2017 NFL season preview – Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH STEELERS
2016 Record: 11-5; 1st AFC North
Head coach: Mike Tomlin (Steelers W/L: 111-63, Career W/L: 111-63)
VP & General manager: Kevin Colbert

Key ins: DE Tyson Alualu Jaguars; RB Knile Davis Chiefs; WR Justin Hunter Bills; CB Coty Sensabaugh Titans
Key outs: CB Justin Gilbert; TE Ladarius Green; LB Jarvis Jones; DE Ricardo Matthews; LB Lawrence Timmons; WR Markus Wheaton; RB DeAngelo Williams; RB Karlos Williams

Draftees: R1 (30) LB TJ Watt, Wisconsin; R2 (62) WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC; R3 (94) CB Cameron Sutton, Tennessee; R3 (105) RB James Connor, Pittsburgh; R4 (135) QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee; R5 (173) DB Brian Allen, Utah; R6 (213) LS Colin Holba, Louisville; R7 (248) DE Keion Adams, Western Michigan

That collective sigh of relief you could hear was Steelers fans reacting to the sight of Ben Roethlisberger in black, white and gold at OTAs last month. In the aftermath of the battering at the hands of the Patriots in the AFC Championship, Big Ben threatened to walk away from the game.

All those offseason sleepless nights, waking in a cold sweat by nightmares of seeing Landry Jones atop the depth chart are just an unhappy memory for twizzlers of the Terrible Towel and Steelers management, who’d have been rushed into a succession plan.

At 35, the two-time Super Bowl winner remains Pittsburgh’s best shot at a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy. He starts the season just over 3,000 yards short of 50,000 career passing yards – a milestone reached only by Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and John Elway. Only in the first two years of his 13-season career has Roethlisberger thrown for less than 3,000, which would see him top the mark in his 14th season. Steeler great Terry Bradshaw marshalled the offense for 14 years, passing for a mere 27,989 yards en route to four Super Bowl titles – if that’s not worthy of a ‘the game done changed’ klaxon, I don’t know what is.

Big Ben will be happy to have wide receiver Martavis Bryant back on the end of his passes. Two months after the quarterback said Bryant had to “toughen up” in wintry AFC North clashes, the young wide receiver was handed a year-long suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

It was a blow for the talented player, who had scored 15 touchdowns in eight starts over his first two seasons. The 6ft 4in Clemson product claims that he’s turned his life around and credits teammates Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey for their support during his suspension.

Bryant should return to his role as Robin to Batman Antonio Brown. Batma… sorry Brown signed a new five-year deal in February to make him the highest-paid WR in history. Since 2013, Brown has proven himself worthy of such a contract, having recorded two of the top five single-season catch totals (129 in 2014 and 136 a year later) plus 110 and 106-catch seasons, good for 481 receptions – the most ever in a four-year stretch.

2016 revelation Eli Rogers (48 for 594, 3 TDs in his rookie season) looked to have the slot spot sewn up until the Steelers surprisingly drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round. The USC pass-catcher, whose physical style, hands and smarts have drawn comparisons to Hines Ward, will be on the field in four-receiver sets, starter or not. WR4 will be a battle between Sammie Coates, who’s struggled since being drafted 87th overall in 2015, free agent signee Justin Hunter (three teams in two seasons) and 30-year-old Darrius Heyward-Bey in his fourth year as a Steeler.


STEELERS IN THE NFL NETWORK TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017
4 Antonio Brown (2016 RANKING 4)
9 Le’Veon Bell (2016 RANKING 41)
22 Ben Roethlisberger (2016 RANKING 21)
97 David DeCastro (2016 RANKING NR)


Jessie James won the starting job last year in the absence of big-name free agent signing Ladarius Green. The disappointing Green was hurt in the offseason until November, played six games then a concussion put him out for the season in Week 15. A failed medical in May led to his release a year into a four-year deal.

Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak, a former head coach in Tennessee, took over as Tomlin’s offensive line coach in 2014. His unit is one of the best in the league, powered by centre Maurkice Pouncey, guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert on the outside are both on the verge of being Pro Bowlers.

They pave the way for arguably the NFL’s best running back, Le’Veon Bell. The franchise-tagged back would doubtless agree with that sentiment, having said a week ago that he wants to be paid as the No1 rusher and No2 receiver. If he could stay on the field, that contract would be a no-brainer, but over the past two years the 26 year old has missed 14 regular season games through injury and suspension and it’s possible this may be his last season in Steelers colours. As training camp opened this week, Bell was a no-show. His absence, however, may be a boon for the team, allowing rookie James Conner to get extra snaps after he missed some of OTAs.


STEELERS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
21 Antonio Brown (2015 RANKING 2)
27 Le’Veon Bell (2015 RANKING NR)
36 Ramon Foster (2015 RANKING NR)
67 James Harrison (2015 RANKING 92)
80 David DeCastro (2015 RANKING NR)


The rookie is already nationwide news after sales of his jersey knocked Sir Thomas of Brady off the No1 spot this week. The third-round pick, from the University of Pittsburgh, is a feel-good story, having fought back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma to rush for 1,092 yards and 16 TDs last year. His bruising style will be a nice complement to Bell’s when the season kicks off. Knile Davis was signed from Kansas City for depth but will be used primarily on special teams.

Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier continued the proud tradition of Steeler ‘backers in 2016, with 87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and nine passes defensed on the way to a first Pro Bowl. In the playoffs he tacked on two more picks. The Ohio State product will have a new running mate in 2017 after Lawrence Timmons (team-leader in tackles for the last four years) left for South Beach in free agency.

Shazier was the franchise’s 2014 No1 pick (15) and will be joined on the field by this season’s 30th overall selection TJ Watt (yes, relation). JJ’s younger brother is the fourth linebacker taken in the first round by the Steelers in five years. Jarvis Jones (17, 2013) didn’t pan out and departed to become a Cardinal in the offseason. Bud Dupree (22, 2015)    had abdominal surgery in 2016 but closed out the season strongly with 4.5 sacks in four games. He’ll start opposite the ageless James Harrison on the outside with Watt working into the rotation. Harrison, at 38, had five sacks for the team-lead last season. Run-stuffer Vince Williams will step into Timmons’ shoes, having recorded 40 tackles and two sacks last time out.

The secondary is led by Mike Mitchell, the former Carolina Panther, for the fourth season. At 30, he provides the big hits and tutelage for the rest of a unit where all of the starters are 25 or under. 2016 rookies, first-round corner Artie Burns and second-round safety Sean Davis both started nine games in their debut season and both looked the part when called upon. Burns led the team with three interceptions and Davis was fourth in tackles. Ross Cockrell mans the other cornerback slot with veteran William Gay working in at corner and safety.

Burgeoning defensive end star Cameron Heyward saw action in only seven games last year due to pectoral surgery. A return to the form that saw him bag at team-leading 7.5 and 7.0 in 2015, ’15 will be a welcome sight for defensive coordinator Keith Butler. It will also make life easier for Stephon Tuitt, the fourth-year end out of Notre Dame. Tuitt has shown pass-rushing chops with 6.5 sacks in 2015 and four last season. The 10th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Tyson Alualu joins the Steeler line after seven seasons without a winning record and brings versatility. At the nose, Javon Hargrave enters his second season after 13 starts in 2016. The rookie scored a touchdown in Week 11 when he recovered a Josh McCown fumble in the end zone against Cleveland.

That 24-9 victory at the Browns kick-started the Steelers season after a four-game losing streak turned a 4-1 start into 4-5. They wouldn’t lose the rest of the way in the regular season, finishing 11-5 before succumbing to the Patriots in the Conference Championship. With New England seemingly still the class of the AFC, the onus is on Tomlin and the Steelers to rip that title from them to add to their own packed Vince Lombardi Trophy cabinet.

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2017 NFL season preview – Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND BROWNS
2016 Record: 1-15; 4th AFC North
Head coach: Hue Jackson (Browns W/L: 1-15, Career W/L: 9-23)
EVP of Football Operations: Sashi Brown

Key ins: WR Kenny Britt Rams; QB Brock Osweiler Texans; C/G JC Tretter Packers; WR James Wright Bengals; G Kevin Zeitler Bengals
Key outs: G Alvin Bailey; QB Robert Griffin III; WR Andrew Hawkins; S Tracy Howard; QB Josh McCown; DT Stephen Paea; G Austin Pasztor; S Jordan Poyer; WR Terrelle Pryor Sr; DB Tramon Williams

Draftees: R1 (1) DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M; R1 (25) S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan; R1 (29) TE David Njoku, Miami; R2 (52) QB DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame; R3 (65) DT Larry Ojunjobi, North Carolina Charlotte; R4 (126) CB Howard Wilson, Houston; R5 (160) T Roderick Johnson, Florida State; R6 (185) DT Caleb Brantley, Florida; R7 (224) K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State; R7 (252) RB Matt Dayes, NC State

Hue Jackson now knows what rock-bottom looks like. Even for a franchise that hasn’t strung winning seasons together since Marty Schottenheimer’s last and Bud Carson’s first (of one and a bit!) in 1988 and ’89, 2016 was rough. A franchise low of a 1-15 record (1999’s 2-12 was the previous worst) in his first year as Browns boss would have confirmed the task in front of him.

The former London Monarchs running backs coach inherited a roster that was promptly shorn of starters Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson and Alex Mack on the first day of free agency 2015. Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, would be cut later and, to the relief of Browns fans, Johnny Manziel and Dwayne Bowe also exited left.

Chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, EVP of football operations Sashi Brown and Jackson purged the roster, set about accumulating draft picks, took their lumps through the 2016 season and, in January, were able to roll over $50.1 million of cap space into this season (only Jacksonville and San Francisco topped $30m).

They used some of that in an aggressive trade for Houston Texans’ unwanted quarterback Brock Osweiler. The QB wasn’t the bounty, the Browns sent a fourth-round pick in the opposite direction and got a 2017 sixth-rounder and next year’s second-rounder. Writing off the ex-Bronco’s $16m salary, if he was later released or traded, was deemed worth it for the extra pick in 2018.

After OTAs in May, Jackson described Osweiler as a “pleasant surprise” and “outstanding” and the competition between him and Cody Kessler (who went 0-8 as Browns starter in 2016) will be keenly watched in training camp. Joining them in the quarterback room is the mobile, big-armed rookie from Notre Dame, DeShone Kizer, who has drawn physical comparisons to Steve McNair. The rookie isn’t expected to start, but then neither was Dak Prescott, so never say never.

There’s no Ezekiel Elliot coming through the doors any time soon though. Leading rusher in 2016 was Isaiah Crowell, who ran for 952 yards, the highest total since Peyton Hillis topped 1,000 yards in 2010 [makes tank noises].

Crowell made the starting role his own last year, scoring seven touchdowns and going over 100 yards four times. Second-year man Duke Johnson Jr accumulated over a 1,000 all-purpose yards and the coaching staff will be looking to get him more touches in his third season. North Carolina State rookie Matt Dayes, who has catching ability and rushed for 10 scores last season, could end up contributing.

Over 130 receptions and 1,600 yards left Ohio in the offseason – Terrelle Pryor, who completed his journey from QB to legit wide receiver, signed with Washington and 31-year-old tight end Gary Barnidge was cut. Pryor’s replacement comes in the form of Kenny Britt, who himself had a personal best season with the circus that was the LA Rams. Britt, who has avoided major injury for the last three seasons will be expected to provide the big plays for whoever’s behind centre.

Barnidge burst on to the scene (and into many a fantasy team) with a Pro Bowl 2015 season that saw him grab nine scores and 1,043 yards on 79 receptions but in 2016 his output dropped to two TDs and 612 yards. David Njoku averaged 16.2 yards a catch at the University of Miami last year and the Browns traded back into the first round to grab him. The athletic 6ft 4in tight end will be expected to start from the off.

The offensive line gave up 66 sacks for the 31st scoring team in the NFL last year, a team record, so steps were taken to bolster that unit in the offseason. On the first day of free agency, the best available guard, Kevin Zeitler, was grabbed from AFC North rivals Cincinnati and centre JC Tretter signed from Green Bay. They’ll team with Joel Bitonio, who was rewarded with a five-year extension in the offseason, and stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas, who hasn’t missed a snap (or a Pro Bowl) in his 10 years in Cleveland.

Browns table

Jackson’s second year brings a second defensive coordinator. Ray Horton’s unit finished 30th in points allowed and was replaced by the abrasive Gregg Williams, currently to be seen swearing profusely on All Or Nothing. Williams has a reputation as an in-your-face coach (remember Bountygate) and has already questioned cornerback Joe Haden’s toughness. Haden went to the Pro Bowl in 2014 but has had two injury-plagued seasons since. Clearly Williams doesn’t plan to coddle the talented corner.

Overall No1 pick DE Myles Garrett joins a defense that has talented parts other than Haden and the aggressive defensive coordinator won’t hesitate to unleash him on opposing quarterbacks. Linebacker Jamie Collins, who came by way of a midseason trade with New England last year, can also get after the QB. Christian Kirksey inside is a non-stop player who led the team in tackles last season.

On the line, second-year defensive tackle/nose tackle Danny Shelton was fifth on the team in stops and end Emmanuel Ogbah started all 16 games as a rookie, grabbing six sacks, a team high. Rookie tackle Larry Ojunjobi came in the third round and he’ll be joined in the rotation by 2015 leading sacker, end Desmond Bryant, who missed the whole of 2016.

An intriguing piece will be Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s do-it-all defender, a DIAD if you will. The 6ft 1in 205-pounder played safety and linebacker in college but also added five rushing touchdowns on offense and a punt return TD in his Wolverine career. Described as a bigger version of Arizona’s Tyrann Matthieu, Peppers will inject excitement into the Browns’ special teams and be moved around on defense to exploit his wide skill set.

Also entering the Browns’ defensive backfield is Calvin Pryor, who Cleveland swapped for Demario Davis with the Jets. Pryor is only three years removed from being the 18th overall pick in the 2014 Draft but fell out of favour with Todd Bowles in the Big Apple. The big-hitter will get a fresh start in Ohio and fits well with Williams’ desire to bully and intimidate opponents.

Rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez (is that a record for number of Zs in a name?) will battle Cody Parkey for the kicking job in camp. Britton Colquitt of The Fabulous Punting Colquitts (brother Dustin (Chiefs), dad Craig and uncle Jimmy all punted in the NFL) had his best season since 2012.

Jackson has always been able to talk the talk and his players love to play for him and after 2016, the only way is up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 NFL season preview – Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI BENGALS
2016 Record: 6-9-1; 3rd AFC North
Head coach: Marvin Lewis (Bengals W/L: 118-110-3, Career W/L: 118-110-3)
Principal owner/President/General manager: Mike Brown

Key ins: LB Kevin Minter Cardinals; T Andre Smith Vikings
Key outs: RB Rex Burkhead; LB Karlos Dansby; DE Margus Hunt; LB Rey Maualuga; DT Domata Peko; T Andrew Whitworth; G Kevin Zeitler

Draftees: R1 (9) WR John Ross, Washington; R2 (48) RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma; R3 (73) LB Jordan Willis, Kansas State; R4 (116) OLB Carl Lawson, Auburn; R4 (128) WR Josh Malone, Tennessee; R4 (138) DT Ryan Glasgow, Michigan; R5 (153) K Jake Elliot, Memphis; R5 (176) C JJ Dielman, Utah; R6 (193) LB Jordan Evans, Oklahoma; R6 (207) RB Brandon Wilson, Houston; R7 (251) TE Mason Schreck, Buffalo

Maybe it’s a UK thing, but whenever I think of Cincinnati I think of the Sam Wyche era. Maybe it’s all the hours watching Road To The Super Bowl videos in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Maybe it’s remembering Wyche gently berate officials with lines like, “Our, er, quarterback got clubbed in the face and neck right there. He’s, er, gonna live, but that is a penalty.”

Maybe it’s the thrill of the no-huddle offense with Boomer Esiason at the helm. Maybe it’s the Ickey Shuffle. Maybe it’s the memory of David Fulcher intercepting Jim Kelly in the end zone then laying down to kill off the 1988 AFC Championship Game. Maybe it’s Anthony Munoz’s resplendent ’tache. Maybe it’s the terrifying scowl of linebacker Reggie Williams during the national anthem. Maybe it’s the revulsion at seeing Tim Krumrie’s horrific leg-break early in Super Bowl XXIII.

Or maybe it’s just that it was under Wyche that the Bengals last won a playoff game – 26 years ago. That was the AFC Wild Card Game against (and this dates it instantly) the run-and-shoot Houston Oilers, who finished second in the AFC Central to Wyche’s side. Ickey Woods opened the scoring for Cincinnati, while Boomer Esiason threw two scores and ran for another as the Bengals savaged Jack Pardee’s team 41-10.

A week later, Cincy fell to the Raiders, who in turn were trounced 51-3 by Buffalo, who would go on to lose their first of four Super Bowls on Scott Norwood’s missed field goal.

On Christmas Eve 1991, two days after the Bengals went 3-13, President Mike Brown fired Wyche and 11 years of futility began until the hiring of Marvin Lewis as head coach, which would start a new era of success for the team in the tiger stripes.

Last season marked the first since 2010 that Lewis’s side didn’t make the postseason. A crueller man might suggest that was a blessing for a franchise on a seven-game AFC Wild Card losing streak (including five years in a row). Not I. But at least Andy Dalton couldn’t be criticised for his playoff performance.

Lewis, however, entered the summer without a contract extension for the first time since the same year, saddling him with the added pressure of operating with the tag of ‘lame duck’. 2017 was already looking like a test of coaching chops for Lewis as great locker-room citizens Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko moved on to pastures new after the 6-9-1 2016 season. Whitworth and Zeitler were two of three big free agents the Bengals had to make a decision on – the other was Dre Fitzpatrick – and it was the cornerback that re-upped with a $52.5million five-year deal.

The Bengals’ belief in their infrastructure to handle questionable decision-making on and off the field is well documented – no names Adam Jones, Vontaze Burfict – but the mini-rebuild/quest to get younger could make that aspect of Lewis’s job tougher. That said, no part of his role is an escape from his 0-7 playoff record – which hangs over him like an investigation into collusion with Russia to fix a Presidential election.

On the field in 2016, under first-year coordinator Ken Zampese, the Bengals offense never got untracked. The unit ranked 24th in points scored and 26th in passing touchdowns. None of that was helped by a disappointing running game and protection that saw Dalton dumped 41 times.

Despite those issues, the Red Rifle threw for 4,206 yards and eight interceptions in 563 attempts (only the second time he’s topped 550 passes in his career) and went to his third Pro Bowl.

The offense took a massive hit in Week 11 as AJ Green tore his hamstring and missed the rest of the year and Gio Bernard tore his ACL. Green was just 36 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season and running second to Julio Jones in the NFL lead. Those 36 yards would have meant Green became only the second player to have 1,000 yards their first six seasons – only Randy Moss can claim that honour.


BENGALS IN THE NFL NETWORK TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017
17 AJ Green (2016 RANKING 16)
68 Geno Atkins (2016 RANKING 29)


Injury also prevented tight end Tyler Eifert from following up his 13-TD breakout 2015 season as he only played a part in eight games. Brandon LaFell and 2016 second-rounder Tyler Boyd stepped up in the pair’s absence but that didn’t stop Cincy bolstering the position in the Draft.

John Ross, all 5ft 11in and 188lbs of him, was flying at the Combine. He broke the all-time 40-yard dash record with a time of 4.22secs and that lightning speed is now in black and orange. If Eifert and Green can stay healthy, Dalton’s targets might be the envy of the league (Eli Manning, Tom Brady and Jameis Winston may disagree).

Bernard’s absence for the last six games was telling but the team also suffered through Jeremy Hill’s struggles at running back. The 24 year old was a pleasant surprise in his rookie 2014 season, topping 1,000 in eight starts. A year later, his average fell from 5.1 to 3.6 yards and in 2016 was 3.8. He only broke the 100-yard barrier twice last season (both against Cleveland). Hill expects to be the starter in 2017 but he’ll face competition from a controversial new face.

Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon’s career has been dogged by off-field issues including surveillance footage of him punching a female student in 2014 and a subsequent year’s suspension. Cincinnati will be banking on his claim that he’s grown up since the incident and counting on his footballing ability. A bonafide every-down back, Mixon is explosive, can wiggle the hips or lower the shoulder when required and can make an impact in the passing game or block.

A healthy Gio Bernard makes the three-headed backfield potentially difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to match up against. If the rushing attack is to thrive, the revamped offensive line will need to come together quickly. Keeping Dalton clean is vital – his rating when pressured is among the worst in the league. The youth movement may have come a year too soon though as guard Kevin Zeitler (71 starts in five years) switched Ohio teams to join the Browns and tackle Whitworth (164 starts in 11 years) left for the West Coast, leaving a void up front.

Tackle Andre Smith (yes, that one) was brought back after a season in Minnesota and the former Alabama star will move to guard. But with eight years, Smith is the most experienced starter on the line. Russell Bodine (R4, 2014) at centre and tackles Cedric Ogbuehi (R1, 2015) and Jake Fisher (R2, 2015) have fewer seasons under their belt in total than Smith and Fisher will have to beat out Eric Winston. Seventh-year guard Clint Boling, bothered by a shoulder injury in 2016, completes the starting unit with everything riding on it. Fifth-round centre JJ Dielman was the only offensive line help that came through the Draft.


BENGALS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
26 Andrew Whitworth (2015 RANKING 41)
65 Geno Atkins (2015 RANKING 17)
82 Kevin Zeitler (2015 RANKING NR)


The trio of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson is as good as any in the NFL on the defensive line. Domata Peko and everyone’s favourite Estonian (sorry, Kersti Kaljulaid), Margus Hunt left for Denver and Indianapolis respectively. That gives Andrew Billings, who missed his entire rookie campaign, a chance to compete with Pat Sims and rookie Ryan Glasgow at defensive tackle.

Former Arizona middle linebacker Kevin Minter inherits Maualuga’s spot in the middle of the defense, where the ex-USC star had called the signals for eight years (Maualuga was still unsigned at time of writing). The productive Minter (Pro Football Focus’s 25th-rated linebacker in 2016) had 83 tackles and 3.5 sacks with the Cardinals  last season, his second full year as a starter.

Burfict’s maniacal intensity – with its pluses and minuses – returns to patrol the weak side, with Marquis Flowers (eight special teams tackles in 2016) stepping up to man the strong side. Fitzpatrick’s experience and big-play potential make him their most reliable defensive back and he was paid as such in the offseason. Jones starts opposite (suspension for a January arrest permitting) and Josh Shaw works the slot.

2014 24th overall pick Darqueze Dennard hasn’t proven the answer he was expected to, with one interception in four starts over three years. As a result, William Jackson III was the fourth cornerback off the board in last year’s Draft but he missed the whole of the season after a training camp chest injury. His return may spell the end of Jones as a starter (and as a Bengal).

Strong safety Shawn Williams’s fourth year in Cincy was his best, tied for the team lead in interceptions (3) and third on the tackling chart. Teamed with Williams is the rangy George Iloka, who also picked three passes in 2016.

Randy Bullock is undoubtedly the best name in the NFL, unless you’re Mike Nugent, who Bullock replaced in Week 14. Rookie wide receiver Alex Erickson averaged 27.9 yards on kick returns, second only in the NFL to Cordarrelle Patterson, while Kevin Huber was a top 10 punter with a 46.3 yards per punt average.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 NFL season preview – Baltimore Ravens

BALTIMORE RAVENS
2016 Record: 8-8; 2nd AFC North
Head coach: John Harbaugh (Ravens W/L: 95-64, Career W/L: 95-64)
General manager: Ozzie Newsome

Key ins: CB Brandon Carr Cowboys; S Tony Jefferson Cardinals; WR Jeremy Maclin Chiefs; RB Danny Woodhead Chargers
Key outs: WR Kamar Aiken; LB Elvis Dumervil; DE Lawrence Guy; NT Timmy Jernigan; FB Kyle Juszcyzk; LB Zach Orr; CB Jerraud Powers; WR Steve Smith Sr; T Rick Wagner; CB Shareece Wright; C/G Jeremy Zuttah

Draftees: R1 (16) CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama; R2 (47) OLB Tyus Bowser, Houston; R3 (74) DE Chris Wormley, Michigan; R3 (78) OLB Tim Williams, Alabama; R4 (122) G Nico Siragusa, San Diego State; R5 (159) T Jermaine Eluemunor, Texas A&M; R6 (186) DB Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech

In Week 3 last year, Baltimore got their third straight win against Jacksonville only for the wheels to come off with a four-game losing tear to follow. In a scheduling quirk, they’ll face the Jaguars again at the same point of this season – only this time it’ll be at Wembley.

It’ll be the Ravens’ first visit to these shores (Jacksonville’s fifth). That means UK fans will get to see the newest Brit to make it into the NFL up close. Tackle Jermaine Eluemunor was inspired by catching a glimpse of the first NFL International Series game on TV in 2007. Who’d have thought a soaking wet Cleo Lemon and Jesse Chatman would provoke such a response?

Eluemunor’s journey took in flag football at the London Blitz, American high school, junior college then the mighty Texas A&M before hearing his name called in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft. The boy from Chalk Farm, London can expect plenty of local support when he returns in September.

The rookie joins a franchise that won a Super Bowl as recently as 2012, but that feels like a long time ago. Since John Harbaugh’s victory in the Brother Bowl, starting quarterback Joe Flacco is 29-29. He suffered a torn ACL and MCL in 2015 but his struggles over the last five years have been well documented. He earned his money in 2016, throwing 672 passes – more than anyone in the NFL not named Drew Brees (673). But that career-high in attempts didn’t pay dividends, in fact his touchdown percentage of 20 in 4,317 throws was the lowest of his career at 3.0%. The strong-armed passer was also wayward when pushing the ball downfield. On passes over 20 yards, he completed only 14 of 44 for one score and three picks.

The aerial blitz was largely down to the Ravens pedestrian running game and the team’s commitment to it – the Ravens ranked 28th in the league in yards on the ground. How Ravens fans must yearn for a featured back like Jamal Lewis, Ray Rice or Priest Holmes. Terrance West was, and will remain, the starter. The former Brown and Titan led the team with 774 yards and five scores. Rookie Kenneth Dixon showed flashes of ability but will miss the first four games of 2017 with a suspension for violating the league’s PED policy.

Everyone’s favourite sub-six-footer, the versatile Danny Woodhead was signed from San Diego to boost the backfield. The ex-Jet and Patriot is two seasons removed from a 1,091 all-purpose-yard, nine-TD season with the Chargers (336/3 rush, 755/6 receiving). In between, however, he tore his ACL in Week 2 of 2016. A fully recovered version of the 31-year-old scatback will provide a new receiving option for Flacco. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk went in the opposite direction to join Kyle Shanahan’s revolution in San Francisco.

Fellow new signing Jeremy Maclin will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of running under some Flacco rainbows after a two-year diet of Alex Smith passes in Kansas City. Maclin, cut by the Chiefs in June, drags the Ravens receiver group up a notch after Steve Smith’s retirement left the cupboard a little bare.

Mike Wallace had his best yardage total since his Pro Bowl season of 2011 in Pittsburgh (1,017 yards) and was the offense’s most explosive player, while 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman chipped in with 499 yards and three TDs after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury. The tight end spot will be filled by Ben Watson (who missed and Crockett Gillmore after Dennis Pitta suffered a third devastating hip injury in OTAs.


RAVENS IN THE NFL NETWORK TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017
43 Marshal Yanda (2016 RANKING 37)


Baltimore’s offensive line contains a bonafide star in Marshal Yanda. Rated as Pro Football Focus’s best lineman in the NFL in 2016, the guard has been to the last six Pro Bowls. Suffering from a shoulder injury that kept him out for three games, he asked Harbaugh if he could switch from the right to left to mediate the effect of the sore joint and didn’t miss a beat. Moving back to his usual spot for 2017, the left features two second-year players of promise. Ronnie Stanley (sixth overall pick) started 12 games at left tackle as a rookie and showed unexpected ability in the running game, while Alex Lewis (130th selection) is a fixture at guard after eight starts in his first season. John Urschel steps into the departed Jeremy Zuttah’s shoes at centre. Eluemunor will look to break into this line-up.

Defensively, the Ravens legacy of hard-nosed, rugged play continues. In 2016, the unit, coordinated by Dean Pees for the fifth season, finished top 10 in most categories. The Ravens were the leading interceptors in NFL with 18 passes pilfered from opposing teams. The marshall of the defensive backfield in 2016 was the awesome Eric Weddle.

Fresh from an acrimonious exit from San Diego, Weddle stole four passes, his highest total since 2011 and provided leadership that had been missing in the three previous years after Ed Reed’s retirement. In 2017, Weddle could be one half of the best safety duo on the league after the free agent signing of Tony Jefferson from James Bettcher’s top 10 defense in Arizona. With both players able to play up on the line of scrimmage, blitz or cover, Pees’ will enjoy moving his pieces around to confound opposing offences.

The ability in the secondary doesn’t begin and end at safety, through the draft came Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey (son of former Broncos RB Bobby) with the 16th pick. Mike Mayock rated Humphrey, who ran a 4.41-second 40 at the Combine, as the second-best corner in this year’s class. Humphrey will look to rotate with the starters – former Cowboy Brandon Carr, who’s started all 144 games since Kansas plucked him with the 140th choice of the 2008 Draft and Jimmy Smith, healthy again after being bothered by knee and ankle injuries last season.


RAVENS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
7 Marshal Yanda (2015 RANKING 16)
10 Eric Weddle (2015 RANKING NR)
97 Justin Tucker (2015 RANKING NR)


Baltimore’s linebacking corps took a big hit when leading tackler, third-year player Zach Orr retired with a congenital spinal condition. He’s reportedly looking into a return, but due to a paperwork snafu, he’s technically an unrestricted free agent. Kamalei Correa will move inside to fill Orr’s shoes. He’ll pair with CJ Mosley, who went to his second Pro Bowl in three years after four interceptions. At outside linebacker, The Ageless Terrell Suggs™ provides the pass rush (8.0 sacks in 2016), but turns 35 in October. GM Ozzie Newsome drafted Tyus Bowser from Houston and Tim Williams from Alabama to develop behind Suggs.

Downing the quarterback was an issue in 2016 as the Ravens ranked mid-20s in the NFL in sacks. Chris Wormley was drafted in the third round from Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan and much is hoped for from him. In the middle of the line, one of the league’s best run-stuffers, nose tackle Brandon Williams, got paid in the offseason with five-year $54million deal.

In kicker Justin Tucker the Baltimore can boast one of the best at the position in the NFL. He led all field goal kickers with 38 made (from 39 attempts) in 2016 and was flawless on extra points.

 

 

 

2017 NFL season preview – NY Jets

NEW YORK JETS
2016 Record: 5-11; 4th AFC East
Head coach: Todd Bowles (Jets W/L: 15-17, Career W/L: 17-18)
General manager: Mike Maccagnan

Key ins: T Kelvin Beachum Jaguars; K Chandler Catanzaro Cardinals; CB Morris Claiborne Cowboys; LB Demario Davis Browns; QB Josh McCown Browns
Key outs: TE Brandon Bostick; T Ryan Clady; TE Kellen Davis; WR Eric Decker; QB Ryan Fitzpatrick; K Nick Folk; S Marcus Gilchrist; LB David Harris; LB Erin Henderson; C Nick Mangold; WR Brandon Marshall; CB Darrelle Revis; QB Geno Smith

Draftees: R1 (6) S Jamal Adams, LSU; R2 (39) S Marcus Maye, Florida; R3 (79) WR ArDarius Stewart, Alabama; R4 (141) WR Chad Hansen, California; R5 (150) TE Jordan Leggett, Clemson; R5 (181) DL Dylan Donahue, West Georgia; R6 (188) RB Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette; R6 (197) DB Jeremy Clark, Michigan; R6 (204) DB Derrick Jones, Ole Miss

You know the cliché about how the definition of insanity is repeating the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome? Well… the Jets. Remember 2013? Come on, stretch your minds back. Behold some of the highlights of the opening-day depth chart Rex Ryan was handed by GM John Idzik in a year where he was fighting for his job:

QBs Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith
RBs Bilal Powell, Chris Ivory
WRs Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley, Ryan Spadola, Clyde Gates
TE Jeff Cumberland

OLBs Garrett McIntyre, Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples, Antwan Barnes
DBs Dee Milliner, Dawan Landry, Antonio Allen, Antonio Cromartie

Compare and contrast with the scenario created for Todd Bowles by GM Mike Maccagnan in a year when fighting for his job:

QBs Josh McCown, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg
RBs Matt Forte, Bilal Powell
WRs Charone Peake, Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa
OL Ben Ijalana, James Carpenter, Wesley Johnson, Brian Winters, Kelvin Beachum
TE Jordan Leggett

OLBs Sheldon Richardson, Jordan Jenkins, Lorenzo Mauldin, Freddie Bishop
DBs Morris Claiborne, Buster Krine, Sharmako Thomas, Jamal Adams

Pity poor Bowlesie, his team will likely end up with one of the top QB prospects in the 2018 Draft – Sam Darnold of USC, UCLA’s Josh Rosen or Josh Allen of Wyoming – but he probably won’t be around to see them grow up.

In good news, the Jets are currently $24 million under the salary cap, which means they’re also well positioned to make a run at LeBron James next July, oh wait…

The bad news is they just saw themselves stripped of a ton of leadership in the offseason. Centre Nick Mangold and his decade of experience walked out the door, with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and nine-year middle linebacker David Harris, among others.

And yet again, the moves at the quarterback position would have been the laughing stock of the league if it wasn’t for Chicago. Talking of which, the Jets’ passer situation over the last 30 years has been as dire as the Bears’.

I dare you to look at the table below and not be terrified that The Sanchize has the third most starts at the game’s most important position since Broadway Joe hobbled off for an ill-fated last hurrah in Los Angeles. And everyone’s favourite locker-room leader Geno Smith is SEVENTH!

Jets table

At least that particular headache is out of the building, if not the city (Smith is trying to resurrect his career as a back-up to Eli Manning at the Giants). The snake-bitten passer got the start in Week 7, after Ryan Fitzpatrick had led the Jets to a 1-5 record, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury. Fitzpatrick, seemingly eager to prove that his 31-touchdown 2015 was a massive fluke, hit rock-bottom with a six-interception performance in Week 3 versus the Chiefs but flip-flopped in and out of the line-up the rest of the season as injuries and benchings mounted.

Bowles announced Bryce Petty as his starter for the remainder of the season after a blowout loss to the Colts in Week 13 only for a shoulder injury took care of his year against New England. The second-year man completed 56.4% of his passes for three TDs and seven interceptions in six games (four starts).

Inexplicably, for the season finale, Bowles returned to Fitzpatrick instead of throwing Penn State rookie Christian Hackenburg into the fray to see how he fared against NFL competition. With the signing of Josh McCown (silent l?) this offseason, it confirmed what that decision suggested – Hackenburg wasn’t ready in Bowles’ eyes. The oft-injured McCown is 38, on his eighth team in his 15th season, and has a 18-42 record in 60 starts. Sound anything like the journeyman QB in his 10th season with a 33-55-1 record in 89 starts signed in… do you know who it is yet?… 2015?

Perhaps this a new plan – to attempt to capture second-tier quarterbacks’ peak for a year before watching them crash and burn a year later. McCown’s targets aren’t what Fitzpatrick inherited when he signed two seasons ago. Quincy Enunwa led the team with 857 yards and four scores last year and, in an ideal world, Robby Anderson would continue to supply big plays. Much depends on the standard of quarterback play. Tight end will be manned by Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, grabbed off waivers after Tampa Bay cut him following a DUI arrest. ASJ is, however, suspended for the first two games. Rookie Jordan Leggett may see action early.

Whoever’s behind centre will not have the protection afforded some of his recent predecessors. Mangold’s departure is huge, a year after D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s retirement. Ferguson’s replacement at left tackle, Ryan Clady was let go due to an injury-plagued 2016 (and heavy cap number in 2017). Another casualty was right tackle Breno Giacomini, who was an ever-present from 2014 to 2015 before missing all but five games last year. Kelvin Beachum (from Jacksonville) and Ben Ijalana will fill the tackle roles, with Brian Winters and James Carpenter at guards and Wesley Johnson facing the unenviable task of replacing Mangold.


JETS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
79 Leonard Williams (2015 RANKING NR)


On paper, Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson looked like the strength of the defensive unit in 2016 but the reality was very different. Nose tackle Steve McLendon filled the shoes of the departed Damon Harrison admirably but of the big three, only Williams (team-leader with seven sacks, Pro Bowl berth) showed up. Richardson spent his season feuding with Marshall, while Wilkerson looked a shadow of his pre-broken leg self.

The secondary was also something of a horror show as Revis aged before Jets fans’ eyes and Buster Skrine turned into a penalty machine. Young safety Calvin Pryor was traded to Cleveland for linebacker Demario Davis and Marcus Gilchrist was released. That puts rookies Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye squarely in the firing line.

Davis (99 tackles, two sacks with Browns) will team up in the centre of the defense with Darron Lee, a potential bright spot from the Jets’ 2016 season. Picked 20th overall out of Ohio State showed signs of promise having switched from outside to inside and bagged 70 tackles and a sack in nine starts, making New York comfortable releasing leading tackler Harris.

Kicker Nick Folk ended his seven-year Jets career having hit 175 or 213 field goals and 204 of 206 extra points in green. His replacement Chandler Catanzaro was a key part of Bruce Arians’ success with the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015 but struggled with accuracy last year. That strife included a crushing overtime miss from 24 yards against Seattle in Week 7 after earlier having a 39-yarder blocked. The Clemson man needs to recover the confidence vital to the role of kicker.

Final word on what was a toxic season for the Big Apple side goes to Marshall (also now across town with the Giants), who likened 2016 to “having a diaper on and never changing it. And just sitting in that diaper the whole year”.

Bowles needs to restore harmony in the locker room and get his side pointing in the right direction, but with the tools at his disposal, it’s going to be a genuine test of his head-coaching abilities.

 

 

 

 

 

2017 NFL season preview – New England Patriots

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
2016 Record: 14-2; 1st AFC East; Won Super Bowl LI 34-28 OT v Atlanta
Head coach: Bill Belichick (Patriots W/L: 226-80, Career W/L: 263-125)
General manager: None

Key ins: TE Dwayne Allen Colts; RB Rex Burkhead Bengals; WR Brandin Cooks Saints; DE Kony Ealy Panthers; RB Mike Gillislee Bills; CB Stephon Gilmore Bills; TE James O’Shaughnessy Chiefs
Key outs: TE Martellus Bennett; RB LeGarrette Blount; DE Chris Long; CB Logan Ryan; DE/LB Jabaal Sheard; T Sebastian Vollmer

Draftees: R3 (83) DE Derek Rivers, Youngstown State; R3 (85) T Antonio Garcia, Troy; R4 (131) DE Deatrich Wise Jr, Arkansas; R6 (211) T Conor McDermott, UCLA

Ah the age-old question – what do you buy the man who has everything? The 2017 NFL season version is simple: a big, physical cover corner from a division rival, a power back from said division rival, a deep threat, a utility back/special teamer, a promising defensive end with 14 sacks in 15 starts and an AFC East battle-hardened middle linebacker.

That was Bill Belichick’s haul in the offseason. The man who has been to more and won more Super Bowls than any other coach, is the winningest active coach in the NFL and orchestrated the most incredible Super Bowl comeback the game has ever seen just five months ago. He has a passionate, trusting owner, a coaching staff that turns down approaches for head coaching roles to stay put and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time (I’m in the Joe Montana first, Tom Brady second camp, FYI).

That quarterback, however transcendent he may have been in carving up the Falcons in Houston, turns 40 in August, so Belichick’s moves since February have all been about maximising the Tommy Time left.

QB 40 GraphicSource: www.pro-football-reference.com

There’s continuity in play calling duties – they will remain in the hands of coordinator Josh McDaniels for the sixth straight season after he withdrew himself from the running for the 49ers’ top job. Then there’s TB12. It’s hard to find something new and insightful about Tommy Terrific (pro-football-reference.com assures me that’s an actual nickname). At this point in the season cycle, opponents have two small crumbs of comfort. One is his age, the other is he won’t have a Roger Goodell-sized chip on his shoulder to take out on the rest of the league.

After missing the first four games to the belated Deflategate suspension (in which reserves Jimmy Garappolo and Jacoby Brissett went interception-free compiling a 3-1 record), Brady punished Cleveland with a 28-of-40, 406-yard and three touchdown release of frustration. Then he kept going, tossing 28 scores to just a pair of interceptions (setting a record for fewest team picks), leading a ridiculous Super Bowl comeback and becoming the winningest starting QB in NFL history (208 regular and postseason).

His rating at year end was second only to his career best in the Patriots historic undefeated 2007 season (112.2 to 117.2), when Wes Welker and Randy Moss were reeling in passes in the blue, red and white.

And while Mosses (Mossi?) come along once a generation, the weapons at TB12’s disposal in 2017 may be of higher quality across the board than that unit, they’re certainly more diverse. Three-TD Super Bowl hero James White returns in the backfield, albeit minus his running mate and defender-hurdler supreme LeGarrette Blount (who I will always love for the below (whatever happened to Josh Freeman?)) and his 18 TDs.

Joining the running back stable are the physical Mike Gillislee, stolen away from Buffalo, who scored eight times on the ground in 2016 and utility back Rex Burkhead from the Bengals. When Brady isn’t spreading it around to his backs (including Dion Lewis, who should be fit again after injuring a hamstring in the Super Bowl), his receiving corps has also been enhanced.

Paced by the lion-hearted Julian Edelman, who had 98 catches in 2016, plus five for 87 in Houston, there’s an enviable set of targets this season. Rob Gronkowski, who looked back at full pace in minicamp after his third back surgery, needs to stay healthy or could find himself victim to Belichick’s ruthlessness before he sees the last two years of his newly restructured contract.


PATRIOTS IN THE NFL NETWORK TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017
1 Tom Brady (2016 RANKING 2)
23 Rob Gronkowski (2016 RANKING 9)
71 Julian Edelman (2016 RANKING 87)
80 LeGarrette Blount (2016 RANKING NR)
94 Dont’a Hightower (2016 RANKING NR)
99 Malcolm Butler (2016 RANKING NR)


Big plays were supplied by Chris Hogan last season, as another import from Buffalo paid dividends. Partnered with new speedy Patriot Brandin Cooks, he could be even more dangerous on the perimeter, opening up the slot for Edelman and the seam for Gronk. Departed red zone target Marcellus Bennett (7 TDs) will be replaced by Dwayne Allen, shipped in from Indianapolis.

There is youth on the interior of the New England line, with guard Joe Thuney, who started 16 games as a rookie, centre David Andrews and Shaq Mason. Right tackle Marcus Cannon had his best season to date in 2016 and Nate “Over The” Solder “Boulder Holder” continues to tend Brady’s blind side.

New England usually sit out free agency so the addition of Stephon Gilmore was a surprising move. He’ll team with Malcolm Butler, who could be forgiven for having the hump about his lack of long-term deal, to offset the loss of the promising Logan Ryan (now a Titan). Filling out the defensive backfield will be Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, the no2 and no3 tacklers on the team last year.

Talking of surprises, the Week 9 trade of Jamie Collins to Cleveland was a jaw-dropper but it meant the team was freed up to extend the savvy Dont’a Hightower to a four-year deal. He’ll be joined by former Jets ironman middle linebacker David Harris – of whom Belichick has long been an admirer. The 11-year veteran’s signing means Hightower will return to outside linebacker where wrought havoc in the second half of the season (Matt Ryan may remember him too).

Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown command the middle of the defensive line and on the end, Trey Flowers bloomed (see what I’ve done there) in the second half of 2016 with seven sacks. Kony Ealy will be looking for a productive season with the world champions in what is the final year of his rookie contract.



PATRIOTS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
1 Tom Brady (2015 RANKING 14)
25 Malcolm Butler (2015 RANKING NR)
29 Devin McCourty (2015 RANKING 94)
59 Nate Solder (2015 RANKING NR)
61 Marcus Cannon (2015 RANKING NR)


As with everything else Brand Belichick, the special teams unit is filled with overachieving non-superstars. Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are among the best coverage guys in the game. Edelman and Amendola handle return duties and will be joined by Lewis at times in 2017.

Did Super Bowl LI represent the peak of Patriot powers (Peter Piper ponders)? Was that comeback one miracle too far or can New England become the first team since, er New England in 2003/2004 to repeat as Super Bowl champs? At this point, and injury permitting, you have to say it’s highly likely.

 

 

2017 NFL season preview – Miami Dolphins

MIAMI DOLPHINS
2016 Record: 10-6; 2nd AFC East; Lost AFC Wild Card Game 30-12 @ Pittsburgh
Head coach: Adam Gase (Dolphins W/L: 10-7, Career W/L: 10-7)
General manager: Chris Grier

Key ins: S Nate Allen Raiders; TE Anthony Fasano Titans; DE William Hayes Rams; S TJ McDonald Rams; TE Julius Thomas Jaguars; LB Lawrence Timmons Steelers
Key outs: S Isa Abdul-Quddus; LB Donald Butler; TE Jordan Cameron; LB Jelani Jenkins; LB Spencer Paysinger; S Bacarri Rambo; TE Dion Sims; DE Mario Williams

Draftees: R1 (22) DE Charles Harris, Missouri; R2 (54) LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State; R3 (97) CB Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; R5 (164) G Isaac Asiata, Utah; R5 (178) DT Davon Dochaux, LSU; R5 (184) S Nate Gerry, Nebraska; R6 (194) DT Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State; R7 (237) WR Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech

Before last season, the last time the Dolphins had visited the playoffs, Tony Sparano was head coach, Chad Pennington was throwing to Tedd Ginn Jr and Rocket Ronnie Brown running the Wildcat was officially a thing. Prior to that, Zach Thomas was in the middle of the defense as Dave Wannstedt’s team went 11-5 in 2001. Enter rookie head coach Adam Gase, the offseason’s hot candidate for his work with [spits] Jay Cutler. With a record of futility the like of the Florida side’s, moving the needle wasn’t going to be an insurmountable task.

Gase, however, cranked the knob and almost sent the comedy gauge into the flashing red bit with the loud honky noise. Almost. A 1-4 start, including two-point and seven-point losses at Seattle and New England respectively, could have derailed the Gase Express before it got rolling. But a steady hand on the tiller, a six-win streak and an overall 9-2 finish put his side into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Job 1 for the 38-year-old first-year boss was to sprinkle his QB pixie dust over Ryan Tannehill. The QB whisperer head coach had reached the playoffs with Tim Tebow and won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning in Denver before shaving seven interceptions off [spits] Cutler’s 2014 total in 2015.

Tannehill responded with a career-best 93.5 rating as he went 8-5 as a starter and completed 67% of his passes with a 19 to 12 TD to interception ratio. And if the former Texas A&M player hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury with three games to go, who knows how differently the Dolphins’ run-in could have been. Stout back-up Matt Moore was at the helm for the Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh but had performed well in relief, with eight TDs to three picks in three games.

The offense overall clicked and topped 30 points six times (by comparison New England achieved that feat eight times). On the ground, they were powered by the UK’s own Jay Ajayi, who went over 1,200 yards and was Player Of The Week three times. The J-Train began his sophomore season behind Arian Foster but emerged when given his opportunity (the second time he got double-digit carries he racked up 204 yards v Pittsburgh).

A week later, Ajayi hit a double century again against Buffalo and then in Week 16 got 206 more against the hapless Bills. It was a bit of a season of feast and famine for the youngster, however, as in nine other games he rushed for 61 yards or under. Running like the defense stole his lunch, his angry style meshed well with the scheme and he’ll be expected to carry the load in 2017.

The beating heart of the offense is the soft-handed, fluid-footed slot receiver Jarvis Landry. He became the fastest player in league history to reach 200 receptions (33 games), only to see his former LSU running mate Odell Beckham Jr break that mark a week later (30 games). Landry did follow up his 2015 record of most receptions in a player’s first two seasons by catching his 288th pass in 2017 to set the three-season record (a mark tied by OBJ hours later).


DOLPHINS IN THE NFL NETWORK TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017
42 Jarvis Landry (2016 RANKING 98)
55 Ndamukong Suh (2016 RANKING 40)
62 Cameron Wake (2016 RANKING NR)
69 Jay Ajayi (2016 RANKING NR)


He was ably supported by second-year receiver DeVante Parker, who added 744 yards and four scores, and former New Orleans speedster Kenny Stills who found paydirt nine times in 42 catches. Tight end Jordan Cameron’s two seasons in Miami were nothing to write home about, while Dion Sims parlayed a career best in receptions and TDs into a move to Chicago so in comes Julius Thomas. He was a disappointment at Florida neighbours Jacksonville but had Pro Bowl seasons with Gase running the offense in Denver.

Nine offensive starters return in 2017 and one of the most welcome will be centre Mike Pouncey. The man in the middle missed all but five games last year and has started 16 games only twice in his six-year career. When healthy, he’s one of the best as three Pro Bowls will testify. After a strong gasmask-bong-less rookie season at left guard, Laremy Tunsil slides to left tackle to replace the departed Branden Albert. The other side of Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod enters his 11th NFL season at guard, while 2014 first-rounder Ja’Wuan James starts at tackle.

While the offense responded to Gase’s tutelage, this season it’s the defense that is in dire need of the pixie dust. With 2016 defensive coordinator Vance Joseph now head coach in Denver, the superbly-bearded Matt Burke was promoted from linebackers coach to run the unit. That underperforming crew finished 30th against the run and 29th in total defense last season.


DOLPHINS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
31 Jay Ajayi (2015 RANKING NR)
45 Cameron Wake (2015 RANKING NR)
52 Ndamukong Suh (2015 RANKING 27)


Ndamukong Suh, who arrived with a fanfare in 2015, returned to the Pro Bowl at the end of 2016 and remains the best player on defense. Linemate Cameron Wake went to his first ever playoff game in his eighth year (a big bone of contention when I interviewed him in 2015!) on the back of 11.5 sacks and a fifth Pro Bowl selection and like Suh is a playmaker.

The rest of the unit features scant big-play material, however. Reshad Jones, another player on Miami’s injury list last season (shoulder), had a career year in 2015 and his return bolsters the two up front and free agent linebacker Lawrence Timmons will be expected to improve the run-stopping capability of the Miami D. His presence will allow last year’s team-leading tackler Kiko Alonso to shift to the weak side.

Veteran Byron Maxwell and second-year man Xavien Howard are expected to man the corners but neither is a Sherman-esque shutdown corner. Tony Lippett bagged four interceptions last time out and will be in the mix. As will big-hitting TJ McDonald, joining from the Rams – only slight snag is he’s suspended for the first eight games of the season.

On special teams, Landry and kick returner Jakeem Grant share punt return duties with Kenyan Drake also running back kicks. Both Grant and Drake found the end zone in 2016, while punter Matt Darr ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and net yards.

In summary, Year 2 of Gase’s regime offers great promise but if the defense can’t better stop the run (and the pass), the offense is going to need to score in bunches to keep pace with likely division champs New England.

 

 

 

 

 

2017 NFL season preview – Buffalo Bills

BUFFALO BILLS
2016 Record: 7-9; 3rd AFC East
Head coach: Sean McDermott (Bills W/L: 0-0, Career W/L: 0-0)
General manager: Brandon Beane

Key ins: FB Patrick DiMarco Falcons; G Vlad Ducasse Ravens; K Steven Hauschka Seahawks; WR Andre Holmes Raiders; S Micah Hyde Packers; S Jordan Poyer Browns; FB Mike Tolbert Panthers; QB TJ Yates Dolphins
Key outs: S Sergio Brown; LB Zach Brown; RB Reggie Bush; K Dan Carpenter; FB Jerome Felton; CB Stephon Gilmore; RB Mike Gilislee; WR Marquise Goodwin; S Corey Graham; QB EJ Manuel; CB Corey White; WR Robert Woods

Draftees: R1 (27) CB Tre’Davious White, LSU; R2 (37) WR Zay Jones, ECU; R2 (63) T Dion Dawkins, Temple; R5 (163) OLB Matt Milano, Boston College; R5 (171) QB Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh; R6 (195) OLB Tanner Vallejo, Boise State

That jangling sound you could hear as the Pegulas axed GM Doug Whaley the day after the 2017 Draft was rookie head coach Sean McDermott being handed the keys to the  Buffalo Bills. Unless it was just a really jangly axe, in which case I stand corrected. The 43-year-old McDermott represents – as is often the case in the great NFL cycle – the opposite of outgoing braggadocious head coach Rex Ryan.

Don’t pity Rex though, he and brother Rob were recently caught on film enjoying themselves down in Nashville after they bumped into Kevin Kilbride’s sons.

Terry and Kim Pegula, the Bills owners since 2014, will be hoping their new head coach’s culture of accountability and discipline, chiselled under the likes of Andy Reid and Ron Rivera, proves to be the antidote to the error-prone, underperforming product Ryan put on the field during his 31 games.

McDermott will have a job on his hands to avoid a repeat of last year’s “7-9 bullshit”. On the surface, the Bills have talent (six of their nine 2016 losses were by seven points or less). In five-time Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy, mobile passer Tyrod Taylor and oft-injured receiver Sammy Watkins the offense has three genuine game-changers. On the other side of the ball, Marcel Dareus is overdue a return to form alongside the ageless Kyle Williams and newly-minted Lorenzo Alexander will be expected to follow up his 12.5-sack 2016 season.

The offseason saw the team drained of depth in both units, however. No individual loss was perhaps bigger than cover man Stephon Gilmore departing for AFC East rivals New England. With five interceptions and 12 passes defended in his fifth season he translated his first Pro Bowl appearance into a lucrative contract with the Super Bowl champs.

McDermott’s 4-3 scheme doesn’t place the emphasis on man coverage that Ryan’s complex look did but losing a player like Gilmore still makes a dent. The unit will be run by another humble, calming presence in defensive co-ordinator Leslie Frazier, who will have first-round corner Tre’Davious White at his disposal. White lacks flash but follows in the NFL footsteps of solid all-round former LSU DBs Patrick Peterson, Eric Reid and Jalen Collins.

Alongside him in the defensive backfield, White will find an experienced figure in the shape of free agent signing Micah Hyde, entering his fifth NFL season. The former Packer has played corner and at both safety positions as a movable piece in Dom Capers’ Green Bay defense. 2015 second-round pick Ronald Darby will man the other corner spot and hope to rebound to his rookie form.


BILLS IN THE NFL NETWORK TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017
27 LeSean McCoy  (2016 RANKING 69)
91 Lorenzo Alexander (2016 RANKING NR)


Life through the air could be made more comfortable for the defensive backs if the front seven can get more of a pass rush than they did under vaunted defensive mind Ryan. Under head coach Doug Marrone in 2014, the Bills led the NFL with 54 sacks. A year later, Ryan’s unit mustered 21 and last year registered 39 takedowns.

Stopping the run is also a priority as Miami’s Jay Ajayi topped 200 yards against them – both times he played Buffalo – and Le’Veon Bell repeated the trick for the Steelers. Hopefully Reggie Ragland will provide some steel at middle linebacker after losing his entire rookie season with a knee problem. Much will depend on what happens in front of him. Dareus signed a six-year $100 million contract extension off the back of a 2014 season in which he racked up 10 sacks and went to his second Pro Bowl. But he didn’t flourish under Ryan and last year a disgruntled Dareus missed half a season through suspension and injury.

On offense, Rick Dennison (who UK fans of a certain age will remember as a Broncos linebacker) replaces Greg Roman/Anthony Lynn as coordinator after two years in Denver as OC. He’ll retain the emphasis on the run – the Bills led the NFL in rushing yards, TDs and average in 2016.

McCoy and his health will be key to that. His 1,267 yards and 13 scores included his longest ever run (a 75-yard TD v Jacksonville in Week 12) and a fourth straight visit to Hawaii-Arizona-Hawaii-Florida as he looked like himself after an injury-slowed 2015. Shady’s running mate Mike Gillislee, who bagged eight TDs and averaged 5.7 yards last year, followed Gilmore to the world champion New England Patriots.

Fifth-rounder Jonathan Williams will be first change but veteran bowling ball Mike Tolbert and versatile fullback Patrick DiMarco will have to contribute in the running game, certainly in short-yardage.

Taylor could be forgiven if he was worried about more than a young and inconsistent receiving corps. The outgoing front office benched him in Week 17 with the intention to keep him healthy so they could move him on in the offseason. The new regime has yet to promise anything more than a shot at starting.

That said, the rookie head coach spoke warmly of the quarterback after recent OTAs: “I’ve been impressed by Tyrod’s leadership. There are qualities important to the quarterback position and he’s doing a nice job at those.”

Dennison, who worked with Taylor in Baltimore in 2014 also praised the QB’s work and study habits as well as his command of the huddle. Just as well because Taylor represents the best shot the Bills have at a successful season in passer terms. Behind him on the depth chart is Cardale Jones with all of 11 NFL passes (and a pick) to his name. Then there’s rookie Nathan Peterman and veteran of Dennison’s system TJ Yates (4-3 as a starter in six seasons).


BILLS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
98 Richie Incognito (2015 RANKING 31)


Vital parts of the offense are working their way back to full fitness. Centre Eric Wood broke his leg in Week 9 against Seattle and receiver Sammy Watkins was limited in his work in OTAs as he battles back from foot surgery. Wood, Richie Incognito and John Miller form a solid interior line with Vlad Ducasse, signed from Baltimore, adding depth. Cordy Glenn will man the left tackle spot with rookie second-rounder Dion Dawkins expected to start opposite him.

At receiver, Zay “What You See” Jones, son of former Cowboys and Rams LB Robert, will be expected to contribute in his first season. The 6ft 2in 200-pounder racked up 1,746 yards on a ridiculous 158 receptions at East Carolina last year. Former Raider Andre Holmes and ex-Panther Corey Brown will also be competing for snaps at receiver, while Charles Clay returns at TE looking to put a disappointing two seasons as a Bill behind him.

The only coach retained from the Ryan regime (Ryan inherited him too) is everyone’s favourite World Bowl ’91 MVP Danny Crossman. He’ll have a new starting kicker (and long snapper) to work with in Steven Hauschka, who replaces Dan Carpenter (if ever a moment summed up a season, it was this).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016 Draft: Mocks are a mockery

Cross my palm with silver and I’ll tell you your future… Looking at the first round a few hours after it happened, forget mock drafts, we might as well have gone to a fortune teller.

Even in this information-at-our-fingertips age, when it comes to the Draft, most pundits are in the same boat as us and Jon Snow – we know nothing. We aren’t, happily, laying dead in the snow from multiple stab wounds from our treacherous Watch brothers.

Start at No3 – Joey Bosa to San Diego makes no sense to some. “He’s wrong for their 3-4 system and will either be slow as a linebacker or undersized for a defensive end.” So the experts never predicted that the Ohio State pass rusher would end up in San Diego. Then again, his game is all about upfield pressure, which very much does fit the Chargers’ defensive approach. And he was one of the top three players in this year’s class. So who’s right? Well, we’ll find out in a season or two.

Then you look at someone who is still waiting to hear his name called – junior Myles Jack, whose September knee injury and potential microfracture surgery down the line has caused his stock to fall through the floor. Pure athleticism – he won the 2013 Pac-12 Offensive & Defensive Freshman of the year as a running back and linebacker – he was top five on most big boards. The UCLA product will surely come off the board early tonight but that’s a precipitous fall.

Talking of which, what do a bong and a bung have in common? The answer is Laremy Tunsil – the most bizarre story of the Draft (so far). Moments before the event began, a video of Tunsil wearing a gasmask attached to a bong appeared on his Twitter feed. It was quickly deleted followed by the account, which was said to have been hacked.

It was clearly enough to put off two or three tackle-hungry teams – Giants, Titans and Ravens. Miami jumped at the chance to grab the best pass blocker in the Draft at 13. But then later on his Instagram, text conversations asking Ole Miss staff for help paying his rent appeared. That was also promptly fixed and followed by an exchange with reporters in which he seemed to admit the improper payments.

Everyone had Ezekiel Elliott and Dallas at No4 as a likely match of player and need. Few could have predicted his outfit on the night though. A cut-off shirt, no less, like the old-school cropped jersey he used to wear at Ohio State before they were outlawed by the NCAA. Oh to be 20 and able to pull that off. I reckon if I shrink a shirt, it might sit atop my stomach, but I think it’s best for all concerned that I keep a coat over it.

Elsewhere in the first round, you had two safeties – Keanu Neal and Karl Joseph – going to Atlanta and Oakland (in the market for a Charles Woodson replacement) when they had, in some previews, third and fourth-round grades. San Francisco traded two extra picks to Kansas to grab guard Joshua Garnett and Seattle opted for the fifth-ranked tackle with the last pick of the round. They’d traded their pick to the Broncos so that they could move up to select QB of the future Paxton Lynch with the 26th choice. Having Mark Sanchez at the top of your depth chart will force moves like that.

But let’s allow Jim Mora to have the last word. When it comes to the Draft and what’s going on inside teams’ war rooms…

Run, bike, run. Not you, Forrest, sit down

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Now, none of you reading this are likely to know that I like to dabble in the odd multi-discipline event. But I do. So I like to do a bit of triathlon once in a while, I can handle it. Can’t I? Yesterday, I took part in the London Duathlon 2015. I did it last year with my good friend Dominic Wint and based on the fact that it was such a well-run event and a good atmosphere, we signed up for this year’s the very next day despite not being able to descend stairs safely because of the pain in our legs (NB: I very much speak for myself here, Winty’s legs may well have been fine, mine were like shit!).

Part of that may be down to the fact that (because of some TFL wisdom/lack of car) we tagged on an extra five bike miles in each direction getting to and from the event. FUN! This year, my good friend Dave Burns (tenuous link to blog, Dave’s from San Francisco and a big Niners fan) decided he’d like a piece of the action so he signed up. We were all set.

Last Friday, Winty pulled out having gone down with flu (why didn’t I think of that?) so it was just me and Dave, but also, thankfully, my car. It was a 9am kickoff so, powered by his takeaway coffee cup, he rocked up at my house at 7am. I say “my house”. I got a text saying “Here” so opened the door. Nothing. Stepped out into the street to see him knocking on the door 10 houses down. No doubt they’d have loved a Sunday early morning call, but I called him off anyway.

Bikes loaded, we powered in the C3 to Richmond Park, so early we could park in the street next to the gate. As we walked through the dewy park (about as amazing a venue for a day’s exercise you could get. Alright, apart from say the Grand Canyon. Or Ayers Rock. Or the Amazonian rain forest) into the Race Village (sounds like an initiative Nigel Farage might have spawned) it didn’t look like the stated world’s biggest duathlon. It would later.

With an empty stomach, I popped to the coffee stand and had a bit of carrot cake and a cappuccino. Interestingly, the coffee stand had some TV evangelist station on a big screen hanging off to the side – Dave and I couldn’t decide if it was just that there was nothing on Sky Sports at the time or whether the baristas were particularly religious. We concluded that you don’t put that stuff on by accident and went on our merry way. Albeit with the urge to send money to the Church of the Dodgy Dude That Wants A New Car all of a sudden.

I eyed the Fine Burger Co’s breakfast offerings but was guided away from them by my American friend. Something for which, with hindsight, even 24 hours removed, I am grateful for! It wouldn’t be the last time I was grateful for him being there. Fuelled up, we stuck our numerous stickers on, strapped on the wristband and set off for Transition.

In a triathlon, it feels like there are a million things to line up and think about when you’re setting up. In a duathlon, it’s brilliant – helmet, bike shoes, glasses, done. To the point where you go out on the bike thinking you’ve forgotten at least three things.

A quick pre-race selfie and we were lining up along with the rest of nos 1,000 to 1,999 ready to run 10km, ride 45km then run another 5km (seems excessive). Another run, this time through the rules (litterers will be disqualified – this is a Royal Park for goodness’ sake) and a quick pep-talk then you’re off.

Dave went off at something of a pace. Very promptly it became clear to me that Dave’s pace is not mine. And also that not having done a jot of training since the London Olympic Triathlon a month ago was a BIG mistake. By 2km I was already struggling. Dave, however, was having fun – shouting “Go Giants!” to the (bizarrely high number of) people in San Fran baseball caps, running backwards to wait for me as I fell back, mock chasing people when they overtook us etc.

But he was awesome. He kept me in it. Basically dragging me round the 10k and keeping me amused with plenty of chat (most of it unreturned). By 7k I felt a bit better and we got back to the bikes (I stripped off the two layers I’d foolishly kept on for the run) and set off.

Duathlons and triathlons are funny. Having already run 8k, you start to crave the bike “for a rest” and then on the last lap of the bike ride your crampy legs and dead buns want nothing more than to bear weight again, then as you limp around the last leg of the event, all you want is to get the (insert swear word of choice) thing over with and visit Fine Burger Co for a Crazy Larry or The Guv’nor.

On the bike, you also slip into a trance-like state. Helped in Richmond by the scenery – deer (deer, not “elk”, Dave) roaming around, views of London and glorious sunshine – you forget that you’re in a race. The fellas with pointy hats on the rumbly-wheeled tri bikes wake you from that feeling as they whizz by at 90mph.

Despite those occasional disturbances, you do enter a Zen-like state and become blissfully unaware of the pain in your legs. On Lap 2, I was there, only to be rudely awoken by a blood-curdling cry behind me. I turned to see some clown with all the gear – flash bike, all-white kit, smart helmet – rubbing his calf. Oh you’ve got cramp, we’ve all got fucking cramp, suck it up we don’t want to hear about it.

I looked back in front of me to see that I was no longer on the road but was instead about to go down the drainage ditch, which I did. As I tried to twist my foot out of the SPD, ironically my calf re-cramped and I resignedly left my foot where it was and rolled onto the soaking wet grass in a heap. Ignoring the amused faces of a mum and her two kids, I remounted and set off rejoining the traffic. Half a lap later, as I powered through the bottom of a descent, I hit an ancient Royal speed bump, was jolted to alert, and heard the spine-chilling tell-tale clatter of equipment falling off my bike.

Oh, it’s OK, it was only my iPhone 6 Plus (it’s got my bike computer app on it, I’m not one of these twats taking calls as I go round the course). Before I could retrieve it, I heard the tell-tale clatter of a speeding bike hitting the equipment that had fallen off my bike. Fearing the worst, I rushed over to rescue it from further punishment. Miraculously (big shout out to Armor-X, makers of my protective case/bike mount) it was intact. Phew!

On the next lap, I passed the same woman about six times (and there is no way I was lapping anyone). I’m pretty sure that really happened and it wasn’t a coconut-water induced hallucination. Seriously, every 500 yards she was in front of me again and I never saw her overtake. Unless there was a set of octuplets taking part, I have no idea how this happened.

By now I was on Lap 4, calf cramp was a distant-but-ever-present memory and groin cramp decided to pay a visit. Well hi, thanks ever so much for coming, don’t know what I’d have done without you. Not pleasant and that’s when I started, twistedly, craving the 5k.

Fortunately most of Transition had cleared out and gone home by the time I was there to put my runners back on. Seeing me try to bend over to tie my laces would have been most amusing.

The big incentive for this year’s race was that if you beat last year’s time, you got next year’s entry free. And I was poor in last year’s race, I figured I couldn’t do any worse. All I had to do was run more of the 5k than I did last year and I’d be golden. Also playing into my psyche was that, just a month ago, I ran a 10k after a 45km bike (having also spent an hour in the Thames – but the less said about that particular experience the better), so what could go wrong.

A lot, as it turns out. An age old IT band issue reared its ugly, IT bandy head in my right knee as I exited Transition, forcing me into a limping walk. I periodically ran ploddingly until the pain got too much then I walked again.

At about halfway, with my right quad stiffening where it joins the knee, my left quad went into full-on cramp. This is not something I’ve experienced before (but I didn’t scream blood-curdlingly, Flashy Bike Boy) so I Frankensteinedly (yes, that is a word, I Googled it) continued. It wouldn’t go away and I had visions of finishing “in the dramatic spirit of Julie Moss”.

Several people slowed to check on me – thank you if you were one of them – and eventually it subsided enough to plod some more. Amusingly, I also ran past one of the still-cycling octuplets, who it became apparent were doing the Ultra duathlon for crazy people. Finally the finish scaffolding came into view in the distance and having engaged in a walk-for-one-cone-run-for-three-cones battle with another cramped up runner (tall guy, blue and black outfit, leggings), I tightened my bra straps, gritted my teeth and jog-hobbled (jobbled?) to the finish.

“COLIN HUBBUCK!”

Dave was already at the finish straight (no, I hadn’t caught him up).

Medal, banana, T-shirt, water. Check.

“Have you been here long?”

[Apologetically] “Yeah.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, about an hour.”

“Oh.”

We shared war stories as we collected our bikes, before demolishing a Guv’nor each and heading for the car. While sitting in traffic as we tried to leave Richmond, Dave checked his time on the website. 3.13. Then he found mine.

Let’s just say, I’m paying for next year’s entry.

PS: Huge thanks to the organisers and all the marshalls – it’s a brilliant event made even more so by the help and support of the boys, girls, men and women in yellow T-shirts. And also thanks to the group of spectators on the nasty bike hill that cheered on “Beardy Man” three-quarters of the way up for three of the four laps.