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Brady and Gronk Stay Home; What Does That Mean for The Patriot Way?

Bill Belichick’s offseason workout program is missing his two most important players. Plus, a look at James Harrison’s Hall of Fame credentials, the Vikings lock up a defensive star, and what C.J. Anderson has left in the tank

The week’s 10 biggest stories in the NFL, and the impact of each...

10. Bucs and Titans Exercise Fifth-Year Options on Winston and Mariota

The first and second picks from the 2015 draft still have a lot to prove.

As rookies, Winston and Mariota both showed star potential. As sophomores, they were up and down (which is not atypical). As third-year pros they were still up and down (which is concerning). Entering Year 4, both are at a crossroads. Winston must become a more disciplined decision-maker. There’s a lot to love about his game, but iffy risk management has hindered his development. Mariota must get better from the pocket. His mechanics and field vision have deteriorated over the past two years. New Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is one of the best pocket-passing teachers in football. If Mariota doesn’t show improvement under him, the Titans will have some hard thinking to do.

• MOCK DRAFT, PODCAST-STYLE: Get the full breakdown of team needs and the prospects that fit for all 32 teams in the 10 Things Podcast with Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling.

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9. Saints Re-Sign WR Brandon Coleman

New Orleans brought back Coleman despite the recent addition of fellow WR Cam Meredith from Chicago.

Coleman and Meredith might not seem like big news, as both are backups. But both are also bigger-bodied targets who are proficient on in-breaking routes, including the “digs” that Drew Brees loves. That means they’re great fits in a shrewd Saints scheme that attacks vertically between the painted field numbers. In good systems that are executed by great quarterbacks, it’s not necessarily a matter of how good a receiver is, it’s how well he fits the scheme. New Orleans now has two prominent backup receivers who fit very well.

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8. Primetime games are starting earlier

Monday Night Football is moving from 8:30 p.m. ET to 8:15. Thursday Night Football is moving from 8:25 to 8:20. And Sunday Night Football moving from 8:30 to 8:20.

That’s a good start. Still left to do: Trim the excess dead time that has made these broadcasts entirely too long. Some ways to do that would be to streamline instant replay straight to New York, with no on-field Microsoft Surface review; eliminate one-point extra points and kickoffs (this also makes the game safer); and replace another commercial break or two with some sort of in-game sponsor.

Another idea for NFL on TV: stagger the start times of the 1:00 games. Go 1:00, 1:05, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20 and 1:25. That would allow viewers to catch the end of more games, amplifying the Red Zone experience that more and more people seem to love.

• HOW THE NFL IS WATCHED: Traditional broadcast ratings are falling as cord-cutters find new ways to watch the games, RedZone channel caters to fantasy addicts, and some turn off football altogether.

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7. Flacco and Rivers Unconcerned About Their Teams Drafting QBs of the Future

As a generation of QBs nears retirement age and their teams make plans to draft signal-callers of the future, Flacco said, “It’s not really for me to worry about it.” Rivers described the process as “inevitable.”

Rivers has no reason to worry. Yes, he’s 36, but he’s shown no sign of decline and the Chargers enter 2018 as the AFC West’s best team. The focus is on the here and now. Flacco is a different story. He’s only 33, which means Baltimore’s interest in this year’s QBs (specifically Lamar Jackson, it appears), is not a hedge against his future, but rather a referendum on his recent performance. After banging the table for years saying Flacco is an upper-tier passer, even I must admit that his 2012 Super Bowl run has proved to be an aberration. Since then, Flacco has been very average, with that averageness achieved through some moderate highs and some ugly lows. His dead money cap hit drops to $16 million after this season (and $8 million in 2020). This could be a make or break year.

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6. 49ers Restructure LT Joe Staley’s Contract

San Francisco used some of their ample of cap space to give their star left tackle a raise from $11 million to $17.4 million over the next two years.

This time last year, Staley was said to be slowing down. But after a stellar, if not spectacular, 2017 campaign, the soon-to-be 34-year-old is set for at least the next two years. The Niners benefit, too. No longer worried about their left tackle possibly retiring, they can keep rising fourth-year man Trent Brown at right tackle. Brown, who at 6' 8", 355 pounds, is the NFL’s largest man, can now hone the mechanics he’s been practicing for years, as opposed to flipping those mechanics to play on the other side. Brown has light enough feet to play the left side, but in today’s NFL, right tackle is just as important as left. Yes, the left tackle protects the QB’s blind side, but the right tackle protects the QB’s throwing shoulder, and many of the best pass rushers play opposite the right tackle. The Niners will learn that this year when they face the AFC West. In those games, Brown will block Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa and Justin Houston.

• THE DEATH OF THE BLIND SIDE: Why right tackles have become equally important—if not more so—in today’s NFL.

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5. Denver Releases RB C.J. Anderson

The Broncos released Anderson after five years, saving $4.5 million in cap space.

If you’re looking for a sound, reliable runner who has the lateral agility, balance and vision to consistently capitalize on his blocks and occasionally create his own yards, plus the receiving and blocking prowess to stay on the field for a few third downs, here’s one you can sign.

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4. James Harrison Retires, Again

The ageless James Harrison is retiring for a second time following a season in which he was released by the Steelers and finished as a starter for the Patriots.

Is Harrison a Hall of Famer? Your first reaction is, Yes. But then you look closer and you see that his 84.5 career sack total ranks just 52nd all time. Yes, as an imposing run defender and stalwart piece in a diverse Steelers scheme, Harrison was better than his numbers indicate. But some voters won’t understand that, and others won’t care. They’ll argue that numbers matter—and they’re not necessarily wrong.

Here’s the flipside: In 2008, Harrison was the Defensive Player of the Year (16 sacks) and had the epic 14-point swing play on his end zone pick-six in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLIII win over Arizona. In ’09 and ’10 he headlined a Steelers D that ranked top 5 in yards both years. Overall, you could argue that Harrison was football’s most dominant defensive player over that three-year stretch, and it included playoff dominance. That argument—three outstanding years plus a playoff pedigree—got Terrell Davis into the Hall of Fame. By keeping Harrison out, you’d essentially say his other dozen years, many of which were productive, count against him. Davis was good as a rookie, then great for three years, and then did almost nothing after that. Harrison was great for three years and at least did something for another 12. Would Harrison’s candidacy be stronger if he had petered out of the league shortly after 2010? The Terrell Davis argument suggests, yes.

To be clear, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I don’t think Harrison is a Hall of Famer. He’s a great Non-Hall of Famer. (No shame in that.) Davis certainly is not a Hall of Famer. His enshrinement opened a Pandora’s box that complicates what would otherwise be clear conversations about all the James Harrisons out there.

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3. Vikings Extend LB Eric Kendricks

Minnesota locked up another key piece of its defensive core by signing their leading tackler to a five-year extension worth $50 million.

The biggest concern when Kirk Cousins signed is whether the Vikings could re-sign their young core players to second contracts. With Kendricks handled, that’s one down, four to go. Still in contract years are cornerback Trae Waynes, linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter. Offensively, there’s wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Interestingly, some would say that Kendricks is less valuable than all these men, which isn’t to say he’s not valuable. Minnesota locked up a quality three-down player.

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2. TE Rob Gronkowski Sitting Out Offseason Workouts

Following an offseason of speculation regarding his future, Gronk is sitting out voluntary offseason workouts.

The significance is more in what this news represents: a perceived fracture in the Patriots’ famed culture (aka “The Patriot Way”). In and of itself, Gronk missing workouts is no big deal. Relatively healthy in the offseason for one of the few times in his career, he’ll surely keep himself in shape, and it’s not like he isn’t familiar with New England’s system. But that people are talking about what his absence means is (potentially) a big deal. How good is Bill Belichick and his program if, say, there’s 30% less reverence for it? (This question is both hypothetical and rhetorical.)

Just nine players have served under Belichick longer than Gronkowski. The first eight:

Kevin Faulk: 12 seasons
Stephon Gostkowski: 12 seasons (going on 13)
Matt Light: 11 seasons
Vince Wilfork: 11 seasons
Julian Edelman: 9 seasons (going on 10)
Logan Mankins: 9 seasons
Dan Koppen 9: seasons
Tedy Bruschi 9: seasons

The ninth, of course, is the quarterback who also isn’t at workouts.

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1. Tom Brady’s 2018 Status

While the consensus opinion is that he’ll play, the GOAT has reportedly not verified that.

This is pretty much the Gronkowski news, just applied to a more significant player. What must be remembered in all these Brady discussions is that he’s the league’s reigning MVP and coming off arguably the most impressive season of his unparalleled career. Last year, Brady made more big-time throws under heavy pocket duress than any QB save for maybe Carson Wentz. Brady might still be at the top of his game physically.

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