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Barnwell: Le’Veon Bell will have a market. Here’s who should sign him

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After reportedly trying to trade Le’Veon Bell, the New York Jets gave up on their expensively acquired running back and released him Tuesday night. The Jets are still on the hook to pay Bell a $2.5 million bonus Thursday and the prorated remainder of his base salary, which amounts to $6 million. Any team acquiring him can do so for the league minimum.

Frankly, whichever team signs Bell won’t be getting a significant bargain on paper. The last time he was an effective player was 2017, when he approached 2,000 yards from scrimmage. He sat out all of 2018 in a contract dispute and then did nothing in his time with the Jets after signing in 2019. Since the start of last season, Bell has averaged 3.2 yards per carry, which ranks 48th out of 49 backs. As a receiver, he has averaged just under 7 yards per reception, which is 125th out of 132 players. He has been worse than a replacement-level back.

Of course, any team acquiring Bell is going to hope that he finds new life away from the Jets and coach Adam Gase. By NFL Next Gen Stats, though, Bell’s problems weren’t strictly a product of a middling offensive line. Since the start of last season, he has produced 110 rushing yards below expectation given his blocking, the fourth-worst mark in the league behind Devonta Freeman, Peyton Barber and Todd Gurley. Freeman, Gurley and Bell all signed lucrative contract extensions, and each was cut after they disappointed while on those deals.

Bell will find interest somewhere, both as a reclamation project and because of his versatility. Which teams might be interested? Let’s run through the possible candidates, starting with the most plausible suitors:

Possible destinations for Le’Veon Bell

I’ll start with the Bears, who are the most obvious fit to me. Matt Nagy’s team is 4-1, and while you can poke holes in Chicago’s résumé, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Bears a 55.8% chance of making it to the postseason. They also have approximately $10 million in cap space, so adding a small salary to their roster won’t be an issue.

Bell would be a replacement for Tarik Cohen, who went down with a torn ACL at the end of September. David Montgomery is on the roster and would still be the featured back, but the 2019 third-rounder hasn’t looked good as the primary back, failing to top 30 yards rushing or receiving in each of the past two games. Chicago has used Cordarrelle Patterson as a change of pace, but Bell would immediately step in and take Cohen’s role in the offense, which should be something in the ballpark of eight to 10 touches per game.

The Chiefs are another team with a young back that might want Bell as a second option. Rookie first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire has had impressive moments during his first five weeks, but he has struggled in the red zone, failing to score once on seven touches inside the 5-yard line. I’m willing to chalk that up to a small sample, but the backs behind Edwards-Helaire are underwhelming. Darrel Williams has averaged 3.2 yards per carry and less than 6 yards per reception, and Darwin Thompson lost a fumble on one of his six touches. Coach Andy Reid is the screen whisperer, and I suspect the Chiefs could find a way to integrate Bell into their offense alongside Edwards-Helaire.

No team seems more interested in compiling veteran running backs than the Bucs, who still haven’t really found an effective receiver for Tom Brady. Ronald Jones has been solid as a runner, but he has had serious problems with drops in the passing game. Leonard Fournette isn’t healthy. LeSean McCoy hasn’t been effective in any facet of the game and has an ankle injury; Bell would likely take McCoy’s spot on the roster.

Brady has always had that player in New England in a role that was alternately filled by Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen and most recently James White. It’s difficult to imagine the Buccaneers signing another back, but strictly as a pass protector and receiver, Bell would give the Bucs something they don’t have.

The best story of the bunch would see Bell return to the Steelers, but I’m skeptical there’s a great fit. James Conner is averaging nearly 5 yards per carry as the Pittsburgh starter, and while he has his injury issues, Benny Snell Jr. was effective in what amounted to a spot start against the Giants when Conner was unavailable. The Steelers also have Anthony McFarland Jr. in reserve and Jaylen Samuels in a third-down role.

Bell would likely be an upgrade on Samuels and a viable back behind an effective Pittsburgh offensive line, but I’m not sure he would get the sort of touches he would want in his bid to reemerge as an option ahead of free agency in 2021. Furthermore, things didn’t exactly end well between the two parties, given that Bell held out for a season before leaving Pittsburgh in free agency. Familiarity means something, which is why the Steelers are where they are on this list, but Bell makes more sense elsewhere.

The Browns are off to a 4-1 start and have one of the best rushing attacks in football. Coach Bill Callahan’s line has been clearing holes for Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, but Chubb is out indefinitely with a sprained MCL. Bell is much more similar to Hunt than he is to the former Georgia star, but Bell was an effective runner between the tackles in Pittsburgh, and there’s nothing wrong with having two backs who can catch the ball.

Bell would step in for D’Ernest Johnson, who has averaged 6 yards a pop on his 22 carries filling in for Chubb. I’m not sure Bell would be thrilled about a situation in which he might be phased out of the offense once Chubb returns, but his best chance of looking good in a small sample might be playing in this run-heavy offense.

One team that was linked to Bell when he was approaching free agency was the 49ers, who can never have enough weapons for coach Kyle Shanahan. San Francisco is beat up around its roster, and although it got Raheem Mostert back for Sunday’s blowout loss to the Dolphins, virtually every one of its backs has a recent and/or significant injury history.

I wonder whether the 49ers might get particularly creative with Bell and use him less like a pure running back and more like the sort of hybrid back Gase pretended to suggest Bell might become in New York. Shanahan loves nothing more than having offensive weapons who are threats as both runners and receivers with the ball in their hands. Bell would be another one of those pieces.

The Titans went to 4-0 with Tuesday’s victory over the Bills, and they have a star back in Derrick Henry, but there’s little behind the 2019 rushing leader. Henry has racked up plenty of volume over his first four games, but he’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and has never been a great receiver. Bell would take some of the workload off of Henry and give the Titans a third-down option. Jeremy McNichols is currently in that role for Ryan Tannehill & Co.

Few teams are throwing the ball more frequently this season than the Seahawks, who have hit their bye at 5-0. Seattle would probably prefer to make some additions to a struggling defense, and it has Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde in its rotation, but Carson has never completed a full 16-game season, and Hyde has been out of action with a shoulder injury.

Travis Homer took more than 40% of the offensive snaps during Sunday night’s win over the Vikings. While the Seahawks have both Homer and fourth-round pick DeeJay Dallas as possible options, Bell would be the best receiving back on the Seattle roster if he signed there.

The Dolphins’ backfield hasn’t performed as expected this season. Miami guaranteed Jordan Howard nearly $5 million, but the former Chicago starter produced just 14 rushing yards on 18 carries before being scratched for the win over the 49ers. Matt Breida‘s 27 carries have produced a total of 100 yards, but the primary back has been 2019 seventh-rounder Myles Gaskin, who has 87 touches through five games while taking 66% of the offensive snaps.

Gaskin’s versatility is a plus, and he ranks ninth in success rate, but a lack of explosiveness has left him below average in both rushing and receiving DVOA. I’m not sure the Dolphins are ready to give up on their starter or either of their offseason additions, but Bell could be an upgrade if they are.

Finally, the Cardinals have to be frustrated with what they’ve seen from Kenyan Drake. The transition-tagged back scored his first touchdown last week, but he is averaging just 3.7 yards per touch, both as a runner and receiver. Chase Edmonds has looked like the more dynamic player in the Arizona backfield, and while Drake was a borderline first-round pick in most fantasy drafts, the former Dolphins standout might be in danger of losing his grip on the starting job.

The Cards could move forward with some combination of Drake and Edmonds, but remember that they traded for Drake a year ago while they had Edmonds and David Johnson on their roster. Both Edmonds and Johnson were injured at the time, so while it would likely take an injury to at least one Cardinals back to get Bell on the roster, coach Kliff Kingsbury could find a role for the shifty Bell if that happens.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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