What’s next for Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, Matt LaFleur after explosive report

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I think my biggest takeaway from Tyler Dunne’s excellent unpacking of the Packers/Rodgers/McCarthy/Thompson story is this: Mike McCarthy is going to have work hard, and repair his tarnished image significantly in the next nine months, to have a real shot at a head-coaching job in 2020. With the broadsides he’s taken since getting fired by the Packers late last season, McCarthy has a chance to be Brian Billick—a Super Bowl-winning coach damaged so much late in his tenure that he never got a chance to coach another team.

I think there’s a journalism tale in Dunne’s story too. He got significant parties to the story—most notably Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings—to go on the record about a very sensitive topic involving one of the great players in recent history on a storied franchise. A franchise, I should add, that has been excellent at keeping dirty laundry in-house. What Dunne did is penetrate the bubble, and in today’s NFL, with so many filters between the media and the players, that’s an incredibly hard thing to do.

In today’s media, what’s also hard, and what Bleacher Report deserves credit for, is giving a writer four months to work on a story. I talked to Dunne on Friday (he’ll join me on my podcast dropping Wednesday), and he started reporting this story in early December. He talked to more than 50 people for it. Kudos to Dunne, and to his bosses, for realizing what a gold mine the story was, and taking the needed time that so few media entities allow today.

I think Matt LaFleur had to be quaking reading that story. Here’s LaFleur, four years older than Rodgers, never been a head coach, never been in charge of a veteran, star quarterback, and now he’s got to run a team after reading a story that portrays Rodgers as a vindictive, you-better-do-it-my-way guy. LaFleur’s never had to walk in front of a room of 90 guys and command them, which is a daunting enough task. Reading Dunne, LaFleur has got to worry about what kind of partner he’ll have in Rodgers. I hope Packers president Mark Murphy, in the search process, saw enough signs in LaFleur that he’ll be able to handle a quarterback like Rodgers and be able to lead a team.

I think, come to think of it, that Dunne probably just helped Aaron Rodgers prepare to be great again in 2019. Rodgers will understand that many now will view him as a controlling home-wrecker, and he’ll be supremely motivated to show what a team guy, and a winning guy, he is. He’s not going to want to be known as the 800-pound gorilla. He’s going to want to be known as a great leader and winning player. That’s my guess anyway.

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Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.