Todd Gurley vs Saints

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

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

There will be no silence of the Rams this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriots are on a mission

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

Enter New England’s 2019 squad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUICK-HITS 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Sony Michel 

‘X’ WR — Josh Gordon 

Slot WR — Julian Edelman

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

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

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — Ted Karras 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

WR4 — Phillip Dorsett 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Korey Cunningham 

 

* * * * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Michael Bennett 

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE/LB — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE/LB — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

‘Thumper’ ILB — Elandon Roberts 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

SS/Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Danny Shelton 

3-4 DE  — Bryan Cowart

‘Thumper’ ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

EDGE/LB — Chase Winovich 

EDGE/LB — John Simon 

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

CB3 — Jason McCourty

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

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

 

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Zuerlein kick

No matter what happens next, Rams’ aggressive offseason paid off

Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard, walk-off boot sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, but the path to franchise’s first league championship bout since 2001 started roughly 10 months ago.

Last March, the team most noted for its offensive transcendence and aggressiveness on the field in 2017, geared up for their 2018 campaign by vigorously searching for (and adding) talent.

They acquired disgruntled Chiefs No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters via a trade. They traded a first-round pick (no. 23 overall) to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks. They plucked Aqib Talib in a trade with the Broncos. They placed Ndamukong Suh from free agency on a one-year, ‘rental’ deal for this moment.

At one point, before the Cooks trade, there was rumored interest between the Rams and Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

After watching the Eagles roll to a championship via going after players in trades and free agency, rather than waiting and developing their own prospects, the Rams assertively one-upped last year’s Super Bowl champions by digging for talent via every avenue possible.

The Rams embraced the ultimate, ‘win-now’ mode, but also made progress in solidifying their nucleus for seasons to come.

The team opted to extend Todd Gurley’s contract on a four-year, $60 million deal. Upon trading for Cooks, who had one year left on his rookie contract, the team gave him a five-year, $81 million extension.

Then, after a stare down that saw Aaron Donald, the NFL’s best defensive player, skip their training camp and preseason, Los Angeles obliged Donald with a 6-year, $135 million extension.

Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald should win a second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, come Feb. 2. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

As an interior force, Donald is perhaps the most disruptive to offenses than any other player in history at his position. Pairing him with Suh has helped produce a formidable duo, but the team still struggled to defend the run in the regular season, rating as the worst team in football against yards per attempt (5.1).

But like the 2006 Colts (who won Super Bowl XLI), they’ve buckled down in the postseason, corralling the NFL’s leading rusher, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (20 carries, 47 yards), then stymieing the NFL’s best running back duo, Saints’ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (21 carries, 48 yards).

Although the Rams are thin at the linebacker spot, their talented secondary has one of the league’s best duos of playmaking cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who are both newcomers.

But even with a vast collection of talent on defense, and a wizard defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, the Rams haven’t been as effective as they hoped on defense. But by cracking down on their usual mistakes in the postseason, they’ve done just enough to balance out an offense that has been virtually transcendent under mastermind, 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, and third-year quarterback Jared Goff.

After a minor injury to Gurley and a season-ending injury to trust receiver Cooper Kupp, the Rams offense hit a wall in December, as most (including me) fitted them for an early postseason exit to regroup for next year.

But McVay’s futuristic offensive scheming adapted to more of an almost-old school vibe of pounding C.J. Anderson, a Super Bowl 50 hero, and journeyman running back, acquired in December. Anderson ran wild versus a tough Cowboys defense in an NFC divisional round matchup. And on Sunday, when Gurley had perhaps the worst game of his career, and Anderson was corralled to just 2.8 yards per carry, Goff led the Rams on a 13-point comeback on the road in the NFC championship game.

Goff has improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons, and in just two years, McVay has become a top-five coach, taking home Coach of the Year honors last year, and leading his team to an NFC title in his second season.

While utilizing a heavy attack of tight-bunch formations and inside zone running plays out of the shotgun formation, the Rams have built up a high-scoring offense. On defense, the Rams have finally started to figure things out as a team, rather than a collection of talent.

So when Zuerlein’s kick sailed through the uprights in New Orleans, the Rams were going to the Super Bowl. But they knew this all along. They went all-in on this season, while still hedging for the future, and it worked out.

Ben Roethlisberger vs Jaguars

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Steelers rally past Jags; Cowboys, Bears make NFC statements

Fighting through yet another ugly contest in Jacksonville, Ben Roethlisberger’s plunge to the end zone with 4 seconds remaining kept the Steelers’ six-game winning streak intact, and effectively ended the season of the team that ended theirs this past January.

Down 16-0 to the Jaguars in the third quarter, it seemed as if their nemesis of the past season and a half would get the best of them again. Ben Roethlisberger’s final numbers through the air (27-for-47, 314 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions) were far from pretty. But Big Ben shook off two interceptions by Jalen Ramsey, and a game’s worth of smack talk, to send the loudest team in the league into what should be a quiet winter at home in January.

“They like to talk a lot before the game, during the game, but I’m carrying the game ball,” Roethlisberger said after the game.

With six straight losses, the Jaguars (3-7) should now be looking toward 2019, and replacing Blake Bortles at quarterback.

With six straight wins, the Steelers’ (7-2-1) season is just beginning. They currently hold the AFC’s No. 2 seed, but tough matchups with the Chargers (7-3), Saints (9-1) and longtime-rival Patriots (7-3) are looming.

Roethlisberger’s 31st career fourth-quarter comeback adds to a remarkable season that surely looks like another step in what may become a special ending for Pittsburgh, who beat the Bengals earlier this year in similar dramatic fashion – Antonio Brown’s game-winning 31-yard touchdown catch with 10 seconds remaining.

After being blanketed by Ramsey earlier, Brown won the matchup in the fourth quarter with four catches for 110 yards and a long score on his final six targets.

With the Le’Veon Bell situation — and the Jaguars — finally behind them, Pittsburgh can fully shift its focus toward the postseason push to January, which is a month of football in which the Steelers should have a major role in, this season.

Are Cowboys set to win NFC East?

After a Sunday that featured a beatdown of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles (4-6) and a Washington (6-4) loss in which they were stripped of much more — quarterback Alex Smith lost for the season with a broken leg — the Cowboys (5-5) have to feel mighty fine about their chances to win the NFL’s most storied division.

Combatting with a team in the Falcons (4-6) that may be vying for a NFC wild card spot, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot came through in the fourth quarter, matching Atlanta score for score to eventually win 22-19 on a walk-off field goal by Brett Maher.

Now, the Cowboys will host the Redskins on Thanksgiving day, adding a little flavor to one of the league’s oldest rivalries. Colt McCoy will start at quarterback for Jay Gruden’s bunch, which should make Dallas the favorite to win the game, and momentarily slide into first place in the division. Although, it’s worth noting that McCoy embarrassed the Cowboys in Dallas in a Monday Night game back in 2014.

The Eagles are still looming despite their 48-7 loss in New Orleans, but things are certainly piling up for a team that looks nothing like it did just nine months ago, when they beat the Patriots to win Super Bowl LII.

So for now, it’s Jerry Jones who should be rocking a Holiday grin of that of Dr. Suess’ Grinch. The Cowboys are coming.

Monsters of the North

As Dallas looks to take the NFC East, the Bears (7-3) may already have dibs on the NFC North this season. Their 25-20 defensive showout over the Vikings (5-4-1) puts Chicago a game and a half up in the division. The Vikings host the Packers (4-5-1) next Sunday night, then travel to New England.

So essentially, this may be the win that won the north for Chicago, which is still ironing out some kinks on offense, thanks to the inconsistency of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

But what Trubisky lacks in decision-making, he makes up for with an athleticism and the innate ability to scramble for first downs. He didn’t need to do much on Sunday, as Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ ferocious defense put a clamper on the Vikings’ star-studded offense.

The Bears are rolling, with four straight wins, and with an average schedule the rest of the way, they are in a good position for the NFC’s No. 3 seed.

Quick-hits

– It was only a matter of time before an NFL coach would burn himself to the temptation of ‘going for the win’ by attempting a two-point conversion down one point in the waning seconds. Ron Rivera is the latest victim and the Panthers (6-4) dropped a crucial game in Detroit to the Lions (4-6), 20-19.

The call can be dissected all day on Monday, but Cam Newton was off the mark, as Jarius Wright was open. To Newton’s credit, he blamed the loss on himself, after the game. Now, the Panthers host the Seahawks (5-5) in a game that may decide one of the NFC’s wild card spots.

– Give it up for Lamar Jackson, who won his first career start for the Ravens (5-5), 24-21 over the Bengals (5-5) in a big game for AFC wild card purposes.

“My teammates had my back, and I had theirs,” Jackson said after the game.

Jackson scurried on 27 rushing attempts (most by a NFL QB since 1950), which surprises no one who knows his game. As he gains more experience he should develop as a passer. Adding the ability to read defenses to his elite athleticism and playmaking skills could make for a scary player that could captivate the league much like Michael Vick did, at times.

With the lowly Raiders (2-8) up next, Baltimore may opt to keep Joe Flacco on the sideline for at least one more week, to see what else Jackson has to offer.

– It’s been mentioned a few times in lead-up to this, but this year’s best team, the Saints (9-1), just whooped last season’s best team — Eagles (4-6) in a game that spelled a ninth straight win for New Orleans. It’s certainly Super Bowl or bust for these Saints. But there’s a long way to go.

For now, watch this cool postgame interview with Drew Brees and the great Erin Andrews.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Rex Burkhead 

WR — Chris Hogan

WR — Cordarrelle Patterson 

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

TE — Rob Gronkowski

LT — Trent Brown 

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

‘Move’ TE — Jacob Hollister

Blocking TE — Dwayne Allen

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

Swing Tackle — LaAdrian Waddle

 

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

To sum it all up, the defense should improve.

Week 1 Projected defense:

EDGE — Trey Flowers

Interior — Danny Shelton

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Adrian Clayborn

LB — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore

CB — Eric Rowe

Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon

Situational positions:

Rotational Interior  — Malcom Brown

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

Sub Edge Rusher — Derek Rivers

Sub Edge Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

Slot CB — Duke Dawson Jr. 

 

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

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

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.