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Tom Brady and Von Miller

Brent Schwartz’s Top 50 NFL players of 2018

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

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

50. Larry Fitzgerald – WR, Arizona Cardinals 

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

49. Doug Baldwin – WR, Seattle Seahawks

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

48. Stephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots

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

47. Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints

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

46. Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles

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

45. Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints

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

44. Tyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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

43. David Johnson – RB, Arizona Cardinals

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

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

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

41. David DeCastro – G, Pittsburgh Steelers

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

40. Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals 

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

39. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles Chargers 

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

38. Eric Berry – S, Kansas City Chiefs

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

37. Earl Thomas – S, Seattle Seahawks

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

36. Jadeveon Clowney – EDGE, Houston Texans

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

35. Patrick Peterson – CB, Arizona Cardinals 

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

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

34. Zack Martin – G, Dallas Cowboys

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

33. Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers

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

32. Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs 

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

31. Carson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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

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

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

29. Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings

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

28. Cam Newton – QB , Carolina Panthers 

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

27. Matt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons

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

26. Ben Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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

25. Calais Campbell – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars

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

24. Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers

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

23. Cameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints

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

22. Xavier Rhodes – CB, Minnesota Vikings

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

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

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

20. Ezekiel Elliot – RB , Dallas Cowboys

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

19. DeAndre Hopkins – WR, Houston Texans

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

18. Tyron Smith – T, Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

16. Julio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons

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

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

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

14. Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle Seahawks 

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

13. Luke Kuechly – LB, Carolina Panthers

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

12. Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints

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

11. Todd Gurley – RB, Los Angeles Rams

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

10. Le’Veon Bell – RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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

9. Jalen Ramsey – CB, Jacksonville Jaguars 

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

8. Rob Gronkowski – TE, New England Patriots

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

7. Khalil Mack – EDGE, Oakland Raiders 

The only player in NFL history to be voted an All-Pro at two positions (DE, OLB), Mack remains a force on the edge for the Raiders, who will look to build their defense around the young stud.

6. Russell Wilson – QB, Seattle Seahawks 

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

5. Von Miller – EDGE, Denver Broncos 

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

4. Antonio Brown – WR, Pittsburgh Steelers 

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

3. Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles Rams 

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

2. Aaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers 

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

1. Tom Brady – QB, New England Patriots

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

Lamar Jackson

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

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

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

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

1. Sam Darnold – QB, USC – Cleveland Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Minkah Fitzpatrick – DB, Alabama – Oakland Raiders 

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

11. Josh Rosen – QB, UCLA – Miami Dolphins

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

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

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

13. Vita Vea – DT, Washington – Washington 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18. Josh Jackson – CB, Louisville – Seattle Seahawks 

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

19. Rashaan Evans – LB, Alabama – Dallas Cowboys 

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

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

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

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

21. Will Hernandez – G, UTEP – Cincinnati Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

24.  D.J. Moore – WR, Maryland – Carolina Panthers 

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

25. Taven Bryan – DT, Florida – Tennessee Titans 

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

26. Calvin Ridley – WR, Alabama – Atlanta Falcons 

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

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

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

28. Ronnie Harrison – S, Alabama – Pittsburgh Steelers

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

29. Courtland Sutton – WR, SMU – Jacksonville Jaguars

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

30. Connor Williams – T, Texas – Minnesota Vikings

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

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

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

32. Sony Michel – RB, Georgia – Philadelphia Eagles

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

Richard Sherman

Why Seattle’s Legion of Boom was the best defense of its era

In 2012 the young, upstart Seattle Seahawks took the league by storm. Five seasons — two NFC titles, one Super Bowl win — later the ‘Legion of Boom’ era is over.

General manager John Schneider has the ball rolling on the team’s ‘transition’ period. Seattle has officially released Richard Sherman, the poster boy of the rowdy bunch, just days after trading Michael Bennett to the defending Super Bowl champs. Additionally, Earl Thomas is on the trade block while Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril are dealing with career-threatening injuries. The once trend-setting franchise is waving the white flag on quite the six-year stretch. Sure, the Seahawks will revamp their defense around Bobby Wagner, the NFL’s best inside linebacker, but it won’t quite feel the same.

This defense was fast, talented and loud, sending a ripple effect throughout the NFL as other upstart teams attempted to mirror their philosophy of building a lengthy, athletic defense (with an offense led by a Quarterback who can run or scramble) to make a Super Bowl run.

The Panthers, Falcons and Jaguars have all enjoyed some success on a model loosely based on the Seahawks, but none of have enjoyed the same amount of success, and it’s likely none ever will. The LOB’s defensive dominance was unprecedented.

This sparks the question: Where do they rank among great defenses of this era?

I’d say pretty much at the top, beating out the early 2000’s Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, mid-2000s Bears, mid-to-late-2000s Steelers, 2008-2012 Ravens, early-2010’s 49ers and 2015 Broncos for bragging rights this century. 

Before Seattle, no defense had ever featured a secondary with such size:

Richard Sherman (6’3″, 197 pounds)

Brandon Browner  (6’4″, 221 pounds)

Byron Maxwell (6’1″, 198 pounds)

Kam Chancellor (6’3″, 232 pounds)

Earl Thomas (5’10”, 202 pounds)

Thomas, the only average-sized defender of the group, was the most important. His tenacity and range covering the the deep middle allowed the Seahawks to flourish in their Cover 3 scheme.

With Sherman and Browner (and Maxwell) covering their third of the field in the middle and deep portions, they were allowed to neglect the shallow areas in front of them. The lightening-quick Bobby Wagner and the savvy K.J. Wright took care of that.

Then there was Chancellor. The beast at strong safety played up in the box, terrorizing receivers as basically an extra linebacker in a middle zone. His athleticism and brute force forced you to be aware of him at all times.

At times, the Seahawks did play man coverage, and basically played a form of man in their zone scheme.

Wanger and Wright will remain on the team so the linebacking core will be intact, but the once-great pass rush has since seen change.

The secondary and linebacker core mixed with Bennett, Avril, and Bruce Irvin was the cherry on top of a delicious Sundae (Sunday?) defense. Now Bennett is gone, Irvin is long gone and Avril may not play again.

For four straight seasons (2012-2015) the Seahawks led the NFL in scoring defense and were No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They built the perfect defense to matchup with this era’s high-flying offenses. The best example of this was their 43-8 dismantling of the 2013 Denver Broncos (statistically the best passing offense of all-time) in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Someday either NFL Network’s ‘A Football Life’ or ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ will do a documentary special on this group. But that’s for another day.

Today we reflect on the greatest defense of this century, which doubles as one of the most important units of all-time in how it combated the new era of offenses.

It was great while it lasted, and how long it lasted is part of what makes them great.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Is the Patriots’ reign over? Be weary of such claims

The only thing colder than the blizzard roaming New England is the perpetuated notion that the New England Patriots dynasty — the greatest in NFL history — is once again nearing its end.

If that lede seems cliche, it’s because it was meant to mirror the long list of attempts to forecast the end of the Patriots’ reign during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.

Early Friday morning ESPN’s Seth Wickersham — a brilliant reporter, to be fair – tweeted out his lengthy feature  summarizing a rift between Belichick, Brady and owner Robert Kraft. ESPN heavily marketed the article, putting it as its centerpiece on their website for much of the day, with it’s attention-grabbing line ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’

How many times is this going to happen? Sure, Brady and Belichick have never been best friends. Their relationship has strictly always been business related. But the Patriots have weathered far worse media storms such as SpyGate and DeflateGate in the past, winning two Super Bowls and four AFC Championships since the validity of their winning was questioned.

The Patriots are the most polarizing team in professional sports, and have been probably for the past decade, but ESPN and various other outlets and writers have made outlandish claims in the past, even before the Patriots were looked at as what the Dallas Cowboys once were.

In 2003, after Belichick abruptly released captain Lawyer Milloy, the team was spanked by Milloy’s new team, the Bills, 31-0 in Buffalo. That sparked ESPN’s Tom Jackson to infamously claim that the Patriots players ‘hated’ Belichick, and that their season would quickly spiral out of control.

The Patriots won 17 of their next 18 games en route to a winning the Super Bowl that season and the next.

Let’s also not forget the Patriots embarrassing 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on a national stage in 2014. This time it was ESPN’s Trent Dilfer predicted the dynasty’s demise.

The Patriots proceeded to win 13 of their next 15 games to ultimately beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

Now granted, there have been valid rifts in the past between Brady and Belichick reported by trusted sources like NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, who has followed the team closely for almost two decades.

The above tweet enraptures a plausible situation, as Brady and Welker were very close friends. Plus Curran is one of the most reliable writers who covers the Patriots, and even he sent out another tweet closely after encouraging everyone to be weary over the claims.

Admittedly, these claims are different than those of the past. It is true that Belichick banned Brady’s health guru Alex Guerrero — who released his own statement yesterday — and much of the article centered around that and Belichick being ‘forced into a corner’ in regard to trading Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco right before the trade deadline.

The Patriots unwillingness to trade Garoppolo this past offseason when his value was at its peak suggests Belichick did plan on Garoppolo being the successor to Brady.

Belichick’s friend and former co-worker Michael Lombardi helped draft Garoppolo in 2014, a move that surely made Brady aware of his numbered days in New England. Lombardi — who now works for The Ringer — has been on record numerous times stating that the Patriots knew what they had in Garoppolo, a future franchise cornerstone.

But Brady has defied the odds, winning two Super Bowl MVPs since that 2014 decision to draft Garoppolo. Brady probably will also add a third NFL MVP award to his resume this February. He’s 40 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. Father Time will come for Brady, and even though he’s adamant about playing until the age of 45, a recent dip in production during December may suggest that Brady’s decline has begun.

But even that has been prematurely predicted ad nauseam over the years, as Brady continues to be the best player in football.

So with Garoppolo in the midst of his fourth season behind Brady, and itching to start, with Brady continuously playing at a high level, Belichick’s only other options were to let Garoppolo walk in free agency — the Patriots would have received a third-round compensatory pick — or sign Garoppolo to the franchise tag in hopes of trading him or keeping him around for one more season.

If the latter situation played out, the Patriots would have had a salary cap hit somewhere north of $44 million paying both Brady and Garoppolo. That’s just not feasible.

As expected, many of Wickersham’s claims (via his sources) are being refuted. Local beat reporters with a bevy of inside sources are stating that Garoppolo was never offfered a deal of roughly $17 million to stay, or that Brady certainly never encouraged Kraft to demand Belichick to trade Garoppolo.

It’s probably true that Brady saw Garoppolo as the Aaron Rodgers to his Brett Favre or Steve Young to his Joe Montana. Garoppolo’s 5-0 start with the 49ers portrays that he is indeed a franchise quarterback. Belichick knew this and wanted to keep him around. But Belichick knew what he had to do, even if he was reluctant to do so. If reports of Kraft forcing Belichick to trade Garoppolo were true, he would probably quit.

Kraft has often stated that it’s Belichick who runs football operations, not himself, so there’s no way this trade was made over Belichick’s head.

Surely there is some tension surrounding Brady and Belichick. Maybe one day that tension will finally set them apart. This historic run will end at somepoint, but it won’t be this season. Still, there are claims that Belichick could leave for New York to coach the Giants as he encourages his underlings, coordinators Josh McDaniels (the favorite to land the job) and Matt Patricia to interview for the open position.

So Belichick would step on the toes of his apprentices that have been waiting for this moment for years, all while leaving or uprooting his sons, who are now on the Patriots’ staff? The Hoodie would abandon everything he’s built in New England because of an overbearing trainer and the fact that the greatest quarterback of all-time is still playing like the greatest quarterback of all-time at age 40? That’s what doesn’t sound plausible.

Things have changed in New England. Brady, who is so woven into the ‘Patriot Way’ that he’d be used as the very definition of a player who follows it, is no longer a fiery, 24-year-old quarterback in the midst of learning his craft. He’s now a 40-year-old superstar with a a supermodel wife. But the desire to win football games is as prevalent as ever, as is his ‘football’ relationship with Belichick, the only relationship between the two that truly matters.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick - Week 17 2007
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick share an exchange before their 2007 Week 17 matchup with the New York Giants. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

But on the brink of Wild Card weekend we have yet another report of the Patriots’ demise. The dynasty is over due to a disagreement between Brady and Belichick. Mind you, the reported rift is so strong that the Patriots have played themselves out of the Wild Card round and into a bye once more. During the ‘drama-filled’ season, the Patriots have won 11 of their last 12 games en route to their seventh No. 1 seed in franchise history, all of which have been during the Brady-Belichick era.

As you intake the details of this recent piece, refer to earlier “the end is near” takes I listed above. Watch clips of ESPN’s Max Kellerman predict the end of Brady year after year. Watch them all. Just realize what happened after those takes. We’re more likely to see a repeat of that than anything else.

Brady, Patriots best Steelers in game of the year

If the Pittsburgh Steelers were ever going to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a big game, this was it. This was supposed to be it, until it wasn’t.

Only the cruelest of football gods could have constructed the latest outcome of the Steelers’ continuing series of misery versus the defending champs.

This was the game of the year. In fact, this was the regular season game of the past decade. Not since Patriots-Colts in 2007 (dubbed Super Bowl XLI 1/2) had a game received so much pre-game hype, and for good reason.

The Patriots win means Brady, who likely will win his third NFL MVP in February. He was good but not great in this trip to Heinz Field. But as his legendary career advertises, Brady was unflappable on the game-winning drive, in which he found Rob Gronkowski four times for 69 yards and a two point conversion to give the Patriots a 27-24 lead with 56 seconds remaining.

Ben Roethlisberger had led four game-winning drives of his own in the Steelers’ past five games, and he’s been known for a few clutch drives himself (Super Bowl XLIII anyone?). But after Jesse James’ touchdown catch was correctly overturned by the league’s infuriating catch rules, Big Ben’s last pass turned into the sourest of endings for a team that had recently had the look and feel of the team of destiny.

Losing Antonio Brown in the second quarter (and for the rest of the regular season) certainly hurt, but not as much as the Steelers only three-and-out of the game coming late in the fourth quarter when they needed a first down the most.

Down 24-19 with just over two minutes remaining, Brady (after a near interception from Sean Davis, who Gronkowski victimized afterword) constructed yet another surgical clinic on the heart of the Steelers defense, as well as the roaring fans in Heinz Field, who left the stadium in shock after the game.

Brady again came through in the most crucial situation of his season. After all, this was the game of the year, meaning this was the biggest moment of the entire NFL season in general.

What’s even more incredible is Brady’s late game heroics in his biggest moments since 2014.

Consider this: If you combine Brady’s passing numbers for the finals drives of Super Bowl XLIX, Super Bowl LI, and this past game, the biggest regular season game of the 2010s, Brady’s statistics and accomplishments are as followed:

16-for-18, 184 yards, three touchdown drives, two crucial two-point conversions, two Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVP awards, and what may be the AFC’s No. 1 seed and his third NFL MVP award after Sunday’s results. 

That is incomprehensible. It may be overkill to still be in awe of Brady at this point, but he continuously raises the bar of excellence. If the Patriots are to win Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, Brady would have two Super Bowl MVP awards and an NFL MVP trophy all in the span of 12 months.

As it is, Brady is in the midst of the best four-year stretch for a quarterback in NFL history, and he’s doing this at ages 37-to-40.

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio said it best during his guest appearance on the new program Golic & Wingo yesterday morning.

“It was such an incredible scene in the Patriots locker room after the game,” Paolantonio said. “Tom Brady, feet up in his locker FaceTiming with his children back home about fantasy football and The Last Jedi. It’s sort of like okay, I just cut the heart out (on the road) of my biggest rival and I’m just like another 40-year-old guy who went to work. Brady has become like Jordan to me. He wants to win at all costs, and at the end it’s just business as usual.”

Touching back on Brady’s high level of play at this age. He’s not only at his best right now, he is playing better than any NFL player ever has played at any age. With Carson Wentz and Antonio Brown out of the race, he is the NFL MVP (although Todd Gurley is a close second). Wrap your head around that while the conversation switches to the best tight end in NFL history.

Like Brady, Gronk continues to prove doubters wrong by returning to his best form after every major injury he’s sustained. Like Brady always is, including on Sunday, Gronkowski was uncharacteristically hyped to an aggressive extent during the game. Gronk has always been known for his outgoing personality, but most of his antics are all in good fun. He was out for blood on Sunday, but in a performance-based way as opposed to his borderline head-hunting stunt that caused him to miss last week’s loss in Miami.

Perhaps it was that situation that fueled Gronkowski, who had the best game of his career considering the moment. Brady, who clapped at the booing fans of Heinz Field as he ran onto the field, and screamed in elation at as he left after the win, may be throwing to his pass-catching clone in terms of fiery attitude and clutch play as of the last few seasons.

Yesterday, Fox Sports analyst Shannon Sharpe called Gronkowski the most dominant non-offensive quarterback in the NFL. To think that some writers were calling Travis Kelce the best tight end in football earlier in the year? Blasphemy.

The Steelers defense had no answer for Gronk in the second half, who reeled in 135 of his 168 yards in the second half. Their best defensive player, linebacker Ryan Shazier, was in luxury box and was shown on the big screen to a rousing applause. But on the field, the Steelers woes versus Gronkowski (135 of his 168 receiving yards in the second half) remained. Unlike past meetings where the Steelers refused to move away from their comfortable zone coverage scheme, the Steelers found some success in man coverage. But the decision to leave Sean Davis alone on Gronk during the final drive produced the results you’d expect. A Gronk victory by the form of mismatch.

Yet the Steelers still had their chances to win, even after the overturned catch, no-catch situation with tight end Jesse James. Roethlisberger, who has two Super Bowl wins, is clutch in his own right. But like Russell Wilson, a great pressure player himself, Roethlisberger made perhaps the biggest gaffe of his career against the mentally-tough, well-coached Patriots, who are a reflection of their head coach, Bill Belichick.

Roethlisberger used a fake spike to take the lead versus the Cowboys in the final seconds of a shootout last season. But the Patriots weren’t fooled. Big Ben’s pass was of course tipped by Eric Rowe, and ricocheted into the welcoming arms of Duron Harmon, the Patriots underrated closer known for his game-ending interceptions.

Antonio Brown (partially torn calf muscle) is believed to have a chance to return for the postseason. The Patriots won eight straight games and led the league in defensive scoring during that span with linebacker Kyle Van Noy as their defensive leader. He’s missed the last two games, but the Patriots will get him back for the playoffs.

So things may seem a little different when the Steelers and Patriots square off in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in January (which they most certainly will). In fact, it seems as if the Steelers have closed the gap on their prolonged inferiority to their big brother franchise of the 2000s. But given their past results and the improbable outcome in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the result for the Steelers may forever be the same.

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Week 10

On a cold November Sunday night in Denver, Tom Brady stared Von Miller and the Broncos defense in the face knowing that a victory would keep them in prime position for home field advantage in the AFC, while a loss would cripple them in that very same race.

Of course, this season things were different. This was not 2015, a year in which this same scenario invoked a Brock Osweiler-led comeback by the Broncos to win 30-24 in overtime, to eventually win the AFC’s No. 1 seed and Super Bowl 50.

In the 2017 version of this story, special teamer Chris Harper is not muffing kicks for the Patriots. Osweiler has left and returned to Denver after joining the Houston Texans. A one-year stint that ended with a Texans playoff loss to the Patriots in Foxboro last January.

For Osweiler, it was again Brady that virtually ended his season. For Brady, a game in Denver always comes with extra motivation. The Broncos eliminated the Patriots twice in Rocky Mountain AFC Title Games in 2013 and 2015. The same happened in a 2005 AFC divisional playoff bout. That was Brady’s first postseason loss of his career after starting 10-0 in such games.

After a 41-16 victory over the Broncos (3-6) this time around, Brady has left Denver on a five-game losing streak, essentially ending their season. With 266 passing yards and three touchdowns, Brady was still throwing with a 25-point lead with less than seven minutes to play. He looked for Brandin Cooks deep twice. This was personal for Brady. He wanted this.

This is just another corpse of a former AFC contender. Another destroyed rival empire in the wasteland that is a prolonged territorial dominance for the Patriots in the conference.

Brady and Bill Belichick have survived every forceful challenge that has come their way in the AFC in their existence. The Peyton Manning-led Colts. The Manning-led Broncos. The mentally-tough, no-nonsense Baltimore Ravens from 2008-2014. The talented Chargers led by LaDanian Tomlinson. Rex Ryan and the Jets had even come and gone with some success against the New England empire.

A few scars have been dealt in these rivalries. The Patriots have been tripped up by foes multiple times in big games, but they always get the last laugh.

It seems every other year is equipped with such revenge wins for Brady. Even with his second consecutive win in Denver, Brady is still just 4-7 at Invesco Field at Mile High.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, widely considered the greatest NBA player of all-time, used past losses and opponents’ remarks as fuel for victories, much like Brady.

Like NBA great Michael Jordan, who routinely fed off bulletin board material to avenge silly quotes by opponents with his play on the court, Brady takes things personally, even if it doesn’t appear so.

Even teammate and friend Julian Edelman is on record recently admitting Brady is “sensitive.” Likewise, Danny Amendola has said Brady has gotten mad when he’s lost in ping pong, and has broken paddles over such losses. He’s as competitive as they come.

So it’s imaginable that a win in Denver might be more special to Brady than a win over the Chargers at home two weeks ago.

Of course, regular season wins over the inferior present-day Broncos teams won’t change past results, or make up for AFC Championship Game losses.

2015 AFC Championship Game
Brady gears up for a snap versus the Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship Game in Denver. The Broncos won 20-18. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

The same rings true for Brady’s clutch comeback win in New York over Eli Manning and the Giants in 2015. His game-winning drive to best his prime Super Bowl nemesis doesn’t change the fact that Eli Manning will most likely always be 2-0 versus him in Super Bowls, but it’s still something.

Brady’s arch nemesis (and also friend off the field, sort of) had always been Eli’s older brother Peyton Manning. Despite beginning his career 6-0 versus the older Manning, Brady will most likely finish his career with a combined 2-5 record against the Manning brothers in championship games. That’s not counting two of Brady’s worst teams that fell to Peyton on the road in AFC Championship Games in 2006 and 2013.

But Brady most likely–although he won’t admit it–takes solace in the fact that he has five rings to the Mannings’ combined four. It’s ironic that in the win on Sunday, Brady became the all-timer leader in road victories with 86 wins, passing Peyton for the mark in the stadium of the last team he played for.

In the NFL, Brady is like the aforementioned Jordan in the NBA. He’s now the undisputed GOAT (greatest of all time). He’s the Wayne Gretzky, the Serena Williams or Steven Spielberg (I’d argue Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese, but that’s for another time) of pro football. Simply put, he’s the best ever.

Since turning 37 years old in 2014, and his future being questioned in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs that season, Brady has won two Super Bowls and is in the midst of the best four-year stretch of his career, or any quarterback’s career for that matter. His play has  improved each season since 2013, which is absurd considering the fall off of every quarterback ever at his age. The same cliff-diving that ESPN First Take’s Max Kellerman has countlessly predicted for him prematurely.

Of course, the time will come when Brady will retire like every other player in the history of this league. But that time is not now. Not after this season, and maybe not even after the next. It will never be when his critics say he’s done, because he hears those things despite the notion that he may be unaware of them.

Brady feeds off being doubted. He lives for conquering his foes. During the DeflateGate saga, when Brady’s private e-mails were leaked in 2015, one message in particular stood above the rest.

“I’ve got another 7 or 8 years, He has 2,” Brady said of Peyton Manning in an e-mail sent to a close friend.

After word got out and Brady was forced to address the e-mail, he played them off of course. But he meant what he said. He likes Manning, but his competitiveness takes over. The same competitiveness that has led him to two Super Bowls wins since DeflateGate, not to mention Spygate.

Brady heard what critics had to say then, and he heard them earlier in the season after another brutal early-season loss to the Chiefs.

But thanks to Brady the Patriots (7-2) are back in business. They’re tied atop the AFC with the Steelers and are the favorite to return to the Super Bowl in February.

The win in Denver began the second half of the season with one of Brady’s age-old victories: the revenge win.

The victory over Osweiler’s Broncos won’t erase the loss to them on Sunday Night Football two years ago that began the downward spiral of the 2015 season. But it can serve as the catalyst for a second half run to Super Bowl LII.

Once again, Brady is in the thick of the NFL MVP race and has the Patriots rolling into November and beyond just like many past winters, with a little help from his competitive edge, which is often satisfied with a little revenge.

New-look Saints make statement in Buffalo

In a weekend that featured great stories such as another explosive outing by the Rams (7-2) and a huge road win over Washington for the Vikings (7-2), it was the Saints (7-2) who made the biggest statement in the NFC with a 47-10 pounding of the Bills in Buffalo.

With seven straight wins, the Saints are no longer quietly winning. This one was defiant and unusual of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees tenure.

The Saints ran 48 times for 298 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. The two-back attack of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara each ran for over 100 yards, with Ingram running for three scores.

At one point the Saints ran the ball 24 straight times, the most in consecutive plays in almost 30 years.

With an amped-up running game and a defense that has allowed just 14.3 points per game during their seven-game winning streak, the Saints are a contender and should be labeled as such.

Their play on the road has dramatically improved in 2017, but they still love it at home. If the Saints can earn the No. 1 or 2 seed in the NFC, they have a realistic shot to make Super Bowl LII in Minnesota on February 4.

Brees is already looked at as one of the 10 or 15 best quarterbacks of all-time. But with just one Super Bowl ring, a second would go a long way in thrusting him much higher on that list.

After years of dealing with a broken defense and running game, Brees now has help. He no longer needs to be an annual 5,000 yard passer for the Saints to win games, and that’s a good thing.

Schwartz NFL Podcast: Week 10

After a one-week hiatus due to a power outage, the podcast is back with Cousin Dylan joining as always. We discussed the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, the Chiefs’ struggles (4:04), our top three NFC teams (6:47), DAL-ATL (12:53), NO-BUF & MIN-WAS (14:55), NE-DEN (17:34) and Cumberland Soccer in their conference tournament (20:45).