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.''
New Orleans Saints tight end Josh Hill is expected to be the team's starting tight end in 2019, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Josh Katzenstein. Veteran Benjamin Watson has retired, so Hill will have more opportunity next season. He caught just 16 passes (24 targets) for 185 yards and a touchdown in a full season in 2018, though, and he has 11 touchdowns in six years in New Orleans. Dan Arnold could factor in as well, so Hill is unlikely to suddenly become fantasy relevant.
The Chicago Bears released kicker Cody Parkey before the start of the new league year on Friday, according to sources. The Pro Bowler is still due $3.5 million on his 2019 contract, and he's unlikely to be out of work for long. The 27-year-old made just 23 of 30 field-goal tries (76.7 percent) and 42 of his 45 extra points in 2018 in his one and only season in Chicago. He was ultimately done in by a huge miss in the wild-card game against the Eagles that cost the team a chance to move on in the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Eagles re-signed kicker Jake Elliott to an undisclosed one-year deal on Friday. Elliott made 26 of his 31 field-goal attempts (83.9 percent) and 33 of his 35 extra-point tries in 2018. He has made 83.9 percent of his kicks in his two seasons in the NFL and will remain a low-end fantasy kicker heading into his third season.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said that three teams have already reached out on a potential Antonio Brown trade. The identity of the teams is unknown, but Colbert is adamant that the Steelers won't just give Brown away. The two sides met last week and agreed that a trade was the best course of action moving forward. While Brown's attitude may turn some teams off, he'll have plenty of suitors after exceeding 1,000 yards and 100 catches in six straight years. He'll remain a WR1 heading into next season, but he may come with more risk depending on where he winds up.
Cincinnati Bengals impending free-agent tight end Tyler Eifert suffered an ugly ankle injury last September that required season-ending surgery. The 28-year-old former first-round pick in 2013 posted a video on Twitter on Thursday that showed him doing ladder drills. Because of his extensive injury history -- Eifert has played in a total of 14 games the last three seasons -- fantasy owners are unlikely to touch him in standard-sized leagues. It'll be interesting to see where he lands in free agency, but he'll have to prove he can stay on the field and be productive before he becomes an option for fantasy owners again.
Pittsburgh Steelers impending free-agent running back Le'Veon Bell's trainer responded to "ridiculous" speculation about Bell's shape by pointing out that he is feeling better in February than guys who played in 2018. "Hes going to be the same Le'Veon Bell only better, quicker and faster," Bell's trainer said. Bell sat out all of the 2018 season while refusing to sign his franchise tender, but some teams might still be wary of that fact that he's already run the ball 1,229 times in five seasons in the league. Bell is still young, though, and he's one of the most versatile running backs in the game. He should remain firmly in the high-end RB1 picture no matter where he signs.
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said he supports quarterback Ben Roethlisberger 100 percent as the team's unquestioned leader amid criticism from disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown. "I have no problem with him. He can call me out and thats fine. What he does I totally respect because Ive seen him too many times win games for us and come through in situations," Colbert said. Owner Art Rooney also said last month that they plan to sign Big Ben, 37, to a contract extension. Roethlisberger led the NFL in yards (5,129) and had a career-high 34 touchdowns, so he wasn't as washed up as most fantasy owners thought before the season. He'll still be in play as a QB1 next season, but losing Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown -- two of the best playmakers in football -- will surely hurt his overall ceiling.
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Carlos Hyde is likely to be cut this offseason, as Hays Carlyon projects there's an 80 percent chance of that happening. The Jags would save $4.75 million if they were to release him. Hyde didn't do much at all after the team gave up a fifth-round pick for him in the middle of last season to serve as insurance for the injured Leonard Fournette. The 28-year-old ran 58 times for 189 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and no touchdowns in eight games. He could land a job on the open market, but Hyde is unlikely to receive a prominent role anywhere else.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Antonio Callaway had his marijuana charge dropped on Thursday, according to his lawyer Kevin Spellacy. Callaway pleaded guilty to speeding on Oct. 14 in a hearing on Jan. 25. He paid $911 in fines and court costs and received one year of monitored probation for driving with a suspended license. The team's fourth-round pick last year must be on his best behavior to avoid a suspension from the league, however. The 22-year-old caught 43 passes for 586 yards and led the team with five touchdowns in his first year. If he can stay out of further trouble, Callaway should take the next step as the team's deep threat in an offense that is only getting better.
The Detroit Lions are not expected to re-sign impending unrestricted free-agent running back LeGarrette Blount this offseason. Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Luke Willson and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois are also expected to hit the open market. The 32-year-old Blount had 154 carries for only 418 yards (career-low 2.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns in his only season in Detroit. He had a whopping 18 touchdowns with the Patriots in 2016, but that was an outlier season for the former Oregon Duck, as he never topped six scores in any other year. He doesn't have much left at this point in his career and is strictly a short-yardage, goal-line back.
Arizona Cardinals LB Thurston Armbrister was waived Wednesday, Feb. 20.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst (foot), who was the 25th overall pick in last year's draft, said an X-ray showed he is now 100 percent after he had a screw removed from his foot. Hurst went down with a stress fracture in August and played in 12 games in his rookie season, catching only 13 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams will be free agents, so Hurst and 2018 third-round pick Mark Andrews could compete for playing time in 2019. Hurst is only 25 and has pass-catching upside, but he's still probably only an asset in dynasty/keeper leagues to begin next season. He could become a waiver wire pickup if he sees considerable playing time and proves he's healthy.
There is word on the street that Pittsburgh Steelers impending free-agent running back Le'Veon Bell is up to around 260 pounds after holding out for all of 2018. His playing weight is listed as 225 pounds. Bell may have lost a lot of that extra baggage now, but the Jets and other teams may be concerned about what kind of shape he's in. There's also concern about how much the 27-year-old has left in the tank after his 1,635 touches in five seasons. Bell is believed to be looking for a deal that nets him $48 million in the first three years of his next deal. He is arguably the best dual-threat running back in the last decade and should still be an RB1 in his new home.
Free-agent RB Le'Veon Bell (Steelers) reportedly weighed around 260 pounds during his year off from football. The Jets are fairly concerned about the shape Bell is in after he played at 225 pounds in 2017. New York is considered to be one of the front-runners to sign Bell this offseason. Despite the weight issue, the Jets will add him for the right price. The Jets currently boast the second largest salary cap heading into the offseason behind the Indianapolis Colts.
Fantasy Spin: Running back will be even more of a need if Isaiah Crowell is not retained. Bell would make a nice fit in green and white but is an RB1 candidate wherever he lands, assuming the weight won't be a big issue.
Carolina Panthers LB David Mayo (hernia) recently underwent surgery for a sports hernia, according to The Athletic's Joe Person. Mayo is rehabilitating and is expected to make a full recovery.
New York Giants impending free-agent SS Landon Collins is expected to be pursued by the Indianapolis Colts in free agency, according to The Herald Bulletin's George Bremer.
The Chicago Bears are expected to release tight end Dion Sims, according to a source. He was due $6 million in 2019, so he'll become a salary cap casualty. The 28-year-old played in just 22 games in his two years in Chicago and caught only 17 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown over that span. Sims is mainly a blocking tight end and won't have a huge market for his services this offseason.
Chicago Bears impending free-agent TE Dion Sims is expected to be released, according to a source. Cutting Sims saves the Bears $6 million in salary cap space.
New York Giants impending free-agent SS Landon Collins cleared out his locker and said goodbye to teammates Wednesday, Feb. 20, indicating he does not expect to return to the Giants this year.
Free-agent WR Jaelen Strong (Jaguars) was signed to an undisclosed deal by the Cleveland Browns Wednesday, Feb. 20.