Ranking the NFL’s top rookies thus far in 2019

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Would you believe Mike McGlinchey and Da’Shawn Hand as NFL offensive and defensive rookies of the year?

This week, having just passed the midpoint of the season, I asked Eric Eager of Pro Football Focusthe data-driven analytics firm that contributes to this column weekly, to rate the top 20 rookies in football through midseason. The rating is a combination of three things: impact, level of play, and playing time. (Cleveland running back Nick Chubb is on the list, but not high because he played just 146 of Cleveland’s 670 snaps through nine games.)

The list is heavy on defense, as you’ll see:

1. Da’Shawn Hand, DT, Detroit (114th overall pick). Ninth among all defensive tackles in pass-rush productivity, per PFF.

2. Jessie Bates, S, Cincinnati (54). First-team PFF safety at midseason, allowing just a 21.7 QB rating through eight games.

3. Derwin James, S, L.A. Chargers (17). Four sacks, a pick, 10 QB disruptions. First-day impact on solid D.

4. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis (36). NFL tackles leader through nine weeks (66, per PFF numbers, in just seven games), and a very sure tackler.

5. Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas (19). PFF tracks the number of run-stops for every defender, and Vander Esch is fifth in the league in run-stop percentage.

6. Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay (18). Five pass breakups, a pick, and allowing a rating of 74.1 in his coverage area.

7. Mike McGlinchey, T, San Francisco (9). Through nine weeks, PFF has him as the league’s best run-blocking tackle.

8. Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland (1). The Browns’ MVP, inconsistent on a shaky franchise, has been worth a win above replacement. Big potential.

9. Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland (4). Though heavily targeted, Ward has allowed a 73.3 rating in his coverage area. Three picks too.

Where’s Saquon Barkley? Click here to read the rest of the list.

Super Bowl LVII storylines: Defending Mahomes, Hurts

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The three things you need to know about Super Bowl LVII, per Next Gen Stats, that I think could play big parts in who wins:

The Eagles do not need to blitz to affect Patrick Mahomes. This is the craziest thing about a formidable Philadelphia front: Of their league-best 77 sacks in 19 games, including playoffs, 57 came when the Eagles rushed four players. That means 74 percent of their sacks have come on non-blitzes. Which, of course, means that Mahomes will likely most often be trying to complete his passes with a battered receiving corps against seven men in coverage. Tough duty for even a great one like Mahomes. No team in the seven-year history of Next Gen Stats has had such success rushing the quarterback without blitzing as the ‘22 Eagles.

Kansas City must be considering offensive alternatives with its beat-up receiver corps. Much has been said about the lack of Tyreek Hill in this offense, and it’s remarkable that the team has been so explosive—and Mahomes so productive—with all the new receivers in his arsenal. New, and not as fast. In 2018 through ’21, with Hill onboard, Mahomes threw 47 “deep TD passes,” defined as passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In 2022, minus Hill, Mahomes threw one. We’ve seen all year that Mahomes is far more of an intermediate thrower this year, and he’s been great at it. One more NGS nugget that could come into play: Kansas City has scored 35 touchdowns this year—most in the NFL—with two tight ends on the field. If Travis Kelce isn’t a 100-yard factor in this game, I’ll be surprised.

Steve Spagnuolo beat the 18-0 Patriots with an unpredictable pass-rush in the 2007 season. Will he blitz Jalen Hurts in the same way in Super Bowl LVII? Hurts, per Next Gen, had the sixth-worst success rate against the blitz this season. His success rate is 47.7 percent against non-blitzes. One thing Hurts has going for him is the best offensive line in football, a line well-suited to defend against great rushers. He’ll need it against Chris Jones and Frank Clark.

Lots of great angles in this tight, competitive matchup. Those are just three.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Concrete takeaways from Broncos’ deal with Sean Payton

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The late Giants’ GM, George Young, once had a great truism about coaching searches: “They’re never done till they’re done.” Reporters in this time of intense media would be wise to keep that in mind.

Reading about the Denver job in the two weeks before the hire of Sean Payton last week left these impressions: He wouldn’t want the job because of a conflict with an owner. Or he had a bad interview, didn’t have a second interview as others did, and was out of the running. Or Broncos owners never wanted Payton as their coach. Or the Broncos wanted DeMeco Ryans and got jilted, and so went to Payton as a fallback.

For someone so unwanted as Payton, it seems funny Denver traded first- and second-round draft choices (getting a third- in return) to New Orleans for Payton, then made him one of the highest-paid coaches in NFL history, with a five-year deal worth at least $18 million a year. The Broncos once were interested in Jim Harbaugh and then Ryans—neither of whom would require draft-choice compensation, and neither of whom would cost upwards of $18 millon a year. But things change during the process of looking for a coach, so it’s wise to not speak in absolutes till it’s over.

A few things we do know about the Payton deal with Denver:

  • Denver talked with Saints GM Mickey Loomis about two deals for Payton, who required compensation because he was still under contract to New Orleans: a first-round pick and a third-round pick, or a first-rounder and second-rounder, with the Broncos getting a third-rounder in return. Denver wanted the second option, because it would leave them with an equal number of day-two picks instead of being down one. Officially, Denver trades the 30th pick this year and a second-round pick in 2024 and gets a third-round pick in 2024 in return.
  • Payton had the best chance of turning Russell Wilson around. The first time I ever met Wilson, at Seahawks training camp, he said to me: “Who’s taller—me or Drew [Brees]?” I think he was genuinely curious about it. (I’d guess Wilson, by a fraction.) But Wilson and Brees have gotten to be friends, and Wilson has great admiration for him. So, Wilson’s at a low point after his disastrous first year in Denver. He wanted Payton to get the job, and he’s willing to be coached hard by him. Wilson has been reaching out to Brees to get a preview of coming attractions. History lesson: Brees was a free agent coming off shoulder surgery in 2006, and Miami was iffy on signing him because of his shoulder, and the Saints went after him hard. Brees came under Payton’s wing with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Sound familiar?
  • The presence in the interview process of minority Broncos owner Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, was a plus. Payton was impressed by her, and one of the majority owners, Greg Penner. He thinks he’ll be able to form the kind of close relationship with GM George Paton that he had with Loomis, who remains one of his best friends, in New Orleans.
  • Payton is wide open about his defensive staff, and won’t be in a hurry to fill it out. He’ll take his time to find a coordinator he thinks he’ll mesh with. He won’t be afraid to pick a strong-minded tough guy like Brian Flores, who he’s scheduled to interview. The defensive coordinator of the Broncos, as Dennis Allen was under Payton in New Orleans, is going to be the head coach of the defense.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column