Thursday, January 31, 2019

Trey Flowers Was Made for the Patriots Defense

The fourth-year defensive end may not pop off the screen like other elite edge rushers, but by using leverage and smarts, he’s become a cornerstone of the New England D-line

By Robert Mays

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Around the time most were learning how to ride a bike, Trey Flowers was getting to work. His grandfather started Flowers Construction 50 years ago, and by the time young Trey was finished with kindergarten, he was lending a hand to the family business during hot summers in Huntsville, Alabama. Trey’s father, Robert Flowers Jr., was 9 when the company opened in 1969. Before that, Robert spent his summers picking okra—their group would gather about a ton a day when everything went right. Robert understood the value of a day’s work, and his 10 children would too. At first, Trey’s role was limited to grabbing tools and running errands, but by 11, he was roofing as well as any other worker. “He was putting on shingles like a grown man,” Robert says. “I promise you that. When I say he was good, you could trust him to run the valleys and work around [pipes]. He could do all of that.”
Trey has three brothers. Growing up, his siblings occasionally needed a scolding, a reminder to get back in line and follow their father’s rules. Trey never did. “When it came his turn, he just did what daddy said,” Robert Flowers says. “Some of the siblings yanked him about that. ‘Oh, you just do what daddy say.’ But he just didn’t see no need of bucking the system.” Two decades later, as the 25-year-old Patriots defensive end prepares to play in his third straight Super Bowl, that disciplined, workmanlike demeanor still defines him. In an organization—and for a defensive-minded coach—that values following assignments and flexibility above all else, Flowers just might be the perfect defensive player. New England’s dynasty has been spurred by previous pass-rushing greats like Richard Seymour, Rob Ninkovich, and others whose sack totals belied their impact. Four years into his young career, Flowers has proved to be a deserving successor to that role.
Leading up to the 2015 draft, Flowers wasn’t considered anything more than a mid-round prospect. He’d been productive during his four years at Arkansas. He tallied 15.5 tackles for loss during his senior season, and his career mark of 47.5 is the second-highest in school history. But what some scouts perceived as limited athleticism hindered his draft stock. As most teams looked for the next Khalil Mack or Von Miller—explosive speed rushers off the edge—Flowers profiled as a stout run defender with a defined ceiling as a pass rusher. At 266 pounds, he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the combine. “Trey was not highly recruited out of high school,” says former Arkansas defensive line coach Rory Segrest. “He’s not the quickest guy. He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the strongest guy. But at the same time, he just gets the job done.”
Before his time at Arkansas, Segrest spent four seasons in various coaching roles with the Eagles. He knew what NFL teams wanted in defensive linemen. Segrest had also known Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly for years. When Daly inquired about Flowers before the draft, Segrest assured him that whoever drafted Trey wouldn’t regret it. “I told [Daly] that Trey is gonna be one of those guys that regardless where he goes, he’s going to be in the NFL for a long period of time,” Segrest says. New England selected Flowers in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft, with the 101st pick.
Looking back on the pre-draft process, Daly disputes the notion that Flowers didn’t initially stand out. “He does jump off the tape,” Daly says. “He jumps off the tape as a good football player.” That observation may sound staid, but Daly saw in Flowers’s college film the sort of defensive lineman that the Patriots had long coveted. Flowers was almost never out of position. He rarely took chances when the situation didn’t warrant it. Quite simply: He did his job. “You can definitely watch tape and understand that a guy knows how to play the game—where he’s supposed to be, what he’s supposed to be doing,” Daly says.
When Daly talks about Flowers now, he can’t help but get animated. Flowers’s combination of traits is a defensive line coach’s dream, and for anyone who understands the nuances of the DE position, it’s impossible not to appreciate. The word Daly mentions over and over is “leverage.” In every situation, Flowers manages to get where he wants to go, whether that’s hunkering down against the run or making a sudden, late burst to finish off a play. His body control and ability to stay anchored on the edge has turned him into one of the top run-defending defensive ends in football. The way Flowers uses his hands and throws his weight around in close quarters reminds Daly of players with wrestling backgrounds who he’s coached in the past. As a left defensive end, Flowers’s assignment against the run is typically to hold down the edge and cause plays to spill back to the inside. But when the moment calls for it, he also has the hands to toss a blocker into the gutter and finish plays on his own.
Flowers may lack the burst of other elite edge rushers, but he compensates with a rare blend of instincts and awareness. His best pass-rush move shares similarities with the maneuvers he uses while defending the run. Players like Von Miller or Dee Ford do all they can to set the agenda when getting after the quarterback. Their speed allows them to beat tackles to the edge before the offensive linemen can even blink. Flowers often takes a different approach. When he’s working one-on-one, he’s rarely in a hurry. Whereas most edge rushers would do all they can to keep a lineman’s hands off them, Flowers doesn’t mind—at least not at first. By initially engaging with the player across from him, Flowers has the chance to use his opponent’s weight and movements against him. He can feel the slightest lean in any direction, and the moment he does, a tackle goes flying, and Flowers is in the backfield. That snatch-and-pull move is Flowers’s go-to approach on the edge, and once again, Daly credits its effectiveness to an uncanny understanding of leverage.

Flowers may have tallied only 7.5 sacks in the regular season, but according to Pro Football Focus, he finished the year with 64 disrupted dropbacks. That was tied for 13th in the league, with players like Von Miller and Melvin Ingram—both of whom were deemed valuable enough to merit the franchise tag at some point over the past three years. Flowers has continued to make his presence felt as a pass rusher during the playoffs, by way of some of the subtler elements he brings to the Patriots defense. One of the aspects that Daly loves most about his young star is how well Flowers communicates. Daly doesn’t mean rousing speeches in the way some might when talking about players being vocal; it’s the way Flowers conveys certain concepts to his teammates or pipes up when he recognizes a check by the offensive line. That type of information-sharing has been vital for the Patriots in the postseason. New England has relied on line stunts and blitzes to create consistent pressure all year, but over the past two games, the Pats have used twists and line games to create confusion up front and get to the quarterback.
With 4:40 remaining in the second quarter of their divisional round matchup in New England, the Chargers faced a second-and-10 from their own 47-yard line. With his offense already at the line, quarterback Philip Rivers noticed an aspect of the defensive alignment that caused him to check the play. As the offense scrambled to alter its call, Flowers gestured to his fellow linemen and linebackers about how the Patriots had to adjust. Just as Rivers let go of the pass, Flowers took him to the ground, and the result was a deep incompletion.
Along with getting his teammates in the right position for all the Patriots’ trickery up front, Flowers is more than capable of finishing plays himself. Talented stunters often rely on a combination of timing and change-of-direction ability, and Flowers has plenty of both. He has a distinct feel for when and how an offensive lineman will move in almost any situation, and he consistently uses it to his advantage.

Highlights of Flowers are rarely eye-popping. He’s not going to toss offensive tackles with one arm like Mack or dip his shoulder to the ground and still manage to pulverize a quarterback like Miller. But when Flowers hits free agency this spring, there’s a chance that he will command a contract that isn’t far off from what the league’s best edge rushers have earned in recent years. As Daly says, Flowers checks just about every box a defensive coach could want, and it’s made him the ideal player for the Patriots’ plan on their way to the Super Bowl. Against a Rams offense that relies on using misdirection and play-action to take advantage of undisciplined defenders, he’s precisely the type of player that New England will need. “I don’t know who’s underrating [him],” Daly says, “but it’s not me. Some people might. But I love this guy.”

Colts’ Nelson credits his success to Hiestand

Larry Mayer


Monday, Jan 28, 2019 03:30 PM

ORLANDO – Indianapolis Colts left guard Quenton Nelson may not have capped his rookie season by playing in Sunday’s Pro Bowl if it weren’t for Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As Nelson’s position coach at Notre Dame, Hiestand helped the 6-5, 330-pounder develop into not only a top NFL prospect but a generational talent according to some scouts.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” Nelson told during Pro Bowl festivities in Orlando. “I really appreciate everything that he’s done for me. I wouldn’t be in the situation I am without him, and the Bears are lucky to have him.” 

Nelson was a three-year starter at Notre Dame, where he was a unanimous All-American selection as a junior in 2017. After being chosen by the Colts with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Nelson was named first-team All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after starting all 16 games.

Hiestand began coaching Nelson in 2014 when the New Jersey native redshirted as a freshman.

“He was the biggest part to my career,” Nelson said. “When I got to Notre Dame, I wasn’t the best football player by any means. I wasn’t very good, and he just helped me improve every single day. He brought that energy and the attitude every day that we’re going to improve. In the meeting rooms he was very intense, [with an] attention to detail when we were watching film on how I could improve and get my technique better, and then on the field.”

Nelson described Hiestand as a “great coach and a great teacher.”

“Him caring about his players would probably be his greatest strength,” Nelson said. “I feel like you want to play your best game for him because of how much he cares about you as a player and as a person.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Ranking the top 53 Patriots, Rams players in Super Bowl LIII

Jan 28, 2019
Pro Football Focus | ESPN Insider

After two incredible conference championship games that resulted in wins in overtime, we're left with Pro Football Focus' two highest-graded teams battling for the Lombardi trophy.
We ranked the top 53 players from the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams on both sides of the ball using PFF's play-by-play grading. While going strictly by the grades can work for positional rankings, certain positions impact the game more; as a result, you'll see those positions ranked a bit higher.

Sticking with the starters on either side of the ball got us to 44 total players, and we added rotational players to get to 53, in honor of it being Super Bowl LIII. Let's dive in.

6. Trey Flowers, Edge, Patriots

Grade: 89.7 | Pos. rank: 6
While Flowers doesn't quite have the sack numbers to fit the billing of the traditional elite pass-rusher, he has done his fair share of disruption on the pass rush to warrant his spot as one. Through the regular season, Flowers dominated the line of scrimmage with 64 QB pressures on 462 attempts, and he put forth an above-average grade in run defense while missing just two of his 49 tackle attempts all season.

29. Austin Blythe, RG, Rams

Grade: 72.4 | Pos. rank: 10
Blythe went the whole season without allowing a sack in pass protection, seeing 657 pass-blocking snaps and allowing just 31 total hits or hurries. He finished the regular season as the league's 12th-highest-graded guard.

Super Bowl-Bound Nate Ebner Says Ohio State's Professional Culture, Hard Work Set Him Up For NFL Success

By Dan Hope on January 25, 2019 at 8:35 am @dan_hope

Reinhold Matay – USA TODAY Sports

At this point, Nate Ebner should be used to having big plans on the first Sunday in February.
For the fourth time in five years, Ebner and the New England Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl, where they will face the Los Angeles Rams in this year’s NFL championship game on Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
That hasn’t made it any less special for the former Ohio State defensive back, though, as he prepares to compete for another title.
“It’s extremely special,” Ebner told Eleven Warriors. “We know how rare the opportunity is for anyone to get the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, but definitely looking forward to it and trying to make the most of the opportunity.”
Having previously won Super Bowl rings with the Patriots in 2015 and 2017, Ebner has a chance to become just the second former Ohio State player to win three Super Bowls. Mike Vrabel is the only previous Buckeye who has accomplished that feat, winning a trio of Super Bowls – also with the Patriots – in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
Miami Dolphins (1973, 1974)
Oakland Raiders (1977, 1981)
San Francisco 49ers (1985, 1989)
New York Giants (1987, 1991)
New York Giants (1987, 1991)
New England Patriots (2002, 2004, 2005)
New England Patriots (2015, 2017)
New Orleans Saints (2010); Philadelphia Eagles (2018)

The Patriots also went to the Super Bowl last year, but lost to fellow former Ohio State defensive back Malcolm Jenkins and the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-33. Ebner didn’t get to play in that game, because his season ended early due to a torn ACL, so he had added motivation to get another chance to play on the biggest stage this year.
“To be able to come right back the following year and have another chance at it, I’m extremely fortunate for that,” Ebner said.
When Ebner originally walked on to the Ohio State football team in 2009, no one – not even himself – would have imagined that he would end up playing in multiple Super Bowls. He didn’t even play football in high school or in his first two years as a college student, though he was a standout rugby player, joining the U.S. national team for several international competitions.

Nate Ebner before his senior season at Ohio State in 2011.

“Nah, no way, man. Super Bowls weren’t even on my mind back then,” Ebner said. “It was about doing the work just for me to get on a team to be a part of the NFL and earn my spot. But to think down the road that I would be a part of four Super Bowls, I can’t say that’s something I really had envisioned.”
Even by the time he completed his three-year Ohio State career in 2011, a lengthy career in the NFL seemed like a long shot. While he did earn a scholarship prior to his senior season at Ohio State, he only saw occasional playing time on defense for the Buckeyes.
Nonetheless, Ebner’s special teams prowess was enough for the New England Patriots to select him in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and he’s been a staple of the Patriots’ special teams units for the past seven years, leading the team with 329 special teams snaps played this season.
He credits the culture of the Ohio State football program, where he played for teams coached by Jim Tressel and Luke Fickell, with effectively preparing him for the challenges he would face in the NFL, setting him up for the success he has since had in the league.
“Being at Ohio State, you learn real quick what it’s like to be a professional,” Ebner said. “You don’t mess around. The meetings are no joke, practice is no joke, the weight room is no joke. Nothing we do is a joke. It’s done at a very high standard, and it’s done consistently. Day in and day out. And that’s what it takes to be a pro.”
Ebner is one of three former Buckeyes – all of whom played together for Tressel in 2009 and 2010 – who will be playing in next weekend’s Super Bowl. John Simon, who was signed by the Patriots in September, and Jake McQuaide, who is in his eighth season as the Rams’ long snapper, are both set to make their first Super Bowl appearances.
Ebner says he has enjoyed having another Buckeye in the locker room this season, and says Simon has been a great fit in New England.
“Me and John were pretty tight when we were at Ohio State, and we’ve always when we could, we’ve always worked out together,” Ebner said. “So we’ve always had a good relationship between the two of us. And seeing what he’s gone through his first five or six years in the league, and to come here and be a part of this, I’m glad I get to share it with him.”
For Ohio State’s current players who have their own aspirations of playing in the NFL and succeeding at the highest level, there might not be any better example of what perseverance can make possible than Ebner. The Patriots’ honoree this year for the Ed Block Courage Award, Ebner had to overcome personal tragedy – his father was murdered during an attempted robbery in 2008 – along with the long odds of being a walk-on to become a valuable contributor at Ohio State and ultimately establish himself in the league.
Ebner’s advice to those current Buckeyes, however, is not to think about what they could eventually achieve in the NFL, but to focus on maximizing their opportunities at Ohio State now.
“Don’t think about any of that stuff, ‘cause that stuff’s not what gets you there,” Ebner said. “To me, that was never ... I just worked, that was it. Whatever it was they put me on the field to do, I wanted to be the best that I could at it in the league, and just worked extremely hard to do that. And make the most of the opportunities that come your way.
“Outside of that, the rest is really outside of your control. Thinking about trying to go to this team or that team or trying to be a part of a Super Bowl team or whatever, that’s not in your control. The things you can control are working hard and making the most of your opportunities and then having a positive attitude and those types of things. So that’s what I’ve focused on.”

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Nebraska Football: A gritty Rex Burkhead propels Patriots to Super Bowl

by Danny Jaillet | January 21, 2019
Nebraska Football alum Rex Burkhead put on a stellar performance Sunday.

It was a great day for several Nebraska football alumni as a pair will reach the Super Bowl. Ndamukong Suh will be in Atlanta via the Los Angeles Rams and Sunday night, Rex Burkhead played a huge role in the New England Patriots 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
When you are an offensive player on the New England Patriots, you have to accept that you are going to be overshadowed by Tom Brady. That’s just the way it has been in New England, and with five Super Bowls, that is not about change anytime soon. Burkhead signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots back on March 14, 2017. Initially, my personal thought was that he would be merely backfield depth and not contribute much to the team.
One person who did think that Burkhead would be able to make a major impact for the Patriots was my friend from college. He liked Burkhead for his versatility and his toughness and ability to fight for extra yards. I brushed him off when he kept saying that Burkhead was a vital part of the Patriots offense. After the outcome and results of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, I have to apologize. To my friend, you were right. Burkhead has become a bigger part of the New England Patriots offense than I ever thought possible.
He showed his versatility on Sunday,  rushing the ball 12 times for 41 yards and two touchdowns. A 14-yard scamper was his longest of the evening. He had several key plays throughout the course of the game, none more so than in overtime when he scored the game-winning touchdown. In the second half in particular, he made a couple of key carries that put New England in better field position. They weren’t necessarily runs that would be considered earth-shattering in terms of length, but they were key in terms of field position. He also caught the ball four times for 23 yards. Burkhead got the gritty, three to four-yard runs that the Patriots needed in order to make down and distance more manageable.
It is sort of fitting that Burkhead scored the game-winning touchdown. The New England Patriots have a reputation for turning players that other teams may overlook into great team players. Especially in a crowded backfield that includes James White and Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead may seem like an afterthought to some. Some of you may have not even remembered what team he was on. That is perfectly fine, because he is not going to be a running back that ranks among the elite in the National Football League. However, his grittiness and toughness will forever endear him to both Nebraska and New England Patriots fans alike.
If anything, this game was just a continuation of what Burkhead did as a member of the Nebraska football program. He rushed for 3,329 yards and 30 touchdowns during his Nebraska football career. His best season came as a junior in 2011. That year, he lit up Lincoln and other college football towns, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. He scored 102 total points which put him second in the Big Ten conference in that category. The 15 touchdowns rank him third in the entire conference as well. He truly had a great year that year if anything, that was a microcosm of his football career in general.
Burkhead has managed to put up numbers. For his career, he has recorded 208 rushing attempts for 825 yards and a touchdowns. Although those do not scream efficiency, they certainly scream productivity. He has certainly been an asset with the Patriots ever since he came to New England. He has been a threat both in the running and passing game, and to be a running back from New England you need to be fluent in both types of offense. Sunday, he showed that he can be effective in both areas.
Congratulations Rex, you have made Nebraska football proud. Now, Burkhead will face Suh in what should be a Super Bowl matchup for the ages.

Bears' offensive line was much improved under Harry Hiestand's guidance — and they look well-positioned going forward

Brad Biggs | Chicago Tribune
Part 3 of an 11-part review of the 2018 Bears season.

Of all the moves Matt Nagy made after being hired as Bears coach, persuading Vic Fangio to stick around as defensive coordinator received the most attention, and deservedly so.
Building on the continuity of the previous three seasons with some key personnel additions, the Bears jumped to No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, paving the way for Fangio to be hired as Broncos head coach, fulfilling a career-long goal.
Not to be overlooked is the hire Nagy made for the offensive line, luring Harry Hiestand from Notre Dame for his second stint as Bears offensive line coach. Hiestand is a grinder, happy as can be to lead offensive linemen with no known aspirations of doing anything beyond that.
If Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is the best in the business, Hiestand is on a short list behind him, according to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was a line coach himself in the NFL.
“If you look (at) what Dante has done in New England and the fact that Notre Dame had two guys taken in the first nine picks, that stuff doesn’t happen by accident,” Ferentz said last spring. “Harry is a tremendous coach.”
Players past and present have enormous affection for Hiestand. Former Bears lineman Roberto Garza, normally concise and to the point, was effusive in his praise of Hiestand last January.
“From the moment you walked into his meetings, you knew he was serious,” Garza said. “He had a plan that you were going to buy into it, and a lot of guys, we weren’t ready for that. But once you go on the field with Harry and see what he has to offer, it’s hard not to fight for this guy every single play. He is a guy you can trust. He is going to fight for his offensive linemen and you will go to bat for him every day because he is going to have your back and you are going to have his.”
The return of Hiestand and improved health on the line put the Bears in a position where they needed only five starting lineups. That’s two fewer than they had in 2017, thanks in large part to left tackle Charles Leno, right tackle Bobby Massie and center Cody Whitehair starting all 16 games. Left guard was practically locked down as rookie second-round pick James Daniels rotated there with Eric Kush for three games before taking over as the starter for the final 10 games.
Roll call: Charles Leno (signed through 2021), James Daniels (signed through 2021), Cody Whitehair (signed through 2019), Kyle Long (signed through 2021), Bobby Massie (unrestricted free agent), Bradley Sowell (signed through 2019), Bryan Witzmann (unrestricted free agent), Eric Kush (unrestricted free agent), Rashaad Coward (exclusive-rights free agent).
2019 salary-cap figures: Leno $8.9 million, Daniels $1,579,581, Whitehair $1,344,180, Long $8.5 million, Sowell $1.8 million.
2018 season review: The Bears allowed 33 sacks, tied for eighth-fewest in the NFL. The four teams that played in the conference championship games ranked in the top eight, and seven of the top nine teams in terms of fewest sacks allowed were playoff teams. Protecting the quarterback is the No. 1 order of business for any offense, and the Bears were much improved because of better line play combined with greater awareness by second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
The Bears line led the NFL with only three enforced holding penalties, a product of improved play and something players credited to Hiestand. Leno continues to look like a bargain another year removed from the four-year, $37 million extension with $22 million guaranteed that he signed before the 2017 season. He allowed 32 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, which tied for 29th-most among tackles, and he was added as an alternate to the NFC Pro Bowl roster Tuesday morning. That makes him the first left tackle since Jim Covert in 1987 to represent the Bears in the all-star game.
Leno has been a model of durability with 61 consecutive starts since taking over for Jermon Bushrod in the fourth game of the 2015 season. His streak of 3,957 consecutive snaps ended in the waning moments of the regular-season finale when Nagy pulled him with the playoffs looming. Leno went to the bench for the final eight offensive plays and wasn’t happy. Leno’s run was a very long way from Joe Thomas’ incredible streak of 10,363 consecutive snaps with the Browns, but it’s something Leno took a great deal of pride in and still does. He should. Consider that since 2000, the only other primary starter the Bears have had at left tackle for three consecutive seasons is John Tait from 2005 through 2007. After Leno’s streak of 61 consecutive starts, the longest streak the Bears have had at left tackle since 2000 is 32 by J’Marcus Webb from 2011 to 2012. Leno has taken the job and run with it, and he should continue to improve under Hiestand.
The Bears wanted to make sure Daniels, who was 20 when the season started, was ready for a starting role before they plugged him in. They wanted him to earn the promotion on the practice field, not because of his status as the 39th pick. He did that and was able to push Kush, who was dealing with lingering effects from a stinger, to a reserve role. The job wasn’t too big for Daniels, who has good size for the interior and easily made the transition to guard after spending most of his college career at center. He didn’t allow a sack, according to STATS.
Whitehair improved after an up-and-down 2017 season, thanks in large part to having a set position, and that work did not go unnoticed as he was also added to the Pro Bowl as a replacement. The Bears moved him back and forth in 2017, starting him at all three interior spots as injuries created havoc for the previous coaching staff. He struggled over the summer and in the preseason with shotgun snaps. Instead of being stubborn, he embraced a new technique, using what is called a “dead snap” instead of the more traditional spiral. It wasn’t perfect, but he quickly smoothed out his snapping issues.
Although Long was slowed during the spring and brought along slowly during training camp after three offseason surgeries, he was in place for the start of the season and added brawn and power to the right side of the line. He suffered a tendon injury in his right foot in Week 8 against the Jets, forcing him to injured reserve, but he set a goal to be back before the season ended and achieved that, a testament to the hard work he puts in after injuries. Long probably was on the ground too much at times, but he was clearly better than fill-in Witzmann.
Massie just finished the final season of his three-year, $18 million deal, which is quietly one of the best free-agent contracts general manager Ryan Pace has issued. After a bumpy first two months with the Bears, he has been solid at right tackle, and the 29-year-old enjoyed his best season as a pro. Massie was charged with only two sacks allowed by STATS and 25 pass pressures, per Pro Football Focus, tied for 47th-most among tackles.
Witzmann was signed in October, and his knowledge of the offense from his time in Kansas City made his insertion into the lineup an easy adjustment. He’s a capable backup, which could make him a smart re-signing. Sowell wasn’t needed much as the swing tackle, but the Bears are comfortable with him in the scheme.
Free agency/draft priority: There is work to do here, and Pace knows the best teams are proactive when it comes to the offensive line. It’s too easy to get stuck in a bad position if you’re not regularly adding young players with upside. The Bears had a major decision to make involving an $8 million option for guard Josh Sitton a year ago, and they elected to decline it. They have to decide if they want to pursue Massie in free agency or seek another experienced option because the chance of finding a starter with a third-round draft pick, at least a plug-and-play Day 1 starter, seems remote. Massie’s potential return will be a money-driven decision. Are they comfortable investing in him for a couple of more years? Coward is a developmental player who shifted from the defensive line to the offensive line a year ago, and it might be a year too soon to think about him as a possibility at right tackle. The only real action he has had came in the preseason as he was inactive for all 16 regular-season games. The Bears will need to re-sign Witzmann or another depth-type player.
Bottom line: The Bears improved on the offensive line and there’s reason to believe they’ll be even better in 2019. One looming question is whether the team will consider flip-flopping Daniels and Whitehair. Nagy believes continuity is necessary for the center-quarterback exchange, which is one reason the team wouldn’t make that switch during the season. Would they consider a move at the start of the offseason, especially with Whitehair coming off a season in which he was added to the Pro Bowl? Whitehair is eligible for a new contract and he switched representation during the season, surely with the idea of working toward a new deal. Leno and Whitehair have emerged as leaders on the line since Sitton left, so extending Whitehair figures to be on the to-do list, maybe come training camp. Long’s durability has been an issue, but he has shown his toughness in battling back. Given the shortage of draft picks and less cap space to work with, it seems unlikely the Bears will create another need by letting him go. The best thing Long has going for him right now is that he enters the offseason not needing surgery, so he can focus on getting stronger. The right ankle injury suffered in 2016 remains the biggest issue for him, but figure on the Bears counting on him again in 2019.
Coming Thursday: Wide receivers.
Twitter @BradBiggs

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Toughest Defensive Coordinator to Face: Dean Pees

Best Receiver, JaMarcus Russell regret: Josh McCown tells all about NFL

By Brian Costello on December 25, 2018

In 16 NFL seasons, Josh McCown has played with hundreds of teammates and against hundreds of opposing players.
He gave Emmitt Smith his last hand-off. He threw Larry Fitzgerald his first pass. He has been on the field with and against Hall of Famers. McCown went from an unpolished rookie out of Sam Houston State to the mentor for Sam Darnold.
“More than anything, it’s humbling,” McCown said last week about all the players he has played with and against. “Those guys I’m talking about, it’s cool talking about them as players, but as people they are even better. To me, I value that so much. I’m so thankful I got to be around those guys. It’s fun to watch guys play at the highest level, but it’s awesome to watch humans operate at the highest level.”
McCown, 39, is unsure whether he will play in 2019. He said he will sit down with his family after the season and reach a decision. If he does call it a career, it has been some ride. He has played on eight teams over 16 seasons.
McCown reflected on his career with The Post and answered questions about who was the best at certain categories. The only ground rule was no current teammates or coaches could be named.
Best hands: “Holy cow. I have played with a lot of great guys, but three guys come to mind and I can’t choose between them — Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin.
“Larry’s ability to track the ball was unbelievable and different than anything I’ve ever seen. The ability to make catches in traffic with Anquan Boldin was crazy because he could have guys hanging all over him and still make the catch. More than anything with Steve, his confidence in his hands to catch the ball and make moves while he was in the air. … I remember thinking he is more concerned with the move than he is with the catch, and it shows you how confident he is in the catch.”
Fastest receiver: “Travis Benjamin could roll when I was in Cleveland. He’s a lot like Robby [Anderson]. Robby might be the fastest, but I would say Travis. The other guy I think of when you say that because he is sneaky fast for a big guy is Mike Evans. He had unbelievable hands, too. I’ve had the privilege of playing with some good guys.”
Best route runner: “Anquan Boldin for sure. He wasn’t the fastest guy, so he had to be efficient with his feet. He was just a technician, just a great route runner.”
Most complete receiver: “Oh geez. I’ve played with some Hall of Famers. Pick your poison or your passion. It’s whatever you’re looking for. Golly, I hate to [choose] because every one of them brings something to the table. If you’re looking for a technician, you’re getting Anquan. If you’re looking for guys to extend fields and make plays on the long ball, you’re talking Alshon [Jeffery], Mike Evans, Larry Fitzgerald. If you’re looking for a playmaker when you put the ball in his hands, it’s Brandon Marshall or Steve Smith. You just throw it out there to Smitty and let him do his thing. A lot of times it’s like pulling teeth to get young receivers to block, but all these guys who are great catchers are great blockers. All of them are complete receivers. I’m close with all of them so picking one of them would not get me more Christmas cards.”
Toughest running back: “Jonathan Stewart was the toughest runner for sure. I’d also say Matt Forte or I played with a guy in Oakland named Justin Fargas out of USC. For that year he played with us, he was a banger. He ran really tough.”
Fastest back: “I played with Damien Anderson my first few years in Arizona. He was out of Northwestern and he could really run. He was fast. D.A. could run.”
Best vision: “Emmitt Smith was unbelievable. Kind of like we talk about with an old quarterback, he was able to function because he was so smart.”
Toughest lineman: “Logan Mankins comes to mind. Gosh, there were so many good ones. Joe Thomas because of his consistency. Shoot, Alex Mack, the same thing. All three of those guys were freaking tough dudes.”
Best run blocker: “Kyle Long. He’s a stud. That group we had in Chicago. Him and Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson, holy buckets. Those three alone were probably my favorite group I got to play with in terms of guard-center-guard. Those guys were good. Kyle was unbelievable, just so gifted as a run blocker.”
Best overall lineman: “Roberto Garza. He was just unbelievably smart, tough. He was a leader. It doesn’t get a lot better than Garz as far as overall linemen.”
QB you learned the most from: “I learned a little bit from everybody. It was really helpful when I connected with Kurt [Warner] in Arizona and Jon Kitna in Detroit. Jon was immensely helpful for me. Every one of them I took kind of a different part of their game. It was fun to watch them do what they were good at. Kurt’s ability to process the whole field was awesome. Kit just from a leadership and locker-room standpoint and the ability to lead a locker room and rally guys was just outstanding. Jake Delhomme was kind of the same way. Jake was the master of the two-minute drill. I was always really impressed with him and learned a ton from him.”
Best QB at reading a defense: “Kurt. Just his ability to see the feel and process was so impressive. He was sharp.”
Strongest arm: “Jay Cutler. He could hammer it, man. Both he and JaMarcus Russell. But Jay could really, really throw it.”
Most accurate: “It’s a close one between Kitna and Kurt Warner.”
Young QB you wished you could have helped more: “I was only in Oakland for a year, but JaMarcus [Russell]. He could really throw the ball and the path his career took. You wish you could have connected with him more just to help him out. I look back at that and wish I had more time with him.”
Funniest teammate: “I’m going to go with the tandem of Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross from Carolina. The two of them together, their sense of humor, they were definitely funniest guys.”
Best overall athlete: “It’s easy to say a skilled guy. Anquan Boldin was an unbelievable athlete, but one of the most impressive to me was [defensive tackle] Shaun Rogers. Big Baby, as we called him. We were playing hoops one time and we steal the ball and flip it up to him and he takes two dribbles and then goes 360 [degrees] and dunked it. I was like, ‘Holy cow. This guy is 330 pounds.’ ”
Best cornerback faced: “Obviously, I think for the longest time people respected and feared [Darrelle] Revis. He was so good. The other one is Champ Bailey. Both of those guys were difference makers for sure, and special players. I think those were the two guys and I’ve always had a ton of respect for Aqib Talib.”
Best rusher faced: “Early in my career it was Jevon Kearse. He was unbelievable. Julius Peppers, I’ve been on both sides of it — with him and against him. You always had to know where he was because he could disrupt a game. DeMarcus Ware, too.”
Best middle linebacker faced: “Brian Urlacher, he was the best. Like in practice, to watch him work was unbelievable and to see him call out plays and process dissect an offense.”
Best safety faced: “Ed Reed. Guys ask me, ‘What was it like to play against Ed?’ I say, ‘You don’t want to know. Let’s not even talk about that.’ Ed was so special. He’s the best safety because of his ball skills and he could read what you were doing. With Ed, you’d read what they were in and he could pick that ball off over there because he’d go on a hunch.”
Toughest defensive coordinator to face: “The guy that comes to mind that always had his guys playing hard and I always respected is Dean Pees, who was in Baltimore all those years. It is always a dogfight when you play him. I think Mike Zimmer as a defensive coordinator and now as a head coach has long been excellent at game planning and attacking what you do.”
Best game-planner you played for: “I really flourished and appreciated Marc Trestman’s approach and Aaron Kromer when I was with those guys in Chicago. I went into a game as prepared as ever with those guys.”
Best play caller: “I got the chance to work with Mike Martz in Detroit. I didn’t play but watching him kind of make his magic was impressive. Mike had an unbelievable sense and fearlessness to him.”
Best motivator: “My first few years Dave McGinnis was just outstanding at just talking to the team and getting guys going every day. Coach Mac was really special.”
Best overall head coach: “Shoot, man, it’s a close one. I have so much respect for Lovie Smith. I enjoyed playing for him. Both he and Marc Trestman in Chicago and John Fox in Carolina as well. John was awesome.”

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