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According to Spotrac, the Green Bay Packers spent just over $94 million in cash at the quarterback position since 2013, good for eighth-most in the NFL.

A little under $87 million of the Packers’ spending has been on Aaron Rodgers.

The Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco’s contract led cheap authentic jerseys the league, having spent almost $120 million on quarterbacks the last five seasons.

Surprisingly, the Chicago Bears have spent over $102 million on quarterbacks since 2013, which is about $8 million more than the Packers. Jay Cutler earned nearly $63 million from the Bears in that window, and just last year the Bears signed Mike Glennon, who earned almost $20 million in cash before being released this year.

The Detroit Lions are second on the list at $119.4 million.

Sam Bradford appeared on the “top earner” list with three different teams – the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings – underlining Bradford’s fortuitous draft position (pre-rookie wage scale) and free agency leverage.

The Tennessee Titans have spent the last cash on quarterbacks over the last five years.

The Packers will surely creep up that list once Aaron Rodgers signs a new contract extension, which is imminent once Kirk Cousins lands somewhere and resets the market.
Still, despite all the money Rodgers has made, the Packers’ ranking demonstrates the value the front office has achieved throughout the years. Rodgers’ contract has been a bargain, relatively speaking.

Before Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees sign with their respective clubs this offseason, might Aaron Rodgers beat them toward setting the market rate?

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The Green Bay Packers are making progress on signing Rodgers to a new contract, Packers president Mark Murphy told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky on Tuesday. Murphy added that new general manager Brian Gutekunst and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball are both involved in the negotiations.

“We’ve had discussions with his representative,” Murphy explained. “I have a lot of confidence in Brian and Russ and Aaron as well. We want to create a win-win.”

Gutekunst added on Wednesday that the teams hopes to “hammer out” an extension this offseason.
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Rodgers has two years left on a five-year, $110 extension signed in 2013. When he inked the pact, he was the league’s highest-paid player. Now? Not so much. Currently, that man is Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M); before him, Matthew Stafford ($27M); and before him, Derek Carr ($25M). All three quarterbacks have received new mega-deals within the past calendar year.

If Rodgers were to sign before free agency opened on March 14, or at least before prospective free agents Cousins and Bress sign their new contracts, he would have the opportunity to own the short-termed title of “highest-paid player in the NFL.”

Rodgers is slated to make around $20M in each of the final two years of his deal. The Packers rank in the bottom 10 teams in cap space heading into free agency with around $19.3M to spare.

The 34-year-old future Hall of Famer has stated before that he wants to play into his 40s, and if mounting injuries don’t slow him down, he could certainly do so, and at a high clip; like Rodgers might set the market for free-agent QBs, Patriots QB Tom Brady has set the standard for aging greats.

How Green Bay treats Rodgers in this impending deal will explain what the franchise, and its new brass, will value going into the back third of his career.

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Editor’s note: Our analysts are constantly talking to NFL and college sources about prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. This week, NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein shares some of what he’s hearing from NFL folks about two of the draft’s top defensive prospects.

The scoop: “Good luck with your player comp on this one. They don’t come like him. I don’t think there has ever been a linebacker that has had his size and speed. You’re better off comping him with a basketball player.” — NFC scout on Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds

The skinny: There is no denying that Edmunds is one of the most unique linebackers we’ve ever seen when you take into account his rare combination of size and speed. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, it’s close to impossible to find another linebacker with his physical traits. However, I feel like I came pretty close with Brian Urlacher.
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Urlacher measured nearly 6-4, 258 at the combine when he was a prospect out of New Mexico in 2000. Urlacher is a member of this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class, so any comparison to him is a lofty one, but Edmunds has the traits and talent to become one of the best linebackers in the game.

The scoop: “He’s only going to play for 4-3, upfield teams as a three-technique. That’s the only place that works for him. He’s got a get-off that is crazy fast and if he gets with the right coordinator, he’s going to be tough to block.” — AFC scout on Michigan DT Maurice Hurst

The skinny: I doubt we will find anyone who disagrees with this scout when it comes to a fit for Hurst. There are mock drafts, including my first mock of the year, that have the Cowboys taking Hurst at No. 19 overall, which would make sense considering their needs and the pairing with Rod Marinelli, who loves upfield, disruptive tackles. My only concern for Hurst is that he lacks mass and can get bounced around a little bit along the interior. However, as long as he’s penetrating up the field and wreaking havoc, I think defensive coordinators can live with those issues.

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For a second, forget whether Brian Urlacher will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

A less pressing question on the minds of many Chicagoans is easier to answer: Whenever Urlacher gets enshrined, will the bronze bust in Canton, Ohio, reflect him with or without hair that returned thanks to a recent transplant?

“If I go in, there will be no hair on the bust,” said Urlacher, the face on all those “Restore” billboards along I-294. “I played my whole career bald, so it would be bald. That would be a nice problem to have.”

Urlacher will find out Saturday, when a panel of 48 voters meets to select five players among 15 finalists for the 2018 Hall of Fame class. In 13 seasons for the Bears from 2000 to 2012, Urlacher revolutionized the middle linebacker position in coach Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 defense. If anybody deserves induction in his first year of eligibility, it is the franchise’s most significant player in the post-1985 era.

Not that Urlacher gets caught up with labels or calendars.

“When people say you’re a Hall of Famer, they don’t always say he’s a first-ballot because, to me, if you’re in the Hall of Fame, that’s a pretty freaking big deal, regardless,” said Urlacher, who will be in Minneapolis in case he receives good news. “It’d be sweet to go in on first ballot, but any time would be awesome. Whatever happens, happens. I’m not really nervous. My numbers aren’t going to change.”

Putting those numbers into context for the selectors falls on the shoulders of longtime NFL writer Dan Pompei, the former Tribune staffer who now works for Bleacher Report and The Athletic. They huddled last month.

“I have complete trust in Dan,” Urlacher said. “He was there for my entire career and asked me what I wanted to be said. If it comes down to my presentation, I feel good about getting in.”

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Leave it to Calais Campbell, a wise, old soul in the Jaguars locker room, to put the fender bender involving star rookie Leonard Fournette into perspective.

Tuesday’s incident may have raised the anxiety level in Jacksonville as Fournette was rammed from behind on I-295 — by a Steelers fan no less.

No one was injured, but Fournette’s Mercedes-Maybach 6, an exotic coupe, was totaled.

“That’s why I don’t have a Maybach,” Campbell told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “Something goes wrong, and it costs you as much as a regular car to get fixed.”

Campbell was relieved to see the first-round tailback shortly after the accident when they crossed paths at a treatment facility away from Jags headquarters.

“That’s my little brother, man,” Campbell said. “I’m glad he’s OK, because you get worried sometimes. In this world, things happen just like that. I’m glad it was something small. He said, ‘I was more worried about the car.’ ”

The connection with Fournette illustrates just one layer of the influence that Campbell, 31, has had on a young team that blossomed into division champions on its way to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

The Jaguars lured the veteran defensive lineman from the Arizona Cardinals last spring as a free agent. He’s not only performed at a spectacular level — named NFL defensive player of the year Wednesday by the Pro Football Writers of America — but he quickly established himself as a leader.
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Fournette’s stall is adjacent to Campbell’s locker, and it has made a difference — even for a running back long ticketed for stardom.

“Words of encouragement, every day,” Fournette told USA TODAY Sports. “Even on the days you don’t feel like practicing, he’ll tell us how much we need it. He shows you how to be a professional.”

Pro football is basically a young man’s game, and Campbell is one of just four players on Jacksonville’s 53-man roster who’s at least 30. But Every team needs someone like him. As the Jags built this team — it includes a phenomenal defense, infused with high draft picks in recent years — it was essential to mix in veterans who could produce while being role models.

“For him to come in — and, in a short period of time, create the types of relationships that he has — was not automatic,” fourth-year receiver Marqise Lee told USA TODAY Sports. “I can honestly tell you, building relationships with this team ain’t easy, just with the characters that certain people are.”

Lee lockers on the other side of Campbell and admits, “For me to befriend Calais was very different.”

Like Fournette, though, he vouches for the impact that comes with seeing the 10th-year stalwart on a daily basis, with consistent messages about expectations for the team and individually.

“You know like back in the day,” said Lee, 26, “when you sit down and listen to your uncle? And he tells you all the crazy stories about the things he’s been through? That’s the type of person Calais is. He’s just your old uncle.”

Campbell said one of the reasons he came to Jacksonville, after strongly considering the Denver Broncos, was a sense that he would join a team trending upward but could draw on his experience.

“God put it in my gut to come here,” he said. “And now I’m taking advantage of my opportunities to school the young guys.”

And the people who thought he was crazy for not joining an already established Broncos defense?

“I don’t say anything,” he replied. “I’m happy with the decision I made. I look like a genius now.”

That was Marcell Dareus’ impression after Jacksonville obtained the former first-round defensive tackle from the Buffalo Bills in October, shortly before the trade deadline. Dareus recalled how Campbell was the first new teammate to reach out. Then Campbell went a step further, sending Dareus his address and cutting short his bye week to fly back to Jacksonville while inviting Dareus over.

They talked extensively, with Campbell briefing Dareus about team culture, locker room personalities, coaching styles and the playbook.

“It was insightful,” said Dareus.

“(Campbell) means well and wants the best for everyone. I love that about him.”

The leadership is bolstered by the numbers.

In Campbell’s first game with Jacksonville, he set a team record with four sacks at Houston. He wound up setting the franchise’s single-season mark with 14½. He is arguably the NFL’s most versatile D-lineman, starting at right end but lining up at all four spots along the line, creating matchup havoc.

“Calais is a beast,” linebacker Myles Jack told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve seen him collapse a whole pocket by himself. I’ve seen him close two gaps. If you put him on the edge, he can beat the guy off the corner. If you put him in the middle, he can walk the center back to the quarterback. In my opinion, Calais is really unstoppable.”

And worth listening to. Especially now.

Sure, it would take a huge upset to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots on their own turf. But Campbell has been in this spot before with the Cardinals, having won and lost conference title games.

Words of wisdom?

“Live in the moment,” he said.

“You just want to lose yourself in the moment, give it your all, focus and sell out. And may the best team win.”

Way back in the sweltering days of July, Calais Campbell talked about the Jaguars as a Super Bowl threat.

After getting a feel for Jacksonville’s roster, the free-agent addition pointed to a team with “all the pieces are in place,” and told NFL Network he planned to “lead Jacksonville to a Super Bowl.”

Those comments were largely laughed off — although not to Campbell’s face, seeing as he’s a massively ferocious pass-rushing game-wrecker — but today his analysis looms as prescient.

The Jaguars are one game away from a Lombardi showdown, with only the mighty Patriots in their way.

On Wednesday, Campbell laughed off the thought that Jacksonville should simply be happy to have come this far.

“That’s silly to me,” Campbell said, per the team’s official website. “We have earned the right to be here. We have put a lot of time and effort in so this is an opportunity we feel like we deserve and we have prepared for. I can honestly say I expected to be here.”

Here’s where we remind you that Campbell also predicted Jacksonville would knock out the Steelers by the score of 45-42, a forecast no longer giggled at in Pittsburgh.

No predictions this time around from the star defensive end, but the Jaguars aren’t cowed by the idea of facing New England.

“They say you have to beat the best to be the best,” Campbell said. “So I can’t wait to get out there and try.”

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The new brain trust of the Green Bay Packers will probably have to make a difficult decision regarding two veteran wide receivers in the next few months.

Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb?

It’s hard to envision both being back in 2018.

Both are entering the final year of their deals and both will count over $12 million on the salary cap next season. Maybe most importantly, it appears both are best suited for playing primarily from the slot – making it even more likely that the Packers will have to pick one or the other.
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Nelson turns 33 in May and is coming off his worst statistical season since he became a full-time starter. He averaged 9.1 yards per catch and finished with nine straight games under 40 yards receiving. Losing Aaron Rodgers hurt his numbers, but it’s clear he’s lost speed and his ability to consistently get open as a perimeter receiver. Maximizing his value might require a full-time move to the slot. It worked for Larry Fitzgerald, and it can work for Nelson, who will count $12.5 million on the cap in 2018.

Cobb is much younger — he turns 28 in August — but his last three years have been underwhelming. Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Cobb has averaged 10.2 yards per catch, 4.7 catches per game and 47.5 receiving yards per game. That’s not quite the return on investment the Packers were hoping when he returned to Green Bay on a four-year, $40 million deal after his impressive 2014 season. At 5-foot-10, Cobb operates almost solely from the slot. He’s scheduled to take up $12.7 million on the cap next season.

New general manager Brian Gutekunst, cap manager Russ Ball and coach Mike McCarthy will have to figure out what to do with the two receivers for 2018.

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Nelson was productive in the slot down the stretch in 2016 and remains a top target in the red zone when Rodgers is healthy. However, he offered little after the catch in 2017, and his age suggests he’s only going to get easier to cover and easier to bring down in future years, cutting into his potential value in the slot.

Cobb is younger than Nelson by several years, but he’s played a lot of football and absorbed plenty of big hits over his first seven seasons. He’s an old 27. Then again, his quickness and ability to make tacklers miss fit the traditional mold of a slot receiver. Good things often happen when the ball is consistently finding No. 18.

It’s possible Nelson or Cobb could agree to restructure and make the Packers more comfortable with keeping the other at his current price. Maybe both receivers are willing to restructure to stay with Rodgers. Reworking Nelson’s deal would seem to be the more likely option, as Cobb is younger and likely capable of securing another decent contract on the open market.

In the end, McCarthy has to determine the better fit for his offense, Ball will crunch the numbers for the salary cap, and Gutekunst will make the final call. More than likely, the result will be one receiver taking a pay cut and the other finding a new home.

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If you’ve watched Dre Butler play football and basketball this year, you’d probably assume that the he would have a tough decision to make.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior is every bit as graceful and light on his feet on the basketball court as he is aggressive and Ferocious in a three-point stance on the gridiron. And he had the scholarship offers from both sports to prove it.

But when it came down to it, Butler says the choice wasn’t difficult at all. He picked football, namely, Chattanooga-Tennessee. And for the power forward-slash-defensive end, it all came down to him analyzing his own upside.

“At first when I started, it was a tough decision,” Butler said. “But as my recruitment started picking up, things went more toward football. I love basketball and I love football. I don’t have a favorite sport. But with football, I know I have the chance to extend my career the furthest.”

Understandable. But why UTC?

“I’ve been on their radar for a long time,” he said. “They were my third offer, but ever since they offered, they’ve been contacting me, calling me every day. Texting me and seeing how I’m doing. Maybe three or four times a week. They’ve just been proving that they’re on my side.”

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Butler chose the Mocs over offers from Tennessee State and East Tennessee State, as well as basketball offers from Presbyterian and Augusta University. A power for

ward on the third-ranked Newton basketball team, Butler missed Saturday’s game against Morgan County because he was on an official visit in Chattanooga, shoring up his football future.

“It was tough to be away from my teammates,” Butler said. “Very tough. I had people calling me and showing me the game and how they pulled through. I’m proud of my boys.”
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And if the Twitter-expressed sentiments of coming from Newton’s official team Twitter page and are any indication, Rams boys basketball coach Rick Rasmussen and the rest of the team is proud of him as well.

“Congrats to Dre Butler on his verbal commitment,” the tweet said. “Found a home at UTC. Had Bball offers from DI Presbyterian and Augusta and several other (football) offers. Proud of this young man. Bright future.”

Butler’s commitment is particularly satisfying, given where he and his athletic career were around this time last year. Butler was nursing a knee injury that sidelined him from both sports he loved. In previous interviews, he discussed the difficulty of trying to navigate through not being able to showcase his talents on the field or the court.

Of course, in his absence from both sports, there was an absence of recruiting attention. But a fully healthy senior season caused his stock to rise quickly.

Butler led Newton’s defense — one with 3-star prospect and Clemson signee Darnell Jefferies — with 20 tackles for losses from his defensive end spot in 2017. He also led the team with eight quarterback sacks and over 50 total stops.

He’ll play outside linebacker at UTC, a position Butler says isn’t much different from what he’s used to.

“It’s really not a position change,” Butler said. “Defensive end is sort of like an outside backer if you’re not playing a three-technique.”

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Butler certainly isn’t playing with his future with his decision to pursue football in college instead of hoops.

“This is how I felt,” he said. “I’m a good basketball player. I can score the rock. But on the football field, with my height and size, I feel like I can be unstoppable, really. I feel I can do anything. I mean at 6-foot-5, playing power forward, I mean that’s good for high school, but probably not so much for college. I’d probably play basketball for four years in college and be done and never play beyond that. But with football, I can work my way into going to the league. I’m not just planning to go play football for four years in college and be done.”

Butler said he plans to major in sports medicine at UTC, and he’s excited to go. He called Chattanooga “a beautiful city with so many things to do,” and he fell in love with the campus on his visit.

But first thing’s first. A matter of helping his highly ranked Newton basketball make another deep run in the state tournament.

“Now I can focus on basketball and us going to win a championship,” Butler said.

Rams lineman Jordan Reed chooses Davidson

Butler wasn’t the only Newton football standout to secure his college destination. Offensive lineman Jordan Reed also took advantage of his weekend official visit and pledged his services to Davidson College just outside of Charlotte, NC.

Reed, who plans to major in physics and says that becoming an architectural engineer would “be a dream job for me,” said his affinity for Davidson begins in the classroom.

“It started off for me when I read about Davidson’s academics,” Reed said. “When I saw how good of a program they had and how good of a school they are, it impressed me. And then I got on campus and met my future teammates and coaches, and the new coaching staff they have.

“They’re all really cool guys. The people on campus are the nicest I’ve ever met. The whole time I was there, complete strangers are coming up to you and having nothing but positive things to say about the school.”

Reed, a student with a 3.8 grade point average at Newton, chose Davidson over Tuskegee, Jacksonville University, Lenoir Rhine and Grambling State. He spent time on both the Rams’ offensive and defensive lines, collecting 13 total tackles and three for losses with a quarterback sack through seven games last season.

He says that there will certainly be time to continue improving himself as a football player. But his current focus is finishing the wrestling season and strengthening his academic resume.

“I’m definitely going to try and focus on improving my grades,” he said. “I finished midyear with pretty good grades, but I want to get some of those borderline ‘As’ a little higher.”

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The New Orleans Saints will go the rest of the regular season without a key member of the defensive secondary.

Starting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro is heading to injured reserve with groin and wrist injuries, a source familiar with the situation confirmed Thursday afternoon.

Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network was the first to report the news.
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Rapoport adds Vaccaro has been dealing with a wrist injury, which will require surgery along with the groin injury.

When Vaccaro suffered the wrist injury is unclear, as the Saints did not list him on on Wednesday’s injury report, signaling he put in a full practice.

He also played on all 74 defensive snaps in Week 15 against the New York Jets.

Vaccaro originally suffered the groin injury in Week 9 and left the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first half, and he did not play in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills and Week 11 against Washington.

With Vaccaro now out of the lineup, the Saints are likely to lean heavily on second-year pro Vonn Bell to man the strong safety position alongside rookie free safety Marcus Williams.

The Saints also have safeties Chris Banjo and Rafael Bush on the active 53-man roster.

To bolster depth in the secondary, the Saints signed cornerback Sterling Moore, who can contribute in the team’s nickel package.

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The 6-foot, 214-pound Vaccaro finishes the season appearing in 12 games with 12 starts, totaling 59 tackles (47 solo), 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, seven passes defensed, a fumble recovery and a defensive touchdown.

Vaccaro, whom the Saints selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, is in the final year of his contract.

The New Orleans Saints’ improved defense suffered a blow.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported safety Kenny Vaccaro is headed to injured reserve, according to a source informed of the decision. Vaccaro has been playing with an adductor muscle (groin) completely torn off the bone and an injured wrist. He’ll undergo surgery on both, per Rapoport.

The 26-year-old safety started 12 games this season, compiling 60 tackles, seven passes defended, three interceptions and 1.5 sacks. Vaccaro missed two games earlier in the season due to the groin injury.

The Saints are deep at safety with Vonn Bell and rookie Marcus Williams. Chris Banjo and Rafael Bush are also options to rotate at the position. Corner P.J. Williams could be in line for more snaps against three-receiver sets, where Vaccaro often dropped to cover the slot.

Heading into free agency, Vaccaro had an up-and-down season while battling through injury. His versatility allowed the Saints flexibility, and for stretches he made plays — especially against the run — earning a career-high three interceptions. At other times, the safety played poorly against the pass this season and was benched in a Week 2 loss versus the Patriots. His play dropped off noticeably after the groin injury struck in early November. Pro Football Focus graded Vaccaro their 117th rated safety this season, lowest among qualifying players.

Even though Vaccaro struggled while battling through injury, his absence will harm the Saints’ best defense in memory. Since Week 3, New Orleans has allowed 18.1 points per game, 297.8 total yards per game, and an opposing passer rating of 69.4.

Injuries, however, have begun to pile up for the Super Bowl hopefuls. The Saints already placed staring defenders Alex Okafor, A.J. Klein, and Alex Anzalone on IR this season.

The Saints currently sit tied atop the NFC South, with tilts against the Falcons and Panthers to close out the season.

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Almost immediately after the Los Angeles Chargers throttled the Denver Broncos, the questions became uncomfortable. Will Trevor Siemian remain the starter? How will the team improve offensively?

In that press conference after the Broncos were shut out for the first time since 1992, Siemian looked like a prize fighter who had taken a 10-count. His nose was bloodied cheap nfl jerseys and swollen. He appeared determined, but lost in a daze after absorbing hits from Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.

What fans hoped was an aberration in an embarrassing loss to the New York Giants — a game that later prompted general manager John Elway to call his team ‘soft’ — became a pattern.

The Broncos stepped on a slippery slope and plummeted into a death spiral, losing eight straight games, and going 1-7 on the road. Watching the offense was confusing, not just for fans, but coach Vance Joseph. As the song “Rockstar” puts it eloquently: why do you have a 12-car garage if you only have six cars? That sums up my thoughts on offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s reliance on the three-wide set. All the Broncos had to do was use it, then step back and let the sacks, interceptions and fumbles begin. It led to the midseason firing of McCoy, whose reluctance to change or work in collaboration with Joseph left the Broncos straying from a run-first attack.

It was one of many low points. There were, of course, some memorable performances. My look back:

Most Valuable Player: OLB Von Miller

Honorable mention: CB Chris Harris Jr.

The quick glance at Miller’s stats reveals almost none of his excellence. He finished with 10 sacks, and zero in his last three games. However, he ranked as the most-dominant edge defender in quarterback pressures by Pro Football Focus. Opponents centered their game plan on him. They doubled him, chipped him, and directed quarterbacks to release the ball quickly to neutralize him. Not having a consistent force on the other side hurt Miller. Shaquil Barrett played well in spurts, but Shane Ray’s Pro Bowl-caliber season never materialized because of a preseason left wrist injury. Notably, Miller developed into a true leader, holding teammates accountable, while remaining positive throughout.

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Chris Harris’ versatility helps make the defense work. Like Harris himself, I prefer he moves outside and is no longer relegated to slot duty. However, that will be impossible if the team trades Aqib Talib (Again, I would love to see Talib stay on a restructured contract and eventually retire as a Bronco).

Most Valuable Offensive Player: RB C.J. Anderson
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Honorable mention: C Matt Paradis

Had the Broncos committed to the run, limiting the exposure of their quarterbacks, it’s fair to wonder if they would have been competitive. Following an offseason cycling routine, Anderson showed newfound durability to match his typical passion and grit. He produced his first 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,007 yards, averaging 4.1 per clip. Anderson faces an uncertain future in Denver. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million next season. That won’t happen. Could he return on a new deal? Perhaps. But he has zero dead money, so Denver could simply move on. Regardless, Anderson showed well, and will help somebody, somewhere next season.

Paradis has played every snap the past three seasons. This offseason will be the first in seven years where Paradis can train without worrying about his surgically-repaired hips.

Biggest Surprise: NT Domata Peko

Honorable mention: DE Adam Gotsis

Peko, 33, appeared done in his last season in Cincinnati. He told me a change in scheme contributed to his slide, and insisted he had plenty left. He was right. Peko brought energy, attitude and professionalism. The Broncos improved their run defense dramatically with Peko at the nose, allowing 89.4 yards on the ground per game compared to 130.3 last season. Peko is a keeper as the Broncos try to regain their winning culture.

Gotsis, meanwhile, took a huge step forward, adding bulk and strength. The next step is developing an inside pass rush, which has been sorely lacking since Malik Jackson’s departure in free agency two years ago.

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Least Valuable Player: QBs Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch

Honorable mention: Special teams

Listen, everyone wants to be Cy Young. Some are Sigh Young. No one is blameless in the Broncos’ 5-11 season, but the quarterback play is impossible not to single out. The inefficiency was stunning, and related in part to McCoy’s expansive playbook that was more suited for Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. The Broncos ranked 25th in touchdown passes with 19, and 31st in interceptions with 22. The quarterbacks were sacked 52 times. Siemian regressed in the new offense, and ended the season with a second straight left shoulder surgery. Brock Osweiler went 0-4 as a starter, but prevented a winless road record with a terrific relief outing against the Colts. Paxton Lynch never progressed as hoped in his sophomore season, undone by injuries and his inability to beat out Siemian in training camp.

The only reason special teams did not win the honor is because quarterback is a more important element. Brock Olivo bombed as a first-time coordinator as the team made every type of mistake imaginable.

Biggest Disappointment: The 2017 draft class

Honorable mention: Tight end Jeff Heuerman

Only rookie Garett Bolles contributed, and he endured an uneven season because of his inexperience and the endless carousel of quarterbacks. Where to start? Defensive end DeMarcus Walker dropped to 242 pounds because of a position switch after Ray’s injury and an illness. He never regained traction and was frequently inactive because he had no role on special teams. Receiver Carlos Henderson appeared in danger of being inactive all season before suffering a thumb injury. Cornerback Brendan Langley, a project who had never played a full season of defense until this year, had a bad day at Oakland, and eventually lost his spot on the depth chart to Marcus Rios.

Jake Butt, an All-American tight end at Michigan, sat out the season healing from his second ACL surgery. Isaiah McKenzie muffed six punts, never rewarding the odd faith the coaching staff showed despite horrific results. Running back De’Angelo Henderson remained buried on the depth chart until the season finale when he scored a touchdown on a screen pass (where was that play all season to Jamaal Charles?). And quarterback Chad Kelly, who healed multiple injuries and dropped from 236 pounds to 212 pounds, sat out the entire year. He remains an intriguing prospect. He might be in the mix depending how the search for a starter plays out.

This was supposed to be Heuerman’s breakthrough season. It never materialized (nine catches for 142 yards), leaving the Broncos to count on Butt and the addition of a free agent to fortify the position this offseason.

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It was a play Steve McNair, the Tennessee Titans’ last true franchise quarterback, would have made.

Marcus Mariota’s defining franchise quarterback moment may have been the 13-yard run on a broken third-and-5 play Sunday against Jacksonville to essentially clinch a playoff berth. His nasty stiff-arm that drove Jaguars safety Barry Church into the ground got all the love, but there was much more to take out of his performance than that highlight play.

“Heisman reminisce,” cornerback Logan Ryan said. “The guy is a franchise QB. Put the ball in his hands and he’ll do that. That’s what it’s about — you can’t always draw it up. It’s not always X’s and O’s. Everybody thinks we need to run more of this, do more of that. Sometimes it’s guys going out there and making plays.”

Mariota’s fourth quarter — when he had 37 more huge rushing yards and gained a first down on all four of his carries — likely would have impressed the late Titans legend, too. It was full of Mariota making plays late in a game in which his stats didn’t tell the full story.

Perhaps unintentionally, Mariota may have provided the blueprint for the Titans to pull off a postseason upset in Kansas City this weekend. Tennessee’s struggling offense hasn’t found the magic formula and it probably won’t by Saturday’s wild-card game. They need Mariota to lead them by making plays his way.

“Sometimes you gotta play backyard football. Sometimes you gotta overcome coaching,” tight end Delanie Walker said. “That’s what makes some players great when they know how to do that.”

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Walker said there’s a difference between preparation and execution. He puts the onus on his fellow offensive players to be playmakers rather than strictly following the call and scheme that have often put them in bad and predictable situations. That starts with Mariota, the Titans’ leader.
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“Overcoming coaching” is what makes Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson so special sometimes. The game-defining plays don’t have to be schemed. It’s still a kid’s game played by grown men with great athleticism.

Mariota finished with 10 carries for 60 yards in Sunday’s 15-10 victory, his most carries and rushing yards since Week 6 of the 2016 season. It was a combination of called runs and scrambles, but the latter was particularly effective. Mariota converted a first down on 37 percent of his rush attempts, the highest rate in his three NFL seasons.

“That’s old Marcus, before the injury. That’s him,” defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said of the broken right leg Mariota suffered on Christmas Eve 2016. “This is the Marcus I been waiting to see — him using them legs and making things happen. We need to see that more out of him going forward.”

The Titans have often schemed in the regular season to protect Mariota, from injury and sometimes himself. Mariota has also looked reluctant to run at times. But the playoffs mean there may need to be more risk, so to speak, to get a greater reward.

“Every man needs to do whatever he can, whatever it takes, to make this thing go,” Mularkey said.

Mariota is still the Titans’ best playmaker and weapon. That could mean more calls for read-option plays and no-huddle offense, as well as more audibles and scrambles from Mariota when the defense shows an unfavorable look.

“It was just me being me. This is the time in the season where you just gotta lay it all on the line,” said Mariota, who is undergoing his worst statistical season as a pro passer mainly due to his career-high 15 interceptions and career-low 13 passing touchdowns. His ability has a runner and freelancer hasn’t seen the same regression, though.

The Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Chiefs as more than a touchdown favorite over the Titans, but Tennessee can win Saturday if backyard Mariota takes over.

Men’s San Francisco 49ers Jimmy Garoppolo NFL Pro Line Scarlet Player Jersey

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For an NFL quarterback, there isn’t a more important resource than time.

Nothing is more conducive to successful quarterback play than a dominant offensive line. But the best quarterbacks in the league can create time on their own in a multitude of ways: Throwing with anticipation, maneuvering in the pocket to find space, getting outside of the pocket and getting the ball out in a hurry with a quick release.

If you had to pick out one attribute that has made 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo so special over this last month, it’s his ability to manage time.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a quicker release from a quarterback not named Dan Marino. He gets it out in a flash. Garoppolo manages to turn this sure sack into a nine-yard completion despite only have a fraction of a second to get this pass off before Calais Campbell blows him up…

He does it again to convert on third down later in the drive. This release looks like it’s been sped up but it hasn’t…

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That quick release gives Jimmy G an extra beat or two to read the defense, a luxury every quarterback desires. But Garoppolo doesn’t even really need it because he makes decisions so quickly. When he combines his quick release with that efficient decision-making, the 49ers are impossible to defend. Garoppolo does it on this simple slant route that is one of the most impressive feats of quarterbacking I’ve seen this season…

Doesn’t look like much, right?
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Well, here’s a still from directly after the snap. Note the game clock. Garoppolo is looking to his right and hasn’t even finished his dropback…

By the time he decides his first read isn’t there, finds Aldrick Robinson open on the backside and gets him the ball, a single second has come off the clock.

He made two decisions (the front-side concept isn’t open and the backside slant is) and released the ball AND fired it accurately to his receiver in one second. ONE. SECOND. That’s computer-like efficiency that we see out of only the league’s best veteran passers. This is only his sixth start.

Garoppolo still has to refine some parts of his game before we can even thinking about putting him in the elite discussion — he needs to be better at navigating the pocket and handling blitzes before the snap — but it’s clear the 49ers have a future franchise quarterback. And it only cost them a second-round pick.

Men’s Cincinnati Bengals Tyler Eifert Nike Orange Game Jersey

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As the Cincinnati Bengals move closer toward the offseason, the status of Tyler Eifert remains murky at best.

Eifert, who is already on injured reserve, is recovering from multiple surgeries he’s undergone this season. He originally went on injured reserve due to back surgery, but he later had a cyst removed from his knee in November.

Those two operations have made Eifert’s rehabilitation a long process that’s bleeding into the offseason, and possibly his free agency in March.

On Monday, Eifert posted an update on his recovery, where he revealed that he’s not even running yet, though he is doing work on the rehab bike:

This season, Eifert played in Week 1-2 with one start and had four catches for 46 yards. He was inactive for Weeks 3-5 due to the back injury, which has since ended his season.

Eifert is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March. The Bengals do have the option to use the franchise tag on him, but after having multiple surgeries since the start of the regular season, it’s really hard to see them using it.

If Eifert has played his final game in Bengals stripes, he’ll finish out in Cincinnati with 127 catches for 1,527 yards and 20 touchdowns. But the theme of his time in Cincinnati will be the onslought of injuries suffered in his five years in the Queen City.

Eifert never managed to play a 16-game season in five years. By the end of this season, Eifert will have played in just 39 of a possible 80 games.

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The Bengals went down in humiliating fashion for the second week in a row. Here are four things we learned from the debacle that took place in Minnesota.
Paul Guenther and Bill Lazor blew a huge opportunity

The Bengals’ top assistant coaches looked the most likely internal candidates to replace Marvin Lewis. However, Ian Rapoport reported on Sunday that special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons might be the next Bengals head coach. As that report surfaced, one would think that Guenther and Lazor would want to give a good showing against the Vikings.
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Both coaches blew this opportunity to make an impression. The Bengals were completely outmatched on both sides of the ball. The defense suffered from poor organization, blown assignments, and missed tackles. 346 yards of offense and four touchdowns don’t even begin to describe how out of hand this game was.

Offensively, the only touchdown was scored in garbage time, aided by the great field position given to them by the Shawn Williams interception. The Bengals had to wait until the second quarter before getting a first down and until the third to cross the 50-yard-line.

This game was a complete embarrassment for everyone who had something to prove. Simmons’ special teams was the only unit that was even remotely in the game.

Guenther and Lazor really needed to look good. Even if it’s not for Cincinnati’s head coaching vacancy, they might find themselves out of a job if Mike Brown and the new head coach clean house. If other teams looking for new assistants might watch this game, they will almost assuredly keep looking elsewhere.
The depth at linebacker is not that deep

One of the most surprising stats from the game is that Minnesota running back tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon gained 142 receiving yards. Compare that to their 100 rushing yards. That’s the linebackers’ fault.

McKinnon ran rampant through the Bengals defense thanks to total confusion and chaos on defense. The injuries to Bengals linebackers have taken their toll, and the Vikings took full advantage.

Now, with Vincent Rey possibly out for the rest of the season, the Bengals are going to try to put any warm bodies they can out on the field. Vontaze Burfict did not pass concussion protocol, Nick Vigil is still out, and Kevin Minter was still nursing a sore hamstring. If the Bengals were to play again tomorrow, they would have to start Jordan Evans, Hardy Nickerson, and Brandon Bell at linebacker.

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Though Evans made the 53-man roster out of training camp, he has mostly been relegated to special teams until injuries forced him to play defense. Nickerson and Bell were recently signed off the practice squad. None of the three linebackers looked impressive in Minnesota.

Even though Evans tipped a pass that resulted in Shawn Williams’ interception, the first three quarters were less than spectacular for him or for Nickerson. Starting at the weak side and strong side, respectively, Nickerson moved to the middle when Rey was injured. Both Evans and Nickerson were responsible for many of the missed tackles and blown assignments.

If Burfict doesn’t return, then Nickerson will be the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker. Perhaps Burfict will go back to his natural position at the weak side if he does, and Nickerson will still be calling plays. No offense to Nickerson, but the Bengals don’t want someone who has only been with the first team for a few weeks to anchor the defense.

Hopefully, the Bengals will go out and sign a free agent that can walk in and start to alleviate some of the pressure from the young players. They did not stand up to the pressure against the Vikings. Hopefully, they can survive the Lions.
Shawn Williams will have to step up in a huge way

Williams might be the only player in the back seven that has regular starting experience. He needs to continue his run of dominance against the NFC North against the Lions.

Even though William Jackson was out there shutting down everyone he lined up against, Williams was doing just about everything else. He was locking down the opposition in the passing game, making tackles at the line of scrimmage, and nabbing the only takeaway of the game. He was the second-highest ranked player according to PFF behind only Geno Atkins.

Now with George Iloka injured, Williams will be out there all by himself leading a young group of defensive backs and linebackers.
The Bengals are going to miss Cedric Ogbuehi

That felt wrong. Anyways…

After Ogbuehi was injured on a play that resulted in a sack, Eric Winston came in to protect Andy Dalton’s weak side. OK, maybe protect was not the right word, since we found out why Winston was available halfway through the season.

It seems weird that there is a left tackle that makes Ogbuehi look good, yet here we are. Winston gave up a sack and several hurries in only three quarters of work. Stuck with only Winston and Andre Smith, which would not be a bad tandem if it were 2012, the Bengals would do well to reach out in free agency and get some depth (though some talent would be nice, too).