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Ty Law -- Super Bowl XXXVI

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ty Law and the Patriots’ No. 1 CBs 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.

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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.

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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 offensive in influx, Bakhtiari’s consistency will be beneficial to Rodgers and the Packers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Murray and Roger Goodell

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

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

1. Kyler Murray – QB, Oklahoma – Arizona Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

4. Clelin Ferrell – EDGE, Clemson – Oakland Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

7. Josh Allen – EDGE, Kentucky – Jacksonville Jaguars

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

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

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

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

9. Ed Oliver – DT, Houston – Buffalo Bills

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

10. Devin Bush – LB, Michigan – Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

13. Christian Wilkins – DT, Clemson  – Miami Dolphins

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

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

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

15. Dwayne Haskins – QB, Ohio State  – Washington 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Noah Fant – TE, Iowa  – Denver Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24.  Josh Jacobs – RB, Alabama – Oakland Raiders

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

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

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

26.  Montez Sweat – EDGE, Mississippi State – Washington 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31.  Kaleb McGary – OT, Washington – Atlanta Falcons

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

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

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

Additional Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the magic began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, this.

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

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

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

 

Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LIII

Belichick, Patriots halt Rams with defensive masterpiece

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

“Brady! Brady! Brady!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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