Trade a Bell? How the Le’Veon Drama Can (and Should) End

In case you have not heard, Le’Veon Bell has not played an NFL snap this season.

Oh, who am I kidding? If you are a Steelers fan, follow an NFL-related social media account, or made the mistake of drafting him in fantasy and hoping for the best (guilty as charged), you know the whole story. Considered by many as the top running back in the league, Bell put up strong numbers again in 2017, getting over 400 touches and putting up a combined 1,946 years and 11 touchdowns for the playoff-bound Steelers, getting voted first team All-Pro for the second time in the process.

However, for the second straight year, the Steelers put the franchise tag on Bell, refusing to give him the long-term contract he believed he deserved. While I would easily jump at the opportunity to play ball for $14.5 million, the cash-strapped Steelers, who had given Antonio Brown a four-year, $68 million-dollar extension weeks before, decided to balk at giving the same money to Bell. Obviously taking offense, Bell very publicly bashed the franchise and demanded money worth his play. Pittsburgh did eventually make Bell an offer in July, willing to pony up $70 million over five years, but Bell turned down the offer, not wanting to play for less than his tag on an annual basis.

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Bell has told the Steelers he will return during the team’s week 7 bye. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fairly so, might I add – Bell was well within his rights to turn down such a gargantuan payday, because he might be worth more. At 26, Bell is still in his prime and will continue to perform at very high levels before even being considered an old running back. Not to mention that Bell is far more than his position on the depth chart – he has been the engine that makes the Steeler offense run for the last few years. He caught 85 passes last year for over 650 yards. Bell is rare breed. Very few receivers can keep up with those numbers, and definitely not while shouldering almost 1,300 yards rushing on top of it.

One of the few other players capable of putting up numbers like that is Todd Gurley. He has done it just once, in 2017, and luckily it was a contract year for him. The upstart Los Angeles Rams did pay their man, giving Gurley $15 million a year for his services. When healthy, Bell has put up those kinds of numbers ever since he came into the league – he deserves as much if not more than Gurley. Top flight receivers like Mike Evans and Odell Beckham, Jr., have been getting paid recently, too, getting $16.5 and $19 million a year respectively to go along with Antonio Brown’s aforementioned $17 million. For Le’Veon’s talents, he feels his contract should be in that stratosphere to play football.

However, Pittsburgh refuses to pay it, so they turned to the second-year player, cancer survivor and hometown hero from the University of Pittsburgh in James Conner, to take the reins in the backfield. While his hairstyle might be questionable (like a mop glued to the back of his shaven head), his play has been anything but. Project his numbers through five weeks for the entire season, and Conner, currently averaging over four yards a carry and almost 11 yards per catch, would get over 1,800 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs. Those are the kind of numbers Pittsburgh would be happy to get from Bell, but instead of paying over $15 million for them, they only give Conner $578,000, and they have him under control for another two seasons after this one.

So could Bell play again with the Steelers this season? Maybe. Having both Conner and Bell on the field could give opposing defenses fits in game planning, especially since Bell is capable of lining up out wide and taking screens. The issue is Conner and Bell still play very similar games. Bell might be a bit more explosive, and Conner may pack a bit of a stronger punch at the point of attack, but both have shown that they can be factors in the running and passing games, all the while making defenses adjust and opening holes for Ben Roethlisberger to find the likes of Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster downfield. However, it would be hard to justify paying Bell for the rest of the season when he may not add significant value over just having Conner. Realistically, he should not stay in Pittsburgh.

Likewise, if Bell is going to leave in the offseason when the tag expires and officially become a free agent, the Steelers would be remiss not to get something back for him, and more than the third round compensatory pick Pittsburgh will likely get if he signs elsewhere. The problem about trading Bell this season, however, is the salary cap hit that comes with him. Bell is not officially under contract at the moment, but his franchise tag cap number would be about $10.3 million. There are not a ton of teams that have that much free space right now. The team looking to trade for him would likely need to sign him to a long-term deal to justify the trade as well.

So who can meet Bell’s demands? Here are the teams that could afford him for this season:

Team Salary Cap Remaining Current RBs
San Francisco 49ers $87.6 million Jerick McKinnon*, Matt Breida
Cleveland Browns $54.6 million Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson
Indianapolis Colts $52.5 million Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines
Denver Broncos $34.4 million Royce Freeman, Phillip Lindsay
Tennessee Titans $23.1 million Dion Lewis, Derrick Henry
Houston Texans $20.7 million Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue
New York Jets $19.1 million Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell
Philadelphia Eagles $11.3 million Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement
Cincinnati Bengals $10.7 million Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard
Buffalo Bills $10.6 million LeSean McCoy, Chris Ivory

An interesting crew, to say the least, but unfortunately not too many places make sense. In fact, four of these teams signed new starting running backs this past offseason. The Browns, Titans, and Jets should be pleased with their new additions for now, so consider them out. The 49ers caught a bad break when their new guy, Jerick McKinnon, tore his ACL in the preseason, but Matt Breida has been a suitable replacement, and the 1-4 start would not justify making a brash decision when the division leader is 5-0 right now.

Let’s address the obvious ones, too. There is no way Pittsburgh deals Bell to Cincy. It would be insane to move him within the division. Denver has two rookie running backs it really likes in Freeman and Lindsay. The Bills would be a fascinating place for Bell to land, but that team is way more than just one piece away and likely not interesting in pursuing Bell anyway, especially since they are trying to shop their star running back already.

Philly has been heavily linked with this deal after restructuring Fletcher Cox’s deal to open up more cap room. However, the Eagles are also rumored to be pursuing a reunion with LeSean McCoy. McCoy fits more of what Philadelphia needs, which is a one-year rental that is at least somewhat familiar with the system. The assumption is that at 30 years old, McCoy will cost a lot less for the Eagles to acquire as well.

The Colts and Texans make some interesting suitors. Both live in the AFC South, where the Jaguars and Titans are both tied rather unconvincingly to the division lead at 3-2. At 2-3, the Texans are still very much so in the hunt. However, Deshaun Watson does not look as explosive this season in his return from a knee injury of his own, struggling to keep possession with nine turnovers on the season. Lamar Miller was injured in Week 5 and has been unconvincing in a Texans uniform otherwise. Alfred Blue provided a decent target out of the backfield in his stead, but neither is a kind of bell cow you can hand or dump the ball off to and let the magic happen. $16 million is a large sum to pay when Miller is still on the books through the end of next season, but Bell could add some relief to the Houston offense and open up their playbook a bit.

Andrew Luck
Adding Bell would take a ton of pressure off Andrew Luck. (Wikimedia Commons)

As for Indy, take everything I just said and amplify it. Sure, the Colts are off to a 1-4 start, but they are only two games back with well over half the season to go. The offense may look like its purring, but take deeper look into the stats and you will see there is room for improvement. Andrew Luck is averaging almost 50 pass attempts per game, but has under 1,500 passing yards for the season. His 6.09 yards/attempt ratio is 32nd in the NFL right now, only ahead of the magnanimous crew of Tyrod Taylor, Nick Foles and Sam Bradford, all of whom have since been benched. Meanwhile, not a single Colts running back is averaging more than 35 yards per game. 35!!! Le’Veon Bell could vastly improve the 29th ranked rushing attack in the league, as well as provide a dynamic safety blanket for the oft-pressured Luck. Those two together could single (double?)-handedly carry Indianapolis to the postseason. Maybe them playing defense could help, too, because I doubt it would hurt.

Another interesting tidbit is that the Texans and Colts have the same assets to offer back to Pittsburgh as well. In 2019, both teams are sitting on two second round picks after making moves in last year’s draft. With the Colts getting the Jets’ pick in the Sam Darnold trade, and the Texans shipping Duane Brown to Seattle for their 2nd rounder, the Steelers may be willing to part with their formerly-beloved star in exchange for that pick maybe paired with another player or a lower round pick.

Personally, I think it make a lot of sense for the Colts to go after Bell. They can offer him whatever contract he wants basically with their ample cap space. Their offense is already fairly strong and adding Bell would only make it more threatening. Plus, Bell is an excellent pass blocker, which coupled with his mere presence in the backfield will protect Luck from opposing rushers. Even with two rookie running backs, Indy could add a franchise player for well under his usual trade value. If the Colts think they still have a shot this season, do not be surprised if they make a play for one of the best players in the NFL before the deadline in Week 8.

Until then, I’ll dangle Bell on my own fantasy trading block and hope someone bites.

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The Flaw in Each Heisman Contender

This past weekend in college football was wild. Lots of top 25 teams fell and some Heisman hopefuls suffered major blows.

Just a week ago, I profiled the shallow group that makes up this Heisman race. This time around, I’m back to break down why each of the true contenders won’t win this years award. These are the front runners for the award and while it is still early, we are starting to see the full picture on the candidates. Let’s be clear, all of these players have had phenomenal seasons so far. This is explaining why they still might not win the Heisman.

Oklahoma LogoKyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
Flaw: Offensive System
This might seem a bit unfair to Murray, as it isn’t his fault Lincoln Riley is a great head coach, but Oklahoma also produced Baker Mayfield last year. When you compare the two, Murray is putting up comparable numbers. Mayfield averaged 330 yards passing per game with three touchdowns and a completion percentage of 70.5 in 14 games. Murray is averaging 294 yards with 3.5 touchdowns and a 71.1 completion percentage. Murray produces more with his legs as he accounts for 62.8 yards per game rushing compared to Mayfield’s 22 yards per game during his Heisman season.

Riley is an offensive mastermind and playing in the wide open Big 12, this system is amplified an extra step. It is hard not to wonder if Murray is simply benefiting from the same system that turned Mayfield into a landslide Heisman winner. Voters will be wary of voting in a different player at the same position from the same school as they did the year before. Only once in the history of the award has a school had back-to-back winners. It happened back in 1945-46 when Army produced two different Heisman winners in as many years. These are all things Murray cannot control, but that does not mean they will not come into play when it comes time to vote.

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Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Flaw: Importance to team
When was the last time it felt like a team could still win the national championship without its Heisman candidate? Alabama is dominating everyone who steps on the field with them. The Crimson Tide is outscoring opponent’s by an average margin of 40 points per contest. After years of being known as a defense team, Nick Saban is boasting an offense to match it. At the center of it is Tua Tagovailoa. He is putting up incredible numbers, putting up video-game-like numbers. He has completed 75 percent of his passes, averaging 14.8 yards per attempt and has the highest passer rating in the country at 258.4.

However, he barely has to play when it matters, because it often doesn’t for Alabama. He has attempted more than 20 passes in a game only once. Tagovailoa has not taken a single snap in the fourth quarter of a football game this season. By that point, the Tide has been up by enough that his services are no longer needed. ‘Bama is far and away the best team in the country and Tagovailoa might be the best quarterback in the country, but this team seems like it would easily make it back to the playoff if it was only relying on Jalen Hurts. In limited playing time, Hurts has completed 71 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and only one interception. If the system issue for Kyler Murray was bad, this seems almost worse in Alabama where there is another quarterback performing well in the same season. It is difficult to poke holes in Tagovailoa’s campaign, but equally hard to say he should be the Heisman winner when it feels like the team would be fine without him.

West Virginia logoWill Grier, QB, West Virginia:
Flaw: Gunslinger
Will Grier has had one heck of a year so far. He has thrown for at least 330 yards in every game. He is completing 71 percent of his passes. He is also averaging a ridiculous 4.2 touchdowns passes per game. Grier has proven he can toss it all over the yard. He has West Virginia up to number six in the polls, its highest ranking since 2012. While the level of competition the Mountaineers have faced is certainly a concern, they have yet to play another ranked team and likely won’t until November, the much bigger concern is Grier’s playing style.

Much like Kyler Murray, Grier plays in the wide open Big 12. It serves up opportunities for tons of passing yards and weak secondaries to feast on. Heading into the game, he had only thrown three interceptions. Against Kansas, Grier tossed three more. Throwing three interceptions in a game is not a good thing. Throwing three interceptions against Kansas. The Jayhawks are 2-4 this season, including a loss to Nicholls State, an FCS team. Grier’s now six interceptions rank him tied for sixth most in the country. That is not an awful thing, but when you compare him to the other Heisman candidates, it is a bad look. Haskins has four, Murray has two and Tagovailoa has yet to throw one. Each of those three has played one more game than Grier as well. It begs the question of how Grier will fare when faced with top tier teams like Texas and Oklahoma, both of whom West Virginia will play next month. If Grier turns it over against those teams, not only will it likely cost his team the game, it will certainly cost him the Heisman.

Ohio State LogoDwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
Flaw: Starting slow
If there is anyone in college football who is putting up the kind of number Tua Tagovailoa has, it is Dwayne Haskins. He has completed 71 percent of his passes en route to averaging 320 yards per game through the air. Haskins also leads the nation in touchdown passes through six games with 25. Looking at Ohio State’s schedule, it should relatively smooth sailing for them heading into their final game of the year against Michigan.

In the last two games for the Buckeyes though, the team has started rather sluggishly. Against Penn State, Haskins threw an early interception which lead to a field goal. Ohio State went down 13-0 and it probably would have been that score at halftime if not for a costly fumble from the Nittany Lions. Haskins played very well in the second half to lead Ohio State to a victory. Essentially the same script played out again at home against Indiana. Haskins threw a second quarter interception to kill the drive and set up a Hoosier touchdown, which put Indiana ahead at that point. He played lights out in the second half, but the lack of a complete game is troubling. The Big 10 is a tough conference to compete in and Ohio State has road games with Purdue, Michigan State and Maryland left. None of those poise serious threats, but going down early in games is not sustainable for any team. I guess if Haskins continues to do it, you could label as clutch, but it raises a red flag for me indicating he takes a little while to settle into a game.

Clemson LogoTravis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Flaw: Pass Catching
I said Etienne was getting close after his dominant performance against Syracuse. After thrashing Wake Forrest, Etienne earns himself the title of Heisman contender. He is fourth in the nation with 761 yards rushing, third for his yards per carry average of 9.2 and tied for fourth with 11 rushing touchdowns. His value cannot be overstated for a Clemson team that had its former starter Kelly Bryant transfer and now starts a true freshman under center. Against Wake Forrest, Etienne racked up 167 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 carries. He is an explosive playmaker on a top team in the country.

The one major concern Heisman voters will have with Etienne is he doesn’t fit the bill of a true Heisman back. He is not a powerful runner in the way that Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry, the last two running backs to win, were at Alabama. Much like Tua Tagovailoa, he is not a heavy usage player running the football as he has eclipsed 16 carries just once. We’ve seen plenty of running backs add to their candidacy by featuring as pass catchers out of the backfield on swings, screens and wheel routes downfield. On the season he has just five receptions for 27 yards and one receiving touchdown. It is not a requirement to be a good receiving back to win the award, Henry finished his winning season with just 11 grabs, but with Etienne not putting up nearly the same numbers running the ball as those that came before him, it is going to be difficult to outshine any of these quarterbacks without making an impact in the passing game.

NFL Power Rankings 2018: Week 5

Rams logo

1. Los Angeles Rams: 5-0 (Last Week: 1)
It was the closest game Los Angeles has played all season, but going into Seattle is always tough. The Rams defense showed some major signs of weakness allowing 190 yards on the ground. The injuries to Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp could cause some issues. The road trip continues as Los Angeles heads to Denver.

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2. Kansas City Chiefs: 5-0 (Last Week: 2)
Offense trumped defense in Kansas City on Sunday. It was an ugly game for Patrick Mahomes, but the defense created turnovers to keep it a comfortable win. Don’t be mistaken, the defense is still a major problem, but if the Chiefs can continue that bend don’t break approach successfully, this offense will outscore pretty much anyone.

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3. New England Patriots: 3-2 (Last Week: 4)
This feels awfully familiar. New England got off to a slightly rocky start only to right the ship and reassert its dominance in the division. Sony Michel is emerging as a real threat in the ground game. The Patriots probably would’ve beaten the Colts by a bigger margin if it wasn’t for two interceptions that went right through the hands of the intended receiver. The defense will need to stiffen with Kansas City headed to town.

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4. New Orleans Saints: 4-1 (Last Week: 9)
Drew Brees is now the passer in NFL history. New Orleans also looks like a playoff team. The week 1 loss to the Buccaneers is a distant memory after four straight wins. The defense is improving, especially with the defensive line. The Saints held Washington under 50 yards rushing and sacked Alex Smith three times. This team is looking scary and now Sean Payton will have a week off to study the rest of the league.

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5. Chicago Bears: 3-1 (Last Week: 5)
Chicago has allowed the third fewest yards and points per game. They also had a cupcake schedule to open the season with wins over the Seahawks, Buccaneers and Cardinals. That easy trend continues with the struggling Dolphins in week 6. The back half is not as easy, but the Bears certainly have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs.

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6. Minnesota Vikings: 2-2-1 (Last Week 7)
Ignoring an absolute collapse against Buffalo, this has been a solid Minnesota team. Beating the Eagles in Philly is a big accomplishment. The biggest issue is still running the ball for the Vikings. As long as Dalvin Cook is out, Kirk Cousins will be asked to do a lot. There are few pass-catching duos better than Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Thielen just became the first receiver in NFL history to pick up 100 receiving yards in each of the first five games of the season. This team has a lot to work on, but finds itself in a good place.

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7. Jacksonville Jaguars: 3-2 (Last Week: 3)
There were some signs of concern for Jacksonville against New York last week and it all unraveled for the offense in Kansas City. Blake Bortles threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. With Leonard Fournette out, the Jaguars need Bortles to do more, but it is crucial for him to take care of the football. Even the Jags defense needs some offensive support. Once again the South seems a bit weak.

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8. Carolina Panthers: 3-1 (Last Week: 10)
This could have very easily been a crushing loss if Graham Gano hadn’t hit a 63-yard field goal with seconds remaining. The Carolina defense folded in the fourth quarter against the Giants. It looks like it might be difficult to keep pace with the Saints, but with Atlanta and Tampa Bay floundering, the Panthers seem remain the only threat in the division.

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9. Cincinnati Bengals: 4-1 (Last Week: 11)
If you watched only the first half, or even the first three quarters of Cincinnati’s game, you would have a tough time seeing them as a top-10 NFL team, But after scoring 27 unanswered points to win, the Bengals look the real deal. The offense had some issues getting going, but the defense came up with two touchdowns. Marvin Lewis and company continue to find ways to win, even if it isn’t always pretty. Suddenly, the Bengals are all alone atop a tough-looking AFC North.

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10. Baltimore Ravens: 3-2 (Last Week: 6)
Baltimore took care of business against Pittsburgh, but then completely slumped offensively in Cleveland. The Ravens are struggling to find any sort of consistency on a week-to-week basis. Baltimore is 1-2 against the division now, which could come back to haunt them at season’s end with how the North is shaping up.

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11. Philadelphia Eagles: 2-3 (Last Week: 8)
The Super Bowl hangover continues for the Eagles with a home loss to the Vikings. The bad news continues for Philly as Jay Ajayi is out for the season with a torn ACL. Kirk Cousins had a field day against the defense, which is a major concern considering Minnesota cannot run the football. With a short week going to New York to face a team that would love to add to the misery and desperately needs a win, Doug Pederson has a lot of work to do.

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12. Pittsburgh Steelers: 2-2-1 (Last Week: 16)
Admittedly, I questioned just how good this team was this season last week after a loss to Baltimore. Then Pittsburgh steamrolled Atlanta at home. The Steelers took advantage of a bad team, but that is a credit to the coaching staff coming in with a good game plan. What was most impressive was the defense holding what is usually a potent Falcons offense to just 17 points. Pittsburgh has a road trip to Cincy now with a lot on the line for the fate of the division.

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13. Los Angeles Chargers: 3-2 (Last Week: 19)
Beating the Raiders doesn’t usually lead to a massive jump in the power rankings, but the Chargers dominated their division rival. Philip Rivers had a prolific day passing. The defense held Oakland to just 41 yards running. The only real concern is the ground game for Los Angeles that produced just 2.5 yards per carry. The Chargers now head to Cleveland, which is going to be a tough matchup with a stingy defense. It is the type of game Los Angeles needs to win to validate talk of a playoff run.

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14. Green Bay Packers: 2-2-1 (Last Week: 12)
Detroit shutout the Packers in the first half of this game. That should be a much bigger storyline than the historically bad day from Mason Crosby. Unbelievably poor performance from Green Bay in a divisional game it really needed to win. The Packers head home for what should be a fairly easy matchup with San Francisco. Knowing Aaron Rodgers, this team will bounce back in a big way. This team does not over look opponents.

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15. Atlanta Falcons: 1-4 (Last Week: 13)
This was an awful showing from Atlanta. Dan Quinn has a lot of questions to answer after that performance. Even with all the injuries, the Falcons completely rolled over in Pittsburgh. Chances of a playoff appearance are shrinking quickly. Matt Ryan and company need a win over Tampa Bay to have any shot at staying in the hunt.

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16. Washington: 2-2 (Last Week: 14)
Coming off a bye week, Jay Gruden should have had his team ready for the New Orleans Saints. Yes, it was an emotional game for Drew Brees as he broke league records, but Washington made it pretty easy for him. Brees finished 26 of 29 for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Losing would have been understandable. Getting completely outmatched coming off a bye week is unacceptable.

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17. Tennessee Titans: 3-2 (Last Week: 15)
Will the real Tennessee Titans please stand up? A week after beating the Eagles in a thrilling overtime game, the Titans fall flat against the Bills. It was a defensive slugfest, which is usually a benefit for Tennessee. The fact that Buffalo won only passing for 82 yards is a disappointing reflection on how much this Titans offense is struggling. Even without a ton of weapons, there needs to be done more done offensively.Lions Logo

18. Detroit Lions: 2-3 (Last Week: 25)
The Lions now own victories over Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. They also have losses to the Cowboys, Jets and 49ers. Now that loss to San Francisco was with Jimmy Garoppolo. Detroit gets a week off for Matt Patricia to figure out how to build on the positives and learn from the negatives. Continuing to put the ball in the hands of rookie running back Kerryon Johnson seems like a good place to start.

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19. Cleveland Browns: 2-2-1 (Last Week: 26)
Believe it or not, the Browns are undefeated at home. Wins over the Jets and Ravens along with a tie with the Steelers has Cleveland right in the mix for the AFC North. The AFC North is the only division in the entire league with every team at .500 or better. This defense is tough to score on, except for the Raiders apparently. The NFL is weird sometimes and the Browns tend to be right at the middle of all the weirdness. They are currently the best team to watch in the NFL.

Denver_Broncos

20. Denver Broncos: 2-3 (Last Week: 18)
This was a bit of a head-scratcher. Denver flopped in New York and allowed several huge plays to what has been anemic offense this season. Now, Case Keenum did tear apart the secondary, but the Broncos did not finish drives. Colby Wadman punted eight times, Keenum threw a pick and Denver turned it over on downs. When you have 13 total drives and 10 end without points, that is a major issue. Couple that with allowing 323 yards rushing and this three-game losing streak is suddenly feeling pretty brutal.

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21. Seattle Seahawks: 2-3 (Last Week: 20)
Seattle came agonizingly close to knocking off the top team in the league. A stellar ground game proved to the be the recipe to taking the pressure off Russell Wilson. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to halt the high-flying pass attack from Los Angeles. The Seahawks are still a really hard team to beat at home, picking up some road wins will be the difference for Pete Carroll this year.Buccaneers logo

22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2-2 (Last Week: 22)
How is it that the number two offense in the league is 2-2 with a major question at quarterback? Well for one, it’s Tampa. Two, Ryan Fitzpatrick is involved. The Buccaneers have no running game to speak of and the league’s worst defense. Dirk Koetter should be focused on finding who will be part of this team next season rather than trying to come up with short-term fixes.

Texans logo

23. Houston Texans: 2-3 (Last Week: 27)
Houston suddenly sits just one game out of first place in the AFC South after consecutive overtime victories. It was a solid win as the defense showed up and Deshaun Watson balled out. Watson did get fairly battered, but still got the win. With a stingy Bills defense coming to town, the offensive line will need to do a better job keeping the franchise quarterback clean.

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24. Miami Dolphins: 3-2 (Last Week: 17)
This seems a bit harsh considering Miami has a winning record. However, the Dolphins have lost two straight and don’t have great quality wins. Miami also blew a 14-point fourth quarter league. Ryan Tannehill has looked like one of the worst five starting quarterbacks in the league over the past two weeks. He has completed 56 percent of his passes for 285 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

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25. Dallas Cowboys: 2-3 (Last Week: 21)
The formula for beating the Cowboys is containing Ezekiel Elliott. Easier said than done, but the Texans got it done on Sunday night. Dak Prescott does not have too many weapons around him other than Elliott, but he needs to play better. Dallas did enough defensively to win the game. If Prescott is going to stick around, he needs to win these kinds of games.

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26. New York Jets: 2-3 (Last Week: 28)
This is a raw and young Jets team. This is the type of win shows a lot of the promise this team has to offer. Still warning signs as Sam Darnold only completed 10 passes on the afternoon. New York is not going to run for 323 yards every week, but this style of play is exactly what the Jets need to be successful now.

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27. New York Giants: 1-4 (Last Week: 24)
The offense finally showed up for the Giants. It seems to be how New York’s season is going as it loses on a 63-yard field goal. Pat Schumer is finding creative ways to hide the offensive weakness, but the Giants still haven’t played a complete game this season. Until they do, they will find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreline.

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28. Indianapolis Colts: 1-4 (Last Week: 23)
It seems like there a ton of running backs on the Colts and no one knows how to use them. Indy has no running game and with T.Y. Hilton out, Eric Ebron is truly the only consistent threat the Colts have in the passing game. The defense was opportunistic, but far from good enough to beat the Patriots. Andrew Luck faces a tough Jets defense this week and will need more help from his supporting cast to get a win.

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29. Buffalo Bills: 2-3 (Last Week: 31)
It is amazing how bad Josh Allen can play and Buffalo still finds a way to win. This defense is among the best in the league. The Titans offense is nothing to write home about, but the Bills have had a way of frustrating some of the top offenses in the league. Buffalo has a shot to reach .500 with a win over Houston this week, something that seemed pretty much impossible after the 47-3 drubbing the Bills took week one.

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30. Oakland Raiders: 1-4 (Last Week: 29)
Sunday was just a friendly reminder that this is one of the worst teams in the league. Oakland had no offense to speak of, and did little to stop Philip Rivers throwing the ball. The Raiders have one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Jon Gruden is going to need to retool most of it during the offseason to turn things around next year. That has to be where Oakland is looking is to the future.Arizona_Cardnals_logo_(1994-2004)

31. Arizona Cardinals: 1-4 (Last Week: 32)
Three straight weeks of improved play from Arizona finally nets the team its first win of the season. Granted, it was against the hapless 49ers. If the Cardinals can ever find a way to get the ground attack on track, they could start surprising a few teams. Until then, Josh Rosen is not polished enough to win games for this team.

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32. San Francisco 49ers: 1-4 (Last Week: 30)
It’s time to tank for San Francisco. After catching lightning in a bottle to end last season, the 49ers are missing their franchise quarterback and still a few pieces away from truly competing with the best of the league. Landing a top pick with a quarterback already in place could lead to trading back for a huge return.

The NFL’s New MVP: Backup Quarterbacks

The NFL changes over time. Before Lawrence Taylor, left tackles did not hold the same value as they did after Taylor battered just about every quarterback he faced. General managers adjusted based on what they were seeing. It seems like it is changing again now regrading the league values backup quarterbacks.

It feels like backup quarterback has become an infinitely more valuable position in the last few years in the NFL. With the rate of injury to starting quarterbacks, it is becoming a necessity to have a good backup. They are quickly becoming a valuable commodity across the league.

nick_foles_calling_play_in_2012
Entering the season, Foles was the second-highest paid backup in the league, behind only Teddy Bridgewater. (Wikimedia Commons)

Think about how many backup quarterbacks you can name during Peyton Manning’s career. Go back further to Dan Marino. Or Roger Staubach. Maybe some of the ones for Marino or Staubach have faded with time, but I grew up during the Peyton Manning-era. Off the top of my head, the only name that comes up is Curtis Painter, and that is mostly because the Colts started him for their final two games of the 2009 season. One of those games was against a Jets team starting Mark Sanchez and needing a win to keep postseason hopes alive. I will forever be thankful for Curtis Painter.

I digress. The point is, most of these backup quarterbacks are pretty much unknown. There wasn’t much value in them unless you were grooming a young quarterback and he needed some guidance. Now, teams are trading for backup quarterbacks, or even notably not giving them up.

The best example is Nick Foles. The backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles had to step in after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury late in the 2017 season. No doubt, you know what happened by now as Foles led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory and was named the game’s MVP.

Over the offseason, several teams tried to trade for Foles, seeing as Wentz would come back and take over the starting job as soon as he was healthy. Reportedly, Cleveland offered up its second round pick, the 35th overall selection in the 2018 NFL draft in exchange for Foles. That is exception value to receive for your backup quarterback, who you hope won’t have to play all season. The Eagles declined the offer though. While yes, Philly did need Foles to start the season as Wentz was not cleared for contact by week 1, there were plenty of other free agent quarterbacks that could have stepped to start for those two weeks and the Eagles would have some extra ammo in the draft. It also would have cleared a ton of cap space off the books for Philadelphia. Foles will count for $13.6 million against the cap in 2018. However, the Eagles felt they needed a strong enough backup to have in their back pocket, just in case.

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Teddy Bridgewater (right) has not started a game since 2015, but the Saints traded a third-round pick for him to back up Drew Brees. (Wikimedia Commons)

Philly is far from the only team. Several clubs moved to bolster their backup quarterback situation. The Colts refused to move Jacoby Brissett after he stepped in last season to start for Andrew Luck. Minnesota traded for Trevor Siemian in the offseason, despite breaking the bank to sign Kirk Cousins from Washington. The Seahawks traded a sixth round pick in 2019 for Brett Hundley, formerly a backup in Green Bay. The Packers felt comfortable letting go of Hundley because they already had their backup quarterback of the future in Deshone Kizer. The Packers traded for Kizer after he struggled during his rookie season with the Browns. The Saints joined the fun as well, sending a third round draft pick to New York in exchange for Teddy Bridgewater.  Now Kizer did see some action already due to an Aaron Rodgers injury, but without injury, none of these players would see the field in 2018. Their value exists due to the what if.

This whole trend might actually go back a bit further Nick Foles. It likely originates with Matt Cassel back in 2008. He stepped in after Tom Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury. Cassel, never anywhere as close to as good as Brady, led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. He signed a big 4-year deal with the Chiefs the following offseason and proceeded to look way out of his depth. Even though he flamed out of Kansas City, Cassel has made the roster of five different teams in the past six seasons.

Perhaps the best example of the value teams place in having an experienced backup quarterback is the bearded one himself, Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Harvard grad has toured the NFL as the consummate backup quarterback and spot-starter. Fitzpatrick is not a very good passer. In his career, he has completed just under 60 percent of his passes and thrown 43 more interceptions than he has touchdowns. Usually, that would mean you are out of the league, not playing in your 14th NFL season. Fitz has made a living as a journeyman backup. Spotrac puts his career earning at just over $58 million. The fact that teams still sign him is a testament to the value he still holds in the league.

In a similar boat is Josh McCown. Now a backup on the Jets as the franchise puts its faith in Sam Darnold, McCown has a made a career circling the league as a backup. He has made just shy of $50 million for his efforts despite never starting all 16 games in a single season.

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Bradford has made about $14.4 million on average over his nine NFL seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting study is Sam Bradford. He has never been a great quarterback. In his career he is a 62.5 percent passer who averages about 234 yards per game. His career record as a starter is 34-48-1. Sam Bradford is also the 17th highest paid player in NFL history. Yes, you read that right. Now, that stat is a bit skewed. 15 of the 20 highest paid players in league history are currently playing. Four of the five that have retired did so in the last three years. Brett Favre is the only one in the top 20 to retire more than three years ago.

There are some other qualifiers for Bradford’s status. He is the last player selected first overall to negotiate outside of the rookie wage scale, meaning he signed a six-year, $78 million deal before ever taking an NFL snap. For reference, Cam Newton, who was the first overall pick the following year, signed a four-year, $22 million deal for his rookie contract.

Just this year, Bradford signed a one-year deal with Arizona for $20 million. Bradford has not played a full season of football since 2012. He has never made the playoffs as a starter. Yet, he somehow still manages to command money. The Cardinals also drafted Josh Rosen 10th overall this year, so they have a quarterback of the future. They also have Mike Glennon on the roster. With Rosen taking over the starting job, Bradford is now the most expensive backup in the NFL.

They aren’t the first team to do this either. The Bears did it in 2017 with Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky took over right around the same time as Rosen did. I just mentioned that Glennon is also in Arizona. Experience is key for NFL teams looking to find the solution at quarterback.

Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Matt Schaub, Colt McCoy, Drew Stanton, Robert Griffin III, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler. The list goes on and on of players we know do not have what it takes to be starters in this league. Most of them aren’t even that young anymore and don’t represent future prospects looking for their chance. They all have jobs though due to the fact teams are valuing backup quarterbacks more than ever before.

This isn’t to say there weren’t career backups who made the occasional start for an injured quarterback. Before Nick Foles, there was Jeff Hostetler. Hostetler stepped in for an injured Phil Simms late in the 1990 season and did just enough to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl victory. Hostetler went on to start for a few seasons with the Raiders, even making the Pro Bowl in 1994. He was never a great quarterback.

Hostetler never really returned to his backup role, unlike what so many of these current quarterbacks are doing. There are some great backup quarterbacks in NFL history, but they are few and far between.

Earl Morrall backed up Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese during his career. He played 21 years in the NFL and started fewer than five games per year on average. Steve DeBerg was replaced by Joe Montana, John Elway and Steve Young during his long NFL career. He finished with more interceptions than touchdowns thrown, but lasted 17 seasons in the league.

Most notable backup quarterbacks are few and far between. Perhaps it’s easier to name all of the current backup quarterbacks now because they are still current players. Still, it is hard to dismiss the fact that general managers and fans alike are paying more attention to the depth chart at the quarterback position than ever before.

2018 Heisman Hopefuls are Hard to Find

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Only quarterbacks and Alabama running backs have won the Heisman dating back to 2000. (Wikimedia Commons)

After five weeks of action in the 2018 college football season, the shortlist of contenders for the Heisman Trophy is shrinking. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray are the clear front runners at this stage. All four of them are undefeated quarterbacks playing on Power 5 conference teams ranked in the top 10. At this stage, any of them could win the award, but it seems like there is not much chance anyone else manages to get their name into the running. Let’s break down who else was supposed to be in this race.

The Preseason Hopefuls
There were several other players who were supposed to challenge for the highest individual honor in the college game. Stanford running back Bryce Love and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor headline this group. Love was the runner up for the award last season when Baker Mayfield took it home. Taylor finished sixth in the voting. The pair finished second and third in the nation in rushing respectively behind Seahawks first round selection Rashaad Penny. This season Taylor is fifth in the country for ground yardage, but hasn’t scored in either of his past two games and Wisconsin lost to an unranked BYU squad. Love has missed time with some nagging injuries.

Also in this group is Shea Patterson of Michigan and Kelly Bryant of Clemson. The two quarterbacks had rough starts to the season. For Patterson, he lost his season opener to Notre Dame and failed to throw a touchdown pass. He only has seven through five games this year. On the other hand, Bryant actually lost his starting job to freshman Trevor Lawrence and announced he plans to transfer.

The Sleeper Picks
Every year, there are a bunch of dark horse candidates to win the Heisman. 2018 was no different. The most popular sleeper pick this year had to be Penn State’s Trace McSorley. A true dual-threat quarterback, the senior has thrown for over 1,000 yards and rushed for over 450. Normally, that would put you right in the heart of the conversation. However, McSorley sustained a heavy blow to his candidacy with PSU’s loss to Ohio State at home. On top of that, he has a woeful completion percentage of 52 and had two games where he failed to eclipse 200 yards passing.

Alongside McSorely were Drew Lock and Jarret Stidham, two SEC quarterbacks with first round potential in the upcoming NFL draft. Lock was always going to have a tough road to the award being on an unranked team. He opened the season on fire, but came back down to Earth when Georgia drubbed Missouri. Lock failed to complete 50 percent of his passes against the Bulldogs, threw no touchdowns, one interception and for under 250 yards. For a quarterback who doesn’t run much, that pretty much ended Lock’s campaign. Stidham’s candidacy turned out to be mostly hype. Through five games, the Auburn quarterback has only thrown five touchdowns, lost at home to LSU and topped 200 passing yards twice.

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Mayfield became the first senior to win the award since 2006 and translated it into the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Still Could Join the Party
I have bashed the depth of the hopefuls pretty thoroughly, but it is still early and there a are a handful of players who could make some noise and draw Heisman attention before the season is over.

The first is Justin Herbert. The Oregon quarterback is making a case to be the first quarterback selected in May at the NFL draft. He could also sneak into the Heisman conversation, but it feels like he missed his best chance to assert himself. It will be hard for voters to shake the memory of him throwing four straight incompletions to lose at home to Stanford in overtime. He also has a couple of ugly statistical games on his record where he tossed multiple interceptions and completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes.

There is no way that only quarterbacks finish as finalists either. Travis Etienne of Clemson has a chance to thrust himself into the conversation before the season is out. He is currently seventh in the country in rushing with an outrageous 8.1 yards per carry. The sophomore running back also has eight touchdowns so far. Additionally, Etienne might have just had his Heisman moment as he carried Clemson to a comeback in Death Valley over Syracuse with the team’s third-string quarterback under center. He rushed for 203 yards and three touchdowns to keep the Tigers undefeated. Being the lead back on a team likely to make the playoff and having your starting quarterback transfer, Etienne has everything in place to take a stab at this.

One last one that is a bit of a unique case is Ian Book. The Notre Dame quarterback took over as the starter in the third game of the season. He threw the game-clinching touchdown against Wake Forest and has thrown for 603 yards and six touchdowns over his last two starts. He torched what is a good Stanford defense and has a stellar 74 percent completion rate. On top of all of that, he hasn’t thrown an interception. The Irish sit at sixth in the AP poll and have a chance to make the College Football Playoff. If Book puts up similar numbers and leads Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season, he could be in the mix.

The Longshots
Just because you aren’t at a big school doesn’t mean you can’t make some noise. Now, Kentucky is a big school, but you probably know them for basketball. However, Ben Snell Jr. is having an impressive year running the ball. He is fourth in the nation in both yards and touchdowns. Kentucky is also 5-0 and up to #13 in the AP Poll. He will get a chance to play some great competition as Texas A&M and Georgia are still on the schedule. He could be a late riser.

Even more of a long shot is John Ursua of Hawaii. He really doesn’t belong, but he leads the nation in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He is on pace to finish with 100 catches, 1500 yards and 24 touchdowns. That kind of production usually catches the eyes of Heisman voters, but the best team Hawaii has played all year is Army. Unless Ursua can step it up and start shattering some records along with Hawaii winning out, he won’t really draw much attention.

One last name to throw around is Steven Montez from Colorado. The Buffaloes are 4-0 this season for the first time in 20 years. Montez is completing 75.8 percent of his passes, which leads the nation. Colorado is 21st in the polls and has road games against USC, Washington and Cal. Montez has thrown for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in four games so far. He still has two-thirds of his games left in his season. It will be interesting to see what he can do with it.

The season is far from over, but it seems like the majority of the whittling down for the Heisman Trophy has already occurred. We might get some fireworks by season’s end, but this feels like a four-man race with a lot of people wondering what could have been.