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.

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.

Fantasy Football Nightmares part 2

By Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)

Welcome back to part 2 of the Fantasy Nightmares series. If you are one that enjoys having sleepless nights and are good mates with Freddy Krueger, this article is going to suit you down to the ground. You can find the first installment of this article here, where I took a look at some other examples of Running Back rooms or Wide Receiver groups that are going to cause more than their fair share of sweats in 2020.

Be sure to let us know on Social Media Channels what your Fantasy Football nightmares are for 2020 and maybe i’ll put together a part 3 of this horrifying series. @Tim_MonkF10Y or @F10YFantasy is where you can find us.


Denver Running Backs


Why cant simple things be left simple?

Phillip Lindsay, their undrafted FA running back who has shot to fame in the NFL with back to back 1,000+ rushing seasons, looked to have a stronghold on the backfield going in to 2020. With him in said backfield was Royce Freeman, who totalled 752 all purpose yards on 175 touches of the rock. We knew the roles, we knew the production levels…everything was as Hear’say once sung, “pure and simple”.

In 2020 however, it’s going to get a bit murkier in the backfield.

Enter Melvin Gordon, last year’s running back holdout perpetrator. The 27 year old running back out of Wisconsin comes in to the fray with a chip on his shoulder and out to prove his worth. Melvin Gordon is a talented running back held in high regard throughout the league, but if you look at his impact in the league since being drafted #15 overall in 2015, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading and is yet another reason why running backs find themselves in relative contract poverty.

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For a variety of reasons as shown above in his career stats, Gordon has only completed 1 full season in which he totalled over 1,000 yards on the ground, the only time he’s been able to accomplish that feat thus far in his career. Only once (2018) was Gordon able to muster over 4 yards per carry (not great bob) and got completely cast into the shadows with Austin Ekeler’s breakout year in 2019, even when he came back with his tail between his legs during the middle of last season. Despite all these underwhelming achievements on his CV, the Broncos decided to hand Gordon a 2 year $16m deal. So what do we do with this backfield?

Looking at the contracts of the backfield between the top 2 on the depth chart in greater detail helps unravel some clues. The contract for Gordon is a bit more team friendly in year 2 in terms of dead cap ($6.5m), which indicates to me that the Broncos could ride with Gordon this season to their heart’s content meaning Gordon gets the biggest slice of the pie and Lindsay getting sloppy seconds and Royce Freeman potentially being the 2020 version of the 2019 Devontae Booker.

I doubt that using Rookie QB Drew Lock’s contract to help pay for Melvin Gordon over the next 2 years will be awarded most shrewd investment in building a Super Bowl winning team, but seeing as though their 2019 star Lindsay is on just $755,000, I can see why they might want to try out the Melvin Gordon experiment. Keep your eyes peeled for any new deal that may come Lindsay’s way (don’t bank on it), but it is telling that the Broncos decided to go out and pay Gordon the money they did, instead of giving it to Lindsay who’s been there and done it twice since getting on the field.

Broncos running backs showed room for improvement in 2019
Matthew Stockman / Getty

The conundrum we have to try and unpick here is who fills what role; Gordon is capable both on the ground and through the air. Lindsay is excellent on the ground and Royce Freeman is more of the pass catcher tasked back.

Putting numbers in to the equation, Denver amassed 1662 yards on the ground (ranked 20th in the NFL). Drew Lock came in for the last 5 games as a rookie and ranked 22nd in the league in terms of total rushing TDs (11). The team were inconsistent at best and finished 7-9. You’d have to think that you can extend the ceiling of the teams rushing stats with a step forward from Drew Lock and better O-Line play. Only 7/16 games in 2019 did the Broncos manage to surpass 100 yards on the ground, despite being ranked 14th in the league for rush attempts

On the face of it this looks to be a fantasy nightmare, and it could still prove to be considering draft prices (Melvin Gordon currently being drafted as RB12 at the back of the 2nd, Lindsay much cheaper in the 8th), the contracts and the current ADP tell you what you need to know for this backfield. Investing that draft capital on Gordon as the RB12 though is as risky as it gets.

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The good news for those at the 2/3 turn though is that you will already have a stud RB from your first round pick. If Gordon falls to those at the 3/4 turn, where WR or possibly TEs have been taken, it could potentially be a shrewd investment if the contracts are the biggest indicator on who will get the lion’s share of work in this backfield. If the contracts lie, this is where your nightmares will come to haunt you.


Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receivers


This is a nightmare that even Freddy Krueger wouldn’t want a part of. Firstly you have the question at Quarterback: Is Super Bowl winning stalwart Ben Roethlisberger going to be fit and is it going to last for 16 games. The nightmare starts before the season starts here because you have to decide whether or not you trust Big Ben to start and complete the season. I have my doubts but let’s assume that he does, there is a chance that the nightmare becomes the stuff dreams are made of.

Ben Roethlisberger needs surgery, out for the season
Matt Sunday – DKPS

In seasons that Big Ben completed at least 15 games from 2012, his fantasy finishes have been #3, #9 (15 games), #6 and #9. He has averaged 305 fantasy points over the course of those 4 seasons and was the reason behind Antonio Brown being a top 4 WR between 2013-2018 and current WR JuJu Smith-Schuster a top 16 QB in each of his first two seasons.

We know it’s in the locker, but is the locker there to be opened?

Part 2 of the nightmare are the Wide Receivers themselves.

Gone are the days of guaranteed production from Antonio Brown and his successor JuJu Smith-Schuster has had a tough go of it sans “AB” throughout his shot at being “the guy” in 2019. I appreciate that he had Mason Rudolph and a professional Duck caller at QB, but “elite” WR find ways to get it done, no matter the signal caller is under Center. JuJu ended up as WR66 (!), mainly due to his 4 games on the sidelines at the back end of the season. Even so, he was a top 10 WR just once (vs Miami) and a WR2 on 2 further occasions. This after finishing the WR8 in 2018. Looking at Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, this further illustrates JuJu’s struggles. He fell below the 24th percentile in success rate vs. man coverage and the 12th percentile in success rate vs. press for the third-straight year.

Simply put, JuJu is not your go to WR1 on the outside who will just dominate. He needs a certain type of role, preferably from the slot, where he lined up for 63% of snaps in 2019. The good news for JuJu fans is that there are plenty of candidates in the WR room with him to allow him to move there on a more regular basis.

Dionate Johnson, their 2019 3rd round pick showed flashes in his rookie year with 59 receptions, 680 yards and 5 touchdowns with the aforementioned below average QBs (good enough for a WR41 finish in half ppr leagues where he would have been a waiver wire pickup and had 5/16 games as a WR2 or better, 2 of which were in the last 4 games of the season).

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers
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Chase Claypool is this year’s shiny new toy. As a 2nd round selection you’d have to figure he is battling to be James Washington’s replacement. Washington, a previous 2nd pick himself in 2018 probably wont be a threat to the other guys mentioned and likely to be no more than a bit part player despite tripling his output from year 1 to year 2, but he and Claypool have a role to play.

So you get 2 nightmares for the price of one with the Pittsburgh WR with the QB being the collapsing floor on the noose block for all of these guys. If Big Ben stays healthy you can expect perhaps up to 2 WRs returning a healthy profit from their potential ADPs as it stands. However, if Big Ben goes down once more (and maybe for the final time) and the trap door lever gets pulled, all of these WRs are going to hung from a fantasy perspective.

Current prices for the WR show JuJu at a heavily discounted 6th round price, though I’d expect that to rise come drafting in redraft leagues in August. Diontae Johnson is next best in the 10th round – again, expect that to rise a tad as the months pass and we get some conductors selling tickets for carriages on his hype train. You’ll also have James Washington and 2020 2nd round draft pick Chase Claypool in the mix, with the latter likely getting more than a few darts thrown at him if camp shows potential promise.


Carolina Panthers Wide Receivers


If you thought Pittsburgh was difficult and 2 nightmares for the price of 1 was bad enough, let’s take a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. We have 3 variables coming into effect for 2020.

First up change in the Head Coach and coaching setup. Matt Rhule comes over from Baylor where he spent the last 3 years and is coming off an impressive 11-1 final season in College ball, falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game. Matt Rhule, the 5th Carolina HC in Panthers history taking over from Ron Rivera brings a experience in turning teams around. Baylor went from a team with a bad reputation both on and off the field and change the entire culture, culminating in a championship appearance.

Matt Rhule: After rebuilding Bears & Owls, can he rebuild the ...
Mark Dolejs

A change in HC generally means a change in offensive co-ordinator and that Rhule (sorry) applies here. Joe Brady, passing game co-ordinator also jumps the CFB ship from National Championship winners LSU, no less. It’s well documented how impressive the 2019 LSU season was when winning it all and is a fundamental reason why joe burrow went from mid round pick to #1 overall in this year’s draft. It’s an intriguing mesh Rhule and the Panthers have put together but change is hard to overcome in year 1 of any scheme in any level of this sport.

Part 2 of the nightmare is the change in quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater was much maligned during 2019 when deputising for Drew Brees when he sat on the sidelines with a thumb injury, this despite going 5-0 in the games he started. The Panthers organisation opted to sign Bridgewater to a 3 year $63m deal which in today’s quarterback salaries is peanuts. Bridgewater is known as a dink and dunk quarterback who will not push the ball down field. However his yards per attempt (7.1) are around the middle in terms of league rank, but does average outside the top 32 with an average of 6.2 yards on depth of target (Brees around the same mark with 6.4yds).

Panthers OC Joe Brady on Teddy Bridgewater: 'He lights up the room'
Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images

Teddy Bridgewater has only completed one full season as a starter, which was back in 2015 and threw for 3,231. That’s not a lot of yardage to go around. However, if you extrapolate Bridgewater’s 5 games out over the course of last season with the Saints though, you get to well over 4,000 yards. That eases the pain somewhat.

The nightmare you have to try and erase from your mind is whether Teddy Bridgewater will have enough production to return the value for these Wide Receivers. I have my doubts.

Next comes the real nightmare though, the Wide Receivers themselves. Let’s start off with the easy bit;

Most people will be envisioning a pack of wolves trying to live off of Teddy Bridgewater’s yardage and targets. That being said, you only have to look back at last season and see that DJ Moore is going to get his no matter what. Carolina trotted out Kyle Allen and Will Grier last season with Cam Newton down yet DJ Moore still managed to record 87 receptions for 1,175 yards and 4TDs. It’s safe to say that the upgrade at QB for this year will see DJ Moore easily surpass the century milestone and notch a few more scratches on the endzone goalpost. Averaging at just shy of 6 receptions per game, it’s safe to say that DJ Moore could be bulletproof and well worth the 4th round investment for those that have gone RB heavy. Dare I say it you COULD trot him out as your WR1. He is currently going around the Calvin Ridley/Allen Robinson/Robert Woods area of drafts. Lock DJ Moore in for 100-110 receptions, 1,200 yards and around 7TDs plus some small rushing shrapnel. This is good enough for a WR1 return and would’ve nabbed WR 4.

But what to do with the others?

Carolina Panthers wide receiver competition expected to be fierce
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Curtis Samuel, their other main protagonist last season didn’t fare so well in a struggling offence. 54 receptions for 627 yards and 7 TDs (1 rushing) when many were particularly high on him. He is now competing with Robby Anderson, who interestingly, Matt Rhule coached in college at Temple in 2016.

Robby Anderson is another whom we are all waiting for monster numbers. Let’s face it, he was never going to get what we all wanted in New York because Todd Bowles and Adam Gase were not good Head Coaches and the teams they ordered out on to the field every Sunday were way below average. Anderson has never reached the 1,000 yard season landmark in his 4 years in the league and is unlikely too here change that record in 2020. Yes these 2 guys are cheap as chips, but you are going to continually be pulling your hair out when they will let you down more often than not in roster management leagues.

To tie the knot on the Panthers’ fantasy options, Christian McCaffrey will ciphen a heavy % of the targets and Tight End Ian Thomas could make a bit of a step forward this season with no Greg Olsen.

It has all the hallmarks of chasing points with these two WR so Bestball may be the best route to go with these guys. In a team where, as Keane put it “Everybody’s changing”, back DJ Moore and leave the rest of the headaches to someone else.


LA Rams Tight Ends


As soon as you see the word Tight End, you know there is a nightmare attached to it. We have 3 to contend with here in the Rams half of Los Angeles. Their uniforms may be “bone” ugly and so is trying to unravel this position group for fantasy purposes.

We have Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett and 2020 4th round pick Brycen Hopkins. We can readily push Hopkins aside but don’t be surprised if you hear his name a couple of times out of the gate. Hopkins found the redzone regularly, especially in his final college season at Purdue and totalled 61 receptions for 830 yards and 7 celebrations in the endzone. He was named to the first team All-Big 10 and was named Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year, the one they all want to win. He could be the classic case of you think your guy has scored a touchdown for fantasy to win you the week, only for Scott Hanson to call out Brycen Hopkins name. We’ve all been there.

So let’s focus on the 2 names we are more familiar with and probably helped you win some titles last season. The Rams started homing in on their Tight Ends as the season wore on and between weeks 5-10 Gerald Everett produced 4 top 10 finishes at the positions. As Higbee went down with injury missing 3 games from week 13, Higbee stepped up and produced weeks of TE1, TE5, TE3, TE9 and TE1, averaging 17.1pts in half PPR leagues.

Tight End finishes taken from UDK

Now that they’ll both (assumedly) be healthy heading in to 2020, is there room for both to succeed?

The short answer is no, so which one is more likely to be more reliable next season?

Looking at some datapoints when both were healthy in 2019, Gerald Everett got the nod (or at the very least the best of it) in terms of targets and snap %. However, looking at off-season actions, Tyler Higbee (27 years old) was rewarded with a 4year $29m deal with over half in guarantees whilst Gerald Everett (25 years old), is on the last year of his rookie deal. It’s not to say that Everett won’t re-sign , but indications are that they like what they have in Higbee, perhaps drafted Hopkins to replace Everett once the season is up.

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Cost wise, Tyler Higbee will cost you a late 7th round pick, which screams recency bias, whilst Everett is looking like he’ll be undrafted in most startups/redraft leagues.

The 7th round also sees TEs Evan Engram, Hayden Hurst and Hunter Henry in the vicinity so you have to weigh up whether Higbee is worth that investment. Me personally, I’ll take Hurst and Henry or just wait until later on a punt the position. One saving grace though for Higbee buyers is that Jared Goff tied for the most attempts in 2019 with 626. He managed to get 4,638 yards out of those attempts and 22 TDs.

With no more Todd Gurley catching dumps offs and perhaps more of an allegiance to 12 personnel formations, you could see the Tight Ends contributing on a fairly regular basis for a position that doesn’t need much production to help you win any given fantasy week.


Baltimore Ravens Running Backs


I know what you are shouting at me; How can one of the most dominant rushing attacks be a nightmare to choose from. Well let me tell you.

Let’s get the running back  Quarterback out of the way first.

Lamar Jackson had an historic year with his legs accounting for 1,206 yards or 36% of his teams rushing yards in 2019. 36%! He finished 6th in the season total rushing yards leaderboard, yes that’s including Running Backs. You’d think that the guys in the backfield would be in production poverty but the 30year old former Alabama and Saints RB Mark Ingram finished 14th on that same leaderboard and had himself yet another 1,000+ yard season along with 15 total touchdowns despite edging ever more closer to the running back production cliff. Gus continued his bus tour to the tune of 711 yards and 2019 rookie Justice Hill played a small part too.

The headache this year comes in the form of 2nd round pick JK Dobbins. Clearly, he is the successor to Mark Ingram when he hangs up his battered cleats, but what is his impact in year 1? Does he come in a devour a big chunk of Mark Ingram’s production and push him off the cliff? Or does he get eased in more as the season wears on?

Where will Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins be taken in NFL Draft 2020 ...
David Petkiewicz

Running backs not named Frank Gore or Adrian Peterson (and Mark Ingram I guess you could add) don’t have a long shelf life so there is a big question mark about what these guy’s stats will look like come the end of week 17. JK Dobbins will have the rookie hype train with carriages packed to the brim and that’s baked into the current 7th round ADP price you are currently paying.

If the status quo remains, that price is only going to increase, or as Status Quo fans may say “Down Down”. Mark Ingram is currently going around the end of the 4th/start of the 5th round at the moment and again will be a target for those who have gone Zero RB or have not been looked upon by the RB gods in drafts as they try and squeeze the lat bit of juice out of the former Heisman trophy winner.

You could assume that Lamar Jackson’s watermark for rushing yards will not be surpassed in any of his future years, meaning that there are some ceded yards to go to the backfield but it will most likely be a full committee as Dobbins takes over the reins from Mark Ingram (you can leave Gus and his bus at the station and he will likely fizzle out and be decommissioned).

Lamar Jackson 2020 MVP hopes: How ex-MVPs have fared after winning ...
Robert Hanashiro / USA Today Sports

I envision a smaller pie to eat from in this rushing attacked and I’ll go and stick my neck out and say that it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that NO Ravens RB achieves 1,000 yards on the ground this season (I think Lamar will make it back to back seasons barring injury), meaning that I’d rather take the upside of JK Dobbins taking over earlier than the Ravens may want him to a few rounds later than Mark Ingram and especially a few more rounds earlier than Lamar Jackson will be going this year.

One extra thought before I leave this backfield – If Lamar Jackson gets injured, perhaps both Ingram and Dobbins could go over 1,000 yards so you could argue there is a bit of a bittersweet scenario there.

DYNASTY RELEVANT PLAYERS – AFC EAST

By Andy Moore (@Ajmoore21)

With the post rookie excitement dying down and the off-season lull now in full effect, it’s time for a deep dive into those dynasty rosters.

After a league chat about fantasy wastelands, we got thinking that surely every team has at least one fantasy relevant player. Looking back at 2019, this could mean a Joe Mixon, a Kenny Golladay, a Terry McLaurin – all players who put up points for fantasy owners on a fairly consistent basis, despite being on pretty rough NFL offenses.

The one criteria for these players is quite simple; they must have multiple seasons of fantasy relevance ahead of them.

We’ll be looking at each division individually, starting with the AFC East.


Buffalo Bills


Player: Stefon Diggs

Position: WR

Age: 26

2019 Fantasy Points (PPR): 212.1

The Bills sit as arguably the best team in a bad division at present, they’ve got a signal-caller whose big arm and escapability propelled them to the playoffs last season and a coaching staff that isn’t afraid to let loose on offense.

A seemingly underwhelming group of wide receivers stepped up to the plate in 2019, with John Brown and Cole Beasley both positing fantasy relevant numbers. But, as they look to make the jump to Division Champions, the Bills’ front office have decided to add another weapon to the arsenal.

Trading Stefon Diggs would be tremendously stupid
Hannah Foslien/Getty

Step forward Stefon Diggs. In 2019 with the Vikings, Diggs finished as WR20, posting 212.1 PPR points off just 63 receptions. And it’s easy to see why there were constant reports that the former 5th round pick was unhappy with target volume, as he was the only receiver in the top 20 of PPR ranking with less than 100 targets, despite playing in all but one game.

The move to the Bills has produced mixed views in the fantasy community, with some seeing less accurate quarterback play and the often-bleak conditions in Buffalo as a hinderance on Diggs’ upside.

Despite this, there’s a clear path to prolonged fantasy relevance for the Maryland product.

Firstly, Diggs comes into the Bills’ locker room as the clear WR1. Despite John Brown’s 1000 yard season in 2019, you simply don’t invest a first round pick in a 26 year old receiver to target him sporadically, especially a receiver who has a record for publicly demanding the football as often as possible.

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Then there’s the rocket arm possessed by the franchise quarterback. Diggs is a master at tracking the football as a downfield threat, it therefore makes perfect sense that Buffalo will marry Allen’s arm prowess with this ability as often as possible.

Finally, as previously noted, the Bills are a team on the up, they’re in win now mode, with their divisional rivals in rebuild mode or coached by Adam Gase and they’re putting everything in to winning with Allen, whilst he’s on his rookie contract. If they’re to do this then they need a player that they can rely on to drag them to narrow wins on occasion, with the capital invested in Diggs and his prior pedigree, it’s clear they see him as ‘the guy’.

You should too.


New England Patriots


Player: N’Keal Harry

Position: WR

Age: 22

2019 Fantasy Points (PPR): 39.4

Well, for the first time in more than a decade we’re looking to Foxborough with a real question mark in mind. The messiah is gone, there was no ‘star’ QB signed to replace him and it’s not an exaggeration to say the dynasty hangs in the brink.

Fantasy-wise, outside of Brady, the Pats have only really had Rob Gronkowski as a consistent weapon in recent years. Sony Michel has flashed in spells, but he finished as RB31 last year, James White is a good flex option in PPR leagues (RB18 last year) but outside of that, it’s been slim pickings for fantasy players.

Where Would Patriots' N'Keal Harry Rank In 2020 Draft? NFL Analyst Explains  | New England Patriots | NESN.com
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The struggle at receiver was all too publicised last season, with multiple reports suggest that Brady was desperate for better weapons in the passing game. That struggle came despite the drafting of N’Keal Harry out of Arizona State in the first round of the draft.

Harry was the first receiver drafted in the opening round by the Pats since 1996 and understandably the hype around him picked up early. Hopes of early chemistry with Brady were dashed when an ankle injury sent the former Sun Devil to the injured reserve prior to the season.

A late return was fairly unproductive, with seven appearances only turning into 12 receptions, 105 yards and 2 TDs. That unproductivity limited Harry to just 39.4 PPR points, with a high score of 9.7 points against the woeful Bengals in week 15.

So why is he on this list?

Well for starters, there’s a complete lack of competition surrounding Harry other than aging star Julian Edelman, and he is facing a fight to stay relevant without TB12. Mohammed Sanu is the only other competition of note on the Pats roster, and he didn’t exactly shine last year.

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Then there’s the physical tools that Harry possesses, at 6ft 2”, 228 pounds, the 2nd year pro has the height and build synonymous with the traditional X receiver. As a college player he specialised at high pointing the ball and dominated in contested catch situations, add to that a tendency to add yards after the catch and it’s not hard to see why Belichick and co invested high draft capital in Harry. They’re not giving up on him easily.

The coaching situation, player age and division strength all go some way to balancing the concerns that some hold because of the Pats’ QB situation, and it’s clear that there’s a path for Harry to become fantasy relevant this year and for many more to come.


New York Jets


Player: Sam Darnold

Position: QB

Age: 22

2019 Fantasy Points (PPR): 189.16

I think the Jets might be one of the hardest teams to scour for fantasy talent in this series, and I think this lies squarely with the coach.

Adam Gase’s offenses since he stopped working with Peyton Manning have ranked, 21st, 24th, 25th, 31st and 32nd. In other words, they haven’t been very good.

That being said, it’s not like this Jets roster lacks talent. At running back they’ve got a player who was once viewed as the best in the league in Le’Veon Bell, and believe it or not he’s still on 28. And, despite rarely dominating games in the way we’ve become accustomed to, Bell still managed a respectable RB16 finish last season. 

Sam Darnold to wear specialized pads to protect spleen in first game back  from mono - CBSSports.com
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the pass catching department there’s probably more concerns. Jamison Crowder, Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims are the most likely to see the most snaps in 2020 , with Gase and Jets fans praying that Mims  can develop into the out and out WR1 that is desperately needed.

However, despite the mess, it feels like the Jets have got their franchise QB under centre already. Sam Darnold has had a pretty rough start to his pro-career, the infamous ‘seeing ghosts’ moment against a dominant Patriots defense perhaps best demonstrates that.

That being said, there’s reason to be hopeful for the former USC star. In both his seasons in the league so far Darnold has started 13 games, and last year he saw improvements in total yardage, total TDs, interceptions thrown and QB rating, as well as the all-important fantasy points, up from 168 to 189.

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With Gase seemingly on his last chance as a Head Coach, a Super Bowl winning QB as backup and an improved running game with the addition of Frank Gore, there is no reason why Darnold can’t continue that progress this year.

For me his real fantasy value comes in Super Flex leagues where the more flashy 2018, ’19 and ’20 QBs are demanding far higher start up picks. Darnold is sat there at ADP75 which is ridiculous value in SF for a QB who looks set to the be the Jets’ QB for many years to come.

Buy low now!


Miami Dolphins


Player: Devante Parker

Position: WR

Age: 27

2019 Fantasy Points (PPR): 246.2

If we’re scraping the barrel with the Jets’ fantasy options, then those in Miami are only slightly better at this stage. The difference however, is the upward trajectory of the team when compared to their rivals in New York.

The arrival of Tua Tagovailoa means it would have been easy to stick the Dolphins’ new franchise QB in this slot, but with criteria of ‘must be fantasy relevant in this and future years’, it feels like it’s slightly too soon. Despite reports to the contrary, it’s not clear cut as to who the starter will be in week one, with Ryan Fitzpatrick enjoying a strong end to last season that propelled him to QB17 overall.

With Kenny Stills gone, will DeVante Parker finally breakout?
Michael Reaves / Getty

At running back, the Fins have had a complete makeover with last season’s trio of Kalen Ballage, Patrick Laird and Myles Gaskin all being eclipsed by the running yardage of their 37-year-old QB. Ballage in particular was a dumpster fire both on the pitch and for those who picked him in fantasy.

Jordan Howard and Matt Breida have been added to Miami’s roster in the off-season, in what appears to be a significant upgrade. Howard brings a consistency to the run game, with two 1000 yard seasons and a 4.4ypc average under his belt in the four years he’s been in the league. Breida looks set primarily to feature as the third down specialist, with his explosive speed set to complement an offense which already has two of the quickest players in the league in Jakeem Grant and Albert Wilson.

Somewhat surprisingly Brian Flores and Chris Grier opted not to add another receiver to the mix in this year’s draft, perhaps paying testament to the fact that this is indeed a multi-year rebuild and the need was bigger on defense. That leaves the aforementioned Grant and Wilson alongside Preston Williams, who enjoyed a good rookie year after going undrafted,  Isiah Ford and Devante Parker.

Those who have been playing fantasy football for some time will be familiar with the term ‘break-out year’ and how Parker was about to have one every year since 2016. However, in 2019 it finally arrived! The former Louisville star caught 72 passes for 1202 yards and 9 TDs, by far his best season in the league (thanks Adam Gase).

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A four-year contract was the reward, and as with Diggs in Buffalo, there’s nothing standing in the way of Parker being a fantasy WR1 this year and for the next couple at least. He’s only 27, the clear WR1 on the team this season and coming off a year in which he put up 246.2 PPR points, finishing as WR11 overall.

The only concern I have with Parker is that this year’s draft has made it quite obvious that the Dolphins might go shopping at both WR and RB next year. With some high-quality talent in the WR class of 2021, there is the possibility that a big name comes in to take the WR1 spot. However, this shouldn’t impact Parker’s usage until at least 2022, so he’s still a safe buy now.

Who will be a breakout star in the 2020 NFL season?

By Kieran Patterson (@DCCYTFootball)

Every year the NFL sees players breakout and become stars and fan favorites, either due to being on a new team or just getting the right playing time. With that in mind I’m going to give you my list of player who I see becoming big stars this year and having a breakout year. So if you play fantasy, maybe take a give these guys a look when picking your team.


Drew Lock – QB, Denver Broncos


It seems that Denver may have finally found their guy in Drew Lock, the former Missouri signal caller was taken in the second round of the 2019 draft by the Broncos but unfortunately suffered a broken thumb in the pre-season and was placed in injured reserve in September.

Broncos quarterback Drew Lock 'invested 100 percent' as prepares for second  season
Jack Dempsey/AP

He was cleared for practice mid November and activated to the full roster on November 30th and named as the starter for the game the next day against the Chargers. Throwing for 134 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception wasn’t what people focused on though. In the last 15 seconds of the game Lock lead the Broncos down the field and set up a Brandon McManus field goal leading the Broncos to a 23-20 win in his first NFL start. Lock continued to show his skills and went 4-1 in 5 starts.

Equaling franchise legend and current Broncos GM John Elway for most franchise wins by a rookie quarterback. What makes this more impressive is that it took him 5 games to accomplish this feat. It took Elway 10. This is what makes Lock so exciting, especially if you’re a Broncos fan.

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With impressive play and decent stats and provided he stays healthy Lock is going to have a great year with the full 16 games to ply his trade. Oh…and Jerry Jeudy is going to be lining up next to him. Look out for Lock this season…he’s going to be fun to watch.


N’Keal Harry – WR, New England Patriots


After what can only be described as a disappointing rookie year on a struggling Patriots offence N’Keal Harry is going to look to breakout as a legit number 1 target in his sophomore season in New England.

NFL analyst doesn't think N'Keal Harry will be elite or No. 1 receiver
Image Credit: Elsa/Getty

The Canadian born receiver injured his ankle during training in September and was placed on injured reserve until November 2nd when he finally got activated to the full roster. As a rookie Harry played in 7 games for 12 catches, 105 yards and 2 touchdowns. Safe to say this was not even close to what harry is capable of.

Going into second year he will be catching passes from fellow sophomore in quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a man who it is reported he has some serious chemistry with…well if reports from Patriots training camp is to believed.

I see Harry putting up double digit touchdowns and close to 1000 yards as he looks to be the number 1 wide out on this new look patriots offence.


Derrius Guice – RB, Washington Redskins


When I say the name Derrius Guice the first word that comes to mind is injury. Not many players have had luck this bad with injuries in recent years which is a shame because Guice is easily capable of being a top running back in the league.

When healthy, Redskins' Derrius Guice was No. 1 most elusive RB in NFL
 Patrick McDermott/Getty

Drafted in 2018 Guice, tore his ACL in his first ever pre-season game causing him to miss his whole rookie season, in 2019 he was once again injured against the Eagles in week 1 of the regular season…and later again when he made his return in November.

So it’s been a tough road for Guice. I watched him play while he was at LSU and believe me when I tell you this bad luck has lit a fire under Guice going into the 2020 season. He’s going to be a serious threat on this offence as sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins needs serious help in the backfield.

Look for Guice to put up double digit touchdowns and 1000+ yards if he manages to stay on the field for the full 16 games.


Teddy Bridgewater – QB, Carolina Panthers


After going 5-0 as a starter while future Hall of Famer Drew Bree’s was injured in the 2019 season Teddy Bridgewater earned his way back to a starting job taking over from a declining Cam Newton.

Teddy has had a somewhat tumultuous path to get to where he is now. Drafted in 2014, 32nd overall Bridgewater struggled to perform at the level he did at college and ended up bouncing to the New York Jets in 2018 and the New Orleans Saints in 2019. He really shined and showed how much he’s grown as a player while filling in for Drew Brees.

Carolina swooped in and picked him up in free agency with and gave him a 3 year $63 million contract. With a full 16 games at the head of this Carolina offence it’s pretty easy to see Bridgewater taking this team to the playoffs.


Ed Oliver – DT, Buffalo Bills


Seeing as Bills quarterback Josh Allen had a massive breakout year last year I figured I’d shout out another great Bills player due to blow up and that’s Defensive Tackle Ed Oliver.

Buffalo Bills' Ed Oliver still looking for first 'real' sack
Lynne Sladky/AP

Selected 9th overall in the 2019 draft, Ed Oliver was a highly sort after draft prospect that in my eyes didn’t even get close to touching his potential in his first year in Buffalo with only 5 sacks and 43 tackles.

So look for Ed Oliver to go hard this year and rack up double digit sacks and at least 70 tackles. Also given the way this team is playing look for Oliver to be a difference maker when it comes to the playoffs and his work rate will give a lot of offensive lines headaches.

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.

Preventing Perfection

By Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro and @NFLFANINENGLAND

Back in the 1980s the NFC conference dominated the NFL landscape, winning eight of ten Super Bowls, with only the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders twice wrestling away the Vince Lombardi Trophy from the decade’s superior half of the league. 

During the 80s two NFC teams achieved a feat that has to this day never been equalled. The achievement was combining for 15 regular season wins and winning a Super Bowl. 

Remarkably the other four teams to have won 15 regular season games in a 16 game schedule (introduced out of interest as late as 1978) failed to win, and in some cases even reach the big dance.

Picture credit: stmedia.startribune.com

They were as follows: 

  • 1998 Minnesota Vikings (lost NFC championship to the Atlanta Falcons) 
  • 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (lost AFC championship to the New England Patriots)
  • 2011 Green Bay Packers (lost NFC Divisional playoff to the New York Giants)
  • 2015 Carolina Panthers (lost Super Bowl to Denver Broncos) 

Before anyone throws their arms up and says what about the 2007 Patriots and the 1972 Dolphins (both who went undefeated in the regular season) please note the small print in this piece, as neither team won 15 regular season games or went on to win the Super Bowl.

We all know the 1972 Miami Dolphins remain the only team to stay undefeated in an entire NFL regular and post-season, but they won a combined 17 games, not 19, and the 2007 New England Patriots indeed went 18-0 (16-0 in the regular season) but came unstuck against Eli Manning in the Super Bowl as the Giants came away with all the marbles. 

Now I’m not going to explore the triumphs of the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX (1984 season) or Da Bearz in Super Bowl XX (1985 season), instead it’s time to turn the tables and dig a little deeper into the two games that prevented perfection for these two mid-80s powerhouses. 


1984  


Picture credit: history.wordpress.com

For a world yet to be saturated with mobile/cell phones it was somewhat ironic that Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘I just called to say I love you’ was atop the U.S. billboard charts in the middle of October 1984. Over in blighty the chart topping song was Freedom by Wham, and American football coverage was in it’s infancy on Channel 4. 

The reigning NFL champions, the Los Angeles Raiders, fresh from their second Super Bowl win in four seasons, were lighting up the 1984 season early on going 4-0. That streak came to a grinding halt in Week 5 as a 4 yard third period rushing td from Denver Broncos running back Gerald Willhite was the gamebreaker in a 13-16 loss. 

Over in the NFC the San Francisco 49ers were drawing the attention of West Coast reporters, but maybe not the rest of the NFLs journalists quite yet. 

After four weeks the Niners were undefeated, the first time the franchise had gone 4-0 since 1952, and it was their defense that was garnishing all of the headlines as they streaked to 6-0. In fact between weeks 4-6 the Gold Rush defense, led by punishing defensive back Ronnie Lott, the team allowed a measly 24 points. 

This was a team nobly led by Joe Montana, but when he was injured prior to a week 4 contest against the Eagles in Philly it was up to backup Matt Cavanaugh to come in and guide the team to a statement 21-9 victory. Cavanaugh threw three touchdown passes on the day, one to RB Roger Craig. 

With the Niners at 6-0 and cruising they started to smell the polish on the Lombardi Trophy, and facing a mediocre 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers team at home was not an opponent the team feared. Arguably the 49ers were looking to a Week 9 road game in L.A. as their next quality rival.

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The 1984 Steelers were not a special team if you used the regular season as a metric to judge their success. They finished 9-7, barely winning the AFC Central over the 8-8 Cincinnati Bengals. 

They did astonish the heavily favourited Denver Broncos in the Divisional playoffs before getting punched, kicked and knocked out by the Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship. 

Coming from Pennsylvania to California in October would likely have been welcomed by Steelers players and fans alike, but their expectations would not have matched their optimism for some sunshine. 

Playing a 6-0 team that won a Super Bowl just three seasons before would not have been welcomed, and the Steelers were a completely different team from the one that dominated the previous decade and won four Vince Lombardi trophies.  


Dateline – October 14 1984, Candlestick Park, California. 


Picture credit: steelers gab.com

Having come back from a one week sojourn on the injury list 49ers QB Joe Montana tossed five td’s and zero interceptions in Week 5 and 6 wins, the game against Pittsburgh was seen as a tough but imminently winnable game. 

With an average roster the Steelers were remaining competitive in the main because of the winning mentality of their head coach Chuck Knoll, in his 16th consecutive year at the helm. Knoll had gained four Super Bowl wins in the 70s and would go on to coach the Steelers all the way until 1991. 

To the shock of home fans the Steelers took a 10-0 lead, behind a first quarter Rich Erenberg 2 yard run and a Gary Anderson field goal. (Side note: It was the very same Gary Anderson that missed a game-winning field goal in the 1998 NFC championship for the 16-1 Vikings.) 

Much like he did in Super Bowl XVI, 49ers QB Joe Montana opened his team’s scoring with a 7-yard run to bring the deficit down to three at half-time. 

The third quarter was a 0 point slugfest, and it was the 49ers who took the lead in the fourth quarter courtesy of a Wendell Tyler run. Ray Wersching booted the extra-point. Tyler certainly enjoyed 1984 as he made his only Pro-Bowl appearance in 10 seasons as a pro. 

The lead wasn’t held for long by the home team as the erratic Steelers QB Mark Malone connected with veteran WR John Stallworth on a six yard pass with under three and a half minutes left. Anderson added the point after.

Unable to counter the 49ers gave the ball back to Pittsburgh and Gary Anderson converted his second field-goal of the game – a dinky 21 yard attempt, that turned out to be the winning score for the black and gold. 

Frank Pollard – Picture credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The tale of the tape revealed that it was the Steelers running game that was the difference, holding the ball for almost 35 minutes thanks to 47 attempts. 11th round 1980 draft pick Frank Pollard led the team with 105 yards on 24 carries. QB Mark Malone was a paltry 11-18 for 156 yards, but his touchdown pass was the only aerial td on the day. Joe Montana had 241 yards in the air and 29 on the ground in the defeat. 

The three-point loss turned out to be the 49ers single blemish on a remarkable season. The following week, a 34-21 win over the Houston Oilers, was the only other time in the whole season the Niners allowed over 17 points in regular or post-season. 

Joe Montana went on to lift the Super Bowl and become the game’s MVP, beating the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, Miami Dolphins QB Dan Marino. Steelers QB Mark Malone, who prior to the 1984 season hadn’t registered a single victory, finished his career with 23 wins, and one playoff victory (in 1984) over John Elway’s Broncos. 


1985


Picture credit: edible ink.wordpress.com

Saying out loud or even typing the words ‘the 1985 Bears’ conjures up an almost mythical sense of nostalgia, evoking memories of Fridge-Mania, Walter Payton and Jim McMahon baring his pasty white posterior to a flying television crew. 

Arguably the ultimate defense to ever be assembled, and without doubt the single greatest group of personalities ever to be grouped together on an NFL roster, the Chicago Bears, led by the combination of the outlandish head coach Mike Ditka and the defensive savant Buddy Ryan, began the season hotter than an exploding volcano in a heatwave. 

From September until the end of November the team reeled off twelve consecutive wins, few being solid, but most being spectacular displays of defensive prowess, including weeks 7 to 12 where they allowed just 29 points in six games. Just absorb that – 29 points in six games – that’s under 5 points a game in that stretch. 


Dateline – Monday December 2 1985,  Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida.


Picture caption: hardwoodandfields.blogspot.com

Travelling east to Miami was not a common occurrence for the Bears, who were making only their fourth trip to play the Dolphins in their rich history. It was a fixture they had never previously won.

The Dolphins boasted a respectable 8-4 record after 12 weeks, and an unblemished 5-0 home record in the tropical Florida sunshine, the four losses coming on their travels to Texas, New York, Michigan and Massachusetts.

In a year that saw the cinematic release of ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ it was the Dolphins that drew the red stuff first, making the initial cut into the thigh of the Bears, Dan Marino hitting WR Nat Moore on a 33 yard passing score to set an early tone. The score, on the Dolphins first offensive possession saw Marino exploit Bears safety Gary Fencik.

The Bears, led by QB Steve Fuller, starting in place of an injured Jim McMahon, replied straight away, a bomb to Willie Gault helped move downfield quickly, and Fuller carried the rock himself on a 1 yard dive to tie up the game. 

Still in the first quarter the Dolphins got to double digits, kicker Fuad Reveiz blasting a 47 yard field goal. With the wind in Miami’s sails they opened up the second quarter scoring with a rushing score from 6thround rookie Ron Daventport. The drive again aided by Nat Moore, who was lining up all over the field, including reps at tight-end. 

Bears kicker Kevin Butler got the deficit down to 7, before Miami’s death by a thousand cuts offense, led by the arm of Dan Marino, the coaching guile of Don Shula and the outstanding blocking of the Dolphins offensive line, produced two late second period scores. 

Nat Moore – Picture credit: pinterest.com

Before blinking the Bears found themselves down by 21 at the half as Miami completed a 21 point quarter. Davenport breaking the plane for his second one yard score, and WR Nat Moore capping off one of the single greatest halves of football in his career with a 6-yard TD grab. 

Chicago fought back in the third quarter, backup QB Steve Fuller scoring twice in the third quarter, either side of Dan Marino’s third TD pass, a 43-yard laser caught by Mark Clayton, but that was all the Monsters of the Midway could muster. 

A scoreless fourth quarter gave Bears fans time to realise that the team that had gone undefeated in the same regular and post-season had just prevented Chicago from pursuing perfection. 

Everything that could go wrong in the game did for Chicago, including a blocked punt,  a muffed kick-off and a pass deflected by DE Dan Hampton that ended up landing in a Dolphins players hands for a score. 

Much like the 1984 49ers, the lone defeat was enough of a splash of icy water on the faces of the Bears players and coaches alike to refocus the team, as Chicago went on to crush their next six opponents, including the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. 

The Bears and Dolphins were clear favourites to reach the Super Bowl in 1985, but it was division rivals the New England Patriots, who finished third in the AFC East that season but still scraped into the playoffs, who became the AFC representatives. 

In the AFC championship the Patriots held the ball just under 40 minutes, rushing for 255 yards, and effectively keeping Dan Marion on the side-lines. Marino’s stat line was an ugly 41% completion rate. 

Super Bowl XX was a dominating display by the Bears, but even Mike Ditka regrets not having Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton score on the day, in the 46-10 mauling. 


Conclusion 


Picture credit: vsaauctions.com

Going 15-1 in the regular season is absolutely no guarantee of winning a Super Bowl. Only one in three teams who complete a 16 game regular season with one cross in their schedule have ended up winning the big dance. 

The 1984 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears are historically great teams, the Bears dominating in terms of popularity and misty-eyed greatness.

Both teams played each other in 1984 and 1985, the team that won the Super Bowl winning beating their fellow NFC foe on the way to victory. 

The best 15-1 Super Bowl winners? I’ll be controversial here and give the overall nod to the 84 49ers, simply because they were the first to go 15-1 and win a Super Bowl in the same season. The team they beat in the NFC Championship to get to Super Bowl – none other than the Chicago Bears! 

Follow me at @F10YRetro for more blasts from NFL past.