10 NFL rookies primed to break out in Year 2

In 12 starts as a rookie last season, Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky tossed just seven touchdown passes and registered a 29.2 Total QBR, which ranked 29th in the NFL. It was a severely limited offense under former coordinator Dowell Loggains, and Chicago had one of the league’s worst passing offenses.

With new coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich installing a system that will cater more to the modern quarterback and the Bears adding weapons in free agency, however, Trubisky is in a position to take a major step forward in 2018.

Let’s break down why the Bears’ new system and personnel upgrades are a boost for Trubisky while also discussing nine more second-year players who can make the leap in 2018.

With two key power hitters likely out (Mike Zunino is already on the DL and could be joined by Cruz) and the two others being lefties (Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano), this sets up nicely for Blach.

Jack Flaherty (R), 13 percent, St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers: Flaherty is the kind of early-season gamble who can turn into a full-on roster piece in short order. The 22-year-old got a chance when Adam Wainwright had to start on the DL, and Flaherty has the raw stuff to parlay that opportunity into an extended look. In the short term, he’s a strikeout arm (24 percent career strikeout rate in the minors) facing the team that had the highest strikeout rate against righties last year (26 percent); so even if he doesn’t put up a total gem, he should rack up some punchouts.

Wieters was 1-for-7 in two games before he was held out of Sunday’s game against the Reds.

Miguel Montero opened the season as Wieters’ top backup and is expected to see most of the starts until Wieters returns.

That’s one of the advantages of being in a market like ours and having the resources we do, Zaidi said. When you have a team that succeeds on the field, it’s easier to keep that team together. In 2017 and with this team, that’s been a little bit of a theme.

In other words, those Dodgers are pretty much these Dodgers. They didn’t trade for Giancarlo Stanton or re-sign Yu Darvish. Don’t mistake that for a concession. Simply put, the Dodgers are good enough to be boring. According to baseball-reference.com, last year’s Dodgers had 49.5 WAR as a team. Players accounting for 48.4 of that WAR are back. The stars are back but so is the depth. If you’re tired of seeing the Dodgers in the playoffs, 2018 likely won’t be your year, either.

The league will find out how long that remains the case, and whether Kaepernick’s status will remain background noise or erupt into an encompassing topic.

Kaepernick’s continued unemployment has not blotted out the league’s on-field product. But it lingers as a simmering discussion that boils each time a quarterback struggles or suffers an injury. Kaepernick has not dominated NFL conversation, but he has hovered in the background, ever-present.

Edwards warned Goodell that Kaepernick would become a “martyr” if he was not signed. He argued, convincingly, Kaepernick should be a model: Rather than only protest, Kaepernick has donated nearly $2 million to youth, education and community programs.

“That’s where it all starts: It’s about the big uglies,” Smoot said in a telephone interview. “Jonathan Allen showed he can be dominant at times; we have to have somebody else dominate.”

Smoot’s choice of defensive linemen — N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb, recipient of the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defender — is likely out of the Redskins’ reach at 13th. But Clemson and Alabama have schooled appealing defensive linemen, too. Free agency is also an option.

“I always had my better years when the quarterback was throwing off his back foot and making mistakes because of the big boys up front,” Smoot said. “So that’s where I spend my money.”

“We have 13 more regular-season games,” he said. “We could win them all. We could lose them all.”

This Vikings team is different. Sure, fortune was on Minnesota’s side last week. I can dig that, but that last-second touchdown pass still required a high degree of skill, namely from Case Keenum, who threw the ball right where it needed to be. The matchup between Minnesota’s “plucky” QB, as my editor calls him, and the Eagles’ pass defense will decide Sunday’s affair in Philly. Doug Pederson’s team might be playing with house money at this point, too, as no one expected the Eagles to get this far with Nick Foles playing in Carson Wentz’s place.

Philly’s front seven has had much to do with this team’s survival. Fletcher Cox’s ability to blow up the middle of the line is so important, because no quarterback likes pressure in his face, repeatedly. The Saints brought much of that duress to Keenum in the second half last week, allowing them to crawl back in the game. jaguars_091

All year long, Henry was the better runner. He out-gained Murray by 85 yards.

According to PFF, Henry totaled 33 missed tackles on running attempts and was the fifth-most elusive running back. Murray, on the other hand, totaled 24 missed tackles on running plays and finished as the 23rd-most elusive back. Yet for some reason — it probably has something to do with pass blocking — Henry collected eight fewer carries than Murray.

Eagles are barking: Then, there were the Philadelphia Eagles. They fell behind early and were relying on a backup quarterback. But the Eagles survived their divisional round matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, winning, 15-10, to advance to next Sunday’s NFC championship game.

Nick Foles passed for 246 yards, LeGarrette Blount rushed for his ninth career postseason touchdown, and the Eagles’ defense held Atlanta to 281 total yards. The NFC’s No. 1 seed, which will host the winner of Sunday’s Saints-Vikings matchup, managed to escape with the Falcons advancing all the way to the Philadelphia 2-yard line on their final possession. A fourth-and-goal pass to Julio Jones by Matt Ryan went through the wide receiver’s hands and fell incomplete with just over a minute left.

Mike Glennon gave a decent performance Sunday against the Falcons, keeping the Bears competitive before failing to get them into the end zone for what would have been a winning TD in the final minute. But did the Bears hand out that contract for decent play at QB? And is decent play enough to keep rookie Mitchell Trubisky on the bench?

It’s going to be a long, long first season in the Bay Area for the new regime of Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. It’s a necessary first step. But it won’t be much fun for anyone, most likely.

The Browns are improved. There’s little question about that. That, however, was a low bar to clear. Rookie QB DeShone Kizer showed some promise against the Steelers. But he and the Browns have plenty of distance to cover to reach respectability.jaguars_072

In Week 8 before the team’s bye week, Burkhead finished with seven receptions for 68 yards.

Improbably, there’s more. Five days before Mariota’s visual delights in Kansas City, another “M.M.,” McKenzie Milton, quarterbacked the University of Central Florida to a Peach Bowl win over Auburn, which cemented UCF (13-0) as the only unbeaten team among the 129 playing top-rung college football.

Hawaii has annexed a football giddiness generally unavailable to states ranked No. 40 in population (a stat that further credits Hawaii). While Tagovailoa thrived in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, citizens told of audible bursts of cheering ringing up and down Honolulu streets. “It’s the year of the Hawaiian quarterback in America!” tweeted local sports host Kanoa Leahey.

New England visits Denver on Sunday night, and the Broncos have been vulnerable defensively. With these teams trending in opposite directions, the hunch here is that Burkhead will get enough touches and maybe a plunge into the end zone. But while there are plenty who like Burkhead’s upside, owners should only be inserting him into the lineup if their RB depth is severely lacking in Week 10. With a receiving corps that has been banged up, Burkhead offers Tom Brady another solid receiving option out of the backfield to help compensate. Not everyone is on board given the committee approach the Patriots utilize. Burkhead is owned in nearly 11 percent of ESPN leagues.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans: In a new development, Hopkins did not practice Friday after practicing both Wednesday and Thursday. There’s been no statement by the team, but owners will need to monitor Friday’s injury report and his status for Sunday. Hopkins is back to a must-start this season, no matter the matchup.

Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals: One way or another Arizona will be without its quarterback for an extended period. Hopefully Palmer owners have another capable quarterback on the roster because typically the waiver wire has few quarterbacks with upside. For those looking, Case Keenum of the Vikings has a tantalizing matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Keenum is owned in just 11.6 percent of ESPN leagues.jaguars_028

Few have taken the Jaguars, Eagles and Vikings seriously during their respective runs this season.

That’s part of the reason they have made it so far, and it’s why the Patriots will handle their business — New England won’t overlook Jacksonville in the AFC title game the way Pittsburgh did in the divisional round. And it’ll have the same attitude against its Super Bowl opponent.

Given the Patriots’ season-opening loss to the Chiefs on national TV and their shaky start to the season defensively, it’s easy to forget this is a team some thought had a legitimate chance to go undefeated in 2017. The defending Super Bowl champion only got stronger with offseason additions, and Tom Brady, even at age 40, is still playing at an All-Pro level. Trust Bill Belichick’s team to do its job. — T.H.

The Bucs are home against the Falcons; Evans had six catches for 78 yards at Atlanta in Week 12. The pundits are out in full force and are against playing Evans this weekend. His owners probably don’t have the luxury of sitting him, even if they have been getting by with his limited production. Perhaps some owners drafted extremely well or picked up other wideouts to provide depth along the way. While Evans is 24th among wide receivers in scoring, when it’s all said and done, he’s too risky to bench. On even very talented rosters, Evans would be in the mix for WR2 and/or flex spots.

Brady was facing a Jacksonville pass defense that was better statistically than what Denver (in the 2013 and 2015 AFC championships) and Seattle (in Super Bowl 49) have had in recent years. He played with a cut in his throwing hand, with little support from his running backs and, for most of the game, without Rob Gronkowski. Brady did it in the face of a ferocious front four pass rush. He did it against a fast back seven that can cover everything.

The Jaguars’ lead was not as big as that of the Falcons, but it was more daunting with much less time. The Patriots had only 10 points before their comeback Sunday and had been completely shut down in the third quarter.

Mayfield may not be seen universally as a surefire prospect, but if enough teams become enamored, he could be plucked early.

“I could see those type of guys falling in love with Baker, and those guys spent time around [Brett] Favre,” Klatt said. “They seek Baker’s ability to improvise and play with unnatural confidence, and they see Favre. That’s what Andy Reid saw in Mahomes, so he moved up and got him. The Brett Favre tree of coaches, the [former Packers coach Mike] Holmgren tree, those ones that will love Baker Mayfield.”jaguars_013

Bears extend GM Ryan Pace through 2021

The Bears announced Monday the extension of general manager Ryan Pace’s contract two more years through 2021.

Ted Phillips announces Ryan Pace’s contract has been extended through 2021: He’s earned the opportunity to see his plan to fruition.

Team owner Steve Bisciotti and the Ravens have remained in the championship conversation every year largely because they don’t let fans make decisions for them. However, after their 9-7 season ended Sunday in a nightmarish, last-minute loss to the Bengals, the local faithful have voiced their impatience with the last three playoff-less seasons.

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But through all that, among NFC playoff teams, only Drew Brees and the Saints had more passing yards per game and more passing yards per attempt than Ryan and the Falcons. Ryan also was better pass protected, taking 24 sacks vs. 37 last season. Only Brees was sacked fewer times (20) in the conference.

In this scenario, a Minnesota-New Orleans divisional round game would be a terrific matchup. The Vikings knocked off the Saints 29-19 in the season opener but that was before the Saints were fully utilizing rookie sensation Alvin Kamara.

The Vikings’ dome will be very tough on the road team and Minnesota’s defense is on a roll, having given up only one garbage-time touchdown in their last three games. I also like the poise with which Vikings quarterback Case Keenum is playing. Minnesota’s skill players on offense, led by Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen, are underrated, but the health of its offensive line is a continuing concern.

Warren Moon on leave from Seahawks broadcast amid sexual harassment allegation

Warren Moon is facing serious sexual harassment allegations from a California woman who worked for his sports marketing firm.

The Hall of Fame quarterback has been working as a color commentator for the Seahawks radio network, but has requested a leave of absence. Moon, who spent 17 years in the NFL after winning five Grey Cups in a six-year CFL stint, has denied the allegations.

He was accused of sexual harassment in 1995 by a Vikings cheerleader and settled out of court. He was arrested later that year following a domestic incident with his wife, Felicia, who accused Moon of slapping and choking her. Moon was later acquitted when his wife told a jury she provoked the fight. The couple divorced in 2001 to end a 20-year marriage.

“This coach has decided, he has told you Giant fans, he has told you New York that in his football wisdom Geno Smith gives him the best chance to win this week, not Eli Manning,” Francesa said on WFAN.

Manning had started 210 consecutive games prior to this week, which was second all-time to Packers great Brett Favre. He has thrown for more than 50,000 yards and won two Super Bowls in which he was the MVP of both.

Francesa was not a fan of the move and he chalked it up to McAdoo’s failures as a coach and the knowledge that he is on the hot seat.

“This is a desperate move by a desperate guy who is clinging, clinging,” Francesa said. “And the fact that John Mara has not separated himself from this fool is hard to believe.”

Francesa was far from done.ny_rangers_007

Carson Wentz magically threw a perfect 51-yard strike as he was falling down

Carson Wentz finds some way to pull off some magical play every single week, it seems. In the Eagles’ Sunday Night Football matchup against the Seahawks, it was this 51-yard bomb to Nelson Agholor.

He did it again versus the Bears, when he escaped on third-and-9 for an 18-yard gain.

It probably won’t make a difference in the outcome of this one. The Seahawks added another touchdown to take back a two-score lead. But it sure is fun to see Wentz magically extending plays.

The Chiefs have been locked in a battle with the Jets on Sunday in East Rutherford, and Marcus Peters eventually had enough.

After a Josh McCown rushing touchdown, a defensive holding was called on Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson, and Peters took the official’s penalty flag and threw it into the stands:

Peters was then called for unsportsmanlike conduct for the flag toss, which landed in the stands much to the amusement of a lucky fan:

The Jets went for two after the touchdown, and converted to make it a 38-31 game with just over two minutes to go.