Monday, August 28, 2017

NFLRank 2017: The 100 best players

Predicting the NFL’s 100 best players in 2017.

METHODOLOGY: We asked a panel of 53 NFL experts from ESPN to rate NFL players based on how good they will be in 2017. We asked them to not emphasize past performance or positional value, only greatness. A rating of 100 implies the player will have an all-time great 2017 season, while 90 denotes an All-Pro-level performance and 80 translates to a very good (if not elite) campaign.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Academic Milestone

By Doug Haller and Jeff Metcalfe
August 23, 2017

For the first time in school history, ASU football is carrying a cumulative 3.0 grade point average into the fall semester. That includes work through summer school for more than 100 players.

It’s an amazing accomplishment. It’s been a goal of coach Graham’s for his team since he’s gotten here and part of larger goals surrounding academic performance in all sports include grade point average.

Jean Boyd, executive senior associate athletic director, said the football cumulative GPA was 2.2 when Graham became coach in 2012. "We saw an immediate jump into the 2.5 to 2.6 range then it's been incremental improvement each year," Boyd said.

The cumulative GPA for all ASU men's teams reached 3.0 for the first time in the spring.

"Now to have football in that same category is tremendous," Boyd said. "Coach Graham has done an incredible job of talking about it incessantly. One of the pillars of the program is smart. As part of being smart, one metric is your grade point average. This is a way to say to the team we’re living up to one of our standards in this way and let’s keep doing it together. It reinforces that you’re living up to a standard of the program and it should reinforce that as we do this it’s going to improve our play on the field too because you have a football classroom, which is the meeting room and the film room. The same practices you employ to get a 3.0, you employ in those places too."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Brian Cushing on Texans' Mike Vrabel: 'Football IQ through the roof'

By Aaron Wilson

August 22, 2017

As a football player, Mike Vrabel was frequently characterized as a feisty, hard-nosed linebacker whose toughness and intelligence made him an All-Pro.

As the Texans' defensive coordinator, his colorful style hasn't changed.

"Animated," Texans middle linebacker Brian Cushing said. "Interesting, but extremely knowledgeable. Very smart. His football IQ is through the roof.
He's just a football person. He's a football player and now he's a football coach. He is football, 100 percent, all the time.

"He's the kind of coach that's always trying to put his players in the best position possible and it's truly a team defense. Everyone's got to do their job for it to hold up and to be successful, and he does a great job teaching that. We just try to relay it on the field as best as we can."

Vrabel was offered the San Francisco 49ers' defensive coordinator job a year ago and was pursued by Washington and the San Diego Chargers before he was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.

Vrabel is regarded as a tough, passionate coach who relates well to his players. The former New England Patriots standout has a demanding style, but he also communicates well. He's been instrumental in the development of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, John Simon and Benardrick McKinney with Cushing remaining productive under his coaching tenure.

"I think he does a lot," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "I think he's very knowledgeable, he's a good leader. He's got good command on the field, good command in the meeting room. He's a good coach.

"I think you have to have energy as a coach. There's different styles of coaching, but he has a really good style, the way that he coaches."

Monday, August 21, 2017

Rex Burkhead looks like a perfect fit in New England Patriots offense

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead (34) celebrates with teammates after he scored a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL football preseason game Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By Kevin Duffy
August 19, 2017

HOUSTON -- Rob Gronkowski played in a preseason game for the first time in five years, the celebrated duo of Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore made their Patriots debuts, and Tom Brady played his first snap at age 40.

And the star of the night?

That would be Rex Burkhead, the former Bengals running back who, in less than two quarters of action Saturday, emphatically stated his case to be the Patriots starter in 2017.

Burkhead ran well between the tackles, ripping off an 8-yard gain on his first carry. He held steady for a crucial blitz pickup against Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who otherwise had a clear path to Brady. He looked natural as a receiver, too. Burkhead made a nice adjustment on a ball thrown toward the sideline, then ran around a defender to the outside to pick up 16 yards, most of which came after the catch.

And Burkhead shook Texans rookie linebacker Zach Cunningham on an angle route over the middle. He practically walked into the end zone for a 22-yard score at the beginning of the second quarter.

Burkhead's combination of tough running and advanced route running makes him a perfect fit for the Pats.

"Rex has always been a good, hard running back at Nebraska and at the end of the season last year when he played for Cincinnati," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said earlier this month.
"So, he hasn't had a ton of carries in the regular season in these four years, but he had a lot up in Nebraska and he had some at the end of the year. But, I mean, he's a tough kid that can catch the ball, plays in the kicking game - good, versatile set of skills."

Burkhead finished with 70 yards from scrimmage on 10 touches.

Burkhead's main competitor for top running back duties, Dion Lewis, looked sharp, as well. Lewis carried seven times for 34 yards in the first half, showcasing the burst and elusiveness that made him a star in 2015.

On one run, Lewis sidestepped a Texans defender deep in the backfield, evaded another near the line of scrimmage, and surged forward for a 5-yard gain (the play was nullified due to a holding penalty).

As Mike Gillislee continues to sit out with a hamstring injury, Burkhead and Lewis have excelled.

Gillislee may have some ground to make up when he returns.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tom Brady sees an old friend across the sideline now in Mike Vrabel

OLD BUDS GABBING AWAY: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady chats with one of his former teammates, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, after a joint practice yesterday in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.

By Karen Guregian

August 17, 2017

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Long after the final joint practice session between the Patriots and Texans wrapped up at the Greenbrier Resort yesterday, two old friends got together for a little chat before leaving the field.

Tom Brady and Mike Vrabel were in deep conversation. They huddled for about 10 minutes at the divider between the two fields.

What were the former Patriots teammates talking about?

Perhaps they were reminiscing about their awesome past, with three Super Bowl rings won together at the start of the Patriots dynasty.

Or maybe Vrabel was complaining to Brady about all the weapons he now has to try and stop on the Patriots offense as the newly appointed Texans defensive coordinator.

Or maybe Brady was trying to get Vrabel to ease up on sending Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and a now healthy J.J. Watt after him when the teams meet Week 3 during the regular season.

Whatever the context, it’s been quite amusing, albeit odd, watching Vrabel direct the Texans defense on the opposite side from Brady during these practice sessions. There’s been plenty of animated banter between the two, which is probably how it was during their practices as Patriots.

Only now, Vrabel is preparing his defense to try and beat his good friend and former team.

“They beat our ass the last couple of times we’ve played them, so it’s been hard to sit over on the other sideline (as the linebackers coach), but I think to be able to practice against them and see them in somewhat of a relaxed setting, it’s great,” Vrabel said. “They’ve got a great staff, they’ve got great players. Tom’s a phenomenal leader, good friend, all the way down to Matt Patricia, Nick Caserio, Berj (Najarian), Ernie Adams — all those guys that I was a part of a team and a championship team with them. Now, to be on the other sideline, it’s fun during practice, and hopefully we can be a little bit more competitive this year against them.”

Well, Vrabel isn’t giving the Texans their just due. They played pretty well in the first half of the AFC divisional round matchup, beating Brady up with a relentless pass rush before Dion Lewis stole the show in a 34-16 Pats win.

And during these joint practices, the Houston defense also gave Brady some fits, but it’s still not like the stress of a real game. We’ll know more about how well Vrabel has prepared this defense next month when the games count.

Asked if he was trying to put his own stamp on the defense, Vrabel tossed that notion aside.

“I think I’m just trying to coordinate a group of professional athletes that were successful last year as a group. I think that we try to be competitive, we try to be physical, have a winning attitude every day and play with effort and energy,” he said. “Our guys play hard, and I appreciate that. So I don’t know if that’s my stamp or that’s their stamp, but we try to have a culture that is built around competitiveness and winning.”

Speaking of that, right before the start of every practice, Vrabel can be seen with a group of coaches, and players joining in on occasion, playing the familiar schoolyard game four-square or box ball. Watching him the past two days, he’s easily the most competitive participant.

“If you remember, we used to play soccer-volleyball with me, Wes (Welker), Randy (Moss) and (Stephen) Gostkowski. That’s how we warmed up,” Vrabel said. “So we added that here. Playing some four-square. We drew a court. Just having some fun before we get out there.”

Most people in the football world who know Vrabel will tell you he is destined to be a head coach one day. Bill Belichick is a believer, and so is Brady.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Belichick: No Surprise in Vrabel’s Coaching Success

By Ian Logue
August 16, 2017

When it comes to playing for Bill Belichick, one of the things that typically shows a player’s football IQ is their ability to play a multitude of positions in New England’s complex system.

For Mike Vrabel, over the course of his career, he was one of New England’s most valuable assets as he did about everything that could have been asked of him. During his terrific career playing under Belichick here in New England, the former linebacker played offense, special teams and according to his former coach, pretty much every position on the defensive side of the ball.

Vrabel, who also scored 10 regular season touchdowns over his NFL career along two during their Super Bowl appearances, was known by his teammates as a “Swiss Army Knife” during his tenure as a Patriot because he could do so many different things. Belichick even went so far on Tuesday to call him “underrated”.

“Mike was a tremendous player,” said Belichick. “He was a very smart player, astute, played all the positions – special teams, defense, used him on offense. He really works at the game. He’s a grinder, tough, hard-nosed, good football coach, good football player, probably an underrated player, a great player. He’s done a great job in his role at Ohio State and then down here.
He’s working with a lot of great people like Romeo [Crennel] and Billy [O’Brien].”

“Mike played a lot of positions on defense – played all the positons in the kicking game, played obviously tight end for us offensively and scout team,” Belichick added. “He played safety. He played every position on defense, literally. He loved football, practiced and played hard, was a pleasure to coach, a great football mind. He’s got a lot going for him.”

After his career came to an end, Vrabel started his coaching career at Ohio State as a defensive line coach back in 2011 and earned the respect of his players, including a moment that his wife pointed out when Vrabel got so amped up prior to a match-up against Michigan that he head-butted a player (who was wearing a helmet) and suffered a significant gash, to the point where the wound required stitches.

From there he took the next step and joined the Texans coaching staff in 2014 and already he’s been a part of helping build a defensive unit that was ranked third in 2015 and number one in 2016.

That group gave the Patriots a tough time on Tuesday and ironically Vrabel’s now pushing players through a time of year that didn’t used to be his favorite. He said during an interview in 2007 that camp wasn’t his favorite time, but it’s a necessity.

“I’m not really thrilled about training camp. But once we start now, I’m in a good mood and I’m ready to go,” said Vrabel via the late Dan Pires. “I don’t mind practice. I don’t mind practicing, working and preparing. Training camp, I think, just wears on you a little bit, but it’s a necessity.”

Now it seems like Vrabel is having fun being on the other side of things and he’s handled the transition well. The results speak for themselves and should Houston’s offense eventually catch up with the success they’ve had on other side of the football, it won’t be any surprise if the Texans to continue to be a team in the mix in January in the coming years.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mark Tauscher: Packers lineman proved to be one of the best

By Raymond Rivard
August 10, 2017

Mark Tauscher was the definition of hard work and overcoming the odds.

The former Green Bay Packer who was one of the best ever to wear #65 for the Green and Gold, was a fan favorite throughout his career and was well-liked by the media.
In fact, Tauscher has gone on to his own broadcasting career in retirement.

To top it off, Mark Tauscher was a homegrown product of Wisconsin, attended UW-Madison and continues to live in his home state.

As part of our numbers countdown, we stop today at #65, a number that has been worn by Tauscher, as well as Ron Hallstorm, Mike Douglass, and current player Lane Taylor.

In high school at Auburndale, Tauscher was the hard working farm boy who took his talents to the fields and courts around central Wisconsin while excelling in football and basketball.

He was all-conference twice, an honorable mention all-state selection and team MVP as a senior while playing football.

But with no scholarship offered to Tauscher, he was a walk-on at UW-Madison.

He didn’t play his first two years, but made inroads as a junior and senior on the Badgers’ heralded offensive line. He was part of the unit that blocked for Ron Dayne during his Heisman Trophy-winning season.

Like his pre-college days when he didn’t attract much attention, Mark Tauscher was relatively ignored as a pro football prospect.

But it was the Packers who pulled the trigger on him in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL Draft, selecting him with the 224th overall pick.

Right tackle Earl Dotson, an injury-prone lineman late in his career, was hurt early in 2000, and the hungry Tauscher, a rookie, was thrown to the wolves as the starting right tackle assigned to help protect Brett Favre and to open holes for the running game.

He would stay at the position for the next 11 years, playing in 134 games for the Packers and earning a Super Bowl ring in 2010, despite his final years being injury-riddled.

His final season would be that 2010 championship year. Though he began that year as the starter, he dropped out after the first four games – one of many starters who went down that year.

Ironically, that’s when another rookie, Bryan Bulaga, took over the right tackle position.

Mark Tauscher retired after that 2010 season.

Though Mark Tauscher came from the depths as a college player and again while playing as a pro, he proved that hard work and dedication were what he needed to make an impact.

His career is a testament to his devotion to the game.

He was by far one of the best of those who have worn #65 for the Green Bay Packers.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

'Klug's Klug': Titans tough guy adds to legend with Achilles tear comeback

(Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Klug)

By Joe Rexrode
August 9, 2017

Karl Klug might be the toughest Titan. He might not be the toughest 29-year-old man with the last name of Klug living in Nashville.

If Karl’s identical twin, Kevin, was going to engage his brother in a scrap or wrestling match, he’d have to build into a rage first. Kevin always gave up at least 10 pounds to Karl, and at one point in their lives it was about 60.

“I had to get angry to have any chance against him, just like he’s got to get angry to compete against guys in the NFL who are 40 pounds heavier than him,” Kevin said of Karl. “You get angry, or you get worked.”

Karl agrees with that outlook – “You kind of have to flip a switch to play in this league,” he said – and that’s no surprise considering these are twins who talk about four times a day and are said in the family to have their own language. “Grind” is an English-language word they both use a lot.

In the past few months, Kevin has seen his young business, Klug Fitness, grow quickly. He’ll bring a full-size van with a gym in it to you. Also in the past few months, Karl has obliterated the expectations of doctors and put himself in position to help the Titans defensive line in the Sept. 10 opener against Oakland.

The original timeline, after Karl tore his left Achilles tendon in a Dec. 19 win at Kansas City, had him in street clothes and weeks away from returning at the start of the 2017 season. But the 6-foot-3, 278-pound defensive lineman was out there running at the start of his seventh training camp, a full two months earlier than that was supposed to happen.

So add it to the legend of the man who gets an appreciative “Kluuuuuuug” from fans when he makes a play. And understand that his return to the field this season is more than a nice story. It’s crucial for a defensive line and a team that draw from his relentlessness.

No. 97 defensive end Karl Klug (Photo: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)

Coach Mike Mularkey said Karl was an “animal” during his offseason rehabilitation, which included the use of painful blood-flow restriction therapy to stimulate the muscles around the tendon. He was a top candidate for toughest guy in a locker room full of tough guys before this injury, but now it’s almost silly to consider anyone else. He’s certainly the only guy in the room who still uses a flip phone.

“It’s Klug,” fellow defensive lineman Angelo Blackson said. “Klug’s Klug.”

“One of the hardest-working and toughest guys we have,” Titans defensive line coach Nick Eason said of Karl,
who was slowly increasing his reps before a left ankle twist that may keep him out of Saturday’s preseason opener at the New York Jets. “If you want to go down a dark alley, you want to go down a dark alley with that guy. You look at him over there with his kids and his wife, he’s a family guy. But at the end of the day, he really represents what it means to be a Titan. What it means to be a football player.”

Karl and his wife, Stacy, have three children ages 4 and younger, and when he reunites with them for a few minutes after a training camp practice, he’s a happy-go-lucky father. His on-field alter ego has far exceeded expectations to provide for them. Even with Karl rehabbing an injury that can permanently hinder an athlete’s mobility, the Titans signed him to a two-year, $5 million deal in the offseason.

Before the injury cost him the final two games of the 2016 season, Karl had seen action in 94 straight games, starting with his rookie season of 2011 after the Titans took him in the fifth round out of Iowa. He has played through nagging injuries, as he did at Iowa – a herniated disc and torn ligaments in a big toe, to name two that actually got reported.

“The dude never complains,” Kevin said of his brother. “He’ll just ride out an injury until he can’t walk anymore.”

Quiet tolerance is a family tradition. When the twins were in middle school in their hometown of Caledonia, Minn., Kevin suffered from a condition that caused him to throw up after meals and choke on his own saliva at night. He and Karl were the only two who knew about the vomiting for a year and a half, which delayed the eventual diagnosis of achalasia – a condition that restricts the esophagus – and surgery to correct it.

Titans defensive lineman Karl Klug (97) listens to instructions during training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Sunday, July 30, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: George Walker IV / The Tennessean)

“That was quite an ordeal, and it went way too long,” said their mother, Mary. “We kept taking Kevin to the doctor but they treated him for asthma until he told us (about the vomiting).”

Kevin was about 60 pounds lighter than Karl after his surgery, and he never caught up. Karl got a full ride to Iowa and had to prove himself there as a 207-pound freshman defensive end. Kevin got a partial scholarship at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and played linebacker.

To this day, Karl gives the family toughness nod to Kevin. Their parents, who grew up on neighboring farms in Caledonia, instilled it.

“Grinding is all we knew,” Karl said, and they still work out together with that word as a guide, though in the past several months Karl has had to stick exclusively with the Titans medical staff.

That work has further enhanced the Klug name in the Titans locker room, but that wasn’t the point of it. The Titans need Karl and the energy that has created 20 career sacks and so much disruption beyond that number. His comeback is ahead of schedule but it isn’t complete yet.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, you’ll never be the same,’” Karl said. “Well, I don’t know. We’re still going to find out, you know?”

Anthony Gonzalez, former Ohio State University football star, planning congressional run

In this 2007 file photo, Anthony Gonzalez announces at a news conference that he is entering the NFL draft rather than returning to Ohio State University to play for his senior season. Gonzalez, an Avon Lake native, is seriously considering running for Ohio's 16th Congressional District in 2018, according to Republican sources following the race.(Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press)

By Andrew J. Tobias
August 9, 2017

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Anthony Gonzalez, the St. Ignatius and Ohio State University alum and former NFL player, is considering tackling a second career in politics.

Gonzalez, 32, is holding meetings as he eyes Ohio's 16th Congressional District,
currently represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, according to Republican sources following the race. The unusually shaped 16th District includes Wayne County, and portions of several others, stretching from rural suburbs east of Akron and up to Cuyahoga County's western suburbs. The seat is expected to be free next year because Renacci, a businessman and former Wadsworth mayor, is running for governor rather than seeking re-election.

Gonzalez recently met with the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's congressional campaign arm, and expressed his interest in running for office. Although Gonzalez has not publicly discussed the race, a Republican source close to him said he is seriously considering a run, and is close to making a decision. Other GOP candidates who have announced they're running in the May primary for the Republican-leaning district include Stark County State Rep. Christina Hagan and Strongsville State Rep. Tom Patton.

Gonzalez has transitioned into a business career since retiring from the NFL in 2012. He received his MBA from Stanford University in 2014, and in June left his job as chief operating officer of Chalk Schools, an education technology firm in San Francisco, according to his LinkedIn profile. He recently moved to Westlake, which is in the 16th District, and not far from Avon Lake, where he grew up.

Gonzalez played football for St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland before going on to play for Ohio State University. He had a decorated career there on and off the field, and was named an Academic All-American. He played for five seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, which drafted him in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, before his football career was cut short due to injuries.

Gonzalez studied philosophy at OSU, but was not known during his athletic career as being outspoken about politics. He hails from a family of Cuban-American immigrants who fled Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power, according to a 2016 WKYC interview with his father, the president of a Cleveland metal services company.

Gonzalez did not respond to a request for comment left with Neil Cornrich, a Beachwood-based sports agent who represented him during his NFL career.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Everybody wins as Le'Veon Bell holds out of training camp - Steelers included

By Jeff Diamond
August 8, 2017

Player holdouts are the scourge for NFL execs and coaches, but some holdouts hurt a lot less than others.

Case in point: Le'Veon Bell and his contract negotiations with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Speaking from personal experience, I have a strong feeling that the Steelers’ hierarchy — team owner Art Rooney, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin — will be just fine with Bell reporting and signing his one-year franchise tender around Aug. 27, two weeks before the regular-season opener at Cleveland.

If Bell were a rookie, there would be a much higher level of concern over his missing any OTAs and more than a day or two of training camp. But for a four-year veteran who knows the system and can get up to speed in a hurry, the only worry for the team is whether he will be in reasonably good shape when he reports. And Bell is letting the Steelers and everybody else know through his social media postings that he is the working out in South Florida.

Unlike two other high-profile NFL vet holdouts in the Rams' Aaron Donald and the Raiders' Donald Penn, Bell is not obligated to be at Steelers training camp since he is not under contract. So he's not subject to the $40,000-per-day fines Donald and Penn could face if their respective teams enforce the penalty.

The Steelers’ relative patience with Bell is all about knowing his injury history — three games missed in his rookie season with a sprained foot; the final eight games of 2015 lost to a knee injury; he was knocked out of last January's AFC title game loss to the Patriots with a groin injury that resulted in offseason surgery.

I believe the Steelers secretly are welcoming his delayed presence, just like I did with Vikings running back Robert Smith during my GM days in Minnesota.

Smith had a couple ACL injuries early in his career that cost him significant time, and I knew he wanted to avoid the extra hits taken in training camp and preseason if at all possible. So after his rookie contract ended, Smith always sought one-year deals and would not agree to terms until about two weeks before the regular-season opener.

I was quietly ok with that, as I was happy to keep him out of harm's way until late in the preseason. I knew he would be in great shape when he signed and reported. And I knew he was too smart to ever give up a regular-season paycheck.

So Robert, his agent Neil Cornrich and I had an unspoken understanding on when he would sign. That lasted until he became a transition player in 1998, when I had to match a five-year, $25 million offer from Seattle. He then had to come to camp on time.

A couple weeks was all Smith needed to get tuned up and in sync with his offensive teammates while getting his timing down.
Similarly, that's all the time Bell needs, and there is no doubt that he will report before the regular season.

As a franchise player who did not reach agreement on a long-term deal by the July 17 deadline, Bell cannot negotiate again until after the current season. He is required by CBA rule to play this season under the one-year, $12.1 million franchise amount for running backs. He's stuck for now — if that's what you want to call his $712,000-per-week paycheck over the 17-week regular season. He'll be there when it counts, which is the regular season, not the preseason (when players are only paid a modest per diem).

The Bell contract situation is interesting on several levels. He turned down a multi-year offer from Pittsburgh that was reportedly worth over $12 million per year, with $30 million over the first two years. The NFL's current highest-paid back is Buffalo's LeSean McCoy at $8 million per year, so the Steelers' offer to Bell was 50 percent higher on a yearly basis.

So what is Bell's problem with that seemingly lucrative offer?

The guaranteed money component, with supposedly little or nothing guaranteed beyond the first year, apparently is an issue for Bell. From the Steelers’ standpoint, there surely are concerns about Bell's three-game suspension at the start of last season for allegedly skipping a drug test after a previous league suspension of two games (down from four on appeal) in 2015 for a DUI and marijuana possession arrest.

The Steelers also could be hedging their bet because of Bell's injury history. They likely want to see a suspension-less and injury-free season in 2017 before they crank up the guaranteed money in their offer. The total compensation over a new long-term deal is unlikely to change, except perhaps marginally.

Then there is Bell's claim that he should be paid closer to top wide receiver money as the best runner-receiver in the game. The Steelers’ offer, at least in total dollars if not guarantees, seems to indicate that the team agrees — he's the best combination running back and receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

Bell’s numbers over 12 regular-season games last year were outstanding: 1,268 rushing yards with an impressive 4.9 yard average and 75 catches for 616 yards. He exploded in the first two rounds of last year's playoffs with rushing totals of 167 yards against Miami and 170 yards against Kansas City.

The two-time Pro Bowler surely wants to get closer to teammate Antonio Brown's $17 million-per-year deal that tops wide receivers. But now that can't happen until February, and even then, he's not getting close to top receiver pay because he's first and foremost a running back.

And running backs — even great, multi-purpose backs like Bell — are not going to get paid receiver money in today's quarterback- and passing-driven NFL. But $12 million per year is nothing to sneeze at for any running back, much less one with Bell's off-field transgressions and on-field health issues.

As is the case in the ongoing Kirk Cousins-Redskins contract battle, the Bell-Steelers negotiations will resume after the season, with the Steelers holding the hammer of another franchise tag. But that would come at a pricey $14.5 million (120 percent of this year's number) unless Bell and his agent can negotiate a deal that negates the right for the Steelers to franchise him again in 2018. And it's highly doubtful that Pittsburgh would give up that right.

Meanwhile, look for Bell to walk into the Steelers’ facility after the third preseason game and into the lineup as usual on opening day against the Browns.

No crown prince to Kaiser Kirk, Iowa’s Brian Ferentz is worthy, humble and confident

By Scott Dochterman

August 7, 2017

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fifteen minutes into Brian Ferentz’s 30-minute interview session Saturday, three rings of Iowa reporters were still wrapped around the new offensive coordinator as he discussed his new role and Iowa’s offense.

Nobody was more popular at Iowa’s media day than Brian Ferentz, and few people ever would describe him as reluctant to answer questions. His unfiltered approach often is the opposite of his father and boss, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Brian Ferentz has no problem poking at rivals, reflecting on the game or directly sparring with media. His frank assessments often sometimes come across as arrogant. But anyone who engages with Brian Ferentz understands his football intellect is as immense as his coaching potential.

Yet as reporters continuously prodded into his thoughts and processes, Brian Ferentz was introspective. He admitted he’s out of his comfort zone after five years as offensive line coach. He acknowledged the task at hand is large and he needs more than his supreme football acumen to make Iowa’s offense decently balanced again. Brian Ferentz will lean on former offensive coordinators Ken O’Keefe (quarterbacks coach) and Tim Polasek (offensive line), as well as the head coach for playcalling and direction.

This is no crown prince serving Kaiser Kirk. Brian Ferentz is a man who understands the responsibility that comes with calling plays in the Big Ten Conference. He’s spent the offseason asking questions of mentors and colleagues alike. He visualizes situations and respects the quick pace. He’s unsure if he wants to feel the game’s emotion on the sidelines or remove it in the booth.

Former Colts playcaller Tom Moore told him he’d prepare to call NFL games by watching college football. Others have left him with more questions than answers.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a big part of my job. So I’d probably be mistaken to not think about it. Given it a lot of thought, but there’s a lot of situational things, there’s a lot of things that go into that. You’re certainly exposed to them, even when you’re not calling the plays. The biggest things for me is making sure I’m working ahead a little bit. As a play-caller, you’re more interested in the result, not what happened because you’ve got to work a call or two ahead the whole time. That’s going to be a little bit new to me.

“The good news is coach O’Keefe is here, and to have a guy that has so much experience, 11 years experience calling the plays here at a really high level, that’s a pretty good resource. You’ve got coach Polasek, who’s coming from North Dakota State where he’s been successful calling their plays for quite a few years, two or three years. Resources surround you. You have to be ignorant to not utilize them.”

After starting at center and guard for Iowa from 2003 through 2005, Brian Ferentz began his coaching career at the grunt level in New England, performing 90-hour-a-week tasks on 30-hour-a-week paychecks. Eventually he moved up to tight ends coach in 2011, where he molded Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez into perhaps the best tandem in NFL history.

“Brian Ferentz, my last year in New England, coached the tight ends and was the quality control guy on offense,” Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien told Land of 10 in March. “He had Gronkowski and that group. And he was breaking film down on the side. That tells you everything you need to know about his work ethic.

“I tried to hire him at Penn State, tried to hire him [at Houston]. His dad wasn’t letting anybody hire him away. I tried to hire him early on in Houston. Very, very smart. Very competitive. A hard-working guy, really good staff guy.”

Then as Iowa’s offensive line coach, Brian Ferentz coached Brandon Scherff to the Outland Trophy in 2014 and the entire line to the Joe Moore Award in 2016.
He served as run game coordinator in 2015 with a unit that rushed for 181.7 yards per game, the third-highest output in Kirk Ferentz’s career. Last fall, Iowa produced two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history.

Pro and college coaches have nibbled at Brian Ferentz for a while, and his move from offensive line to offensive coordinator was the right one for Iowa. He admits he was more efficient as an offensive line coach, which means he respects his position. But don’t mistake his reflection for insecurity. Nobody has more confidence than Brian Ferentz.

“Growth is uncomfortable,” Brian Ferentz said. “I think they call it a comfort zone for a reason. But it’s a part of life, it’s a part of growth and I think if you want to do anything, you need to be willing to do that. We emphasize that with our players all the time, we’re pretty vocal with our players they need to be willing to do those things. I don’t think it would fair for any of us as coaches to not hold up our end of the bargain.”

No person at Iowa invites greater scrutiny than the offensive coordinator. At times the head football, men’s basketball and wrestling coaches see verbal arrows fired in their direction. Same with the athletic director, especially when primary sports fail to reach expectations. But second-guessing engulfs no position like the offensive coordinator. That was was true of O’Keefe from 1999 through 2011. That definitely was the case of Greg Davis from 2012 through January.

That will happen with Brian Ferentz.

Iowa will whiff on third down. Receivers will fail to separate and passes will fall incomplete. The Hawkeyes will run a predictable outside zone on third-and-3, fall a yard short and punt. There’s likely to be losses this year and games where the offense struggles to gain traction. Fans will blame both Ferentzes and talk about the game passing them by. Criticism will be concurrently justified and unfair.

But this elevation wasn’t for Sept. 9 at Iowa State, Nov. 4 against Ohio State or even late December in a bowl game that Iowa really, really needs to win. Brian Ferentz’s promotion is for 2018, 2019, possibly 2024 and maybe even 2031. He’ll grow with the position and nobody else could combine the foundation of Iowa’s past success with a willingness to modernize.

It won’t be perfect this fall, but it will be better by November. And history will prove elevating Brian Ferentz to offensive coordinator was the right move at the right time.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Legend of Yanda

Ravens guard Marshal Yanda may be unknown to casual fans, but he’s a star in the eyes of NFL defenders. Entering his 11th season, Yanda is set to keep climbing — and quietly destroying all comers.

By Robert Mays
August 4, 2017

In the days before John Harbaugh was hired as the Ravens’ head coach, every stall in Baltimore’s locker room was adorned with a small plaque. Each player’s personal accomplishments were listed above his nameplate, from Pro Bowl berths to All-Pro honors to individual awards. Upon joining the team as a rookie in 2007, Marshal Yanda remembers strolling, mouth agape, by the locker belonging to future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden. “I was like, ‘This guy has made the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row?’” Yanda tells The Ringer. “I’ll never forget that plaque.”

Yanda, then 22 years old, entered the league as an undersized, uncelebrated third-round pick. Not long after gazing upon what’s now inscribed on Ogden’s bust in Canton, the guard caught a glimpse of the 6-foot-9 living legend roaming around the team’s weight room. “I played right tackle in college, so I’d played ‘tackle,’” Yanda says. “I walk [in], and I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. How am I ever going to play on the same field with a man of that size?’ He is a giant.”

In those days, Yanda kept mostly to himself, seen but not heard around the Baltimore facility. It wasn’t long, though, before he made an impression on the almost mythical presence he’d admired from afar. “I remember this guy, not really big, not really that imposing,” Ogden says of Yanda. “But when he got out there, he had sound technique, and he also had this toughness about him. That, ‘I grew up on a farm, I bailed hay, and I’m just gonna out-tough you’ mentality.”

Ogden, a nine-time All-Pro and the first draft pick in Ravens franchise history, was going into the final season of his career in 2007. He recognized then what Yanda could not: The rookie had what it took to be “one of the good ones.” The pair spent only one year together, but Yanda seized on every moment he could to mine Ogden for advice. “He would always pick my brain about how I lasted so long in the league,” Ogden says.

Ten years have passed since Yanda was awed by Ogden’s gold-plated résumé, and now the 32-year-old boasts a sparkling career of his own. Over the past six years, Yanda has been to six Pro Bowls. He was named first- or second-team All-Pro five times during that stretch. He has become the NFL’s consensus best player at his position, and like past great interior offensive linemen, he’s done so largely in the dark.

Yanda is one of the sport’s great talents, yet football fans outside of Baltimore barely know his name. In an age of unceasing information, he’s a walking contradiction: a future Hall of Famer hiding in plain sight.

“I’ve played with guys in the Hall of Fame,” former Ravens center Matt Birk says. “I’ve played with guys who are going to be in the Hall of Fame. He is right at the top of my list as far as complete football players that I had the pleasure of playing with.”

When Yanda got to Baltimore in 2007, he took professional cues from established veteran standouts like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Todd Heap. One such pointer was internalizing what a player had to do to earn the right to spend the offseason where he pleased, and by his fifth NFL season, Yanda finally felt comfortable doing just that.

He now spends every spring at his home near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, driving his blue 2007 Chevy Silverado with more than 130,000 miles on the odometer to nearby ponds and lakes to fish for walleye, bass, and salmon. After finishing a season, those days on the water provide his chance to exhale. “You can feel the stress just roll out of the boat,” Yanda says.

Every aspect of Yanda’s life away from the Ravens draws him back home. He grew up in Anamosa, a small town with a population of about 5,500 that sits 50 minutes north of Iowa City. It was in the middle of “Hawkeye country,” as Yanda puts it, and most Saturdays were spent watching head coach Hayden Fry’s Iowa teams on the living room TV. Yanda dreamed of one day playing in Kinnick Stadium, but poor grades forced him to attend North Iowa Area Community College directly after high school. On the first day of NIACC practice, head coach Tyler Sisco gathered all 122 players in the school’s auditorium and asked how many wanted to play Division I-A football. Every man raised a hand. Sisco told them less than 1 percent would get there. “I was the only guy that made it,” Yanda says. “[Those odds] were hammered into my head.”

As he neared the end of his tenure at NIACC, Yanda had received a single scholarship offer, from Iowa State. “At that point, [the University of Iowa] wanted me to walk on,” Yanda says. “I thought I’d have to get my schooling paid for — because I didn’t know. I thought I was maybe gonna play ball for two more years and be done. I wasn’t even thinking about [the NFL].” Yanda figured that he would ultimately go into coaching or return to his father’s 1,000-acre farm, where the family harvests corn and beans while raising a handful of steers.

With his hopes of playing at his dream school dwindling and nothing to lose, Yanda decided to take control of his future. On Sundays during the 2004 college football season, he would hop in his truck and drive the 165 miles from NIACC’s campus in Mason City to Iowa City. While the Hawkeyes stretched and jogged Kinnick Stadium, Yanda hung around hoping to get noticed. “It was kind of like a dog on your porch that won’t go away,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz says.

The ploy eventually worked. On the morning Yanda was supposed to drive to Ames to sign his national letter of intent with Iowa State, he woke up to a voicemail from Hawkeyes offensive line coach Reese Morgan. Iowa was ready to give him what he had always wanted.

The spring after Yanda joined the Hawkeyes, Ferentz couldn’t help but wonder if he’d made a mistake. “Very candidly, [Yanda] was less than impressive,” Ferentz says. “The way I describe Marshal is that he’s not the prettiest guy in shorts.” Yanda lumbered and stumbled his way through initial practices. Then the pads came on. Everyone who lined up across from him was stonewalled, and by Week 1 he’d established himself as the starting right tackle.

“I told scouts [before the 2007 NFL draft], ‘Your line coach is going to hate him when he sees him at the combine,’” Ferentz says. “‘Whoever drafts him, the line coach is going to be mad at the personnel people.’ He’ll come to OTAs and all that stuff, and they’re still not going to be thrilled. But once you start practicing football, the line coach will walk down the hall in three days and say, ‘Ya know, this Yanda kid’s not bad.’”

The quintessential Marshal Yanda play happened in Week 13 of the 2014 season, during the second quarter of a 34–33 loss to the Chargers. The Ravens faced first-and-10 from their own 31-yard line, and handed the ball to running back Justin Forsett coming off the right side.

Yanda’s assignment was fairly simple: help right tackle Rick Wagner double-team the defensive end before climbing up to block the inside linebacker. What transpired was nothing short of extraordinary. After giving the end a quick punch with his right hand, Yanda felt the nose tackle slipping his way, so he offered a quick nudge to aid center Jeremy Zuttah before finally getting to his man. He helped neutralize three defenders on a single play, springing Forsett for a 23-yard gain. “It’s just the right time, right place,” Yanda says as he watches a replay. “You could run that 100 times — 1,000 times — and it doesn’t work out like that. That’s just instinctively running zone for so many years, knowing the angles.”

The sequence may be a one-in-a-thousand shot for Yanda, but for most guys it’s completely unfathomable. As he recounts his movements on the play, he sits on a seat designed for a much smaller man and forcefully shifts his body from side to side without ever lifting a chair leg. It’s a dazzling display of power and control, a blend of precision in which Yanda’s brilliance is rooted. Rarely does he make a false step or misplace his hand, and he’s never passive on Sundays. “The game is probably a little bit slower for him than it is for most people,” Birk says. “He’s able to react to things, he’s able to fit in on double-teams. When he’s supposed to take half the guy, he takes half the guy.”

At times, linemen blessed with Yanda’s strength can hinder the teammates positioned next to them, forcing them away from their intended path and sabotaging the cohesion necessary for lines to thrive. “Some guys will try to be so aggressive that you’ll work against each other,” former Ravens center and current 49er Jeremy Zuttah says. “Their angle will actually be going against the angle you’re trying to take him. Marshal would always give me space to work.”

Knowing how to strike the proper balance is a product of meticulous repetition. Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele was drafted by Baltimore in 2012, and he remembers watching Yanda approach every footwork drill with the same maniacal focus. “A coach can always give you a starting point — where to set, how to use your hands, where to punch — but at the end of the day, you still have to develop your own skill set, your own instincts, and have a plan,” Osemele says. “I think he has that down. He has that tool set, and he knows what works for him.”

He also is a man of ingrained habits. To hear Wagner tell it, players don’t need a clock to know what time it is in the Ravens’ facility. All they have to do is locate Yanda at a given moment, and it’s obvious. “Hot tub, breakfast — it was the same thing every day,” Wagner says.

For a man so reliant on routine, Yanda must have found his first four NFL seasons maddening. He spent those years bouncing around the line, from right tackle to guard and back again. Before his fourth campaign, it seemed as if Yanda would finally get the chance to play his desired guard spot full time. “I wanted to play guard so bad in 2010,” Yanda says. “I had a frickin’ great camp at guard. I was doing well. I was excited. And then ‘Hey, we need you to play right tackle.’ And of course, I didn’t say nothin’.”

It wasn’t until the following season, in 2011, that Yanda got to play his natural position all 16 games for the first time in his career. He hasn’t missed a trip to the Pro Bowl since. “I’m just not tall enough to be a dominant tackle,” Yanda says. “I can get it done, no question, but I’m not a dominant player.”

Yanda may be the league’s preeminent guard, but his style as a pass protector is far from textbook. All the time that he spent playing tackle attuned him to a set of movements calibrated for stopping defenders on the edge. He got used to giving elite pass rushers space immediately after the snap; once Yanda transitioned back inside, that was a tough habit to break. “I don’t like to set guys on the line because a lot of defensive linemen do their moves right at the line of scrimmage, especially at guard,” Yanda says. “J.J. Watt, friggin’ arm-over [move] inside right on the line. He wants you to go out there and punch him.”

Out of that desire has come a pass-blocking method most inside players could never dream of executing. By conceding ground to defensive tackles at the snap, Yanda dares them to plow him over, and most fall right into his trap. “If a lot of guys tried that, they’d just get run over all the time,” Zuttah says. “[Yanda] just jumps in place. It’s like a spring, and it’s over. I can’t even describe it.” Birk says it’s the same maneuver he used to watch Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel pull in their time together on the Vikings.

By hopping in place, Yanda is able to reposition his hands and regain leverage over most defensive linemen, with one major exception: Bengals superstar Geno Atkins. Atkins’s smaller stature, considered a detriment when he came into the league in 2010, allows him to stay under Yanda despite the latter’s repeated efforts to reestablish himself. “[Atkins is] a bull,” Yanda says. “I’m fighting my ass off to keep him away. That ball better be gone because sooner or later, he will beat me.”

Listening to Yanda talk about the league’s best interior rushers, it’s clear that his homework goes beyond due diligence. It borders on obsession. Each week, Yanda downloads his upcoming opponent’s previous six games to his iPad. With no need for internet connection, he’s able to consume game tape anywhere. “In the corner of the hotel, or the training room, or at lunch, he always had that iPad,” Wagner says. Yanda’s favorite spot is the cloth recliner in his living room, where he takes in about a game a night while his wife, Shannon, watches Nashville from the couch after their three kids have been put to bed. “You never want to be surprised by a guy,” Yanda says. “I want to know every single move that he does. When it’s third down, and they’re down by seven points, and they need to win and get off the field, what is he doing to win? What has he naturally done his entire life?”

Yanda’s study habits don’t stop at watching film. He wants to know about every factor in an opponent’s life that could have the slightest influence on his game. In the days leading up to the Ravens’ 2014 matchup against the Buccaneers, Yanda raved about Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, a Pro Bowler who’d displayed a newfound ass-kicking edge that fall. It wasn’t hard for Yanda to discern why. McCoy was on the brink of getting an extension.

“I want to know every guy that’s in his contract year,” Yanda says. “Guys are playing for their money. You’re damn right. A guy that’s OK in his fourth year, but in his fifth year is, ‘What the hell? This guy is balling. What the fuck?’ What is it? It’s his contract year.”

McCoy had been “wrecking the field,” as Yanda puts it, all season. Against the Ravens, he was blanked: no sacks and no quarterback hits. “They paid him like a week or two after we played him,” Yanda says.

Seated at a plastic folding table just down the hall from the Ravens locker room, Yanda explains his method of pass blocking in great detail. “I want [opponents] to bull-rush me,” he says.

As the words spill from his mouth, Chris Wormley, a rookie defensive lineman out of Michigan, stops in his tracks. “Picking up some pointers,” Wormley says. “Yeah … die a slow death,” Yanda shoots back.

From where he’s sitting, Yanda can peer into the weight room where he marveled at Ogden more than a decade ago. The difference these days is that now Yanda is the Pro Bowl fixture Baltimore’s young players try to emulate. His career has become the one rookies aspire to have. Still, Yanda bristles at comparisons with Ogden. “It took me five years before I made my first [Pro Bowl],” Yanda says. “We’re in a different league.”

The way Yanda sees it, the defensive linemen in the league are too good, the game too demanding, for him to ever consider his place among the all-time greats. “At Iowa, we were always taught that complacency kills,” Yanda says. “And once you feel like you’ve arrived, and you’re the man, like you’re on top of the world — pride comes before the fall, and you’re going down. They drilled that into us.”

The names of defensive linemen he lists off to make his point — Watt, McCoy, and Atkins chief among them — are all on the Ravens’ schedule this season. “I have Geno right out the gate,” Yanda says. “I have J.J. Watt on Monday Night Football. I’ve got Ndamukong Suh this year. You prepare the same for every game, but those circle games? I love those games. I live for those games.”

The feeling of admiration from his opponents is mutual. “When I tell my son or daughter about football, I’ll tell them that [Yanda] was one of the best guards I went up against in the league,” Atkins said at the 2016 Pro Bowl. “He’s got nastiness, he’s physical, and he has finesse. He’s strong, but if you try to beat him with a little finesse, he can handle that too, because he’s got good feet. He’s got the whole package.”

While Yanda may never be a famous face around the league, that hasn’t stopped his legend from spreading: The stars about whom fans will tell tales for years to come will do the same about Marshal Yanda.

New England Patriots training camper of the day: Running back Rex Burkhead

Rex Burkhead has been pretty sharp in Patriots camp, especially in the passing game.

By Hector Longo
August 4, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — He’s part bruiser, part dancer, but in New England’s training camp session on Thursday, Patriots running back Rex Burkhead proved he’s all hands.

The newcomer from the Cincinnati Bengals dominated the shortened training camp practice
and might actually have been noticed had it not been Tom Brady’s 40th birthday.

‘When you come out here, you’ve got to be ready to go,” said Burkhead, who spent his first four pro seasons in Cincinnati. “It’s a great environment, the expectations, the level of play. It brings out the best in all of us.”

With Mike Gillislee injured and Dion Lewis slowly easing into things, Burkhead is making the best of his opportunities, as he did again on Thursday.

“My body feels good. I’m just trying to take care of it every day. Every day I come out here, it’s feeling all right.”

Pats make quite the catch in Rex Burkhead

By Mike Giardi
August 3, 2017

FOXBORO -- Trying to cover Rex Burkhead here in training camp is a little like trying to catch a bee with a fishing net. Not impossible, but not likely either.

Just ask linebacker Elandon Roberts or safety Brandon King. Both had the unenviable task of trying to corral the quick Burkhead during one-on-one pass catching drills Thursday. Both found themselves looking quite foolish. That continues a week-long trend here at Patriots training camp -- Number 34 getting into space and creating even more.

“I’m trying to reach the expectations every day of excellence,” Burkhead said, as if he just created a slogan for the back of a t-shirt.

Burkhead broke into the league five years ago with the Cincinnati Bengals. He earned his way by being an ace special-teams player, but eventually saw an increase in his role offensively a season ago, both running and catching the football. Word is Burkhead was chased by Bill Belichick and Bill Belichick alone. You can see why, with the Pats wanting to create even more uncertainty for opposing defenses.

“Hopefully, this year, we’ll have a little more balance between the running game and passing game,” Belichick said. “Again, [the departed LeGarrette Blount] was primarily a runner. He didn’t have a lot of receiving production. The reverse is true of James White. So hopefully with our backs this year we’ll have a little more balance and be a little less predictable from that spot.”

That’s one of many areas where Burkhead can factor in.

“It’s something growing up, my dad -- he was a coach, he played football -- he always told me, ‘You can’t be a one-dimensional player. You’ve have to be able to catch the ball as well,’ ” Burkhead said. “It’s always been something I’ve taken pride in. I want to make sure I can do it well.”

The Pats haven’t been shy about trying Burkhead in short yardage situation down at the goal line either. Running backs coach Ivan Fears is on record saying the team needs to find its power back and while Mike Gilislee is probably the lead dog in that area, Burkhead is bigger than you think, right around 210 pounds. That’s not Blount beef, but that doesn’t mean the Texas native can’t get it done.

“Find the creases and see the reads. You don’t want to have your head up with a guy 50 pounds or 100 pounds bigger than you, so you try to find those creases where you can really lower your pads and get on in there,” adding, “I can fit through some cracks that some normal - or bigger backs - can’t get through.”

If Burkhead keeps showing up and showing out in every practice, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to impact the Pats in all facets and pay off Belichick’s faith in him.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The NFL's top 25 breakout 'prospects' for 2017

By Rivers McCown

August 2, 2017

Every year, Football Outsiders puts together a list of the NFL's best and brightest young players who have barely played. Eighty percent of the draft-day discussion is about first-round picks, and 10 percent is about the players that should have been first-round picks, but instead went in the second round.

This list is about the others. Everybody knows that Marcus Mariota and Myles Garrett are good. There's a cottage industry around the idea of hyping every draft's No. 1 quarterback as a potential superstar. This is a list of players that have a strong chance to make an impact in the NFL despite their lack of draft stock and the fact that they weren't immediate NFL starters. (Our full criteria for who's eligible for this list is at the bottom of this article.)

Previous instances of the list have hyped players such as Geno Atkins, Elvis Dumervil, Malcolm Butler and Jamaal Charles before they blew up. Last year's list included David Johnson, Danielle Hunter and Super Bowl star Grady Jarrett.

This year, there weren't any prospects head-and-shoulders above the rest of the crew, like we've seen in past instances. Last year, for example, David Johnson was an easy top prospect. We actually had to have a bit of a debate to settle on the top of the list.

Here are the top 25 breakout prospects for 2017:

17. A.J. Derby, TE, Denver Broncos

Age: 25 | 191 offensive snaps | Fifth-round pick (2015)

Derby had the size, speed and skill to be a star college tight end, but resisted the change for many years, even transferring from Iowa to Arkansas to try to stay at quarterback. Without much statistical track record, and coming out of college with an injury that caused him to miss his bowl game and most of the combine, it was a surprise that he was actually drafted. But under the watchful eye of Bill Belichick, Derby blossomed to the point that the Patriots were able to deal him to Denver and recoup their initial investment.

Given the lack of a real established tight end in Denver, Derby doesn't have much to beat out to see playing time. He's certainly the best receiving option the Broncos have at the position. New offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's tenure with the Chargers heavily emphasized tight ends, and while Derby is no Antonio Gates, he should see a little more involvement than he did last year.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK: Flowers planning to catch foes’ eyes

After enjoying a breakout year in 2016, defensive lineman Trey Flowers figures opponents will key on him this season.

By Glen Farley
July 31, 2017

FOXBORO – Where Trey Flowers is concerned, it seems opponents didn’t know what was coming last year.

After appearing in just one game in an injury-marred rookie campaign, the second-year defensive lineman led the Patriots in sacks with seven and capped off his second NFL season by registering a team-leading six tackles and 21/2 sacks in the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI.

Where Flowers is concerned, it seems he knows precisely what is coming this year.

“You’ve got to understand,” Flowers said following Sunday’s training camp practice (there was no public training camp practice on Monday), “if you have a little success a lot of people want to key in on you and kind of approach you a different way.”

Flowers says the key to his game is making certain there is no change in his approach to the game.

The key, he says, is consistency.

“Just got to continue to work hard, continue to get better, continue to work on technique,” Flowers said.

A fourth-round pick out of Arkansas, Flowers says lessons have been learned over his two years in the pros.

“The understanding of the game, the understanding of the scheme of the defense, of what they want to do, understanding how to be a Patriot, how to be a pro, things like that,” said Flowers, listing the lessons he’s learned. “Being aware of certain situations.”

The current situation is this: With Rob Ninkovich’s retirement, with two years under his belt, at the age of 23 (he’ll turn 24 on Aug. 16) Flowers now leads the Patriots’ defensive ends in terms of service to the team.

Flowers finds himself surrounded by Patriots newbies, an offseason youth movement at the position bringing in Kony Ealy (the 25-year-old arrived via a trade with the Carolina Panthers) and Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. (the two 23-year-olds came via the draft).

Selected four picks ahead of him, Flowers’ 2015 draft classmate Geneo Grissom has contributed on special teams but has yet to make any kind of impact on the defensive side of the ball.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys on the defensive line ready to make plays,” Flowers said in speaking of the group as a whole. “We all know we’ve got to step up and be productive.”

As for Flowers, he’s simply looking to build on the foundation he laid a year ago.

Personally, you’ve got to get better each and every year,” the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder said. “You’ve got to put in the time, put in the work. I’m working on every part of my game, whether it’s stopping the run, whether it’s rushing the passer, whether it’s watching film, studying guys.”

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