NFL

Vacation time, NFL power rankings, Ezekiel Elliott and more

With training camps still three weeks away, I’m officially on vacation for the next 14 days. Here’s a little football, and a lot of life.

As you’re reading this, I’m on a deck in upstate New York. I’m overlooking a man-made lake on the top of a mountain in the Catskills. It’s beautiful. I’m at peace.

I don’t often use this space for anything personal, but this week will be different. You’ll get to know a bit about the man you read each Monday, should you care to.

I live in Illinois now, but I’m a New Yorker. Grew up in Livingston Manor, a town of barely 2,000 people. It’s known as the birthplace of fly fishing. It’s scenery is breathtaking, a fact I didn’t appreciate until after I moved away.

For the next two weeks, I’ll be home. The place I found my interests, found my passions. The place where I fell in love with football.

Every July, I return to New York for two weeks. With the NFL season rushing towards us, I inevitably think about what’s to come. Which teams are going to compete for the Super Bowl? Which teams are going to surprise and disappoint? Which games are the schedule’s best?

Back in my grade-school days, those were impossible questions to answer. I didn’t have the internet, and SportsCenter only covered so much ground. Each summer, my family traveled for a week to my grandparent’s quaint (read: small) cottage in Connecticut. Only the local channels. No internet, no phone signal.

On our first night in Willimantic, we’d go to Stop and Shop, a regional grocery chain. My mom went for food, I went to the magazine section. I found the Street and Smith’s NFL preview magazine, brought it back and read it cover-to-cover. Finally, I knew the additions and subtractions of every team, the schedules ahead, and the prognostications. Heaven.

Fast forward 20 years. The setting has changed. The boy hasn’t. My wife will be drinking coffee next to me. My toddler daughter will be padding around, yapping to anybody within earshot. I’ll be reading my preview magazine, getting ready for the season.

True, though, some things have changed. I no longer rely on the magazine to help form opinions. Still, I’m reading as a fan of writing, and as a fan of the game. Thankfully, I can call people within the league for guidance on certain topics. I can speak to other journalists about what they see in their city. I’m inside the league now, something 10-year-old me would have been blown away by. It seemed impossible then. It seems impossible now.

Of all I’m blessed to do, perhaps my favorite part is this column. I love it. I love writing a few thousand words every week. I enjoy hunting down information from front offices and agents, to coaches and the occasional player. I love relaying it in my best form, and hopefully, you enjoy consuming it.

Now, I’m going to back to my vacation. It’s sunny and crisp, and my wife looks gorgeous. She has her coffee. I have the comfort of home, and my magazine to read.

Power rankings

10 best pure pass-rushers since the AFL-NFL merger

1. Bruce Smith, Buffalo Bills
2. Reggie White, Philadelphia Eagles/Green Bay Packers
3. Derrick Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs
4. Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants
5. Kevin Greene, Los Angeles Rams
6. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
7. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts
8. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
9. John Randle, Minnesota Vikings
10. Julius Peppers, Carolina Panthers

Quotable

“Just been relaxing, traveling, seeing the family, just enjoying myself, man. You want to know something? I never had an August off in my life. So, it’s gonna be a little different. That’s when it’s gonna start really seeing the change is when that comes around in August when I’m not in training camp; I might not know what to do with myself.”

– Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on retirement

From all appearances, Gronkowski isn’t coming back to his gridiron days. The future Hall of Famer has slimmed down to 250 pounds and has a bevy of other options to pursue. This is good news for the contenders in the AFC — think Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers, Colts and Chiefs — who won’t have to deal with his blocking and big-play ability any longer.

As for New England, Gronk’s departure puts increased pressure on first-round pick N’Keal Harry to become an immediate threat. Outside of Harry’s potential, it’s Julian Edelman and little else at receiver or tight end.

Podcast

Mailbag

Each Friday, Verderame puts out a new mailbag covering all things NFL and then a little more. Make sure to submit your questions to him via Twitter or email!

Random stat

In the Super Bowl era, eventual champions are 31-1 when facing the New York jets in the regular season. New York’s lone win? A Week 2 victory in 2001 over the Patriots … better known as Tom Brady’s arrival.

Info learned this week

1. Cowboys’ Elliott avoids suspension, but hurts future contract

Ezekiel Elliott didn’t get suspended, but he’ll still end up paying.

While Elliott avoided a ban from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his incident in Vegas this spring, the video showing him bumping a man to the ground will cost him in negotiations. Elliott is entering the fourth year of his rookie deal, meaning he ca be extended at any time. With this latest foray into questionable behavior, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones now has reason to push, and to tell Elliott’s agent, Zeke Sandhu, that he isn’t sure about the client’s character.

Translation: we are looking for either a flat discount, or the guarantees will be heavily protected.

Elliott has been the league’s rushing champion two of his first three seasons. It’s hard to find another running back more central to his team’s success. It’s also impossible to find an owner and fanbase more attracted to star athletes. Elliott fits the bill, but his off-field question marks are looming over what will be a massive upcoming contract.

2. Tag deadline coming for two star defenders

Jadeveon Clowney and Grady Jarrett have one week to sign long-term. Don’t bet on it.

The Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons are both playing the game with their high-profile players on the franchise tag, and there’s few reasons to believe major money is about to be doled out.

In Clowney’s case, the Texans aren’t ready to commit the kind of deal we’ve seen DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark receive these past few months. However, as has been reported in this space before, league sources tell FanSided that Clowney believes he’s worth a contract upwards of $20 million per year. We’ll see if either side budges.

As for Jarrett, the situation has been incredibly quiet. It’s not impossible the two sides agree on a deal, with the star defensive tackle bringing immense value to the Falcons. Atlanta knows without Jarrett, a weak line becomes a huge issue, so there’s reason to believe general manager Thomas Dimitroff makes a good-faith effort to get something done.

3. Tannehill is an underlying story in Nashville

Mike Vrabel is right to say Ryan Tannehill is the backup quarterback. It’s also wise to point out Vrabel has to say it in the first place.

If Tannehill was traded to Green Bay or New England, nobody would be speaking about Tannehill’s role. Instead, the veteran is being talked about with the Tennessee Titans. Why? Marcus Mariota is entering the final year of his rookie deal and has yet to prove he’s worth a second contract with the team.

Should Mariota struggle or be injured — the Heisman Trophy winner has never played a full 16-game season — Tannehill becoming the starter at some point in 2019 is a real possibility.

4. Crabtree remains intriguing free agent on the market

Michael Crabtree has racked up a pair of 600-yard seasons over the past two years. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and he’s no longer a top option in a solid passing game.

While the above is undeniably true, it’s also true Crabtree can be a quality weapon on a contender. Less than three weeks out of camp, Crabtree would fit nicely as a secondary piece on a multitude of teams.

A few of them include the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars. New Orleans and Seattle are both expected to compete into January, and each could use another receiver. Jacksonville added Nick Foles under center but is relying on Marqise Lee and a combination of Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook. Crabtree is an upgrade over both of the latter.

At this juncture, his contract will be no more than a one-year pact. There’s no risk.

5. Know your training camp dates

When will your team arrive at camp with Super Bowl dancing in their collective heads?

The Arizona Cardinals, Ravens, Broncos and Seahawks all have their rookies showing up July 17. The first team to have the entire roster in-house? The Falcons, who are welcoming everyone on the 21st.

The last veteran report date across the league is the 26th, shared by a bevy of franchises. From there, only a week until the Hall of Fame Game, and then we roll into Week 1 of the exhibition slate. Incredible.

History lesson

The San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls between 1981-94. The ’97 edition lost in the NFC Championship Game to the Green Bay Packers, but it’s a group worth remembering.

Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee. Out for the year? Nope. Rice returned for a Week 16 game against the Denver Broncos before breaking his kneecap on a touchdown reception in the second quarter.

The roster is also one of the greatest in league history. The 49ers had an incredible 11 First-Team All-Pros and 19 Pro Bowlers, along with six Hall of Famers including Rice, Steve Young, Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Terrell Owens and Chris Coleman.

Parting shot

The Miami Dolphins are likely going to be bad this season. It’s a start towards better days.

For years, Miami has been the epitome of mediocre. Since 2009, the Dolphins have won between six and eight games every season. It’s been a treadmill to oblivion.

Now, the Dolphins are stripped down. Miami made a smart move acquiring quarterback Josh Rosen for a second-round choice, having a stress-free year to evaluate him. The rest of the roster is also largely young and unproven, with most of those spots ready for turnover in the next year or two. It’s a long rebuilding process, but it beats the hell out of missing the playoffs and picking 15th on an annual basis.

Miami general manager Chris Grier understands that winning is often preceded by a smart plan spread out over years. If the Dolphins can stay the course and hit on draft picks, this is the beginning of a bright future.

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