia, confusion and progressive dementia are some of the symptoms that can occur.

Prior research has uncovered CTE in dozens of former NFL players. They include Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster; Junior Seau, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers; Ken Stabler, the Oakland Raiders quarterback; and Frank Gifford, running back for the New York Giants.

The new study results were published July 25 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers found that among patients with severe CTE, 89 percent had experienced behavioral or mood problems, 95 percent had had difficulty with thought and reasoning, and 85 percent had had signs of dementia.

The severity of CTE found in a player’s brain varied with their level of play, according to the new report.

Most brains from players at advanced levels showed signs of severe CTE, including 86 percent of professional players and 56 percent of semi-professional or college players.

On the other hand, all high school players diagnosed with CTE displayed mild signs of disease, the investigators found.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear there’s a likely relationship between exposure to repetitive hits to the head and development of CTE,” Daneshvar said.

While the study doesn’t prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship, he said the differences in this sample tend to support the idea there is an association between playing football and the development of neurodegenerative disease.

Also, no position on the field appeared to be safer than any other when it comes to CTE, Daneshvar explained.

“Amongst the NFL and college players, we have a wide array from all positions on the field that develop CTE,” Daneshvar said. “It’s unclear there was a position that an athlete could play that could not develop CTE.”

Daneshvar and Rabinovici noted the numbers from this report cannot be applied to all football players in general, since these brains were specifically donated to be examined for CTE.

“This is quite a biased sample,” said Rabinovici, who wrote an editorial accompanying the article. “The patients were nearly all impaired during life. Families whose loved ones were sick during life are intuitively more likely to commit to brain donation, in part to get an explanation for what caused their loved one’s symptoms,” he explained.

“In addition, the study was heavily weighted towards former professional players, and relatively few patients played at the high school level or lower,” Rabinovici continued. “So we are looking at a sample of some of the sickest individuals who likely were exposed to a very high burden of traumatic brain injury.”

Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death. To understand the full extent of the problem, doctors need to be able to detect CTE in living people, Rabinovici said.

“Because of the limitations of an autopsy-based study, we really don’t know how common CTE truly is in the NFL, let alone in the millions of others who played the game at a lower level, or who participate in other contact sports,” Rabinovici said.

While new methods for CTE diagnosis are in the works, “nothing is ready for prime time yet,” he said.

(By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Copyright © 2017 HealthDay. All rights reserved.)

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2017 NFL training camp: When every team starts and which players to watch

After a long offseason, football is back. Or at least football practices are back. Five teams have already welcomed their rookies to training camp, and soon the rest of the league will join them.

First-year head coaches like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan will finally get their first cracks at incorporating their philosophies. You’ll also get to see rookie quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky compete for starting gigs.

Each team will begin training camp by the end of the month. Here’s when every team starts, and which players you should keep an eye on before preseason action kicks off:

Arizona Cardinals

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

Rookies report: July 21

Rookie to watch: Haason Reddick, a first-round pick who may start right away.

Veterans report: July 21

Veteran to watch: Blaine Gabbert, the newcomer at quarterback who will battle Drew Stanton for backup duties.
Atlanta Falcons

Where: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, Ga.

Rookies report: July 26

Rookie to watch: Takkarist McKinley, a pass rusher who has already made an impression with his big personality.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Dontari Poe, the gigantic nose tackle who joined Atlanta as a free agent.
Baltimore Ravens

Where: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, Md.

Rookies report: July 19

Rookie to watch: Tim Williams, a promising pass rusher who could help Terrell Suggs get after the quarterback.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Jeremy Maclin, a dangerous deep threat who was surprisingly cut by the Chiefs.
Buffalo Bills

Where: St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y.

Rookies report: July 26

Rookie to watch: Tre’Davious White, the guy replacing Stephon Gilmore.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Shaq Lawson, a first-round pick in 2016 who missed his first training camp due to shoulder surgery.
Carolina Panthers

Where: Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C.

Rookies report: July 25

Rookie to watch: Christian McCaffrey, a do-everything weapon who is electric with the ball.

Veterans report: July 25

Veteran to watch: Julius Peppers, a former Panthers star back to finish his career in Carolina.
Chicago Bears

Where: Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill.

Rookies report: July 19

Rookie to watch: Mitchell Trubisky. He probably won’t start but all eyes will be on the No. 2 pick.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Mike Glennon, the guy who got a contract that made people say “what?!”
Cincinnati Bengals

Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio

Rookies report: July 25

Rookie to watch: John Ross, the fastest NFL Combine participant ever.

Veterans report: July 27

Veteran to watch: Vontaze Burfict, a contentious linebacker entering a contract year.
Cleveland Browns

Where: Cleveland Browns Training Complex, Berea, Ohio

Rookies report: July 23

Rookie to watch: Myles Garrett, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Cody Kessler/Brock Osweiler, the veterans battling to start at quarterback.
Dallas Cowboys

Where: Marriott River Ridge complex, Oxnard, Calif.

Rookies report: July 19

Rookie to watch: Taco Charlton, a much-needed pass rusher on a team that’s struggled to find one.

Veterans report: July 22

Veteran to watch: Jaylon Smith, a linebacker who still hasn’t been on the field due to a knee injury suffered in college.
Denver Broncos

Where: UCHealth Training Center, Englewood, Colo.

Rookies report: July 23

Rookie to watch: Chad Kelly, the Mr. Irrelevant of 2017 with a real chance at making the roster.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Paxton Lynch, a quarterback who was drafted to be the starter of the future, but has to beat out Trevor Siemian first.
Detroit Lions

Where: Detroit Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, Mich.

Rookies report: July 24

Rookie to watch: Jarrad Davis, an instant starter at linebacker.

Veterans report: July 29

Veteran to watch: Greg Robinson, the former Rams bust who may have to start in Taylor Decker’s place.
Green Bay Packers

Where: St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wis.

Rookies report: July 26

Rookie to watch: Jamaal Williams, a fourth-round running back who can contribute on a team with no running backs.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Martellus Bennett, another weapon to make Aaron Rodgers more dangerous.
Houston Texans

Where: The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.

Rookies report: July 25

Rookie to watch: Deshaun Watson, a rookie who will compete to start but is an underdog vs. Tom Savage.

Veterans report: July 25

Veteran to watch: J.J. Watt, a star returning from injury.
Indianapolis Colts

Where: Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, Indianapolis, Ind.

Rookies report: July 24

Rookie to watch: Malik Hooker, a dangerous centerfielder who can up the Colts’ interception count.

Veterans report: July 29

Veteran to watch: Andrew Luck, whose health is somewhat of a mystery.
Jacksonville Jaguars

Where: Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields, Jacksonville, Fla.

Rookies report: July 19

Rookie to watch: Leonard Fournette, the bruising running back who will handle the load for the Jacksonville offense.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Blake Bortles, the often erratic quarterback who is the biggest reason why the Jaguars aren’t considered contenders.
Kansas City Chiefs

Where: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo.

Rookies report: July 24

Rookie to watch: Patrick Mahomes II, the first quarterback drafted by the Chiefs in the first round since 1983.

Veterans report: July 27

Veteran to watch: Bennie Logan, a nose tackle who has to fill the void left by Dontari Poe.
Los Angeles Chargers

Where: Jack Hammett Sports Complex, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Rookies report: July 29

Rookie to watch: Forrest Lamp/Dan Feeney, the pair of guards who will battle for starting roles.

Veterans report: July 29

Veteran to watch: Joey Bosa, the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016 who missed most of camp last year due to a contract dispute.
Los Angeles Rams

Where: University of California, Irvine, Irvine, Calif.

Rookies report: July 26

Rookie to watch: Cooper Kupp, an ultra-productive receiver in the FCS.

Veterans report: July 28

Veteran to watch: Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in 2016 who didn’t do much as a rookie.
Miami Dolphins

Where: Baptist Health Training Facility, Davie, Fla.

Rookies report: July 20

Rookie to watch: Charles Harris, the heir apparent for Cameron Wake.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Ryan Tannehill, the starting quarterback who suffered a partially torn ACL in 2016.
Minnesota Vikings

Where: Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minn.

Rookies report: July 23

Rookie to watch: Laquon Treadwell, a first-round pick in 2016 who had one catch as a rookie.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Teddy Bridgewater, who may not even play in 2017 but is worth watching closely anyway.
New England Patriots

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.

Rookies report: July 24

Rookie to watch: Derek Rivers, a defensive end who racked up 41 sacks at Youngstown State.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Brandin Cooks, Tom Brady’s shiniest new toy.
New Orleans Saints

Where: New Orleans Saints Training Facility, Metairie, La.

Rookies report: July 19

Rookie to watch: Marshon Lattimore, the first cornerback drafted.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Adrian Peterson, a seven-time Pro Bowler no longer wearing purple.
New York Giants

Where: Quest Diagnostics Training Center, East Rutherford, N.J.

Rookies report: July 27

Rookie to watch: Evan Engram, a hybrid tight end who could be a nightmare in the red zone.

Veterans report: July 27

Veteran to watch: Brandon Marshall, a big wide receiver on a team with little receivers.
New York Jets

Where: Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, Florham Park, N.J.

Rookies report: July 28

Rookie to watch: Jamal Adams/Marcus Maye, the tandem of safeties taking over in the New York secondary.

Veterans report: July 28

Veteran to watch: Josh McCown, the quarterback who will probably start for the Jets in 2017.
Oakland Raiders

Where: Napa Valley Marriott, Napa, Calif.

Rookies report: July 24

Rookie to watch: Obi Melifonwu, a safety the Raiders hope will be their very own Kam Chancellor.

Veterans report: July 28

Veteran to watch: Marshawn Lynch, who will usher the Raiders out of Oakland in style.
Philadelphia Eagles

Where: NovaCare Training Complex, Philadelphia

Rookies report: July 23

Rookie to watch: Donnel Pumphrey, a diminutive running back who gets to follow in Darren Sproles’ footsteps.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Alshon Jeffery, the team’s big free agent acquisition who needs to develop chemistry with Carson Wentz.
Pittsburgh Steelers

Where: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.

Rookies report: July 27

Rookie to watch: James Conner, the running back with the NFL’s top-selling rookie jersey.

Veterans report: July 27

Veteran to watch: Le’Veon Bell, who still hasn’t signed his franchise tender.
San Francisco 49ers

Where: SAP Performance Facility, Santa Clara, Calif.

Rookies report: July 27

Rookie to watch: Reuben Foster, an All-American who will compete to start as a rookie.

Veterans report: July 27

Veteran to watch: Brian Hoyer, who faces the impossible task of scoring points with the 49ers’ offense.
Seattle Seahawks

Where: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, Wash.

Rookies report: July 29

Rookie to watch: Ethan Pocic, a center at LSU who may start at right guard as a rookie.

Veterans report: July 29

Veteran to watch: Luke Joeckel, a bust in Jacksonville who will try to hold down left tackle duties in Seattle.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Where: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, Fla.

Rookies report: July 25

Rookie to watch: O.J. Howard, a tight end that Jameis Winston will likely target often.

Veterans report: July 27

Veteran to watch: DeSean Jackson, a deep threat who can have a huge year if the wheels haven’t come off.
Tennessee Titans

Where: Saint Thomas Sports Park, Nashville, Tenn.

Rookies report: July 28

Rookie to watch: Corey Davis, a receiver who can finally give Marcus Mariota someone to throw to.

Veterans report: July 28

Veteran to watch: Derrick Henry, a former Heisman winner who should get more touches in year two.

Where: Bon Secours Training Center, Richmond, Va.

Rookies report: July 26

Rookie to watch: Jonathan Allen, a nightmare at Alabama who fell in the draft due to injuries.

Veterans report: July 26

Veteran to watch: Kirk Cousins, the most fascinating man of the 2017 offseason.

Kaleel.Weatherly and Adam Stites

Breaking News NFL Top news US sports

Trai Turner gets extension from Panthers on Marty Hurney’s 1st day as GM

One of the criticisms of Dave Gettleman was that he didn’t place much value on loyalty and didn’t re-sign many of the best players in Carolina Panthers history. On interim general manager Marty Hurney’s first day back on the job, it already looks like he’s getting started on correcting that problem.

On Thursday, offensive lineman Trai Turner announced on Twitter he received a new contract from the Panthers that will keep him with the team for four more seasons.

The extension makes Turner one of the highest-paid guards in the NFL with only Kevin Zeitler and Kelechi Osemele averaging more money per year.

The talks didn’t start with the arrival of Hurney, though. There were reports of preliminary negotiations back in June between the team and Turner, and it’s hard to imagine Hurney bridged the remaining gap a day after he was hired.

But the timing of the deal does seem noteworthy, especially after speculation that stalled contract negotiations for linebacker Thomas Davis and tight end Greg Olsen may have contributed to the abrupt firing of Gettleman — speculation that both players denied:

In Gettleman’s time as general manager, he did reach long-term extensions with core players like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short. But Steve Smith, Josh Norman and DeAngelo Williams all left during his tenure and celebrated his firing Monday.

Hurney spent 11 years as general manager of the team before he was fired during the 2012 season. If the goal of his time as the interim GM in 2017 is to settle some of the contract talks that Gettleman couldn’t, it seems like he’s off to a good start.

(Adam Stites)