Bulls

NFL Network giving Lovie motivational fuel for Cutler, Marshall?

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NFL Network giving Lovie motivational fuel for Cutler, Marshall?

Coach Lovie Smith has long been adroit at finding motivation in disrespect -- media, public, whoever -- for his teams. He may have been handed something to get Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall fuming and its being provided by none other than NFL players themselves.

Neither Cutler nor Marshall are among the Top 100 players compiled by NFL Network and being revealed in blocks of 10, now down to its final 10.

The motivational fuel here is that its drawn exclusively from voting by current NFL players, so media and fan popularity are factored out.

That should make it arguably the most credible of all the Top-Whatever rankings (one recently listed the top 10 NFL Jerks according to one media member; Im not sure Id like to see the players rating of Top 10 media jerks but thats for another story).

So Cutler, who endured a tsunami of doubt and criticism after his knee injury in the 2010 NFC Championship game, has been dissed again by his peers.

Tim Tebow is on the list (No. 95); Joe Flacco is on the list (74); Cutler is not. Not among the 10 quarterbacks already revealed and not including Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, presumably in the Top 10.

Cutler may not be a Top-10 quarterback yet. But Tim Tebow?

And Marshall, who ranked No. 61 last year, caught 81 passes for 1,274 yards and 6 TDs last year, is off the list entirely.

Hakeem Nicks is on the list (No. 90). Marshall has never caught fewer than those 81 passes in any of his last five seasons; Nicks has never caught more than 79 in any of his three seasons.

Jordy Nelson is on the list (80). Nelson never caught more than his 68 of last season. He scored 15 TDs in 2011 after three straight years with 2.

But Marshall is not.

Could be that player voting is every bit as a popularity contest as fan voting is, something that Steve McMichael and others have espoused.

So the players conclusion is that there are at least 13 quarterbacks better than Cutler (Tebow, Romo, Flacco, Vick, Rivers, P. Manning, Stafford, Newton, E. Manning, Roethlisberger, plus presumably the Big Three).

Vick is on the list but told a Philadelphia sports station that he considered his No. 70 spot a joke.

Eli Manning hasnt scoffed at his No. 31 ranking but teammate Justin Tuck has, and used the same four-letter word to describe Mannings spot.

Manning was left off the 2011 Top 100 list altogether, so maybe peer disrespect is a mighty motivator.

Best guess is that Lovie Smith will find out with Cutler and Marshall.

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

With college teams heading into conference play, momentum is starting to build for Arizona center Deandre Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick in next June's draft.

Ayton already has an NBA body at 7-foot-1, 250 pounds and he's a lot more agile than most young big men. Watching his recent game against Texas A&M, Ayton showed the kind of footwork and explosiveness that will impress scouts and general managers. He doesn't have the Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves of a Joel Embiid, but he's already got the basic NBA post move skill set, including a jump hook and up-and-under package. Ayton exploded for 29 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Alabama on December 9, making 12 of 18 shots.

Ayton is already a force on the defensive end with his quick leaping ability allowing him to alter shots in the paint, and he has a nice touch from the outside, hitting just under 70 percent of his free throws while also venturing out to the 3-point line to attempt a couple shots.

Where does he fit for the Bulls? Robin Lopez is under contract for another season and the Bulls also have three more guaranteed years of seldom-used Cristiano Felicio. Still, all that could change by season's end, with Lopez a potential trade candidate for a contending team looking to add another quality big man. Ayton's size and athleticism could be attractive to a Bulls’ team that's already identified three young starters going forward in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, especially since the power forward position is overloaded right now with Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic. 

At this point early in the college season, Marvin Bagley and Ayton probably rank first and second on most teams’ draft boards, followed by Slovenian guard Luka Doncic and Missouri forward Michael Porter, who's out for the season because of a back injury. 

Bagley is the hot name among NBA scouts, but don't be surprised if Ayton gets consideration for the No. 1 overall pick next June. The NBA might be a point guard league right now, but the influx of quality young centers like Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic suggests the big man is still a valuable commodity.

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

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USA TODAY

For Mitch Trubisky, key ball security extends well beyond just third downs

John Fox has mentioned Mitch Trubisky’s third-down passing on more than one occasion, and not simply as a stroke of what his staff has done in the way of player development as a coaching decision of tectonic-plate degree looms. The fact is that third-down passing is a defining measure of an NFL quarterback; as Loggains stated, it’s where quarterbacks earn their money, and by extension, make it possible for a lot of other folks to earn theirs.

But it’s far bigger than only third downs. Case in point: Trubisky completed 25 of his 32 passes at Cincinnati. All of those passes came during the Bears’ first nine (of 11) possessions. Significantly, the Bears had at least one first down on every one of those possessions, and more than one on seven of the nine.

Meaning: The offense sustained drives and the defense was able to recover on the sideline. That would comprise two-thirds of “complimentary football” the way it’s designed.

(It also did not hurt that every drive on which the Bears didn’t draw a penalty, with the exception of the one ended by halftime, the Bears scored a touchdown. Probably just coincidence…but…maybe not…)

Putting all of this in the broader context of Trubisky’s development, the self-professed gunslinger has thrown zero interceptions in six of his nine games, none in four of the last five. That points to the rookie being schooled hard in ball security, something that has been a hallmark of quarterbacks under coordinator Dowell Loggains’ auspices. Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler in 2015 played with a level of ball security at or among the best of their careers.

Trubisky’s 1.8 percent interception rate overall is the larger point. As mentioned in this space and elsewhere previously, coaches aren’t going to “breed” Trubisky’s core aggressiveness out of him by drilling “ball security” into his head.

And while the concept is simple enough, implementing it isn’t. For all of his meteoric success before his season-ending knee injury, Deshaun Watson was being picked on 3.9 percent of his throws. Cutler has reverted to his career base course (3.2 percent) while Trubisky keeping his throws out of harm’s way percentage-wise better than all of Matthew Stafford (1.9), Russell Wilson (2.3), Matt Ryan (2.6) or Ben Roethlisberger (2.6).

Maybe it’s “generational:” Jared Goff (1.4) and Carson Wentz (1.6) seem to have been schooled the same direction. And how’s that working for them?

Marcus Mariota is having his worst (by his reckoning) NFL season, with 14 interceptions making him so testy that his Mom yelled at him for being grumpy to reporters while discussing his play.

Key to Bears defeating Detroit

The obvious is how well the offense and Trubisky control the football without turning the football over and without self-destructing with penalties that put them behind the sticks. It’s not a sure-fire formula; the Bears didn’t turn the ball over vs. San Francisco and had half the number of penalties assessed as the 49ers and still took incompetence to epic levels. But it is a foundation starting point.

Actually, it’s more than that where the Detroit Lions are concerned.

Detroit has lost three of the four games in which its opponents didn’t give them at least one turnover.    

Stopping the run is a standard “key,” but in the Lions case, they don’t run the ball much anyway. They are last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.3). Nine different individuals, including Jordan Howard, average more per game than the Lions. They did win the only two games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards (but those were against the Giants and Browns, so those don’t count).

But Detroit is 7-6 overall without any appreciable rushing offense. So stopping the run, while always a factor, isn’t necessarily a game-changer vs. the Lions.

Ball security is. Keeping Matthew Stafford off the field, as it is with most elite quarterbacks, is everything. Stafford is tied for second for taking sacks (39) and is even taking them at a concerning rate of one every 13 pass plays – statistically significantly higher than nearly every other top passer – and he is still passing to a rating of 97.9, good enough for No. 8 in the NFL.

So getting after Stafford helps. Stopping the run helps. Forcing takeaways helps. But the only element that directly correlates to upending the Lions is not so much creating turnovers as avoiding ones of your own.