The NFL players and coaches who have the most to gain and lose in 2019


With an underwhelming trade deadline day in the rearview mirror, we’re about to hit the halfway point of the NFL season. While we might see a stray veteran like quarterback Andy Dalton or cornerback Aqib Talib hit the free-agent market in the weeks to come, outside of teams activating players off injured reserve, organizations are going to have to win with what they’ve got. The team you see over the next couple of weeks is generally going to be the team you have for the rest of the season.

Twenty of the league’s 32 teams still have at least a 10% chance of making it to the postseason, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, so the majority of the league will have something to play for in the second half. Some players and coaches, though, will have more to gain than others. I’m going to run through the people across the league who have the most riding on this second half in terms of their financial and professional future.

In putting this together, I’m leaving out players whose futures are generally already settled. I’m also not going to bother to mention the sort of career-threatening injury that could cost any player future earnings. We’re looking for players who are facing a fork in the road with two very divergent paths based on how they perform over the next two months. Let’s start with a player whom fans thought to be a building block as recently as August and might now be playing for his job, then dive into two more quarterbacks.

Jump to a player or coach:
QBs: Mariota | Newton | Trubisky | Winston
More offense: Gordon | Henry | Sanders
Defenders: Barrett | Beasley | Clowney | Peters
Head coaches: Garrett | Gase

In this case, Trubisky isn’t playing for a raise in 2020. Instead, the Bears will need to decide on Trubisky’s fifth-year option for 2021, which would pencil in a salary of more than $24 million for that season. The option would be guaranteed for injury, so the Bears would be able to move on after 2020 without any penalty if Trubisky can pass a physical. You can insert your own joke about how risky it is to ask Trubisky to pass something here.

There are two reasons to think the Bears will pick up Trubisky’s option independent of his play, and they’re both more about general manager Ryan Pace than they are about the embattled former No. 2 overall pick.

First is the case of cornerback Kyle Fuller. After three mostly disappointing years in Chicago, Pace declined Fuller’s fifth-year option and signed Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara to play ahead of the former first-round pick.

Fuller rededicated himself to the game and had an impressive 2017, which forced the Bears to transition-tag him and then pay him nearly the cost of two consecutive franchise tags after the Packers signed Fuller to an offer sheet. Fuller excelled in 2018, but the Bears cost themselves millions of dollars by giving up on him too early. The same thought will be running through Pace’s mind as he evaluates the 25-year-old Trubisky’s chances of eventually succeeding.

The other reality is that Pace made a huge bet on Trubisky succeeding. He didn’t give up a huge haul to move from No. 3 to No. 2 in the 2017 draft, but the story that Pace traded up to draft Trubisky when he could have stayed put and had his pick of Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes is going to sting. My opinion is that the NFL as a whole is generally pretty bad at evaluating quarterback prospects, and it’s impossible to know how Watson or Mahomes would have developed in Chicago, but the Bears chose a guy who might not be an NFL-caliber starter over two quarterbacks who were more successful in college and are arguably the two best young quarterbacks in football.

General managers who take a quarterback in the top five almost always re-raise their bets on those passers. It can hurt. Go back to that 2017 draft. After Pace took Trubisky second, the Jaguars came up with the fourth pick. With Blake Bortles coming off a wildly disappointing 2016 and a generally middling first three seasons, the Jags could have used the opportunity to draft Mahomes or Watson. Instead, after picking up Bortles’ fifth-year option, they used the pick on Leonard Fournette, who has only one half-season of above-average running back play in the books.

I’m not sure we’ll ever see Trubisky hit the heights that Bears fans were expecting before the 2019 season or were projecting onto him during the 2018 campaign, at least for any extended stretch of time. It was clear that coach Matt Nagy had little faith in him or the offense as a whole last week against the Chargers on Sunday, even before that now-infamous decision to sit on the ball before Eddy Pineiro missed a would-be winning field goal. The Bears ran the ball 38 times, and when Trubisky dropped back to pass, Nagy tried to keep the decision-making as simple as possible, even if it meant running a one-man route near the goal line.

Trubisky looked best on the final drive, when he did something for the first time since the opening series of Week 1: scramble for a first down. I’ve written about the disappearance of Trubisky’s scrambling ability a couple of times this year, and while scrambling is the most likely activity to aggravate Trubisky’s shoulder injury, it’s also a necessary trait for teams to be scared of him as a quarterback. I know that the best-case scenario for 2019 would have been Trubisky running less and picking defenses apart from the pocket more frequently, but that dream is dead for now. Trubisky and the Bears are in survival mode: First downs by any means necessary.

If Trubisky continues to struggle, the Bears might choose to decline his option. Even if they pick up his option, you would figure they would bring in somebody better than expert backup Chase Daniel to compete with Trubisky in 2020. The presence of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich on this staff makes for an obvious candidate, though Helfrich could get scapegoated for Trubisky’s regression. Helfrich was the offensive coordinator and then head coach at Oregon while Marcus Mariota excelled for the Ducks. With Mariota likely coming available this offseason, the Bears would be an obvious landing point for the former Heisman Trophy winner.

After throwing for 385 yards and four touchdowns in a Week 4 victory over the Rams, it looked like Winston was set to excel in Bruce Arians’ offense. Over his past two games, though, Winston has turned over the ball 10 times. Arians has tried to spread the blame for those mistakes to Winston’s teammates, but this isn’t exactly a new issue for the quarterback.

The reality with Winston is that we have a good sense of the quarterback he’s going to be. He has a strong arm. He doesn’t get rattled after mistakes. He’s good at improvising and extending plays, although that can be both a blessing and a curse. His yearly stats are remarkably consistent, even if his game-to-game performance can seem wildly erratic.

For the Bucs and general manager Jason Licht, who drafted Winston with the first pick of the 2015 draft, that’s been good enough to keep the former Florida State star around, if not enough to justify a long-term deal. Winston was benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick last season, and while the Bucs have only Ryan Griffin and an injured Blaine Gabbert behind him, he can’t keep this level of play up for very long without the Buccaneers making a change. It’s impossible to win when your quarterback is turning over the ball five times per week.

I don’t think Winston will continue to turn over the ball at this sort of rate, but much of his future depends on what happens over the final eight games of the season. The Buccaneers certainly want him to prove that he’s their guy for the future. The 67-year-old Arians, as he’ll happily tell you, didn’t take the Bucs job to develop a young quarterback for success down the line. Licht just signed a five-year extension. The best thing for both of them would be if Winston plays well enough down the stretch to justify a long-term contract.

It also would be the best thing for Winston, whose attractiveness to other organizations isn’t clear. There are teams around the league who won’t even consider adding a player who has been accused of multiple sexual assaults, let alone one with Winston’s on-field inconsistency. He would be one in a group of borderline starting quarterback options this offseason, a group that could include Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Eli Manning. Winston might be the most talented quarterback in that group, but none of those players has Winston’s track record of off-field misbehavior.

Some team would sign Winston, but it’s entirely possible that the only team that thinks he is worth a significant long-term deal is the one he’s currently playing for. If he gets hot during the second half, the Bucs will likely give him something close to the five-year, $137.5 million deal the 49ers gave Jimmy Garoppolo before the 2018 season. That contract paid the former Patriots backup $42 million in Year 1.

If Winston doesn’t impress during the second half and the Bucs head in a different direction, it will cost him a lot of money. If the league values him as a backup, he would likely be looking at a deal averaging between $6 million and $8 million per season. I can’t think of another player who has more to gain — or lose — over the next nine weeks of football than Tampa’s starting quarterback.

Speaking of Mariota, his future looks perilous. The Titans benched him after two consecutive dismal starts for Ryan Tannehill, who has responded by leading the team to consecutive wins over the Chargers and Jaguars. Tannehill hasn’t been incredible, as he has posted a Total QBR of 49.3, taken sacks more than 10% of the time and thrown a pick in each of his first two starts, but he has breathed life into a passing game that was depressingly conservative. Mariota, meanwhile, ranks last in Total QBR among qualifying starters at 31.7.

The famous stat that people tossed around with Mariota for years until 2018 was that he had never thrown an interception in the red zone. This seemed like a blessing, but it was really a reflection of his biggest flaw: He doesn’t take enough risks to succeed. Tennessee’s line isn’t great, but Mariota’s sack rate over the past two years has grown to a crippling 12%. According to NFL Next Gen Stats research, just 13.3% of Mariota’s passes over the past two seasons have been thrown into a tight window, the third-lowest rate among passers with at least 300 attempts.

Mariota certainly doesn’t seem close to getting his job back. The Titans face much stiffer competition before their bye in the Panthers and Chiefs — and it’s possible that consecutive stinkers from Tannehill would lead Mike Vrabel to go back to Mariota — but his best chance of regaining the job is still a Tannehill injury. The former Dolphins quarterback hasn’t played a full 16-game slate since 2015, so it’s hardly out of the question that we’ll see Mariota again in a Titans uniform.

It probably would take nothing short of a second playoff victory for the Titans to bring back Mariota as their starter in 2020. If he pulled that off, it wouldn’t be entirely unexpected to see the Titans franchise their former second overall pick and give him one final shot. That tag likely will come in somewhere around $26 million. If not, Mariota probably is looking at a high-end backup deal, which would have an annual salary in the $7 million range. He already has lost a lot, but if he gets another chance with the Titans, he’ll have to start playing like a quarterback with nothing to lose.

How bad has holding out gone for Gordon? Since he returned to the Chargers in Week 5, he has averaged 2.5 yards per carry and 2.7 yards per reception. His most notable play was fumbling away a would-be winning touchdown at the goal line. Over his four games in the lineup, the Chargers have become the first team since 1946 to run for fewer than 40 yards in four consecutive games. He wanted to be paid like a special running back after one efficient season in 2018. He has been arguably the league’s worst back since his return.

The deal for $10 million per year that the Chargers reportedly offered Gordon during his holdout is likely in a garbage can somewhere at team headquarters. The relationship between Gordon and the organization seems permanently soured at this point, although the Chargers always could choose to change their mind and offer him a big extension. Unless he takes a sudden, dramatic turn for the better, it’s likely that he’ll leave the organization after the season.

As was the case with a more accomplished back last offseason in Le’Veon Bell, the market might not be kind to Gordon. The list of teams that will need a running back and ignore history to use their cap space to pay one isn’t long. We’re looking at potentially Tampa Bay and Washington as viable Gordon suitors, with San Francisco as an outside candidate if it doesn’t re-sign Tevin Coleman.

If Gordon doesn’t impress during the second half, he’s going to be looking at something close to the two-year, $8.5 million deal Coleman signed with the 49ers this offseason. With a big second half, Gordon might be able to talk someone into giving him a deal similar to the three-year, $39 million pact David Johnson signed with the Cardinals.

The Chargers might instead choose to use some of the resources they originally had earmarked for Gordon to bring back Henry, who likely will sign some sort of deal with the team this offseason. The size of that deal naturally depends on Henry’s health, given that the oft-injured Arkansas product missed all of the 2018 regular season and four games this campaign.

Source : ESPN