- Can Blake Bortles get back on track? Will Jameis Winston win back the Bucs starting quarterback job? These teams may not be in the thick of the playoff race, but the players have plenty riding on the last eight games of the NFL season.
As the second half of the 2018 NFL season gets underway, some of the most intriguing storylines from earlier in the season are beginning to sort out. The Patriots machine is in no danger of slowing down after a 1–2 start. The Giants’ 2017 struggles couldn’t be solved by a new coach and shiny new running back. Fitzmagic provided the Buccaneers a jolt of energy for a couple of weeks, but we’re all starting to realize that it’s best used as a temporary boost rather than a long-term solution. With teams beginning its sprint to the playoffs, the cream is rising to the top.
But questions continue to linger around some household names, especially when thinking beyond this season. The quarterback market projects to be interesting this spring—although devoid of top options—and a number of skill players are currently betting on themselves in hopes of striking a big deal this offseason. So with eight weeks remaining in this season, who are some of the most intriguing players to watch in the second half?
Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
The Jaguars doubled down on their quarterback after the Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game last season, signing Bortles to a three-year, $54 million contract in February—and opting not to sign a credible backup should Bortles falter. With a previously-dominant defense and strong running game to lead the way, Bortles was trusted to keep the train moving as he did in 2017.
That hasn’t been the case this season. Bortles has regressed in 2018, playing downright dreadful in Jacksonville’s four-game losing streak. The 2014 first rounder has thrown for 6.61 yards per attempt since Oct. 7, a mark that would rank fifth-worst in the NFL this season, and he’s turned the ball over nine times while throwing for just three touchdowns, leading Jacksonville’s offense to just 11.5 points per game.
Despite his three-year contract, Bortles is guaranteed just $6.5 million in 2019, leaving Jacksonville with a relatively painless out should they choose to cut bait after this season. Bortles could very well go from face of the franchise to seeking a new employer sooner than later.
Bortles will have an opportunity to climb out of the hole over the next eight weeks. The Jaguars have four division games left, ending their season at Houston in what could be a division-deciding contest. Jacksonville will also get to face the Bills on Nov. 25, and travel just south on Dec. 22 to face the Dolphins. A roadmap to playing in January is still in place. Whether the Jaguars reach the playoffs for back-to-back years for the first time this century largely relies on Bortles. If he can conjure the 2017 magic, the Jags brass is likely to keep the Bortles train running. But if he struggles, Bortles may spend 2019 holding a clipboard.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
The Bucs have won just one game after starting 2–0 on the back of Ryan Fitzpatrick—a three-point victory against Cleveland—and the Dirk Koetter era in Tampa Bay is in serious danger of ending after the 2018 season. Will the Winston era end with it?
Winston has no guaranteed salary in 2019 should he stay healthy for the rest of this season, allowing Tampa Bay to release him with no cap hit. The move would signal a failed experiment and a hard reset for the NFC South bottom-feeder, leaving Winston with no clear option for 2019. A few teams will likely be in need of a QB this offseason—perhaps John Elway will get impatient and search for a new QB in Denver, or maybe Winston could replace Ryan Tannehill in Miami. Yet if he’s exiled from the Bucs, Winston’s future is likely as a backup.
Since Winston returned from his suspension, the starting quarterback in Tampa Bay has been named on a week-to-week basis, with Fitzpatrick starting Week 9 and expected to start Week 10. Fitzpatrick is as known a commodity as they come, but as the playoffs become a distant dream, gaining intel for 2019 is paramount. Unless the Bucs have already decided on Winston’s future, they’d be smart to start him for the rest of the season.
Perhaps Winston sees Tampa’s patience dwindling and restores some hope with a solid end to 2018. But barring a drastic change, the former top pick will likely flame out in Tampa, searching for a new home next season as the Buccaneers restart the search for a franchise QB.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears
Unlike the other two quarterbacks on our list, Trubisky isn’t going anywhere in 2019. General manager Ryan Pace tabbed Trubisky to be Chicago’s quarterback of the future in 2017, and the North Carolina product has made strides this season after an uneven rookie campaign. Trubisky has seen a bump in yards per attempt, touchdowns and completion percentage this season, heading a Bears attack that ranks No. 5 in points per game.
The question now shifts to how much of a leap we can expect in the second year of the Trubisky era. Chicago is presently atop the NFC North at 5–3, with five division battles remaining on the schedule. How the Bears fare in Week 15 against the Packers and Week 17 at the Vikings will likely decide their season. With one of the league’s most feared defenses in tow, a solid second-half for Trubisky could send the Bears to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Yet despite his improvement, Trubisky is still a complimentary player within the Bears offense. First-year head coach Matt Nagy has feasted on misdirection plays and sleek formations straight out of the Andy Reid Academy of Offense, generating a slate of simple reads for the inexperienced signal caller. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combo has also taken the pressure off Trubisky. A significant share of chunk plays for Chicago’s offense have come via screens, shovel passes and throwbacks, plays that are more emblematic of strong scheme than quality quarterback play.
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The holes in Trubisky’s game have popped up in various spots this season. Trubisky is still an inaccurate downfield thrower, failing to develop the necessary touch down the seam and in the middle of the field. New England revealed the worst of Trubisky in Week 7, clamping down as he completed just 52% of passes while throwing two interceptions.
Nagy will be able to hide Trubisky’s deficiencies for the most part. Trubisky is one of the best running quarterbacks in the league, and as winter arrives in Chicago, his rushing prowess will become increasingly valuable. But with Minnesota and Green Bay chasing the Bears, Trubisky’s legs won’t be enough to vault Chicago into the playoffs. It’s paramount for Trubisky to refine his accuracy as the season continues, and make enough plays with his arm to unlock the strongest segments of the Bears’ attack.
Amari Cooper, WR, Cowboys
Expect Dallas to extend Cooper’s contract after this season, locking up the two-time Pro Bowler who will be just 25 at the start of the 2019 season. But regardless of his contract status, Cooper’s finish to 2018 will have a significant impact on the Dallas’ return on investment.
Cooper didn’t come to the Lone Star State for cheap. The Cowboys dealt an unprotected 2019 first rounder for Cooper, giving the Raiders three first round picks in next year’s draft. Jerry Jones and Co. expected to hunt for a first-round receiver in April, and in acquiring Cooper, the Cowboys effectively did just that, getting a proven commodity not much older than a receiver selected in the upcoming draft. Dallas is presumably confident they can restore the 2015 and ’16 version of Cooper, who crossed the 1,000-yard threshold in each of his first two seasons.
Cooper’s first showing in Dallas was encouraging enough, a 58-yard, one-touchdown performance on Monday night. However, it’s presently unclear whether Cooper is the true top option Jones has conveted for Dak Prescott since Dez Bryant was released in April. The Alabama product caught just 48 passes in 2017, failing to show impressive burst or separation ability over the past two seasons. Perhaps Cooper can turn back the clock and reverse Dallas’ slide down the NFC East standings. But at 3–5 with a daunting schedule ahead, the Cowboys are now at risk of paying a top-10 price for a second-tier piece.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
The two-time All-Pro is increasingly likely to sit the entire 2018 season, providing Pittsburgh with an interesting choice for ’19. If Bell doesn’t return, the Steelers could place a transition tag on him at a running-back number of between $9 million and $10 million, allowing opposing teams to up their offer for a running back who would have taken off nearly 21 months between the 2017 AFC divisional round and opening day ’19. But would Pittsburgh even pony up that considering how well James Conner has played? The second-year back has thrived in the starting role, tallying over 1,085 yards from scrimmage and nine rushing touchdowns through eight games.
If Pittsburgh passes on the 2019 tender, a bidding frenzy for the post-hibernation Bell is unlikely. The dynamics change if Bell begins to play in Week 11. A healthy and productive Bell will probably push his value past the tender value, with backfield-deficicient teams (maybe Philadelphia or the Jets) ready to bring Bell the expensive deal he’s long desired.
Then there’s the actual on-field impact of a possible Bell return. Any hard feelings in the Steel City will dissipate should Bell return to his previous form, bringing Ben Roethlisberger yet another weapon come January. Conner has been too productive to simply shove aside, so it’s likely a timeshare system will be implemented if Bell returns to the field. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner would be wise to explore two-back formations with both Bell and Conner, utilizing Bell’s prowess as a receiver. The Steelers’ offense and Bell’s wallet would both be well served by a return to Heinz Field sooner than later.