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.

 

 

Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the NFC 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 NFC North team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Chicago Bears – Mitchell Trubisky (QB)

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Remember how I started off this article saying every team has their star players? Yeah, forget about that when talking about the current Chicago Bears. Aside from Jeremy Langford and Jordan Howard, the Chicago Bears do not have anything that really resembles NFL talent. After Chicago gave up everything to get Trubisky in the 2017 NFL Draft, they absolutely need him to play well in order to justify the move. Basically, Trubisky has to play well in order for the Bears to avoid replacing the Cleveland Browns as the worst team in the NFL.

Detroit Lions – T.J. Lang (OT)

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After coming over from the Green Bay Packers, Lang will have to show he can still be a top-tier offensive lineman in order for the Lions to build off of this past year’s playoff appearance. Lang was solid for the Packers since he became a full-time starter in 2011. If he can help the Detroit Lions solidify their offensive line, they will be able to make a strong push for another playoff appearance.

Green Bay Packers – Damarious Randall (CB)

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As a Green Bay Packers fan, it was rough watching our team at times last year. We had practice squad players making appearances in our defensive secondary and a defensive tackle getting some playing time on the offensive line during the playoffs. Granted, the Packers still knocked off the red-hot Dallas Cowboys and made it to the NFC Championship Game, but they could have gone farther had it not been for the aforementioned reasons. Because of this, those two position groups need the most work heading into the 2017 season. The addition of cornerback Kevin King in the NFL Draft will help give the secondary more pieces. This will take some of the pressure off of cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Thanks to the reduction of pressure, Randall will be able to step up as the number one corner and greatly increase his interceptions – which gives the ball back to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers elite offense, thus leading to more points, wins, and a deeper playoff run (perhaps even ending with a Super Bowl ring).

Minnesota Vikings – Dalvin Cook (RB)

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Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, all eyes were on free agent signing Latavius Murray from the Oakland Raiders to be the new replacement for super star runningback Adrian Peterson who departed for the New Orleans Saints. However, the Vikings went out and drafted one of the most talented runningbacks in the NFL Draft – Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Inevitably, Murray and Cook will share carries at first, but Cook’s success may dictate the future of the Vikings’ rushing attack. From what I’ve seen so far, the Vikings should be in very good hands with Cook as the ball-carrier. However, if Cook fails, the Vikings’ offense will be forced to be come one-dimensional and rely on Sam Bradford completing short passes – which ended up not leading the Vikings to the playoffs last year despite a hot start to the season.

 

Making a Champion: The Potential Road of the Minnesota Timberwolves to the 2018 NBA Finals

After the Minnesota Timberwolves traded away Kris Dunn and Zach Lavine for Chicago all-star Jimmy Butler (as well as swapping first round picks in last night’s NBA Draft), many Minnesotans became even more excited about the Timberwolves future – and rightfully so. While Lavine was certainly a fun player to watch when he would throw down dunks, he didn’t quite have the “it” factor and wasn’t a complete enough player to be an all-star in the NBA. Butler, on the other hand, has been a three-time all-star and Olympic gold medalist with Team USA in Rio a year ago. However, the departure of Lavine has left a hole in the Timbwolves’ lineup – unless they are going to put up with another inconsistent season from point guard Ricky Rubio. So what if the T-Wolves paired Rubio with a couple future draft picks and a little cash? Perhaps they go and trade all that for an all-star player who is currently disgruntled with his current team – such as Paul George from the Indiana Pacers? While this is a lot of moving around, this is the NBA that has seen super-teams and mini-dynasties built in a single off-season. There’s plenty of reasons why that won’t happen in Minnesota, but there’s also an argument to be made for it potentially happening – and here is what that starting lineup could look like:

PG: Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, or Tyus Jones

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Chris Paul is a free agent this off-season. While many rumors potentially link him to the San Antonio Spurs, perhaps he will see the future Minnesota has and his chance to help elevate them to a perennial playoff team (and hopefully a contender) sooner rather than later. Paul has plenty of experience in the NBA, as well as plenty of experience with lobbing the ball up for Clippers-teammate Blake Griffin to slam down – something that he would be able to continue to do in Minnesota with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler.

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Derrick Rose is also a free agent this off-season. While injuries are definitely a concern when teams look at Rose, he has shown he is an all-star caliber player when he can stay healthy. Rose is a much riskier choice than Paul, but if Paul signs with the Spurs, Rose might be the Timberwolves best option in free agency.

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Tyus Jones is the best option currently on the roster. While Ricky Rubio has done more in his career thus far, Rubio’s inconsistency is painful to watch. Jones has shone in the rare occasions when given a chance. Plus, he is a Minnesota native, so that would help sell seats and draw positive media attention.

SG: Jimmy Butler

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Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota. This is a done deal. There’s no way Butler doesn’t start, he has come here to play. Welcome to the era of Butler-Wiggins-KAT (maybe PG13 too?) as the big three in the big north.

SF: Andrew Wiggins

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves

Already on the roster. Already a rising star. No questions here.

PF: Paul George or Blake Griffin

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Honestly, it will probably end up being someone already on the roster or some smaller-name free agent who plays here for the Timberwolves. However, the trade I mentioned at the start of this article would really transform the hopes of this Minnesota team from reasonable goals to actual expectations. Paul George has the size to potentially transition to PF instead of his usual SF position (or maybe Wiggins would play here and George would stay as the SF).

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Blake Griffin is a free agent this off-season. He has been mentioned as an option for the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, and maybe even the Oklahoma City Thunder – but if the Timberwolves can entice Chris Paul to come to Minnesota, perhaps Griffin would follow?

C: Karl-Anthony Towns

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As with the SF and SG positions, there is no question who the guy is. Towns is one of Minnesota’s big three and he is here to stay. The future looks bright for this young Minnesota team.

 

 

 

Tom Brady and the Cleveland Browns – Re-Drafting the 2000 NFL Draft

The 2000 NFL Draft will forever live in infamy as the draft that saw one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Tom Brady, get picked in the 6th round (199th overall). There’s no need to re-tell that story, as you will probably hear it any time you watch a broadcast of the New England Patriots for the next several years. However, Tom Brady wasn’t the only story to come out of this draft. Remember, this is the draft that gave the Chicago Bears Brian Urlacher, the Raiders took kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round and punter Shane Lechler in the fifth round (low-key the greatest special teams unit of at least the past two decades if not ever), and the Cleveland Browns yet again screwed up with their first round draft pick when they selected defensive end Courtney Brown over any of the aforementioned players or any one of these top ten re-drafted players (and several great players who didn’t even make the top ten of my re-draft):

#1 Overall: Tom Brady (QB) – Cleveland Browns

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Who cares if they were still hoping Tim Couch wouldn’t be as bad as he was? You re-draft and have the #1 overall pick, you take Tom Brady. No question. Cleveland would possess two of the greatest professional athletes of all time in LeBron James and Tom Brady. Cleveland would be the capitol of the sporting world – which sounds so weird since currently they have a 1-15 football team and the Cleveland Cavaliers were just blown out 4-1 in the NBA Finals. Tom Brady has one super bowl ring for each finger on his right hand (and the wedding ring that connects him to a supermodel wife on his left hand) to go with a pair of NFL MVP awards and more other awards than any trophy room would have room for. Just imagine if all that success had been in Cleveland.

#2 Overall: Brian Urlacher (LB) – Washington Redskins

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Yes, Washington’s original pick of Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington was a solid selection, but Brian Urlacher ended up having the better career. Urlacher was originally picked by the Chicago Bears with the 9th overall pick, but surely Washington would take the New Mexico linebacker at this spot if they had this re-do chance.

#3 Overall: Chad Clifton (OT) – Washington Redskins

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Yet again, Washington did not do a bad job with their original pick of Alabama offensive tackle Chris Samuels, but Chad Clifton had more career longevity and performed at a slightly higher level. Clifton was originally taken by the Green Bay Packers with the 44th overall pick in the NFL Draft, but I have a hunch that Washington might favor him over Samuels in a re-draft.

#4 Overall: Laveranues Coles (WR) – Cincinnati Bengals

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The Bengals tried Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick at this spot, but that selection ended up not panning out well. On the other hand, the New York Jets struck gold when they selected Florida State’s other wide receiver – Lavernues Coles – with the 78th overall pick in the NFL Draft. Coles actually did end up playing the final season of his NFL career with the Bengals, but I would imagine they would take him over Warrick if they had a chance to go back and fix their mistake.

#5 Overall: Jamal Lewis (HB) – Baltimore Ravens

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There is absolutely no reason to change this pick. Perhaps they would change it to Virginia running back Thomas Jones or Alabama running back Shaun Alexander, but the Ravens would be just fine sticking with the Tennessee running back – making him the second Tennessee player taken in this re-draft.

#6 Overall: John Abraham (DE) – Philadelphia Eagles

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Sure, an argument could potentially be made for the Philadelphia Eagles to stick with their original selection of Florida State defensive tackle Corey Simon, but not when South Carolina defensive end John Abraham is still available. Abraham terrorized quarterbacks through the 2014 NFL season – whereas Simon only played until 2007. Abraham was originally selected by the New York Jets with the 13th overall pick (their second of an NFL-record four first round picks), but it’s doubtful he would fall to the Jets in a re-draft.

#7 Overall: Shaun Alexander (HB) – Arizona Cardinals

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As with the #6 overall pick, this original pick was no failure – as Virginia running back Thomas Jones had a very productive NFL career and made a Pro Bowl. However, “productive” doesn’t even begin to describe Shaun Alexander’s career. He was originally picked 19th overall by the Seattle Seahawks, but the chances of an NFL All-Decade team of the 2000s player who led the league in yards twice (2001 and 2005) and touchdowns (2005) while also being the 2005 NFL MVP and still falling that far in the draft are not very likely.

#8 Overall: Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (DE) – Pittsburgh Steelers

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No disrespect to Plaxico Burress, the Steelers original pick, but the San Diego State defensive end who the Green Bay Packers with the 149th overall pick would provide the Steelers much more production. Gbaja-Biamila paired with defensive end Aaron Kampman to provide the Green Bay Packers with a pass rush that terrified quarterbacks. Gbaja-Biamila would definitely have given the Steel Curtain a boost.

#9 Overall: LaVar Arrington (LB) – Chicago Bears

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They really miss out on this one since Brian Urlacher got snatched up by the Washington Redskins with the second overall pick in this re-draft. However, Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington would not be a bad consolation prize – as he did make three Pro Bowls in his NFL career.

#10 Overall: Marc Bulger (QB) – Baltimore Ravens

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Had Baltimore gone with Bulger, perhaps the NFL would never have had to stoop the level of Trent Dilfer winning the Super Bowl. While Tom Brady is widely regarded as the biggest steal in draft history – Bulger was also a pretty good steal when he was taken by the New Orleans Saints with 168th overall pick. While the Saints waived Bulger after their training camp in 2000, and the Atlanta Falcons then released him from their practice squad before he wound up on the St. Louis Rams practice squad in the same year, Bulger went on to make a pair of Pro Bowls and start 95 career games. Perhaps Bulger could have actually got a Super Bowl ring his rookie year with Ravens – instead of ending up on the Ravens roster for just the 2010 season as a back-up.

 

 

 

Minnesota All-Time NFL Roster (Offense)

No, this is not a list of the greatest Minnesota Vikings of all time or the greatest University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. This is straight up Minnesota boys. These are the players who were born in Minnesota and went on to the National Football League. Minnesota has not ever really been known as a home of football legends, but this starting offensive lineup is not terrible:

QB – Todd Bouman (Ruthton)

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Okay, so maybe their options at quarterback were limited to Bouman or St. Paul native Chris Weinke, but teams can be successful without an elite quarterback – but it is incredibly rare. I took Bouman over Weinke simply because he lasted longer and was always a decent backup QB. Bouman was an All-State athlete for┬áRussell-Tyler-Ruthton High School in football, basketball, and track & field. He initially went to South Dakota State University before transferring to St. Cloud State were he finished as an honorable mention all-conference player and signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent.

HB – Marion Barber (Plymouth)

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Marion Barber III graduated from Wayzata High School in Plymouth, MN and then decided to stay local and go to the University of Minnesota. In high school, Barber stood out in football, baseball, and track – he even intercepted now-Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer three times in football. In college, he and fellow running back Laurence Maroney teamed up to be the first running back duo to rush for 1,000 yards apiece in back-to-back seasons.

FB – Zach Zenner (Eagan)

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Is it really cheating to play a halfback at the fullback position? Maybe so, but technically Zenner has been listed at both positions on the Detroit Lions roster and he was ranked as the second best fullback in the NFL Draft. Zenner was unstoppable during his time at Eagan High School. He finished his senior year as a finalist for Minnesota’s ‘Mr. Football’ Award in 2009 – he also led their baseball team to a state tournament appearance, batted .537 his senior year, and also led the team in stolen bases as a senior.

WR1 – Larry Fitzgerald (Minneapolis)

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Before he became a superstar NFL wide receiver, Fitzgerald played for the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, MN. He left the state to play for the University of Pittsburgh and was then drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. There have been many rumors potentially connecting Fitzgerald to the Minnesota Vikings as a possibility for him to finish his career in his home state.

WR2 – Eric Decker (Cold Spring)

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Eric Decker played for Rocori High School in Cold Spring, MN. He made all-conference in football, basketball, and baseball. Following his successful high school career, Decker opted to stay in-state and attend the University of Minnesota, where he also played baseball – and was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Decker’s football career was shaky at the University of Minnesota due to injuries, but when he was healthy he was ranked the #3 wide receiver in his draft class – behind only Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant and Georgia’s A.J. Green.

WR3 – Adam Thielen (Detroit Lakes)

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Thielen went to high school at Detroit Lakes High School and excelled in football, basketball, and golf. His senior year, he was an all-state football player and was on the Detroit Lakes golf team that won the 2007 state championship. Thielen decided to stay in Minnesota for his collegiate career, choosing Minnesota State University in Mankato as his college. During his sophomore through senior years at MSU-Mankato, Thielen became the top receiver for the Mavericks and ended his college career playing in the NCAA Division II Semi-Finals. Thielen signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent and has seemingly caught on as one of their top receivers as of the 2016 NFL season.

TE – Dave Casper (Bemidji)

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While Casper was born in Bemidji, his family moved to Illinois before he started high school. His family then moved to Wisconsin before his senior year of football, where his team demolished their opponents to the tune of 363-0 over the course of their eight game season in 1969. After playing for Notre Dame in college, Casper was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and became known as “the Ghost.” Casper became infamously known for his role in the “Holy Roller” play in which he kicked a fumble into the endzone so that he could recover it for the touchdown that beat the San Diego Chargers. In 1983, he started the season with the New Orleans Saints, before they shipped him and quarterback Archie Manning to the Minnesota Vikings in a trade. Casper would not stay home in Minnesota, and he re-signed with the Raiders for his final NFL season.

LT – John Fina (Minneapolis)

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Fina was born in Rochester before his family moved from Minnesota to Arizona. He went on to attend Arizona State University and was then drafted by Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 1992 NFL Draft. During his NFL career, he started in 131 games with the Bills and the Arizona Cardinals.

LG – Adam Goldberg (Edina)

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Goldberg, and Edina native, played on the offensive and defensive line for Edina High School and was selected to the second team all-state and all-metro teams. He went on to play for the University of Wyoming before signing with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent. In 2006, the Viking traded Goldberg to the St. Louis Rams where he finished his career. During his NFL career, he started in 64 games while playing both tackle and guard.

C – Matt Birk (St. Paul)

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Matt Birk is the anchor of this all-time Minnesota squad. Birk attended Cretin-Durham Hall High School in St. Paul and stood out in football, basketball, and track & field. He received all-state honors in both football and basketball in high school. After high school, he attended Harvard University and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the 6th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. He went on to be a six-time Pro Bowler and win the NFL’s ‘Walter Payton Man of the Year’ award in 2011 for his presence in the community as well as on the field. Birk got a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Birk is now the NFL’s director of football development and he is a strong advocate for the rights of the unborn.

RG – Dick Enderle (Breckenridge)

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Enderle played for his high school in Breckenridge before he decided to attend the University of Minnesota. After college, he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the 7th round of the 1969 NFL Draft. He went on to play for eight seasons in the NFL.

RT – Keith Fahnhorst (St. Cloud)

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Fahnhorst went to high school at St. Cloud Technical High School and was a member of their football team until he decided to attend the University of Minnesota. He was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1974 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, where he spent his whole NFL career. He started in 160 games and won two Super Bowl championships (XVI and XIX) with the 49ers – his younger brother was also on the San Francisco 49ers team when they won Super Bowl XIX.