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NFL Insiders predict best, worst teams after free agency and draft

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Our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders is breaking down what all the offseason action means for the 2018 season throughout the week.

Next up: Which offseason addition — via free agency, the draft or trade — will make the biggest impact this year?

Insiders make their picks, plus dig into these topics:


Which offseason addition will make the biggest impact in 2018?

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Tyrann Mathieu, S, Houston Texans. His past injuries have to be discussed, but the former Cardinal played faster on tape toward the end of 2017. He’s an upgrade in Houston at a position of need, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can utilize Mathieu’s versatility in the game plan. Think of a defensive matchup weapon here who can find the ball and play multiple roles for a secondary that struggled last year.

Mike Clay, NFL writer: Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, CBs, Los Angeles Rams. It’s hard to mention one without the other, so I’m going to cheat and go with the two trades the Rams made to acquire superstar corners Peters and Talib. Yes, Peters has some off-field concerns and Talib is now 32, but both have been top-10 performers at the position over the past few years and, along with Ndamukong Suh, help position the Rams as legit Super Bowl contenders in 2018.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Nate Solder, OT, New York Giants. The Giants haven’t scored 30 points in a game since Week 17 of 2015 — Tom Coughlin’s last season as their head coach. There are myriad reasons for the drought, but the main reason the offense hasn’t worked is that the line hasn’t played well. Moving on from 2015 draft bust Ereck Flowers and replacing him with a reliable veteran at left tackle should allow the Giants at least a chance to see how good their offense really can be. The price tag on Solder was massive, and could cause the Giants problems down the line. But he should make a big difference in 2018.

KC Joyner, NFL writer: Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers. Rodgers has the reputation of not throwing to his tight ends often enough, yet over the past four years Rodgers ranks 10th in completion percentage (51.6) and touchdown percentage (51.6) on end zone throws to tight ends. Those numbers should vault close to the top of the league now that Rodgers has a jump-ball tight end of Graham’s caliber, so this pairing could combine for double-digit touchdowns this season.

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos. It’s either Keenum or Tyrod Taylor, simply because they are competent quarterbacks joining teams that were horrendous at the position last season. Even average play from them will provide massive upgrades. I’ll go with Keenum because there isn’t a highly drafted quarterback waiting to take his job.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Tyrod Taylor, QB, Cleveland Browns. Or Baker Mayfield. It doesn’t matter which one of them it is; either should be a massive upgrade on what Cleveland had at the quarterback position last season.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers. Rodgers has a strong history with tight ends that provide even the slightest mismatch. He looked often for Jermichael Finley from 2009 to 2013 (5.6 targets per game) and Jared Cook (5.1) in 2016. Even if Graham’s best days are behind him, he is with a quarterback who wants to use the tight end as much as any in the NFL.

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants. It’s hard for me to look past a player who is primed for the possibility of handling 250-plus total touches right away. We’ve seen rookie running backs make an immediate impact in recent seasons, and Barkley has a decidedly clear avenue to doing the same for the G-Men.


Which team declined most this offseason?

Yates: Buffalo Bills. Note an important caveat: There is a long-term building process that was followed and not in any way compromised this offseason. The Bills performed exceptionally well in single-score games last season (6-2), which played an integral part in snapping their postseason drought. But it was clear they were not sold on Tyrod Taylor as the long-term quarterback solution, and they utilized their robust draft capital to select Josh Allen seventh overall. Factoring in the QB transition and offensive-line shuffle, Buffalo profiles as a regression team in the short term.

Seifert: Miami Dolphins. Their plan is difficult to discern. They’ve parted ways with most of their best players, from Ndamukong Suh to Jarvis Landry, and added a crew of aging veterans that includes tailback Frank Gore (35 when the season begins), receiver Danny Amendola (32) and guard Josh Sitton (32). Their faith in quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is returning from ACL surgery, is risky at best. The Dolphins aren’t rebuilding in any functional way, but their roster is not ready to compete for a playoff spot, either. That’s a major step back.

Schatz: Buffalo Bills. The QB situation is a mess. Even if you’re a believer in Allen (I’m not), you have to admit he’s the kind of quarterback who will likely require a lot of work to transition. The offensive line is a mess, too, with Buffalo’s three best linemen gone via either trade or retirement. Football Outsiders’ free-agency analysis also shows edge rusher Trent Murphy as one of this year’s signings least likely to live up to the value of his three-year, $22.5 million contract.

Sando: Miami Dolphins. They subtracted Suh, Landry and Mike Pouncey. They appear to be a less talented team as a result.

Joyner: Seattle Seahawks. Mel Kiper gave them his lowest grade of the draft, and their free-agent additions were arguably the least inspiring in the league. Those might be enough to drop Seattle to the bottom of this list, but how in the world did the Seahawks do so little to upgrade the offensive line, which was arguably the worst in the league last season?

Graziano: Seattle Seahawks. The decline obviously started last season, sooner than most of us expected. But losing Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson in the same offseason (with Kam Chancellor‘s situation still unresolved) is to see a foundation crumble underneath you. Pete Carroll is not to be underestimated as a puzzle-solver, but does he have enough pieces?

Clay: Miami Dolphins. It was hard not to think of the Chip Kelly-era Eagles when watching the Dolphins chase “culture” while moving on from talented players such as Jay Ajayi, Suh, Pouncey, Landry and Michael Thomas over the past several months. Miami is weak or below average at most positions and is suddenly a candidate for the first overall pick in next April’s draft.

Bowen: Seattle Seahawks. The “Legion of Boom” used to dictate the flow of the game. Play three-deep coverage, challenge routes and physically control the middle of the field. No free passes there. However, with Sherman now in San Francisco, Chancellor facing an uncertain future and a front-four pass rush that must be retooled, the Seahawks have crucial roles to fill on the defensive side of the ball in a division that features quarterbacks Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo.


Which team improved the most this offseason?

Bowen: Los Angeles Rams. The arrow is pointing up for the Bears and Browns after productive offseasons, but I’m looking at the Rams due to the proven, veteran talent they brought in via trades and free agency. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib have the playmaking skills to find the ball in the secondary. Go get it. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh bolsters the interior of the front line next to All-Pro Aaron Donald. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks is an upgrade for the passing game. Strong, aggressive moves put this squad in position to win the NFC West and make a serious playoff run.

Clay: Cleveland Browns. They had the league’s worst quarterback play in 2017 but solidified it by acquiring Tyrod Taylor and first overall pick Baker Mayfield. Joe Thomas and Danny Shelton are gone, but Cleveland stocked up with talent: E.J. Gaines, TJ Carrie, Carlos Hyde, Jarvis Landry, Chris Hubbard and Damarious Randall as well as early-round rookies Denzel Ward, Austin Corbett and Nick Chubb. This is a team on the rise.

Graziano: Chicago Bears. The problem is that because of the strength of their division, I don’t know that the improvement will necessarily show in the standings. The Bears spent big in free agency, which isn’t always the best way to go, but they’ve improved their wide receiver corps and kept their secondary intact with that spending. I believe their top three draft picks — Roquan Smith, James Daniels and Anthony Miller — are guys who can help them right away at positions of significant need.

Joyner: Cleveland Browns. It’s incredible that the Browns were able to improve in as many ways as they did this offseason. They added two quality quarterbacks, have a logjam of good running backs with the additions of Hyde and Chubb, brought in three solid cornerbacks in free agency and acquired the best coverage cornerback in the draft (Ward). Three new offensive linemen give the Browns one of the deepest blocking walls in the NFL, and they added Landry, arguably the best possession receiver in the league.

Seifert: New York Jets. Stay with me for a moment. There is no doubt that the Browns have raised their talent level more from 2017 to 2018. But they also had the furthest to go. The Jets’ drafting of quarterback Sam Darnold establishes a long-term focus for what was already a decently talented roster. For the first time in six years, the Jets know whom they’re building around. Don’t underestimate the value in that, even if Darnold doesn’t make a huge impact in 2018.

Yates: Cleveland Browns. From a talent-added standpoint relative to where the team was last season, Cleveland takes the cake. That, of course, includes the fact that this team was historically bad in 2017, becoming just the second to go 0-16. The Browns have cultivated a short- and long-term plan at quarterback and talent across the offense, and they reshaped the secondary.

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Cliff Avril says Seattle Seahawks ‘began questioning’ Pete Carroll after Super Bowl interception

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Cliff Avril said during a recent podcast that some of his former Seahawks teammates “began questioning” coach Pete Carroll after Seattle’s last-minute Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.

Avril, who was released by the Seahawks earlier this month, discussed the conclusion of Super Bowl XLIX during a podcast Thursday with NFL Network, adding that Seattle would have won at least one more championship under Carroll if not for Malcolm Butler‘s goal-line interception.

The Seahawks were closing in on a second consecutive Super Bowl victory when, trailing by four points, they advanced the ball to the Patriots’ 1-yard line with 26 seconds remaining. But rather than run the ball with five-time Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch, Carroll called for a pass from Russell Wilson, who was picked off by Butler.

“I do think the team would have bought in more to what Coach Carroll was saying,” Avril said, “instead of going the opposite way of, ‘Hey, this is what we thought the foundation of the team was.’ That’s not what happened in that particular play.

“So I think guys started questioning him more, more so than actually following his lead if we would have won that Super Bowl.”

ESPN reported in 2017 that Butler’s interception and Carroll’s approach with Wilson were the sources of tension within Seattle’s locker room, specifically with veteran defensive players like star cornerback Richard Sherman. Avril seemed to confirm some of those aspects Thursday, citing “the message” of the defining play from the Super Bowl loss.

“The situation sucked regardless of who took the blame,” Avril said. “It’s just the fact that we were so close and we weren’t able to get it, so I think a lot of guys got turned off by the message.”

Carroll, Wilson and Sherman all publicly denied any internal strife at different points last year. The Seahawks went 9-7 and missed the playoffs in 2017, ending a streak of five straight postseason appearances under Carroll. Avril and Sherman both have been released this offseason by the Seahawks, which also traded veteran defensive lineman Michael Bennett.

Avril, 32, reflected Thursday on his five-year stint with the Seahawks and on Butler’s pivotal interception.

“Sometimes it’s tough, because two [championships] is better than one, obviously,” he said. “You think about what could have happened. If we win that Super Bowl, I think we probably would have won another one within the two years that went by.”

Avril was released by the Seahawks with a failed physical designation on May 4. His football future had been in doubt since he suffered a career-threatening neck/spine injury in October, causing him to miss the final 12 games of the season.

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Josh Freeman retires from CFL, leaving Montreal Alouettes

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TAMPA, Fla. — Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has decided to retire from the CFL, the Montreal Alouettes announced Saturday.

Freeman, 30, signed a two-year deal with the Alouettes in January, in an attempt to resurrect his once-promising NFL career. But he found himself at the bottom of the depth chart one week into their training camp.

“We would like to thank Josh for his work and dedication. He was a consummate professional throughout camp,” Alouettes general manager Kavis Reed said in a statement. “We respect his decision and we wish him the best in the future.”

Freeman’s last NFL action came in 2015, when he started one regular-season game for the Indianapolis Colts, throwing for 149 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Freeman was touted as the Bucs’ first true franchise quarterback and started 59 games for Tampa Bay. His best season came in 2012, when he threw for 4,065 yards with 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

The following season, amid on-field struggles, concerns about his personal life and a highly publicized rift with then-coach Greg Schiano, Freeman was released after three games.

Freeman also had stints with the Minnesota Vikings in 2013, New York Giants in 2014, and Miami Dolphins and Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League in 2015.



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Moubarak Djeri’s journey to Cardinals spans three continents – Arizona Cardinals Blog

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Four years ago, when Moubarak Djeri was starting his career with the Cologne Crocodiles of the German Football League, he first brought up the idea of playing in the NFL with coach Patrick Kopper.

Kopper was supportive, but warned the then-18-year-old that he needed to be realistic. It was going to be hard. NFL players were bigger, faster and stronger, and to compete with them, Djeri would have to work out “like a beast.”

But Kopper didn’t try to dissuade Djeri from chasing his dream.

“I know they are big, but why not?” Djeri remembered saying then. “Why not to try? Why say right now, no and all this stuff. Why not to try?”

Djeri’s pursuit of the NFL, with a wide-eyed naiveté, ultimately served him well. In March, he went from playing for free with the Crocodiles to a tryout and, ultimately, a contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

Crocodiles offensive coordinator David Odenthal, a native German who grew up playing for the club before receiving a scholarship to play at the University of Toledo and who spent time in two NFL camps before playing in NFL Europe, loved Djeri’s optimism.

“I like and liked the way he thinks about it,” Odenthal said. “He doesn’t know or doesn’t care about all the things that go on about playing in the NFL. He didn’t know how hard it actually is and that makes him so special. I know he meant it when he said it.”

Odenthal and other Crocodiles coaches started preparing Djeri for the long road ahead of him. They peppered him with stories of going through two-a-days in NFL Europe followed by meetings all night. All it did was motivate Djeri.

“I said, ‘OK, if they both have to work that hard to play in the NFL Europe, I have to work more to be in the NFL,'” Djeri said. “And I started working out every day like for four, five hours.”

Two years ago, Odenthal told Djeri that if he continued to work hard, he would help him get to America to play football. Odenthal had an in. He not only played college football and in NFL Europe, but he had two connections to the Cardinals. He had been scouted by Arizona’s current general manager, Steve Keim, while at Toledo, and he had developed a relationship with Ryan Gold, a Cardinals scout, when Gold was an assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts. Gold had recruited two of Odenthal’s offensive linemen.

But, two years later, Djeri was still waiting for a bite from the NFL.

In the meantime, teams around Europe had started recruiting him. And they were able to offer him something the Crocodiles couldn’t: money. They saw the potential in Djeri, a 6-foot-4, 268-pound player who showed burst off the edge and enough speed to get into backfields as well as track down receivers past the line of scrimmage.

The allure of getting paid for the first time in his football career at age 22, four years in, was tempting.

“With this payment, I can help my family,” Djeri told ESPN.

What Djeri didn’t know was Gold had reached out to Odenthal in September to see if he had any interesting prospects. Odenthal mentioned Djeri.

Djeri’s film was passed around the Cardinals’ scouting department and, Gold said, the team thought there was an upside.

Gold liked Djeri’s foot speed, natural bend and power. But what was most enticing to the Cardinals was that since Djeri hadn’t gone to college, he was, in the NFL’s eyes, a free agent and not a draft-eligible prospect. So if the Cardinals were interested in signing him, they could bring him in for a tryout and not risk losing him in the draft.

And that’s what they did.

***

Djeri was 6 years old and living in Togo, a small West African country, when he saw American football on TV for the first time.

He instantly fell in love.

Like any kid enthralled with a new sport, he went straight to his mother and asked to play. He doesn’t think she knew what the sport was at the time, but she still gave him a resounding “no.” Her reasons for not letting him play fell in line with those of many American parents today: “You’re going to get hurt,” she told him.

“Like moms are,” Djeri said.

For the next five years, Djeri continued to watch American football on TV with a child’s wonderment.

Then Djeri — 11 at the time — his mother and his four siblings moved to Germany to reunite with his father, whom Djeri said he hadn’t really know. He asked to play football again after they moved, but this time both parents nixed the idea, and he started playing the other football — soccer. Djeri stuck with the sport for seven years, but he started to outgrow the other kids on the pitch. He was too physical, and all that contact quickly led to penalty cards, so his coaches put him in net. He flourished as a goalkeeper, leading his team to a league championship.

But Djeri wasn’t satisfied. European football wasn’t cutting it. He still wanted to play the football he had grown up watching on TV.

So he did what any younger sibling would do: He went to his older brother to plead his case to play American football. Djeri’s brother, six years his elder, told him he would cover for Djeri with their parents if Djeri wanted to try.

Djeri, 18 at the time, had gotten his chance, but he would have to play covertly. And he did, until one day his mother saw him with his pads. She asked what they were, and Djeri confessed to playing football behind her back. She wasn’t pleased. Djeri bargained with her. He had a game on Sunday that week, he told her, and he wanted her to come to it. If she still didn’t like that he was playing, he’d quit. If she liked it, he’d continue.

She went.

And she never stopped going to a home game.

“She’s come to support me and watch me. That’s the big motivation I had,” Djeri said. “My family supports me, too. My big brother supports me in what I do, but right now my mom’s coming, and after that my dad.

“My mom loved that I played football.”

***

Djeri’s tryout with the Cardinals lasted 15 minutes.

Cardinals defensive-line coach Don Johnson put Djeri through a set of drills that tested his mental and physical mettle. Arizona wanted to know how Djeri could handle a hard workout and what kind of shape he was in.

“I was so nervous,” Djeri said. “In the tryout, I couldn’t breathe.”

He took a few big deep breaths, and then the tryout began. At one point, Djeri felt like he was blacking out, but refused to stop. He wanted to show the Cardinals how badly he wanted to play in the NFL.

When it was over, Djeri started crying.

“I said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it better.’ He said, ‘No, take a shower. We’re going to talk after,'” Djeri remembered. “I was in the locker room and I started crying. I said, ‘Damn, I missed it.’ After that, coach came in. He said, ‘Hey, you made it well. We like your get-off.’ I thought I didn’t make it good.

“He said, ‘We would like to make you an Arizona Cardinal.’ I was like, ‘OK, stop crying, stop crying.’”

The Cardinals signed Djeri to a three-year deal. If he makes the team, he’ll make $480,000 this year, $570,000 next year and $660,000 in 2020.

When Odenthal found out Djeri had been signed, he got goosebumps and tears filled his eyes.

“From Day 1, I knew he will be something special,” Kopper said. “He is absolutely fearless and gives everything he has on every single down. He loves the game from the bottom of his heart.”

Djeri’s journey to the NFL is just beginning. But the 22-year-old is used to starting from scratch and fighting the odds. Cardinals coach Steve Wilks called him a project. But Djeri has been making strides. After a few weeks on the field, Djeri said the biggest adjustment has been the tempo. That’s to be expected for someone who’s not just new to the NFL but new to the American style of football.

Djeri isn’t satisfied with getting a tryout or getting signed. He wants to make the Cardinals’ 53-man roster.

“I say I have to think that I can make it,” Djeri said. “If I think I couldn’t make it then I’m never going to make it. If I think I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it or not.

“I don’t want to say it’s easy because it’s a competition. I’m hoping and I try my best to make the team, and that’s why I’m here. At the end of the offseason program, I want to be on the field and I want to play.”

Gold likes what he’s seen from Djeri, but there’s work to be done.

“I think he’s going to just have to keep getting better,” Gold said of Djeri making the team. “He’s going to have good days and bad days — learn from the bad and don’t get too excited about the good ones.”

When Djeri got the contract offer from the Cardinals in March, he said he felt like a weight was lifted off of him. It has been 16 years since he first saw a football game, 11 years since he asked to play in Germany and four years since his brother covered for him as he began playing.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I made it.'”

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