Matthew Stafford knows what ‘talented’ Sam Darnold faces

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford can understand it all, everything New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold might be going through this week. Because the veteran quarterback has been there, and he understands all the expectations and ups and downs that could come.

In 2009, Stafford was Darnold — opening his rookie season as a highly touted quarterback on the road against an opponent with a veteran defense and a top quarterback. That opponent was New Orleans with Drew Brees. And the Saints ended that season by beating Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.

Stafford watched Darnold play at USC. Watched him play during the preseason. Likes his arm. Thinks Darnold is “a talented kid.” But like any rookie, Stafford said, you don’t know what you don’t know because college is way different than the NFL.

“Listen, this game is about experience,” Stafford said. “This league is about experience. You know, he played at a high level in college against some high-level competition. He’s gotten some under his belt in the preseason and he’s a talented guy.

“He can make a bunch of plays not only with his arm but with his feet. We’ve seen it more and more recently, these young guys coming in and playing at a really high level.”

Stafford and Darnold weren’t in the exact same situation. Darnold has more talent around him in New York than Stafford did coming off the Lions’ 0-16 season in 2008. But the issues he faced in 2009 will be similar to what Darnold will face this week against Detroit and for the first part of this season.

Stafford’s first game as a pro didn’t turn out too well, either. He completed 16 of 37 passes for 205 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. He was sacked once and had a passer rating of 27.4 — the worst of his career.

“All of it is tough. We weren’t a great football team at that point,” Stafford said. “We were rebuilding in a lot of areas. I was not by any means, and still am not, a finished product. You know, learning on the fly against some great competition, but that’s what it’s all about.”

So Darnold will start in Detroit. Against Stafford. On Monday Night Football. And the Lions, like the Saints did to a rookie 10 years ago, will hope to give the Jets’ starter plenty more to learn.

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/34239/matthew-stafford-understands-what-talented-sam-darnold-is-going-to-face

Photo: AP Photo/Gail Burton

1,000 (yards) just a number to Packers’ Davante Adams

Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Davante Adams will never forget the time Aaron Rodgers essentially kicked him off the field.

He can smile about it now — now that he’s Rodgers’ favorite target. But at the time during Adams’ rookie year, a few weeks into the 2014 season, it served as a wake-up call. As Adams remembered it, he either ran the wrong route or failed to adjust his route properly and Rodgers signaled toward the Packers’ bench to take Adams off the field.

“Yeah, pretty much that was his thought,” Adams said this week.

And Adams can admit now, he didn’t blame Rodgers.

“I never took anything [personal] since I’ve been here,” Adams said. “Because at the end of the day all you’ve got to do is look at what he’s accomplished and the level he plays and carries himself, it just makes you think, ‘OK, he just wants me to be on the same level or close to that.'”

That’s where Adams stands now — as Rodgers’ No. 1 receiver and as one of the NFL’s top players.

No one in the league has more touchdown catches than Adams’ 22 over the past two seasons combined. Not Antonio Brown (with 21). Not Jordy Nelson (20). Not DeAndre Hopkins or Mike Evans (17 each).

The missing 3 yards
The only thing Adams hasn’t done from a statistical standpoint is post a 1,000-yard season. He came up 3 yards short in 2016 and probably would have reached that mark last season if not for getting knocked out twice by illegal hits that led to concussion. He had 885 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games last year but did not play the last two weeks after Carolina’s Thomas Davis knocked him out. Adams actually cleared the concussion protocol in the same day (Dec. 29) he signed his five-year, $58 million contract but the Packers held him out of what was a meaningless regular-season finale.

That 1,000-yard mark, however, is not what drives Adams.

“If we want to make a list of 1,000-yard receivers, we could make a list of those, not who’s the best,” Adams said. “Plus it’s just ridiculous because I had 997, so what are we talking about?”

There’s another list Adams believes he should be on.

“Top-five, top-10 receivers and things like that,” Adams said. “My name comes up in some of those conversations, but it’s not unanimous.

“I still don’t have the big-picture respect that I feel like I deserve, but at the same time that’s the fuel that continues to drive me so it’s not like it’s really an issue that I’m not being recognized. But that’s what keeps me going.”

The fork in his road
Inconsistency marked Adams’ rookie season.

He caught 38 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns, numbers not unlike (and in some cases better than) what Nelson, Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings and James Jones put up as Packers rookies.

The following spring, coach Mike McCarthy dubbed Adams as the Packers’ “MVP of the offseason.” That didn’t translate to the 2015 regular season, perhaps in part because of an early-season ankle injury that inhibited Adams’ ability to do what he does best — beat cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage. And it came at a time when the Packers needed him after Nelson’s preseason ACL tear.

Adams faced questions about whether big games from his rookie year — the six catches for 121 yards against the Patriots and the seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the playoff win over the Cowboys — were flukes. And fans jeered him during the injury-filled 2015 season when he caught 50 passes for just 483 yards and one touchdown.

“It’s the adversity he went through that makes him so great,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I’ve commended him from when he had his s–t that he went through, there was a fork in the road. He could have went one of two ways. He could’ve been a s–tbird — just a talent who couldn’t pick it up — or he could go the other direction. And he decided, ‘I’m not going to let you guys or anyone else write my story.'”

When Adams was presented with that quote as he stood in the corner of the Packers’ locker room, just a few steps from where Bakhtiari changes, he didn’t hesitate when asked for a reply.

“I feel like you guys have asked it in different ways but at the end of the day it was never a matter of me not being a good player or I slacked off in the offseason and came in bulls—ting or something like that,” Adams said. “I didn’t play the way I wanted to based on an injury, but during the season I’m not going to say that. People don’t care. But when you have a lingering ankle all year and then you tear your ACL in the playoff when it’s my coming out (party) — which was a late coming out game, I admit — but those are the things right there.”

However his early years are viewed, all that matters now is what his quarterback thinks of him.

“You can kind of tell right away with Davante that he was going to be a player,” Rodgers said. “It was just a matter of that first year and opportunities. The thing that I said then, as I recall, was his attitude was the same in the weeks where he’d only get one or two targets as in the weeks where he had big games, like against New England, like in the Cowboys playoff game. His attitude stayed the same the entire time.

“Now in Years 2 and 3 he was injured a decent amount and didn’t have — especially in ’15 — the numbers that he would have wanted to have. But you cannot teach natural confidence and swag like that. And when you see it, you realize if the guy ever figures it out, he can be a big-time player. And obviously Davante figured it out and has a great attitude, and he’s been a great player for us.”

Photo: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

http://www.espn.com/blog/green-bay-packers/post/_/id/45380/1000-yards-just-a-number-to-packers-davante-adams

Kenny Golladay could be breakout star, key to Lions’ offense

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Kenny Golladay will lean back ever so slightly in the Detroit Lions’ meeting room and begin to speak. In front of him is an explanation of something they were going to work on or had just completed, and Golladay just isn’t quite sure of it.

So the second-year wide receiver takes his massive frame, pushes back and asks the receiver behind him a question. And Marvin Jones Jr. almost always has the answer.

“He’ll ask me a lot of different things,” Jones said. “Sometimes a play or sometimes what should I have done right there or what would you have done. Stuff like that. Whatever question pops in his mind, he asks.

“He wants to be that guy that’s dominant and stuff like that, and you see it transfer on the field.”

Dominance has been a big word in Golladay’s lexicon so far this training camp. While often choosing not to talk with the media, he did say in a rare-for-this-year interview that his plan was to “dominate every day and that’s just what I’m looking forward to.”

That’s come intermittently — but his presence is noticed. The Lions’ tallest receiver at 6-foot-4, Detroit selected him in the third round last year in part because of his jumping ability, catch radius and knack for grabbing the ball at its highest point. Combined with his speed for a bigger receiver, it made him a tantalizing early threat — something enhanced by his two touchdowns in both the preseason and regular-season openers in 2017.

Then he went quiet for most of the year, in part due to a hamstring injury that cost him five games of his rookie year. But the potential was intriguing. Then he started lining up on the outside during training camp opposite Jones with Golden Tate in the slot and had flashes of dominance again.

It’s reason to think he could be a massive key to Detroit’s offense this fall. Among receivers with 20 or more receptions last season, Jones was first in the league with 18.05 yards per catch. Golladay was fifth at 17.04 yards.

Having the two of them on the field at the same time with Tate, the NFL’s yards-after-catch leader among receivers last season, forms a dynamic combination most teams in the league don’t have.

“It is trouble for the defense,” tight end Michael Roberts said. “It’s so many options on both sides of the ball. If you put the two of them on the same side, it’s even more trouble. It’s just a well-balanced offense.

“You saw what we did, drafted a running back, brought in LeGarrette [Blount], took an O-lineman in the first round (center Frank Ragnow) so that’s obviously speaking to our run game, and that’s what they want — they want to run it. So it’s just becoming a very balanced offense and it’ll show soon.”

It’s also one that has the big-play capability because of Jones and Golladay — but specifically Golladay. With the three receivers on the field at the same time, teams will struggle where to shade a safety or straight up double a player. Focus too much on the short game with Tate and Theo Riddick and both Golladay and Jones win one-on-one matchups with corners. Focus on the deep threats and it leaves Tate and Riddick underneath to move the ball.

“Everything,” Golladay said, “works in together.”

Golladay becomes a bigger option, too, with the departure of tight end Eric Ebron. Golladay has the height (6-foot-4) of Ebron with better jumping ability. He also could siphon some of the targets that went to Ebron since the tight end combination of Roberts and Luke Willson is unlikely to garner the attention Ebron did last year. This could lead him to be the breakout player on a veteran offense with multiple pass-catchers at every position.

It helps, too, that Golladay grasps the game better than he did a year ago. He understands how to face longer corners and how important the details are to turn him from a receiver with potential into one of the better ones in the NFL.

“He’s understanding the game,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “He’s understanding where he needs to be. I can tell he’s focused.”

That’s on the field, where it’s shown through his play and his numerous grabs over Detroit’s defensive backs in the red zone and out of it. Then off the field, in the meeting rooms, he’s focused more, too.

And there, where he’s still learning, all he has to do is turn around to find the answers. Because sitting there is Jones. And that’s been a help, as he’s learning new parts of the offense under a different head coach.

“Just understanding the full concept of what we’re doing, which he’s learning, which has been good so far. Just really being consistent with all of that information,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s one thing to kind of come in as a young player, learn a specific role, be consistent with just that information.

“But now once you expand the information, to make sure that is continually improved upon as that goes through.”

Photo: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

http://www.espn.com/blog/detroit-lions/post/_/id/34104/kenny-golladay-could-be-breakout-star-key-to-lions-offense

Rookie Jaire Alexander sees game through the eyes of a veteran

Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jaire Alexander doesn’t like to sit still. That much has become evident in the first-round pick’s short tenure with the Green Bay Packers.

So imagine how difficult it was for the energetic young cornerback to have to watch last week’s preseason opener from the sideline while he nursed a groin injury.

That’s where a veteran like Davon House proved invaluable.

The eighth-year veteran played just 10 snaps against the Tennessee Titans and when his night’s work was done on the field, he went to work on the sideline. House stood at Alexander’s side often, helping the rookie see the game through the eyes of a veteran.

“I learned a bunch,” Alexander said. “Got to experience what a game is like — just trying to pay attention to the calls and the formations. See what the offense likes to run, and things like that. There were a lot of moving parts for me, so I was really concentrating on getting the play call and try to see myself in those positions.”

It left Alexander with an interesting conclusion.

“He says he can tell that the game isn’t as hard as everyone says it is — from watching it live,” House said. “Jaire isn’t a regular rookie. He’s kind of already in the flow of things.”

That may come across as cocky and perhaps even foolhardy; then again Alexander was the one who earlier in camp picked off Aaron Rodgers and started to call it a confidence builder only to stop himself and admit he has “plenty of that.”

It also could rub a veteran player the wrong way, but House said that’s not the case with Alexander.

“Everyone likes him; very likeable kid,” House said. “He’s eager, very coachable. We feed off of him. The energy he brings to the locker room, to the field when he makes plays, it’s always positive.”

There’s some merit to Alexander’s stance about the difficulty of the game, especially considering what he’s used to in practice.

“It is hard, but it isn’t as hard as what we’re going against in practice,” House said. “You’re going against A-Rod, Davante (Adams), Jimmy Graham, and then you see other teams and it’s not even close to what we go through in practice, which makes it easier.”

At some point, perhaps as soon as Thursday’s second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Alexander will get his chance to show just how easy the game comes to him. He returned to practice in a limited capacity on Sunday but couldn’t guarantee he would play against Pittsburgh.

Until he does, expect him to be at the side of House or one of the other veterans.

“That’s something we’ve always promoted,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It makes you proud, but that’s something our guys do a really good job of. … Our younger players closing that gap with the veteran players is vital to the success of our football team and getting ready for [Week 1 against] Chicago, and our guys do a great job of that.”

http://www.espn.com/blog/green-bay-packers/post/_/id/45350/rookie-jaire-alexander-sees-game-through-the-eyes-of-a-veteran

Photo: Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

Packers’ defense, RB race should take shape in training camp

Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers open training camp July 27 at their regular practice facility across from Lambeau Field. Here’s a closer look at the Packers’ camp:

Top storyline: The Packers’ revamped defense under new coordinator Mike Pettine will be under examination during each and every practice. The early returns in OTAs were strong; during one of the public practices, it picked off Aaron Rodgers twice. Granted, those were not padded practices. Certainly there will be days when Rodgers and the offense pick apart the defense, but once the pads go on, the real evaluation of the unit begins in earnest. It will be worth watching where the pass rush comes from considering that beyond Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, there are no proven outside rushers. Perhaps the addition of defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson will improve the interior rush. The cornerback position also has been revamped with the signing of veteran Tramon Williams and the addition of the top two draft picks, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson.

QB depth chart: For now, it’s still Brett Hundley behind Rodgers. But don’t be surprised if at some point during training camp DeShone Kizer emerges as the No. 2. Hundley will get his chances to prove he’s better than what he showed last season when he made nine starts after Rodgers broke his collarbone, but the trade for Kizer (who started 15 games as a rookie last season for the Browns) showed a clear intent to upgrade the backup spot in case something happens to Rodgers again. Undrafted rookie Tim Boyle is the No. 4 entering camp.

Bubble watch: This isn’t so much a bubble watch but rather an injury watch that could turn into a major roster decision on Bryan Bulaga. The veteran right tackle probably won’t be on the field for the start of training camp; he’ll likely start on the physically unable to perform list while still rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in November. It also might be a long shot for him to be ready to start the season. If the Packers feel good about the addition of veteran Byron Bell and the depth Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy provide, then perhaps they’d move on from Bulaga even when he’s ready to go.

This rookie could start: Either Alexander or Jackson had better start. That’s why new general manager Brian Gutekunst used his first- and second-round picks, respectively, on the pair of cornerbacks. If Kevin King and Williams man the outside positions, then perhaps Alexander could start in the slot in the nickel package.

Running back by committee: The great thing about having three capable running backs is that if one runs into trouble or gets injured then there are options. The flip side is it could take away from the rhythm of the offense if the back changes every couple of series. So Packers coach Mike McCarthy will have to sort out how he plans to use Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, all of whom played the No. 1 role at different times last season.

The Philbin effect: Training camp should shed some light on what the return of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin means for that side of the ball. Philbin, during his previous stint in that job, was the perfect muse for McCarthy when it came to deciding what’s good — and more important, what’s bad — about the offense and play selection. He has the respect of Rodgers, who has already raved about Philbin’s impact.

Photo: Jim Matthews/USA TODAY NETWORK

http://www.espn.com/blog/green-bay-packers/post/_/id/45005/packers-defense-rb-race-should-take-shape-in-training-camp

 

NFC North Q&A: Who will win the division?

ESPN.com Staff

Will the Minnesota Vikings defend their NFC North crown in 2018, and which teams from the division will make the playoffs? Our division reporters make their predictions:

Courtney Cronin, Minnesota Vikings reporter: Packers. Green Bay will halt the Vikings’ attempt for a second straight division title and capture the NFC North in Aaron Rodgers‘ season of redemption. Green Bay made a ton of changes to its coaching staff and drafted cornerbacks with its first two picks to combat a passing league. They also have two of the league’s top red-zone targets, Jimmy Graham and Davante Adams, and added three receivers in the draft. The entire division got better this offseason, including Minnesota stealing the spotlight by signing Kirk Cousins. Still, the Packers and Vikings will be the only two teams to make the playoffs from the North. Chicago and Detroit are improved but probably still a year away from reaching the postseason.

Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Packers reporter: Vikings. This looks like a two-playoff-team division if the Vikings and Packers live up to expectations. The Week 2 game between the two teams at Lambeau Field will give one of them an early leg up in the division and could shape the way things go the rest of the way. At this point, though, the Vikings look like the more complete team thanks to a strong defense, an improving offense and stability off the field in the coaching and personnel departments.

Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bearsreporter: The Minnesota Vikings. But I also have the Green Bay Packers making the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Vikings are the easy choice to win the NFC North after they reached the NFC Championship Game last year and then signed quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency. I also fully expect Aaron Rodgers to have an MVP-type season after he missed nine games last year due to injury. I’m not sure what to make of the Lions under Matt Patricia. And Chicago — under new head coach Matt Nagy — is an improved team, but I don’t anticipate the Bears qualifying for the postseason.

Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions reporter: Vikings. Rodgers is back and automatically makes the Packers one of the top teams in the NFC, but Minnesota might be the top team in the conference other than Philadelphia and maybe Los Angeles. The Vikings improved from last season, added Kirk Cousins, get Dalvin Cook back from injury and have the division’s top defense, so they win the division again. The Packers also make the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Lions end up close but a tough schedule at the beginning and end of the season keeps them out of the playoffs for the second straight year.

Photo: Rick Wood /Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

http://www.espn.com/blog/nfcnorth/post/_/id/81440/nfc-north-qa-who-will-win-the-division-2