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Best available free agents at every position: Earl Thomas leads the list of unsigned players

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Every week — and this week especially — the fantasy football sites go through a rundown of what to do if your team lost a key player to injury. It’s a list of who might be available on the league’s waiver wire with players who can fill the void. Sometimes, you find some league-winning gems in there. Sometimes, as the season goes along, the lists start to look a little thin.

In the real-word NFL, those lists are already thin, and Week 2’s rash of high-profile injuries only underlined that fact. Fans wondering whether there are free agents still available who can help their teams replace injured stars such as Nick Bosa, Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey are probably going to end up disappointed.

Is it possible the Giants catch lightning in a bottle with 28-year-old Devonta Freeman, whom they signed this week after losing Barkley for the season? Absolutely it is. But there’s a reason Freeman was still unsigned into the third week of September, and it’s not because he was swatting away high-end offers left and right all spring and summer.

No, if you’re looking for free agents at this point in the season, you’re rifling through the bargain bin and hoping to find something that works out a lot better for you than anyone else thought it would work out for them. It happens, and it’s possible that someone on this list could help save your team’s season. Which is why we’re doing it.

Now that we’ve taken care of that, here’s your position-by-position list of top free agents still available at the dawn of Week 3. Proceed with caution:

Safety

Biggest name still available: Earl Thomas

Safety is actually the one position with some real depth on this list. You have the decorated veteran Thomas at the top, but teams needing defensive help on the back end also can take a look at the likes of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall, Eric Reid and Tony Jefferson. All four in that group are under 29 years old. It just doesn’t seem to be a position in which many teams feel they have a glaring enough need that they have to go out and sign someone.

Thomas, 31, is the most interesting case. The Ravens cut him in late August after he punched a teammate during practice, and there was some thought that he’d be snatched up quickly, potentially by the Cowboys. But he was not, and the season opened without any significant interest in him. That interest has picked up at least a little bit lately, from what I’ve been told, and it’s possible he ends up on a team (though not the Cowboys) at some point next week. Stay tuned.


Cornerback

Biggest name still available: Prince Amukamara

The former first-round Giants pick, who has played for the Jaguars and Bears and spent much of this offseason with the Raiders, is an example of a guy who probably needs the situation to be right in order to return a team’s interest. He is 31, has played nine years in the NFL and has made about $46 million. He could help a team, especially at a position in which there’s no such thing as too much depth, but he might not be overly eager to sign to a practice squad, as fellow veterans Brandon Carr (Dallas) and Trumaine Johnson (Carolina) have. Remember, practice squads expanded to 16 this year, and veterans who in past years would not have been eligible for practice squads now are. Some vets might be waiting to see if better offers arise.

Tramon Williams, Javien Elliott and Morris Claiborne are among the other veteran cornerbacks who could pop back up here in the coming weeks as needs arise.


Defensive line

Biggest name still available: Damon Harrison

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday that Harrison is visiting the Seahawks next week and has drawn interest from several teams. He is a very specific kind of player — a run-stuffing defensive tackle — for whom teams don’t generally like to extend their budgets. And Harrison has made his share of money in his career, as well, so he might not be looking to just take any paycheck that is offered. But if he wants to play, he is likely to find a home somewhere, as few have been better against the run since he has been in the league.

Schefter also reported that Jabaal Sheard is planning to visit the Lions and could reunite with former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. There are also a couple of edge-rusher types stick kicking around, including Clay Matthews and Kerry Wynn. But the big guys on defense are hard to replace this time of year.


Linebacker

Biggest name still available: Mychal Kendricks

We had Todd Davis listed here, but then he signed with the Vikings on Thursday. Wesley Woodyard and Nigel Bradham are a couple of other names of off-ball linebackers available should teams have a sudden need due to injury.


Offensive line

Biggest name still available: Larry Warford

Now Schefter reported back in August that Warford was opting out of the 2020 season. But since Warford wasn’t on a roster at the time, his opt-out decision was not formal and is reversible. If the three-time Pro Bowl guard decides to change his mind, he could sign with a team, and there would likely be interest.

Tackle Jared Veldheer recently had a tryout with the Cowboys but shortly thereafter decided to retire. (Another decision that’s easily reversed under the right circumstances.) The Cowboys looked at guard Ronald Leary, as well, but nothing came together there. Josh Kline, Justin Britt and Marshall Newhouse are kind of the cream of the rest of the available crop here. Offensive line help is tough to find at any time of the year.


Wide receiver

Biggest name still available: Antonio Brown

This isn’t the easiest situation. Brown is suspended until at least Week 9, and the NFL is still looking into other off-field allegations against him and reserves the right to extend the suspension if it finds out anything new. A team could sign Brown now and wait until Week 9 to put him on the field, but the fact that no team has made a move in that direction tells you what you need to know.

In terms of guys you could sign and realistically expect to help you this year, you’re looking at the likes of Taylor Gabriel or Demaryius Thomas.


Running back

Biggest name still available: Lamar Miller

With Freeman signing with the Giants, Miller moved into this spot. Teams have looked at him — and he was with the Patriots for a time this offseason — but he is coming off a year lost to a torn ACL and might not be all the way back to what he was.

After Miller … not much. Spencer Ware might be able to latch on and help someone’s committee. And there’s always Marshawn Lynch, but his returns always seem to be fairly specific. There’s no longer a team in Oakland, for example, and Seattle only went down that road last season after all of their backs got hurt.


Quarterback

Biggest name still available: Uhh … Paxton Lynch?

It’s rough out there. Lynch is a former first-round pick who’s still only 26, so who knows? He has as good a shot to get a look as Cody Kessler or Drew Stanton, who are two other readily available arms for a team’s quarterback room.

There are intriguing names such as Josh Rosen and Deshone Kizer on practice squads — technically not free agents but available to be signed.

And let’s be honest, the biggest name still available is Colin Kaepernick, but he hasn’t played since 2016. And we all know by now there’s a lot more at work behind that situation than just, “Hey, we need a QB, let’s bring this guy in.” Or else a team would have by now.

Three mote notes from around the league this week:

The latest on the 49ers’ turf concerns at MetLife Stadium

The San Francisco 49ers complained to the league about the turf at MetLife Stadium last week after they lost several significant players to injury in their game against the Jets. The 49ers are playing the Giants at the same stadium on Sunday, and so they’re concerned. But an inspection on Wednesday by the NFL and the NFL Players Association of the MetLife Stadium field revealed no concerns. So the Niners will return to the same field on which their quarterback, two of their running backs and a pair of their star defensive linemen got injured last week.

Some background on this: MetLife Stadium installed a new FieldTurf field this year. It’s the third time the field has been replaced since the stadium opened in 2010, after replacements in 2013 and 2016. This year’s surface is identical to the turf used there since 2016, just newer. The joint investigation by the league and the players’ union, according to multiple sources, also took a look at what kinds of cleats 49ers players were using during the game, and there’s a chance the team could switch to a shorter cleat on Sunday.

What happened to the 49ers last week was wild, obviously, but nobody has been able to prove the field was the reason for all of those injuries. Giants coach Joe Judge said earlier this week that his team spent all of training camp practicing on that field and had no problems, and the Steelers raised no concerns about it after their Week 1 game there.

49ers linebacker Fred Warner said he thought the field felt “spongier” in warm-ups, and offensive tackle Trent Williams said he felt like the field “just wasn’t broken in yet.” The Niners return to New Jersey after spending a week at The Greenbrier in West Virginia hoping it was all coincidence, but you have to wonder how it will affect their decisions about how much to play guys such as George Kittle who have nagging injuries.


Justin Herbert’s second audition

The Chargers haven’t put quarterback Tyrod Taylor on injured reserve and are still hoping they won’t gave to. Taylor missed Sunday’s contest after he suffered a punctured lung as a result of a pregame pain-relieving injection by the team physician. Rookie Justin Herbert, who found out right before kickoff that he was starting, played well. Herbert was the No. 6 overall pick in April’s draft, and if he plays well again this week, you have to think the chances of Taylor ever getting the job back get slimmer.

It would be a terrible break for Taylor, who got hurt as the starter two years ago in Cleveland and lost his job to No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. The Chargers, though, are waiting to see how Herbert handles himself in Game 2 before making a decision about who starts the rest of the season.

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Field Yates and Matthew Berry agree that Justin Herbert played so well in the place of the injured Tyrod Taylor, that they’d be stunned if Herbert doesn’t start the rest of the season.

As for when Taylor might be able to start again? I spoke with a couple of sources close to this situation who told me that the injection Taylor got for the pain in his rib cage isn’t uncommon and that a punctured lung is a risk because of how close the needle has to get to the lung. Apparently, the puncture heals on its own within a week or two, though doctors often recommend a longer period of inactivity just to be safe. So it’s possible, especially if Herbert struggles, that Taylor could get another chance as the Chargers’ starter before the end of the year.


Man in the middle for Chiefs?

The Super Bowl champion Chiefs head into Monday night’s mega-high-profile matchup against the Ravens with some issues in the secondary, but they’re getting reinforcements up front on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackle Mike Pennel is eligible to return from his two-game suspension in Week 3, and that could matter against a team that likes to run the ball more than any other in the league.

Pennel didn’t sign with the Chiefs until mid-October last season and didn’t play for them until Week 8. From Weeks 1 to 7, the Chiefs allowed an average of 148.9 rushing yards per game. From Weeks 8 to 17, that average dropped to 112.1 rushing yards per game. Not that one guy necessarily makes all the difference, but if Kansas City’s defense looks better this week, he could be part of the reason why.

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 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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