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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Stories by Dan Benton:

5 XFL players who could resurrect their career

Cardale Jones

The 2020 XFL season is officially underway and by most metrics, things got off to a relatively hot start for the WWE product its second time around. Many fans who tune into the XFL aren’t just watching it for the sake of taking in more football, but also to see which players end up in the NFL. After all, that is the primary goal for most players in the league.

And the talent is there. The league features a plethora of fringe talent that may just need that one opportunity. So with that in mind, here’s a look at five XFL players who could resurrect their football careers.

5. Scooby Wright, LB, D.C. Defenders

In 2014 while at Arizona, Wright had a career season, being named a unanimous All-American and first-team All-Pac-12, while also winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award. Two years later, he was a seventh-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, and all career momentum seemed to come to an end. Wright bounced around the NFL for a couple of years before joining the AAF in 2019 and then landing back on an NFL roster, this time with the New England Patriots. Again, his professional career seemed to go nowhere, and he ended up joining the XFL. At 25 years old, Wright is still relatively young, healthy and riddled with potential. Receiving consistent playing time under NFL-level coaches might be just what the doctor ordered for Wright, but it may also be his last chance.

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Colin Kaepernick still has desire to play football

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick still wants to play football.

Of course, that comes with a caveat. Kaepernick wants to play football, but he wants to do so at the right price — at least according to XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, who revealed earlier this week that Kap had some pretty unrealistic salary demands for the start-up league.

But salary didn’t come up on Thursday when Kaepernick sat down with USA TODAY to discuss his upcoming memoir, which will be published trough his newly formed company, Kaepernick Publishing, in a partnership with Audible.

However, the word “desire” most certainly did.

“My desire to play football is still there,” Kaepernick said. “I still train five days a week. I’m ready to go, I’m ready for a phone call, tryout, workout at any point in time. I’m still waiting on the owners and their partners to stop running from this situation. So I hope I get a call this offseason. I’ll be looking forward to it.”

Kaepernick had an NFL-sponsored workout scheduled in November, but he ultimately chose to move the location and workout on his own after a disagreement with the league. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell later called it a “credible opportunity” that Kaepernick “chose not to take” and that the league had moved on.

Since that workout snafu, no NFL teams have expressed an interest in Kaepernick and he’s kept all alternative leagues/options at arms length.

Myles Garrett calls suspension ‘a blessing in disguise’

Myles Garrett

Cleveland Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett was officially reinstated on Wednesday after serving what amounted to a six-game suspension for striking Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph over the head with his own helmet during a Week 11 contest.

With the entire incident now behind him, Garrett expressed a sigh of relief, telling TMZ Sports it “feels pretty nice” to be back. He also acknowledged that the entire situation, suspension and all, was a blessing in disguise.

“Everything that happens to you is for a reason,” Garrett said. “If you take the lesson and make the best out of it, everything a blessing in disguise.

Although Garrett was feeling optimistic following his reinstatement, he refused to answer a question about whether or not he’s spoken to Rudolph since the incident. However, he did promise big things in 2020.

“When I get back onto the field, you’ll see,” Garrett cautioned.

Tyrod Taylor could start for Chargers in 2020, Anthony Lynn says

Tyrod Taylor

The Los Angeles Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers “agreed to part ways” earlier this week, ending a 16-year run with Rivers leading the way — first in San Diego and then in L.A.

With Rivers now out the door, the Chargers will usher in a new era in 2020, including, quite obviously, a new starting quarterback. And while a first-round rookie or an experienced veteran are both possibilities, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn believes there may also be a third option.

Lynn, who reportedly signed a contract extension on Thursday, told AM 570 LA Sports in Los Angeles that last year’s backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, could earning the starting job out of training camp.

“Tyrod Taylor is a heck of a quarterback,” Lynn said. “We couldn’t have a better backup right now, and now he has an opportunity to maybe step up into a starting role. I’ve had Tyrod before, and I know what this young man brings to the table, in the passing game and the running game.

“One of the things he does very well is take care of the football. I believe every year he’s started in this league he’s been the No. 1 quarterback in taking care of the football. I believe more games are lost than won. So if we can just take care of the football and take it away, we’ll be okay.”

Taylor, a sixth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2011 NFL Draft, signed a two-year deal with the Chargers last year after spending the 2018 season with the Cleveland Browns. He also called Buffalo home from 2015-2017.

In 70 career games (46 starts), Taylor has completed 61.6% of his passes for 9,562 yards, 54 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. A dual threat, he’s also gained 1,843 yards and scored 16 additional touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

5 most important Super Bowl matchups

George Kittle

Super Bowl LIV is nearly upon us, and the football world is elated to see a matchup that does not include the New England Patriots.

Instead, we’ll see a battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. One team has an elite passing offense with a creative defense, and the other a group of ground-and-pounders who rely on dominating in the trenches. It’s somewhat of a new school vs. old school matchup.

But which battles within the battle will decide the game? Let’s take a look.

5. Nick Bosa vs. Eric Fisher

Leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, we’ve seen a lot of stories about Nick Bosa vs. Patrick Mahomes, but that’s not how football structure works. Bosa will not have free lanes to chase Mahomes around. Instead, in order to get to the quarterback, he’ll have to get through offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who finished the regular season with a Pro Football Focus grade of just 64.3. Despite that grade, Fisher excelled in pass protection, allowing just a single sack while committing just two penalties. He’ll need to find that same success against Bosa or risk having the rookie completely disrupt the game and force Mahomes to make plays under pressure.

4. Joe Staley vs. Frank Clark

Frank Clark is feeling himself leading up to Super Bowl LIV, essentially crediting himself for the team’s defensive turnaround. While that might be a bit hyperbolic, he has certainly played his part, but it doesn’t mean a thing if they come up short. The ageless wonder, Joe Staley, certainly knows that. He will use his years of experience competing against Clark from his time in Seattle to his advantage. After missing half of the season due to a fractured fibula, Staley returned and immediately made an impact, saving his best performances for the playoffs. He’s played off the charts in recent weeks, and the 49ers need him to dial up one more top-end game before potentially calling it a career.

3. Chris Jones vs. Laken Tomlinson

Some would argue that Mitchell Schwartz vs. Dee Ford should be in this spot. However, Schwartz has played at a very high level this season and should matchup well with Ford, whereas Chris Jones has been a pocket-collapsing monster at times, impacting both the run and the pass. Tomlinson will likely be tasked with stopping him on most snaps throughout the game, and that battle could be just as important as any other. Jones should enter Sunday’s game relatively healthy, which could give him a slight advantage, but Tomlinson has seen a career rebirth with the 49ers, using his strength, athleticism and football IQ to anchor what has been a physically dominating offensive line. If Tomlinson and the other interior linemen can contain Jones, it opens San Francisco’s full bag of tricks. If not, they’re going to have to adjust on the fly and switch things up mid-game.

2. K’Waun Williams vs. Tyreek Hill

I’ve touched on this matchup previously, adding Williams to a list of players/coaches who could directly impact the outcome of Super Bowl LIV. Since then, there’s been some talk about Richard Sherman shadowing Hill, but that’s not what Sherman does. As talented as Sherman is, Williams is speedier and capable of keeping up with Hill and has limited big plays with the best of ’em. The 49ers will rely heavily on Williams to keep that pace for four quarters because if he can’t, it’s going to put San Francisco in a deep hole.

1. George Kittle vs. Tyrann Mathieu

As the Super Bowl nears, it appears more and more likely that San Francisco will lean heavily on Kittle offensively. And why wouldn’t they? In just a few short years, Kittle has established himself as one of the best all-around tight ends in football, capable of breaking a game wide open if not contained. That onus falls on the shoulders of veteran safety Tyrann Mathieu, who has been up-and-down against TEs this season. It will be up to him and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to find a way to limit Kittle’s production or, ideally, take him out of the game entirely and force the 49ers to rely on other offensive weapons.

5 people who will decide the outcome of Super Bowl LIV

Patrick Mahomes

Super Bowl LIV will feature a unique matchup between two teams with very different styles and approaches. On one hand, you have the electrifying Kansas City Chiefs, who appear capable of scoring at will against just about anyone. On the other hand, you have the mix-it-up San Francisco 49ers, who are able to adapt to any opponent, situation or scenario, while being carried by a swarming defense.

Old school vs. new school. Philosophies of teams past vs. philosophies of teams present. Do defenses still win championships or have times in the NFL truly changed?

It’s an intriguing matchup for casual fans and analytics nerds (like myself) alike. And with that in mind, here’s a quick look at five coaches/players who will decide the outcome of the Super Bowl.

5. Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers

Nick Bosa is already a game-changing superstar as a rookie, but he’ll face his toughest challenge yet when trying to chase around Patrick Mahomes. Just how athletic is Bosa? Just how fundamentally sound is his play? Can he be patient enough to avoid straying from his assignments? All of those questions will be asked and answered during the Super Bowl, and will go a long way in deciding the NFL’s next champion. If Bosa is able to bring down Mahomes whenever he gets in the vicinity of the quarterback, it will free up his defensive teammates and take off some of the pressure. If not, it puts the San Fran defense in a difficult spot.

4. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs

With all the talk about the San Francisco defense, Chris Jones may somehow fly under the radar over the next two weeks. But come Super Bowl Sunday, the Chiefs will need their defensive stud to have the best game of his career against a 49ers offensive line that has completely mauled its opponents in recent weeks. It’s likely Jones lines up over the top of left guard Laken Tomlinson, and that matchup will go a long way in determining the flow of the game. If Jones, who is dealing with a calf injury, can get the most out of his defensive reps and disrupt both the run and the pass by collapsing the pocket, it will put a strain on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and force Kyle Shanahan to potentially change the team’s offensive approach on the fly.

3. K’Waun Williams, CB, San Francisco 49ers

K’Waun Williams is going to be a big name over the next week given that he will likely be tasked with stopping Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill whenever he lines up in the slot — which he does on a majority of his offensive snaps. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Williams is known as a stud tackler, but that may be the least of his concerns when trying to combat the speed and shiftiness of Hill. Williams has done a tremendous job shutting down the big play all season, but Hill may prove to be the perfect counterbalance to that. Few players in the NFL are as electric as Hill, so the matchup between him and Williams could, very legitimately, turn out to be what decides the game.

2. Robert Saleh, DC, San Francisco 49ers

The Chiefs are an offensive powerhouse and arguable one of the most dominant juggernauts since “The Greatest Show on Turf.” However, as the saying goes, defense wins championship. If that’s true, the onus falls on 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to prove that old adage. He’s gotten the most out of his swarming defense so far during these playoffs, but the Chiefs are an entirely different animal. Saleh is going to have to channel the likes of Bill Belichick in devising an all-time gameplan if he wishes to cement himself and his team in NFL lore for the remainder of history. The good news for San Francisco? Saleh has the mind, and his players have the talent, to get that done.

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Was there any doubt who was going to top this list? Aside from Lamar Jackson, there is no other player in the NFL who is as game-changing and dynamic as Patrick Mahomes, and the argument could be made that he stands alone at the top. With both his arm and his feet, Mahomes is capable of taking over a game and completely destroying whatever defensive gameplan was in place. You can bet San Francisco is going to throw a whole bunch of new looks at him while also feverishly trying to get pass rushers into his face, hoping to throw him off and possibly create a mistake or two. Can Mahomes weather that storm? If he can, the 24-year-old will be in line for his first championship.

5 under-the-radar NFL free agents

Austin Ekeler

The new league year is coming up soon, and that means the NFL’s most wild time — free agency — will be here before you know it. The run on top free agents will last roughly 48 hours before things settle down and organizations look to what remains in an attempt to not only fill out their rosters, but to also find diamonds in the rough.

Here’s a look at five players who could be impact signings but will likely fly under-the-radar initially.

5. Kenyan Drake, running back

Drake continues to draw praise from me, but until NFL executives and coaches get it right and make this guy a bell cow, he will end up on these types of lists. After beginning the season with the Miami Dolphins and performing moderately well, Drake was traded to Arizona. In Week 9, he erupted with 160-plus scrimmage yards and a score. Drake carried that through the remainder of the season, finishing the year with a career-high 817 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to go along with 50 receptions for 345 yards. Drake is not currently considered a top 50 free agent (seriously, how is that possible?), and will be an absolute steal for someone out there. Still just 25 years old, Drake’s prime is coming.

4. Shelby Harris, nose tackle

Free agency will be stocked full of quality defenders at all levels this year, which will allow players like Harris to very legitimately fly under-the-radar. In 2018, Harris became a more well-known name as a dominant rotational guy, which led the Denver Broncos to increase his role in 2019. However, more substantial playing time led to some visible weaknesses in Harris’ game, and he trailed off a bit down the stretch (one sack over his final nine games). That’s not uncommon for a relatively young player with an increased workload, but as a result, his value will drop below players like Chris Jones, Arik Armstead and Leonard Williams, who are also hitting the open market. But don’t sleep on Harris, who has a clear upside and a lot of growing to do. It’s only going to take one GM to see that.

3. Troy Hill, cornerback

At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Hill’s lack of size is going to cause many to turn away and assume he just can’t excel at the NFL level. He’s already proven that to be a false reality. While Hill does struggle against some of the larger and more physical wide receivers that are becoming prevalent in today’s NFL, he has proven himself to be a valuable shutdown No. 2. That will cause some to cringe because who’s really looking for a great No. 2? Well, the answer is anyone with a quality No. 1. Once Jalen Ramsey arrived in Los Angeles, Hill suddenly found his niche, dominating secondary receivers and finishing the season allowing just 45.1% of passes thrown in his direction to be caught for a passer rating of 54.9.

2. Austin Ekeler, running back

Ekeler isn’t quite as “under-the-radar” as some of the other players on this list due to his emergence as a quality fantasy football option, but when teams go out looking to sign running backs, his name isn’t likely to top the list. Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon III and Kareem Hunt will draw the lion’s share of attention, but like Kenyan Drake, Ekeler has a tremendous upside, and we saw a glimpse of that when he started in place of Gordon, who was holding out early in the season. Ekeler finished the season with 1,550 scrimmage yards (557 rushing yards, 993 receiving yards). He is a restricted free agent, which adds a little murkiness to the waters, but depending on what the Chargers decide to do with Gordon, Ekeler could become a viable option for several teams in need of a versatile running back.

1. Joe Schobert, linebacker

Schobert is an interesting player who took an equally interesting path to the NFL. He went from college pass rusher to professional linebacker, where he excels not against the run or getting after the quarterback, but also in coverage. In fact, Schobert is one of the better coverage linebackers in football (four interceptions in 2019), and although he experienced a bit of a slump in 2019, it’s clear the arrow is pointing up. Coverage backers are rapidly becoming key components against today’s spread offenses, but in the right system, Schobert could hone in on that college pass rushing experience and become more of a dual threat. Yes, he’ll need to improve against the run, but that can be coached if he lands in the right place. The potential is there, the pieces are there and the will is there … someone just needs to help Schobert put it all together.

5 most attractive NFL free agents entering 2020

Tom Brady

The 2019 regular season is over, and we’re now onto the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs. That also means we’re just two months and some days removed from the start of the new league year and the craziness that is free agency.

This year, free agency is going to have a different feel to it due to a top-end abundance of superstars and future Hall of Famers, but who are the best of the best? Which free agents are destined to draw the most attention? Let’s take a look at five of the most attractive free agents entering 2020.

5. Anthony Harris, safety

Amari Cooper, Yannick Ngakoue and a few others drew consideration for this spot, but how can a list like this exist without exploring the still-ascending Anthony Harris? Once an undrafted free agent, the 28-year-old Harris is now one of the best safeties in football and still getting better each week. He finished the 2019 season with 60 tackles, one stuff, 11 passes defensed, six interceptions and one touchdown. Even more impressive? He allowed just 11 receptions on the season to those six interceptions, earning him a Pro Football Focus grade of 90.5, which was the third-highest grade at the safety position league-wide. With the safety position increasing in value, expect someone to shell out some serious coin for Harris.

4. Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE

When the Seattle Seahawks acquired Jadeveon Clowney from the Houston Texans, they were not envisioning a one-and-done situation. Ideally, they were hoping to bring Clowney back in 2020. It’s easy to understand why that would be their goal. Clowney is one of the most disruptive edge rushers in all of football despite recording just three sacks this past season, and he more than holds his own against the run.

The former No. 1 pick is an all-around talent who can legitimately excel in the right system and under the right coaching. Will that come in Seattle or some other city in 2020? That remains to be seen, but don’t let the limited statistics fool you — the race to land Clowney will be intense.

3. Chris Jones, defensive lineman

Speaking of game-changing, disruptive defensive linemen, how about Chris Jones? Capable of playing both inside and outside, Jones is another all-around lineman capable of rushing the passer, collapsing the pocket, and stopping the run. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Jones is an athletic monster of a man, and his production represents that. In 2018, he recorded 15.5 sacks and followed it up with another nine sacks over 13 games this season. The Chiefs will want him back, but there are about 31 other teams that will have interest as well. Likely to be a popular target this offseason, Jones is going to cash in big-time. Expect his contract to be among the largest in free agency (outside of the quarterbacks).

2. Drew Brees, quarterback

Drew Brees has changed teams previously, but his current standing as one of the league’s greatest makes his pending free agency so much more intriguing and, to some degree, odd. Brees has been a staple in New Orleans since 2006. And while it’s difficult to envision him playing elsewhere, that’s a very real possibility for the soon-to-be 41-year-old, who believes he has a good 4-5 years left. With his contract set to expire on March 18, Brees will likely receive heavy interest from teams looking for established veteran quarterbacks they believe can put them over the hump. The Saints, ironically, are one of those teams, but they also have a decision to make on Teddy Bridgewater, an impending free agent, and Taysom Hill, who Sean Payton has previously implied could take over as the team’s starter.

1. Tom Brady, quarterback

Can you believe Tom Brady is going to be a first-time free agent? It’s almost surreal that the greatest quarterback in the history of football may be available for the taking, but here we are. However, the market for the 42-year-old Brady, who is clearly in a decline (don’t argue — it’s true and everyone knows it), may not be as robust as some anticipate. Still, you can bet some quarterback-needy teams or organizations with a young talent under center will be lining up to see what Brady and his representation are seeking — more so than some other over-hyped impending free agents like Dak Prescott. And in Brady’s own words, “there’s still more to prove.” While Robert Kraft is saying a prayer that Brady returns in 2020, ready yourselves to see the G.O.A.T. in new colors.