Ever since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the Summer of 2016, the team has had enough talent to toy with the NBA whenever it wants. This year has been slightly different, though; the Rockets pushed Golden State to the wall in the Western Conference Finals and very well might have eliminated them if they had a healthy Chris Paul. The Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to overtime in Game 1 of this year’s Finals behind 51 points from LeBron James. But besides these two examples, the Warriors can knock out their opponents and pick the round, too.
Last night, they decided to knock out the Cavs.
Behind 33 points and nine three-pointers from Steph Curry, 26 points on 10-14 shooting from Kevin Durant, and 20 more points from a hobbled Klay Thompson, the Warriors crushed the Cavaliers 122-103 in a game where Cleveland was only down by five before Curry and company took it over. Last night, we saw the closest thing to last year’s Warriors dominance that we have seen since, well, last year’s Warriors. Even though it appears as if Golden State lacks motivation at certain points in games, they are still far more talented than any other team in the NBA and when they put it all together, the rest of the league gets put on notice.
That’s what happened last night. Keep in mind that the Warriors are doing this without Andre Iguodala, who is recovering from a bone bruise in his knee and has not played since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. While Iguodala may not necessarily seem like one of the most important figures in the Warriors’ dynasty, he absolutely is, and their occasionally absent-minded play without him should be proof of that. He one of the few people on Earth willing and able to consistently defend LeBron James, and if he returns in this series (which he might), the Warriors have a better chance of containing LeBron.
Until then, however, it will likely be either JaVale McGee or Kevon Looney occupying the final starting spot for the Warriors. Both men are capable bigs, but neither has the ability to guard James or space the floor on the offensive end. The Warriors, after starting Looney for the five previous games, decided to go with McGee in the starting lineup last night, and even though he had a +/- of 0, the move seemed to pay dividends; McGee had 12 points and most of his action came under the basket when the Cavaliers’ defenders were more preoccupied with Golden State’s three-point shooters. Whether you take McGee seriously or not, he is a live body who can cause havoc on the glass and makes the most of his opportunities in close. That’s all the Warriors need him to do until Iguodala returns from injury.
And think about the luxuries that Steve Kerr has with a team this versatile and talented. On the other side, Cavs coach Ty Lue doesn’t have nearly as many good options to go to off the bench (for instance, it’s more difficult for Lue to put Kyle Korver on the floor against a Warriors lineup looking to attack any defensive mismatch the Cavs have to offer). And, instead of having a steady presence like Shaun Livingston coming off the bench, Cleveland has Jordan Clarkson, who has shot 3-13 in the first two games of the series and makes multiple ill-fated attempts to take over the Cavs’ offense when he steps on the floor.
But instead of maligning all of the matchup problems the Cavaliers have in this series, it’s more important to look at what the Warriors have done right. That can be boiled down into one player: Steph Curry.
Last night, Curry broke an NBA Finals record last night by hitting nine three-pointers; he finished with 33 points but his impact goes beyond his scoring. The psychological impact of his hot shooting, particularly at Oracle Arena, cannot be quantified. And there is something to be said for the blow an opposing team takes when they play masterful defense for 23 or more seconds, only to have Curry drain a turnaround fadeaway from five feet behind the line. When you add that to the individual talents of Durant and Klay Thompson, the Warriors offense becomes virtually unstoppable when it’s clicking.
There should be at least a slight momentum shift when the series heads back to Cleveland for Game 3. But the Cavaliers will almost certainly need to win both games at Quicken Loans Arena to have a chance in this series; even though LeBron James and the Cavaliers have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals before, there’s a reason it’s only happened once since 1947. Even with the greatest player in the history of the league on their side, Cleveland will have a very difficult time coming back against the most talented team the league has ever seen.
That team is the Golden State Warriors. Even though they’ve had their trials and tribulations throughout the season, we always knew that they could flip the switch and play to their dominant, ruthless potential whenever they wanted to. They did that last night, mainly with the help of their two-time league MVP. Oh, by the way, they may very well get the ex-Finals MVP they have lying around back before this series ends.
The Warriors have returned. Maybe they never really left. Either way, the NBA’s sleeping giant is awake, alive, and humming on all cylinders. That usually doesn’t end well for anyone in its way.
There is a pantheon of dumb plays in the history of both college and professional basketball. It has some awesome entries; Chris Webber trying to call timeout when his team didn’t have one, Rasheed Wallace leaving Robert Horry wide open to lose Game 5 of the 2005 Finals, and JaVale McGee’s entire career. These moments, whether they come in the regular season or the biggest games of the year, are the reason why “Shaqtin’ a Fool” exists.
But aside from the occasionally brain dead moments that happen during a basketball game, these are some of the best players in the world. They always get the basic stuff, like the time and score of the game, correct, and they know how to react depending on the game situation, right? Right?
To prove this, I present you with the human example that is Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith. Smith made headlines earlier in the season when he launched a bowl of soup at an assistant coach in what was definitely the seventhoreighth–weirdestmomentintheNBA this season. Smith is an erratic player with an evidently erratic personality; his occasional moments of brilliance on the court are augmented by brain-neutral plays and mind-numbing decisions. With that context in mind, I present to you the end of the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals:
There is so much wrong with whatever happened there. First of all, George Hill is an 80% free throw shooter for his career and should have made the free throw. When Smith gets the rebound, he has the opportunity to lay it in, albeit over a 6’10” Kevin Durant, to give Cleveland the lead. When he pulls the ball out to the three-point line, the Cavaliers should have called timeout. Instead, none of these things happened and Cleveland didn’t get a shot off in the final 4.7 seconds.
And, after all of the stupid things you read in the last paragraph, you would think that it doesn’t get any dumber than that. I’m here to tell you that it does.
The only possible explanation for whatever it is Smith did in the closing seconds of the fourth was that he didn’t know the score and thought the Cavaliers were winning. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue seems to believe that’s the case; after the game, he said that Smith thought his team was ahead and tried to run out the clock. Smith, on the other hand, insists that he knew the game was tied at 107 and thought Cleveland would take a timeout. Choose who you want to believe in this situation, but Smith has made dumb plays in crunch time before, and that particular instance involved another episode of scoreboard amnesia. Therefore, I have to go with the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson over the guy who threw soup at one of his coaches. It’s just that easy.
As much as we should all collectively laugh at this, however, it is one of the most costly blunders in recent Finals history, and it may have cost the Cavs any chance they had at winning this series.
Think, for example, about all the things that went right for Cleveland last night:
LeBron James goes for the 6th 50-point game in Finals history
Golden State only goes +6 in the third quarter (team had averaged a +7.6 3rd quarter scoring margin in the playoffs before last night)
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry score 55 points on 45 shots
Kevin Love goes for 21 points and 13 rebounds
Cleveland wins offensive rebound battle 19-4
Despite all of this, the Cavaliers lost in overtime. There were some breaks that didn’t go their way, like a controversial foul towards the end of the game on James that was changed to a block from a charge on Durant. After the game, Lue voiced his displeasure with the call, and even though it was a bang-bang play, he has a right to be upset, as foul calls are usually not up for review. However, the Cavaliers should not, in any way, blame last night’s defeat on poor refereeing. They had a chance to make a free throw, then they had a chance to get a basket, then they had a chance to call timeout to draw up a play to get said basket, and they somehow managed to do none of those things despite the odds being, for once, in their favor.
For Cleveland fans, that is the shame of what transpired last night. The Warriors are decidedly more talented than the Cavaliers but did not play their best game last night. The underdog had a chance to take out the favorite last night and put the defending champs in a 1-0 hole. They couldn’t get the job done, and even with the best player in the world performing at quite possibly the highest level of his career, the Warriors still found a way to pull it out.
Before this series, I picked the Warriors to win in five games. One of the ways Cleveland could have dragged out this series would have been by winning the first game and stealing some momentum out of Oracle Arena. Granted, they could still win Game 2, but against one of the all-time great teams in NBA history, it’s very difficult to win a seven-game series after allowing a golden opportunity like last night’s to slip through your fingers.
Let’s also remember that Smith, who blew the end of regulation, took an unnecessary gamble on a Curry heave at the end of the first half. It cost Cleveland three points and made a significant difference between them winning and losing the game.
What caused a bigger difference, though, were the events that took place in the final five seconds of regulation. But when you think about who had the ball, it’s not a surprise.
And thanks to J.R. Smith losing his counting skills and critical thinking powers, the Cavaliers’ margin for error in this series has gotten even smaller.
For a few fleeting moments, the fourth Finals meeting between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed in peril. Both teams went down 3-2 in their respective Conference Finals and neither had home court advantage when each series went to a decisive Game 7. But, as has been said for the past three calendar years in the modern NBA, none of those things mattered.
We are getting a fourth installment of the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, whether we want it or not. Frankly, most everyone knows how this will end. The Warriors are a lot better than Cleveland and just eliminated a 65-win team despite only playing to their potential for one quarter per game, at most.
Nonetheless, let’s do a little Finals preview, shall we?
When Kevin Durant left the Thunder to sign with the Warriors in 2016, he left one of the most stagnant and isolation-dependent offenses in the league to join one of the most free-flowing offenses in the history of the sport. It worked out that way last season, but it hasn’t been the same this year.
In last year’s playoffs, Golden State ran just 6.8% of their possessions in isolation; this would typically come in the form of a favorable one-on-one matchup with either Durant or Steph Curry. This would happen towards the end of the game if Golden State really needed a bucket or at any other time they did. Over their first three Finals runs, ball movement and player movement were the staples of one of the best offenses in NBA history, and that didn’t initially change when Durant entered the fold.
Now, however, it has.
In these playoffs, the percentage of possessions that Golden State uses in isolation action has risen to 11.2%, up nearly 65% from last season. That’s perfectly fine when you have Durant and Curry, but at some point, your offense stagnates and other players aren’t involved in the action. Of course, this is an uptown problem for one of the most talented rosters in NBA history; the Cavaliers have had higher isolation percentages the past two playoffs and they aren’t nearly as skilled as Golden State. But the Warriors destroyed Cleveland in the Finals last season averaging 29 assists and 121 points per game in just over 100 possessions per game. Against the Rockets, Golden State averaged 21 assists per game and just over 107 points per contest on an average of slightly under 94 possessions. When Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016, each game of the Finals averaged 92 possessions.
The only way the Cavaliers win this series is if they don’t get snookered into playing the Warriors’ style of basketball. The problem is that the Warriors are struggling to play like that themselves.
Worst Supporting Actor(s)
The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been a one-man show. This year, however, the gap in talent between LeBron James and his teammates is more frightening and stark.
In these playoffs, James is averaging 34 points per game and shooting just over 54% from the field. The rest of the Cavaliers are not faring as well; the supporting cast is averaging just 67 points per game and they have been bailed out in these playoffs by seven 40-point games from James. The problem for Cleveland, then, is this: how much more can LeBron do and how difficult will it really be for the Warriors to shut down the Cavs’ offense?
The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers role players need to be better. While Jeff Green chipped in 19 and J.R. Smith had 12 in Game 7 against Boston, these performances were more of an anomaly than the rule in these playoffs. Kevin Love missed Game 7 with a concussion suffered in the previous game, and even though he provides perimeter shooting and quality rebounding, he will have a very difficult time trailing the likes of even Draymond Green on the perimeter. If the Warriors look to get Cleveland into switching action, he would likely have to defend either Curry, Durant, or Klay Thompson. If that happens (and it will, if/when Love returns), advantage: Warriors, particularly if Andre Iguodala is in the starting lineup (more on him later).
Honestly, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast has never been talented enough to win a championship, whether that was before or after the team nuked its own roster at the trade deadline. Sure, GM Koby Altman did the best he could at that point because the Cavaliers, at the time, were a directionless car moving aimlessly towards the chaotic intersection that is the NBA Playoffs. But even though Cleveland got younger and faster in February, that does not mean they necessarily got better.
LeBron James will have to carry the load once more for the Cavaliers if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. It may be too much for him to handle, not because he isn’t capable, but because the Warriors are too good and his supporting cast is too bad.
This one pretty much explains itself. Iguodala missed Golden State’s last four games of the Western Conference Finals with a knee injury. In the three games with him in the lineup against Houston, the Warriors averaged 116.7 points per contest. Without him, they averaged 100.5. The difference with and without him on the floor is drastic, as Iggy has a +11.1 rating per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in these playoffs.
It seems strange to say this about a team that has four of the 15 or 20 best players in the game right now, but Andre Iguodala is the adhesive that keeps the Warriors clicking on both ends. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said today that the Warriors would have beaten the Rockets in five games with the former Finals MVP healthy, and I have to say that I can’t disagree with him. Golden State likely wins the knock-down, drag-out, 90s-esque battles in Games 4 and 5 with him on the floor, and the fact that the Warriors were able to overcome a 3-2 deficit against a 65-win team without him is a testament to just how much talent is on their roster.
The talent disparity between them and the Cavaliers would become even greater if he finds a way to play in these Finals.
I will admit that I’ve done more comprehensive previews for these series in the past, and apologies if comprehensive is what you were looking for here. The fact of the matter is, though, that the Warriors are at least ten times more talented than the Cavs and, even though it’s a far worse fate than he deserves, LeBron James will get bounced in short order by a team he can’t single-handedly take down for the second straight year.
I’ll give the Cavaliers one win out of respect for the greatest player of all time being on their roster. But I can’t fathom a way in which they win this series, unless the Warriors fall back on the same bad habits that nearly got them knocked out of the Playoffs by a shorthanded Rockets team.
Look at the baseball above. Does anything seem different about it?
On the surface, the vast majority of the population would say no. It’s a baseball; how could the production of it be any different and/or affect the way the game is played?
Apparently, as we found out yesterday, it matters a great deal.
In a report published on Thursday, the league admitted to changes in the production of its baseballs, which has, in turn, led to a home run surge that has even outpaced the steroid era. The report stated that there were no changes to the ball itself, but that the new baseballs, which were put into use after the 2015 All-Star Game, have a lessened drag coefficient. Without getting too science-y (I don’t exactly get this stuff, either), this means that the behavior of the ball is no different off the bat; however, it is carrying further in the air than it used to, which would theoretically mean that more deep fly ball outs are turning into home runs. Sure enough, since these new balls have been used, that seems to be exactly what has happened.
In 2014, each team averaged 0.86 home runs per game. In 2017, that number was 1.26 per game. Of course, part of this rise has come from hitters trying to put more balls in the air, which has also led to increased strikeout rates around the league; this is a byproduct of the launch and popularity of Statcast, which was founded by MLB in 2015. However, player strategy hardly has everything to do with this, and when you watch these two “excuse-me”dingers from last year’s playoffs, you can’t help but wonder whether or not there was some tomfoolery with the baseballs. And if you did, you weren’t the first person to ask yourself that question.
Most notably, Justin Verlander, who was traded from the Tigers to the Astros last season, alleged that something strange was going on with the baseballs. He didn’t say or know what that was, exactly, but, as someone who pitches every fifth day, he saw what was happening and common sense tells you that home run rates don’t go up by more than 46% by a change in on-field strategy alone. As wild as this may seem, however, this is not the first time that those within the game and outside of it have accused the sport of giving its baseballs the juice.
Back in the early 2000s, pitcher Kenny Rogers, a man who was once suspended for 20 games after throwing a cameraman to the ground, complained that the ball’s inner core was made of rubber instead of cork, which is what it formerly consisted of. However, other than the balls being made of rubber and not cork, there were no other tangible or proven modifications to its manufacturing that led to more home runs. However, this gained traction because we were in the middle of the steroid era and during that period in baseball, it seemed as though literally everything was juiced. These allegations resurfaced after an 11-10 World Series game between the Angels and Giants in 2002. Last year, there was a 13-12 World Series game between the Astros and Dodgers. If this sounds all too familiar, it is, except this time, there is legitimate proof that something is going on.
Now, you may come to the conclusion that there is no harm being done here because everyone likes more home runs, and that is a fair conclusion to arrive at. However, imagine what would happen if the NBA changed the way its basketballs were produced so that players like Steph Curry and others could consistently make threes from 40 feet away from the basket. The game would, of course, be more fun to watch at that point, but once many players could do it consistently, it would take away from the incredible skill of a select few who can pull up from that distance and have a legitimate chance at making the shot.
That has already happened with the decreased drag coefficient; feats that were once accomplished by a select few are now being pulled off by many. In 2014, 37 players hit 20 or more home runs. Last season, that number ballooned to 89. I love the home run as much as anyone, but it used to mean something to hit that many home runs and hit for power consistently. Nowadays, everyone is doing it, and this wouldn’t be a problem if it only had to do with players making a conscious effort to hit more fly balls, which they have. That being said, the league-commissioned report shows two things:
Baseballs are carrying more than they used to.
The league, which steadfastly denied until this year that there was any difference in the production of the baseballs, has not done anything to curtail this trend.
Part of this equation is that, in the years prior to 2015, offense was on a steady decline throughout baseball, and more common-sense measures, such as lowering the mound, were tossed around. But what sense does it make to artificially inflate offensive numbers when part of the entertainment of baseball is the battle between the hitter and the pitcher? And why would you do this when you have a problem with pace of play? Games with more offense don’t tend to finish quicker than games with less, and what sense does it make to have an entertaining product if you can’t start and finish a game in less than three hours?
Baseball has a lot of problems on its hands, and it would appear as though the sport tried to fix its “entertainment value” issue by making it easier for the game’s power hitters to thrive. It takes a stunning amount of hubris to repeatedly deny that there are any shenanigans taking place with the production of baseballs and then have a report find out that everything you’ve stated publicly is wrong, while you think the entire time that no one will notice when a lazy fly ball turns into a home run. Frankly, commissioner Rob Manfred owes an apology to Justin Verlander and everyone else who noticed something strange going on with our National Pastime.
That’s what baseball is; it’s our National Pastime and it’s also the only sport where something this ridiculous could happen without anyone batting an eyelash. But we shouldn’t be surprised, considering that this is the same game in which two leagues play by separate sets of rules and fans can change the outcome of an entire season.
It is no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best basketball player on the planet. It’s also not exactly private knowledge that the supporting cast they’ve given him is far from championship-caliber.
But it’s not just that James is single-handedly trying to will his team to another NBA Finals. It’s that he is doing this at a level of play we may very well have never seen before in the history of the sport.
For starters, James is averaging 33.7 points, nine rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game in these playoffs. The only player in NBA history to match those figures in the postseason was Russell Westbrook last year; the kicker here is that Westbrook’s Thunder were bounced by the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs. We have never seen a player produce this consistently over a full playoff run, but the raw production numbers are not the only sign of James’ historic greatness.
Because while some players have been insanely prolific scorers, passers, and rebounders throughout NBA playoff history, no player has ever done all three of these and combined them with ruthless efficiency.
There have been two postseasons in NBA history in which a player has owned a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 33 or greater and player in at least ten playoff games. LeBron James is the owner of both of them (NOTE: PER was not tracked until the 1988-89 season). Not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, John Stockton, et al. Just LeBron James. Just the greatest player of our generation. Just the greatest player of all-time.
The Cavaliers, though, are in a similar position to where they have been in the previous two playoff series. They’re playing a Boston Celtics unit that, as a whole, is probably better than they are. The same statement could be made about the Indiana Pacers, who pushed Cleveland to the wall in the first round and outscored the Cavs by 40 points over seven games. The Toronto Raptors could, theoretically, have given the Cavaliers a series, but they blew a 14-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and, on account of them being the Toronto Raptors, lost the next three games and even had ESPN announcers saying that they hailed from “LeBronto”. Now that is rock bottom.
The Celtics, though, are the best team Cleveland has faced to this point in the playoffs. In spite of losing their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to season-ending injuries, Boston has the best defense in the league and an ensemble cast that has carried them past the Bucks and 76ers to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, they depend on getting much of their offense from rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and 2015 first-round pick Terry Rozier. The only experienced veterans currently playing for the Celtics are Al Horford and Marcus Morris, and while Horford made the All-Star team this year, he isn’t nearly the type of player James is and the Celtics depend just as much on their young players for production. It’s fair to wonder whether or not these three men can regain their mojo as the series returns to Boston for a critical Game 5. The reason this is brought up now is because the Celtics have just one road win in these playoffs, and it came in overtime against the 76ers in a game that nearly ended with a Philadelphia victory in regulation.
The Celtics obviously have a better supporting cast, but against a player like James, will it matter?
My belief is that if Cleveland gets good enough contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love, the answer to the question above will be no. You go into this game assuming that James will take what is his, and even if he has a bad night from the field, he’ll still set his teammates up with good looks. Cleveland shot 25-57 (.439) from three in two games at Quicken Loans Arena as opposed to 14-57 (.246) in two games at TD Garden. There may be some regression from Game 4 to Game 5, but if the Cavs continue to get open looks, at least some of them are bound to go in.
The other factor here is the Celtics’ ineptitude on the road. Even though they don’t need to win a road game to win this series, they are only forcing LeBron and company to take one game in Boston assuming their home/road trends continue. Remember, this is the same building in which LeBron dunked Jason Terry into next week and scored 45 in an Eastern Conference Finals elimination game. If tempting fate is your thing, the Boston Celtics are the team for you.
But no matter what happens, we should sincerely appreciate what we are watching on the court on a nightly basis. The greatest player in the history of basketball has been given one of the worst secondary units in the league, and despite that, he may lead this group make to their fourth straight NBA Finals and his eighth in a row. And if you think your profession is miserable, just remember that mine pays a guy $5.5 million per year to go on television, troll LeBron, and tweet out dumb things about him every time he does something good, which is very often.
The greatest basketball player of our generation and the greatest player of all-time has brought the Eastern Conference Finals to a tie at two games apiece against a collective unit that is evidently far better than his. He doesn’t have a very good supporting cast and the odds are that he can’t singlehandedly drag his team to another NBA Finals.
But who needs favorable odds when LeBron James is on your team? The Cavaliers haven’t before, and they certainly don’t now.
Note: Projections for picks 1-10 can be found here.
11. Miami Dolphins
Sam Darnold (QB/USC)
The Dolphins, under third-year head coach Adam Gase, have a ton of problems at the quarterback position. From the devastating knee injury to starter Ryan Tannehill to the Jay Culter-ness of Jay Cutler, the 2017 season quickly turned into a nightmare on South Beach.
The team finished 6-10 and just one game ahead of the Jets for last place in the AFC East. While they also have other needs on their roster, their most pressing one is at quarterback. And at this point in the draft, I could see them getting one of the hardest prospects to peg in this year’s rookie class:
USC quarterback Sam Darnold.
Darnold, for reasons passing understanding, declined to throw at the NFL Combine last month and instead opted to throw at USC’s pro day. While not throwing at the combine was an objectively bad decision, Darnold made up for it at his pro day, as he dazzled scouts from several teams, none of which were the Miami Dolphins.
Here’s the main issue with Darnold; while parts of his game film are exceptional, other parts are terrible. It’s so difficult to ascertain how successful he’ll be in the pros because he was so inconsistent last season. Personally, I think he can be a successful quarterback in the right system and with the right players around him.
I could even see Sam Darnold being taken with the number one pick; several Browns executives also attended his pro day and reportedly liked what they saw. If we do another mock draft closer to April 26, I wouldn’t be surprised if I put him at the top.
For now, though, I’ll give him to the Dolphins at 11.
12. Denver Broncos (from Buffalo Bills)
NOTE: I raised the possibility of a trade involving the Bills and Broncos in my mock draft of picks 1-10. The Broncos receiving this pick would be the byproduct of that potential deal, but as of today, it belongs to the Bills. For our purposes, we are going to treat it as if it belongs to Denver.
Mike McGlinchey (T/Notre Dame)
The Denver Broncos need help along their offensive line.
Denver’s offensive line surrendered 52 sacks last season, which tied them for the third-most in the league. After signing Case Keenum from the Vikings earlier in the offseason, the Broncos’ main priority should be to prevent him from getting killed.
And for as many other needs as the Broncos have, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey makes the most sense for them with the 12th pick.
Along with Quenton Nelson, McGlinchey formed one of the most dominant sides of an offensive line in college football last season. McGlinchey played every game for the Irish over the past three seasons, and there’s a reason why; his technique is superb and he has surprising agility and mobility for someone who stands at 6’8″.
The one thing that befuddles me about McGlinchey is his lack of strength, especially considering his stature. While he will likely add a few pounds of muscle upon arriving in the NFL, he needs to improve that aspect of his game if he doesn’t want to get run over by bigger and stronger defensive linemen. I don’t see it being too much of an issue of McGlinchey bulks up, but it is something to keep an eye on.
The Broncos have a new quarterback, but they need to do a far better job of protecting him. Mike McGlinchey can help them do that from day one.
13. Washington Redskins
Vita Vea (DT/Washington)
Vita Vea, in my view, is one of the five best prospects in this year’s draft class.
Vea is nearly 350 pounds but has the agility of a linebacker. Washington used him in several different spots on their defense a season ago, including the edge rusher spot, which is usually reserved for a linebacker or an undersized defensive end. Vea also played special teams last year and even made an open-field tackle in the team’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State.
If the Redskins are looking for some help on their defensive line, Vea would be a steal at 13.
Washington gave up the most rushing yards in the league last season and their defensive line could be best compared to a large block of Swiss Cheese. Vea could help them in that regard, as he would be an immediate upgrade to their front four. He could also help the ‘Skins in passing situations, as he has potential as a pass rusher and can be used at any spot on the defensive line.
Another possibility for Washington at 13 would be a cornerback, on account of their trading away Kendall Fuller in the Alex Smith trade. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get someone like Iowa’s Josh Jackson (more on him shortly) but defensive line still makes more sense for the Redskins.
Vita Vea would be a great choice with the 13th pick, and the Redskins would be getting $1.50 on the dollar if they took him.
14. Green Bay Packers
Josh Jackson (CB/Iowa)
We are about to find out how highly teams think of someone based on only a season’s worth of tape.
The Bears answered that question for quarterbacks last season, as they moved up from the third pick to the second pick to take Mitchell Trubisky. But what do we make of this dilemma on the defensive side of the ball?
For one thing, Josh Jackson was all over the ball in the 14 career games he played at Iowa. Jackson had eight interceptions last season and returned two for touchdowns against Wisconsin in November. He isn’t just good at covering routes; on many occasions, he runs routes for the receiver he’s covering. He can be a very good NFL player, but he is raw and may need a year or two under his belt before he reaches his full potential.
With all of that said, though, he’s probably better than anything the Packers have in their secondary right now. Green Bay let go of both their starting safeties, Morgan Burnett and Demetrious Randall, to the Steelers and Browns respectively, and the team needs all the help in the world on the back end of their defense. Taking Jackson would be a good start, but the Packers need to do a lot more to improve a defense that has not been in the top ten in the league in yards or points allowed since the team won the Super Bowl in 2010.
Josh Jackson is penciled in as my number-two corner in this year’s draft class. The Packers need to get more players like him, and quickly.
15. Arizona Cardinals
Connor Williams (G/Texas)
I’ll say this out of the gate; I have no earthly clue where the Cardinals will go (or, more accurately, can go) with the 15th pick. They could trade up in the draft, but how would they be able to do so? They could take a quarterback at 15, but they would likely be stuck with Lamar Jackson at this spot, and after signing a historically fragile quarterback in Sam Bradford, would they want Jackson to be one hit away from being their starting quarterback? There are options for the Cardinals here, but how many of them are good options?
Offensive lineman Connor Williams might be one.
Williams struggled last season and his 2017 tape does not show someone worthy of a selection in the top half of the first round. However, Williams cleaned up at the Combine, posting the fastest 40-yard-dash, highest vertical jump, and farthest broad jump of any offensive lineman in attendance. There is potential there, and even though Williams is slightly raw and needs the right coaches to help him develop, he could turn into a very solid offensive lineman at the professional level.
The Cardinals are in a bizarre spot with the 15th pick. I wouldn’t be surprised if they traded in either direction here, but if they keep the pick, my best guess in that they try to shore up their offensive line to protect Bradford and company.
16. Baltimore Ravens
James Washington (WR/Oklahoma State)
While James Washington is not very far along in his development and needs to improve his route running in a big way, the Ravens are in need of a game-breaker on the outside. Washington could be their man.
Even though the team signed Michael Crabtree in free agency, Baltimore could still use some help downfield, the area where quarterback Joe Flacco most excels. Flacco had just 13 pass plays of 20 or more yards a season ago, which tied him with Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer for 30th in the league, and both of those men played a grand total of seven games. The Ravens have not had a bona fide downfield threat since they won the Super Bowl in 2012, and even though Washington is a reach with this pick, he would be the best receiver to help them fix that problem.
Washington averaged nearly 20 yards per catch a season ago for Oklahoma State, and even though Big 12 defenses leave a lot to be desired, the big play ability he possesses is abundant. The Ravens have had trouble at the receiver spot for several years now, and the team should make this their top priority in the draft.
Getting a game-breaker like James Washington would be a great start.
17. Los Angeles Chargers
Lamar Jackson (QB/Louisville)
Philip Rivers has two more years on his contract. He isn’t getting any younger, and the Chargers could use a young quarterback to develop when Rivers leaves or retires.
And with the 17th pick, San Diego Los Angeles could take a run at the best quarterback available: Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
There has been a significant amount of hand-wringing recently as to what position Jackson should play in the NFL. Bill Polian says he should play wide receiver. Many other people think he can play quarterback. I fall in the latter category; while Jackson was tremendously inconsistent at times last season, he can be successful with the right people in charge.
Whether or not the Chargers have those people is up to your interpretation. What they do have is a talented roster that nearly made the playoffs last season, a quarterback in Rivers that has playoff experience and can mentor Jackson, and a situation in which Jackson will not be asked to do very much out of the gate. The fact of the matter is that Jackson is not good enough to be a starting quarterback next year; he misses too many easy throws, can be erratic at times, and struggles with his decision-making in other instances. However, he is a tremendously talented player who has enough speed and arm strength to remind me of a young Michael Vick.
Jackson probably won’t be as good as Vick, but he does have the chance to be a solid NFL starting quarterback a couple of years from now. And no, he’s not a wide receiver.
18. Seattle Seahawks
Will Hernandez (G/UTEP)
Russell Wilson played at an MVP level last season despite the fact that he spent most games running for his life.
The Seahawks’ offensive line is terrible. The team is blowing up its core. Their defense will be decimated next season with the losses of Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett. And Wilson will still need to pull a rabbit out of a hat several times per game just to keep his offense afloat.
That’s where Will Hernandez enters this discussion.
Hernandez weighed in at the Combine at nearly 350 pounds and would likely be ready to play for the Seahawks in Week One (that statement has just as much to do with the Seahawks as it does with Hernandez). He put down 37 bench press reps at the Combine, which was the most among offensive linemen. While Hernandez may not be a household name among offensive linemen, he’s one of the best in this year’s draft class.
He could also help Seattle in the area they likely need it most: the running game.
Last year, the Seahawks rushed for 1,629 yards, the tenth-worst figure in the NFL. However, if you subtract Wilson’s 586 rushing yards, the Seahawks would have barely gotten over 1,000 yards and would’ve had the worst rush offense in the NFL. And Wilson was an instrumental part of whatever running game the Seahawks had last year; he was the team’s leading rusher by 346 yards. The Seahawks could also use more talent at the running back position, but where they could use the most assistance is with their offensive line.
At this point in the draft, the best offensive lineman they could take is Will Hernandez.
19. Dallas Cowboys
Da’Ron Payne (DT/Alabama)
The Cowboys had their best defensive season in several years in 2017. However, they should still look to improve things on that side of the ball.
The defense was tied for 15th in sacks last season and could use another pass rusher to complement DeMarcus Lawrence on the defensive line. Even though conventional wisdom says that the Cowboys should improve their offense, they’ll have Ezekiel Elliott for a full season and can also hope for improvement from Dak Prescott. They have a chance in the draft, though, to turn their defense into a force, and they can do that by taking Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne.
Payne has a rare combination of agility and strength that can make him a dominant defensive lineman in the NFL. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Clemson Tigers; he made an interception in that game and caught a touchdown pass at the end of the next drive. His motor runs just as much in the fourth quarter as it does in the first, and he is well-rounded enough to be on the field in any situation. He’s likely to be taken in the middle-to-late first round and the Cowboys should seize the opportunity to scoop him up if he’s available here.
20. Detroit Lions
Marcus Davenport (DE/UTSA)
Marcus Davenport was the fastest defensive lineman at the NFL Combine; he posted a 4.58 40-yard dash and also put up the farthest broad jump among all defensive linemen in Indianapolis (124 inches).
And while Davenport is still very raw, he has many translatable skills to the NFL and has enough talent to change a game from time to time.
The other thing he could stand to do when he reaches the pros is bulk up; he was only 264 pounds at the Combine and won’t be able to use the same power and speed combination he had in college if he’s being overwhelmed by bigger, stronger NFL offensive linemen. However, Davenport posted 8.5 sacks last season for UTSA and even though he didn’t face the same level of competition that other top prospects have, that doesn’t mean he won’t make a difference at the NFL level.
He would join a Lions defense that garnered just 35 sacks last season. First-year head coach Matt Patricia takes over a unit that gave up the 12th-most points in the league a season ago, and I would be very surprised to see Detroit not take a defensive player at 20. If you’re a Lions fan, it’s also fun to imagine the possibility of Davenport playing alongside Ziggy Ansah off either edge for Detroit.
The Lions could conceivably take an offensive lineman with this pick, but with a defensive-minded coach put in place in the offseason, chances are the Lions will look to improve their defense. Out of the available players at this point in the proceedings, Davenport is the man they should target.
21. Cincinnati Bengals
Billy Price (C/Ohio State)
The Bengals need some serious help along their offensive line, and they have already started to shore up that unit.
The team dealt its first-round pick (12th overall) to the Bills for guard Cordy Glenn last week. Glenn missed most of last season with an injury but has been a stabilizing presence for the Bills offensive line since he was drafted in 2012. However, the team lost center Russell Bodine in free agency to, you guessed it, the Bills. Bodine, though, was not exactly part of the solution last season for Cincinnati.
Therefore, the team probably needs to draft an interior offensive lineman, and the man for the job is Ohio State’s Billy Price.
This may come as a bit of a surprise with the 21st pick, and there’s a very good reason why; Price partially tore his pectoral muscle on his third bench press repetition at the NFL Combine. The good news is that the tear is only minor and should not have a major effect on his draft stock, although it may scare off some teams in the latter half of the first round.
That being said, the Bengals are so desperate for offensive line help that they probably don’t even care.
Andy Dalton took 40 sacks last season, and that number isn’t terrible. However, Cincinnati was the second-worst rush offense in the league, and that didn’t happen because of the lack of talent possessed by Giovani Bernard, Joe Mixon, and Jeremy Hill. It happened because the Bengals were porous (at best) up front and could use a major upgrade at the position. If the Bengals elect to take Price, he would slide into his natural center spot to replace Bodine and could very well represent an improvement at that position.
There is a lot to like about Price. He is an aggressive offensive lineman who often gets a fantastic jump off the snap. He is also very strong and was expected to excel at the bench press before his injury ended any chance of that happening. If that doesn’t impress you, he has enough agility to move out to guard if necessary, but he’s strong enough at 312 pounds to easily handle his assignment at either position.
If he becomes available with the 21st selection, he would be an easy choice for a Bengals organization that has struggled to build through the draft in recent years and still has not won a playoff game since 1991, when they defeated the Houston Oilers.
It’s the most wonderful time of the sports year. March Madness is in full swing, MLB’s Opening Day is right around the corner, in case you couldn’t tell, and NFL Draft season is finally upon us. This article will focus on the latter proposition.
In this post, we’ll take a look at picks one through ten. There has already been one trade within these ranks, and in this article, we’ll raise the possibility of another hypothetical one.
So without any further ado, here is a first look at the top ten picks of next month’s NFL Draft.
1. Cleveland Browns
Josh Allen (QB/Wyoming)
Measurables are a surefire way to get NFL teams to salivate over your talent.
Want a guy who’s 6’5″, 230 pounds and can throw the ball 80 yards on the fly? Josh Allen’s your man. Allen has all of the arm talent of the league’s best quarterbacks and easily has the biggest upside of any signal-caller in this draft. But now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the negatives.
Against two Power 5 opponents last season (Iowa and Oregon) Allen was less than impressive. He went 33-of-64 for 238 yards and three interceptions in those two games, and he only completed 56% of his passes last season. He is talented enough to make any throw on the field, but he also makes some horrendous decisions and misses some easy throws.
Now, of course, we need to acknowledge the changes the Browns have made in both their front office structure and roster in the past few weeks and months. The team has added quarterback Tyrod Taylor, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, cornerback Demetrious Randall, and wide receiver Brandon Coleman. Cleveland’s new general manager, John Dorsey, seems to have a clue as to what he’s doing, and that’s already an improvement over most previous Browns’ front offices. Fans of the team — who, at this point, probably feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football — are rightfully getting excited over a unit that still shouldn’t be good enough to compete for a playoff spot.
If the team takes Allen here, he likely would not be Cleveland’s Week One starter. That honor would belong to Taylor, a perfectly fine and competent NFL quarterback that the Buffalo Bills decided to bench for Nathan Peterman in November of last season. Taylor will protect the football and give the Browns mobility out of the pocket, and he’ll be far better than anyone Cleveland trotted out at quarterback last season. Allen doesn’t look like he’s ready to play next season, and the Browns, as crazy as this sounds, have the best personnel (head coach Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and Taylor) for him to learn from.
An NFL team will talk itself into Josh Allen early in the first round of the draft, even though he’s only the third or fourth-best quarterback available at the top spot. If Dorsey decides that Allen is the Browns’ quarterback of the future, he may very well pull a Lucy on the entire city of Cleveland.
And Browns fans might let out a collective “oh, good grief” in response.
2. New York Giants
Saquon Barkley (RB/Penn State)
Saquon Barkley is a once-in-a-generation talent.
He rushed for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons at Penn State, and that is hardly the only upside he brings to the table. He is a running back with shiftiness the likes of which we have not seen in some time, and he also has strength to boot; he weighed in at the Combine at 233 pounds and did 29 reps on the bench press. He also ran a 4.4 40-yard-dash and had two kick return touchdowns last year.
The Giants were the most disappointing team in the league last season. A year that started with high hopes and championship aspirations quickly turned into a 3-13 season and the #2 overall pick. While the team should start seriously thinking about replacing quarterback Eli Manning, their priority here should be to get the best player available.
And with Barkley, he’s not just the best player available. He could be the best running back we’ve seen in several years.
When I watch Barkley play, he reminds me equally of Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk. He’s that good. Here’s to hoping the Giants make the right choice if Barkley is available with the second pick.
3. New York Jets (from Indianapolis Colts)
Josh Rosen (QB/UCLA)
Josh Rosen is the best quarterback in this year’s draft class. He’s also not for the faint of heart.
To be clear, his off-field distractions have nothing to do with the legal sort. He hasn’t been arrested and many of his extracurricular troubles are of the inane, albeit concerning, kind. Rosen’s greatest hits at UCLA include wearing a “F— Trump” haton one of the President’s golf courses, taking multiple shots at the NCAA, and, my personal favorite, putting a hot tub in his freshman dorm. Of course, these things are, in the grand scheme of things, not that important and, in the case of the hot tub, legitimately hilarious. However, to be the face of a franchise, you need to bring as few distractions along with you as possible.
Several teams are looking for a franchise quarterback in this draft. And gee, what team is most likely to inherit a total circus in the largest media market in the country? That’s right, it’s the New York Jets!
The J-E-T-E, Jets thought they had their quarterback with Geno Smith, just four years after thinking they had their guy in Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ history is a Sistine Chapel of awful draft picks, perhaps none more glistening than their 1997 draft, when they traded out of the first overall pick — which later became Hall of Famer Orlando Pace — then traded down the board again and out of the sixth pick, which the Seahawks used to select future Hall of Famer Walter Jones. In the span of six picks, the team fumbled their way out of two of the best offensive linemen in history and stumbled into James Farrior, who left the team after five seasons and played most of his career with the Steelers. And the mastermind behind all of that was none other than Bill Parcells!
Anyway, Rosen is the best quarterback available at three and could go a long way towards fixing the Jets’ quarterback issues. He, like Allen, can make any throw on the field and has decision-making concerns, but Rosen is far more accurate than Allen and can be plugged into the starting lineup for Week One. The Jets could also take Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield if Rosen gets taken before their pick here. More on Mayfield later.
For now, the Jets look to fix their years-long quarterback nightmare, but they’ll have to take a hot tub and some distractions with them if they do.
4. Cleveland Browns
Minkah Fitzpatrick (CB/S/Alabama)
In the eyes of many, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the best defensive player available in this year’s draft. He’s also one of the safest choices this early on.
He has a very high football IQ, which is most easily translatable in his ball skills as a safety at Alabama (he nabbed six interceptions last season) and is a very versatile defender as well. The Browns, provided they take Fitzpatrick, can plug him in as a safety, slot corner, or even an undersized linebacker in certain situations.
In my view, the Browns could use more help at corner than at safety, as the team drafted Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers last season and acquired Randall from the Packers two weeks ago to cover the other safety spot. Fitzpatrick is a rock-solid defender who would likely be able to get immediate playing time for a defense that surrendered the second-most points in the league last season.
Another option for the Browns with this pick would be an offensive lineman, likely Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, to shore up their offensive line after the retirement of Joe Thomas. However, Fitzpatrick is the best player available with the fourth pick, and my bet is that Dorsey, the general manager of a team that still has a lot of needs, will simply grab the most talented player available and take his chances.
5. Buffalo Bills (from Denver Broncos)NOTE: This trade is simply a proposal; it hasn’t actually happened and the Broncos are still the owners of the fifth pick as of now.
Baker Mayfield (QB/Oklahoma)
A trade involving the Broncos at five makes sense; the team signed Case Keenum, mainly based on 14 starts last season, to an $18 million deal earlier in the offseason and no longer need a quarterback, unless they want to be the Chicago Bears and pay Keenum that money to back up an unproven rookie. Therefore, we pivot to a team that does need a quarterback: the Buffalo Bills.
Enter Baker Mayfield.
The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner was penciled in as my number-three quarterback before the NFL Combine, and his impressive performance there coupled with Sam Darnold’s confusing and perplexing decision not to throw at that venue bumped him up to number two. The problem here, though, is that many are ragging on Mayfield for only being 6’1″, and while those concerns are valid, they also completely discount the existences of Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Fran Tarkenton, and Johnny Unitas, all of whom either are or were shorter than Mayfield and still had wildly successful careers. Mayfield should not be compared to those men, but he can definitely succeed in the NFL.
Beyond his success in college, he is an accurate passer who has improved his deep ball tremendously and is also mobile enough to extend plays with his feet. He has several flaws (poor feel for the rush in the pocket, suspect footwork) but he can work through those and be successful in the NFL. And even though Mayfield brings his own baggage (most significantly, a DUI last February) he looks better and better the more you watch him on tape.
The Buffalo Bills signed A.J. McCarron earlier in the offseason but are still in the market for a quarterback. Making a splash move up to the fifth spot in the draft will get them the second-best one in this year’s rookie class.
6. Indianapolis Colts (from New York Jets)
Bradley Chubb (DE/NC State)
The Indianapolis Colts did a very smart thing by trading the third overall pick to the Jets. Chubb is the top defensive end coming out of college this year and could be a game-changer for one of the league’s worst defenses a season ago. With the team likely getting Andrew Luck back off his shoulder injury, the Colts should look to improve their defense. Because they don’t need a quarterback, Indianapolis could afford to trade down in the draft and get several later-round picks to draft more talented defensive prospects. The Jets, who do need a quarterback, were willing to surrender these picks in the name of getting one, and the Colts should look to use them on an ailing defense. Chubb, who may have been taken by Indy with the third pick, anyway, can make an immediate difference for Indianapolis.
He posted the highest vertical jump among defensive ends at the Combine (36 inches) and at 6’4″ and 270 pounds, he is someone the Colts could plug into their starting lineup immediately. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only team that got fewer sacks than the Colts did last season and the team’s pass rush was the weakest link on a defense that ranked 30th in points allowed. In that regard, Chubb can make an impact from day one, as he put up back-to-back seasons with ten sacks his last two years at NC State.
Bradley Chubb is a top-five player in the NFL Draft and if he is still available with the sixth pick, the Colts would be foolish to go in another direction.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Denzel Ward (CB/Ohio State)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a truly horrendous defense last season.
The team’s defense was last in the league in total yards, passing yards, and yards per play. Things went south quickly for the Buccaneers in 2017, as they finished 5-11 after a 2-1 start. The offense still has plenty of talent; while Doug Martin left to sign with the Raiders, Tampa Bay still has Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, and tight end Cameron Brate. Where they truly need help is on defense.
Denzel Ward can help the Buccaneers improve on that side of the ball. Ward led all corners at the combine in 40-yard-dash time (4.32), vertical jump (39.0 inches), and broad jump (136 inches). While he is just 5’10” and naturally gives ground to taller receivers, his athleticism and talent make up for his challenges in stature.
While Ward may not be enough to salvage the Buccaneers’ defense, he will help a secondary unit that gets the pleasure of facing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton twice a year. He’s the top cornerback coming out of college, and he’ll look to do what Marshon Lattimore did coming out of Ohio State in 2017; win Defensive Rookie of the Year and greatly improve a previously horrific defense.
8. Chicago Bears
Quenton Nelson (G/Notre Dame)
The Bears have a new head coach.
Matt Nagy comes over after serving as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for the past two seasons. The Bears, under his leadership, may have something going for next season; the team has signed wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel from the Jaguars and Falcons, respectively, and will hope for improvement in quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s second season. However, the team lost guard Josh Sitton to the Dolphins in free agency and should look to protect Trubisky at all costs.
The way they can do that is by taking Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, the best offensive lineman on the board, with the eighth overall pick.
Nelson stands at 6’5″ and 325 pounds, and his athleticism should make him ready to start as soon as the season begins. Nelson played guard on the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line last season alongside Mike McGlinchey, and the Irish had arguably the best offensive line in the country because of that combination. The Bears have made some questionable decisions under GM Ryan Pace, but they are having an objectively good offseason. They signed Robinson, Gabriel, backup quarterback Chase Daniel, and even the guy who threw the touchdown on “Philly Special”. I bet you had to look up who that was.
He’s the best fit for the Bears, and they should look to scoop him up with the eighth pick.
9. San Francisco 49ers
Calvin Ridley (WR/Alabama)
The 49ers have found (and secured) their quarterback of the future.
After trading a second-round pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo and going 5-0 with him as their starter, the team inked Jimmy G to a five-year, $137.5 million deal that, at the time, made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. After a 1-10 start, the team finished the year with six wins and will look to build around Garoppolo to compete for a playoff spot in the very near future.
Adding a wide receiver like Calvin Ridley would be a big boost to the Niners’ offense. Ridley is the only receiver in this draft class with the complete combination of speed, route-running ability, and hands. I actually like the upside of receivers such as Oklahoma State’s James Washington or SMU’s Courtland Sutton more than Ridley’s, but the Alabama product is the safest choice out of this year’s wide receiver class.
He would add to a receiving core whose best receiver, as of the moment, is Marquise Goodwin. Ridley would become a solid second receiver opposite Goodwin’s speed on the outside. The 49ers have their franchise quarterback, but they need to surround him with talent at the skill positions in order for them to have sustainable success on offense.
10. Oakland Raiders
Roquan Smith (LB/Georgia)
This one just feels right.
Roquan Smith is the best linebacker in the 2018 Draft, and a gap of about three-and-a-half-miles separates him from the number-two choice. Smith’s tape doesn’t “pop”; it explodes. He’s an athletic linebacker with a nose for the play, as he’s often involved in pass coverage or making a tackle. He won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker this past season and ranked in the top ten in the country in total tackles. Smith has it all; his one weakness is that he is undersized (6’1″, 236) but he compensates for that with elite effort and tremendous discipline.
The Raiders, who were one of the worst defenses in the league a season ago, could use a little of both.
Smith is versatile; he could help the Raiders, under new (old?) head coach Jon Gruden, in pass coverage and in the run game. He’s a slightly underrated prospect; I have him in the top five and he should be taken by a team in the top ten next month. The way things look right now, that team is the Oakland Raiders.
Smith would be a tremendous help for a team looking to jump back into contention in the AFC West. He’s also one of the best players in this year’s draft, and he would be an absolute steal for the Raiders at ten.
Hi Everyone! I wrote an article this week for my school’s newspaper, The Fordham Ram. It is filed in what is called the “Overtime” section, which is a series of longform pieces that I get to write every third edition. You can access the article here.
The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots met in Super Bowl XXXIX on February 6, 2005. The game was quietly one of the better Super Bowls of all time; the Patriots won 24-21, but the Eagles kept the game close throughout and likely would have won had it not been for four turnovers, three of which were committed by quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles also got 122 yards from Terrell Owens, who played that game with two screws and a metal plate in his ankle and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Anyway, the two teams meet in the big game again, two days short of thirteen years later.
The stakes are as follows. If the Patriots win, they will seal their sixth Super Bowl championship and tie the Steelers for the most Super Bowl victories in NFL history. Tom Brady’s sixth ring will add to his already-ridiculous résumé as the greatest quarterback the sport has ever seen, and Bill Belichick will add his sixth championship as an NFL head coach and eighth as a head coach or an assistant.
If the Eagles win, it will be their first Super Bowl victory in three appearances (1980, 2004); Philadelphia is one of thirteen NFL teams without a Super Bowl victory. The win would be head coach Doug Pederson’s first as an assistant or head coach in the league; Pederson won a Super Bowl ring as a backup quarterback for the Packers in 1996. Philadelphia would also be the eighth team to win a Super Bowl with a different quarterback than the one they had at the start of the season, as Nick Foles took over for MVP candidate Carson Wentz in Week 14. The odds are undoubtedly stacked against Philadelphia, but their pole-climbing, dog-mask-toting fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Patriots are a five-point favorite for tomorrow’s game, and many experts are picking them to win. But should they be? Let’s look at a few keys to this one for both sides.
The Eagles have been deadly with run-pass options this season, and they carved up the Minnesota Vikings with them in the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago.
Quarterback Nick Foles (who, mind you, is a backup) cooked Minnesota for 352 yards and three touchdowns while completing nearly 80% of his passes. Run-pass options were a large part of his success. Why is this important, other than because the Eagles have run more run-pass options than any other team in the league this season? It’s important because they’re playing the Patriots, a team that didn’t do well against RPOs in the AFC title game.
Here is a clip, compiled by Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, of the Jaguars deploying the same run-pass option four different times against the Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship game. On all four occasions, the Jags were successful:
Will be interesting to see how the Pats gameplan for the Eagles RPOs. Jaguars shredded them with same RPO 4 times in first half last week pic.twitter.com/gYJWIPYIjj
Of course, games are not won in the first half, and the Patriots can deploy man-to-man coverage to combat the success of the RPO. However, the Eagles will look to capitalize on short passes like the Jaguars did two weeks ago, as Blake Bortles completed 18 of his 27 passes of 15 yards or fewer for 211 yards against New England in the AFC title game. What was particularly interesting about that was that Bortles was 10-13 for 102 yards when throwing short and to the right side of the field. Foles was 9-10 for 74 yards against the Vikings on the same types of throws, but was a perfect five-for-five for 42 yards when throwing short and over the middle, usually in the form of a slant route to a wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith) or an angle route to tight end Zach Ertz.
This is a matchup the Eagles can exploit if Foles is accurate like he has been in the team’s first two playoff games. He’ll need to continue to play at a high level, but the Eagles can make some noise in the RPO game.
Tom vs. Time vs. the Eagles D-Line
Another thing the Eagles must do if they want to pull the upset is pressure Tom Brady.
The Eagles are facing an uphill task in that regard.
Philadelphia sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times in the divisional round but only got one sack on Case Keenum in the NFC title game. Philly did force Keenum into a pick-six at the hands of pressure and a strip-sack in the second quarter, but situational pressure won’t suffice against the Patriots’ offense. Pass rushers like Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, and many others will need to force the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. If they don’t, the Eagles will have a hard time tomorrow night.
Brady has been given an average of about 2.7 seconds to throw this season. The Eagles can’t allow him any more time than that, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is early in the game with his blitz packages.
There are two ways the rest of the Eagles can help their pass rushers. The first is by performing well in coverage; the Eagles are middle of the pack in the league in passing yards allowed and may need to settle for containing the Patriots’ offense if they hope to win this game. The other, more realistic way the Eagles can stop Tom Brady is by sustaining drives and time of possession, something Philadelphia knows a thing or two about.
The Eagles lead the league in total time of possession this season and have out-possessed their opponents in their two playoff victories. The best way to stop the Patriots’ offense is to keep it off the field, and if the Eagles can maintain possession for 35-40 minutes in this one, they may very well be on their way to a victory. This may be the Eagles’ best chance at containing the Patriots’ offense, one that only gets better and sharper as the game progresses.
How to Stop Gronk
This is the other clear problem the Eagles are facing in this one. Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for anyone, and the news that he is playing in the Super Bowl will come as a disappointing formality for a defense that is already scrambling for answers. The Eagles will have to be especially on-guard for Gronk’s exploits down the field and in the red zone, which means that safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will likely have to provide over-the-top coverage on the Patriots’ all-world tight end. This opens up one-on-one opportunities underneath for the likes of Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, and Philadelphia cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby will need to play blanket coverage to ensure that Amendola and Hogan don’t get theirs, which is a daunting proposition.
Another option for the Eagles would be to play zone, but against a quarterback who operates on defenses like a surgeon, this probably isn’t a sustainable option.
The Play of Nick Foles
This is probably the area Eagles fans would least like to talk about, but Nick Foles is still a backup quarterback who, despite back-to-back excellent performances, is somewhat unproven.
While the Eagles have done a masterful job building their schemes to ensure that Foles would not be asked to do too much, he will need to play to the level he has been performing at if the Eagles want to win their first Super Bowl. There are reasons to believe he can pull it off, though.
Foles was 4-6 in the NFC Championship Game on passes of 20 yards or more downfield. When he was afforded time to throw last week, he made the most of his opportunities. The Patriots, though, have gotten eleven sacks in their two playoff games and will be sending extra rushers at Foles to make sure he doesn’t get in a rhythm in the pocket.
That being said, much of the Eagles’ offense is predicated around the run-pass option, and because many of the passing elements of those plays are screens and slant routes, Foles should have no problem getting the ball out of his hands quickly. While the Patriots may take away the downfield shots from Philadelphia’s game, they are a defense that is speed-deficient and finished 30th in the league in passing yards allowed, ahead of only the Giants and Buccaneers. Not good.
Because of this lack of speed, the Eagles’ running backs could also run loose in this one. The Jaguars rushed for over 100 yards on New England last week, and if the Patriots are overly cognizant of the pass, the Eagles’ troika of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount (a former Patriot), and rookie Corey Clement could gash the Patriots. New England’s is a defense that has bent without breaking all season long, but with the various weapons the Eagles have on the outside and in the running game, the Pats’ defense could be in for a long night in Minneapolis.
I’ve thought about this one considerably for the past two weeks. And while the Patriots are favored (and rightfully so), they face many matchup problems, particularly on their defense, that make me lean towards the Eagles here. Of course, if Nick Foles reverts to the Foles of December, one who completed just 54% of his passes for only five yards per attempt, then the Patriots will win easily. But I don’t see that Foles reappearing in the Super Bowl, mainly because of the outstanding work of Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and the Eagles’ coaching staff of utilizing the team’s weapons at the skill positions and making the demands on Foles slightly easier.
While it’s hard to fathom picking Nick Foles to defeat Tom Brady and even harder to wrap your head around taking Doug Pederson over Bill Belichick, that’s what I’m doing here.
Heading into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there were eight teams alive and they could have easily been broken up into two groups of four.
The first group would comprise the teams with great quarterbacks; this group includes the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New Orleans Saints. Four of the top six quarterbacks in passing yards over the last five seasons come from these teams, and if you believe that quarterback play is the most important factor in deciding playoff games, then you would have thought that these teams would win and move on to their respective conference title games (none of these four teams played each other).
The other group consists of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Minnesota Vikings. These teams are playing less-heralded signal-callers, and all of them ranked in the top half of the league in total defense this year. The Vikings, though, were the only team to get legitimately excellent play from their quarterback position, as unlikely starter Case Keenum finished second in the league in QBR this year (71.3); that figure comes in first among all quarterbacks who have started in the playoffs this season (bet you didn’t predict that going into the season).
Speaking of “bet you didn’t predict that”, guess which group is sending three of its teams to the AFC and NFC Championship games? If you went with the one with the great quarterbacks, you would be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. If you went with the latter group, however, you would be correct. The second group’s success this weekend is also part of a larger trend this season, one that tells us that you don’t need elite quarterback play to be successful, whether that is in October or January.
Consider this: out of the top ten passers in the league this season, only one (Tom Brady) is still alive in the playoffs. However, out of the top four defenses in the league in 2017, three of them are still alive (the Denver Broncos are the only top-four defense to miss the playoffs). Brady led the league in passing this season with 4,577 yards, a figure that would have put him in fourth in the same category last season and wouldn’t have even landed him in the top five in 2015. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, prior to mangling his knee in Week 14 against the Rams, led the NFL in QBR at 74.4. Similarly, that figure would come in sixth in 2016 and fourth in 2015. The theme is simple enough; quarterback play has gone downhill this season.
But, in addition to quarterback play, the NFL’s offenses have generally declined in 2017 as opposed to the past four years. This year, every team combined to score 11,110 points, for an average of just under 22 points per game. Both figures are the lowest in this decade and both figures are most similar to the 2002 season, one that ended with quarterback Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat quarterback Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. You may know where I’m going with this.
That season, Johnson finished just 17th in the league in passing but came in third in passer rating, then the most sophisticated statistic for evaluating quarterback play. Tampa Bay also had the league’s best scoring defense and are still the most recent team to concede less than 200 total points in a season. The team that had the best scoring defense in the league in 2017? The Minnesota Vikings. And their quarterback, Case Keenum, is eerily similar to Johnson:
For what it’s worth, I nearly fell to the floor when I figured this out. And, if you’ll recall, the Buccaneers beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game that season. And the week before that, the Eagles beat the sixth-seeded, wait for it, Atlanta Falcons, while the second-seeded Buccaneers beat the fourth-seeded San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings were the two seed in this year’s NFL playoffs and beat the fourth-seeded Saints yesterday in one of the most shocking finishes in the history of the sport. I’m not saying that the Vikings are necessarily going to win the Super Bowl, but the precedent is there.
If you also look at the final four teams in the ’02 postseason and their quarterbacks, there are similarities abound to this year’s proceedings:
Quarterback: Steve McNair; a mobile quarterback with a turnover problem (comparison: Blake Bortles. NOTE: please know that McNair is one of my favorite quarterbacks ever, and though I hate to make this comparison, their numbers are very similar)
Quarterback: Donovan McNabb; a quarterback played just ten games but managed the game effectively when he did play; also had the second-ranked scoring defense in the league (comparison: Nick Foles; another comparison I’m not wild about, but it sort of fits)
Quarterback: Rich Gannon; a 38-year-old gunslinger who led the league in passing that season and took home MVP honors when it was over; spearheaded the league’s second-ranked scoring offense (comparison: Tom Brady)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quarterback: Brad Johnson; a journeyman starter who played for three different teams before winning his first Super Bowl; Johnson ranked near the top of the league in efficiency and managed the game well enough to allow his defense to carry the team (comparison: Case Keenum)
The Patriots currently own the league’s second-best scoring offense, just like the Raiders did. This has gotten very bizarre in a very short period of time.
The precedent is there. It sounds crazy, and part of it probably is, but we’ve seen this before in the NFL playoffs. Of course, all of this would have been for naught had the Saints not completely blown their coverage in the last ten seconds of yesterday’s game, but they did, and we have one of the most fascinating final fours in the recent history of the NFL because of it.
Of course, there are marked differences between 2002 and 2017. If you want the most stark and noticeable difference, remember that 2002 was the only year in this millennium that the Browns made the playoffs. The Jets were also in the playoffs that season and beat the living daylights out of Peyton Manning. Neither of those things are happening this year, but there is a lesson to be learned here; expect the unexpected. And the unexpected is what we’ve gotten in this year’s NFL playoffs.
Upon further examination, the final four teams in the NFL playoffs all bear comparisons to teams of yesteryear. Thanks to a miraculous finish, we can see this legitimate resemblance, and if the Vikings beat the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, you can thank me later.