Fri May 24 2:35am ET
By PAT GRAHAM
AP Sports Writer
Players: Tom Brady
In this Jan. 31, 2019, file photo, Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald speaks during a press conference ahead of the NFL Super Bowl 53 football game against the New England Patriots in Atlanta. Two-time reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald is always searching for out-of-the-box ways to improve his game. That's why the Rams defensive lineman trained with knives again this offseason. That's right, knives, of the plastic variety, of course, in order to improve his eye-hand coordination. His real driving force? That loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl last February. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
In this Feb. 3, 2019, file photo, Los Angeles Rams Aaron Donald (99) rushes against the New England Patriots during NFL Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta. Two-time reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald is always searching for out-of-the-box ways to improve his game. That's why the Rams defensive lineman trained with knives again this offseason. That's right, knives, of the plastic variety, of course, in order to improve his eye-hand coordination. His real driving force? That loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl last February. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File)
To stay a cut above the competition, Aaron Donald once again trained this offseason by dodging knives.
Fake blades, of course. But the results from the reaction exercises have certainly been real.
The two-time reigning AP defensive player of the year for the Los Angeles Rams is always searching for out-of-the-box ways to take his game to another level. This helps him stay sharp, too - the sting of a 13-3 Super Bowl loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in February. That's a reason why the defensive tackle attended organized team activities this spring for the first time since 2016, even as other veterans passed on the workouts.
Anything to earn that ring.
''The main goal is to be the No. 1 team standing and call yourself a champion,'' said Donald, who skipped workouts the last two springs while dealing with contract negotiations before signing a roughly $135 million, six-year contract extension last August. ''So I'm just working, trying to get myself better and continue to improve my game.''
Donald is coming off a season in which he recorded 20 + sacks.
So yep, Donald has given thoughts to former New York Giants standout Michael Strahan's 22 +-sack season in 2001, which is the NFL record since it became an official stat in 1982.
And nope, he doesn't chase after it.
''If you would've asked me five years ago if I would have an opportunity to have 23 sacks in one season, I would've laughed at you and said, `That's impossible,''' Donald said in a phone interview as the player known for his quick bursts to the QB embraces national runner's month at DICK'S Sporting Goods. ''You would like to accomplish something like that, but in the mix of doing your job and helping your team win you play at a high level. So all that's going to come about on its own. Because the more you think about it, the less success you have.
''Go out there and play and let the game come to you, and good things come from that. It's worked for me so far.''
All he's done is become a nightmare assignment in the middle since the Rams picked him in the first-round pick in 2014 out of the University of Pittsburgh. Donald, who turned 28 Thursday, is listed at 6-foot-1, 280 pounds - not the usual measurements for a dominating inside presence.
And yet dominating is what he's been against the run and chasing QBs. With his speed, strength and athleticism, he's become the NFL prototype.
''You open up doors for the next guy who opens up doors for the next,'' Donald explained. ''You do your job and do it at a high level and keep working and do what you're supposed to do, everybody has an opportunity to do great things. Just got to have that mindset and that will to want to do it.''
Over the offseason, he again used the plastic knives to help him improve his agility. His trainer would lunge at him with a blade in each hand and Donald knocked it away - just like he would the arms of an opposing offensive lineman.
''Trying to work on my hand speed and reaction,'' Donald said. ''I go through different things in my training to think outside the box. Think of things that can help me. Just trying to outwork myself every year to be better.''
Next up, distance running. Well, maybe.
Although his training is built around short distances, he's contemplating a 5-kilomether (3.1 mile) race down the road, especially after meeting a group of kids as part of ''Girls on the Run,'' an organization that teaches young girls life skills through running activities. Donald surprised them at a DICK'S Sporting Goods store in the Los Angeles area and helped them line up new running gear.
Donald even went for a little jog with the kids.
''Just trying to keep up with the girls,'' laughed Donald, who recently made a seven-figure donation to the University of Pittsburgh's Football Championship Fund. ''I have 10-yard bursts in me. That (5K race) would be tough. Got to have a lot of stamina and training. I'll probably get it done.''
An endeavor for later.
These days, it's all about leading the Rams back to the Super Bowl. They lost a defensive showdown with the Patriots in a game in which Donald had five tackles and one quarterback hit. He showed up at the offseason workouts, relishing the chance to develop even more cohesion with teammates.
''Being there and working with these guys, pushing these guys and getting these guys ready, it's only going to make us better,'' Donald said. ''We're pushing each other, because we want to do something special this year.''
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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley, the team's sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, was tested out as a punt returner during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp practices. "It's something that's a new challenge for me, something that I hadn't really had never done," McSorley said. Perhaps the Ravens will have their version of New Orleans Saints QB Taysom Hill, who has worked as a tight end, wide receiver and running back, as well as working on special teams. While QB Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned starter under center, McSorley could see the field in 2019 as a Swiss Army Knife of sorts, but that might not necessarily translate into fantasy appeal just yet.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver/kick returner Jakeem Grant (leg) is aiming to do more in the 2019 season. He caught a pair of touchdown passes while also returning a kickoff and a punt for touchdown in 2018, joining Andre Roberts as the only player in the NFL to check off all of those boxes. He was limited to 10 games due to a lower leg injury. "I feel like last year I kind of made a big name for myself in the return game. I want to be the best returner in the league," Grant said. "And I want to be one of the top receivers in the league." Grant is heading into a contract year, too, which is always good news for fantasy owners.
No deal soon for Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is unlikely to get an extension in 2019 or next offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. Elliott's option for 2020 is worth $9.099 million, and the team feels good about franchise tag numbers on him in 2021.
Fantasy Spin: Elliott remains one of the best options at the position in the first round of drafts.
Chicago Bears TE Adam Shaheen lost seven pounds during the offseason, did jiu-jitsu and focused on his core strength and flexibility in an effort to try and stay healthy in 2019.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan said Monday, June 24, he's happy with his team's selections of G Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. 'I'm really excited about those guys ... they're tough, they're physical, they move well and it's gonna be a lot of fun to play behind them,' Ryan said.
Fantasy Spin: Ryan was sacked 42 times in 2018, the most since 2013. Only seven quarterbacks were sacked more times than Ryan in 2018. Some extra time to make his reads could only help Ryan improve on a third-ranked interception percentage of 1.2 from last season.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan said Monday, June 24, he's excited to be reunited with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Koetter served as the Falcons offensive coordinator from 2012-14 before leaving to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers first as offensive coordinator in 2015, and then as head coach from 2016-18. He was re-hired on January 8 after being fired by the Buccaneers. He'll replace Steve Sarkisian, who spent the last two years as Atlanta's offensive coordinator.
Fantasy Spin: Ryan completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 13,928 yards and 86 touchdowns against 45 interceptions over Koetter's three-year run in Atlanta. Ryan was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2014. The 34-year-old is being taken as the sixth quarterback in standard (non-PPR) fantasy drafts. He's a safe option for those who don't like to gamble at QB.
Seattle Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf has impressed QB Russell Wilson with his football knowledge so far as a rookie. 'Everybody knows about his ability to run and everything else, and jump and catch and all that. You guys have been talking about that for months, but I think more than anything else, it's his brain and how he processes information and how quickly he understands it. He's really intelligent. He really understands the game really well. He takes coaching really well. He gets extra work. He's a legit pro wide receiver. He's everything that everybody was talking about in terms of what he's capable of and more,' Wilson said.
Fantasy Spin: While Metcalf has done well to build an early bond with Wilson - and that's obviously a big deal - he still has questions to answer regarding his durability and ability to run precise routes. His talent makes him a fine dynasty asset, but Seattle's run-heavy offense figures to lower his ceiling and floor for fantasy purposes, at least in 2019.
Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox (foot) told NJ.com's Zack Rosenblatt that 'everything is going good' and that his goal is to be ready for training camp. Cox sat out organized team activities while recovering from offseason foot surgery.
Dallas Cowboys WR Amari Cooper told reporters Monday, June 24, he isn't thinking about his expiring contract but stated,' I do want to be a Dallas Cowboy for a long time.'
Fantasy Spin: Cooper also said in a recent interview with Pro Football Talk his goal for 2019 is 2,000 receiving yards - which would be an NFL record. It's obviously an unrealistic goal, as the 25-year-old would have finished with just under 1,300 yards receiving if his nine-game totals with Dallas were extrapolated over a 16-game season. The good news for fantasy owners is he was also on a 94-catch and 10-touchdown pace with the Cowboys. If he can come close to those marks this season, he'll be a solid WR1.
Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota has been encouraged to take fewer hits by general manager Jon Robinson. 'The thing I've stressed to him, and I know our coaches have stressed to him is, Let's live to play another play,' Robinson said. 'Don't take that hit. If you feel the pocket coming down on you and you take off running, and the 'backer is coming off of coverage and he's coming screaming at you, throw the ball away. It's OK to punt, we'll get another crack at it. That's the main thing, it's stressing to him - to try as best as possible, like all quarterbacks do, to avoid getting hit.'
Fantasy Spin: Mariota's durability has been a problem with nagging injuries throughout his career. It has suppressed him to a low-end QB1 in fantasy.
Indianapolis Colts WR Devin Funchess produced mixed results during organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp, according to beat writer Kevin Bowen, although head coach Frank Reich said he was 'very encouraged' by what he saw during spring practices. 'We knew right away, you could tell day one that he was smart. (He was) not going to have a problem grasping the system,' Reich said. 'Then it's just a question of getting used to the way we do things, the way we teach things and then our schemes. I just thought he showed a very high aptitude for that.'
Fantasy Spin: To be fair, Funchess is learning a new system and getting acclimated to a new team, and he didn't have the luxury of working with Andrew Luck, who was held out of the offseason program. Funchess struggled with Jacoby Brissett, but he won't be working with him unless disaster strikes. Based on his struggles in 2018, Funch is only worth a late-round roster spot, but he could very well emerge as the No. 2 in Indy, and a decent WR4 or flex fantasy option sooner rather than later.
San Francisco 49ers RB Matt Breida will be in a crowded backfield heading into 2019 as long as everyone is healthy.
Fantasy Spin: Breida will be in a fierce battle in training camp and the preseason with Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Raheem Mostert and Jeffery Wilson. Coleman is considered the frontrunner at this point, so Breida might be battling McKinnon to be up during the regular season if everyone is healthy, as Mostert is considered a lock due to his prowess on special teams.
San Francisco 49ers RB Raheem Mostert is expected to be one of three running backs active during the regular season since he is the team's best special-teams player.
Fantasy Spin: Mostert has shown in the past that he can be effective running the ball, but that's unlikely to be his role in 2019 with the likes of Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida creating a logjam in the backfield. He has minimal fantasy appeal as long as everyone is healthy and ready to play.
San Francisco 49ers RB Jerick McKinnon (knee) is expected to receive clearance near the start of training camp, as he makes his way back from an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Fantasy Spin: The Niners have depth at the position with Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, so McKinnon won't be rushed back until he is 100 percent. It also wouldn't be surprising to see him as a healthy inactive early in the season as a precaution, as long as Coleman and Breida are healthy themselves. As such, McKinnon is a risky fantasy proposition heading into 2019.
San Francisco 49ers RB Tevin Coleman is considered the odds-on favorite to be the closest thing to a lead back, beat writer Matt Maiocco suggests, especially since he has a history in head coach Kyle Shanahan's system.
Fantasy Spin: Coleman was the only player among Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert to practice during the offseason, so he likely has a leg up, too. He is likely your best bet when diving into the San Francisco running back pool on draft day.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones said he is focused on putting last year behind him and earning his opportunities going forward. Jones also said that he has spent more time watching the veteran backs to learn how to be a pro and has simplified how he catches passes.
Fantasy Spin: Jones has received positive marks from the coaching staff this offseason, and it sounds like he is trying to put his disastrous rookie season behind him. Of course, it remains to be seen if he will ever produce on the field, but if he puts it all together, he could take over the Tampa Bay backfield and emerge as a RB2. He's a great lottery ticket to grab later in drafts.
Arizona Cardinals RB Chase Edmonds will have a 'really nice role in the offense' this season, according to head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Fantasy Spin: Kingsbury has also said he plans to use David Johnson as the feature back, so Edmonds isn't likely to have a big enough role to be more than a handcuff for fantasy owners in redraft leagues. That being said, he is an intriguing stash candidate in dynasty formats.
Cincinnati Bengals QB Jeff Driskel will likely be cut if QB Ryan Finley plays well enough in the preseason to be used as the backup quarterback, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
New Orleans Saints QB Taysom Hill said he feels more comfortable with the responsibilities of being a wide receiver this season. 'I think it will be even easier because there was definitely a learning curve from a fundamental standpoint of getting out of breaks and routes and blocking all that I feel more comfortable doing that.'
Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry has been making impressive catches during spring practices, according to head coach Anthony Lynn. 'Hunter is just doing what Hunter Henry does,' Lynn said. 'He makes plays.'
Fantasy Spin: Henry's ability has never been questioned, but an injury derailed what was supposed to be a breakout 2018 campaign. A year later, his upside hasn't changed, and Henry should be viewed as a low-end TE1 candidate.