The end of July brings forth the smell of fresh grass (or turf), practice jerseys, helmets, and a renewed sense of hope for 31 NFL franchises and their fans, and a persisting rash of confidence for the New England Patriots.
The foundation for the eventual Super Bowl LIV champion is being built in these hot summer days. The team in-line for the biggest turnaround this season is the San Francisco 49ers, who received welcoming news when franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was cleared for his first two practices over the weekend. After a promising 2017 campaign in which Garoppolo led the 49ers to five straight wins to end the year, Jimmy GQ suffered a torn ACL in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs last season. The injury dashed any hopes of a successful season in San Francisco, and now, the Niners hope Garoppolo can lead the franchise back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Considering Garoppolo is entering the second-year of a massive five-year, $137 million deal — the largest in NFL history at the the time — the pressure is on to make the postseason. Perhaps more pressure to succeed than any other passer in 2019. The 49ers even have an ‘escape’ clause in his deal that can be used this offseason. But behind Jimmy and offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco will exceed the hype by making it back to the playoffs, while simultaneously shocking the world via a run to the NFC West title over the Los Angeles Rams.
In Garoppolo and a bolstered defensive line, San Francisco is built like a successful modern day club in their ability to pass and rush the passer. Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in this past NFL draft, joins the newly-acquired Dee Ford (13 sacks in 2018) and the underrated DeForest Buckner to form a vaunted front. Coupled with the addition of Kwon Alexander to a previously-underwhelming linebacker core, and a dangly duo of 6-foot-3 cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, the Niners are set to surprise many on defense.
But the games will be won on offense under Garoppolo and a few new offensive pieces. Although the team missed out on the Odell Beckham Jr. trade sweepstakes, San Francisco has the NFL’s best tight end in George Kittle, giving them an A-level playmaker to build their pass-catching arsenal around. Marquise Goodwin returns as Garoppolo’s most reliable receiver, and Dante Pettis should be the starting ‘X’ receiver. But the team invested in two more potential starters in the draft in second-round pick Deebo Samuel and third-round choice Jalen Hurd.
Hurd (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) projects as both a ‘big slot’ receiver and hybrid tight end/H-back. He has excellent leaping ability and after-the-catch skills for a former college fullback (as a freshman at Tennessee). Shanahan has raved about the fiesta Hurd this offseason, and will scheme up creative ways to use him. Samuel (5-foot-10, 214 pounds) is more likely to have immediate success out of the two rookies. He’s a combination of a ‘Z’ and slot receiver capable of becoming Garoppolo’s second-best pass catcher as a rookie in Shanahan’s scheme. His stout, muscular frame, route-running and feel for the position make him one of the more intriguing young receivers in the game. He’ll fit right in under Shanahan’s scheme.
San Francisco’s backfield will have a new feel thanks to the addition of Tevin Coleman, a Shanahan product from the Falcons, as the team’s lead back who can contribute as both a lead rusher and a pass catcher. And additionally from Jerrick McKinnon, who will play his first snaps with the team this year after suffering a Torn ACL last offseason. McKinnon will nicely compliment Coleman as the team’s passing back who is capable of being the team’s feature back depending on the opponent. Then. of course, there’s Matt Brieda. The 49ers will mix and match with this group throughout the year.
In conclusion — San Francisco is immediately ready for a turnaround, but they’ll have to get through a tough NFC West, which may retake the title of the NFL’s toughest division this season, a title the group held from 2012 to 2015. But the Los Angles Rams are due for a slight dip after a catasprhic end to last year’s promising season, while Seattle is still re-tooling, despite having the ridiculously-good trio of Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. And then there’s Arizona. The Cardinals will be surprisingly feisty, but are a club whose success will be in the future.
Barring any unforeseen major injuries, the NFC West will finish like this:
San Francisco (11-5)
Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
The Rams will make the postseason as a wild card but the Seahawks will fall just short of football in January. They can thank the 49ers — a team primed to create havoc in 2019.
Quarterbacks under most pressure in 2019
To pull from earlier in the column — Jimmy Garoppolo is among the most quarterbacks under the most pressure this season. But who else is with him?
Kirk Cousins — Cousins had a disappointing 2018 campaign in which the Vikings missed the playoffs despite fielding one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. Additionally, the Vikings have arguably the best one-two punch at wide receiver in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Minnesota may be in need of a change if they fall short of the playoffs for the second year in a row with Cousins at the helm.
Jameis Winston — The former No. 1 overall pick enters his fifth season and has yet to evolve into a top-tier quarterback. In fact, Winston has been just bad for various stretches of the past few seasons. Will Bruce Arians bring the best out of Winston in the final year of his contract?
Marcus Mariota — The second overall pick after Winston in the same draft faces a similar situation this year. Also entering the last year of his contract, can Mariota lead the Titans to the postseason? Tennessee has invested in a bevy of receiving weapons to his arsenal these past two offseasons in 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis, scatback Dion Lewis, and now rookie A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries. The issue is the AFC South is the most complete division from top to bottom. All four teams have a shot at the division title, making Mariota’s road to success pretty difficult.
Derek Carr — The addition of Antonio Brown and the impending move to Las Vegas puts a sense of urgency into Carr’s ability to return to his 2016 form (or better) this season. One more subpar year and it will be Carr who the Raiders cut ties with, before head coach Jon Gruden.
Cam Newton — I differentiated these next two passers from the rest because their jobs are not yet in jeopardy to the point of the aforementioned passers. But still, these clubs are very much in a ‘win-now’ mode, and are counting on their All-Pro quarterbacks for success. Newton’s right shoulder status caused the Panthers to draft West Virginia product Will Grier in the third round this season. Newton seemingly looks good to go. He’ll need better protection from an offensive line that’s failed him over the past few seasons. In Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have one of the best young players in football, while the combo of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel at receiver should also take off this season. Add in a re-tooled defensive line and Carolina seems primed for success, but they’ll have to battle two of the most talented teams in football, the Saints and Falcons, to carve out a postseason path. Will Newton get the Panthers back to the playoffs?
Carson Wentz — Had Wentz not went down with a torn ACL in 2017 he would have undoubtedly won the NFL MVP award. But would he have led the Eagles to the Super Bowl like his former backup quarterback Nick Foles? That’s the question that Philadelphia and the rest of the NFL world will bring up of Wentz until be brings this talented team to a title. The Eagles enter this season on a very short list of the most complete teams in football. Only the Chargers, Bears and Saints are relatively close. Add in the return of speedy deep threat DeSean Jackson and feature back Jordan Howard to an arsenal of Alshon Jeffrey and Zach Ertz, and you have an offensive machine in the wings. Like Newton, Wentz’s job is not immediately in jeopardy, but a failure to beat out the Cowboys for the NFC East title would raise major questions in the city of brotherly love.
How will Patriots employ Michael Bennett?
Patriots fans can rest easy as the team’s prime offseason acquisition, defensive end Michael Bennett, arrived at training camp yesterday, flying in that morning from Hawaii.
“I didn’t retire,” Bennett told the media after practice. “I heard everybody say I retired. I was laughing at home.”
Bennett was all smiles after practice, but rest assured, he won’t be causing much laughing from his opponents this season, especially with the ways Bill Belichick and the staff must be scheming him to rush the passer.
Where might Bennett line up this season? Most likely, he’ll move all along the defensive line. Bennett has had success lined up in a ‘wide’ formation way outside the tackle, right along the tackle as a traditional defensive end, and as an interior rusher in clear pass rush situations.
The Patriots would love to employ Bennett as inside rusher on passing downs with sub Adam Butler, the team’s only other rusher who has shown consistent success up the middle. But New England is thin on the edge with Deatrich Wise Jr. and Rob Ninkovich-types John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich. They’re clearly lacking a true presence on the outside, meaning Bennett will surely see most of his snaps as a traditional edge rusher, while sometimes moving inward to rush the passer on say, a 3rd-and-8 scenario.
But what if the Patriots are scheming up a new base defense. They’ve re-added the athletic Jamie Collins to the fold at linebacker, and seemingly have big plans for Ja’Whaun Bentley as the ‘Thumper’ or big inside linebacker. Bentley wore the green dot reserved for coach-to-player communication for the defense on Thursday.
Add those two with full-time starters Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower and the Patriots have an influx of linebackers.
I spoke with Van Noy last month, and he stated that Belichick is trying new defenses with ‘two lineman’ suggesting all four linebackers may be involved in a defense with New England’s two best players among the defensive line, which would be defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and Bennett.
Having Guy and Bennett up front as interior lineman would give Belichick the option to put Van Noy and Hightower — who has slimmed down for what could be a new role — on the edge more often, while Bentley takes up the middle linebacker role, and Collins moves around like a rover. At times, all four linebackers could stand up right among the line, giving a confusing look for quarterbacks who would not know who will be rushing and who will be dropping back into coverage.
This ‘amoeba’ look fooled Patrick Mahomes and others last season.
In this case, Bennett could see more time as an interior player than initially thought. Bennett has also surprised as a somewhat of a stout run blocker throughout his career, meaning the run defense shouldn’t suffer on his end. In all, the Patriots are receiving one of the more complete defensive ends of the past two decades. Even though Bennett turns 34 in November, New England should see similar (or better) production from Bennett, as they did from Trey Flowers.