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Compelling NFL games after draft; could schedule release be adjusted?

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After free agency and the draft, some games this fall got a whole lot more interesting. In fact, talking to the schedule nerds in the NFL (and talking to one owner at the league meetings this year), my guess is there’s a 50-50 chance that the schedule—which now gets released annually in the third week of April, a week before the draft—could soon get pushed back to being released in the first half of May instead.

Nooooooooooo! I can hear fans who make their annual treks to games from far away and already think the schedule gets put out too late. And I can hear teams complain too, because they need to make plans for travel and game-day events, etc. But in the end, TV ratings trump all, and the fact that Kyler Murray and the Cardinals are on TV only once in prime time this year could turn out to be poor TV planning. We shall see. But if the league thinks it can get a 10-percent-higher rating on a Monday night game with Kyler Murray than in a game with starless quarterbacking, the league’s going to seriously consider pushing back the schedule-release date.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

For now, here are the games that got more compelling after the draft:

Sunday, Sept. 8. Detroit at Arizona. It’ll be a major upset if this is not the debut of Kyler Murray in the Valley of the Sun, and the unveiling of Kliff Kingsbury’s edgy offense too—he won’t be showing much in the preseason.

Monday, Sept. 9. Denver at Oakland. Talk about two new teams. Joe Flacco throwing to Noah Fant. Kareem Jackson covering Antonio Brown, Bryce Callahan trying to blanket Tyrell Williams. Josh Jacobs getting 20 touches (at least) against the rebuilding Denver D in Vic Fangio’s head-coaching debut. What a fun game this should be.

Sunday, Sept. 22. Pittsburgh at San Francisco. Nick Bosa begins his career with two road games against average quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton. Here in Week 3, he plays his first home game against tree-trunk QB Ben Roethlisberger and a premier offensive line. This game will be the first acid test for Bosa.

Sunday, Oct. 6. Baltimore at Pittsburgh. Devin Bush: This game’s one of the big reasons why the Steelers used first, second and third-round picks to draft you 10th overall. Today’s the day you’ve got to chase/neutralize/bash Lamar Jackson, the quarterback of your new nemesis.

Sunday, Dec. 15. Cleveland at Arizona. The Lincoln Riley Bowl. The last two Heisman winners, good pals Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, meet in the desert. Another note: Just imagine if someone had said a year ago that one of the interesting NFL games of 2019 would be Freddie Kitchens matching wits with Kliff Kingsbury. Good example of “NFL” really meaning Not For Long.

Sunday, Dec. 22. Giants at Washington. Week 16 for New York and Washington could be meaningless, wait-till-2020 stuff. But by this time, I’m assuming Daniel Jones is starting for the Giants, and a Daniel Jones-Dwayne Haskins matchup, which could be the first of many test matches between the two 2019 first-round QBs (they meet in Week 4 too, when Jones will still presumably be on the bench for the Giants). Dave Gettleman watches intently.

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.