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Keelan Cole catch vs Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Bortles, Jags throttle Pats

Revenge is usually best served cold, but in the Jaguars’ 31-20 win over the Patriots in the hottest NFL game since 2003, it was the scorching performance by the polarizing Blake Bortles (29-45, 377 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT) that did the trick for the AFC’s early front-runner.

The Patriots’ defense that looked formidable against the Texans last week was nowhere to be found as Bortles found Keelan Cole (7 catches, 116 yards, 1 TD) when needed, including an Odell Beckham Jr.-like catch on the sideline in the first quarter, as the Jaguars raced out to a 21-3 lead that would never be surrendered or challenged.

In the win, Jalen Ramsey and the team’s brash defense forced Brady to avoid the outside and deep areas of the field. Brady instead looked toward the all-familiar middle zone of the defense, in which trusty slot receiver Julian Edelman was sorely missed. Without Edelman, the Jaguars keyed on Rob Gronkowski, allowing him just two catches for 15 yards as Brady’s dink-and-dunk philosophy garnered just 20 points, which wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with the gun-slinging Bortles.

The Patriots currently are without a receiver talented enough to get consistent serperation on the outside, which makes you wonder, do they make a play for Josh Gordon? With the Cowboys’ apparent signing of Brice Butler, the 49ers, Packers and Seahawks seem like the only other likely destinations outside of New England.

But discussing Gordon would takeaway from the Patriots’ all-too-familiar problem: what’s up with the defense? Certainly an early exit from Trey Flowers contributed, but the Patriots’ last two losses involve the dismantling of their unit but Nick Foles and Bortles. Is it panic time in New England? No. Is it a cause for concern? You bet.

The Patriots will likely be 4-1 when they visit Patrick Mahomes and the red-hot Chiefs (to be discussed next) on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in Week 5. Will the defense show up then? They better hope.

Chiefs exorcise demons, outscore Steelers

After a sizzling performance in Week 1, Patrick Mahomes and the red-hot Chiefs picked up where they left off in a 42-37 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The win doubled as an exorcising-of-the-demons affair mixed with a statement win that vaults Kansas City at or near the the top of the AFC’s group of early contenders.

Even in a flawed AFC, one can’t simply look past the Chiefs’ horrendous defense. But the perfect amalgam of star-studded weapons on offense have helped ease Mahomes into the NFL, as the young QB has been anything but easy to defend thus far.

With 10 touchdowns (and zero interceptions) in these first two weeks, Mahomes is on pace to shatter Peyton Manning’s single-season record of 55 touchdown passes with the rival Broncos in 2013. And although that probably won’t happen, Mahomes has set himself up as the way-too-early NFL MVP after two weeks.

The Steelers certainly missed Le’Veon Bell to a degree on Sunday, as replacement James Conner notched just 17 rushing yards on 8 carries, but it’s the defense that remains the Achilles Heel of the franchise. Can the Steelers overcome another slow start? They’ll need to if they are to keep up with the Chiefs, Jaguars, Patriots and Bengals in the AFC.

NFC North stalemate complicates standings

The Vikings and Packers squared off in an early candidate for game of the year before a bevy of field goal misses by both teams solidified a 29-29 tie in Lambeau Field.

Despite being the last team to miss an easy 35-yard chip-shot field goal for the win, it’s the Vikings who come away with more to be happy about with this result.

For starters, it took Kirk Cousins’ three-touchdown fourth quarter performance, which included an eight-point scoring drive in the final minute, to force overtime to avoid the loss. And secondly, the Vikings will host the Packers in their second meeting later in the year, meaning they escaped Green Bay without a loss.

Now Aaron Rodgers is still far from healthy, meaning he’ll kick things into high gear at somepoint, but the Vikings are the much more talented team, and only the Rams look better in the NFC right now.

But still, two ties in two weeks? They sure do make the standings look ugly, especially early in the season.

Decoding the NFC South

The NFC South, the league’s best division last year, is shaping up to be one of the league’s most disappointing this year. For starters, the Falcons and Panthers are decimated by injuries, while the Saints continue to underachieve on both sides of the ball, alternating by the week.

Then there is the Buccaneers.

Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bucs thoroughly outplayed the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in a 27-21 victory at home, as four more touchdown passes by Ryan Fitzpatrick place the journeyman QB right with Mahomes as the league’s most valuable player after two weeks.

And although it’s laughable to discuss such a topic this early, it’s Jameis Winston and the remaining NFC South teams who aren’t laughing.

Not only should Fitzpatrick keep his job when Winston returns after next week, the Bucs also have a prime opportunity to ride this ship toward a possible NFC South title.

Again, it’s way too early to envision Tampa Bay (2-0) hosting a playoff game, but with the state of the NFC South, it’s certainly possible.

The Saints (1-1) travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons (1-1) next week. The Falcons remain the division’s most talented team even with their recent slew of injuries. A convincing victory there, coupled with a Bucs’ home loss to the struggling Steelers on ESPN’s Monday Night Football would shuffle things around.

As with most league discussions at this point, let’s chalk this up as ‘to be determined.’

Rodgers vs Bears

NFL Monday Morning Madness: All hail Aaron Rodgers

The NFL once again delivered an exhilaratingly whacky Week 1, highlighted by the Chiefs’ explosive offense, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s fireworks through the air in New Orleans, a tie, and a game twice delayed by inclement weather.

But we begin in Green Bay, where fans at Lambeau Field were once again witnesses to the greatness of Aaron Rodgers.

*Ā *Ā *Ā *Ā *

The most shocking upset of the week was almost complete. The Bears, with new head coach Matt Nagy, young QB Mitch Trubisky and recent mega-addition Khalil Mack, had seemingly sucked the energy out of the Packers. After all, superstar QB Aaron Rodgers left with an apparent knee injury, the Bears looked faster and hungrier, and Mack had completely taken over the game with a strip-sack and a pick-six. The score at the half? 17-0 in favor of the new, modern-day Monsters of the Midway.

Shockingly, Rodgers returned for the second half, and so did the Packers.

Insert one more legendary comeback and game into Rodgers’ script. A 20-point second half comeback to beat the upstart Bears, a team that had THAT look. The look of a team ready to break out. Not tonight, not in Rodgers’ house.

One of the game’s great rivalries has been in favor of the Packers during the Rodgers era. He had beaten the Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship in Chicago. He had beaten the Bears in Week 17 of 2013 to clinch the NFC North on a long-ball to Randall Cobb. And last night, he crushed the Bears’ souls again, with Cobb, his closest friend on the team. An 75-yard touchdown pass in which Cobb did most of the damage after the catch, put the Packers ahead 24-23. That would be the final score.

“It’s the Bear-Packer rivalry, Rodgers said to NBC’s Michele Tafoya. “It would have had to be something really catastrophic injury-wise to keep me off the field.”

Once Green Bay took the lead, Chicago had a chance to drive down for the win, but the moment looked too big for Mitchell Trubisky. It engulfed him. Even with a second chance after Clay Matthews roughing-the-passer penalty on fourth down extended the drive, Trubisky could not deliver. The same Bears that looked unstoppable on both sides of the ball in the first half couldn’t hang on in the second. Not with Rodgers at the helm, limping around and throwing touchdowns, firing up a crowd thad had almost certainly begun mulling over the career of their quarterback after what looked to be another serious injury possibly derailing another one of his seasons.

Instead, Rodgers came back and delivered one of his most masterful performances yet, as Trubisky, Mack and the rest of the Bears saw their statement victory slip away. This was must-see TV. Football is indeed back, and this was it’s finest part of the overall product this weekend.

“I’ll play next week,” Rodgers said.

We’ll be watching.

Chiefs still own AFC West

After an offseason filled with questions about whether or not the talented Chargers could finally win the AFC West, the division’s incumbent champs brought the noise in the league’s quietest stadium. The most explosive offense in pro football features the the most explosive player in the sport in Tyreek Hill, and a confident young QB in Patrick Mahomes, who seems ready to lead the charge for one of the AFC’s main contenders.

First thing of note is Hill, who is not only the game’s most explosive (and fastest) player but also the league’s most exciting, edging out guys like Rodgers, Alvin Kamara and Antonio Brown for the nod. A 91-yard punt return touchdown to begin the season, followed by 169 yards and two more scores on the receiving end. He scores on punts, reverses, hand-offs, drags, slants and deep flies. He can literally do it all. He’s what personnel guys always hoped Dante Hall or Devin Hester would be on offense. With lackluster performances by Kareem Hunt (16 carries, 49 yards) and Travis Kelce (1 catch, 6 yards), it was Hill who Mahomes looked to.

But Mahomes deserves credit in his own right. His second career start was basically his first career start. This was his moments. All offseason the Chargers were coronated as one of the league’s most talented teams, if not, the most talented in AFC, at least. But what about the Mahomet-Hill-Hunt-Kelce-Sammy Watkins grouping in Kansas City. The Chiefs have playmakers at all levels, and Mahomes is the perfect distributor in Andy Reid’s high-flying offense.

Mahomes’ final stat line: 15-for-27, 256 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions.

As a QB praised for his big arm and potential, it was refreshing to see Mahomes display accuracy and touch in his passing game, specifically in a floating pass along the left sideline to fullback Anthony Sherman, that turned into a 36-yard catch-and-score.

Yes, the Chargers were without Joey Bosa, and Week 1 is Week 1. But Kansas City made a statement with the win.

The Chiefs have now beaten the Chargers nine straight times, and with Mahomes, things look to be no different in the AFC West.

Same ole Saints?

For fans who haven’t noticed by now. here’s a mantra to keep in mind. Things change in the NFL. Production from the previous season rarely carries over to the next. Unless you’re the Patriots, or Aaron Rodgers, of course.

Sadly, the Saints defense does not fall in the exemption category. After a promising 2017 defensive campaign, the Saints entered Sunday as a Super Bowl contender. Instead they were embarrassed by the Buccaneers at home, 48-40, in a game in which Tampa Bay backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick had the game of his life (21 of 28, 417 yards, four touchdowns).

Fitzpatrick is a great story, and certainly one that should be talked about. He fed Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson magnificently. But the story here is the collapse of what was supposed to be an improving unit. During the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era in the Bayou, the Saints have continually relied on their offense.

But now with Brees at age-39, and Mark Ingram out for four weeks, September was set for the Saints defense to shine. Nope.Ā Instead New Orleans did not capitalize on the Falcons loss in Philadelphia on Thursday. The Falcons should beat the Panthers (1-0) at home next week after blowing their chance to upend the defending Super Bowl Champions.

Atlanta is clearly the most complete team in the NFC South, and even they have a lot of work to do (RED ZONE).

The Saints can reflect this week as they look ahead to their home bout with the Browns next Sunday. Maybe that’s the cure they need.

Matt Ryan

Falcons set to ‘rise up’ once more

With 19 months passed since the Falcons suffered perhaps the most heartbreaking professional sports loss of all-time, Atlanta is set to build on a topsy-turvy past two seasons. For them, a third time will be the charm.

Yielding one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, the Falcons have fallen under the radar as other star-studded NFC franchises such as the Eagles, Rams, Vikings and Saints have hogged preseason hype. Prognosticators overlooking the Falcons will later find out they’ve made a major mistake.Ā The team will return 19 of its 22 starters from last season, therefore putting them in a better position than most teams from the get-go.

After perhaps the best season in franchise history in 2016, the Falcons offense sputtered in 2017 after the switch from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator. As Shanahan left for the 49ers head coaching job, he apparently took the offense’s moxie with him, as 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan was unable to duplicate his prior success in the new regime.

But with experience (and a fresh season) comes hope for a unit that still has loads of talent. Ryan should have a bounce-back season getting used to Sarkisian’s methods as the team welcomes back most of his weapons in superstar WR1 Julio Jones, WR2 Mohamed Sanu, TE Austin Hooper and RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Like most teams now, the Falcons ran their ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) just over half time in 2017. This year they’ll welcome Alabama WR Calvin Ridley to the fold as the team’s WR3, after selecting him with the 26th overall pick in this year’s draft. The initial thought would be Ridley spending most of his time in the slot, but the most likely outcome is both him and Sanu alternating at the Y and Z (flanker) positions, while Jones remains the team’s primary threat on the outside as the prototypical ‘X’ wideout. With possibly the league’s best group of receivers in the limelight, Hooper may find open lanes down the seam and middle of the field all season. Except a breakout year from third-year tight end.

In addition to ’11’ groupings, expect Sarkisian to implement more ’21’ groupings (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WR) in order to get Freeman and Coleman on the field at the same time. Outside of their rival in New Orleans (Saints with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram) the Freeman-Coleman duo is the league’s best RB pair. While Freeman is more of a physical runner with a quick burst and above-average lateral moves and vision, Coleman is more of a larger scatback-type, and is a major threat in the passing game.

All that comes together behind one of the league’s better offensive lines. Year 2 under Sarkisian will prove to be significantly more memorable last season.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Matt Ryan

RB — Devonta Freeman

WR — Julio Jones

WR — Mohamed Sanu

WR — Calvin Ridley

TE — Austin Hooper

LT — Jake Matthews

LG — Andy Levitre

C — Alex Mack

RG — Brandon Fusco

RT — Ryan Schraeder

Situational positions:

Scatback — Tevin Coleman

WR4 — Justin Hardy

FB — Ricky Ortiz

TE2 — Logan Paulsen

 

*Ā *Ā *Ā *Ā *

Although no one will confuse this Falcons defense with the Seahawks ‘Legion of Boom’ unit, the architect of that former group has done a swell job building a similarly fast and physical defense of its own in Atlanta.

After two seasons as the Seahawks defensive coordinator (2013-2014), Dan Quinn leveraged his creation on a team that made two consecutive Super Bowls (winning Super Bowl XLVIII), to land his first head coaching job in 2016. The Falcons defense immediately improved as Quinn modeled some positions after his former club. Recently-retired strong safety Kam Chancellor was a force for the ‘LOB,’ terrorizing receivers underneath in the shallow zones of a Cover 3 concept usually suited for linebackers

Quinn uses Keanu Neal similarly in Atlanta in zone-based schemes. Although Neal (6 feet, 211 pounds) isn’t quite Chancellor’s size (6-foot-3, 232 pounds), he’s savvy and packs punch. Quinn also has linebacker Deion Jones in a similar role. The 6-foot, 227-pound linebacker is undersized for the position, but his speed and aggressive mentality have invoked fear over the middle in somewhat similar fashion as the two previously-mentioned players.

Underneath the middle-roaming Neal and Jones is a defensive line ready for a monster season. Two seasons after leading the NFL in sacks (15.5 sacks in 2016), Beasley is primed to get back on track in Year 4, which is commonly viewed a make-or-break year for top-end picks. On the other edge comes new starter Taakarist McKinley. After spending his rookie year as a backup, the 2017 firs- round pick will start opposite Beasley to form a formidable duo.

In the interior, Grady Jarrett has the skills to become a breakout star, similar to the aforementioned Hooper on the offensive side of the ball. Jarrett’s career game is still Super Bowl LI. Despite the Falcons’ heartbreaking loss, Jarrett tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks on Brady. With the Beasley-McKinley duo set to occupy the minds of most offensive lines, the overlooked Jarrett should thrive.

In the backend, Ricardo Allen returns at free safety while CB2 Robert Alford and underrated slot CB Brian Poole help round out a starting secondary that revolves around Desmond Trufant. Not mentioned with the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes and Patrick Peterson, Trufant can be likened to Casey Hayward of the Los Angeles Chargers. Trufant and Hayward are top seven or eight cornerbacks in the NFL by any measure, yet are often overlooked. The 2013 first-round pick is a legit CB1 capable of ruining a game for even the brightest quarterbacks and offenses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week 1 Projected defense:

EDGE — Vic Beasley Jr.

Interior — Grady JarrettĀ 

Interior — Terrell McClain

EDGE — Takkarist McKinleyĀ 

LB — Deion Jones

LB — Duke Riley

CB — Desmond Trufant

CB — Robert Alford

Slot CB — Brian Poole

SS — Keanu Neal

FS — Ricardo AllenĀ 

Situational positions:

Sub Interior Rusher — Jack Crawford

Sub Edge Rusher — Derrick Shelby

Base Defense LB3 — De’Vondre Campbell

CB4 (Dime) — Blidi Wreh-Wilson

CB5 — Isaiah Oliver

 

Projected record: 12-4 (NFCā€™s No. 2 seed)

Most are picking the Saints to take the NFC South, but the Falcons have a roster equal to New Orleans (and other NFC powers) in talent. They’ll take the division over the Saints, who will grab a wild card spot with a 10-6 mark. After losing out on the NFC’s top seed due to a Week 15 loss to the Packers in Lambeau Field, the Falcons take care of business a second time around in Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game. In doing so the Falcons become the first home team in Super Bowl history, as the big game will be in Atlanta, Georgia this year. But once again, the Falcons will fall victim to the Patriots, 27-24, as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick take home their sixth and final ring.

Patriots go ‘once more into the fray’ in quest for sixth ring

193 days removed from one of the most painful losses of his career, Tom Brady took the field against the Philadelphia Eagles with something to prove. The contrast in importance from Super Bowl LII and this home preseason tilt can’t be overstated, but for Brady, this was a chance to damper the over-analyzed noise of ‘discord’ between he and Bill Belichick during the offseason, as seen and heard on sports television and sports talk radio.

The GOAT’s performance (19/26, 172 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) was sharp. An A-minus level of quarterbacking against the team that thwarted his attempt at a sixth ring. With WR1 Brandin Cooks, do-everything back Dion Lewis and uber-clutch slot weapon Danny Amendola all gone, Brady will carry a heavier load this season. That’s something he’s done in past years, but as he enters his age-41 campaign, that’s certainly not ideal.

Still, the Patriots possess the ultimate mismatch-creator in tight end Rob Gronkowski, and will welcome back trusty slot receiver Julian Edelman in October after his four-game suspension for who knows what. In September bouts versus the Texans, Jaguars, Lions and Dolphins, Brady will have to rely on Chris Hogan as his WR1 with scatback James White and two former first-round picks Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson to fill the void. Patterson is the ultimate ‘gadget’ weapon capable of creating big gains off screens, reverses and the deep fly. Dorsett is a smaller target with blazing speed a la Brandin Cooks, but not as polished. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely try Dorsett in a variety of roles including in Cooks’ and Edelman’s spot for the first month of the season.

But what will the offense look like in general? McDaniels is known for creating a chameleon-type mentality within the Patriots’ complex offense run by Brady. One game New England might pound the rock in two-tight end sets (with the occasional play-action pass) while another matchup may bring out a spread set for much of the game, asking Brady to beat a top-end defense by throwing 50 or more passes — which he surely can do. It’s been documented many times before, but the Patriots use short passes to RBs and slot receivers as bonafide runs in that scenario. They move players like James Devlin out wide in no-huddle base-switched-to-spread formations and move receivers in motion to identify the coverage, and then Brady assess.

Many call it ‘dinking and dunking’ but what Brady does with timed and small window throws is a thing of beauty. As opposed to consistently looking deep to Cooks, Hogan and Gronkowski like last season, Brady will attack the short and middle spots of the defense before he attacks downfield with what can be described as the ‘jugular.’ This is reserved for when Brady looks downfield on either a play-action pass or unexpected bomb to hit the defense where and when it least expects it. The best example of this is Brady’s deep touchdown pass to Chris Hogan to defeat the Ravens on a Monday Night Football game during the 2016 season:

New England’s team-building philosophy allows them to find obscure or mid-level available targets to fit their system, without having to battle other teams for their services. These players are hired on affordable contracts, or traded for assets with slim value to the franchise. The latest example being Patterson, who may very well enjoy a career year in New England despite being dealt there, along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for a fifth-round pick. That’s practically nothing.

Likewise, the Patriots retained Burkhead on a three-year deal with $5.5 million guaranteed. With the Patriots handling of Michel’s injury and Lewis in Tenneseee, Burkhead may too, have a career year as the presumed feature back to start the season.

But the running back corps should rely on perhaps their best bargain of all, scatback James White. The trusty offensive weapon will be heavily relied on to start the season, and even may lead the team in catches. The player who has scored six touchdowns in his last four postseason games quietly signed a three-year extensionĀ last offseason that nets him just $12 million (not guaranteed) through 2020. The Patriots win in this scenario again.

But enough contract talk. Expect the unexpected when it comes to the Patriots attempt to score points on four familiar, stingy defensive foes in September, but after that Brady and company should find their rythmn with a mix of gameplans derived generated to attack opponents’ weaknesses.

In short, as long as Brady is running the show, and Gronkowski and Edelman remain healthy, New England should remain one of the league’s consistent scoring machines in 2018.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Rex BurkheadĀ 

WR — Chris Hogan

WR — Cordarrelle PattersonĀ 

Slot WR — Phillip Dorsett (Edelman will replace Dorsett after his four-game suspension; Dorsett would move back outside)

TE — Rob Gronkowski

LT — Trent BrownĀ 

LG — Joe ThuneyĀ 

C — David Andrews

RG — Shaq MasonĀ 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

‘Move’ TE — Jacob Hollister

Blocking TE — Dwayne Allen

Gadget — Cordarrelle Patterson (Patterson projected to start in three WR sets Weeks 1-4)

Swing Tackle — LaAdrian Waddle

 

*Ā *Ā *Ā *Ā *

For the Patriots defense, the 2017 season ended just as it began, with the unit being thumped by a more talented offensive unit.. The ominous Week 1 loss to the Chiefs sparked early trouble, but as always the Patriots trekked along with the ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ defense for the rest of the season leading up to Super Bowl LII. Then, the wheels came off.

Now, Brian Flores takes over, filling in for Matt Patricia’s shoes. In two preseason games, Flores has appeared to mix in more exotic blitzes than the conservative preseason. But again, it’s preseason so that means little. The Patriots major hole in 2017 was a lack of a pass rush, and a below-average front seven in general. Players like Eric Lee and Marquis Flowers were thrust into starting roles down the stretch. Both Lee and Flowers were released Saturday, failing to make the 53-man roster. With the return of Dont’a Hightower and the additions of Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton and Derek Rivers, the team should see somewhat of a boost in those categories.

In the secondary, the Patriots again will have the experienced safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, but the group’s most important piece will be CB1 Stephon Gilmore. With a full season in New England under his belt, Gilmore should elevate into a top five cornerback in 2018. Belichick will utilize the former Buffalo Bill as a man-to-man piece with the ability to stymie opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher. Generally, Belichick’s defenses work well with a shutdown CB1 anchoring the backend — think Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis. With the exception of Samuel, who was smaller and excelled in zone coverage, the players on that list are elite, physical man-to-man defenders. Gilmore will be that.

The major question comes at CB2, where Eric Rowe will need to step up and provide solid play in man-to-man situations as we. Between Gilmore (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) and Rowe (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) the Patriots hope to lock up outside receivers with their lengthy, athletic cornerbacks, with less pressure on Rowe, as he’d be asked to cover the team’s No. 2 WR. In the slot, the Patriots will look to Jonathan Jones or rookie Duke Dawson at some point, but their often-used ‘big nickel’ package may be the most used. The formation employs the aforementioned safety trio with both Harmon and McCourty playing a traditional free-ranging safety position, and Chung playing in the as a nickel back who is able to jam receivers and tight ends who line up in the slot.

With Flores at the helm, the Patriots will still employ a mostly-conservative approach to their defense, as similar to recent years. But expect the young play caller to mix a few exotic blitzes into the mix, without leaving the defense vulnerable to getting beat deep by a running back in the passing game, like Cassius Marsh’s coverage assignment versus Kareem Hunt in last season’s Week 1 loss to the Chiefs.

To sum it all up, the defense should improve.

Week 1 Projected defense:

EDGE — Trey Flowers

Interior — Danny Shelton

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Adrian Clayborn

LB — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore

CB — Eric Rowe

Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon

Situational positions:

Rotational InteriorĀ  — Malcom Brown

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

Sub Edge Rusher — Derek Rivers

Sub Edge Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr.Ā 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

Slot CB — Duke Dawson Jr.Ā 

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 2 seed)

With the AFC’s (and AFC East’s) failure to keep up with the NFC’s level of emerging talent-heavy teams, only the Patriots, Jaguars and Steelers hold a legitimate chance at making Super Bowl LIII, with the Chargers, Chiefs and Texans being the conference’s sleepers. The Patriots will miss out on the AFC’s No. 1 seed via a Week 2 loss in Jacksonville. But with a season-long worth of meshing, and Edelman back in the mix, the Patriots will defeat the Jaguars on the road in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.

The next king at QB? How Jimmy Garoppolo is exceeding the hype (so far)

On the eve of the first day of their 2018 training camp, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves in an exhilarating place. Generally, a rebuild of an NFL squad is more exciting when said franchise possesses one of the game’s best young signal callers. Boy, do the 49ers qualify there with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm.

Along with Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, whom both suffered season-ending injuries last year, there isn’t a better 10-to-15 year quarterback plan in place then the one in motion up in the Bay Area.

For proof, just look at how Garoppolo made his way to the 49ers, let alone how well he played finishing out the 2017 season.

Last summer the Patriots were faced with a franchise-altering decision between two quarterbacks.

How can that be? Tom Brady had just won fifth Super Bowl, fourth Super Bowl MVP award and even at age 40 showed no signs of slowing down. If the Patriots had enough money to keep just one of Brady and his lauded backup, wouldn’t it be an easy decision to trade Garoppolo for assets to help Brady win more titles?

Well the decision wasn’t that easy, because it turns out Garoppolo may be the best young quarterback in years.

After just two starts in place of Brady early last season, some scouts and analysts labeled Garoppolo as one of the best QB prospects in the NFL, a blue chipper.

Even after filling in admirably for the greatest quarterback ever, no one could be exactly sure that Garoppolo was a franchise cornerstone.

The hype rolled in from smart, football minds such as Michael Lombardi and others. Lombardi — who now works for The Ringer — was part of a small collective of minds on the Patriots staff that help draft Garoppolo in 2014. He was a friend and colleague of Bill Belichick.

But it was opinions like Lombardi’s, NFL scouts, and anonymous NFL front office personnel that turned the ordeal into a near-frenzy.

When I covered Patriots training camp in late July of 2017, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer enjoyed a private conversation off to the side with Garoppolo in which I heard Breer tell Garoppolo something to the effect of “everybody is aware of the situation, it’s out there” when discussing rumors of trade discussions between the Patriots and his suitors.

The two smiled. After all, Breer was correct and Garoppolo knew it. Garoppolo wanted to be a starter, as anyone in his situation would and teams knew that there was a chance to snag Garoppolo for the right price. Breer wrote a great pieceĀ based off that conversation.

But Breer’s piece highlighted how surprised he was (many others were as well) that Garoppolo was still on New England’s roster during training camp.

Rumors circulated before the Draft in May that the Cleveland Browns were offering a first-round pick and more for Garoppolo. The Draft passed and nothing materialized. The Patriots apparently knew what they had in Garoppolo, a future star in the making.

Time will tell if Garoppolo is third in line behind Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers as the next best apprentice quarterback who was a beneficiary of learning behind a Hall of Fame passer for multiple seasons.Ā But after five starts with the 49ers it appears Garoppolo is as good as advertised. Scratch that, he’s better. Seven games hardly defines a career, but a 7-0 career start (5-0 with San Francisco) primarily with a 1-10 team whose No. 1 wide receiver is Marquise Goodwin is something to behold. That’s uncharted territory for a newbie starting quarterback in this league.

The media is fully aware of what Garoppolo might become, as shown in both Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated‘s feature stories on the 49ers QB this week. Apparently, Belichick and the 49ers do too. The SI piece revealed an interesting nugget, stating that Belichick reportedly texted Garoppolo after every 49ers win this past winter. This information, along with the rumors of Belichick’s discord over trading the young QB, further validates Belichick’s affinity for Garoppolo. That may tie into Belichick’s decision to reportedly spurn the Browns in favor of trading Garoppolo to the 49ers, a franchise in which the young quarterback would be better positioned to succeed.

The 49ers know what they have in Garoppolo, which is why GM John Lynch signed him to five-year, $137 million deal this past February, the richest contract in NFL history at the time. The faith in “Jimmy G” didn’t stop there, as the 49ers bolstered their offense by signing versatile running back Jerick McKinnon in free agency and drafting Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey with the 9th overall pick in the draft. The team also signed the previously-mentioned Marquise Goodwin, Garoppolo’s favorite target last season, to a three-year extension.

Today, Garoppolo addressed the media in lead-up to to his first training camp as a starting quarterback.Ā “Life is different now,” Garoppolo said. “My life off the field, I’ve never really been very big on being very public with things. I’m under a microscope.”

He’s right. Garoppolo is no longer in New England under the shadow of his once-mentor. He has his own franchise to lead, and with what he’s done so far, there’s a reason everyone will be watching him this season, right through those “microscopic” lenses.

 

 

 

 

Tom Brady and Von Miller

Brent Schwartz’s Top 50 NFL players of 2018

A few weeks ago,Ā NFL Network’s Top 100 players of 2018 series culminated with Tom Brady’s second consecutive — and third overall — finish at No. 1 on the rankings. I decided to follow that up with my own Top 50 list. Read and enjoy.

Just missed: Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Landon Collins, LeSean McCoy, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Marshon Lattimore, Kareem Hunt, Zach Ertz, Ndamukong Suh, Everson Griffen, Adam Thielen, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jimmy Garoppolo, Deshaun Watson, Phillip Rivers, Mike Evans, Marshal Yanda, Geno Atkins, Kevin Byard, Telvin Smith, Jason Kelce, Eric Weddle, Brandon Graham

50. Larry Fitzgerald – WR, Arizona CardinalsĀ 

Fitzgerald will turn 35 before the season starts, but he’s coming off of three consecutive seasons with 100 receptions or more. That’s incredible. He’s still a borderline top 10 receiver.

49. Doug Baldwin – WR, Seattle Seahawks

As feisty as he is talented, the mentally-tough Baldwin is Russell Wilson’s go-to-guy. He’s one of the more clutch pass catchers in football, and is far from an interchangeable piece in the slot for Seattle.

48. Stephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots

After a rough start to his career in New England, Patriots fans were calling for his head. Gilmore quietly meshed into one of the league’s best cover corners outside of Jacksonville down the stretch. He’s the AFC champs’ third best player after Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

47. Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints

Thomas is easily the most talented wide receiver that Drew Brees has ever played with, and he’s only going to get better. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, Thomas is a ‘X’-type wide receiver that also produces from the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas was targeted on 26.7% of his routes last year, which is good for second in the league among wide receivers.

46. Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles anchor on defense is one of the league’s best interior defensive lineman. His ability to disrupt and offense from the inside helps create one-on-one mismatches for Philadelphia’s talented team of pass rushers on the outside.

45. Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints

Give me Kamara over both Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette. The do-it-all back is a prime example of the NFL’s new breed of running backs. He can be a workhorse in a different way than an Ezekiel Elliot-type in that Kamara is best used as someone who’s targeted as often in the passing game as he is in an offense’s running attack.

44. Tyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Perhaps Hill should be labeled as merely an ‘athlete’ rather than wide receiver. Hill exhibits explosiveness from a myriad of roles that include lining up on the outside, in the slot, out of the backfield and kick returning. He’s one of the league’s most exciting players.

43. David Johnson – RB, Arizona Cardinals

In examining a running back who previously suffered a season-ending injury the year before, one must do their due diligence in knocking them down a few spots on any player rankings. But when healthy, Johnson challenges a few others for the title of the league’s best running back. He’s just as affective in the passing game as he is in the running game.

42. A.J. Green – WR, Cincinnati BengalsĀ 

Green’s best days in Cincinnati may be behind him as Andy Dalton and the middling Bengals provide little to be excited about as a franchise. But he still remains a borderline top five guy at his position.

41. David DeCastro – G, Pittsburgh Steelers

As great as Le’Veon Bell’s field vision is, would he have enough time for his patented stop-and-start running without DeCastro clearing the lanes? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t.

40. Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona CardinalsĀ 

Looking back, Bill Belichick’s decision to trade Jones (instead of paying him) may be one of the few mistakes in his ruthless approach to team building. Without Jones (and albeit, a few others) the Patriots pass rush has been virtually nonexistent. In Arizona, Jones proved his worth by leading the NFL with 17 sacks in 2017.

39. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles ChargersĀ 

One of the league’s most underrated players, Hayward has been even better with the Chargers than he was with the Green Bay Packers. Pro Football Focus named Hayward the league’s top coverage defender in 2017.

38. Eric Berry – S, Kansas City Chiefs

Berry overcame Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, so he’ll overcome last year’s season-ending Achilles injury as well. The Chiefs once-stout defense is in need of a reboot and that begins mostly with Berry returning to action.

37. Earl Thomas – S, Seattle Seahawks

A couple seasons ago, Thomas was the anchor of arguably the best defensive backfield in NFL history, and was absolutely a top 10 player in football. In 2018 Thomas is still a top tier safety, but his prime years have passed him by. Still, whether he suits up for the Seahawks or Cowboys this season, Thomas still has an Ed Reed-style of range that will drive quarterbacks nuts for a couple more seasons.

36. Jadeveon Clowney – EDGE, Houston Texans

Clowney has slowly transitioned from the ‘bust’ label associated with an underperforming former No. 1 overall pick to one of the league’s best overall defensive players. He has the power, athleticism and technique to give even the best quarterbacks hell.

35. Patrick Peterson – CB, Arizona CardinalsĀ 

Drafted the same year (2011) as Richard Sherman, Peterson has not yet reached Sherman’s peak, but he’s outlasted him as one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks for a longer period of time. Of course, Sherman could prove me wrong at age 30 on a new team coming off a major injury, but this isn’t about him.

Peterson has been one of the best coverage defenders in the business for most of this decade and he’s even been one of the game’s most dangerous punt returners at times.

34. Zack Martin – G, Dallas Cowboys

Martin edges DeCastro and Marshal Yanda on this list as the NFL’s best guard. Martin excels in both pass and run-blocking as one of a few All-Pros on Dallas’ league-best offensive ine.

33. Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers

When healthy, Allen is unquestionably a top-five level wide receiver. He’s the prototype underrated player that doesn’t get enough media attention. Despite his lackluster pro day 40-yard dash (4.71 seconds) Allen makes up that with his pristine route-running skills and playmaking ability, says NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, who is also a former player and scout.

32. Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City ChiefsĀ 

Like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce is a new-breed of tight end. The 6-foot-5 tight end is almost Gronkowksi’s size with better speed and quickness. Kelce can line up in-line like a traditional tight end but also spends time out wide and in the slot. Kelce is basically a massive wide receiver and should be treated as such on one of the best offenses in the league.

31. Carson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles

Had he not been injured versus the Rams, Wentz would have been last year’s MVP. He’ll have a chance to prove last year is no fluke in his return from a major injury last season. He’s one of the game’s brightest young stars.

30. Chris Harris, Jr. – CB, Denver Broncos

To be blunt, Harris is the best slot cornerback of all-time. The position is relatively new in terms of being a full-time role, but the nickel position is extremely important in today’s era of football. Harris’ ability to stymie Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and other slot playmakers in the innovative Patriots’ scheme is all you need to know about Harris. With Talib gone, Harris may be asked to cover opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher regardless of whether he’ll be lined up in the slot or the outside.

29. Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings

Smith is next in line to become the NFL’s best safety if he isn’t already. He’s just as effective in the box as he is in pass coverage. His reliability in the backend allows Mike Zimmer to be more aggressive with the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

28. Cam Newton – QB , Carolina PanthersĀ 

Newton showed maturation as a leader in displaying mental toughness more often than not in 2017, a far cry from past seasons. During his 2015 MVP season, he showed how good he can be. As the Panthers add more weapons around him, Newton will continue to improve into a consistent quarterback.

27. Matt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons

With the absence of Kyle Shanahan and the ending to Super Bowl LI casting over the 2017 season, Matt Ryan still had the Falcons in position to make it back to the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons are one of the league’s most talented teams, and should be one out of a handful of Super Bowl LIII favorites, with much of that credited to Ryan.

26. Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Roethlisberger is on the downside of his career, but at certain times during the 2017 season, he showcased that he still has the tools to be considered a top passer. Despite the loss to the Jaguars in an AFC Divisional Playoff, Big Ben shredded the AFC’s top ranked defense for 469 yards and five touchdowns. He may not be as consistent as he once was, and I’m willing to bet this is his last ‘good’ year at quarterback, but in a league riddled with inconsistency at the position he remains one of the NFL’s best.

25. CalaisĀ Campbell – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars

After nine seasons in Arizona as mostly an interior defender, Campbell had his best season as a pro on the Jaguars’ stingy defense by setting the tone on the edge. As the leader of a ferocious pass rush, it’s Campbell in company that rushed quarterbacks into untimely decisions. The Jaguars have the NFL’s best duo at cornerback, but they’re twice as effective because of Campbell and others up front.

24. Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers

Entering his third season, Boss could be labeled as an ’emerging’ star if he wasn’t a star already. He’s the best bet in terms of future ‘superstars’ in the same way J.J. Watt has been at a similar position. Having Melvin Ingram rushing the passer from the other side on the Chargers’ defense helps. Bosa is the most likely young player on this list to end up in the top 10 next summer.

23. Cameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints

Jordan is one of the NFL’s most underappreciated players in that he’s one of the best edge players in football, yet doesn’t get the national media attention of others at his position. The Saints’ defense improved dramatically in 2017, and although adding talent (Marshon Lattimore, etc.) in the secondary certainly helped, Jordan deserves the most credit for their turnaround.

22. Xavier Rhodes – CB, Minnesota Vikings

At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds with 4.39 speed, Rhodes is a prototypical No. 1 cornerback in today’s NFL. His combination of athleticism and physicality are virtually unmatched at his position, making him the Vikings’ most valuable cog on their No. 1 ranked defense.

21. A.J. Bouye – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Not to be overlooked by Jalen Ramsey, Bouye has already proven to be one of the best free agent acquisitions of the 2010’s. The Jaguars stole Bouye from their AFC South rival, the Texans, by singing him to five-year, $67.5 million contract last offseason. In his first season in Jacksonville, Bouye led the league in PFF’s passing rating allowed when targeted stat and didn’t allow a touchdown until Antonio Brown snagged one over him in the postseason.

20. Ezekiel Elliot – RB , Dallas Cowboys

Like Bosa, Elliot is one of the league’s budding young stars. He already has two seasons under his belt despite being just 22 years old (he’ll turn 23 next week). Sure, the Cowboys mammoth offensive line has a helping hand in Elliot’s success, but it’s apparent that the Cowboys running back has the talent to succeed just about anywhere.

19. DeAndre Hopkins – WR, Houston Texans

The most impressive thing about Hopkins is that he’s flourished with an array of below average quarterbacks. His knack for tracking the ball in the air and sideline balance are just as impressive as his receiving skills. Hopkins and Odell Beckham Jr. are the favorites to take the ‘best wide receiver’ crown from Antonio Brown.

18. Tyron Smith – T, Dallas Cowboys

Yes, the Cowboys have the NFL’s best guard and left tackle. Smith is a behemoth of both power and technique at one of the most important positions in pro football.

17. J.J. Watt – DE (3-4), Houston Texans

The only reason Watt isn’t in the top 10 of this list is due to the fact that he’s missed most of the past two seasons to injury. The former three-time Defensive Player of the Year is one of the most dominant edge defenders of all-time by any measure. Him and a certain Broncos’ pass rusher could each be called this generation’s Lawrence Taylor.

16. Julio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons

With four consecutive seasons of over 1,400 receiving yards, Jones has been one of the game’s top two receivers since 2014. But I made this list with a 70-30 rule of production in recent seasons pitted against potential during the 2018 campaign. The latter percentage makes me believe this next receiver will pass him this season.

15. Odell Beckham Jr. – WR, New York Giants

It may take a few games for him to round back into form, but with Saquon Barkley and an improved offensive line, Beckham should have a little less attention from defenses. 2018 may be the season that he becomes the game’s best wide receiver, and ultimate offensive weapon. He’s certainly on path to do that and more as he puts up early career numbers that only Jerry Rice and Randy Moss have produced.

14. Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle SeahawksĀ 

As the ‘Legion of Boom’ era comes to a close, Bobby Wagner remains the most important player on a once-stout defense. Wagner’s speed and instincts make him a downright monster in defending the run and the pass. Seahawks GM Jon Schneider should look to build around their star linebacker.

13. Luke Kuechly – LB, Carolina Panthers

Though his very best play happened a few seasons ago, Keuchly remains the best linebacker in pro football. He’s the Panthers’ best player.

12. Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints

Many compliment Brady for his play at age 40, but Drew Brees is continuing to play quarterback at a high level at the current age of 39. He’s not in Brady or Aaron Rodgers’ class anymore, but he shouldn’t be overlooked. With the team built in New Orleans, Brees may have a real crack at ring No. 2 before he retires.

11. Todd Gurley – RB, Los Angeles Rams

Gurley was a finalist for NFL MVP due to being the catalyst of the NFL’s No. 1 offense in 2018. As Jared Goff matures, the focal point may switch from Gurley to the young quarterback. But frankly, there’s no need. Gurley is that good.

10. Le’Veon Bell – RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

The league’s best running back has perhaps the most unique running style in the history of pro football. Bell’s field vision is second to none among rushers, along with plenty of his other skills. In an era where running backs have been less valuable than years past, Bell is still one of the game’s best players, with only two skill position players above him on this list.

9. Jalen Ramsey – CB, Jacksonville JaguarsĀ 

Ramsey has transcended into the league’s best cornerback much of the way Richard Sherman did for a moment a few years ago: by being the outspoken, brash leader of one of the league’s best defenses. He’s the face of the Jaguars.

8. Rob Gronkowski – TE, NewĀ England Patriots

Although Gronk’s full seasons are no longer statistically dominant, he still exhibits his unstoppable self when needed. During the Patriots’ game-winning drive to beat the Steelers in Week 15 and the team’s first drive to start the second half of Super Bowl LII, Gronkowski completely took the game over. He’s Randy Moss-level scary at the tight end position. He’s been passed as the game’s best non-QB on offense, though.

7. Khalil Mack – EDGE, Chicago Bears

The only player in NFL history to be voted an All-Pro at two positions (DE, OLB), Mack is an unstoppable force on the edge and will continue to thrive in Chicago as the Bears’ new franchise player.

6. Russell Wilson – QB, SeattleĀ SeahawksĀ 

Wilson was an MVP candidate in 2017 despite playing behind the league’s worst offensive line. It seemed like he was running for his life on virtually every snap last season. No other QB could have that much success given the circumstances. If the Seahawks surprisingly return to the playoffs in 2018 in their first year of the ‘post-Legion-of-Boom’ era, it’ll be because of Wilson. He’s the third best QB in football. ‘@’ me if you’d like.

5. Von Miller – EDGE, Denver BroncosĀ 

Miller is still the game’s best pass rusher. If he can mentor rookie Bradley Chubb into half of the force he is on the edge, Denver’s defense may return to how it looked in 2015.

4. Antonio Brown – WR, Pittsburgh SteelersĀ 

The game’s best non-QB on offense was unstoppable again in 2017. Statistically, he’s coming off the best five-year span for a wide receiver in NFL history. Speaking of history, Brown is climbing up the greatest wide receivers of all-time list. After Jerry Rice I’ve had Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald. Brown will give the latter two a run for their money with a few more seasons at his recent level of play.

3. Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles RamsĀ 

Donald has taken over as the league’s best defensive player, a title previously held by Von Miller, and J.J. Watt before him. With the arrival of Ndamukong Suh along the Rams’ defensive line, Donald should terrorize offenses from the interior at an even higher rate in 2018.

2. Aaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay PackersĀ 

Despite another season cut short to injury, Rodgers belongs here. He’s on pace to finish as one of the four or five best quarterbacks of all-time, with an outside chance of chasing this next QB for the ultimate crown.

1. Tom Brady – QB, New England Patriots

The GOAT remains at the top of his game despite turning 41 in August. His impressive run since 2014 (2-1 in Super Bowls, NFL MVP at age 40) has been the highest level of quarterback play of any passer, ever. The fact that he’s doing this at his age is incredible.

Lamar Jackson

2018 NFL Mock Draft: Three trades, six QB selections rock first round

If recent rumors of the Browns considering Baker Mayfield as the No. 1 overall pick were any indication, the NFL Draft needs to happen now, for all of our sakes. Thankfully we’re less than 48 hours away from the Browns selecting Sam Darnold. Not Mayfield, not Josh Allen, but Darnold. I believe the USC quarterback was the Browns’ top choice all along.

Darnold’s Pac-12 rival, UCLA QB Josh Rosen, has had enough of the pre-draft hype as well. He barked at his skeptics, essentially stating that Darnold, Mayfield and others may be more lauded, but that he’ll be the best QB in the draft when all is said and done.

We won’t know which of these prospects will have the better career anytime soon, but we will know which teams they’ll be on to start their careers. Here’s my projection:

1. Sam Darnold – QB, USC – Cleveland Browns

Browns opt for most analyst’s top signal caller over the the talented Allen.

2. Saquon Barkley – RB, Penn State – New York Giants

I’m not going to hedge my bets, but the Giants may draft Barkley, Quenton Nelson, Bradley Chubb or trade this pick to the quarterback-needy Bills. Instead, GM David Gettleman opts for possibly the draft’s best prospect, and will instead look for offensive lineman in rounds 2 and 3.

3. Baker Mayfield – QB, Oklahoma – New York JetsĀ 

Up until recently I had Rosen slotted here for the Jets, who gave up some picks to the Colts to slide up to No. 3. But the interest in Mayfield is apparently very real. Broadway Baker?

4. Bradley Chubb – DE, NC State – Cleveland Browns

Browns opt to hold onto this pick and take the best player available in Chubb. Matching him with Myles Garrett, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, may prove to be a lethal pass rushing combo for years to come.

5. TRADE: Josh Allen – QB, Wyoming – Buffalo Bills

The Bills move up in a trade with the Broncos to snag Allen. If Denver stays put Allen is a possible fit out in Mile High as well, but the Bills offer a deal they can’t refuse for their future franchise quarterback.

6. Quenton Nelson – G, Notre Dame – Indianapolis Colts

GM Chris Ballard will at least entertain someone like Denzel Ward or Roquan Smith to shore up the Colts’ terrible defense, but with Andrew Luck slated to return after missing an entire season due to injury, it’d be wise to select the top offensive line prospect in the draft.

7. Derwin James – S, Florida State – Tampa Bay BuccaneersĀ 

Buccaneers go with the draft’s top safety to improve their secondary.

8. Denzel Ward – CB, Ohio State –Ā Chicago Bears

After adding Allen Robinson and Trey Burton to a young, steadily-improving offense, the Bears will look to improve their defense.

9. Roquan Smith – LB, Georgia – San Francisco 49ers

Considering Reuben Foster’s situation, the 49ers will go linebacker in the first round for the second year in a row under the defensive-minded GM John Lynch. If they believe Foster is salvageable, than maybe a wide receiver here for Jimmy Garoppolo.

10. Minkah Fitzpatrick – DB, Alabama – Oakland RaidersĀ 

The Raiders snag the versatile Fitzpatrick to help with a defense that desperately needs talent.

11. Josh Rosen – QB, UCLA – Miami Dolphins

It’s not quite the fall that Aaron Rodgers endured during the 2005 draft, but Rosen to the Dolphins is slightly unexpected. Instead of moving up for a quarterback the Dolphins get what I think may the be the draft’s best in Rosen.

12. FROM BILLS: Tremaine Edwards – LB, Virginia Tech – Denver BroncosĀ 

With a need at linebacker the Broncos trade back for two picks in the first round, getting their guy here in the long and athletic Edwards.

13. Vita Vea – DT, Washington – WashingtonĀ 

Although he hasn’t officially been named GM, Doug Williams is running the show in Washington. Yesterday he told the media “they’ll take the best player available.” Cliche, I know. But I think they actually stay true that and go with Vea here.

14. Marcus Davenport – DE, UTSA – Green Bay Packers

Packers take the best player available to add to their defense.

15. Mike McGlinchey – OT, Notre Dame – Arizona CardinalsĀ 

The Cardinals surprise many by passing on a quarterback for McGlinchey, who moves up the draft board.

16. Mike Gesicki – TE, Penn State – Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have added three wide receivers in free agency, meaning tight end is now their biggest need. Baltimore continues to supply more weapons for Joe Flacco by adding the athletic Gesicki.

17. Leighton Vander Esch – LB, Boise State – Los Angeles Chargers

Chargers roll with the potential of Vander Esch over the ready-right-now Rashaan Evans.

18. Josh Jackson – CB, Louisville – Seattle SeahawksĀ 

The current Seahawks regime traditionally looks for bigger cornerbacks. Although Jackson is more average size than huge (6-foot, 196 pounds), he’s more lenghty than Jaire Alexander and Mike Hughes. They re-tool their secondary post-Legion-of-Boom instead of trading back.

19. Rashaan Evans – LB, Alabama – Dallas CowboysĀ 

Even with an apparent need at wide receiver, the Cowboys go linebacker here. Evans, a perfect new-age linebacker has the range and athleticism to help defend running backs in the passing game. That’s something they’ll need versus the Eagles.

20. TRADE: Lamar Jackson – QB, Louisville – New England Patriots

With Evans gone and the Cardinals, Ravens and Chargers passing on Jackson, the Patriots hop the Bengals to ensure them of the electrifying Louisville quarterback. Bill Belichick’s friends over in Detroit (GM Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia) are willing to deal with their old club, knowing their guy will be available at No. 23.

In this scenario the Patriots don’t have to give up too much to get Tom Brady’s successor, retaining their remaining three top 64 picks to infuse talent to a roster that needs re-tooling for another Super Bowl run. Jackson will be fine with sitting on the bench for a year or two, learning behind Tom Brady and from Josh McDaniels.

21. Will Hernandez – G, UTEP – Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals will look for a quarterback in later rounds as they rebuild their offensive line.

22.Ā FROM BILLS: Derrius Guice – RB, LSU – Denver BroncosĀ 

Offensive line or linebacker may fit here, but that’s not John Elway’s style. He goes flashy to upgrade a position who lost it’s starter, C.J. Anderson.

23. FROM PATRIOTS: Harold Landry – DE/LB, Boston College – Detroit Lions

Lions trade back and draft their edge rusher. Patricia will want a defensive player with his first pick.

24.Ā  D.J. Moore – WR, Maryland – Carolina PanthersĀ 

Panthers desperately need a wide receiver. Cam Newton can no longer survive with the lumbering Devin Funchess as his No. 1 outside option. Plus, Greg Olsen’s career is nearing it’s end. They snag the pass catcher here later in the first round.

25. Taven Bryan – DT, Florida – Tennessee TitansĀ 

Titans add to their defense, which looks to improve under defensive-minded, new head coach Mike Vrabel.

26. Calvin Ridley – WR, Alabama – Atlanta FalconsĀ 

Ridley falls a bit to Atlanta, who adds a wide receiver regardless of whether or not Julio Jones’ social media cleansing means anything to his future with the Falcons.

27. Dallas Goedert – TE, South Dakota State – New Orleans SaintsĀ 

After missing out on a Jimmy Graham reunion the Saints go with Goedert here.

28. Ronnie Harrison – S, Alabama – Pittsburgh Steelers

In an attempt to finally cover Rob Gronkowski to knock off the Patriots in the AFC, the Steelers go with a safety here. Harrison has size and speed and would be a great addition to the Steelers secondary.

29. Courtland Sutton – WR, SMU – Jacksonville Jaguars

After losing Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, the Jaguars have a glaring need at wide receiver. Sutton brings size to the fold to help in the red zone.

30. Connor Williams – T, Texas – Minnesota Vikings

Most are in agreement on the Vikings adding to their offensive line here. It’s virtually Super Bowl or bust for them. They have no glaring needs.

31. TRADE: Mason Rudolph – QB, Oklahoma State – Arizona Cardinals

After passing on Lamar Jackson for the top tackle prospect, the Cardinals jump 16 spots up to trade with the Patriots – the team that drafted Jackson earlier. In New England, Belichick stockpiles picks for this year and next.

32. Sony Michel – RB, Georgia – Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles ride with the electrifying Michel as opposed to trading back.