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The Starting 11: The Futures of the Falcons and Jets and Bears … Oh My!

Of all the teams that started the season with high expectations, Chicago has fallen the furthest. But four other teams aren’t far behind in the sadness index. Plus: The Packers have unleashed Aaron Jones, and Gardner Minshew II continues to amaze.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.

1. The Bears, Falcons, Jets, Broncos, and Browns have all fallen well short of their preseason expectations, and Chicago’s lackluster first half just might be the most disappointing of them all. After finishing 12-4 and winning the NFC North last season, Matt Nagy’s team came in to 2019 with championship aspirations. The Bears were set to return 19 of their 22 starters, and with the entire offense entering its second season in Nagy’s system, improvement on that side of the ball—where Chicago finished 20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in 2018—seemed likely. That improvement hasn’t come. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky looked sharper in Sunday’s 17-16 loss to the Chargers than he’d been earlier this season, but it says a lot when a quarterback averages 7.2 yards per attempt, doesn’t throw a touchdown pass, and turns the ball over twice and it’s considered one of his better games. Trubisky delivered plenty of well-placed throws throughout the day, particularly on the Bears’ final two drives. But he was shaky all game in the red zone, and his turnovers sabotaged crucial drives in the fourth quarter and gave the Chargers a pair of short fields in a game where points were at a premium.

Like Trubisky, Nagy also put together one of his better games of the season on Sunday. He successfully schemed receivers open in the Chargers secondary, and after running the ball just seven times in last week’s embarrassing loss to the Saints, Chicago finally got the ground game moving with David Montgomery. The rookie finished with 135 yards on 27 carries, including a 55-yard scamper late in the second quarter. But Nagy’s decision to take a knee with 43 seconds remaining and play for a 41-yard field goal proved to be Chicago’s undoing. Eddy Pineiro’s last-second kick flew wide, and the Bears suffered another heartbreaking loss.

At 3-4 and sitting in last place in the NFC North, Chicago’s playoff hopes are likely already dashed, and considering the grand aspirations that Bears fans harbored coming into the season, that’s a devastating result. This season was supposed to be a crucial year in the Bears’ team-building plans. Chicago, unlike some of the other middling teams around the league, is built to win right now. And with the large extensions that general manager Ryan Pace has handed out to homegrown players and the ill-advised free-agent acquisitions—like Buster Skrine, Trey Burton, and Mike Davis—that have proved to be mistakes, the Bears’ cap outlook next season is downright grim.

Chicago has eight players set to make at least $10 million in 2020, and after Pace converted $13 million of Khalil Mack’s salary this offseason to free up cap space, his cap hit next season will be a whopping $26.6 million. As it stands, the Bears are projected to be about $6 million under the cap. There are a few logical cuts that Pace can make this offseason to free up space (injured guard Kyle Long, 30-year-old cornerback Prince Amukamara, and kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson all come to mind), but without any clear in-house replacements on the roster, Chicago will have to do something to offset those losses. Then there are the pending free agents to consider. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Danny Trevathan, and useful contributors like Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams are all set to hit the open market this offseason, and the Bears have little financial recourse to replace or re-sign them. And after trading their 2020 first- and third-round picks to Oakland for Mack last year and sending a fourth-round pick to New England to move up for Montgomery this spring, the Bears lack the draft capital to address their needs with cheap, young talent.

Chicago will also have to decide what to do about Trubisky’s fifth-year option this spring, and as the second overall pick in the 2017 draft, his price tag will likely be in the $30 million range. Trubisky hasn’t shown nearly enough for the Bears to believe he’s the correct answer long term, and Pace and Nagy would be wise to make a decision soon and avoid the mistake the Jaguars made when they picked up Blake Bortles’s fifth-year option and eventually signed him to an extension to lower his massive cap hit.

Trading for a new quarterback midseason likely wouldn’t be very productive and probably wouldn’t do much to change the Bears’ 2019 outlook. And without a first-round pick, it won’t be easy to find a new franchise QB in the draft. But with a ton of quarterback turnover likely this offseason, Pace and Nagy may be able to skirt around their lack of resources and come up with a creative solution to replace Trubisky. With starting-caliber passers like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and Ryan Tannehill set to hit the market and other QBs like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton entering the final—relatively affordable—years of their contracts, the Bears will have more options than usual. None of those names are going to excite Bears fans much, but at this point, the franchise has to do something to improve its quarterback play.

Moving on from Trubisky soon would allow the Bears to make an attempt at salvaging what’s left of this roster’s timetable. All of Chicago’s pass catchers—including no. 1 receiver Allen Robinson—are signed through at least next season. The problem, though, is what once looked like a strong offensive nucleus no longer seems so formidable. The line has regressed significantly, and Nagy hasn’t been able to manufacture an offense that can overcome its shoddy quarterback play. Nagy is still an adept offensive mind who should be able to field a more dangerous offense with a better quarterback—but there just aren’t many encouraging answers out there for Chicago. And considering what the 2019 season was supposed to be for this franchise, that’s a depressing place to be.

2. Like the Bears, Atlanta came into the 2019 season with an expensive roster and playoff dreams, but after a 27-20 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday dropped the Falcons to 1-7, their season is feeling more like a nightmare. After losing quarterback Matt Ryan to an ankle injury against the Rams last week, Atlanta’s offense was bound to have a difficult time keeping up with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. But that does nothing to explain the Falcons’ continued issues on defense. It took Wilson only 20 pass attempts to throw for 182 yards. On his touchdown pass to D.K. Metcalf early in the second quarter, there wasn’t a defender within 5 yards of the receiver. Seattle ran a simple two-receiver stack on the left side of the formation, and three Falcons defenders ran with Tyler Lockett to the pylon as Metcalf waltzed across the goal line. With Metcalf holding the ball in the end zone, the Falcons defenders were left staring at one another wondering what the hell had just happened.

Even the most basic route combinations have flummoxed the Falcons. And unlike last year, when Atlanta finished 31st in defensive DVOA, this group hasn’t been devastated by injuries. When head coach Dan Quinn took over the unit this offseason, it was supposed to get better. Instead, it’s gotten worse. Only the lowly Dolphins have a lower pass-defense DVOA than the Falcons, and the Dolphins shouldn’t even count.

I wrote about the Falcons’ outlook earlier this month, and it’s hard to overstate just how bleak it really is. Even after trading Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots last week, Atlanta is still projected to be several million over the cap in 2020. With Ryan’s cap hit rising to $33.6 million and extensions for players like Julio Jones, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, and Deion Jones in full effect, this is an expensive team that won’t have much financial flexibility to get any better. It’s looking more and more likely that Quinn will be let go at the end of the season, but no matter who ends up taking over, the Falcons will probably be stuck in this mess again next season.

3. Even with Sam Darnold back in the lineup, the Jets offense continues to be putrid. Adam Gase’s team gained just 213 yards in Sunday’s 29-15 loss to the Jaguars, and 98 of those came on the Jets’ opening touchdown drive. A staggering five of the team’s 13 drives ended with negative yardage. In the second quarter alone, the Jets produced drives of minus-13, minus-2, minus-10, and minus-1 yards. Darnold was sacked eight times in the game—with six different Jaguars recording at least one—and hit 13 times overall. His miserable day also included three interceptions. But the offensive line remains the biggest concern. During the three-game stint he played earlier in the season when Darnold was out with mono, third-string quarterback Luke Falk was pressured on a league-leading 47.8 percent of his passes. Darnold has been pressured 40.5 percent of the time, which is the fourth-highest rate in the league. No matter who the Jets’ quarterback has been, he’s had to run for his life behind arguably the league’s worst pass-blocking group.

When Gase was hired as the team’s head coach this offseason, the Jets’ company line was that a lack of talent had held him back during his tenure in Miami. After signing Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder to sizable free-agent deals and swinging a trade for guard Kelechi Osemele, talent wasn’t supposed to be an issue in New York. But halfway through the season, those additions have largely been disappointments. Crowder has 322 receiving yards, Bell is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, and Osemele was just released after undergoing an unapproved surgery on his injured shoulder.

The Jets have the worst offense in football. That’s partially a product of Darnold’s mono and Falk’s struggles as an ill-equipped starter, but outside of one extremely confusing game against the Cowboys, Gase’s offense has been nearly as bad with Darnold under center. If Gase doesn’t start living up to his supposed “offensive guru” status soon, it might be time to channel the Bobs and ask: “So, Adam, what would you say you do here?”

Gase and first-year general manager Joe Douglas have a history working together, and coaches rarely get fired after only one season. But the Jets offense has been bad enough that the team’s brass might have to seriously consider that option if the situation doesn’t improve. On Monday, Douglas traded defensive lineman Leonard Williams to the Giants for a third-round pick in 2020 and a fifth-round pick in 2021. This wasn’t supposed to be a team waving the white flag halfway through the season, but here we are. The Gase era could not be going any worse for Gang Green.

4. The Broncos offense looked hapless in a 15-13 loss to the Colts, and they’ll now be without their starting quarterback. After throwing for just 174 yards on 32 attempts against Indianapolis, Joe Flacco has been ruled out of this week’s game against the Browns with a herniated disk in his neck. That means that fourth-year QB Brandon Allen, who’s never thrown an NFL pass, will get his first career start. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio announced that while second-round pick Drew Lock is now fully healthy after spraining his thumb in the preseason, the team hasn’t decided whether to promote rookie Brett Rypien off the practice squad or activate Lock off injured reserve. With Denver at 2-6 and likely out of the playoff race, the Broncos would probably be well served to see what they have in Lock before the end of this season. Denver’s offensive line remains a problem, and the team’s lack of weapons after trading Emmanuel Sanders to the 49ers was evident in Sunday’s loss. But after spending a second-round pick on Lock in the 2019 draft, the Broncos need to figure out how he fits into the team’s future plans. The question now, though, is who will be overseeing those plans. After yet another disappointing season, John Elway’s tenure as the team’s GM is likely on borrowed time.

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

5. The most frustrating part of the Browns’ 2-5 start is that they keep making the same mistakes. Early in the season, it seemed like Cleveland’s issues with penalties, pass protection, and a lack of rhythm on offense would all be correctable. But those problems struck again during Sunday’s 27-13 loss to the Patriots. Baker Mayfield was sacked five times, hit seven times total, and pressured on a ridiculous 43.2 percent of his dropbacks. Playing with backup left tackle Justin McCray in place of the benched Greg Robinson, the Browns stood no chance at holding up against the blitz-happy Patriots front. Cleveland also finished with 13 penalties for 85 yards. On the season, the Browns have been flagged a league-leading 70 times, and they lead the league in penalty yards (591). The hope early on was that as first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens and the team’s offseason additions settled in, the Browns’ sloppy play would subside. But halfway through the season, Cleveland’s problems have persisted—and they’ve likely doomed what was supposed to be a very promising season.

6. J.J. Watt’s torn pectoral muscle is a crushing blow to a Texans team fighting for a playoff spot. Watt suffered the injury during the first half of Houston’s 27-24 win over the Raiders, and his absence could doom the Texans defense. Through eight games, Watt recorded a league-leading 52 pressures and 16 quarterback hits. His sack total might not have been comparable to past years, but Watt had still been one of the league’s most productive pass rushers. With Watt out and Jadeveon Clowney now in Seattle, the Texans are perilously thin up front. Whitney Mercilus has put together a decent bounceback season, recording 24 pressures in eight games, but his contributions alone won’t be nearly enough to carry the Texans’ pass rush.

The most troubling part about this injury, though, is its effect beyond this season. Watt has now ended three of the past four seasons on injured reserve. His ability to recover from each injury and return to form as one of the best defenders in football has been remarkable, but Watt is now 30 years old and staring at yet another long recovery process. Deshaun Watson and Houston’s explosive offense should keep the Texans relevant in the AFC South race for the rest of this season, but any hopes of competing with the Patriots and Chiefs at the top of the conference took a serious hit on Sunday.

7. The Packers have tapped into Aaron Jones’s potential as a receiver, and it’s added a new gear to their offense. Jones finished Green Bay’s 31-24 victory over the Chiefs with a ridiculous 159 receiving yards. That’s just 47 fewer than he had during all of 2018, when he saw 35 targets and hauled in 26 passes. This year, Jones has already tallied 34 receptions for 355 yards, and he’s done damage in several different ways. On a second-and-10 late in Sunday’s first quarter, Jones motioned out of the backfield to a split-out alignment on the left. When linebacker Anthony Hitchens followed, Aaron Rodgers determined that the Chiefs were in man coverage and the 235-pound Hitchens was mismatched against Jones. At the snap, Jones feigned a move inside before running a nasty route back to the sideline, and Rodgers found him wide open for a 50-yard pass play. (It should have been a touchdown, but Jones stepped out of bounds. Green Bay scored a few plays later.)

Running back receiving figures can often be inflated by screens and lots of yards after the catch, but there was nothing cheap about Jones’s work on Sunday. The move on Hitchens showed off the type of route-running skills that any receiver would like to have. With the Packers searching for playmakers as Davante Adams remains sidelined with turf toe, Jones has provided a boon for this offense. And he’s given Rodgers an outlet that he’s lacked in recent seasons.

8. Jamie Collins is the latest low-risk signing to pay huge dividends for the Patriots. During his first stint with New England from 2013 to 2016, Collins emerged as one of the most versatile, valuable inside linebackers in the NFL. Sensing that a big payday was likely on the horizon, New England traded Collins to Cleveland during the middle of the 2016 season, and he eventually signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Browns. After a disappointing run in Cleveland, Collins was released in March, and the Patriots promptly scooped him up on a one-year, $2 million prove-it deal. Back in the friendly surroundings of the New England defense, Collins has been one of the best defensive players in football. He leads all linebackers with 15 disrupted dropbacks and has tallied six sacks in eight games. New England has thrived when blitzing this season, and Collins’s contributions as a pass rusher are a big reason that the Pats lead the NFL with 31 sacks. No team has done a better job over the years of bringing undervalued players into the fold. Collins is following in the footsteps of guys, like Patrick Chung, who have come back to New England and become key contributors to the Patriots defense. It’s almost unfair how good Bill Belichick and Co. are at this.

New York Jets v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

9. Watching Gardner Minshew II play quarterback is just plain fun. The Jags rookie finished Jacksonville’s 29-15 win over the Jets with 279 yards and three touchdowns, but it was the way he got those yards that really stood out. Late in the first quarter, Minshew managed to slip away from safety Jamal Adams and find wide receiver Chris Conley down the field for a 70-yard score. On a third-and-8 midway through the second quarter, Minshew squirmed out of the pocket and scrambled 13 yards for a key first down. On a third-and-goal in the fourth quarter, Minshew escaped to his right, evaded several Jets defenders near the sideline, and delivered a strike to receiver DJ Chark for an 8-yard touchdown, which put the game out of reach. He created big gains all day with a mix of improvisation and creativity, and it was a blast to watch.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Nick Bosa is ridiculous. Bosa finished with three sacks in the Niners’ 51-13 win over the Panthers, and he’s been the NFL’s most impactful edge rusher on a per-snap basis this season, according to Pro Football Focus. The most incredible play of Bosa’s game was actually his interception, which came near the end of the third quarter. At the snap, Carolina QB Kyle Allen attempted a quick pass into the flat for running back Reggie Bonnafon. The play design called for left tackle Dennis Daley to immediately cut Bosa to keep him out of the play, but the rookie defensive end managed to fend Daley off, keep his feet, and intercept the throw. It was an unbelievable display of awareness and balance, characteristics Bosa has shown plenty of during his short career. Unless he gets injured, he likely has the Defensive Rookie of the Year award all sewn up.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: The laws of physics do not apply to Deshaun Watson.