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Barnwell: Answering 8 questions about Dak, Dalton and Dallas’ playoff chances

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On Sunday, a Dallas Cowboys team that had seemingly been going through a nightmare season saw its worst fears realized. In the third quarter, Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury. If you were watching the play, you’re not going to forget what you saw for a long time. If you didn’t see the play, consider yourself lucky. Injuries are a part of football, and they don’t discriminate against good or bad people or between stars and ordinary players, but it was difficult not to be overwhelmed as a crying Prescott was carted off of the field.

The Cowboys put in backup Andy Dalton, who led a late drive to set up a game-winning field goal and a 37-34 win over the Giants. The 2-3 Cowboys are now in first place atop the putrid NFC East, but what happens next can go many different ways. Let’s reset the scene and establish everything you need to know after Prescott’s heartbreaking injury:

Jump to a section:
Could this be a career-threatening injury?
Should Prescott have taken Dallas’ offer?
Is Andy Dalton actually any good?
Can the Cowboys still win the NFC East?
Should they try to get another QB?
What happens if they decide to move on?

What happened?

With the game tied 23-23 in the third quarter, the Cowboys dialed up a designed quarterback draw. Prescott broke through one tackle attempt and then tried to stiff-arm Giants defensive back Logan Ryan. As Ryan dragged down Prescott, the quarterback’s ankle got caught underneath Ryan. We often see players suffer high ankle sprains when their ankles are caught at that sort of angle, but when Prescott came out of the tackle, his ankle was facing in the wrong direction.

There was nothing malicious or untoward about the tackle or anything anyone could have realistically done to prevent the injury. The Cowboys use Prescott as a runner on designed plays, but his workload isn’t exorbitant or unreasonable. He had been remarkably healthy as a pro, as the 27-year-old had never even been on the injury report before going down on Sunday.

Officially, the Cowboys announced that Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, meaning that the bone penetrated through his skin as part of the injury. ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported that he underwent surgery on the ankle Sunday evening. His season is likely over, and the Cowboys will place Prescott on injured reserve sometime this week.

Could this be a career-threatening injury?

By all accounts, Prescott should be able to return. While the injury was unquestionably gruesome, players across sports have been able to return from similar injuries in the past and continue their careers. In baseball, Jason Kendall, Moises Alou, and Robin Ventura were able to return from compound ankle fractures and sustain long careers. In basketball, we recently saw Celtics forward Gordon Hayward dislocate his ankle and fracture his tibia, miss an entire season, and then return the following year.

Most importantly, we’ve seen football players overcome this injury, including ball carriers. Veteran running back LeSean McCoy suffered a compound ankle fracture in high school. At the pro level, Connor Barwin and Allen Hurns were able to overcome dislocated ankles and return to the sport. No two injuries are identical, of course, but there’s precedent for players making it back to play at the highest level.

Given that Alex Smith made his return to the field on the same day in which Prescott was injured, it’s only natural to try to compare Prescott’s injury to the Washington quarterback’s. They’re not the same. Smith suffered a broken tibia and fibula and then dealt with a life-threatening infection, which led doctors to perform a total of 17 surgeries. We won’t know until Prescott leaves the hospital and begins rehabilitating, but the hope is naturally that he will be able to avoid any infections or other complications after surgery.

No one can can say for sure that he will be the same player upon returning. Ankle injuries can cause serious problems for quarterbacks. While his injury is nowhere near as severe, take Jimmy Garoppolo as an example. When the 49ers quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2, I mentioned that quarterbacks who suffer high ankle sprains have a habit of sailing their throws when they come back, leading to sailed passes and interceptions. Garoppolo made his return on Sunday and was 7-of-17 passing for 77 yards with two sailed picks before being benched at halftime.

Prescott will have to re-establish his footwork as a passer. He also might not be as explosive or impactful as a runner, which has been an underrated and valuable part of his game over the last five years. He might come back as the same guy, looking like the injury has never happened. He could also come back as a less mobile and versatile player, which would take a chunk out of his game.

How does this impact his future with the Cowboys?

In the short-term, nothing changes. Prescott is playing on the franchise tag, which guarantees him $31.4 million for 2020. He’ll still collect that money even after being placed on injured reserve. As was the case before the injury, he is not under contract after Week 17, although Dallas has ways to keep him around.

The franchise’s three choices on what to do with Prescott also haven’t changed. The Cowboys can let him leave and hit unrestricted free agency. If that happened, they would not get direct compensation, although they would likely collect a third-round compensatory pick in the 2022 draft if they didn’t sign a similarly-expensive player in free agency. They can also sign him to a contract extension, something they’ve tried and failed to do in each of the past two offseasons.

The most likely outcome both before and after the injury is the third option: a second franchise tag. The Cowboys can offer Prescott another one-year deal, with this one guaranteeing the Mississippi State product $37.7 million for the 2021 season. The move would amount to a $6.3 million raise, but with the cap set to drop from $198.2 million in 2020 to $175 million as a result of the hit in local revenues, the team would feel the pinch of a second tag even more. Prescott currently takes up 14.4% of Dallas’ cap space, but he would be in line to take up something closer to 18.9% next year. With a $175 million cap, $37.7 million is the equivalent of paying Prescott something close to $42.7 million on this year’s cap.

At the same time, a second tag makes sense for both sides. The Cowboys might not want to commit to Prescott in the long-term until they see that their starter has returned to full health, something which they won’t be able to see on a football field before the franchise tag deadline comes up in March. Franchising him is the only way they would be able to retain his rights before free agency, and it would give them five months to negotiate an extension in advance of the July deadline for handing franchised players long-term contracts.

Likewise, for Prescott, a franchise tag seems preferable. He has repeatedly declined contract extensions from the Cowboys in the hopes of going year-to-year and getting the exact sort of deal he wants, whether it be from the Cowboys or another organization. This summer, while the two sides were reportedly close on the average salary of a new deal, the deal fell apart over disagreements about its length.

Dallas, which typically likes to hand out the longest contracts in football to retain control over its players while also leaving cap flexibility, wanted a longer deal. Prescott sought a three- or four-year deal, hoping to sign a short-term contract while getting back to free agency after the league signs its new television deals over the next two years, at which point the cap is expected to rise dramatically.

It’s possible that Prescott’s injury could change his outlook and encourage the veteran to take whatever the team is offering as part of the longest possible deal. Given that he has continually bet on himself and made more than $31 million in base salary alone this year, though, it wouldn’t be shocking if he continued along that path, even after the injury.

Should Prescott have taken Dallas’ long-term offer?

In the aftermath of the injury, the worst people on Twitter were excited to talk about how Prescott was foolish to decline the team’s long-term offers before suffering his injury. Never mind that we haven’t seen any of the contract offer specifics or how much money he realistically would have been passing up as part of a deal. Every player has to deal with risk, and as often as a player passes up a long-term option and then gets hurt, we see players who take below-market value deals before staying healthy and regretting their choice, like Chris Harris Jr. and Adam Thielen.

While we don’t know what a Prescott deal would have held, the reality is that he was already guaranteed $31.4 million by the franchise tag. Unless he is unable to play in 2021, the Cowboys are likely to franchise him again and pay him $37.7 million for a total of $69.1 million over two seasons, at which point he would be able to either collect a third franchise tag for $54.3 million or hit unrestricted free agency. He almost definitely would have had his 2022 base salary guaranteed as part of an extension, but I’m not sure he would have actually made all that much more money by signing an extension than he would going year-to-year.

If Prescott isn’t able to play in 2021 for some reason, he might also be protected. During the quarterback’s negotiations in 2019, Schefter reported that Prescott had loss-of-value and disability insurance and endorsement deals worth more than $50 million. It’s unclear whether he is still carrying that sort of insurance, but it’s clear that he’s been thinking about what might happen if he does get injured over the last couple of years. At the very least, he was aware of this possibility and the risk he was taking.

Andy Dalton is now the Cowboys’ starter. Is he good?

Dalton was solid on Sunday. While a bad exchange led to a fumble, a short field and a Giants touchdown, the longtime Bengals starter went 9-of-11 passing for 111 yards after taking over. With the game tied at 34, Dalton completed three passes for 72 yards to set up a game-winning field goal from Greg Zuerlein. It was the one positive to take away from an awful Sunday for the Cowboys.

There are two questions here. One of them is easy to answer: I don’t think Dalton has any hope of matching up to Prescott’s production in this offense, whether it be what we saw in 2019 or over the first four-plus games of 2020. Remember: Prescott threw for more yards than any quarterback in football history through the first four games of 2020, and it wasn’t particularly close. Dalton just won’t absorb that kind of volume.

Can Dalton be good enough to win games, though? That’s within the realm of possibility, although he had a much better shot at leading the Cowboys as constructed on paper heading into this season than he does with the current version of this team. Dallas is missing five starters on offense, including Prescott. Three of them are along the offensive line: Center Joe Looney is out for a few weeks, but starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are out for the season. The Cowboys started three offensive linemen on Sunday with one combined start in the NFL before 2020 in Tyler Biadasz, Terence Steele, and Brandon Knight.

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Michael Gallup makes a spectacular sideline catch to get the Cowboys in field goal range to set up Greg Zuerlein to kick through the game-winning field goal.

Dalton has a borderline-MVP season on his résumé from 2015 in Cincinnati, when he had prime weapons like A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert and arguably the league’s best offensive line. The Cowboys can give Dalton the weapons, but their pass protection is suspect. Over his last two seasons in Cincinnati, a decaying offensive line let down Dalton, and the TCU product wasn’t able to compensate. The Bengals ranked 31st in pass block win rate between 2018-19, and Dalton’s numbers nosedived in the process. He ranked 28th in both passer rating and QBR when pressured over that two-year span, and while the Cowboys still have one star lineman left in Zack Martin, their line otherwise might be worse than what Dalton worked behind in Cincinnati.

The Cowboys have been pass-friendly and played at one of the league’s fastest rates this season, in part because of circumstances: teams have to throw a lot and play fast when they go down by two touchdowns in the first half every week. With Dalton in the lineup, even given the line issues, I would expect Dallas to slow down and rely more heavily upon Ezekiel Elliott. Slowing down also reduces the pressure on the Dallas defense, which ranked 24th in DVOA through four weeks. Dalton still has one of the NFL’s most talented wide receiver groups, but he’s not going to use them as frequently.

Can the Cowboys still win the division?

Absolutely, although that’s more of a commentary on what is unaffectionately become known as the NFC Least than Dallas’s performance. The Cowboys were the only NFC East team to win on Sunday and jumped into first place at 2-3, putting them a half-game ahead of the 1-3-1 Eagles. Washington (1-4) has lost four straight and is down its top two quarterbacks, while the Giants are 0-5 and trying to hide behind the Jets on the back pages of the New York tabloids.

The Eagles haven’t lost their quarterback, but they have brutal injury issues in their own right. If you listed their top 11 players on offense on paper, just four are healthy and playing right now: Carson Wentz, Miles Sanders, Jason Kelce and Zach Ertz, the latter of whom caught one pass for six yards on six targets on Sunday. Ertz had 70 yards in the Week 3 tie against the Bengals and has 76 yards across his other four games despite playing virtually every snap. He’s on the field, but the star tight end doesn’t look like his usual self.

Heading into Week 5, the Cowboys were still favored to win the division, with the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) giving Dallas a 62.1% chance of claiming the NFC East. Those odds will rise with the Cowboys winning and moving into first place. The Caesars sportsbook still lists them with +1100 odds of winning the NFC, well ahead of the Eagles at +2200 and good for the sixth-highest odds in the conference.

Nobody in the Cowboys organization would have wanted to start out 2-3 and lose Prescott for the season, but if those two things were going to happen, these are basically the best possible surrounding circumstances in which the team could find itself.

Should the Cowboys go out and get another quarterback?

The Cowboys will move forward, for now, with Dalton and seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci under center. Former backup Cooper Rush is a free agent after being cut by the Giants in September, and if Dallas was going to make a move to add replacement-level depth behind Dalton, Rush would seem like the first option for the Cowboys. Clayton Thorson, who was on the Dallas practice squad in 2019, is on the Giants’ practice squad and could be claimed. The Cowboys would likely prefer one of those two to other practice squad options like Davis Webb, Trevor Siemian or Garrett Gilbert.

They signed Dalton for the scenario where Prescott got injured, so I don’t think they would make a move for a more significant quarterback immediately. If Dalton were to get hurt or struggle, though, remember that Jerry Jones has been aggressive making in-season moves in the past. The Cowboys sent a fifth-round pick to the Bills for Matt Cassel and a seventh-round pick when Tony Romo was injured during the 2015 campaign and then inserted Cassel into the lineup ahead of Brandon Weeden. (Kellen Moore, now the team’s offensive coordinator, eventually finished the year as the Dallas starter.)

There are a few quarterbacks who could be on the market, although some of them aren’t great fits for the Cowboys for one reason or another. Possible trade candidates:

Dwayne Haskins could be available after Washington benched its 2019 first-round pick in favor of Kyle Allen. Haskins wasn’t at the stadium on Sunday as he dealt with a stomach virus, although his future with the team seems murky. Haskins was reportedly a choice thrust upon the prior football regime by owner Daniel Snyder, and new coach Ron Rivera apparently had enough clout within the building to bench him. The former Ohio State star still has two years and $4.2 million in guaranteed money left on his deal after this year, but while the money wouldn’t be an issue for the Cowboys, Washington probably wouldn’t deal Haskins within the division.

Nick Mullens was benched by the 49ers for C.J. Beathard after a disastrous run against the Eagles last Sunday. The 49ers resisted trade talks for Mullens last offseason, but the 25-year-old is a restricted free agent after this season and an unrestricted free agent the following campaign. With Jimmy Garoppolo struggling and the 49ers likely eyeing a wild-card spot after falling to 2-3, they might not be willing to ship Mullens off to a possible rival, especially given that the 49ers play Dallas in Week 15.

Blake Bortles was signed by the Broncos and is on the active roster as one of four Denver quarterbacks. If Drew Lock is able to return from his shoulder injury and play the Patriots next week, the Broncos would probably be ready to move on from either Bortles or Jeff Driskel. Dalton is likely better than either Bortles or Driskel, but the Cowboys might be able to pick one of them up for free in a week or two.

Tyrod Taylor lost his job to rookie Justin Herbert in Los Angeles after suffering a punctured lung at the hands of team doctors. Taylor is a safe pair of hands and only has a $1 million base salary for 2019, but the Chargers might want him as a veteran backup behind Herbert, and we’re now three years removed from Taylor’s last effective run as a quarterback in Buffalo. It’s unclear whether he is a viable pro starter outside of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme.

Brian Hoyer is another quarterback who lost his job after a brief run as the starter, with the Patriots benching him midway through the second half of his Week 4 start against the Chiefs. New England spent all offseason talking up Jarrett Stidham and would likely continue with the second-year quarterback if Cam Newton is unable to play. Hoyer wouldn’t cost much, and he has been a competent backup in years past. He might be the most plausible trade addition for the Cowboys if Newton is able to return next week.

The most fascinating deal would be for Sam Darnold, who was the subject of some preliminary trade chatter this weekend. The Jets are 0-5 and on pace to finish with the worst record in football, which would clear out a path to take Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Darnold, who missed Sunday’s loss with a shoulder injury, has flashed brief moments of potential during his time with the Jets, only to be let down by subpar decision-making and one of the league’s worst supporting casts.

The Darnold situation looms large for the Jets because of a change in the league’s fifth-year option language. After this year, they will have to decide whether to pick up Darnold’s option for the 2022 season, which would include a substantial raise. In years past, the fifth-year option was only guaranteed for injury at signing, which allowed teams to move on if their player wasn’t impressive in year four. Under the new CBA, the fifth-year option is fully guaranteed at the time a team picks it up, meaning they would then be on the hook for Darnold in 2022, when they might not even use Darnold as their starter.

If the Jets decline the option, though, 2021 turns into a lame-duck year for the former third overall pick. If the Jets can get Lawrence, declining the option would be the obvious move, and moving on from Darnold would give the Jets a better chance of grabbing Lawrence. Schefter reported that general managers around the league didn’t see the Jets picking up a first-round pick for Darnold via trade, but a second-round pick could be a more realistic haul.

The Cowboys would be able to surround Darnold with significant weapons. Trading for Darnold would also put them in a fascinating situation. If Darnold stepped in and played well, the Cowboys could pick up his option and move on from Prescott, trade Darnold or decline his option and pick up a compensatory pick when Darnold moves elsewhere. If he struggles, well, the Cowboys would be out a second-round selection minus a possible mid-round compensatory pick. I’m not sure the Jets are willing to deal Darnold, and I don’t think it makes sense for the Cowboys to go after him unless Dalton is not as good as expected, but there’s a narrow band where a Darnold trade could make sense for Dallas.

What happens if the Cowboys decide to move on?

There are a few scenarios in which Prescott could become a free agent in the spring. If he’s dealing with complications from the injury, the Cowboys might not be willing to use a second franchise tag. If Dalton excels, the Cowboys might try to sign Dalton to a Teddy Bridgewater-sized deal and use the savings to shore up their defense. If they trade for someone like Darnold and he breaks out, they could try and go with a cheaper option at the position. None of these scenarios is especially likely, but they’re worth discussing as we wrap up.

If Prescott were to become a free agent, as long as he was able to prove that the ankle was healing, I don’t think he would have much trouble getting a significant contact, albeit something short of what Deshaun Watson‘s extension looks like with the Texans. It’s not difficult to imagine Prescott signing a three-year, $105 million deal on the open market, giving him the chance to hit free agency again as he turns 30.

As it stands, there could be as many as eight teams in the market for a new quarterback, including the 49ers, Bears, Broncos, Colts, Jaguars, Jets, Patriots and Washington. The Buccaneers, Saints and Steelers would join in if their future Hall of Famers retire this offseason. Some of those needs are going to be met by draft picks, and the Saints probably don’t have the cap space to go after Prescott, but there would be a significant market for the former fourth-round pick.

Of those teams, the Colts come to mind as the most obvious suitor. They’ll have the cap space and a clear path to a starting job, given that Philip Rivers is on a one-year deal. They value accuracy and are an analytically-inclined organization, suggesting they may see more in Prescott than other teams. General manager Chris Ballard also places a significant importance on character, and Prescott is regarded as a leader and an excellent presence in the locker room.

The most likely outcome, though, is that not much changes at all. I still think Prescott is earmarked for a second franchise tag, and it’s an outcome both sides will likely see as a fair outcome after a difficult 2020 campaign. Prescott and the Cowboys hoped for 2020 to be a coronation year, with the fifth-year quarterback living up to lofty expectations and leading them on a deep playoff run.

Instead, Prescott’s big year came to an end in the middle of October in front of a quarter-full AT&T Stadium. The season isn’t over for Dallas, but its dreams of making it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995 probably rode off on a cart Sunday evening.

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Sports

Way-too-early 2021 MLB Power Rankings: What’s next for Dodgers, Rays and all 30 teams

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We can only hope 2021 will be a more normal season, with 162 games and fans in the stands and hot dogs to eat and overpriced beer to drink. We don’t know what the state of things will be come April 1, when the 2021 season is scheduled to begin, but we can speculate on the state of the 30 franchises.

Yes, we’re back with our annual Way-Too-Early Power Rankings. There are a few obvious teams at the top, a handful at the bottom and a whole bunch in the middle. Throw in the difficulty of analyzing a 60-game season and the uncertainty of how the offseason will play out due to the financial losses of this season, and these are the most difficult rankings we have had to do. But we fearlessly move forward.

(Title odds for 2021 from Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill)

2020 record: 43-17
Won World Series
2021 title odds: 4-1

They’re reigning champs. They’ve won eight straight division titles. They have Mookie Betts signed for the long term. They have young starters such as Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin to keep the rotation strong for years to come. They have players capable of better seasons (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux). They have a good farm system. They have financial flexibility, with only Betts signed past 2022 and all those young players to help them keep the payroll in check. Justin Turner is a free agent, but he would be a nice DH option if the NL makes that permanent. We know they will be good. But we know it’s really all about October.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost NLCS to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 12-1

The offense gives them a high floor:Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, even Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall raked in 2020. Marcell Ozuna is a free agent and it would be nice to bring him back, but rookie center fielder Cristian Pache is ready and he looks like he’ll be valuable on both sides of the ball. The rotation will see the return of Mike Soroka from his Achilles injury and a full season of Ian Anderson to back up Max Fried. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have potential, and Atlanta will probably bring in a veteran starter on a one-year deal the way they did with Dallas Keuchel in 2019 and tried to do with Cole Hamels in 2020. The Braves will be favored to win a fourth straight division title even if they don’t do anything this offseason.


2020 record: 37-23
Lost Division Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 17-2

Sure, an argument can be made to put the Padres ahead of the Braves, but I think we have to first make sure Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger are completely healthy in spring training. San Diego brings back essentially every significant player after running out the youngest lineup in the NL, with Jake Cronenworth and Trent Grisham looking like foundation additions alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. (All were acquired in trades; good job, A.J. Preller!) We’ll see if Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers can match their 2020 rate of production, but if Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore become impact starters, the Padres are poised to make a multiyear run in challenging the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.


2020 record: 40-20
Lost World Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 10-1

The Rays won their first division title since 2010 and did it in quite remarkable fashion, with 12 different relievers recording a save and the pitching staff overcoming a slew of injuries along the way. They were able to pull that off because of the depth of their staff, but having expanded rosters over the 60-game season made it possible to rely so heavily on the bullpen. Of course, you can argue that pitching depth will be even more valuable over 162 games. The offense isn’t elite, although we can’t wait to see what Randy Arozarena will do over a full season or if super rookie Wander Franco is ready to make an impact at some point in 2021.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to A’s
2021 title odds: 12-1

Much like the Braves, the offensive firepower of the White Sox should give them a high floor. Even if you see some regression coming from Jose Abreu or Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada should improve and a full season of Nick Madrigal will help. Michael Kopech, who opted out of 2020, will hopefully be back, but he hasn’t pitched in two years, so finding another veteran arm to go with ace Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel will be key. Closer Alex Colome is a free agent, but the White Sox have several power arms in their organization, including 2020 first-round pick Garrett Crochet, who could be a dominant reliever right away. Manager Rick Renteria and longtime pitching coach Don Cooper got the boot, with A.J. Hinch a possible replacement for Renteria. That would be an upgrade.


2020 record: 33-27
Lost Division Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 6-1

You can make an argument to put them a couple of spots higher, but not winning the AL East in 2020 points to some flaws. They simply can’t count on Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton being healthy for an entire season, plus DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka are free agents, two important players to re-sign or replace. Of course, we know the Yankees will do something big, perhaps signing J.T. Realmuto and moving on from Gary Sanchez or trading for Francisco Lindor and shifting Gleyber Torres to second. Getting Luis Severino back from Tommy John surgery will be a big boost as well.


2020 record: 36-24
Lost Wild Card Series to Astros
2021 title odds: 14-1

The Twins didn’t do it quite like they did in 2019, when they bashed a record 307 home runs (although their 162-game pace for 2020 was still 259), as their team batting average dropped nearly 30 points, and they fell from second in the AL in runs to 10th. Still, they’ve established a foundation of success with three playoff appearances in four seasons. The big issue is they have a lot of free agents to replace or re-sign, starting with 40-year-old Nelson Cruz, but also Jake Odorizzi, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, Trevor May and Homer Bailey. Those players were minor contributors, but with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Taylor Rogers getting more expensive in arbitration, the Twins may not be able to fill out the roster with minor free agents the way they’ve done of late. They need a healthy Josh Donaldson, especially if Cruz leaves, and they will have to discard the emotional baggage of 18 consecutive playoff losses to get revved up for 162 games just to get back to October again.


2020 record: 36-24
Lost Division Series to Houston
2021 title odds: 14-1

The A’s weren’t as impressive as they were in 2019 — Matt Olson morphed into an extreme “three true outcomes” slugger, Matt Chapman‘s OBP dipped to .276 and Marcus Semien declined from his third-place MVP performance. They still coasted to the AL West title though, and the division projects as being pretty soft, at least right now. Semien and closer Liam Hendriks are free agents as are several other key role players, so this ranking is not presented with a high degree of confidence. The A’s always seem to maximize their talent, and I do think the rotation will be much better, making up for some of the likely bullpen regression.


2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

I feel like we need another National League team here, but let’s be honest: There is a wide gap between the NL’s top three teams and the block of mediocre teams in the middle. Let’s roll the dice on the Mets with new owner Steve Cohen to the rescue (once he gets formally approved). Let’s just say Mets fans are pumped about Cohen’s WAW (wins above Wilpon). There have already been reports about all the money he’ll sink into the franchise, not just on players but things like building out a more robust analytics staff. Aside from any splashy moves Cohen may make — trading for Nolan Arenado or Francisco Lindor? Signing J.T. Realmuto or Trevor Bauer? — there is a strong base of talent here. They ranked third in the majors in wOBA (behind the Braves and Dodgers) and fifth in the majors in pitcher strikeout rate. They should be better — a familiar refrain for Mets fans, unfortunately.


2020 record: 34-26
Lost Wild Card Series to Marlins
2021 title odds: 25-1

Everyone was down on the Cubs, especially after that sad two-and-out to the Marlins, but we do need to point out Chicago still won the NL Central despite Javier Baez (59 OPS+), Kris Bryant (73) and Kyle Schwarber (88) all producing well below an average major league hitter and Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras performing below their career norms. That continues a downward trend for this once-great offensive core, from second in the NL in runs in 2016 and 2017 to fourth in 2018, fifth in 2019 and 10th in 2020. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber and Rizzo are all free agents after 2021, but frankly, the trade value for Bryant and Schwarber — and even Baez, to a lesser extent — has cratered. Theo Epstein also hinted that 2021 will be his last season with the Cubs. Does this group get one last chance? In a weak division, with some bounce-back potential, the Cubs could be better than everyone believes. Or maybe the front office will just tear it all down.


2020 record: 29-31
Lost ALCS to Rays
2021 title odds: 20-1

It promises to be a busy winter for the Astros. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick are all free agents, while Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke are set to be free agents after 2021, as are Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna, both of whom will likely miss the season following Tommy John surgery. They’ll need more from Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman (and don’t forget about Yordan Alvarez) but they could have a strong rotation if they keep McCullers and Greinke to go with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. The outfield free-agent market is thin, so if Springer and Brantley sign elsewhere, the Astros may have to scramble to find help for Kyle Tucker.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to Yankees
2021 title odds: 20-1

We start with one of the biggest questions of the entire offseason: Will Cleveland trade Francisco Lindor? It seems weird to say this, but there isn’t an obvious fit, as most of the top teams are set at shortstop. It will be interesting to see if a team tries to pull the Mookie Betts maneuver: trade for Lindor, then sign him to a big extension before he hits free agency after the 2021 season. Aside from the Lindor issue, it’s going to be a similar Cleveland team as we’ve seen the past two years: enough starting pitching to be a playoff team, but an offense that may prevent them from getting there. Please, find some competent outfielders. Cleveland’s outfielders hit .196/.270/.304.


2020 record: 30-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Padres
2021 title odds: 30-1

In one sense, it’s harder to evaluate what the Cardinals did in 2020 than any other team, with them having to play 11 doubleheaders after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak early in the season. On the other hand, they were exactly what we thought they would be: below-average offense with no power, good defense, good bullpen, decent starting pitching. I just don’t how they’re going to get better, especially given that some of their pitching peripheral numbers don’t quite match the ERA figures. Look, as always, you can never discount the Cardinals. They haven’t had a losing season since 2007. The division is wide open. Jack Flaherty will be better. Dylan Carlson could give them an impact outfielder. The bullpen projects as a big strength.


2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

No team had less incentive in 2020 than the Nationals, and once Stephen Strasburg went down, it kind of felt like the entire team went down with him. Juan Soto played at an MVP level for 47 games, leading the NL in batting average and the majors in OBP and slugging. It wasn’t a full season so I’m not saying it compares, but his 212 OPS+ was the best since Barry Bonds in 2004.

There are concerns in the starting rotation, however, beyond Strasburg’s nerve issue. Anibal Sanchez fell apart, Patrick Corbin got knocked around (85 hits in 65⅔ innings) and even Max Scherzer had his highest ERA since 2012.The real problem may have been the defense: The Nationals ranked last in the majors with minus-43 defensive runs saved. As always, depth is an issue and they need youngsters Carter Kieboom (no home runs in 99 at-bats) and Victor Robles (.608 OPS) to contribute at the plate. If Strasburg is healthy, don’t ignore the 2019 champs.


2020 record: 32-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 50-1

The Blue Jays face a very interesting offseason after making the playoffs as a wild card and ranking third in the AL in runs. The offense potentially looks even better if you’re buying the breakouts of Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez. Worth noting: The Jays hit much better at their temporary home in Buffalo, so we have to be careful about overrating the offense. Hyun-Jin Ryu was terrific (at least until his playoff start), but the rest of the rotation was so problematic that the Jays acquired Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling for the stretch run. Walker and Ray are free agents, but Nate Pearson will help, and the Jays should have some money to spend in free agency.


2020 record: 28-32
Third in NL East
2021 title odds: 40-1

It’s hard to see the Phillies much better than the .500 team they’ve been the past three seasons, which led to general manager Matt Klentak being reassigned within the organization. They had two great starters in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and finished fourth in the NL in runs, but the bullpen (6.92 ERA, worst of all time) undermined all the positives. The Phillies allowed a .345 average on balls in play, and maybe that would drop over a full season, but it stands as the highest ever. This has been a multiyear problem. They were middle of the pack in BABIP allowed in 2019, but fifth-worst in 2018 and sixth-worst in 2017. They’ve been unable to fix the defense. Anyway, J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius are free agents. The payroll would have been more than $200 million given a full season in 2020, so you wonder if there is room to re-sign Realmuto and fix the bullpen and replace/re-sign Gregorius and maybe add another starter.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL West
2021 title odds: 40-1

Billy Eppler is out as general manager after a five-year run that included no winning seasons. Yes, he inherited the bad Albert Pujols contract, but he also inherited Mike Trout and was never able to build a successful team around him, despite additions like Andrelton Simmons, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. Simmons is a free agent, Pujols is finally down to his final season and Jared Walsh (.971 OPS, nine home runs in 99 at-bats, a low 13.9% strikeout rate) has to play. The immediate concerns are trying to turn Jo Adell into a major league hitter (.161, 55 strikeouts, seven walks in 132 PAs), figure out what happened to Ohtani (.190) and Justin Upton (.204) and — as always — address the pitching. Sounds like the same story as the past five years.


2020 record: 29-31
Lost Wild Card Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 50-1

This is a difficult team to read. The Brewers didn’t hit at all in 2020 (I think the NL must have stored its balls in Lake Michigan, because nobody could hit). Two-time batting champ and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich hit just .205, and I know it was just 58 games, but his strikeout rate went from 20.3% to 30.8%. Something doesn’t add up there.

They do have two great one-two combos in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes in the rotation and Devin Williams and Josh Hader in the bullpen. Does Williams’ stunning breakout (53 K’s in 27 innings) make Hader trade bait? Burnes certainly looked like the real deal with his new cutter, but he’ll have to prove he can do it over 30 starts instead of 10. David Stearns is one of the more creative GMs around, although he’d probably like a do-over on the Trent Grisham/Zach Davies for Luis Urias/Eric Lauer deal.


2020 record: 24-36
Fifth in AL East
2021 title odds: 60-1

This was the hardest team to project. The pitching was so awful — 5.85 runs per game, the most for the franchise since 1932 — that it’s easy to assume it will be bad again in 2021. It was also bad in 2019 (5.11 runs per game), so we have a two-year track record. Maybe they get Chris Sale back at midseason and Eduardo Rodriguez returns from his COVID-related heart issue. There is a nice offensive core with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo and Christian Vazquez (and J.D. Martinez if he bounces back). I’m not sure what Bobby Dalbec will be. I guess his upside is Joey Gallo, if that’s a good thing. More importantly, is Chaim Bloom playing the long game or will there be pressure to get the Red Sox immediately back into contender status?


2020 record: 31-29
Lost Wild Card Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 25-1

The Reds sneaked into the playoffs as a wild card with a late surge, but the team embarrassingly exited with two shutouts to the Braves, including a 13-inning defeat. The Reds have morphed into the most extreme example of a “three true outcomes” offense we’ve seen in this launch-angle era. They ranked fourth in the NL in home runs and first in walks, but hit a pathetic .212. The entire package added up to ranking just 13th in the NL in runs, then you dig deeper and realize they hit 55 home runs at home and 35 on the road, so much of their power was simply a result of their home park. It’s a bad offense, and I’m not sure it improves much in 2021. Trevor Bauer is a sure bet to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and we still don’t know if Nick Senzel is the solution in center field or an injury-prone role player.


2020 record: 31-29
Lost Division Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 60-1

It was a fun ride to their first postseason trip since 2003, but once you get past the starting trio of Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, holes remain. The pitching staff was next to last in the majors in strikeout rate, and the team’s top five relievers were all 30-something guys you can’t necessarily count on for 2021. There are no offensive stars as the lineup relied on stopgap veterans, while the young hitters still have trouble controlling the strike zone (and the young hitters aren’t really all that young). The minus-41 run differential is a little misleading as the Marlins had to use more players than any other team due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I’m not sure I see another .500 season unless some of the young hitters suddenly develop into solid regulars.


2020 record: 29-31
Third in NL West
2021 title odds: 80-1

Call me skeptical. They went from the second-worst offense in the NL to a top-five offense — without making any significant additions. Brandon Belt with a 1.000 OPS? Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson over .900? Donovan Solano chasing a batting title? I smell a lot of regression coming on, and the Giants don’t have the rotation to back that up. They also had the oldest lineup in the league: Mauricio Dubon is the only returning regular who won’t be 30 or older in 2021. Maybe catcher Joey Bart makes an impact, but a 41 to 3 strikeout-to-walk rate suggests he’s not ready for prime time. Several of their big contracts come off the books after 2021 if you factor in buyouts, so look for the Giants to wait until that big 2021-22 free-agent class to start flipping over the roster.


2020 record: 27-33
Third in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

There were some nice positives in 2020: Kyle Lewis may win Rookie of the Year, Justus Sheffield was much improved, Marco Gonzales solidified himself as one of the most underrated starters in the majors, Dylan Moore turned into one of the best utility players as a power/speed combo. But there is still zero star power here, at least until Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez arrive as potential All-Star outfielders, Kelenic in 2021 and Rodriguez probably in 2022. Jerry Dipoto will have to reconstruct a bullpen that was one of the worst in the league (5.92 ERA). The Mariners are on the rise and have other potential impact prospects, including pitchers Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock, but look for them to hold the course in 2021 and push forward in 2022.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 150-1

The Royals have some interesting young pitchers in Brad Keller, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, with Josh Staumont as a potential closer, but there are still huge gaps across the roster, especially on the offensive side of things. They need to figure out center field, second base and left field, and even Adalberto Mondesi Jr. now looks like just a placeholder at short until Bobby Witt Jr. arrives in a couple of years. This ranking could be selling the Royals a bit short, as young pitching can carry a team if it comes fast (and 2020 top pick Asa Lacy may not need much time in the minors), but they need to find some hitters.


2020 record: 25-35
Fifth in NL West
2021 title odds: 60-1

That was ugly, and the fans are turning on the team after a couple of years of trades (Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and the deadline deals this season) that don’t appear to have returned any front-line talent. Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, so good in 2019, fell off, with Marte inexplicably deciding he no longer wanted to walk. Robbie Ray couldn’t throw strikes and was finally traded. Merrill Kelly hurt his shoulder. Madison Bumgarner didn’t win a game. The problem for 2021? The Diamondbacks had the second-oldest lineup in the NL (six of their top eight regulars were 29 or older). Bumgarner now looks like a bad $80 million gamble. They’re only a season removed from going 85-77, so there is rebound potential, but the Snakes are a mess at the moment.


2020 record: 25-35
Fourth in AL East
2021 title odds: 150-1

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positives in 2020, especially after losing 108 games in 2019 and 115 in 2018. Anthony Santander had a small-sample breakout with the metrics to back it up. Ryan Mountcastle looks ready to join the lineup in 2021 and Trey Mancini will hopefully be back at full strength after finishing his chemo treatment in September. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer could be arms to watch for the rotation.

They do have financial flexibility, especially as they get closer to the end of Chris Davis‘ deal, and with Adley Rutschman close to the majors and starters D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez perhaps ready in 2022, the farm is better than it’s been in at least 10 years. But the base level of talent here remains pretty low.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in NL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

Right now, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are still on the roster. Will they be there come spring training? The relationship between Arenado and the Rockies is strained, making him a trade candidate this winter. He won’t be easy to trade, though: He didn’t have a good 2020 at the plate, ended the season on the IL, has a full no-trade clause and can opt out of his deal after 2021. If Arenado is traded, you could see the Rockies dealing Story as well since he’s a free agent after 2021. Mostly, this team just needs a makeover. They ranked eighth in the NL in runs, and for a Rockies team, that’s horrible. (They had finished below fifth just one other time in franchise history.)


2020 record: 23-35
Fifth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 200-1

Sometimes you just have to point out the obvious: Jeimer Candelario was the team’s best player in 2020 — a 26-year-old first baseman who hit .203 the year before. Look, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal project as good starters at some point, but their struggles in limited action in 2020 suggest that may not be in 2021. Along with Spencer Turnbull and prospect Matt Manning, there is a rotation to dream on, but there is no offense, and Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, their top position player prospects, are more on a 2022 timetable.


2020 record: 22-38
Fifth in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

The Rangers continue to go backward. They were bad in 2020 in a year they thought they could contend, they weren’t particularly young and the farm system has struggled to develop pitchers and turn toolsy position players into quality hitters. The offense had a brutal year — and not just because of the new park. They didn’t hit on the road either. It’s time to admit that Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor are never going to be the core of a championship lineup, and if Lance Lynn is traded — he’ll be a free agent after 2021 — the rotation will have a huge hole to fill.


2020 record: 19-41
Fifth in NL Central
2021 title odds: 300-1

Let’s see, a small-market team coming off the worst record in the sport, won’t spend any money in free agency, and whose three best players in 2019 were all terrible in 2020. The first step is to hope Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman rebound, but with most of the organization’s top prospects still a ways off, the short-term outlook looks bleak. Heck, the long-term outlook isn’t exactly full of roses and puppies.

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Bryant, out 2 years, joins Ravens practice squad

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dez Bryant is back in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens signed the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver to their practice squad, the team announced Tuesday. Bryant has been out of the league for two years.

Bryant appeared to acknowledge the deal in a tweet Tuesday: “My emotions running high right now… I’m thankful…I can’t stop crying”

The biggest question is when Bryant will suit up for the Ravens. Baltimore’s wide receivers rank last in the NFL in receptions (58) and receiving yards (737).

Bryant, 31, could become a physical possession-type receiver for reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and can complement the speed of Marquise Brown.

The addition of Bryant might lead to a high-profile reunion on Dec. 3, when the Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. Bryant starred for the Cowboys for eight seasons, totaling 531 receptions for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches.

“Obviously, that’s kind of like an ‘OG’-type guy,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said when asked about Bryant on Monday. “He’s been around the league for a long, long time. He actually followed me on Twitter a year or two ago, so I’m excited to meet him, and I’m excited to [be] around him hopefully, and just learn.”

This marked Bryant’s second workout with Baltimore in two months. When Bryant left in August without a contract, he was told to improve his conditioning, a source said.

The Ravens are off to a fast start at 5-1, but their passing game ranks 31st in the NFL. It looks as if Jackson would benefit from another target on the outside because Brown is the only Baltimore wide receiver with more than 11 catches this season.

Bryant is attempting to become the second Pro Bowl wide receiver to miss two full seasons and then return to the NFL since the 1970 merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Josh Gordon was the first.

Bryant hasn’t played in a game since December 2017.

In November 2018, Bryant signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. But he tore an Achilles tendon during his first practice with the Saints and has been out of the NFL since.

Bryant’s 531 career receptions would be the most by any wide receiver before missing two full seasons and then returning to the NFL, according to Elias’ data.

To make room for Bryant, the Ravens waived safety Marcus Gilchrist from the practice squad.

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Augusta National to host College GameDay during Masters

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ESPN’s College GameDay Built By the Home Depot show has originated from dozens of college campuses across the country since 1993.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, the show will combine two of sport’s greatest traditions — college football and the Masters.

ESPN announced on Tuesday that College GameDay will originate from Augusta National Golf Club, which is hosting the postponed Masters Tournament next month, Nov. 12-15.

Top matchups that day are No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 13 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama at LSU.

“Any time College GameDay travels to a new destination, it’s special, and the opportunity to be on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters is extraordinary,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “As this iconic event coincides with the college football season for the first time, we look forward to getting fans ready for a football Saturday while also showcasing the Masters and the greatest golfers in the world.”

Longtime ESPN hosts Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and others will broadcast from the par-3 course from 9 a.m. to noon ET.

In its 13th year at the Masters, ESPN will once again televise the first and second rounds, Nov. 12-13, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. There will also be expanded coverage on ESPN+, including exclusive practice-round coverage Nov. 10-11.

Golf fans will also be able to watch featured holes coverage on ESPN+ on Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in each of the four rounds of the Masters.

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