Bills’ Josh Allen should be on fantasy radar after strong 2018 finish

The Buffalo Bills were a fantasy football dud last season.

Devoid of skill-position players capable of scoring fantasy points with any consistency, the Bills ranked 31st in total PPR points among running backs, 29th among wide receivers and 30th among tight ends. Bolstered by Josh Allen’s rushing, Bills quarterbacks fared only slightly better by finishing 22nd in PPR points.

Only two players — Allen (57th) and wide receiver Zay Jones (93rd) — ranked within the top 100 players in PPR scoring in 2018.

General manager Brandon Beane’s offseason overhaul of Buffalo’s 30th-ranked offense has given fans hope of a better record in 2019, but have the Bills become any more relevant to fantasy team owners?

Here is a look at where ESPN’s fantasy experts have ranked Buffalo’s top players in projected PPR scoring entering this season:

Bills QB Josh Allen rushed for 631 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games last season.

Josh Allen

Matthew Berry: QB: 19 | Mike Clay: QB: 23 (Overall: 220) | Tristan H. Cockcroft: QB: 22 | Eric Karabell: QB: 18 | Field Yates: QB: 21

Analysis: Allen finished 21st among quarterbacks last season despite playing in only 12 games. After he returned in Week 12 from an elbow injury, he scored the most PPR points (145.3) of any NFL quarterback and second-most points of any player. That was boosted by 476 rushing yards and five touchdowns after his return, both the most among quarterbacks. If Allen continues to run like he did late last season, these fantasy projections undersell him. However, the Bills would prefer that Allen be much more selective with his decisions to run in 2019. Ceding some rushing production to the Bills’ backfield would temper Allen’s fantasy expectations this season unless he can take a huge step forward as a passer.

LeSean McCoy

Berry: RB: 41 | Clay: RB: 33 (Overall: 71) | Cockcroft: RB: 36 (Overall: 85) | Karabell: RB: 40 (Overall: 96) | Yates: RB: 31 (Overall: 67)

Analysis: McCoy was one of the most frustrating players in fantasy last season, ranking 39th in PPR points among running backs as he struggled through his career-worst season. The Bills continue to express faith in McCoy, who turns 31 in July, and McCoy remains confident he can still be the workhorse in Buffalo. History and reality should leave fantasy players skeptical. McCoy’s statistical decline as he has entered his 30s is unlikely to be reversed and his role this season remains up in the air. Frank Gore and third-round pick Devin Singletary both received first-team reps this spring, casting doubt on whether McCoy will still receive the lion’s share of snaps. There is a chance he can use an improved offensive line to rebound in 2019, but he remains a highly risky fantasy play at this stage of his career.

John Brown

Berry: WR: Not ranked | Clay: WR: 77 (Overall: 215) | Cockcroft: WR: 67 (Overall: 198) | Karabell: WR: NR | Yates: WR: NR

Analysis: Brown’s rankings by our experts put him, at best, on the fringe of the radar for 12-team leagues. That could be underselling a player whom the Bills are paying $7.5 million per season to potentially be their No. 1 receiver. Brown finished 45th among wide receivers in PPR scoring last season and has the speed to connect with Allen on deep balls that could quickly rack up points. However, like any of the Bills’ receivers, the lack of clarity at the top of the depth chart should give fantasy players pause about Brown.

Cole Beasley

Berry: WR: NR | Clay: WR: 78 (Overall: 216) | Cockcroft: WR: NR | Karabell: WR: NR | Yates: WR: 48

Analysis: Beasley seems to have flown under the radar, which is surprising given he finished 43rd among wide receivers last season in PPR scoring. Beasley’s role as the slot receiver in Buffalo is rock solid; the question is how much Allen will opt to throw to Beasley over chucking it deep (Allen averaged the second-most air yards per throw last season) or running. If offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can pull from his New England roots and get Allen to use Beasley in the mold of Wes Welker or Julian Edelman, the potential for fantasy-relevant production exists.

Zay Jones

Berry: WR: NR | Clay: WR: 86 (Overall: 230) | Cockcroft: WR: NR | Karabell: WR: NR | Yates: WR: NR

Analysis: Jones ranked 35th among wide receivers in scoring last season and was 24th after Allen’s Week 12 return, making his absence from our experts’ rankings surprising. However, it remains to be seen where Jones fits after the additions of Brown and Beasley this offseason. Jones was one of Allen’s first-team wideouts to start OTAs and flashed some skill before suffering an undisclosed injury that kept him out the rest of the spring. He will compete with Brown and Robert Foster to fill out spots Nos. 1, 2 and 4 on the depth chart. If Jones secures one of the top two spots, he should very much be on the fantasy radar.

Robert Foster

Berry: WR: NR | Clay: WR: 79 (Overall: 217) | Cockcroft: WR: 62 (Overall: 174) | Karabell: WR: NR | Yates: WR: NR

Analysis: Foster, an undrafted rookie last season, did not break through for Buffalo until the second half of last season. After Allen’s Week 12 return, he was the 19th-ranked wide receiver in PPR scoring, which should have put him squarely on the fantasy radar in 2019. However, the same problem as Jones applies: Where does he fit in the puzzle alongside Brown and Beasley? Like Brown, Foster is a speed threat who could be a weekly boom-or-bust prospect depending on whether he can connect with Allen.

Other ranked players

Berry: Gore (RB: 59),

Clay: Defense/special teams (D/ST: 4; Overall: 144); Singletary (RB: 63; Overall: 201); Gore (RB: 72; Overall: 235); T.J. Yeldon (RB: 78; Overall: 241); Dawson Knox (TE: 33; Overall: 292)

Cockcroft: Singletary (RB: 56; Overall: 142); Defense/special teams (D/ST: 8; Overall: 172)

Karabell: Singletary (RB: 57); Defense/special teams (D/ST: 8)

Yates: Gore (RB: 55); Defense/special teams (D/ST: 17); Stephen Hauschka (K: 20)

‘They’re just coaches’: Bucs female assistants make early impression

As two 300-pound defensive linemen prepare to charge at her, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust, 55, launches her body backward and lifts both arms up and across her face. Although the players are easily double her size, Locust does not flinch. Before getting set for the next rep, she reminds one player, “Show me your hands,” and he nods in approval.

On the other end of the practice field, assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar, 29, stands on the sideline, monitoring a scrimmage.

Lori Locust worked with the Baltimore Ravens and the Alliance of American Football's Birmingham Iron before being hired by the Buccaneers.

They are the first tandem of female assistant coaches hired by one NFL team. Although their journeys to Tampa have been different, both are hoping to have the same type of impact — not only for the Buccaneers, but for the NFL and women coaches hoping to follow in their footsteps.

‘You’re going to break down barriers’

It was never Locust’s dream to become an NFL coach, although her love for the game began when she was a 5-year-old in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, idolizing Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert. But the more connections she made at events like the NFL Women’s Career Development Symposium, and the more opportunities she earned, the more it became a goal — one that she realized the day she packed up her Toyota Corolla and made the trek to Tampa.

When she was 40, Locust began playing in a women’s semi-professional tackle league before injury forced her to retire four years later. From there, she coached with Susquehanna Township High School, two semi-professional teams (Central Penn Piranha and the DMV Elite) and the Keystone Assault of the Women’s Football Alliance. Then came an internship with the Baltimore Ravens, followed by a stint with the Alliance of American Football’s Birmingham Iron.

Before she went into coaching, Lori Locust played in a women's semi-professional tackle league.

Colleagues heard Bucs coach Bruce Arians’ comments at the Super Bowl about looking to hire women and urged her to apply. Locust sent Arians, whom she met when she was a student at Temple University — where her ex-husband played for Arians and alongside Todd Bowles — an email reintroducing herself.

“Thirty-six years later, I’d love to work for you,” she said.

For Javadifar, who went to the NCAA tournament three times as a forward for the Pace University women’s basketball team, it was a torn ACL in high school that led her to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy and want to work with athletes.

“I think that was how I was able to optimize my coming back from injuries,” said Javadifar, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York. “That was the biggest place I was able to grow and strengthen. I saw the value in that.”

It was also about honoring her family. Her mother, Mojgan Mobasheri, fled Iran in 1984 after the Islamic Revolution, which took away many women’s rights. Employment and educational opportunities were limited for women. New laws required all women to wear hijabs regardless of religion or nationality.

“[My mother] didn’t have any of these opportunities to be a woman in society,” Javadifar said. “So when she came here, it was kind of like, ‘We’re going to break down barriers.’ She kept her last name. Little things like that. So for me, [this] was an opportunity for me to say, ‘Hey, thanks, Mom. Thanks for that. I appreciate that.'”

‘She’s been a big hit’

For inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell — whose niece, Nikki Fargas, is the head women’s basketball coach at LSU — no buy-in was needed. He already saw the value in female coaches.

“You sit down and you hear they’re women coaches, but then you get into the meeting room with them and they’re just coaches,” Caldwell said. “So after you get past the female — which I’ve got two daughters — that’s not big to me. Anybody can do whatever they want to do, as long as you bring something to the table, which they are.”

Maral Javadifar has carved out a role for herself with the Bucs as the bridge between the sports medicine and strength and conditioning departments.

Because Javadifar has a doctorate in physical therapy with a performance background — something the Bucs have never had on staff before — she’s already carving out a role for herself: a bridge between the sports medicine and strength and conditioning departments.

“Her wealth of experience and knowledge of the human body — guys found out quickly that she was someone to go to. Every morning before meetings and after every practice, there’s a line of five or six guys waiting to have her work on them,” said tight end Cameron Brate, who’s worked with her while recovering from hip surgery.

“[We do] a lot of range-of-motion stuff, getting through the scar tissue and stuff like that. She has a bunch of guys doing stuff that we’ve never really done before,” Brate said. “I think it’s really been paying off. … So she’s been a big hit with the guys so far.”

“She brings a different dynamic because she’s an expert at certain things that we are not,” strength and conditioning coach Anthony Piroli said. “Our communication level now between medicine and performance is probably second to none.”

‘She’s on her s—‘

Locust’s role has been less defined than Javadifar’s: It’s everything from being a second set of eyes for defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers to helping facilitate drills to leading the group when they break up into two scrimmages.

“It has been a very smooth transition,” Rodgers said. “I was away the other day and she ran practice. She didn’t miss a beat.

“She’s an extremely, extremely talented coach.”

Bowles added: “She’s tough. She’s a grinder, she works hard. She does everything the right way. The guys respond to her a great deal. She knows what she’s doing.”

She has developed a reputation as a stickler for fundamentals but believes it’s important to find the right balance between technician and motivator.

“One thing I’ve noticed about her is [how detailed she is]. You could have a perfect rep in your mind and she’s gonna find something to coach you up on, and that’s what you want,” said defensive tackle Beau Allen. “As hard as coaches are on us, we’re hard on ourselves too, so you want someone who’s really gonna pay attention to those details and that’s one thing that’s stood out to me so far. She’s on her s—.”

Allen said there was no adjustment or buy-in period for players. Both coaches were respected right away.

“Speaking frankly, I think a lot has been made of Coach Lo and having her in our room, but I think that’s mostly outside noise,” Allen said. “For us, it’s another coach that we can learn from and another set of eyes watching us and helping us, getting us right, disciplining us and everything like that.”

Brate agreed.

“There was no adjustment. It wasn’t needed. Both of them — their résumés speak for themselves,” Brate said.

Added quarterback Jameis Winston: “Coach Lori and M.J., we feel their presence. We are all one big family, and as everyone goes, they go too. It is really no different. They are our coaches — we are going to respect them, we are going to go out there and win football games with them and we’re going to celebrate with them in the locker room.”

The expanding female coaching club

Locust and Javadifar are now part of a small but growing pipeline of female coaches around the league. Jen Welter became the first female coaching intern under Arians with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. Kathryn Smith because the first full-time female assistant in 2016, when the Buffalo Bills hired her as their special teams quality control coach. The San Francisco 49ers hired Katie Sowers as an offensive assistant in 2017.

Locust regular texts with Sowers, whom she met at a coaching conference and credits for teaching her the importance of authenticity. Together, they’re part of a group chat with Jennifer King, who interned with the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and coached for the AAF’s Arizona Hotshots this year. Samantha Rapoport, the NFL’s director of football development, put the trio in touch.

“It can be very isolating as a woman coach, because there are certain things sometimes that you want to ask and you kind of want to get feedback from a peer on,” Locust said. “That’s not to say that the guys haven’t done it, but the communication and the conversation sometimes that Katie, Jen and I have, have been a really good kind of push forward.”

Who else could understand the challenges of trying to locate a women’s restroom during halftime of an away game or trying to convince a security guard to open a room so you can change? Those are challenges Locust encountered.

“I’ve never asked for accommodations — I would never do that,” Locust said. “But I think that that’s all changing. … Look how far we’ve come right now. I think going forward, that’s so minimal in comparison to just us being educated and be considered for positions like this. I think that’s all gonna continue to improve.”

Javadifar added: “Having these opportunities lets other people know that these opportunities are available, you just have to work hard and continue to grind. … These opportunities are available in the right organizations and I think the Bucs are doing things well in giving other people and women and all of us opportunities to show that we can do it, too.”

Arians has already been pleased with the results and believes Locust and Javadifar will thrive.

“[They’re doing] exactly how I thought they would,” Arians said. “M.J.’s expertise has been unbelievable. Guys gravitate toward her right away and the same with Lori. She knows what she’s talking about. The guys know it. Like I’ve always said, if you can help a player get better, they don’t care what gender you are. They fit right in. They’re doing great jobs.”

Eagles sign ex-Redskins LB Brown to 1-year deal

The Philadelphia Eagles have signed linebacker Zach Brown to a one-year contract, the team announced Friday.

Brown, 29, became a free agent when the Washington Redskins released him on March 13.

Middle linebacker became a need position for the Eagles when Jordan Hicks signed with the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. Brown will help bolster a group that includes Nigel Bradham, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Paul Worrilow, Nathan Gerry and L.J. Fort.

Brown would make flashy plays, but the Redskins wanted more consistency, both as a run stopper and in coverage. Though he played with an oblique injury last year, he was relegated to a backup role for the final four games, more for those issues than because he was hurt. After his benching, Brown said he could see the “writing on the wall” with his time in Washington.

Brown, a second-round pick by Tennessee in 2012, made the Pro Bowl two years ago in his only season with Buffalo. The Redskins, wanting to improve their defensive speed, signed Brown the following offseason to a one-year deal. He finished with a team-best 127 tackles, despite missing three games. He was leading the NFL in tackles when he got hurt in Week 14.

They re-signed him last offseason to a three-year deal worth up to $24 million, though the decision was not viewed as a unanimous one throughout the organization. The Oakland Raiders also had expressed interest in Brown last offseason. His release saves $5.75 million in cap space.

Brown also was made expendable when the Redskins claimed Reuben Foster in November. Foster and Brown play the same inside linebacker position in the Redskins’ base 3-4 front. Neither one is considered a play-caller, so they would not be an ideal pairing.

How Russell Wilson’s record deal affects Bobby Wagner, Frank Clark

The Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback just became the highest-paid player in NFL history, with a record-breaking contract.

Their All-Pro middle linebacker is in line for an extension and could conceivably ask for $17 million per year based on where the top of the market at the position just went.

Their stud pass-rusher is set to make around that amount on a franchise tag in 2019 as he seeks a long-term deal that would exceed $20 million on average.

To be sure, this is a good problem to have. But it’s a dilemma nonetheless for the Seahawks now that Bobby Wagner and Frank Clark are next in line for mega-deals following Russell Wilson’s four-year, $140 million extension that became official Tuesday.

Can the Seahawks afford to pay all three?

They can if they want to badly enough. Rarely is it as simple as team X “can’t afford” player Y. Sure, you can’t keep everyone, as the saying goes. But you can usually find a way to make a deal work if there’s enough of a will to do so.

If you need a reminder of this, think back to the Seahawks’ 2017 trades for Sheldon Richardson and Duane Brown. They reworked Doug Baldwin’s contract to fit Richardson under their salary cap, then did the same thing with Wilson’s in order to make room for Brown. General manager John Schneider had previously been on record saying he didn’t like to treat contracts like ATMs because of the adverse future cap ramifications, but he wanted to add Richardson and Brown strongly enough to make exceptions.

So it won’t really be a question of whether the Seahawks can afford to extend Wagner and Clark. Those deals could be structured in a way that actually lowers their scheduled 2019 cap numbers, creating immediate room. Plus, Seattle has only four players on non-rookie deals who are under contract beyond 2020 — Wilson, Brown, Tyler Lockett and Jason Myers — so there is plenty to work with in the long-term budget.

The question is more this: How willing would the Seahawks be to skimp elsewhere if they were committing such a large percentage of their cap space to only three players? Schneider made that point in an interview with KIRO-AM 710 ESPN Seattle earlier this month when asked if it’s feasible to pay Wilson, Wagner and Clark either at or near the top of the market at each player’s position.

“Yeah, it is,” Schneider said. “But it’s challenging then. You have to compensate in other areas, right? You have to figure out what’s your offensive line going to look like? What’s the defensive backfield going to look like?”

Schneider and the Seahawks have been there before. By 2014, the massive bills had all come due for Legion of Boom stars Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. The next year, it was Wilson and Wagner. Throw in the other sizable contracts they had given to guys like Marshawn Lynch, Baldwin, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and K.J. Wright, and something had to give.

It’s why the Seahawks ranked at or near the bottom in offensive-line spending in 2016 and ’17. That’s where they chose to go cheap. They would have to make a similar decision at one position or another if they were to pay Wagner and Clark in addition to Wilson.

Coach Pete Carroll sounded notably confident about an eventual extension for Wagner, who’s entering the final year of his contract, when the subject came up last month. But two factors figure to complicate his situation.

One is that C.J. Mosley’s recent deal with the New York Jets pushed the market for middle linebackers all the way up to $17 million, which is more than $6 million above what Wagner is currently making. It’s hard to imagine Wagner, who turns 29 in June, not asking for that type of money given that he’s the much more accomplished player of the two.

Wagner is also representing himself, meaning he won’t have an agent to serve as a buffer in negotiations that can easily become contentious.

Clark, meanwhile, is likely seeking a contract that at least matches if not exceeds the one DeMarcus Lawrence just got from the Dallas Cowboys, which averages $21 million. Clark, who turns 26 in June, could reasonably ask for that amount given that he’s been more productive (33 sacks to Lawrence’s 26) and healthier (47 games to Lawrence’s 41) over the past three seasons.

But it’s a sizable gap to bridge considering the Seahawks have him under club control next season for $17.128 million. The Cowboys had to make a much smaller jump after applying a second franchise tag that would have paid Lawrence $20.57 million.

It’s why Clark continues to be the subject of trade talks. The Seahawks will not give him away. They didn’t give Sherman away in 2017 when he was being publicly shopped and they didn’t give Thomas away during his contract dispute last year. They’ll drive a similarly hard bargain knowing that Clark is their only proven edge rusher, which is a big enough need as it is.

Schneider didn’t sound during his 710 ESPN Seattle interview as though he was planning on breaking up the Seahawks’ star trio.

“Several years ago, people were like, ‘Hey, there’s no way you guys can keep Kam and Earl and Sherm — there’s no way that think can stay together. So who are you going to draft? What corner are you going to take? What safety are you going to take?'” he said. “And we just continued to work our process and work through it, and that worked out. So I see that happening in the same way.”

Seattle Seahawks’ 2019 schedule gives them chance for strong finish

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Seattle Seahawks.

Game-by-game predictions

Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson predicts an 11-5 finish:

Sept. 8: vs. Cincinnati — win

Sept. 15: at Pittsburgh — win

Sept. 22: vs. New Orleans — loss

Sept. 29: at Arizona — win

Oct. 3: vs. L.A. Rams — win

Oct. 13: at Cleveland — loss

Oct. 20: vs. Baltimore — win

Oct. 27: at Atlanta — loss

Nov. 3: vs. Tampa Bay — win

Nov. 11: at San Francisco — win

Nov. 24: at Philadelphia — win

Dec. 2: vs. Minnesota — win

Dec. 8: at L.A. Rams — loss

Dec. 15: at Carolina — loss

Dec. 22: vs. Arizona — win

Dec. 29: vs. San Francisco — win

Strength of schedule: 25th, .479 opponent win percentage

Breakdown

The Seahawks no longer have the same star power following last year’s purge of some of the most well-known players in franchise history. But they still have a megastar quarterback in Russell Wilson. That explains why their schedule includes five prime-time games, which is the max. It’s the same number the team had on its 2018 schedule before one game was flexed. The Seahawks will play four consecutive prime-time games in the second half of the season, with a bye in Week 11 in between. Being the home team on Thursday night is always a major advantage. The Seahawks will take it when they host the Rams in a Week 5 game that will have early implications for the NFC West standings. Under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are a whopping 26-5-1 in prime-time games. Week 11 is the latest the Seahawks have had their bye since 2013.

Early risers

If Carroll and the Seahawks have any quibble with their schedule, it would probably be the four road games in the 10 a.m. PT slot at Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta and Carolina. The Seahawks won all three of their 10 a.m. games last season (one was in London), but it’s still a challenge for teams from the West Coast to play that early. Keep that in mind before you get too confident about the Seahawks beating the Steelers sans Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

Earl returns

Seattle’s home game against Baltimore in Week 7 will mark Earl Thomas’ return to CenturyLink Field. Thomas has said that he has no hard feelings toward the Seahawks after his tumultuous final season in Seattle. But some fans, whose last image of the All-Pro safety in a Seahawks uniform is him flipping the bird toward Carroll, might not feel the same.

Atlanta Falcons’ schedule offers daunting start but chance for strong finish

Matt Ryan and the Falcons play four of their last six games at home.

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Atlanta Falcons

Game-by-game prediction

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure is predicting a 10-6 finish:

Sept. 8: at Minnesota, Loss

Sept. 15: vs. Philadelphia, Win­­­­­­

S­­­­ept. 22: at Indianapolis, Loss

Sept. 29: vs. Tennessee, Win

Oct. 6: at Houston, Win

Oct. 13: at Arizona, Win

Oct. 20: vs. Los Angeles Rams, Loss

Oct. 27: vs. Seattle, Win

Nov. 10: at New Orleans, Loss

Nov. 17: at Carolina, Loss

Nov. 24: vs. Tampa Bay, Win

Nov. 28: vs. New Orleans, Win

Dec. 8: vs. Carolina, Win

Dec. 15: at San Francisco, Loss

Dec. 22: vs. Jacksonville, Win

Dec. 29: at Tampa Bay, Win

Strength of schedule: T-8th, .518

Breakdown

The Falcons don’t exactly have it easy with six of the first nine games against 2018 playoff teams and four of the first six games on the road, starting with a season-opening trip to face the Minnesota Vikings. They won’t even play a division game until visiting the rival New Orleans Saints on Nov. 10, a week after the bye. That matchup marks the start of a critical five-game NFC South stretch, ending with a Thanksgiving night affair at home against Drew Brees and the Saints. At least the Falcons get to play indoors for eight home games and four road games at Minnesota, Indianapolis, Houston and Arizona. Playing four of the last six at home paves the way for a strong finish.

Over the season, Matt Ryan and a potentially high-powered offense that averaged 25.9 points per game will face five top-10 scoring defenses from a year ago in the Titans, Jaguars, Texans, Vikings and Colts.

Prime-time matchup

The Falcons started last season with a Thursday night matchup on the road against the Eagles, a game that ended on a failed final play in the end zone to Julio Jones and an Eagles victory. The Falcons’ first prime-time game of 2019 once again is against the Eagles, but this time at home. How the Falcons’ trio of running back Devonta Freeman (groin), strong safety Keanu Neal (ACL), and free safety Ricardo Allen (Achilles) looks in their first home game since suffering season-ending injuries last year bears watching. It also will be interesting to see if Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is at full strength coming off a back injury. The Falcons faced Nick Foles last season, and Foles is now in Jacksonville (Dec. 22). The only other prime-time game for the Falcons, as of right now, is Thanksgiving night against the Saints.

QB challenge

As if the Falcons didn’t have enough of a challenge dealing with Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and, to some degree, Jameis Winston in the division, there is an early stretch of games that will test their ability to slow down mobile quarterbacks. Between Sept. 29 and Oct. 27, they take on Marcus Mariota, Deshaun Watson, 111possibly Kyler Murray — if the Cardinals draft the Heisman Trophy winner first overall — and Russell Wilson.

That’s going to put a lot of pressure on the Falcons’ defense to not only contain those quarterbacks but to play with enough discipline in covering the receivers down the field when those quarterbacks improvise and try to make plays out of the pocket. Expect the Falcons to play a lot of zone in those games to get eyes on the quarterback at the second level. Remember, Falcons coach Dan Quinn takes over the defensive playcalling this season after that unit yielded 26.4 points per game a year ago. Quinn should be familiar with everything Wilson does based on his time as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks.

Indianapolis Colts face just five 2018 playoff teams on new schedule

Andrew Luck and the Colts have three prime-time games in 2019.

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Indianapolis Colts.

Game-by-game predictions

Colts reporter Mike Wells is predicting an 11-5 finish:

Sept. 8: at Chargers, Loss

Sept. 15: at Titans, Win

Sept. 22: vs. Falcons, Win

Sept. 29: vs. Raiders, Win

Oct. 6: at Chiefs (SNF), Loss

Oct. 20: vs. Texans, Win

Oct. 27: vs. Broncos, Win

Nov. 3: at Steelers, Loss

Nov. 10: vs. Dolphins, Win

Nov. 17: vs. Jaguars, Win

Nov. 21: at Texans (TNF), Win

Dec. 1: vs. Titans, Win

Dec. 8: at Buccaneers, Win

Dec. 16: at Saints (MNF), Loss

Dec. 22: vs. Panthers, Win

Dec. 29: at Jaguars, Loss

Strength of schedule: .518, 7th

Breakdown

The Colts open the season in Los Angeles for the second time in three seasons. But instead of facing the Rams, the Colts play at the Chargers, who lost to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs last season. The Colts only play five games against teams that made the playoffs last season. Two of those games are against Houston, a team the Colts beat in the wild-card round of the playoffs. After a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and a healthy Andrew Luck, Indianapolis has three prime-time games after getting only one last season. All three of those games are on the road, including a Sunday night game at the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat the Colts in the AFC divisional round last season.

Facing Hall of Famers

The Colts had better hope they’ll have a consistent pass rush because they’re going to have their hands full against some of the best quarterbacks (and future Hall of Famers). Starting with Philip Rivers in Week 1, the Colts face Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in Week 3, reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City in Week 5, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in Week 9, New Orleans’ Drew Brees in Week 15 and Carolina’s Cam Newton in Week 16, barring any injuries to those quarterbacks. The Colts finished 19th in the NFL in sacks with 38 last season. They signed defensive end Justin Houston, who has 78.5 career sacks, during free agency.

Not heavy on defense

With the entire starting offensive line returning from last season, Luck with a year under his belt with coach Frank Reich’s offense and only five games (Tennessee twice) against defenses that finished in the top 10 last season, the stage is set for the Colts to have an even better season on offense. Luck finished second in the NFL in touchdown passes with 39 and the Colts ranked seventh in total offense last season.

Denver Broncos’ schedule will be no picnic in Year 1 for Vic Fangio

The NFL has released its 2019 regular-season schedule. Here’s a look at what’s in store for the Denver Broncos.

Game-by-game prediction

Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold is predicting an 8-8 finish:

Sept. 9: at Oakland, loss

Sept. 15: vs. Chicago, win

Sept. 22: at Green Bay, loss

Sept. 29: vs. Jacksonville, win

Oct. 6: at Los Angeles Chargers, loss

Oct. 13: vs. Tennessee, win

Oct. 17: vs. Kansas City, loss

Oct. 27: at Indianapolis, loss

Nov. 3: vs. Cleveland, win

Nov. 17: at Minnesota, win

Nov. 24: at Buffalo, win

Dec. 1: vs. Los Angeles Chargers, loss

Dec. 8: at Houston, loss

Dec. 15: at Kansas City, loss

Dec. 21 or 22: vs. Detroit, win

Dec. 29: vs. Oakland, win

Strength of schedule: 2, .537 opponent win percentage

Breakdown

The Broncos will open on the road for the first time since 2010, Josh McDaniels’ second season as the team’s coach. The Broncos’ opener will be the late Monday Night Football game on the opening weekend and the last game of Week 1. Overall, the Broncos are going to have to do some heavy lifting in coach Vic Fangio’s first season. They have seven games against 2018 playoff teams to go with games against the revamped Browns and Raiders. Toss in a traditionally difficult trip to Lambeau Field in Week 3 to face the Packers and a December trip to Arrowhead, and the Broncos will have a tough time getting and keeping their balance if they don’t exit training camp with their house in order. They do get a 50-50 sort of schedule with a Week 10 bye week to go with four road games before the bye and four after the bye.

Weather report

After Wednesday’s minicamp practice, Broncos linebacker Von Miller wanted to know only one thing about the Broncos’ schedule: “I’m wondering when we play in Green Bay,” Miller said. “… Hopefully it’s not late December or something like that.” Told the Broncos will play at Lambeau in Week 3 (Sept. 22), Miller said: “That’s good. That’s the only thing I was worried about. We’re going to be in Green Bay at the beginning of the year, I’m cool with that.”

Secondary is a primary concern

With cornerback Chris Harris Jr.’s decision to not attend the team’s voluntary workouts in the offseason program in hopes that he receives a contract extension, it’s a good time to point out that the Broncos will face plenty in the upper tier of the quarterback rankings. They’ll get league MVP Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers twice in their division, plus Aaron Rodgers (Week 3), Andrew Luck (Week 8), Baker Mayfield (Week 9), Kirk Cousins (Week 11), Deshaun Watson (Week 14) and Matthew Stafford (Week 16). Oh, and wide receiver Antonio Brown now resides in the division with the Raiders — Week 1 and Week 17 — and the Broncos will face Odell Beckham Jr. when he and Mayfield come to Denver on Nov. 3.

Cowboys’ options for first pick at No. 58 based on pre-draft visits

NFL mock drafts can be a fun exercise to dissect at this time of year, but only if your team has a first-round pick. They are mostly just guesswork, especially if you are a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, who do not have a pick until No. 58 overall.

With the NFL draft (April 25-27, on ESPN and the ESPN app) approaching, it’s worth looking into possible players at positions of need for the Cowboys, particularly those who visited The Star and who could be available late in the second round.

Safety

What the Cowboys want: They want speed at every position on defense. If you hear folks talk about the Cowboys playing a Tampa-2 style of defense, don’t pay attention to them anymore. They play much more single-high safety, using the extra safety in the box to help with the run rather than splitting their safeties deep in coverage.

The Cowboys already have: Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, George Iloka, Kavon Frazier and Darian Thompson

Dallas believes Woods will be a cornerstone defensive player for years to come. Heath, Iloka, Frazier and Thompson are set to be free agents after the 2019 season. Woods is a free safety, but he has a willingness to hit. Heath played in the box more last season and the coaches like what he can do. Iloka has more experience playing deep but has the skills to play close to the line.

Potential second-round visitors: Taylor Rapp, Juan Thornhill, Johnathan Abram, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

Rapp did not run the fastest 40-yard dash, which might scare off some teams, but he plays fast, which is more important. He was active around the line (seven total sacks the past two seasons) and can play multiple spots, which is an important trait with the way offenses are going.

Thornhill has Byron Jones-like traits and might be viewed more as a corner than a safety. He is gifted athletically and can play multiple spots as well. He had six interceptions last season at Virginia. The Cowboys have not had a defensive back with that many INTs in a season since Anthony Henry had six in 2007.

Abram is the hitter of the group. He is a see-ball, hit-ball type. That can get him into trouble at times because he can be too aggressive, but he can also set a tone. Gardner-Johnson is aggressive to a fault at times as well, but he can find the ball.

Defensive tackle

What the Cowboys want: Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants interior players who are built to get up the field rather than to hold down gaps. He has never put a premium on size since coming to the Cowboys, and the personnel staff has not tried to force a big body on him. He has made it work well enough at nose tackle with guys such as Nick Hayden, Terrell McClain and Antwaun Woods. At the under-tackle spot, pass-rush productivity is a must.

The Cowboys already have: Maliek Collins, Christian Covington, Woods, Kerry Hyder, Daniel Ross and Tyrone Crawford

Crawford is the most versatile lineman the Cowboys have because he can play all four spots. Collins has battled injuries the past two years but can play either interior spot. Woods was a steal after getting cut by the Tennessee Titans. Free-agent pickups Covington and Hyder provide the Cowboys some depth, so they don’t have to get a defensive tackle in this draft.

Potential second-round visitor: Gerald Willis

It might be a little early to take Willis at No. 58 overall, but in Mel Kiper Jr.’s most recent mock draft, he had the Cowboys taking the Miami product. Teams visit with players for all sorts of reasons, not just football-related. Willis had off-field issues at Miami, including a fight over a pair of cleats, but was a captain last season, his only year as a full-time starter. He plays fast but undisciplined at times and will check out on his run-game responsibilities. Marinelli’s track record shows he can help anybody succeed if the player is willing to put in the work.

Running back

What the Cowboys want: Maybe it’s best to say what they don’t want: a niche back. They want a back who can handle the load if something were to happen to Ezekiel Elliott. As much as they lean on Elliott, the Cowboys want to make sure the drop-off isn’t too steep when they do rest their Pro Bowl runner.

The Cowboys already have: Elliott, Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn

Jackson and Chunn spent most of last season on the practice squad and did not have a carry. Rod Smith, last season’s backup, remains unsigned. Fullback Jamize Olawale can carry the ball if needed, but only in emergency situations.

Potential second-round visitor: Damien Harris

In a perfect world, the Cowboys would spell Elliott more than they did a year ago, when he led the team in rushing and receptions. But do they want to spend a second-round asset on a player who could play fewer than 30 percent of the snaps? They also want to keep Elliott on a long-term deal, which pushes the need down even more.

Harris did lead Alabama in rushing for three straight seasons. He did not have to carry the load because of the number of quality backs with the Crimson Tide, but he has good vision and strength. He will not wiggle away from defenders with his quickness, but he can pick up the dirty yards.

Wide receiver

What the Cowboys want: A playmaker. They need to get more chunk plays out of the passing game than they have the past two years. They need the easy play, and that’s why they traded for Amari Cooper. Michael Gallup had moments as a rookie, too. They just need more consistency.

The Cowboys already have: Cooper, Gallup, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, Noah Brown and Lance Lenoir

With the top six receivers set, it would seem unwise to go with a receiver this early, but Cooper, Cobb, Austin and Hurns are on the last year of their deals. The expectation, however, is that Cooper will get a long-term deal sometime this offseason. Cobb has value as Cole Beasley’s replacement. Any rookie brought into the mix will not have to be the man right away, which is a good thing.

Potential second-round visitor: Deebo Samuel

He has scored receiving, rushing and return touchdowns, and he even threw two touchdown passes. Samuel can line up all over the formation and has the strength to make one tackler miss and make a big play. He has return skills, but that part of the game has been mitigated by rule changes, so it is more important to evaluate his receiver skills. He looks like he could be part of a creative offense that coordinator Kellen Moore wants to develop.

Badgers won’t let Watt wing it at commencement

J.J. Watt was prepared for his May 11 commencement address at the University of Wisconsin. Or at least he thought he was.

Then he was asked to send a copy of his speech when he was done writing it.

J.J. Watt has a month to figure out his speech.

“I said, ‘What do you mean?'” Watt said. “‘I don’t write speeches. I’m just going to go up there and talk.’

“That was my full plan. I did not know that you had to write it all out. I’m dead serious. I didn’t know. He was like, ‘They have a teleprompter for you. What do you want on it?’

“I said, ‘Nothing. Just give me a black screen and tell me when to stop talking.’ That was literally my plan. But I found out you have to write some stuff down. So I have about a month to figure it out.”

The Houston Texans defensive end started his college career at Central Michigan but transferred to Wisconsin as a walk-on in 2008. He played for the Badgers for two seasons, and although Watt did not graduate from Wisconsin because he declared early for the NFL draft in 2011, he said he knows what everyone actually wants from a commencement speaker.

“I mean, I have some messages I want to say,” Watt said. “I have some things I want to get across. But let’s be honest: They just want to go drink beer afterwards. They’re excited. I know how commencements go. They just want the person to give a cool message for about five minutes, and then get off the stage.”

Watt said he isn’t nervous about speaking in front of the crowd, saying he’s “really excited about that.”

“I get to go back to Wisconsin [and] Camp Randall [Stadium],” Watt said. “I never graduated, so I get to see what graduation looks like. It’s an honor. It’s such a true honor.

“I grew up 45 minutes from Camp Randall, so being invited to go back [and] have the opportunity to go back to a school and a team that I watched growing up and idolized, walked on and eventually got a scholarship from [and] now to be able to speak at their commencement, it’s an unbelievable honor. I take it very seriously. Even though I said I wasn’t going to write a speech, I take it very seriously. I’m humbled.”