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Grading the Roster: Defense and Specials

| July 22nd, 2022

Camp approaches, which means it’s time for me to grade the roster. Like I’ve done the last few years, I’ll grade on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the worst in the NFL, 10 being the best, and 5 being an average NFL unit. Let’s get right down to it.


Defensive Tackles: 3

Key Players: Angelo Blackson, Justin Jones, Mario Edwards Jr.

Roster Depth: Khyiris Tonga, Mike Pennel Jr., LaCale London, Auzoyah Alufohai, Micah Dew-Treadway

Justin Jones is the highest paid defensive tackle on the roster, but his underlying statistics suggest he is a poor pass rusher and mediocre run defender. He was a panic signing after the Larry Ogunjobi deal fell through, and expectations for him should be low. Angelo Blackson is Chicago’s best defensive tackle, and he is pretty much the definition of average both from a rushing the passer and stopping the run standpoint. Mario Edwards Jr. can provide some pressure as a situational pass rusher, but struggles with stupid penalties. The fourth defensive tackle will likely come down to Khyiris Tonga, a 7th round pick in 2021, and veteran Mike Pennel Jr., both profiling more as traditional nose tackles that can stuff the run but don’t offer much rushing the passer. This group isn’t terrible, but they also don’t really have anybody who’s all that good, which is a problem in a league that more and more needs disruption from the interior of the defensive line.


Edge Rushers: 6

Key Players: Robert Quinn, Trevis Gipson, Al-Quadin Muhammad

Roster Depth: Dominique Robinson, Sam Kamara, Charles Snowden, Carson Taylor

Robert Quinn was a good (but not great) pass rusher last year, and he has a history of following strong seasons with poor ones. He’s also a bad run defender. Trevis Gipson showed real promise in a part-time role last year, and I am excited to see what he can do in an expanded role as he enters the third season of his career. New head coach Matt Eberflus brought Al-Quadin Muhammad over from Indianapolis with him, but he was bad against the run and pass there, so expectations should be low. Rookie 5th rounder Dominique Robinson is an intriguing player with all sorts of physical tools, but he is still incredibly raw after switching from WR to DE two years ago, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect much from him as a rookie.


Linebackers: 6

Key Players: Roquan Smith, Nicholas Morrow

Roster Depth: Matt Adams, Joe Thomas, Jack Sanborn, Caleb Johnson, Noah Dawkins, CJ Avery, Christian Albright

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Grading the Roster: Offense

| July 21st, 2022

Camp approaches, which means it’s time for me to grade the roster. Like I’ve done the last few years, I’ll grade on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the worst in the NFL, 10 being the best, and 5 being an average NFL unit. Let’s get right down to it.


Quarterback: 3

Key Player: Justin Fields

Roster Depth: Trevor Siemian, Nathan Peterman

I should start here by noting that I’m grading based on past production and trying to minimize projecting what I personally think will happen in the future. Accordingly, Justin Fields was statistically one of the worst starting QBs in the NFL last year. That is common for rookie QBs. Underneath the really bad stats, there was actually quite a bit to like about Fields’ rookie season, so I’m excited to see how big of a sophomore leap he can make. Hopefully he will be viewed as at least an above-average starter by the end of 2022.

Trevor Siemian is a quality backup with plenty of experience, which helps the grade here a bit. Nathan Peterman has thrown 135 NFL passes, with less than 6x as many completions to his own team (71) as the opposing defense (12). I seriously hope I never have to watch him play a regular season snap for the Bears. I don’t understand why the Bears didn’t give that spot to an undrafted rookie, because we already know Peterman is terrible and doesn’t belong in the NFL.


Running Backs: 5

Key Players: David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert

Roster Depth: Triston Ebner, Darrynton Evans, Khari Blasingame, De’Montre Tuggle

David Montgomery has put up solid volume numbers through three NFL seasons, but a closer look at his performance reveals he’s been one of the least efficient high-usage running backs in the NFL. Khalil Herbert had a quality rookie season last year, and the Bears also brought in Darrynton Evans and Triston Ebner as guys who possess a different skill set than Chicago’s two lead backs. Fullback Khari Blasingame was also signed, and the Bears say they want to use him as more than just a blocker. It’s hard to give this group too high of a rating due to the lack of a premier player, but quality depth makes it a solid room overall. I fully expect we’ll see much more of a rotation this year than the last few seasons, which should be good for the offense overall.


Wide Receivers: 2

Key Players: Darnell Mooney, Velus Jones Jr., Byron Pringle

Roster Depth: Equanimeous St. Brown, N’Keal Harry, Dante Pettis, Tajae Sharp, David Moore, Dazz Newsome, Isaiah Coulter, Chris Finke, Kevin Shaa, Nsimba Webster

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Dannehy: Five Bears on Hot Seat in 2022

| July 7th, 2022


A new year, scheme and regime could have several players could leave some formerly key contributors looking for new jobs in 2023.

The new coach and general manager have nothing invested in the current players; surely a scary thought to some of the youngsters on the team. There are no certainties. Nothing is guaranteed. We thought John Fox and Ryan Pace were inheriting young talent like Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. Both were gone before Fox’s third season. Matt Nagy was greeted by Jordan Howard and Adam Shaheen was supposed to be his Travis Kelce — neither made it to his third season.

In some of these cases, the players may be one-and-done if they don’t produce in 2022. In others, they might get a second year to prove themselves simply because their contracts make it difficult to move on. In any case, these players will have pressure to perform in 2022.


David Montgomery

Entering a contract year, Montgomery is an obvious candidate for this list.

The previous regime loved Montgomery because of the leadership he provides off the field and his versatility on it. (Eberflus has already praised Montgomery’s character.)

However, there have been some questions as to whether Montgomery fits this new scheme. He isn’t Aaron Jones-like, nor is he A.J. Dillon — the two running backs new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy worked with in Green Bay.

There is also some question about Montgomery’s talent level. His career 3.9 yards per attempt certainly doesn’t look worthy of a second contract and advanced statistics are somewhat mixed on his performance.

With the lack of playmakers available, Montgomery figures to have plenty of opportunities to make plays. The team needs him to be more efficient than he has been.


Cole Kmet

There’s no real reason to think Kmet won’t continue to improve, but that isn’t always how it works.

Kmet had rather exceptional production for a 22-year-old tight end, but there’s still questions regarding his receiving ability. He certainly looks the part physically, but his hands aren’t always reliable, and his routes aren’t always smooth.

The third-year Notre Dame product is a solid blocker and possesses good straight-line speed, but the Bears need him to create more big plays and find the end zone. (Throwing him the ball down there should help.)


Eddie Jackson

Jackson is finally returning to a scheme that keeps two safeties back and he needs to show that he can still attack the ball.

Once Vic Fangio left, Jackson’s position changed. He still played safety, but Chuck Pagano wanted to move him around more. That didn’t really work. Sean Desai liked to keep him back, but in a single-high approach with man coverage all around him. That didn’t work.

There’s truth to the thought that opponents have been avoiding Jackson, but we’ve also seen him fail to make plays that have been available.

The Bears might be tied to Jackson contractually through the 2023 season — it depends on how much dead cap space they’d be willing to eat. In any case, he turns 29 during the 2022 season and needs to show he can still play.


Trevis Gipson

Is Gipson a starter or a solid backup? That’s what the Bears need to find out in 2022.

Regardless of what happens with Robert Quinn in 2022, it’s a safe bet that the veteran won’t be on the team in 2024 and probably not in 2023. Do the Bears need to find one new starting defensive end before then or two? Al-Quadin Muhammad signed just a two-year deal and really should be a backup.

This Cover-2 scheme relies on the front four being able to get to the passer; the Bears need to know if they have defensive ends who can do that. Gipson flashed with seven sacks and five forced fumbles in 2021 after barely playing as a rookie. Can he build on that?


Justin Fields

Regardless of what anyone thinks the Bears think of Fields, nobody outside of Halas Hall actually knows.

Hell, they might not even know inside Halas Hall.

The hard truth is that, while he showed flashes, his rookie season did nothing to guarantee that he is going to be a franchise quarterback. The Bears certainly didn’t bet on him becoming one this offseason, unlike the last regime did with Mitch Trubisky.

Whether the Bears 2022 season is a success or failure is going to depend largely on Fields. If he can build off success of late last season, the team might be OK. If he can’t, they’ll have a very high draft pick and, very likely, will be looking at another talented quarterback prospect.

It’s fair to say the Bears haven’t given Fields the necessary tools to succeed.

It’s also fair to say that really good quarterbacks make the players around them better.

The worst thing that can happen — which is perhaps what the Bears have set themselves up for — is that they still don’t know what kind of player Fields is following this season. In that case, they’d probably jump on the opportunity to draft another top quarterback prospect and trade Fields.

But, make no mistake, the current long-term plan has to be for Fields to be the guy and he has the opportunity to make sure that is the case. We know he can make big plays; we need to see more consistency on the routine concepts.  His performance in 2022 doesn’t have to be judged by statistics; he needs to show leadership and the ability to come through for his team when it needs him the most. We need to see more performances like the one he had in Pittsburgh.

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Data Entry: Zooming in on the Run Defense

| July 1st, 2022

 


Wrapping up our look at returning players and new veterans on defense, today we’re going to explore stopping the run.

This can be difficult to quantify, because much of what goes into run stopping doesn’t get measured. When Eddie Goldman holds his own against two blockers, he frees up a linebacker to make the tackle, but nothing Goldman did there shows up on a stat sheet. So I want to be clear from the start that this is not going to be a perfect science, and I make no claims that it is.

However, Pro Football Focus (PFF) does track some data that can give us an idea of how often a defender is directly involved in stopping a run play. We’ll look at basic metrics that are fairly self-explanatory, like how often a player makes a run tackle or misses a tackle, but also some more advanced data including how far downfield the average run tackle they make is.

One unconventional stat PFF uses that I want to briefly discuss is a “run stop.” PFF defines this as a solo tackle that counts as a “win” for the defense. I can’t find anything definitively saying what makes a play a “win,” but you can imagine this is probably similar to success rate, where it keeps the offense from picking up a certain % of the yards needed for a 1st down. In other words: a defender made a tackle to keep the run short and force the offense behind the chains.

I will examine every Bears defender who had at least 200 run defense snaps last year, whether in Chicago or somewhere else. This allows for a large enough individual sample size that the values have some meaning, but also a large enough sample size for comparing players from a position to their peers. The 200 snap threshold gave a sample of 74 interior defensive linemen (2.3/team), 52 edge defenders (1.6/team), 66 linebackers (2.1/team), 75 cornerbacks (2.3/team), and 70 safeties (2.2/team). That adds up to 10.5 defenders/team, or roughly those who played starter-level snaps.


Interior DL

Let’s start with a look at the defensive line, where the Bears return Angelo Blackson and added Justin Jones in free agency. The table below shows how they both fared in a variety of run-stopping metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 74 interior defensive linemen who played at least 200 run snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 74-player sample are also provided for each statistics. Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% relative to their peers, while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25%.

A few thoughts:

  • Angelo Blackson seems like a decent enough, if not great, run defender. He’s not overly good or bad in any of the areas. His missed tackle rate is a little higher than you would like to see, so hopefully that can improve a bit going forward.
  • Justin Jones is very active in run defense, as evidenced by his high amount of run-defending tackles. However, he struggles with missed tackles, and very few of his tackles count as “wins” for the defense, which means they’re happening farther down the field than you would like.


Edge Rushers

Let’s switch gears and examine the edge rushers now, where the Bears have three notable players: returnees Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson and newly signed Al-Quadin Muhammad. The table below shows their performance against the run in a variety of metrics, including their rank compared to 52 positional peers.

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Data Entry: Zooming in on Coverage Players (LB and S)

| June 30th, 2022

 


Today we’ll switch to look at how linebackers and safeties have fared in coverage.

Like I did with cornerbacks, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that looks at how frequently and effectively individual players are targeted in coverage. I chose to set a threshold of 250 coverage snaps because it both gives a decent enough sample size to judge an individual player and gives a big enough grouping of players at each position to evaluate how somebody performed relative to their peers. This threshold gave a sample size of 68 linebackers (2.1/team) and 82 safeties (2.6/team).


Linebackers

Let’s start with a look at linebackers, where the Bears return Roquan Smith and bring in Nicholas Morrow. The table below shows how they fared in a variety of coverage metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 68 linebackers who had at least 250 coverage snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 68-player sample are also provided for each statistic. Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% relative to their peers, while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25%.

Note: Since Morrow missed the 2021 season with an injury, his data is from 2020, but he is still ranked against his peers in 2021. I know this is not perfect, but these values shouldn’t change that much league-wide year over year, and it saved me a ton of work.

A few thoughts:

  • Overall, both Roquan and Morrow appear to be very good in coverage. This should be a real strength of Chicago’s defense.
  • The two main stats I would use to evaluate effectiveness are yards/target and yards/coverage snap. These encapsulate a bunch of the other metrics to show how many yards the defender gave up overall.
    • In those areas, Roquan is solidly above average, but not great, which honestly surprised me.
    • Morrow, on the other hand, ranks near the top in both. The Bears haven’t had a good coverage linebacker to put next to Roquan since he was a rookie in 2018, so the thought of pairing him with somebody who excels in coverage is enticing.
  • Some of the other stats can give us a glimpse into playing style. For instance, Roquan gives up plenty of catches (high catch %), but they are mostly very short (low target depth and air yards/catch). This is a common trade off in coverage, since shorter passes are easier to complete. Unfortunately, Roquan struggles a bit with giving up yards after the catch – though it’s not due to missed tackles – which is what brings him down overall. In general, Roquan is good at limiting the yards/catch allowed, but the high catch rate brings his yards/target and yards/snap ranks down a bit.
    • Morrow, on the other hand, keeps the catch rate low despite giving up short passes, which gives him stellar coverage marks pretty much across the board.

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Data Entry: Zooming in on Coverage Players (Corners)

| June 29th, 2022

 


Today we’re going to shift from examining players who rush the passer to those who defend passes that are thrown. We’ll start by looking at the CBs, with an upcoming article to look at linebackers and safeties.

In order to do this, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that looks at how frequently and effectively individual players are targeted in coverage. I chose to set a threshold of 250 coverage snaps because it both gives a decent enough sample size to judge an individual player and gives a big enough grouping of players at each position to evaluate how somebody performed relative to their peers. This threshold gave a sample size of 106 cornerbacks, or 3.3 per NFL team.


First Look

The Bears have four notable veteran cornerbacks: returners Jaylon Johnson, Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, and newcomer Tavon Young. The table below shows how they fared in a variety of coverage metrics last year, as well as their rank compared to 106 cornerbacks who had at least 250 coverage snaps. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 106-player sample are also provided for each statistic. Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% relative to their peers, while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25%.

A few thoughts:

  • Let’s start with Jaylon Johnson, who is probably not as good as many Bears fans have made him out to be. To be fair to Johnson, he often shadowed the other team’s best WR in 2021, so quite a bit was asked of him, but his overall profile here shows a CB who is more average starter than great. Still, he is at least an average starter, and that’s something.
    • You can also see Johnson’s stylistic approach to CB show up through a few of the stats. Passes thrown at him are generally pretty deep because he plays tight man coverage and doesn’t give up easy stuff underneath. That leads to a low catch percentage, but also a high yards/catch value.
    • Overall, Johnson ends up around average in both yards/target and yards/coverage snap, which are probably the best 2 overall metrics to go to when evaluating CB play.
  • It’s a very different story for Kindle Vildor, who was the worst CB in the NFL in yards/target. Like Johnson, he likes to play tight coverage, which gives him a high average target and catch depth. Unlike Johnson, Vildor gave up a really high catch percentage, which is really bad when passes are deep. One good thing is that teams didn’t throw at him very often, but they were hugely successful when they did.
  • Finally, let’s take a look at Duke Shelley and Tavon Young, who have similar profiles because they both primarily play nickel. That means they see more short passes (low target depth and air yards/catch) but give up more catches (high catch %). Young was appreciably better at limiting yards after the catch, which meant his overall metrics (yards/target and yards/coverage snap) were around average, while Shelley’s were terrible.
    • It seems weird that Shelley was the worst CB in the NFL giving up yards after the catch despite being very good at avoiding missed tackles. That must mean many players who caught the ball had so much space between them and Shelley that they could keep moving without him having an attempted tackle to miss.

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Data Entry: Zooming in on the Pass Rush

| June 28th, 2022

Almost everything I’ve looked at so far this offseason has been about the offense, so now I want to shift gears and give some attention to returning players and new veterans on defense. That starts today with a closer examination of the pass rush.

In order to do this, I’m using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF) that examine pressures, wins, sacks, and pass rush productivity. Here’s a quick explainer of what PFF means by some of those that are less obvious:

  • Pressure: This is a measure of how often a player bothers the QB – makes him move off his spot, hits him, or sacks him.  It will be defined through the % of pass-rushing snaps that count as a pressure, QB hit, or sack.
  • Win: this is a measure of how often a player beats their block to impact a play within 2.5 seconds. It will be defined through the % of pass-rushing snaps that count as a win.
  • Pass Rush Productivity: this accounts for all sacks, pressures, and QB hits on a per-snap basis, with an added weight given to sacks. PFF doesn’t give an exact formula for how much extra sacks are weighted, but generally a higher number is better.

I’ll examine both all pass rushing snaps and only what PFF defines as true pass sets. These are basically set up to only look at 4-man rushes on standard passing plays, so all screens, play action, designed rollouts, blitzes, 3-man rushes, and exceptionally fast (ball thrown in <2 seconds) or slow (ball thrown in >4 seconds) plays are removed. PFF says that these values tend to be more stable year-to-year, since they are more indicative of actual pass rushing ability.


Edge Rushers

Let’s start by examining edge rushers, where the Bears have three notable NFL veterans: returners Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson and newly signed Al-Quadin Muhammad.

The table below shows how all three fared in a variety of pass rushing stats in 2021, as well as their rank compared to 93 NFL edge rushers with at least 200 pass rush opportunities. To give a broader frame of reference, the best, average, median, and worst values among that 93-player sample are also provided for each statistic.

Categories highlighted in green indicated the player was in the top 25% of edge rushers (top 23), while red indicates the player was in the bottom 25% (bottom 23).

A few thoughts:

  • If you ignore sacks and look more at the pressure and win rates – which are more stable season to season – Quinn was more good than great as a pass rusher in 2021. That feels weird to say for somebody who finished 2nd in the NFL in sacks, but the extremely low pressure/sack ratio tells us that he produced more sacks than expected based on the pressure he generated, and pressures are generally more consistent than sacks.
    • This tracks with other data showing that Quinn generally took longer to get to the QB than the NFL’s elite pass rushers.
    • Quinn also has a fairly established track record of season-to-season inconsistency. He’s never produced an above-average pass rush productivity ranking in two consecutive years during his career, and he hasn’t had back-to-back seasons with 8+ sacks since 2014.
    • Add it all up, and I think a regression from Quinn is highly likely in 2022. The Bears would be wise to sell high on him now rather than waiting for the trade deadline if they are hoping to get value in return.
  • Trevis Gipson honestly was fairly comparable to Robert Quinn in most of these statistics, which is pretty impressive. He had a very solid year in 2021. His sample size was much smaller (229 pass rush snaps vs. 402 for Quinn), so I’m eager to see if he can repeat that performance. It’s worth noting, however, that his pressure/sack ratio was about as low as Quinn’s, so he could play better this year and still see a dip in sacks.
  • Al-Quadin Muhammad is a bad pass rusher. I really hope the Bears aren’t planning on him doing much to bother the QB, because 2021 was actually the best season rushing the passer of his career, and it was still bad.

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Dannehy: Bears Should Kick Jenkins Inside

| June 23rd, 2022


Before officially demoting Teven Jenkins to the second team, Matt Eberflus and the offensive coaching staff should try him at right guard.

Jenkins’ demotion was a surprise because, if the Bears had any questions about his ability to play right tackle, why didn’t they do more to address the position in the offseason? As it stands, the team promoted fifth-round rookie Braxton Jones to left tackle and moved 2021 fifth-rounder Larry Borom to right tackle, with Jenkins taking snaps with the second team.

Eberflus has said it was always part of the team’s plan to move players around, but that excuse doesn’t make sense for a variety of reasons. For starters, the team didn’t even have Jones until the draft. If they planned on having a draft pick seriously compete for playing time, they would’ve spent an earlier pick on the position. Secondly, it isn’t as if Jenkins is in a rotation, he was firmly on the second team, with Borom switching positions to take Jenkins’ starting reps. Lastly, the idea that they’re getting a good look at offensive linemen at this point is flawed because they have yet to see the players do any blocking.

It’s hard to figure out how Jenkins could’ve lost the job or why they made the move at all, but — anyway you figure it — it doesn’t look good for Jenkins’ 2022 outlook, at least not at tackle.

There is so much we don’t know, but assuming Jenkins is physically capable of playing, the team would be wise to try him at guard instead of forcing a competition at tackle.

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Dannehy: Bears Need Real Value To Trade Quinn

| June 15th, 2022


With news that Robert Quinn isn’t likely to attend the Chicago Bears mandatory camp practices, it seems likely that he would prefer to play elsewhere next season. But the Bears shouldn’t trade him unless they get equal value in return. Based on media reports and what r Ryan Poles has said, the team didn’t prioritize value when Khalil Mack was dealt. They can’t do that again.

Quinn is coming off of a season in which he broke the franchise record with 18.5 sacks, doing so as the only serious pass rush threat for much of the season. While his cap charge is currently slated to be near $18 million — fifth highest at his position — his average salary is tied for 23rd with Randy Gregory (among others). Gregory is 29. Quinn just turned 32. Gregory has fewer sacks in his career than Quinn had last season.

While moving Quinn would guarantee the team is punting on the 2022 season — a tough sell in the locker room — the Bears would save nearly $13 million in salary cap space. Had they done the trade earlier in the offseason, the cap saving was less than $4.5 million. While the free agent market is nearly depleted, the Bears could use those savings in the 2023 offseason, when Quinn’s value likely won’t be as high.

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Dannehy: Lack of Action on OL Incredibly Risky for Ryan Poles

| May 26th, 2022


The 2022 Chicago Bears plan to run the ball and play strong defense, but the lack of upgrades along the offensive line could make that hard to do. While the weapons surrounding Justin Fields aren’t ideal, one can certainly make arguments for Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney as being high-level players at their positions. Add in David Montgomery, Byron Pringle and Velus Jones Jr. and, well, you get the argument.

But the offensive line? Ryan Poles has left the team in a tricky position.

The most glaring hole on the entire roster right now is right guard where Sam Mustipher could potentially start. Nothing against Mustipher — who showed flashes of being a pretty good center in 2020 — but he has never played the position before and doesn’t seem to be a fit in any way. The team did sign Dakota Dozier, a player who didn’t even make the Vikings roster last year. (And that was a bad offensive line too.) The other options are rookies who were taken late on day three.

Poles can’t even claim to disagree with the assessment of the right guard position. He signed Ryan Bates to an offer sheet, only to revert back to ignoring the position once the Bills matched it.

The most likely bet is that the player who starts the season at right guard for the Bears isn’t on the roster. They have to be hoping that either a viable player becomes available, or an existing player lowers his price tag. Otherwise, we’re looking at flat out negligence and it’s the worst kind of negligence because it could get the team’s young quarterback hurt.

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