NFL innovations we owe to the Cincinnati Bengals

by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk

Picture if you will: having just failed to make the full 10 yards (other websites are available), the hurry-up offence goes straight back into formation. The ball is snapped and the quarterback takes three steps back before making a short pass to his tight end. Meanwhile, the defence tries a zone blitz, sending linebackers forward to hunt down the QB while a defensive lineman drops back to cover the throw.

This play features three well-known elements of the game: the short-pass focus of the West Coast offense popularised by the 49ers, the no-huddle offence that took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls and the zone blitz, a foundation of the successful Pittsburgh teams of the 1990s.

But did you know that they all owe their existence to the Cincinnati Bengals?


THE WEST COAST OFFENCE


If you know your US geography, you’ll be aware that Ohio isn’t on the west coast, or anywhere near it. The scheme is so named because it came to prominence when Bill Walsh was the Head Coach at San Francisco – about as far west as you can go without getting your feet wet – in the 1980s. He made the system famous in red and gold, for sure, but it all started when Walsh was the Bengals’ offensive coordinator under HC Paul Brown (more of him later).

The West Coast offence is a high-percentage passing game. The system uses swing passes, slants, crossing routes and flat passes, close to the line of scrimmage, to spread a defence, before occasionally letting rip with longer passes into the gaps created by the defensive shifts. With the QB dropping back three or five steps and using his running backs and tight ends as additional receivers for short throws, it offers less chance of a “take it to the house” play but, on the other hand, completion percentages are higher and turnovers lower.

So how did Walsh come up with the idea? Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention and the Bengals needed a solution when rookie QB Greg Cook injured his shoulder in Week 3 of 1969, having thrown five TDs in his first two games. In response, Walsh completely redesigned his offence to compensate for Cook’s limited arm movement. The approach also suited his successor, Virgil Carter, a more mobile and accurate QB who led the league in passing percentage in 1971. Then his replacement, the legendary Ken Anderson, faired even better, steering the Bengals to a division title in his first year.

AP Photo

Alas, in 1975, when Paul Brown retired, Walsh was passed over for the HC job so he headed west, to Stanford University and the San Diego Chargers, before his legendary 10-year stint with the Niners. This is where he turned the “Cincinnati offence”, as he dubbed it, into an institution. The West Coast offence turned Joe Montana into one of the game’s GOATs and helped the 49ers to win three Super Bowls. That trio of victories included two over the Bengals in 1981 and 1988. Oh, the irony!


THE NO-HUDDLE OFFENCE


Midway through his debut campaign as HC of the Bengals in 1984, Sam Wyche had a “Eureka!” moment with his team facing a third down and long. Why should the opposing defence be able to switch personnel to cover the throw that was bound to be coming their way?

At this time, “hurry-up” offences were commonly used when the game clock was running down but Wyche, along with offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, started using it regardless of how much time was left. Wyche began by boiling the huddle time down to about five seconds, despite being allowed 45 seconds between plays. He called this his “sugar huddle” because it was short and sweet.

George Rose / Getty Images

The concept involved having 12 or more players huddled up near the line of scrimmage, then those not involved skidaddled at the last second so as to not give their intended line-up away. If the defence then tried to switch personnel, the Bengals would quickly snap the ball and their opponents would be flagged for having too many players on the field. It also stopped the defence from regrouping for tactical purposes or for a breather. (As a result, the NFL changed in the rules, allowing defences to match an offence’s personnel changes before the snap.)

This soon evolved into the no-huddle offence and became the standard for the Bengals’ fast-paced play for several years. With QB Boomer Esiason at the epicentre, Wyche had three winning seasons, then bombed in ’87, but was given one more chance by (then owner) Paul Brown. It paid off: he led the Bengals to a 12-4 record and a run to the Super Bowl, where they only lost to (Bill Walsh’s) Niners in the final minute.

Bizarrely, because most coaches were convinced it wasn’t the secret behind the Bengals’ success, no one copied it. Well, no one other than Marv Levy, the coach of AFC rivals the Buffalo Bills. He turned the system, which he constantly tried to neutralise, into his own Jim Kelly-led “K-Gun”, going to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s on the back of it.


THE ZONE BLITZ DEFENCE


As a defensive coordinator with Pittsburgh, Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz system helped the Steelers triumph in Super Bowls XL and XLIII. And as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, LeBeau used it as recently as 2017. But again, it all began in Cincinnati.

LeBeau, the Bengals’ defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator throughout the 1980s, devised a scheme that has become one of the most well-known in the NFL. To be totally fair, its inventor was actually Dolphins defensive coach Bill Arnsparger in 1971 but it didn’t gain traction until Lebeau refined and popularised it in the Eighties.

In essence, the zone blitz employs pass rushes and pass coverage from unexpected personnel. Five or more players are assigned to rush the quarterback, while players initially lined up to rush are dropped back into pass coverage. So for example, two linebackers and three linemen rush forward while a fourth lineman drops back. This misdirection is designed to confuse the offence about who will rush the passer, and from what angle, and who will retreat into the spaces left behind.

Shortly after Wyche became HC, LeBeau was promoted to defensive coordinator. Initially, he struggled against the West Coast offense (as did every other team at the time) but in 1987, he began doodling on a napkin on a flight back from a game. Safeties blitzing? Old hat. But linemen dropping back into pass coverage to nullify the big play if the blitz failed? That was new.

CincyJungle.com

By 1988, the Bengals were using a defence no one had ever seen, as well as running the aforementioned no-huddle offence. The combination took them all the way to Super Bowl XXIII, where they were 36 seconds from glory.

LeBeau left to become the defensive backs coach and later defensive coordinator with Pittsburgh. Sadly for Bengals fans, that’s where he perfected the system and turned the Steelers’ defensive unit into “Blitzburgh” as they stormed to five AFC Central titles from 1992 to 1997.


A WORD ON PAUL BROWN


If you look up Walter Camp, you’ll discover he’s known as the Father of American Football. He was the fella who coined the term “line of scrimmage”, decided on 11 players per team, and came up with the scoring system and the idea of downs. But Paul Brown – who hasn’t coached a football game for almost five decades and died in 1991 – remains the most influential figure in the NFL to this day.

That may sound like hyperbole but I kid you not, almost every facet of the game we know and love was introduced, improved or otherwise shaped by the co-founder and first coach of both Cleveland and Cincinnati. He is honoured in a team name (the Browns), a team’s home field (Cincy’s Paul Brown Stadium) and the NFL Coach of the Year award.

AP Photo

After coaching in high school, college and the military, Brown turned the way pro football teams operate on its head. He introduced such strange concepts as “strategy” and “preparation”. He hired a staff of full-time positional coaches. And he started scouting to improve the drafting process, all ideas that were eventually copied by every other franchise.

Brown is also credited with bringing in game plans, classroom study and testing players on their knowledge of a playbook; analysing game film of opponents; coaches and coordinators calling plays; and radio transmitters inside the quarterback’s helmet. And that’s barely scraping the surface.

The “pocket”, where offensive tackles turn outwards and create a horseshoe shape to buy a quarterback extra time? Brown’s idea.

Practice squads? Brown too.

The helmet facemask? Yep, you got it.

The 40-yard dash for evaluating player speed? Right again.

Despite his many accomplishments, Brown was not universally liked, as his Draconian, controlling ways often led to conflict. Nonetheless, his concepts can be traced like DNA through those who came after him, including Don Shula, Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden and Andy Reid. Not a bad lineage. 


Banner image credit: Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

NFL Droughts

By Richard O’Brien (@richard_obs)

In the wake of Liverpool winning their first Premier League since it’s conception and 30 years, 58 days since their last league title, sporting droughts have been a hot topic as of late.

Whether you are looking to forget Liverpool’s title or a fan looking for some optimism in what seems like the dark age of your favourite franchise, we’ll take a look at the longest droughts which are set to be broken in the upcoming season.


The Cleveland Browns


19 Year Playoff Drought


Let’s get the obvious one out of the way, the Cleveland Browns.

As is reminiscent with the aforementioned Liverpool side, the Browns found themselves turn from a historic franchise winning a combined 4 NFL championships under the likes of legendary Jim Brown and co, to frequently finding themselves as the butt of the joke for verging on the past two decades.

As every NFL fan knows all too well, the drought of the Browns has been characterised not only by its length, but the extraordinary and spectacular failings of the team.

Baker Mayfield and post-hype Browns: Why big improvement should be ...
Mark J. Rebilas 

Whether that be the winless season or last season in which the Browns were hyped up by many to be Superbowl contenders, only to put themselves out of playoff contention by winning only 2 games in the first half of the season.

Whilst the Ohio based organisation does have a reasonably difficult schedule, being in a tough division and having to play at Dallas and Tennessee, now seems as good a time as any to make their first playoff appearance since the 2002 AFC Wildcard game.


The Dallas Cowboys


26 Year Championship Drought


Replacing the Browns as the most hyped up team heading into the new season, the Cowboys’ fans look to be rewarded for their wait with an NFL championship come February.

Although there are still question marks over the contract dispute between the organisation and their franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, everything else appears to be in order for America’s team to reclaim their perch. Much to the relief of Dallas fans worldwide, Jason Garrett has left the helm after a decade in the role of Head Coach. Garrett was replaced in the offseason by Mike McCarthy who coincidentally won his only Superbowl ring with the Green Bay Packers the same season that Garrett took over the role as Head Coach of Dallas.

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Aside from coaching, although this was often the focal point of Dallas’ fans frustrations over recent years, the initial eye test is that the organisation has drafted well securing Ceedee Lamb as the heir apparent to Michael Irvin to join an already stellar offense.

Although I’m still sceptical about the Cowboys chances to win it all, primarily because of the hype and lingering taste of the failure to meet expectations in the past, the aspirations are certainly still there from many.


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers


14 Year Playoff Drought


Likewise, the Bucs have been an exciting and intriguing prospect for many fans heading into the 2020 season. The Buccaneers previous season was as much reminiscent of a roller coaster as any regular season can be.

From defensive highs like franchise record and league leading sacks from Shaq Barrett’s 19.5 sacks to the lows ranking 29th in overall defense. And of course, the offense. The rollercoaster effect was usually the cause of former first overall pick Jameis Winston who threw for over 5,000 yards and over 30 touchdowns, a feat many Hall of Fame QBs failed to achieve, but also threw 30 interceptions and set the record for 7 interceptions returned for touchdowns.

NFL: Tom Brady gets fresh start, Bruce Arians vies for legacy
Carmen Mandato / Getty

However, there were signs of life under new head coach Bruce Arians and with the high profile additions of former Patriots duo Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the Bucs look set to make their first playoff appearance since 2007.

Whilst some of the more optimistic fans have pointed to experienced, serial winners in Brady, Gronk and Arians as evidence of a possible title, whether that be divisional or a Superbowl ring, playoffs are certainly within reaching distance.


Buffalo Bills


26 Year Divisional Title Drought


On the face of it, the New England Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC East appears to be over. Although the Patriots are still making attempts to hold their title as the top dogs in the division, with the addition of Quarterback Cam Newton to a 1 year deal, the Bills are looking to claim their first divisional title since 1995.

The Bills ended the 1995 regular season with a record of 10 wins and 6 losses, a record they will be looking to match at the very least in the upcoming season. The team’s defense ranked 3rd overall in 2019, and whilst the 2019 pro bowler and interception leader Tre’Davious White grabs the spotlight, the Bills have consistent quality throughout their defense.

Jordan Poyer: Buffalo Bills' defense is 'the best I've ever been on'
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Where the team has looked to improve the most this offseason is the other side of the ball, by adding wide receiver Stefon Diggs this past offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings which cost them their 2020 1st round pick among some other deal sweeteners.

The signs of the Patriots dynasty finally meeting its death, whilst historically have been greatly exaggerated, seem as comprehensive as they will ever be. Now, the position is there for the Bills to take the mantle as the top team in the AFC East for the first time in 25 years.

For me, the only question that remains is whether Josh Allen will continue improving and making the necessary leap required heading into his third season to make the Bills the new beast from the East.

Super Cam to the Rescue?

By Andy Goddard (@Godsy1985)

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t surprise you anymore, Cam Newton is a Patriot! The news broke early Monday morning that the Patriots and Newton had agreed on an incentive-laden 1 year deal which has led to a rather large split in the fan base.

Image taken from ESPN

Newton, 31, had been without a team since his release from the Carolina Panthers in March 2020 and questions will still be asked regarding his recent injuries and ability to perform. The former league MVP only managed to play 2 games in the 2019 season due to a Lisfranc fracture and he also required surgery for a shoulder injury in March 2017.

Regardless of the injury concerns, this deal just makes too much sense for both parties. In a league where every other starting quarterback job is occupied, the Patriots give Newton the most realistic opportunity to compete for a starting job. The Patriots may still believe in Jarrett Stidham as a starting QB but the chance to sign someone of Newton’s calibre was always going to be of interest to head coach, Bill Belichick.

The self proclaimed ‘Super-Cam’ has a resume that speaks for itself. In 2015, Newton lead the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl and was awarded the league MVP after a 15-1 season. He has been selected to three pro bowls, was the 2011 rookie of the year and holds numerous Panthers and NFL records.

Bill Belichick will be happy to have Cam on the Patriots roster. Newton has a 2-0 record against the Patriots throwing for 6 touchdowns and just 1 interception with a 72% completion rate! Furthermore, Newton has a great record against all of the AFC East teams boasting a 7-1 record with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

This is a typical Belichick move. Heading into the 2020 season, the Patriots have no cap space and appeared to be ready to roll with Jarrett Stidham as their starter at quarterback but they have managed to work a deal that will cost the league minimum for a former league MVP! Newton can reportedly earn up to $7.5m with incentives.

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The Patriots could have just come away with the bargain of the off-season, the risk versus reward just makes this a no-brainer. If Newton can return to anywhere near his 2015 form, both parties will be able to work out a longer deal. If Cam plays well and is picked up as a free agent at the end of the 2020 season, then the Patriots could get a 3rd round compensatory pick in the 2022 draft, and If Cam is cut then there isn’t a big hit to the salary cap.

So why is there such a split in the fanbase? To say Cam Newton is eccentric is an understatement. He is very outspoken to the point of arrogance and some people cannot get over the fact he didn’t try to recover a fumble in Super Bowl 50, where he appeared to shy away from taking a hit. Unfortunately for Cam, he is following Tom Brady who was always seen as a ‘team player’ restructuring contracts and making decisions to give the team the best chance for success.

Then we have the injury concerns.

A fit and healthy Cam Newton would not have been available for the league minimum and he hasn’t been healthy since the first half of 2018! With the current corona virus outbreak, teams haven’t been able to get Newton in for a workout so it was always going to be hard to get a team to commit to him as a starter on significant money.

Before the injuries in 2018, Cam Newton had started the season very well leading the Panthers to a 6-2 start. Newton had a passer rating of 100.8 (10th in the league) after Norv Turner adapted the offense and gave Cam shorter passes to throw. This led to his completion percentage rising to 67.3 percent and averaging 4 touchdowns to every interception. Newton then suffered the shoulder injury that would later lead to surgery.

Image credit: Jason E. Miczek – AP

However, one distinction that needs to be made is that Newton had fully healed from the shoulder surgery and during the pre season camp (following surgery) it was reported that Newton had rediscovered the deep ball and looked to be back in primary position to lead the Panthers offense. In fact, at the start of the 2019 season he was overthrowing receivers as he appeared to be struggling when planting his foot, not struggling to get velocity on the ball.

Cam Newton will head into camp to battle it out with Jarrett Stidham to be the starter come week 1 and right now it’s difficult to know which quarterback the Patriots will go with. Is it possible for Newton to fit into the current Pats offence or is Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick formulating a new playbook to maximise Newtons assets? Josh McDaniels managed to get to the playoffs with Tim Tebow playing quarterback, and actually win one game. Cam’s skillset is much higher than Tebow so the thought of a McDaniels offense with Newton under center is an exciting proposition, especially with a solid offensive line. The Patriots offence morphs from game to game, highlighting other teams weaknesses and putting their players in the best position to succeed so a new scheme wouldn’t be a big surprise.

One major advantage is that the Patriots had already been planning around a run heavy offense by investing in their offensive line, David Andrews returning from IR, signing fullback Danny Vitale and drafting two tight ends who can both block. The Patriots will surely utilise zone read option plays and may even look at what Baltimore did in the 2019 season as a blueprint.

Belichick is a coaching genius but he has never had a player with the skillset of Cam Newton. The 9 year vet has a great chance of starting week 1 and succeeding in the 2020 season. The former number 1 overall pick in 2011 may see this as his last chance and that may be bad news for the rest of the league.

Have the Patriots just become real contenders again or is ‘Super Cam’ now just ‘backup Cam’? If he is fit and healthy, the Patriots have their new man under Center!

Intriguing contract-year conundrums

By Sean Tyler @seantyleruk

2020 will see a wealth of the NFL’s top players hit their contract year on one level or another. There’s obviously Dak Prescott at Dallas, looking to get paid for four years rather than five, but we yak about Dak elsewhere on the site so let’s park him for now. The F10Y gang have also discussed Minnesota’s Captain Holdout, Dalvin Cook, on a recent podcast so again, I’ll step away.

The old timers, like Philip Rivers at the Colts, new Raiders tight end Jason Witten and fellow TE Greg Olsen, now in Seattle, will probably see out their careers one year at a time. And barring disaster, many of those under the franchise tag, from Jalen Ramsey to Chris Jones, will probably waltz right into their next big deal.

But which players have more uncertain futures? Who has everything to play for – or all to lose – this year?


Cincinnati Bengals: Can AJ rediscover the old magic?

John Grieshop/Getty Images
Status: Franchise tagged

While Cincy need to work on a deal for Joe Mixon, Adriel Jeremiah Green is the real head-scratcher. There’s a lot of speculation surrounding AJ, which isn’t surprising, given that the veteran has missed almost a year and a half with an ankle injury sustained in the first offseason training camp and, before that, turf toe. When healthy, Green has been one of the league’s best receivers and currently ranks second in franchise history in receptions (602), receiving yards (8,907) and touchdowns (63). Green hasn’t taken the field since November 2018, which is why the seven-time Pro Bowler got franchise tagged.

There’s no doubting AJ’s pedigree but the big question is, just how much will age and recent injury woes impact his performance? We’ll have to wait till mid-September to see whether he’s worth tying up longer-term in the Queen City. Turning 32 before another snap is played, his current one-year, $18 million “prove it” arrangement is eminently sensible. But should he endure another injury-ravaged campaign, there’s a distinct possibility he’ll be out the door and relying on short-term contracts for the rest of his career.

Green and the Bengals front office have been in talks over a third multi-year deal for a while now but as yet, there’s no agreement. Unless something gets inked before the 15 July deadline, he’ll be in the same boat next off-season. The Bengals rejected trade offers so they must want him around but will they commit to three or four years for a player who’s missed 29 of the last 64 games? If he gets back to his old self and clicks with rookie QB Joe Burrow, I reckon so…


New Orleans Saints: Is Jameis the heir apparent?

Status: One-year deal

As one of the league’s top runners, Alvin Kamara is likely to get (over)paid Christian McCaffrey-esque amounts of money when his deal runs out. But I’m more intrigued to see how Jameis Winston’s one-year, $1.1 million deal plays out.

The 26-year-old is coming off a 5,000-yard, 30-TD season (yeah, OK, there were 30-odd interceptions too) so if Drew Brees is unavailable at any point, Winston could make watching the Saints even more exciting – or nerve-wracking, depending on your allegiances.

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The other incumbent, Taysom Hill, was given a rather generous extension for a 30-year-old who only ranks third on the current roster for passes to Saints players, behind Brees and, somewhat amusingly, Winston himself. (Yes, Jameis has been picked off 10 times by Saints defenders while at the Buccaneers, eclipsing Hill’s seven career pass completions!). Yet Hill, whose own $21 million contract is the third-highest for a back-up QB, is also a special teams Swiss Army knife and they may have other plans for him.

We won’t know for sure whether Winston will be the immediate stand-in, let alone the long-term answer, unless Brees goes down. But, much like Teddy Bridgewater last year, things could work out well if he fills in successfully for a few games.

For all his foibles, at least Winston is a known quantity but what if he sits out the whole year? The Saints will have quite the dilemma deciding what to do with the former #1 overall pick if he stays on the bench. Brees signed a two-year, $50 million contract in March so he won’t be put out to grass quite yet, so do they sit on Jameis for another year?

I think they do. I can see him learning the ways of Sean Payton so that when Brees does finally retire, the Saints have their long-term replacement primed and ready to go.


Chicago Bears: Do they trust Trubisky?

David Banks/Getty Images
Status: Fifth-year option rejected

I think we can safely say that, in acquiring Nick Foles during the offseason and declining Mitchell Trubisky’s fifth-year option, the Bears have put their QB on notice. It’s possibly a bona fide battle for the starting job in 2020 and it’s arguably Trubisky’s to lose at this point. But given his form since Chicago traded up to take him at #2 overall in the 2017 Draft – ahead of Deshaun Watson (oof!) and Patrick Mahomes (ouch!) – he may not start all 16 games. 

Over the last three campaigns, Trubisky clearly hasn’t progressed as expected, with a completion rate of 63.4%, an average of 6.7 yards per attempt and just 48 touchdowns. He’s also struggled with shoulder injuries, which is probably another reason why the final-year option wasn’t picked up.

In short, Trubisky needs a breakout season to keep Foles off the field, and propel the Bears to a playoff spot that really should’ve been theirs last year. Even if he suddenly becomes the QB they’d hoped he was three years ago, Chicago could franchise-tag him next year, just to be sure it’s not a flash in the plan. Or they might just trade him away, with Foles waiting in the wings. However it plays out, 2020 feels like a make-or-break year for Trubisky.


San Francisco 49ers: Where’s Trent Williams’ head at?

The Associated Press
Status: Final year of existing deal

It’s hard to see the Niners letting TE George Kittle walk away when his deal expires, and they may also have to budget for fellow contract-year teammates Richard Sherman and Kyle Juszczyk. So for me, the main question mark facing the 49ers is Trent Williams.  

Williams has been one of the best tackles in the NFL for years, competing with the likes of Jason Peters for being top of the class for pass and run blocking. But obviously, there are alarm bells concerning his health issues last year: a pre-cancerous growth on his head led to him sitting out the entire 2019 season, due to how he felt the Redskins medical staff handled the situation.

The 49ers traded for Williams during the 2020 Draft, so what kind of player will the 33-year-old be after such a protracted layoff? Well, he passed his medical, didn’t ask for an extension and restructured the final year of his existing deal so that he could prove himself. He’s also familiar with Kyle Shanahan, a former offensive coordinator in Washington, so he should prove to be a plug-and-play, Pro Bowl calibre starter in a position of need, having joined the Niners just as Joe Staley retired. Assuming he’s OK health-wise, I can only see this working out well for both parties.


Tennessee Titans: Will Derrick Henry get paid?

Status: Franchise tagged

Derrick Henry was a contract-year conundrum this offseason so the Titans slapped him with the franchise tag (just north of $10 million) to keep him away from free agency, giving the prolific running back another 12 months’ grace.

The 25-year-old half-man, half-tank led the league in rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16) in 2019, and almost single-handedly carried the team through their three playoff games. But the fact that he still hasn’t earned himself a multi-year contract says a lot about how teams undervalue running backs. It also says a lot about how much the Titans value QB Ryan Tannehill, who did get paid.

So where does this leave Mr Henry? The vibe between team and player seems pretty positive: he wants to be in Tennessee and Tennessee want him so hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before he gets the pay day his services deserve.


Pittsburgh Steelers: Has JuJu lost his mojo?

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Status: Fifth-year option declined

The Steelers have a lot of talent with a year left on the clock but they can’t afford to pay them all. They slapped the franchise tag on linebacker Bud Dupree and DT Cameron Heyward is probably due a monster, Aaron-Donald-like deal. Tackle Alejandro Villanueva could earn himself a new contract too, but RB James Conner may well leave, having taken a backwards step last year.

But what about his 2017 classmate, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? He needs a bounce-back season as much as anyone. In his 12 games last year, he totalled 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns – all career lows and certainly not numbers worthy of a No.1 receiver. With Diontae Johnson and James Washington showing promise, plus new draftee Chase Claypool, the odds of JuJu getting a big second contract are dwindling.

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I don’t know whether last year’s struggles were all due to the rotation of back-up quarterbacks, or if a team’s top wideout should still post decent numbers, whoever’s throwing the rock. Maybe it’s a bit of both but at least Ben Roethlisberger is back at the helm after missing most of last year. Perhaps this will help JuJu will get back to where he was in 2018: 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns, with a trip to the Pro Bowl thrown in, despite playing second fiddle to Antonio Brown.

Had he kept that momentum going last year, he might already have that extension in his pocket. But for now, the best Smith-Schuster can hope for now is a return to form and a franchise tag a year hence.


Jacksonville Jaguars: Is Fournette a bust?

Status: Fifth-year option declined

While the Bears deserve some stick for drafting Trubisky in 2017, the Jaguars are probably equally culpable for selecting Leonard Fournette at #4. With Blake Bortles (with a 11-34 record) on their books, a new QB might have been a wiser move but they aslo passed on two generational signal-callers and plumped for a running back. Even then, they picked the wrong one, with Christian McCaffrey available.

It’s easy to be critical with hindsight and Fournette is at least coming off his best season, after a terrible 2018. Despite just three TDs, his 1,674 total yards was a career high. But even when performing well, he’s not worth the big-money deal, which is why the Jaguars tried to trade him before rejecting his fifth-year option.

Without Jalen Ramsey, Nick Foles and Calais Campbell, the Jags could struggle this year. So, even if Fournette does well on an individual level, he’s still likely to end up signing a cheap, short free-agent deal with another franchise next off-season.


Los Angeles Rams: Will Cooper’s cup runneth over?

Action Images via Reuters
Status: Fifth-year option declined

The Rams have two big names playing in the final season of their rookie contracts. The first, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, will almost certainly recalibrate the value of elite CBs when a deal gets done. The other is WR Cooper Kupp.

A third-round section in the 2017 Draft, Kupp’s fifth-year option wasn’t taken up. Maybe the Rams’ miniscule salary cap space was a factor, having coughed up huge deals to Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and Brandin Cooks over the last couple of years, but it still came as a bit of a surprise to me.

Admittedly, an ACL injury ruled him out for half of 2018 but in his other two-and-a-half seasons, he’s notched 21 touchdowns and caught 196 passes for 2,596 yards (a figure boosted by the 220 he got against the listless Bengals defence at Wembley… but I digress).

Is Kupp special enough or productive enough to hit pay dirt? Well, his 1,161 regular season receiving yards (12th) and 10 touchdowns (second) were certainly up there with the best in 2019. Sure, he faces some fresh competition from rookie Van Jefferson and a plethora of undrafted free agent WRs, but I’d expect Kupp to have another solid season and sign a deal that keeps him in LA.


Atlanta Falcons: Is it too early to write off Gurley?

Status: One-year deal

After being let go by the Rams in March, Todd Gurley II found a new home in Atlanta just 24 hours later. Largely driven by concerns over his troublesome left knee, the brevity of his $6 million deal – it’s just for a year – marks quite the comedown from the 2018 deal that made him the highest-paid RB in NFL history: $60 million over four years. The fact that LA were willing to let the 25-year-old go, despite the massive hit in dead-cap money, speaks volumes. Ludicrously, despite not having to fork out a roster bonus, the Rams will still be paying Gurley more this year ($7.5 million) to play for the Falcons than the Falcons will!

In five seasons with the Rams, Gurley rushed for 5,404 yards and scored 58 touchdowns; he also caught 218 passes for 2,090 yards and 12 more TDs. He was 2017’s NFL Offensive Player of the Year but by the end of 2018, things had gone sour in LA. Then, last year, Gurley rushed for a career-low 857 yards and while questions about his knee persisted, Rams coach Sean McVay swore he was healthy and eventually called himself an idiot for not giving him more touches.

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So will Gurley’s homecoming of sorts – he’s a product of the University of Georgia – enable him to earn himself a longer, more lucrative deal? It feels like a crucial year for HC Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff as they target the playoffs so if they get there, even partly due to Gurley, the next contract shouldn’t be an issue.

With a wealth of talent around him – Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst – Gurley doesn’t need to be superman. He just needs to stay healthy, and give Atlanta’s anaemic, 30th-ranked running game some life support. As a replacement for the outgoing Davonta Freeman, Gurley could just be the man to save the day.

Banner image credit: Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

Top 10 NFL quarterbacks going into 2020

By Kieran Patterson (@DCCYTFootball)

Every season there is one position valued above all others, a position that’s scrutinized and picked apart more than any other…the quarterback.

With the position being so varied between teams, players styles and schemes I think it would be interesting to take a look at the top 10 signal callers in the league, break them down and see who is going to be exciting to watch going into the 2020 season.


Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans


I know off the bat I’m going to get flack for this. I know it. Not only was the former number 8 overall pick a complete bust in Miami, he was also injury prone. Every season he played the full 16 games he threw double digit interceptions and struggled to help the Dolphins get anywhere.

So what changed in Tennessee?

Better coaching? More motivation? Better culture? Regardless of what changed at the Titans, it worked. In the 12 games he took the field (only started 10) he put up 2,742 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He had 4 less touchdowns than Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes while only starting 10 games!

Tennessee Titans' Ryan Tannehill named best QB at 4 types of throws
Jim Brown – USA Today Sports

Behind a dynamic hardnosed offence that includes man mountain Derrick Henry and dynamic Wide Receivers like AJ Brown, Cory Davis and Adam Humphries this offence has all the power it needs to take them deep into the playoffs again. Possibly even a Superbowl appearance.

This isn’t just me jumping onto a player who had a hot season, this is me telling you that the Titans are dangerous and can beat any team they face off against this year. Good luck stopping them.


Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers


You might be asking why I have a future all of famer this far down this list. Well it’s not only his lack of weapons but actually his recent productivity.

Last year Rodgers posted a respectable 4,002 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Couple that with the fact that not only is he missing weapons he’s not getting any younger. The Packers realized this and that’s why they brought in Jordan Love.

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Now my personal opinions on Rodgers aside he is in fact a future first ballot Hall of Famer and an all time great. But I think we see him start to wind his career down now. With little to no offensive weapons to help him move the ball I don’t see Rodgers living up to any of the hype we see around him and the Packers every year.

Sure he’s one of the best…but he can’t win games alone anymore.


Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49er’s


Now many people might call Patriots bias due to who drafted Jimmy Garoppolo and his history with the Patriots but if you’re familiar with my work then you know that I know what I’m talking about (I’m pretty good at this whole football lark).

The 49er’s are 19-5 with Jimmy G under center since he suited up in red and gold and 3-10 without him…now you tell me he’s not a difference maker. People love to hate on Jimmy G but watching him play is sensational, his release is one of the fastest in the league, he can make throws downfield, he makes fast reads and isn’t afraid to take a hit.

Jimmy Garoppolo back to throwing after torn ACL
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Last year Jimmy racked up 3,978 passing yards for 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Oh no he’s terrible despite having a stat line almost identical to Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers. With just a few more interceptions. Yeah tell me he’s bad again.

Despite coming up short in the Superbowl I think it would be foolish to not expect this even stronger 49er’s team to not tear it up next year and make another run at the Superbowl behind this super-powered offense.  


Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans


After Deandre Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in the off-season there was rumors that Deshaun Watson was looking from a way to escape Bill O’Brian too and the Patriots got mentioned…to say I was excited was an understatement.

Watson is unquestionably one of the most exciting signal callers in the league he’s a great athlete with a really accurate arm and despite his O-Line failing to keep him upright most of the time he still manages to make plays and as long as he’s on the field the Texans are still in the game. Watson has taken the Texans to playoffs for 2 of his 3 seasons, the exception being his rookie year.

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Last year he had a great season but unfortunately fell to the eventual Superbowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs. He went into the playoffs with  3,852 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also tallied 413 ground yards taking 7 touchdowns in with his feet.

Despite losing Hopkins, Watson still has a strong defense and competent offensive pieces to aid him going into the 2020 season which will be crucial in helping the Texans to their 3 playoffs berth in as many years.

Hopefully Watson wears a visor this year so he doesn’t nearly lose an eye while escaping the pocket.


Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints


When it was reported that Drew Brees has already signed a TV deal ahead of the 2020 season I think that was almost a confirmation that this was his last 2 years as a player.

Despite playing at a high level his whole career an MVP award has always alluded this man, not that he hasn’t deserved it. The future hall of famer has one last shot at the MVP and he’s in a great position to do it with the team around him.

Drew Brees responds to Donald Trump on national anthem: 'I realize ...
Mark Zaleski/AP

With a pro-bowl supporting cast including players like Alvin Kamara, Micheal Thomas and Taysom Hill it’s not hard to picture this Saints team making it back to the playoffs. Last season Brees unfortunately missed 5 games due to a thumb injury he picked up in week 2 against the rams. After back up Teddy Bridgewater came in and went 5-0 in his absence Brees returned and managed to finish with 2,079 passing yards, 27 Touchdowns and 4 interceptions.

Despite struggling against the Vikings in the playoffs in the past 3 years Brees has all the tools to finally make it to the big game and despite Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Jimmy G all being in the NFC it’s not smart money to bet against this man.


Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks


Now if I had to pick one quarterback to extend a play as long as possible until someone gets open, I’d pick Russell Wilson.

For pretty much his whole career Wilson had played behind one of the worst O-Lines in history, no matter what he’s tried to make plays and subsequently pulled off some of the most jaw dropping plays in NFL history.

Seahawks' Russell Wilson using Google to prep for Pittsburgh ...
Joshua Bessex

A true leader of men Wilson would earn a place on this list for almost every year he’s been in the NFL. Last season the Seahawks signal caller threw for 4,110 yards, 31 touchdowns and 5 interceptions taking the Seahawks to the playoffs for the 7th time in Wilson’s 8 year tenure with the Seahawks.

It seems a this point a guarantee that Wilson and the Seahawks will see post season action, with stiff competition now in the NFC how far can Wilson take his men?

Time will tell, but with this man as a signal caller the Seahawks won’t go down without a fight.


Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Tom Brady will be 43 years old when the NFL season kicks off this year. 43. Just let that sink in for a moment.

So after one of his worst seasons in 2019 Brady decided to leave for pastures new in Tampa Bay. Whether it was him butting heads with Bill Belichick or him feeling under appreciated by the team he spent the last 20 years of his life leading, Brady left the Patriots. He’s walked into a great situation in Tampa. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, OJ Howards, JF3 and oh…Rob Gronkowski are just a few reasons why Tampa Bay is looking to be the best team in the NFC this year.

At 43 Brady will 100% slow down, it’s just nature but if that Tampa Bay pocket gives him 2-3 seconds every snap then no doubt they’re dangerous. Now last year on a team plagued with injuries, young players making mistakes and an O-Line made out of paper Brady managed to throw for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Pretty good considering.

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So now put him on a team with Gronk who’s in the conversation for best tight end ever, Mike Evans a rough and ready wide receiver who can out muscle anyone covering and high points balls like a man twice his size, Chris Godwin who can take the top off a secondary and might be one of the fastest guys in the league and the little mentioned JF3 a Taysom Hill type player with 4.19 speed and agility to match. SCARY.

I think if this Tampa Bay team doesn’t make the playoffs it will be the biggest shock the league has ever seen. They’re almost a lock for the Superbowl and Brady vs Mahomes would be one of the most fun matchups ever. This Tampa Bay team is going to be fun to watch with the GOAT at the helm.


Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills


If it wasn’t for Lamar Jackson winning the MVP then Josh Allen would’ve been number 2 instead of here. Josh Allen is my favorite quarterback in the league and that’s coming from a Patriots fan. He’s got a bazooka for an arm, he’s athletic and he’s tough.

Josh Allen has come into a long snakebitten franchise and completely changed the energy. In his Rookie season he played in 12 games throwing for 2,074 yards for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also added a further 631 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns. Oh and he hurdled over Anthony Barr against the Vikings. That was pretty great.

ESPN highlights where Bills QB Josh Allen needs to improve
John Munson / AP

In his sophomore season he really improved starting in all 16 games putting up 3,089 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while adding 510 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

Between his huge frame and cannon arm he really does look like a movie quarterback in every sense of the word. He came into the league with so much potential and only last year did he scratch the surface in terms of what he’s really capable of. The Bills unfortunately dropped out of the playoffs early another one and done situation.

Look for them to make a deep run this year taking on the likes of the Ravens, Titans and Chiefs along the way. If they can beat a team like the Chiefs in the playoffs I’d say they’d be a safe bet to win the big game come February.


Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens


Honestly the number 2 on this list was hotly contested for a whole host of reasons but reigning MVP Lamar Jackson just edged it.

Showing massive improvements in his passing game during his sophomore season Jackson was one of the most electric playmakers in the league. With a mix of great throws and ridiculous speed and agility on the ground Jackson was a true duel threat.

The year he was drafted I was on record saying he might be one of the best quarterbacks we’ve seen in a long time and 100% the best quarterback in his class. Not only did he stick to his guns when teams wanted him to work out as receiver he showed true improvement in his passing game taking his completion percentage from 58.2% in his rookie season to 66.1% in his sophomore year.

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In his first season as a starter (starting all 16 games) he put up 3,127 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and 6 interceptions plus his staggering 1,206 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns there’s a reason why he won MVP. While he does look like he struggles in the playoffs it clear that Jackson is a true duel threat and more than a handful for any NFL defense.

Expect the Ravens to appear in the playoffs again this year as they finally try as Lamar finally tries to break the one and done showings of his first 2 years.

He is on the cover of Madden though…but then again Patrick Mahomes may have ended the Madden curse for good


Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs


Former MVP and reigning Superbowl champion, Patrick Mahomes might be the best quarterback in the league right now.

The former 2017 first round pick sat his full rookie season, which is something I actually recommend for most quarterbacks coming into the league.

Fresh from blinding stat lines at Texas Tech one of which was throwing for 734 yards in a game (819 combined yards) against Oklahoma. It was clear Mahomes had talent and the Chiefs coaching staff realized sitting him behind a veteran like Alex Smith was a great idea.

It paid off.

In his first season as a starter Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on the road to an MVP award and AFC championship game. In his first year as a starter…that’s crazy. His stats saw a slight drop in 2019 where he threw for 4,031 yards, 26 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He did go on to win the Superbowl though so I’m sure he’s not too upset.

Super Bowl 2020: Several Super Bowl records set or tied as Chiefs ...
Robert Deutsch / USA Today Sports

Mahomes looks to be the best quarterback in the league for years to come, he’s got a cannon for an arm, great feet and awareness which allow him to extend plays and he understands football. If you could pick the best quarterback in the league at this exact moment, it’s Mahomes.

I can’t wait to see how the rest of his career plays out. Honestly I feel like it’s a given that the Chiefs at least appear in the AFC Championship game behind one of the best offences the NFL has ever seen, appearing to have broke the Madden curse with a Superbowl win and Superbowl MVP award to boot.

Flying the flag: The British NFL players in 2020

by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk

It’s probably not that surprising that British athletes carving out a solid career in the NFL have been few and far between. Obviously, there have been a few: London-born running back Jay Ajayi played for the Dolphins before winning Super Bowl LII with the Eagles, while Osi Umenyiora, now a pundit on The NFL Show, is another Londoner with a ring, thanks to the Giants’ surprise win over the Patriots a decade earlier. Before him, Hertfordshire’s finest, Mick Luckhurst, played his entire career as a kicker with the Falcons before becoming the face of Channel 4’s NFL coverage in the Eighties.

But what about now? Who are the guys born or bred on this side of the pond that we should be rooting for in 2020? Here’s the low-down…


THE EIGHT-YEAR PRO

Jack Crawford – Defensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans

Kara Durrette / Atlanta Falcons

You gotta love Jack. Raised in Kilburn, the early claim for this 6’5”, 20-stone bald guy (due to alopecia) was being at school with Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. He then moved to the States as a teenager with dreams of becoming an NBA star but due to international transfer rules, that didn’t pan out. Undaunted, he took up football in high school and after four years at Penn State, was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Not a bad plan B…

Crawford featured as a backup in his rookie season and appeared in 15 games the following year before being waived. He then enjoyed three-year spells with the Cowboys (you may have seen him at Wembley against the Jaguars in 2015) and the Falcons. Arguably not a starting-calibre lineman, Crawford, who has played at both defensive end and defensive tackle, has registered 136 tackles and 16 sacks to date.

A couple of months ago, Crawford signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. It’s hard to say how it’ll pan out for Jack as he enters his ninth year in the league, but he’s certainly able to fill in should Mike Vrabel need him to. With Austin Johnson signing with the Giants and five-time Pro-Bowler Jurrell Casey packing himself off to Denver during the off-season, there may even be a decent chance we might see him as a starting DT in 2020…


THE WORK IN PROGRESS

Jermaine Eluemunor – Offensive Guard, New England Patriots

Ron Schwane  / AP Photo

Now 25, Eluemunor was born in Chalk Farm, London, to a Nigerian/English family and grew up in Camden. He played rugby and cricket as a youngster – preferring the former – but got into football because of the other football, and in particular, his beloved Arsenal (check out @TheMainShow_ on Twitter).

The story goes that in 2007, he was skipping through the channels looking for the Arsenal match when he stumbled on the NFL International Series game between the Giants and Dolphins at Wembley. His interest piqued, he started down a path that would lead him to play high school football in New Jersey before attending Texas A&M. He and his father briefly came back to England but Eluemunor was allowed to return Stateside, as long as he graduated and put everything into pursuing a career in football.

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On the eve of the 2017 Draft, in which he was picked by the Ravens in the fifth round, Jermaine told The Independent Wherever I get picked, I’m gonna work as hard as I’ve ever worked to make this happen and my dream come true. This is just the start.”

And that he did. Eluemunor made the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) All-Rookie Team in his first year, and played 27 regular-season games and one postseason contest in Baltimore before being traded to the Patriots. The 335-pound offensive lineman played 10 times in New England last year and has been retained for the 2020 campaign. Sitting behind left guard Joe Thuney in the depth charts, he isn’t a starter but provides depth in the middle of the line and we should see him get a decent number of snaps this season.


THE INTERNATIONAL PATHWAY PROSPECT

Efe Obada Defensive End, Carolina Panthers

Rex Features

Obada had a tough start in life. Born in Nigeria before moving to the Netherlands, Obada and his sister got moved to London, where they slept rough and ended up in foster care. He fell into football when he saw how a college friend transformed himself playing for the London Warriors.

Looking for some cameraderie, Obada joined him and was taken under the wing of Aden Durde, who told his Dallas Cowboys contacts about Efe. Obada had only played five games for the Warriors when he was offered the chance to work out for Dallas, ahead of their Wembley game against the Jaguars. Despite his lack of experience, Efe was signed as an undrafted free agent a year later. It didn’t work out, nor did it with the Chiefs and Falcons, so his last hope was the NFL’s inaugural International Player Pathway Program, which placed him with the Panthers’ practice squad.

The following year, Obada become the first player from the program to make a 53-man roster, and played his first regular season game in Week 3 against the Bengals, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance. Last October, Obada posted a career-best 24 tackles and played in all 16 of Carolina’s games, including the Buccaneers game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Obada was named an honorary team captain for the 37-26 victory that day, a fitting tribute in front of a ‘home’ London crowd.

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Having signed a one-year contract extension in January 2020, Obada is heading into his third season with the Panthers. He’s shown promise so far but has yet to start in any of his 26 appearances to date and hasn’t recorded any sacks. By his own admission, he hasn’t established himself yet and, with a new HC Matt Rhule – let alone 2020 NFL Draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos jumping the queue at DE – he has his work cut out this season. It could be the most important of Obada’s career; he’s set to enter free agency in 2021 so let’s hope he can do enough to earn a longer contract.


THE FIRST-YEAR SUCCESS STORY

Jamie Gillan – Punter, Cleveland Browns

Getty Images

Growing up in Inverness, Scotland, Jamie’s all-consuming passion for rugby took him to Merchiston Castle, a boarding school in Edinburgh with a reputation for fast-tracking players into the Scottish national squad. As a promising fly-half, he developed a talent for kicking – one that would eventually stand him in good stead.

When his RAF dad was posted to Maryland, the Gillan family, including a 16-year-old Jamie, moved too. He had never watched football and initially, had no intention of playing it, but he asked to join the high school team, purely to keep fit during the rugby off-season. With a few tweaks to his technique, Gillan soon became an accomplished kicker and offers began to trickle in.

“All my mates were telling me you could get scholarships for kicking a ball and I didn’t believe them at first,” he told the BBC sport website last year, “but I thought I’d give it a try after I saw the guy missing field goals.”

Well, the punt – if you’ll excuse the pun – was worth it. A year ago, the undrafted rookie was brought in by the Cleveland Browns as a back-up to Britton Colquitt. And whaddya know, after some impressive pre-season turnouts – including a 74-yard punt and some robust, rugby-style tackles on punt returners – he took the starting job from the 10-year veteran.

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Known as “The Scottish Hammer” for his solid physique, the long-haired Scotsman soon got the fans and the pundits onside. Gillan was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September, and his debut campaign – 63 punts for 2913 yards, including a 71-yard season’s best – earned him a place on the PFWA All-Rookie team.

As he enters his second season, the sky’s the limit for Jamie. He’s been working out and bulking up even more so he should be raring to go by the time the new season starts.


THE INJURED VETERAN

Graham Gano – Kicker, Carolina Panthers

Irish Mirror

I have to hold my hand up to this one: before researching this article, I had no idea that Gano was born in Arbroath, Scotland. But his dad, a US Navy man, was stationed there when Graham was born.

Apparently, young Graham was a decent goalkeeper, and supported Bayern Munich and Scotland. Prior to attending high school in Florida, he was approached by a scout at the end of a summer tournament in which he’d excelled but he rejected the chance to move back to the UK… and join a little outfit called Manchester United.

Gano broke all sorts of Florida State records in his senior year, prompting a pick-up as an undrafted free agent in 2009 by the Ravens (they do like a Brit!). Alas, he was soon released and flirted with the inaugural United Football League, scoring the Las Vegas Locomotives’ championship-winning kick and leading the league in scoring and field goals.

Finally breaking into the NFL in 2009, Gano experienced an up-and-down three years at the Washington Redskins, where he earned a reputation for nailing game-winning field goals in overtime, yet had to compete for his job more than once.

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Since 2012, Graham has been a Panther. In his time, he hit the upright in Super Bowl L in the loss to the Broncos, and was named to a Pro Bowl in 2017, having made 96.7% of his FG attempts that year. Having sealed yet another OT win, against the Giants, in early October 2018 with a career-best 63-yard kick, he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury and missed the entire 2019 campaign, prompting the 32-year-old to have surgery.

Speaking to Panthers.com last August, he said “Whatever my future holds, I’m excited about it. I’m always going to keep a positive attitude, no matter what’s going on.” Gano’s a decent kicker – he only missed three FG attempts during 2017 and 2018 – so if he can battle back and compete for his old job again, there’s a chance he’ll be a rock-solid leg again in 2020.


THE PRACTICE SQUAD HOPEFUL

Christian Wade – Running Back, Buffalo Bills

Adrian Kraus / AP Photo

Christian Wade is currently on the Buffalo Bills practice squad, with hopes of another year of development ahead of him, but he’s already had an impressive career in rugby.

The lad from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, played for Wasps since his school days and went on to score 82 tries for them, which puts him fourth on the Premiership’s all-time list. He also represented England at all levels (alas, only the one national appearance though), and was also called up to the British and Irish Lions squad.

Frustrated with the lack of England opportunities, he decided to switch codes, clubs and countries and try out as an NFL running back, despite having zero experience. He came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, and spent last season in upstate New York on the Bills’ practice squad. Almost immediately, he made headlines, with a 65-yard TD run with his first-ever touch in a preseason game against the Colts, and a 48-yard run with his first catch.

Despite his undoubted speed and athletic ability, Wade failed to make the active roster last year and is yet to appear in a regular-season game. But he’s undaunted, telling The Telegraph “It has been a success to come across, learn the game, participate in practice at full speed and to play in preseason. I just want to keep improving. I’m going to give it the same energy as I did this year and see where that gets me.”


THE 2020 ROOKIE

Julian Okwara Defensive End, Detroit Lions

Mike Miller / One Foot Down

Okwara was born in London, when his mother was visiting family, but grew up near Lagos in Nigeria. He moved to North Carolina aged eight and eventually took up football, following his older brother Romeo through Ardrey Kell High School and Notre Dame on his way to the NFL. Romeo (also a defensive end) signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and was claimed off waivers by the Lions in 2018.

Julian was a standout at Notre Dame, making 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks over his last two seasons. And now, he finally catches up with Romeo, having been selected by Detroit in the third round of the 2020 Draft. According to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus, Okwara could prove to be the steal of this year’s class, after a broken leg toward the end of last season impacted his Combine and quelled any first-round chatter.

Helping to address one of the Lions’ biggest weaknesses last year, their pass rush (tied for second-last with just 28 sacks), Okwara – also considered an outside linebacker – may end up competing with Trey Flowers and Austin Bryant, as well as his big brother, for starting snaps.

Matt Patricia is getting a versatile player who can drop back into coverage or rush the passer. On signing with the Lions, he told Detroit Free Press reporters “They’re getting a pass rusher, great defensive end, someone who wreaks havoc in the backfield.”  So look out for Okwara to come out from his brother’s shadow and make a name for himself in the NFC North next season.


THE FREE AGENT

Josh Mauro – Defensive End (No current team)

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Mauro began his journey to the NFL in that hotbed of American football, St Albans, but started to play football at Stanford after he moved to the US.

The lad impressed the Steelers enough for them to sign him up as an undrafted free agent but he was released, kickstarting a tour of the league in subsequent seasons that took in the Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants (where he got caught up in some controversy over the use of a banned substance) and, finally, Los Angeles. With his one-year deal with the Raiders now at an end, the 6’6”, 290-pound run stuffer is currently looking for his next landing spot.

He’s made 30 starts in five seasons but now aged 28, the clock is ticking and I’m not sure we’ll see him take the field in the season ahead. Fingers crossed.

Kansas City Chiefs Draft Class Expectations

By Liam Lodge (@Liam66NFL)

Last week I looked at the draft of the Cincinnati Bengals, which you can find here.

To follow that I am now going all the way to the other end of the NFL spectrum and reviewing the draft class of the reigning champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.

For franchises like the Bengals who need to improve on a poor season, the object of the draft has to be finding the players that can help rebuild and recharge the team and increase the amount of positive results on the field. In the case of the Chiefs, the short-term aim is different – work towards staying ahead of the chasing competition; repeat last season’s success and defend the Super Bowl title.

This is the group that Kansas City fans hope will assist the team in remaining at the top of the NFL.


Image Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Round 1 (#32) –

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB), LSU


At the end of the first night the Chiefs made their opening selection with one of the best picks of the entire round.

There are actually very few offensive systems where it would feel as though Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s skill-set would not be valuable, but placing him in Kansas City’s high-powered offense is a wonderful fit and his large workload throughout the last college season should mean that he will be fine learning pro schemes.

He is the kind of back that is such a fun watch and uses his short and stocky build to full effect with a strong running style, possessing great balance and side-to-side movement – many of his best highlights show him slaloming away from defenders on the move so footwork and vision are both very good. Also has good top speed once he is in open space. Edwards-Helaire is the best receiving running back in the 2020 class and LSU used him on all sorts of routes.

It is this versatility that gives him the potential to flourish early out of the Chiefs backfield, especially on short-yardage downs.


Image Credit: Michael Chang - Getty

Round 2 (#63) –

Willie Gay Jr. (LB), Mississippi State


Gay Jr. flew up big boards everywhere by acing his NFL combine performance.

The ultra-athletic linebacker is capable of getting to the football from anywhere and his powerful tackling means he can finish plays very well.

He does look raw in some mental areas of play and needs to find more consistency, but defenders with his athleticism are often preferred by teams in today’s NFL, and the Chiefs took a chance on him in round two. They will hope Gay Jr. is a fast learner – if so, he could see some playing time along the linebacker formation during his rookie year as effort and toughness are certainly not an issue.

A big plus is that he has the traits required to play in the much-coveted hybrid LB role, with the speed to hold up in coverage even against medium and long passing situations.


Image Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Round 3 (#96) –

Lucas Niang (OT), TCU


There is a bit of “boom or bust” about Niang as a prospect, with scouts and analysts rather split on his overall potential pre-draft.

Indeed, I was relatively low on him while evaluating those at the offensive tackle position, yet I would not have been surprised if a team made Niang a second-rounder. For that reason, there could be some good value here if he hits his ceiling in the NFL, it should also be noted that injury concerns would have attributed to his fall to the bottom of the third.

He looks best as a run blocker, showing good instincts, positioning and the ability to force space for his running back to work through. In the passing game, Niang gets set well and is solid enough to develop into a long-term protector for quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The Chiefs coaching staff will surely have ideas about where they expect Niang to contribute and he will get opportunities to prove himself right across the offensive line as he has a technique suited to both tackle and guard.


Image Credit: Joe Robbins - Getty Images

Round 4 (#138) –

L’Jarius Sneed (S), Louisiana Tech


I evaluated and graded Sneed as a safety because that’s where he spent most of his final college season, but many will also have him as a cornerback.

He has a long, rangy style and looks and plays a lot taller than he actually is, with enough speed to react and get to plays quickly that come into his zone – demonstrating the sort of instincts for the ball that you want to see from your safeties.

He is like fellow defensive rookie Gay Jr. in that he will add some aggression and energy to his position group; bringing an all-effort approach to the game that should have the Chiefs’ fanbase warming to him.

Sneed was moved around a lot in the secondary, similarly to the career of Chiefs all-pro safety Tyrann Mathieu, who will no doubt be a mentor to Sneed now that they will compete on the same defense.


Image Credit: Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

Round 5 (#177) –

Mike Danna (DE), Michigan


Recent years have shown that it is not a bad idea to draft edge rushers from the University of Michigan. Danna was in fact only at Michigan for one season following a transfer and was used sporadically along the D line during his time there.

For a player that looks undersized and whose technique has quite a bit of room for growth, selecting Danna in the fifth round does feel like somewhat of a reach by the Chiefs. He does have good power and a quick first step; as his senior year saw him as a rotational defender you really have to trust in Danna’s strengths.

Kansas City obviously see some things they want to work with here and as they are pretty well set at defensive end, there is no huge rush in terms of developing Danna. He will be a project for a few years and it will be interesting to see if he can progress into a starting role.


Image Credit: Parker_Waters

Round 7 (#237) –

Thakarius Keyes (CB), Tulane


The Kansas City Chiefs certainly need to find more help at cornerback this off-season and at this point they traded back into the draft for one last go in round seven.

I think it was a surprise that they waited this far into the draft to select a CB, unless, as mentioned earlier, you are counting the Sneed pick as one at the position. The lack of depth remains an area to address, but taking Keyes here with their final pick is another good value move for the Chiefs.

He has plenty of upside and plays with good speed and physicality – looking comfortable at taking on receivers running a variety of routes on the outside, most effectively in close coverage. Keyes has some nice aggression to his playing style and will fight for a spot in the starting secondary from day one.

The Chiefs faithful should be optimistic about how the organisation went about this draft. In the immediate reviews and analysis, picking Edwards-Helaire became the favourite moment of the first round among many observers. He and Niang could certainly be making plays straight away on the offense as rookies.

The other selections, which all focus on the defensive side, are all developmental players with lots of potential, and Kansas City is the right team for all of them to realise that potential quickly. As these pre-season months for the Chiefs are all about ensuring they stay champions, this draft appears to have been a good way to begin that process.

The Dak Prescott Saga

By Richard O’Brien

The key story within the NFL this offseason, COVID-19 aside, has been the contract dispute between the Dallas Cowboys and their star Quarterback, Dak Prescott. The deal, or lack of, has received plenty of attention and speculation, with many members of the media portraying the negotiations as a clash of titans pitting Jerry Jones against the former fourth round pick. With that being said, we’ll look at the ongoing saga and the stage that has been set for the 15 July deadline for long term deals.


First of all, let’s look at the rumour. Reported by Chris Simms, the supposed rejected deal was a 5 year, $175 million contract which would have made Prescott the second highest annual earner slightly behind Russell Wilson. If this report is to be believed, Dak would receive $35 million per year. Simms also claimed the quarterback out of Mississippi State would be roughly on par as the highest earner in guaranteed money in line with the $110 million which Jared Goff received.

Following this claim by Simms, Prescott was met with harsh criticism for declining the proposed deal on grounds he wanted “north of $45 million in his final year”, but on further reflection, the saga may not be as clear cut as this.

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The key issue raised with the report of Chris Simms is the source. Prescott and his team were, up until this point, declining the opportunity to discuss with the media. Since this leak was made by Simms, the implication made by Prescott’s agent is that someone, on behalf of ownership or not, leaked a deal to exert public pressure onto Dak during negotiations.

To support this claim, Ian Rapport, an NFL insider, tweeted that both the team and Dak’s agent argue these claims are false and that the key issue is the length of the deal. Prescott wants a 4 year deal, whereas the Cowboys want to settle on a 5 year deal.

Another issue raised with the deal is guaranteed money. If the major contract deals of the past few years are anything to go by, guaranteed money is the key component of any player contract within the NFL. Whilst total figures of contracts appear extortionate, in reality the players usually receive a fraction of this amount depending on performances and injuries.

The annual figure of around $32.5 million to $35 million has been widely agreed as an accurate representation of what the former MSU Bulldog has been promised, and is owed. But the guaranteed money is more hazy. Although Simms claimed Prescott had been offered a similar amount to Goff, at around $110 million, this figure has been refuted since the report of Simms.

Many NFL experts believe the real figure to be much lower than this, leading to the franchise quarterback to reject the deal. Given that Prescott has only earned $4 million from his rookie contract given that he was a fourth round pick, it is only fair that he is now searching for a more attractive payout now.


To summarise what we know so far, a leak from within the Cowboys organisation inflated figures to exert pressure on Prescott to take a deal less financially lucrative. But, in reality, money isn’t necessarily the sticking point in the deal, but more accurately what percentage is guaranteed and the length of the contract.

Cowboys' Dak Prescott breaks silence on death of George Floyd ...
Tim Heitman

With that being said, it’s time to look at the stage which has been set. As the 15 July deadline inches closer, will a deal be done? There are plenty of those who doubt an agreement with be made with the two time pro bowler.

It has been argued that if the Cowboys genuinely believed Prescott to be their franchise quarterback he would have been payed last year and that Andy Dalton would not have been signed. Other notable draftees from the 2016 NFL Draft, Jarred Goff and Carson Wentz, were payed last offseason. And in addition to this, Dalton is a starting quality quarterback who could fill in for a disgruntled Prescott.

Whilst these arguments do have some validity to them, I do have my reservations about this case. Firstly, the Cowboys were in another contract saga this time last year with the Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliot who was threatening to sit out the season. Moreover, with regards to Andy Dalton, the move is a logical, precautionary move.

Bengals sound like they'll do right by Andy Dalton on his way out
Sam Greene

Whilst a side effect of the deal may be pressure put onto the former Rookie of the Year, I don’t believe this to be the sole focus of the deal. Firstly, to be able to sign a starting caliber quarterback to a 1 year $4million deal is an excellent business move. Prescott is yet to miss a game for the Cowboys. Take into account the Steelers’ season in 2019, Jones will be keen to avoid the scenario in which a talented team capable to making the playoffs is derailed by an injury. Prescott will miss a game at some point through injury, it is inevitable. But Jones has planned for this eventuality by signing Dalton.

In all likelihood, and if history is anything to go by, a deal will be made before the 15 July deadline.

Jerry Jones loves a star, and Prescott certainly is one. He has not only become the face of America’s team, but also of the NFL as a whole. As well as this, history shows Jones is willing to arguably overcompensate his star quarterback, as seen with Tony Romo.

Tony Romo "Done" Playing Football
Jerome Miron

Heading into the 2013 season, and with one playoff win under his belt, Jones signed Romo to a 6 year $110 million contract making him a top 3 earner in the league. Likewise, Dak is looking for a market setting deal despite having only 1 playoff win in his professional career as well. And finally, with the organisation in contention for their first Superbowl since 1996, the argument is that Jones would not risk this prospect before the season has even begun due to a dispute with the face of the franchise.


Ultimately, the saga between Prescott and the Cowboys which has lasted nearly a year by now will end one way or another come 15 July. Although I expect Jones to give way on either the percentage of guaranteed money or length, one thing is clear, the NFL is watching. With little else going on and the fact that Prescott will receive either record sums or the opportunity to join a team of his choosing, this is surely set to be a saga which shapes the NFL.