Mon Jan 21 6:29pm ET
By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
In this Dec. 23, 2018 file photo, New Orleans Saints linebacker Craig Robertson (52) reacts to the crowd as he runs off the field after their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL football game in New Orleans. On Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, the Saints will host the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game. (AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)
New Orleans Saints linebacker Craig Robertson (52) leaves the field after overtime of the NFL football NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The Rams won 26-23. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson arrives before the NFL football NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints punter Thomas Morstead is having a tougher time taking the high road after a second consecutive season ended in stunned disappointment - this time because of officiating, rather than an opponent's late-game heroics.
Morstead drew headlines for his sportsmanship - not to mention an outpouring of financial support for his charitable endeavors - by volunteering to return to the field from the visitor's locker room in Minnesota for a required extra point try after the Vikings had ended the Saints' 2017-18 playoff run with a long, improbable touchdown as time expired.
''Last year we felt like we got beat; they made a play and we didn't stop them,'' Morstead said. ''As tough as that was, I think as a player you can handle that. This just feels a little dirty.''
Saints players spent Monday struggling to stomach the fact that they were conducting exit interviews and cleaning out their lockers when they thought they should be preparing to play in the Super Bowl.
They remained incredulous over two officials' reluctance to throw a flag when Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman delivered an improperly early and high hit on intended receiver Tommylee Lewis that could have been penalized for pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact. A penalty would have allowed the Saints to mostly run out the clock before trying a go-ahead field goal.
Instead, the Saints took a three-point lead with 1:41 left, and the Rams came back to tie it at the end of regulation and win, 26-23, in overtime.
Acceptance wasn't coming easy.
Even Saints owner Gayle Benson released a statement on pledging to ''aggressively pursue changes'' in NFL policies to promote more ''fairness and integrity'' on the field.
''No team should ever be denied the opportunity to reach the title game (or simply win a game) based on the actions, or inactions, of those charged with creating a fair and equitable playing field,'' Benson's statement read. ''As is clear to all who watched the game, it is undeniable that our team and fans were unfairly deprived of that opportunity.''
Decisive personnel decisions and aggressive play-calling were among the signs that the Saints were all-in to win the Super Bowl this season.
They traded for Teddy Bridgewater late in the preseason in an effort to ensure quarterback Drew Brees' backup would have the combination of experience and talent they felt necessary to preserve championship aspirations in the event Brees was injured.
The move also provided more flexibility to employ versatile third-string QB Taysom Hill in a variety of roles on offense and special teams. They played to win and win big, regularly keeping the offense on the field on fourth down and executing several fake punts. They were bent on winning the No. 1 seed, viewing two home games in the deafening din of the Superdome as the surest route to this season's Super Bowl in Atlanta.
Saints players also professed that the chemistry they achieved in their locker room was rare.
''That's the hardest thing about this season'' ending,'' said linebacker Craig Robertson, whose contract is up. ''I've never been so close with so many guys on a team in my life.''
Now they'll have to start over, and that means at least a few roster moves. Free agents include running back Mark Ingram, who has said he does not want to leave but has a professional obligation to keep his options open.
Defensive end Alex Okafor could opt out, which might be in his interest given that he was sharing snaps this season with first-round draft choice Marcus Davenport.
Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, defensive back P.J. Williams and Bridgewater also are among those due to be unrestricted free agents, while tight end Ben Watson is retiring.
The 40-yeear-old Brees is under contract for one more season and sounded confident after Sunday's game that he'd be back.
Before the team went its separate ways, the shared message seemed to be that after they've taken some time to rest and decompress, they have to summon the determination to return with the same optimism, desire and determination as they did after losing in heartbreaking fashion in Minnesota the season before.
''That's the tough part about this game, is kind of the emotional investment for guys to physically lay it on the line every week and when it's over, it's kind of like getting broken up with somebody that you love,'' Morstead said. ''Some people are kind of never able to love the same again after that. It's hard to come back and put your heart and soul into it just as hard as you did the last time.
''That's why it's so important to have the right guys in the locker room, because when you have the right guys, they're kind of able to be vulnerable and accept it, take it, take it on the chin and find a way to come back the next year and emotionally invest 100 percent again,'' Morstead added. ''So, hopefully we can do that.''
Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back Rodney Anderson (knee) is expected to open the 2019 season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. If he does, Anderson will have to miss the first six games of the season and will be significantly behind in the battle for backup minutes in Cincinnati. This news likely means that Anderson's rookie season is going to be a fantasy nonfactor, though he still has value in dynasty leagues, where he has a chance to be the future number-two back behind Joe Mixon.
Denver Broncos TE Jake Butt (knee) will be eased back into practice during the early portion of training camp, according to head coach Vic Fangio.
Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams burst onto the scene last season with his team-leading 10 touchdowns, but he's just getting started. Williams and teammate Keenan Allen were named the third-best receiver duo by NFL.com analyst James Jones, and Jones pointed out that 2019 might be a huge year for Williams thanks to a bit of subtraction. Tyrell Williams departed for Oakland, and his 65 targets from last season will now be spread out amongst those who are left, most likely Mike Williams. Assuming Melvin Gordon returns to the lineup, Williams could be one of the very best "third" options in the league this year and could easily turn into an undercover superstar.
Denver Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles') will not open camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list, according to team president John Elway.
Fantasy Spin: Sanders is a tough decision later in drafts this year. He's aging, and he's coming off an Achilles' injury. He's a risky WR4 or a WR5 flyer.
Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon clarified over the weekend that even though he is pushing for a new contract, he still wants to stay with the Chargers if he can. Gordon spoke out because he was upset that people were saying that he didn't want to go back to the Chargers, but he still reiterated, "You know, I want to get paid." Gordon is entering the final year of his five-year rookie contract, and his agent has already openly expressed that Gordon will hold out and demand a trade if he is not given a new deal. Gordon's got some leverage as the team's primary running back, but the recent drop in value amongst running backs and cross-town troubles between the Rams and Todd Gurley will likely play a major role in the offers made to him. It would be surprising if this issue was solved before training camp.
Denver Broncos WR Aaron Burbridge announced his retirement Wednesday, July 17.
Atlanta Falcons TE Austin Hooper caught 71 of 88 targets last season for an 80.7 percent catch ratio. In comparison, former TE Tony Gonzalez's best catch ratio was 75 percent in 2012. 'Hooper, the improvement just keeps getting better,' Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. 'Now, he's ready to go to another level, and I'm looking forward to seeing him make that growth.'
Fantasy Spin: That catch ratio can be looked at in different lenses and could be an aberration. Hooper delivered a 71-660-4 season, and he could improve upon that or level off. He's a solid midrange TE1 in PPR formats.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue will have to report to training camp no later than Aug. 5 in order to accrue his fourth season and avoid becoming a restricted free-agent after the season.
Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett said that he was limited to a couple of moves at the line under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and he feels he has more freedom this year. Garrett was known for using a long-arm technique to create space and neutralize an opposing lineman's ability to set their feet deep. 'You can be as strong or fast as you want, but speed chop and power move aren't always going to work,' Garrett said. 'You have to mix up what you're doing. Sometimes you have to stutter step, sometimes you have to spin inside, you have to run some games. You have to have some freedom to throw different looks at them, and we didn't always have that.'
A source close to retired tight end Rob Gronkowski places his potential for unretiring at 40 percent in 2019. Gronkowski isn't thinking of football right now and is enjoying his retirement, but he could decide to return once the season starts. If quarterback Tom Brady makes an appeal to Gronk, the future Hall of Famer could come back. Gronkowski has said that he's lost only 18 pounds since retiring, and it's believed that head coach Bill Belichick wouldn't stop Gronkowski if he wanted to return. This is probably still more of a long shot, but it shouldn't be ruled out. Gronk battled injuries throughout his career and seemed to slow down in 2018, but his return would send shock waves through the fantasy industry. He had 47 receptions for 682 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games last year. You'd be better off using a roster spot on someone else this fall, even if it's intriguing to think about.
The Atlanta Falcons and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett agreed to a four-year contract extension on Monday. The contract is expected to be worth $68 million with $38 million guaranteed, according to a source. He was initially set to receive the $15.209 million franchise tag if a deal wasn't worked out by Monday. The team can now move on to extensions for receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Deion Jones. The Falcons and Deion Jones' representation will meet face-to-face on Wednesday. Jarrett, a fifth-round pick in 2015, has been a top defender for Atlanta and had 53 total pressures in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had six sacks, three forced fumbles and a team-high 16 QB hits.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon will look to improve after a solid 2018 season. After accruing just 626 yards on the ground during his rookie campaign, Mixon eclipsed the millennium mark last season to finish with 1,168 yards to go along with nine total trips to the end zone. Though it has been argued that he isn't a top-five back, he will begin his first season under the tutelage of new head coach Zac Taylor, who served as an assistant under Sean McVay. Taylor, who will mirror some parts of the Rams' playbook initially, will utilize the same packages that helped running back Todd Gurley become a fantasy success. As a result, Mixon has a better chance than most to have a dominant season despite being behind a weaker offensive line, and as long as he can remain healthy.
Jacksonville Jaguars RB Alfred Blue is the 'frontrunner' for the No. 2 spot behind RB Leonard Fournette, in the opinion of The Florida Times-Union's John Reid.
Fantasy Spin: There are some other recognizable names on the depth chart, including Thomas Rawls and rookie Ryquell Armstead, but Blue has been penciled in as RB2 since he signed with the Jags. He remains a decent late-round handcuff for Fournette owners.
Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker (ankle) is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, in the opinion of Titans Online's Jim Wyatt. Tight end Jonnu Smith (knee), whose season ended in Week 14, isn't a lock to be ready after having missed all of the offseason workouts. Walker could be on the Physically Unable to Perform list during training camp, but the veteran should be ready for Week 1. The 34-year-old is more of a risk now than ever as a TE1, but he could come at a nice value later in drafts if he can stay healthy. After all, he has had at least 800 receiving yards since 2014 if you take out last year's injury.
Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles) said he's "definitely not going to be full-go from the jump" at the start of training camp. He will gradually work into full activities and wants "to be ready for Week 1." It's no lock that the 32-year-old will be ready for Week 1, so that definitely makes him a risky fantasy proposition going into the 2019 season. Sanders started his Denver tenure with three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2014-16, but he's underwhelmed since. He bounced back some with 71 receptions for 868 yards and four touchdowns in only 12 games last season. Sanders hasn't played in a full season since 2016 and will obviously have injury concerns again this year.
Denver Broncos TE Jake Butt (knee) was limited to individual drills for most of the offseason as he continued to recover from surgery on his torn anterior cruciate ligament. He believes he will do more 'team things' at start of camp while the team slowly works his reps back to where they were, according to Aric DiLalla of the team's website.
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been impressed with the tempo of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense. The Cardinals ranked 20th in the league in pace (time between plays) in neutral situations last year, but that is expected to change drastically in 2019. Fitzgerald said the new offense contains less verbiage that when Bruce Arians was the head coach, and players are expected to process pre-snap adjustments faster. It means that Arizona's skill players should see more bulk this year, which is good for their fantasy value. The offense will ebb and flow based on how rookie quarterback Kyler Murray fares, but the early returns are very promising.
Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock, a second-round pick, remains the only unsigned rookie on the team. Offensive guard Drew Risner, who was selected a pick before Lock at 41 overall, signed a deal worth $7.14 million on Tuesday. According to multiple sources, Lock's representatives are seeking a "quarterback premium." There is hope that he'll sign before the team's first meeting on Wednesday and first practice on Thursday, but there's also the chance that Lock isn't present for the start of training camp. The Broncos made assurances to Risner that Lock won't receive a richer contract. Lock has long-term upside in dynasty/keeper leagues, but he won't have much redraft value as the expected backup to veteran Joe Flacco to begin the season.
Chicago Bears WR Javon Wims is a player who 'probably deserves more attention' after performing well during offseason workouts and appears primed to compete for a role on offense in training camp, according to Larry Mayer of the team's website.
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry ran for 625 yards and eight touchdowns on 97 carries in five December games last season. New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith intends to ride Henry in 2019, according to Jim Wyatt of the team's website.
Fantasy Spin: Henry is entering the final year of his contract and has a solid offensive line in front of him, which may be the two most important reasons why the Titans may not care about running him into the ground. Other reasons may include Smith not knowing if Marcus Mariota can hold up his end of the deal. If Smith stays true to his word, Henry has as good of a chance to lead the league in carries and rushing yards as any back.