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The five quarterbacks drafted in the first round last April learned on the job in their first season in the NFL. While all showed flashes, the rookies also all finished in the bottom third of the league when ranked by Total QBR.

Here’s a look at the bottom 10 quarterbacks in the NFL (minus the Washington Redskins’ Alex Smith) and how they can improve next season.

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Mayfield on leadership role: Instill ‘chip on your shoulder’ mentalityBrowns QB Baker Mayfield breaks down what his offseason will look like and his expectations for 2019. Mayfield says his role as a leader has evolved into instilling a “chip on your shoulder” mentality on his team.
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Total QBR: 53.6
Experience: One season

2019 salary: $1,965,590 in salary and roster bonus

Biggest issue in 2018: This question is relative, and the ranking is a bit misleading. QBR takes into account an entire season, and Mayfield had two distinct experiences for the Browns — first with Todd Haley as offensive coordinator and then with Freddie Kitchens in that role. Under Haley in Weeks 1-8, Mayfield had a QBR of 35.8, which ranked 31st of 33 qualifiers. From Week 9 on, though, Mayfield’s QBR was 70.1, which ranked seventh. For Mayfield, the biggest issue didn’t seem to be his play or ability, but the approach and plays called. Placed in a system that eliminated seven-step drops and long routes and gave him the chance to get rid of the ball quickly and play fast, Mayfield responded like the first overall pick in the draft is expected to respond.

How he can improve in 2019: Grow. Pure and simple. Continue to build off what he did with Kitchens, who is now the Browns’ head coach, and to grow as a player and person. It’s what’s expected of any dedicated player going into his second season. Mayfield also can improve on some of the factors that went into his final QBR. First were his turnovers. He threw 14 interceptions and lost three fumbles; those 17 turnovers were tied for the third most in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In addition, his completion percentage (for the season) was 24th (63.8 percent), and he was not in the top 10 in some of the positive ratings categories (touchdowns per attempt, yards per attempt and others), per ESPN Stats & Info. QBR also takes into account how well a quarterback performs at key points in games; it might be interesting to know what Mayfield’s QBR would have been had he completed that final drive against Baltimore.

He said it: “He has a lot more football left in him. He is still a rookie. There are still a lot of nuances of the National Football League. He threw three interceptions [in the finale in Baltimore]. He can still work on those little things and understanding of certain things. He also broke an NFL record [for touchdown passes by a rookie] as well, so you applaud him for that. You would hope that he can grow exponentially, and by Year 3, he is what we all thought he would be.” — Browns general manager John Dorsey

Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills, 52.2
Experience: One season

2019 salary: $4,814,326

Biggest issue in 2018: Allen’s 56.2 percent completion rate at Wyoming was scrutinized during the pre-draft process but foretold his 52.8 rate as a rookie in the NFL, raising questions about his accuracy. Among quarterbacks with as many pass attempts (320) as Allen in a season, it was the worst completion rate in the NFL since Blaine Gabbert’s 50.9 percent in 2011. The Bills defended Allen’s college stat by pointing to his lack of a supporting cast and the difficulty of his throws. Both arguments could apply to his first professional season. An undrafted rookie, Robert Foster, led the team with 436 receiving yards on passes thrown by Allen, while 4.1 percent of Allen’s passes (10th-most in the NFL) were dropped by his receivers. Only three quarterbacks over the past 10 seasons — Tim Tebow in 2011, Drew Stanton in 2014 and Jameis Winston in 2018 — averaged more air yards per pass than Allen (10.54) in his first season. Some of the accuracy issues still can be pinned on Allen; a league-high 23.7 percent of his attempts (excluding throwaways and spikes) were off target, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

How he can improve in 2019: Allen had a knack as a rookie for making hard throws look easy and easy throws look hard. He completed a league-low 64.6 percent of his throws that traveled five air yards or less and was off target on a league-high 14.2 percent of those passes, per ESPN Stats & Information. The relative inability for Allen to execute a short, rhythmic passing game put stress on the offense, as did Allen holding the ball longer than any other qualifying NFL quarterback. He averaged 3.22 seconds before his passes, which was second only to Tebow’s 3.35-second average in 2011 in the past 10 seasons. Allen too often looked for the home run as a passer and will need to take coaching that makes him more comfortable and capable of hitting singles and doubles. Expected improvements to the offensive line and skill positions could help, but Allen will need to take steps forward himself.

He said it: “He’s not arrived by any means. There’s going to be things when he steps out next year that somebody else is going to get him on. But I know who he is, and he is not complacent or anything like that. This guy is competitive, this guy wants to get better, wants to be the best at his craft, and I know he’s got a really good plan. He has a really good plan for the offseason to come back here bigger, stronger, faster, and mentally even stronger.” — Bills GM Brandon Beane

Eli Manning, New York Giants, 51.6
Experience: 15 seasons

2019 salary: $17 million

Biggest issue in 2018: Manning simply didn’t make enough plays. He accounted for 22 touchdowns and 15 turnovers. Only two quarterbacks (Case Keenum and Derek Carr) started 16 games and threw for fewer touchdowns. With Manning, everything needs to be perfect for success at this point of his career. The combination of his offensive line struggling in the first half of the season with his immobility was crippling. Manning was sacked 31 times in the first eight games and threw one touchdown pass under pressure during a 1-7 start. He produced a first down on 13 percent of his dropbacks under pressure in the first half of the season. The NFL average during that span was 19 percent.

How he can improve in 2019: If Manning returns for another season — the Giants haven’t publicly committed to that yet — the hope is he can build off the second half of 2018, when he was a passenger rather than the conductor. New York relied more heavily on Saquon Barkley and the running game and asked Manning to do less. It slowed down the pressure and resulted in Manning throwing 13 of his 21 TD passes. He had a passer rating of 87.8 over the final eight games compared with 53.1 in the first eight games. Manning’s physical skills aren’t going to improve at 38 years old, but his efficiency can if the Giants ask him to do less.

He said it: “If you think about it, the guy was running for his life last year [2017]. This year [2018], we calmed it down. Once we got rolling, once everybody got comfortable with the offense, if you’re going to look at stats, it wasn’t too shabby what [Eli] did.” — Giants GM Dave Gettleman

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Carr has issues with Kellerman questioning his desireRaiders QB Derek Carr explains his frustrations with Max Kellerman’s comments criticizing him.
Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders, 49.0
Experience: Five seasons

2019 salary: $20 million

Biggest issue in 2018: Choose one: a leaky offensive line that saw Carr sacked a career-high 51 times (he took 36 sacks combined in 2016 and 2017); no speedy playmakers at receiver (the inconsistent Amari Cooper was traded Oct. 22); a steep learning curve in Jon Gruden’s back-to-the-future offense (dink, dunk, bomb?). It truly was a baptism by fire for Carr, who entered the season with many people simply wondering how he would react to Gruden’s oft fire-and-brimstone coaching approach. Having a pair of rookie tackles in first-rounder Kolton Miller protecting his blind side and third-rounder Brandon Parker also had to test the confidence of Carr, who has suffered a broken right (passing) finger, a fractured right fibula and three broken bones in his back since Dec. 24, 2016. He admitted to “taking inventory” after big hits, although the quarterback did improve in the second half of the season.

How he can improve in 2019: A more buttoned-up O-line, a speedy No. 1 receiver and a threat at running back to open up the play-action game would do wonders. Though perhaps simply a second season with Gruden will produce a bounty. Consider: The only other time Carr played in the same system for a second consecutive year, in 2016, he played at a league MVP level. Then there’s this — after throwing seven touchdowns and eight interceptions in the Raiders’ first six games, Carr had 12 TDs and two INTs after the bye, the TD-INT ratio of 6.0 the fourth best in the NFL in Weeks 8-17. He also had a streak of 332 passes without a pick, the third-longest streak in NFL history. Sure, Carr might have the third-most losses by a QB in his first five NFL seasons (his 46 career defeats are seven behind his brother David and three behind Blake Bortles), but there are some positive things to build upon.

He said it: “When you look at 32 teams in this league, and there aren’t 32 starting quarterbacks, yet we have one of them. He’s a starting quarterback in the NFL. He can make every throw … Derek Carr, at this point, is kind of the least of our problems.” — Raiders GM Mike Mayock

Sam Darnold, New York Jets, 48.4
Experience: One season

2019 salary: $1,854,895

Biggest issue in 2018: Interceptions. Darnold was picked off 15 times, an average of once every 27 attempts. Every rookie throws interceptions, but it was somewhat alarming in Darnold’s case because it was a continuation of his final season at USC, when he had 13. Mostly, he sabotaged himself with poor decisions, based on misreading coverages, but there were two or three instances in which he was victimized by a poorly designed play. The Jets, who changed their offensive hierarchy with the hiring of coach Adam Gase, are hoping that no longer will be an issue.

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How he can improve in 2019: He already started. Darnold led the league in Total QBR over the final four weeks (80.9), thanks to no interceptions in the last three games. The key to his turnaround? Instead of forcing a pass under duress, he used his athleticism to get outside the pocket, keeping it himself or throwing on the run. To keep the arrow pointed up in 2019, Darnold must have a better understanding of risk vs. reward. He was the fifth-most aggressive passer last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which bases its ranking on the percentage of tight-window throws. You’d rather have an aggressive quarterback than a Captain Checkdown, but there must be a happy medium. When Darnold finds it, he could be special.

He said it: “He has a quick release, movement skills and pocket presence. I like his fire. You see it the way he plays. Just when you talk to him, you can see there’s a love for football there.” — Jets coach Adam Gase

Case Keenum, Denver Broncos, 46.9
Experience: Eight seasons

2019 salary: $18 million

Biggest issue in 2018: Last season was the first time Keenum entered as the unquestioned starter for his team. Keenum seemed uncomfortable at times with the weight of the job in a quarterback-mad region used to winning a lot. He isn’t the first to suffer that fate with a team whose current GM — John Elway — also happens to be the franchise’s greatest player. But the Broncos’ injuries on the offensive line — three starters ended the season on injured reserve — and an ill-fitting offense that too often tried to protect him in three-wide receiver sets didn’t help, either. In the end, Keenum’s footwork and fundamentals eroded as the season wore on, and he consistently looked unsettled as he finished tied for the second-most interceptions in the league with 15, including 10 in the first eight games.

How he can improve in 2019: With the acquisition of Joe Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens, Keenum might be trying to make fixes on another team. But Keenum is at his best in an offense that has a play-action element. Although his history as a college player at Houston was filled with shotgun snaps in open formations, that’s not when he has been best as a pro. Too often last season, Keenum tried to escape pressure in the shotgun by retreating rather than climbing in the pocket or by simply getting rid the ball. He often gave up too much ground with no room for recovery.

He said it: “I’m excited to work with Case. We were not in the market for a quarterback in San Francisco last year. But he was a free agent, and I did my due diligence on him. He really played outstanding in Minnesota. He was a big part of helping them get to where they got to that NFC Championship Game. He’s gritty, he’s a winner, he’s competitive. You can see that on the film. I think in our system — and I think you can see that based with Kyle [Shanahan]‘s history, that’s what I believe as well — in San Francisco, where I was directly coaching those guys, each guy is a little unique, and you have to adapt to them. I see traits that we can help Case be the best that he can be.” — Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello

Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars, 45.8
Experience: Five seasons

2019 salary: $14 million

Biggest issue in 2018: Inconsistency. He was pretty darn good the first month of the 2018 season: 64.7 percent completions, 1,095 yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions. Then his season deteriorated. He threw for a career-high 430 yards but also committed a career-high five turnovers (four interceptions) in a loss at Kansas City and was benched early in the second half two weeks later after he lost a pair of fumbles. He started the following week before getting benched again Nov. 26 after he was terrible in a loss at Buffalo. Bortles started the regular-season finale but managed only 107 yards and an interception.

How he can improve in 2019: He’ll be getting a fresh start elsewhere, because the Jaguars are expected to release him before the 2019 league year begins, even though that’ll cost them $16.5 million in dead money. Bortles’ mechanics have always been loose, and he has struggled with turnovers throughout his career: He leads all QBs in interceptions (75) and all players in turnovers (94) from the time he entered the league (third overall pick in 2014). He needs to be in a situation where he’s got playmakers around him and a coach with a touch for QBs (such as Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay).

He said it: “When things don’t go well, a lot of it falls on the quarterback’s shoulders. I know that and signed up for that. I have no problem with it. Whether it’s the scapegoat or whatever you want to call it. Somebody has to take the blame when things don’t go well. I think [former offensive coordinator] Nathaniel [Hackett] was one of those guys, I think I’m one of those guys. There’s other guys on this team that were part of that as well.” — Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles

Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens, 45.1
Experience: One season

2019 salary: $910,529

Biggest issue in 2018: Accuracy and consistency. In seven regular-season starts, Jackson completed more than 60 percent of his passes only twice and produced over 200 yards passing once. He was much more comfortable making plays with his legs than his arm. It wasn’t that Jackson showed impatience in the pocket. He was just more likely to break a long run than hit a receiver deep. There were times when John Brown was wide open downfield and Jackson didn’t come close to hitting him. His biggest problem was driving the ball to the sideline. His 47.8 completion rate outside the numbers was the worst among quarterbacks in 2018.

How he can improve in 2019: Work — a lot of it. What no one can doubt is Jackson’s commitment to becoming a complete quarterback; he’s been described by coaches and teammates as a “gym rat.” Jackson is expected to meet with his wide receivers this offseason for private throwing sessions, which should help his rapport with them. Before he took over for the injured Joe Flacco around midseason, Jackson received few reps with the starters and didn’t throw much to Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. In order to work on his fundamentals, he often spent a half-hour after practices working with quarterbacks coach James Urban. This offseason, Jackson will get a majority of the snaps, which many see as the crucial piece of his development. The Ravens also will look to upgrade at wide receiver. But that should come in the draft (perhaps as early as the first round) because it will be difficult to persuade free-agent wide receivers to play in Baltimore until Jackson proves he has taken the next step.

He said it: “Throughout the course of the offseason, he’s going to throw the ball a lot. He’s going to have his receivers and throw the ball to them, he already told me that, and all those other things. He should come back, I expect him to come back a better quarterback, skill-wise, than he was when he left. He’s determined to do that.” — Ravens coach John Harbaugh

Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins, 35.4
Experience: Seven seasons

2019 salary: $18,725,000

Biggest issue in 2018: Tannehill’s biggest career issue has been an inability to stay healthy, and that popped up again when he missed five games because of a right shoulder capsule injury. His biggest issue in 2018 was that he lacked the pocket presence, mobility and consistent accuracy needed to lead Miami to playoff contention. It might be a function of injuries, but Tannehill held the Dolphins’ offense back at times and often collapsed when the talent level started to dissipate. By the end of the season, opposing defenses forced Tannehill into third downs, and he consistently failed to convert.

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How he can improve in 2019: Tannehill needs a fresh start in a place other than Miami, and it seems the Dolphins are prepared to move on. After seven years of being Miami’s uncontested starting quarterback, Tannehill needs legit competition to press him. Tannehill can use this offseason to get healthy and work on his feel within the pocket. Tannehill’s low QBR shows, at this point in his career, he should be a complement to the offense rather than the focal point. But Tannehill has been and still is a starting-caliber QB who will have an opportunity to bounce back with better health, pass protection and weapons in 2019.

He said it: “We’ve just been so all over the place. One game we’ll do well on offense and then we’ll just be nonexistent one game. That’s where it can help at the quarterback position. You make an off-schedule play or you do something where it just sparks the rest of the group. Sometimes we have that and sometimes we don’t.” — former Dolphins and current Jets coach Adam Gase

Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals, 25.9
Experience: One season

2019 salary: $1,849,898

Biggest issue in 2018: Inconsistency. Rosen would start games slowly, throwing passes too high and out of reach, and then calm down by the fourth quarter and look like the first-rounder the Cardinals need him to be. But it was always too little, too late. If he can start playing well earlier in games, he can prove he was worth the 10th overall pick and that he’s better than the worst QBR in the NFL.

How he can improve in 2019: He needs to be smarter. Throughout last season, Rosen repeatedly said he was trying to make the “hero” throw. He simply can’t do that in the NFL. If he can cut down his mistakes, especially early in games, he’ll keep Arizona in those games longer — which could lead to more wins. But with any rookie, time and experience is needed to improve. Rosen played as a rookie, whether that was a benefit or a hindrance, giving him the opportunity to see what kinds of defenses NFL teams run. He needs to take that experience, study the tape and learn how to combat the various looks and disguises all while being safer with the ball.

He said it: “Josh Rosen is incredibly talented, one of the most talented throwers you’ll see. A young player, obviously, that I’m excited to work with and develop. But as a pure thrower, it’s hard to find a guy that throws it better.” — Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury

ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon, Bills reporter Mike Rodak, Giants reporter Jordan Raanan, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold, Jets reporter Rich Cimini, Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco, Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley, Dolphins reporter Cameron Wolfe and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss contributed.

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MOBILE, Ala. — The San Francisco 49ers are parting with one of the first free-agent signings of the Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch era.

The Niners confirmed Wednesday that they have informed defensive tackle Earl Mitchell they won’t be exercising his option for the 2019 season. The 49ers made the move now in part to give Mitchell a head start on looking for a new team before free agency begins in March.

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“Earl has been a fantastic asset to this entire organization,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “… It’s an opportunity for other guys to try to step up and it will not be easy to try to replace him, for sure.”

Mitchell was scheduled to count $4.45 million against the salary cap had he been on the roster next season. The 49ers are open to bringing Mitchell back at a lesser price should the opportunity arise.

In the meantime, the Niners move forward with multiple in-house options to replace Mitchell. Third-year nose tackle D.J. Jones is the best bet to step in for Mitchell. Mitchell was a healthy scratch for the last two games of the season, with Jones starting in his stead over the final four contests.

Jones, who joined the Niners as a sixth-round pick out of Ole Miss, had 17 tackles on the season with 13 coming in those last four games. But Jones isn’t the only option, as the Niners also toyed with different looks that included end Arik Armstead playing the nose tackle spot in nickel packages. Armstead’s play there could pave the way for more of that look in 2019.

“I thought [Jones] did a good job,” Saleh said. “Obviously, he still needs to get better. There’s still going to be a lot of competition for him. I thought Arik Armstead stepped in at the nose in nickel and showed some things that created versatility for that entire room, so his competition is not just at nose, it’s can he be one of the best 10 defensive linemen? And that goes for everyone.”

The Niners signed Mitchell on Feb. 28, 2017, less than a month after officially hiring Shanahan as head coach and Lynch as general manager. Miami had released Mitchell in a scenario similar to the one that played out with the Niners, as a means to give him an early bite at free agency.

In two seasons in San Francisco, Mitchell had 61 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery and three batted passes.

Mitchell, 31, could be one of multiple high-priced veterans the Niners part ways with before free agency. Receiver Pierre Garcon and linebacker Malcolm Smith, both of whom have had injury-plagued tenures since signing as free agents in 2017, are scheduled to count $8.275 million and $5.45 million, respectively, against the salary cap in 2019.

Shanahan said Tuesday he has already had some open discussions with veterans like Garcon and while nothing has been made official, he’s expecting those decisions to be made in the near future.

“We’ve got to see what our roster is like, how the salary cap plays out through free agency and everything, and we’re not there yet with our whole plan,” Shanahan said. “There’s a lot of things that are fluid and we’re working through those things.

“I think we’ll have it resolved sooner than later.”

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Two hours before kickoff, Joe Namath talked about then and now. Surrounded by more than two dozen former teammates at the 50th reunion of the New York Jets’ 1968 Super Bowl championship team, Broadway Joe was both wistful and hopeful about the franchise’s half-century Super Bowl drought.

“You know, 50 years is enough time — 51, 52, they should be getting it done in the next few years,” Namath said.

Joe Namath spoke at halftime Sunday during a Super Bowl III 50th Anniversary celebration. “… they should be getting it done in the next few years,” Namath said of the Jets’ prospects of returning to the Super Bowl. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Days like Sunday make it seem possible. When Sam Darnold plays like he did in the Jets’ 42-34 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at MetLife Stadium, it fuels hope that this quarterback-cursed franchise finally has the right guy.

In an entertaining shootout with Andrew Luck, the Jets’ rookie played his most efficient game as a pro, completing 24-of-30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Darnold has made significant strides over the past two games and, not surprisingly, the Jets (3-3) won both times, their first winning streak since Weeks 3-4-5 last season. They host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday with a chance to go over .500 for the first time in a calendar year.

“He played a heckuva game for the most part,” coach Todd Bowles said of his 21-year-old quarterback.

Darnold is growing up before our eyes. Facing the Colts’ Cover-2 scheme, he showed patience and smarts, taking the underneath throws instead of forcing the ball downfield. Last week it was all about the home-run plays against the Denver Broncos’ man-to-man coverage; this time, it was dink, dunk and clutch throws on third down. He played this game with his mind as much as his right arm. At one point, the Jets scored on eight consecutive possessions, including six field goals by Jason Myers, who finished with seven — a franchise record and one shy of the NFL record.

Afterward, Darnold was totally chill, to use one of his expressions. He has mastered the poker face, looking the same after a win as he does after a loss. It’s a rare and admirable trait for an NFL neophyte.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable, and it’s showing,” wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said.

The Jets’ Sam Darnold completed 24-of-30 for 280 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports
The Jets’ first-round pick began the day in an accuracy slump — three straight games with under a 50-percent completion rate. The last Jets quarterback to go four in a row was Geno Smith in 2013, and Darnold certainly didn’t want that dubious comparison. To his credit, he managed the game well, making only one mistake — a first-quarter interception.

By the end of the day, Darnold was the first Jets quarterback since Chad Pennington (2007) to finish with an 80-percent completion rate on at least 30 attempts.

The coaching staff showed its faith in Darnold at the end of the first half, when it gave him the green light for a hurry-up drive. Ahead by seven points, with 45 seconds and two timeouts left, it would’ve been safer to milk the clock and not get greedy. But, no. Darnold completed four passes for 58 yards and spiked the ball with three seconds left, all his timeouts gone.

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The crowd actually applauded the clock play, realizing the young quarterback had just executed a flawless drive to set up a field goal.

“One of the best-executed two-minute drills I’ve ever been a part of in a while,” tackle Kelvin Beachum said.

Darnold received a lot of help, especially from receivers Kearse (nine catches for 94 yards) and Terrelle Pryor (7-yard touchdown catch), who replaced the injured Quincy Enunwa. Rookie tight end Chris Herndon contributed with a 32-yard touchdown, his first NFL score. The defense got shredded by Luck, but managed four takeaways, including a pick-6 by cornerback Morris Claiborne to start the game. The Jets converted the takeaways into 20 points.

It was a team effort, exactly what Namath talked about before the game. Asked about Darnold, the Hall of Famer said, “Yeah, I like him, but it takes up front, outside, two sides of the ball. It’s a team game. Sam will be good. You just need all the pieces to fit, though. You’ve got to have a complete team.”

They’re not there yet, but the Jets could be that team in the future, as long as Darnold continues to be Broadway Sam.

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky isn’t going to mess with success.

And his Bears teammates won’t let him, either.

Trubisky confirmed on Wednesday that — for the second straight game — he intends to wear a compression sleeve on his right throwing arm when the Bears (3-1) face the Miami Dolphins (3-2) on Sunday.

The last time Trubisky wore the sleeve, the second-year quarterback threw a career-best six touchdown passes in Chicago’s 48-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 30.

Trubisky explained the origin of the arm sleeve before Wednesday’s practice.

“I had a little cut on my arm a few weeks ago, and then it reopened in Arizona [in Week 3] on the first drive and was just gushing everywhere,” Trubisky said. “And I didn’t want that to happen [against the Bucs], and I covered it up. And then you play pretty well, some superstition, call it what you want. I also got a lot of threats that I have to wear it, so …”

Trubisky completed 19 of 26 passes for 354 yards and zero interceptions against the Bucs. Trubisky’ s six touchdown passes are tied for the second most in a single game by a Bears quarterback in franchise history.

“I’m going to keep it on,” Trubisky added. “We’ll see what the color is. But it feels comfortable, gives me a little more swag or whatever. Just go out there and do your thing with the arm sleeve. So we’ll see.”

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Vic Fangio’s swarming Chicago defense sacked Russell Wilson six times and forced a pair of fourth-quarter turnovers to seal the Bears’ 24-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. Here’s what we learned on Monday Night Football:

1. Sebastian Janikowski’s 56-yard field goal as the clock expired in the second quarter is the lone blemish on Fangio’s first-half defense through two weeks. In addition to the six takedowns, the Khalil Mack-led Bears (1-1) sent waves of pass rushers to hit a frenetic Wilson seven more times. Taking advantage of Mitch Trubisky’s mistake-prone offense, however, Wilson kept Seattle (0-2) in contention early in the fourth quarter, unfurling a beautiful rainbow to Tyler Lockett in the back of the end zone to trim the lead to seven. Chicago’s veteran defenders took over from there, with linebacker Danny Trevathan following cornerback Prince Amukamara pick-six with a strip sack of Wilson to effectively stifle the comeback bid.

2. Mack and the Rams’ Aaron Donald, the last two NFL Defensive Players of the Year, are putting a lie to the notion that the preseason is a necessary evil to knock off the rust of a long offseason. After dominating the season opener last week, Mack was once again a force to be reckoned with, wreaking havoc up front and creating opportunities for Trevathan, Akiem Hicks and Aaron Lynch to make big plays. Mack keyed Chicago’s shutdown run defense and stripped Wilson from behind for a second-quarter fumble that forced a punt. Already a promising unit before Mack’s arrival, the Bears are making a strong argument to join the Jaguars, Vikings and Rams as the league’s most imposing defenses.

3. With star linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright sidelined by injuries, All-Pro safety Earl Thomas was the lone defensive starter remaining from Seattle’s two Super Bowl squads under Pete Carroll. The rebuilding, injured-riddled Seahawks were simply outmanned by a much more talented opponent on this night. Throw in slot receiver Doug Baldwin’s absence, and it’s fair to question whether Carroll’s roster is currently one of the NFL’s five shallowest. If the dispiriting performances continue, perhaps the front office will reconsider its stance on trading impending free agent Thomas at next month’s deadline. After the game, Carroll said Wagner, Wright, Tre Flowers and D.J. Fluker could be back next week, but he wasn’t sure if Baldwin would return.

4. Wilson is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in football over the past half-decade, yet the Seahawks have gone 31 consecutive games without scoring a touchdown on the opening drive. For comparison’s sake, the Bears have managed to pull off the feat in each of Matt Nagy’s first two games as head coach. Scripting “openers” — as Hall of Fame coaches Bill Walsh and Paul Brown labeled their 1970s invention — is a fine art of offensive football. Nagy appears to have a knack for it, guiding second-year quarterback Trubisky to 11 of 12 completions for 154 yards and scores via the air and the ground on picture-perfect drives of 86 and 96 yards to open games this season.

Descending from the Andy Reid-Doug Pederson coaching tree, Nagy’s aggressiveness on fourth downs is also a marked departure from the archconservative philosophy of previous Bears headsetter John Fox.

5. New Seahawks play-caller Brian Schottenheimer, on the other hand, is overseeing a toothless offensive attack that looks eerily similar to the 2017 version that got Darrell Bevell fired. Facing a string of desperate third-and-long wasteland situations, Seattle’s first 21 plays generated a paltry 42 yards. Although Wilson has been sacked more times (12) than any quarterback this season, the blame goes beyond the perennially beleaguered offensive line. Schottenheimer abandoned the running game for more than 20 minutes on the game clock, the receivers haven’t been gaining separation and Wilson is constantly running into or away from pressure to compensate for an inner clock that no longer tells the correct time in the pocket. With a deficiency in surrounding talent over the past two years, Wilson’s margin for error has vanished. For the majority of the evening, Seattle’s best offense appeared to be waiting for Trubisky to make a game-changing mistake.

6. While Trubisky has excelled in executing Nagy’s plan of attack early in games, he remains a work in progress as a developmental quarterback. Much like Carolina’s Cam Newton and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, the second-year signal-caller has a tendency for sloppy footwork that affects his accuracy and consistency, particularly on intermediate and deep throws. His decision-making has also left a lot to be desired, leaving the door open for the opponent’s fourth-quarter comeback attempt in each of the first two games. Nagy deserves credit for the bubble screens, fly sweeps and read-option looks borrowed from college ball — as NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks noted — but Trubisky appears lost when dropping back on more conventional NFL pass plays.

7. Days after Carroll acknowledged that Chris Carson “really took the lead” in Seattle’s backfield, the promising power back took a backseat to rookie Rashad Penny throughout the second half. Much to the dismay of frustrated fantasy footballers, Carroll explained after the game that Carson was “gassed” after doing double time on special teams duty.

8. As if booming rookie Michael Dickson wasn’t already a punting sensation, the former Aussie leaguer turned back the clock to the 1930s with a nifty dropkick to pin the Bears inside their own 15-yard line on a late fourth-quarter kickoff. Through two weeks, he might be generating as much excitement as any player in Seattle.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Kirk Cousins must enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with what he has gotten himself into.

It’s the kind of feeling experienced by Philippe Petit, the man who scaled a tight rope between the two World Trade Centers in 1974. Cousins, too, thrives off an experiment so mighty, only few would dare attempt to try.

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But this challenge? It’s almost unheard of. Joining a team coming off a 13-3 season that views the player tasked to fill the quarterback position as the missing link between this franchise and a Vince Lombardi Trophy derives an unfathomable amount of pressure.

It’s an all-or-nothing pursuit. What Cousins does in Minnesota will either set him up for his next earth-shattering contract or be deemed among the biggest mistakes in NFL history. There is no in between.

So let’s cut to the chase and ask the question we’re all wondering: Why would he do this to himself?!

“Well, I think you want to go somewhere with expectations, right?” Cousins said on ESPN’s NFL Countdown. “I mean, we’re here to win and I was looking around and ultimately people kept me asking me what is going to drive your decision and it was all about winning. You know, where can we win football games? And Minnesota, I feel, was one of the, if not the best place to go to do that.”

The past five months since putting pen to paper on a three-year, $84 million fully-guaranteed contract in March have been the prologue in the book on his career with the Vikings. Chapter one begins on Sunday.

Cousins starts the next phase of his career against the team that at one time looked like his subsequent destination after six seasons in Washington. A team whose head coach felt like there was no other answer for the San Francisco 49ers than his former quarterback.

Kyle Shanahan lamented that it took three weeks to get over the fact that Cousins was never coming to the 49ers once they traded for and signed Jimmy Garappolo on Halloween. Perhaps no one understands just how high the stakes are for Cousins than the man who was part of getting him to this place.

Kirk Cousins says he picked the Vikings because he was “all about winning.” Kyle Emery/Icon Sportswire
“Playing quarterback in this league isn’t just about how talented you are and how good you are, it’s how you can respond to all this pressure that really not many people can relate to except probably an NFL quarterback can,” Shanahan said on The Adam Schefter Podcast in April.

Eventually, all the questions repeatedly posed to Cousins since Day 1 will start to find their answers. From Week 1 onward, he’ll be judged against what he has done in the past and whether he can replicate his success (and then some) with his new team. Whether he was worth the mega bucks Minnesota paid to get him will be determined not only by what Cousins does on the field, but by any amount of success achieved elsewhere by the three quarterbacks he replaced.

The pressure that amounts from being responsible with leading the Vikings to the promise land is unavoidable. Perhaps the only silver lining in this unyielding situation he put himself in is the way he views the big picture as no different than at any other point in his career.

“I don’t go out on third down and think about the pressure,” Cousins said. “I’m thinking about coverage, blitzes, setting the protection the right way, making my reads, my footwork. So it just doesn’t really end up affecting the actual operation of the job. Is there pressure to play in this league? Yes, there always has been. I felt a great deal of pressure as a rookie, just fighting to make the team and to wonder if I was even going to have a career here as a professional.

“So there’s pressure for every guy that’s out there; it’s a very competitive league — small margin for error. And you’ve got to recognize the pressure for what it is and then put it on the shelf and go to work and not let it get in your way, and it really — there’s enough for me to think about and enough for me to be doing, that I don’t really need to be thinking about all that goes with that on the outside.”

Cousins has repeatedly deferred to the nature of the team game and not being able to win it all himself. That’s more than just a way to insulate himself from the mountain of expectations he willingly accepted. It buys him time on this not-so-overnight journey. Whether Minnesota wins a Super Bowl doesn’t have to happen in the first year of Cousins’ contract, but the pressure to do so will only mount over time.

The expectations for the Vikings’ season start and end with Kirk Cousins. A team whose championship prospects rest on the shoulders of the man paid to see them through will have its story told through the questions that will begin to find their answers on Sunday.

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RICHMOND, Va. — As the pass reached its destination, Washington Redskins secondary coach Torrian Gray anticipated cornerback Josh Norman would make a play. Instead, he didn’t get high off the ground, leaving Gray a little puzzled.

A day or two later, Norman looked more spry. He raced over from his side of the field toward the middle and jumped high. With an extended reach, he intercepted a pass.

The difference could be owed to one thing: an 18-pound vest that Norman often wears underneath his pads during practice. Gray didn’t even know about it until he was asked about it — and Norman was reluctant to discuss it. Why give away his secrets, after all?

He started using it in the spring and kept it on during almost every practice in training camp. And he’s not really sure why he started doing it in the first place.

“It was one of my sarcastically bright ideas,” Norman said of wearing the vest.

“Everyone is different,” said former teammate Orlando Scandrick, who added that former Dallas teammate Terence Newman used to wear a weighted vest.

But Norman also said he’s worked even harder this offseason. He said the training work he put in for “Dancing With the Stars” this spring was more intense than anything he’d done on the football field. He trained in the mountains; he ran sandy hills.

“I pushed my body further than I thought it could go,” Norman said.

And then the vest.

Josh Norman shows the 18-pound vest he is wearing in training camp. John Keim/ESPN
“You put on a vest and see,” he said when asked how much he notices it during practice. “It restricts you in a lot of areas, obviously gravity. It restricts you in your ability to get in and out of breaks faster. Everything you do is mental; be disciplined in your mind and you can go through anything.”

Norman said there have been some practices in which he didn’t use the vest, and he intercepted a pass in one of them. But it’s not as if he had looked bad in other practices before then.

However, there were times when Gray wondered about a play that wasn’t made, such as the time in a one-on-one drill when Norman had good position on receiver Josh Doctson, but the wideout was able to reach high for the ball and make the catch.

“It was a play for sure I thought he would make, and he didn’t get off the ground as I thought he would,” Gray said. “Maybe that vest had something to do with holding him down.”

Gray also said Norman’s practices Saturday and Sunday were two of his best in terms of his technique and fundamentals. He also noticed something else.

“I’d seen him come out of a couple breaks and was like, ‘Whoa, that was pretty good.’ He looked quick in some instances,” Gray said.

For Norman, it’s about being able to accept defeat in training-camp practices to make sure he’s more prepared in games. That’s not always easy when practicing in front of fans, knowing that videos of you getting beaten will be seen by thousands on social media.

“I know if I’m defeated on this play by an inch or 6 inches, OK, let’s take off [the vest] and see how it really gets down,” Norman said. “Every day I’m doing this so when the season comes, I can be a top corner and then I can peak toward the end of the year, not now. What for? It’s training camp. It’s to get your body broken down to levels you can actually withstand it.

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“It’s a grueling test. So you get roasted? So what? Who gives a … I really don’t. I do what I’ve got to do to get my body right before the game actually comes. So it’s me just being disciplined and understanding there are levels to your training and you can go further than you think you can.”

Norman, who turns 31 in December, is entering his third season with Washington. The Redskins made him the NFL’s highest-paid corner at the time and he still counts more money against the cap than any other corner. He played well overall last season, though he didn’t come up with the game-changing plays the Redskins also needed.

That’s why the ball he intercepted in 7-on-7 Saturday pleased Gray. In the 2017 season opener against the Eagles, Norman was unable to come down with a ball in which he tried to make a similar, high-reaching grab.

“He just didn’t seem to come down with them the rest of the year,” Gray said. “The opportunities will come if you’re in the right vicinity and doing the right things or have the right type of pressure. You’ve just got to finish them. … His last two practices have been as good as I’ve seen since I’ve been here, from a technique, fundamental standpoint and the things you always try to preach. He just is really honed in.”

As in his first two camps with Washington, Norman is almost always the last player to reach the locker room. He stays on the field for extra work after practice, often with some of the younger defensive backs. Afterward, he signs autographs for fans. He often doesn’t reach the facility after practice for an hour. That was the case last Sunday, a day when the heat index reached the upper 90s. It was also a day when he wore the vest.

“My offseason was the hardest I’ve had since I’ve been in the league, from dancing, to the mountains and running sand hills,” Norman said. “That was hell. But you go through all that and something’s gotta come from it. I truly believe this year it really will. I’m gonna have a breakthrough one way or another.”

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has drawn comparisons to Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher since he entered the NFL in 2012.

Now 2015 first-round pick Shaq Thompson is being compared to another of Chicago’s all-time greats.

Coach Ron Rivera called the outside linebacker’s one-handed interception of a Cam Newton pass in the end zone to end Tuesday’s practice the best play he has seen in practice since Pro Bowler Wilber Marshall picked off a pass from quarterback Jim McMahon during Chicago’s 1985 run to the Super Bowl.

“It was a heck of a play down in the red zone,” Rivera recalled. “Wilber went up and made a great one-handed catch, too, and took off running. Shaq’s got that kind of ability, and that’s what’s exciting to see when a young man starts putting things together.”

Next thing you know Rivera will call the Carolina defense the “Monsters of the Midway II.”

Or at least the “Monsters of the Queen City.”
Coach Ron Rivera says Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson has traits similar to Wilber Marshall, the 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Chuck Burton/AP Photo
If anybody has a right to make that comparison, Rivera does. He played with Marshall for four seasons (1984-87) in Chicago and was Urlacher’s defensive coordinator with the Bears from 2004 to ’06.

He knows what it’s like to be around great defensive playmakers, and Thompson is starting to show that potential entering his fourth season out of the University of Washington.

Rivera said Thompson displays other traits of Marshall, the 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as well. He believes it’s time the rest of the world sees that, especially with three-time Pro Bowl selection Thomas Davis out for the first four games because he’s serving a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

All signs — at least for Thompson — point toward a great 2018 season.

Everywhere he looked, from license plates to billboards, on the 90-minute drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Wofford College for training camp, Thompson saw his No. 54.

“My whole mindset is this is the year of 54,” Thompson said.

Thompson began to emerge as a star last season. He started a career-best 14 games and had a career-best 57 tackles, which might not sound like a lot until you consider Kuechly had a team-best 125 and Davis 76 from the linebacker spot.

Thompson is light-years ahead of where he was as a rookie making the transition from college safety to hybrid linebacker.

“My first few years I would say I was like a blind mouse,” Thompson said. “I was just going. But I had great leaders like [safety] Roman Harper who told me to just go out and play.

“As I learned this defense by asking questions from TD and Luke, I started picking it up more and understanding the game more and how teams like to attack our defense.”

Tuesday’s interception was an example of how his knowledge of the playbook has paid off for Thompson. “[It] has helped me play a lot faster,” Thompson said.

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Here is how Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson saw his one-handed interception ofHere is how Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson saw his one-handed interception of a Cam Newton pass in the end zone to end practice – and how backup QB Garrett Gilbert ”chased him down.” Video by David Newton
Thompson didn’t finish the interception fast. As he jogged the final 30 yards to the end zone, backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert came running from the opposite side of the field to simulate making a touchdown-saving tackle.

“I wouldn’t say he chased me down,” Thompson said with a laugh. “Gilbert did a great situational play, chasing the defender down to make sure we didn’t score.”

Nobody likely would have chased down Thompson had that been a live play, as will be the case in Thursday’s preseason opener at Buffalo (7 p.m. ET). His 40-yard dash time of 4.64 seconds at the 2015 NFL combine was among the best for linebackers.

Questions about where he would play kept Thompson from going higher than No. 25 in the draft. Some teams had him pegged as a safety and others as a hybrid linebacker.

Thompson also played running back in college, and he was lobbying Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner for a few carries on Twitter before training camp.
“I’ve been talking to Norv about it,” Thompson said. “He said just wait.”

Rivera will be satisfied if he sees more Marshall-like traits from Thompson.

Marshall’s stats after his first three seasons were far superior to Thompson’s. He had 31 starts, 202 tackles, nine interceptions and 11.5 sacks.

Thompson has five more starts, but only 159 tackles, one interception and three sacks.

But with more playing time in Carolina’s two-linebacker set while Davis is suspended, and possibly after that to keep Davis fresh, Thompson should put up his best numbers as a pro and make more spectacular plays like he did on Tuesday.

“Still continuing to learn this game,” Thompson said. “I’m trying to get up there with Luke and TD … still, performancewise. Just like Luke reading the plays, I’m still trying to get there.”

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The NFL season is officially two months away, so it seems like a good time to start predicting what to expect in 2018.

ESPN’s NFL Nation is answering a series of questions this week, breaking down the league division by division.

Friday’s question:

Who will win the division?

AFC East: The Patriots are the obvious pick here. They have won nine straight AFC East titles and are the clear favorite to make it 10 in a row. That would make it 16 division crowns in Bill Belichick’s 19 years as coach (2000, 2002, 2008 are the exceptions), which highlights the stranglehold they’ve had on the division. Read more.
Carson Wentz was an MVP favorite before his season was cut short late in 2017. Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
NFC East: Our reporters are picking the Eagles to be the first team to win the NFC East in back-to-back seasons since Philadelphia posted four straight first-place finishes from 2001-04. There are a number of players coming back from major injury, most notably quarterback Carson Wentz, but the roster is deep enough and the culture strong enough to push through the adversity that awaits. One more team from the division — maybe the Cowboys — is favored as a wild card. Read more.

AFC North: The Steelers are the unquestioned favorite for the AFC North title after winning the last two. They return essentially the same team that has won 11 of 12 division games in 2016 and 2017. Don’t count out at least one other team sneaking into the playoffs if the Bengals or Ravens take a step forward this year. Read more.

NFC North: The Vikings, with new quarterback Kirk Cousins, get the nod to win the division over the Packers despite the return on Aaron Rodgers. At this point, though, the Vikings look like the more complete team thanks to a strong defense, an improving offense and stability off the field in the coaching and personnel departments. Read more.

AFC South: Three of our four division reporters are picking the Jaguars to win the division. The Jaguars had one of the best defenses in the NFL, and 12 of the top 14 players from that unit return in 2018. At least one other team in the AFC South has a chance of being a wild card, most likely the Texans or Titans. Read more.

NFC South: This is the strongest division in the NFC — maybe the NFL — with New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina all legitimate Super Bowl contenders. All three received votes to win the division and with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton as their respective quarterbacks, all three could make the playoffs. Read more.

AFC West: The Chargers are the pick to win the division. They have a potential Hall of Fame QB in Philip Rivers, who only seems to be getting better with age, the top-ranked passing game in the NFL, an upgraded offensive line with center Mike Pouncey and the division’s best one-two pass-rushing punch, Joey Bosa (23.0 combined sacks the past two seasons) and Melvin Ingram (18.5 combined sacks). Read more.

NFC West: The Cardinals will play for a first-year coach and uncertainty looms around the quarterback situation. The Seahawks are in rebuild mode after missing the playoffs. The Niners still have question marks on defense. So that leaves the Rams to repeat atop the NFC West. They return 10 of 11 starters on offense and bulked up their defense, acquiring Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. Read more.

Thursday’s question:

Who will be the division’s MVP?

AFC East: The pick here is pretty obvious according to our writers — Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The reigning NFL MVP looked sharp at the Patriots’ three-day June mandatory minicamp, although one thing bears watching: How his decision to skip voluntary workouts this year — a change in routine — affects his ability to develop a rapport with some of the team’s new pass-catchers. Read more.
Dec 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws the ball during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports
NFC East: Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz split the votes. Elliott played in 10 games in 2017 because of a suspension and finished 17 yards shy of 1,000 yards. He has rushed for at least 80 yards in 23 of his 25 career games. Wentz was on his way to league MVP last season before tearing his ACL and LCL in December against the Rams. It takes some quarterbacks a full season to return to full form following ACL surgery. But Wentz is extremely motivated to reclaim his place as a top-tier QB. Read more.

AFC North: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown split the votes here. Roethlisberger is the catalyst for one of the most explosive offenses in the league, finishing second in the NFL last season with 283 yards passing per game. Brown also will be a favorite for postseason accolades after accumulating 1,533 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season despite playing in only 14 regular-season games. Read more.

NFC North: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the pick here. Forget division MVP. Don’t be surprised if Rodgers wins the NFL MVP for a third time. Rodgers is coming off the broken collarbone that ruined his — and the Packers’ — 2017 season. But the last time Rodgers broke his collarbone, he came back the next season (2014) to win the NFL MVP for the second time and led the Packers to the NFC Championship Game. Read more.

AFC South: Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson got a pair of votes from the division writers. We won’t really know how well Watson can recover from his torn ACL until he’s back in live game action, but he’s confident that his game won’t change. Before his November injury, Watson was setting rookie passing and touchdown records seemingly every week, and when his season ended, he was tied for the NFL lead with 19 passing touchdowns. Read more.

NFC South: Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones gets two of four votes. When healthy, Jones is arguably the most dominant receiving threat in the league. Get Jones more touchdowns (only three last season and nine over the past two) to go along with what should be a fifth straight season of more than 1,400 yards receiving, and it’ll be hard to deny him the MVP. Read more.

AFC West: Two of four votes go to quarterback Philip Rivers, whose Chargers are favored to win the division. Rivers passed for 4,515 yards, the fourth most of his 14-year career, and had 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, his fewest picks since 2009. Read more.

NFC West: Rams running back Todd Gurley gets the majority of the votes here. The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year will once again work behind a veteran offensive line that helped him rush for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Gurley also developed into a proven weapon in the passing game, with 64 receptions for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Read more.

Wednesday’s question:

Who is on the hottest seat in the division?

AFC East: Two quarterbacks — Ryan Tannehill and Josh McCown — might be feeling the pressure. Tannehill, who has missed the past 19 games because of knee injuries, received a vote of confidence when the Dolphins passed on drafting a quarterback but he has to take his game to a higher level. McCown, the incumbent Jets starter, faces competition from No. 3 overall draft pick Sam Darnold and free-agent signing Teddy Bridgewater. Read more.

NFC East: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett gets the nod here but splits votes with a quarterback and team president. Garrett is entering his eighth season, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been remarkably patient. Garrett has been able to respond to this type of pressure season before. In 2014, he was in the final year of his deal and the Cowboys finished 12-4 and made it to the second round of the playoffs after three consecutive 8-8 finishes. Read more.

AFC North: The votes are split between an “elite” quarterback and a losing coach. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is five seasons removed from being named Super Bowl MVP and has failed to live up to a big-money contract. Browns coach Hue Jackson’s seat is on fire after winning only one game in his first two seasons. Read more.
Pressure is on Joe Flacco with first-round pick Lamar Jackson sitting in the wings in Baltimore. Patrick Smith/Getty Images
NFC North: Packers coach Mike McCarthy gets half the votes. For the first time in his 13 seasons as head coach, McCarthy’s boss isn’t Ted Thompson, the person who hired him in 2006. Thompson was pushed aside and replaced by new GM Brian Gutekunst. But McCarthy doesn’t report to the GM anymore. Instead, it’s team president Mark Murphy who makes the call on the coach. Read more.

AFC South: Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles gets a pair of votes here. Yes, he signed a three-year, $54 million contract extension. But after next season just $10 million of the remaining deal is guaranteed. The Jaguars are the defending AFC South champion. The biggest threat to their crown, outside of the other teams in the division, is the play of Bortles. Read more.

NFC South: Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht are mentioned prominently. This is a fairly obvious choice in a division where Tampa Bay was the only team to miss the playoffs last season. The Bucs won’t be very patient with Koetter, whose team grossly underperformed last season after showing so much promise and barely missing the playoffs in 2016. If Tampa Bay doesn’t make the playoffs — again — look for a change. Read more.

AFC West: Broncos coach Vance Joseph gets two of four votes after a rough start in Denver. The Broncos finished a dismal 5-11, a cumbersome slog through the season that included an eight-game losing streak and three starting quarterbacks. With pressure mounting for the Broncos to take advantage of an aging roster with a Super Bowl pedigree, Joseph could be one of the first coaches fired in 2018 if head personnel man John Elway does not see the results he wants. Read more.

NFC West: Cardinals QB Sam Bradford needs to stay healthy and even then his job status is tenuous at best. It’s just a matter of time before No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen becomes Arizona’s starter. That’s why the Cardinals traded up to get him. Read more.

Tuesday’s question:

Who is the rising star in the division?

AFC East: The votes in the division are split between players that make their living in the defensive backfield. Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard and Jets safety Jamal Adams all finished 2017 on a high note and will be looking to continue that trend this fall. Read more.

NFC East: Eagles DE Derek Barnett was nearly a unanimous pick here. The Eagles’ defensive line was stacked last season, yet Barnett carved out a significant role as a rookie. He played 41 percent of the snaps for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and rewarded his DC by posting five sacks and coming up with a number of clutch plays. Read more.

AFC North: The pick here is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who should outshine all AFC North risers in year two. He earned Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver job thanks to a 917-yard, seven-touchdown rookie performance, and with that elevated role should come at least 100 targets in 2018. Smith-Schuster will have every chance to notch his first 1,000-yard season despite a mysterious offseason knee injury. Read more.
Dalvin Cook rushed for 354 yards in four games as a rookie last season before suffering an ACL injury. AP Photo/Stephen Brashear
NFC North: Vikings running back Dalvin Cook took two of four votes. He offered a glimpse as a rookie before tearing his ACL four weeks into the season. Cook opened with a 127-yard game and in less than four full games had rushed for 354 yards (averaging 4.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Read more.

AFC South: Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson showed a flash of what could be during six starts as a rookie. He was tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns (19) before he tore his right ACL during practice; he also threw for 1,699 yards with eight interceptions. Watson, who threw in seven-on-seven offseason drills, is expected to be ready for training camp. Read more.

NFC South: The Saints have a few rising stars including running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas. Kamara was the steal of the draft a year ago when New Orleans got him in the third round. He arguably performed better overall than any of the backs in a strong draft class, topping 700 yards rushing and 800 yards receiving. In the regular season and postseasons combined last year, Thomas had receptions on 20.1 percent of his routes run, more than any other receiver in the league. Read more.

AFC West: The Chiefs have cornered the market on young talent in the division. Will it be beginning of Patrick Mahomes’ reign or will the second-year quarterback ride behind running back Kareem Hunt? Hunt had an impressive rookie season, leading the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards and adding 11 total touchdowns. Mahomes takes over for the traded Alex Smith. Read more.

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the pick here. Garoppolo took over a 1-10 team last season and delivered five victories in five starts. The Niners then signed him to a five-year deal worth up to $137.5 million and added pieces to bolster the offense around him. While Garoppolo still has some proving to do, there are also reasons to believe he’s going to be better in 2018. Read more.

Monday’s question:

Who is best newcomer in the division?

AFC East: The votes are split between two rookies — Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and Dolphins cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick — and an old pro. Dolphins running back Frank Gore, 35, is the NFL’s oldest running back and ranks fifth all time in career rushing yards. Whether he plays a major role in a backfield that also includes Kenyan Drake and 2018 fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage remains to be seen, but Gore has posted 12 consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Read more.

NFC East: New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley and Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith will both make a big impact. But Barkley was the No. 2 pick for a reason. And running back is a position where rookies can make an immediate impact. Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette each topped 1,000 yards rushing last season. Ezekiel Elliott had 1,994 total yards and 16 touchdowns as a rookie. Barkley is going to make an immediate impact with the Giants, maybe even more as a receiver than runner. Read more.
Saquon Barkley could do more damage in the passing game than he does running the ball. Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY SPORTS
AFC North: The votes are split four ways in this division. Two Browns players — receiver Jarvis Landry and quarterback Tyrod Taylor — were in the mix. The Browns gave Landry a five-year, $75.5 million contract extension after trading with the Dolphins for him in March. Taylor has been a reliable player who does not turn the ball over and a breath of professionalism since he joined the Browns, winning over teammates and coaches alike with his competitiveness and work ethic. Read more.

NFC North: The answer here, though not unanimous, was the biggest free-agent fish of the offseason. Quarterback Kirk Cousins joins the Minnesota Vikings, who signed him to win a Super Bowl. The Vikings were close last season, advancing to the NFC Championship Game before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards for three straight seasons and has been over 64 percent passing during that span. He’s also thrown at least 25 touchdown passes each year since 2015. Read more.

AFC South: Safety Tyrann Mathieu is the pick here. The Texans signed the former All-Pro safety, who’s coming off the healthiest of his first five NFL seasons. The Texans will start Mathieu at safety and allow him to focus on the position — something he has said he didn’t really have the chance to do in Arizona. He also gives them versatility, because he’s capable of roving to play multiple positions such as cornerback or nickel linebacker if needed. Read more.

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NFC South: The votes are split four ways in this division. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe is among the picks, as he moves from the Falcons to the Panthers. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers acquired for a third-round pick from the New York Giants, is also intriguing. Read more.

AFC West: The Denver Broncos had their first losing season since 2010 in 2017. The failure came largely at the quarterback position, where they started Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch last season. They looked to stabilize the position by acquiring Case Keenum, who led the Vikings to the NFC title game last season, in free agency. They hope Keenum can build on a career year where he had highs in passing yards (3,547), passing touchdowns (22) and completion percentage (67.6). Read more.

NFC West: The Los Angeles Rams, already a very good defensive unit, added three top-tier players, any one of whom could have been named the best newcomer. The choice went to a guy up front who could wreak havoc alongside Aaron Donald. Read more.

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The NFL season is officially two months away, so it seems like a good time to start predicting what to expect in 2018.

ESPN’s NFL Nation will answer a series of questions this week, breaking down the league division by division.

Wednesday’s question:

Who is on the hottest seat in the division?

AFC East: Two quarterbacks — Ryan Tannehill and Josh McCown — might be feeling the pressure. Tannehill, who has missed the past 19 games because of knee injuries, received a vote of confidence when the Dolphins passed on drafting a quarterback but he has to take his game to a higher level. McCown, the incumbent Jets starter, faces competition from No. 3 overall draft pick Sam Darnold and free-agent signing Teddy Bridgewater. Read more.

NFC East: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett gets the nod here but splits votes with a quarterback and team president. Garrett is entering his eighth season, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been remarkably patient. Garrett has been able to respond to this type of pressure season before. In 2014, he was in the final year of his deal and the Cowboys finished 12-4 and made it to the second round of the playoffs after three consecutive 8-8 finishes. Read more.

AFC North: The votes are split between an “elite” quarterback and a losing coach. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is five seasons removed from being named Super Bowl MVP and has failed to live up to a big-money contract. Browns coach Hue Jackson’s seat is on fire after winning only one game in his first two seasons. Read more.
Pressure is on Joe Flacco with first-round pick Lamar Jackson sitting in the wings in Baltimore. Patrick Smith/Getty Images
NFC North: Packers coach Mike McCarthy gets half the votes. For the first time in his 13 seasons as head coach, McCarthy’s boss isn’t Ted Thompson, the person who hired him in 2006. Thompson was pushed aside and replaced by new GM Brian Gutekunst. But McCarthy doesn’t report to the GM anymore. Instead, it’s team president Mark Murphy who makes the call on the coach. Read more.

AFC South: Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles gets a pair of votes here. Yes, he signed a three-year, $54 million contract extension. But after next season just $10 million of the remaining deal is guaranteed. The Jaguars are the defending AFC South champion. The biggest threat to their crown, outside of the other teams in the division, is the play of Bortles. Read more.

NFC South: Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht are mentioned prominently. This is a fairly obvious choice in a division where Tampa Bay was the only team to miss the playoffs last season. The Bucs won’t be very patient with Koetter, whose team grossly underperformed last season after showing so much promise and barely missing the playoffs in 2016. If Tampa Bay doesn’t make the playoffs — again — look for a change. Read more.

AFC West: Broncos coach Vance Joseph gets two of four votes after a rough start in Denver. The Broncos finished a dismal 5-11, a cumbersome slog through the season that included an eight-game losing streak and three starting quarterbacks. With pressure mounting for the Broncos to take advantage of an aging roster with a Super Bowl pedigree, Joseph could be one of the first coaches fired in 2018 if head personnel man John Elway does not see the results he wants. Read more.

NFC West: Cardinals QB Sam Bradford needs to stay healthy and even then his job status is tenuous at best. It’s just a matter of time before No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen becomes Arizona’s starter. That’s why the Cardinals traded up to get him. Read more.

Tuesday’s question:

Who is the rising star in the division?

AFC East: The votes in the division are split between players that make their living in the defensive backfield. Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard and Jets safety Jamal Adams all finished 2017 on a high note and will be looking to continue that trend this fall. Read more.

NFC East: Eagles DE Derek Barnett was nearly a unanimous pick here. The Eagles’ defensive line was stacked last season, yet Barnett carved out a significant role as a rookie. He played 41 percent of the snaps for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and rewarded his DC by posting five sacks and coming up with a number of clutch plays. Read more.

AFC North: The pick here is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who should outshine all AFC North risers in year two. He earned Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver job thanks to a 917-yard, seven-touchdown rookie performance, and with that elevated role should come at least 100 targets in 2018. Smith-Schuster will have every chance to notch his first 1,000-yard season despite a mysterious offseason knee injury. Read more.
Dalvin Cook rushed for 354 yards in four games as a rookie last season before suffering an ACL injury. AP Photo/Stephen Brashear
NFC North: Vikings running back Dalvin Cook took two of four votes. He offered a glimpse as a rookie before tearing his ACL four weeks into the season. Cook opened with a 127-yard game and in less than four full games had rushed for 354 yards (averaging 4.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Read more.

AFC South: Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson showed a flash of what could be during six starts as a rookie. He was tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns (19) before he tore his right ACL during practice; he also threw for 1,699 yards with eight interceptions. Watson, who threw in seven-on-seven offseason drills, is expected to be ready for training camp. Read more.

NFC South: The Saints have a few rising stars including running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas. Kamara was the steal of the draft a year ago when New Orleans got him in the third round. He arguably performed better overall than any of the backs in a strong draft class, topping 700 yards rushing and 800 yards receiving. In the regular season and postseasons combined last year, Thomas had receptions on 20.1 percent of his routes run, more than any other receiver in the league. Read more.

AFC West: The Chiefs have cornered the market on young talent in the division. Will it be beginning of Patrick Mahomes’ reign or will the second-year quarterback ride behind running back Kareem Hunt? Hunt had an impressive rookie season, leading the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards and adding 11 total touchdowns. Mahomes takes over for the traded Alex Smith. Read more.

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the pick here. Garoppolo took over a 1-10 team last season and delivered five victories in five starts. The Niners then signed him to a five-year deal worth up to $137.5 million and added pieces to bolster the offense around him. While Garoppolo still has some proving to do, there are also reasons to believe he’s going to be better in 2018. Read more.

Monday’s question:

Who is best newcomer in the division?

AFC East: The votes are split between two rookies — Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and Dolphins cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick — and an old pro. Dolphins running back Frank Gore, 35, is the NFL’s oldest running back and ranks fifth all time in career rushing yards. Whether he plays a major role in a backfield that also includes Kenyan Drake and 2018 fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage remains to be seen, but Gore has posted 12 consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Read more.

NFC East: New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley and Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith will both make a big impact. But Barkley was the No. 2 pick for a reason. And running back is a position where rookies can make an immediate impact. Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette each topped 1,000 yards rushing last season. Ezekiel Elliott had 1,994 total yards and 16 touchdowns as a rookie. Barkley is going to make an immediate impact with the Giants, maybe even more as a receiver than runner. Read more.
Saquon Barkley could do more damage in the passing game than he does running the ball. Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY SPORTS
AFC North: The votes are split four ways in this division. Two Browns players — receiver Jarvis Landry and quarterback Tyrod Taylor — were in the mix. The Browns gave Landry a five-year, $75.5 million contract extension after trading with the Dolphins for him in March. Taylor has been a reliable player who does not turn the ball over and a breath of professionalism since he joined the Browns, winning over teammates and coaches alike with his competitiveness and work ethic. Read more.

NFC North: The answer here, though not unanimous, was the biggest free-agent fish of the offseason. Quarterback Kirk Cousins joins the Minnesota Vikings, who signed him to win a Super Bowl. The Vikings were close last season, advancing to the NFC Championship Game before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards for three straight seasons and has been over 64 percent passing during that span. He’s also thrown at least 25 touchdown passes each year since 2015. Read more.

AFC South: Safety Tyrann Mathieu is the pick here. The Texans signed the former All-Pro safety, who’s coming off the healthiest of his first five NFL seasons. The Texans will start Mathieu at safety and allow him to focus on the position — something he has said he didn’t really have the chance to do in Arizona. He also gives them versatility, because he’s capable of roving to play multiple positions such as cornerback or nickel linebacker if needed. Read more.

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NFC South: The votes are split four ways in this division. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe is among the picks, as he moves from the Falcons to the Panthers. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers acquired for a third-round pick from the New York Giants, is also intriguing. Read more.

AFC West: The Denver Broncos had their first losing season since 2010 in 2017. The failure came largely at the quarterback position, where they started Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch last season. They looked to stabilize the position by acquiring Case Keenum, who led the Vikings to the NFC title game last season, in free agency. They hope Keenum can build on a career year where he had highs in passing yards (3,547), passing touchdowns (22) and completion percentage (67.6). Read more.

NFC West: The Los Angeles Rams, already a very good defensive unit, added three top-tier players, any one of whom could have been named the best newcomer. The choice went to a guy up front who could wreak havoc alongside Aaron Donald. Read more.


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