Mandel’s Musings: Kevin Durant Can Enter Elite Territory If He Leads Nets to Series Win Over Bucks

by Scott Mandel

The mountain of elites.

It’s exclusive real estate in the NBA. You cannot just buy land on it, you have to earn it.

Tomorrow night, when the Brooklyn Nets take the floor in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, this will either turn Kevin Durant into a landowner in the rarified air of the mountain or, his legacy will remain, just another case of a great player who couldn’t push his injured or undermanned team across the finish line, like LeBron or Jordan or Bill Russell did.

If Durant somehow wins this semi-final series by carrying the supporting players on the Nets on his back to the next round without the injured James Harden and Kyrie Irving, it will be nothing short of miraculous. But for elite performers in sports, miracles are supposed to happen.

A series win vs. the Bucks and Durant can begin to pour the foundation on his piece of real estate, next to LeBron and Jordan and Russell. An NBA championship and he can permanently move into his “place” on the mountain of elites.

Kevin Durant puts on historic performance to lead Nets past Bucks in Game  5, 114-108 - NetsDaily
Nets coach Steve Nash hugs Durant after KD’s historic night in Brooklyn

Mets’ Cespedes Opts Out from the Baseball Season

By Scott Mandel – sportsreporters.com

Cespedes decided to end his season with the Mets after nine games in 2020

Yoenis Cespedes has decided to opt out of the 2020 MLB season. The news comes hours after the Mets released a statement they were unable to get in contact with him after he failed to show up for the Sunday afternoon game in Atlanta.

“It’s disappointing,” general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said. “This is a disappointing end at least to his four-year agreement with the Mets.”

 Van Wagenen maintained the team had no knowledge of Cespedes’ plan to opt out before sending their statement out before game time on Sunday. The Mets G.M. also did not know whether the slugger was safe and healthy before releasing an initial statement. He explained his statement was made in an effort to be transparent and keep the public informed, “in real time,” the GM said later.

“As of game time, Yoenis Céspedes has not reported to the ballpark today,” Van Wagenen’s statement read. “He did not reach out to management with any explanation for his absence. Our attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful.”

The announcement of the lineup was also delayed, but when Rojas was asked directly if the team was waiting on any players to arrive, the manager chalked it up to the quick turnaround of Saturday night’s game to Sunday afternoon’s early arrival.

”Nothing in particular,” Rojas said on the delay of the lineup announcement. “We’re just arriving from the night-day game.”

Cespedes is in the final year of his contract with the Mets, which was restructured in January following his 2019 accident with a wild boar. He rehabbed from multiple surgeries on his heels and ankle and returned to play Opening Day in his first-big league game since July 2018.

The slugger is batting .161 (5-for-31) with two home runs, four RBI, two walks, three runs scored and 15 strikeouts from the designated-hitter spot across the first nine games of the season.

One suspects there is more to this story than meets the immediate eye. Stay tuned.

NBA Fundamentals, Where Art Thou? Stat Lines Are Wacked

By Scott Mandel

Oy. The NBA. Where art thou gone? Yesteryear was so much more satisfying to us baby boomers.

Now, we are getting ridiculous stat lines in the wide open game the NBA has turned into.

Last night, Giannis Antetakoumpo compiled 40 points and 20 rebounds, from his forward position. I’m guessing not one of those rebounds were gathered through the physical act of boxing out or fundamental positioning because of the way the pro game has changed, with emphasis on the long jump shot from beyond the three-point line.

Today’s game is dominated by the three-point shot, in the way it spaces out players and opens up the lane for unobstructed drives for layups. The blocked shot or clogged lane is a thing of the past. This season, Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets average 55 three point attempts per game. The lowest per game attempts of threes in the league is 27, by the Indiana Pacers. That represents anywhere from 35 to 60% of all shots coming from beyond the three-point stripe.

As soon as offensive teams throw up those 3s, nobody is crashing the offensive boards, anymore. The three goes up and all five guys head down court to play “defense” in case of the inevitable long rebound a missed 25-footer often produces. They don’t want to give up easy fast break buckets on those long rebounds, which create 2 on 1 breaks.

So, the game has turned into a run and gun, playground-style in which it is not unusual to see an offensive player come down the court ahead of his teammates, shooting a three without anyone around him to rebound a miss. These guys are going 1 on 3 and still shooting it from 25 feet.

Coaches used to be able to reign-in undisciplined players with bench time or, allowing team veterans to pull the kids aside and tell them they are messing with their all-important playoff bonus money. Those days are over, as rookie #1 draft choices are making several million dollars per year, guaranteed for at least three years. Playoff money? That’s used for tips.

To this aging eye, there are too many 19 and 20 year olds who don’t have a fundamental basketball bone in their body. It’s become very difficult to watch if you remember the sport as an exercise in strategy, fundamentals, hard-nosed defense, and driven by great coaches.

Today’s NBA players are the most graceful and powerful athletes on the planet. It’s always been like watching the ballet, except the dancers wear short shorts and bounce a ball. Today, it is, in reality, just a ballet. Less contact, less strategy and structure to the “dance,” and, less defense.

The good news? The better teams in the league play the type of fundamental basketball most of us want to see when the playoffs begin. And the teams that go furthest in the post-season play the best fundamental style of the sport, while leaning on one or two superstars on their roster to rise above everybody else. That part has not changed.

Major League Baseball Pondering Changes in Postseason Format

By Scott Mandel

Major League Baseball is mulling significant changes to its postseason, including increasing the number of teams from 10 to 14 and adding a reality-TV-type format to determine which teams play each other in an expanded wild-card round, sources told ESPN.

MLB is considering a move in which each league would have three division winners and four wild-card teams make the postseason, sources said. The best team in the league would receive a bye into the division series, while the two remaining division winners and the wild-card team with the best record of the four would each host all games of a best-of-three series of the opening round.

The potential changes were first reported by the New York Post.

Once the teams clinch, and the regular season ends, the plan gets congested:

  • The division winner with the second-best record would select its wild-card opponent from the three wild-card winners with the worst records of the four.
  • The team with the worst record of the three division winners would pick its opponent from the remaining two wild-card teams.
  • The final matchup would pit the wild-card winner with the best record against the wild-card team not chosen.

All of the selections, sources said, would be unveiled live on television the Sunday night of the final regular-season games.

The winners of the wild-card series would advance to the divisional round. Currently, two teams from each league play a winner-take-all wild-card game, and the winner faces the team with the league’s best record.

The appeal of the changes, according to the Post, is twofold. It potentially would increase fan interest, and could benefit MLB via richer television rights package.

Deals with ESPN and Turner both expire after the 2021 season.

Bobby Knight, Hall of Fame Coach at Indiana, Returns to Campus First Time in 20 Years to Hero’s Welcome

By Associated Press

Bob Knight cherished the short stroll from the practice gym to Assembly Hall.

It ended his 20-year journey back to Hoosiers basketball.

Surrounded by dozens of former players and thousands of Indiana fans chanting “Bob-by, Bob-by,” the 79-year-old Knight finally returned to his home court Saturday to a rousing welcome.

“We love you, Bobby,” one fan shouted from the crowd.

Hoosiers fans spent years waiting and hoping they could give the once combustible coach the proper reward for everything he did in 29 seasons in Bloomington — three NCAA championships, a school-record 662 victories, 11 Big Ten titles and five Final Four appearances.

But the firing on Sept. 10, 2000 created a bitter split between Knight and the university. He declined opportunity after opportunity to reunite when his championship teams were honored. He even declined to come back for his induction into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2009 because he didn’t want to detract from the other class members.

And then, suddenly, it was all over.

For the first time in 20 years, Bob Knight returned to Assembly Hall where he was honored with his 1980 Big Ten championship team.

With the Hoosiers playing their biggest rival, Purdue, with longtime friend and rival Gene Keady in the arena and his 1980 Big Ten championship team being honored, Knight put aside his grudge and walked to midcourt with his son, Pat, and former players Quinn Buckner and Scott May.

“Thank you coach, thank you coach,” the fans chanted as Knight waved to the crowd and pretended to run practice drills.

He led the crowd in a chant of “de-fense” and when his former players gathered round, he hugged some of them. Among them was Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who led the Hoosiers to the 1981 national title. He even playfully messed around with television announcer Dick Vitale.

No, he wasn’t dressed in his trademark red sweater. Instead, he wore a red Indiana basketball warmup jacket.

And he wasn’t as loud or fiery as he was all those years ago. He needed help as he shuffled back to the court and he had to stop a couple of times on his way. He seemed to enjoy the moment every bit as much as those inside Assembly Hall.

It took years to mend the relationship.

Athletic director Fred Glass stayed in touch with Knight, hoping one day the icy relationship would thaw. Then last spring, Knight surprised everyone by showing up for an Indiana baseball game.

He also moved back to Bloomington last year and there was speculation for weeks he might soon return to Assembly Hall.

Knight made public appearances around the city and state, making speeches, signing autographs and attending games and practices.

Some thought he would come back to watch his alma mater, Ohio State, when the Buckeyes visited Assembly Hall on Jan. 11. Instead, he went to Marian, an NAIA school in Indianapolis, where one of his former players, Steve Downing, is the athletic director.

Knight hadn’t been back to Assembly Hall since he was fired after a student accused Knight of grabbing him in the hallway of Assembly Hall. The university had initiated a zero-tolerance policy for Knight earlier that year following an investigation that he choked a former player, the late Neil Reed.

Knight finished his career at Texas Tech, retiring in 2008 with a then-record 902 victories.

Hey Giants Fans, the Future of your 3-11 Team Isn’t as Bad as You Think

By Scott Mandel

NY Giants fans, you may yet have a happy future. Much sooner than you think.

Would you believe a 3-11 team, one with the potential to finish this inglorious 2019 season 3-13, hope to contend for a playoff slot in the near future? Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it?

But, the answer, in this view is, a resounding yes.

Image result for saquon barkley daniel jones dexter lawrence
Giants future isn’t as bad as you think. Young talent is getting better

The Giants roster doesn’t consist of household names, yet. No Lawrence Taylor’s or Phil Simms or Eli Manning’s in that locker room. Well, there is that old guy, #10 still hanging in there but the future core of this team will not include that Jersey number, which will be retired.

But, talent, young emerging talent, is taking shape for Big Blue. And, the more I watch these kids every week, the more improvement I am seeing in technique, confidence, and most importantly, production on the field.

DeAndre Baker, Sam Beal, Cory Ballantine, Julian Love, Markus Golden, Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson, Oshane Ximines, Lorenzo Carter, Dexter Lawrence, and injured rookie linebacker, Ryan Connelly are mostly in their first or second years on a defense which might add the best defensive football player in the country out of Ohio State, Chase Young, if the Giants hold onto the second pick in the NFL draft by losing their last two games. The addition of young veterans, Leonard Williams (from the Jets) and Markus Golden have been examples of addition by addition. The removal of Janoris “JackRabbit” Jenkins, the veteran cornerback, has been addition by subtraction, especially in that locker room of impressionable youngsters.

From this group on defense will emerge new leaders. Don’t be shocked if names like Connelly, Julian Love, and Dexter Lawrence step up to that mantle.

It says here, next season will offer an athletic, fast, and tough unit on the defensive side of the ball. How do I know that? Because I know it. Take it to the bank.

The question is, will they have the right coach to guide these kids next season? Is the current coaching staff going to be retained to continue the progress?

On offense, the O-Line needs a massive upgrade in talent, particularly at the tackle positions and at center. But, I loved the young guards, Hernandez and Nick Gates, yesterday. Both are big, tough, athletic youngsters who like the game of football. Unfortunately, the stopgap free agents signed in the off-season by the potentially stopgap general manager, Dave Gettleman for the sole purpose of protecting the quarterback from the left and right tackle positions didn’t pan out, making Gettleman’s job tenuous, at best.

The receivers are solid, with Sheppard, Golden Gate, and Darious Slayton while tight ends Evan Engram and the Stanford kid, Kaden Smith are potential pass-catching stars as receivers. But, the key to this unit’s success will always remain with the success of the kid QB, Daniel Jones, and the star running back, Saquan Barkley, who, along with game-breaker Engram need to stay on the field. Until the offensive line becomes solid, though, scoring points will be a challenge, particularly vs. better teams, for Jones and his mates.

After all, you can’t play the Miami Dolphins every week, you know? But the core of this team appears to be very close to being one that will impact on the NFL, as soon as next year.

Manning, In Possibly His Last Start for Giants, Beats Dolphins, 36-20

by Scott Mandel

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning threw two touchdowns in what might have been his final home start for the Giants and New York snapped a franchise record-tying nine-game losing streak with a 36-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

Saquon Barkley ran for 112 yards and scored two walk-in touchdowns and New York’s much-maligned defense added a safety as the Giants (3-11) handed the Dolphins (3-11) their second loss in as many weeks at MetLife Stadium.

The 38-year old Manning with game ball in post-game locker room

Watch Eli Manning run off the field to tremendous ovation from Giants fans: https://www.giants.com/video/eli-manning-receives-standing-ovation-as-he-celebrates-win-with-teammates-and-fa

Manning, who lost his starting job to Daniel Jones in Week 3 and got it back last week when the rookie sprained an ankle, threw a 51-yard scoring pass to Golden Tate in the second quarter and a go-ahead 5-yarder to Darius Slayton on the opening series of the second half. The 38-year-old also threw three interceptions, two of which set up by field goals by Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders.

With 1:50 left in the game, Manning (20 of 28 for 283 yards) was taken out by coach Pat Shurmur and replaced by Alex Tanney, drawing his second standing ovation from those left in the crowd. He walked to the sideline and was congratulated by teammates while the crowd chanted “Eli Manning.” He even smiled.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose game slipped after taking a big hit on a third-quarter scramble, threw two touchdowns to DaVante Parker, the second one with the game out of reach.

Buck Allen added a late 1-yard TD run in the Giants’ biggest offensive output of the season.

This was a game between teams with among the worst records in the league and Manning’s start gave it some meaning, especially for the locals who had seen him run the team since the middle of the 2004 season.

With his contract set to expire after this season, the Giants made sure his name was announced when the offense took the field for the second series of the game and he got a standing ovation. Some fans in the stands held up signs: “Thank You, Eli” one read.

Photos: Giants vs. Dolphins from the sidelines
Manning trots off the field with a minute remaining in the game to huge ovation

Manning stole the show in the second half, leading the Giants to three touchdowns on their first five possessions. His pass to Slayton wiped out a 10-7 deficit and Barkley, who had not run for 100 yards in the previous seven games, added TD runs of 1 and 10 yards.

The Dolphins took a 10-7 halftime lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to Parker and a 24-yard field goal by Sanders.

Manning and Tate combined on a 51-yard catch and run to tie the game 7-all just 62 seconds after the Parker catch.

Giants Fans Hope Eli Manning’s Swan Song This Monday Night Isn’t a Disastrous Game for Immobile QB

by Scott Mandel

For those of you old enough to recall a former NFL great named Y.A. Tittle, you may remember the iconic photograph (shown above) of a bloodied and beaten Tittle at the end of his career as the quarterback of the New York Giants.

Then, there was the story of Joe Namath, the Super Bowl III championship quarterback of the New York Jets and cultural icon of the hippie-dippy 60s, whose quick release from the pocket, zipping the football 40 yards downfield on a straight line coupled with his football moxie and predictive powers (“We will beat the Colts in the Super Bowl”) changed the sport, forever.

You also probably remember Namath’s bad knees, particularly later in his career, that made him a veritable statue in the pocket who couldn’t avoid the rush of oncoming defensive linemen.

Namath, at age 34, was a washed up quarterback who gave it one last try with the Los Angeles Rams in 1977. It was a miserable and sad happenstance to observe. He had never been mobile enough to avoid being sacked with some regularity when his Jets’ offensive line broke down but, in 1977, the Rams were terrible and their offensive line, much worse than terrible.

Like watching Willie Mays playing centerfield for the New York Mets at age 42, Namath and his arthritically-wracked knees was an easy target for pass rushers. He would get sacked before he even got set in the pocket to throw a pass. Watching Mays and Namath, and Tittle in the twilight’s of their careers were among one young man’s saddest boyhood memories.

We are hoping Eli Manning, at age 37, can put on a better show than Namath did 42 years ago when he starts for the Giants this Monday against the Philadelphia Eagles in front of a huge national television audience that will be tuning in to see the two-time Super Bowl champion’s potentially final performance in the NFL.

Eli Manning walks off the field after the Giants’ loss to the Redskins on Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Manning started first two games of this season. Since then, zero snaps.

How ironic is it that Manning, in his 16-year NFL career, started 210 consecutive regular-season games from Nov. 21, 2004 to Nov. 23, 2017, the second-longest streak by a quarterback in NFL history, until temporary Giants head coach, Ben McAdoo, replaced him for one start with the great Geno Smith. Yet, here we are, in season one of newly-crowned Giants quarterback, Daniel Jones getting injured with a high ankle sprain that may keep him sidelined for the remainder of his rookie campaign.

So Manning, holding a clipboard for the past 11 weeks, is back. No doubt, rusty and no doubt fearful this game could get very ugly for him and the Giants.


Image result for eli manning consecutive starts for Giants
What kind of performance will Manning have on Monday night?

The questions most fans are asking today are: Does Eli have anything left in the tank? Is he playing for a contract with the Giants or anther team for next season? Will he get sacked a dozen times as the Eagles rush punctures the porous Giants offensive line?

NFL fans, and Giants fans, in particular will be tuning in on Monday night to get their answers. The little guy, who saw Namath and Mays at the end of their careers, shedding a tear or two, hopes history does not repeat itself in the same way. But, there will be a box of tissues nearby, just in case.

Mets Breathe Deeply Behind Wilson and Alonso Ninth Inning Heroics, Frazier Drives In Three

by Scott Mandel. SportsReporters.com

It’s too bad only 20,843 baseball fans showed up tonight at Citi Field to watch Game #144, against the Arizona Diamondbacks. With only 18 games remaining to this season, and the Mets four games out of an attainable playoff berth, you would expect a greater turnout.

But, the half-empty stadium witnessed a thriller of a game, which the Mets won, 3-2 because of Zack Wheeler’s solid seven-inning effort, the ninth inning heroics of the reliever, Justin Wilson and, Pete Alonso’s defense. Yes, that’s right, his defense.

It was the ninth inning. Two outs. The game-tying run stood on third. The go-ahead run stood on second. Wilmer Flores, the longtime Mets infielder who holds the record for most walk-off RBIs at Citi Field in team history stood at the plate, facing Wilson.

“We’ve all seen him do it plenty of times,” Wheeler said. “It was a little nerve-wracking.”

“That was going through my mind. I promise you,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “I’ve seen it. He’s done it more than anybody in the history of Citi Field, so it was going through my mind. There was no doubt about it.”

This time, with the game and the Mets season on the line, Flores went down swinging on the final pitch of Wilson’s four-out save, giving the Mets a 3-2 win Tuesday night in Queens.

Callaway was asked after the game about keeping Wilson in the game instead of going to his struggling closer, Edwin Diaz.

“I just had to stick with Wilson. We all know the struggles that Diaz has had and Wilson has been really good. I felt like at that point it was Wilson’s [game],” Callaway said. “He willed it. I’m not saying we’re gonna run from Diaz. He’s gonna get his chances, too … but we called down in the eighth and asked Wilson if he could get four outs for us.

“I thought Wilson was gonna get it done. Some way, somehow.”

With Seth Lugo unavailable after pitching two innings the previous night, Callaway counted on the lefty, Wilson, the only other reliever who has earned his trust. Wilson, who has a 1.54 ERA since the All-Star break, came on to record his first four-out appearance since his only previous save of the season on April 2.

“Late in the season, everything kind of goes. Gotta win games,” Wilson said. “Clearly we’re still in a little bit of a hole. Luckily we have enough games left to make a push. Everyone’s available in any situation.”

Wilson allowed a walk and stolen base to Josh Rojas in the eighth, but kept the Mets in front by retiring Adam Jones. The ninth inning started like so many for the Mets this season.

Nick Ahmed opened with a single up the middle, and Kevin Cron added a one-out hit. With runners at the corners, Ketel Marte nearly hit into a game-ending double play, but after Pete Alonso stepped on first base — following a diving backhand stab — the rookie threw to third base, failing to notice Tim Locastro caught between first and second base.

“Young guy, you don’t know what he’s gonna do, and he kind of spazzed out,” Frazier said. “Could’ve had a double play, but your mind’s going a mile a minute.”

‘“He didn’t have his best stuff. He didn’t have his best command, but he dug deep and got through it,” Callaway said of Wilson. “He’s gonna need a day or two off, but it’s worth it for the win tonight. He was unbelievable. He kind of willed that game, that save.”

The Mets pulled to within three games of the second wild card slot with the Cubs losing in San Diego. Perhaps, Mets fans, a group that is always hoping for a pennant race, will decide to turn out tonight, with Steven Matz going for his 10th win of the season against Arizona lefty, Robbie Ray.

Predicting NFL’s Next Superstars

Running back: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Replacing: Todd GurleyLos Angeles Rams

We don’t need Barry Sanders to tell us that Barkley has “potential for all-time greatness.” The NFL’s most physically gifted tailback forced 71 missed tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus. No other player at his position forced more than 60. On his best days, Barkley seems to combine Bo Jackson’s speed, Walter Payton’s determination, Marshawn Lynch‘s power and Marshall Faulk’s receiving ability. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft accounted for 33.5 percent of his team’s yards from scrimmage, second only to Ezekiel Elliott‘s figure of 34.2. In Barkley’s case, that number stands to rise with an improved offensive line and the absence of ultra-productive wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Speaking of whom …

Will Daniel Jones supplant Eli Manning on Giants

Wide receiver: Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns

Replacing: Tyreek HillKansas City Chiefs

After spending a half-decade concealing the blemishes of Eli Manning‘s decline phase, Beckham landed in Cleveland with the quarterback of his dreams. Whereas Manning’s diminishing deep ball has too often limited the Giants‘ aerial attack to a series of slants and screens over the past few years, Baker Mayfield broke the rookie record for touchdown passes by burning opposing secondaries with pinpoint downfield strikes. From the time Freddie Kitchens took over play-calling duties in Week 9 through the end of the regular season, Mayfield led all NFL quarterbacks in completion rate (55.9), yards per attempt (19.3) and touchdowns (7) on deep passes (20-plus yards), according to Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile, Beckham’s average of 2.6 yards of separation from the nearest defender leads all receivers since 2016. In other words, this is a match made in heaven — perhaps even of 2007 Tom Brady-Randy Moss proportions. We have the most talented big-play receiver in football joining forces with an exceptionally accurate, strong-armed passer with the aggressiveness to carpet-bomb the furthest reaches of the field.

Edge rusher: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

Replacing: J.J. WattHouston Texans

The formerly downtrodden Browns are suddenly awash in blue-chip talent. A textbook havoc-wreaking 4-3 defensive end, Garrett won his play-to-play battles to the tune of 66 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats, behind only Aaron Donald (73) and Dee Ford (69) last season. Now that blockers have to contend with Olivier Vernon on the other end and Sheldon Richardson alongside earth-mover Larry Ogunjobi in the middle, Garrett figures to face fewer double-teams. From Garrett’s rookie year to his second go-around, his sacks-per-game percentage increased from 63.6 to 84.4. A similar spike this season could see him making a serious run at Aaron Donald‘s sack crown.

Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars

Replacing: Kyle FullerChicago Bears

Ramsey was never right last season, bickering with the press in training camp and battling through ankle and knee injuries once the games began. Hall of Fame careers are not always ascendant. The year before, Ramsey was arguably the most complete corner in football, teaming with A.J. Bouye in a shutdown secondary. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 draft appeared to be on his way to a Patrick Peterson-like string of All-Pro selections and perennial contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Now that Jacksonville has added promising rookie Josh Allen to an already-formidable front four, Ramsey’s job should be easier than ever in a bounce-back season.

Safety: Jamal Adams, New York Jets

Replacing: Derwin JamesLos Angeles Chargers

Already the leader of Gang Green’s defense entering his third season, Adams earned one of the starting safety spots on my 2018 eye-test All-Pro squad. Now that versatile Chargers star Derwin James is sidelined following foot surgery, Adams is the natural choice to force his way onto The AP’s official list. Rivaling James as a terror at the line of scrimmage, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 draft led all safeties with 22 combined sacks, hits and hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Considering new coordinator Gregg Williams’ history as a blitz-happy button-pusher, Adams will be wrecking more backfields in 2019.

Defensive back: Earl Thomas, Baltimore Ravens

Replacing: Desmond KingLos Angeles Chargers

Three years ago, the Ravens signed 31-year-old Eric Weddle to stabilize their secondary. The longtime Chargers stalwart went on to earn three consecutive Pro Bowl berths before Baltimore opted for an upgrade. Counting on lightning to strike twice with a savvy veteran safety, the Ravens brought in the best of his generation in 30-year-old Earl Thomas, who earned first-team All-Pro honors in three straight seasons from 2012 through ’14. On pace for career highs in interceptions and passes defensed, Thomas proved he had plenty of playmaking ability left in the tank before breaking his leg in Week 4. If Ravens coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale still has the top combination of scheme and talent in the league, as CBS analyst Tony Romo opined in Week 13 of last season, Thomas will be the centerpiece of the defense.

Interior defensive lineman: Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos

Replacing: Fletcher CoxPhiladelphia Eagles

Sometimes the million-to-one shot pays off. This projection is a considerable reach, a flight of fancy based on Harris’ flashes of dominance, Vic Fangio’s defensive brilliance and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks‘ epiphany in Chicago. Hicks showed his own flashes of disruption with the Saints and Patriots before Fangio helped flip the switch that transformed him into one of the most productive interior defenders in the league. Albeit in part-time duty, Harris jumped off the film as a menace against the run as well as the pass in 2018. He picked up where he left off last season in the Broncos‘ “Monday Night Football” preseason Week 2 clash with 49ers, batting down a pass on each of the first two series. If Fangio turns him loose and doubles his snap count with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb bringing constant heat off the edge, this could be a fearsome trio at the heart of a rejuvenated Denver defense.

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