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New England Patriots – Way too early Roster Projection – Offense

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Training Camp is underway across the NFL and we are well in to week 2 at this point. The Patriots
will play their first pre-season game on the 11th of August against the Giants. It will be a great
chance to see the second and third string players in real game action for roster buffs like myself.

Now, you might think it is was too early to do a roster projection – and you would be right, it is.
My only caveat is that trades and other free agents will be added to the roster, but for the purposes
of this, I’ll assume the final 53 on on the roster at this moment.

Quarterbacks
On the roster
Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer, Bailey Zappe.
Practice Squad
None
Cut
None
Mac is the QB of now and the near future. Hopefully that will extend for 20 years, but for now, he’s
a starting level QB with a lot of potential.
Hoyer’s roster status might be dependent on how ready Zappe is. I think the coaching staff
wouldn’t be overly comfortable with only a 2nd year player and a rookie at QB on the roster. Hoyer
is a low level backup, but one that is familiar with the system.
Anyone who thinks that Zappe will be stashed on the Practice Squad, needs to be realistic. In
order for him to get on the Practice Squad, he would need to be cut and go on waivers. He will get
picked up by another team as a 4th round rookie Quarterback. Coach Belichick has said in the
past; “you only cut a player you are prepared to lose”.

Running Backs
On the roster
Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, James White, Pierre Strong Jr., Kevin Harris.
Practice Squad
None
Cut
J.J. Taylor
Harris and Stevenson showed enough last season to prove that they are good enough to be a top
half of the league Running Back stable. Expect this to be Harris’ last season in New England as
his contract is up at the end of the season
Pierre Strong looks set to take over as the 3rd down back, but it will be contingent on how he is in
pass protection. Typically Patriots 3rd down backs are red-shirted for their rookie year as they
learn the system, (e.g. Shane Vereen & James White).

Kevin Harris has impressed everyone with his physical stature. At 5’10, 225lbs, he is closer to
Stevenson than Harris in build, and projects as a bruising opening down back that could be a
ready-made replacement for Harris next season.
I originally wrote that White wouldn’t be on the roster this year as he recovers from injury, but I
can’t follow through with it. Provided he can get off NFI soon, White makes the roster.
JJ Taylor has had a few years to make an impact and get more playing time. He looks electric on
the Practice Field and in pre-season but has yet to do much in a real NFL game, albeit in limited
carries.


Wide Receivers
On the roster
DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers , Tyquan Thornton, Ty
Montgomery, Matthew Slater
Practice Squad
Tre Nixon
Cut
Kristian Wilkerson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Josh Hammond
This is one of the easier position groups to solve as most of the players are relatively established.
Slater, Parker, Bourne, Meyers and Thornton are roster locks.
In Agholor’s case, there has been a lot of talk about a trade due to his contract size and relatively
meagre output last year. The issue is if the Patriots think the contract is bad, then so will the other
31 teams. Unless a deal happens where the Patriots pay a portion of his salary and a low round
draft pick is exchanged, then he will be on the roster.
Ty Montgomery is listed as a WR on the Patriots.com roster but I see him as taking the 5th running
back/special teams role that Brandon Bolden fulfilled last year. Montgomery is the perfect player
for the Patriots. A true versatile player that can play on all 4 downs.
There is a lot of talk coming from Foxborough in Mini-Camp that Tre Nixon is a dark horse to make
the roster. At this point I don’t think there is space. Unless one of the other five are traded or
injured, I think he will revert to the Practice Squad. Also, he has been mainly playing with the
second group in practice which isn’t too positive so far.
Like JJ Taylor, I think Kristian Wilkerson’s time might be at an end. He has had some decent
catches in regular season games but again, most of his highlights were in pre-season against
lesser players. He could stick around the Practice Squad but for now; cutsville.
NotsoL’il Jordan Humphrey (he’s 6’4″), does provide intriguing size but he currently sits as either
the 8th or 9th man in the Wide Receiver room. A rash of injuries might be his only hope.
Hammond was only added after camp started. It seems strange that a player would be added to an
already relatively secure position group, but outside of Special Teams or injuries, Hammond will be
an outsider for a roster spot.


Tight Ends
On the roster
Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Devin Asiasi
Practice Squad

Dalton Keene
Cut
Matt Sokol
Henry and Smith, (sounds like an old English Soap manufacturer) are the big money roster locks
here and aren’t going anywhere.
Devin Asiasi’s future is up in the air. Of the two young Tight-Ends, Asiasi looks more promising,
but really has accomplished very little in his NFL career thus far, (mainly due to injury). If he stays
fit during camp, i think the talent is there for him to make it.
Dalton Keene might just end up going the way of Ras-I Dowling and Anthony Garcia and never
really being healthy enough to get on the field. I am leaning towards Practice Squad for now as he
has the H-Back versatility but you don’t want an oft-injured player ending up on IR again. Keene
looks like he is dealing with an injury at the moment which makes his position even more tenuous.
Unfortunately for Matt Sokol, he has only played in 2 games in 3 seasons and is yet to record a
statistic. I would wager that this doesn’t change in 2022 with the Patriots.

Offensive Tackles
On the roster
Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Justin Herron
Practice Squad
Andrew Stueber
Cut
Yodny Cajuste
The book-ends at Left and Right Tackle I think are set for this season at the very least. Wynn and
Brown appear to have swapped sides during this offseason with Brown now at LT. Wynn really
needs to play 17 games this year to have any hope of getting a deal with either the Patriots or any
other team in 2023. Trent Brown is probably going to be his normal self – miss a few games but
play like a borderline top-10 Tackle when he is healthy.
Justin Herron is probably the strongest of the group of young Tackles that remains. He is a solid
backup that can play both Tackle spots (preferably Left). He will give up pressure from time to time
but he is a 7th round pick and a backup. I think Herron offers good cover and was a bargain for his
draft slot.
Stueber’s case for a roster spot is interesting. He is currently listed on NFI but there are rumours
that he won’t be seen until 2023. In a similar vein to Cam Fleming, Stueber offers the ability to play
RG and RT which might win him a second look next season. For now, I have him on the Practice
Squad as I felt an IR section would be cheating.
Yodny Cajuste has struggled with fitness since being drafted in 2019 in the 3rd round. He has only
managed to feature in 7 games so far He would need an outstanding Training Camp to make the
Patriots think he is worth keeping around.

Offensive Guards
On the roster
Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu, Arlington Hambright

Practice Squad
Chasen Hines & Yasir Durant
Cut
Drew Desjarlais & Bill Murray
At Offensive Line, the starters at Guard are locked in place – Cole Strange at LG and Mike Onwenu
at RG. Lots of people were critical of the Strange selection as the 2022 1st round pick. I am no
different. No matter how good Strange is, with a roster that was lacking in top end talent, a Guard
was never going to have the impact that the team required. Rant over.
Big Mike Onwenu will hopefully be allowed to settle down at the RG position where he plays best
after he filled in a number of positions last season which saw his play drop off. Onwenu looks to
be taking the transition to the new Offense a bit slower than the others. The new zone running
concept is different to the Power Run that Onwenu excels at. Give him time, he will come good.
Hambright arrived in New England with little fanfare, but when Michael Onwenu & Cole Strange
have stepped out of reps, it’s Hambright that has stepped in. That’s something to watch out for as
he could have displaced Yasir Durant.
Yasir Durant has been a capable backup when called upon, however if the Patriots like Hambright
more, Durant is the type of player that they could sneak onto the Practice Squad.
Chasen Hines will begin Training Camp on NFI so he will be up against it to make the roster. The
LSU alumni is an interesting size, at 6’3″ and 350lbs he is quite a heavy young man, but to look at
his physique, he looks less than 300lbs. After starting on NFI, it’s quite likely that he spends the
season on IR.
Bill Murray has made the dreaded position switch from DT to OG, which is the first step to being
cut. See Etling, Danny and Berry, Rashod.
Drew Desjarlais is an interesting proposition. A former CFL player, it’s hard to gauge how good he
will be in the NFL. Outside of a few outliers however, they usually end up back in Canada.

Centres
On the roster
David Andrews & James Ferentz
Practice Squad
Will Sherman
Cut
Kody Russey
David Andrews had begun camp on PUP and is making his way back in a part time role as he gets
back to full fitness. He has no immediate competition for a roster spot.
One would think that James Ferentz is a plucky youngster trying to make his way in the NFL given
that he has been on and off the roster for the last few seasons – he’s 33 years old. Kody Russey
does have a chance to get some higher level reps the longer that Andrews stays in his part-time
role. It could stand to him too if the Patriots decide that they need to have a youngster replace
Ferentz as the emergency Centre. Realistically though, I think Ferentz does his usual hovering
between the active and practice roster.

Sherman has been taking reps at Centre this offseason so it will be interesting to see if he makes
the roster as a swing interior lineman given his versatility. At the moment I’m 50/50 between
Ferentz and Sherman for a roster spot.

@lukeobrienNFL

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NFL: Priorities for each AFC team in Free Agency

With the Super Bowl done and dusted, the thirsty NFL fans’ eye will now turn to the offseason and Free Agency and then the NFL Draft. Team cap space importance and manipulation is a topic people can argue until the cows come home as there are many teams that always produce Houdini tricks to come in under the cap each season.

The legal tampering period starts on 14 March, which is always a weird concept to get your head around. Imagine being able to legally tamper with things?

Before we get started, there is a really good visual found on Twitter regarding the maneuverability for each of the teams:

No surprise in seeing the Saints at the bottom of the pile, they seem to be there most years. Green Bay, the recently crowned Super Bowl Champions, the LA Rams along with 2 NFC East teams, Dallas and New York, fill out the bottom 5.

Let’s go division by division and look at some key players that are due to hit the market, unless their current owners intervene and stop their players’ eyes prying into other team’s front offices.


AFC East

Buffalo Bills:

Pending Free Agents: EDGE Jerry Hughes, EDGE Mario Addison, CB Levi Wallace, WR Isaiah McKenzie, WR Emmanuel Sanders, QB Mitchell Trubisky, RB Matt Breida, RT Bobby Hart, IDL Vernon Butler, RG Ike Boettger, RB Taiwan Jones, WR Jake Kumerow, EDGE Bryan Cox Jr., IDL Harrison Phillips, CB Siran Neal

The Bills will likely get lighter at WR so may look to beef that up in FA or the draft, while there is a clear need along the defensive line.

However, Levi Wallace, who played over 92% of the Bills’ snaps at corner in 2021, would be a good get at the right price. Opposite Tre’Davious White, they have both formed a decent tandem limiting opposing offences to scraps through the air over recent sesasons.

Nic Antaya

Mitchell Trubisky seems adamant he’ll find a starting job elsewhere. If the market agrees, don’t expect him to back up Josh Allen next season.


New England Patriots:

Pending Free Agents: S Devin McCourty, RT Trent Brown, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB J.C. Jackson, C Ted Karras, WR Matthew Slater, RB James White, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Brandon King, K Nick Folk, IDL Carl Davis, QB Brian Hoyer, LB Jamie Colins, LB Harvey Langi, TE Troy Fumagalli, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley

A fair few big names on the pending Free Agent list in the next month, none more coveted than J.C. Jackson. Jackson returned 1 of his 8 interceptions this year to the house, the first of his career. It’s likely that there could be a bidding war on him, which sees him set off into the Massachusetts sunset and out of Foxboro’.


Miami Dolphins:

Pending Free Agents: TE Mike Gesicki, WR Will Fuller, Emmanuel Ogbah, QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Phillip Lindsay, WR Albert Wilson, CB Justin Coleman, LB Elandon Roberts, RB Malcolm Brown, P Michael Palardy, IDL John Jenkins, S Jason McCourty, WR Mack Hollins, LB Brennan Scarlett, LB Duke Riley, C Greg Rancz, RB Duke Johnson, LB Vince Biegel, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Durham Smythe

It’s likely that WR will be a sought-after position this offseason for the Dolphins, this should be extended to looking at getting the signature of Mike Gesicki at the TE position. They’ll have plenty of cap space to work with to at least get to the negotiating room with him. He’s improved on the stats sheet each and every season and account for almost a fifth of their first downs in 2021. Tua will be hoping the Dolphins also patch up that offensive line. It’s possible he gets franchise tagged, but unlikely.


New York Jets:

Pending Free Agents: S Marcus Maye, QB Joe Flacco, WR Jamison Crowder, WR Keelan Cole, WR Braxton Berrios, LB Jarrad Davis, RT Morgan Moses, RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, LG Dan Feeney, S Lamarcus Joyner, TE Tyler Kroft, RG Conor McDermott, RB Tevin Coleman, S Will Parks, IDL Nathan Shepherd, LT Greg Senat, K Eddy Pineiro, FB Nick Bawden, IDL Folorunso Fatukasi

It’s obvious that the Jets should be looking to upgrade their secondary this offseason, that could also include getting Safety Marcus Maye to re-sign. They, like the Dolphins, have a decent amount of cap space to try and attract the top names to help with the rebuild project at Gang Green. At Wide Receiver, Braxton Berrios could find himself pricing himself out and Jamison Crowder will likely want a decent amount of money to stay.


AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals:

Pending Free Agents: S Jessie Bates III, CB Darius Phillips, IDL B.J. Hill, RT Riley Reiff, IDL Larry Ogunjobi, TE C.J. Uzomah, RG Xavier Su’a-Filo, CB Vernon Hargreaves, QB Brandon Allen, CB Tre Flowers, WR Auden Tate, P Kevin Huber, IDL Josh Tupou, S Ricardo Allen, CB Eli Apple, LS Clark Harris, LG Quinton Spain, LB Jordan Evans, IDL Zach Kerr, S Michael Thomas, WR Mike Thomas

Alexander Jonesi 

The obvious one here is Jessie Bates III in the pack of Bengals looking to find some money in Free Agency. He is a candidate for the Franchise Tag but expect the Bengals to use a good portion of their ~$57m cap space to go after Offensive linemen, purely because they aren’t picking in the top 10-15 this year like they have done over the past 5 seasons.


Pittsburgh Steelers:

Pending Free Agents: CB Joe Haden, WR Juju Smith-Schuster, TE Eric Ebron, Cb Ahkello Witherspoon, RG Trai Turner, S Terrell Edmonds, LB Miles Killebrew, WR James Washington, QB Joshua Dobbs, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, CB Arthur Mallet, C B.J. Finney, EDGE Taco Charlton, IDL Montravius Adams, RB Kalen Ballage, RT Chukwuma Okorafor

The recently retired Ben Roethlisberger would have also been on this list, had he not retired. Either way, Quarterback will be a major priority this offseason. There isn’t much in Free Agency at the position so expect a trade or Draft capital to be invested.

Of the current crop on offence, offensive lineman Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor played the 1st and 3rd highest number of snaps respectively in the whole Pittsburgh roster in 2021. That’s saying too much due to the line’s performances last season, but they say consistency is the key.

On the defence, former 1st round pick Terrell Edmunds is part of a secondary that struggled last season and could also lose 5-year Steeler and 12 year AFC North veteran Joe Haden as he will be 33 if he plays in 2022.


Cleveland Browns:

Pending Free Agents: S Ronnie Harrison, WR Rashard Higgins, EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, IDL Malik Jackson, EDGE Takkarist McKinley, LT Chris Hubbard, LB Anthony Walker Jr., TE David Njoku, S M.J. Stewart, LB Malcolm Smith, P Dustin Colquitt, IDL Sheldon Day, QB Nick Mullins, EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo, WR Ryan Switzer

There are a couple of key decisions for the Browns to make this offseason, one of which whose name isn’t on the list above. They need to decide on whether Baker Mayfield is the guy they want going forward and an extension of that is the Wide Receiver position, which currently consists of not a lot after they shipped off OBJ to go get a Super Bowl Ring and Jarvis Landry played hobbled last season.

The two on the above list are Jadeveon Clowney, who amassed 9 sacks in his 14 games played (Tak McKinley, former Falcons 1st round pick is also there) and David Njoku, who despite all the athletic abilities and talent, has just not quite done it consistently in a Browns jersey and will probably be suited for pastures new.


Baltimore Ravens:

Pending Free Agents: IDL Calais Campbell, IDL Brandon Williams, S DeShon Elliott, C Bradley Bozeman, WR Sammy Watkins, FB Patrick Ricard, CB Jimmy Smith, EDGE Justin Houston, LB L.J. Fort, RB Devonta Freeman, RB Latavius Murray, LB Chris Board, S Tony Jefferson, S Anthony Levine, LB Josh Bynes, EDGE Pernell McPhee, IDL Justin Ellis, QB Josh Johnson, LT David Sharpe, TE Eric Tomlinson, CB Anthony Averett

There are a number of positions that screams “help!” on the defence with a lot of old/injured dead wood and most likely not returning so don’t be surprised to see a lot of these names not on the roster come kickoff 2022. Bradley Bozeman, the Center who was moved from Guard in 2020, has been a decent find from the 6th round back in 2018’s draft and is probably a guy they would like to keep protecting Lamar Jackson.


AFC South

Tennessee Titans:

Pending Free Agents: EDGE Harold Landry, C Ben Jones, LB Jayon Brown, TE Anthony Firkser, LB Rashaan Evans, TE Geoff Swaim, WR Marcus Johnson, LS Morgan Cox, LB Nick Dzubnar, S Matthias Farley, K Randy Bullock, CB Buster Skrine, EDGE Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, LB Dylan Cole, LB B.J. Bello, CB Greg Mabin, WR Chester Rogers, IDL Kyle Peko, IDL Trevor Coley, TE MyCole Pruitt, RB Dontrell Hilliard, RB D’Onta Foreman, WR Cameron Batson, S Dane Cruikshank

Harold Landry will command a decent amount of interest and it far from certain he’ll be able to don a Titans jersey in 2022 considering their cap situation. Like the Browns, they have an upcoming decision on Ryan Tannehill certainly next year, if not this (signs point to him being under Center in 2022). If they are unable to retain Landry, that could mean more emphasis on fellow Linebackers Jayon Brown or Rashaan Evans are prioritised.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY

Indianapolis Colts:

Pending Free Agents: LT Eric Fisher, WR T.Y. Hilton, RG Mark Glowinski, CB Xavier Rhodes, TE Mo-Alie Cox, WR Zach Pascal, EDGE Al-Quadin Muhammad, LT Sam Tevi, IDL Isaac Rochell, S George Odum, CB T.J. Carrie, RB Marlon Mack, EDGE Kemoko Turay, LT Julie’n Davenport, LG Chris Reed, EDGE Tyquan Lewis, S Andrew Sendejo, S Jahleel Addae, RG Matt Pryor, K Michael Badgley, IDL Antwaun Woods, LB Matthew Adams, LB Zaire Franklin

With Carson Wentz “unlikely” to be in a Colts uniform in 2022, he could be followed out by some long-tenured players such as TY Hilton and Marlon Mack on offence. They should try and keep the services of Mo Alie-Cox, with it looking likely Jack Doyle will retire. He’ll probably garner some interest from others and the Colts have a good cap space situation so expecting some noise in Free Agency, especially as their draft capital isn’t as much as it could be.

Former #1 overall pick in 2013 Eric Fisher signed on a 1-year deal last year from the Chiefs and had an OK season on a decent Colts O-Line. He was tied 10th for penalties given up (8) and sacks allowed (7), though it was Carson Wentz at QB (known for holding on to the ball for too long) which is reflected in his better run block performance rather than his pass protection.


Houston Texans:

Pending Free Agents: QB Tyrod Taylor, S Justin Reid, RB David Johnson, CB Desmond King, LB Christian Kirksey, LB Eric Wilson, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, WR Danny Amendola, S Terrence Brooks, IDL Maliek Collins, C Justin Britt, CB A.J. Moore, LB Neville Hewitt, TE Pharaoh Brown, IDL Vincent Taylor, EDGE DeMarcus Walker, WR Chris Conley, LB Tae Davis, LS Jon Weeks, EDGE Chris Smith, LT Geron Christian, LB Hardy Nickerson, TE Antony Auclair, LG Lane Taylor, QB Jeff Driskel, WR Chris Moore, IDL Jaleel Johnson, RB Royce Freeman, RG Cole Toner, TE Jordan Akins, EDGE Jacob Martin

I’m half surprised this list isn’t longer with the amount of 1-year deals that were signed last year to the Texans roster. We all know that until the Deshaun Watson saga has ended and he’s moved on, this franchise will just be in constant purgatory and still trying to pick itself up from the demolition job Bill O’Brien et al did. As there is a lot of 1-year guys here, don’t expect many back.

One that could be back is Defensive lineman Maliek Collins, who performed OK but that’s not saying much for one of the worst rush defences and averaged 2 sacks per game in 2021 (were the 3rd least in blitz %).


Jacksonville Jaguars:

Pending Free Agents: LT Cam Robinson, WR D.J. Chark, LG Andrew Norwell, RG A.J. Cann, IDL Taven Bryan, EDGE Jihad Ward, C Tyler Shatley, CB Tre Herndon, LB Damien Wilson, TE James O’Shaughnessy, CB Nevin Lawson, EDGE Adam Gotsis, WR Tavon Austin, EDGE Lerentee McCray, TE Jacob Hollister, WR Laquon Treadwell, WR Jaydon Mickens, LB Tyrell Adams, P JK Scott, RT Will Richardson

DJ Chark seems like he will be in negotiations at the very least with the team desperate at WR. While Trevor Lawrence will need someone to throw to, even more importantly, he needs linemen to keep him upright and not running for his life. Tackle Cam Robinson, while not elite, is a key cog in understanding the Jags’ priorities this offseason as they hold the #1 overall pick and a tackle named Evan Neal looks like he is the bookies’ favourite to be picked 1st overall. They could sign both Robinson and take Neal 1st overall, but you can be sure at least one of them will be their starter in Week 1 of 2022.


AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs:

Pending Free Agents: LT Orlando Brown, S Tyrann Mathieu, IDL Jarran Reed, LB Melvin Ingram, CB Charvarius Ward, RT Mike Remmers, CB Mike Hughes, S Daniel Sorensen, WR Byron Pringle, QB Chad Henne, RB Darrel Williams, LB Ben Niemann, RG Kyle Long, TE Blake Bell, WR Demarcus Robinson, EDGE Alex Okafor, C Austin Blythe, RB Jerick McKinnon, FB Michael Burton, IDL Derrick Nnadi, LG Andrew Wylie, LS James Winchester, WR Marcus Kemp, LB Dorian O’Daniel, S Armani Watts

On offence, Orlando Brown should be the #1 priority for the Chiefs this offseason, followed quickly by Safety Tyrann Mathieu on the defence. They are somewhat tight on the budget sheet though and they will be struggling to replace the Honey Badger if he gets decent money elsewhere on the table. Both of these guys are the frontrunners for the Franchise Tag. My money goes on the Honey Badger due to how important he is in that secondary.

Christian Petersen | Getty

With Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson headed for the market, they may look to try and find that 2nd Wide Receiver to help draw coverage from Hill and Kelce.


Las Vegas Raiders

Pending Free Agents: LB Nicholas Morrow, IDL Johnathan Hankins, QB Marcus Mariota, LB K.J. Wright, IDL Quinton Jefferson, IDL Solomon Thomas, WR Zay Jones, RB Jalen Richard, CB Casey Hayward, LG Richie Incognito, WR DeSean Jackson, IDL Gerald McCoy, C Nick Martin, TE Derek Carrier, CB Desmond Trufant, RT Brandon Parker, RG Jermaine Eluemunor, LB Kyle Wilber, RB Peyton Barber, IDL Darius Philon, LB Patrick Onwuasor, CB Brandon Facyson, LB Marquel Lee, LG Jordan Simmons

Usually when you get a change at co-ordinator, they can shake things up so Patrick Graham, formerly of the Giants may look to get some of “his guys” on the defensive side.Of the guys hitting the market, Casey Hayward had himself a good season but with the new DC, unsure whether they’ll look to bring him back. Derek Carr’s situation is worth monitoring as he can be cut if the Raiders wanna move on or even trade him but they or Derek himself may also want to re-enter negotiating that contract. With Marcus Mariota’s contract also being up, we could see either both QBs next year, or neither.


Los Angeles Chargers

Pending Free Agents: CB Chris Harris Jr., IDL Linval Joseph, WR Mike Williams, TE Jared Cook, EDGE Kyler Fackrell, RB Justin Jackson, RG Oday Aboushi, CB Ryan Smith, QB Chase Daniel, EDGE Uchenna Nwosu, WR Andre Roberts, LS Matt Overton, RG Senio Kelemete, K Dustin Hopkins, LG Michael Schofield, IDL Christian Covington, CB Devontae Harris, TE Stephen Anderson, IDL Justin Jones, LB Kyzir White, LG Scott Quisenberry

Mike Williams is probably braced for some big numbers coming his way from a variety of teams, should he wish to take a peek at the market (who wouldn’t). Whether he is deserving of them is another case but fortunately for the Chargers, there is plenty of cap space.

Run defence/interior lineman and Cornerback are areas they’ll look to beef up in March and April.


Denver Broncos

Pending Free Agents: QB Teddy Bridgewater, CB Kyle Fuller, RB Melvin Gordon, CB Bryce Callahan, S Kareem Jackson, RT Bobby Massie, LB Alexander Johnson, RT Cameron Fleming, EDGE Stephen Weatherly, IDL Shamar Stephen, CB Mike Ford, CB Nate Hairston, TE Eric Saubert, C Brett Jones, IDL Justin Hamilton, LB Josey Jewell, LB Micah Kiser, LB Kenny Young

A lot will be determined by how aggressive they pursue Aaron Rodgers (if leaving Green Bay and not retiring) or whether new HC Nathaniel Hackett (formerly of Green Bay for what it’s worth…) deems Teddy Bridgewater adequate enough to warrant entering new contract negotiations. Safety Kareem Jackson was Denver’s leading tackler on the defence last season, but is now entering year number 13. After losing Von Miller who went and got a Super Bowl ring, don’t be surprised Denver address their edge rusher situation.

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Sunday 8.05PM Preview: LA Chargers out to avenge New England

The New England Patriots are fresh off of a 54-13 domination of the New York Jets on Sunday. That affair was the first time that their rookie QB Mac Jones had thrown for 300 yards. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers were on a bye last week so still have the taste of defeat in their mouths, after being blown out by the Ravens in Week 6. This week the Bolts welcome the Pats to SoFi Stadium, hoping to fare a lot better than last year’s 45-0 outing.

Mac Jones is having a pretty good rookie season

The main highlight of this game is the battle between two young quarterbacks. Mac Jones has looked like the most efficient rookie QB of the 2021 class and week by week we’re seeing more from him. Jones isn’t the most mobile and doesn’t have the strongest of arms, it’s above average, but not Allen, Mahomes, or Herbert. He was the most NFL-ready guy coming out however and has the poise, accuracy, and leadership skills to be a top 15 quarterback.

Josh McDaniels has done a great job using those skills to target the middle of the field on intermediate routes, consistently. His numbers look great for a guy with 7 starts to his name. He’s 19th in yards per attempt (7.2), but 4th in completion percentage (70.8%) and 10th in yards (1779). The ex-Alabama QB hasn’t exactly got a good receiving core either.

Best QB in the AFC?

Justin Herbert was in Mac’s position last year. The 2020 offensive rookie of the year broke records last season. Herbert has single-handedly caused chaos in the Miami Dolphins organisation, after they passed on him in the draft last year. HIs rookie year was so good that he was among the league’s best right away. And that’s carried on to this year. He’s PFF’s 6th highest graded QB (with an 86.8 grade.) He would have 100% been the #1 overall pick had the Oregon offense been played to his strengths.

One thing that nobody had concerns over was his arm strength, it’s elite. The LAC number 10 has had a strong second season, throwing for 295.2 yards per game (6th in the league) 14 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. It’s up there with the other superstar quarterbacks in his conference. Herbert may even be better than Josh Allen, and he’s certainly above Patrick Mahomes at the moment. If he continues on this trajectory, Justin Herbert will be the best QB in the AFC.

State of the franchises

It feels weird that the New England Patriots aren’t really relevant at the moment. They’re not bad and being talked about every week, but aren’t playoff-bound either. They’re just an average team in the middle of a rebuild. That being said they cannot catch a break on defense. Every week the Pats seem to be down multiple starters on that side of the ball, and that looks set to continue this week judging by the injury report. Offensive line seems to be the best unit on the team. Ted Karras and Michael Onwenu have handled moves to guard and tackle swimmingly, protecting Jones and creating lanes for Damien Harris, who’s had a great year. Win this game and things start to look a lot better because three wins against the Jets and Texans isn’t special. Master Belichick and co managed to confuse Herbert in their game last season, let’s see how much he’s learned.

In LA things are looking very bright. They’ve got their superstar QB, stud young offensive tackle, dominant edge rusher, and great receiving core. Add on to that Derwin James, Austin Ekeler, and Chris Harris. It’s no wonder they’re 4-2 currently, the roster’s stacked. And the man in charge of that roster is certainly impressing many. Brandon Staley is the first defensive guy to come out of the Sean McVay coaching tree and man are the Rams missing him right now. He seems like a great leader of men too, that was evident after his response to the Jon Gruden situation.

Prediction

There was one point in his career where Bill Belichick won 11 games straight against rookie head coaches, that’s a big factor towards this prediction. Guys sweat it when coaching against one of the most successful HC’s of all time.

That being said, the Chargers are super talented and should be too much for this NE team. It’ll be close, within one score, but the Bolts will be sour after what happened last year and will pull it off.

Los Angeles 25, New England 24

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Diamonds in the rough: 2020’s best value rookies

In the NFL, March is a nothing month, the no-man’s-land between the last Super Bowl and the next draft. At this time of year, there are more mock drafts out there than I’ve had hot dinners, with everyone mulling over the value buried somewhere in those seven rounds. That makes it as good a time as any to take stock of last year’s rookies.

Obviously, not every Day 1 pick will have worked out (*cough* Isaiah Wilson *cough*) but the opposite is also true: there are always some hidden gems to be unearthed after the obvious names have come off the board. If you’re a supporter of the Rams or the Texans maybe, and don’t have a first-round pick to look forward to this year, fear not – all is not lost! If your Day 2 and 3 picks turn out half as well as some of those from 12 months ago, you won’t be complaining.

Without further ado, here are my best 2020 picks from Round 2 onwards. Where indicated (*), some of these picks actually made the Professional Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie Team of the Year.


ROUND 2

#33: Cincinnati Bengals – Tee Higgins (WR, Clemson) *

With the first pick of Day 2, Cincy found a weapon for their #1 overall pick, Joe Burrow. Many pundits thought Higgins would go in Round 1 so when he was still sitting there the next morning, the Bengals had to pounce. With AJ Green and John Ross failing to provide the necessary deep threat for Cincinnati, the Clemson wideout stepped up admirably with 908 yards (third only to Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb among rookie receivers) and six touchdowns. Higgins only broke through as a starter in Week 3 and lost Burrow for the last six-and-a-half games, yet had two 100-yard games (and a 99). In fact, it took a hamstring injury, early in the final game against Baltimore, to deny Higgins a 1,000-yard debut season. It also meant he only tied Cris Collinsworth’s franchise record of 67 catches in a rookie season rather than beating it. Higgins is the epitome of a Round 1 talent falling into Round 2, and there’s the promise of more to come.    

#41: Indianapolis Colts – Jonathan Taylor (RB, Wisconsin) *

The Colts’ second pick had a disappointing start to his first NFL campaign but the former Wisconsin running back suddenly hit a white-hot streak around Thanksgiving, becoming one of the very best RBs down the stretch. From Week 11 onwards, only some bloke called Derrick Henry had a higher rushing grade from PFF than the Taylor’s 91.2, and he averaged 6.2 yards per carry during that spell. He ended the season with 1,169 rushing yards (3rd in the NFL and easily the best of the 2020 class) and 11 touchdowns (T-7th), with only one fumble and one drop. He topped 100 yards on the ground on only his second game, stuck a nice, round 150 on Las Vegas and his 253 rushing yards in Week 17 against the Jaguars set a new franchise record, and carried Indy into the playoffs. For Taylor, the sky’s the limit.

Julio Aguilar – Getty Images

#45: Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Antoine Winfield Jr. (S, Minnesota) *

Landing Winfield in the middle of Round 2 definitely feels like a decent bang for the Bucs (sorry). He was a productive blitzer with nine pressures on 58 rushes – including two strip-sacks – and he finished the regular season with the second-highest PFF grade for run defence at his position (86.3). The Buccaneers’ 26-14 win over the Vikings in mid-December saw Winfield notch 10 tackles, two assists and a sack, while taking great delight in snuffing out a pass aimed at Tyreek Hill in the Super Bowl a few weeks ago was yet another highlight to add to the reel. His solid debut season featuring 64 solo tackles, two forced fumbles, six passes defended and an interception.

#49: Pittsburgh Steelers – Chase Claypool (WR, Notre Dame)

Without a Day 1 selection, Claypool – the 11th WR off the board last year – was actually Pittsburgh’s first pick of the 2020 draft and he came out all guns blazing from the start. The Notre Dame wideout, who saw more deep targets than anyone in the NFL, ended the year with 62 catches for 873 yards and nine regular-season touchdowns, including two against Cincinnati, three in a 38-29 win over the Eagles and an 84-yarder against Denver. He also bagged two more scores from just five receptions in the Wild Card loss to Cleveland. Claypool looks well placed to kick on from here, especially if JuJu Smith-Schuster hits free agency.

Patrick Smith – Getty Images

#52: Los Angeles Rams – Cam Akers (RB, Florida State)

Akers, LA’s highest pick in the past three years at #52 overall, joined a busy backfield and missed some time with injuries in the first half of the season. But he started to pick up, peaking with 171 rushing yards in a 24-3 trouncing of the New England on Thursday Night Football. He was also used more in the receiving game as the year went on, not least in the Week 17 win over Arizona when he logged 52 yards from four catches, compared to only 34 yards from 21 rushing attempts. Ending the regular season with 748 yards from scrimmage, he carried on where he left off in the Rams’ two playoff games, racking up 221 rushing yards, 51 receiving yards from just three catches and a rushing touchdown in each game. Akers may yet prove to be the heavy lifter in Sean McVay’s running back committee if he keeps this trajectory going.

#64: Carolina Panthers – Jeremy Chinn (S/OLB, Southern Illinois) *

Carolina only selected defensive players in the draft last year and with the last pick of the second round, they opted for Chinn, a safety/outside linebacker from Southern Illinois. Chinn wasn’t perfect by any means, giving up six touchdowns in coverage and struggling in run defence at times, but the signs are promising, having logged 116 total tackles, the most among all NFL rookies, as well as two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Chinn was even in with a shout of winning Defensive Rookie of the Year at one point, not least because of his two fumble recovery touchdowns on consecutive plays in the third quarter of a 28-27 loss to the Vikings in Week 12, aas well as his two NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month awards.

Jim Mone – AP Photo

ROUND 3

#66: Washington Football Team – Antonio Gibson (RB, Memphis)

We also know that #2 overall pick Chase Young was the high-profile pick but he wasn’t the only Washington Football Team rookie to make his mark in 2020. Memphis running back Gibson also produced a PFF grade above 80.0, with 795 rushing yards (20th in the league) and 11 TDs (T-7th), as well as 247 yards receiving. His two 100-yard days both came against divisional rivals Dallas, racking up 243 rushing yards on 40 carries and scoring four total touchdowns in two meetings.

#85: Indianapolis Colts – Julian Blackmon (S, Utah)

Julian Blackmon switched to safety during his final season at Utah after a few underwhelming seasons at corner, and the move seems to have paid off big time. Through the first 11 weeks of his professional career, Blackmon played lights out and was by far the highest-graded rookie at his position in the league. In a complete role-reversal with Jonathan Taylor (see above), he went off the boil after that. Nonetheless, for a late Day 2 pick, Blackmon was definitely successful, with 35 solo tackles, six passes defended, one forced fumble and two interceptions.

#89: Minnesota Vikings – Cameron Dantzler (CB, Mississippi State) *

Obviously, top rookie Justin Jefferson took a lot of the limelight in Minnesota but kudos must go to Vikings front office for taking Dantzler, the corner from Mississippi State, late in the third round – especially having already picked a corner in Jeff Gladney on Day 1. A debut NFL season is always going to be a mixed bag but with Dantzler, there were more highs than lows, even with injuries early in the season limiting him to just 11 games. With 46 total tackles, three tackles for loss, four pass defenced, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, as well as two interceptions, he racked up nine solo tackles against Atlanta in mid-October and finished on a high, with his performances against Jacksonville (Week 13) and Chicago (Week 15) securing the top two PFF grades from a rookie corner all year.

Getty Images

ROUND 4

#128: Buffalo Bills – Gabriel Davis (WR, UCF)

As a Day 3 pick, some degree of inconsistency is to be expected but there were times during the season when Davis made some big plays and looked the real deal, rather than the 17th wide receiver off the board. The rookie finished the regular season with 599 receiving yards from just 35 receptions (his average of 17.1 yards per catch was 4th best across the entire league) and bagged seven TDs, having carved out a role alongside Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. He also made a name for himself as a sideline toe-tapper, bringing in two tight catches in quick succession in his first playoff game against the Colts. Alas, he didn’t manage to haul in anything in the Divisional Round or the AFC Championship games, but the fourth-rounder looks set fair for another good year in 2021.  

#138: Kansas City Chiefs – L’Jarius Sneed (S, Louisiana Tech) *

Sneed wasn’t even among the first 10 safeties off the board but he certainly represented exceptional value at the end of Round 4. Having played in the slot, out wide and deeper at college, his versality was a contributory factor in becoming PFF’s top rookie defensive back. He allowed just one gain of 20+ yards and according to PFF, only one touchdown, while notching 41 total tackles, three interceptions, two sacks, two tackles for loss, four pass breakups and seven passes defended during the regular campaign –despite missing six weeks with a broken collarbone. With only six starts and nine regular season appearances under his belt, it’s still early days but he’s already sacked both Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen in the playoffs, and played in a Super Bowl (his first loss as a professional). I think snaring Sneed in Round 4 already feels like daylight robbery and I’m not the only one who thinks so: a recent redraft by CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso had Sneed going to the Carolina Panthers at #7 overall.

Jay Biggerstaff – USA TODAY Sports

ROUND 6

#182: New England Patriots – Michael Onwenu (G, Michigan) *

Round 5 was a bit of a desert but when we got to Round 6, ker-ching! Jackpot! The Patriots love a sixth-round bargain out of Michigan(!) and Onwenu might just prove to be the biggest steal in the entire draft. The 6’3”, 350lb lineman logged more than 80 snaps at three different positions (left guard, right guard and right tackle) and posted at least a 79.0 PFF grade at each. Despite playing guard in his four years at Michigan, his rookie campaign was mainly spent at right tackle (616 snaps). In a class that featured six first-round offensive tackles, Onwenu scored the highest PFF grade of all of them – and ranked third among all rookies, in all positions, behind only Justin Jefferson and Chase Young. Impressive stuff from the big fella!

#187: Cleveland Browns – Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR, Michigan)

Peoples-Jones was another steal in the sixth round, helping to fill out the Browns’ receiving corps when Odell Beckham Jr was lost for the season. Although he only made 14 receptions and no more than three in any one game, he posted 304 regular season receiving yards – that’s nearly 22 yards a pop. Of his two touchdowns, one was a 75-yarder against the Titans in a game they led 38-7 by the break but earlier, in Week 7, a 24-yard catch for the game-winning score against AFC North foes Cincinnati with just 11 seconds remaining made him an instant hero in the Dawg Pound. Given Cleveland’s roster, Peoples-Jones may remain a supplementary weapon but he’s already proved that he can make the big plays when called upon.

Kareem Elgazzar – Imagn Content Services, LLC

#188: Buffalo Bills – Tyler Bass (K, Georgia Southern)

Sixty picks after they selected Gabriel Davis, Buffalo netted Bass. The rookie kicker bookended his first pro season with bad games – he missed field goal attempts of 34 and 38 yards in his NFL debut, and also missed a pair of kicks in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore (to be fair, the conditions weren’t great that day). Otherwise, Bass was pretty solid, going 28-of-34 for FGs (82.4%) and 57 of 59 on extra points (96.6%), including 19 successful attempts in his last three regular season games. The 141 points he scored for his team was the fourth-best total in the league.

#199: Los Angeles Rams – Jordan Fuller (S, Ohio State)

With pick-ups like Fuller in Round 6, you can see why teams like the Rams are willing to keep trading their Day 1 picks away for more draft capital. Fuller was an immediate starter on the NFL’s best-ranked defence and even though he missed four games with a neck injury, he still accumulated 60 total tackles, five pass breakups and three picks, two of which came off a certain Mr T. Brady of Tampa during a 27-24 primetime win on Monday Night Football. A further 12 tackles in two postseason games leaves the former Ohio State safety with a tidy Year 1 record on which to build.


ROUND 7

#216 Washington Football Team – Kamren Curl (S, Arkansas) *

There was one stand-out selection in the final round of the 2020 draft and yet again, Washington came up trumps. Curl, the Arkansas strong safety, emerged from the shadows when Landon Collins was lost for the year with a torn Achilles in Week 7. He soon became a key part of the secondary, finishing the regular season as the highest-graded safety from the 2020 rookie class. He also made the Rookie of the Year team and one PFF article I read suggested that Curl had a legitimate claim for being the runner-up Defensive Rookie of the Year behind Chase Young, finishing second on the team for tackles (88), as well as notching 3 INTs, four passes defended, two sacks and three tackles for loss. Of his interceptions, taking a game-winning pick back for a 76-yard touchdown against the 49ers in mid-December was definitely one for the Curl family archives.  

Ross D Franklin – AP Photo

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

We can’t end without mentioning two of the undrafted free agents who got picked up after the draft, given the impact they had.

The Jacksonville Jaguars has 12 picks last year but their best move was probably made afterwards, when they got James Robinson* to sign on the dotted line. The Illinois State RB was a revelation, ending up with 1,070 rushing yards (T-5th in the NFL) and seven touchdowns. He also added 49 catches for 344 yards and three receiving touchdowns for good measure. A legitimate contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year with seven games with 100+ total yards, Robinson posted awesome numbers for an UFA playing on the league’s worst team, especially when you consider they would have been playing catch-up in pretty much every game they played.

I think Indianapolis ‘won’ last year’s draft with Pittman Jr, Taylor and Blackmon among their haul, but they also played a blinder in the undrafted free agent market, securing the services of Rodrigo Blankenship*. The former Georgia kicker became a cult figure during the season, on his way to kicking 43 of 45 extra points (95.5%), 32 of 37 field goals (86.5%) and a tally of 139 points for his team (5th across all players in the league). He was also responsible for 13 of the Colts 19 points in a 19-11 win over Chicago in Week 4, pretty much winning the game by himself. Respect the Specs!

As a side note, the New York Jets were also able to pick up Lamar Jackson after the draft was over. Alas, this particular version was a cornerback from Nebraska but still, it sounds like good value to me!

Feature image: Associated Press

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NFL Week 16 Sky Sports TV Preview

Xmas football is here! Just 2 weeks left of the regular season before we separate the men from the boys. Yet another feast of action provided by SkySports this weekend including a Christmas Day game and 3 on Boxing day. So get your mince pies in your hands as you peruse through the games. Use the handy menu below to choose your game!

Merry Christmas to everyone and hope that it is as good as it can be considering the year we have had, but thankfully the NFL is here to keep us company if you can’t be with those that you intended to be with.


| MIN @ NO | TB @ DET | SF @ ARI | MIA @ LVR | IND @ PIT | LAR @ SEA | TEN @ GB | BUF @ NE |


Xmas Day 9.30pm – Vikings @ Saints

You have to wonder how much stuffing has been knocked out of the Vikings after their loss against divisional rivals Chicago. They have conceded an average of 28 points over the last few games and take on a Saints team on a 2 game losing streak but should have a as healthy as can be Drew Brees under center.

Personally, I feel that Drew Brees came back too early but considering the position the Saints are in, I can understand why. currently the #2 seed, chasing the Packers and had Kansas coming to town, totally get why they brought back the future hall of famer, even if it was a bit hastily.

He’ll have a better time of it against the Vikings but it isn’t a fixture thay’ve had too much success in, with Minneosta leading the all time series 23-12 and winning 3 of the last 4 (who can forget the Minneapolis Miracle).

Brees will have to do it without Michael Thomas who landed on IR so that he can as fit as possible for the playoff and try and rekindle that partnership on the field in the post season with the Saints guaranteed to be there. The Saints (10-4) still need to win one of their two remaining games to clinch the division and the Buccaneers are making a late charge, only one game back.

Alvin Kamara likely to return for Saints Sunday | Vols Wire
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Alvin Kamara has had far from a vintage year and you have to go back to week 6 since he had his last 100yard scrimmage game and the recent switch at QB and an under par Brees and missing Michael Thomas has played its part in that. That being said, he is still the leading rusher AND receiver on the team so expect similar outputs from him here against a Vikings defence that ranks 23rd against the rush and 24th against the pass in terms of yardage.

The Saints defence has come to play and is getting better as the season goes on. Their 32 points conceded against the Chiefs, which is no embarrassment at all, was the first time they conceded 30 plus since week 5. Since their week 6 bye, they have limited opposing offence to under 14 points 4/9 times and under 300 yards of total offence 5 times.

Led by leading team sacker Trey Hendrickson, who was able to be more than a nuisance for Patrick Mahomes last week, will look to add to his current 12.5 sack total on the year. Fellow Defensive end and partner in crime Cameron Jordan, whilst not having his best year has still been able to notch 6.5 sacks and are a good pass-rushing duo that Kirk Cousins will no enjoy getting to know this Xmas.

For Minnesota, despite being the 9th seed currently, are all but out of it by name being 2 games behind Arizona and also now behind Chicago in the tie-breaking ranks.

Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson developing into complete receiver
John Autey

They’ll look to play spoiler here and they do have the talent on offence to score the points and star rookie WR, who earned a pro Bowl nod (for what it’s worth) this week, will continue to add to his 1182 yards and 7 Touchdown dances this season. A perfect compliment to Jefferson is Adam Thielen who has gotten the Touchdowns and redzone looks, if not the yardage and has 13 TDs and just a few ticks under 800 receiving yards this season.

This team is a run first offence though as Dalvin Cook, also a Pro Bowler for 2020, will look to find the endzone against a Saints defence giving up the fewest amount of rushing scores. that being said, he did find the endzone against Chicago who are also a top 5 stingy team when it comes to scores on the ground. Cook has mustered 8 games with over 100 rushing yards this season and has scored in all but 3 games.

For Minnesota to have any chance, they’ll have to be clean in the turnovers battle, a metric that Saints rank 6th (+6 turnover differential) compared to the Vikings lowly 23rd (-5).


Writer’s Pick: Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)

I can’t see anything but a Saints victory here against a Vikings team that only has pride to play for now. That being said, if Brees is no better than he was last week, they could struggle but considering how dominant the defence has become since their bye (Kansas game aside), they could bail the offence out anyway. Saints should cover the 7 points that the bookies have handicapped them and I feel the total points line of 51 is too high.

Saints 27 – 17 Vikings

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Boxing Day 6pm – Buccaneers @ Lions

Brady and the Bucs struggled to get going in the first half against the Falcons, but they got out of jail because they were playing the Falcons.

They remain a game back from the Saints who are far from guaranteed win either of their remaining games in the division but they also sit level with the Rams at 9-5 and they’ll at least want that #5 seed which is a trip to play the NFC East winner, so essentially a bye in the Wildcard round in January. As the Rams are facing the Seahawks, a win for the Bucs in this one likely lifts them into that 5th spot regardless of the NFC West battle result.

Tom Brady roasts Tony Dungy on Twitter over QB rankings
Kevin C. Cox / Getty

So how good has Tom Brady been this year? Well stat wise, it’s in keeping with most of his years. Consistent, if not spectacular. A win in either of his last 2 games will continue his streak of double digit wins in the regular season, with 2002 the ONLY season he won less than 10 games as a starter and that includes a 11-1 season (due to suspension) in 2016. It’s fair to say the Belichick vs Brady debate clearly is a battle that Brady has won this year. You can still tell that he has the fire in his belly after his riposte to Tony Dungy on Twitter when he ranked him as his 6th hardest QB to play against.

It helps when you have players like Mike Evans, Anotnio Brown and Chris Godwin catching balls for you. Evans, who paces the Bucs with just 779 receiving yards, epitomises what Brady has done this year, which is spread the love around. 5 receivers have over 30 receptions and all have over 300 yards and there are 10 different players that have caught a receiving touchdown off the future Hall of Famer.

Leonard Fournette, with 2 TDs last week will continue in place of Ronald Jones, who will continue on IR but this is a pass first offence who rank in the top quarter of most passing metrics including yardage, Touchdowns and points.

They face a Lions team that are 1-5 at home and a defence which rank in the bottom 5 in most metrics in either passing, rushing or total defence including a league worst 31.1 pts per game given up so should be able to do what they want, when they want.

Whilst there are points giving up on defence, on offence, they are able to score too so signs point to a potentially high scoring game. Matthew Stafford doesn’t seem as though he’ll miss this game despite having multiple injuries including a back injury, a consequence of trying to carry this team for years.

Matthew Stafford questionable vs. Titans | Yardbarker
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The same can’t be said for Golladay who clearly has some serious hip issues that have kept him out for the majority of the season. Marvin Jones has rolled back the years somewhat over the past few weeks, with 2 TDs and 276 yards in his last 3 games. Like he did in New England, Mo Sanu has made a decently positive impact in his first few weeks for the Lions and will look to continue his part in the last 2 weeks.

The team’s main target hog who fumbled last week, TJ Hockenson, will look to get back on track and add to his 6 TDs on the season, which has seen him earn a Pro Bowl nod (though Evan Engram did also, so whether we can use Pro Bowl as an achievement is very much debatable).

Stafford an Co. take on a Bucs defence that has seemed to have been more frivolous in recent weeks, allowing at least 4 scores (TD/FG) in 6 of it’s last 7 games (would have been 7/7 if not for Dan Bailey) and have been picked apart through the air all season giving up an average of 255 yards.


Writer’s Pick: Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)

Hard to see anything other than an away day victory for the Bucs on “Bucsing Day” (sorry). The 9.5pt handicap line indicates a tough day for the Lions, which would be in keeping with their defensive performances throughout this season. I’d probably fancy the Bucs to win by double digits.

The Bucs defence has gotten into the Xmas giving spirit too though and the total points line of 54 appeals on taking the over.

Buccaneers 38 – 24 Lions

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Boxing Day, 9:30pm – 49ers @ Cardinals

It’s Christmas, and on Boxing Day we get served up two tasty match-ups to enjoy after everyone has eaten approximately 781kg of turkey & stuffing. The evening game sees a depleted San Francisco team, hobbling to the end of the season at this point, visit State Farm Stadium to play the Cardinals. Is this now a home game for San Francisco? As they’re temporarily playing out of State Farm? Should they not choose a neutral venue? Sod it, send them both to Wembley. Not much going on there right now…

Okay, okay, London is a long way from the West coast. I get it. If this had been the reverse game it would have been very interesting, especially seeing as Arizona is currently allowing some fans into the games. Not much of a home game for SF? Focusing on the game, San Francisco comes into this one beaten down and hurting from their extensive injury list this campaign. Jimmy G is still on IR and according to reports isn’t expected to return again this season. Fans have to be wondering if he can be relied on moving forward from here. Since tearing his ACL after 3 games of the 2018 season, he will now have missed 23 games from a possible 45 (assuming he doesn’t start again in 2020). Could he have played his last game in a 49ers uniform? The bad news doesn’t end there either, with Nick Mullens also headed to IR after elbow surgery this week. The end of the season can’t come soon enough for Kyle Shanahan.

Jimmy Garoppolo
Charlie Riedel/AP

However, defensively San Francisco might actually be able to put up a bit of a fight. They currently have the 5th-best ranked defence in the NFL in total yards allowed, they are also 4th in the NFL when it comes to passing yards allowed (2,938). The 49ers secondary is looking good and if they can pressure Murray into quick first and second read throws, they might be able to create some turnovers and hand their offence a short starting field position, which will certainly help given the boat load of injuries they have on that side of the ball. They will have to rely on their secondary as their pass-rush just isn’t getting it done. With Ezekiel Ansah and Dee Ford both on IR, San Francisco aren’t getting the sacks to try and pressure opposing offences. They only have 25 sacks this season, which is almost half that of the league leaders (Pittsburgh – 47).

Arizona come into this game on the back of the game of the week versus Philadelphia. A shoot-out between the two ex-Ohio State QBs ended in a narrow victory for Kyler Murray. He threw over 400 yards in the process with 3 scores, but had some real ‘interesting’ moments. The interception throw straight into the arms of Eagles safety Marcus Epps was puzzling to say the least. Murray obviously still has plenty time to improve, he’s only in his sophomore season in the league and with one more win will lead Arizona to their first winning season since 2015. He’s also on the brink of a milestone; he needs a further 363 passing yards to reach 4,000, and 259 rushing yards to reach 1,000 on the season respectively. One would imagine he will fall short of the rushing total, but its a monumental effort – note that no QB has ever done that before, showing how difficult it is to achieve.

cardeagle1.jpg
Getty Images

Kyler’s youthfulness was bailed out a couple of times from some truly incredibly catches by his receivers. The DeAndre Hopkins catch pictured above was eventually the game-winning score, and just a truly mesmerising display of athleticism. He ended up one handing that catch down to the ground. Veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald also caught a wonderful low pass at the back of the end zone, making it 255 games in a row that he has caught a pass. A absolutely mesmerising statistic – he’s only missed 8 games in 16 seasons in the league.

On the ground Arizona should be a dominant force too. They are 4th in the league in rushing yards – averaging 147.8 per game with 4.8 yards per attempt average (T-7th). Murray’s elusiveness will prove tricky for the 49ers defensive line and pass rushers, if he can get out of the pocket and run the ball on either designed runs or RPOs, Arizona could have some success but they shouldn’t expect a walk in the park against the 7th ranked rush defence in the league (104.4 yards per game).

On the face of things, this Arizona defence should have an easier time of things if Garoppolo isn’t playing and CJ Beathard gets the start. San Francisco are also still without star RB Raheem Mostert, not making their attack on the ground much more formidable than the one in the air. However, there is no such thing as an easy game in the NFL and just 4 weeks ago the 49ers pulled off an upset win against the Los Angeles Rams. Haason Reddick and co should be licking their lips with a chance to get to the top of the sacks table. Arizona has 43 on the season, only 4 away from the league leaders. If he can have another 5-sack game like he did in week 14, I can’t imagine SF will be leaving (or staying in) Arizona with the W.

Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

Writer’s Pick (Steve Tough – @SteTough)

Despite some real hearty performances from San Francisco this season in the face of absolutely horrible injury luck, I just don’t think they have enough to overcome Arizona. Kyler Murray is coming off a 400+ yard passing game and will be looking to add to that total. DeAndre Hopkins also leads the league in receiving yards with 1,324 and will be looking to take that crown for the first time in his career. It will be interesting to see if the San Francisco defence can enjoy the same success that Philadelphia did against Arizona, if they can, this game could be closer than most anticipate it will.

San Francisco 10 – 27 Arizona

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Saturday, 1.15am Dolphins @ Raiders

The Las Vegas Raiders will hope that quarterback Derek Carr can return for Sunday to face the Miami Dolphins, as the Silver and Black look to pursue very narrow play-off dreams entering Week 16.

Carr, who left the defeat to the LA Chargers with a suspected groin injury last week, has split time in practice with Marcus Mariota, who looked ultra-capable when he came in to cover for Carr in Week 15, despite the over-time loss to Justin Herbert.

The loss marked a fourth crushing defeat from the last five games, the only win coming in that last gasp deep-ball win over the New York Jets, a run that has seen them slip from play-off consideration to holding on for dear life at 7-7.

A win over the Dolphins who sit at 9-5 would at least give them a shot going into Week 17 should other results go their way, but the miserable season collapse has paid way to them deciding their own destiny for 2020/21.

Josh Jacobs ran for 76 yards and a touchdown last Saturday which looked impressive when partnered with the 88 yards from Mariota but averaging just 2.9 yards a carry and without a 100-yard rushing game in four attempts is a worrying trend for the young starlet.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The offence will be aided should Carr return, especially with tight-end Darren Waller continuing to play at an exceptional level as the second best tight-end in the league behind the incomparable Travis Kelce.

The former-receiver notched 150 yards and a magnificent looking deep score as he approaches the 1000 yard mark with two remaining games to go on the season.

Defensively, the Raiders may also be boosted by the return of safety, Jonathan Abrams who has practiced all week, and they might need the help as they continue to shift big yards against all most everybody they face.

Corner Trayvon Muller had a particularly tough outing against the Chargers, as they gave up 314 yards through the air to rookie Herbert and now rank 7th worst in passing yards allowed on the year and 6.0 yards per play on the season, which is 5th most and in competition with some of the worst defences in the league.

On the other side of that scale however is the Miami Dolphins constricting defensive unit who held the New England Patriots to just 12 points in a victory over their division rivals in Week 15.

The group was also coming off the back of a game in which they picked off Patrick Mahomes on three occasions, as the high-paid cornerback combination of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones prove their value to this defence first set up that Brian Flores has built.

The group has been under pressure to perform throughout the year, as rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa attempts to find his feet in the NFL before they potentially reach the play-offs for the first time since Adam Gase.

Credit by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The Alabama-alumni has shown glimpses of what made him the fifth overall pick last year, and why the Dolphins replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick with the young-gun half-way through the year as the leftie has done well to continue building rapports with Mike Gesicki and Devante Parker in particular.

Gesicki has become a good safety valve for the young QB, and now has over 600 receiving yards on the season as he looks to further his numbers against a team who has shifted 700 yards against tight-ends in their 14 games this season.

The Week 16 matchup with the Raiders will prove a further test for Tua with the opportunity to kick the Raiders out of contention for that 7th and final play-off spot providing he gets the Florida team a big win on the road in Las Vegas.


Writer’s Pick – Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)

Overall, the Carr news only makes a small difference to what I think will happen when these two teams face up on Saturday. The Raiders have struggled a bunch in all four of their recent losses and they cant seem to stop anybody with any consistency on defence.

Miami however can stop just about anyone and even made the Chiefs sweat for the entire game which is a far more effective offensive unit than the Raiders, and I expect them to grind out a low-scoring, but important win to keep themselves in the driving seat of that final play-off spot.

Dolphins 21-15 Raiders

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Sunday 6pmColts @ Steelers

With major play-off implications at stake, these two postseason-bound teams may have similar records but they are on quite different trajectories. The visitors are fresh off a 27-20 victory over divisional rivals the Texans, their third win in a row, while the Steelers suffered an unexpected 27-17 loss to AFC North foes the Bengals – their third defeat in succession.

If we use a New Year Eve’s fireworks display as our analogy, the 10-4 Colts are a Catherine Wheel, spinning away nicely at an even tempo. These steady Eddies have been slugging it out with the Titans (also 10-4) in the AFC South and it’s all still up for grabs, although they lag behind on a tiebreaker. In stark contrast, the 11-3 Steelers are a Skyrocket. Everyone went “oooh” and “aaah” as they raced out to an 11-0 record, only to explode in a big, noisy and colourful way. The ashes are now drifting back to earth.

With a chance to wrap up the AFC North, the wobbly Steelers had a Monday night match-up on primetime at Cincinnati: talk about the perfect get-right scenario. The pundits queued up to predict an easy win for the 14-point favourites. Everything that transpired thereafter felt like it belonged to the alternative universe from His Dark Materials: close to the one we know but not quite the same. The Bengals D was fierce; Ryan Finley was competent; Ben Roethlisberger was poor; Diontae Johnson wasn’t Mr Butter Fingers; there were three first-half turnovers in favour of Cincy. All very odd indeed. The 10-point upset, in front of a national TV audience, saw the Bengals snap a five-game losing streak and an 11-game run of defeats against their nemesis.

Pittsburgh’s offence has been held to under 20 points for four consecutive games now and was restricted to a measly 244 total yards by Cincinnati. Big Ben clearly wasn’t at his best (throwing 4-of-10 for -5 passing yards in the first quarter), even though he became the seventh player to pass for more than 60,000 yards. His 62.4 QB rating set a new low for the season.

Michael Conroy – AP

The pressure is growing on the ailing Steelers’ QB and his WR corps because the team owns the league’s second-worst rushing attack. With the banged-up James Conner once again missing, they’ve gained an average of 51 yards on the ground during the three-game losing streak. If it weren’t for Benny Snell’s 84 yards and a rushing TD on Monday, Pittsburgh would have posted a net total of 2 yards rushing.

Their once-invincible defence is still the second-best in the league but it has been weakened by a number of key injuries of late, not least to linebacker Bud Dupree and on Monday, to fullback Derek Watt. At least his brother, TJ, continues to excel. His league-leading 13 sacks make him a Defensive Player of the Year contender but he can’t do it all by himself.

You could argue that, like Pittsburgh, Indy’s defence (ranked 7th in the NFL) has been the backbone of the team for much of the campaign. Their mainstays stepped up again to complete the season sweep over Houston, with Darius Leonard forcing the game-deciding fumble, rushing up and punching the ball out of Keke Coutee’s hands as he headed for the end zone with just 23 seconds on the clock. And one of the trades of the year, DeForest Buckner, sacked Deshaun Watson three times, despite operating on one good leg.

Brett Coomer – Houston Chronicle

The revitalised unit has allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards in the league – not great news for the Steelers’ weak running game. Indy’s D have also forced the third most turnovers in the league so Diontae Johnson’s handling needs to be error-free in this game.

Another similarity between these teams is that they both have a veteran quarterback plucked from the 2004 Draft class. Unlike Big Ben’s current funk, Indianapolis winning four of the last five is down in no small part to Philip Rivers, who could be back to his best (11 TDs to 2 INTs in that spell). His 419 career TDs leave him needing just two more to pass Dan Marino and go fifth in the all-time list, a milestone he could esily reach in this game. The team ranks ninth in overall offence, with major contributions from the league’s RB10, the second-round rookie Jonathan Taylor (842 yards, 7 TDs). Top wideout TY Hilton is also quietly effective but his 675 yards only just scrape him into the NFL’s top 40.

The Colts have not committed a turnover in their last three but it’s also noting that they relied on a last-minute fumble for the second time in three weeks to grab the W against Houston. This doesn’t shout Super Bowl contender from the rooftops but nonetheless, Indy just keep on clearing one hurdle at a time and moving on to the next.


Writer’s Pick – Sean Tyler (@Sean TylerUK)

A month ago, the Steelers looked locked in as AFC North champions elect and a bye in the Wild Card round was within their grasp. Now, it’s all starting to slip through their fingers. Their postseason place is in the bank but their current form probably makes them the team others want to face. Having lost twice in recent weeks to teams below .500, the AFC’s No.3 seed needs to end the slump – and fast – if they’re to stay ahead of the Browns and Ravens.

Yet the Colts are no pushovers. They have enough going for them on both sides of the ball to bloody the collective Pittsburgh nose for a fourth straight week. But playing at Heinz Field, could the Steelers bounce back after a short week and stun Indy? Of course they could and in fact, the Steelers are slight favourites at the time of writing. But I sense another upset brewing here. Unlike their hosts, the Colts look solid at the moment so I’m expecting them to take care of business, leaving the Steelers with more questions than answers once again.

Colts 31-27 Steelers

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Sunday 9.25 pm – Rams @ Seahawks

Without trying to launch straight into hyperbole, this is probably the most important game of the weekend, with the result all but determining who wins the highly competitive NFC West.

A week ago, we all would have assumed that these teams would be sitting level coming into this game. But, thanks to the historic loss to The Worst Team in Football, the 9-5 Rams unexpectedly find themselves a game behind the 10-4 Seahawks, making this a must-win contest. The Arizona Cardinals are just one game behind LA so it’s all pretty tight. So close, in fact, that a win gives Seattle the title, as well as a shot at the top seed and home-field advantage in the play-offs; a defeat would put them behind the Rams on a tiebreaker, as they lost their Week 10 match-up.

Coming off the back of two straight wins, Seattle clinched a play-off spot with a 20-15 victory in Washington, although they did have to hang on a bit at the end after building a 20-3 lead. QB Russell Wilson finished with a season-low 121 passing yards, 1 TD and 1 INT – not exactly up to the standards he set in the first half of the season. He’s now dropped to 7th in the league for passing yardage but he’s still second only to Aaron Rodgers for TDs thrown (37), more than a quarter of which have landed in the arms of DK Metcalf (1,223 yards, 10 TDs).

The rushing game looked solid last week too, with Wilson’s 52 rushing yards complementing the tally accrued by RB1 Chris Carson (63 yards on 15 attempts) and his backfield compadre Carlos Hyde (an impressive 55 yards and a TD on just two carries).

Brad Mills – USA TODAY Sports

While their offence (ranked 9th in the league) hasn’t been able to maintain its blistering start to the campaign, ‘Hawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been sacked a worrying 41 times so this is where the game could be won or lost. Seattle’s wobbly defence (ranked a lowly 26th) is actually playing a bit better of late, with DE Carlos Dunlap joining from Cincinnati a few weeks ago, and Jamal Adams bossing things in an improved secondary. They definitely stepped it up last week in the nation’s capital, with four sacks and seven QB hits on Dwayne Haskins, and their pass rush has delivered at least two sacks in the last eight games, including three on Jared Goff in Week 10.

Coming into this one with a totally different vibe, the Rams’ 23-20 home defeat to the winless New York Jets saw them become only the fifth team in 42 years to lose when favoured by at least 17 points by the bookies. At least they didn’t have any fans in their shiny new stadium to share their views on proceedings.

Jared Goff led the fight-back as they cut the deficit to just three points with over six minutes left on the clock. But then LA went 4-and-out on their next possession, thanks to errors and penalties, and never got the ball back. Goff finished with 209 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT. Whether his inconsistencies will affect his ability to connect with wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, both hovering around 20th in the league with more than 800 receiving yards apiece, only time will tell.

Keith Birmingham – Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

The match-up on the ground will be less appealing for Los Angeles. Seattle have allowed the third-fewest rushing yards per game (94.6), which will pose a challenge for the league’s ninth-best rushing attack, led by rookie Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson, two men with more than 500 yards to their names.

Despite Sam Darnold finding some success on Sunday, the Rams secondary plays at an elite level and is the primary reason for the team giving up the fewest passing yards per game (192.0) in the NFL. It was particularly impressive back in Week 10, when they held DK Metcalf to just two receptions and 28 yards. In short, the main difference between these two outfits is the relative strength of their defences. Aaron Donald and co. have mustered 44 sacks and twice as many QB hits in 14 games, making the Rams D the NFL’s top unit.


Writer’s Pick – Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)

The Rams are Seattle’s bogey side, having won five of the last six clashes while averaging more than 31 points per game. This current iteration of the Seahawks’ defence is not the strongest, yet they are currently the -1.5 favourites, despite only posting 16 points against the Rams six weeks ago.

Maybe that demoralising defeat to the Jets is a factor. It could suck the Rams down into a pit of despair or alternatively, it might serve as the kick up the posterior they need to bounce back in the final two regular-season games against their two closest rivals, the Seahawks and the Cardinals. If they can win out, the Rams will be crowned NFC West champions, but that’s a big if.

Those Seattle shootouts from earlier in the year – back when they scored at least 34 points in six of their first eight games – are now distant memories. Maybe Russ is done cooking now and has moved on to the washing-up? His 13 INTs put him behind only Carson Wentz, yet then again, Jared Goff has been intercepted a dozen times himself.  

With two takeaway-prone QBs not at their best on show, I’m expecting an attritional, low-scoring affair. When they met in Week 12, the Rams won 23-16 and I think we’ll be in the same ballpark again. However, I’m going to plump for Wilson to step it up and lead the Seahawks to a home win and a division title.

Rams 20-24 Seahawks

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Sunday, 1:20am, Titans @ Packers

The Tennessee Titans will look to knock off their second successive NFC North team in the space of a week when the travel to Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football.

The Titans had a huge day last week in every possible way when they beat the Detroit Lions into the ground 46-24, as they pursue an AFC South title of their own behind the legs of not just Derrick Henry, but quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill put together potentially his finest game of the season in Week 15 as threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns, and also put two score on the board with his feet.

A huge 75-yard touchdown to Corey Davis and a generally wide open passing game showed the signs of the Derrick Henry affect, as defences struggle to stop both the freight train of a running back and the athletic receiving corps of Davis, AJ Brown and Jonnu Smith.

There was the customary 147 yards and a touchdown for the unstoppable Henry, who went over the 100 yard mark for the 10th time this season, and included a rather brutal, highlight reel stiff-arm – again.

(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The game puts him just 341 yards off of 2K as he continues his most successful season so far in his bright career – 1679 yards and 15 touchdowns in 14 games for this Titans team.

Defensively, there continues to be some concerns heading off to the playoffs, as the Lions scored 24 points and moved the ball freely for 430 yards of total offence, which pushed the Titans to 6th worst in yards allowed on the year and 11th worst in points allowed.

Coming up against Aaron Rodgers will further put this defence to the test, as the unit attempts to prove itself against a high powered group that it could potentially end up facing in the playoffs.

Speaking of Rodgers, the Packers will be looking to secure themselves the number one seed in the NFC this weekend in a season that has seen some of the best of their star QB in several years under Matt LeFleur.

The 37-year-old has completed a massive 69.6% of his passes and has done so for 3828 yards in just 14 games and all whilst providing an almost unbelievable 40-4 touchdown to interception ratio.

On Monday it was announced that he had been voted to the ninth Pro-Bowl of his career, which came as little surprise to anybody, as the Packers had a league-high seven players voted in.

While the scoreboard went their way last time out in a win over the Panthers, concern was high over a second-half performance where the offence produced just a single second half field goal after an electric start.

Rodgers referred to the drop off as leaving a “sour taste” in his mouth, a feeling that will only be doubled by knowing that they face far stiffer opponents this week in the Titans and their overpowered offence.

(AP Photo – Sam Craft)

The danger is clear to LeFleur however, the young head-coach describing stopping the Titans as a “tremendous challenge” on Monday, as he tries to gauge the line between slowing down the Henry train and leaving the back end open to that play-action passing game of Tannehill.

The Packers defence has been much improved this year, ranking near the middle of the pack in most categories, and have given up fewer rushing yards on the season, 1541, than Derrick Henry has managed by himself.

Most teams are not the Titans however and the D-line of Green Bay will have their work thoroughly cut out for them if they want to prevent Tennessee from running the ball against them with ease.


Writer’s Pick – Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)

Overall I don’t know if I can see anything other than a Packers win this Sunday. Despite the issues that the offence had in the second half, I don’t think its too much too worry about, especially since the Panthers defence has played well above its station on several occasions this season.

Rodgers will be buoyed by the opportunity to rack up the number one seed at home, and I expect him to show it against a defence who has struggled to hold down fast paced and meticulous offensive units like the Packers.

Packers 31-21 Titans

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MNF – Tuesday, 1.15am Bills @ Patriots

The king is dead, long live the new king. After a quarter of a century wait the Buffalo Bills (11-3) can finally lay claim to the AFC East for the first time since 1995. Back then the Bills limped into the postseason with a 10-6 record. They did smash the Dolphins in the Wild Card game, but went on to lose in the Divisional round to the Steelers (who went on to lose to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl).

2020 also marks the first time the New England Patriots (6-8) have not punched a ticket into the playoffs, continuing the ‘non Brady’ streak of no postseason action. The last time the Pats failed to get into the business end of the season was 2008 when Matt Cassel led New England to an 11-5 record, pipped to the division by the Miami Dolphins who also finished 11-5 but won the points margin in the two head to head games.

Picture credit: buffalo news.com

Both teams met earlier in the season, with Buffalo escaping the clutches of Cam Newton’s oak tree legs with a later Tyler Bass (pictured above) field goal. This time, with one team already eliminated, it’s time for the Sith Lord to unwrap Jared Stidham. The 4th round pick in the 2019 draft has already seen the field four times this season, and has ever thrown a couple of touchdowns, replacing a woeful Bryan Hoyer to get a garbage time score, and then a little cameo in the Pats 45-0 steamrolling of the Chargers.

Stidham needs to be rolled out for the last two weeks of the season. With no expectations this is an ideal opportunity for Pats OC Josh McDaniels to see if he has somebody to work with in 2021.

Picture credit: AP Photo/Steven Senne

New England have been wholeheartedly underwhelming all season, and at one point they were 2-5, so to still be mathematically alive before Week 15 was pretty remarkable. The Cam Newton experiment has been a failure. Yes he runs, and is a redzone td monster, but through the air #1 has been atrocious. 5 passing touchdowns in 13 games is not going to get you far. This has obviously had a huge knock-on effect regarding the WR production. No Julian Edelman for most of the season, and what has been left is the weakest unit in the league. What makes the Pats offense a laughing stock is the TE production. Ryan Izzo has managed 13 catches for under 200 yards and 0 scores.

When we turn to the Bills it is the complete opposite. The team have tied the NFL record for the most different players to catch a TD – a remarkable 13. Josh Allen has been wowing fans all season, and is full value for his 11 wins in 14 games. Allen is a Pro Bowler for the first time, albeit on the second team behind Patrick Mahomes in the AFC. The dual threat is one of a small handful of franchise studs to still be in the running for the 2020 NFL MVP award, going up against Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers to decide the winner.

Picture credit: AP Photo/Brett Carlsen

Leading the Bills in catches is Stefon Diggs (pictured above), a 2020 Pro Bowl starter, who has 111 catches already and over 1,300 yards. Team mate Cole ‘slot machine’ Beasley needs just 50 to reach 1,000, which would mark the first time he has reached 1K in his 9 year career.

The only real weakness the Bills have is a rather pedestrian running game. The combination of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss do not scare anyone, and was it not for the rushing threat posed by Josh Allen this would be one of the worst rushing units in the league.

Buffalo’s defense has been fantastic all year long. LB Tremaine Edmonds and CB Tre’Davious White are all deserving Pro Bowl selections, and even KR Andre Roberts has been recognised for his special teams qualities.

Picture credit: Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Unsurprisingly the Patriots have zero offensive players on the Pro Bowl team, and only Stephon Gilmore the CB made the Defensive squad, more by reputation and name recognition than actuations game play. The Patriots do value special teams very highly and were rewarded with Pro Bowl nods to the punter Jake Bailey (pictured above – who had a lot of work experience in 2020) and evergreen gunner Matthew Slater.


Writer’s Pick – Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)

With that highly significant Steelers loss to the Bengals on MNF in Week 14, the Bills have shimmied up the playoff pole to the #2 seed with just two regular season weeks left. Having sniffed that rarified air the Bills will not take anything for granted, and will be striving to win out against AFC East division rivals the Pats and then the Miami Dolphins.

Josh Allen can hoist up an NFL MVP trophy just like his fellow 2018 first round draft class buddy Lamar Jackson, and sweeping the Patriots would make the accolade that bit sweeter.

For the Bills D there is limited game film on Jared Stidham, including 0 starts or truly meaningful snaps, so the surprise element will favour the Patriots. This does not mean they will translate this into a victory. The empire has crumbled in New England, and it’s time for Pats fans to look to the future now and not the present.

Josh Allen to have another big game, and Buffalo to put immense pressure on the Steelers who are melting faster than a snowman in a naan bread oven (inspired by watching Eddie Hall trying to eat the world’s largest naan bread!!). Look to 21 year old Bills WR Gabriel Davis to add to his impressive 6 td total in this contest.

Buffalo 36 – 16 New England

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NFL Week 15 Takeaways

Week 15 will go down in history as the week the Jets won their first game in 2020, the once 11-0 Steelers have the second longest current losing streak in the NFL and the #1 seeds in both conferences look to have been decided, barring a Christmas miracle. But what else went down this past weekend?

Get your orders in, dinner has been served!


The end of an era

In their 22-12 home defeat to the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots not only lost a game to a rookie quarterback, something that hasn’t happened for seven years. They were also eliminated from the postseason race for the first time since 2008. The Patriots’ 11 consecutive years with postseason football had been the longest such run in NFL history.

Sitting at 6-8 with two regular season games to go, they are destined to finish with no better than a .500 record for the first time since 2000. Tellingly, that was the year they drafted Tom Brady and of course, this is their first campaign since he left for pastures new. Frustratingly, the result leaves them one season short of matching the Cowboys’ NFL record of 20 consecutive winning seasons.

In one of the two Saturday games on the Week 15 slate, the Buffalo Bills had already clinched the AFC East title for the first time in a quarter of a century while the Dolphins themselves, now at 9-5, boosted their own Wild Card chances. In stark contrast to their more decorated opponents, the ‘Fins are guaranteed a winning record for only the second time since 2008.

It felt a bit like the changing of the guard with the master, Bill Belichick, being usurped by his pupil, Brian Flores. Both are defensively minded coaches, which is probably why Miami kept Cam Newton (17-for-27, 209 yards) out of the end zone for the second week in a row. The Dolphins enjoyed almost 15 minutes more possession, thanks to a run game based on Salvon Ahmed (122 yards, 1 TD) and Matt Breida (86 yards). Tua Tagovailoa ran in two scores of his own to rub salt into the wounds.

The league’s longest and arguably best dynasty, which dates back to 2001 when they upset the favoured St. Louis Rams to win Super Bowl XXXVI, has probably run its course. In those two decades, a plethora of records were broken, from nine Super Bowl appearances and six wins to the NFL’s first 16-0 regular season back in 2007. But now, TB12 and Gronk have gone, the WR corps and offensive line are depleted, and eight players opted out through COVID-19 concerns. And by his own admission, Cam Newton isn’t living up to the required standard.

Chris O’Meara – AP

It’s no longer a given that New England will win their division and march onwards to the postseason. The Bills are now a genuine threat and the Dolphins are suddently competitive again too. Only time will tell whether the Patriots lounging around at home in January is just a one-off or becomes the new normal but the end of Belichick’s amazing run of success seems a fitting full stop to this most unorthodox of seasons.

So we’re done: the end of an era. Who knows if we shall see its like again? But with Mahomes and the Chiefs playing like they are, maybe we have already seen the birth of the next great NFL dynasty.


Steel Curtain? More like a net one

The Steel Curtain is one of the greatest nicknames in NFL history, and following an 11-0 start the 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking to emulate and even surpass the legendary 1970s teams that lifted four Vince Lombardi trophies.

That came to a screeching halt in Week 13 against Washington, and two weeks – and two further losses – later, the Steelers are looking like a shadow of their mid-season selves.

Bengals' Vonn Bell says hit on JuJu Smith-Schuster gave Cincinnati 'so much  energy' in upset win over Steelers - CBSSports.com
Kareem Elgazzar 

A humiliation against the Bengals on MNF will be hard to overcome, psychologically more than physically, especially considering that Cincy’s starting QB threw for just 89 yards on a pitiful 13 attempts. The Steelers offense again looked like it had seen a ghost, and only RB Benny Snell Jr came out with a small degree of respectability with just over 100 total yards and a late TD. This was an ugly game that will mean little in practical terms for the Bengals, apart from a slight increase in risk to the #3 draft pick they currently hold.

For the Steelers, it is a real concern for a team that, one month ago, were looking at an undefeated season, Big Ben Roethlisberger as a potential MVP and a defence that was channeling the spirit of Mean Joe Greene and Jack Ham. Now there is a legitimate possibility they could fail to win their division and limp out of the play-offs without a trace.

Losing two stud linebackers – Devin Bush and Bud Dupree – is putting even more pressure on TJ Watt to perform. The Pro Bowler is outstanding, but he needs his surrounding cast to come out from behind the net curtains and play some smack-mouth football in the last two weeks of the regular season.


The Jets win… and everybody loses

OMG! The New York Jets finally won a game. Yay for them! Err, well, no, actually.

In probably the biggest upset of the 2020 NFL season, the previously 0-13 Jets beat the LA Rams (now 9-5) on Sunday. The final score of 23-20 was quite the swing from the betting lines, which had Gang Green posted as 17-point underdogs. But it wasn’t just the defeated Rams, who suffered an unexpected dent in their play-off aspirations, who felt a sense of loss.

New York fans had endured 13 winless, joyless games so you might think that avoiding that dreaded label – a 0-16 season – would at least bring a little joy ahead of Christmas. Well, you’d be wrong. Many of them are distraught, depressed or even outraged.

Steven Ryan – AP

That’s because, while they were bumbling along in the real world at the bottom of the pile, in the Upside Down – otherwise known as the NFL Draft – they were top dogs. And that first overall pick in 2021 was probably going to turn into Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, supposedly the best QB to come out of college since forever.

The victory takes the Jets level with the Jacksonville Jaguars on 1-13. Should the teams end the season with an equal record, the Jaguars would pick first, based on the strength of schedule tiebreaker. And guess what? They need a quarterback too.

So, while the Jets franchise was celebrating the W on social media, the response from fans was anything but favourable. It wasn’t long before the #TankForTrevor brigade were airing their feelings on Twitter, as the thought of a franchise-saving talent falling into another team’s lap sunk in. “Crushed.” “Devastated.” “We can’t even lose properly.” “I’m done with this franchise.” You get the idea.

In the green half of New York, everything sucks at the moment. Even winning.


The NFC West continues to be a roller-coaster

I’ve been hot on the Seahawks all season. I think Russell Wilson is an MVP-calibre player and one that can drag that Seattle team through games to clinch victories. He’s got the perfect balance of being a quick, agile QB but also being a poised, effective pocket-passer. If you asked most which ‘mobile’ NFL QB they’d take from the current offerings, they’re lying if they don’t say Wilson.

However, an increasing trend is beginning to emerge. He has thrown a pick in each of his last three games and while he does have 37 TDs on the season, he also has 13 picks. That figure is equal second in the NFL. Next week, he comes up against the best pass defence in the league in the Rams, when a statement performance can cement Seattle’s NFC West title. With DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett having terrific seasons, if Wilson can keep getting the ball to them, it will make for one tasty match-up.

NFL Draft Aftermath: Winners and Losers from the NFC West - Dynasty League  Football

The Rams were beginning to look like the team that would take the NFC West eventually, putting together quite a run with impressive wins against the Seahawks, Bucs and Cardinals. Then they went and did THAT against New York this weekend. How they lost to the winless Jets with the defence that they have is almost beyond belief… If they can’t go into Seattle next week and secure the W, they’ll forfeit the division to them.

Arizona remains in the question for a wild Card berth. They rallied to beat a rejuvenated Philadelphia team with Jalen Hurts under centre with Kyler Murray throwing for over 400 yards. He’s having a terrific season and could become the first QB to throw 4,000+ yards and rush for 1,000+ yards. What an achievement that would be.

The real question is, can any of them beat New Orleans or Green Bay for the NFC title?


Ton up for the Human Cockroach

The ‘Human Cockroach’ Frank Gore is not mortal: he is half-man, half-post-apocalyptic creature. His 1-yard scoring dive, to give the 0-13 Jets a 17-point lead against an Aaron Donald-led Los Angeles Rams team, was his 100th touchdown in a truly remarkable career.

How Jets felt after beating Rams to avoid becoming NFL's third 0-16 team -  nj.com
Jae C. Hong – AP

Gore has accrued the scores in three different ways: 81 rushing, 18 receiving and a fumble recovery. Gore is just the 23rd player to reach 100 touchdowns – tied with Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Curtis Martin. He is the fourth member of the century club to play for five teams, joining Randy Moss, Adrian Peterson (still active with the Lions) and Terrell Owens. Frank is now under 800 yards away from Walter Payton and the number two rushing spot in NFL history. He has now rushed for over 500 yards in 16 consecutive seasons.

Running backs are simply not built to sustain active duty for 16 seasons. The primary causes for that lack of longevity are primarily a mix of either injury or a colossal dip of form or functionality. Gore has kept going while all around him have failed to last.

Gore may not have the rings in his resumé but he will be getting a bronze bust one day. The fact he reached 100 TDs as the Jets won their first game of the season makes the feat that bit more special. 


Wideouts welcomed from wilderness 

In a year where the collective soul of the human race is preparing to make a comeback from coronavirus, the NFL has experienced some rising from the ashes of its own.

We know that Alex Smith the Washington QB is already locked in as the official Comeback Player of the Year; his remarkable recovery from a life-threatening leg injury will not be topped.

Week 15 did produce some decent headlines for a couple of wide receivers who have been in the football wilderness, or at least out of the positive sports headlines for quite a while.

Firstly, the Baltimore Ravens, who have been abysmal in the passing game in 2020, experienced something not quite as rare as planets aligning to form the Star of Bethlehem, but pretty close. Dez Bryant, a former Cowboys stud, scored his first touchdown in three years, in a beatdown of the Trevor Lawrence-chasing Jaguars.

Renaud Bourbonnais 

Elsewhere, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to come back twice from a 17-point deficit against the Falcons. The winning score saw Tom Brady find reclamation project, and future Hall of Fame WR, Antonio Brown catch the touchdown that settled the game. The Bucs have spluttered this season but when it counts, in December, they are starting to find some form. In the past two seasons, Antonio Brown has caught two TD passes, both from Tom Brady. Maybe their third hook-up will be one that wins the pewter pirates a play-off game? 


Safeties in numbers

This week saw everyone’s favourite scoring play in bundles. The signal for the safety is something you always replicate when you see it and no-one actually knows why.

The great thing about a safety in the NFL is that there are so many ways to record one. The most conventional way is for the quarterback (or the running back) to be tackled in the end zone.

Mayor: Jets' win could be defining moment for woeful Jaguars
Nick Wass – AP

We saw Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill goes down in the end zone from a Romeo Okwara tackle and we also saw Baltimore defensive lineman Matthew Judon wrestle down Gardner Minshew early on in the Ravens vs Jaguars game.

We were also treated to other types of recorded safeties too.

NFL - DraftKings Nation
Draftkings Nation

Rookie Philadelphia QB Jalen Hurts was penalised on his first drive for intentional grounding in the end zone. While normally it’s a holding call causing these types of safeties, Jalen Hurts hurt his team early on in this game against the Cardinals.

Then finally, we come to one of the more unconventional types of safeties: a fumble out of the back of the end zone. Kansas City returner Demarcus Robinson stood back with a couple of notches left in the second quarter to receive Thomas Morestead’s punt.

On receiving this, he was tackled by Craig Robertson. The ball came loose and there was a scramble only seen when there is one turkey left in the supermarket freezers and you’re trying to get it to the checkouts. Some questioned whether it should have been a safety as the fumble was caused by the Saints tackle, but the safety stood, only to be in vain for the Saints.

It may only be worth two points to the teams able to record a safety but for those two points, you get a lot for your money.


Smile! You’re on a new camera!

If, like me, you were watching Redzone or perhaps if you are a Washington fan or a Seattle fan, you would have noticed that when points were scored, you were greeted with this smooth, cinematic picture looking like something out of a Madden cutaway piece.

But fear not, it was merely the new “Megaladon” camera from the TV crew.

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@MikeGarafolo on Twitter

Not to be confused with a big shark in the depths of the oceans, it isn’t able to capture a great length of footage, which is why it was possibly limited to celebrations right out of the gate.

Costing just $10,000 per pop, which is actually VERY cheap compared with the big bulky cameras you conventionally see, the camera itself was only deployed as a trial and error to see what the reception would be like.

Just like Adam Gase, the camera is extremely short-sighted and everything is crystal clear in the short range, but blurs everything out in the distance.

Take a look for yourself and see what you think. I personally think they’ll be having more of these throughout the games, it’s just a shame they wasted it on a 20-15 game with very few highlights.


It feels all too familiar

The Colts and Texans played out a 27-20 game in Week 15. Deshaun Watson drove the Texans down the field late in the fourth quarter, only for a fumble on offence to cost his team a change to win the game.

But wait, haven’t we seen this before?

Cast your mind back to Week 13, when the Texans lost 26-20 to the Colts. Spooky.

Deshaun Watson was driving late in the fourth quarter and lost a fumble in the red zone, causing the game to end. Very spooky.

We know that divisional opponents get to know each other pretty well after playing each other twice every year, but this set of games between the two teams was taking it a bit too far for my (and probably the Texans) liking.

Talking of familiar, the Atlanta Falcons lost yet another 17-point lead in a game this season, making it feel like just another regular game for the Falcons. That is now the seventh time THIS SEASON that the Falcons have held a lead late in a game, only to go on and lose. We’ve picked out some of the best over the past few years.

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@wes_nship on Twitter

Here’s a cool stat for you though, from our very own Kieran from the Monday podcast: Atlanta are now 28-34 in regular season games since they lost 28-34 in the Super Bowl to New England. Tom Brady, the winner in that Super Bowl, lined up opposite Matt Ryan again in this one.

Sometimes, things are just so poetic that they don’t need words added, so I’ll just leave that one there.

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NFL Week 9 Takeaways

Week 9 served up some tasty treats, so let’s see what made it to our takeaway menu this week…


QB or not to continue with the QB, that is the question

Two quarterbacks made their first NFL starts in Week 9 and while both were on the wrong end of the result, they were at the right end of the critique.

Jake Luton, or the “Bedfordshire Bomber” as we call here at the Full10Yards, announced himself quite sharpish in his game against the Texans with a long strike to DJ Chark to open the scoring.

Packers to face Jaguars rookie QB Jake Luton on Sunday
Reinhold Matay – USA TODAY Sports

Luton ended up with over 300 yards passing and two total touchdowns, and guided the hapless Jaguars to within a successful two-point conversion of taking the game into overtime. Luton also has the highlight reel of a rushing TD coupled with a stiff arm and a nice spin move to boot.

Meanwhile, Garrett Gilbert took the reigns for America’s Team against an undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers team favoured by two touchdowns going into the match-up.

A lovely throw to CeeDee Lamb opened the scoring and was the fourth consecutive different passer to throw a touchdown for Dallas. Gilbert did pretty much all that was asked of him and more; he looked confident and stepped into throws, which may have surprised people considering the career Gilbert has had to date.

Cowboys' Garrett Gilbert positioned to challenge Andy Dalton for starting  role after strong debut vs. Steelers - CBSSports.com
Roy Chenoy

From playing in the AAF and then bouncing around a few practice squads, you could have forgiven Gilbert for being a bit camera shy when the spotlight was thrust upon him. Gilbert though, got the Cowboys within four minutes of taking an unlikely victory and, even on the final drive, was able to muster an effort into the end zone to win it all.

Going forward, it seems likely that Luton will remain in control of the Jags’ offence in Week 10 and you have to wonder if this is the end of “Minshew Mania” in Jacksonville. In Dallas, they have a bye now to sort out their plans for the rest of the season. Has Gilbert done enough to warrant further inspection in Week 11, with all signs pointing to a return from Andy Dalton.

At the very least, they’ve had their 60 minutes of fame.


You know the (one) score

The Los Angeles Chargers: what further pain and suffering must that team and its fanbase have to go through? It’s way too long of a running joke now how the Chargers continually find ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

For the last two weeks running, their games have come down to the last play. Drew Lock’s TD pass in Week 8 defeating the Chargers coupled with Justin Herbert’s incomplete pass to Donald Parham in Week 9 ensures all the losses by Anthony Lynn’s team this season have been within one score.

NFL: Chargers suffer another ridiculous loss to Raiders
Alex Gallardo – AP

Many thought it was all Philip Rivers’ fault in years past, while others blame the coaching and the playcalling. Or maybe there is just a curse placed upon them that no-one knows how to shake?

However you look at it, if I am Justin Herbert, I am still somewhat happy with my performances to date in my rookie season. But surely it’s only a matter of time before the constant disappointments tot up and have an adverse effect on him.

That being said, his performances have put him firmly in the reckoning for the OROY award come the end of the season. He’ll probably need to notch a few more wins to claim that prize though. Here’s hoping the tide turns for Herbert and the Chargers.



A WEEK FOR THE RUNNER

Over the last few years, we have seen the NFL transition back toward a ‘throwing league’. Teams heave begun to place less emphasis on the running back position and, instead, they have invested heavily in the man under centre to lead the team; that much is evident from Patrick Mahomes’ contract with the Chiefs and Deshaun Watson’s contract with Houston. Even further back than that, QBs were getting paid, and not particularly good ones either (yes, I’m looking at you, Brock Osweiler…).

This weekend, the RB position hit back with a couple of stellar performances from the best in the league. With most teams asking their man in the backfield to be multi-dimensional in the 21st century NFL, plenty contributed with multi-purpose yards too.

Dalvin Cook needs to be in the MVP conversation. In the last two weeks, he has logged 476 yards and six rushing TDs, and leads the league in rushing yards with 858 and 12 rushing TDs. This week against Detroit, he added 206 rushing yards, 46 receiving yards and 2 TDs.

Another key back to his team is Christian McCaffrey. He has been out since Week 1 with an ankle injury, but his return this week against Kansas City proved how pivotal he is to Carolina’s offence. Matt Rhule certainly didn’t hesitate to get McCaffrey back into the attack. The Stanford alum took 18 of 22 handoffs on Sunday and caught 10 of 10 targets. McCaffrey played 52 of the Panthers’ 75 snaps.

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Orlin Wagner – AP

BREES BLOWS AWAY BRADY’S BUCS

A 38-3 victory over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was always going to be pretty sweet for the New Orleans Saints, but it couldn’t have gone more plan than it did on Sunday night. Over the last couple of years, certain qualities and abilities of the Saints have become staples of a good win for Sean Payton’s men and they were all shown in abundance last night.

It started with spreading the ball around to different receivers, which Drew Brees did to an excellent level. He found 12 pass catchers in the win, with the returning Michael Thomas leading in yards with just 51. There were touchdown catches from Adam Trautman, Emmanuel Sanders, Josh Hill and Tre’Quan Smith, and the always-dangerous Alvin Kamara added a fifth on the ground.

Brees himself had a confident and assured day, spreading the ball well as the rushing triplet of Kamara, Latavius Murray and Taysom Hill provided 133 yards on the ground to aid the cause. Thanks to the on-the-ground help, Brees didn’t need a ton of yards. Instead, he went for quality over quantity with 222 yards and four touchdowns as he managed 26 of 32 through the air.

The return of star receiver Thomas was noticeable, as the connection between him and Brees proved to have lost very little in the Ohio State alumnus’ five week, and partially unexplained, absence. Some of the regular questions about Brees will still continue, despite the Saints becoming the first team to sweep Tom Brady in his long, fabled career. The 41-year-old needs a decent run up to get any real velocity in his throws these days.

That fact is unlikely to bother Brees though, who only has a second Super Bowl in mind. Even Jay Glazer confirmed on the Fox Sports talk-show “Undisputed” in midweek that this could very well be Brees’ last season in the NFL before retirement. That said, he probably woke up the next day feeling as fresh as he has in a long time with another emphatic victory over his biggest rival.

Ryan Clark Tips Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints for Super Bowl Run -  EssentiallySports
Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

Your dish of the day is… Fish

Let’s roll up the jacket sleeves to the elbow, take our soft-top to A1A Beachfront Avenue and blast out some Will Smith from the Bang & Olufsen fitted speakers – it’s all positivity in Miami. When Head Coach Brian Flores decided to give rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa the keys to the Ferrari, there were a few puzzled looks in the car park but two weeks later, that call is being seen as the right one. Tua had a fine performance in only his second outing: almost 250 yards passing, two TDs and no picks.

With a pretty dreadful running game, led by the unknown Salvon Ahmed, Tua found seven different targets, keeping the Cardinals secondary on their toes. Down 7 heading into the fourth quarter, the Dolphins defence rose to the challenge and held the other #1 scoreless in the final period, with Jason Sanders nailing what turned out to be the winning FG with three-and-a-half minutes left. This is a Miami team that has quietly crept up on the entire league by winning five of their last six, after a 1-3 start.

Beating the Rams and Cardinals in consecutive weeks is enough to make Flipper do a triple somersault. 

NFL: Tua Tagovailoa now 2-0 after showdown with Kyler Murray
Chris Coduto – Getty Images

Ravens road record requires respect 

Anyone who saw the first half of the Ravens v Colts game on Sunday can be forgiven that Baltimore were on the edge of some sort of cataclysmic collapse.

Lamar Jackson, the reigning NFL MVP, again looked like a rookie, and the Ravens running game was still in Maryland. The team were missing LT Ronnie Stanley in the biggest way. Down 0-7, the future was as dark as their helmets when CB Marcus Peters stripped the ball from Colts rookie RB Jonathan Taylor’s grip and safety Chuck Clark scooped up the loose pigskin, running it back 65 yards to paydirt.

Baltimore Ravens set NFL record for 20-point games with win in Indy
AJ Mast – AP

Coach Harbaugh motivated the Ravens at half-time and Lamar looked far more comfortable in the second half, running a quick-paced offence and scoring himself on a nice run. Despite playing some dreadful football in patches, LJax is now 13-2 on the road in his career, a phenomenal record. Sometimes you need a bit of luck (like a dodgy interception call against Philip Rivers), but reaching the halfway point at 6-2, despite what seems like jogging through a sea of treacle, is testament to a defence that knows how to hit their opponents in the mouth. 

Now, if only the offence can show up. Dez-Time anyone? 


IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A PLANE?

No, it’s a quarterback.

In an era where the franchise QB’s first priority is to protect himself – by sliding, running out of bounds or throwing the rock away before taking a sack – it’s unusual to see playcallers rushing into the trenches without a care in the world and risking it all for those vital few yards. You can understand why head coaches fret when their star guys go off-script and off-piste, especially if that lynchpin were to get crocked in the process.

Well, this Sunday, we saw not just one but two quarterbacks put their bodies in harm’s way by diving for the required instance on crucial downs. They probably felt the full wrath of their HCs afterwards but sometimes, when the game is on the line, the bubble wrap just needs to come off.

First off, in the Las Vegas Raiders’ 31-26 win over the LA Chargers, Derek Carr led his team by example. On one of his six rushes on a crucial third and 10, just inside the red zone, Carr scrambled, then threw himself up and over Chargers safety Jahleel Addae. Jon Gruden may have been having kittens watching Carr’s double-footed flying leap but it paid off: the play set the Raiders up with 1st-and-goal from the 4-yard line rather than leaving them with a FG attempt. Just two plays later, Carr found Darren Waller in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown so all’s well that ends well.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 14441064_web1_Raiders-Chargers-Football.jpg
Ashley Landis – AP Photo

In the presser afterwards, the 6’3” QB took mock offence to a journalist wondering if he could play basketball. “Can I dunk? I can do it straight off the ground, no running start, I can go up there and dunk the ball,” he stated. “You give me a running start, I tell my guys every time we play basketball, just throw it up by the rim. I’ll find it.” So the guy can ball. Any ball, apparently.

Carr wasn’t the only QB who went airborne over the weekend. In Carolina’s surprisingly close 33-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Panthers gunslinger Teddy Bridgewater also took to the skies with a first down on the line. Much like Carr, he scrambled out of a collapsing pocket and up the middle on a crucial 4th-and-14 in the fourth quarter. Still a couple of yards shy, he then launched himself headfirst to make the distance, despite the best efforts of Chiefs linebacker Ben Niemann and safety Tyrann Mathieu.

Yet again, the Superman act paid off, as Bridgewater kept the drive alive and then ran into the end zone a few plays later, to pull Carolina within three points of their opponents.


“Wow, we beat the Jets!”

If you ever needed confirmation of just how far down the pecking order the New England Patriots have fallen this season, watch the last few seconds of this game. Yes, the Patriots completed a fourth-quarter comeback against the hapless Jets, reeling off 13 unanswered points. Correct me if I’m wrong though, but doesn’t that victory against a winless team only move them to 3-5? That’s still four games behind Buffalo and nowhere near relevance.

The celebrations could have been mistaken for a playoff win as multiple players stormed the field to hump away at the legs of Nick Folk after he drilled the game-winning 51-yarder. I suppose any revival has to start somewhere so maybe this does indeed spark something for the Patriots, although I will be surprised to see too many more wins before their rematch with the said Jets down the stretch.

New England Patriots kicker Nick Folk celebrates with teammates after kicking the winning field goal.
Bill Kostroun – AP

The biggest winners here were probably the team in the black and green jerseys. They take a two-game lead in the Trevor Lawrence Sweepstakes after the weekend’s action.

Both these sides will be hoping for much better days ahead.

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NFL Week 8 Takeaways

Week 8 in the books means this week is officially the halfway point of the season. Be sure to check out our Half Term report on site running the rule over ALL 32 teams. Check out and see our grades for your team!

But you are here because you want our takeaways! So without further ado…


Harsh treatment on the 49ers table

The San Francisco 49ers are in dire needs of a miracle if they hope to make a repeat run to the Super Bowl. Following a Week 8 loss to divisional rivals the Seattle Seahawks, the Red and Gold dropped to a 4-4 record. While losing to Seattle in itself is no cause for panic, the repercussions are.

Now, the Niners must go six weeks without QB Jimmy Garoppolo who suffered a high ankle sprain and, arguably more devastatingly, TE George Kittle suffered a broken bone in his foot putting him on the sideline for a minimum of eight weeks.

49ers overreactions vs. Seahawks: Is it over for Jimmy Garoppolo?
Elaine Thompson – AP

In this timeframe, without their QB and the face of the franchise, the Niners travel to the LA Rams and New Orleans Saints as well as hosting the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills. To cap off what can only be described as a brutal run into the end of the season and, bearing in mind George Kittle will presumably miss the rest of the regular season, the Bay Area team finish their season on the road to the Arizona Cardinals and then finally, the aforementioned Seahawks.

In short, the deck is stacked up against the Niners. Truly, a miracle is required if they have any hope of even making it to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl. Kyle Shanahan will be hoping such a miracle will come in the shape of QB Nick Mullens who, so far, has shown glimmers of hope. Whether this tandem of Mullens and Shanahan can get this team out of the hole they find themselves after Week 8 is very unlikely.


The dynasty is over

If you didn’t already know it, the Patriots dynasty is finished. Well, it actually finished on 17 March when Tom Brady announced he wouldn’t be returning to New England.

New England went to four Super Bowls in five years, winning three of them. They went to a record 11 AFC Championship games in a row until last year. Nothing could stop them. Everyone knew New England would never be the same without its prodigal son, but Bill Belichick has worked wonders before. Some even thought Brady leaving might not be as dramatic as most feared.

Well, it has been. And some…

New England is struggling. They are 29th in receiving yards and, outside of Julian Edelman, no receiver has more than 300 yards on the season. They also rank 29th on points for (136) and 30th in offensive turnovers lost (15). Their offence looks stagnant and devoid of ideas. Cam Newton looks a shadow of the player who led Carolina to Super Bowl L.

Free-falling Patriots' skid hits 4 following loss to Bills
John Munson – AP

Their defence isn’t playing much better. They’ve given up 983 rushing yards through seven games, which is more than 140 yards per game. They cannot stop the run. They also only have 10 sacks on the season; only four teams have fewer. To put that in context, Myles Garrett and Aaron Donald have nine each.

They’re 2-5. Bye week has already been and gone. Cam Newton doesn’t appear to be the answer. They still don’t have any reliable pass-catchers outside of Edelman, who is again injured. Their defensive line looks mediocre at best. After many clamoured for it for so long after their dominance, the Patriots finally appear to be a weak team. Makes you wonder how much Belichick has left in the tank…


Who’s next in line for the banged-up Bengals?

Last week’s defeat to the Cleveland Browns cost Cincinnati a lot more than a W; they also lost three starters from their offensive line, already considered to be one of the NFL’s weakest units. LT Jonah Williams (neck), C Trey Hopkins (concussion) and RT Bobby Hart (knee) all exited the game and were deemed unavailable for Sunday’s match-up with the Tennessee Titans.

To compound matters, left guard Michael Jordan dropped out 90 minutes before kick-off with an illness. That left Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner needing to replace four of his starters from the previous week at short notice. Gulp!

With the first-choice options hardly setting the world alight, relying on their understudies seemed to reduce Joe Burrow’s life expectancy even more. Free agent signing Shaq Calhoun made his first Bengals start in place of Jordan. Right tackle Fred Johnson also made his starting debut while sixth-round rookie Hakeem Adeniji was also put into service at LT from the get-go for the first time, having only played seven snaps previously. Then back-up to the back-up at left guard, Quinton Spain, who only joined the team on Friday after being traded from Buffalo, replaced Calhoun after one drive.

The only players with any experience playing in tiger stripes worth talking of weren’t exactly flavour of the month: Alex Redmond was briefly cut at the start of the season and former first rounder Billy Price is little more than a stand-in center or guard these days. To say it was a rag-tag mob is an understatement of epic proportions and the omens did not look good against the then 5-1 Titans.

Luckily, Tennessee’s pass rush hasn’t lived up to billing of late, so despite boasting names like Jadeveon Clowney in their ranks, it wasn’t the worst opposition they could’ve faced. But still, like a conjuror, Turner had to magic this mish-mash of second and third stringers, newbies and untested rookies into a cohesive unit. And somehow, leaving us all open-jawed in disbelief, he pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

Adding up to more than the sum of their parts, the front five were awesome. They went nose to the grindstone and didn’t give up a single sack or QB hit, according to PFF. That’s literally unheard of, with the Bengals tied for the most sacks allowed this season (28) beforehand. Burrow was protected well and given lots of time to pick out Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Auden Tate and co. with some seriously tight-window darts, finishing the day with 249 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs.

Andy Lyons – Getty Images

On the odd occasion when the Titans did break through, the young QB became an escapologist (one play in particular saw him evade four tackles in a collapsing pocket and still scramble for 8 yards). In the absence of the also-crocked Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard and Samaje Perine needed to get the ground game going. Their 118 yards and three TDs helped seal the 31-20 win, again thanks to the channels gouged out by the linemen upfront.

“The newer guys up there on the line did an awesome job,” Bernard said afterwards. “Hats off to those guys… they worked their tails off. They deserve that win. They went in with minimal experience and they showed out today.” Amid a lot of ‘trade him’ chatter, Billy Price’s performance was particularly commendable, earning a game ball from Zac Taylor for his unwavering commitment and work ethic after a difficult couple of years. 

As the Bengals embark on their bye week, Taylor can bask in the glory of this unexpected win – his first against a team with a winning record – for a fortnight. That rest period will give the walking wounded time to heal but it also gives the coaching staff the opportunity to address an unexpectedly difficult decision: which five linemen start against the league’s most feared defence in Week 10, when they travel to Pittsburgh?


Steel unbeaten

In the blockbuster match-up of Week 8, the AFC North top-of-the-table clash saw the Steelers squeeze out the win in Baltimore.

Despite Lamar Jackson’s and the rush game’s best efforts, the Steelers defence continued to dominate.

Lamar’s Jackson’s struggles continued with his first drive ending in a pick-six. The Steelers’ defence helped themselves to four sacks, two interceptions and laid down nine hard hits on the Baltimore QB.

7th heaven: Unbeaten Steelers keep winning without 'A' game
Nick Wass – AP

Standouts on the defence include Stephon Tuitt, who helped himself to another two sacks and eight tackles (three for loss) and three QB hits.

The Steelers won’t be happy with the 265 rushing yards they gave up. However, after allowing an average of 129 yards coming in to the game, they’ll be happy with the win they picked up in the division on the road.

Securing the win forcing a Lamar Jackson fumble will be something they’ll peacock until Thanksgiving week, when these teams meet again. Will Pittsburgh still be unbeaten when that games comes to pass?


Chiefs didn’t give LeVeon a Bell

A main storyline heading into this week’s games was one at Arrowhead, where former Jet LeVeon Bell and his Chiefs welcomed in his former team the New York Jets.

Many expected the Chiefs and Andy Reid to put it to the Jets but Bell ended up with a disappointing statline come game’s end: six carries for 7 yards on the ground and three receptions for 31 yards without finding the end zone.

Best photos from Kansas City Chiefs' Week 8 win over New York Jets
Jeff Roberson – AP

The backfield will be a puzzle for the foreseeable future with first round draft pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire also seeing three receptions and six carries. You have to think that both of them sharing the limelight will ensure neither player shines too brightly on any given week. Music to the ears of fantasy owners…


Running by committee

Yesterday’s 41-21 win by the Indianapolis Colts over the Detroit Lions came with lots of positives, but also managed to muddy the waters further on who would be the go-to choice at running back for the rest of the year.

Since Marlon Mack’s season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1, the triple-headed monster of rookie Jonathan Taylor, Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines have been fighting for the limelight.

Before their bye week, Taylor had been putting down a solid case for the starting role, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and two total touchdowns in the last three games before the Colts travelled to Ford Field on Sunday.

That form didn’t carry over the break however and, with Taylor averaging a measly 2 yards per carry, Jordan Wilkins, the fifth round selection from 2018, stepped up with 89 yards on 20 carries and one score.

Colts: Receiving breakdown vs Lions proves Indy is best when run is  established
Nic Antaya – Getty Images

Taylor’s case to be lead back wasn’t helped by Hines who hauled in a total of three catches, two of which were taken in for touchdowns. They included a sensational catch-and-run in the first quarter that put the Colts’ first points on the board, and was celebrated in style with a move rarely seen outside of a gymnastics hall.

If the increased production by the second and third backs continues into the future, Frank Reich may soon have to head towards a defined running back by committee approach. Reich admitted after the victory that the team had “rode his (Wilkins’) hot hand” as they continue to try and find the answers to their drop off in the running game.

Mack’s absence must surely be the key, with the team dropping from 133.1 rushing yards a game last season to just 101 this season, bad enough to rank 24th in the league after eight games. Whatever the answer is for Reich’s men, they might need to work it out quickly.

With just two more games against top 10 rush defences left this season, the Colts’ chances of holding the AFC South lead might end up falling or succeeding with Taylor, Wilkins and Hines.


Dawn of the living Dalvin

The Vikings coaching staff need to go back to school to learn some very basic sums, namely that 33 x 25+ = W. Yes 25+ carries for Dalvin Cook in a game week equals a W.

Conclusive proof that this theory can be proven came on Sunday against a pretty decent Green Bay Packers team, as Cook was fed the ball 30 times on the ground and three times in the air.

The result was four touchdowns for Cook, 28 points for the Vikings and only their second win of the 2020 season. The usually indomitable Aaron Rodgers did manage a furious comeback, and he had the ball in his hands in the final minute, but a strip sack put pay to a cheese-headed victory.

Justin Jefferson a No. 1 WR? What we learned in Vikings' win – The Athletic
Benny Sieu – USA TODAY Sports

Dalvin Cook is a terrific asset, and hopefully now the Vikings will keep providing him with opportunities to influence games. In six games, Cook has now accrued 13 touchdowns.

The NFL record is 31 in a season (by LaDanian Tomlinson in 2006). Unfortunately, due to a one-game injury absence, Cook is unlikely to eclipse this mark, but he will go darn close by season’s end.



Acting up: Tua needs to thank his supporting cast

It was the long-awaited NFL debut of Tua Tagovailoa and for Head Coach Brian Flores, the move from the hirsute Fitzmagic to the clean-shaven first round rookie proved to be a winning decision.

The Miami Dolphins moved to 4-3, and second in the AFC East, after logging their third consecutive win, with last weekend’s win over the five-win Rams their most impressive of the season.

Tua was all smiles in the post-game presser, but he knows that many more performances like the one he served up on his debut and the Dolphins will be in trouble.

What Tua Tagovailoa's NFL debut indicates about rest of his rookie season  with Dolphins - CBSSports.com
Ron Chenoy 

Tua was less than impressive in his matinee performance, getting sacked on his first snap, before failing to get much going all day. His 102 yards were hard fought and while he did manage to settle, even throwing his first TD (to DeVante Parker), it was a bonkers second quarter where the Dolphins defense looked like the 1970s ‘Killer Bees’, and Jakeem Grant returned the first punt of the season to paydirt that was the difference.

The Dolphins are looking like a playoff team. Can Tua drive the bus or will he be a passenger?  

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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.

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!

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.