Mort & Schefter: Julio Jones' pain problem; Sean Payton trade talk

October 15, 2015, 3:47 PM

— -- Welcome to Six Points for Week 6, with Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. This week we hit the Sean Payton trade chatter, massive turnover at running back, big questions around Julio Jones and Big Ben, Denver's dominant D and Indy's deflating pass defense.

Julio Jones, Big Ben and the pain problem

It is a bedrock of NFL culture that injured players play even when the risk seemingly outweighs the reward, which brings us to the cases of Julio Jones and Ben Roethlisberger.

The unbeaten Falcons are 3-9 in 12 games Jones has missed in his career. While he would be limited at best against the Saints on Thursday night, he could provide a decoy or perhaps he could contribute an occasional big play, as Odell Beckham Jr. did in coming off the bench to draw a pass interference penalty on the Giants' winning drive Sunday night.

It still provides the Falcons with a dicey decision because they don't have a bye until Week 10 and risk playing a limited Jones through that stretch if he suffers any further setbacks. He averaged 16 targets in each of his first three games but only half that amount in the past two while working through the injuries to his hamstring and toe.

As for Roethlisberger, the Steelers are cognizant that Big Ben drama does not always result in a happy ending. The Steelers are 2-4 in the first game after Roethlisberger returns from injury and he has averaged a pedestrian 191 yards passing with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in those games. In other words: He's still hurting, and the results reflect it.

Thus, there is no ambitious plan to push Roethlisberger back into the lineup Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals even though Ben had people buzzing because he participated some in 7-on-7 passing drills this week. As of Monday night, Roethlisberger privately conceded that the bone bruise still causes considerable pain, not to mention it was only Sept. 24 when he suffered a left knee MCL sprain.

Michael Vick's fourth-quarter performance at quarterback in a 24-20 win over the Chargers on Monday provided some relief. The Steelers are 3-2 and the win buys them a little more time with hopes Vick gets even better with another start.

When to play Roethlisberger? Is it Oct. 25 at the Chiefs against a team that still has fierce pass-rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali? Or do you wait for that first game back to come Nov. 1 at Heinz Field against the currently unbeaten and AFC North-leading Bengals?

Stay tuned.

Why a Sean Payton trade wouldn't be a shock

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton provided a perfectly rational answer to the ESPN report that multiple NFL teams in search of a head coach are expected to inquire about his availability after the 2015 season.

Payton did not get angry. He explained that he's focused on the season and preparing for Thursday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons. He talked about his contentment as the Saints coach and the geographical friendliness of New Orleans to Dallas, where his children reside. Yet he understood why the issue had been raised.

That's because there is enough precedent and circumstances to expect it to be a hot-button story when the season does end. Whether it's a coincidence or not, an 18-year history also links Payton to a pair of head coaches who were involved in blockbuster deals that resulted in those coaches swapping teams.

? In 1997, the New York Jets sent first-, second-, third- and fourth-round draft picks to the New England Patriots over a three-year period to hire Bill Parcells as head coach.

? In 2000, when Parcells resigned in the wake of the death of longtime Jets owner Leon Hess, the Patriots sent first-, third- and seventh-round picks to New York to hire his contract-designated successor, Bill Belichick, in a memorable soap opera-like drama.

? In 2003, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers executed the biggest coach-trade blockbuster in NFL history when they landed Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden for two first-round and two second-round draft picks, plus $8 million in cash.

On a smaller scale, the Kansas City Chiefs traded a fourth-round draft pick in 2006 to bring in Jets coach Herm Edwards.

Payton is particularly linked to Parcells and Gruden. Parcells has been an active mentor to Payton since he hired him as an assistant head coach with the Dallas Cowboys. Gruden is one of Payton's best friends dating back to their early coaching days on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Payton has two years left on his contract after the 2015 season for $8.5 million per year.

Now, the league often points out that, at least technically, a coach cannot be traded. However, the league does allow that once the playing season of a head coach's club has concluded, another club is permitted to request permission to speak to and sign the head coach. Prior to granting that permission, the two clubs must negotiate terms of compensation for the release of the coach from his current contract, so that if a coach and the new club agree to terms, he would be free to sign with the new club. (The NFL notes this scenario does not negate the hiring club's obligation to comply with the Rooney Rule.)

There is no official word that the Saints would be receptive to granting such permission after the season is over or that Payton would indeed be intrigued. The Dolphins and Colts have been identified as two possible teams that could be interested. Parcells still advises Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and was consulted when Miami hired Mike Tannenbaum as its vice president of football operations. The Colts? If Chuck Pagano doesn't sign an extension and Payton were inclined to look, working with Andrew Luck would be an obvious draw.

As noted, no dialogue between any of the parties is allowed in-season, but nobody should be blindsided, either, by such speculation. If it sounds crazy, you need only look at recent history to know it has been done before.

Running back carousel keeps turning

It's not just teams that sometimes struggle to repeat their success from previous seasons. Most notably, it's rushing leaders too.

Last year's top-10 rushing list now looks as hot as "Frozen" merchandise.

Take a look at the league's 10 leading rushers last season -- only one of which remains in today's top 10 leading rushers:

  1. DeMarco Murray, 1,845 yards: Frustrated and trying to figure out his role in Philadelphia.
  2. Le'Veon Bell, 1,361: Two-game suspension hurt his early-season impact.
  3. LeSean McCoy, 1,319: Slowed by a hamstring injury.
  4. Marshawn Lynch, 1,306: Also slowed by a hamstring injury.
  5. Justin Forsett, 1,266: The only back to finish in the top 10 last year who's on the list this year, though he now is nursing an ankle injury.
  6. Arian Foster, 1,246: Missed the first three games following groin surgery.
  7. Eddie Lacy, 1,139: A start as slow as he sometimes has looked.
  8. Jeremy Hill, 1,124: Part of a time share in which he has been outplayed.
  9. Frank Gore, 1,106: Struggling to find the success in Indianapolis he enjoyed in San Francisco.
  10. Lamar Miller, 1,099: Miami has been an early-season mess.

This year's rushing leaders list is filled with old names such as Chicago's Matt Forte and Arizona's Chris Johnson, new names such as Atlanta's Devonta Freeman and San Francisco's Carlos Hyde, and familiar names such as Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard.

The running backs shining this year are players who didn't always get that chance last year. It is more proof of how interchangeable some running backs can be, and how sometimes many of these running backs simply need an opportunity to shine.

But five weeks into the season, it's jarring to see some of the changes that this season has brought. In totality, there has been almost a complete turnover of top-10 running backs.

Broncos defense could challenge sack record

As the Broncos and Browns prepare to square off in their most significant matchup since their AFC Championship Game showdowns, Denver is fielding its best defense since its Orange Crush salad days.

The Broncos already have rung up 22 sacks and are on pace to challenge the single-season record of 72 set by the 1984 Chicago Bears.

Denver has been so good and so deep that it now has 11 individual players with as many or more sacks than the entire Miami Dolphins defense, which has only one.

Even Broncos linebacker Corey Nelson, who has played six snaps on defense this season -- three against Baltimore, three against Minnesota -- has as many sacks as a Dolphins defense that has $111,367,668 worth of guaranteed money invested in its current defensive line contracts.

It speaks to how well Denver's defense has played. There aren't many teams during the course of his 18-year career that Peyton Manning hasn't had to carry. This is one. In fact, for the first time in his career, Manning is playing on a team in which the defense is more feared than the offense.

Injuries affecting NFL draft prospects

Injuries have dramatically affected the NFL season -- see Jamaal Charles, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Marshawn Lynch and others.

But indirectly, they also have impacted future NFL seasons too.

Some of college football's top NFL prospects have suffered season-ending or significant injuries that could impact their draft stock and drop their draft-day value, even as recently as last weekend with Georgia running back Nick Chubb.

There already have been so many significant college injuries that an all-star team could be constructed from the players affected by them:

Quarterback: Malik Zaire/Notre Dame (future prospect)

Running back: Nick Chubb/Georgia (top-two RB prospect in 2017),   Jonathan Williams/Arkansas (projected third-round pick),  James Conner/Pittsburgh (projected third),  Tarean Folston/Notre Dame (a top RB prospect for 2017)

Tight end: Durham Smythe/Notre Dame,  Pharaoh Brown/Oregon (both prospects)

Wide receiver: Byron Marshall/Oregon (projected mid-round pick),  Corey Smith and  Noah Brown/Ohio State,  Robert Foster/Alabama (all prospects)

Offensive line: Jack Conklin/Michigan State (projected first-round pick)

Defensive line: Howard Brantley/Missouri (projected second-round pick),  Jarron Jones/Notre Dame (second),  Eddie Vanderdoes/UCLA (early-round),  Carl Lawson/Auburn (second)

Linebacker: Scooby Wright III/Arizona (projected early-round pick),  Ed Davis/Michigan State (fourth),  Curt Maggitt/Tennessee (fifth),  Myles Jack/UCLA (first)

Defensive back: Jalen Mills/LSU (second),  Karl Joseph/West Virginia (second),  Tony Conner/Ole Miss (third),  Fabian Moreau/UCLA (mid),  Kendall Fuller/Virginia Tech (first)

The NFL already has its eyes on these players, and injuries won't prevent them from playing. It just makes their journey to the NFL a bit more challenging.

Indy's pass defense the most deflated of all

Regardless of any Deflategate revenge plot, there is every reason to expect that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will continue his MVP run Sunday night at Indianapolis.

The Colts are ranked 28th in pass defense and the quarterbacks they have faced are Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles and the Ryan Mallett/Brian Hoyer combo.

The Colts beat the Texans last Thursday night, but consider that with many of the same New England offensive concepts employed by Houston coach Bill O'Brien -- a former Patriots offensive coordinator -- Mallett and Hoyer combined for 362 yards on 31-of-41 passing against the Colts secondary.

The Colts also have allowed 22 pass plays of 20-plus yards (tied for the most with the Raiders) and have only six sacks through five games (29th).

The game may be played on enemy ground but it appears to a Brady-friendly environment.