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Stout stuff from Dolphins' front four

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Stout stuff from Dolphins' front four

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) The Miami Dolphins' defensive line stops the run, pressures the quarterback and even grabs an occasional interception.

Stout stuff up front gives the Dolphins cause for optimism as they enter the most inviting part of their schedule. Coming off a breakthrough win, Miami (2-3) is an opening-line favorite for the first time this season Sunday against the St. Louis Rams (3-2), and no other game against a team with a winning record looms until after Thanksgiving.

If the Dolphins are to climb above .500 - an elusive goal in recent years - they'll likely do it with defense. Miami is the NFL's stingiest team in rushing yards allowed per game (61) and per carry (2.7), and by forcing opponents to throw, the Dolphins are accomplishing coach Joe Philbin's goal of making the other team one-dimensional.

``To a large degree we're getting that done,'' Philbin said Monday. ``We're getting the run shut down well and getting favorable down and distance where we can tee it up and go after the quarterback a little bit. That's only going to help us as we move forward.''

The formula worked at Cincinnati on Sunday, when the Dolphins won 17-13 to give Philbin his first road victory as an NFL coach. After blowing late leads in consecutive overtime losses, the Dolphins held on by making a pair of defensive stops in the final four minutes.

Miami allowed only 80 yards rushing, and 46 of the Bengals' 65 snaps were pass plays. They netted just 218 yards passing with three sacks, two interceptions and a long gain of 24 yards.

``The game plan every week never changes,'' linebacker Kevin Burnett said. ``Stop the run, eliminate the big plays and get two turnovers. If you can do that, you can beat anyone in this league.''

Tackle Randy Starks led the defensive charge with half a sack, two passes broken up and a remarkable interception, where he raised his arms as Andy Dalton threw and managed to snatch the ball from point-blank range.

The defensive line had practiced that very sort of interception in a drill Friday - with ugly results.

``Balls were bouncing everywhere,'' defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle recalled with a chuckle.

But the practice paid off in the game, and the 305-pound Starks came away with his fourth career interception.

``He looks like Jerry Rice out there,'' Coyle said.

More important to the Dolphins is the value of Starks and the other linemen as run-stoppers. Miami hasn't allowed a 100-yard performance by a rusher for 19 consecutive games, the longest such active streak in the league.

The big guys up front are about more than mere muscle. Reserve 305-pound tackle Tony McDaniel hustled downfield to recover a Bengals fumble.

``Sheer effort,'' Coyle said.

And on a 29-yard run by Cincinnati's Bernard Scott, one of the Dolphins giving chase was 345-pound tackle Paul Soliai, which tickled Coyle.

``I don't know if he would have caught him, but he sure was trying, and he was really moving,'' Coyle said. ``Those guys up front are really playing with effort, toughness and strength, and they're a big reason we're playing pretty good.''

Miami has totaled 15 sacks, which is tied for sixth in the NFL. And Coyle's unit has seven interceptions, which is tied for fifth in the league.

The Dolphins have had the edge in turnovers twice this season - in the two games they won. They totaled three takeaways against Cincinnati, including a clinching interception by Reshad Jones.

The pass defense, which has been prone to breakdowns at times, was solid despite the absence of cornerback Richard Marshall with a back injury. His replacement, Nolan Carroll, was sidelined briefly by a concussion but played well.

``Overall the secondary was better,'' Philbin said. ``Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as a unit their overall effectiveness and technique and awareness was as good as it has been.''

Cincinnati converted two of 14 third-down situations. The Dolphins are allowing a 26-percent conversion rate, second-best in the league, which their offense appreciates.

``When you have a defense that keeps putting you on the field,'' receiver Brian Hartline said, ``that's part of the recipe for winning.''

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The Future is Bright: How the Ravens' 2018 draft class performed

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The Future is Bright: How the Ravens' 2018 draft class performed

Just like that, they're all grown up.

Ozzie Newsome put a bow on top of his 22-year career as general manager of the Ravens when he drafted 11 rookies in the 2018 NFL Draft.

He found the franchise a new quarterback, a couple tight ends and help along the offensive line.

Now that their rookie seasons are over, let's look at how the 2018 draft class performed.

Hayden Hurst

The 25th overall pick missed the first four games of the season after getting surgery on his broken foot during the preseason, and in 12 games never hit his full potential.

Hurst finished the 2018 season with 13 receptions for 163 yards, averaging 12.54 yards per reception and one touchdown. With Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams both free agents, Hurst's 2019 could be huge.

"I really don’t think I was at my best," Hurst said on if fans have seen his potential . "The surgery set me back a good ways. But like I said, the offseason will be huge for me. I’ll be able to get healthy, get stronger and come back ready next year.”

Lamar Jackson

We all know how the 32nd overall pick's season went.

Completing 99 of 170 passes for 1,201 yards and six touchdowns in 2018 on top of 695 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, Jackson will enter the 2019 season as the Ravens' quarterback of the future. En route to leading the team to their first postseason appearance in three seasons, the QB finished the 2018 season with a 84,5 QB rating.

The Ravens have begun shaping their offense around Jackson's run-heavy style of play, while they'll look to improve his ball security and accuracy.

Orlando Brown Jr.

Brown Jr.  ended up becoming a vital piece of the Ravens' O-line. 

Appearing in all 16 regular season games and starting 10 for an injured James Hurst, the third-round pick didn't allow a single sack in those starts and helped the offense rank second in the league in rushing at 152.6 yards per game. 

 “It’s really been hard-fought," Brown Jr. said on his rookie season performance. "I played against a lot of great players. I think I played well for a rookie, not for a sophomore. I want to be one of the greats in this league. It’s going to take a lot of work to get where I want to be – obviously, that’s All-Pro and being as consistent as I can be for as long as I can be.”

Mark Andrews

Andrews ended up being the tight end to make the biggest impact for the Ravens this season.

Finishing 2018 with 34 receptions for 552 yards, averaging 16.24 yards per carry and three touchdowns, Andrews' 68-yard touchdown Week 16 against the Chargers was the teams longest offensive score of the season. The rookie out of Oklahoma also finished the season ranked as Pro Football Focus' 13th overall tight end in the league.

Anthony Averett

The cornerback out of Alabama served as a backup in 11 games this season, finishing with five tackles.

If the Ravens decide to move on from veterans Jimmy Smith or Brandon Carr in the offseason, Averett could find a more prominent role in 2019.

Kenny Young

The rookie made his presence known early in the season after filling in for an injured C.J. Mosley during the Ravens' Weeks 2 and 3 matchups. 

Young played in all 16 games in 2018, finishing the season with 40 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. If the Ravens part ways with Mosley, their future still looks bright with Young on the come up. 

Jaleel Scott

The fourth-round pick was placed on injured reserve prior to the start of the season after suffering a hamstring injury.

Jordan Lasley

The fifth-round pick was a gameday inactive since Week 1.

DeShon Elliott

The sixth-round pick was placed on injured reserve at the start of the season with a fractured forearm suffered in the Ravens' preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. 

Greg Senat

The sixth-round pick was also placed on injured reserve prior to the start of the season with a foot injury.

Bradley Bozeman

Bozeman proved his value as a backup offensive lineman appearing in 14 games for the Ravens, including their Wild Card playoff loss.

Zach Sieler

Newsome's final draft pick appeared in two games for the Ravens this season. Inactive most gamedays, Sieler posted a tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9. 

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2019 NBA Trade Deadline: Will the Wizards be buyers, sellers, or standing pat?

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2019 NBA Trade Deadline: Will the Wizards be buyers, sellers, or standing pat?

The Wizards are in the midst of their best basketball of the season. That only makes the upcoming decisions surrounding the Feb. 7 trade deadline more challenging.

With Bradley Beal’s elite play fueling a surge before the team’s trek to London, Washington went 3-2 in five games against NBA contenders. Even one of the losses, Sunday’s double-overtime thriller against the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors, provided hope for a playoff push and a bit more should the Wizards qualify.

The Wizards, 18-26 and two games back of a playoff berth entering the week, must pass three teams for the eighth seed. Six teams are currently jockeying for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference horse race. With a Secretariat-level kick, Washington could gallop all the way to sixth.

Remain bullish and perhaps the Wizards seek help rather sell off assets. Pulling that off without adding to the luxury tax bill would make team president Ernie Grunfeld quite the contortionist. If reaching the postseason for the fifth time in six years remains the goal, get twisty.

Now for some reasons why the organization might choose another path despite the ample pluck shown by the active players.

Since the 2012-13 season, a team sitting two or more games back of the eighth seed as of Jan. 1 reached the playoffs only three times, according to the website Basketball-Reference.

The idea of trading away players, namely those on expiring contracts, isn’t appealing for those focused solely on the current season’s potential. Doing so accomplishes several goals: 

  • Acquiring draft picks and player assets for a franchise with only five players under contract for the 2019-20 season and without a second-round selection until 2023. 
  • Potentially increase the team’s 2019 NBA Draft lottery odds. Washington currently has the sixth-best odds at the No. 1 overall selection. Landing that pick likely means selecting Duke’s runaway top prospect, Zion Williamson. 
  • Targeted trades could create future salary cap space. Washington’s projected 2019-20 salaries total $111 million, eclipsing the $109 million salary cap and leaving little wiggle room below the $132 luxury tax line. Of the five players under contract, only Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter are established building blocks. 
  • Eliminate some or all of this season’s entire $8.6 million luxury tax burden. Erasing the luxury tax altogether keeps the Wizards a bit further away from paying a higher tax rate as a repeater tax squad.

The key for league observers is proper self-evaluation, including fair expectations for Wall coming off another surgery. The latest occurred this month as repairing bones spurs digging into his left heel ended the five-time All-Star’s season.

Making moves for coveted first-round draft picks means taking on future salary, a likely scenario for most deadline trades involving rentals like Trevor Ariza.

“I don't think you can worry about clearing money for next year. You just need to avoid the tax,” a former NBA general manager told NBC Sports Washington. “If taking on money next year means getting close to (avoiding) the luxury tax threshold this year I'd be comfortable with that because I think they're more than one year away from fixing this. I would start to accumulate assets as quickly as I could.”

Whatever the future thoughts, there are current realities ranging from that luxury tax payment to season ticket plan renewals.

“Can’t separate basketball from business,” a current NBA team executive said. “We don’t play the game of basketball. We’re in the business of basketball.”

There’s also the playing of basketball. Try telling Beal the Wizards should regroup for next season when hopefully a healthy Wall returns and assets acquired at the trade deadline mature.

Beal, sensing external expectations dropping immediately after Wall’s surgery news, suggested doubters should stay tuned.

“I’m trying to shoot for the playoffs,” Beal said.

Since then he has recorded his second triple-double of his career with 45 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists in 55 minutes against the Raptors. Beal is averaging 30.2 points over his last nine games.

This isn’t a one-man effort. Guard Tomas Satoransky also recorded a triple-double over the weekend while Ariza fell a rebound shy against Toronto. Big moments for Otto Porter, Thomas Bryant and Jeff Green come regularly.

Beal’s hopes and forewarning for doubters won’t stop many outside the organization from focusing on the allure of salary cap flexibility and asset gathering above all. Both sides have merit. Washington can only make substantive moves in one of those directions before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.

Winning a seven-game playoff series is a lofty goal for a team yet to win more than three games consecutively all season and currently poised for the draft lottery. However, as state lottery promotions might say, you also cannot win if you don’t play.

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