Pro Bowl 2016 preview: Team Irvin, Team Rice ready to light up scoreboard in Hawaii


Just in case you couldn’t fathom an entire Sunday without football, the NFL has you covered this weekend. The 2016 Pro Bowl is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday night at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, and will be televised live on ESPN.

For the third straight year, the NFL’s version of an All-Star game will be played with mixed rosters, eschewing the traditional AFC vs. NFC battle. Instead, the league now picks two honorary captains, who then choose their teams and round out the rosters in a fantasy draft. This year’s captains are two Hall of Famers, Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice.

The first overall pick of the draft was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, selected by Irvin to headline his squad. Wilson, named to his third Pro Bowl in four seasons, is certainly deserving of the honor. He put up career-best numbers across the board and led the league in passer rating.

He’ll be surrounded by a bevy of talented playmakers, including a wide receiver corps that features four of the top eight guys on the receiving yardage leaderboard: Julio Jones (first), DeAndre Hopkins (third), Allen Robinson (sixth) and A.J. Green (eighth).

The first pick by Team Rice was another quarterback, Eli Manning, who was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl after throwing a career-best 35 touchdowns in 2015. He should be thrilled to be paired up with his teammate Odell Beckham Jr., as the two players formed one of the most dynamic receiver-quarterback duos in the league.

While Manning doesn’t have the same depth of talent at receiver as Wilson does, he arguably has the more balanced offensive roster. Team Rice is stacked at running back with the league’s first- and second-ranked rushers, Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin, who combined to run for more than 2,800 yards this season.

The running joke of this year’s Pro Bowl is that it should be renamed the Replacement Bowl because so many guys declined to participate in the game. Players often choose not to attend for different reasons, including injuries and if they are playing in the Super Bowl next week. The final tally was 133 players that were either voted in or added as alternates, the most in NFL history and easily surpassing the previous record of 119 set in the 2010 game.

Cardinals release wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.


While the Arizona Cardinals opted to keep Larry Fitzgerald in the desert, another veteran receiver was not so fortunate. On Monday, the team announced the release of Ted Ginn Jr.

Another shakeup came at the wide receiver position, where West Virginia’s Kevin White supplanted Alabama’s Amari Cooper as the first wideout taken, following his eye-opening 40 time (4.35) and strong showing in the positional drills at the Combine. McShay swapped the two receivers and now has the Oakland Raiders selecting White at fourth overall and Cooper going to the St. Louis Rams at No. 10.

Top running back prospect Melvin Gordon put up a 4.52 on his first attempt and a 4.53 on his second attempt. It wasn’t the best among running backs but it was better than plenty of others. A good showing at the combine is important for Gordon, given that he typically shares the “top prospect” label with Todd Gurley of Georgia.

Gurley is recovering from a torn ACL and did not participate in drills at the combine. He also refused a medical checkup, giving Gordon a further edge. Most expect Gordon will be the first running back off the board in the NFL Draft, possibly in the first round.

McShay believes that if Mariota falls this far, it provides the perfect opportunity for new general manager Mike Maccagnan to grab the reigning Heisman winner and draft his handpicked quarterback. Although he is considered to be a step below Winston in terms of pure quarterback talent, Mariota still has the potential to be a star if a team has patience with him and lets him develop. McShay adds that Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is a good fit for Mariota, given his experience with spread-formation offenses.

Washington has a ton of holes to fill this offseason, but perhaps none is more important than finding a dominant pass rusher, especially with Brian Orakpo set to hit free agency in March. McShay notes that Gregory has “freakish athleticism” for a player his size (6’6, 245 pounds), and would be an excellent guy to pair with Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker.

Jacksonville played Detroit and Kansas City close


Score: Ravens 23, Bengals 16

Jacksonville Jaguars at Buffalo Bills

Jacksonville played Detroit and Kansas City close, but sooner or later playing tough and having nothing to show for it catches up to a team. Buffalo is 5-5 and showed me something the past two weeks with the way it played in Seattle and in Cincy. The Bills have a real shot to make the playoffs, something they haven’t done this century (last trip was 1999). LeSean McCoy is banged up and Sammy Watkins might play sparingly, but I’m not sure it matters in this one. Buffalo starts its playoff push.

Score: Bills 24, Jaguars 14

Minnesota had what appeared to be a deep offensive line heading into the season, but that depth quickly disappeared. Former starters John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt failed to recover from injuries which cost them their 2015 seasons, and neither made it to the active roster. Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith were both done for the season with their own injuries by Week 4. On Thursday, the Vikings lost two more linemen during the game, as center Joe Berger suffered a concussion before right tackle Jeremiah Sirles went down with a hip injury. Berger was the only lineman on the team to play even 90 percent of the offensive snaps before Thursday.

You can’t blame the Vikings for having Bradford throw ridiculously short passes with that sort of line trouble, but other quarterbacks have made it through similarly horrific offensive line problems and managed to maintain something resembling a useful level of downfield production. (Philip Rivers comes to mind.)

Do the injuries invalidate criticism of the Bradford trade?

Yes and no.

The original argument back when the Vikings traded two draft picks for Bradford was they had a Super Bowl-caliber team built around a 31-year-old running back. Trading for Bradford kept their window open; failing to acquire him would have shut the door on any championship aspirations the Vikings had for 2016. The hole in that argument is what we’ve seen happen this season. It assumes that everything else for the Vikings is going to go right; namely, that the team would avoid the sort of injuries that could sink even the sturdiest NFL battleship.

Chip Kelly claims Eagles were offered 1st-round pick for Bradford


The Philadelphia Eagles have been among the busiest teams during free agency. Not only did they trade away their top running back and lose their most productive wide receiver, but they pulled off one of the most stunning trades of the winter when they sent quarterback Nick Foles to the St. Louis Rams for quarterback Sam Bradford.

When head coach Chip Kelly addressed the media on Wednesday afternoon, he revealed that an unnamed team earlier in the day had offered a first-round pick for the 27-year-old signal caller. As improbable as that may sound, it was rumored that the Buffalo Bills were interested in Bradford, and there were reports that the Cleveland Browns tried to trade for him. Although the Bills don’t have a first-round pick, the Browns have two first-rounders in this year’s draft.

Kelly said that the Eagles didn’t bring Bradford to Philly to simply be a trade chip, and that they see “tremendous upside” in his potential as a quarterback despite his injury history. Bradford is expected to compete for the starting job with Mark Sanchez, who re-signed with Philadelphia on a two-year deal.

On top of that, the Lions already had dead money on the 2015 books for Suh, in the amount of $9.7 million.

That dead money is there no matter what — it didn’t matter if Suh signed with someone else, played on the franchise tag or signed a long-term deal with Detroit.

Suh has been a dominant force along the defensive line, even if he doesn’t have sexy stats to back it up. He’s been asked to eat up space a lot more in recent seasons, and he does that as well as anyone, all while disrupting the quarterback more often than naught. He put up 8.5 sacks with 53 tackles this past season. Suh has been named to four Pro Bowls (missing out in 2011) and was named a first-team All-Pro four times (missing out on 2012, when he was named to the second team).

Cortland Finnegan and Andre Johnson’s on-field brawl in 2010 is the stuff of legend. It’s probably the defining moment of Finnegan’s career (Andre Johnson has his Hall of Fame-worthy production). Finnegan was reliving their exchange after announcing his retirement on Wednesday on Nashville radio station 1045 the Zone.

Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler said a green laser that was shined onto the field and into his eyes


Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler said a green laser that was shined onto the field and into his eyes during the Texans’ 27-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City was “very distracting.”

Throughout the game, someone in the stadium shined what appeared to be a green laser pointer on the field when the Texans were on offense.

Coach Bill O’Brien was less than pleased with the officiating in the Texans’ 27-20 loss Monday night to the Raiders in Mexico City.

After hanging with the Raiders through three quarters, the Texans came undone in the fourth on Monday night in Mexico City.

Prescott added 9.3 more points to his team’s scoring margin than an average QB would have with the same number of plays, the largest contribution of any QB in Week 11. On the season, Prescott leads the league with 48 QB points added, which is a stat that generally correlates with MVP voting.

Remember when Cousins took off at the end of last season and led the Washington Redskins to the playoffs? Well, he looked a lot like that poised QB Sunday night against the Packers.

Smith gained positive expected points (EPA) on 77 percent of his plays on Sunday, the second-highest rate for a QB in a game this season (Dak Prescott, 83 percent versus Chicago in Week 3). Put simply, more than three-fourths of his plays contributed to the team’s scoring margin, given the context and situation.

Smith’s biggest play was his 11-yard scramble for a touchdown in the second quarter, which added 3.3 EPA and was the biggest EPA play for a QB in Week 11. Because of that play, Smith entered halftime with a 99.4 Total QBR, and despite a drop-off in the second half, his overall per-play efficiency was among the best in Week 11.

Ezekiel Elliott is the best RB in the NFL Draft, and he’s even dangerous without the ball


Ezekiel Elliott will almost certainly be the first running back off the board in the 2016 NFL Draft, but it’s not just the Ohio State product’s ability when the ball is in his hands that makes him such a valuable addition. He’s also lauded for his ability to keep defenders away from his teammates.

Is Glenn Gronkowski as good as Rob?

No. Glenn, a three-year fullback at Kansas State, is projected to be a late-round pick. He only carried the ball 16 times in his career, but did show a proclivity to make big plays from time to time. He averaged 24.6 yards on 15 receptions, which is the highest average in Kansas State history among players with at least 15 catches.

Last season, Glenn carried the ball 11 times for 45 yards while catching five passes for 76 yards. He only ran the ball and recorded a reception in the same game on four occasions.

Though the youngest Gronkowski was productive whenever he had the ball in his hands, it’s clear the Wildcats decided he was best used on a limited basis. NFL teams likely view Glenn as a spare part, too, considering clubs are scouting him at both fullback and tight end. At 6’3, 234 pounds, if Baby Gronk is going to make it in the NFL, it will probably have to be as a multi-faceted option.

Is Glenn Gronkowski as fun as Rob?
No. Glenn, who didn’t attend the Gronk Party Cruise, says his older brother sets a tough example to follow.

“He’s crazy, obviously,” Glenn said at the Combine. “He loves to have fun. I’m probably not as much fun as him. That’s kind of hard to beat.”

That’s not to say the youngest Gronk doesn’t goof around, though. Last month, for example, he allowed UFC’s Rashad Evans to put him in a very painful chokehold.

From All-Star to adieu: Why Pirates would trade Andrew McCutchen


One of the most intriguing subplots this offseason is whether the Pittsburgh Pirates will trade five-time All-Star and 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. It’s rare for a team to trade a player who has won an MVP award for that franchise, but not unprecedented. In recent years, for example, the Minnesota Twins traded Justin Morneau and the Seattle Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki.

The bow ties take the feather statement to another level.

Newton has worn one of the feather ties after five games. The exceptions were the Atlanta game in which he didn’t have a press conference because he was in the concussion protocol, the Tampa Bay game he missed because of the concussion and Sunday’s game at Los Angeles because he wore a regular tie.

Newton likes the ties so much that there are discussions with Brackish about a custom Cam collection. Supporting a small company in the Carolinas makes it a natural fit for Newton, who likes to support the local economy.

Newton isn’t the only celebrity who has worn the feather ties. Bill Murray wore one to the 2014 Oscars and the wedding of George and Amal Clooney. Andy Samberg wore one when he hosted the 2015 Emmy Awards.

Don Cheadle, Tituss Burgess and Terrence Howard wore one to the 2016 Emmys. Craig Melvin wore one to the 2016 White House correspondents dinner.

Jack Nickelson and Ted Danson also have worn them.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has one, although he hasn’t worn it to a postgame press conference yet.

But seeing Newton in one of the ties excited Plotner more than most. He grew up a Panthers fan and went to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the Panthers train.

Jay Cutler, Kapri Bibbs lead Week 10 spot starts


Nothing is ever easy in fantasy football, and that’s what makes it fun. Whether it be injuries, poor matchups or underperformance it’s rare that we can count on starting the same players week-in-and-week-out. Sometimes we have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for options in good spots that given week for a desperation play.

So what took so long to finally do A Football Life on this larger-than-life figure whose impact went way beyond the field? Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying by NFL Films.

Anthony Smith, producer of the film, said Brown was always at the top of the list for A Football Life. However, Brown remained elusive in turning down inquiries. “HBO did a documentary on Brown in the early 2000s,” Smith said. “Whenever we brought it to him and his family, they felt the story already had been told.”

Smith, though, thought he detected an opening when he saw Brown and his wife, Monique, at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton in 2015. She remarked that she wanted to do something special to celebrate his life on Brown’s 80th birthday.

One thing lead to another, and Brown finally agreed to do A Football Life on him. “He now has (teenage) children who travel with him,” Smith said. “I’m not speaking for Jim, but they are older now and they are getting an appreciation of his legacy and what he has meant for people. I think they finally felt the time was right to tell his story.”

That brought up the next challenge for Smith. How do you tell the many aspects of Brown’s immense life within a one-hour A Football Life? Smith admitted there was talk of doing a longer film on Brown. Eventually, they opted to stay within the format for the series.

“There was a sense of leaving the audience wanting more,” Smith said. Smith, though, still had to make sure he hit all the high-points in this fast-moving film. Of course, there are numerous clips of Brown’s devastation of opposing defenses during his spectacular 9-year career.

How dodgeball made Cardinals’ David Johnson a dual threat


The feet. The hands. The toughness.

All the traits that have turned Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson into one of the best pass-catching running backs since Marshall Faulk weren’t developed on the Pop Warner fields of his hometown of Clinton, Iowa.

They were made playing dodgeball in school gyms across Eastern Iowa.

Every day before practice he went through receiving drills in individual warm-ups, growing his route tree and building on a childhood of playing dodgeball and “razzle dazzle” catch in his backyard. It paid off. When he graduated, he was Clinton’s all-time leading receiver.

“He did just a great job of running patterns,” Camp said. “He’s got a knack for getting open and the biggest thing, I think, is just his drive to get the football. He’s going to go out and meet the football at the highest point or come back to the ball — do whatever he needed to make him have the best chance of catching the ball.”

“His pass-receiving skills are off the charts,” Arians said after drafting Johnson in May 2015. “But if you wanted to hand it to him 20, 25 times, he’s used to that.”

With the Cardinals at the midway point of the season, Johnson leads all running backs in receiving with 35 receptions for 407 yards. When quarterback Carson Palmer watches Johnson catch passes, Johnson’s receiving background is evident.

“His hands. His body control. Everything he does in the receiving game. The way he runs his routes,” Palmer said. “He runs his routes, whether it be a double move or a post, his rhythm and his footwork is in line with what we do with our receivers. Everything he does in the pass game looks receiver-like.”

Having that knowledge and experience made Johnson’s adjustment to being a pass catcher in the NFL “comfortable.” He wasn’t confused by the terminology, footwork or route combinations thrown at him earlier in his career.

“It wasn’t tough for me,” Johnson said. “I think that’s where I think it helped out that I played it in college.”

NFL Network suspends Brian Baldinger for saying Eagles should put a bounty on Ezekiel Elliott


NFL Network analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger has been suspended after suggesting that the Eagles needed to put a bounty on Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to Pro Football Talk.

“This is the guy that that we’ve got to hurt,” Baldinger said of Elliott in a radio interview on Philadelphia’s 97.5 The Fanatic last week. “This is the guy that we’ve got to take out of the game. There’s got to be 10 guys that want to hurt him every single play. In fact, we may even put a little bounty on Ezekiel Elliott.”

The Vikings ran a similar offense last season with a healthy Teddy Bridgewater, and moving the ball with short and intermediate passes was good enough for an average of 22.8 points per game. This year, the Vikings are averaging fewer than 20 points per game. Coupled with the strength of the defense, it was enough to get the Vikings to an 11-5 record and a playoff bid in 2015.

Given his experience with Bradford, Shurmur should have a good idea of his quarterback’s skill set and limitations. Bradford said he has a good relationship with his new offensive coordinator.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with Pat,” Bradford said. “I think he’s a great football mind.”

Just a shift in timing and coaching Bradford to get the ball out more quickly could help Shurmur put the Vikings in a better position to protect their quarterback and succeed. It doesn’t matter if the Vikings dink and dunk their way to wins, as long as they turn things around.

The Vikings also confirmed that tight ends coach Pat Shurmur will serve as the interim offensive coordinator.

After starting the season 5-0, Minnesota is coming off two consecutive losses that can be pinned mostly on the Vikings’ stagnant offense. The Vikings are 31st in the NFL in total offense, averaging 293.3 yards per game. Minnesota’s 19.9 points per game places them 23rd in the league.

When Zimmer was hired as the head coach in 2014, he brought Turner on board as the offensive coordinator. Zimmer publicly criticized the offensive line after the team’s first loss.

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