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This season's NFL rookies 'as good as any group'

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This season's NFL rookies 'as good as any group'

Good as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III have been, look beyond the first-year quarterbacks making a strong first impression and check out the other NFL rookies delivering dynamic performances.

It's a deep class, from Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, Cleveland's Trent Richardson and Griffin's Redskins teammate Alfred Morris at running back, to the Rams' Chris Givens and Titans' Kendall Wright at wide receiver, to Minnesota's Matt Kalil and Cleveland's Mitchell Schwartz on the offensive line, to Dallas' Morris Clairborne and New England's trio of Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson on defense. Even kickers Greg Zuerlein and Blair Walsh are getting in on the act.

``By and large, this is an outstanding group of players. What they've done halfway into the season - I think you're safe to say it is one of the best groups of rookies ever,'' said former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt, who's been evaluating football players since the 1950s. ``This is as good as any group, in terms of playing time and honors.''

Rookies certainly are being counted on like never before.

Heading into the game between Luck's Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night, there were 503 games started by first-year players, the highest total through Week 9 since at least 1991, according to STATS LLC. As recently as 15 years ago, there were fewer than half that many rookie starts.

And they're producing.

STATS said the 10,089 yards passing by first-year players leads the way to this point in a season for any year since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. This class' 5,716 yards rushing is the most since the merger except for the strike year of 1987, when replacement players inflated the statistics.

AFC and NFC offensive player of the week honors both went to rookies this week: Luck, whose 433 yards passing Sunday set a single-game record for a rookie; and Martin, who rushed for a franchise-record 251 yards and four touchdowns and became the first back - not first rookie - since at least 1940 to score on three TD runs of at least 45 yards in one game, according to STATS.

``I don't really know if there's something in the water or what. The rookies are definitely making a huge impact this year,'' Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.

He plays in Miami alongside one of those green QBs getting so much attention, Ryan Tannehill, the eighth overall pick in April's draft, behind No. 1 Luck and No. 2 Griffin. Add in Cleveland's Brandon Weeden (No. 22) and Seattle's surprising Russell Wilson (taken 75th overall, in the third round, he beat out veteran free agent Matt Flynn), and this season's first-year quarterbacks already have accounted for 19 victories, closing in on the record of 26 set in 2004 by a collection that included Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.

In his first eight games, Luck threw for the same number of yards as four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning in 2012 and put the Colts, 2-14 a season ago, on pace to make the playoffs.

Griffin and Wilson rank sixth and seventh in NFC passer rating, ahead of veterans such as Eli Manning of the Giants, Jay Cutler of the Bears and Matthew Stafford of the Lions.

Tannehill's 1,762 yards passing through eight games have him on track to shatter Hall of Famer Dan Marino's club record for a rookie. Weeden's 2,088 are the third-most by a rookie through his first nine games, even though the Browns lead the NFL in dropped passes.

``They're knowledgeable, and they're talented. There's no question that this is a very, very, very good group,'' Brandt said. ``Now, will we say that five years from now? We could be saying, `Yeah, they're good, but their teams haven't played in any Super Bowls or playoff games.' But if you were a wagering man, I would wager that this class of rookie quarterbacks is going to have some Super Bowl appearances.''

He and others point to a number of factors contributing to the success.

Above all, players are coming into the league better prepared, mentally and physically, for the professional game.

Colleges have more serious weight training and nutrition programs these days. Pro-style offenses get quarterbacks up to speed in college - and force players at various other positions to adjust, too. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier traces it all the way back to increasing sophistication in high school football.

``Everything is evolving to a higher level,'' said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was an NFL head coach in the 1990s, then was at Southern Cal, before returning to the league in 2010. ``The quarterback position is so unique and it has taken just a quantum leap here in the last 10 years, with guys understanding what's going on and being exposed to great coaching so early. ... I do think it has affected everyone; certainly receivers, corners, defensive backs and everyone who has to rush the passer, as well. They're all much more aware of the game than they were in years past.''

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett pointed to that as one of the reasons for Claiborne's early success at cornerback despite missing offseason workouts while recovering from wrist surgery and then losing time in training camp with a left knee injury.

``He came from a big-time program and had played a lot of big games,'' Garrett said, ``so I don't think at any point we feel like he's been in awe.''

Browns general manager Tom Heckert made a point of drafting players who played a lot in established college programs, making the move to the NFL easier.

Cleveland is 2-7 as it rebuilds and counts a lot on rookies - 17, nearly a third of the 53-man roster. The Browns have four first-year players starting on offense: Weeden, Schwartz, Richardson (whose 815 yards from scrimmage rank fifth in the AFC) and receiver Josh Gordon (who leads NFL rookies with 417 yards receiving and four TD catches). Defensive tackle Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick, has started every game, and linebacker James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-rounder, started the past four.

Johnson moved into the lineup after a veteran was lost for the season to injury, the way a lot of rookies often get their chance.

But whereas they used to play primarily because they needed to, now rookies play because they can. Coaches believe they can handle it.

``That's why they drafted us,'' said Bucs safety Mark Barron, the No. 7 overall pick. ``To come in and contribute early.''

His teammate Martin, taken 31st overall, is third in the NFL in rushing with 794 yards. Second-round pick Lavonte David, a starting linebacker, and Barron are two of Tampa Bay's three leading tacklers.

David, credited with 16 tackles in last weekend's victory at Oakland, has handled and relayed defensive play calls all season.

Bobby Wagner, who tops Carroll's Seahawks defense with 72 tackles, also makes those calls from his middle linebacker spot. Carolina's Luke Kuechly is another linebacker making noise as a rookie.

Not every rookie - even the high draft picks - pans out right away, of course. Some never do.

Among this season's disappointments has been Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who hurt his left knee while working out over the summer and didn't even get into a game until last Sunday, and that was only on special teams. Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd hasn't lived up to expectations, and Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon has shown a knack for dropping passes.

Still, for each underachiever there are several overachievers.

Cornerback Casey Hayward, the next-to-last pick in the second round, is tied for third in the NFL with four interceptions. The Rams saw late-round picks such as Givens (five consecutive games with a catch of 50 yards or longer) and running back Daryl Richardson beat out higher draft selections.

Morris, a sixth-round pick by the Redskins out of Florida Atlantic, is fourth in the league in yards rushing, pairing with Griffin to become the first running back and quarterback teammates to both top 500 as rookies.

The Vikings are getting key contributions from rookies in all three phases: left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith, and Walsh.

Kalil has played every offensive snap and has not been whistled once for a holding penalty. Walsh missed only one field-goal attempt, is 5 for 5 from 50-plus yards and is second in the NFL with 35 touchbacks.

Another kicker drafted in the sixth round, Zuerlein - ``Greg the Leg,'' to some - is 7 for 7 from 40-49 yards, 5 for 7 from 50 and beyond. He's the first player in NFL history to connect on field goals of at least 60 yards and 50 yards (his went 58) in the same game.

Brandt noted that one meaningful indication of how much more likely coaches are to have faith in rookies is what's happening with the Patriots.

Jones leads NFL rookies with six sacks. Wilson leads AFC rookies with three interceptions. Hightower started five games. They were joined by safety Nate Ebner and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard against the Rams in New England's most recent game, giving the Patriots five rookies on the field at once.

``Ten years ago, if you would have said, `They are going to have (that many) rookies, with Bill Belichik coaching, on a very, very good team that will compete for the Super Bowl,' I would have said, `It's not going to happen,''' Brant said. ``But ... it's people being more prepared today than ever before. Coaches can trust them.''

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AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, R.B. Fallstrom, Fred Goodall, Stephen Hawkins, Joe Kay, Michael Marot, Howard Ulman, Teresa Walker, Joseph White, Steven Wine, Tom Withers, and AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell, Arnie Stapleton and Barry Wilner contributed to this report.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter athttp://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, June 24, 32 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The heat is on Jay Gruden

Jay Gruden knows that his Redskins need to win in 2018.

“This isn’t a two- or three-year process,” he said last week. “This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away.” 

Jay Gruden gave this answer to a question about Alex Smith, but his words should resonate with the whole team. He’s right. This is no longer a rebuilding team. It’s time for this team to get it together and make a playoff run. 

That puts the pressure on Gruden. 

This is his fifth year as coach of the Redskins. He is well beyond the point where he can credibly point a finger of blame at his predecessor for any problems that are lingering. Only five players who were around in 2013, Mike Shanahan’s last year in Washington. It’s Gruden’s show now. 

His tenure is now the longest for a Redskins head coach since Norv Turner made it nearly seven years, from 1994 through 13 games into the 2000 season. His 49-59-1 run with the Redskins spanned three owners in Jack Kent Cooke, John Kent Cooke, and Dan Snyder. 

It should be noted that Turner’s third and fourth years at the helm closely resembled Gruden’s past two years. Turner’s team went 9-7 in 1996 and 8-7-1 the next year, narrowly missing the playoffs both years. That looks a lot like Gruden’s 8-7-1 and 7-9 records over the past two years. 

Gruden does not want this year’s team to resemble the 1998 Redskins. Turner’s fifth team started out 0-7 before winning four of their last five to finish 6-10. 

Turner kept his job in part because of the team’s uncertain ownership situation after the elder Cooke passed away in 1997. Gruden will not have a similar set of circumstances to help him out if he needs a lifeline in January. 

Gruden wants his fifth year to turn out more like Turner’s sixth season. That team went 10-6, topped the NFC East standings and won a playoff game. 

To get there, he needs a lot of his decisions to go right. While the trade for Smith was not his call, every indication is that he was on board with it. 

Last year, it was his decision to say no, thanks to Wade Phillips, who wanted to be his defensive coordinator and promote Greg Manusky into the job. The results were mixed as the Redskins were sixth in pass defense DVOA but 29thagainst the run. It was viewed as a marginal improvement on defense but the unit still seeme to be more of a liability than an asset. 

This year, the Redskins re-signed inside linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster and added defensive lineman Daron Payne with their first-round pick after spending their first-round pick on DE Jonathan Allen in 2017. There will be no excuses for Manusky and, by extension, Gruden if the defense does not improve. 

Joe Barry, Manusky’s predecessor who also was hired by Gruden when Phillips was an option, was out after two years of failing to significantly improve the defense. Any reasonable analysis would have to conclude that Barry did not get an infusion of talent anywhere approaching what Manusky has received in his two seasons. Manusky is getting a second year but he probably won’t get a third if the defense is still considered to be an impediment to the team’s progress. 

And if Manusky has to go, you have to wonder if Gruden will get a chance to hire a third defensive coordinator. 

I’m not sure if there is a certain number of games that the Redskins have to win for Gruden to return in 2019. It feels like he would not survive a 6-10 season or maybe not even another 7-9 finish. On the other end of the spectrum, making the playoffs and winning a game when they get there would certainly punch his ticket for a sixth season. 

Anything in between would leave Gruden in some jeopardy and the call would come down to the vague “moving in the right direction” criteria. 

There are some holes on this team, to be sure. But every team has some and the ones that are well coached figure out how to overcome them. The pressure will be on Gruden to best utilize their strengths and minimize any damage brought about by the weaker points. 

From his statement, it’s apparent that he is well aware of that. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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I put out a tweet correcting the Super Bowl ring count to two.

Timeline  

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 32
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 46
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 60

The Redskins last played a game 175 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 77 days. 

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.

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