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NBA Star Power Index: Lonzo starting to Ball; clutch Kyrie proving his critics wrong

Welcome back to our NBA Star Power Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week for the rest of the season. 

Don’t look now, but the narrative around Lonzo Ball is starting to shift from everyone talking about what he can’t do to eyes opening across the league to all the things he can do. He’s established himself as perhaps the best rebounding guard this side of Ben Simmons (and can you really call Simmons a guard? I know, he plays the point, but he’s 6-foot-10. Inch for inch, Lonzo is right there with Russell Westbrook on the boards). He also leads all point guards with a block per game, his defensive instincts are better than advertised and improving every game, and we know about his passing — seventh in the league at 7.1 assists per night. 

Suddenly, Lonzo’s shooting is the only element of his game that isn’t already borderline All-Star level, and even that is starting to come around. Check out the last five games:

The numbers look even better over the last three games: 15.3 points, 7.7 assists. 7.3 rebounds, 47 percent from the field, 45 percent from three. The Lakers took Golden State to overtime on Monday for the second time this season, and Lonzo finished with 16 points, six assists, six boards, two blocks and a steal on 6-of-12 shooting, including 3 of 6 from three. Even more encouraging were a couple buckets he scored in overtime, including a step-back three that he’s starting to take more frequently and with more confidence. Proving that he can be a half-court creator, both for himself and others, down the stretch is a big step forward. Also, don’t sleep on this pull-up jumper going right, which is something he’s struggled with since his time at UCLA given his funky form. He’s clearly been working on this:

Speaking of struggling to shoot, Simmons’ inability to hit any kind of jumper, or even be willing to take one in most cases, is starting to become a little bit of an elephant in the room. Not a huge, mother elephant. But a baby one at least. The Sixers have lost seven of their last eight and are 1-6 this season in games decided by three points or less. 

That’s not entirely on Simmons by any stretch, but when you can’t shoot at all, that’s going to be exposed in late, close games when the pace tends to slow down and defenses can narrow their game-plan focus. In Philly’s triple-OT loss to OKC, the 76ers went almost exclusively to Joel Embiid down the stretch, running their offense through him in the post, and when he’s on the court, that’s fine. Embiid didn’t play in Philly’s two-point loss to Chicago on Monday, and Simmons didn’t score over the final 6:49 of that game. Embiid didn’t play in Tuesday’s loss to Sacramento, either, and Simmons scored two points over the final 16 minutes, and even that bucket was a pretty generous continuation call. 

Simmons is still the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year. He posted his fourth triple-double of the season vs. Chicago; only Westbrook and LeBron have more. It’s just the shooting, man. That’s it. I mean, when you’re an elite NBA player and you hit one uncontested 15-footer and Twitter feels the need to react, you are a really bad shooter.

That said, if he does start making this shot, good luck:

James Harden’s shooting percentages have dipped a bit of late (though he’s still averaging better than 22 ppg over his last three), yet the Rockets, who’ve won 14 straight and haven’t lost in more than a month, continue to steamroll the entire league. Why? Well, a bunch of reasons — but none bigger than Chris Paul, who’s coming off a triple-double of 18 points, 10 boards and 10 assists against the Jazz on Monday. Paul still hasn’t lost a game in a Houston uniform, up to 15-0 alongside Harden. Please look at what he’s doing in December:

Also, R.I.P. to Thabo Sefolosha:

Pretty fitting that on the night Kobe Bryant’s two numbers were retired, Kevin Durant scored a Kobe-esque 36 points on the Lakers — though inefficient as hell, missing 16 of his first 20 shots, before rending all the inefficiency completely moot by hitting the game-winning shot with less than 10 seconds to play in overtime:

If that’s not paying homage Kobe, one of the most single-minded assassin scorers in history who cared zero about all this efficiency basketball nerd talk, I don’t know what is. Durant said as much after the game. “That was for Kobe Night,” he told reporters. “I had to get them up for Kob.”

Durant continues to lead the Warriors in Stephen Curry’s absence, posting 33.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists over the four games Curry has been out. Golden State has won nine straight. 

LeBron’s last three games: Two triple-doubles, followed by 39 points on 6-of-11 shooting from three against the Bucks on Tuesday. Milwaukee actually won that game, but don’t feel too bad for the Cavs, who’ve won 18 of their last 20 as LeBron continues to play, perhaps, the best basketball of his career (No matter how many times I hear people say this, and no matter how true it actually might be, it’s still impossible for me to imagine given the miles on LeBron’s legs. The guy is an alien). 

This shot didn’t end up mattering, but this is how schoolyard-easy the game is right now for the King. He’s actually throwing it off the back of a defender to pass it to himself for a three:

LeBron has been unbelievable — and I’m not just throwing that word around — in fourth quarters this season. He leads the league with 94 clutch-time points, and continues to use his platform for good in trying to bring attention to, and advance, social equality. 

Over the first quarter of the season, there was a contingent of people who believed Kyrie was getting too much hype, pointing to the fact that his numbers weren’t even as good as they were last season in Cleveland. I disagree in every way imaginable with this stance, numbers be damned, but even if you want to take a strictly statistical approach, well, that’s out the window now too. As of Wednesday:

On Monday, the Celtics pulled off something of a basketball miracle when Terry Rozier intercepted Bojan Bogdanovic’s inexplicably lazy pass and finished a dunk at the other end with 1.6 seconds left to give Boston a one-point win in Indiana, but it was actually Kyrie who played hero once again with two 3-pointers over the final 31 seconds and three consecutive buckets in the final minute. Irving is second in the league with 87 clutch points. His closing ability is what takes the Celtics from a good team to a legit threat in the East. 

The Freak is averaging 28 points and 13 boards over his last three games, and the Bucks, as mentioned above, got a big-time win over Cleveland on Tuesday after they’d lost three straight. All Giannis did in that one was go for 27 points, 14 boards, eight assists and two steals. Oh, and he also came up with the game-sealer when he countered LeBron’s steal with a immediate steal of his own before finishing a three-point play with less than six seconds to play:

ESPN’s Adrain Wojnarowski came out with a story on Tuesday detailing, in addition to many other things, the trade rumors that seem to be constantly circling Davis, even more so recently. Yeah, that’s going to get everyone’s attention, especially when you hear the Celtics are one of the teams that is quietly eyeing Davis. From Woj:

Davis remains an obsession of several NBA teams full of the necessary trade assets to unfasten him from New Orleans, should the Pelicans ever consider a rebuild — or should Davis ever request a trade. Boston has remained vigilant on the possibility of acquiring Davis, and Davis knows it. However, the Pelicans have no intention of trading an all-world talent under contract through 2021, no matter the return.

The Pelicans say they have no intention of trading Davis, and chances are they won’t any time soon. But we all know how this often goes: Small-market team just can’t figure out how to win at a meaningful level, star player gets antsy, team doesn’t want to lose him for nothing, and bang, next thing you know Paul George is playing for the Thunder or Kevin Love is in Cleveland. 

Look at the Pelicans right now. It feels like they’re starting to “get it” — with Cousins and Davis both putting up their customary ridiculous numbers and Jrue Holiday playing really well. As of Wednesday, they’re only 1.5 games out of the No. 5 seed in the West. At the same time, at 15-16, they’re not even a .500 team after losing to Washington on Tuesday in game in which they trailed by more than 20. 

If you’re getting excited about the “positive momentum” of a team that isn’t even above .500, if the best you can do is scrape your way into the No. 8 seed (which the Pelicans occupy as of Wednesday), well, how long is AD, who is one of the three or four most talented players on the planet and in his absolute prime, going to remain patient? True, Davis is locked up through 2021, so it’s not a terribly urgent situation at the moment. But if the Pelicans remain just this side of relevant, or heaven forbid if they can’t even remain a playoff team over the next few months, perception can quickly become reality. People will talk. Rumors will fly. Teams will start to circle the situation, and being that you have to get further and further ahead of the potential superstar defection these days, so as to not lose your whole portfolio in one crash, you could see how Davis could wind up in a different uniform at some point relatively soon. 

Slowly, the Thunder are starting to come out on the right side of all these close games they’ve been finding themselves in all season. OKC’s last four wins have come by a combined 10 points, with two of those wins were by a single point, and Russ is really starting to get tunnel vision, particularly down the stretch, for better or worse. Over the last four games he’s attempted more fourth-quarter shots than anyone in the league other than Kristaps Porzingis. He posted a crazy 33-point, 17-rebound, 15-assist line in a win over the Sixers last Friday, but it took him 33 shots to do it — something Joel Embiid certainly took notice of:

Melo continues to be less and less of a focal point of late. Paul George hasn’t felt like anything other than a secondary piece — at times a distant one — all season. All told, check out these OKC usage rates in comparison to the last season Westbrook and Durant played together:

In other words: “Forget you, Jobu. I do it myself.”


2018 NFL Mock Draft: Imagining how the dominoes would fall if Browns land first two picks

The Browns have a chance to land the top two picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, a not-far-fetched scenario John Breech explained earlier this week. Seriously, it could happen.

Welcome to your new job, John Dorsey. No pressure. Time to get some “real players.”

Obviously, below is not the current draft order. 

The Browns have a chance to land the top two picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, a not-far-fetched scenario John Breech explained earlier this week. Seriously, it could happen.

Welcome to your new job, John Dorsey. No pressure. Time to get some “real players.”

Obviously, below is not the current draft order. 


1. Cleveland Browns

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA. Browns GM John Dorsey has the reputation as an old-school “football guy.” That indicates to me that he’ll go with the traditional pocket passer with the first overall pick. Rosen has a clean delivery and is typically impressive within the confines of the tackles as a thrower.

2. Cleveland Browns from Texans

Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma. For as much as many Browns fans would probably despise this, I think the best option in this crazy scenario would be Cleveland trading down a few spots to add an extra pick or two. But staying put, Dorsey grabs the mammoth left tackle to protect his quarterback as his team begins a new era. 

3. New York Giants

Sam Darnold, QB, USCTop two quarterbacks stay the same. Darnold has played well at a high-profile program for two seasons, so he’s gotten a head start on the immense spotlight that comes with being the signal-caller for the Giants. New Yorkers will love the hard-nosed playing style of Darnold, who consistently demonstrated his toughness at USC.

4. Indianapolis Colts

Connor Williams, OT, Texas. The Colts have a fair amount of needs, but this is the best need-prospect match at this point. Williams has All-Pro upside as a pass-blocker, and with Andrew Luck hoping to return in 2018, that upside is vital for Indianapolis.


5. San Francisco 49ers

Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU. With Sutton, Marquise Goodwin, and Pierre Garcon, the 49ers will have a desired blend of size and skill sets at the receiver position for Jimmy Garoppolo. Sutton has true No. 1 receiver talent, and his presence will elevate the efficiency of Goodwin and Garcon. 

6. Chicago Bears

Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, AlabamaThe Bears would like to go offense in Round 1, and I’ll assume they have their eyes on Sutton. With him gone, they flip to defense to round out their underrated defensive backfield with Fitzpatrick, a do-everything cornerback/safety hybrid with the length and fluidity to cover and a mastery-level understanding of how to get home as a blitzer.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State. The Buccaneers would probably lean toward a cornerback here. With Fitzpatrick off the board, they address what will help the secondary — pass-rush. Chubb isn’t a Joey Bosa prospect, yet the NC State isn’t far away from where Bosa was coming out of Ohio State. This fills a need a premium position.

8. Cincinnati Bengals

Derwin James, S, Florida State. With James and George Iloka, the Bengals would suddenly have two enormous, versatile safeties on their defense. The two can rotate their responsibilities from play-to-play, which would help to cause confusion for opposing quarterbacks.


9. Denver Broncos

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. For this mock, let’s assume John Elway can’t lure Kirk Cousins, Tyrod Taylor or big fish Andrew Luck to Denver. So he makes this pick, fully understanding the controversy it’ll cause, especially after taking Paxton Lynch in Round 1 of the 2016 draft.

10. New York Jets

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. Despite a heavy recent investment at the quarterback position over the past five drafts, the Jets still need one. Jackson has transcendent potential but certainly comes with some risk. Gang Green’s willing to roll the dice because of Jackson’s amazing talent. 

11. Arizona Cardinals

Kolton Miller, OT, UCLA. Miller is a huge left tackle prospect with long arms and outstanding athleticism for the position. He flourished protecting Rosen at UCLA and will be a foundational piece of the next phase of the Bruce Arians era with the Cardinals.

12. Oakland Raiders

Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia. Time to celebrate in the Raiders draft room. Smith is clearly the linebacker with the most game-changing ability in the 2018 draft due to his play-recognition skills, athleticism, and speed-to-power capabilities.


14. Miami Dolphins

Braden Smith, OG, AuburnFirst “surprise” of the night, but Smith has an impressive resume as one of Auburn’s long-time guards who had an excellent career against top competition. He’s well-versed in the zone and power run schemes, giving Adam Gase plenty of options on offense.

15. Los Angeles Chargers

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State. Despite being a redshirt senior with loads of experience, the Chargers, a team without a variety of roster holes, makes this pick with eyes well into the future. A pure pocket quarterback, Rudolph can learn from Philip Rivers for a year or two before taking over in Los Angeles.

16. Green Bay Packers

James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State. Back-to-back selections for the ‘Pokes. With Jordy Nelson in the twilight of his illustrious career, the Packers reload at wideout with Washington, who has a wonderful blend of possession receiver and deep threat skills.

17. Baltimore Ravens

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State. Based on the hype, another relative tumble for Barkley, a drop only precipitated by the position he plays and the depth of this draft class, not his overall talent. The Ravens would be ecstatic to land the insanely gifted runner here.


18. Detroit Lions

Maurce Hurst, DT, Michigan. The Lions might have a more glaring need at defensive end, but any type of pass-rush improvement would be greatly helpful to Teryl Austin’s unit. Hurst has a game reminiscent of Geno Aktins.

19. Seattle Seahawks

Marcus Davenport, DE, UTSASeattle isn’t afraid to make an eye-opening first-round pick, and selecting a prospect from the University of Texas-San Antonio would raise some eyebrows. But at 6-7 and 250 pounds with a long reach and explosiveness, Davenport fits the profile the Seahawks love.

20. Dallas Cowboys

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama. Ridley would give the Cowboys the deep threat they desperately need on offense, thereby opening up the underneath game for Dak Prescott to methodically move the ball down the field. 

21. Tennessee Titans

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, OLB, Oklahoma. Dick LeBeau doesn’t shy away from multiple fronts on defense, but his scheme has 3-4 roots. Okoronkwo is the premier 3-4 outside linebacker in this class, and in Tennessee, on a defense already boasting some talented players, he can make a big impact right away.


22. Buffalo Bills

Vita Vea, DT, Washington. Two consecutive weeks with this pairing. Vea can help a defense in many ways. He’ll simply eat blocks and clog lanes due to his size at 6-5 and around 340 pounds, but he’s not a stationary nose tackle. The Washington star flashes high-caliber hand use and has twitchy athleticism relative to his massive frame.

23. Atlanta Falcons

Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma. Tight ends in Round 1 are usually seen as a luxury pick. The Falcons are in a luxury-pick situation, and, actually, could use a reliable pass-catcher over the middle. 

24. New Orleans Saints

Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas. If there’s one position in which the Saints clearly need an upgrade on defense it’s the linebacker spot. Jefferson is athletic and matured into being a force against the run during his tenure at Texas.

25. Buffalo Bills from Chiefs

Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State. With the top quarterbacks unavailable, the Bills go receiver. With Ateman and Kelvin Benjamin, the Bills would have two matchup nightmare boundary wideouts capable of coming down with the ball even in tight coverage. 


26. Jacksonville Jaguars

Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame. Hard to change this pick. McGlinchey can get exposed against speed rushers but is ready to dominate as a run-blocker, the latter part of that sentence is music to the ears of Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville.

27. Los Angeles Rams

Joshua Jackson, CB, Iowa. The Rams have been unbelievably efficient — particularly compared to where they were a year ago — on offense in 2017. More secondary talent would help the defense, and Jackson has everything needed to be a No. 1 cornerback at the NFL level … size, toughness, plus athleticism and ball skills.

28. Carolina Panthers

Deontay Burnett, WR, USC. There are many similarities between Burnett and 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel. However, Burnett is the more polished receiver and can provide legitimate over-the-top speed right away in Mike Shula’s offense.

29. Pittsburgh Steelers

Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville. Had Alexander not been banged up in this final season at Louisville, there’s a good chance he would’ve had a monster year. His smoothness in coverage coupled with his awareness when the ball is in the air make him a top-flight cornerback prospect in this class.


30. Minnesota Vikings

Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan. It’s not easy finding big holes on the Vikings roster. While the offensive line has improved this season from where it recently had been, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Okorafor has the size, athleticism, and length to be a steady left tackle for a decade in Minnesota.

31. New England Patriots

Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech. For as gifted as Jefferson is at linebacker, Edmunds, at 6-4 and around 250 pounds, might have more inherent talent and twitchiness. Bill Belichick understands the importance of quality linebacker play in today’s NFL.

32. Philadelphia Eagles

Bryce Love, RB, Stanford. Yes, the Eagles have Jay Ajayi and have gotten quality contributions from Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement. They just can’t pass on Love here, an electric home-run hitter with the ability to pick up yardage between the tackles when blocking isn’t perfect.

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NFL Week 15 Grades: Packers Come up Short as Aaron Rodgers Struggles in Return

Dec 17, 2017

After missing two months due to a broken collarbone, Aaron Rodgers came back and played like a quarterback who had missed two months due to a broken collarbone during Green Bay’s 31-24 loss to Carolina on Sunday. 

Earlier this week, Rodgers had insisted that he wasn’t returning to the field so that he could “save” the Packers‘ season, but in the end, that’s exactly what it looked like he was trying to do. With a rusty right arm, Rodgers made some uncharacteristically bad throws in a loss that all but killed the Packers’ playoff chances. 

Rodgers suffered three interceptions in the game, which is notable for two reasons: It ties a career high, and it’s something he hadn’t done in a game since 2009.

The worst part about the picks is that they came on throws that Rodgers is almost always capable of making. On all three interceptions, Rodgers looked like a guy trying to “save” the season only to find that his arm was still a little rusty. As a matter of fact, on two of his three picks, his intended target might have scored a touchdown if Rodgers had put the throw on the mark. 


On Rodgers’ first interception, Davante Adams was a full five yards behind the nearest defender, but Rodgers just could’t get him the ball.

Whether that’s rust, a bad route or a genuinely bad throw, the bottom line is that Rodgers likely completes that pass if he hadn’t missed six weeks of practice and eight weeks of regular-season games. 

Rodgers would make nearly the same exact mistake on a third-quarter pass that was intended for Jordy Nelson. Nelson was definitely open, but Rodgers just couldn’t get the ball there, which led to another Panthers interception. 

After the game, Rodgers pretty much admitted that he had a little rust he wasn’t able to shake off.  


“I felt good, I just missed some throws,” Rodgers said, via the team’s official website. “Missed some ones I’m used to hitting. Just uncharacteristic plays. I’m disappointed in my performance today.”

Of course, you have to give some credit to the Panthers, who designed their entire defensive game plan around putting as much pressure on Rodgers as possible. According to ESPN, Rodgers was blitzed a total of 31 times in the game, which is more than he’s ever been blitzed in a game in his career. 

With Rodgers struggling, the Packers could’ve used a big performance from their defense, but that didn’t happen, as Cam Newton shredded them with four touchdown passes. 

With the loss, any hopes of a fairytale ending to the season likely went up in flames. 


“It’s not the fairytale that we were hoping for,” Rodgers said. “As I lay in that surgery bed eight weeks ago thinking about this moment, I obviously saw it going differently.”

At 7-7, the Packers could be eliminated from playoff contention as early as Monday night if the Falcons beat the Buccaneers.

Carolina 31-24 over Green Bay

Packers: C

After two months off, one thing Aaron Rodgers could’ve used in the game was some protection from his offensive line, but he didn’t get that. For most of four quarters was running for his life, and you could almost feel Packers’ fans holding their breath every time he took a hit. Rodgers got sacked three times by the Panthers defense and even had an unwelcome reunion in the backfield with former teammate Julius Peppers, who split one of those three sacks.

Panthers: B+

With everyone talking about Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton did his best to steal the show on Sunday. The Panthers quarterback threw four touchdown passes against Green Bay, marking only the sixth time in his career that he’s thrown four or more touchdowns in a game. Not surprisingly, the Panthers are 6-0 in those games. Newton definitely took advantage of finally having Greg Olsen in a game for four quarters. The Panthers tight end caught nine passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, the Panthers went after Rodgers early and they went after him often. Carolina blitzed the Packers quarterback 31 times and ended up sacking him three times. 


Minnesota 34-7 over Cincinnati

Bengals: F

If Marvin Lewis decides to coach somewhere else next season, he probably shouldn’t go to the NFC North. For the second week in a row, the Bengals played a team from that division and for the second week in a row, the Bengals got obliterated. Everyone from Lewis on down looks like they’ve officially mailed it in for the season, which is how you get a loss this big. Over their past 10 quarters of play, the Bengals have now been outscored 87-17. The Bengals looked lost on offense, and Andy Dalton (11 of 22, 113 yards, pick-six) made a pretty strong argument for letting AJ McCarron play the final two games. 

Vikings: A

Although the Vikings weren’t able to pull off their first shutout in 24 years, coach Mike Zimmer is probably still more than happy with the defensive performance he got from his team. The Vikings held the Bengals to just 161 total yards in this game, which is the fewest yards the team has allowed in a home game since 1994. This blowout win wasn’t just big because it clinched the NFC North for the Vikings; it was big because Teddy Bridgewater was able to play in a game for the first time in more than 700 days.  

New Orleans 31-19 over N.Y. Jets

Jets: B-

With Bryce Petty under center for the Jets, this game had all the makings of a blowout, but the Jets defense didn’t let that happen. The Jets defense slowed down the Saints‘ high-powered offense by forcing three turnovers. As for Petty, he threw two interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of his passes, which is why it was so impressive that this game didn’t get ugly. This was a one-score game until Mark Ingram scored on a 50-yard run with 1:33 left in the game.

Saints: B

With only one football to play with, it’s amazing that Drew Brees is able to keep all his offensive weapons happy, but he definitely was able to pull that off against the Jets. Brees completed 26 passes, with 20 of those going to either Michael Thomas (nine catches, 93 yards, 1 TD), Alvin Kamara (six catches, 45 yards, 1 TD) or Mark Ingram (five catches, 77 yards). Ingram was actually even more impressive on the ground, rushing for 74 yards and two touchdowns. The backfield combination of Ingram and Kamara has suddenly turned into one of the best running back duos in NFL history. 


Although the Saints turned the ball over three times, when you have this many weapons, it almost doesn’t matter. The Saints are now 2-0 on the season when they turn the ball over three or more times. The Saints and Falcons are the only two teams in the NFL this year that have won multiple games when turning the ball over three or more times. 

Buffalo 24-16 over Miami

Dolphins: C-

Jay Cutler must have used up all his holiday magic against the Patriots last week because he looked terrible against the Bills. The Dolphins quarterback was intercepted three times in the second half and somehow, each one was actually uglier than the one before it. The worst pick came with under a minute left in the game after the Dolphins recovered an onside kick. 

Cutler might want to think about re-retiring. 

Bills: B-

In a game where LeSean McCoy became the 30th player in NFL history to hit the 10,000-yard mark, it’s almost fitting he accounted for half of the Bills points in this victory. Not only did McCoy rush for 50 yards and a touchdown, but he also caught four passes for 46 yards and another touchdown. The Bills weren’t great, but sometimes “not great” is good enough to win, especially when Jay Cutler spends most of the second half throwing interceptions. 


Baltimore 27-10 over Cleveland

Ravens: B+

The Ravens‘ recipe for success has been pretty simple this season: be completely average on offense, play dominant defense and let Justin Tucker score as many points as possible. Well, let’s just say they definitely stuck to that recipe in their win over the Browns. The Ravens’ defense forced four turnovers, which led directly to two Baltimore touchdowns. The biggest play for the Ravens defense came in the third quarter when Za’Darius Smith stripped DeShone Kizer in the end zone and Brandon Williams recovered for a Baltimore touchdown. The score gave the Ravens a 24-10 lead and effectively iced the game. 

Browns: F

If DeShone Kizer was trying to impress new Browns general manager John Dorsey in this game, he didn’t go a good job. The Browns quarterback threw for negative-12 yards in the first quarter and things didn’t get much better after that. And yes, you read that right, Kizer threw for negative yardage in the opening quarter, which doesn’t happen very often in the NFL. Kizer also threw an interception inside the Ravens’ 10-yard line, lost a fumble that Baltimore recovered for a touchdown and pretty much likely played himself out of a job for next season.   

Eagles: B

After losing their MVP candidate quarterback to a season-ending injury, no one would’ve been surprised if the Eagles offense struggled in New York, but that’s not what happened with Nick Foles under center. Foles kind of looked like an MVP himself with four touchdown passes and no interceptions as he led the Eagles back from a 20-7 first-half deficit. For the Eagles, the only thing more impressive than Foles in this game was their special teams unit, which blocked an extra point, a field goal and a punt. 

Giants: B

The fact that Eli Manning got benched this season is becoming more and more laughable every week. The Giants quarterback single-handedly kept New York in this game with 434 passing yards and three touchdowns. The crazy thing about Manning’s performance is that he threw 57 passes against Philly, which is the second-highest total in his career. Sterling Shepard was the biggest benefactor of Manning’s big day, catching 11 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown.  


Jacksonville 45-7 over Houston

Texans: F

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if a team’s third-string quarterback went up against the best defense in the NFL, you now have your answer. 

Jaguars: A+

We’ve been talking about the Jaguars‘ defense all season and while that was happening, Blake Bortles somehow morphed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Bortles passed for 326 yards and three touchdowns and has been arguably the best quarterback in the NFL in the month of December. 

Bortles has been even more impressive in the red zone this season, throwing 16 touchdown passes and zero interceptions after adding three to his total on Sunday. The most impressive thing about Bortles’ performance against Houston is that he did it without Leonard Fournette and two of his top receivers. 

Washington 20-15 over Arizona

Cardinals: C

If the Cardinals‘ offense could have figured out how to function in the red zone, Arizona probably could have won this game, but that never happened. The Cardinals made six trips to the red zone on Sunday and came away with zero touchdowns. Although we probably shouldn’t be surprised that Phil Dawson was forced to kick five field goals in this game, because he’s become the Cardinals entire offense. Dawson has scored 30 straight points for the Cardinals over their past three games. The last time a player who wasn’t Dawson scored came 11 quarters ago. 


Redskins: B

Blaine Gabbert played the roll of Santa Claus for the Redskins on Sunday, delivering two big gifts to Washington’s defense. The first gift game on Arizona’s opening possession when Gabbert lost a fumble that the Redskins recovered at Arizona’s 6-yard line. The second gift came when Gabbert threw a pick inside the Redskins’ 10-yard line. The Redskins’ defense had Gabbert on the run all day and ended up sacking him five times. Offensively, the Redskins put up their lowest rushing total of the season (31 yards), but were still able to come out with the win thanks to a 196-yard, two-touchdown performance from Kirk Cousins

Rams: A+

Not many teams can walk into Seattle and blow out the Seahawks, but that’s exactly what the Rams did. The secret to stopping to the Seahawks is to stop Russell Wilson, and the Rams defense made sure to do that. The Rams sacked Wilson seven times, with Aaron Donald racking up three of those sacks. The Rams defense was so good that Todd Gurley‘s amazing performance was almost an afterthought. The Rams running back totaled 180 yards and four touchdowns in the win. The Rams’ 35-point margin of victory was their biggest road win since 2000. This game marked just the third time since 1990 that the Rams have held an opponent under 150 yards of total offense (the Seahawks finished with 149). 

Seahawks: F

It’s not often that the Seahawks fall flat on their face in a big game, but that’s what happened in their NFC West showdown with the Rams. Russell Wilson has basically been the Seahawks’ entire offense this season, and now we know that happens when the opponent bottles him up: The Seahawks get blown out. Of course, even if Wilson had gone wild, there’s no guarantee the Seahawks would’ve won and that’s because they couldn’t stop Todd Gurley. This was the Seahawks’ largest home loss since 1997.

New England 27-24 over Pittsburgh

Patriots: A

Rob Gronkowski must have got some serious rest during his one game suspension because he went full Gronk on the Steelers. Despite the fact that the Steelers did their best to key in on Gronk, the Patriots tight end still had a huge game, catching nine passes for 168 yards. Gronk came up the biggest when the Patriots needed him the most. With the Patriots trailing 24-19, Gronk caught three passes for 69 yards on a drive that ended with Dion Lewis‘ game-winning touchdown. 

Steelers: B+

After playing a nearly perfect game against their archrival, the Steelers are likely going to have nightmares about this loss for the rest of the season. Ben Roethlisberger is probably going to have nightmares about the ugly interception he threw in the Patriots’ end zone with five seconds left, while the rest of team is going to have nightmares about the catch rule. 

San Francisco 25-23 over Tennessee

Titans: D

The Titans season is slowly unraveling right before their eyes. One week after a 12-7 heartwrenching loss to the Cardinals, Tennessee came back and lost even an bigger heartbreaker to the 49ers. Last week, it was the Titans’ offense that failed them; this week, it was their defense. The Titans’ defense gave up three scoring drives over the final 8:30 of the game, which led to the 49ers win. After struggling against two NFC West teams over the past two weeks, things aren’t going to get any easier next week because they have to play the first-place team in the division: The Los Angeles Rams. 

49ers: A

At the rate he’s going, Jimmy Garoppolo might not ever lose a game. The 49ers quarterback is now undefeated in five career starts after pulling off this wild comeback. Garoppolo’s even doing things that haven’t been seen in San Francisco in more than a decade. With 381 yards passing, Garoppolo became the first 49ers quarterback since 2000 to throw for 300 or more yards in back-to-back games. The biggest benefactor of Garoppolo’s arrival has been Marquise Goodwin, who had another huge game with 10 catches for 114 yards. He’s had at least 99 yards in each of Garoppolo’s three starts. Jimmy G and the 49ers also got some serious help from Robbie G. 49ers kicker Robbie Gould hit six field goals in the game, including the game-winner from 45-yards out. He also hit from 38, 48, 28, 50 and 48 yards. 

Dallas 20-17 over Oakland

Cowboys: B

The Cowboys weren’t perfect, but they did exactly what they needed to do to escape Oakland with a victory Sunday night. Although Dak Prescott struggled at times, he came up big in the clutch. With the score tied at 17 in the fourth quarter, Prescott led the Cowboys to the winning field goal by going 3 of 4 for 61 yards on an 11-play drive that covered 69 yards. Before that drive, Prescott had only thrown for 143 yards in the game, plus two interceptions. The good news for Prescott and the Cowboys is that they’re going to get some serious offensive reinforcements this week with the return of Ezekiel Elliott.

Raiders: B-

This was a Murphy’s Law game for the Raiders because everything that could go wrong ended up going wrong for them. Although most of it was their fault — for instance, Derek Carr fumbled away the game in the final minute, Giorgio Tavecchio missed a short field goal and a kickoff return for a touchdown was called by back by a penalty — there were also a few bizarre things that went against the Raiders that were completely out of their control. Namely, a ref used a folded piece of paper during a measurement of a crucial Cowboys first down in the fourth quarter that Dallas ended up converting by about a centimeter.


MLB Winter Meetings signings: Teams continue to load up on free agent relievers

Dec 14, 2017

Through the first few weeks of the offseason, the free agent market has been very kind to relievers and no so kind to everyone else. Teams are stocking up on bullpen help and not so much on anything else right now. In fact, the only free agent position players to sign guaranteed major-league contracts this offseason are two catchers (Welington Castillo, Chris Iannetta) and one outfielder (Leonys Martin). All other signings have been pitchers.

So then, it is not surprising the Winter Meetings came to an end Thursday with another flurry of reliever signings. It seems teams are building their rosters from the ninth inning forward. Beef up the bullpen first, figure out everything else later. Here is our MLB Free Agent Tracker and here are the latest bullpen signings:

Chicago Cubs sign Steve Cishek

Former Marlins closer Steve Cishek was a popular second tier free agent target for many teams this winter after throwing 44 2/3 innings with a 2.01 ERA for the Mariners and Rays in 2017. The Cubs landed him with a two-year contract.

The side-winding Cishek continued to post strong strikeout (8.4 K/9) and ground ball (56.1 percent) rates this past season, and it should be noted he absolutely crushes right-handed batters. He held righties to a .147/.218/.194 batting line in 2017 and it is .200/.267/.286 for his career.

It is worth noting the Cardinals, possibly Chicago’s biggest NL Central challenger in 2018, have a predominantly right-handed lineup. Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong are lefties, and Dexter Fowler is a switch-hitter, and that’s it. Everyone else is a righty, including new pickup Marcell Ozuna. Cishek could gave St. Louis some matchup headaches next year.

Houston Astros sign Joe Smith

The Astros bullpen was truly a mess in the postseason — their best relievers were starters in October (Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton) — after being one of the top relief units in baseball during the regular season. Seeing room for improvement, the club has signed veteran righty Joe Smith to a two-year deal.

Smith was one of my top bargain free agents this winter because this past season he added strikeouts to his usual ground ball heavy approach. He added those strikeouts by elevating his fastball up in the zone — that is not easy to do from the sidearm slot Smith uses — to get more swings and misses. Smith posted an 11.8 K/9 in 2017. He had a career 7.5 K/9 prior to last season.

For all intents and purposes, Smith takes the place of the departed Luke Gregerson, who signed a two-year contract of his own with the Cardinals a week ago. Ken Giles figures to remain at closer, postseason struggles notwithstanding, which puts Smith in the setup mix alongside Will Harris and Chris Devenski.

Minnesota Twins sign Fernando Rodney

As you may remember, the Twins traded closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals at the trade deadline this year because they were falling out of the race, but a strong August and September allowed them to reach the postseason as the second wild-card team. 

The Twins needed a closer this offseason — veteran Matt Belisle handled the ninth inning after the Kintzler trade — and the club has inked Fernando Rodney to assume ninth inning duty. It’s a one-year contract.

Rodney, who turns 41 in March, went 39 for 45 in save chances with the Diamondbacks last season, and finished with a 4.23 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. He still walks too many batters (4.2 BB/9) and will make things interesting more often than not, but it should be noted Rodney was dominant after April this year, throwing 45 1/3 innings with a 2.38 ERA. He held opponents to a .154/.250/.192 batting line in those 45 1/3 innings.

Given his age, it’s no surprise Rodney received a one-year contract. It’s also not a surprise the Twins limited their reliever search to a one-year contract. They’ve never signed a free agent reliever to a contract longer than one year. Seriously.

It remains to be seen whether the Twins will look to add more bullpen help throughout the offseason, or hand the setup reins over to youngsters like Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz

Washington Nationals sign Brandon Kintzler

Although other clubs likely would’ve given him a chance to close, Kintzler opted to return to the Nationals, where he’ll presumably be behind Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in the bullpen pecking order. His one-year contract comes with a unique set of options for 2019.

That’s an interesting little contract. If the Twins want Kintzler back in 2019, they’ll have to pay him a hefty $10 million to pick up the option. If they pass, Kintzler still has a nice little $5 million safety net in there in case things go wrong.

This season the 33-year-old Kintzler went 28 for 34 in save opportunities, with 27 of those 28 saves coming with the Twins, before he was traded to Washington at the deadline. He had a 3.03 ERA in 71 1/3 innings overall in 2017, and what he lacked in strikeouts (4.9 K/9) he made up for with ground balls (54.9 percent). Given some of the other reliever contracts handed out this winter, getting Kintzler at that price seems like a real nice move for the Nationals.


MLB Rule 5 Draft results: Royals, Orioles grab multiple players; what all 30 teams did

Thursday morning, the 2017 Winter Meetings unofficially came to a close with the annual Rule 5 Draft. 

What is the Rule 5 Draft, exactly? It’s a mechanism that prevents teams from stashing talent in the minors indefinitely. Players must be added to the 40-man roster after so many years in the minors, and if not, they are Rule 5 Draft eligible. Players selected in the Rule 5 Draft must stick on their new team’s 25-man active big league roster all next season, or be placed on waivers and offered back to their former team.

Every so often a team finds a diamond in the rough in the Rule 5 Draft — Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera is the most notable recent Rule 5 Draft success story — though for the most part they’re looking to add relievers or bench players, or maybe a platoon bat. Someone like that. Sometimes it works out, most of the time is doesn’t. Here is a recap of Thursday morning’s Rule 5 Draft activity.

1. Detroit Tigers: OF Victor Reyes (from Diamondbacks)

Ranked the 23rd best prospect in the D-Backs farm system by Baseball America going into 2017, the 23-year-old switch-hitting Victor Reyes put up a .292/.332/.399 batting line with four home runs and 18 steals in 126 Double-A games this season. His strong showing in the Arizona Fall League (.316/.514/.405 in 20 games) may have convinced the Tigers to grab him with the top Rule 5 Draft selection. Reyes is a good athlete who will get a chance to compete for an outfield job in Spring Training.

2. San Francisco Giants: RHP Julian Fernandez (from Rockies)

Hard-throwers are a Rule 5 Draft staple and Julian Fernandez certainly qualifies. He is one of the hardest throwers in all of baseball, majors or minors.

Fernandez, 22, has never ranked among the Rockies‘ top 30 prospects according to Baseball America, and he has never pitched above Low Class-A ball. This season he had a 3.26 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 58 innings, all out of the bullpen. The Giants will give him a look in Spring Training because that kind of velocity is hard to find, but the lack of a reliable breaking ball and control are obstacles.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (via trade with Phillies): RHP Nick Burdi (from Twins)

In a prearranged deal, the Phillies used the No. 3 pick in the Rule 5 Draft on Nick Burdi, then immediately traded him to the Pirates. The return? A bunch of international bonus money.

The 24-year-old Burdi was the 46th overall selection in the 2014 amateur draft and he is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He had the procedure in May, meaning he is unlikely to pitch for Pittsburgh prior to midseason. Burdi, who allowed one run in 17 Double-A innings with a 20/4 K/BB before getting hurt this year, must spend 90 days on the active roster (so not the DL) next season to satisfy the Rule 5 Draft rules. If he doesn’t, the Rule 5 Draft rules carry over to 2019. When healthy, Burdi is a top relief prospect.

4. Texas Rangers (via trade with White Sox): OF Carlos Tocci (from Phillies)

In another prearranged deal, the White Sox selected Carlos Tocci and immediately traded him to the Rangers for an undisclosed sum of cash. There is a $100,000 fee for selecting a player in the Rule 5 Draft, so the ChiSox received something north of that in the deal.

Tocci, 22, is a slash-and-dash hitter who authored a .294/.346/.381 batting line with three homers and five steals in 130 games at Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. His best tools are on defense, where he’s a strong center field defender thanks to good range and routes. Tocci will battle for a reserve outfield job with Texas.

5. Kansas City Royals (via trade with Reds): RHP Brad Keller (from Diamondbacks)

6. Kansas City Royals (via trade with Mets): RHP Burch Smith (from Rays)

The Royals landed back-to-back Rule 5 Draft picks thanks to trades with the Reds and Mets. They acquired Brad Keller from the Cincinnati and Burch Smith from New York for cash or a player to be named later. (Likely cash.)

Keller, 22, threw 130 2/3 innings with a 4.68 ERA and 111/57 K/BB in Double-A this season, though he has three good pitches and figures to stick around with the Royals for a bit as a fifth starter or swingman. The same is true of Smith, a 27-year-old who spent some big-league time with the Padres in 2013. He was part of the Wil Myers trade a few years back. Smith missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons with Tommy John surgery, but he returned this summer throwing mid-to-high-90s with quality secondary pitches in his curveball and changeup. He had a 2.40 ERA with 56 strikeouts and 24 walks in 56 1/3 minor-league innings in 2017 and has a chance to be a real nice find for the Royals.

7. San Diego Padres: Pass

Teams are not required to make a Rule 5 Draft pick. They can pass if they don’t have any open 40-man roster spots or if no available players catch their eye. Teams that do pass can not make any selections in the subsequent rounds of the Rule 5 Draft, however. It is somewhat surprising the Padres passed this year because they’ve been very aggressive in the Rule 5 Draft in recent years, including taking three players (Luis Torrens, Miguel Diaz, Allen Cordoba) last offseason. 

8. Atlanta Braves: RHP Anyelo Gomez (from Yankees)

The 24-year-old Anyelo Gomez broke out this past season, throwing 70 1/3 relief innings at four levels, and posting a 1.92 ERA with 87 strikeouts and 21 walks. He’s a hard-thrower with an upper-90s fastball and a quality changeup. Gomez will get a long look in Spring Training and has a decent chance to win a spot in the Braves bullpen.

9. Oakland Athletics: Pass

10. Pittsburgh Pirates: RHP Jordan Milbrath (from Indians)

Jordan Milbrath is an older prospect at 26, and he split the 2017 season High-A and Double-A, throwing 56 2/3 innings with a 3.02 ERA and a 63/25 K/BB. He, like most Rule 5 Draft picks, is a hard-thrower, reportedly running his fastball up to 97-98 mph out of the bullpen. That Pirates have been taking Rule 5 Draft fliers on relievers for years now, and Milbrath will be the latest to get a chance to stick next year.

11. Baltimore Orioles: LHP Nestor Cortes (from Yankees)

The 23-year-old Nestor Cortes is a stats over stuff guy. His minor-league numbers are excellent — he has a 2.08 ERA and a 344/76 K/BB in 324 1/3 career minor-league innings, including a 1.33 ERA in 54 Triple-A innings — and he does it with guts and guile. Cortes lives in the upper-80s with his fastball and an array of secondary pitches. He’s been compared to former Orioles lefty Vidal Nuno, who is also a product of the Yankees farm system.

12. Toronto Blue Jays: Pass

13. Miami Marlins: RHP Elieser Hernandez (from Astros)

The Marlins are committed to a fielding a non-competitive bare-bones roster in 2018, so it’s no surprise they looked for cheap talent in the Rule 5 draft. Elieser Hernandez, 22, threw 73 1/3 innings with a 3.68 ERA and an 88/22 K/BB in 2017, mostly at High Class-A. Miami is the land of opportunity right now. Hernandez will get a long look in Spring Training and stands a very good chance of making the Opening Day roster.

14. Seattle Mariners: 1B Mike Ford (from Yankees)

First baseman are not usually a Rule 5 Draft target — clubs tend to look for pitchers and up-the-middle athletes in the Rule 5 Draft — but the Mariners decided Mike Ford’s bat was worth a look. The 25-year-old hammered Double-A and Triple-A pitching in 2017, putting up a .270/.404/.471 batting line with 20 home runs and more walks (94) than strikeouts (72). Ford has some thump in his bat, though he relegated to first base defensively.

15. Texas Rangers: Pass

16. Tampa Bay Rays: Pass

17. Los Angeles Angels: RHP Luke Bard (from Twins)

The 27-year-old Luke Bard is the younger brother of former big leaguer Daniel Bard. He threw 65 1/3 relief innings in 2017, mostly at Double-A but also some Triple-A, and had a 2.76 ERA with a 99/24 K/BB. Bard was the 42nd overall pick in the 2012 draft, and while his progress has been slowed by injuries, he still possesses a hard fastball and a good slider, making him worth a shot out of the bullpen.

18. Kansas City Royals: Pass

19. St. Louis Cardinals: Pass

20. Minnesota Twins: RHP Tyler Kinley (from Marlins)

The Marlins decided the 26-year-old Tyler Kinley was not worth a 40-man roster spot, so now he’ll go to Spring Training with the Twins as a Rule 5 Draft pick. He used his 98-100 mph fastball to post a 3.54 ERA with a 72/22 K/BB in 53 1/3 innings split between High-A and Double-A in 2017. There’s not much here beyond the velocity, so the Twins are betting on Kinley’s arm strength.

21. Milwaukee Brewers: Pass

22. Colorado Rockies: Pass

23. New York Yankees: Pass

24. Chicago Cubs: Pass

25. Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Albert Suarez (from Giants)

Albert Suarez has spent parts of the last two seasons with the Giants, throwing 115 2/3 innings with a 4.51 ERA in the big leagues. He has a mid-90s fastball and also both a slider and curveball, so the D-Backs will see whether the 28-year-old can contribute next season, likely out of the bullpen as a long reliever.

26. Boston Red Sox: Pass

27. Washington Nationals: Pass

28. Houston Astros: LHP Anthony Gose (from Rangers)

The Rangers signed Anthony Gose to a minor-league contract a few weeks ago, and the Astros decided he is worth bringing to camp as a Rule 5 Draft pick, so they selected him. They love his arm:

Gose, you may recall, was once an outfielder with the Blue Jays and Tigers. The 27-year-old converted to pitching last year and threw 10 2/3 innings in rookie ball, allowing nine runs on seven hits and six walks. He struck out 14. Needless to say, jumping from rookie ball to the big leagues one year after converting to the mound will be quite the challenge for Gose. It’s not a risky move for the Astros by any means — all it costs them is the $100,000 fee and a 40-man spot for a few weeks — but it is a long shot.

29. Cleveland Indians: Pass

30. Los Angeles Dodgers: Pass

31. Baltimore Orioles: RHP Pedro Araujo (from Cubs)

The Rule 5 Draft keeps going until teams stop making picks, and in the second round, the O’s grabbed the 24-year-old Pedro Araujo from the Cubs. He had 1.76 ERA and an 87/18 K/BB in 66 2/3 innings this year. Araujo pitched exclusively in relief and all but two of those 66 2/3 innings came at High-A. He’ll try to earn a spot in Baltimore’s bullpen.

32. Miami Marlins: RHP Brett Graves (from Athletics)

A third round pick in 2014, Brett Graves had a 4.47 ERA with a 57/13 K/BB in 56 1/3 minor-league innings this past season, almost all as a starter. He projects long-term as a reliever thanks to a mid-90s fastball and a good, albeit inconsistent, slider. Graves stands a good chance to carve out a role in Miami’s bullpen next year.

33. Baltimore Orioles: RHP Jose Mesa Jr. (from Yankees)

The son of the former big-league closer was the third player taken by the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft and the fourth lost by the Yankees. Jose Mesa Jr., 24, threw 84 innings with a 1.93 ERA and a 101/32 K/BB this past season, his best year to date. He has a low-90s fastball and multiple secondary pitches, none of which are an out-pitch at the moment. As with Cortes and Araujo, the Orioles went with stats over stuff with their three Rule 5 Draft picks.

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