It has to start with the physical. Before the Detroit Lions -- or any other NFL team -- can really consider signing linebacker Zach Orr and bringing him onto a football team, it really must begin there. And teams have to be comfortable enough with the knowledge that any conversation about hiring Orr could end there, too.
This isn’t about returning from a broken leg or a torn ACL or a busted-up shoulder. The reason Orr retired in January, because of a congenital spine and neck condition, is more serious than that. Doctors at the time told Orr the first cervical vertebrae at the top of his spine never fully formed, a condition they said could put him at a greater risk of paralysis -- or death. Orr said Wednesday the condition is very rare and that he has been told it carries no additional risk. Yet considering the sport he plays -- and the position, which often requires him to run into another player at close to top speed -- is a potentially scary situation for everyone involved.
For the player. For the coaching staff. For the front office.
So while Orr may want to play, any possibility of it happening has to start with a team’s own doctors and that physical -- a physical Orr didn’t believe he would pass when he retired in January. Back then, he said, “if there’s some miracle way or some miracle treatment where I can play the game again, I promise you I’d be the first one to grab my cleats, start back training, and find a way to get back out there.”
It’s not clear whether there’s been a real change in his condition. Orr said he discovered through consultation with more doctors that he isn’t at any higher risk for paralysis or death than any other player. That might be true, but that’s something a team will need to confirm before choosing to sign Orr.
Orr is scheduled to visit Detroit on Thursday, according to ESPN Insider Dan Graziano, and the team is one of at least eight that have inquired about him after he announced he was considering a return to the game. All of those teams will have to consider the risk involved and whether it is worth it for everyone involved.
If the Lions, or another team, decide to clear him, he’d be a valuable addition. There’s no question Orr has the talent to play, after the 25-year-old registered 130 tackles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries last season. His desire shouldn’t be questioned, either, considering what could potentially happen to him.
For the Lions, Orr would fill a need pretty fast. Detroit’s linebackers are still in question even after the team spent a quarter of its draft picks this year on improving the position, with Jarrad Davis in the first round and Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the fourth round. Davis is expected to be the team’s starting middle linebacker. Reeves-Maybin will likely start out on special teams but could mature into the team’s weakside linebacker.
But neither one has played in an NFL game yet.
Of the linebackers who have played in an NFL game, there are questions surrounding all of them. Tahir Whitehead, last year’s middle linebacker, missed all of OTAs and minicamp with an injury, and how he’d fit as a weakside linebacker remains a question. Paul Worrilow was a strong tackler in Atlanta, but lost his starting job last season. Neither has shown superior coverage skills. Antwione Williams is young and might be a better fit at Sam, where Whitehead could end up playing. Brandon Copeland is better suited as a defensive end. And an Orr signing would make the room much more competitive -- potentially pushing Whitehead, Worrilow or Williams to the roster bubble.
So there’s no question that Orr could help. He could end up being an immediate starter. That should be attractive for the Lions. It should be attractive to Orr. But both have to weigh the same issue when they are talking: Is the potential benefit worth the risk?
Linebacker Zach Orr announced Wednesday morning that he wants to end his brief retirement from the NFL, and Baltimore Ravens players have already made efforts to keep the team's leading tackler from going elsewhere.
"Let's Go!!! I got your back bro," Williams wrote. "Don't worry I'll keep the lanes clear and the Oline off of you. You just make tackles and Ball!!!! @zachary.orr #TacklingMachine"
Orr, 25, is technically a free agent because the Ravens didn't tender him as a restricted free agent in March.
He announced his retirement in January because of a congenital neck and spine condition that puts him at an increased risk for fatality and paralysis. Five months later, Orr revealed he has received differing opinions from doctors in an appearance on the NFL Network.
Yoo @ZO35 ... need me to pick u up or what ? =@=@=@
— Tony Jefferson (@_tonyjefferson) June 28, 2017
As a result of Orr's retired-but-not-retired situation, eight teams have reached out to Orr since he revealed his intention to return, according to ESPN's Dan Graziano. Orr will visit the Detroit Lions on Thursday.
The Ravens didn't sign a free agent or draft anyone this year to replace Orr in the middle of their defense, but there is no guarantee they would want to bring back Orr. His condition is a complicated one that carries serious implications.
Orr would have to be medically cleared by the Ravens, and their stance might not have changed since the end of the season, when a CAT scan revealed that the first cervical vertebrae at the top of his spine never fully formed.
"I just want to play ball. I mean, perfect situation, perfect scenario, of course Baltimore; I have a great relationship with everybody in that organization," Orr said in an appearance on the NFL Network. "So perfect scenario, Baltimore obviously would be favorites."
The call would ultimately come from owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome.
"I spoke with Zach [on Tuesday] and he informed me that he would like to continue to play football," Newsome said in a statement. "He is a free agent."
Other Ravens showed their support for Orr on social media:
@ZO35 is coming back???????? What news to wake up too...
— Eric Weddle (@weddlesbeard) June 28, 2017
Glad you returning to football bra =¯ couldn't stay down to long @ZO35
— Tavon Young (@Tyoung_NL) June 28, 2017
Best news lately. @ZO35 is returning to the game. God is good! Congrats bro. Keep grinding.
— Carl Davis (@Carldavis94) June 28, 2017
A first-time starter after entering training camp as a backup, Orr finished last season with 132 combined tackles, including two on special teams. Although Orr missed the final game, his single-season total was the team's third highest in the past decade, behind only Ray Lewis' output in 2010 (139) and 2009 (134).
COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The end of June and the month of July is usually considered a slow period for NFL franchises as players and coaches look forward to vacation time with friends and family.
That’s not the case for the Los Angeles Chargers. A.G. Spanos, president of business operations for the franchise, said he’s been focused on getting the team’s new facility up and running in time for players to move in when training camp breaks on Aug. 22.
“We’re doing everything for the first time,” Spanos said. “There’s not a lot of historical precedent for the things we’re doing, which is challenging, but also a great opportunity to reinvent things and not be saddled by an old model or an old way of doing things.”
Spanos said the Chargers have had a skeleton crew in the team’s Costa Mesa, California, facility for the last 40 days, with the rest of the team’s 130-person staff now focused on moving north from San Diego.
“Most of the staff is moving during this period that is traditionally more a down time,” Spanos said. “This offseason has been anything but a traditional offseason. Obviously there’s been a tremendous more amount of work that’s needed to be done.
“We’re a 57-year-old franchise, but it feels more like a startup.”
Jack Hammett Sports Complex, where the Chargers will hold training camp, is a few blocks away from the team’s headquarters. The Chargers reached an agreement to use locker-room facilities at nearby Orange Coast College for players during training camp.
Training camp opens July 30, and will be free and open to the public.
John Spanos, president of football operations, said the organization has been planning the transition for months. Those plans include resodding the training-camp fields at Jack Hammett, making sure they are NFL-ready.
He said the team gutted the ground floor of the new headquarters, building locker rooms, a weight room, equipment room, training room and meeting rooms for players that will be larger than the space used at Chargers Park.
The Chargers also are putting in millions of dollars in capital improvements at the StubHub Center, the team’s temporary home for games. That includes resodding the field, a new scoreboard and electronic ribbon boards, wiring upgrades for coaching communication and an NFL replay booth, along with upgrades to the locker rooms and press box.
“It was a surprising choice by a lot of fans, and it showed that we’re not afraid to think different about the fan experience and what we can deliver,” A.G. Spanos said about the Chargers playing at the intimate, 30,000-seat home of the MLS' L.A. Galaxy.
Chargers chairman Dean Spanos gave up control of the day-to-day operations to his two sons two years ago. And while the elder Spanos remains involved -- he was at the team’s last minicamp practice in June -- he is letting his sons handle the transition.
“He’s not as hands-on as he used to be, but he certainly is still around,” John Spanos said about his father. “He’s there for insights and to share his opinion and knowledge.”
A.G. Spanos went on to say his father has been focused on the major decisions facing the franchise in securing a stadium over the past few years, and he remains involved with that as the team’s facility is being built in Inglewood.
The Chargers have a 10-year agreement with the city of Costa Mesa to lease the 102,000 square-foot building for the team’s headquarters, along with holding training camp at Jack Hammett. After that, the team will search for more permanent digs.
“The long-term plan is to build a true state-of-the-art facility,” John Spanos said. “And the location of that has yet to be determined. We’re certainly considering all areas. It’s going to be a very big and thorough search for the right location to do that. We know we’ll be here for a good amount of years, but this not meant to be a long-term, permanent facility.”
The NFC West has had its ebbs and flows over the past few seasons, but one thing that has stayed consistent is going through the Seattle Seahawks to win the division title. The Seahawks have won the division three of the past four seasons and four of the past seven.
Today's question: What will be the biggest surprise in the division in 2017?
Josh Weinfuss, Arizona Cardinals reporter: Tough question. With all that has been reported about the fractions in the Seahawks' locker room, I don’t know if they’ll be able to put on a unified enough front during the season to mask their issues, which will lead to an unraveling of sorts for the defending NFC West champs. They won’t totally implode, largely because of the leadership at the top, with coach Pete Carroll, and the talent base. But that can take them only so far. I don’t see Seattle being the dominant force it has been in the past and, after everything that has gotten out about the infighting, early losses could fracture the team to the point of no return. That would lead to a lost season and Seattle missing the playoffs, which then would leave room for the Cardinals to reclaim the NFC West title.
Alden Gonzalez, Los Angeles Rams reporter: That the Rams’ offense will actually be respectable. Yes, that in itself qualifies as a major surprise. The Rams’ offense has finished last in yards over each of the past two seasons and gained only 4,203 yards from scrimmage in 2017, the NFL’s lowest total in a five-year stretch. On the surface, there isn’t much reason to believe in for a drastic turnaround, because Jared Goff is still young and the Rams still don’t have an elite, go-to receiver. But look a little closer. Rookie coach Sean McVay is a master playcaller who helped elevate Kirk Cousins and the Redskins these past two seasons. He added two accomplished assistants -- offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson -- to tutor Goff. And he added a couple of sure-handed and precise route runners in Robert Woods (through free agency) and Cooper Kupp (through the draft) to serve as security blankets that Rams quarterbacks simply did not have before. All that -- and a new left tackle in Andrew Whitworth, who remains one of the game’s best, even at 35 --- should help get running back Todd Gurley back to his big-play production from 2015, which could help make the Rams a middle-of-the-pack team offensively. If that becomes the case -- and their defense is as good as many expect -- they could snap their 10-year streak of losing records.
Nick Wagoner, San Francisco 49ers reporter: The West becomes known as the worst division in the NFC. It started trending this way last season, when Seattle won the division with 10 victories and did so comfortably, three games clear of second-place Arizona. What some might have viewed as an aberration looks more like the NFC West's new reality. Like most things in the NFL, divisional toughness is cyclical, and it's time for the West's downturn after a run of dominance. Consider that from 2012 to 2015, the West had multiple playoff representatives in every season and had nine teams in that span with campaigns of 10 or more victories. The fast, physical nature of the teams in the division made for weekly street fights. Now, the Seahawks still look like the favorites, but they're not as dominant as they once were. The Cardinals appear to be hanging on for one final run. And the Rams and 49ers are in rebuilding mode. Meanwhile, the other NFC divisions seem to be in an uptick, with legitimate contenders almost across the board. Assuming the rebuilds in San Francisco and/or Los Angeles go as planned, it won't be long before the West rises again, as Seattle and Arizona are too good at talent evaluation and acquisition to be down long. For now, though, the West isn't best anymore.
He has been suspended (twice) for marijuana-related offenses, and he has been injured. But he also has been, at times, the best running back and one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the NFL. So should the Pittsburgh Steelers commit long term to Le'Veon Bell and buck the trend of going low with RB contracts? ESPN’s AFC North reporters provide their opinions.
Jamison Hensley, ESPN’s Baltimore Ravens reporter: Yes, although the Steelers have a legitimate reason not to do so. Pittsburgh has watched its past top running backs like Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall have a shelf life of only five to six years, but Bell is that special exception who deserves that commitment. Since being drafted by the Steelers in 2013, Bell has led the NFL with an average of 128.7 yards from scrimmage per game. He can impact a game, whether it’s patiently waiting for a hole to open up in the running game or breaking a big play off a short pass. Other dual threats like LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray ranked in the top five in total yards last season despite getting closer to age 30. Bell, who is 25, should be considered an offensive cornerstone like Antonio Brown.
Pat McManamon, ESPN’s Cleveland Browns reporter: Absolutely. It's true that running backs are not prized the way they once were, but not many running backs can do what Bell does. He's so important to Ben Roethlisberger in the passing game that he's almost a third or fourth wideout any time he's on the field. He runs well but is a major threat in the passing game. This does not mean the Steelers should stop looking for another quality back, though. Depth would help ensure that Bell does not wear out. As long as the Steelers have Roethlisberger they should have Bell as well. Without him, the offense is not as dangerous.
Katherine Terrell, ESPN’s Cincinnati Bengals reporter: Many might advise against committing significant money to a running back in what has become a passing era. The Steelers should make an exception for Bell. It’s true that a team can easily find another running back elsewhere. However, a special running back like Bell is rare. The team could go years without finding another back of his caliber. Bell makes the Steelers' offense tick, and his presence is one of the reasons they’re able to find so much success. He was able to shoulder a lot of the load last season when the Steelers were dealing with injuries at other positions. Teams might be wary of investing in running backs these days because the physical nature of the position often can lead to sudden decline without warning. But considering Bell is only 25, the Steelers could feel good about making a long-term commitment while he’s still in the prime of his career. They’d be wise to keep him around.
The Tennessee Titans made a six-game jump in the win column in 2016, in large part because of the work of first-year general manager Jon Robinson. With some front-office question marks around the AFC South, might Robinson already rank as the best GM of the bunch? How do the division's other GMs stack up? The other three teams' ESPN reporters tell us how they see Robinson fitting in the ranking.
Michael DiRocco, Jaguars reporter: I really like what Robinson has done in the 18 months since he was hired. From trading for RB DeMarco Murray to drafting Jack Conklin to pulling off the blockbuster trade with the Rams out of the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, it seems like everything Robinson has done has worked. It also seems like Robinson and coach Mike Mularkey are really in sync in how they want to construct the franchise and the style of football they want to play. Robinson certainly tops my list of GMs in the division. It's hard to separate the remaining three GMs. Indy's Chris Ballard has only been on the job since late January, but I did like what he did in free agency and his first draft. Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell has not had much success with his first-round picks (OT Luke Joeckel, QB Blake Bortles, DE Dante Fowler Jr.) but has done well in the middle rounds. He also has had several significant free-agent misses (TE Julius Thomas, DE Jared Odrick, CB Davon House). As for Houston's Rick Smith, I just can't get past the fact that he gave QB Brock Osweiler $37 million guaranteed and then traded him -- as well as two draft picks -- to Cleveland a year later just to get Osweiler's salary off the books. So if I absolutely have to rank them, I'll go Robinson, Caldwell, Smith (again, the Osweiler debacle) and Ballard (not yet enough of a track record).
Sarah Barshop, Texans reporter: I'd rank the general managers: Smith, Robinson, Caldwell, Ballard. Robinson may overtake Smith soon with the Titans' young roster, but Smith still put together three consecutive 9-7 teams, including back-to-back AFC South titles and an excellent defense. A major stain on his résumé is, of course, the four-year, $72 million contract he gave Osweiler, but he was able to get the Browns to trade for his contract -- although it came with having to get rid of a second-round pick -- and he got his quarterback of the future by trading up to get Deshaun Watson. The Jaguars have made good moves on paper, but it's hard to say Caldwell is doing a great job until they start winning games. Ballard had a good offseason, but it remains to be seen how good the Colts will be in 2017.
Mike Wells, Colts reporter: Count me in as a believer in Robinson. He quickly realized that the Titans had to make sure to protect quarterback Marcus Mariota and also supply him with a running game to take some of the load off his right arm. The Titans gave up the seventh-fewest sacks (28) in the NFL last season. And they're set at running back with Murray (1,287 yards) and Derrick Henry (490 yards). Robinson, like Ballard, put a premium on improving Tennessee's defense this offseason by acquiring players such as defensive backs Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien. So much is talked about Houston winning the division in each of the past two seasons and the Colts potentially pushing them for the top spot next season, but the Titans should be right in the mix. I can't put Ballard as the second-best GM because nobody knows how his free-agent signings and draft picks will pan out. I'm also not putting Smith second, because for some reason he thought it would be a good idea to give Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016. Osweiler was a disaster and was traded to Cleveland after just one season in Houston. So I guess Caldwell is the second-best general manager in the division by default.
Even though the Los Angeles Chargers are moving just a few hours north to Costa Mesa, California, the location of the team's new headquarters, they face an uphill climb in getting players, coaches and employees moved in and comfortable in a new environment.
One thing working in the team's favor is coach Anthony Lynn spent all offseason training with his players at Chargers Park in San Diego, so the team had some continuity. The true test will be moving to the training camp location at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa before moving into the new headquarters at the end of August. The Chargers also will have to build a home-field advantage in the comfy confines of the 30,000-seat StubHub Center.
Will relocation to Los Angeles serve as a distraction and negatively impact the Chargers on the field this season?
Jeff Legwold, ESPN Denver Broncos reporter: Without a doubt. Having seen the Houston Oilers' two lame-duck seasons in Houston up close and subsequent growing pains in the first two seasons as the Tennessee Titans, there's no question it will affect the Chargers. It's not really the football part. It's the uncertainty of things for people in the players' lives -- friends, family members and business associates who want answers about how things will be. The players also get questions from those in the city they left and those in the city they now play in. In short, they often can't win in the court of public opinion if they look too nonchalant about leaving the former city or too excited about getting to the new place. There's no right answer. And while there is no statistical fingerprint of that aspect, it weighs on players and impacts how they play. Call it the human condition, but temporary game-day homes, temporary practice homes and a pile of questions lead to subpar play. And no amount of us-against-the-world rhetoric can change it.
Adam Teicher, ESPN Kansas City Chiefs reporter: It shouldn't be a problem. From a practical standpoint, the move from San Diego should mostly be done once the regular season begins. The bigger concern for the Chargers should be what type of home-field advantage they'll have at the cozy StubHub Center, or whether they'll have one at all. They'll have a core of fans, whether they're people who are following from San Diego or locals who have warmed to the team. Fans in those categories seem in short supply, though, so many tickets could fall into the hands of fans from opposing teams, particularly if the Chargers don't get off to a strong start. Los Angeles-area fans are notoriously fickle and it wouldn't be a surprise if, for instance, Chargers fans are outnumbered by Eagles fans at the Oct. 1 game between the teams.
Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter: How about ... no? In fact, it may actually help the Bolts rebound from being the Dolts. The move will actually help the Chargers focus more now on the task at hand, which is winning games. Talk of relocation swirled about the Chargers the past few years so now that it's official, that they will be moving back to their ancestral home (they did play their inaugural AFL season in L.A. in 1960, after all), all of those distractions are gone. This is not to suggest the Chargers will own the L.A. market; rather, they will likely be the third-most popular NFL team in LaLa Land, following the Raiders and Rams. And playing in a soccer-specific stadium is more novelty than normalcy, but at least the Chargers will be playing in front of sold-out crowds, as opposed to playing in front of so many empty seats at antiquated Qualcomm Stadium. There is relatively little pressure and while the Chargers do have talent -- they blew six fourth-quarter leads last season -- they need to avoid catastrophic injury to surprise the AFC West.
Today's question: Should the New York Jets open the season with Josh McCown at quarterback because he gives them the best chance to win, or should they bite the bullet and start Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty?
Mike Rodak, Buffalo Bills reporter: Win? The Jets? Good one. There is not a chance the Jets are making the playoffs this year, as evidenced by their decisions to part ways with players who could have actually helped them win. The only sense in starting McCown would be to spare the younger quarterbacks the embarrassment of losing and the shaken confidence that comes with it. The Jets seem to have accepted their fate this season and should be past the stage of feeling shame about it by the time they make a decision about the starting quarterback. Let Hackenberg or Petty try to turn a one- or two-win team into a four- or five-win team; that would be an encouraging season for either.
James Walker, Miami Dolphins reporter: The Jets should go young with Hackenberg or Petty. Of those two, Petty gets my vote by a slim margin, although he didn't show enough last year. I was never big on Hackenberg, dating to his college days at Penn State, and didn't buy into the hype that he would be a good NFL quarterback. So far my projection is correct. Regardless, I don't expect the Jets to follow my suggestion. McCown is the best option in terms of experience and giving the Jets the best chance to win on a weekly basis. That's all that really matters to a head coach, and Todd Bowles has been given enough mountains to climb this season by trying to win with a gutted roster that no longer includes Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker or David Harris. Fans and analysts can think long-term, but Bowles cannot. Look for Bowles to go with the experienced quarterback in a must-win year.
Mike Reiss, New England Patriots reporter: If a franchise doesn't have a quarterback who can run the offense, it puts the entire team at risk and ultimately affects the scouting evaluations of others. That is the foundation on which I answer decisively that McCown should start. Unless Hackenberg and Petty show considerable improvement from 2016, this shouldn't be a difficult decision. McCown at least is a well-established quarterback at this point; I put him in a similar category as Ryan Fitzpatrick. He can get you in and out of the huddle, make some challenging throws, but also can hurt you with mistakes. He also is regarded by many who have played with him as a great teammate.
The Jets obviously are building for the long haul and one of their questions is whether Hackenberg is the long-term answer. The team will know when it is the right time to put him on the field to find that out, but the worst thing management and coach Todd Bowles can do is rush that decision, because players develop at different rates. My sense, from afar, is that the gap between McCown and Hackenberg is significant enough that this won't be much of a debate at the start of the season. Maybe that changes at some point. But for now, McCown is the pick, not only because he is the best the Jets have at the position, but also because his play will help produce a clearer analysis on every other offensive player on the roster.
Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman said the duo of Tevin Coleman and himself constitute the best one-two tandem in the league after combining for almost 1,600 yards rushing in 2016. But the division now boasts some new talented backs, including one-time NFL MVP Adrian Peterson now in New Orleans and rookie Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. Which one-two combo will gain the most rushing yards by season's end?
David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter: It’s hard to pick against Freeman and Coleman, who helped the Falcons finish fifth in the NFL with 120.5 yards rushing a game last season. But I will. While the Panthers are more committed than ever to running the ball, they are striving to lessen Cam Newton's load as a rusher. He always will be a threat to run, however, and teams will have to respect that. With McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart, Carolina could resurrect the "Double Trouble" days of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Remember, in 2009 they became the first set of NFL backs on the same team to rush for more than 1,100 yards apiece. The Panthers weren’t that far behind the Falcons a year ago, ranking 10th in the league with 113.4 rushing yards a game. Their rushers accomplished this behind an offensive line that was decimated with injuries. With improvements to the line and the addition of McCaffrey, this Carolina unit has a good chance to return to its 2015 form, when it finished second in the NFL with 142.6 yards a game. If you noticed, I didn’t mention New Orleans at all in this response. I just can’t see the Saints becoming a running team with Drew Brees at quarterback. Plus, they’ll be playing catch up a lot.
Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: As far as the division goes, it's probably correct from a pure rushing standpoint to think the Falcons will lead the way, although I wouldn’t sleep on Mark Ingram and Peterson. Doug Martin's three-game suspension to start the season will hurt his and Jacquizz Rodgers' chances in Tampa. In Carolina, I’d expect they’ll use McCaffrey as more than just a traditional back -- he should catch a lot of passes because he works so well in space. Although McCaffrey and Stewart may produce more total yards from scrimmage, I think Freeman and Coleman have the best shot at topping the division in terms of pure rushing yards.
Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints reporter: The better barometer would probably be total yards from scrimmage, since the Saints and Falcons are both so good at using their running backs in the passing game, while Carolina appears set to copy that model this season. Either way, though, I’ll give the slight edge to Freeman and Coleman. We have seen how dynamic that duo has been during the last two years -- they are one of the biggest reasons Atlanta made it to the Super Bowl. And they’re still just 25 and 24 years old, which is a frightening thought for the rest of the division.
Aaron Rodgers has changed his diet to maximize his longevity, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes his quarterback can play into his 40s. But how long can the 33-year-old maintain the level he was at last season, when he contended for another MVP award? ESPN's NFC North reporters weigh in.
Jeff Dickerson, ESPN’s Chicago Bears reporter: Six or seven years at least. Rodgers turns 34 next season, but remember, he spent his first three years behind Brett Favre. Rodgers is technically entering his 13th NFL season, but he has fewer miles on his body. Last year, Rodgers passed for 4,428 yards, 40 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in the regular season. In the playoffs, Rodgers threw nine touchdown passes. Translation: There has been zero drop-off in his performance. As long as Green Bay’s pass-protection holds up, Rodgers can play at an elite level well into his 40s -- if he wants to stick around that long.
Ben Goessling, ESPN’s Minnesota Vikings reporter: Rodgers has talked about Tom Brady as a role model for how to take care of himself in his mid-to-late 30s, and he has emulated some of Brady's dietary habits now that he's closer to 35 than to 30. If he's able to avoid major injuries, there's no reason to think he can't play at the same level at age 38 or 39 that Brady has. Rodgers' mobility is such a big part of his game that it will be interesting to see how he adapts if and when he's not able to extend plays and outrun defenders the way he does now. But his arm strength and intellect might be the best of any quarterback in the game, and those qualities will serve Rodgers well into his late 30s. If he chooses to follow Brady's path, he can. Now, the question is, while Brady has five rings, can Rodgers get more than one?
Michael Rothstein, ESPN’s Detroit Lions reporter: There’s no reason to think Rodgers can’t keep this up for the next five to six years as long as he stays healthy. Rodgers takes fantastic care of himself, and using Brady and Drew Brees as examples, Rodgers should be able to equal their successes into their late 30s. Brady was second in the league in QBR last season, Brees was fifth. Rodgers, meanwhile, was fourth. He has consistently been a 65 percent passer throughout his career, and he has been a consummate leader. He should be able to play this way well into the next decade. The thing to watch will be his feet and his movement, though. As long as he’s able to still deftly avoid pressure, he’ll be fine.
Ben Roethlisberger stood behind a wood podium wearing a dark suit and a blue-and-gold tie, the colors of the Findlay (Ohio) High School Trojans. He acknowledged familiar faces in the crowd, stressed the importance of dreaming big and said thank you for his induction into the Hancock Sports Hall of Fame (Hancock County, Ohio).
And that was it. But Roethlisberger is known to audible. Before taking his seat, he called a play that took seven years to draw up.
“It was like, literally, stunned silence,” said Jerry Snodgrass, Roethlisberger’s basketball coach at Findlay High. “He almost walked away from the microphone, I’m done, and then it was like, ‘Wait, I’ve got something I’ve got to say.’”
On April 22, Roethlisberger and Findlay bridged a divide that once seemed too wide to connect. Roethlisberger admitted to the crowd that he was hurt and resentful over comments in the media from locals during the quarterback’s career maelstrom in 2010.
Roethlisberger apologized for letting the opinions of a few “cloud the love that you have always had for me.” Then came the money quote: “I’m so proud and humbled and honored to call Findlay my home and where I grew up.”
This was an off-script moment from a private NFL star during a reflective offseason.
“As you get older, you start to really understand and appreciate things,” Roethlisberger, 35, recently told ESPN when recalling the past few months. “You need to live to the fullest, smile more and really enjoy life.”
A Super Bowl winner by age 23, Roethlisberger became one of the greatest success stories out of Findlay, a northwestern Ohio community of about 41,000.
That story took a serious turn in 2010, when Roethlisberger faced a sexual assault allegation based on events in a bar in Milledgeville, Georgia. No charges were filed, but Roethlisberger faced a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy. Roethlisberger publicly apologized for the negative attention he brought to his teammates, coaches and family.
Roethlisberger faced national scrutiny, and some of the most vocal critics came from Findlay. At the time, Roethlisberger called certain things that were said “blatant lies, which is ridiculous from people you played with and think are your friends,” according to The Courier, which is based in Findlay.
Roethlisberger also changed the birthplace in his team bio to "Cory Rawson, Ohio," the name of a school district nearby.
“[He] just walked away from it,” Snodgrass said. “Pittsburgh became home rather than Findlay becoming home.”
Roethlisberger didn’t totally cut ties, though. He kept a small circle of close friends, including former Findlay basketball players Jason Lane and Brian Beall, who take Roethlisberger bowling or golfing during his occasional visits. Roethlisberger's cousin, Riley Keller, is a quarterback prospect from nearby Toledo whom Roethlisberger likes to watch play.
Lane reminded Roethlisberger that Findlay still cares about him.
“I would say in six years, I’ve brought him back to town many times, at the bowling alley, golf at [Findlay Country Club], and everyone was so accommodating,” Lane said. “Everyone loved to see him.”
A Hall of Fame induction would crystallize that sentiment. Lane and a few others asked the Hancock Sports Hall of Fame, which is in Findlay, why Roethlisberger hadn’t earned more than a nomination. Officials responded that they didn’t have reliable contact info for him, and inducting without confirmation of attendance might be difficult.
Roethlisberger’s friends reached out to gauge interest, and Hancock County made what Roethlisberger called a "no-brainer" offer -- the chance to enter with his sister, Carlee, a standout athlete at Findlay High who played basketball at Oklahoma.
“There’s always been a lot of love from Findlay. That’s why I wanted to show my love for them,” he said.
Even before the event, Hall of Fame board member Pat Garlock said she sensed that Roethlisberger was ready to make amends, noting that he is a father of three now and the timing felt right.
Findlay created a Roethlisberger-themed weekend. Before the ceremony, Roethlisberger stopped by Dietsch Brothers ice cream parlor to dip cones for customers. The quarterback helped unveil Roethlisberger Field for youth football in the area. He made a donation for field renovations.
Many kids attended the unveiling, and Roethlisberger invited everyone to shoot hoops in the nearby gym. About 30 kids played Roethlisberger in a game of knockout in which Big Ben “was talking some [friendly] smack,” Lane said.
The festivities sufficed as a public mending, but Roethlisberger decided that he could address everyone in town from the podium.
“You never change the opinion of some people. That’s the way it goes, no matter what you do,” Roethlisberger said. “So if there’s anybody who was on the fence … we were able to let some people know I really do care and that it’s not above me to say sorry, you know.”
Friends considered Roethlisberger’s message a positive step, with Snodgrass hearing from many others in town who appreciated the gesture. The crowd of about 300 gave an ovation to Roethlisberger, who hugged his family after speaking.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was amazing to be a part of,” Lane said.
That Roethlisberger reconciled with Findlay in this particular offseason doesn’t seem like coincidence. Roethlisberger spent a few months contemplating retirement; friends say the process was very real because of his deep desire to walk away from the game healthy. In March, Roethlisberger gave his Christian testimony at Ignite men’s conference at Liberty University, addressing an estimated 7,000-plus people. He has been in a pensive state.
Whether on a practice field or in a banquet hall, Roethlisberger knows his words have power.
“You feel like you’ve got an amazing platform to speak to share my message, my testimony, whatever it may be,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s fun to be able to have the opportunity to do that.”
Many in Findlay asked Roethlisberger how long he planned to play, to which Roethlisberger said he won’t look past this season. He hasn’t committed to 2018.
He also gets those questions in Pittsburgh, which Roethlisberger considers his home. Roethlisberger said a reason for returning for a 14th season is playing for Pittsburgh fans who appreciate his “ugly football.”
There’s no doubt about where he developed that style. His bio for the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2017 season will reflect it.
“I think everybody [in Findlay] really came to grips with it all,” Snodgrass said. “Some might have said it’s about time. That would probably be the worst of it. But it put everything to rest. I couldn’t have been prouder of him to do that.”
Today's question: The Washington Redskins had a dangerous passing attack with 1,000-yard receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. With both players now elsewhere, how dangerous will the Redskins' passing game be with their replacements, Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Josh Doctson?
Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys reporter: I liked the Pryor signing because he still has something to prove. Doctson's rookie year was really a wash, so I wouldn’t presume that he will put up numbers of a Jackson or Garcon. I think their experience and savvy helped Kirk Cousins a lot. He will need time to get on the same page with these two guys, whereas the other two receivers knew the ins and outs of the offense and the rest of the division too. But I think we need to remember Jordan Reed when discussing the Washington passing game. His value goes up exponentially without Jackson and Garcon. He is a matchup worry for just about every team and can help make up for the absences.
Jordan Raanan, New York Giants reporter: Consider me skeptical. Reed is a stud when healthy. Jamison Crowder is an up-and-comer as well. But Pryor and Doctson should have the Redskins petrified. Doctson produced close to nothing his rookie season in large part because of injuries. Who knows if he can play, much less stay healthy. Pryor, meanwhile, was allowed to walk, and his market wasn't what was expected in free agency. Jackson and Garcon produced over 2,000 yards receiving last season. It's hard for me to see that as a realistic possibility for Pryor and Doctson.
Tim McManus, Philadelphia Eagles reporter: I think this is a healthy change for Washington overall. Garcon and Jackson are both 30, and it's probably a smart move not to overspend for players on the back end of their careers, particularly if you can replenish the position with some younger talent. I'm a Pryor fan, and after listening to some NFL defensive coaches talk about him, I know that he earned a lot of respect last season. I believe he'll do well. Doctson is more of an unknown because of the Achilles injury that took away much of his rookie year, but he clearly has first-round ability. While I think there will be some growing pains here that could equal an overall drop in receiver production from a year ago, this will still be a group that needs to be respected.
It seems that making various lists of "offseason winners" has become an annual tradition for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Unfortunately for Jacksonville, so has losing 11 or more games.
For the fourth year in a row, the Jaguars did good work in free agency (DE Calais Campbell and CB A.J. Bouye are the top signings) and the draft (RB Leonard Fournette and OT Cam Robinson within the first 35 picks). That raises the level of optimism about the upcoming season. To find out if 2017 will be any different from the previous three, I turned to two of my fellow AFC South writers.
By all accounts, the Jaguars had another strong offseason. They did in 2015 and 2016, too, yet won only eight games total. Why will this year be any different?
Sarah Barshop, Houston Texans reporter: This season could be different for the Jaguars under coach Doug Marrone. Jacksonville had the talent last year to do well defensively, so a change in management -- keeping Marrone after he was the interim head coach for the last two weeks of the 2016 season -- could help the Jaguars rebound from three- and five-win seasons. Although it was just a small sample size, QB Blake Bortles had his two best games of the season in the two games Marrone was in charge, completing 66 percent of his passes for 626 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The Jaguars will have to do a lot more than winning on paper to make this year different than the last two, but there is reason to hope that they'll get consistent play from Bortles this year, and that Marrone is the man to help him take a necessary step forward.
Michael DiRocco, Jaguars reporter: I'd really like to give you a list of reasons why I think the Jaguars will compete for the AFC South title, but I'm not falling into that trap again. For the past two seasons I believed the Jaguars were going to make a significant step forward, and they've won a total of eight games. I've learned my lesson: Until I see progress on Sundays, I'm not going to believe it. However, there are encouraging signs that could mean the Jaguars may possibly be better in 2017. Marrone and executive VP of football ops Tom Coughlin have been harping on the team becoming tougher, and that has been a priority in the offseason. The addition of Bouye to pair with Jalen Ramsey gives the Jaguars one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. Campbell will help the pass rush and his leadership has been off the charts, according to Marrone. Still, until the Jaguars show me something different on game days, I'm not expecting them to hit .500 in 2017.
Mike Wells, Indianapolis Colts reporter: I refuse to fall for the banana in the tailpipe (Google the movie "Beverly Hills Cop" if you don't know the meaning of that phrase) for the second straight year when it comes to the Jaguars and their offseason success on paper. They were the AFC South offseason champions in 2016. They would have earned the right for that title in 2015, too, if not for the moves the Colts made. Jacksonville had another strong offseason this time, especially drafting Fournette and Robinson in the first two rounds to go with the free-agent signings of Bouye and Campbell, but the Jaguars will continue to be weighed down until they figure out the quarterback situation. It's hard to have any faith in the Jaguars completely turning the corner as long as Bortles is their quarterback. He has thrown 51 interceptions in 46 career games. The Jaguars should -- and better -- top their win total of three from last season, but they're still not ready to make the jump into the top half of the division.
Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys reporter: This will surprise a lot of folks coming from the Cowboys reporter, but I’m going with Dallas and Dak Prescott instead. It’s not so much a knock on Wentz, either. It’s the state of the rosters for both second-year quarterbacks. Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and LeGarrette Blount will be free agents after this year. So might four other potential Philadelphia starters. That’s not a recipe for helping Wentz’s long-term success. Those players will help him right now, and I believe the NFL, more than ever, is a "right now" kind of league. But if we’re talking long term, you also have to factor in the age of left tackle Jason Peters. Now look at the Cowboys: They should have their three All-Pro linemen locked up this summer when Zack Martin joins Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick with megadeals. Ezekiel Elliott is signed through 2019 and won’t be going anywhere. Dez Bryant isn’t going anywhere. Terrance Williams re-signed on a four-year deal. Cole Beasley is signed for another two years. And apparently Jason Witten will play forever. To me, Prescott is lined up to be better for the long term.
Jordan Raanan, New York Giants reporter: No, that goes to the Cowboys. They have Prescott, who's maybe not as good as Wentz, but they also have star running back Elliott in his second season and a fairly young and dominant offensive line. It’s hard to imagine the Cowboys' offense not being an elite unit for the next three or four years. Wentz’s future is bright, but he doesn’t have quite the same pieces around him that Prescott has.
John Keim, Washington Redskins reporter: It’s hard for me to say that. So I have to say no, it does not. I think the presence of Wentz provides the Eagles with a good building block, but they're not yet the best-positioned team in the East. Dallas, with its offensive line, Elliott and Prescott, is the best-positioned long term. Wentz still has to prove he can be the guy, though I do believe the Eagles helped him quite a bit in free agency and the draft, especially by adding receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith (as long as he stays healthy). I liked Wentz’s athleticism last season and felt he mostly played with poise. But his decision-making at times was suspect. Of course, having better targets should help in that area. The Eagles are in a good spot, and this answer could look different at this time in 2018. But for now, Prescott & Co. get the nod.
The Chicago Bears finally drafted a quarterback. They surprised many by trading up to snag Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall, and he now represents the franchise's future at the position. He'll back up Mike Glennon to start the season. ESPN's NFC North reporters weigh in on what's realistic to expect from him as a rookie.
Rob Demovsky, ESPN's Green Bay Packers reporter: To hold the clipboard for Glennon. Let's face it, the Bears aren't going to the playoffs this season whether it's Glennon, Trubisky or anyone else under center. Why mess with Trubisky's confidence now? Follow the Aaron Rodgers plan and let him watch and learn -- not necessarily for three years like Rodgers did behind Brett Favre, but until he really knows the offense and the Bears assemble a more talented team around him to take some of the pressure off. The Bears should resist the temptation to throw Trubisky in the huddle at all this season, even if something happens to Glennon.
Ben Goessling, ESPN's Minnesota Vikings reporter: It depends on how quickly the Bears bring him along -- and the way they've used him in the offseason program doesn't suggest they're planning to move particularly quickly, does it? The Bears have a decent line in front of him, and if he plays in Year 1, he'll get a chance to grow with Cameron Meredith (and Kevin White, if he's up to the task in Year 3). The Bears probably aren't going to rush Trubisky into action, particularly after signing Glennon this offseason. You don't make that kind of move if you don't want the luxury of a slow development timetable for your young quarterback. The Bears might decide they're better off spending the year with Glennon and giving Trubisky time to grow. That way, they can see what they need to add to their offense before going forward with Trubisky in 2018.
Michael Rothstein, ESPN's Detroit Lions reporter: Not too much. While Trubisky was the highest quarterback selected in the draft, if the Bears are smart they won't force him into duty. This was a long-term play by the franchise, so it would be wise to let him sit behind Glennon at least to start the season. Let him learn by osmosis and by seeing how everything operates first. If Chicago struggles -- as expected -- the franchise can make the move to Trubisky once the team is out of playoff contention. Build for the future at that point, but don't force Trubisky into the lineup just because of his draft status. Play him when he's ready and give him the best chance for long-term success. Based on what the Bears have now, it doesn't seem like starting him immediately would do that. That said, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Trubisky starts early in the season. If that happens, I don't believe it will go very well.
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