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Roller-coaster seasons of Sam Darnold and Josh Allen collide – AFC East

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When the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills meet on Sunday at New Era Field, it will be the first meeting of starting quarterbacks drafted in the 2018 class: the Jets’ Sam Darnold and the Bills’ Josh Allen. (When the Jets and Browns met in Week 3, No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield replaced an injured Tyrod Taylor and finished the game, beating Darnold and the Jets.) Three weeks ago, when the Bills beat the Jets 41-10, Matt Barkley started for the Bills and Josh McCown for the Jets.

Darnold, the No. 3 pick, had a strong start to the season but hit a midseason rough patch and has been out for the past month with a foot injury. He’s expected to return Sunday. Allen, the No. 7 pick, also missed time — four weeks — with an elbow injury, but since coming back he’s led the Bills to a home win over the Jaguars and was one pass away from upsetting the Dolphins last Sunday in Miami.

NFL Nation writers Rich Cimini and Mike Rodak analyze the matchup and examine the roller-coaster seasons for both rookie quarterbacks:

Best moment

Cimini: With Joe Namath and the 1968 Super Bowl champions in the house for their 50-year reunion, Darnold played his best game of the year in a 42-34 victory over the Colts in Week 6. He threw for two touchdowns and passed for 280 yards — an average of 9.3 per attempt, a full yard better than Namath’s mark in the magical ’68 season. The best part of Darnold’s game? He won with his mind as much as his arm, carefully dissecting the Colts’ zone-based defense with smart decisions.

Rodak: A 75-yard touchdown pass to undrafted rookie wide receiver Robert Foster in a Week 12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. One of the main appeals of Allen coming out of the draft was his rare arm strength, which was showcased when Allen made this throw 43 yards in the air to Foster despite being sandwiched by two defenders as the pocket collapsed. There were plenty of questions about how Allen’s raw talent would translate from the Mountain West Conference to the NFL, but this was one sign that he could successfully make the jump.

Worst moment

Cimini: Week 1, Play 1. On his first play from scrimmage, Darnold became only the third quarterback in the past 28 years to throw a pick-six on his first NFL attempt. The others: Brett Favre and Jameis Winston. Darnold did it on the road, in Detroit, which means he had to overcome a hostile environment. This was a Monday night game, and Darnold’s former college team (USC) rearranged its schedule so it could watch as a group. Talk about embarrassing. To his credit, he gathered himself and helped the Jets to a win.

Rodak: Allen being intercepted by Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander on a desperate heave in a Week 4 loss at Lambeau Field. On a third-and-5 from the Packers’ 20-yard line with 54 seconds remaining in the first half, Allen faced blitz pressure and rolled to his right, opting to launch a pass off his back foot instead of throwing the ball away or taking a sack. The pass was easily picked off in the end zone, depriving the Bills of a field-goal opportunity in a game in which they were eventually shut out. Allen trying to do too much frustrated Bills coaches.

Telling stat

Cimini: The Jets are 0-5 when Darnold attempts more than 30 passes in a game. Clearly he needs the support of a running game to be successful. If he’s throwing a lot, it means the Jets are trailing — and he hasn’t been good in late-game, catch-up situations. In fact, he has no touchdown passes and four interceptions when he gets past his 30th attempt. He’s still looking for a fourth-quarter comeback win.

Rodak: Allen has an 83.6 Total QBR in his two games since returning from injury, sixth best in the NFL. In his six games before the injury, Allen ranked 31st with a 32.2 Total QBR. Pro Football Focus also has seen a dramatic turnaround from Allen, who has been their top-graded quarterback the past two weeks after ranking 34th before his injury. Allen has passed the eye test in the past two games, even though his passing stats — 26-of-52 for 391 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a 78.3 passer rating — have been pedestrian.

Biggest surprise

Cimini: Darnold is a better athlete than the pre-draft scouting reports suggested. Look, he never will be confused with Michael Vick — or Josh Allen, for that matter — but Darnold moves nicely within the pocket, throws well on the run and can make yards in scramble situations. He has one rushing touchdown and 10 rushing first downs — not bad for nine games.

Rodak: Allen’s rushing ability. Allen rushed for 523 yards as a sophomore at Wyoming in 2016 and his scouting report acknowledged his willingness to make plays with his legs. However, he has exceeded expectations in rushing at the NFL level, particularly in the past two weeks. Allen has scrambled four times for 20 yards or more and has 234 rushing yards in the past two weeks. Those are the most rushing yards for a quarterback in a two-game span since Green Bay’s Tobin Rote had 281 in 1951.

Offseason addition that would be the biggest help

Cimini: Darnold needs playmakers around him. Right now, the Jets don’t have any game-changing players on offense. When Darnold was at his best in college (2016), he had an ultra-quick wide receiver who could separate quickly: JuJu Smith-Schuster. There could be a player of that ilk in the upcoming draft in Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, who has dynamic speed. In free agency, the Jets are expected to pursue running back Le’Veon Bell, a dual threat who would add versatility and explosiveness to the offense.

Rodak: A legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. Allen inherited Kelvin Benjamin, whom the Bills acquired in a trade last season. However, Benjamin failed to live up to his billing as a top receiver, lacking the ability to separate from defenders and not showing consistent ability to make contested catches. Before the Bills released Benjamin on Tuesday, he was averaging only 1.7 yards of separation on his targets this season, according to NFL NextGen Stats, the lowest mark in the NFL among players with at least 50 targets. Expect the Bills to look at receivers in both free agency and the draft.

Which QB has improved the most

Cimini: There’s no debate here. It’s Allen, who has displayed signs of progress since returning from an elbow injury. Darnold was actually regressing at the time of his foot injury (seven interceptions in three games), which makes these last four games so important. If he can finish on an upswing, it would provide a small spark as the Jets head into what figures to be a turbulent offseason. If Darnold fizzles, it won’t change the way the organization feels about him. It still loves his upside.

Rodak: Allen, although Darnold will have a chance to make a similar comeback post-injury. Allen’s performance has been night-and-day since his elbow injury, which could partly be the result of the Bills replacing backup Nathan Peterman with more experienced voices in Derek Anderson and Matt Barkley. Allen also has avoided making cringe-worthy mistakes, such as his interception against the Packers, which plagued him earlier in the season. He must still become a more accurate passer on high-percentage throws in which he lacks touch.

Who is better set up for success?

Cimini: Tough call here. Let’s be honest: Neither player is surrounded by playoff-caliber talent. The edge probably goes to Allen, if only because of the continuity factor. Barring something unforeseen, he’ll have the same coordinator and same playbook for 2019, providing a nice foundation. Darnold? He’ll be starting over because the Jets are expected to blow up their coaching staff. He might be better in the long run, especially if they hire a quarterback whisperer, but it’s hard to say that until it actually happens. As of now, there are many uncertainties in Darnold’s football future.

Rodak: The coaching and front-office situation around Allen is undoubtedly more stable than what is around Darnold in New York. Bills coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have job security that certainly is not shared by Jets GM Mike Maccagnan or especially coach Todd Bowles. Where the Jets could have an advantage is in acquiring talent this offseason. The Jets are currently projected to draft third overall, while the Bills are expected to draft No. 11, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Jets, with $89 million, are the only team with more projected 2019 cap space than Buffalo ($83 million).

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As season’s end nears, no surprise by league’s top rookie – NFL Nation

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We’re almost to the end of the regular season, with multiple teams jockeying for playoff position. Many of those teams will rely on rookies in major roles. That includes the Los Angeles Chargers and top rookie Derwin James.

From game analysis and discussions with personnel evaluators, here’s a look at the top 10 rookies so far this season.

Top 10 (stats are Weeks 1-15 combined)

Stats: 93 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs

Previous ranking: 1

As the Chargers make a push for home-field advantage in the AFC — the team has won 10 of its past 11 games — James continues to be the most versatile option defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can move anywhere in the formation. Some opposing offensive coaches have tracked him at five different positions as they prepared to play the Chargers.

Stats: 146 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT

Previous ranking: 2

He was credited with 11 tackles, including one for loss, and knocked down passes in the Colts’ 23-0 win over the Dallas Cowboys — the first time the Cowboys had been shut out since 2003. The guy has sacked the quarterback once in every four times he has rushed, and he added a recovery of a blocked field goal to his résumé in the win over the Cowboys.

Stats: 51 tackles, 12 sacks, 2 FF

Previous ranking: 3

The Broncos have asked Chubb to hold the edge in the run game, and he has dropped into coverage from time to time as well. He has usually been assignment-sound in all he has been told to do, and he continues to impact things in the rush. He needs 2.5 sacks in the last two games to tie Jevon Kearse’s rookie record set in 1999.

4. QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 3,065 yards passing, 21 TDs, 11 INTs

Previous ranking: 4

The Browns are clinging to wafer-thin playoff chances with four wins in the past five games, including Saturday night, when the Broncos held Mayfield to 18-of-31 passing. But Mayfield went 4-of-4 for 39 yards and a touchdown on what turned out to be the game-winning drive early in the fourth quarter.

Stats: 1,155 yards rushing, 13 total TDs

Previous ranking: 5

Barkley was held to 31 yards rushing by the Titans this past Sunday — his second-lowest rushing total of the season — but his 170 yards rushing on just 14 carries in Week 14 were a season best.

Stats: 108 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT

Previous ranking: 9

Rare athleticism and savvy have been consistently on display in a Bears defense that locked down the Rams in Week 14 and is now among the league’s top four in scoring defense, total defense, sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions. Khalil Mack gets much of the attention, but Smith has had a huge role in Chicago’s run to the divisional title.

Stats: 117 tackles, 7 PD, 2 INTs

Previous ranking: 7

Vander Esch has already set the team’s record for tackles by a rookie, and the Cowboys will now try to work Sean Lee back into the lineup (Lee’s hamstring injury forced Vander Esch into a starting role). Lee played seven snaps against the Colts on Sunday — his first game since Nov. 5 — but Vander Esch has been key in the Cowboys’ push to win the NFC East.

Stats: 991 yards rushing, 10 total TDs

Previous ranking: 6

In back-to-back Broncos losses, Lindsay was held to 30 and 24 yards rushing, but the body of work remains top-shelf this season. He’s fifth in the league in rushing, and his 5.4 yards per carry average is second in the league among qualifying backs.

Stats: No sacks allowed in six games

Previous ranking: 10

Nelson continues to draw raves from personnel executives around the league for his ability to finish. He has had some flags — nine penalties this season — but his awareness in and out of double-teams to go with his power at the point of attack is a rare combination.

10. CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 48 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INTs

Previous ranking: 8

Ward missed the past two games and most of a third with a concussion. Browns interim coach Gregg Williams said Monday that Ward remains in the league’s concussion protocol.

Close but not quite (totals are for 15 weeks)

49ers RT Mike McGlinchey (no holding penalties in 14 starts); Bengals S Jessie Bates (98 tackles, 3 INTs); Browns RB Nick Chubb (860 yards rushing, 5.2 yards per carry, 10 total TDs); Panthers CB Donte Jackson (62 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 sack); Texans S Justin Reid (75 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 TD); Packers CB Jaire Alexander (62 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PD); Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds (98 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 FF); 49ers LB Fred Warner (105 tackles, 1 FF); Falcons WR Calvin Ridley (56 catches, 699 yards, 8 TDs); Steelers S Terrell Edmunds (68 tackles, 4 PD); Giants DT B.J. Hill (45 tackles, 5 sacks); Titans LB Rashaan Evans (44 tackles, 2 TFL); Dolphins S Minkah Fitzpatrick (73 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 TD); Ravens T Orlando Brown Jr. (just three penalties); Titans LB Harold Landry (37 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks).

Kickers need love, too

Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson, who was waived by the Vikings after missing three kicks in Week 2, continues to make the most of his second act. Carlson missed his second field goal attempt with the Raiders — a 45-yard attempt that hit the right upright in a Week 9 loss to the San Francisco 49ers — but he hasn’t missed since. He was 3-of-3 this past Sunday.

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Devin Bush of Michigan Wolverines to miss Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, enter NFL draft

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Michigan linebacker Devin Bush announced Wednesday that he will miss the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl because of a hip injury and is forgoing his senior season to enter April’s NFL draft.

Bush is ranked as the No. 8 prospect available for the draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and the No. 10 prospect by Todd McShay.

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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz had separate stress fracture in back found his freshman year

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PHILADELPHIA – Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz had a separate stress fracture in his back that was discovered his freshman year at North Dakota State, according to a league source.

The injury was from his adolescence and was completely healed by the time he was in college, and is unrelated to Wentz’s current injury, the source said.

Wentz’s medical report, given to teams at the NFL Scouting Combine prior to the 2016 NFL Draft, referred to a healed stress fracture in his back, the Philadelphia Daily News first reported. While it was discovered in college, a league source clarified that the stress fracture had occurred prior to his playing days at North Dakota State. Wentz was a redshirt freshman when the fracture was discovered and it did not impact him on the collegiate level.

It also did not affect his draft stock, as he was selected No. 2 overall by the Eagles.

The current stress fracture was discovered following a CT scan last Tuesday, according to Eagles coach Doug Pederson. Wentz sat out last week’s game at the Los Angeles Rams and it appears he’ll be sidelined again Sunday, as Pederson has named Nick Foles the starter for the Eagles’ upcoming game against the Houston Texans.

“He’ll be listed as week-to-week. We will not put him on [injured reserve],” Pederson said of Wentz. “Obviously when he’s healthy, he’s our quarterback and we’ll go from there.”

Wentz was first listed on the injury report with a back issue in late October. He was feeling better symptom-wise as the season progressed, evidence of a healing process already underway, a source said.

Pederson noted the recovery period could be about three months, though that is not set in stone. Optimism remains that Wentz, who is coming off multiligament knee surgery, will not be hampered by the back issue long-term.

“The fact that he doesn’t need surgery on this, I mean, is the best news that you could possibly have on anybody that has a stress fracture or a stress injury in this case,” Pederson said last week. “As long as we take the proper steps to make sure that all our players are 100 percent, then [there is no long-term concern].”

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