2018 NFL Mock Draft

derwin-james-fsu-football-freaks-list-2017.jpgThe lives of hundreds of young men are about to change as the 2018 NFL draft is less than a day away. Compared to past years, there is a lot of uncertainty at the top of the draft board. That means the first hour or two of Thursday’s first round could be quite memorable. Before I get onto my mock, I wanted to discuss the difference between this one and past years. The initial player mentioned is who I believe the team will select, while the “What I would do” section highlights who I’d be looking at if I was making the selection.

1. Cleveland Browns: Sam Darnold, QB USC: At this point, it seems the Browns pick has come down to either Darnold or Josh Allen. GM John Dorsey can really keep a secret, as by now we usually have a good indication on which way a team will go. While both Darnold and Allen come with huge upside, Darnold’s higher floor makes him a safer bet for a team and fanbase that has been clamoring for a franchise quarterback.

What I would do- The Browns have passed on too many quarterbacks to not select one here. In my opinion, the top quarterback in this class is Josh Rosen which would make him my pick.

2. New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, RB Penn State: The Giants don’t pick this high often, so it would make sense for them to go after the heir apparent to Eli Manning. Despite that, reports have come out suggesting the front office doesn’t feel the same way (although Darnold being available could change things). Barkley seems to be the apple of Dave Gettleman’s eye and his GM track record shows he isn’t afraid to select backs early. Quenton Nelson is also a player to watch here as the Giants offensive line is still a weakness.

What I would do- To me, this pick would either be spent on whoever I feel is the best available QB, or traded. The Giants could be competitive next year, so with Eli Manning being 37 it allows them a chance to jumpstart any potential rebuild. Trading down would depend on the offers coming through, but with multiple needs could be enticing. If the Browns select Darnold, my pick would be Rosen or vice versa.

3. New York Jets: Baker Mayfield, QB Oklahoma: The Jets (hopefully) didn’t trade all those picks to move up three slots and then not draft a quarterback. While Josh Rosen has gained momentum of late, Mayfield’s college production and persona could play very well among fans and  is hard to overlook. While unlikely, I’d also guess the Jets would strongly consider Darnold if he made it here.

What I would do- As much as I’d like to see a Josh Allen/Christian Hackenberg competition this training camp, Mayfield makes too much sense to pass up here.

4. Cleveland Browns: Bradley Chubb, EDGE North Carolina State: There are no shortage of directions the Browns can go here having now selected their franchise quarterback. Denzel Ward and Minkah Fitzpatrick could be considered, but the potential to add a prospect of Chubb’s caliber and line him up across from Myles Garrett could be too much to pass up.

What I would do- Forced to stay put, Chubb would be my pick here. If this was how the board played out however, I would strongly consider trading the pick with the Bills. In a scenario where they land two first round picks, the Browns would have the luxury of being able to address their secondary and add another edge rusher if they wanted.

5. Denver Broncos: Josh Allen, QB Wyoming: The Broncos just signed Case Keenum this offseason, but there’s a chance he’s viewed as more of a bridge option over the next year or two. While Quenton Nelson would make a ton of sense here, I’m not sure John Elway would be able to resist Allen’s physical tools. A plus about having Keenum is that in this scenario Allen will have time to learn and won’t be thrown into the fire immediately.

What I would do- With some win-now places in piece, I would take Nelson if I was sticking with the fifth pick. For the right offer, trading down (ideally with the Bills who are apparently high on Allen) could be awfully tough to pass up as it would allow the Broncos to land a few players who could contribute immediately.

6. Indianapolis Colts: Quenton Nelson, G Notre Dame: The Colts GM Chris Ballard has said there are eight or nine non-quarterbacks the team would be content taking. Considering two quarterback hungry teams are picking 11th and 12th, I doubt that’s a coincidence. While players such as Denzel Ward and Derwin James could be considered here, we’ve been talking about the Colts needing to upgrade their line for years. With Nelson (who some feel is the top prospect in the entire draft) still available, it would be tough to pass up.

What I would do- The Colts are in a no lose situation if this is how the board unfolds. They can either take one of the drafts best non-quarterbacks, or trade down a few spots and address a defense that has its share of holes. I would take Nelson here, but there’s a chance the Broncos stay put and take him. If he’s off the board, I would take Derwin James as pairing him with Malik Hooker could be a dangerous combo.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derwin James, S Florida State: Playing in a division against three premier quarterbacks, an improved secondary will be vital if the Buccaneers want to take the next step. While a cornerback such as Denzel Ward will be enticing, I think it will be tough to pass on James as he’d give them the luxury of a defensive chess piece that few teams have. The Buccaneers will likely address the running back position early in this draft, so Saquon Barkley would obviously be considered if he made it here.

What I would do- Arguably the best prospect available and playing an area of need, James makes too much sense if he makes it here.  In the event James isn’t on the board, I would select Denzel Ward.

8. Chicago Bears: Denzel Ward, CB Ohio State: If Quenton Nelson did land here, the Bears would likely be ecstatic. However, they still sit in a good spot even with him off the board. Having drafted Mitchell Trubisky last year, there is no need for quarterback and now the Dolphins, Bills, and Cardinals with pick 15 could be interested in a trade. Since it might be early for one of the remaining edge rushers, Ward makes sense if the Bears stay put. No team can have enough good cornerbacks, and between Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and now Kirk Cousins, those divisional games will be decided through the air.

What I would do- In an ideal world, I’d trade with the Cardinals by giving up this and another pick while receiving number 15 (which I would use on Harold Landry) and their 2019 first.  Given that the Bears aren’t extremely stable at tackle, I would take Mike McGlinchey to give Trubisky some protection.

9. San Francisco 49ers: Roquan Smith, LB Georgia: This current scenario works out very well for the 49ers as three players they would potentially target (Smith, Tremaine Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick) are all available. While the secondary is something that will be addressed, the 49ers now have a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them with Reuben Foster’s legal issues. At this point, Smith is arguably the best prospect available and should contribute immediately.

What I would do- Some would argue Edmunds over Smith citing that Edmunds has higher upside. My take is that if what we’ve seen of Smith is his floor, he’ll be a darn good pro which makes him my selection here.

10. Oakland Raiders: Mike McGlinchey, T Notre Dame: Usually early on in the draft process it’s all but certain there will be one or two tackles going in the top ten. McGlinchey has been viewed by many as the top tackle, but is only starting to gain top ten buzz. How it will work is to be determined, but Jon Gruden has been building through the trenches this offseason. With plenty of uncertainty at right tackle, and Donald Penn getting older, McGlinchey makes sense here. The Raiders have holes in the secondary, so Ward, Fitzpatrick and Josh Jackson could be considered.

What I would do- If available, I would take Roquan Smith in a heartbeat here. However with him off the board, that changes things. Despite really liking Tremaine Edmunds as a prospect,  the current options at right tackle and money committed to Derek Carr would make McGlinchey my pick if he made it here. Edmunds would be my pick if those two were off the board.

11. Miami Dolphins: Josh Rosen, QB UCLA: The Dolphins could have to trade up to land Rosen, but in this scenario he falls to them. They have more pressing issues than quarterback, but Ryan Tannehill is coming off a torn ACL and isn’t Adam Gase’s guy. Assuming they don’t trade up or Rosen doesn’t make it here, I would assume the Dolphins take either Smith or Edmunds if available.

What I would do- I mentioned the idea of the Dolphins  trading up, but if they stay put the decision for me would come down to Tremaine Edmunds or Maurice Hurst. If Hurst checks out medically, he would be my pick as he has the potential to be a disruptive interior presence against the pass and run at the next level.

12. Buffalo Bills: Tremaine Edmunds, LB Virginia Tech: The Bills very well could try and trade up as they have the two first rounders to potentially make it work. In this scenario however, it would depend how high they are on Lamar Jackson as he would still be available. Edmunds makes for a nice consolation prize as he could be a focal point of their defense for years to come.

What I would do- Obviously if I was the Bills I’d try and trade up for a quarterback (although Josh Allen wouldn’t be my top target as it could be for them). If I failed in that endeavor, Edmunds would be a nice consolation prize.

13. Washington Redskins: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Alabama: A common player I’ve seen linked to the Redskins is Vita Vea, but with packages like nickel and dime being called more often, I’m not sure how much emphasis there is on nose tackles. The Redskins can use some secondary help however, and they have two appealing choices here. Josh Jackson could fill in well lining up across Josh Norman, but Fitzpatrick’s versatility could be appealing.

What I would do- At this time in the NFL, you can never have enough cornerbacks. After trading Kendall Fuller in the deal for Alex Smith, that’s a position to address. I’m more confident in Jackson’s ability to stick at corner so he would be my selection here.

14. Green Bay Packers: Josh Jackson, CB Iowa: The early run on quarterbacks bodes well for the Packers, who can now choose to address their secondary or add an edge rusher if they were in the market for one. Right now the Packers don’t have much in the way of proven options at cornerback in a division where teams will be passing early and often. While players like Harold Landry or Marcus Davenport might be considered, Jackson makes plenty of sense with this selection.

What I would do- While Jackson is a very talented cornerback prospect, the Packers do have a need at linebacker in their scheme. Harold Landry is a player who some teams may view as a potential outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and showed plenty of pass rushing promise. He would be my selection here.

15. Arizona Cardinals: Lamar Jackson, QB Louisville: While the Cardinals signed Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon this offseason, the long-term solution is not on the roster. Trading up is an option, but in this scenario the multi-dimensional Jackson lands in their laps. While there are other pressing needs like cornerback or offensive tackle, it’s hard to pass up on a quarterback with Jackson’s upside.

What I would do- The Cardinals are sort of in no man’s land in the NFC West. The Rams and 49ers are going all out to improve and the Seahawks still project to be competitive. That said, they’ll need to find a quarterback eventually. If they don’t trade up for one, then Jackson should be the pick. On top of that,  landing in a spot where he will be without immediate pressure could bode well.

16. Baltimore Ravens: Harold Landry, EDGE Boston College: Considering Ozzie Newsome’s love for players from his alma mater and the Ravens receiver woes, Calvin Ridley would make a ton of sense here. Instead, I’m guessing the Ravens (who are also a candidate for Lamar Jackson) decide to address the defensive side of the ball. Aside from Terrell Suggs, the Ravens don’t have much in terms of proven playmakers off the edge. Landry would certainly bring that. Others that could be considered here are Marcus Davenport and if we want to go with an Alabama prospect, Rashaan Evans.

What I would do- If Lamar Jackson was available, he would be my pick. But if this was how Thursday night unfolded, Landry has shown too much as a pass rusher to not take here.

17. Los Angeles Chargers: Vita Vea, NT Washington: Without any glaring holes, the Chargers are a team in a good spot to trade up if they were searching for Philip Rivers’ heir apparent.  However, without a great option at tackle here, I have them going Vea who could help out on the interior. Da’Ron Payne could draw interest as an interior presence as well, and linebacker is another position the team may look to address.

What I would do- While I mentioned nose tackles might not have the same value they once did, allowing nearly five yards per rushing attempt is far from ideal. If available, I would take Maurice Hurst here as he has shown he can defend the run and would add interior pass rushing to pair with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edge. Vea would be my backup plan if Hurst wasn’t available.

18. Seattle Seahawks: Isaiah Wynn G  Georgia: For years now we have been talking about the Seahawks offensive line struggles, without it being  addressed. Wynn would give the Seahawks the push they’ve been looking for on the interior. If the right player is there, cornerback is a position that could be addressed as well.

What I would do- Considering the Seahawks don’t have another pick until the fourth round, I would try my hardest to trade the pick. Ideally, they’d be able to get a later first and then a day two pick to go with it. Wynn would make sense keep the pick.

19. Dallas Cowboys: Leighton Vander Esch, LB Boise State: With no receivers off the board, it will certainly be tempting for Jerry Jones to draft one here. By his standards, he has shown more restraint from making rash decisions so maybe times are changing in Dallas. Vander Esch is a player who has received plenty of buzz lately and the Cowboys have a need at  linebacker and are linked to him.  This could all be a smokescreen to have a team trade up, but Vander Esch (who is still relatively inexperienced) might be seen as a long term heir apparent to Sean Lee.

What I would do- While receiver is a need for the Cowboys, I would wait to address that in day two. Maurice Hurst would be my pick if available as the Cowboys have a need on the defensive interior. However, Vander Esch is a player who could help immediately, and potentially serve as a future focal point of the defense so if Hurst is off the board I’d take him here.

20. Detroit Lions: Maurice Hurst, DI Michigan: The Lions under GM Bob Quinn, have had positional points of emphasis in the offseason. Considering their inability to get pressure on quarterbacks, the defensive line would make sense this draft. While some teams might be scared by the heart condition flagged at the combine, Hurst can bring exactly what the Lions need. His ability to stop the run and pressure the quarterback from the interior would be a huge shot in the arm for the Lions defense. Others to keep in mind here would be Harold Landry, Taven Bryan and Marcus Davenport (whose defensive line coach at UTSA now works with the Lions) if available.

What I would do- From a pure talent standpoint, Hurst is likely the best prospect available if this is how the board unfolds. Him being a potential building block on the line which is a position of need is just a plus. If he isn’t available, I would select Taven Bryan who improved each year in college and could play multiple roles on the defensive line.

21. Cincinnati Bengals: Frank Ragnow, C Arkansas: Here we have another example of where one of the top players available would also fit a need. Ragnow has generated plenty of buzz lately, and the Bengals currently have a big hole at center. With interior lineman starting to be paid more, it will make more sense to take them earlier in the draft so Ragnow could be off the board by now. If a quarterback fell, the Bengals should at least entertain the thought of drafting them as well.

What I would do- If Ragnow is here, the pick makes too much sense to pass up on him. In the event he’s not available, I would select Iowa center James Daniels.

22. Buffalo Bills: Calvin Ridley, WR Alabama: The Bills would obviously hope to trade up and get a quarterback, but regardless of who that is they’ll need weapons. Ridley isn’t the consensus top wideout in this class, but he is a first round caliber talent. Other receivers such as D.J. Moore, and Courtland Sutton could be considered here. If not, the Bills might also consider a lineman like Isaiah Wynn if they were in play.

What I would do- Receiver is obviously a need for the Bills, but I’m not sure how drastic a difference there is between someone like Ridley here or some talents who will be available in the second. Mason Rudolph gets consideration here, but I would take UTEP guard Will Hernandez with this pick.

23. New England Patriots: Rashaan Evans, LB Alabama: Knowing the Patriots, trading down is always in play but they do have a few needs. One of those areas is linebacker where they are in need of some more athleticism in the middle of their defense. Evans has all the physical tools but still has room to develop. If there’s any team who has built up the goodwill with a player like that, it would be the Patriots.

What I would do- With two lower first round picks I’m not sure if the ammo is there, but if Josh Rosen started falling I’d try trading up for him. Assuming  that’s not a possibility, I’d look into seeing if anything could be done for Lamar Jackson.  If forced to stay put, I would select Jaire Alexander.

24. Carolina Panthers: D.J. Moore, WR Maryland: The Panthers have a few different ways they could go here, and many would be to the benefit of Cam Newton. Moore would give Newton another weapon on the outside that he desperately needs, while offensive line could also be a possibility. If a player like Frank Ragnow is available, he could be extremely tempting for the Panthers given that he can play both guard and center. In this scenario, Ragnow is off the board meaning Moore is the pick. An edge rusher such as Marcus Davenport might be in the mix as well.

What I would do- Since Cam Newton has come into the league, it seems the lack of protection he has is a topic of discussion. I would try and jump the Bengals (the Seahawks at 18 would work) to try and land Ragnow. If unable to trade up for Ragnow, I’d take Marcus Davenport and let him learn from a future Hall of Famer in Julius Peppers.

25. Tennessee Titans: Marcus Davenport, EDGE UTSA: While Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are still effective, they’ll be entering their tenth and ninth NFL seasons respectively. Davenport fits well with that time table. A raw prospect, Davenport can be used as a situational pass rusher at first, while gradually seeing his role expand. This is a pick that can pay off in the short term with a chance of a huge return in the future for the Titans. Other edge rushers such as Sam Hubbard (and his ties to Mike Vrabel) could be considered, while a linebacker such as Rashaan Evans could make sense as well.

What I would do- Davenport would be my pick here if he was available, but Will Hernandez (assuming he’s still on the board) makes it a very tough decision. Rashaan Evans would be my pick if both of those players are off the board.

26. Atlanta Falcons: Taven Bryan, DI Florida: Bryan is a player who continuously progressed through his college career and could be gone well before this point. Despite that, he fits a nice value and fills a need for the Falcons who need an interior defensive line presence after Dontari Poe’s departure.

What I would do- Bryan would be my pick here as the fit/value seems too much to pass up. If he was off the board, I would take another interior defensive lineman in Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne.

27. New Orleans Saints: James Daniels, C Iowa: In terms of what they could add, the Saints are in pretty good shape. That’s what makes this a very appealing year if they wanted to add a young quarterback such as Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph to learn under Drew Brees. With Max Unger on the back nine of his career, Daniels is a prospect receiving some buzz of late that mesh well with what’s a younger Saints offensive line. If any of the linebackers such as Leighton Vander Esch I’d assume they’ll be considered as well.

What I would do- Daniels makes sense for the Saints here, but my first priority would be trying to trade up for Lamar Jackson depending on the price. With Brees at the end of his career, they have to win now so I’d give him another target. Calvin Ridley would be my pick here if he was still available, but the upside of South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert is enticing.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Justin Reid, S Stanford: The Steelers could use an edge rusher, so someone like Sam Hubbard might be in play here. However, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert had an intriguing quote about the safety position which is one of need. Reid has the traits Colbert mentioned, so the Steelers could see those attributes and feel they’re too much to pass on. Other scenarios for them that could be in play would be Jaire Alexander if available as while they don’t have a pressing need at corner, you can never have enough. Mason Rudolph could also be considered with this selection as the team still looks for Ben Roethlisberger’s heir apparent.

What I would do- Considering the lack of production they’ve had from the edge over the years, I would go with Sam Hubbard here. If someone tried trading up for Rudolph or Alexander (assuming both are available), I would not be opposed to taking calls.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars: Will Hernandez, G UTEP: Whether it’s out of ego or stubbornness, we as humans can double down on bad decisions. Offensively, the Jaguars are essentially forced to double down on their decision to spend top five picks on Blake Bortles and Leonard Fournette. Paying huge money for Andrew Norwell makes sense when you want Fournette to be the offensive centerpiece, but there will be eight in the box until Bortles gives defenses a reason to change. In a move that would clear paths for Fournette and protect Bortles, I think the Jaguars will be very interested in the mauling Hernandez.

What I would do- The worst thing about the Jaguars handling of the quarterback position last year wasn’t Bortles winning the job, it’s that they never even bothered to bring in viable competition. That would change as I add Mason Rudolph to the fold.

30. Minnesota Vikings: Jaire Alexander, CB Louisville: The Vikings have a dominant defense, but outside of Xavier Rhodes, they could have benefitted from more production out of their corners. Alexander would be an ideal option here, as the skills he showed in college could lead to him being picked much higher. Considering that the offensive line could be the Vikings Achilles heel, it would make sense to address it with this pick if Alexander isn’t available. UCLA tackle Kolton Miller has been mentioned in the first round discussion due to his size and athleticism, but more questions surround him than other tackle prospects. Connor Williams from Texas is another tackle that could be in play with this pick.

What I would do- I’m assuming Alexander doesn’t make it here, but if he does to me the pick is a no-brainer. If not, I would take Connor Williams to help a shaky offensive line.

31. New England Patriots: Mason Rudolph, QB Oklahoma State:  I’m not convinced the Patriots take Rudolph, but I do think he ends up in the first round. The Patriots had Rudolph in for a visit, so there could be some interest. If  they do keep the pick and go in a different direction, a cornerback would be a really interesting selection here.

What I would do- As mentioned earlier, my main goal would be to try and trade up for Josh Rosen if he started falling. Assuming that’s unlikely, I would take Rashaan Evans if he was available here (as I’d taken a corner in Alexander earlier) or see if someone wanted to trade for Rudolph.

32. Philadelphia Eagles: Billy Price, G/C Ohio State: If Rudolph is still available, this could be a nice spot for the Eagles to trade if a team wants to have his fifth year option. Staying put, Price would make sense considering he has experience playing all three interior offensive line positions and the Eagles could improve at guard. The Eagles could also consider adding another perimeter weapon such as Courtland Sutton if he was available.

What I would do- Assuming Rudolph is gone and I can’t trade out, offensive line would be my pick here. Considering Jason Peters is 36 and coming off a torn ACL, I would take Connor Williams if he was available. Williams could become Peters’ eventual replacement, and by taking him here the Eagles would insure the fifth year option at a coveted position.

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2018 Draft Rankings: Wide Receiver

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Michigan State vs AlabamaSince the incredibly deep 2014 draft, the results we’ve seen from receivers entering the league have been interesting to say the least. Of first round receivers the past three years, Amari Cooper is the only one who was established a track record of being productive. Others have either struggled staying healthy, getting on the field, or finding a role that best utilizes them (as Nelson Agholor did this past year). Despite that, we have seen a lot of production from receivers taken after the first round in that span.

Just last year, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp  were both day two picks as rookie became  major contributors on potent offenses. In 2016 Michael Thomas was a second round pick and has already established himself as a number one receiver for the Saints, while the Vikings spent a fifth rounder on Stefon Diggs in 2015. Essentially, while it appears teams aren’t extremely high on this year’s receiver prospects, there will be guys who are big contributors at the NFL level. Now here is the fun part of trying to figure out who they’ll be.

1. Calvin Ridley, Alabama: The biggest shame about Ridley’s college career is we didn’t get to see him shine in a pass-oriented offense. For a college receiver, Ridley is very refined as a route runner but questions do arise about his age as he’s 23 despite declaring as a junior. Aside from that, Ridley plays extremely fast and can win at all levels of the field where he displays natural hands.

Despite being able to pluck balls out of the air, Pro Football Focus (PFF) charted Ridley as having dropped 9.3% of the catchable passes thrown his way at Alabama. That is a cause for concern, and for some his slender build will be as well. Even with his physique, not many wideouts in this class can separate from corners like Ridley and at the end of the day that’s what matters. In recent years, first round receivers haven’t been able to make much of an impact in year one, but Ridley’s route running and ability to take the top off defenses should help him buck that trend.

2. D.J. Moore, Maryland: Due to inconsistent quarterback play at Maryland, Moore may not be a player you heard much about during his time there. In terms of his potential at the next level though, he has plenty to like. Checking in at 6’0″ 210, Moore has a nice combination of size and speed and could likely play on the outside or slot at the next level. Due to Maryland’s quarterback issues, PFF had Moore as being targeted on a whopping 36 percent of the routes he ran this past season.

He responded well to the additional volume with the highest catch rate of his collegiate career. Moore is very slippery with the ball in his hands and has the ability to win vertically along with over the middle of the field.  Moore did drop nearly ten percent of his catchable targets during his time at Maryland, so that is something he’ll need to improve on.

While it could have been due to constant change, there were instances in games I saw where Moore didn’t seem to be on the same page as his quarterbacks. Assuming he can work on those attributes at the next level and expand his usage in the slot, there’s plenty of reason to believe Moore could be a big contributor and be a better pro than college player.

3. Anthony Miller, Memphis: Miller isn’t a player I’ve seen a ton of national buzz for, but the ability is there for him to be a huge contributor at the next level. While he’s an older prospect, Miller showed during his collegiate career he can win both as an outside receiver and in the slot. A former walk-on at Memphis, Miller can win vertically with his ball tracking ability and on shorter routes where he can make defenders miss. Despite checking in 5″11″ 190, Miller also performed very well on contested throws which per PFF, led to six of his touchdowns.

The biggest area of concern for me regarding Miller is that in the past two years he has dropped nearly ten percent of his catchable targets, and also has five career fumbles. Receivers have shown us in the past that those skills can be improved at the next level. Some have risen a concern that Miller is quicker than fast, but if true that could just mean he profiles more as a slot receiver. Likely to go during day two, it wouldn’t be surprising if Miller from day one has a big role in an offense.

4. Courtland Sutton, SMU: Despite receivers continuing to get bigger/faster/stronger, Sutton at 6’3″ 218 is the only “bigger receiver” to crack my top ten this year. For his size though, he moves very well  and proved it in combine agility drills. Sutton displayed at SMU that he’s willing to go over the middle while also plucking passes at their highest point. He also plays with physicality as there are times Sutton hauls in a pass like a rebound. While his agility times at the combine impressed, many seem to be wondering if that quickness translates to the field.

Sutton’s large catch radius at times can make up for him not creating much separation. At the least, the potential is there for him to be a very good possession receiver who is targeted frequently in the red-zone. If he is as quick as the combine drills showed and continues working on his route running, it would not surprise if Sutton emerges somewhere as a number one receiving option.

5. James Washington, Oklahoma State: Despite running a 4.54 forty at the combine, Washington had a knack for making plays vertically averaging over 20 yards a catch his senior year. Some had questions if Washington could beat press coverage as he didn’t see much of it in the Big 12, but he responded very well to that challenge in the Senior Bowl. Washington showed he can build up speed through his routes which at times led to him getting open on posts or go patterns. While he wasn’t targeted from there often, Washington also showed ability in the slot this past season as well.

The biggest knock for some on Washington will be that he played in the wide open Big 12 where he saw plenty of favorable matchups. While he may already have the ability, Washington wasn’t asked to run a full route tree at Oklahoma State, so that could be an adjustment that takes time for plenty of young receivers. If he’s drafted to be a vertical threat, the deep accuracy of Washington’s NFL quarterback likely will play a role on his impact. The potential to have a bigger role is there, so for developmental purposes it will be very interesting to see where he lands.

6. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M: A highly touted recruit out of high school, Kirk had a productive three years at Texas A&M and could emerge as a nice offensive chess piece at the next level. As a receiver, Kirk did his best work in the slot as per PFF, that’s where 891 of his 919 yards came from in 2017. With a compact build of 5’10” 200 and the ability to make defenders miss, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kirk in the right system is able to contribute in ways similar to Golden Tate. Like Tate, he also has displayed that elusiveness in the return game.

Kirk was hardly used as an outside receiver this past season, so it’s unknown if he’d be able to make an impact in that regard. Like others, Kirk might also be more quick than fast but that could be a better fit when he’s already projected as a slot receiver. Ultimately, how Kirk fares as a pro will come down to the schemes he lands in. If a team knows how to utilize his strengths, Kirk could potentially contribute early on. However if a team insists on lining him up outside, that move might not be beneficial for either party.

7. Michael Gallup, Colorado State: After starting at a junior college, Gallup played two years at Colorado State and hit the ground running. He became one of the most productive receivers in college football and showed he can win at various levels of the field. Gallup possesses good size at 6’1″ 205 and can go up and high point passes but also can create after the catch. At the line of scrimmage, Gallup isn’t afraid to get physical with defensive backs either. PFF pointed out that no college receiver was targeted more when facing press coverage than Gallup and those throws resulted in 8.8 yards per attempt.

Despite all that production, Gallup still has room to grow as a player and like all the rookies learn the finer nuances of the position. In a receiver class where there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the top prospects, don’t be surprised if Gallup’s selected earlier than you might expect.

8. D.J. Chark, LSU: Despite little quarterback production, few schools have churned out wideouts like LSU. Chark is next in line and he might be the wideout who has most benefited from the draft process. After a big Senior Bowl game, Chark checked in at 6’3″ 199 at the combine and ran a 4.34 forty. That has him gaining a lot of buzz with the draft quickly approaching. An intriguing size/speed threat, Chark at LSU primarily showed what he can do vertically.

The ability is there to pluck contested throws and adjusted to poorly thrown balls and Chark per PFF had just five drops in his college career. As a route runner he is still raw, and it will need refinement if Chark is counted on to become a more all around threat. Despite the burning speed he didn’t make defenders miss after the catch often as much as you’d expect. With the right coaching, Chark could emerge as a very good all around receiver. But at the least he will be bringing big play ability to the table.

9. Antonio Callaway, Florida: On pure talent alone, Callaway is likely one of the top two or three wideouts in this class. When running routes, Callaway picks up speed quickly and has the ability to create separation against various coverages. While he can make plays vertically, Callaway due to his ability to make opponents miss could be a huge factor on slants or crossing routes.  With his speed, all it could take is one missed tackle to setup a long touchdown. At Florida, Callaway was also a dynamic return man as well.

There were times were Callaway had some mental lapses catching the ball, but his biggest concerns come off the field. During his time at Florida he underwent a sexual assault trial and had to sit out the 2017 season due to a credit card fraud scheme that involved other teammates. For those reasons, Callaway might not even be on some teams’ boards. However if a team is willing to take a day three flier on him and has the right environment in place, Callaway could pay off in a big way.

10. DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State: In today’s NFL, teams starting three receivers has become increasingly common. That’s good news for Hamilton who was very difficult to stop in the slot last season. Per PFF, Hamilton’s 845 yards from the slot in 2017 were eighth among all receivers on the year. While he doesn’t have the quick area burst of your typical slot receiver, Hamilton won with his advanced route running. That resulted in a large amount of his catches this past year going for first downs.

Hamilton also does a good job of tracking passes in the air and it allows him to go up and make contested catches. While he did show improvement in 2017, Hamilton did have some issues with drops at Penn State. Hopefully that is an aspect of his game he can continue to work on. With slot receivers starting to be paid accordingly (see Jarvis Landry’s latest deal), a team who selects Hamilton will have a player who figures to be an early contributor at a low cost.

2018 class grade: C+

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2018 Draft Rankings: Running Back

23allamerican-web-master768The 2017 draft certainly had the makings to be a special class of running backs, and their impact was made immediately. Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara who were both selected in the third round, helped take their teams to new heights. It will be hard for Leonard Fournette to live up to the billing of the fourth overall pick, but the Jaguars seem pleased with his rookie year. That isn’t even accounting for the all-purpose threat of Christian McCaffrey and guys like Dalvin Cook or Joe Mixon whose were limited or had their rookie season cut short due to injury.

While this crop of running backs isn’t as strong, there is certainly plenty of talent to go around. What will continue to be interesting is how teams evaluate the position. The draft is a means for teams to be able to acquire cheap talent, and drafting a running back in the early first round instantly makes him one of the highest paid at the position. Considering the types of players we’ve seen go in the second or third rounds over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising if at least a few backs selected in that range this draft outperform their draft position early on.

1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State: It seems almost yearly we have a guy that’s labeled a “generational” back or the best prospect at the position since Adrian Peterson. That’s up for opinion, but Barkley has the well-rounded game and ridiculous athleticism to be the top prospect in this class. With home run hitting speed and the ability to make defenders miss, he’s a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. Despite those skills, Barkley has a compact build and will be able to handle 20-25 carries when needed.  On top of that, Barkley was a very productive receiver during his time at Penn State.

Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Barkley averaged 1.9 yards per route run in 2017 which is fantastic for a back. In this era that has emphasized running backs as receivers (Barkley also lined up in the slot on occassion as well) and safer throws, that could make him even more valuable. While it can be considered nitpicking, my main concern is on occasion Barkley would try to make a huge play by bouncing runs outside instead of just taking the yards given to him. That is something the team who drafts him will likely want to address that in the offseason. While I’m personally not a fan of taking running backs in the first round, the various ways Barkley can impact an offense will make it hard for teams to pass on him.

2. Derrius Guice, LSU: Like Leonard Fournette who he split carries with at LSU, you have to go back and watch Guice as a sophomore to see what he is truly capable of. Guice (along with Fournette) was hurt the majority of his junior year so the burst he displayed in 2016 wouldn’t be the same. Aside from formerly being college teammates, there are a lot of differences between Guice and last year’s fourth overall pick.

While not a physical freak like Fournette, he runs extremely angry and still has ideal size for the position. Guice is a patient runner and when he finds a seam, he has the ability to make a defense pay. While LSU didn’t feature him in the passing game, Guice showed some upside as a pass catcher so it will be interesting to see how his NFL team utilizes in that regard.

3. Ronald Jones, USC: In what was a monster junior season, Jones displayed the talents that could make a team extremely happy come draft day. The first thing that stood out to me about Jones was that he accelerated quickly to his top speed and paired that with nice vision and the ability to make defenders miss. Jones was hurt during the combine, so his forty time there was uninspiring which could be why there hasn’t been a ton of hype surrounding him in recent months.

Despite being a shiftier back, USC rarely used Jones as a receiver. Assuming he doesn’t have inconsistent hands, you’d have to assume his NFL team will use him more frequently in that regard. On top of that, Jones was also willing to stand in on pass protection downs which could add some value. Even if it’s in a role where he splits touches with another back, Jones could be an immediate impact player at the next level.

4. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State: Penny flashed when behind Donnel Pumphrey at San Diego State, but when Pumphrey moved on, Penny emerged in a big way. He ran for over 2,200 yards in 2017 and showed big play ability with the ability to run between the tackles. One thing that’s for certain with Penny is he can make defenders miss. Between his strength and vision, Penny per PFF forced over 80 missed tackles on running plays this past season, tops among draft eligible backs.

While he ran a 4.46 at the combine, some still seem to have questions regarding Penny’s big play breaking ability at the next level. Penny had some struggles in pass protection while in college and that could limit his snaps initially. Despite not being utilized much as a pass catcher in college, Penny did show some upside in that regard dropping just one of his 24 targets last season. Assuming he works on pass protection early and often with his NFL team, Penny has the ability to contribute in a big way early in his NFL career.

5. Nick Chubb, Georgia: Chubb is one of the most prolific running backs that has ever come through Georgia which is really saying something. He burst onto the national scene almost immediately, but Chubb suffered a gruesome leg injury that prematurely ended his sophomore year. That injury prevented Chubb in 2016 from running with his previous explosion, but fortunately he was able to boost his stock this past season.

Chubb in 2017 per PFF forced 56 missed tackles and averaged nearly four yards per carry after initial contact.  This could be due to his low center of gravity as he runs with power and can cutback when needed. Aside from the injury related issues (his quickness and burst have improved since 2016, but may never fully return), Chubb was never really utilized as a receiver at Georgia. Granted, a lot of that could be due to sharing a backfield with Sony Michel but it might lead to him being labeled a two-down back. If Chubb does show he can contribute in the passing game and continues working towards his pre-injury form, he could prove to be an excellent return on investment.

6. Sony Michel, Georgia: In a copycat league, plenty of teams will be searching for “the next Alvin Kamara” and some analysts think that it could be Michel. The big play ability was certainly on display as Michel averaged a ridiculous eight yards a carry this past season. Michel runs decisively and while he can make defenders miss with cuts, the strength is there to run through arm tackles as well.

Michel was used more as a receiver than Nick Chubb at Georgia, but it wasn’t a role he was featured in. The team that drafts him will almost certainly want to utilize Michel there as along with receiving ability, he has shown well as a pass blocker when called upon as well. Michel will likely be used initially in a running back tandem like he was at Georgia, but the potential is there for him to be a lead back when called upon.

7. Mark Walton, Miami (FL): An ankle injury that limited his junior season to four games may lead some to forget about Walton. What he showed before the injury was the type of versatile game that teams are now coveting. Walton is a compact back who can run between the tackles or bounce it outside for a big gain. In his first two seasons, Walton was also used pretty frequently as a receiver which is an advantage over some other backs in this class.

Due to his size/weight, some teams may instantly have Walton as a role player or third down back. He was also rarely asked to be a 20-25 carry a game guy, so durability concerns could arise from that. Despite concerns, his ability to force missed tackles and contribute to an offense in multiple ways could make him a great value in what’s a talented pool of running backs.

8. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn: In a very deep running back class, Johnson can be a polarizing prospect. Some have him much higher on their boards, while others are lower on his future. I have him more towards the middle, and think he’ll be able to contribute with the potential for more at the next level. At times when watching Johnson, he’ll show an ability to almost glide to a hole and runs with physicality to go along with it.

While he can force miss tackles, Johnson isn’t great at adding yards after initial contact. Part of that could be due to his build, which reminds me of Darren McFadden as he runs uptight but has a skinnier lower body. After seeing how McFadden’s career played out, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were durability concerns for Johnson in the pros. He did prove at Auburn he’s able to play all three downs, so the situation Johnson lands in could determine what kind of role he sees throughout his career.

9. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State: Every year there is a running back prospect who fits the “could be a better pro than college player” mold. This year the nominee is Ballage. Checking in at 6’1″ 227, Ballage turned heads running a 4.46 forty at the combine but he’s a versatile player who showcased some intriguing skills at Arizona State.

Ballage’s best asset might be his pass catching where he can catch out of the backfield or line up in the slot. Despite all that, he might be best served early on as a developmental prospect. For his size, Ballage was surprisingly easy to take down and didn’t make defenders miss often enough. In the middle to later parts of day three, he’s worth a team taking a flier on as the potential reward is a valuable offensive chess piece.

10. Boston Scott, Louisiana Tech: I mentioned Ballage being a potential offensive chess piece and that is similar to what Scott can bring to the table. After that however, the similarities end. While Ballage is a size/speed freak, Scott checks in at 5’6″ 203 but with 4.4 speed. Scott is difficult to bring down thanks to his low center of gravity as per PFF he forced 41 missed tackles on 179 carries in 2017. On top of that, Scott has experience in both pass protection and as a receiver.  While Scott hasn’t been brought up a ton in terms of his draft prospects, the skills are there for whoever decides to give him a chance.

2018 class grade: A

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2018 Draft Rankings: Quarterback

NCAA Football: UCLA at StanfordThe way teams approached quarterbacks in the 2017 draft is likely to be a similar approach to what we see in 2018. Last year three teams traded up in the first round to get their guys. In 2018, there are teams at the front of the draft with quarterback needs, but someone’s always willing to pay-up for cost controlled talent at the most important position in sports.

This draft will be fascinating as four quarterbacks could end up going in the top five picks alone. While the players may vary, it seems most analysts feel that at least two or three in this draft have franchise changing potential. That should make for an interesting market on developmental prospects as after the six quarterbacks, the talent level drops off pretty quickly.

 

1. Josh Rosen, UCLA: Dubbed as the “Rosen one” before even stepping on UCLA’s campus, Rosen leaves the school as the first round quarterback prospect he was projected to be. Having experience playing under center and strong footwork, some of Rosen’s strengths could lead to a team being confident in starting him quickly. Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Rosen in 2017 remained very accurate when pressured and was the highest graded quarterback in this class in terms of intermediate throws.

Some knocks on Rosen entering the draft are that he’s not extremely athletic, some head-scratching throws at times (sometimes can be almost too aggressive) and that he dealt with multiple injuries while at UCLA. Concerns exist about his arm strength as well, but Rosen is able to make the necessary throws and some notable quarterbacks have improved in that aspect when in the NFL. Concerns have been raised that due to Rosen’s personality and background he might be “too smart” for coaching.

Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with your quarterback who asks questions to get a better understanding of plays, schemes, etc. In terms of personality, Rosen reminds me of Aaron Rodgers who himself is a California guy; laid-back smart, sarcastic, and doesn’t appear to have the “rah rah” personality. If a team passes on Rosen due to preferring another quarterback, that’s perfectly fine. But passing on a quarterback prospect with a floor of a serviceable starter and the ceiling of a franchise guy just because he’s opinionated is a move that could come back and haunt teams.
2. Sam Darnold, USC: This time last year, Darnold was the consensus projected number one pick in 2018 to the point fans thought their favorite teams were tanking the offseason to land him. While he doesn’t enter as an Andrew Luck-esque prospect, Darnold is still likely going to be picked in the top two. The positives of Darnold are very strong. He is willing to take what defenses give him, and shows nice anticipation on some of his throws. The main concerns surrounding Darnold are his turnovers and throwing mechanics.

Considering that they weren’t a huge issue in 2016 and that one offseason can alter throwing mechanics (Carson Wentz this past offseason is an example) that isn’t a huge concern. Turnovers, on the other hand, were an issue. Per PFF, of the 38 draft class qualifiers, Darnold ranked 33rd in terms of avoiding turnover-worthy throws. Those throws don’t always result in interceptions, but odds are over time the numbers will even out. More than ever NFL teams are emphasizing ball protection so it will be interesting to see how a team works with Darnold in that aspect. The skills and traits are there for Darnold to be a franchise guy, but his ability to limit turnovers could determine if he reaches that ceiling.

3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: Sometimes we can fall victim to timing that is out of control. After Russell Wilson had immediate success in the NFL as a shorter quarterback with mobility, many were willing to overlook the flaws on and off the field of Johnny Manziel in 2014. Mayfield is next in line and due to an arrest in college to go along with some celebrations that rubbed people the wrong way, he’s viewed as a polarizing prospect.  Considering Mayfield could be the most efficient college quarterback we’ve seen to date, that shouldn’t be the case.

During his time at Oklahoma, Mayfield had video game like accuracy as per Pro Football Focus (PFF), his adjusted completion percentage which factors in drops, throwaways, batted passes, etc. was over 80 percent. While some question Mayfield’s arm strength, he was extremely accurate throwing the deep ball and throws outside the hash marks as well.

The biggest concerns regarding Mayfield outside of stature or character (which most have no way of knowing) would be how much the combo of Oklahoma’s offense going against Big 12 defenses helped him. Granted, there were instances where he like many young quarterbacks held onto the ball too long which could lead to challenges against NFL defenders. That is something coaches can work with, and the positive traits Mayfield showed could pay off in a huge way for the team willing to select him.

4. Lamar Jackson, Louisville: Despite never having played the position, there have been national analysts suggesting that Jackson should move to wide receiver. At this point and time, that shouldn’t be a debate as Jackson’s prolific college career in an offense with pro-style elements suggests he should be given the same chance as every other quarterback prospect. Jackson isn’t the cleanest thrower of the football, but if given the time to develop, he could pay off in a huge way.

Jackson saw an uptick in accuracy each season at Louisville and showed the velocity to make some of the big throws teams look for. On top of improving as a passer, Jackson might be the most electrifying running quarterback to enter the league since Michael Vick. In an era where run-pass options are becoming prevalent, the right team could really be able to play to Jackson’s strengths. He could be an ideal pick for a team with an older quarterback that can afford a year or two to groom a younger option.

5. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: With all the polarizing quarterbacks in the draft this year, Rudolph seems to get lost in the shuffle. Despite that, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was drafted in the late first round due to a team wanting to have his fifth year option. Along with the size teams covet,  Rudolph has shown he can win in the pocket and his completion percentage improved each of the past three years. He has been a very productive deep thrower in his collegiate career and per PFF was one of the more accurate quarterbacks in this class in terms of intermediate throws in 2017.

Like Mayfield, Rudolph feasted on Big 12 defenses and at Oklahoma State he had multiple NFL caliber wideouts at his disposal. Rudolph will need to become a more consistent passer. Sometimes even in the same drive or quarter his velocity or touch can come and go which could be a bigger issue at the next level. While that is a reason for concern, teams will likely overlook it as through team coaching or an offseason instructor, those concerns can be addressed.

6. Josh Allen, Wyoming: Allen might be the most fascinating quarterback prospect in years as he serves as a litmus test in the debate of “football guys” versus numbers. It’s evident why some would be infatuated with Allen. Checking in at 6’5″ 233 with big hands he certainly looks the part and has rare arm strength that can lead to some jaw-dropping throws. On top of that Allen at Wyoming was very effective when throwing on the run.

Where it gets interesting with Allen is his accuracy as he completed just over 56 percent of passes during his college career. The past two decades of quarterback data has shown that signal callers who are that inaccurate in college don’t suddenly improve against higher level defenses. Essentially if Allen is an above-average starter at the next level his performance would be contrary to nearly a quarter century worth of data that would’ve predicted otherwise.

While it’s a certainty he’ll be drafted early in the first round, a scenario where he’s drafted as a developmental option in day two or early day three would be more fitting given what Allen showed in college.

7. Kyle Lauletta, Richmond: Lauletta gained a lot of buzz from his Senior Bowl performance and in a draft where the top five to six quarterbacks could go rather quickly, his name could end up in the day two mix. Elected team captain at Richmond twice, Lauletta has the intangibles many teams like to see in a quarterback along with experience playing under center and in shotgun.  Over the past two years, he has also shown more accuracy as a passer and nice mechanics.

A common concern is Lauletta’s arm strength. That is something which can be improved on at the next level so how he develops in that regard will be interesting. Given his skills, Lauletta could be a very intriguing option in a West Coast offense that emphasizes timing. As a developmental quarterback, he offers upside and at the least should be able to stick around for a while as a backup.

8. Mike White, Western Kentucky: While losing his starting tackle and top wideout to the NFL didn’t help matters, White still showed the tools to be an interesting developmental quarterback. Armed to make all the NFL throws, how he responds when facing pressure will be a question to some teams after 2017.

While White is willing to throw under pressure, per PFF he was sacked on 23 percent of his dropbacks when pressured in 2017. Being sacked that often, some of those are likely to have been on White and not just on the line. Despite that, he showed enough over his past few seasons with Western Kentucky for a team to select him as a developmental prospect.

9. Riley Ferguson, Memphis: Ferguson initially started his college career at Tennessee, but went on to find success at Memphis. Paired with Anthony Miller, the two were one of the more dynamic quarterback/receiver duos in college football in that span. Ferguson has the ability to drive the ball and make some impressive throws, but there are times where he displays too much trust in his arm as he can make questionable decisions when pressured.

With the right coaching, that is an element that could be cut down on but hard to eliminate completely. Whether it’s late in the draft or as a free agent, Ferguson showed enough positive in his time at Memphis that he’d be worth a look for teams searching for a developmental option.

10. Luke Falk, Washington State: Having played in a Mike Leach offense, Falk has many of the same strengths and questions entering the next level as the protégés he follows. He has a quick release, is efficient in the short passing game and can get through reads quickly.  On the other hand, the offense was schemed so he rarely faced heavy pressure and Falk struggled with intermediate and deep throws.

Granted, Falk was dealing with injuries this past year but between the questions about  arm strength and if he’s a product of the system, teams may view him as a camp arm.

2018 class grade: B

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Super Bowl 52 Predictions

super-bowl-LII-patriots-eaglesAll the countless hours we’ve spent towards watching football these past few months has led up to this final game: Super Bowl 52. While the Patriots were huge favorites entering the season, the Eagles flew to new heights in 2017 and with the players/coaching staff in place, could be perennial contenders for the long haul. This game like every recent Super Bowl involving the Patriots, should be pretty even. If you want any chance to beat Tom Brady in these games, you’ll need to be able to get pressure on him using only four rushers. The Eagles have talent and plenty of depth along their line which could make things intriguing.With that, here is my x-factor for each team followed by my game prediction.

Eagles x-factor: Dannell Ellerbe, Linebacker: In Jordan Hicks, the Eagles had one of the premier inside linebackers in terms of pass coverage. Unfortunately, he tore his Achilles earlier this season. Then when his backup Joe Walker was placed on injured reserve, Ellerbe got the call. Ellerbe traditionally only plays in the base defense, but this is where the Patriots take advantage of matchups.

When playing against no huddle offenses, the Eagles are allowing almost three yards per pass attempt more than opposed to when teams huddle against their defense. The Patriots playing fast would make it harder for Ellerbe to get off the field which could create mismatches for the numerous pass catchers out of the backfield. There’s no doubt players like James White or Dion Lewis will be involved as receivers, but it will be interesting to see how much of that production comes with Ellerbe in the game.

Patriots x-factor: Defending the run pass option: When you think of the run pass option (RPO), the first thing that may come to mind are quarterbacks with rushing ability. Despite that, Nick Foles is a quarterback who has excelled when they’re incorporated into his offenses. They were used heavily in his magical 2013 season under Chip Kelly, and were used in the most recent NFC title game. Per Pro Football Focus, no team ran more RPOs in the regular season than the Eagles this year, while nobody faced it less than the Patriots. The RPO was also a heavy component of the Chiefs offense when they went in to beat the Patriots in week one.

Now here is where coaching plays a role. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have had two weeks to prepare the defense for these situations if called upon. The longer Super Bowl halftime could also play a role in the event the Eagles have success with it early. If any coaching staff is capable of making necessary adjustments, it’s the Patriots, so their performance against RPOs in the second half could very well determine this game.

Prediction: While the Eagles’ strong play on both the defensive and offensive line gives them the ability to beat the Patriots, I’m having a hard time picking against Brady and Belichick. What also worries me about the Eagles is their secondary has had some shaky moments, and Brady over the years has not only performed well against Jim Schwartz defenses, but has limited turnovers in the process. Assuming the Patriots do go with the up-tempo attack, I just think their arsenal of pass catchers could be too much to overcome. Eagles 21 Patriots (-5.5) 26

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Championship Sunday Predictions

usa_today_8829369.0Arguably the best day of the football season is here as we get to watch two games that showcase the two remaining teams each conference has to offer. Last year, the common trend was all of the teams who made it this far had top tier quarterback play. The starting quarterbacks were Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. This year, only Brady returns while the three other teams boast some of the  league’s premier defenses.

With the cost of high-end quarterback play, it will be interesting to see if more teams try the defense-oriented approach in what’s a copycat league. Even if attempted, I feel this season is more of an outlier in that department rather than the norm. Strong play at quarterback can at least consistently get you in the playoffs and as we’ve seen the past few weeks, anything can happen from that point.

Straight up: 3-1, Postseason: 5-3

Against the spread: 2-2, Postseason: 4-4

Jaguars 21 Patriots (-9.5) 26: When the Patriots shared a few days of practice time with the Jaguars in August before their preseason meeting, I’m pretty sure Bill Belichick and company didn’t see them as a potential playoff threat. A little over four months later, and the Jaguars are now the last obstacle the Patriots face to appear in yet another Super Bowl. As we all know, the Jaguars have an extremely talented defense that has the ability to pressure quarterbacks with just four pass rushers; a common trend of teams that have beaten Tom Brady in the postseason.

Brady apparently banged his right hand on a helmet while throwing in practice this week, but as of now that’s all a mystery. I’m expecting Brady when passing to spread the field with four or five receivers, see where his best matchup lies and take advantage. Plays that take only a few seconds to develop wouldn’t be surprising either as Brady and company through the air have shown they can neutralize top pass rushes with gains of six to eight yards consistently.

How the Jaguars decide to cover Rob Gronkowski will be a very interesting development. My guess is initially the Jaguars will start with Myles Jack who is a fantastic athlete at linebacker, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Jalen Ramsey is covering Gronkowski in a few instances. With the Jaguars slightly more vulnerable against the run, Dion Lewis and James White remain x-factors as players who could make a difference between the tackles or after the catch.

The Jaguar offense will likely come down to the health of Leonard Fournette and the ball security of Blake Bortles. To this point, Bortles in the postseason has been asked to be a hybrid of early year Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Essentially a quarterback who doesn’t make things harder on his defense by committing turnovers and keeping defenses honest with his running ability.  The longer Bortles can extend drives, the less time it gives Brady and the Patriots offensively which is where Fournette comes into play.

Fournette has had higher rushing totals in his rookie year, but last week prior to his injury was the best I felt he has looked as a pro. The offensive line also came up big in terms of opening lanes, but Fournette showed how quickly he can accelerate and was consistently picking up big yards on first down. T.J. Yeldon also came up big when called upon, so if Fournette’s ankle is clearly bothering him, Yeldon could see an expanded role. While I think this game has all the makings of an upset, I’m worried about if the Jaguars face an early deficit like the Titans did last week which leads me to taking the Pats.

Vikings 20 Eagles (+3.5) 16: Even though Sam Bradford isn’t starting at quarterback for the Vikings in this one, there’s a chance he’s to thank for this matchup being possible. If the Eagles hadn’t traded Bradford, 2017 would have likely been the first full year of the Carson Wentz era, rather than one where he emerged into an MVP candidate. Both of these teams have extremely talented defenses and this game has all the makings of a potential slugfest.

Case Keenum’s storybook season continued last week as his touchdown as time expired to Stefon Diggs made for one of the greatest moments in franchise history. The good news for Keenum is that the Eagles defensive backs have been inconsistent in coverage. With arguably the league’s premier receiver duo in Adam Thielen and Diggs, Keenum and the offense should be able to move the ball through the air if given time in the pocket. That’s a big if given the amount of talent along the Eagles’ defensive line, but even on shorter patterns both receivers can create after the catch.

Nick Foles did enough to win in Wentz’s absence last week, but it wasn’t necessarily pretty. Foles at least tried a few deeper attempts, but to no avail and against this Vikings defense, will have to hope they can connect on one of them. Even with Xavier Rhodes in coverage, Alshon Jeffery is a player who has had success against members of the Viking secondary dating back to his tenure with the Bears. A big game from Jeffery and a player such as Zach Ertz or Nelson Agholor would be a huge boost.

In what I predict to be a low scoring game, whoever establishes the run game in this one could be at a major advantage. Both of these defenses during the regular season allowed less than four yards an attempt on the ground, so it could come down to manufacturing touches for backs as well. The Vikings mainly use Latavius Murray in the ground game, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Jerick McKinnon was more involved if Murray failed to get anything going. McKinnon offers more as a receiver, so even short passes could be used to an extent. The Eagles could rely on Jay Ajayi or Corey Clement in similar ways to McKinnon as LeGarrette Blount is more of a two down player. This one should be close, but I’m siding with the Vikings on the road as even though the Eagles are a very well rounded team, I have more faith in Keenum than Foles.

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Divisional Round Predictions

mark-ingram-short-run-gain-saints-vs-vikings-101f2351d1e05f24.jpgThe Wildcard weekend ended up being a very interesting one with two of the lower seeds advancing, and all four of the underdogs covering with the spread. This divisional round features two matchups that occurred in the regular season which were both rather one sided. Both of those games happened early in the regular season, so all four of those teams have changed drastically since that time. With two games a piece on Saturday and Sunday, this should be another action packed weekend of playoff football.

Wild card weekend results:

Straight up: 2-2

Against the spread: 2-2

Falcons 20 Eagles (+3.5) 17: Before getting started, I wanted to make it clear this Eagles team is much better than they’ve been given credit for since Carson Wentz went down. Yes, Wentz really took the next step in his second season but this team still has fantastic offensive and defensive lines along with a supporting cast that Nick Foles will be able to work with.

One player in particular I think Foles will be targeting often in this one is Nelson Agholor. The third year wideout saw an increase in usage when Foles came under center and has a matchup against Brian Poole who per Pro Football Focus has allowing a passer rating of 111.4 when targeted in the slot.

In my opinion, the outcome of this game will be determined by what version of the Eagle secondary shows up. The group has been rather inconsistent at times this year, and a poor start against a Matt Ryan led offense while facing off with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu can make for a long day. This game features two of the more talented rosters in the league, but in what should be a close game, I’m going with what quarterback I trust more.

Titans 23 Patriots (-13.5) 34: A team that has been overlooked the majority of the season, the Titans saw last week that if you let Marcus Mariota operate out of the shotgun and give Derrick Henry the ball good things happen. Who knew? Now the Titans have the toughest task of them all and beating the Patriots on Saturday night might go down as one of the bigger playoff upsets in recent memory.

Good news for the Titans entering this one is that the Patriots have allowed 4.4 yards a carry on the ground in their past five games. One reason for the Chiefs collapse in the second half is that their defense simply couldn’t get off the field. 20 plus touches of Henry would help in establishing that. Mariota has been contributing in the running game, but if they’re in comeback mode again he’ll need to win with his arm. Odds are Delanie Walker and Eric Decker could both be in for big days in this one. Walker is Mariota’s safety valve, and should see plenty of volume. Decker who caught the game winning touchdown last week, will be in the slot against a secondary that has had trouble defending slot receivers of late.

While Tom Brady looks to get everyone involved, Rob Gronkowski could be in for a monster game. Prior to a concussion ending his day late in the first half, Travis Kelce was having his way with the Titan defense who will clearly have their hands full again. Assuming the Patriots take a pass first approach in this one, the return of Chris Hogan to go along with the likes of Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and three running backs who can all contribute as pass catchers could be too much to handle. Unless the Titans are able to firmly control the time of possession, I don’t believe they have the firepower to win in a shootout.

Jaguars 16 Steelers (-7.5) 23: Earlier this year, the Jaguars had a statement win in Pittsburgh which they controlled from the start. Part of that was due to the game plan the Steelers had coming in. At the time of the game, the Jaguar run defense was struggling, but Le’Veon Bell only saw 15 carries while Ben Roethlisberger ended up attempting 50 plus passes. Roethlisberger ended up throwing five interceptions (which is unlikely to happen again) and the Steelers were in a hole right away.

This game simply comes down to which Blake Bortles shows up. While the criticism of Bortles has been excessive the past year or so, another passing performance like he had last week is simply not going to cut it. In an ideal world for the Jaguars, Bortles will complete 60 plus percent of his passes for 200 or so yards without turnovers. That’s really all they need. This figures to be another high volume game for Leonard Fournette which could be favorable as the Steelers run defense has regressed since Ryan Shazier’s season ending injury. The bad news is that Fournette has averaged barely three yards a carry in his last eight games. Despite his size, Fournette so far has been best when in space, and it will be interesting to see if the Jaguars get him on the edge rather than sticking to between the tackles.

Aside from their matchup with the Jaguars earlier this year, the Steelers offense once again hit another level at home. This week, Bell could have a big day as a pass catcher against a Jaguar defense who has allowed backs to beat them through the air of late. Fortunately for the Steelers, Antonio Brown returns and his matchup against Jalen Ramsey will be a whole lot of fun to watch.

While Brown should be targeted frequently, how he feels in his first game back from injury could play a role in his snap count. JuJu Smith-Schuster played primarily in the slot when these teams last played, and it will be interesting how he fares against Aaron Colvin. Colvin surprisingly hasn’t been targeted much despite Ramsey and A.J. Bouye on the outside, but that could change this week. The Jaguars have the formula to win on the road multiple times in the playoffs, but after his past few performances it’s tough to trust Bortles in the event the Jaguars need to make their way back into the game.

Saints 20 Vikings (-4.5) 24: When these two teams met in week one, the Vikings won in a route and it appeared it would be another Saints season of high octane offense, but not much on the defensive side of the ball. A lot has changed the past few months as the defense is much improved, and the Saints duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara on the ground has been so good teams are now daring Drew Brees to beat them. For most teams, neither formula bodes well but they don’t have the defensive personnel of the Vikings.

The Viking defense is not only stout against the run, but they limit opposing backs from contributing as receivers which is a huge factor in this one. Michael Thomas also has a much more difficult matchup this week against Xavier Rhodes but should still see a half dozen targets thrown his way.  One player to watch in this one is Ted Ginn in matchup against Trae Waynes who despite improvements is a more vulnerable corner than Rhodes. Ginn’s deep speed could once again be a difference maker.

Case Keenum comes into this game on a role and the Vikings hope his feel good season continues. Of late, the Saints have shown some vulnerability to receivers on the perimeter which bodes well for both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen also lines up a decent amount in the slot which could create even more favorable matchups for him. If the Vikings get out to an early lead, the Saints could be in for a heavy dose of Latavius Murray, while Jerick McKinnon figures to see the majority of snaps if the Vikings needed another passing threat.  This game has the makings to be the best of the weekend, and in the end I can’t help but go with the home team whose defense is arguably the best in the league.

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