Second-half squeeze: Coaches and players with lots on the line

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Week 10 of this NFL season is about to kick off, and it’s still a mystery. We have the Patriots on one end, the Browns on the other, and 30 teams in between who are all seemingly one hot or cold streak away from confirming or disabusing our beliefs about them. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives just two teams — the Patriots and Cowboys — a 90 percent or better chance of making the playoffs, but 21 teams have a 20 percent shot at making it to January. Brock Osweiler hadn’t even made his debut as the Broncos’ starter this time last year, which means the world champs were two quarterback changes away from their triumph in California.

We don’t know what the future holds. We do know who has the most riding on it.

There are people around the league — players and coaches alike — who have a disproportionate amount of their professional future depending upon what happens over the next eight weeks. Everybody in the league has something on the line. They have more than most.

Let’s run through those people and identify both why they have everything to play for over the second half and the outcomes that will diverge from their success or failure. And let’s begin with the coaches before moving onto the players.

The coaches

Chuck Pagano, Colts

Brought back alongside general manager Ryan Grigson on a contract extension under the aegis that 2015 was an aberration, Pagano coaches a team that is failing to live up to expectations. Last year, Pagano could reasonably have made the case that he did his very best without Andrew Luck for most of the year, given that the Colts finished 13th in defensive DVOA. This year, there’s no such excuse: Luck has been excellent and available as QBR’s ninth-ranked passer. The defense, meanwhile, has fallen apart, down to 30th in DVOA. That’s just below the Saints. You don’t want to be worse than the Saints on defense.

Pagano was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore before being hired in Indy, and needs to coax some signs of life out of this group. (The 31-26 win over Green Bay last Sunday helped, but that was a victory fueled almost entirely by the offense and special teams.) It doesn’t help matters that Pagano has virtually no defensive talent coming through the ranks, given that Indy’s 11 starters on defense against Green Bay included just two drafted and developed by the combination of Pagano and Grigson. If the Colts can’t win a division over a Texans team that is without J.J. Watt and stuck with Osweiler at quarterback, there’s little reason to think that the team will progress any further in the future with Pagano (and Grigson) at the helm.

Gus Bradley, Jaguars

Even if you consider Bradley all but fired now, the Jaguars are smart to retain him for the time being. There’s nobody of any note who is going to come in midseason and turn around Jacksonville over the long term. Any outsider would need a full offseason to teach the team concepts and scheme, and any promotion would be unwarranted. It’s the same logic that led to quarterbacks coach Nathaniel Hackett’s promotion to the offensive coordinator role after Greg Olson was fired. The offense was a mess, but why would Hackett be able to fix it after watching Blake Bortles‘ mechanics go completely haywire on his watch? Bradley’s likely in-season replacement would be assistant head coach Doug Marrone, but interim coaches often fool you into making a bad hire.

Bradley would need a scorching-hot second half to hold on to his job. He would need to go 6-2 to make it to .500, and with the Broncos and Vikings on the schedule at home, the Jags will have a razor-thin margin of error. You also could make a case for Bortles appearing on this list, but Jacksonville is committed to Bortles and his fully guaranteed contract for the time being. Even if they fire Bradley and replace him with a new head coach, it’s likely the Jaguars will ask that new chief to try to rebuild Bortles before moving on to a new option under center.

The make-or-break year for Bortles is likely 2018. Bradley has to win now to have any hope of being around for it.

Mike McCoy, Chargers

Some of the early hysteria surrounding McCoy and the Chargers’ late-game collapses has faded now that San Diego is 3-1 over the past four games, so the former Broncos offensive coordinator has a better shot at holding on to his head-coaching gig. If the Chargers finish 7-9 or worse, McCoy can try to sacrifice defensive coordinator John Pagano to get another year in charge. That would rely upon bad data, though, as the Chargers are 26th in points allowed, but eighth in the league in defensive DVOA. San Diego has faced the league’s second-toughest slate of opposing quarterbacks and been up against the NFL’s second-worst average starting field position on defense this season. Pagano has been fine.

Tom Cable, Seahawks

Cable has carved out an enormous role for himself in Seattle, where he has as much say about personnel and roster construction as any other offensive line coach in the league. The Seahawks have provided Cable with a steady stream of late-round picks and athletes to convert into offensive linemen, and Cable has pieced together offensive lines that have been able to clear out holes in the running game, if not necessarily pass protect.

But 2016 feels worse than most years; the Seahawks dearly miss longtime left tackle Russell Okung, and Russell Wilson‘s mobility issues have compromised his ability to run away from free or mostly unblocked rushers for most of the season. Cable’s lines have routinely gotten better as the year has gone along, and Wilson looked more mobile against the Bills on Monday night, but 2016 may be the year that Cable’s influence begins to wane.

Jeff Fisher, Rams

Does he have a contract extension? Fisher’s long-term status with the Los Angeles organization remains unclear, but the on-field product is about where it has been in years past. Fisher’s Rams are 3-5, and FPI projects them to finish with 5.7 wins by the end of the year, which would make Fisher’s avowed goal to avoid 7-9 a success and a failure at the same time. The team’s simultaneous confidence in trading multiple first-round picks for Jared Goff and reticence to move him into the starting lineup when Case Keenum is standing in his way speaks to either an inability to develop or a fatal scouting flaw.

Los Angeles would need to find five wins on the back end of its schedule to even make it to .500, and it’s a slate that includes the Patriots, Seahawks, Falcons and Cardinals. If Fisher can’t find that run and finishes under .500 for the fifth consecutive season, his time with the Rams must surely come to an end.

Mike McCarthy, Packers

The Packers are 11th in offensive DVOA, but it’s hard to get a sense that they’re improving with their longtime head coach running things on that side of the football. They dip their toes in changes — such as last week, when they had a series of pick plays designed to defeat the man coverage that has slowed their receivers — but this looks and feels like a stale, overexposed offense being wrung for every ounce of usefulness by a superstar quarterback. McCarthy deserves credit for helping Aaron Rodgers, and has rightfully been given plenty of time to correct things, but the excuses for Green Bay’s problems surely have to fall on his shoulders eventually.

There are times when even good coaches wear out their welcome and both sides benefit from a fresh start, as was the case with Andy Reid and his crew in moving from Philadelphia to Kansas City. McCarthy’s dismal in-game management has cost the Packers dearly in the playoffs in years past; now, the 4-4 Packers are underdogs to even make it to the postseason, given their 45.2 percent playoff odds per FPI. If Green Bay misses out on its seemingly annual trip to January, McCarthy’s future could be in jeopardy.

The non-quarterbacks

Elandon Roberts, LB, Patriots

I would list Bill Belichick here, given that he was the one responsible for trading Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins away from a team with a 39-year-old superstar quarterback, but it’s not as if he’s going anywhere. The Patriots and their league-worst adjusted sack rate clearly miss Jones, so it’s on Roberts to make sure they quickly forget Collins after the former starter was traded to the Browns in October.

It’s a big ask of a rookie sixth-round pick who only became a defensive regular four games ago. As much as the Patriots publicly suggested that Collins wanted Von Miller money to return to the team (a dubious claim) and had a habit of freelancing out of his role, Collins’ athleticism and range allowed them to do as much with the combo of Collins and Dont’a Hightower as any team in the league does with its interior linebackers. Roberts simply doesn’t have the sort of coverage upside Collins had, but if he’s in the right place at the right time and holds up against the run, he’ll help justify Belichick’s decision.

Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals

The writing is on the wall in Arizona for Floyd, who has lost his starting job to J.J. Nelson and is battling another injury, this time to his hamstring. Floyd’s role with the team has decreased with the ascension of John Brown, and it appears unlikely that the Cardinals will sign Floyd to an extension before he hits unrestricted free agency for the first time this offseason. Even if Floyd isn’t staying in Arizona, he can echo the sentiments of fellow Cardinals first-rounder Beanie Wells and play the rest of the way as an audition for the league’s 31 other teams. (Floyd, unlike Wells, might want to keep that sentiment to himself.)

Nobody doubts Floyd’s talent, and he has had stretches of production, including a run last year with five 100-yard games in six weeks. In a free-agent market perpetually starved for impact talent at wide receiver, Floyd could make a lot of money over the next few years. If he struggles to get healthy and has to treat 2016 like a washout season, he might have to settle for a one-year deal and rebuild his market before hitting free agency again after the 2017 season. If he does make it back into the lineup and produces, though, teams like the Eagles and Bears could rightfully see him as a target for a long-term deal this offseason.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears

Speaking of the Bears, their franchise wide receiver remains unsigned for 2017. Jeffery just got onto the scoresheet for the first time during Chicago’s last game, in Week 8 against the Vikings, and his prorated seasonal totals would be disappointing. Jeffery is on pace for 72 catches, 1,166 yards and two touchdowns. The good news is that the touchdown count is all-but-guaranteed to regress toward the mean, and that Jeffery has managed to stay in the lineup without missing time so far after missing nearly half of the 2015 season. The Bears have plenty of cap space and haven’t been able to come to terms with Jeffery on a long-term contract, so if it’s not going to happen, Jeffery is going to spend the rest of the year in an infomercial for other teams.

Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets

After winning a Super Bowl in New England and sparking the Jets to a defensive resurgence during the first year of his second act in New Jersey, Revis has unquestionably slipped. The 31-year-old just isn’t playing like a shutdown corner anymore. In the past, Revis was susceptible to pure straight-line speed like that of Ted Ginn, if only because he lacked the same world-class wheels and was rarely with any sort of safety help. Now, though, not only is Revis capable of being burned by Ginns of the world, but he looks afraid of being beaten deep by most receivers. Peak Revis wasn’t giving a huge cushion to Terrelle Pryor.

Revis is still a useful cornerback, but the Jets aren’t paying him like a useful corner — they’re paying him to be a star, and with their cap in rough shape heading into 2017, they’re about to run into a very tough decision. Of Revis’ $15.3 million cap hold for 2017, $6 million is guaranteed, with no future guaranteed money coming his way. The Jets could try to renegotiate with Revis to lower his compensation, but given how frequently Revis wanted to rip up his deals in the past to create new money, it doesn’t seem like Revis will want to head that way. Can the Jets spend the $9.3 million they would save by cutting Revis more effectively elsewhere?

Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers

Bell’s next eight games are less about performance and more about staying healthy. If he can make it through the regular season (and a possible playoff run) without suffering any injuries, teams inclined to go after him in free agency will be far less stressed about committing top-tier running back money. He could very well re-sign with the Steelers, who have the onerous $15.1 million hold of Lawrence Timmons coming off of their cap, but even if Bell is healthy the rest of the way Pittsburgh might not be first in line to offer him top dollar.

The quarterbacks

Brock Osweiler, Texans

The Texans are committed to Osweiler for 2017, given that his $19 million cap hit is fully guaranteed and there won’t be much of a trade market for the former Broncos draftee. He’s not going to be released or traded. The question instead is whether Osweiler will be the starter in Week 1 of next year, or if the Texans will hit the free-agent market for a veteran to compete with Osweiler and/or draft another passer in April. He hasn’t lived up to the expectations set after his arrival in town and is barely good enough to win right now. Which leads us to …

Trevor Siemian, Broncos

Osweiler’s nominal replacement in Denver is on the ropes too. Siemian looked like a viable game manager during the Broncos’ 4-0 start, but those hopes have dissipated. First-rounder Paxton Lynch was sufficiently disappointing during his lone start as to make people miss Siemian, but the former Northwestern star is getting worse. His completion percentage has dropped each of the past four weeks, and he has posted a 77.2 passer rating over those games while averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt.

The Broncos likely plan on going back to Lynch as the full-time starter at some point, either later this year or in 2017. If Siemian plays effectively, he can either delay that for as long as possible or perform well enough to earn a trade to a place where they’re more invested in giving him a shot as a starter. If not, he likely begins the itinerant chapter of his NFL career. This Sunday’s game in New Orleans against the Saints and their porous pass defense looms as particularly important.

Derek Carr, Raiders

Carr’s future is secure, of course, given that he’s an MVP candidate at the moment. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s also fair to point out that Carr declined dramatically during the second half of 2015; he was 15th in opponent-adjusted Total QBR during the first nine weeks of the year, and dead last in 29th among qualifiers in the same category during the second half of the season. Those sorts of splits can be randomness, and injuries to Carr’s supporting cast made things more difficult in the second half, but we should at least wait to see what Carr does before projecting his next contract. The difference could amount to millions or even an extra guaranteed year.

Kirk Cousins, Washington

I wrote about Cousins’ future last week. A whole bunch (of money) is on the line.

Sam Bradford, Vikings

Bradford looked like a new man during Minnesota’s 4-0 start to the season, but injuries to the offensive line and the collective realization from defenses that the Vikings simply can’t run the football has squeezed Bradford’s margin for error. He still has thrown only one interception this season, but Bradford also lost two fumbles during the loss to the Eagles and has been hyper-conservative with the football. Bradford was actually much better against the Lions last week and deserved better when Cordarrelle Patterson dropped what should have been a wide-open touchdown catch.

At one year and $17 million due after this season, teams are going to be interested in Bradford. If he plays like the guy from the first four weeks of the season, though, not only will they be interested in taking a test drive of Bradford for a year, they’ll be interested in buying for years to come. The best-case scenario for Bradford would likely be to remain in Minnesota, but if he regresses back to the guy who failed to impress in St. Louis and Philadelphia, the Vikings may prefer to go back to Teddy Bridgewater pending their former starter’s health.

Colin Kaepernick, 49ers

Evidence suggests that both sides of the Kaepernick-49ers relationship would like to move on after this season. The 49ers basically refused to play Kaepernick until they renegotiated his deal out of fear of being stuck with an injured Kaep, while the quarterback used the renegotiation to get a player option for 2017 that comes into play if he hits a playing time threshold. It’s plausible to think that Chip Kelly will want to draft or pick his own quarterback from outside the organization this offseason.

Kaepernick is then left in a difficult-to-predict situation. Perhaps unfairly, there are teams who will see his activism as a red flag and look elsewhere, especially if Kaepernick doesn’t profile as much more than a backup quarterback. He looked like the Kaepernick of old last week against the Saints, going 24-of-39 for 398 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. If Kaep plays like that moving forward and wants to continue his football career, he’ll have opportunities.

Tyrod Taylor, Bills and Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins

Why together? Because they have contract clauses waiting to be exercised based on how they perform in 2016. Both Taylor and Tannehill have deals that would pay them hefty sums of money if they’re still on the roster several days into the 2017 season.

  • The Dolphins already have $3.5 million guaranteed to Tannehill for 2017, but if he’s still on the roster five days into the next league year in March, they owe an additional $14.8 million in guaranteed money to Tannehill for next season.

  • Taylor’s bet is even larger. If the Bills don’t move on from Taylor by the third day of the 2017 league year, he receives a $15.5 million bonus, while Buffalo guarantees the next two years of Taylor’s contract for a combined $25 million. That’s $40.5 million in new guarantees.

Of the two, Taylor seems more likely to trigger the bonus, given that he has become such a critical component of Buffalo’s offense over the past year. It won’t help matters now that the Bills have lost star center Eric Wood for most of the second half; all it takes is a look over at Matt Ryan and Alex Mack in Atlanta to see how quickly a quarterback can turn around with above-average talent protecting him up the middle.

Tannehill’s case for that guaranteed $14.8 million is more difficult. The Dolphins have turned things around on offense during their three-game winning streak, but most of that has been Tannehill turning around and handing the ball off to Jay Ajayi. There are quarterbacks who can do that for far less! The former Texas A&M star also has struggled on the whole this year, throwing nearly as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (eight). Tannehill is 30th in QBR, ahead of only Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He needs to improve if he wants to pick up that $14.8 million.

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