As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 9, NFL.com’s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
— Gregg Williams’ return to the head coach’s chair.
— Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers = Michael Jordan and LeBron James?
— Demaryius Thomas prepares to face old friends.
But first, Steve Wyche examines the Rams’ team-building approach …
The Los Angeles Rams’ acquisition of former Jacksonville Jaguars pass rusher Dante Fowler at this week’s trade deadline — in exchange for a third-round pick in 2019 and a fifth-rounder in 2020 — continued a trend by the league’s only undefeated team to aggressively part ways with draft picks for players who boast an NFL resume.
This offseason, Los Angeles surrendered a first-round draft pick in a deal for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The Rams also made trades for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, and added standout defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency.
The additions have paid off, as the Rams enter Week 9 at 8-0. But while the record has been perfect, the roster wasn’t. The decision to part with pass rushers Robert Quinn (via trade) and Connor Barwin (via free agency) this spring left a void that interior defenders Aaron Donald, Suh and Michael Brockers could only cover up for so long.
So the move was made for Fowler, a former No. 3 overall pick who hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status, but who is expected to pay dividends over the final half of the season. His contract expires after 2018, so this is an audition for Fowler. The Rams didn’t mind giving up a third-round pick, because if Fowler pays off, general manager Les Snead said, they’re better. If it doesn’t work out and the sides part ways, then the Rams still likely will have two third-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, because they’re expecting corresponding compensatory picks for losing cornerback Trumaine Johnson and wide receiver Sammy Watkins in free agency.
"It drives me nuts when people say that you’re going all in to win the Super Bowl this season," Snead said. "You’re going all in to maybe give you a millimeter, centimeter, an upper hand.
"Building through the draft leads to sustainability. You’ve also been able to watch what a team like New England’s done. They’ve used draft picks, but they’ve also used picks to make trades. They’ve used free agency. Your whole goal is to acquire players that are going to help Sean McVay and his staff execute in any way possible."
The Rams did build a nucleus through the draft that includes running back Todd Gurley, Donald, Brockers and safety Lamarcus Joyner. Quarterback Jared Goff was drafted No. 1 overall in 2016 — don’t forget, though, that the rising star was acquired after a trade with the Titans to move up to the top spot.
It took McVay, hired in 2017, to improve the perpetually woeful Rams, but he needed supporting pieces, starting with as much offensive help as possible. The Rams’ offense ranked last in the league in 2016, which was the team’s first season back in L.A., having returned to the city following a 21-year relocation to St. Louis.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan were acquired in 2017 free agency. Wide receiver Robert Woods was, too. The Rams traded a second-round pick to Buffalo for Watkins. Los Angeles then went on to win the NFC West, but got ">knocked off by Atlanta on Wild Card Weekend.
The Chiefs signed Watkins to a three-year, $48 million contract this spring — too rich for the Rams. McVay and Snead pondered waiting for a rookie wideout to possibly fall to them at No. 23 in the draft, but they didn’t like their chances that maybe Calvin Ridley would be there. Even if he was, would he immediately measure up to the tsunami of offensive production they’d established?
So, they traded a first-rounder for Cooks with every expectation that they’d sign him to a long-term deal. (He ended up inking a five-year, $81 million extension.) McVay wanted him in 2017, but the Rams didn’t have the assets to trade for him then.
L.A. can make a lot of these moves and pay out some hefty contracts in part because Goff is in the third season of a rookie contract that pays him less than $3 million in base salary in 2018. That number is going to radically inflate in a few years — based on the current quarterback salary escalation, $30 million annually will be the baseline — but that won’t mean the Rams will have to make a massive salary dump to keep Goff.
By then, Whitworth, who is now 36, could retire, and Talib could be gone, as well, clearing two contracts at high-salaried positions. Also, the extensions Cooks, Donald and Gurley signed this offseason will be more middle-of-the-pack in terms of dollar value by then, especially with the expected continued increase in the salary cap.
That’s why, despite all the talk that the Rams are making moves to close the deal this season, Snead said they haven’t done anything in a vacuum.
"This isn’t just for 2018," Snead said. "We don’t want to be 2018 and it’s over. What’s going on, it’s microscopic — and telescopic."
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
NFL: Streamlining the pipeline. The NFL held a first-of-its-kind summit with officials from the NCAA on Tuesday, an initial step toward aligning player safety rules with college and high school levels of the sport, in an attempt to minimize confusion and hasten development as players move up through the ranks.
The summit included league owners and general managers, executives from officiating and player safety, a representative from the players’ association and NCAA officials. The first goal is to line up rules from the NFL and the NCAA, and then to push that change down to high schools, which will be particularly complicated because only about 75 percent of state high school football associations use the rules set forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
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The group spent most of its time discussing the differences in use of the helmet rules and the cut block, which is banned 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in college but has no such restriction in the NFL. That — according to Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s Competition Committee — has sometimes led to NFL players, who have never had to look out for and defend against a cut block downfield, being injured when it occurs in the NFL.
"The idea," McKay said, "is that you try to have unified safety terminology for players so they understand what the foul is and what it isn’t, and then teach it all the way down. Beginning with little kids, getting into high school, in college and in the pros. The fact that we have different fouls and talk about them in different ways leads to confusion by the players — and understandable confusion, I might add."
— Judy Battista
The results: Kickoff returns have dropped from 40.6 percent of all kickoffs last season to 33.4 percent this season (through Week 7). Touchbacks are up to 64.6 percent of all kickoffs, from 56.6 percent last season. McKay said he was surprised that more kicks were not being returned, because the changes have meant that teams are using fewer linemen on the field, meaning there is greater speed available for returns. McKay theorized that because teams anticipated the new rules would lead to more returns, they are instructing their kickers to kick off all the way to the end zone to avoid the return. He believes that as cold and winter weather become factors in distance, there will be more returns.
But the Competition Committee was correct about the size of players being used now that wedges are banned. According to the NFL, fewer defensive linemen are being used on kickoff return teams, and almost no offensive linemen are being used, with those players replaced mostly by linebackers. The average weight of kickoff-return players has dropped by 7 pounds. And the speed of kickoff coverage teams has increased by about 1 mile per hour, on both kickoffs that were returned and on those that resulted in touchbacks.
— Judy Battista
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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Williams settles in. Gregg Williams has never been shy — and Cleveland Browns players said this week they expect a bit more cursing at practice, now that Williams has taken over as the interim head coach in the wake of the firings of Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Williams’ appointment raised some eyebrows across many NFL constituencies because he served a one-year suspension starting in 2012 for his admitted role in a bounty scandal while he was the defensive coordinator in New Orleans. Not many people thought Williams would get another chance to be a head coach in the NFL after that, particularly because he was 17-31 in three seasons as the Buffalo Bills’ head coach (2001-2003) and he never finished a season with a winning record.
Williams, though, was asked if he views the interim job as an audition for his future. He told a story Wednesday — about how much demand there has been for his services — that was met with confusion and disbelief in some parts of the NFL.
"Since I left Buffalo, I have had 11 letters sent in to interview for head coaching jobs," Williams said. "In all of them, behind the scenes, I have, and in four of them, I did not even have to show up. Just sign the contract and come. The structure has to be correct. I have my thoughts on how things have to be done. I like things here a lot. I will tell you this, right now, all of my focus and concentration is on this week, and then let’s build weeks upon weeks upon weeks and see how much we can. I can’t ask for the players to not look ahead if I am looking ahead. They do not do that. This business is too tough to do that type of stuff. You have to go — today, let’s add up each day, continue to press on and do better each day. We will wait and see how the outcome is."
— Judy Battista
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GREEN BAY PACKERS: Rodgers and Brady … Jordan and LeBron? Trying to pin down Aaron Rodgers on the question of who is the greatest of all time isn’t easy. The Packers quarterback remains quick on his feet. Too quick.
"It’s tough; different eras," he said.
Different eras? Sure, Tom Brady is 41, but Rodgers is on the verge of turning 35. They’re contemporaries, sort of.
"I grew up born in the ’80s watching great basketball …"
In a mid-week conference call, Rodgers was first asked about the recent Michael Jordan commercial promoting Sunday night’s clash of the titans, which will feature Rodgers on one side and Brady on the other. He called that "humbling."
But then conversation quickly turned to basketball. Michael vs. LeBron. Who ya got, Aaron?
"… the late ’80s and early ’90s, and that was Michael’s time. Winning six championships, I think most people either loved him or rooted against him, and I was in the loved him category. Loved my local Sacramento Kings, but I was obviously a big Michael Jordan fan."
So you’re on record, Aaron? It’s Michael.
"I didn’t say that, I definitely didn’t say that," said the evasive Rodgers. "I’m a LeBron fan, as well."
There are no mixed messages, though, when it comes to how Brady feels about his counterpart. The Pats’ quarterback said he’s been "inspired" by the Pack’s leader.
"Even for me, I watch his game and it makes me want to get out there and practice and improve, because I think he’s so phenomenal with how he manages himself in the pocket," Brady said earlier this week. "His ability to throw the football is unlike anyone in probably the history of the league. So it’s just pretty awesome to watch."
Rodgers says the feeling is mutual. "I’ve always been a big fan of his. Just the stuff he does on the field is phenomenal, and then to see him, as he’s gotten older in his career, continue to reinvent himself year after year and play at a high level every single season, obviously winning the championships, he’s a phenomenal player.
"Any time I get a chance when he’s on Thursday night, Sunday night, Monday night, I’m for sure tuning in."
That’s what most of the country will do for Sunday night’s Packers-Patriots matchup in Foxborough.
— Mike Giardi
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How much of the playbook Thomas picks up this week will play a role in his playing time, and he’s working to maximize both factors. Thomas spent a lot of time during his first practice on Wednesday on the sideline, going over the offense with DeAndre Hopkins. He asked receivers coach John Perry to come to the facility early with him Thursday morning, so the two could put in extra work. DT told me the Texans’ playbook is extremely complex, but he added there is carry-over in some terminology between his first head coach in Denver, Josh McDaniels, and O’Brien. Both spent time together in New England under Bill Belichick and share some similarities. Everyone I’ve spoken with has seen Thomas immediately absorb everything that has been thrown at him. What better way to test yourself than against your former team?
— James Palmer
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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Dorsey’s former draftees ready for his new team. Browns GM John Dorsey played a big role in building the high-flying Chiefs, who fired him in a stunning move in June 2017 and visit Cleveland on Sunday, days after Dorsey and owner Jimmy Haslam fired coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
But Chiefs players I spoke to Thursday roundly said they didn’t think it was weird playing against a team led by the man who drafted Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and 10 other current starters contributing to Kansas City’s 7-1 start.
As the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month, linebacker Dee Ford (another Dorsey pick), put it to me: "This is the league, man. S— changes."
Chiefs coach Andy Reid this week pointed to the role Brett Veach, who was promoted to GM after Dorsey’s exit, played in the process of evaluating and trading up for Mahomes, a leading MVP candidate.
Now the Browns just have to hope Dorsey’s latest QB selection, No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, pans out in similar fashion in an offense now run by interim OC Freddie Kitchens, who has called plays exactly one time: the preseason finale at Detroit. Dorsey has a lot of assets to keep upgrading the NFL’s youngest roster, too — including four picks in the first three rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft.
— Tom Pelissero
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NEW YORK GIANTS: New guard unfazed by change of scenery. Jamon Brown was awarded off waivers Wednesday to the New York Giants. Which means he leaves the league’s only undefeated team, the Rams, for one of the league’s worst.
Welcome to New Jersey, Jamon!
To his credit, Brown seems to be embracing the opportunity, immediately changing his Twitter profile to "NY Giants Jamon Brown" and tweeting this:
Headed to the Big Apple!! So thankful for my opportunity to join the .@Giants family! Looking forward to starting this journey!! Letï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s do this!! #GoGiants #NYGiants #GiantsPride
Could Brown help the Giants’ offensive line? Absolutely. When they return from their current bye, he could be their starting right guard.
— Kimberly Jones
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NEW YORK JETS: Digging into Pryor’s departure. On Tuesday, the Bills signed Terrelle Pryor, who was released Oct. 20 by the Jets. Pryor told the Buffalo media he felt "underused" by the Jets. To which Todd Bowles offered one of his best lines in his tenure as Jets head coach: "I think every wideout I’ve ever known in the history of the game has (thought he has) been underused."
It was a curious move by the Jets to release Pryor, given the key injuries to Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa at wide receiver. Rookie Deontay Burnett, Sam Darnold’s former teammate at USC, figures to get more opportunities.
Bowles said the Jets would have had to wait four weeks to re-sign Pryor because he was cut with an injury designation. General manager Mike Maccagnan said Thursday that Pryor was released was because of his groin injury, nothing more.
Pryor, of course, stayed in the AFC East. The Bills and Jets will meet twice in the final seven games of the season.
— Kimberly Jones
Focusing on Darnold. This Jets season remains all about Darnold’s progress. Bowles and Maccagnan reiterated in recent days that they are pleased with the rookie quarterback. As Bowles said, he sees "a natural progression each week."
There have been predictable growing pains. Darnold’s 10 interceptions have him tied with Case Keenum and Jameis Winston for the league high. His completion percentage of 55.2 ranks 33rd, just behind fellow rookies Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen.
The Jets are 3-5 for the third consecutive season and in danger of missing the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year. This offseason, they will have around $90 million in salary-cap space, and Maccagnan vowed Thursday to be "very active" in free agency. Asked if at some point this is a team that has to win, Maccagnan said, "Absolutely." You can make the argument that point is 2019, and not beyond.
— Kimberly Jones
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