The Josh Allen Project: Episode II

Sometimes the sequel ends up being better than the original, but that currently does not look like the case so far in the Josh Allen Project. During the previous installment, which was the first, the outlook on the 2017 college football season for University of Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen was quite bright. However, just under half way through the season, it’s looking like he might be struggling. Yes, Allen’s Cowboys are 4-2 with a 2-0 record in the Mountain West Conference – but he is beating the teams he is supposed to beat, and not any of the teams where it should be a challenge.

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Allen started off the season with a rough loss to a 4-2 Iowa team that is currently sitting in third place in the Big Ten West, although Iowa did suffer just a two point loss to #4 Penn State who is currently unbeaten and so far uncontested (other than the Iowa game). Although Allen did throw two interceptions while completing 58% of his passes, he was not helped out much by the rest of his offense. The Wyoming defense, on the other hand, looked for much of the game like they could hold down the Hawkeyes’ offense led by sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley who had backed up C.J. Beathard (who is now the starter for the San Francisco 49ers) last year. The Wyoming defense took the ball away from Iowa thrice on fumbles and the senior cornerback Rico Gathers, an Iowa native, added an interception for a total of four takeaways by the Cowboys. But it was quite evident that the offense had to get used to not having runningbacks Brian Hill (now with Atlanta Falcons) and Shaun Wick, receiver Tanner Gentry (now with the Chicago Bears, and tight end Jacob Hollister (now with the New England Patriots).

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Second week of the season, Josh Allen was given a much easier opponent in the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs. He amassed 328 passing yards with a pair of touchdowns, while completing 69% of his passes. However, things went back to being rough the following week when the Oregon Ducks came into Laramie with an undefeated record and left with a 49-13 victory over the Cowboys. Against the Ducks, Allen only managed to throw for 64 yards on 24 attempts with an interception, his completion percentage was a mere 38%. On the bright side, Allen was able to gain 25 yards on the ground (on 8 carries) with a touchdown.

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The following week, the Cowboys had a much more winnable match-up going against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. However, Allen remained mostly dormant until the game went to overtime tied at 21. In overtime, Allen found receiver James Price for a 25 yard touchdown on the first play. The following drive, Wyoming linebacker Cassh Maluia ended the game with an interception to give Wyoming the 28-21 victory. Allen ended the game with just 92 yards and the lone touchdown, while completing just 47% of his passes. The next week, Texas State came into Laramie for the Cowboys’ fourth straight home game. This time Allen and the Cowboys easily handled the Bobcats en route to a 45-10 victory. Allen finished with 219 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions (for the second week in a row) – while completing 58% of his passes.

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Last week, Josh Allen and the University of Wyoming went on the road to play against Utah State. The Cowboys and Aggies played a close 60 minutes, but ultimately Wyoming was victorious by a score of 28-23. Josh Allen threw for 208 yards while adding 36 more yards on the ground. He completed 69% of his passes while throwing an interception and a touchdown, he also added a touchdown on the ground to total for two scores on the night.

 

Despite some of the struggles this year, Allen has still shown that he is getting better. Allen has shown that he can maintain his poise and make things happen in close games – which will be a valuable asset at the next level. Currently, Mel Kiper of ESPN has Allen ranked as a top-15 pick in the upcoming draft class and points out that Allen has a severe lack of talent surrounding him, and he believes that Allen will only get better once he starts playing on Sundays. Kiper’s fellow ESPN analyst Todd McShay went a step further and stated that he believes Josh Allen is a top ten selection, and says he is even better than UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Looking forward, Allen will have to show that he can keep improving. He is going to have to start beating the teams he is expected to beat and stop having close games with teams he should be able to light up. Josh Allen and the Wyoming Cowboys have the perfect chance to show they can win the Mountain West this year when they travel to Boise State this weekend to face a Broncos team that is also 4-2 (2-0 in the Mountain West). Wyoming did beat Boise State last year when the Broncos were ranked #13 in the nation, so we will see what happens when the two face off this Saturday.

 

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The Josh Allen Project: Episode I

In the NFL, it is often said that you must have a good quarterback to be successful. The NFL is a league where quarterbacks, not defenses, now win championships. While some teams are blessed to already have their guy, other teams suffer through a seemingly eternal struggle to find the quarterback who will turn their franchise into a dynasty. This search starts in the colleges. NFL scouts examine many options for players that their team should select, and sometimes they find a gem. The thing about these “gems” is that sometimes they show up in the most obscure places. The next biggest star to play in the NFL next year (assuming he forgoes his senior year) is no exception, as he is Josh Allen – the quarterback for the University of Wyoming.

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For a school like Wyoming to be drawing interest from every NFL scout requires something (or someone) rare to be on their roster. That is exactly who Josh Allen is – a rare once-in-a-lifetime talent. The University of Wyoming has had 85 football players drafted in their history, and Josh Allen has a chance to be the most notable. That title currently belongs to running back Jim Kiick of the historic 1972 Miami Dolphins team that is still the only team to have a perfect season.

After taking over the starting quarterback position last year, Allen completed 56% of his passes while throwing for 28 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions – while also accumulating just over 3,700 yards through the air and on the ground. Allen also added seven rushing touchdowns, as well as a four yard touchdown reception on his one catch of the year – thus further demonstrating his athletic ability. Allen also forced one fumble and accumulated three tackles.

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Versus Nebraska last year, Allen looked quite shaky as he threw five interceptions in a 52-17 blowout loss. However, if you look later in the year, he learned fast. One game in particular that sticks out to me as a game that proves Allen can compete at the next level was his performance in a comeback win against #13 Boise State. Early in the second quarter, Boise State was up 14-0 before Allen fired a pass to tight end Jacob Hollister (who is now a member of the New England Patriots) to cut the lead to one score. Less than three minutes later, Boise re-extended that lead to two scores on a touchdown run. However, Allen wasn’t going to let Wyoming lose, he lead the team to a pair of field goal drives and capped another drive off with his second touchdown to Hollister – thus leaving the Cowboys down by one point with thirteen minutes to go. With just under eleven minutes left in the game, Boise State increased that lead to 28-20 with a 33 yard touchdown pass from Brett Rypien. With under seven minutes left to go, Allen struck again, this time to receiver Tanner Gentry (now with the Chicago Bears) and then hit receiver Jake Maulhardt for the game-tying two point conversion. With the game tied, it was the defense’s turn to shine as defensive tackle Chase Appleby forced the fumble on Brett Rypien that resulted in the game-winning safety with just a minute to go for the offense to eat the clock.

In that game, Allen demonstrated drive and passion that matches that of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Allen has shown that he can make plays with his arm and legs while also keeping possession of the football (something Favre frequently struggled with). That is what makes Allen so dangerous, in college and eventually the National Football League.

 

 

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the AFC West

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each AFC West team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Denver Broncos – Jamaal Charles (RB)

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In the past, Charles has flashed borderline hall of fame caliber skills. However, he has also had many struggles with injuries in the past – which will likely hinder his shot at a gold jacket and bust in Canton. If Charles can stay healthy this year (and for more years to come) while also displaying the talent he has shown in years past, Denver’s offense could be deadly this year – despite their quarterback situation being a coin-flip between three guys (for the record, I strongly believe Chad Kelly could very well be the best option if he has improved his attitude from his college days). The flip-side of that is that if he continues to struggle with injuries he will probably be out of the league in the next year or two and Denver will have to rely more on one of their three unproven quarterbacks.

Kansas City Chiefs – Kareem Hunt (RB)

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Had I wrote this a week ago, Spencer Ware would be in this spot. Now that Ware is out for a considerable amount of time, the Chiefs are rumored to be turning to rookie running back Kareem Hunt to take hand-offs from Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes as the Chiefs look to replace the aforementioned Jamaal Charles, who had been with the Chiefs since 2008. Hunt has a chance to win the starting job permanently before Ware can get back into action. If he can perform well, the Chiefs offense would receive a nice boost to their lackluster offense (outside of Tyreek Hill of course). If Hunt can’t adapt to the pro level, Kansas City will have to wait and hope that Ware can get healthy and take over.

Los Angeles Chargers – Keenan Allen (WR)

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When healthy, Allen is a dominant receiver. Problem is, he has difficulties staying healthy. This situation reminds me a lot of Sammy Watkins and his former team, the Buffalo Bills. Watkins was easily their top receiver when he was healthy, but he was rarely healthy – so Buffalo sent him to the other team in L.A., the Rams. If Allen can stay healthy, he will help quarterback Phillip Rivers out enormously. If he continues to struggle with injuries, he may find himself being traded for a position L.A. needs and some draft picks. This is a prove-it year for Allen. He doesn’t need to prove how well he can play (he’s already showed he can play well), he needs to show that he can stay healthy enough to play.

Oakland Raiders – Derek Carr (QB)

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Derek Carr was a strong candidate for NFL MVP last season until he suffered a broken leg on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of people who think Carr’s season was purely luck or a good system, so he has to prove that’s not the case. He also has to prove that he won’t play scared after breaking his leg and that it has fully healed. Oakland has really helped him out this summer too with their additions of tight end Jared Cook and running back Marshawn Lynch. With those new additions, what they had before, and the offensive line they have that is easily one of the best in the league, Carr should be set up very well to succeed – he just has to capitalize on the opportunity.

 

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the NFC West

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each NFC West team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Arizona Cardinals – Carson Palmer (QB)

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In years past, Carson Palmer would not be considered for this spot because he was a player who was expected to perform at a high level every time he touched the field. He was once considered an elite quarterback, but he is currently on the tail end of his career and one good hit could cause him to hang up his cleats. Looking at the Cardinals roster, they are pretty doomed if Palmer gets hurt or plays like a player who should be watching from home. Drew Stanton has been a career backup for a decade now, and has never won or been able to keep a starting job – not really the kind of guy you want running your offense. Arizona doesn’t many options on offense outside of superstar running back David Johnson (UNI Panther alum alert!) and aging receiver Larry Fitzgerald, so having a solid season from Carson Palmer could help out enormously.

Los Angeles Rams – Jared Goff (QB)

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Another quarterback who needs to perform this season? I suppose it is a quarterback league. Goff wasn’t really set up for success last year, but the Rams have put in some work to give him the tools needed to be successful. With Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Todd Gurley, Tavon Austin, and rookie receiver Cooper Kupp, Goff should have plenty of weapons to create scoring. Goff had a disappointing rookie year, but he can easily turn that around and possibly compete with Seattle for the division title in the future. However, if his transition from college to the NFL continues to be rough, he may end up with the “bust” label and the Rams would potentially try to move on from him.

San Francisco 49ers – C.J. Beathard (QB)

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Brian Hoyer was once a coveted backup underneath Tom Brady in New England, but now he is on his fifth team since leaving the Patriots in 2012. Hoyer has been rather disappointing and does not give the 49ers much to look forward to from their quarterback position. Beathard, on the other hand, was put in the best situation possible for him. Going into the draft, he was expected to be a late round selection but he ended up being taken by the 49ers in the third round. There were plenty of other teams that needed quarterbacks and could have possibly given him a chance to start, but all of those teams would have put more pressure on him. Had he gone to the Jets, he would have been expected to somehow fix the clustermess that has been the Jets QB situation ever since Mark Sanchez was actually decent. Had he gone to the Browns, it would have been expected and already expected that he would be a letdown and would be gone after a year. Had he gone to Pittsburgh to be Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent, he would have only had a year to learn the system before he was expected to guide an elite offense with no flaws or hiccups. Basically, you get the picture by now, he ended up on a team where he has little pressure to win and the fans are looking forward to having a drama-free quarterback. However, the reason he needs to perform is because the 49ers are grasping for anything to build a franchise around. If Beathard can be that guy, then the 49ers can start moving in some direction. If he can’t succeed, then maybe the 49ers will have to look to the defensive side to build back up – or draft a new quarterback (Wyoming’s Josh Allen will likely be an option since the 49ers will presumably have another high pick).

SIDENOTE: Josh Allen’s Wyoming Cowboys will be travelling to Iowa to play against Beathard’s former team, the Iowa Hawkeyes, on September 2nd this year as Allen kicks off his final year at Wyoming.

Seattle Seahawks – Shaquill Griffin (CB)

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The main concern with the Seahawks moving forward is the fact that their feared Legion of Boom is getting older. As a Packers fan, I was hoping we could snag Griffin to aid our defensive secondary that was porous last year. I’m not saying I have a full scouting report on him, but what I did see of him leading up to the draft and in game film looked good. I have a hunch that this guy could end up being the best corner from the 2017 draft class. If he can live up to that, the Legion of Boom should continue to give offensive coordinators for years. If he can’t transition to the professional level well, then Seattle better start looking for defensive backs soon – because the clock is ticking on their current defensive backs.

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the AFC South

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each AFC South team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Houston Texans – Deshaun Watson (QB)

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The Houston Texans won the division last year and picked up a playoff victory thanks to the Oakland Raiders playing without the younger brother of former Texans quarterback David Carr. The younger brother, Derek Carr, looked like an MVP candidate and had turned the Raiders into legitimate contenders to prevent the New England Patriots from making yet another Super Bowl appearance – however, his fibula was broken in a game against Indianapolis on Christmas Eve. With rookie quarterback Connor Cook taking over for Oakland, the Texans managed a 27-14 victory in the wildcard round. However, the Texans also had issues at quarterback. Their issue was that their starting quarterback had played pretty badly the whole year and wasn’t living up to his massive contract. Fast-forward to this year, Brock Osweiler (the aforementioned failure) has been shipped to Cleveland, and last year’s backup Tom Savage is competing with rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson for the starting job. Many reports have suggested that Savage will be the starter, but Watson was drafted too high to not be put in immediately if Savage struggles for more than one game. My best guess is Watson will be the starter before their bye week in week seven. Given the Texans success without a quality quarterback last year, they could easily be a playoff contender if Watson plays anywhere near the level he did at Clemson. However, if Watson and Savage struggle, the Texans could miss out on the playoffs as other teams get better – perhaps this is finally Jacksonville’s year to take over the AFC South?

Indianapolis Colts – Barkevious Mingo (OLB)

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Mingo was originally drafted #6 overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2013. He spent three years in Cleveland before playing for the New England Patriots last year. Now he joins the Colts as a player who has 16 NFL starts and has only started for more than three games in a season once (11 starts for the Browns in 2014). He has seven career sacks, but hasn’t recorded one since 2014. He has been responsible for a mere two takeaways in his career (a fumble recovery in 2014 and an interception in 2015). While all the signs so far point to him being a bust, it looks like he has been given a last chance. This one is pretty simple, if he can show the league why he was taken 6th overall in 2013 the Colts will enjoy the presence of a dynamic pass-rusher. If he continues to under-perform, his career is likely done and the Colts will continue to struggle to compete in the AFC South since the Texans are reigning champs, the Jaguars have been loading up with talent, and the Titans have also showed the ability to make a run at the division title.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Blake Bortles (QB)

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The Jacksonville Jaguars may have finally put together a team with a legitimate shot at being good. Their safety combo of Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson is more than solid. Combine that with emerging star corner Jalen Ramsey and free agent signing A.J. Bouye and the Jaguars have a really good secondary. Throw in defensive linemen Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler Jr., Calais Campbell, and Malik Jackson, as well as a trio of good linebackers (Myles Jack, Paul Posluszny, and Telvin Smith), and this Jaguars defense looks like the defense of a very competitive football team. This section could get longer than the Houston Texans section if I went into details about their offense, so here’s a brief summary; rookie running back Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon (RB), Chris Ivory (RB), ageless tight end Marcedes Lewis, and the Allen “Brothers” (Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson) plus rookie Dede Westbrook at receiver. The only thing missing from this being a decent offense is consistent quarterbacking. Bortles has had his moments where he has been amazing and his moments where he has been sub-par. If Bortles can recapture his 2015 season (35 touchdowns and a passer rating of 88.2), the Jaguars could contend for the AFC South division title. However, if he repeats his 2016 season (23 touchdowns and a passer rating of 78.8), the Jaguars will be primed to struggle yet again.

Tennessee Titans – Johnathan Cyprien (S)

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Cyprien is joining the Titans defensive secondary from their division rival the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last year, the secondary was an issue for the Titans, and they knew that. They added four defensive backs through the draft, including USC corner Adoree’ Jackson. This defensive secondary looks a little bit better on paper, and a big part of that is Cyprien, last year’s league-leader in tackles from the safety position. If Cyprien keeps on performing, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t, the Titans secondary will be far better than it was last year. If Cyprien struggles to fit in with his new team, the Titans will have to rely on rookies to make their secondary better – which is far from being the ideal situation.

The Resurrection in Cleveland #PlayoffBound

Since there isn’t really a Cleveland Browns bandwagon for me to jump on, I would like to build one. LeBron James may have brought glory to Cleveland in the NBA, and the Indians brought pride to Cleveland when they made it to the World Series last year (even though they blew a 3-1 lead over the Cubs), but the Cleveland Browns have brought nothing but shame and mockery for the past 15 plus years. It has been 15 years since Cleveland made it to the NFL playoffs, 28 years since they won their division, and 53 years since they won an NFL championship. While they certainly are not a championship-caliber team yet (especially with the Patriots and the Raiders in their conference), the Cleveland Browns are on the verge of breaking their decade and a half long playoff drought. I give them two years tops before Browns fans are watching football in January, and here is why:

The Offensive Line

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I have been expressing my love for this Cleveland offensive line since before finals week, and nobody believes me how good it is. I have stated that the Cleveland Browns have a top five offensive line, and I will stick by that statement until they prove me wrong. As of this past June, Pro Football Focus has joined in on rating the Browns offensive line as being elite. Offensive tackle Joe Thomas has long been regarded as one of the top players at his position. Offensive guard Joel Bitonio was also an elite guard the past couple years. This past off-season, the Browns added former Green Bay Packers center J.C. Tretter and former Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler to boost their offensive line. As a Packers fan, I strongly believe we made a mistake letting him leave – he should be a really solid center for the Browns line. Zeitler has been a solid guard since his rookie year (2012) when he started all sixteen games for the Bengals. The only position on this line that is still questionable is right tackle, but the Browns have plenty of viable options to toy around with at the position. The offensive line is so good that they will give their running backs big enough holes that even Trent Richardson *might* be able to find them, and any decent running back will be able to convert them into large chunks of yardage.

The Defensive Line

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Ignoring the obvious fact that #1 overall pick Myles Garrett is somewhat reminiscent of fellow Texas A&M alum Von Miller, the Browns defensive line looks almost as good as their offensive line. Also looking at their 2017 draft class, this defensive line features a player who I have said all along was a massive steal – and I was proven right in May. University of Florida defensive lineman Caleb Brantley fell all the way to the sixth round of the draft after being accused of knocking a woman out, and those charges were dismissed in three weeks after the Browns selected him. He had originally been projected as a first or second round talent, and the Browns got him in the sixth. Emmanuel Ogbah is a talented pass rusher who ran a 4.63 40-yard dash at the 2016 NFL Combine and recorded 5.5 sacks his first year in the league. Danny Shelton is a solid run-stuffer who has shown he can get after the quarterback at times. As talented of a defensive line that those four men could make, it is important to note that they have a combined three years of NFL experience – which means there is room for them to learn and become even better. Watch out for this defensive line, they are young, talented, and will be playing with a huge chip on their shoulders since the Browns only managed to win one game last year.

SIDENOTE: Just because of Kurt Warner and David Johnson, it is important to recognize any player from the University of Northern Iowa who is on a roster. Defensive lineman Karter Schult was recognized as the top defensive player in the Missouri Valley Conference and in the entire FCS last year, perhaps he will find a way to fit in in Cleveland.

The Defensive Backs

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Okay so maybe Joe Haden isn’t quite the defensive back he once was, but maybe he is. Even if he isn’t, the Browns suddenly have a loaded secondary. As a former citizen of Wyoming, I thought it was a mistake to let former University of Wyoming defensive back Tashaun Gipson walk after the 2015 season. While I believe Gipson could make this one of the top secondaries in the league, I don’t think the lack of his presence dooms them (but it would certainly help). What Cleveland does have though is another former Mountain West Conference defensive back in Boise State alum Jamar Taylor, a vicious back in Calvin Pryor III, a seasoned veteran in Jason McCourty, a promising young player in Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and arguably the most talented player from this year’s draft in Jabrill Peppers.

David Njoku

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Between Alabama tight end OJ Howard and Miami tight end David Njoku, this year’s draft featured two of the best tight end prospects since Rob Gronkowski himself. Njoku will add explosiveness to the offense, as well as a security blanket for whichever quarterback the Browns go with.

 

 

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the NFC South

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each NFC South team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Atlanta Falcons – Austin Hooper (TE)

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The reigning NFC Champs have a solid roster currently. Their offense is explosive. Their defense is relentless. Their special teams players are also solid. There really isn’t any position on this team that needs someone to step up that hasn’t already – except perhaps at tight end. Hooper is a young tight end who had a mediocre season last year but has plenty of potential. If he can bring his game up a level this coming season, quarterback Matt Ryan should see his completion percentage increase a little while throwing to his tight end for a few yards. On the other hand, if Hooper continues to be mediocre, the Falcons offense will be forced to rely on their receivers and running backs to sustain their excellent passing offense – which is still manageable, just not the most ideal situation.

Carolina Panthers – Matt Kalil (OT)

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Matt Kalil leaves behind his disastrous career with the Minnesota Vikings to join his brother Ryan as the first brothers to play on the same offensive line since the New Orleans Saints had Joel and Jay Hilgenberg 24 years ago. Matt was a nightmare for Minnesota Vikings fans, he allowed his quarterback to be terrorized by pass-rushers since his rookie year in 2012. Going into his first season in the NFL, he was supposed to become an elite left tackle. However, that’s not how his career has gone thus far. With Matt signing a contract with the Panthers, this could very well be his last chance to prove he is not a draft bust. If he can play to his potential, he could still become an elite left tackle and help the Panthers return to their 2015 glory. If he fails, the Panthers will need to continue figuring out their offensive line and Matt’s career will likely come to an end.

New Orleans Saints – Willie Snead IV (WR)

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It would have also been easy to stick Adrian Peterson in this spot as this could be one of his last chances to prove he can still play in the NFL. However, with the three-headed monster the Saints have at running back (Peterson, Mark Ingram, and Alvin Kamara), it made more sense to look at who will need to step up to replace Brandin Cooks – who was shipped to New England in a trade this past off-season. As a newly-retired fantasy football player, I found myself continuously being disappointed with Snead. He would demonstrate great ability as an NFL wide receiver at times, and then have several weeks of minuscule fantasy scoring. Quarterback Drew Brees is not getting any younger, and for him to continue playing well he will need a guy like Snead to step up and the number two guy to emerging star receiver Michael Thomas. If Snead can become a consistently good receiver, the Saints offense will likely continue to fly high. If he can’t be consistent, opponents will be able to double-team fellow receiver Michael Thomas on every play – thus making the Saints passing attack rather weak.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Jeremy McNichols (RB)

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With fellow Buccaneers running back, and Boise State alumnus, Doug Martin struggling with injuries and personal issues leading to a suspension, Tampa Bay will likely want to find a new answer in their backfield if they need to let Martin go. Right now, the backfield is crowded behind Martin. Of all of the options Tampa Bay has at running back, I believe their best option is to go with the rookie out of Boise State, Jeremy McNichols. If he can perform well, Doug Martin becomes a luxury that they can decide to keep or get rid of to save some money. Should McNichols not perform well, the Buccaneers may have to keep Martin and take a shot at another running back in next year’s draft, because the other running backs on their roster are decent but nowhere near good enough to be a starter.

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the AFC East

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each AFC East team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Buffalo Bills – Micah Hyde (DB)

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With the departure of cornerback Stephon Gilmore to their division rival, the New England Patriots, the Bills will need players to step up and keep their secondary solid. Hyde is coming from the Green Bay Packers where he had 13 takeaways and 227 tackles in the past four seasons. As a Packers fan, I thought it was a mistake that we let go one of our better defensive backs when our defensive secondary is struggling – this feels like it could be Casey Hayward to the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers 2.0. If Hyde can replicate or increase his stats from his time in Green Bay, it will soften the blow of losing Stephon Gilmore. However, if Hyde struggles to fit in, look for this Bills secondary to constantly be listed towards the bottom of the league in pass defense – the might even make Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins look like a top 5 quarterback both times they face them.

Miami Dolphins – Tony Lippett (DB)

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When you play in the same division as Tom Brady, having a good pass defense is an absolute must-have for a team. Miami does not have a very talented secondary, but they are very scrappy and can play with heart. With the self-proclaimed best corner in the league, Byron Maxwell, in the secondary, the Dolphins need someone who can ball out and cover up when Maxwell isn’t as good as advertised – and that’s where Lippett comes into play. He is a young player who is slowly developing into what could someday become a playmaker. If he continues to develop, the Dolphins will have a decent secondary – not anything to give Tom Brady nightmares, but it won’t be a cakewalk either. If he struggles, Miami doesn’t really have many other cornerbacks who look like they can step up, which could cause for major struggles in the pass defense.

New England Patriots – Joe Cardona (LS)

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This is a team that placed in the top ten of nearly every statistic last year, their quarterback is arguably the greatest to ever play, they have so many runningbacks that there’s no pressure on any one of them to perform, their wide receivers can be a children’s librarian one week and a star wide receiver the next week, and they just loaded up on even more incredible players by trading away draft picks. There is not really anything to point to on this Patriots team and say, “Yes, that needs to improve for them to get better.” They just pulled off the greatest comeback in the Super Bowl era to win yet another ring. As much as I, and any non-Patriot’s fan hate to admit it, this Patriots dynasty is one of the best ever and it’s going to take a lot for someone to end it – or just Tom Brady retiring. So yes, I’m just going to put down their long snapper and say that he just needs to keep doing his job well and the Patriots will still be dominant whether he keeps snapping the ball well or if he botches a snap here or there.

New York Jets – Morris Claiborne (DB)

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A secondary that is still struggling to find a replacement for Revis Island and a cornerback who used to be highly-touted but has thus far been a bust. Almost sounds like a movie in the making, or maybe an ESPN 30 for 30. Whatever sort of filmography this pairing could end up in, it still has a long ways before it even slightly resembles a happy ending. If Claiborne can show New York why he was so highly rated coming out of Louisiana State, the Jets have a promising future in their secondary with him, 2017 first round draft pick Jamal Adams from Ohio State, second round pick Marcus Maye from Florida, and one other cornerback who is likely not on the team yet. Should Claiborne fail, this could very well be his last year in the league – or at least the start of his last few years being passed around as a backup.

 

 

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the NFC East

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each NFC East team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Dallas Cowboys – Byron Jones (DB)

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Jones is a freakishly skilled athlete. He shattered the NFL Combine record for broad jump by eight inches. He ran the fastest 60-yard shuttle time at the NFL Combine. He had the second highest vertical jump at the NFL Combine (highest for a defensive back that year). He reportedly ran a 4.3 40 yard dash at his pro day. Despite all those numbers, he has still only been a good player. He needs to step up to the elite level this year to help out the Dallas Cowboys defensive secondary that was a weakness for them last season. If Jones can make the next step and become an elite defensive back, the Cowboys might find themselves playing for a shot at the Super Bowl. If he cannot make that next step, the Cowboys secondary might continue to struggle and be detrimental to the rest of a team that is very good.

New York Giants – Ereck Flowers (OT)

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Flowers has been a disaster in New York, and the entire left side of the line has suffered. Flowers never went home this off-season, he stayed in New York to work out and stay focused on becoming a better left tackle. If his hard work pays off, quarterback Eli Manning should have a career year with protection, Odell Beckham Jr., free agent signing Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, and rookie tight end Evan Engram. The flip-side is that if Flowers continues to be a liability and the Giants can’t find a quick replacement, Manning will continue to face so much pressure that it will slow down what could be a deadly passing attack.

Philadelphia Eagles – Alshon Jeffery (WR)

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Philadelphia has a young and talented quarterback in Carson Wentz. The only problem is, they don’t have a very good number one wide receiver for Wentz to rely on – although their tight end Zach Ertz is incredibly solid. After five seasons with the Chicago Bears, Jeffery signed with the Eagles. If Jeffery comes in and can put up good numbers with Wentz throwing to him, the Eagles should be able to challenge the Washington Redskins and New York Giants for the #2 spot in the division. However, if Jeffery does not do well, he would fall into the current mix of mediocre receivers that Wentz has and the Eagles would be a solid pick to finish dead last in the NFC East.

Washington Redskins – Terrelle Pryor Sr. (WR)

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The former Ohio State quarterback, who has since been converted to wide receiver, enjoyed a surprisingly good season with the Cleveland Browns last year. He will join up with second-year receiver Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, and tight ends Jordan Reed/Vernon Davis. This is the same receiving corp (minus playmaker DeSean Jackson) that torched the Green Bay Packers last season for what seemed like over 600 yards. Since Jackson left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this off-season, quarterback Kirk Cousins will need Pryor to step up and fill in so that their offense can continue to get better. If Pryor can match or better his performance with Cleveland last season, Washington will be a solid pick to finish second in their division – behind the Dallas Cowboys. Should Pryor struggle to fit in, Cousins will also likely have a down year – which would decrease Cousins’ value as a 2018 free agent and potentially put Washington in last place in their division.

 

 

 

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the AFC North

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each AFC North team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Baltimore Ravens – Jeremy Maclin (WR)

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As much as I’d love to put former UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey, who has now been converted to a wide receiver, in this spot – I force myself to stay realistic and realize he might not even make the roster. In reality, this spot more likely belongs to fellow wide receiver Jeremy Maclin who the Ravens signed from the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency this past off-season. Maclin was brought to KC in 2015 in order to remedy the Chiefs passing offense that did not see a wide receiver catch a single touchdown the entire 2014 season (which had not been done since the 1964 New York Giants – who played in an era where the Chicago Bears barely averaged over 200 passing yards per game and still led the league). Now Maclin will look to fill in for future Hall of Fame receiver Steve Smith Sr. who retired at the end of last season. Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco is not the elite quarterback he was once believed to be, so he will need a receiver like Maclin to have an amazing year to help him lead this Ravens offense so they can remain competitive enough that they don’t get surpassed by a young Cleveland Browns team in their division.

Cincinnati Bengals – Andrew Billings (DT)

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This offense seems to have been loaded up with weapons. While quarterback Andy Dalton has not always been consistent, he has been surrounded with A.J. Green, John Ross, Tyler Eifert, Joe Mixon/Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard, and Tyler Boyd. If Dalton can’t put up numbers with that supporting cast – his days as a starter are surely numbered. But the real question for the Bengals is defense. Their secondary is loaded with solid players, their linebacking corp is not garbage, and their line is okay. In order for this defense to jump from mediocre to respectable, they need to start up front. Defensive tackle Pat Sims has been around for a long time and is not getting any younger, but Andrew Billings is coming back from a knee injury. Billings was predicted to be a first round pick coming out of Baylor in 2016, but surprisingly fell to the fourth round and was predicted to be a huge steal for the Bengals. Unfortunately, Billings suffered a knee injury before the start of last season and has not played in the NFL yet. With this season being essentially his rookie year, he needs to show that he was paying attention and learning during his “redshirt” year. If Billings can live up to his pre-draft buzz of being the strongest player in college football for 2016, the Bengals should be solid. If he can’t do much, the Bengals will find themselves still searching for an answer to anchor their defensive line around.

Cleveland Browns – Jabrill Peppers (DB)

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In college, Peppers was a weapon on offense and defense for the Michigan Wolverines. In Cleveland, he will likely be more of a “gadget” player in their defensive secondary. This Cleveland Browns team has been the punchline of many jokes for about as long as I can remember paying attention to football – it’s time that Cleveland punches back. Cleveland has a really young and talent-laden roster. Once they get their quarterback situation figured out, the Cleveland Browns are playoff contenders every year for a good chunk of time. Peppers needs to continue to be dynamic at the next level though. If he can’t, Cleveland will find themselves still searching for more players. But if Peppers succeeds, this team is scary good. I don’t think I’ve made it clear yet how good I think this Cleveland team can become: I’m saying that they are good enough that, once Tom Brady retires (and Ben Roethlisberger will retire before that), the AFC will be run by the Las Vegas Raiders (since the move from Oakland will have already happened) and the Cleveland Browns. Here me now, believe me later, the future of the Cleveland Browns in the next five or so years looks very bright. #SuperBowlChamps2023

SIDENOTE: It was also tempting to put former UNI defensive end Karter Schult at this spot, but he faces a battle to stay on the roster for now – but he could develop into a starting defensive lineman eventually.

Pittsburgh Steelers – T.J. Watt (LB)

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It was so tempting to put former UNI linebacker L.J. Fort at this spot (I grew up half an hour from the UNI campus – so naturally they are my favorite FCS school), but his best bet is to be the second inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier. While Fort has competition to earn a starting spot, Watt now is primed to start now that Pittsburgh legend James Harrison has retired. There are certainly high expectations for Watt, as his older brother, J.J. Watt, is already a three-time defensive player of the year after just six NFL seasons (one of which he only played three games in due to injury). If Watt can give the Steelers a smooth transition from the Harrison era to the Watt era, things should still look good in Pittsburgh (until Roethlisberger retires) with Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort (?), and T.J. Watt at linebacker. However, should Watt be a bust, the Steelers defense will need to address their linebacking corp in order to remain dominant for years to come.