Todd Gurley vs Saints

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Rams lead the way in NFC; Patriots eying another 19-0 run?

Two weeks into the season and there’s already a headline that can be ruled out for the remainder of 2019.

There will be no silence of the Rams this year.

The Super Bowl loser’s curse had already lost some it’s oomph over the last few seasons. After all, the Patriots just won Super Bowl LIII over the Rams after losing Super Bowl LII the year before.

With the exception of that curse, or notion, there was no other reason to believe the Rams would not seriously contend to return to the Super Bowl.

After their 27-9 victory over the Saints in an NFC Championship Game rematch, it’s clear the Rams are the current favorite in the NFC.

Granted, Drew Brees left the game early after Aaron Donald swatted his right thumb on a passing attempt, knocking him out of the game, and possibly the next two months, the Rams still were clearly the better team.

John Johnson added another interception of Brees early on, as he did in overtime in the NFC title game. Clay Matthews notched a sack in his first game in his hometown (Matthews grew up in the valley in Aguora Hills) and Aaron Donald and Eric Weddle were their usual dominant selves.

On offense Jared Goff threw dimes downfield to Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley flashed a few brilliant stretches of healthy-looking dominance.

But Los Angeles’ most important development is the play of slot receiver Cooper Kupp after his torn ACL last season. Only when Kupp was lost for the season last year did the Rams realize just how important he is to their offense. Los Angeles was stymied several times — most notably versus the Bears and Patriots — without the trusty Kupp to move the chains on third downs.

Kupp hauled in a game-high 120 yards on five catches versus New Orleans, showing just how much of a threat he can be when defenses key on Cooks and Robert Woods on the outside and Gurley in the backfield.

With Kupp, Sean McVay’s offense has a better chance of moving the ball against some of the league’s better defenses. Without Kupp, teams were able to key on the team’s outside receivers, making Los Angeles somewhat predictable in their often-used three-receiver bunch sets.

With Kupp’s unique skill set, the Rams have re-added perhaps their most important player in their passing game.

With Brees out, the Cowboys, Seahawks and banged-up Eagles appear to be the biggest threats to the Rams’ throne. But at this point in the season, it’s clear the Rams are a step ahead.

Patriots are on a mission

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots ever coming as close as to a 19-0 record as they did in 2007, when the campaign was halted by the miraculous ‘Helmet Catch’ of Super Bowl XLII.

Enter New England’s 2019 squad.

The Patriots throttled the league-worst Dolphins in Miami, 43-0, exorcising some demons in their house of horrors, while moving to a mind-numbing point differential of plus-73 (76-3) in their first two games.

The Patriots have been to three straight Super Bowls — and our of the last five — and their current squad is unquestionably their most complete team this decade.

New England’s chameleon approach to attacking defenses focuses on their ability to switch formations as smoothy as they change the focus of their game plan, which could revolve around power-running behind Sony Michel, or a spread attack with their multitude of pass-catching running backs and a league-best wide receiver core.

Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and the underrated Phillip Dorsett make up a top-tier group on their own. Adding the best wide receiver of the decade makes this group sublime.

By now, we know Antonio Brown’s situation. The 31-year-old superstar has been accused of three different incidents of sexual assault, including rape, in a civil suit filed by his former trainer. SI’s Robert Klemko also released a bombshell long form report this morning detailing an alleged another incident of sexual misconduct by Brown with another woman. The NFL is meeting with Brown’s accuser today, and Brown is subject to discipline if more evidence is released, or if the NFL sees fit.

Antonio Brown vs Dolphins
Antonio Brown celebrates his first career catch as a Patriot. Brown’s future availability is in question due to a civil lawsuit filed by his former trainer. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

When discussing Brown, his serious situation(s) off-the-field should be discussed. But what Browns brings to New England on the field is the league’s best route runner and all-time best sideline catch specialist capable of rendering the Patriots unbeatable.

Between Gordon on the outside, Edelman in the slot, and Brown and the speedy Phillip Dorsett Jr. moving around their formations, New England may have the best four-receiver sets every assembled.

Brady looked Brown’s way on his first three pass attempts, completing all three for 36 yards. Brady then looked Brown’s way a fourth time in the end zone, but eventually threw the ball away as Xavien Howard was called for a defensive holding call on Brown after he was beat on a nifty whip route usually reserved for Edelman — see: Super Bowl XLIX.

In all, Brown tallied four catches for 56 yards and a beautiful back-shoulder touchdown on eight targets from Brady.

There were clear instances of miscommunication. Brady hit the back of former Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe in an end zone under throw to Brown in the second half. Brady slammed his hands on his helmet after the misfire.

With the new SI report out, it’s fair to wonder if Brown has played his last game of the season. There will be pressure on the NFL to at least place him on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. But the Patriots are force on offense without him.

Still, New England’s best unit is their league-best defense, which has allowed three points in two games this season, and six points in three games if you include their 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams — the second-best offense in 2018 — in Super Bowl LIII.

Bill Belichick’s varying defensive fronts and blitz schemes, often in a ‘amoeba’ look (several stand-up defenses on the line scrimmage) causes confusion for quarterbacks, who are already dealing with the league’s deepest secondary, equipped with the NFL’s best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore.

Gilmore added a pick-six and a skying, one-handed deflection of a pass that ended up in the arms of Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

But New England’s ace in the hole has been Jamie Collins and his return to the team in which he earned his eventual mega-contract with the Browns.

Collins posted a sack and a half, a pick-six, an additional interception, as well as another wallowing hit on a running back in the backfield.

With the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Chase Winovich on the edge, and Collins and Dont’a Hightower moving all around the defensive front, the Patriots will be able to slow down a myriad of offenses.

The bottom line for New England is this — with or without Brown, they’re the best team in football. With him — and their easy schedule with the exception of a midseason stretch — a 19-0 season is in the cards.

The Patriots weathered the media storm from Spygate in 2007 by crushing the Chargers in Week 2 with the help from a superstar former Raiders receiver in Randy Moss.

They did the same in Week 2 this week with the well-warranted talk of former Raiders receiver Antonio Brown this week. If the allegations are to be true, Brown should be outlawed from the league. It’s also fair to want Commissioner Goodell to keep Brown off the field until the matter(s) are sorted out.

Regardless, the Patriots are rolling on all cylinders, and are the overwhelming favorite to return to Miami in February for Super Bowl LIV.

QUICK-HITS 

– In a league in which older quarterbacks have dominated in recent seasons, a flurry of young quarterbacks seem to be making their push into the NFL’s top tier of signal callers. Of course, such seems to be the case every year, but many passers don’t last as top tier guys for longer than a few seasons — see: Cam Newton.

Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo appear to be leading the latest wave of young quarterbacks poised to lead their franchises to success. But all three passers should be placed in the ‘be-weary’ column that should have been applied to guys like Newton, just because quarterbacks lately seem to have a spurts of great seasons before falling back to earth.

One quarterback whom this need not apply is Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has continued on his torrid pace in 2019, as he’s seemingly on track to repeat as NFL MVP if he keeps up his current pace.

If the decade started with Aaron Rodgers showing us a level of quarterback talent we’ve never seen before, then Mahomes will end the decade by surpassing Rodgers as the most talented quarterback to ever play. Mahomes is already that. After the Raiders surprised many in getting off to a 10-0 lead at home, Mahomes erased that cushion in a matter of minutes, throwing for four second-quarter touchdown passes to take the game.

With Kansas City continuing to struggle some on defense, it will be up to Mahomes to slay the mighty Patriots to lead Kansas City back to the Super Bowl. If any quarterback is to do that without a defense, it will be Mahomes. He’s that talented. And yes, he’s also that good.

First, Mahomes will deal with Jackson and the Ravens coming to town next week in a battle of two very-early NFL MVP leaders leading two early-season heavyweights in the AFC.

– After a flurry of embarrassing seasons in the 2000’s and a run of utter dominance in this decade, the NFC West appears to be highly competitive once again with the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks each posting 2-0 records to begin the season. Granted, Seattle and San Francisco have played subpar opponents at this point in the season. The Rams are the clear favorite in the division, but both the Seahawks and 49ers are staking their claim as teams that will be in the mix down the stretch. And lest we forget about the Arizona Cardinals (0-1-1). Rookie Kyler Murray was out dueled by Lamar Jackson in a a showdown of young gunslingers, but Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals have shown some flashes of offensive efficiency. The NFC West is certainly trending up.

– Drew Brees’ aforementioned thumb injury has required him to stay in Los Angeles today as the rest of the team heads to Seattle. Brees reportedly has met Dr. Steve Shin, according to ESPN’s Stephania Bell. Shin is regarded as one of the best hand specialists in the country. Seemingly after that, Brees was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right thumb. The injury will require surgery and the star passer is expected to miss up to six weeks, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Between Brees and Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending right elbow injury, some of the game’s best quarterbacks are now on the shelf. In New Orleans and Pittsburgh, the likes of Teddy Bridgewater and Mason Rudolph as fill-in-starters may be enough to keep the Saints and Steelers afloat, but both are major losses. It’s also worth wondering if Roethlisberger will retire after this injury.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (2-0) (Last week: 1). They’re already the best team in the NFL without Antonio Brown. But with him, they’re essentially the Steph Curry and Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors. Add in their defense, and then yes, 19-0 is in the cards. It’s not too early to begin the undefeated talk.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) (Last week: 2). Mahomes seems primed for another MVP award. He’s the greatest talent this game has ever seen at the quarterback position.

3. Los Angeles Rams (2-0) (Last week: 4). They’re still the team to beat in the NFC, for now.

4. Dallas Cowboys (2-0) (Last week: 6). Many believe a young QB’s fourth season is the most telling. If that’s the case, Dak Prescott is building a legacy.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-0) (Last week: 8). Lamar Jackson has clearly improved as a passer, but the Ravens have beat up on lesser opponents these first two weeks. Can he keep up with Mahomes and the Chiefs in Kansas City?

6. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1) (Last week: 3). A flurry of major injuries and a ton of bad luck downed the Eagles in Atlanta. They’ll be near the top of the conference come December.

7. Green Bay Packers (2-0) (Last week: 12). Green Bay’s defense may be the most underrated unit thus far. Once Aaron Rodgers fully adapts to the Packers’ new offense, look out, NFC.

8. Seattle Seahawks (2-0) (Last week: 11). Looking ahead at these next couple weeks, the Seahawks may quietly move to 4-0 before hosting the Rams in Seattle.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-1) (Last week: 5). With Brees expected to miss a good chunk of time, the talented Saints will turn to Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback who has been through his fair share of adversity.

10. Chicago Bears (1-1) (Last week: 14). Chicago has the best defense in the NFC, if not, the NFL. Mitch Trubisky may not be the answer as the franchise’s quarterback, but he does often come through in the clutch. Add in a kicker who doesn’t double-doink it, and the Bears are in business.

11. Minnesota Vikings (1-1) (Last week: 7). Like their NFC North counterpart in Chicago, the talented Vikings will only go as far as their inconsistent quarterback takes them. Kirk Cousins has to play better.

12. Atlanta Falcons (1-1) (Last week: NR). The wide-open NFC South is Atlanta’s for the taking.

13. Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) (Last week: 9). They still have a ton of talent, but something’s not quite right here. Doesn’t seem like their season.

14. Indianapolis Colts (1-1) (Last week: 16). Jacoby Brissett, franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has earned his title.

15. Houston Texans (1-1) (Last week: 13). The Texans are entering what most likely will be a season of crazy up-and-down play.

16. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: 10). Every time the Titans look like they’re about to enter a winning streak, they stop themselves dead in their tracks.

Next up: Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers

Brady, Dorsett vs Steelers

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Patriots drop sixth banner, pound Steelers, as Antonio Brown awaits

The Patriots celebrated their sixth Super Bowl win in front of the the only other franchise with as many. Then, they dismantled them on a national stage.

New England pummeled Pittsburgh, 33-3, by dominating in most facets of the game. Another banner drops, another in sight.

But the biggest story surrounding the most talked about team in sports remains the acquisition of superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown, which will become official today. After forcing his way out of Oakland in the most bizarre of circumstances, Brown signed a one-year deal worth $15 million — with a $9 million signing bonus — after leaving $30 million on the table in Northern California after several childish acts.

The Patriots were there to pluck Brown, and now it’s fair to wonder: where will Brown fit in this offense.

The logical answer is that he’d take the Z-receiver position, or flanker, considering he’s the better at that spot than anyone in the history of the NFL. But that role is currently occupied by Phillip Dorsett, who hauled in four catches on four targets for 95 yards and two scores.

Dorsett’s rapport with Brady is well-documented. The former first-round pick from Indianapolis has improved in each of the last two seasons in New England, and should continue to be apart of the team’s offensive plans, even as a No. 4 guy. After the game, he displayed nothing but awe for Brown’s career when asked about him.

“I was like, ‘Wow’ because I can’t wait to work with him,” Dorsett told NESN’s Doug Kyed. “He’s always been a guy I’ve looked up to when it comes to just football. He’s a beast. We all know that. I can’t wait to learn from him because we have similar body types, similar play types. I’ve always wanted to learn from him. Now I get to see him every day and work with him. So, I can’t wait.”

New England’s top two receivers, Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, also had outstanding nights. Coming back from yet another suspension, Gordon displays his physicality in hauling in three catches for 73 yards and a nifty, after-the-catch score. Edelman was his usual self, providing a game-high six catches for 83 yards.

After a few antsy misfires, or bad balls, Brady improved as the night went on, finishing 24-for-36 for 341 yards and three scores, including his impressive deep touchdown to Dorsett, and another long bomb to Gordon.

Adding Brown to this offense is not only comical, it is terrifying to even the best of defenses. He’s a perfect addition to a receiver core featuring the aforementioned box-out specialist Gordon and the shifty Edelman. But New England will have to get him up to speed, integrating him properly into the offense, while using his strengths to vanquish any and all opponents in their way.

The defense also looks like one of the league’s best units. Pittsburgh is without Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They no longer have the Killer B’s. But JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner are two of the better young offensive weapons in football, and Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion and Hall-of-Famer.

The Patriots defense held them to three measly points, which is the same exact score they held the offensively-gifted Rams to in Super Bowl LIII, seven months ago.

Adding Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins and rookie pass-rush specialist Chase Winovich to a defense that already yields Dont’a Hightower and the league’s best secondary is unfair. Heck, even Kyle Van Noy, who missed the game to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, wasn’t even there. He’ll return next week.

But nothing will be as unfair as when Antonio Brown makes his Patriots debut in Miami, his hometown, versus the lowly Dolphins next Sunday. And looking at the Patriots next few games after that — vs Jets, at Bills, at Washington, vs Giants, at Jets — it’s fair to think that New England should cruise to a 7-0 start before hosting the Browns. The 19-0 talk will certainly ramp up before then.

Brown, 31, will provide New England with a Randy Moss-live presence in terms of potential production. He’s tallied the most catches (686) and yards (9,145) in the last six seasons than any other player has ever contributed over that same span. He’s the league’s best route-runner capable of being a deep threat, a slot receiver, an perimeter player and a punt returner.

If he can stay in line, and there’s no reason to believe New England can’t tame even someone of his caliber, then the possibilities are endless.

According to a report from NBC’s Al Michaels, Brady has already offered Brown a chance to stay at his home while he searches for his own humble abode. Although Brady was fairly mum on Brown to the media after the game, and Belichick deflected questions of Brown entirely.

This marriage can work, and it probably will. Shades of 2007 are upon. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots aren’t done.

ARE THE BROWNS OVERRATED? 

Among the weekend’s biggest news was the shockingly bad performance by Baker Mayfield (25-for-38, 285 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) and the Cleveland Browns. The team was hyped to no end this offseason, after bringing in superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and others. The team even donned the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview magazine.

The headline read: ‘The Browns are back.’ Week 1 is hardly indicative of a team’s season, but it’s clear the Browns have a lot of work to do.

Mayfield threw picks to the Titans’ Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan, before Malcolm Butler added a pick-six for emphasis in the Titans’ 43-13 domination of the Browns in Cleveland. Both Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry provided some offense in the early going, eventually landing with 11 catches for 138 yards, which was hardly enough to keep them in the game.

A litany of takes will come forth today. After all, it’s Week 1’s overreaction Monday. Are the Browns closer to the ‘Dream Team’ 2011 Eagles — a perceived all-star cast that finished 8-8 — than the nearly-undefetead 2007 Patriots? Probably. But it’s worth nothing that the Titans are a tough and talented bunch. They’re also the franchise most equipped to have a few wonk games. Last season the Titans thrashed the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots at home, 34-10, before losing road games to the Colts and Texans by a combined score of 72-27. Tennessee is an enigma in itself. Also, did I mention it’s Week 1?

Mayfield should improve, Beckham Jr. will find his footing, Kareem Hunt will join the offense near midseason and Myles Garrett and the stacked defense will improve. The Browns are too talented to not finish with at least a 9-7 mark. They aren’t a Super Bowl contender, as Mayfield will undoubtedly suffer some sophomore blues. And rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens will learn a litany of lessons before he enters the upper echelon of coaches. If he does. Kitchens is not Sean McVay, but he’s a young offensive mind capable of learning on the fly, and keeping Baker focused. The two seem to have a good relationship. It’ll be good enough to weather this storm, but with all the hoopla surrounding these Browns this offseason, a mighty storm there will be, before their road Week 2 matchup next Monday night versus the New York Jets.

QUICK-HITS

– Once upon a time, NFL pundits wondered why Lamar Jackson wasn’t priming to be an NFL wide receiver, instead of a quarterback. That notion seemed silly in real time, considering Jackson was a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback at Louisville. It looks even sillier now, as Jackson’s Madden video game stat line — 17-of-20,  324 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, 158.3 passer rating — helped the Ravens annihilate the obviously-tanking Miami Dolphins, 59-10, in Miami. Its worth nothing the Dolphins are obviously looking toward the future, as they field one of the worst rosters (on paper) in the history of the league. It appears things are worse than we thought in Miami. Although improved as a passer, stronger defenses will force Jackson to make tougher throws. Given his new No. 1 pass-catching option, rookie first-round pick Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown (4 catches, 147 yards, two touchdowns), Jackson should be up to the task. Antonio Brown’s first cousin (timely, I know) is everything Baltimore and first-year GM Eric DeCosta hoped he’d be. And given the Browns’ letdown and the Steelers’ Week 1 loss, can Baltimore repeat in the AFC North? It’s way too early to tell, but obviously something to think about. As for the Dolphins? They’ll host the Patriots for Antonio Brown’s New England debut. Miami is 5-1 in their last six home meetings with the Patriots, but it’s safe to say that stat won’t matter come Sunday. Miami has some work to do.

– It appears reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will remain the most dangerous offense in football. A brutal injury to Nick Foles rid the Chiefs of any urgency, but Kansas City scored at will anyway. Sammy Watkins (nine catches, 198 receiving yards, three touchdowns) was unstoppable, mostly leaving Jalen Ramsey in the dust. LeSean McCoy (11 touches, 93 total yards) and Travis Kelce (three catches, 88 yards) also thrived in the absence of Tyreek Hill, who left during the first half with a shoulder injury and was later hospitalized.   Week 1 — and September in general — should be approached with caution, but we’ve already seen what Mahomes and this offense can do. If Kansas City is to wreak havoc on a season-long basis, they’ll need Hill to return at some point, which seems to be the case. But it appears Kanas City will be tough to stop on offense, again. Who knew?

– Dak Prescott recently made news for reportedly turning down a contact extension that would net him $30 million per year, because he is seeking $40 million a season from the Cowboys. To add insult to injury, Dallas recently came to terms with Ezekiel Elliott on a six-year extension worth $90 million, and $50 million guaranteed. The deal was the biggest ever for a NFL running back. Still on his rookie deal, Dak Prescott took out his frustrations on the lowly Giants, throwing 405 yards and four touchdowns while posting a perfect passer rating. Prescott spread the ball to the likes of Amari Cooper, newcomer slot man Randall Cobb and the returning Jason Witten, in a 35-17 win. Prescott joined the likes of Jackson and Mahomes in posting video game-like stats in Week 1, and seemingly setting themselves up for special seasons.

– After falling behind 17-0 to Case Keenum, rookie Terry McLaurin and Washington early, Carson Wentz and the Eagles outscored their NFC East rival 32-10 the rest of the way, winning 32-27. We’ll see how the Saints look tonight, but the Eagles look primed to compete for the NFC championship. The still-diminutive Darren Sproles and rookie Miles Saunders were menacing in the backfield, while DeSean Jackson’s (eight catches, 154 yards, two touchdowns) return to the Eagles highlights just how efficient this Eagles offense will be. The success of the team all rests on Wentz’s shoulders, of course.

– It initially seemed like Arizona may be the Miami of the NFC, but the Cardinals’ full-throttle comeback showcased just how unpredictable this Cardinals season should be. The game featured a slew of impressive catches by future Hall-of-famer Larry Fitzgerald late, just as Lions veteran Danny Amendola added a nifty score earlier. But rookies Kyler Murray and T.J. Hockenson stole the show in the eventual 27-27 tie. Hockenson proved he may already be a top-five tight end. I mean, who else would you take over him outside of George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz? Murray shook off a ghastly interception to throw for 308 yards a touchdown, and looked calm and collected late, helping Arizona erase a 24-6 fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime. The Murray-Kliff Kingsbury will be anything but boring, despite their first-half play. Next week, the Cardinals will travel to Baltimore for a young quarter back showdown between Murray and Jackson. That should be fun.

THE BETTER HALF 

1. New England Patriots (1-0). Good luck to the rest of the NFL.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs’ explosive offense is still intact. With Patrick Mahomes, anything is possible.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0). The Eagles are the best team in the NFC at the moment. It’s also Week 1. I also picked them to reach Super Bowl LIV.

4. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams avoided the west-to-east early game bog to upend the Panthers in Carolina. The return of Cooper Kupp is monumental, but the Rams still need Todd Gurley to get healthy.

5. New Orleans Saints (0-0). The Eagles and Cowboys looked fantastic, but let’s not forget about the Saints. They’ll be around for the long haul in the NFC.

6. Dallas Cowboys (1-0). We hear you, Dak Prescott. It’s time for Jerry Jones to consider opening up his checkbook for another integral cog on his young and talented team.

7. Minnesota Vikings (1-0). Dalvin Cook and the Vikings defense were quietly among the most impressive things on opening weekend.

8. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). Considering their opponent — the lowly Dolphins — is seemingly the worst team in football in 2019, it would be wise to proceed with caution on the ‘Lamar Jackson for MVP’ talk. But no one can argue that he hasn’t improved as a passer. Plus, Hollywood Brown is a budding star.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). The Chargers’ monster drive to open up overtime staved off Jacoby Brissett and the upstart Colts. The talent is still there, but time will tell if they have enough juice on offense to keep up with the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. They’ll need Derwin James’ versatility back to help on defense. The good news is they don’t miss Melvin Gordon. Austin Ekeler’s heroic three-touchdown performance — and walk-off touchdown — was a major difference on Sunday.

10. Tennessee Titans (1-0). The Titans manhandled the Browns in Cleveland. But we’ve seen them do this during the Mike Vrabel era. They need consistency. Will Marcus Mariota finally help provide that? We’ll see.

11. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). It’s easier when Russell Wilson is your quarterback, but it appears many of us (myself included) may have been wrong about D.K. Metcalf’s NFL potential. Seattle will be the under-the-radar, lying-in-the-weeds potential postseason team in the NFC.

12. Green Bay Packers (1-0). The debut of their new offense looked rough, but they were also playing the Bears’ mighty defense. Their defense looked fantastic, but they also played Mitchell Trubisky on his worst behavior. This seems like the right spot for them for now.

13. Houston Texans (0-0). They have talent, and their division is up for grabs. They should get back to the postseason, if they’re any good.

14. Chicago Bears (0-1). They needed something, anything out of Mitchell Trubisky, to win in Week 1. They got nothing. The Bears have the best defense in the NFL, but they’ll remain handicapped until Trubisky matures, if he ever does.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1). Bare with me. The Steelers will figure things out, starting with a home victory over the Seahawks next week.

16. Indianapolis Colts (0-1). Jacoby Brissett rallied the Colts late, but never touched the ball in overtime. Sadly, their loss was decided by an Eric Ebron end-zone drop and three missed kicks by the legendary Adam Vinatieri. They can win the AFC South with Brissett.

Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LIII

Seventh Heaven? Brady, Belichick make attempt at record seventh title

This week marks the beginning of yet another season for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the once-again defending Super Bowl champions. Few could have predicted their still-dominant place in the league at this time just five years ago, after the team was steamrolled on a Monday night in Kansas City. Yet, the Patriots remain at the top of the league, with more success since that Fall night in 2014 than perhaps any five-year stretch of their greatest-of-all-time dynasty.

Per usual, the team has gotten a makeover consisting of several wrinkles — some are smaller (Patriots shifting to more two and three-man fronts along the defensive line) and some are larger (Rob Gronkowski’s retirement)  — that will help shape their 2019 season and it’s end result.

The two constants — Brady and Belichick — can be addressed without too much of a deep dive. Belichick returns for his 20th season as the Patriots head coach, implementing new trends and defensive schemes to help keep his team at the top.

Brady returns for his 19th season as the franchise’s key player and leader. After signing a two-year extension masked as a one-year deal, it’s officially fair to assume Brady is now on a year-by-year basis despite insisting that he’d still like to play until the age of 45. Can he play that long at a fairly-high level? Almost certainly. Will he? Especially if New England does indeed pull ahead as the only franchise to win Super Bowl titles in 2019? That’s a question to be addressed six months from now.

Brady has certainly reached uncharted territory — as has 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees  — but anyone doubting him would be a fool to do so, and there are many doubters.

* * * * *

It’s well-known that New England’s offense (and defense) adjust on the fly better than any other franchise over the better part of the last two decades. In 2019, the team will likely retain their chameleon approach to their opponents, which is something that has been more prominent in recent seasons with Josh McDaniels’ offenses.

“We were adaptable” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on NFL Network’s ‘Do Your Job Part 3’ special. “You know, Tom [Brady}, if he’s supposed to hand it off 37 times and win that way, then he’ll do it. If we need him to throw it 52 times, then he’ll do that too. It’s the same way Bill [Belichick] is. Bill doesn’t care if we win 43-40 or 13-10. The willingness to be able to do that is a special trait.”

Last December and January, the Patriots relied heavily on a power-running game featuring rookie rusher Sony Michel and lead-blocking fullback James Develin. Expect that to carry over into the 2019 season as a staple of the offense with Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris spelling Michel.

But with the subtraction of the game’s all-time greatest tight end, New England will have to rely on either Broncos castoff Matt LaCosse or 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo — and later Benjamin Watson — to provide support in the running game.

Neither of these players is Gronkowski, who is perhaps the greatest receiving threat and blocking threat at his position in the history of the sport. With a lackluster group at tight end, expect the position to be deemphasized in the passing game. To make up for the absence of Gronkowski, the Patriots will turn to an array of larger-bodied receivers to assist Brady. The newest Belichick trend has brought in former Broncos All-Pro Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) to join the team’s top option on the permitter, Josh Gordon (6-foot-3, 225 pounds).

Gordon projects to be the on-the-line ‘X’-type wide receiver, while Thomas and veteran Phillip Dorsett will likely split time at the ‘Z’ receiver. The Patriots placed Harry on injured reserve with a designation to return earlier in the week, which opened up the door for Thomas to return. Later in the season, Harry may snatch away snaps from Thomas and Dorsett to become a starter in three-receiver sets (’11’ personnel). But for this entire season, Brady will likely rely on Gordon as the team’s stalwart on the outside with any consistent success coming from Harry, Thomas, Dorsett or undrafted rookie Jacoby Meyers being a treat.

This means the GOAT will rely heavily on old friends Julian Edelman and James White.

At age 33,  Edelman is now two years removed from his brutal ACL injury, but is also pressing up against Father Time, like his quarterback. Still, the tenacious Super Bowl LIII MVP projects to have the most targets of any pass catcher on the Patriots roster, working in the middle of the field in three-receiver sets, and as the flanker (‘Z’) with the option of going in motion in two-receiver sets with Gordon.

White returns as perhaps the NFL’s best pure situational scatback. Last season, he hauled in 55 receptions in the team’s first eight games before the team turned to Michel and the running game in the Winter months. Still, White caught 15 passes in the team’s AFC Divisional Playoff smackdown over the Chargers, and made several crucial catches in the AFC Championship Game win in Kansas City.

Every player in the Patriots’ projected Week 1 ’11’ personnel for the passing game brings something different to the table. Thomas has excelled in wide receiver screens, while Dorsett is speedy enough to be an occasional deep threat. Gordon is a physical specimen who excels at slants, jump balls and posts, while Edelman and White can run a variety of option routes from anywhere along the line of scrimmage, or in the backfield. In undrafted rookies Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, the team hs a flaker/slot hybrid and a slot receiver and punt returner capable of being groomed behind Edelman. When Harry hits the field, Brady will have a jump ball specialist who can line up on the outside and as a ‘big slot’ receiver capable of replacing Gronkowski as a seam-route runner operating out of the slot in shotgun situations.

But knowing the Patriots, they’ll change their offensive philosophy and strategy depending on the opponent. But sometime during the stretch run of the season, the team will likely look to employ a power-running game as their base offense. Last year, the team alternated between two-tight end sets with Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, I-formation sets with Gronkowski or James Develin, or sometimes an I-formation with Develin and both tight ends.

“Our strengths this year will be different than some of our strengths last year” McDaniels said. 

With their uneventful tight end group at the moment, expect Develin to see the field more often, and possibly even as a H-back or blocking tight end at times. One of the last few full-tine lead-blocking full backs, Develin is an integral part of the Patriots offense.

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel is set up for a monster sophomore campaign. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

He’ll pave the way for Sony Michel’s potential breakout sophomore season. After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Michel cruised for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. A projected stat line of 15 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards is not out the question. But expect Michel to be spelled by rookie Damien Harris and do-it-all back Rex Burkhead as rushers that may seem time carrying the ball between the tackles. White will also spend time as a feature back depending on the opponent.

Still, all facets of the offense won’t have much success if the Patriots can’t keep up their own pace as one of the game’s best offensive lines. Dante Scarnecchia is unquestionably the greatest offensive line coach of all-time. His teaching skills will be put to the test once more as New England will work with a change at left tackle for the third straight year, and the season-long absence of team captain and starting center David Andrews.

2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn should fill in nicely as Trent Brown’s replacement. Although smaller for an NFL tackle (6-foot-2, 311 pounds), Wynn has much more potential than Brown. Plus, Wynn was the best blocker for Sony Michel while the two played at the University of Georgia. In Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, the Patriots likely have the bets combo of guards in the AFC, if not the NFL. Thuney, a solid all-around lineman, is due for a big pay day this offseason when his rookie contract expires. Mason, who already received his payday last offseason, is arguably the best run-blocking guard in football. The Georgia Tech product came from a run-heavy triple-option offense in college. But it was his improvement as a pass-blocking guard in 2018 that vaulted him into the top-five discussion. Mason worked vigorously to improve at that aspect after allowing Eagles rusher Brandon Graham to run past him and cause the game-changing turnover in Super Bowl LII. On the right side of the line sits former All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon, who still has some juice left.

With Andrews out, New England will rely on veteran Ted Karras, the team’s top backup interior offensive lineman, to fill in as a quality starting center. Karras will be monitored closely. If Karras proves incapable, James Ferentz, who recently re-joined the team after Russell Bodine was released, may get a chance to shine.

In all, the Patriots will likely mix-and-match, shifting the identity of their offense to match their personnel, as well as their opponent’s defensive personnel and schemes. While many will be worried about the absences of Gronkowski and Andrews, as well as the turnover at left tackle and center, the Patriots should find a way to do what they always do on offense — score enough points to win 12 games en-route to at least the AFC Championship Game.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Sony Michel 

‘X’ WR — Josh Gordon 

Slot WR — Julian Edelman

‘Z’ WR — Demaryius Thomas (Phillip Dorsett will likely split time with Thomas here) 

TE — Matt LaCosse (Ben Watson will replace LaCosse after serving his four-game suspension) 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — Ted Karras 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

WR4 — Phillip Dorsett 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Korey Cunningham 

 

* * * * *

 

If Brady, the power running game and New England’s offense is good enough for a routine trip to the AFC Championship Game, it’ll be Bill Belichick and the defense that finishes the job.

On a Monday night contest in Los Angeles last November, the Chiefs and Rams, the two highest-scoring teams of last season, combined for 105 points in a 54-51 Rams victory. With the exception of Patrick Mahomes’ fourth quarter outburst in the AFC title game, the Patriots allowed just 10 total points in seven quarters to those two clubs, in the two biggest games of the 2018 NFL season.

To win Super Bowl LIV, New England may very well see the Chiefs again, in the NFL’s version of the final four, followed by a prolific NFC offense like the Rams, Saints or Eagles in the big game in Miami.

Luckily for New England, Belichick has readied a unique and versatile defensive roster capable of carrying out complex schemes that Belichick seems set to employ in 2019.

A ‘base’ defense is a relative term in 2019, seeing as base usually pertains to a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and not a nickel defense, which is the personnel teams usually use the most in today’s pass-heavy NFL. But a seven-man front is still sometimes used on early downs. And this season, the Patriots will shift for more of a 3-4 approach, moving away from their four-man fronts of last season.

In that front, Danny Shelton is slotted as the run-stuffing nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and rookie fifith-round pick Byron Cowart projecting to be the team’s big-bodied, 3-4 defensive ends. Guy’s versatility as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle is what Belichick values in his defensive lineman. He was the best defensive lineman outside of Trey Flowers in 2018, and should play up to that level this season. Cowart, a former top recruit of out high school, has the potential to thrive under Belichick’s tutelage.

But New England should spend most of their time with five or more defensive backs on the field. In doing this, the Patriots will go to more exotic fronts with just one or two defensive lineman. This is where they’ll turn to their prize offseason acquisition and best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett.

Bennett, who will turn 34 in November, quietly had a productive campaign (9.5 sacks) with the Eagles last season before being shipped to New England, along with a seventh-round draft pick, for a fifth-round draft choice. Like his brother Martellus in 2016 (and briefly in 2017), Bennett is slated to make an immediate impact as a possible replacement for Flowers, who joined Matt Patricia and the Lions on a mega-deal.

Of course, Bennett and Flowers are different players. Both are versatile, but Flowers serves as a more complete player across the board in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, where as Bennett’s versatility stems from his ability to rush the passer both from the edge and the interior. Bennett is still productive as a run stuffer, but not as well as Flowers at this stage of his career. But despite his veteran status, Bennett will be a much better pass rusher than Flowers, especially in Belichick’s schemes.

Michael Bennett - Patriots Training Camp
Michael Bennett will bring his versatile pass-rushing skills to a defensive front that should up their sack total in 2019. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

At one point in NFL Network’s original ‘Do Your Job’ special, Patriots director of research Ernie Adams mentions how Bennett disrupted New England’s entire offensive game plan in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seahawks. Before Cliff Avril left in concussion protocol, Bennett had gotten to Brady on numerous occasions. But the absence of Avril allowed New England to key on Bennett via double teams. Expect Bennett to disrupt many opponents’ game plans in favor of the Patriots this season.

In two-man fronts, Bennett will mostly be joined by Guy along the interior, as he’s their next best defensive lineman. On obvious passing downs, Guy may be subbed out for Adam Butler, who is purely a sub-package rusher.

The edge should be occupied by a mix of Bennett and a few of the Patriots’ stacked linebacking core. John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich project as stand-up edge rushers in a 3-4 scheme. In New England’s third preseason contest, which is usually the week of dress rehearsals for the regular season, Winovich started along the edge. He’s a diminutive, Tasmanian Devil on the outside, capable of wrecking havoc on tasing downs. The third-round pick out of Michigan is a sleeper pick for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Don’ta Hightower and Kyle Van Noy return as two of New England’s most important players. Their versatility has already been showcased in the preseason, as they’ve been moved all around the defense. Despite slimming down this offseason, Hightower still projects as more of an off-the-ball linebacker, despite the initial notion that he may move to the edge full-time. Although Van Noy will be moved around the formation, it appears he’s due for a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker or stand-up edge rusher in most cases. This seems like the perfect fit for Van Noy, who may be in for a career year.

Then there’s the return of Jamie Collins. A second-round pick by the Patriots in 2013, Collins blossomed as one of the league’s most athletic players before his rookie contract timed out, and he was shipped to Cleveland midway through the 2016 season. After making some money in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years of uneventful football, Collins returns and he’ll project as linebacker that will spend time as an edge rusher, as well as off the ball. Like Hightower and Van Noy, Collins’ versatility is what makes him valuable. But he’s also much more athletic than those two defensive cogs, even though he’s been burned often in man coverage by tight ends (Owen Daniels in the 2015 AFC Championship Game) and running backs (Marshawn Lych in Super Bowl XLIX). If Collins can keep his freelancing in zone coverage to a minimum, he should make it more difficult for opponents’ quarterbacks to dump the ball off to their own version of a James White.

Recently-named team captain Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley will battle for the role of the ‘thumper’ linebacker, which is a bigger inside linebacker who is mostly in to stop the run on early downs. They should each see time next to Hightower as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 3-4 formations.

In the secondary, New England trots out perhaps the deepest group of cornerbacks in the league, led by the NFL’s very best at the position in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is perhaps the best in man coverage since Darrelle Revis’ heyday and figures to follow opposing team’s No. 1 receiver in most situations. But Belichick often likes to matchup his top cover player one-on-one with an opposing team’s No. 2 receiver, if that player is enough of a threat. This leaves another cornerback covering a team’s No. 1, with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty will battle it out for snaps as the team’s No. 2 guy, but both should see significant playing time. Jon Jones projects to start as a slot cornerback who can also see time at safety, a position he started and played most of the game at in Super Bowl LIII. To revisit Belichick’s scheme of putting Gilmore on a team’s secondary pass catcher, the Patriots employed Gilmore on Watkins, Kansas City’s No. 2 receiver and No. 3 pass catcher, but best traditional receiver, in the AFC title game. They did this because of Tyreek Hill’s speed and downfield ability. New England then stuck it’s fastest player, Jon Jones, on Hill with Devin McCourty shading overtop. J.C. Jackson’s ability as a bigger press-man cover corner made him a suitable match for the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, a psuedo receiver disguised as a top-tier tight end. Expect Belichick to employ different strategies against different offenses.

The Patriots’ deep group of cornerbacks ends with rookie Joejuan Williams. The second-round pick is a cornerback with massive size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) capable of playing press man coverage on tight ends and bigger wide receivers. Williams will fight Jackson and Jason McCourty for playing time, but he projects as more of a situational matchup piece in his rookie season, while being groomed to be the team’s No. 2 cornerback of the future, or even as a replacement for Patrick Chung as a Kam Chancellor-type at strong safety.

With Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, the Patriots will employ an aging-yet-affective trio of safeties capable of playin in three-safety sets, like they’ve done often over the past few seasons. In two-safety sets, Devin McCourty plays his usually role of free safety while Chung plays in the box. On clear-passing downs with all three on the field, Chung serves as a presss man coverage option on tight ends, while McCourty tends to play all over the field, leaving Duron Harmon as the free safety, or center fielder, on third-and-long situations. This could be the last season for both Chung and the McCourty brothers, but they still have enough left in the tank for a very good season.

Like the Patriots’ offense, Belichick will have a different game plan for each opponent. But the team’s deep group of cornerbacks and seemingly revitalized group of pass rushers have fans excited for what could be an exceptional season on this side of the ball.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Michael Bennett 

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE/LB — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE/LB — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

‘Thumper’ ILB — Elandon Roberts 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

SS/Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Danny Shelton 

3-4 DE  — Bryan Cowart

‘Thumper’ ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

EDGE/LB — Chase Winovich 

EDGE/LB — John Simon 

S (FS in ‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Duron Harmon

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4 (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 1 seed)

The Patriots should revert to their knack for producing 12-plus win seasons after an 11-5 campaign in 2018. Their schedule is pretty easy throughout, but there is a potential murderer’s row from weeks 8-to-14, as the team will face Browns out home before visiting the Ravens and Eagles before returning home to face the Cowboys, playing the Texans in Houston , then ending with a home bout with the Chiefs.

With Andrew Luck’s retirement, and Derwin James’ injury the Chiefs serve as the only real threat at this point, with the Steelers, Jaguars and Browns looming as just potential threats before they prove otherwise. New England will fend off the upstarts and experienced teams to beat the Chiefs at home in the AFC Title Game. Their home-field advantage will be won when they beat the Chiefs in Week 14.

Then in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, the Patriots will break a tie with the Steelers by winning their seventh Super Bowl, while exacting revenge on the Eagles in the process.

At least for one more year, the NFL will belong to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots.

Ty Law -- Super Bowl XXXVI

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ty Law and the Patriots’ No. 1 Cornerbacks of the Belichick era + NFL’s newest offensive trend

On Saturday Ty Law became the first — second if you count Randy Moss — member of the New England Patriots’ two decade-long, 21st-century dynasty to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was one of the better presentations of the past few years. He was apart of a fitting class that included the only higher-rated cornerback of the 2000s, Champ Bailey, and the game’s best safety of all-time, Ed Reed. Add in legendary safety Johnny Robinson and this draft class became the first to include four defensive backs, while also adding league architect and historian, Gil Brandt, perhaps the greatest tight end of all-time — with Rob Gronkowski — Tony Gonzalez, rough and tough center Kevin Mawae, and the late, great Broncos owner, Pat Bowlen.

*********************

Law’s ability to shutdown opposing team’s top receiver was matched only by his knack for playing his best in the biggest games. Law played ten seasons in New England, with his prime being from 2001 to 2003, when Law was arguably the best player on a team that won two Super Bowls during that time.

Since then Bill Belichick has shown an affinity for building his defense partly around a true No. 1 cornerback.

This piece will focus on breaking down each of the following shutdown cover men that have donned a Patriots uniform in the last 20 or so years —

Ty Law (1995-2004) 

Asante Samuel (2003-2007) 

Aqib Talib (2012-2013) 

Darrelle Revis (2014) 

Stephon Gilmore (2017-present) 

 

Ty Law

Drafted by Bill Parcells in the 1995 NFL Draft, Law earned a starting role in Week 12 of his rookie season under Parcells and then-Patriots defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. By 1998, Law became one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks under Pete Carroll, earning a First-team All-Pro nod while also leading the league in interceptions.

But it was his play under Belichick from 2001 to 2003 in which his Hall of Fame resume was built upon. Law dominated in key moments — coming away with a Super Bowl XXXVI pick-six off Kurt Warner, and three interceptions versus the NFL’s co-MVP, Peyton Manning, in the 2003 AFC Championship Game.

Law could play both man and zone coverage and was often asked to shadow the opposing team’s best receiver, many times in press coverage situations — examples including Law matched up with Isaac Bruce in Super Bowl XXXVI and Marvin Harrison in the aforementioned 2003 AFC title game.

Usually, Belichick would ask Law to shut down one side of the field, leaving the likes of Otis Smith or Tyrone Poole to cover the other side with help, while cover men such as Terrell Buckley and Asante Samuel working of the slot.

Perhaps more than any other cornerback in NFL history, Law elevated his play in the clutch. Additionally, Law thrived in two different eras, one where physicality and ‘defensive holding’ calls were fewer, and afterword, when former Colts GM Bill Polian pushed for an increased emphasis on holding calls to make things easier for receivers and the passing game in general.

And perhaps one of Law’s greatest achievements came after he was jettisoned from the Patriots in 2005. He led the league in interceptions (10) with the Jets the next season, and even returned an interception for a touchdown versus former teammate Tom Brady. After that, Law signed with the Chiefs for one more soldi season in 2006 before finishing his career with the Broncos.

Law intercepted future Hall of Fame passer Peyton Manning nine times throughout his career, with five of those picks coming in the postseason.

It took three tries and personal letters from Brady and Manning to convince voters to put Law in the Hall of Fame, but it shouldn’t have come to that. Now Law’s place in history will deservedly shine even brighter — as will his place in Patriots lore as the template for one of the most important roles on one of the best sports dynasties in history.

Asante Samuel

Asante Samuel
Asante Samuel celebrates after his pick-six off Peyton Manning in the 2006 AFC title game. (Screenshot: CBS Sports)

Asante Samuel was drafted by New England of the fourth round in the 2003 NFL Draft, and immediately showcased his affinity for pick-sixes in victimizing Vinny Testaverde and the Jets for a game-winner in his second career regular season game.

After New England released Law in 2005, the Patriots relied on Samuel to step into the team’s true No. 1 role after two seasons of productive play as a No. 2/3 CB who played both in the slot and on the perimeter.

Samuel’s prime began in 2006 and lasted until roughly 2010. The final three seasons of that stretch he spent with the Eagles after the Patriots were unable to come to terms with a deal in 2008 after franchising him for the prior season.

In 2006, Samuel burst onto the scene with 10 interceptions, tying Champ Bailey for the league lead. He added two pick-sixes in the postseason, which included a 33-yard run back versus Peyton Manning, who was looking for Marvin Harrison on a long comeback route.

Like Law, Samuel was a big-time player. His seven career postseason interceptions rank second to just Ed Reed (9) this century.

Samuel’s smaller frame (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) than the the other players on this list make him a slightly different defensive chess piece. Although he excelled some in man coverage, Samuel was a much better in zone. In fact, Samuel was the best zone coverage cornerback in football for most to 2006 to 2010.

His phenomenal instincts, quickness and innate toughness for his size made him the perfect December-January cornerback for a team that resides in the northeast.

Samuel was also one of the few players let go by Belichick that thrived for multiple seasons.

Aqib Talib

Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib makes an interception while covering Julio Jones in 2013. (Screenshot: NBC)

After Samuel left in 2008, the Patriots received a somewhat stellar season from former Browns cornerback Leigh Bodden in 2009, and a successful rookie campaign from rookie Devin McCourty in 2010, before he struggled in 2011 and was switched to safety.

So entering 2012, New England was reliant on 7th-round rookie Alfonzo Dennard and nickel back Kyle Arrington to be the team’s top two cornerbacks. Already a few seasons removed from having a true, top-flight cornerback, Belichick realized their defensive struggles over the past few seasons might have been somewhat equated to the absence of an All-Pro caliber cover man.

Enter, Aqib Talib.

Big (6-foot-1, 209 pounds) and physical, Talib was a bully in press man coverage against receivers and tight ends of all sizes.

At one point during a road win versus the Falcons in 2013, Talib successfully defended Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales in the red zone.

Coming over during the midway point of the 2012 season, Talib instantly helped a Patriots defensive backfield turn a corner from one of the league’s worst units to a somewhat respectable group.

It’s not surprise that New England’s defense crumbled in the 2012 and 2013 AFC Championship Games after Talib left both contests with injuries.

In Talib, Belichick had a chess piece that was able to take away any opposition’s best playmaker, making it easier for New England’s other defensive backs to key on other team’s No. 2 and 3 targets.

Talib entered free agency in 2015 and signed a lucrative deal with the Broncos, forming perhaps the best cornerback duo of the decade with slot defender Chris Harris Jr. Talib also faced the Patriots as the Rams’ No. 2 CB in Super Bowl LIII this past February.

But as we travel back — New England had someone in mind to replace Talib for the 2014 season. One of the best cornerbacks of all-time.

Darrelle Revis

Darrelle Revis - Super Bowl XLIX
Darrelle Revis lines up versus Doug Baldwin in Super Bowl XLIX (Screenshot: NFL Films)

From 2009 to 2012, Revis was unquestionably the best cornerback in the NFL. In fact, his stretch of seasons is some of the best cornerback play in NFL history.

‘Revis Island’ is what his side of the field was dubbed. Revis is perhaps the best man coverage cornerback in NFL history, and also excelled in Cover 3 zones.

Even after being traded to Tampa Bay in 2013, Revis quietly adapted to the Buccaneers’ ‘Tampa 2′ scheme, and remained one fo the league’s better defenders.

So after Talib left for the Broncos, Belichick was in need of a stalwart at cornerback. Like when the Patriots admitted their lack of receivers in 2007 — where they acquired Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth — Belichick signed Revis and Seahawks’ cornerback Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) in the 2014 offseason, in hopes of bolstering an important position.

Like Law, Revis was from Alquippa, Pennsylvania, and wore No. 24. Adittionally, Revis would finish his career playing for the Jets, Patriots and Chiefs, thr

After struggling the first few weeks, Revis than re-ascended to becoming the top cornerback in the NFL, helping the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick let Revis shadow opposing team’s best receiver, or stuck Revis on an opposing team’s No. 2 pass catcher, while keying on a bigger No. 1 target with Browner and a safety over top in a double coverage.

Down the stretch, Revis was one of the Patriots’ three best players — along with Brady and Rob Gronkowski — on one of the best teams of the past decade.

But Revis commanded a big deal the next offseason, and returned to the Jets, the team that drafted him. He had one more season at an elite level.

Although Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan combined for a formidable duo in the place of Revis and Browner the next two seasons, New England was without a true shutdown cornerback. They’d have to go to free agency once more.

Stephon Gilmore

Stephon Gilmore - Super Bowl LIII
Gilmore makes the game-clinching interception in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

With tension surrounding a potential long-term deal for fan favorite, Malcolm Butler, the Patriots instead chose to pay Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract in free agency. Butler’s big deal never came.

Gilmore was successful in Buffalo, but now, he’s unquestionably the best cornerback in the league heading into the 2019 season.

It didn’t begin like that in New England for Gilmore, though. Gilmore is the best press man cover cornerback in the league, but often finds himself out of place in zone coverage. Gilmore struggled out the gate trying to play in zone coverage before the Patriots shifted to more man coverage down the stretch of the 2017 season.

It was then when Gilmore tourney flourished. With big plays like his skying knockdown of a Blake Bortles pass in the 2017 AFC title game, and the game-sealing interception in Super Bowl LIII, Gilmore has shown shades of Law in a Patriot uniform in the postseason.

It helps that he also dons jersey No. 24.

“He’s the best corner in football right now” Law said of Gilmore to the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian.

“He’s really confident, and he’s taken his game to the next level. He’s first-team All-Pro. I think he’s going to continue to do that this year. He’ll be ready to roll.”

The two have developed a close friendship, and spent a lot of time together on Robert Kraft’s annual trip to Israel this summer.

“We talk regularly during the season, get together when we can, and we’re going to continue to do so,” Law said. “Any way I can help him, I’ll offer advice.”

Law may be one of a few cornerbacks that have ever played the game that can offer Gillmore advice, since it seems like he doesn’t need it. Belichick is currently creating an ensemble of defensive backs of all different sizes and skills, but it’s Gilmore that makes things a lot easier. With No. 24 on the field, Belichick can use him to take away an opponent’s top-notch pass catcher with ease.

With Gilmore’s recent level of play and upward curve, could he be destined for eternal greatness in Canton, Ohio?

Gilmore was one of a few Patriots present at Law’s induction ceremony over the weekend and afterword the two shared an exchange while posing for a picture by Law’s bust.

“Guess what?” Law said pointing at Gilmore, “Next up, in a couple years, I’ll be standing here next to Stephon Gilmore’s bust…real deal. I promise you that.”

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NFL’s latest offensive trend?

Could the NFL’s latest trend on offense be lying in the weeds as a soon-to-be revisited approach?

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and NFL data analyst Warren Sharp spoke on the subject via Twitter over the weekend, as Jeremiah says he’s sensed a trend of team’s using more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE — 2 WR) over his tour of training camps.

Of course, team’s already employ this grouping fairly regularly, but no team has used it seemingly as it’s base approach. At least not since the 2010 to 2012 Patriots flourished with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez playing the majority of the team’s snaps.

When using this personnel it’s best to used two different types of tight ends. At the beginning of the decade, New England had that in Gronk and Hernandez. Gronk is basically an all-around tight end who could block, but also act as a big wide receiver who could spread out wide or in the slot.

Hernandez was one of the most unique offensive players to ever play because he could line up all over — including as an H-back, wing back, slot receiver, out wide and in the backfield. What he lacked in pass blocking, he made up for it in quickness, strength, hands and after-the-catch ability. His versatility made him a mismatch versus but defensive backs and linebackers.

Later in 2016, the Patriots attempted to pair two ‘Y’ tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The Patriots averaged  33.4 points per game and a produced a 4-1 record with Brady and the twin towers before Gronkowski was lost for the season. That combination was rare as the Patriots held the best tight end in the NFL, along with a top-5 tight end of the same mold.

No team in the NFL has anything close to that at the moment, so teams switching to ’12’ personnel more regularly will be look to use two different sets of tight ends if they can.

Looking back to Sharp’s quote tweet of Jeremiah posted above, Sharp explains that the Eagles are currently the best team in this grouping. It’s no surprise they have two different set of tight ends capable of performing different tasks.

Zach Ertz is the third best tight end in football after only George Kittle and Travis Kelce. He plays much smaller and more fluid than his frame (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) suggests, and that’s clearly a compliment. Ertz is the Eagles’ No. 1 passing option in a star-studded offense that includes Alshon Jeffrey and now DeSean Jackson. Ertz is not the most dominant blocker, but is always a passing threat, no matter where he lines up — which could be as an H-back or in the slot.

Dallas Goedert.. The team’s second-round pick in 2018, is more of a traditional tight end who can block, as well as be a dominant red zone threat in the future. His size (6-foot-5, 256 pounds) is almost identical to Ertz, which makes it ironic that they are such different molds of the same position. Goedert’s athleticism is top-notch and he’ll only improve in the coming years. With Ertz at the helm, the Eagles can use him off the line while Goedert lines up as a traditional tight end. Despite not being the best blocker, the Eagles may still use their ‘Ace’ formation often. That’s where both Ertz and Goedert line up at traditional tight end at opposite sides of the offensive line.

The Eagles began to showcase a glimpse of what this offense can become last season. The Athletic’s Ryan Sasaki wrote a masterful ‘All-22’ piece on the subject early last season, breaking it all down.

With the re-addition of DeSean Jackson, and the addition of Jordan Howard for a power-running game that would welcome two tight end sets regularly for extra blocking, the Eagles are perfectly alined to have their base package look like this:

QB — Carson Wentz

RB — Jordan Howard 

LT — Jason Peters

LG — Isaac Seumalo 

C — Jason Kelce

RG — Brandon Brooks

RT — Lane Johnson 

TE (H-back/Slot) — Zach Ertz 

TE — Dallas Goedert 

WR (X) — Alshon Jeffrey 

WR (Z) — DeSean Jackson 

Additionally, the Eagles can leaver in their two tight ends and the bigger Jeffrey (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) while pairing him with second-round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a 6-foot-4, power forward-type threat to form an unstoppable red zone offense.

On paper, that looks to be perhaps the NFL’s most potent offensive package, in terms of talent relative to their role. Are the Eagles brewing up something this big on offense?

Brady’s latest contract

Alas, Brady’s sixth extension has been finalized on a week in which he not only turned 42 years old, but visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the way to join practices with the Lions in Michigan, that began today.

Still the best player in the NFL at age 42, Brady’s situation is unprecedented. He’s expressed multiple times that he would like to play until age 45, and this deal locks him up until the age of 44, meaning this may not be his last deal with New England.

To shed more light on the subject, NFL Network’s Mike Giardi expressed Brady wasn’t fighting for a long-term deal. Good news is the deal is masked as a year-to-year type move with a chance for both sides to move out and renegotiate going forward. In fact, since the deal includes a ‘no franchise tag’ clause, it essentially ends after the league year, voiding the final two years of the deal. So like Drew Brees, Brady will make $23 million in 2019 and then become a free agent (technically) for the first time in his career in March 2020. Although it likely won’t come to that. If Brady is to continue playing — which is likely — him and the Patriots will most likely come to terms before the 2020 league year.

 

To sum up the important details from the deal:

-Brady will likely receive a new, similar ‘masked’ year-to-year contract in roughly six months to keep him in New England for 2020.

-Brady will now make $23 million in 2019, as opposed to the $15 million he was scheduled to make.

-The extension now opens up enough cap space for the Patriots to afford Washington left tackle Trent Williams, or make additional moves with the extra room.

Going forward, deals for both Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers and possibly Aaron Rodgers (in a few years) will be fascinating to monitor considering their play into later ages. Their cases are unprecedented.

A tribute to Don Banks

I was shocked to learn that Don Banks, one of my favorite NFL writers, passed away in his sleep in a hotel in Canton, Ohio on Sunday Morning. Just 56 years old, Banks was in Canton to cover the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction as part of his brand new gig of covering the NFL on a national scale for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Prior to this, Don spent 17 years at Sports Illustrated, where I grew up reading and admiring his work. He then moved over to Patriots.com and the The Athletic Boston, two of my favorite mediums for NFL content. His ‘Snap Judgements’ column was a must-read for me after an NFL Sunday, as well as his ‘Cover 2’ podcast with comedian Nick Stevens (‘Fitzy’) discussing all things Patriots and the NFL.

The NFL writing community mourning over his loss exemplifies how many people loved Don and what type of person he is. I never met him personally but shared a few quick exchanges on Twitter with him, since I admired his work.

Don, you will be missed.

Condolences to you and your family…

Jimmy Garoppolo Cleared for Training Camp

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Why the 49ers will win the NFC West in 2019

The end of July brings forth the smell of fresh grass (or turf), practice jerseys, helmets, and a renewed sense of hope for 31 NFL franchises and their fans, and a persisting rash of confidence for the New England Patriots.

The foundation for the eventual Super Bowl LIV champion is being built in these hot summer days. The team in-line for the biggest turnaround this season is the San Francisco 49ers, who received welcoming news when franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was cleared for his first two practices over the weekend. After a promising 2017 campaign in which Garoppolo led the 49ers to five straight wins to end the year, Jimmy GQ suffered a torn ACL in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs last season. The injury dashed any hopes of a successful season in San Francisco, and now, the Niners hope Garoppolo can lead the franchise back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.

Jimmy Garoppolo Minicamp -- 2019
Jimmy Garoppolo set to pass during 49ers’ OTA’s this offseason. (Screenshot: San Francisco 49ers)

Considering Garoppolo is entering the second-year of a massive five-year, $137 million deal — the largest in NFL history at the the time — the pressure is on to make the postseason. Perhaps more pressure to succeed than any other passer in 2019. The 49ers even have an ‘escape’ clause in his deal that can be used this offseason. But behind Jimmy and offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco will exceed the hype by making it back to the playoffs, while simultaneously shocking the world via a run to the NFC West title over the Los Angeles Rams.

In Garoppolo and a bolstered defensive line, San Francisco is built like a successful modern day club in their ability to pass and rush the passer. Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in this past NFL draft, joins the newly-acquired Dee Ford (13 sacks in 2018) and the underrated DeForest Buckner to form a vaunted front. Coupled with the addition of Kwon Alexander to a previously-underwhelming linebacker core, and a dangly duo of 6-foot-3 cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, the Niners are set to surprise many on defense.

But the games will be won on offense under Garoppolo and a few new offensive pieces. Although the team missed out on the Odell Beckham Jr. trade sweepstakes, San Francisco has the NFL’s best tight end in George Kittle, giving them an A-level playmaker to build their pass-catching arsenal around. Marquise Goodwin returns as Garoppolo’s most reliable receiver, and Dante Pettis should be the starting ‘X’ receiver. But the team invested in two more potential starters in the draft in second-round pick Deebo Samuel and third-round choice Jalen Hurd.

Hurd (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) projects as both a ‘big slot’ receiver and hybrid tight end/H-back. He has excellent leaping ability and after-the-catch skills for a former college fullback (as a freshman at Tennessee). Shanahan has raved about the fiesta Hurd this offseason, and will scheme up creative ways to use him. Samuel (5-foot-10, 214 pounds) is more likely to have immediate success out of the two rookies. He’s a combination of a ‘Z’ and slot receiver capable of becoming Garoppolo’s second-best pass catcher as a rookie in Shanahan’s scheme. His stout, muscular frame, route-running and feel for the position make him one of the more intriguing young receivers in the game. He’ll fit right in under Shanahan’s scheme.

San Francisco’s backfield will have a new feel thanks to the addition of Tevin Coleman, a Shanahan product from the Falcons, as the team’s lead back who can contribute as both a lead rusher and a pass catcher. And additionally from Jerrick McKinnon, who will play his first snaps with the team this year after suffering a Torn ACL last offseason. McKinnon will nicely compliment Coleman as the team’s passing back who is capable of being the team’s feature back depending on the opponent. Then. of course, there’s Matt Brieda. The 49ers will mix and match with this group throughout the year.

In conclusion — San Francisco is immediately ready for a turnaround, but they’ll have to get through a tough NFC West, which may retake the title of the NFL’s toughest division this season, a title the group held from 2012 to 2015. But the Los Angles Rams are due for a slight dip after a catasprhic end to last year’s promising season, while Seattle is still re-tooling, despite having the ridiculously-good trio of Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. And then there’s Arizona. The Cardinals will be surprisingly feisty, but are a club whose success will be in the future.

Barring any unforeseen major injuries, the NFC West will finish like this:

San Francisco (11-5)

Los Angeles Rams (10-6)

Seattle (9-7)

Arizona (6-10)

The Rams will make the postseason as a wild card but the Seahawks will fall just short of football in January. They can thank the 49ers — a team primed to create havoc in 2019.

Quarterbacks under most pressure in 2019

To pull from earlier in the column — Jimmy Garoppolo is among the most quarterbacks under the most pressure this season. But who else is with him?

Kirk Cousins — Cousins had a disappointing 2018 campaign in which the Vikings missed the playoffs despite fielding one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. Additionally, the Vikings have arguably the best one-two punch at wide receiver in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Minnesota may be in need of a change if they fall short of the playoffs for the second year in a row with Cousins at the helm.

Jameis Winston — The former No. 1 overall pick enters his fifth season and has yet to evolve into a top-tier quarterback. In fact, Winston has been just bad for various stretches of the past few seasons. Will Bruce Arians bring the best out of Winston in the final year of his contract?

Marcus Mariota — The second overall pick after Winston in the same draft faces a similar situation this year. Also entering the last year of his contract, can Mariota lead the Titans to the postseason? Tennessee has invested in a bevy of receiving weapons to his arsenal these past two offseasons in 2017 first-round pick Corey Davis, scatback Dion Lewis, and now rookie A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries. The issue is the AFC South is the most complete division from top to bottom. All four teams have a shot at the division title, making Mariota’s road to success pretty difficult.

Derek Carr — The addition of Antonio Brown and the impending move to Las Vegas puts a sense of urgency into Carr’s ability to return to his 2016 form (or better) this season. One more subpar year and it will be Carr who the Raiders cut ties with, before head coach Jon Gruden.

——————————————

Cam Newton — I differentiated these next two passers from the rest because their jobs are not yet in jeopardy to the point of the aforementioned passers. But still, these clubs are very much in a ‘win-now’ mode, and are counting on their All-Pro quarterbacks for success. Newton’s right shoulder status caused the Panthers to draft West Virginia product Will Grier in the third round this season. Newton seemingly looks good to go. He’ll need better protection from an offensive line that’s failed him over the past few seasons. In Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have one of the best young players in football, while the combo of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel at receiver should also take off this season. Add in a re-tooled defensive line and Carolina seems primed for success, but they’ll have to battle two of the most talented teams in football, the Saints and Falcons, to carve out a postseason path. Will Newton get the Panthers back to the playoffs?

Carson Wentz — Had Wentz not went down with a torn ACL in 2017 he would have undoubtedly won the NFL MVP award. But would he have led the Eagles to the Super Bowl like his former backup quarterback Nick Foles? That’s the question that Philadelphia and the rest of the NFL world will bring up of Wentz until be brings this talented team to a title. The Eagles enter this season on a very short list of the most complete teams in football. Only the Chargers, Bears and Saints are relatively close. Add in the return of speedy deep threat DeSean Jackson and feature back Jordan Howard to an arsenal of Alshon Jeffrey and Zach Ertz, and you have an offensive machine in the wings. Like Newton, Wentz’s job is not immediately in jeopardy, but a failure to beat out the Cowboys for the NFC East title would raise major questions in the city of brotherly love.

How will Patriots employ Michael Bennett?

Patriots fans can rest easy as the team’s prime offseason acquisition, defensive end Michael Bennett, arrived at training camp yesterday, flying in that morning from Hawaii.

“I didn’t retire,” Bennett told the media after practice. “I heard everybody say I retired. I was laughing at home.”

Bennett was all smiles after practice, but rest assured, he won’t be causing much laughing from his opponents this season, especially with the ways Bill Belichick and the staff must be scheming him to rush the passer.

Where might Bennett line up this season? Most likely, he’ll move all along the defensive line. Bennett has had success lined up in a ‘wide’ formation way outside the tackle, right along the tackle as a traditional defensive end, and as an interior rusher in clear pass rush situations.

The Patriots would love to employ Bennett as inside rusher on passing downs with sub Adam Butler, the team’s only other rusher who has shown consistent success up the middle. But New England is thin on the edge with Deatrich Wise Jr. and Rob Ninkovich-types John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich. They’re clearly lacking a true presence on the outside, meaning Bennett will surely see most of his snaps as a traditional edge rusher, while sometimes moving inward to rush the passer on say, a 3rd-and-8 scenario.

But what if the Patriots are scheming up a new base defense. They’ve re-added the athletic Jamie Collins to the fold at linebacker, and seemingly have big plans for Ja’Whaun Bentley as the ‘Thumper’ or big inside linebacker. Bentley wore the green dot reserved for coach-to-player communication for the defense on Thursday.

Add those two with full-time starters Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower and the Patriots have an influx of linebackers.

I spoke with Van Noy last month, and he stated that Belichick is trying new defenses with ‘two lineman’ suggesting all four linebackers may be involved in a defense with New England’s two best players among the defensive line, which would be defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and Bennett.

Having Guy and Bennett up front as interior lineman would give Belichick the option to put Van Noy and Hightower — who has slimmed down for what could be a new role — on the edge more often, while Bentley takes up the middle linebacker role, and Collins moves around like a rover. At times, all four linebackers could stand up right among the line, giving a confusing look for quarterbacks who would not know who will be rushing and who will be dropping back into coverage.

This ‘amoeba’ look fooled Patrick Mahomes and others last season.

In this case, Bennett could see more time as an interior player than initially thought. Bennett has also surprised as a somewhat of a stout run blocker throughout his career, meaning the run defense shouldn’t suffer on his end. In all, the Patriots are receiving one of the more complete defensive ends of the past two decades. Even though Bennett turns 34 in November, New England should see similar (or better) production from Bennett, as they did from Trey Flowers.

Gillette Stadium

Patriots Training Camp Notebook: Instant Day 1 thoughts

NFL training camps are officially underway, as thousands of Patriots fans flooded the team’s practice fields to get a glimpse of team today. I was in attendance to take on the aurora of a new season, and to give my readers some notes and observations from the first day of camp. Here are my thoughts:

 

Patriots Training Camp 2019
The entrance to Patriots training camp. With the 2019 NFL season approaching, several fans are eager to see their team in action.

 

 

  • It’s not news at this point, but judging by the last decade or so, and the turnout to training camp in recent seasons, it’s apparent that Boston (and New England) are now a Patriots-first community. The Red Sox owned the city for years and years, sharing the title with the Boston Celtics during Larry Bird’s tenure in the 1980’s. Even during the Patriots first three Super Bowl wins from 2001 to 2004, it was the Red Sox who still had a stranglehold on the region, especially after their magical run to a World Series title in 2004. But by 2007, the Patriots officially took over Boston’s top spot. They are the most important team in the most important sports city in the world. It’s amazing what Robert Kraft has done with the team since purchasing the franchise in 2004. Of course, he’s had a little help from his friends, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

 

  • Brady looked sharp, per usual, hitting a few corner-of-the-end zone lobs in goal line drills against the defense.
Patriots Practice -- 2019 Training Camp
The Patriots set up for goal line work during their first day of Training Camp in 2019.

 

  • As of now, Brian Hoyer is the clear No. 2 quarterback, with rookie fourth-round pick Jarret Stidham occupying the No. 3 position. Stidham often struggled to find an open man in 11-on-11 goal line drills, but that’s nothing for concern. Stidham has a lot to learn. It appears the Patriots may keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster this season. That’s something they’ve done only once (2016 — Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett) in the past decade.

 

  • Danny Etling, the team’s practice squad quarterback and seventh-round pick from last season, did not have a red jersey (designated to quarterbacks) on. Instead, he wore a white No. 5 practice jersey and practiced with the wide receivers, running routes. Belichick could be allowing Etling to prove his versatility to the team, or other teams, in hopes of making a 53-man roster with some NFL franchise this summer. Etling’s thoughts on himself are what you want to hear from a team player. “I really loved being a part of this team, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to continue that,” Etling stated after practice. He also commented on his level of experience at wide receiver — “I’ve not really played it, per se.”

 

  • On two different occasions, Brady and Brian Hoyer migrated to a seperate field with Benjamin Watson and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry to work on some routes. With Julian Edelman sidelined, and the uncertainty surrounding Josh Gordon, the Patriots could be looking to maximize the rapport between Brady and his top available targets. But remember, Watson will serve a four-game suspension for a banned substance once the regular season begins, likely leaving Matt LaCosse at the team’s starter in his absence.

 

  • Speaking of Edelman, the Super Bowl LIII MVP was in attendance, just but just to observe. Braxton Berrios understandably has taken the top slot receiver role ins absence. In fact, Berrios was running with both Brady and the first unit and with Brian Hoyer and the second group at times. And although a long shot to make the roster, undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski out of Bemidji State looked quick in receiver drills. He’s a slot receiver stashed near the bottom of the depth chart. He’ll have to do a lot in both the coming weeks, and in August, to make the team.

 

  • Although he’s been working with the team the entire offseason, it was cool to see Troy Brown working with the wide receivers in person. With special teams coordinator Joe Judge having the additional title of wide receivers coach at the moment, it appears the Patriots may be grooming Brown to take over the role after the preseason. That would be a phenomenal story. Brown is the original Edelman. He’s one of the greatest Patriots of all-time who excelled on both offense and defense. That is unheard of. New England would be lucky to have him aboard full time. At one point during practice, Brady and Brown had an animated chat in which Brady seemingly was talking to Brown about certain routes by waving his hands. Maybe they were just reminiscing about their beautiful connection they had from 2001 to 2006.

 

  • For a roundup of goal line passing drills (with the defense present) — Brady hit Harry on a nice slant in the end zone, in coverage. As mentioned before, Harry had some 1-on-1 work with Brady, but seemingly works mostly with the second team. Phillip Dorsett and Berrios logged the most receiver snaps with the first offense in goal line drills. Brady also hit Rex Burkhead out of the backfield on several occasions, as well as Dontrelle Inman on two different, tightly-contested situations. It was initially reported that Inman would miss the beginning of camp due to personal reasons, but the wideout was in attendance, and looked pretty sharp after a few errors in earlier drills.

 

  • The top cornerbacks in the team’s likely base nickel package right now are Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones (slot). J.C. Jackson, second-round pick Joejuan Williams and Duke Dawson Jr. (slot) are the second-team guys. After Jackson’s breakthrough 2018 campaign as a undrafted rookie, Bill Belichick could be looking to humble Jackson by keeping him motivated throughout training camp. Jackson should do enough to become the team’s No. 2 cornerback opposite Gilmore on opening day.

 

  • Jerod Mayo continued to fill the role of defensive play caller in just his first season as a Patriots coach, earning the praise of former teammate-turned student Dont’a Hightower: “Some coaches, it’s easy for them to say “X’s and O’s” but they don’t really understand what you actually see. With him, he has a different perspective and he’s able to give us a lot of knowledge,” Hightower told NFL Network’s Michael Giardi.

 

  • In addition to Mayo, Ja’Whaun Bentley has surprised many by picking things up quickly. Bentley had the green dot on his helmet in practice today, meaning he was the lone player on defense in communication with coaches (Mayo, etc.) for play-calling purposes.  Bentley is in position to serve as the team’s starting middle linebacker, as a bigger, ‘thumper’-style backer in the middle of the defense. This should allow the Patriots to move Hightower to the edge more often. Judging by Hightower’s slimmer figure at the moment, it appears that’s the move. The most likely candidate in Bentley’s ear on the mic is Mayo.

 

  • More on the defense — Patrick Chung was present in a red, non-contact jersey. He did play with the starting defense. Michael Bennett, the Patriots prize offseason acquisition on the defensive side, was not present.

 

  • Some personal, non team-related thoughts — it was HOT today at camp. So hot that I had to take my watch off because my wrist was sweating. Additionally, I wrote this notes piece in the CBS Sporting Club, the bar/restaurant overlooking the stadium, that has since been re-branded and remodeled since my last visit to Gillette Stadium in 2017. The restaurant’s bar seating now overlooks the stadium.
The CBS Sporting Club restaurant and bar has been remodeled so that the bar seating overlooks Gillette Stadium directly.

Stay tuned for more Patriots and NFL coverage from me in the coming weeks. I will attend training camp on Saturday for the team’s first full-padded practice. I also have columns on the evolution of the Patriots offense as well as Ty Law and the history of the team’s No. 1 cornerback. Enjoy the season! FOOTBALL IS BACK!

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…

 

———————————–

 

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 offense 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 are 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.