-- 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
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 this year's 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 coverages (24 tackles in 2015).
Prosise finished his junior season with 1,032 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 162 carries (6.6 yards per carry) and 38 catches for 302 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 2015 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 24 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 for Monday night's game 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.
But after Foster retired and after the Dolphins missed out on Gurley, Miller and Anderson, they 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. But he has held up fine. The Dolphins didn't get the other running backs they wanted, but Ajayi has become another reminder that accidental acquisitions and fall-back finds sometimes have far greater impacts 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.
But Coughlin's r?sum? 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.
Emptying the notebook
-- Adam Schefter and? Chris Mortensen