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Could the Browns and Jets move on from their quarterbacks? A May deadline looms

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First of all, the Cleveland Browns are not about to bench Baker Mayfield for Case Keenum. They are not at that point. If you’re thinking it’s likely because of the prior relationship between Keenum and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski from their time together with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, I’m here to tell you that you’re overthinking it.

Based on the conversations I’ve had this week with people close to that situation, the Browns’ coaching staff still believe in Mayfield. They recognize he had a lousy game on Sunday at the Pittsburgh Steelers; but he didn’t practice much last week due to a chest injury, he took a hit early in the game that exacerbated it and he was playing against one of the league’s best defenses. The team believes he will bounce back.

That said, though, the rest of this season is a very important one for Mayfield and his future in Cleveland. Next offseason is decision time for the Browns.

This is Mayfield’s third year in the NFL. Rookie contracts are four years long, but contracts for first-round picks include a fifth-year team option that has to be exercised or declined between years three and four. By the first week of May 2021, the Browns have to decide whether they want to pick up Mayfield’s option for 2022. Based on the way fifth-year options are calculated under the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), his 2022 option salary will likely be in the range of $25 million to $26 million.

And here’s the kicker: The new CBA mandates that beginning with the 2018 draft class — of which Mayfield was the first pick — the fifth-year option is fully guaranteed at the time it’s exercised. Previously, that option was only guaranteed against injury until the start of the league year to which it applied. For instance, the Chargers exercised the 2021 option on wide receiver Mike Williams, their first-round pick from 2017; but as long as he is healthy, they can still back out of it at any time prior to the start of the 2021 league year in March. Starting with Mayfield’s class, that’s no longer the case, which means it’s going to be tougher for teams to commit than it used to be.

Now, if Mayfield turns things around, has a big year, the Browns make the playoffs and everybody’s happy, sure. No-brainer. They pick up the option and maybe even start talking about an extension with him. But if he continues to struggle and they aren’t sure about him as their franchise quarterback in the long term, can they really commit — in May 2021 — to paying him more than $25 million in 2022 cash and cap room?

The New York Jets are in the same situation with Sam Darnold, who was the third overall pick in that 2018 draft. There’s no way for them to be sure about Darnold at this point, and there might not be any way for them to be sure about him in May. Their current coach (who could be gone by then anyway) and general manager weren’t there when the team drafted Darnold, so they have no attachment to him that predates their 2019 arrival. And the Jets are 0-6 and the favorites to end up picking first in a 2021 draft, in which Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is viewed as a can’t-miss franchise savior. Are the Jets going to want to commit — in May 2021 — to paying Darnold more than $25 million in 2022 cash and cap room?

Recall that five quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 2018 draft. After Mayfield and Darnold, Josh Allen went No. 7 overall to the Buffalo Bills, Josh Rosen went No. 10 to the Arizona Cardinals and Lamar Jackson went No. 32 to the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson’s option decision will be a no-brainer, as he was the league’s MVP in his second year, and the improved Allen certainly looks at the moment like a keeper in Buffalo. Rosen no longer carries a fifth-year option, having been traded to the Miami Dolphins and subsequently released. (Rosen is now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneerspractice squad.)

So of the five first-round quarterbacks in 2018, it seems possible — even likely — that three will not have their options picked up. All three were top-10 picks.

These are bad misses. The fifth-year option was created in the 2011 CBA, so decisions have been rendered on seven drafts’ worth of first-round picks — 2011 to 2017. In those seven drafts, there were 19 quarterbacks selected in the first round. Of those 19, 11 had their fifth-year options picked up. The other eight? Well, it’s a list on which you really don’t want to find yourself. In chronological order, the names are:

Bridgewater, of course, had his option declined because he suffered a catastrophic knee injury and spent a couple of years working his way back. He is now the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers and having a nice year. But the rest of these guys were either cut or had their options declined because they didn’t turn out to be good enough.

When teams miss on a first-round quarterback, it’s tough to recover from. When they miss on quarterback in the top 10, that’s extra disastrous. Arizona seems to have survived it, but only by punting on Rosen and picking another quarterback (Kyler Murray) No. 1 overall the following year. If the Browns and Jets decline the Mayfield and Darnold options in the spring, odds are they’ll be starting over with fresh options at the position. Don’t Have a Quarterback Island is a perilous place to be stranded.

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Baker Mayfield notes that the Browns’ 4-2 record feels like 0-6 after the big loss to the Steelers and doesn’t care what the television personalities say about him.

It’s worth noting that there are players who have had their fifth-year option declined and played well enough that the team signed them anyway after their fourth year. None of the quarterbacks on this list falls into that category, though. You have to look at guys such as running back Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints) and cornerback Kyle Fuller (Bears) as players who did well enough in year four to get their teams to reconsider their willingness to commit.

Trubisky entered the season with a similar opportunity, but he appears to have lost it. The spotlight shines brightest on the quarterback position, which means the decisions are the highest stakes. The Browns and the Jets will have to see a lot over the rest of the campaign from the guys they drafted two years ago in order to feel good about picking up Mayfield’s and Darnold’s options.

Other notes and things on my mind around the NFL this week:

The QBs aren’t the only ones with interesting fifth-year option decisions

The pick between Mayfield and Darnold in 2018 was New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, who is out for the year with a torn ACL suffered in Week 2. By the end of his third year, he will have missed 17 of a possible 48 games for a team that during his time there has a league-worst record of 10-29. The GM who drafted him could be gone by the time the option decision is due. The coach who was there when the Giants drafted Barkley is already gone. Are you picking up a fully guaranteed 2022 option on Barkley in May when he is coming off a torn ACL?

One thing that works in Barkley’s favor: The fifth-year option price for running backs is significantly lower than it is for quarterbacks. Projecting based on the formula in the new CBA, it looks as if Barkley’s fifth-year option will come in somewhere between $8 million and $9 million. That’s not a crippling amount if, by May, the Giants feel good about Barkley’s recovery. Consider that they’ve already invested a fully-guaranteed, four-year, $31.915 million rookie contract in Barkley; what’s another $8 million or $9 million between friends?

The Giants’ other option would be to sign Barkley to a contract extension in the spring, though it’s tough to get a player to sign when he is coming off a year lost to injury. Players generally prefer to sign when they’re coming off good years.


The Antonio Brown-to-Seattle connection is a long time coming

The Seattle Seahawks appear to have a good thing going: They’re 5-0 with quarterback Russell Wilson competing at an MVP level and with second-year wideout DK Metcalf playing as well as any receiver in the league alongside reliable Tyler Lockett. They could use some help on defense, but the offense is humming. Still, they are absolutely eyeing Brown, the former Steelers/Raiders/Patriots wide receiver whose league-imposed suspension for off-field conduct is scheduled (though not certain) to end after Week 8.

The Seahawks, according to multiple sources, have had their eye on Brown since last summer, when the Raiders released him and the Patriots signed him right away. Seattle was interested in signing him at that time, but not at the price the Patriots paid. The Seahawks waited, as the rest of the league did, through the entire 2019 season while Brown was under league investigation; but they kept monitoring, checking into Brown’s background and doing their due diligence on him in case they had a chance to sign him at some point.

That point could be coming soon. Sources close to the situation said there’s still work to be done before Brown is on the Seahawks. When the league suspended him, it said it was possible the suspension could end up being longer than just eight games if new information about his conduct came to light. The Seahawks have been in contact with the league to gather as much information as they can on where that stands. It’s possible the final details don’t come together and he doesn’t end up in Seattle. But at this point, it sounds more likely to happen than not.

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Louis Riddick and Domonique Foxworth voice their concerns over the Seahawks potentially signing Antonio Brown.

There have been other teams that have expressed interest in Brown over the past year, including the Ravens, Saints and Texans (though Houston’s interest has likely waned due to their 1-5 start). Tom Brady is believed to want him with Tampa Bay, though coach Bruce Arians has publicly said that’s not happening. Seattle is the strongest candidate and the most likely landing spot because they’ve been working on this a while.

Why, you ask? It’s not as if Brown can rush the passer for a defense that could use it. Why bring his volatility into a situation that’s going so well?

Seattle believes its coaching staff and culture isn’t ever going to be upset by one player, even if he’s a disruptive one. Of course, the Patriots believe that about themselves too, and Brown only lasted one game there. Yet the way the Seahawks see it, Brown wasn’t disruptive while he was in New England but he got cut because of revelations about his off-field conduct prior to his arrival there.

And to the earlier point, the Patriots gave Brown $9 million in guaranteed money. Whatever contract he ends up getting from Seattle will be nowhere near that — likely minimum salary or close to it with incentives for performance and total flexibility for the team to get out of it if things go south. Acquiring him responsibly is the key, and as long as the Seahawks can keep the risk to a minimum, they believe Brown — if he is the player he used to be or even 80 or 90 percent of that — is a game-changer worth adding.

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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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