Patrick Mahomes -- Brent's top 100 players

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL players of 2019

After making my first ever Top 50 list last summer, I decided to expand the list to 100 players this summer, in honor of the NFL’s 100 year anniversary.

Before diving in, here are some other notes and facts about my list:

 

— My rule in creating this beast is what I like to call the 70/30 rule. 70 percent of my decision to place a player on my list is based off that player’s last two or three seasons of play, and 30 percent is based off their potential in 2019.

 

— The Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys come in with the most players (7). Following them are these teams — Chicago Bears (6), Los Angeles Chargers (6), Cleveland Browns (5), New Orleans Saints (5), Houston Texans (4) Jacksonville Jaguars (4) and New England Patriots (4)

 

— Although no rookies made my list, I did include 10 second-year players, showcasing the potential I see in the 2018 NFL Draft class.

 

— With the way the game is changing, there is a heavy importance on the middle of the field, specifically with pass-catchers who work primarily out of the slot, and the defensive backs who guard them between the hashes. There are eight players on my list that do most of their work — three on offense, five on defense — out of the slot.

 

— In addition to slot defenders, I have nine ‘hybrid’ defensive players on the list, showcasing the importance of versatility in defensive players that primarily focus on pass defense. For instance, Tyrann Mathieu plays as both a safety and a nickel cornerback, depending on the game plan. Derwin James, a safety who sometimes acts as a nickel cornerback or linebacker, is another example.

 

— Here are the number of players for each position, on the list:

Quarterback (15)

Running Back (8)

Wide Receiver (14)

Tight End (3)

Tackle (3)

Guard (3)

Center (1)

Defensive Tackle (8)

EDGE (16)

Linebacker (6)

Cornerback (15)

Safety (8)

 

— Here were the 25 players that nearly made my list, but were squeezed out in the evaluation process:

Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Danielle Hunter, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings

David Johnson, RB,  Arizona Cardinals

Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

C.J. Mosley, LB, New York Jets

Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons

David DeCastro, G, Pittsburgh Steelers

Dee Ford, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

Malik Hooker, S, Indianapolis Colts

Eric Weddle, S, Los Angeles Rams

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

Everson Griffen, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings

Micah Hyde, S, Buffalo Bills

Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons,

Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco 49ers

Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings

Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnatii Bengals

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Marcus Peters, CB, Los Angels Rams

Melvin Ingram, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Aqib Talib, CB, Los Angeles Rams

Josh Gordon, WR, New England Patriots

 

Without further ado, the list…

 

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100. Marlon Humphrey – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

After an offseason that saw Baltimore lose Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle, the Ravens will be looking for other defensive players for help. Humphrey has already exhibited shutdown cornerback tendencies. Expect him to make a big jump in Year 3.

99. Bradley Chubb – EDGE, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

Chubb’s rookie season was rather quiet for an edge rusher who notched 12 sacks. That’s scary. He can do much better, and he will. He’s an All-Pro caliber player in the making.

98. Gerald McCoy – DT, Carolina Panthers (Last year: NR)

He’s not the same player he once was, but he has some gas left in the tank. Tampa Bay released him and gave Ndamukong Suh his No. 93 jersey. That cleary irked him, seeing as McCoy joined their NFC South rival, the Panthers, over the Browns and Ravens. He’s a great addition for Carolina.

97. Roquan Smith – LB, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

From Dick Butkus to Brian Urlacher to Roquan Smith? Okay, those are lofty comparisons, but Smith has the talent to become one of the league’s defensive stalwarts for the next 10 to 12 seasons.

96. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 39)

He’ll soon enter the downside of his career, but he’s still one of the most underrated cover corners in the league.

95. Tarik Cohen – RB, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

The Bears’ confidence in Cohen can be traced to the team’s willingness to let Jordan Howard go to Philadelphia for just a fifth-round pick. Cohen is virtually a human joystick. He’s Darren Sproles if Sproles were a viable feature back. And that’s a compliment. He’s a unique weapon that makes things easier for Mitchell Trubisky.

94. Deion Jones – LB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

Deion Jones acts as Dan Quinn’s Kam Chancellor in the middle of the field on passing downs. He’s the prototype new-school linebacker who makes up for a lack of size in aggressiveness and speed. He’s a thumper that terrorizes pass catchers over the middle.

93. Earl Thomas– S, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 37)

Even after a devastating leg injury that hindered his ability to command the money he wanted, Thomas lands in Baltimore to fill the shoes once occupied by Ed Reed. In his prime, Thomas was second best free safety of all-time, behind only Reed. His prime is over, but he still has some left in the tank. With Eric Weddle now on the Rams, this was a very important offseason signing.

92. Denzel Ward – CB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

Many were confused with the Browns’ selection of Ward with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft, when players like Bradley Chubb were on the board. We should know by now not to question Browns GM John Dorsey’s draft decisions. Ward is a legit star. The Browns are loaded with both homegrown talent and new additions.

91. DeForest Buckner – DT, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

With both Nick Bosa and Dee Ford joining the 49ers’ as edge rushers, expect Buckner to feast in the interior, while attention is paid toward San Francisco’s shiny new toys along the defensive line.

90. Frank Clark – EDGE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

Clark is a massive addition to a pass rush that needed it after the defections of Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Clark is better than either of them at this point. The Chiefs’ defense still needs a lot of work, but they’ll be better this season. Clark will be a main reason.

89. Leighton Vander Esch – LB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

According to Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch was one of only four linebackers they scored above an 80 in both run defensive and pass coverage. And he was just a rookie. He’ll soar up this list in the coming years.

88. Byron Jones – CB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

Jones was an efficient free safety before switching back to cornerback in 2018. He crushed it as Dallas’ No. 1 cornerback last season, earning a Second-team All-Pro nod. That’s not an easy switch. The best athlete of the 2015 NFL Draft should only improve as he further re-introduces himself to his old position.

87. Michael Bennett – EDGE, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

Bennett quietly had a great one-year stint in Philadelphia last year with 9.5 sacks. He’ll turn 34 in November, but should still be one of the league’s most versatile defensive lineman under Bill Belichick’s defensive tutelage and schemes. Expect him to play on the edge for the majority of the time, while sometimes moving into the interior on clear pass-rushing situations. He’s a perfect fit for the Patriots.

86. Tyrann Mathieu – S, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

Just like former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was brought in to help solve Tom Brady, the Honey Badger was obtained with Julian Edelman in mind. Mathieu can act as both a safety and nickel cornerback. He’ll be moved around with the opposing team’s best offensive players in mind. He’s a gamer.

85. Cameron Heyward – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

The versatile Heyward has been Richard Seymour-like in the 2010’s decade, acting as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle in Pittsburgh’s defense. Although his best years are likely behind him, he’s still one of the league’s best players along the defensive front.

84. Marshall Yanda – OG, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

He’s 34 years old now, but he remains a model of consistency at one of the league’s grittiest positions.

83. Kevin Byard – S, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

Despite going from a First-team All-Pro nod to not even making the Pro Bowl in the last two seasons, many thought Byard was even better last season than he was the year before. Byard himself described why he’s such a valuable player in a piece by Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit. 

“I pride myself on being able to play deep, being able to come in the box and play good run defense, being able to blitz,” Byard says. “And having the versatility to play the slot and cover tight ends—that’s one thing you don’t see a lot of safeties do consistently.”

As he enters the final year of his rookie contract, Byard is in for a big pay day in 2020.

82. Baker Mayfield – QB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

As soon as he took the field in a comeback win over the Jets in primetime, Mayfield’s infectious attitude took over a team that desperately needed an infusion of leadership. He deserves to be on this list, and he’ll prove that in 2019. He will be much higher in my rankings next summer.

81. Trey Flowers – EDGE, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Matt Patricia was able to reunite with Trey Flowers in Detroit. Flowers was arguably the best player among the Patriots’ defensive front seven since the 2016 postseason. His ability to create havoc from both the edge and interior is something Patricia values in his defenses. He’s very Belicheckian. It goes without saying, but Flowers will be an excellent fit with the Lions

80. Deshaun Watson – QB, Houston Texans (Last year: NR)

In just two seasons, Watson has earned a 14-8 record as a starter, vaulted the Texans to AFC South champs in 2018, and has earned a 103.1 passer rating thus far. His 45-to-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio is also impressive. He’ll only get better. The Texans made the right choice in rolling with him as their franchise quarterback .

79. Jimmy Garoppolo – QB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Garropolo’s first season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback was cut short by an ACL tear in Week 3. Like the quarterback he’s so often compared to, former teammate Tom Brady, expect this injury to be a mere speed bump to his ascension among the league’s best quarterbacks. With the additions of Tevin Coleman, Jerrick McKinnon (tore his ACL last offseason) and rookie Deebo Samuel coming into the fold, Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy G should conduct one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses. San Francisco is the ultimate sleeper team in 2019.

78. Patrick Peterson – CB, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 35)

Even while slated to serve a four-game suspension to start this season, Peterson is one of the best talents in football. He may not be quiet as good now as he was a few seasons ago, but he has time to pick up the slack. Peterson turns just 29 this summer, despite already playing eight seasons.

77. Jared Goff – QB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: NR)

He laid a dud in Super Bowl LIII, but he’s entering just his fourth season. He’ll learn from it. He’s one of the best young minds at the position.

76. Zach Ertz – TE, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

Ertz is virtually a big receiver who produces best in crunch time. He’ll be Carson Wentz’ go-to-guy in 2019.

75. Desmond King Jr.  – DB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

He earned All-Pro honors as both a defensive back and return man last season. He’s as valuable as slot cornerbacks come. Chris Harris Jr. has made a living in this relatively new full-time position. Is King Jr. up next? He’s a great cover man.

74. Julian Edelman – WR, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

There’s never been a player quite like Edelman. He can act as both a slot receiver and flanker (‘Z’) capable of working the sidelines at times. He’s dangerous after the catch and during pre-snap while motioning. He’s one of the most clutch players in the history of the NFL and may eventually make the Hall of Fame one day, if he has a few more seasons of excellence. Who’s doubting him?

Oh, and since 2015, the Patriots are 36-5 with both Tom Brady and Edelman on the field, which includes a 7-1 postseason mark and a 2-0 record in Super Bowls. New England is 23-11 otherwise since then. He’s a very important cog to greatest team in the history of the NFL. Enough said.

73. JuJu Smith-Schuster – WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

With Antonio Brown gone, JuJu is now the man in Pittsburgh. He’ll be up to the task. Pittsburgh is the wide receiver factory, and Smith-Schuster has the potential of the many Pro Bowlers that came before him.

72. Jurrell Casey – DT, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

He’s one of the best run stuffers in the league, and an anchor on what’s becoming one of the league’s best defenses. In fact, the AFC South in general is turning into the league’s toughest division defensively. Who would have thought? Casey is part of the toughness that has helped turn this division into one that is unnoticeable from what it used to look like.

71. Chris Jones – DT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

With 15.5 sacks last season, Jones was one of the lone bright spots on a defense that eventually led to the Chiefs’ demise. He’ll have to improve his play against the run to move up this list. I think he will.

70. Kareem Hunt – RB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

He obviously needs to re-assess himself mentally, but he’s still one of the league’s best running backs. Can you imagine what he may do with Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on this Browns offense?

69. Darius Slay – CB, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Slay sat out of mandatory minicamp in search of a new contract. The Lions defensive back is slated to make an average of $11 million over the next two years. Considering the market, he deserves more. An underrated stud who can shut down pass catchers from both the slot and on the perimeter.

68. Mike Evans – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

He’s produced good numbers over the last few seasons, despite the inconsistent quarterback play. Last year he put up career highs in receiving yards (1,524) and yards per catch (17.7). He’s the ultimate power forward who boxes out smaller defensive backs.

67. Amari Cooper – WR, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

Look how the Cowboys’ season turned around after he came in from Oakland. Cooper was worth the first-round pick given up in the trade. Just how good will he be after a full offseason of training with Dak Prescott?

66. Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 29)

Smith is a sure thing in the running game, garnering the best run grade (91.3) among all safeties in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also the field general of Mike Zimmer’s defense.

65. Darius Leonard – LB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR)

A second-round pick from the obscure South Carolina State, Leonard earned First-team All-Pro honors as a rookie. He belongs on this list, perhaps even higher. As a 221-pound linebacker, he’s an example of where the game is going. Is he the key to making the Colts an eventual winning team in the postseason?

64. Davante Adams – WR, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

It took him a few years to turn into the pass catcher we all thought he’d be, but Davante Adams has arrived. In fact, he arrived a few seasons ago. He’s a legit No. 1 receiver, and is one of the best route runners in football.

63. Mitchell Schwartz – OT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

A First-team All-Pro tackle in 2018, Schwartz has earned All-Pro honors in all three of his seasons with the Chiefs. Pro Football Focus named him their top offensive lineman of last season.

62. Marshon Lattimore – CB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: NR)

He wasn’t quite as good in 2018 as he was in his rookie campaign, but he’s still one of the many young studs at cornerback.

61. Jason Kelce – C, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

He’s the best center in football that plays with a nastiness that is an embodiment of the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia, in a good way.

60. A.J. Green – WR, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: 42)

He’ll enter this season at the age of 31, but he still a top-tier playmaker on the outside. But will he spend his entire career in Cincinnati?

59. Carson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 31)

Wentz recently signed a four-year extension that guarantees him over $107 million, the highest guarantee in NFL history. He would have won the MVP award in 2017 had he not went down with an injury. Statistically, he was fantastic last season. But something didn’t look quite right. Is this the season he puts it all together through January? Or February? There’s a lot fo potential here.

58. Cam Newton – QB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 28)

Cam’s availability is now in question, due to Carolina’s third-round draft choice of former West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. But when Newton is healthy, he’s one of the game’s greatest playmakers. He still has accuracy issues, but in increase in shorter throws to likes of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel should open things up for a Panthers offense that is in need of improvement. Newton will lead the way. Carolina is a fringe playoff team. Their hopes lie with Cam.

57. DeMarcus Lawrence – EDGE, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

He’s notched 26 sacks in two seasons, and we haven’t yet seen his best play. He’ll be better this season.

56. Tyron Smith – OT, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 18)

Smith is still one of the league’s top-notch offensive lineman. He’s a behemoth with quick feet. He’s the perfect tackle in terms of size and attributes.

55. Kyle Fuller – CB, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

He had the best year of his career last season. He can guard all types of pass catchers, but seems to do his best against slot receivers. He should be even better in 2019.

54. Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 40)

He remains one of the best pure pass rushers in the game. The young Cardinals will need his experience, as well as his sack numbers. He’s led the league in that number (41) since he joined Arizona in 2016.

53. Xavien Howard – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR)

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores knows an elite cornerback when he sees one, having worked with guys such as Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore when he worked with the Patriots’ secondary. So it’s safe to assume Howard is worth the big bucks (five-year, $76 million extension) he signed on for this offseason.

52. A.J. Bouye – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: 21)

He was a bit down in 2018, but so were the Jaguars in general. The Jalen Ramsey-A.J. Bouye duo should be back in full force starting this September.

51. Eddie Jackson – S, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

The Alabama production made major strides in Year 2. Eddie Jackson’s 94.7 coverage grade on PFF in 2018 was Pro Football Focus’ highest for a safety EVER. He was also a First-team All-Pro. Simply put, one more season like that and he’ll belong in the top 10 or 15 on this list. He may already be the best safety in football. But I’d like to see him prove that last season wasn’t a mini fluke.

50. Phillip Rivers – QB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

It’s worth wondering if Rivers’ chance at a Super Bowl ring has passed, but at the same time, the Chargers field the most talented roster in the AFC, no question, heading into 2019. Can Rivers finally bring a title to the Chargers? He has the tools, and the accuracy. He doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves.

49. Calais Campbell – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: 25)

Campbell is the heart and soul of the Jaguars. A defensive linchpin who is aging, but still highly effective. He’s had success at defensive tackle, 3-4 defensive end and as a 4-3 edge setter. He can literally do it all. Campbell should also serve as an excellent mentor to this next young stud.

48. Yannick Ngakoue – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: NR)

Heading into his contract year on a team that should be embarrassed by it’s play last year, Ngakoue has tools and recipe for a monster season in 2019. He’s one of the NFL’s best young players, who will help lift Jacksonville back to (or near) the playoffs this season. I’m sensing a few 18-plus sack seasons in his future. Yes, he’s that good. He should be the highest-paid free agent in 2020. Will he remain in Jacksonville?

47. Jamal Adams – S, New York Jets (Last year: NR)

Adams is a machine in the backend, who should only improve going forward. He’s a tackling machine that harkens back to the safeties of yesteryear, and has the moxie of a new-age star. The Jets need that attitude if they’re ever to dethrone the Patriots in the AFC East.

46. Grady Jarrett – DT, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

He’s one of the most underrated players in football, even after he jumped onto the stage with three sacks of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LI. Recently, he’s matched his pass-rushing skills with the ability to defend the run. He’s an All-Pro caliber player, and will prove such in the coming seasons.

45. Tre’Davious White – CB, Buffalo Bills (Last year: NR)

White has emerged as one of the NFL’s best players under 25. In Bills-Patriots matchups, White has guarded Rob Gronkowski to the point of his frustration on a few plays. That says a lot.

 

44. Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 33)

As long as he stays healthy, Allen is one of the great matchup problems in the NFL. Working primarily out of the slot, Allen has a size advantage (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) over most slot-defending specialists, making him one of the league’s more valuable players.

43. Adam Thielen – WR, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Many doubted Thielen after his surprising 2017 campaign, but the Vikings’ No. 1 wideout backed up his play in 2018, despite the team’s struggles. Adjusting to a new quarterback, Thielen hauled in 113 passes for from Kirk Cousins for 1,373 yards. He’s one of the game’s very best route runners.

42. Jadeveon Clowney – EDGE, Houston Texans (Last year: 36)

The former No. 1 overall pick has been versatile for the Texans. He’s acted as a linebacker, stand-up rusher and defensive end in the Houston’s 3-4 scheme. Already a veteran (he’s entering his sixth season) Clowney has legit NFL experience at the ripe age of 26. His next few seasons should be the twilight of his career. Will he spend all of those years in Houston?

41. Xavier Rhodes – CB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 22)

He’s still the prototypical cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, with speed. He’s built to shut down guys like Michael Thomas and Julio Jones out the outside.

40. Zack Martin – G, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 34)

He’s still one of the league’s best guards, who happens to block for the NFL’s leading rusher over the past three seasons. There’s no coincidence there.

39. David Bakhtiari – OT, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Bakhtiari is the NFL’s best tackle heading into 2019. As the left tackle on an offensive in influx, Bakhtiari’s consistency will be beneficial to Rodgers and the Packers.

38. Matt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 27)

Despite the inconsistency from former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Matt Ryan put up similar numbers last year to that of his 2016 campaign that won him the NFL MVP award. With Dirk Koetter returning as the team’s offensive coordinator — a position he held from 2012 to 2014 in Atlanta — expect the familiarity to boost Ryan’s efficiency, and the Falcons’ record in the process.

37. Christian McCaffrey – RB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: NR)

McCaffrey proved he’s one of the league’s best running backs in 2018. What comes next? If he can somehow play better, it should help Cam Newton and a Panthers offense that needs to improve. With an offensive mind like Norv Turner entering Year 2 with C-Mac, expect Carolina’s do-it-all threat to be even more dangerous in 2019.

36. Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 32)

With Rob Gronkowski retired, Kelce is now the league’s best ‘big’ wide receiver. Kelce is capable of blocking as an in-line tight end, but works best in the slot or spread out wide. With Kareem Hunt gone, and question marks surrounding Tyreek Hill’s availability, Kelce will be as important as he’s ever been.

35. Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 26)

The most indispensable player in Pittsburgh is not Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell, rather it’s Ben Roethlisberger, who will return for his 16th season as the team’s franchise quarterback. With JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner capable of partly filling Brown and Bell’s role, Pittsburgh should flourish with less distractions in 2019. Big Ben will get Pittsburgh to the postseason.

34. Myles Garrett – EDGE, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

If you’re perplexed on how I have Garrett this high, keep in mind I use a 70/30 rule (explained above), which bases 70 percent of my decision off the past couple of seasons, and 30 percent tied to expected play in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus, Garrett’s 56 pressures from the right edge ranked second in the league. He also registered 13.5 sacks. He’ll be even better this season. Year 3 for Garrett is poised to be a big one.

33. Quenton Nelson – OG, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR)

Nelson proved he was worth the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, and then some. As a rookie, Nelson earned First-team All-Pro honors. I believe he’s already the best offensive lineman in football. The Colts have found a franchise cornerstone up front.

32. Akiem Hicks – DT, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

Hicks remains one of the league’s most underrated players as a dominant force in the middle of the Bears’ defense. With Mack and Leonard Floyd occupying the edge, Hicks has solidified the interior with versatility in both stopping the run and pushing the pocket on immobile quarterbacks. After Mack, he’s the best player on perhaps the most talented team in the NFC entering 2019.

31. Le’Veon Bell – RB, New York Jets (Last year: 10)

When on the field, Bell was the game’s best running back due to his ball carrier vision and dual threat ability. Since he took a year off, there’s a mini mystery factor involved here. Just how rusty will the former Steeler be? He may end up back in the top 10 next year if he’s the same player in New York. They’ll likely feed him early and often to take the pressure off a young Sam Darnold.

30. Derwin James – S, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

I couldn’t believe James fell to the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. He’s a safety, but can rush the passer, play man coverage on pass catchers (both in the outside and from the sot) and sit back in a deep or intermediate zone. He has the speed and power to do it all. In an era with versatile, mismatch options on offense of all kinds, James is the perfect counter piece on defense.

29. George Kittle – TE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Kittle came alive in 2018, proving to be the league’s best tight end after the catch and downfield. So we might as well say it — With Gronkowski gone, he’s the best tight end in football.

28. Cameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 23)

Jordan remains one of the league’s best defensive lineman, with both First-team and Second-team All-Pro honors in the last few seasons. Last year, Jordan tallied 12 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss. The Saints’ stud defender will have to play up to par again if New Orleans is to get back to a second Super Bowl.

27. Chris Harris, Jr. – CB, Denver Broncos (Last year: 30)

The Broncos awarded Harris with a a more lucrative one-year payment, before he hits the market as a 30-year-old next season. He’s still the best slot cornerback in the NFL today, and all-time. He can also play on the outside. He has a few great seasons left. If I’m the Colts, I’d consider bringing him aboard in 2020, if not sooner, via a midseason trade. In the AFC you need to get by the Patriots, and there’s no one better at covering Julian Edelman.

26. Tyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 44)

We’ll see what Roger Goodell decides to do regarding his off-field issues, but one this is for sure — we’ve never seen another player like him. He has world-class speed and playmaking skills. The Chiefs need him.

25. Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 24)

A foot injury slowed him down, but Year 4 is usually a big jump for many in their NFL careers. This is a big year for him. He’s still a dominant force on the edge.

24. Jalen Ramsey – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: 9)

Ramsey had a down year in 2018, but so did his entire team. With an offseason to shake off the bad taste in their mouths from last year, Ramsey should return as one of the league’s stars this upcoming season.

23. Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 27)

Thomas emerged as one of the NFL’s best receivers in 2017, and one-upped his play in 2018. Playing mostly as a “big” slot receiver, Thomas’ knack for finding the soft spot in zones has proven instrumental in his connection with Drew Brees. He’s much more than that though. Line him out wide and he’d beat almost any man-to-man coverage. His best years are ahead of him.

22. Julio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 16)

Jones remains the most physically dominant wide receiver in football, even if his absolute prime years are behind him. He’ll still play at (or near) an All-Pro level in 2019, but his very best years are likely in the past. Regardless, expect the Falcons to be a much better squad this season.

21. Antonio Brown – WR, Oakland Raiders (Last year: 4)

Brown’s last five or six seasons rank among the best stretches of any offensive weapon in NFL history. In my years of watching football while growing up, only Marvin Harrison is on his level in terms of consistent greatness from year to year. While pass catches like Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones have been more physically dominant, Brown is able to use his speed and route-running to leave defenders in the dust. He’s been the best receiver of the 2010’s, no question.

But I expect the first signs of decline to creep in this season as Brown acclimates to the Derek Carr and the Raiders in his age-31 season. Still, he’ll be a Second-team All-Pro caliber pass catcher.

20. Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 45)

In just two seasons, Kamara has become one of the most dynamic weapons in football.

19. Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 46)

Cox remains the most dominant defensive interior force in the league outside of Aaron Donald. He’s the anchor of that Eagles’ defense.

18. Todd Gurley – RB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 11)

Gurley’s numbers (and carries) dipped significantly during the tail end of last season. Will his knee issues be a problem? He’s still one of the league’s most explosive offensive players, but there are concerns.

17. Saquon Barkley – RB, New York Giants (Last year: NR)

Last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year tallied over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, 15 touchdowns and five yards per carry behind a lackluster offensive line in 2018. Imagine what he’ll do in Year 2 behind a re-tooled offensive front? The sky is the limit for Barkley. He’ll be perceived as one of the NFL’s top 10 players soon enough.

16. Odell Beckham Jr. – WR, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 15)

Injuries and an eroding Eli Manning have hindered what should have been a historic five-season stretch to begin his career, after his initial three-year run of greatness. Will the change of scenery to Baker Mayfield and the Browns revitalize him? I think so. He will be viewed as the best receiver in football by the start of the next decade.

15. Stephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots (Last year: 48)

Gilmore was the league’s best cornerback in 2018. His ability to be left on an island as a premier No. 1 cornerback has allowed Bill Belichick to play loose with rest of his defensive backs. Like Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis before him, Belichick seemingly views a top-flight cornerback as an important piece to his defense. Gilmore has certainly earned his hefty contract signed in 2017. I see him as the Kawhi Leonard of the NFL, due to his supreme play and low-key demeanor.

14. Andrew Luck – QB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: NR) 

After a sluggish 1-5 start, while adjusting in his return to the field, Luck led the Colts to a 9-1 mark the rest of the way before downing the Texans in Houston in the postseason. Despite an offense featuring T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron as his go-to guys, the former No. 1 overall pick prospered. He’s back on track to become one of the league’s best signal callers. In fact, he’s there already. The Colts area building something special under GM Chris Ballard. That all starts with No. 12’s play. He’ll win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, as well as an NFL MVP award or two.

13. DeAndre Hopkins – WR, Houston Texans (Last year: 19)

Hopkins has consistently played at an All-Pro level in three of his past four seasons, mostly with lackluster quarterback play, before Deshaun Watson. It’s time to give him his due. Have you seen some of his catches? He’s the best receiver in football right now.

12. Ezekiel Elliott – RB , Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 20)

Elliott is the heart of the Cowboys’ offense, not Dak Prescott. The Cowboys running back has led the NFL in rushing yards since entering the league in 2016, despite missing six games in 2017 because of a suspension. He’s a bell cow running back in a new era that has few of them.

11. Luke Kuechly – LB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 13)

Keuchly has been the best linebacker of the 2010’s, and is primed for at least one or two more seasons at this level. With the Panthers in the midst of a heavy re-tooling period, they’ll rely on Kuechly to anchor a defense that needs to partly return to the level they were at from 2013 to 2015, to get back to the postseason.

10. Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 14)

Due to his play in all facets of the linebacker position, Wagner has vaulted past Kuechly as the game’s best linebacker.

As seen in the tweet above, Wagner was the lonely linebacker in the NFL to have PFF grades of 90.0 plus in both run and pass coverage. With the Legion of Boom completely gone, the Seahawks will lean on Wagner defensively, like they have with Russell Wilson on offense. He is the quarterback of the Seahawks’ defense, as well as the unit’s best player.

9. Von Miller – EDGE, Denver Broncos (Last year: 5)

Miller remains in the mix for bragging rights as the game’s best edge rusher, with only Khalil Mack having a better say entering this season. With future 2020 Top 100 player Bradley Chub rushing the passer on the other side, Miller should continue to get his chances at the quarterback. The two should be a formidable duo in 2019.

8. J.J. Watt – EDGE, Houston Texans (Last year: 17)

After two shortened seasons due to injury, Watt returned at about 95 percent of what he used to be in 2018, registering 16 sacks and earning a First-team All-Pro nod. Considering he’s a former three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, that puts him pretty high on this list. His versatility in being able to line up as a 3-4 defensive end, or 4-3 defensive tackle remains an important attribute. As does his athleticism for his 6-foot-5, 295-pound frame.

 

7. Russell Wilson – QB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 6)

Wilson continues to elevate a team that has lost a ton of talent on both sides since their back-to-back Super Bowl trips earlier in the decade. With Doug Baldwin gone, Seattle will lean on the run game, as well as Wilson’s increasing rapport with T.J. Lockett. Wilson is one of the few quarterbacks that can elevate any roster to 10 wins. He also recently expressed to NFL.com’s Mike Silver that he wanted to play until he’s 45.

6. Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 12)

Brees was off to a season of historic proportions in terms of accuracy (74.4 completion percentage) before the Saints slowly bottomed out, resulting in a controversial NFC Championship Game loss at home. Like Tom Brady, the Saints’ franchise player is holding off Father Time. Brees has this year and maybe the next to bring home a coveted second Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans. The Saints have the team to do so. It’s all on number nine.

5. Khalil Mack – EDGE, Chicago Bears (Last year: 7)

Mack immediately helped transform an already-talented Bears defense into a juggernaut unit upon arrival. He slowed down a bit toward the end of the season, but expect him to pick right back up with a fury this upcoming season.

4. Patrick Mahomes – QB, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

Mahomes was the best player in football last year. No passer before him has ever been able to make some of the mind-bending throws he showed us last season. With Kareem Hunt gone, and the uncertainty around Tyreek Hill, Mahomes will have his chance to prove that he’s not just a one-season wonder. He may never put up those numbers again, but he’ll get better. He’ll be more efficient as he continues to grow accustom to NFL defenses. There’s nothing this guy can’t do. The Madden NFL 20′ cover star is the new face of the league. But such was Cam Newton in 2015, before falling back to earth. Expect Mahomes to solidify his place among the game’s elite quarterbacks in 2019. He’s different.

3. Aaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 2)

Rodgers has been dealing with an erosion of talent ever since the Packers lost in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, and have failed to supply enough young ballers to replace older veterans. With a new GM and head coach in town, expect Rodgers to play with a renewed sense of energy. These next two or three seasons may secure his place among the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks.

2. Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 3)

After winning his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, it’s clear Donald remains the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL. At this point, Donald is on his way to becoming one of the great defensive players of all time.

1. Tom Brady – QB, New England Patriots (Last year: 1)

From dealing with the Super Bowl LII hangover, to struggling out the gate with Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan as his top two receivers, to performing amidst the addition and subsequent subtraction of No. 1 outside target Josh Gordon, Brady battled through it all to silence his detractors in earning a sixth Super Bowl ring. Although Mahomes was more effective for much of the season, Brady beat him twice with lesser offensive weapons. That included his performance for the ages, on the road in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. Entering his age-42 season, Brady remains the NFL’s best player, both presently and all time.

Kyle Murray and Roger Goodell

2019 NFL Draft: Analyzing first-round picks + Interesting Day 2 & 3 notes

Now that the draft has come and gone, the lull point of the NFL’s offseason has officially arrived. But before the abyss ascends, here is a quick take on every first-round pick from over the weekend, with a few additional notes on picks in the second round or later.

1. Kyler Murray – QB, Oklahoma – Arizona Cardinals

What started as a plausible rumor, eventually turned in to an accepted reality, as seen in many analysts’ mock drafts. The Cardinals gave up on Josh Rosen after just one season, as Kliff Kingsbury gets his wish in Arizona’s selection of Kyler Murray. Murray will start right away, and although he certainly won’t reach this level in Year 1 like this upcoming comparable player mention, he has the tools to be a smaller version of Patrick Mahomes.

2. Nick Bosa – EDGE, Ohio State – San Francisco 49ers

After trading with Kansas City for Dee Ford, the 49ers now have a lethal 1-2 combo on the edge, as Bosa is the player with the most upside in this draft. In addition to Bosa and Ford, the 49ers have one of the NFL’s most underrated players in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. If Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo can get something out of their young offense, the defense should compliment them nicely in improving into a an above-average unit on their own. The 49ers are a team on the verge of the playoffs.

3. Quinnen Williams – DT, Alabama – New York Jets

Instead of trading back, the Jets select the draft’s surest thing. Williams is the best player of this draft for the time being, and should anchor a defense that will need to toughen up against the run, judging by the forever-AFC East champion Patriots’ newfound approach to a power-running style.

4. Clelin Ferrell – EDGE, Clemson – Oakland Raiders

This pick surprised many, since Ferrell was suspected to go somewhere in the No. 10-25 pick range, but Ferrell has the potential to be a force on the edge. His sheer athleticism from the 4-3 defensive end spot should translate to the pros on some level, just not as high as his No. 4 draft pick status suggests. Regardless, Jon Gruden — and new Raiders GM Mike Mayock — are addressing one of Oakland’s biggest needs, which was made apparent after Gruden jettisoned All-Pro Khalil Mack to the Bears last offseason.

5. Devin White – LB, LSU – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Like the Jets, there was trade chatter revolved around Tampa Bay moving down from this spot. Instead, the Bucs stayed put, drafting one of the best players available to help rebuild their defense. With an aging Gerald McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul along the defensive line, Tampa Bay was in need of front seven help in general. This should help.

6. Daniel Jones – QB, Duke – New York Giants

Even with immediate needs at wide receiver, offensive line and everywhere along the edge of the Giants’ 3-4 scheme, Big Blue opts to take their quarterback of the future in Duke product Daniel Jones. Both Eli and Peyton Manning spent many offseasons training with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, so this felt like a fitting passing of the torch for the G-men, even if Jones doesn’t pan out. There’s no way Jones is worth this high of a selection, but Giants GM Dave Gettleman insists that there were two teams that would have snagged Jones before the Giants’ next selection (pick No. 17), had they not taken him here. Time will tell if this pick is a disaster, or a pleasant surprise for the G-Men. Many analysts are panning the pick as of now, which is sadly reasonable, for now.

7. Josh Allen – EDGE, Kentucky – Jacksonville Jaguars

This pick felt like Florida offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor — who they later snagged in the second round — or Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson for Jacksonville, a franchise with a renewed sense of hope after acquiring Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles to lead their offense.

Instead, the Jaguars bolstered their defense with edge defender Josh Allen. Allen is best suited as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but will be affective as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt on the Jaguars’ four-man fronts. With Calais Campbell turning 33 at the start of next season, and budding All-Pro Yannick Ngakoue entering a contract year, Allen was mostly likely selected with Jacksonville’s future needs in mind. For now, Allen assists a defense that should return to being the league’s top unit in 2019, on a franchise that should ascent back into the postseason.

8. T.J. Hockenson – TE, Iowa – – Detroit Lions

After the Lions secured former Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers with a mega deal, the team looked to improve their offense. Matt Patricia and Lions GM Bob Quinn (a former Patriots personnel employee) channeled their inner-Bill Belichick by selecting the closest we’ve come to a Rob Gronkowski prospect. The ‘Belicheckian’ tie comes from Hockenson’s school, rather than the player himself, as Belichick and longtime Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz are good friends, and co-workers, as Ferentz worked under Belichick in Cleveland. Iowa is basically ‘Tight End University’ (or ‘Tight End U’) after their recent run with tight ends that began with former Colt Dallas Clark, and has now transitioned to 49ers tight end George Kittle, and this year’s two-first round pick class of Hockenson and Noah Fant, who will be discussed soon.

9. Ed Oliver – DT, Houston – Buffalo Bills

A classic ‘best-player-available’ selection by the Bills here. Oliver is a top-10 worthy pick with tremendous upside. Like Hockenson with Gronk, Oliver is a near-Aaron Donald prospect, who also may have been selected with the aforementioned Patriots’ rushing scheme in mind, a la the Jets (and Dolphins first-round selection) earlier pick.

10. Devin Bush – LB, Michigan – Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are seemingly capable of turning any wide receiver drafted by them into a star, but instead, they move up 10 picks to select linebacker Devin Bush, in an attempt to fix a defense that has gotten softer over the past few seasons. Since the retirement of Troy Polamalu after the 2014 season, the team has struggled to retain their staunch defensive image in general, with the Ryan Shazier situation leaving the team more barren on that side of the ball. This pick can go either way, but make no mistake, it’s one of the most important draft picks in recent Pittsburgh history.

11. Jonah Williams – OT/G, Alabama  –  Cincinnati Bengals

Many thought the Bengals may go with Drew Lock or Dwayne Haskins here, but Cincinnati instead goes with one of the top-rated offensive lineman. Despite the coaching turnover, Cincinnati seems somewhat invested in Andy Dalton and A.J. Green as the top options on offense going forward.

12. Rashan Gary – EDGE, Michigan  – Green Bay Packers

With Hockenson gone, the Packers could have selected Fant a bit early, but they later settle for Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger in the second round, to compliment an aging Jimmy Graham at tight end. This is another best-player-available pick, as Gary should team with Mike Daniels to give Green Bay some oomph in the trenches. They were in need of that. This is a solid pick.

13. Christian Wilkins – DT, Clemson  – Miami Dolphins

Like Cincinnati, the Dolphins could have went with Lock or Haskins, but instead opted for Josh Rosen. The Wilkins pick suggests the  Dolphins’ new Patriots leadership (head coach Brian Flores) has already made it’s mark. Not only was Wilkins a force in the interior of Clemson’s defensive line, he was also a class act at Clemson, who was a team captain. This was a solid pick by Miami, who should help their rebuilding phase in both talent-bolstering, and locker room morale.

14. Chris Lindstrom – G, Boston College  – Atlanta Falcons

This is an easy pick to pass over, but the Falcons should get immediate results from Lindstrom along the interior of the offensive line. Atlanta is one of the league’s very best teams, in terms of talent spread across the roster. They could have went defense here, but this is a smart pick.

15. Dwayne Haskins – QB, Ohio State  – Washington 

With Alex Smith’s career in jeopardy, and Case Keenum’s bridge starter badge cemented, Washington goes with Haskins as the quarterback of their future. They alter snagged Ohio State speedy receiver Terry McLaurin to make Haskins happy. Washington is in dire need of a franchise cleansing at the moment, and it would be an overly optimistic take to suggest Haskins can pull them out of football purgatory, because it seems like that’s where they may be headed. But then again, Washington has quietly built one of the league’s best defensive fronts, which is an area they add to later…

16. Brian Burns – EDGE, Florida State – Carolina Panthers 

It seemed like it was either the Panthers or Titans for Burns, who said he enjoyed both visits, and seemed to take a liken to those when discussing on and off air during a taping at my full time job, which is as an Associate Producer and Writer on Fair Game with Kristine Leahy. Yes, this is a shameless plug, as I love my job and this show. Check it out!

As for Burns, the Panthers have quickly become suspect on defense, which is a unit that was top tier from 2013 to 2015. Burns is a solid edge addition, but the Panthers are in need of more help on this side of the ball.

17. Dexter Lawrence – DT, Clemson – New York Giants

If there weren’t two teams interested in Daniel Jones, the Giants mismanaged what could have been a key three-down addition on the defensive line with someone like Josh Allen or Ed Oliver. Instead, they play it safe by snagging their quarterback, and then what should be a phenomenal two-down player in the massive Dexter Lawrence (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) here. If Lawrence proves to be athletic enough to push the pile, in terms of pass rush, the Giants could be getting one of the draft’s very best players here, but time will tell.

18. Garrett Bradbury – C/G, N.C. State  – Minnesota Vikings 

Most mocked Bradbury to the Vikings here, and that’s exactly where they went. Minnesota needs help along the offensive line, and the N.C. State product will do just that. This is a great pick. Kirk Cousins and the Vikings just need to execute in 2019.

19. Jeffrey Simmons – DT, Mississippi State   – Tennessee Titans

In Simmons, the Titans get the second or third best player in the draft from an initial standpoint. Simmons is up there with Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams, in terms of potential and being a sure thing, when on the field. Because Simmons tore his ACL in February, while training for the draft, there’s a good chance he misses the entirety of the 2019 season, which is why he’s slid this far. And his potential is also why he’s drafted this high, considering those circumstances.

20. Noah Fant – TE, Iowa  – Denver Broncos

In an attempt to give Joe Flacco a young offensive weapon, the Broncos grab the most explosive tight end — in terms of pass catching — on the board. There’s Courtland Sutton at the ‘X’ receiver position, 32-year-old Emmanuel Sanders at the ‘Z’ receiver, and not much else in terms of Denver pass catchers. It’s on Flacco to make this work, as he likely won’t be benched for the Broncos’ second-round pick, Drew Lock, any time soon.

21. Darnell Savage – S, Maryland – Green Bay Packers

The Packers continue to bolster their defense by going with Darnell Savage at Pick No. 21, after trading up with the Seahawks. Savage serves best as a nickel back, or nickel safety role, which is an important position in today’s game. Strong safety Jonathan Abram would have also been a good pick at safety, but Savage should be a sound addition to a Packers defense that is already set at the outside cornerback position with two 2018 draft picks, Jaire Alexander and Jos Jackson.

22. Andre Dillard – OT, Washington State – Philadelphia Eagles

With Jason Peters now at age 37, the talented Eagles take one of the draft’s highest-rated offensive lineman, in an attempt to eventually replace Peters, opposite Lane Johnson on the Eagles’ offensive line. Philadelphia is getting a bit older at defensive line, and Montez Sweat may have been a fit here. Additionally, the Eagles are in slight need of help at cornerback. But by fielding one of the best rosters of 2019, Philadelphia wisely with with Dillard, as many of the starter-worthy tackles were off the board by the middle of the second round.

23.  Tytus Howard – OT, Alabama State – Houston Texans

The Texans desperately need help at tackle, and along their offensive line in general. With Jonah Williams and Andre Dillard off the board, the Texans pass on Jawaan Taylor and Kaleb McGary to select a tackle that many believed would go in later rounds.

24.  Josh Jacobs – RB, Alabama – Oakland Raiders

As Marshawn Lynch retires, the Raiders pick up their new starting running back in Jacobs, who is clearly the best traditional, full-time starter at the position in this draft. With Derek Carr entering a make-or-break year, the more weapons the merrier, as Jacobs will compliment Oakland’s two additional offseason offensive additions in wide receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams.

25.  Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown – WR, Oklahoma – Baltimore Ravens

One of my favorer players of the draft, Antonio Brown’s cousin is one of the most explosive receivers in recent memory to come though the draft. Hollywood Brown will certainly make a name for himself, or create his own lane, without the mention of his cousin, pretty soon. Teams like the Chiefs, Saints or Patriots is where Brown would have likely flourished the most. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson clearly has room for improvement in terms of passing accuracy. But for now, Brown can specialize in wide receiver screens, slants, drags and the basic fly route, before Baltimore expands it’s passing options by the way of Jackson’s inevitable improvement as a pro passer.

26.  Montez Sweat – EDGE, Mississippi State – Washington 

After going with Haskins, Washington trades back into the first round to take, without a doubt, the best player available at this point of the draft. This is in terms of talent and potential only, of course. Sweat will have to prove himself. But that should be easy along the league’s most underrated defensive line. Sweat will start alongside Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen along the interior, and Ryan Kerrigan on the opposite edge, in Washington’s four-man front in their base nickel defense in 2019.

27.  Jonathan Abram – S, Mississippi State – Oakland Raiders

Abram is an energetic hunter in the box, best used as a strong safety, which is where he should start immediately for the Raiders. Even with Karl Joseph and Lamarcus Joyner already on the roster, Abram may become the team’s best safety a month into the 2019 season.

28. Jerry Tillery – DT, Notre Dame  – Los Angeles Chargers 

Like Trey Flowers, Tillery can projects to play both on the edge and in the interior. But with the Chargers already bolstering a combination of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edge, Tillery will likely start alongside Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle, giving them an upgrade in talent at one of the few positions of need on a very talented team.

29.  L.J. Collier – EDGE, TCU – Seattle Seahawks

Long gone are the days of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin and others along the defensive line. Heck, even Frank Clark was just shipped to Kansas City. The Seahawks are barren up front, and on defense in general, outside of the game’s best linebacker, Bobby Wagner. With most of the immediate-impact edge rushers gone at the No. 21 selection, Seattle traded out and decided to draft L.J. Collier with the pick that was obtained by trading Clark. It would be a surprise if Collier transformed the defensive line, but he’s better than what they have. They need additional help. The Seahawks may suffice with 9 or 10 wins a season just because of the trio of Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Wagner, but they’re in need of additional retooling to get back to where they were. Maybe at the start of the next decade they’ll become an NFC stalwart, once more. They’re close…or close-ish.

30.  Deandre Baker – CB, Georgia  – New York Giants

Giants GM Dave Gettleman opted to trade with the Saints to move back in for a third first-round selection. Many had Baker, Washington’s Byron Murphy and LSU’s Greedy Williams as the top three cornerbacks of this draft. Baker (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) doesn’t have the size of a Greedy Williams, but should be effective as a starting No. 2 cornerback in the NFL, at least, opposite Janoris Jenkins. Time will tell if some of the other cornerbacks would be a better fit here. That may turn out to be the case.

31.  Kaleb McGary – OT, Washington – Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta double dips in offensive line selections in the first round by selecting McGary, who should beat out Ty Sambrailo at right tackle, to start opposite Jake Matthews. There are virtually no holes among Atlanta’s offense, with maybe the exception of a No. 2 running back role, after Tevin Coleman’s defection to the improving 49ers.

32. N’Keal Harry – WR, Arizona State – New England Patriots 

In Harry, the Patriots not only have a plausible outside receiver to compliment — and fill in for, initially — Josh Gordon, they may have their version of the Saints’ Michael Thomas, if Harry reaches his peak. That’s a bold statement, as Thomas is already one of the NFL’s top five receivers. But Harry often lined up inside as a ‘Big Slot’ option at Arizona State, which is where the thriving Thomas has been utilized in Sean Payton’s scheme.

Additional Notes

– Josh Rosen to Miami — By passing on the likes of Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock, the Dolphins made a wise decision in trading a second-round draft choice for Josh Rosen, instead of settling for a selection in the underwhelming quarterback class of this draft. Additionally, with their bevy of picks in next year’s draft, Miami can package picks to trade into a spot for a quarterback such as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, if they don’t deem Rosen worthy enough to be their current franchise quarterback. But that decision should come with caution, as the Dolphins are clearly in a rebuilding mode, even with the tenacity of the team’s new head coach, Brian Flores, to win immediately. That won’t happen. There are a lot of holes on Miami’s roster. This is likely a two-to-three year rebuild, and a likely lackluster 2019 season may make it tricky to decide wether or not Miami should stick with Rosen going forward. That is why any surprising success — like a 7-9 season — should come as an indictment of Rosen’s competence as an NFL quarterback. And yes, Rosen should start immediately, over Ryan Fitzpatrick. This is a sound choice by Miami.

Interesting QB selections  Amid some of the more obvious quarterback-needy teams that addressed the position, there were a few surprise selections in the middle rounds, as the Panthers selected West Virginia’s Will Grier in Round 3 (No. 100 pick) and the Eagles took Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson in Round 5 (167) after his slight dip in the draft. Certainly the Eagles’ pick is not that crazy, seeing as the franchise just lost Foles to Jacksonville. But the team seemed to be high on Zach Sudfeld, and maybe they still are, but the Thorson selection may not only mean competition for the No. 2 spot in Philadelphia, it may also mean the Eagles aren’t exactly optimistic about Carson Wentz’s ability to stay healthy. Ditto to Cam Newton’s health in Carolina, as the team’s Day 2 pick on Grier surprised many, seeing as Carolina has the 2015 NFL MVP on their roster. And unlike Thorson, who is probably a top tier backup QB at best, Grier has the potential to be a starter, which makes this pick even more interesting. Both selections are likely due to the up-and-down recent health of Newton and Wentz, and with that in mind, both may have the chance to play in 2019, to the chagrin of the teams that drafted them.

Patriots’ sound niche defensive selections — Despite a glaring need at tight end, the Patriots decided to bypass options such as Irv Smith Jr. and Jace Sternberger to select ‘niche’ defensive pieces that should tailor to specific schemes. Those players, Joejuan Williams and Chase Winovich were selected in the second and third round respectively, with definitive roles in mind. Both players should become full-time starters by their second year, if not immediately. So that’s not to say they’re only situational-type players. But it’s obvious how the Patriots intend to use both. Winovich is the easier role to explain. He will likely take on an edge role as a defensive end/outisde linebacker hybrid, much in the way Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich were used. Winovich has the potential to be a much better pass rusher than those two Patriots legends. His high motor and youth will be utilized immediately along a defensive line that lacks a consistent pass rusher outside of the newly-acquired, 33-year-old Michael Bennett. Winovich may start at defensive end off the bat.

Williams may start opposite Stephen Gilmore as the team’s No. 2 cornerback immediately, but may not definitively until Year 2, as second-year, undrafted cornerback J.C. Jackson has a solid year ahead of him as a competent, striating cornerback. But Williams should see the field immediately as someone who guards big receivers and tight ends in man coverage, sometimes with help. Williams (6-foot-4, 211 pounds) is an unique matchup player that is basically a much more athletic Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds). Williams has incredible size and surprising quickness to cover some of the NFL’s most unique offensive weapons like Travis Kelce and Alshon Jeffrey, both of whom are on teams on the Patriots’ 2019 schedule. Bill Belichick tipped off this pick with a quote he gave to the media during his pre-draft press conference:

In Williams, Belichick has a unique player that he’ll unleash on the NFL.

Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardmon and the Chiefs’ offense — With recent news of the horrible situation surrounding Chiefs All-Pro athlete Tyreek Hill, Kansas City may — and should be — without Hill. If they’re not, Mecole Hardmon is a fascinating, speedy slot option to compliment Hill and ‘X’ receiver Sammy Watkins, but Hardmon was likely selected in the event that Hill will be out of football soon. Many thought Hardmon was a third or fourth-round slot receiver selection. But with his speed and quickness, Hardmon may be able to serve as a poor man’s Tyreek Hill in Kansas City’s offense. No one is Hill, he’s a dynamic weapon that is virtually uncoverable. But at Georgia, Hardmon was an explosive weapon that complimented Riley Ridley as both a slot and deep-threat option. With the transcendent Patrick Mahomes, a generational talent, at quarterback, Hardmon may turn into the Chiefs’ No. 2 pass catcher behind tight end Travis Kelce. The Chiefs’ section of Hardmon a round or two before may projected makes that indication more clear. They intend for Hardmon to become an integral part of their offensive, immediately.

Kelvin Harmon’s fall to Round 6 is preposterous — There’s no reason why N.C. State stud wide receiver Kelvin Harmon should have dropped to Washington in the sixth round. There has been nothing off-the-field that has been reported on him, that warrants that type of slip. Sure, Harmon went from a possible first-round selection to a likely third-round prospect after the combine, but this type of fall is just perplexing. In Washington, Harmon should work his way up the depth chart to be the team’s No. 4 receiver, as a back-up ‘X’ type role behind Josh Doctson on the outside.

Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII

Edelman, the NFL’s most clutch receiver, adds to legacy in Super Bowl LIII

For three quarters, the Rams’ talented defense played like a unit that holds the Super Bowl-record with seven first-round picks. Even with two of those players lined up as cornerbacks (Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib), Julian Edelman made a mockery of Wade Phillips’ otherwise brilliant zone defense that confused Brady for much of the game.

Super Bowl LIII was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in NFL history. And yet, Brady’s most-trusted receiver hauled in 10 catches for 141 receiving yards, earning him the Super Bowl LIII MVP award.

Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII
Julian Edelman celebrates a third-down conversion versus the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

Often lining up across from Nickell Robey-Coleman or Corey Littleton in matchup zones, Edelman feasted by using his spacial awareness and elite quickness to find open spots in the defense. This not only gave Brady an open target, but allowed him to look for Edelman in YAC (yards after catch) situations, for bigger gains.

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Edelman amassed 70 yards after the catch, which is good for almost exactly half of his production. Additionally, he averaged just about four yards of separation on his team-high 12 targets from Brady.

—————

Edelman is the epitome of what it means to be a Patriot. A coachable, gritty, hard-working underdog at his core. Like Brady, Edelman found success in the NFL by utilizing real slights against him (from his past) and then kept that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality thoughout the rest of his career, even after he became a household name.

Julian Edelman - Super Bowl LIII parade
Edelman embraces fans at the Super Bowl LIII parade in Boston. (Screenshot: WBZ/CBS Boston)

That’s a much-needed mantra in New England, that epitomizes the attitudes of past team leaders from the franchise’s first dynasty — Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest.

Like other postseason heroes of the Patriots’ past, at his position, there is a little of Troy Brown and Deion Branch in Edelman. But he has somehow become Brady’s best friend of all, and most trusted target.

From climbing out of Wes Welker’s shadow, to running routes in the offseason at Brady’s Montana home.

Edelman could have retired after Super Bowl LI. But instead, he ventured on another journey, to fight off more setbacks, to become a champion, once more.

—————

The last 24 months of Edelman’s life have been a whirlwind.

Virtually, two years ago to the very weekend, Tom Brady’s most trusted target hauled in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, in helping the Patriots secure the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Edelman - Super Bowl LI
Julian Edelman hauled in one the most improbable catches in NFL history in Super Bowl LI. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

Fast forward six months later to August 2017. In a preseason game in Detroit versus the Lions, Edelman took a routine drag route from Brady, slipped past defenders and then fell to the ground without being tackled.

It was a complete ACL tear, which ended his 2017 season.

Edelman watched Danny Amendola, another one of football’s most clutch players (and one of Edelman’s good friends), step up in his absence, in taking over the slot receiver position full-time. Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl LII, but the Patriots fell to Nick Foles and the Eagles, 41-33.

Then, Amendola departed in free agency, joining the Dolphins. This put more pressure on the health of Edelman, who needed to be himself for Brady and the continuity of the team to remain intact.

But in a twist, Edelman was served a four-game suspension in June for performance-enhancing drugs, in a story that was first reported on Reddit.

While waiting for Edelman to return, Brady and the Patriots struggled mightily on offense, starting the season 1-2. When No. 11 did return to the field, he looked almost like his usual self. He garnered 74 catches for 850 yards and six touchdowns in just 12 games, but New England struggled early in December, dropping consecutive road games to the Dolphins and Steelers. They rallied enough — ironically, with help from Foles and the Eagles — to hang onto the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Then the magic began.

Edelman reeled in nine catches for 151 yards agains the Chargers in their AFC Divisional Playoff win. He was virtually uncoverable agains the Chargers’ zone scheme.

Then, after a near-muffed punt, and a subsequent drop-turned-interception in the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, the slot master embarrassed all of his ‘Ball Don’t Lie’ detractors on Twitter with three huge catches down the stretch in the team’s overtime victory.

Julian Edelman -- 3rd and 10
Edelman reeled in back-to-back 3rd-and-10-converting catches in the AFC title game. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

Edelman brought in two tough grabs on tight man coverage on consecutive 3rd-and-10’s on the game-winning drive in overtime. He ended the game with seven catches for 96 yards.

The moment was a microcosm of his career. From being counted out since being an undersized high school kid growing up in Northern California, to receive no D-1 college scholarship offers, to falling to the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Edelman has always beaten the odds.

Most of the excitement toward his fourth-quarter miscue in Kanas City was due to the hatred that most outside of New England have for Tom Brady and the Patriots. If detractors really can’t stomach the Patriots cleaning house of the NFL’s best teams in crunch time, then Edelman surely made them pay afterword, by adding to his legacy with more late-game heroics in the biggest of moments.

This wasn’t an underdog team, but this was a surprising champion. At various times throughout the year, conversation on shows such as ESPN’s First Take (and other shows) revolved around the impending end of Brady and the Patriots’ current reign.

During the AFC title game, Edelman was caught by NFL Films, yelling “you’re too old!” at Brady, in an effort to hype up the man who sees him as the little brother he never had.

In the Super Bowl, Brady looked his way 12 times, which is five more than the player (Gronk) with the second-most targets (7) in the game.

—————

Much more regular season success, and perhaps more postseason moments, are needed for Edelman to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he is indeed a candidate. The conversation is not laughable, as many on Twitter have opined, hoping to come up with some type of negative storyline about the Patriots. In fact, his case is formidable.

Edelman is now the second-best postseason receiver in NFL history, with stats, and a bag of moments to prove it.

The double-pass to Amendola in a 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff. A 3rd-and-14 conversion, and game-winning touchdown to beat the Seahawks (the best passing defense of all-time) in Super Bowl XLIX. One of the greatest catches ever in Super Bowl LI. Multiple third down conversions in the clutch at cold-weather Kansas City two weeks ago.

And now, this.

Edelman and Brady -- Super Bowl LIII
Edelman and Brady celebrate their third Super Bowl win together. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

Edelman is the most clutch receiver in football over the last decade.

And if the greatest (and most clutch) player in NFL history trusts him with a Super Bowl hanging in the balance, then Edelman’s greatness should be defined by that.

 

Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LIII

Belichick, Patriots halt Rams with defensive masterpiece

With just over eight minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIII, and the score tied, the crowd of fans overwhelming run by Patriots’ backers began their chant.

“Brady! Brady! Brady!”

Tom Brady delivered a 29-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski up the seam, setting up a two-yard, eventual game-winning touchdown by Sony Michel.

Tom Brady - Super Bowl LIII
Tom Brady celebrates the go-ahead score in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

As always, Brady calmly came through in the fourth quarter of football’s biggest stage, helping the Patriots win yet another Super Bowl. But that’s about all he did. In fact, that was the only touchdown scored by any team, the entire game.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Brady said. “We just couldn’t make the big play. We just couldn’t stay on the field on third down. We just knew we had a whole half to go. Defense set the tone. . . . They held them and we broke through in the fourth quarter.”

This game was mostly won by Bill Belichick, Brian Flores and their hungry defense. It was an ode to Patriots teams of the past. Like the one that stopped the Rams of St. Louis in their tracks in Super Bowl XXXVI. But this was more than that. This was an ass-whooping of the umpteenth degree. This was 66-year-old Belichick schooling 33-year-old Rams head coach Sean McVay, and 24-year-old Jared Goff, the quarterback that was taken with the first pick of the 2016 draft.

The tone of the defense was especially set to pristine edge-setting, effective interior pass-rushing, blanketed coverage and a warrior-like attitude from a unit that was counted out more times than once during their trek toward yet another championship.

Few other plays (and players) exemplified the Patriots’ attitude then Patrick Chung’s tenacity in attempting to make a tackle, on a play where he reportedly broke his arm. After a TV timeout where staff tended to Chung, which led to the cart being rolled out, the 10-year veteran corralled his emotions and pulled himself up, to walk to the sideline, on his own volition.

“When you see a guy like that put it all on the line, put his body on the line, not caring, it makes you want to fight more for your teammates,” Stephon Gilmore said.

Chung watched the rest of the game from the sidelines in an arm cast. But even he realized that his teammates were more than capable of picking up the slack, to finish off the wide-eyed Rams.

“I was on the ground crying,” Chung told The Athletic. “They said, ‘Stop crying, bro we got you.’ I heard it. I felt it. I had no doubt in my mind we would be good.”

New England had already confused the Rams with a heavy dose of zone coverage, which contradicted their season’s story, as they ran more man coverage than any other team in the NFL.

Jonathan Jones, a backup cornerback, and special teams player, played 64 of 65 snaps as a safety opposite Devin McCourty, while Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty played every defensive snap as the team’s top two cornerbacks.

New England employed a quarters coverage for most of the game. That’s essentially a Cover 4, with two cornerbacks and two safeties each taking away one-fourth of the field in deep zone coverage.

“We anticipated that we would see some unscouted stuff,” Rams center John Sullivan told Sports Illustrated. “Playing Cover-4 was unscouted. Or it was different from them, let’s put it that way.”

Ironically, it was ex-Patriots defensive coordinator, and current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who successfully slowed down the Rams’ offense with this style in a 30-16 loss to Los Angeles in December.

Belichick saw that and utilized this coverage, while also taking away the Rams’ patented outside zone running scheme by often putting linebackers on the edge of the line of scrimmage, giving the feel of six-man fronts to limit the Rams aggressiveness with their usual rushing style.

Of course, the curious case of Todd Gurley (34 total yards), the NFL’s touchdown leader in the regular season with 21, helped in preventing the Rams usually-explosive offense from doing heavy damage, but the Patriots certainly played their part in limiting him when McVay looked his way.

A front seven that was inconsistent for much of the year was masterful on Sunday, holding the Rams to 62 rushing yards and sacking Goff four times, flustering him to the point where never gained a rhythm.

Trey Flowers had a monster tackle for a loss, Adrian Clayborn consistently applied pressure, Kyle Van Noy added a key third-down sack, and Dont’a Hightower added to his Super Bowl lore.

Famous for his game-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX, and his sack-fumble on Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI, Hightower had his best overall performance in any of his three Super Bowl appearances on Sunday.

He was flying around the field with his pre-2017 speed, using his experience in big games to outsmart Goff, and pummel the Rams’ offensive line and running game.

Clearly missed in last year’s 41-33, Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, Hightower’s two sacks, and near-interception, put him a hair above Gilmore as the team’s best defensive player on the night.

“Whenever you work as hard as we do,” Hightower said, “and you’re as dedicated, and you’ve got guys who come in and work hard and who are willing to sacrifice their time away from their family and their loved ones, who are willing to do whatever each and every week in a hard, demanding place, you expect that. You expect to win whenever you practice, whenever you put that much hard work into the game plans every week.”

As the pass rush got to Goff, the secondary limited the Rams receivers. Former Patriot deep-threat Brandin Cooks, traded to Los Angeles a year ago for a first-round pick, hauled in eight catches for 120 yards, but failed to reel in two of the biggest targets of the game.

Goff looked his way late for a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, that was knocked away by Jason McCourty, after a herculean effort to sprint from his zone assignment to break up the play. Then, in the fourth quarter, Goff’s best throw of the night fell right into Cooks’ hands, but Duron Harmon got a hand in there, which was just enough to stop the play.

Stephon Gilmore - Super Bowl LIII
Stephon Gilmore’s interception of Goff in the fourth quarter put Super Bowl LIII on ice
(Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

On the very next play, the Patriots sent Harmon on a delayed-blitz. As he came screaming in untouched, Goff panicked, and threw up a jackpot-style pass to the same spot, where Stephon Gilmore, the NFL’s premier shutdown cornerback, was waiting in his quarters coverage.

“I saw it the whole time,” Gilmore said. “I never took my eyes off it. I looked it in. I can’t believe he threw it.”

It’s true. In replays, Gilmore clearly had his eyes on Goff the entire time. His interception came after a vintage game-winning drive by Brady, his sixth in Super Bowls (he’s won every one that way), virtually sealing the game.

Finally coming alive, Brady went 4-for-4 with 67 yards to put the Patriots up 10-3, finding eventual Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) on his zillionth dig route of the game, matched up against Rams linebacker Corey Littleton, who gave up the ensuing deep seam route to Gronk, two plays later.

Rob Gronkowski - Super Bowl LIII
Rob Gronkowski reels in a 29-yard catch on the Patriots game-winning drive in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

After the game, Gronkowski punted away retirement questions, stating that he would take a week or two to decide. Instead, perhaps the greatest tight end ever, fresh off his big fourth quarter, embraced the moment.

“Bill (Belichick) told me he’s partying tonight,” said Gronkowski, who was also seen in a hilarious Instagram video with Brady after the game, seemingly taunting any and all of their detractors to the tune of the outro in Eminem’s Without Me.

New England even finally broke free in the running game late, as James Develin plowed over defenders as a lead-blocking fullback, helping clear lanes for Michel (18 carries, 94 yards) and the Patriots backs in general (154 rushing yards) on a night where the Rams not only took away the outside-the-numbers passing routes, but also usual Super Bowl safety net James White (nine total yards).

But as always, the Patriots adapted. And despite a shaky effort early, Brady found his rhythm late. He was given way too many chances.

Brady was already at or past Michael Jordan’s level of overarching greatness in North American professional team sports. And this season was about Brady, Belichick and the Patriots resilience in the face of more moments of adversity than even they have been accustomed to.

But this game in particular was about something else. It was another masterful Belichick blueprint on the game’s biggest stage. It was Flores’ swan song before heading to Miami to coach the Dolphins. And it was the Patriots’ defense, the group that let the team down in Super Bowl LII last February, emphatically making their mark with one of the great performances as an overall unit in the history of the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LIII Preview

Super Bowl LIII Preview: Brady’s second shot at ring No. 6 comes versus ‘all-in’ Rams

By now the storylines have reached a point of exhaustion. The hate for the Patriots’ self-contrived ‘underdog’ status has been well-documented. The Rams’ aggressive team-building approach and wunderkind head coach, well-profiled.

But this should come as a sigh of relief — here is a FOOTBALL preview of Super Bowl LIII. That’s right — matchups, x-factors and what each team needs to do to be victorious. Enjoy.

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

Despite being anchored by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, the Patriots have transitioned to more of an old-school ground-and-pound offense for a significant portion of the team’s last four victories.

Behind perhaps the league’s best offensive line since December, and the best lead-blocking fullback in pro football in James Develin, rookie workhorse back Sony Michel has rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in New England’s two postseason wins.

Still, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is famous for adopting a chameleon-type approach to attacking defenses. Depending on the opponent, the Patriots may opt for Brady to line up in shotgun and sling the football 50-60 times, or they may opt to bulk up and run over opponents with ’21’ or 12′ personnel.

The Rams were ranked 31st in rush yards per attempt allowed in the regular season (Chiefs were 32nd), but they’ve hunkered down in the postseason. First, they bottled up Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, then stymied the two-back attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing those three to just 93 yards on 37 carries in their two postseason wins.

But what the Rams did fall susceptible to (early on) in their thrilling overtime win over the Saints, is the halfback running out into the flats.

Targeted 13 times, Kamara reeled in 11 passes for 96 yards, often in the flats with Rams linebacker Corey Littleton trailing in coverage.

This bodes well for James White, who is the Patriots’ X-factor on offense this Sunday. 

Expect White to haul in anywhere from 10 to 15 passes running shallow flat, angle and option routes matched up against Rams linebackers.

With an excellent cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, Brady will have trouble throwing outside the numbers to the likes of Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.

But with just Hogan, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field most of the time for New England, expect Talib to get his share of duties against Gronk in man coverage, even lined up as a traditional tight end.

Brady will shy away from Talib and Peters mostly, looking for White, Rex Burkhead and you guessed it….Julian Edelman lined up against Rams slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Robey-Coleman walked back his ‘taken-out-of-context’ comments referring to Brady’s old age, which is good, because TB12 has had his fair share of success targeting him from his days as a member of the Buffalo Bills. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 130.6 passer rating when targeting Robey-Coleman, which is good for his third highest against any defender in the he has targeted at least 20 times.

So it’s understandable that Brady and Edelman, perhaps the best QB-to-slot receiver tandems of all-time, would have their way with the Rams’ CB3.

But in a season-defining game such as this, look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to have various plans in slowing down the Patriots’ passing game. With age catching up to Gronkowski, it’s possible Phillips places Talib on Edelman, but Talib will turn 33 years old 10 days after Sunday’s game, meaning he’s not quite the player he once was. Still a solid man-coverage cornerback, Talib would be up for the challenge, with the press coverage skills to slow down Edelman at times, but Edelman is not your average 32-year-old receiver. His affinity for clutch play and relentless grit, combined with his quickness and rapport with Brady, actually make him one of the league’s hardest receivers to cover, certainly at this time of the year.

In that case, the Rams might opt for more zone coverage, but knowing Brady decimates teams that play soft zone coverage as their primary defense (see: Brady vs. Steelers), Phillips will have to disguise his looks to full Brady, ultimately mixing in well-designed blitzes at the proper times to fool the GOAT.

But that can prove risky, with quick outlets such as White and Burkhead (who also can be utilized in running draws) available as quick-passing targets for Brady.

Which means the Rams’ blueprint success doesn’t necessarily rely on perfect coverage, but instead being the old adage of pressuring the quarterback, which works on any passer, not just Brady.

Yet, it’s a very specific type of pressure that will slow down this Patriots offense, and the Rams have the perfect players to do so.

Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. are capable on the edge, but Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon should be able to slow them down. And even if they don’t at times, Brady’s all-time pocket presence is perhaps his best tangible attribute, meaning stepping up and around edge pressure is something he can and will do.

Instead, it’s the interior where the Rams will need to excel.

Luckily for Los Angeles, they sport the greatest interior rushing threat — and eventually, maybe greatest defensive tackle ever— in Aaron Donald.

With a league-high 20.5 sacks and 41 knockdowns, Donald is primed for to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday.

The behemoth has the ability to wreck any team’s game plan, but the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been stout. From left guard to right, Joe Thuney, David Andrews (center) and Shaq Mason have brutalized defenses in the run game, and along with tackles Brown and Cannon, they have kept Brady upright the entire postseason thus far. Zero sacks allowed by this group. The only other time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback went unscathed for no sacks in a postseason run was Brady in the 2003 Patriots’ path to glory.

With the ability to double-team Donald, the Patriots will limit him SOME, but expect Donald to have at least three or more clean pressures on Brady from the interior, due to his sheer dominance.

But if New England can limit Donald with a double team, the Rams’ success, and possibly chances of winning, may lie with their X-factor on defense, Ndamukong Suh.

Once a dominant interior player on his own with the Lions, Suh is not quite the same player, but is still formidable enough to take over a game if need be. Although not indicative of the effectiveness of an interior rusher, Suh has just 4.5 sacks this season, meaning he could do better as a rusher, which is part of the reason the Rams snagged Fowler from the Jaguars midseason, to generate more pressure.

But matched up solo against Thuney or Mason, Suh may be a game-wrecker for the Patriots in both the pass and the run game, if he steps up for the challenge.

But this is a tough matchup for the Rams. The Patriots will likely employ a mix of everything, which includes things like Burkhead running routes from the slot, and Cordarrelle Patterson acting as an ‘athlete’ by lining up in the backfield, and taking his fair share of end-arounds.

But ultimately, the Patriots want to control the tempo, and the clock, by pounding Michel behind their stout offensive line, lead-blocking extraordinaire Develin and monster-blocking by Gronk and Dwayne Allen. If they can break the Rams that way, then the play-action will come, and the Rams will likely falter, no matter what they do on offense. But if Donald and Suh can generate consistent interior pressure, against both the run and the pass, a la the 2007 and 2011 Giants, then the Rams may have their recipe for success.

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

The Rams have fond success under wunderkind, offensive-minded Sean McVay, a 33-year-old head coach that has used futuristic concepts to riddle opposing defenses.

Running McVay’s offense is 24-year-old Jared Goff, a third-year quarterback (and former No. 1 overall pick) who has vastly improved since his NFL debut.

The Rams heavily employ ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and often use these pieces in a bunch formation, with three receivers playing tightly within each other, and close to their offensive line. There, McVay relies upon Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best backs, on outside zones, while also utilizing Gurley as a receiver, and as a decoy, in play-action passes where the team’s bunch formations makes it hard to decipher routes, and where their receivers are going.

But because many of the Rams’ passing plays are long-developing, with routes such as deep-comebacks to Brandin Cooks, Goff holds onto the ball longer, giving a much-improved Patriots pass rush, led by Trey Flowers, a chance pressure Goff, as they did Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots front seven in general had a rough go for much of the regular season, but they’ve allowed just 60 yards on 22 carries in their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. And while December-acquisition, and postseason hero C.J. Anderson had a successful outing versus the Cowboys, he was held to 2.8 yards per carry versus the Saints, meaning Gurley HAS to get it going in some form, for the Rams to have a chance.

The 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year garnered a putrid 13 yards on five touches, which included a drop-turned interception early on, which helped put the Rams in a 13-0 hole. That can’t happen versus the Patriots.

Gurley looked discouraged and flustered, but he’s been given another opportunity, and should have a better go-round than his NFC championship game performance.

But Bill Belichick specializes in taking away his opponents’ best offensive weapon. And although Gurley may seem like that guy on paper, the real weapon in this offense is McVay, through Goff. It’s the perfectly-ingrained system. With possession receiver, turned-bonafide-stud WR1 Robert Woods, speedy, deep threat Brandin Cooks and the young, sure-handed Josh Reynolds, the Rams have a nice trio of receivers, even with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp earlier in the season.

Mentioned earlier, the Rams’ Aqib Talib was perhaps the league’s best man coverage cornerback a few seasons ago (think: 2015). That title now belongs to Patriots CB1 Stephon Gilmore. Not only is Gilmore the best man coverage corner, he’s the best cornerback in the league overall right now, period.

Although the Patriots may mix in some zone concepts, they just love to play man coverage, meaning that’s primarily what they’ll start with.

Cooks is a dangerous threat, but his route tree is limited to deep comebacks, drags, slants and flies. He isn’t a uber-precise route-runner, or a receiver who hangs onto balls consistently in traffic.

Woods isn’t as much of a home-run threat as Cooks is, but he’s the better overall receiver, meaning he’ll likely draw Gilmore for most of the game.

The Patriots will likely use a combination of Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Cooks, with safety Duron Harmon moving over from his usual ‘center fielder’ type role to shad overtop Cooks. The guess is the veteran McCourty draws Cooks (with help), while Jackson gets a shot at Reynolds. Because of his likely opportunity in one-on-one coverage, Reynolds is one of two X-factor(s) on the Rams’ offense. 

If Reynolds can beat his man consistently, Goff will be able to find his second and third read, while the Patriots key on more-known targets like Woods, Cooks and Gurley.

But with a much-improved pass rush, the Patriots have been able to get pressure with fronts containing Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, and interior sub-rusher Adam Butler. New England has also sent Kyle Van Noy from the edge with much success in recent weeks, specifically in the first half against Kansas City.

If the Patriots are able to play press man coverage tightly to delay (and knock off) the routes of Rams receivers, New England may make things difficult for Goff. That’s where McVay will have to lean on the ’12’ personel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR) groupings he used in the team’s comeback win over the Saints (16 snaps.)

In that case, the Rams would replace Reynolds with another tight end to pair with Tyler Higbee. That would be the team’s second X-factor on offense, Gerald Everett. 

Everett is a move tight end capable of giving the Patriots fits. He’s nimble and athletic, and can block just well enough to not be a liability in the run game. If the Rams can find some success running Gurley or Anderson here, that will set up Everett matched up agains the likes of Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung. The latter of those four would likely be the best matchup for the Patriots, meaning Chung is the Patriots’ X-factor on defense, providing Belichick with a good piece in man coverage against tight ends from the slot. 

In the run game, Chung can be used in the box and up front as a pseudo-linebacker capable of stopping Gurley and Anderson, while also not surrendering speed and coverage ability to the team’s personnel. This may also include the occasional man coverage assignment on Gurley lined up as a receiver, when motioning out of the backfield.

The Rams have the pieces to make things awfully difficult on the Patriots here, but New England’s experience and recent mojo suggest they’ll have their moments, too.

Prediction

On paper, the Rams are not only vastly more talented, but they seemingly have the pieces and the aggressive approach to take down the Patriots, much like the Eagles did last year.

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Don’t Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

The stage won’t be ‘too big’ for the Rams, but I believe they’ll get caught napping early, as the Patriots get out to a lead behind a fiery Tom Brady, who will look for James White early and often (I mean it…10-15 catches from him, and two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving).

The Rams will figure things out both offensively and defensively in the second half, and like all past Brady-Belichick Super Bowls, this will be close, but nowhere near like the  nail-biters in their past few bouts.

New England will switch up their offensive approach from drive to drive, as they won’t be able to run 45 times against this improved Rams defense, but they’ll have enough success running to set up a few downfield throws by Brady on play-action.

And when the Patriots aren’t running behind Develin and the offensive line, they’ll spread things out and Brady will look to the short and intermediate areas in between the numbers.

The Rams will have some success with Gurley before he’s taken out of the game, leaving Goff alone, looking for his secondary weapons.

Give me Brady, Belichick and these hungry Patriots to complete the full circle of their dynasty that spans over 18 years. They’ll beat the Rams again, for what might be their last Super Bowl together.

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White

Greg Zuerlein kick

No matter what happens next, Rams’ aggressive offseason paid off

Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard, walk-off boot sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, but the path to franchise’s first league championship bout since 2001 started roughly 10 months ago.

Last March, the team most noted for its offensive transcendence and aggressiveness on the field in 2017, geared up for their 2018 campaign by vigorously searching for (and adding) talent.

They acquired disgruntled Chiefs No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters via a trade. They traded a first-round pick (no. 23 overall) to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks. They plucked Aqib Talib in a trade with the Broncos. They placed Ndamukong Suh from free agency on a one-year, ‘rental’ deal for this moment.

At one point, before the Cooks trade, there was rumored interest between the Rams and Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

After watching the Eagles roll to a championship via going after players in trades and free agency, rather than waiting and developing their own prospects, the Rams assertively one-upped last year’s Super Bowl champions by digging for talent via every avenue possible.

The Rams embraced the ultimate, ‘win-now’ mode, but also made progress in solidifying their nucleus for seasons to come.

The team opted to extend Todd Gurley’s contract on a four-year, $60 million deal. Upon trading for Cooks, who had one year left on his rookie contract, the team gave him a five-year, $81 million extension.

Then, after a stare down that saw Aaron Donald, the NFL’s best defensive player, skip their training camp and preseason, Los Angeles obliged Donald with a 6-year, $135 million extension.

Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald should win a second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, come Feb. 2. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

As an interior force, Donald is perhaps the most disruptive to offenses than any other player in history at his position. Pairing him with Suh has helped produce a formidable duo, but the team still struggled to defend the run in the regular season, rating as the worst team in football against yards per attempt (5.1).

But like the 2006 Colts (who won Super Bowl XLI), they’ve buckled down in the postseason, corralling the NFL’s leading rusher, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (20 carries, 47 yards), then stymieing the NFL’s best running back duo, Saints’ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (21 carries, 48 yards).

Although the Rams are thin at the linebacker spot, their talented secondary has one of the league’s best duos of playmaking cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who are both newcomers.

But even with a vast collection of talent on defense, and a wizard defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, the Rams haven’t been as effective as they hoped on defense. But by cracking down on their usual mistakes in the postseason, they’ve done just enough to balance out an offense that has been virtually transcendent under mastermind, 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, and third-year quarterback Jared Goff.

After a minor injury to Gurley and a season-ending injury to trust receiver Cooper Kupp, the Rams offense hit a wall in December, as most (including me) fitted them for an early postseason exit to regroup for next year.

But McVay’s futuristic offensive scheming adapted to more of an almost-old school vibe of pounding C.J. Anderson, a Super Bowl 50 hero, and journeyman running back, acquired in December. Anderson ran wild versus a tough Cowboys defense in an NFC divisional round matchup. And on Sunday, when Gurley had perhaps the worst game of his career, and Anderson was corralled to just 2.8 yards per carry, Goff led the Rams on a 13-point comeback on the road in the NFC championship game.

Goff has improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons, and in just two years, McVay has become a top-five coach, taking home Coach of the Year honors last year, and leading his team to an NFC title in his second season.

While utilizing a heavy attack of tight-bunch formations and inside zone running plays out of the shotgun formation, the Rams have built up a high-scoring offense. On defense, the Rams have finally started to figure things out as a team, rather than a collection of talent.

So when Zuerlein’s kick sailed through the uprights in New Orleans, the Rams were going to the Super Bowl. But they knew this all along. They went all-in on this season, while still hedging for the future, and it worked out.

Tom Brady iconic shot

Brady, Patriots reach Super Bowl LIII in unlikely (yet, not surprising) story of redemption

At one point this season the Patriots were 9-5, fresh off a last-second, miracle loss in Miami, and an ugly, demoralizing 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks. The season appeared lost, as the pulse around the nation seemed to suggest that this Patriots season was different.

Five weeks (and four wins) later, New England is heading to it’s third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.

Maybe it was the bullish ‘are the Patriots done?’ takes by most of sports media. The end-is-near predictions became increasingly more abundant this season. After all, 41-year-old Tom Brady was good, but not his usual self for most of the regular season, that was apparent. But come January, the Patriots have turned on the jets, 2007/2011 New York Giants-style, feeding on more ‘talented’ squads like the Chargers and Chiefs, bursting out to a combined 42-7 lead in the first halves of each game. But unlike their blowout win over Phillip Rivers and company, New England’s bout with soon-to-be MVP Patrick Mahomes turned into the greatest conference championship game in NFL history.

There were six lead changes (including ties) in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. To outlast Mahomes and his three second half touchdowns, Brady led three consecutive touchdown treks of his own to close out the game.

His stats during those drives: 11-of-16, 147 yards, 5-for-5 in third down conversion attempts.

In Brady’s remarkable career, one could argue that was his third most clutch moment, behind his last two Super Bowl victories.

For a quarterback who admittedly looked more skittish than usual in the pocket at times this season, Brady was fearless in the face of the league-leading team in sacks. TB12 converted on three consecutive 3rd-and-10’s on the final drive in overtime, finding’s Julian Edelman twice and Rob Gronkowski once.

Brady to Gronk vs Chiefs
Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski on a clutch 3rd-and-10 conversion in overtime (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Both Edelman and Gronk fended off possible season-ending drops-turned-interceptions in the fourth quarter, to return with a collection of clutch catches that rival, well, maybe no other duo of pass catchers ever. Everytime Brady dropped back on a big-time down late in the game, one of his trusted confidants pulled in a catch in blanked coverage. At one point, Gronk’s career looked as if it would end in an Alshon Jeffrey-like whiff to end the Patriots season. Instead, a Dee Ford offside penalty on the Chiefs gave New England new life. Gronk hauled in a sideline catch right over Eric Berry on the very next play. Redemption beamed from these two.

But Brady’s season-long redemption began as soon as his Super Bowl LII hail mary attempt hit the turf, last February in Minnesota. The Patriots lost Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder and Danny Amendola on an offense that seemingly needed them throughout the season.

But as they always do, the Patriots adapted. The plug-in-and-play method lives on. Trent Brown filled in for Solder. Rookie rusher Sony Michel has one-upped Lewis as a lead back. And despite not fully making up for the production of Cooks and Amendola, Brady has gotten enough out of do-everything athlete Cordarrelle Patterson and reserve-turned-WR3 Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in a massive jump ball score at the end of the first half.

On defense, the team has heavily relied on one player at each level, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Stephon Gilmore, to elevate themselves as star players at different times. Flowers was solid on Sunday. Van Noy was a star on Sunday. Gilmore has been a star all season, as he’s become the premier lockdown, No. 1 cornerback in football.

But one of the major stories of the offense has been the underrated offensive line and James Develin. Behind those two forces (and Gronk and Dwayne Allen) the Patriots have been solid virtually all season in pass protection and in opening up rushing lanes. During this postseason run, Michel has garnered 242 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with the Patriots gaining 331 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns total over their two-game stretch. That’s an insane amount. Piggybacking off run-heavy formations in December wins over the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season, New England carried that game plan into January, but as we saw, they were’t going to hold onto a victory against the feisty Mahomes. Brady was needed to ‘take’ the win. And that he did.

Echoed in his quick postgame chat with CBS, and in raw footage of him in the locker room, Brady’s feelings about this game (and this season) were clear.

“Un-fucking-believable bro!” Brady told, well, everyone.

New England is back in the Super Bowl to face the Rams of Los Angeles. 17 years ago, a 24-year-old Brady bested the Rams for his first Super Bowl win. Now, he gets one more shot at his sixth. The Michael Jordan of football looks to become perhaps the greatest athlete in the history of North American professional sports.

This was no ‘underdog’ story. But admit it, this was their most surprising run to pro football’s biggest game since 2001.

Adversity was met head on. People will be angry, America is sick of the Patriots. But Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots aren’t yet sick of playing in Super Bowls.