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.

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

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.”

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

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…

Nick Foles to Golden Tate

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Foles delivers again + an early look at the Divisional Round

The weekend’s best game, Eagles-Bears, ended on a heartbreaking note, with Cody Parkey’s game-winning field goal attempt bouncing off two crossbars, en route to falling on the floor, effectively giving Philadelphia a 16-15 win.

The kick is what most will remember, but the game was won on the previous drive.

With a raucos crowd of Bears fans filling the air in Chicago’s Soldier Field, Nick Foles did what he’s consistently done since last season. Come through in the clutch.

Dart after dart into the middle of the Bears’ vaunted defense. Precise pocket movement of that of Tom Brady. Foles added to his legend by employing all that, along with an old-school Eli Manning-like Rainman forgetfulness of his early mistakes.

But with all the talk of Brady or Eli or other great clutch quarterbacks, it’s Foles who has been the best with the game on the line since Super Bowl LII, where he took home the game’s Most Valuable Player award.

Foles deserves is own moniker. In fact he has one. Some call him St. Nick. Recently, others have given him a different moniker, Big Dick Nick. And not to sound vulgar, but it takes massive melons (or cajones, if you prefer) to attempt (and complete) the types of throws that Foles has delivered in pro football’s biggest stages.

Overcoming two interceptions, Foles went 15-for-24 with 153 yards and two touchdowns passes in the second half.

His best throws on the final drive were a down-to-the-goal line 3rd-and-9 slant to former Bear Alshon Jeffrey, and the fourth-and-goal winning score to newcomer Golden Tate in the right flats.

Tate, a midseason acquisition gone awry, hadn’t delivered until his big day on Sunday, with Foles looking his way on various crucial moments.

“We said, once we get in, now you got to deal with us,” Tate said in a video message to the NFL after the game.

The defending Super Bowl champions now visit New Orleans, home of the team that many believe will win pro football’s greatest prize this season.

The Saints wiped the floor with the Eagles at home, 48-7, in November. But that was with Carson Wentz at the helm.

With Foles, the Eagles are a rejuvenated offense and team. The defense is back to playing at a championship-level, as the pass rush has returned to its glory, and the secondary has played with confidence, despite the team losing it’s top two cornerbacks for the season due to injury.

After a 6-7 start, and another injury to their ‘star’ quarterback, the Eagles savior has come in the same form in which he arrived last season. Four straight wins, and another masterful postseason performance later, Foles and the underdog Eagles are back.

Care to bet against them?

Looking Ahead…Divisional Weekend

Colts at Chiefs (NBC, Saturday, 4:35 PM ET)

The Colts look like a dangerous team that can beat anyone after their drubbing of the Texans in Houston. But beating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium presents a different challenge. Winners of 10 of their last 11 games after a 1-5 start, Indianapolis’ much-improved defense will look to stymie the likely NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes.

The Colts are a more complete team than the Chiefs. But Kansas City has an improving pass rush, bolstered by the return of Justin Houston, and the great season by Chris Jones. But the Chiefs still struggle to stop the run, and Marlon Mack has run wild these past few months for Indianapolis.

It should be relatively high-scoring contest between Andrew Luck and Mahomes

Gut feeling: Chiefs 31, Colts 24

Cowboys at Rams (FOX, Saturday, 8:15 PM ET)

The Rams don’t posses that much of a home-field advantage, but Los Angeles likes them more than the Chargers. The Coliseum has gotten up for a few games this season, and this will be one of them. There will undoubtedly be a bunch of Dallas fans as well, as they’ll be supporting the underdog Cowboys.

To win, Dallas will likely need to pound the rock with Ezekiel Elliott over 30 times to attack the Rams’ questionable run defense, while keeping Sean McVay’s offense off the field. Of course, the Rams haven’t looked as sharp after Thanksgiving. Jared Goff had a tumultuous end to the season, and the offense certainly isn’t the same without trusty slot receiver Cooper Kupp.

Dallas has a top-tier defense, as well as the running game to upset the Rams in LA. The Rams have a slew of defensive playmakers that should make life difficult for Dak Prescott. All it takes is a turnover forced by someone like Aaron Donald to change the game completely.

The Cowboys have the team and proposed blueprint to pul off the upset. But the Rams should play well enough to garner their first postseason victory of the McVay-Goff era.

Gut feeling: Rams 24, Cowboys 23

Chargers at Patriots (CBS, Sunday, 1:05 PM ET)

The Patriots draw the toughest matchup of any first-round bye team in this one.

New England has won 15 straight games at home dating back October 2017. And Tom Brady is 7-0 versus Phillip Rivers. But the Chargers are 8-1 on the road, and 9-0 outside California. Something has to give.

This is the best chance Rivers may ever get to beat Brady. The Chargers have the superior team. They’e the most talented club in the AFC. Their key to victory relies on a big day from Melvin Gordon, and the pass-rush duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram getting to Tom Brady early and often.

Brady will look to work with his running backs in the passing game to combat the Chargers’ pass rush. Look for James White and Rex Burkhead to have big games. Without Josh Gordon, and Rob Gronkowski showing his age, Brady will stay away from outside-the-numbers throws versus Casey Hayward and others. He will look inside and shallow to Julian Edelman. The Chargers may opt to use do-it-all defender Derwin James as a rover in the middle of the field to take help take away both Edelman and Gronkowski.

Although many will pick the Chargers, and it does indeed feel like their time, Brady always seems to best Rivers. Bill Belichick will outcoach Anthony Lynn as well, as New England moves on to its eighth straight AFC Championship Game.

Gut feeling: Patriots 26, Chargers 17

Eagles at Saints (FOX, Sunday, 4:40 PM ET)

The Eagles were mentioned heavily in the lead to this column so we’ll focus on the Saints here.

New Orleans won’t glide to a victory this time around. They’ll have to shake off the rust and rely on their Big three (Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas) to generate points early. The underdog Eagles relish close games in which they are doubted. Leaving them hanging around can be a death sentence. But the Saints are lethal at home, and should prevail here. But if anyone is up to the task of downing the Super Bowl favorites in their home stadium, it’s the Eagles. This one is a toss-up. But I have a hunch.

Gut feeling: Saints 27, Eagles 24

Torrey Smith vs. Eagles

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Eagles, Jaguars at a crossroads before London trek

Roughly nine months ago, the Jaguars and Eagles were gearing up for Conference Championship Sunday. Both teams had proven themselves to be among the NFL’s very best of 2017. The Jaguars fell to the Patriots after leading 20-10 in the AFC title game, while the Eagles routed the Vikings, and went on to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Oh, how things have changed.

Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Eagles (3-4) and Jaguars (3-4) will have a combined record of 6-10 when they face off in next week’s matchup at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

But to understand how these two teams got to this point, we’ll have to backtrack.

The Jaguars began the season with a 3-1 start, highlighted by Blake Bortles’ masterful performance (29-of-45, 376 yards, four touchdowns) to beat the Patriots, 31-20, to exact revenge on their 2017 AFC Championship Game opponent. Many are joking that the Week 2 matchup was Jacksonville’s Super Bowl. Judging by what they’ve done since, those claiming so appear right.

Jacksonville has dropped three straight games mostly in part to their ineptitude on offense, which starts with Bortles. The defense honestly hasn’t been much better. After benching Bortles in the 20-7 home loss to the Texans (4-3) on Sunday, one thing is clear – the Jaguars need to look for a QB. If Teddy Bridgewater or Tyrod Taylor aren’t available, then maybe sticking with Bortles is the only option for the rest of the season, but Cody Kessler will not cut it, either.

The Jaguars have a championship-caliber defense and a solid running game, but this may be one slump too many for Bortles.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles got off to a slow start to the season with Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, so they semi-rushed Carson Wentz back in time for gut-wrenching losses to the Titans, Vikings and Panthers. Luckily for Philadelphia, they do have a good quarterback in Wentz, but the Eagles in general have looked sloppy and unclutch in the game’s biggest moments. Both are a far cry from their run to glory last season.

A 17-0 lead at home in the fourth quarter should never be surrendered, not even to Tom Brady or Joe Montana. The Eagles allowed Cam Newton to lead the Panthers to a 21-17 comeback win in their house. This is more than a slow start in Philadelphia.

There’s rumors of the Eagles inquiring about Le’Veon Bell and DeVante Parker, but what the Eagles have to focus on next is the Jaguars, who are equally as frustrated, and will be ready to take the field with something to prove. Bill Simmons frequently refers to these types of games as a ‘Loser leaves town’ matchup. Well considering this game is in England, both teams will undoubtedly leave town afterward. But only one team will feel better about themselves, if that.

Saints have ‘Super Bowl’ feel

The most shocking takeaway of the Saints’ (5-1) impressive 24-23 win in Baltimore was that Ravens’ (4-3) kicker Justin Tucker does miss. His first failed extra point comes on attempt number 223, and ultimately doomed Baltimore.

But the real story is the Saints’ 17-point fourth quarter scoring effort, which erased a 17-7 Ravens lead in the fourth quarter. Brees’ 500th career touchdown pass (the fourth player to do so) was part of the scoring jamboree New Orleans put fourth on the road against the league’s No. 1 defense. That, coupled with Tucker’s shocking miss, brings about the aurora this Saints season is starting to produce.

“The more battle-tested you are from games like this, I think that serves you well as you go along,” Drew Brees told The Athletic after the game. “Just confidence and feeling like no matter what the situation is in a game, you’re going to find a way. We believe. We’ve done this before. That kind of mindset. It’s nice to run away with them every now and again. But it’s the NFL. A lot of games end like this.” ”

After a 48-40 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers to begin the year, it was plausible to ponder if the Saints were going to fall back to mediocrity. But the defense has slowly re-strengthened. And the return of Mark Ingram has provided the Saints with yet another prime offense weapon, to go along with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas.

The win means Brees has now beaten all 32 NFL teams (he beat the Saints while playing for the Chargers) and now, New Orleans begins the important two-game stretch that includes contests against the Vikings (4-2-1) and Rams (7-0). The midseason hierarchy of the NFC will be decided in the next two weeks. For now, admire the Saints’ gutsy comeback win on the road in Baltimore, it may be a pillar of a truly special season.

Ranking Chiefs’ offensive weapons

– And the Chiefs keep rolling. After a slip-up in a game for the ages in New England, Kareem Hunt (20 touches, 141 yards, three touchdowns) and the Chiefs (6-1) destroyed the Bengals (4-3), 45-10, in a game that was flexed into NBC’s Sunday Night Football slot because it was such an important AFC matchup. So much for that.

Hunt’s performance had me thinking….of Kansas City’s three major offensive weapons, how should they be ranked? My list:

1) Kareem Hunt – For the past two Sunday nights, we’ve seen why Hunt is so great. A quick, yet powerful runner who can bulldoze his way through you or scamper around you. Hunt is a top-five running back because of his effectiveness on the ground and for the added element of what he provides in the passing game. He can consistently beat linebackers over the top, or catch passes underneath and plow into or move around defensive backs for big gains.

2) Tyreek Hill – The most explosive and exciting player in football is Tyreek Hill. Capable of turning any play from any part of the field into an all-time, highlight-worthy touchdown, Hill is a player this league has never seen before. His literal olympic speed, underrated hands, and moves after the catch make him virtually unstoppable. Flies, slants, RPO’s, reverses, option routes, kick returns, punt returns, you name it. He can and has scored via all of them. Good luck covering him one-on-one.

3) Travis Kelce – After Rob Gronkowski, there’s Travis Kelce, who narrowly edges Zach Ertz as the second-best tight end in football. Although not the game’s best blocking tight end, Kelce makes up for that in his versatility and playmaking skills. He can line up traditionally (on the line), in the slot, isolated out wide or in the backfield. Either way, Kelce will get the ball and make a modest gain for the explosive Kansas City offense. In each of those instances, Kelce provides a matchup problem for a defender. Then there’s his underrated after-the-catch ability, in which his strength is actually trumped by his sneaky quickness. No matter where Kelce lines up, he poses a problem for any NFL defense.

Quick-hits

– The Patriots outlasted the Bears, 38-31, in a wild one in Chicago that saw New England lose Sony Michel to an ugly-looking knee injury early. Despite that, not having Rob Gronkowski, committing three turnovers and allowing 81 yards rushing to Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bill Belichick’s unit found a way. Brady was sharp as usual, throwing for 277 yards and three scores. James White had 19 offensive touches for 97 total yards and two scores, and Dont’a Hightower blocked a punt that Kyle Van Noy took in for a touchdown. On top of that, slot CB Jonathan Jones and rookie CB J.C. Jackson each snagged highlight-worthy interceptions when the game hung in the balance. The Patriots will need Gronk to stay healthy. They have to hope Michel is not lost fo the season, and they likely will make a few mid-level moves to improve the defense. But what matters is that they got their first road win of the season, and with November nearing they’re clearly beginning their annual Winter run.

– In a wild London game, the Titans opted to go for a two-point conversion down 20-19 in the final seconds versus the Chargers. After two incomplete passes on two chances (defensive holding was called on the Chargers in the first attempt), the Titans dropped their third straight to fall to 3-4.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision. In fact, with just one yard separating you from a big win over the Chargers (5-2) and a key tiebreaker advantage in the AFC playoff picture, the gutsy call was on brand with coaching in 2018, and showed guts. But Mike Vrabel and Tennessee has to have more ‘controlled’ plays in their holster for that moment. Both attempts featured chaotic passing plays that saw Mariota going through reads until the play resulted in an ad-libbed free-for-all. That can’t happen. The loss is a stinger, as the the Jaguars and Texans (4-3) are all in a mosh pit with the Titans for the AFC South lead. The win could have put Tennessee in good position to begin to show why they’re the division’s top team. That didn’t happen. On the other side, the Chargers have losses only to the Chiefs and Rams, and are clearly proving that their talent may be enough to get them into the postseason for the first time since 2013.

– Who saw this coming? Seven weeks into the 2018 season, the Redskins (4-2) lead the Eagles (3-4) and Cowboys (3-4) by a game and a half in the NFC East. Led by three forgotten pieces (Alex Smith, Adrian Peterson and Josh Norman) jettisoned by their former teams, Washington is in prime position to shock the pro football world. There’s a lot of football left, but Jay Gruden’s bunch now has back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Cowboys under pressure. It’s the ability to pull off these type of wins early that ingrains the confidence to pull them out in December and January, where they might matter more, depending on the circumstances. In the end, the historic Cowboys-Redskins rivalry delivered another classic, and may have vaulted the Redskins further along on a special season.

 

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, Chicago Bears

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

6. Russell Wilson – QB, 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.