Topics this week include the rookie running back the Seattle Seahawks are excited about, the money and draft stock poured into the league's best offensive lines and renewed debate about the deadline for underclassmen to declare intent to turn professional.
Seattle's third-round stamp of approval
When the Seattle Seahawks abruptly waived Christine Michael, it surprised many who follow the NFL.
Yes, Thomas Rawls returns this week from the fractured fibula that has sidelined him for much of the season, but he will be eased back into action.
Michael's release was about Michael's regression as a runner, and it was a statement about rookie C.J. Prosise, who is expected to remain the starter for the immediate future.
In many ways, Prosise makes the Seahawks an even more dangerous and unpredictable offense, which was evident in Sunday night's win over the New England Patriots. Frankly, that's a development few saw coming.
Maybe we should have seen it or dug deeper to realize it. When Pete Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider selected Prosise out of Notre Dame in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft, it was a declaration in itself. The Seahawks, like most teams, don't reach in the third round. That's the same round in which they patiently, albeit nervously, targeted Russell Wilson in 2012.
When Prosise caught a 38-yard, over-the-shoulder pass from Wilson to set up a fourth-quarter field goal for the 25-24 lead Seattle wouldn't surrender to the Pats, it came very naturally to the rookie. No shock. After a redshirt freshman season, Prosise played his first two seasons as a receiver for the Fighting Irish. It was only after injuries to three running backs in 2015 that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and staff looked for a solution in the backfield and asked Prosise to change positions.
Internally, there was some hesitation about the move because even though Prosise had unique size, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, the Fighting Irish wondered whether he had the toughness for the position. After all, he was a converted receiver. He was a soft-spoken, young man. Kelly and his offensive staff had no clue Prosise would deliver the tough yards between the tackles. Well, there was one clue: Prosise excelled in special-teams coverage.
Prosise finished his junior season with 1,032 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 156 carries (6.6 yards per carry) and 26 catches for 308 yards and a touchdown. Kelly and staff believed he needed a senior season to fully mature as a back, but Prosise decided to declare for the 2016 NFL draft.
When the Seahawks evaluated him, they saw a unique guy. His upper body was narrow and not fully developed, but his lower body was thick, muscular and strong. If he looked "different" running the football, it's in part because he is left-handed. But those special-teams tackles and the manner in which he ran belied his soft-spoken personality in the eyes of Schneider and Carroll.
When those two men put a third-round stamp on a player, pay attention.
-- Chris Mortensen
Putting money on the line
Dallas built the NFL's best offensive line through the draft, one pick at a time. Oakland built one of the league's best lines through free agency, one dollar at a time.
In March 2014, Oakland gave right tackle Austin Howard a deal that included $14.8 million guaranteed. In March 2015, Oakland gave center Rodney Hudson $20 million guaranteed. This past March, Oakland gave left guard Kelechi Osemele a deal that included $25.4 million guaranteed and, one week later, gave left tackle Donald Penn a deal that included $5.5 million guaranteed.
As a result, the Raiders now have the NFL's highest paid guard and center, and their offensive line has the highest cap value in the league this season, at $37.7 million.
So far, it has been well worth it. Oakland has morphed into Dallas West -- or the Cowboys of the AFC. The Raiders' line has protected franchise quarterback Derek Carr while opening holes for running backs such as Latavius Murray. Theirs is probably the best line in the AFC and second only to the Cowboys' in the NFL.
The strength of these lines is why Dallas is vying for the NFC East title and Oakland is doing the same in the AFC West. The Raiders and Cowboys each have allowed a league-low 11 sacks.
The Raiders are getting a return on their investment. The big men up front are the bulldozers, paving the way through the season to the postseason -- and maybe even to Houston, site of this year's Super Bowl. For now, the Raiders are more focused on the Houston Texans, their opponent Monday night in Mexico City.
As Dallas drafted a bully, the Raiders paid for theirs -- and that is paying off.
-- Adam Schefter
The decision of Oklahoma defensive tackle Charles Walker to leave his team immediately to prepare for the 2017 NFL draft is likely to reignite the occasional sensitive relations between the NFL and the American Football Coaches Association.
Walker's decision could take the discussion down familiar yet different paths.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has spoken publicly and privately about the NFL's Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to declare their intent to turn professional. Saban and other coaches would like to see the date pushed back because many underclassmen become consumed with getting their draft projections from the NFL's college advisory committee. College coaches say they have seen players distracted during their bowl season preparation and believe moving the deadline closer to the end of the month would be healthy for all involved. It's not as if underclassmen are allowed to participate in all-star bowl games. They aren't.
Then there is the presumption that player agents drive some of these distractions and occasional poor decisions for underclassmen. That always has been a hot-button topic among colleges, the NFL and the NFL Players Association, which certifies agents with some restrictions on interaction with underclassmen.
That dynamic is balanced by the logical debate that a player might jeopardize his NFL draft standing, and possibly his future earnings, by playing in a bowl game and risking injury. Even though it is a rare occurrence in an injury-risk sport, the most recent case came in January, when Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was arguably the best player in the 2016 draft, suffered a devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith's injury cost him around $25 million, as he went from being a top-five projection to a second-round pick by the Cowboys. For many teams, the second round might have even been a reach because Smith is not expected to play this season. Some teams' medical reports raised doubts about his future in general.
Back to Walker's case. This could be a fork-in-the-road moment for a player projected as a first- or second-round pick. Walker has not played since Oct. 1, when he suffered a reported third concussion. That's a fairly radioactive red flag in the new era of treating brain trauma injuries.
Whether or not teams flag Walker as somebody who quit on his team, as Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops framed the decision, will be worth monitoring.
-- Chris Mortensen
Another accidental acquisition paying off
Two years ago, the Dolphins were devastated when Todd Gurley went No. 10 to the Rams, four spots ahead of Miami. The Dolphins were disappointed they couldn't re-sign running back Lamar Miller, then lost out on free-agent running back C.J. Anderson when Denver matched Miami's offer sheet to him. They ended up signing Arian Foster as a last-minute, pre-camp addition to try to lead their running back corps.
Foster retired in October and the Dolphins had no choice but to turn to Jay Ajayi, whom Miami picked in the fifth round of the 2015 draft -- the same draft in which the first round did not go the way they wanted.
Now Ajayi is the AFC's fourth-leading rusher -- behind only Tennessee's DeMarco Murray, San Diego's Melvin Gordon and New York's Matt Forte -- but there is one distinction. Ajayi's 5.7 yards per carry average is significantly higher than that of any other leading rusher in the NFL. Ajayi has given Miami productivity and hope. What's more, the Dolphins are entering a portion of their schedule -- at Los Angeles, home for San Francisco -- in which Ajayi can take aim at the AFC's rushing title.
Ajayi fell to the fifth round of the 2015 draft as the 149th overall pick in part because teams worried how long his knees would hold up. He has held up fine. The Dolphins didn't get the other running backs they wanted, but Ajayi is a reminder that accidental acquisitions and fall-back finds sometimes have far greater impact than anyone expects.
-- Adam Schefter
Coughlin's chances in Canton
When Tom Coughlin was inducted into the New York Giants' Ring of Honor Monday night, it reintroduced the question of whether he will one day be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Coughlin refused to discuss his eventual candidacy. He won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants, but that is not an automatic pass to Canton. Former Raiders coach Tom Flores and Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson haven't been honored, even though some voters believe they will eventually be elected.
Coughlin's résumé shines especially brightly when one factors in his work as the coach and general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He built a team that competed for two AFC championships, a remarkable achievement for an expansion franchise.
One of those title runs occurred in the Jaguars' second season and included one of the greatest upsets in NFL playoff history on Jan. 4, 1997. The Jaguars were 14.5-point playoff underdogs when they stunned the Denver Broncos 30-27 at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos had an 11-game win streak in that 1996 season, and their 13-3 record marked them as Super Bowl favorites. In retrospect, the John Elway-led Broncos might have won three consecutive Super Bowls (they won the following two seasons), but Coughlin's Jaguars spoiled the party.
-- Chris Mortensen
Emptying the notebook
Although Case Keenum will move into a backup role behind top draft pick Jared Goff, it is very possible he will be relegated to No. 3 and game-inactive if the Rams fall out of contention. Sean Mannion, last year's third-round pick who opened the season as the No. 2, could move up on the depth chart, especially with Keenum headed to free agency next year.
Almost two weeks after resigning as offensive coordinator of the Vikings, Norv Turner is decompressing in Del Mar, California, and preparing to go to his granddaughter's first birthday party this week, then spend Thanksgiving with wife Nancy's family for the first time in 25 years. But he does have an interest in continuing to coach. Turner said that after his Vikings contract runs out this winter, he would be interested in coaching for a team on which he would have a chance to mold a young quarterback and make a difference, as he has done throughout his career. "I just enjoy it too much," Turner said this week. "I really enjoy teaching the players." Turner is now 64 years old, but he said he's fitter than he was a decade ago and 20 pounds lighter. He is spending some of his time walking on the beach, as he did this past week, and already contemplating his next move. It would have to be the right team in the right city with the right quarterback; otherwise, it might not be appealing enough. But even though he's finished as the offensive coordinator of the Vikings, Turner is not finished coaching.
When coaches and players say, "It's tough to win a game in the NFL," it might sound like a cliché, but consider this: The last time the Browns won a game was Dec. 13, 2015, when Johnny Manziel was the starting quarterback in a 24-10 win over the 49ers. That ended a seven-game losing streak.
Seattle is a scary team right now. Only one of its remaining six opponents -- Philadelphia, which the Seahawks host this Sunday -- has a winning record. Combined, those six remaining opponents have a 16-28-1 record. The schedule sets the Seahawks up to start eyeing January and their postseason run.
There's no better division in football right now than the AFC West, where it looks like the 7-2 Chiefs, 7-2 Raiders and 7-3 Broncos are all headed to the playoffs. That would mean only the division winners from the AFC East, AFC North and AFC South will go to the postseason.
With the Thanksgiving games Nov. 24, both the Cowboys and Vikings play three games in 12 days. Dallas hosts Baltimore on Sunday and Washington on Thanksgiving, while Minnesota hosts Arizona on Sunday and travels to Detroit on Thanksgiving. Then the two teams meet for the Thursday Night Football matchup in Week 13.
The 49ers are assured of being a team in transition; they're scheduled to have 21 free agents this offseason.
When Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery returns next month from his four-game suspension, he will have three more games to make one final strong statement before he becomes a free agent. NFL teams know that until this suspension Jeffery never has been in trouble or had issues. He still is expected to be the top free-agent WR. It's also hard to say the Bears are totally de-incentivized to bring him back because of this suspension. Imagine asking a young QB or a free agent to succeed in Chicago if Kevin White is best weapon in the passing game. It's a tough call for that front office.
-- Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen