Five Moves That Should’ve Happened in Free Agency – But Didn’t

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A.J Bouye emerged as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks in 2016

The free agency floodgates opened on two Thursday’s ago as the NFL ushered in a new league year, with players cashing in on the open market as the league’s 32 teams sought to fill holes on the roster with the 2016 season now well in the rear-view mirror.

Of the major moves that took place Cleveland grabbed headlines by essentially buying a second-round pick from Houston by agreeing to take on the ill-advised Brock Osweiler contract, while New England splashed the cash on cornerback Stephen Gilmore and acquired former Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks via trade. Safe to say the Patriots aren’t getting complacent after winning their fifth Lombardi Trophy of the Bill Belichick era in February.

Yet while these were some of the moves that were made, there were a number of opportunities that were passed up by franchises where an available player would’ve perfectly filled a need. We focus on the top five transactions that didn’t happen, and why they simply made too much sense to actually come to fruition.

Terrell Pryor Re-Signing with Cleveland

An abundance of cap room? Check. Best wide receiver on the team? Check. Young, relatively cheap and motivated? Check. It’s anyone’s guess as to why the Browns let their biggest bright spot in 2016 walk, but it’s a move that will come back to haunt Cleveland if Pryor is successful with his new team, the Washington Redskins, on a team friendly one year deal. The short-term nature of the contract places no risk on Washington, and the Browns are simply not stocked with enough playmakers on offence to be able to let someone with Pryor’s talent walk in free agency. Cleveland made a similarly questionable move last off-season, allowing offensive lineman Alex Mack to leave and join eventual Superbowl runners-up Atlanta. For their sake, let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

San Francisco Trading for Kirk Cousins

There’s a very slim possibility this trade still happens, but all signs point towards Cousins signing his franchise tag tender with Washington and playing under the tag for the second consecutive year in D.C. The 49ers, meanwhile, have signed Brian Hoyer to play QB for them in 2017 in their quest to fill the position with a sub-standard player for the third consecutive season. With Colin Kaepernick on the outs they had a fantastic opportunity to acquire one of the better young signal callers in the league, and with more cap room than they know what to do with they also had the money to pay the man. It’s widely accepted that to win in the NFL you need an elite QB, yet this is an opinion it appears the 49ers top brass are yet to concur with.

Green Bay Signing A.J Bouye

By now, everyone knows that the Packers simply do not enter the free market frenzy and prefer to grow their own talent. It’s a strategy that has paid off over the years, as the franchises storied history would attest to. However sometimes it feels as if Green Bay are prepared to “cut their nose off to spite the face”, and are to steadfast and stubborn in their beliefs to get all-world QB Aaron Rodgers back to the big game and give him the chance to add to his solitary Superbowl triumph back in 2011. The Packers offense has a slew of receivers for Rodgers to target, and the offensive line is in pretty good shape, yet no one would argue that the defense at times simply isn’t up to championship standard. The NFC Championship game was testament to this, as Matt Ryan and the Falcons offence ran riot, with receivers repeatedly roaming free in the secondary as Rodgers and the Packers offense struggled to keep up.

Former Texans corner Bouye, who signed with Jacksonville on the first day of free agency, ranked third among all cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’s rankings last year, and as a true shut down force his presence would allow Green Bay to focus more attention on the other side of the field while Bouye takes care of the oppositions top wideout. Unfortunately, Bouye is headed to the Jaguars, where he’ll enter a rebuilding team with a new coach and no immediate prospect of a play-off berth. A better scenario for both team and player would’ve seen Bouye bolster a suspect Green Bay D, giving the Packers a defense good enough to run with the high-octane offenses NFL teams are now able to throw their way. The worry here is that Rodgers runs the risk of ending his career with just one ring on his finger, which would be a tragedy considering the level at which he has played since he took over for Brett Favre in Wisconsin.

T.J Lang Signing for Seattle

Make no mistake about it – the Seattle offensive line was a mess in 2016. Russell Wilson spent half of the season running for his life on a gammy leg, while the Seahawks previously vaunted rushing attack failed to scale the heights it’s reached during the franchise’s golden run over the past five seasons. Yet Pete Carroll and the ‘hawks opted to continue down the same, risky path that they’ve done in recent years, plugging holes on the line with journeymen vets or late round draft picks, as opposed to bringing in top end talent. T.J Lang was one of the top players on this year’s free agency market, a guard who spent his whole career protecting Aaron Rodgers before signing with his hometown Lions this week. Although it’s understandable that Seattle has struggled to fit significant contracts for lineman under the salary cap, sooner or later they’ll have to bite the bullet if they want to improve an offense that has regressed to the league mean in recent seasons.

Denver or Houston Trading for Tony Romo 

Everyone knows that Tony Romo won’t be a Dallas Cowboy next season. And everyone knows that Denver and Houston are his top two suitors this Spring. So why, exactly, is Romo still on the Dallas roster? Basically, Denver and Houston are engaged in a game of poker, trying not to blink and thus enabling themselves to acquire Romo as a free agent, rather than having to give up capital in the draft by trading for him. The Cowboys are still hoping that one or the other gives in and swings a deal for the long time veteran, with a draft day deal a distinct possibility. Romo comes with his drawbacks, namely a chequered injury history and his advanced age, yet it’s impossible to ignore his track record of success in a league where top level quarterback play is at a premium. Houston and Denver both have elite defences and enough pieces on offense to realistically think they can win a Superbowl, with Romo the extra ingredient that can push them over the top.

Which moves do you think your team should have made in free agency, but didn’t? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley

 

 

 

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Big Sam and Football’s Big Problem

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Sam Allardyce left his England post after just one game in charge

This week, Sam Allardyce confirmed himself as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern English football. The Daily Telegraph’s fantastic sting operation revealed “Big Sam” to be greedy, egotistical, naïve, and a million miles from the reality of everyday life in this, or in fact any other country.

 

When Allardyce took up his position at the head of the English game 68 days ago, he did so saying that the role was his dream job, and that leading the national side out at Wembley Stadium was something that he’d dreamt of for many years. Fast forward to the sting, which took place before he’d even managed his first game in charge of England, and Allardyce was slating the national stadium, openly questioning his players bottle to a stranger whom he’d never met, and informing the same stranger that you can easily bypass the Football Association’s rules on third party ownership. The Football Association, you may have noticed, who were Allardyce’s employers at the time.

 

All of this makes you wonder – was managing England really Allardyce’s career long ambition? Or was it the accompanying status that Big Sam was so in love with? After all, it took him less than a month to use his newfound status to try and secure a £400,000 fee for “keynote” speaking in the Far East. Why bother earning your £3 million per year salary scouting England players when, after all, you can go behind your employers back and make a quick buck on the other side of the planet?

 

However, Allardyce is not alone in the footballing world as being money hungry and so far up his own backside to quite realise that he was committing professional suicide when he referred to his predecessor Roy Hodgson as “Woy”, all while consuming what appeared to be a pint (a pint!!!) of wine. Just to watch a game on television you have to fork over an excessive monthly sum to either BT or Sky, with terrestrial channels such as ITV and the BBC relegated to highlights packages and international competition. Attending games in person is even more costly to the average Joe – West Ham charged £25 for some seats to their third round EFL Cup tie against League Two side Accrington Stanley, a princely sum when you consider they were charging a solitary pound for a fourth round Worthington Cup tie against Nottingham Forest as far back as the year 2000. Replica shirts? They’ll set you back £50, and they change every season. None of this matters to the people who run Premier League clubs, however, not now the game has spread across the globe and pre-season tours to Australia, the United States and Asia are now as lucrative as season ticket sales from loyal fans who live locally.

 

Again, none of this is Allardyce’s fault. But unfortunately for the Dudley-born former Bolton and West Ham boss, this whole sorry, money grabbing episode as seen Big Sam become the poster boy for greed within football, and the sport’s complete disdain for rules, regulations and anything else that threatens to connect it to the real world.

 

For anyone who feels even a smidge of sympathy towards Big Sam – just remember the next time you fork out a month’s salary for your team’s season ticket that Allardyce wasn’t content with the £3 million he was earning per annum. He was willing to jeopardise his “dream job” for a quick payday before he’d even set foot in the technical area at Wembley. He even said that his departure from the England job was a “victory for entrapment”. No, Sam. It was a victory for the people in football who maintain a shred of dignity and decency. Not that there are many left.

 

 

 

Five Talking Points from the NFL Season So Far

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Carson Wentz is yet to turn the ball over in three NFL starts

The NFL season may only be three weeks old, but there have already been enough surprising performances to raise eyebrows across the league. Rookie QB’s have taken flight, previously successful teams have stumbled out of the gate and a host of veteran players have yet to hit their stride. See below for the five biggest talking points as we near the quarter point of the schedule – plus five things that shouldn’t have caught you unawares.

Carson Wentz is Kinda Good

Rookie quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be good. Rookie quarterbacks who played in one quarter of pre-season football aren’t supposed to be good. And Rookie quarterbacks who assumed the starting role eight days before the start of the regular season, well that hasn’t happened much, if at all, in the history of the NFL. Wentz has been simply phenomenal as he’s lead the Eagles to a 3-0 record and a 34-3 rout over the Steelers in the battle for Pennsylvania, refusing to turn the ball over and making a number of impressive throws including a deft 73-yarder to Darren Sproles after his protection broke down around him. Rookie head coach Doug Pederson deserves a great deal of credit for his game-calling nous, and at some stage Wentz will have to deal with adversity – but for now the former North Dakota State QB has unquestionably been the surprise of the young NFL season.

Maybe the Cowboys Don’t Need Romo After All

Last season, Dallas saw their campaign fall apart following what felt like Tony Romo’s millionth broken collarbone injury, but this year the script has taken an upward turn for Jerry Jones’ franchise. Ezekiel Elliot rushed for his first career 100-yard game on Sunday night against the Chicago Bears and has increased his yardage total from each game to the next, while rookie QB Dak Prescott has been efficient and avoided the turnovers that plagued the likes of Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden in 2015. The defense hasn’t been horrible, either, and it’s entirely possible that Dallas will be fighting for a play-off berth by the time Romo returns, if he returns, later on in the year.

Were the Carolina Panthers a one-time Deal?

Probably not. But alarm bells are sure to be ringing in Charlotte after Cam Newton and co. lost their second game of the young season to Minnesota, whose stifling defense picked off Cam three times and sacked the reigning MVP on six occasions. Admittedly the week one defeat to Denver should never have happened (Carolina missed a game-winning field goal try as time expired), but even with Kelvin Benjamin back in the fold it’s not gone to script for Ron Rivera’s men so far in 2016. The one saving grace for the Panthers? The Saints, Buccaneers and Falcons are unlikely to put too much pressure on them for their division crown following slow starts.

Has Anyone Seen Goff?

So this is kind of awkward for Jeff Fisher and the rest of the Los Angeles Rams top brass. After trading up to the first overall pick in May’s first year player draft, the Rams decided to select Jared Goff ahead of Wentz and so far the L.A QB has taken a grand total of – zero snaps. Goff didn’t even dress in week one, and although he’s since been promoted from third to second on the Rams depth chart it’s been a huge disappointment that he’s been unable to displace the mediocre Case Keenum as the top dog in the city of angels. Goff struggled in pre-season play and his relaxed attitude which was on display in Hard Knocks has come in for criticism in some quarters, especially when compared to the focused intensity displayed by the number two pick in the draft, Wentz. It’s likely we’ll see Goff in action sooner rather than later, but when we do the pressure will already be on for him to at least perform adequately following the success of Wentz and fellow rookie Prescott.

How Much More Time Will Gus Get?

For some, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the popular sleeper pick to emerge as a play-off calibre team in 2016. Blake Bortles threw 35 touchdown passes last season and with the signings of Chris Ivory and Malik Jackson it was thought they’d improve both their rushing attack and defensive line. However, the team has struggled as much as ever (they haven’t made the play-offs since 2007), and Bortles has been dire as the Jags have fallen to 0-3 for the third time in head coach Gus Bradley’s four seasons in charge. Bradley labelled his job a rebuilding one upon taking the reins in Jacksonville, but the lack of improvement from years one to four could condemn him and lead to the former Seattle defensive co-ordinator being the first coaching casualty of the season. More worrying for Jags fans has been the regression of Bortles, who has now thrown 45 interceptions in just two and a bit seasons in the league.

And Five Entirely Predictable Stories…

  1. The Browns are still the Browns, even missing a gimme 46-yard field goal to beat the Miami Dolphins Sunday.
  2. Bill Belichick is a genius who could probably win with Donald Trump at QB. Or Hilary.
  3. Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman clashed again during their second career meeting. The winner, by split decision, was however the kicking net that Beckham unsuccessfully shoved in a childish strop.
  4. Blaine Gabbert is still not a good NFL QB, and Chip Kelly is still not a good NFL head coach.
  5. Why did Chicago give Jay Cutler a new contract last season? The mind boggles.

Bruce, Big Sam and England’s Big Mistake

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Sam Allardyce reacts to the West Ham crowd after they booed the team off following an unconvincing 2-1 win over Hull in 2014.

 

Ever since Roy Hodgson stepped down as manager of the England men’s football team following a disastrous campaign at Euro 2016, speculation has been rife as to who will fill his shoes and attempt to lead the country into the next World Cup in Russia two years from now.

Originally, international names including Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann appeared to be in the frame as the Football Association looked to move on from a three-tournament barren spell under the home-grown Hodgson, who was ultimately exposed as quite simply not being up to the job. However, as the search has progressed it appears that the FA have narrowed their choice to Hull boss Steve Bruce and Sam Allardyce, who saved Sunderland from relegation during the 2015/16 season.

While both Allardyce and Bruce have had solid careers in management and rank first and third in Premier League games managed by an Englishman, neither has won a major trophy during their lengthy careers on the touchline and inspire little in the way of optimism for long suffering England fans.

Unlike the national cricket and rugby teams, who immediately targeted the most qualified candidates for the top job regardless of nationality, the FA appear to have made the fatal mistake of prioritising nationality over suitability for the most important position in English football. Is Steve Bruce the most qualified manager England could tempt to file the vacant manager’s role? Is Sam Allardyce? The answer to both is, of course, no, and represents a terrible, if not surprising repeat of the events that saw coaches including Hodgson, Graham Taylor and Kevin Keegan ascend to the role of England manager.

Bruce spent last season managing in the Championship with Hull after he oversaw their relegation from the Premier League two years ago, and while he took them straight back up (via the play-off lottery) he did so with a huge budget and a squad packed full of Premier League pedigree. Bruce’s other roles in England include stints managing Sunderland, Wigan and Birmingham, and while he’s overseen a number of mid-table finishes he has never been able to challenge the top six teams in the table or win a domestic cup.

Allardyce, on the other hand, did manage to lead Bolton to a fifth place finish over a decade ago, however like Bruce he has never won a major trophy in England and his limited style of play has seen him sacked from no fewer than five teams during his lengthy managerial career (four if you believe his departure from West Ham was mutual). While Hodgson at least had experience of managing a top club Allardyce has never been afforded that opportunity, and it is worrying to think that if he wasn’t good enough to pip Steve McClaren to the role in 2006, then why is he better qualified now?

Of the more suitable (but, gasp, not English) candidates, Arsene Wenger fronts the list and although he wouldn’t be available for a year his CV makes Bruce and Allardyce look more qualified to run a Sunday league side than a team packed full of the best players the country has to offer. Wenger knows the English game as well as either having managed in these shores for 20 years, and a number of the current England squad perform under his watchful eye at Arsenal. Jurgen Klinsmann is another name who has been mentioned following his eye-catching performance with Germany at the 2006 World Cup, when he led an unfancied set of players to the last four, before he repeated the feat with the USA in last month’s Copa America.

Other contenders include Guus Hiddink, who has experience managing a number of countries and knows the Premier League and its players well from his two spells with Chelsea, while Louis Van Gaal led Holland to the last four of the 2014 World Cup before his two-year stint with Manchester United, where he won one more trophy than Bruce and Allardyce have managed during their managerial careers.

Unfortunately, none of those names mentioned are English, which appears to have ruled them out of the running in spite of the success enjoyed by Eddie Jones and Trevor Bayliss with the England rugby and cricket teams, respectively, over the past twelve months. Jones followed a Grand Slam winning Six Nations campaign by leading England to their first ever series victory in Austalia, while Bayliss helped England regain the Ashes from his native Australia before taking the team to within two balls of the T20 World Cup this Spring. Does this mean Bruce or Allardyce are certain to fail? No. But it’s a stunning step down the same blind alley that the FA have been frequenting for far too long, and represents another missed opportunity to recruit from a vast number of highlight qualified, and highly interested, coaches from across the globe.

Assessing the Six NFC Playoff Contenders

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles

Kirk Cousins improved dramatically during the second half of the season for Washington

We’ve covered the six aspiring AFC playoff contenders, so now it’s only fair that we take a look at their NFC counterparts. The 15-1 Carolina Panthers lead the field, but Arizona aren’t far behind and their 13-3 record was much deserved. However it would be foolish to write off any of the other four teams in the NFC; Green Bay and Seattle are led by Superbowl winning quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, while Washington QB Kirk Cousins has been phenomenal in the second half of the season. Minnesota shouldn’t be discounted either – they did beat Green Bay to win the NFC North in week 17, after all. To find out who to look out for on each team, just scroll down.

Arizona Cardinals

Seed: Two

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

Although they suffered a heavy defeat last week against the division rival Seahawks, Arizona still managed to secure a first round bye having begun the regular season with a 13-2 record. Carson Palmer is enjoying a career season at the advanced age of 36, spreading the ball to a variety of weapons including veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerland and the ever-improving Malcolm Floyd. The Cardinals passing game thrives on throwing the ball deep to their multiple weapons, and with Palmer at the controls they have the ability to put up points in bunches and are a threat to score on every play. Andre Ellington and David Johnson are the options at running back after former Titan Chris Johnson suffered a season ending injury. Johnson’s absence hasn’t been felt too harshly as his namesake David and Ellington have both performed ably since coming into the lineup.

Last season Todd Bowles helped craft an attacking defense that constantly put opposing quarterbacks under pressure, and although Bowles has since departed for pastures new the unit still contains a number of playmakers and has performed at a high level. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu suffered the misfortune of a season ending injury against Philadelphia in week 15, however cornerback Patrick Peterson remains and the former first round pick is entrenched as one of the NFL’s more consistent cover corners. Linebacker/safety hybrid Deone Bucannon led the team in tackles with 112 and also recorded three sacks and three forced fumbles, demonstrating his valuable versatility, and veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney led the team in sacks with eight, helping the team totalled an impressive 36 on the year. Well deserving of the number two seed despite their injuries, Arizona are arguably the most complete team in the NFC – even more complete than the 15-1 Panthers.

Biggest Strength: Versatile offense capable of scoring on any play

Biggest Weakness: Missing key players (Mathieu, Chris Johnson) through injury

Carolina Panthers

Seed: One

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

A week 16 blip against Atlanta aside, the Panthers were unstoppable on their way to a phenomenal season highlighted by an MVP showing from dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton. Newton threw 35 touchdowns to just ten interceptions, in addition to another 636 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground. Carolina’s rushing attack was supplemented by veteran Jonathan Stewart, who finished with 989 yards rushing on the year. Mike Tolbert remains one of the better full backs in the NFL, and Ted Ginn Jr. finally emerged as a weapon in the passing game after he stepped up in the absence of the injured Kelvin Benjamin. Ginn Jr. averaged 16.8 yards per catch and hauled in ten scores, while tight end Greg Olson enhanced his reputation as one of the NFC’s leading tight ends with a 77 catch, 1,100 yard season. With Newton at the controls, Carolina have evolved from a distinctly average offense in 2014 to an explosive unit capable of keeping up with the best of them.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is top of a number of prospective head coaching lists and with good reason, following yet another standout performance from his unit this season. McDermott learned his trade under the legendary Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and he’s incorporated his mentors scheme successfully in Carolina, blitzing from every angle and putting constant pressure on opposing offensive lines. Luke Kuechly is the premier inside linebacker in the NFL, and his lateral agility is unmatched. Thomas Davis is equally important to the Panthers D, and between them the pair totalled a mind-boggling 223 tackles in the regular season. The other household name on the Panthers defense is cornerback Josh Norman, who infamously got into a scrap with Odell Beckham Jr. when the pair squared off a couple of weeks ago. Despite that incident Norman turned in his best season as a pro, and his ability to shut down opposing receivers is not to be underestimated.

Biggest Strength: All-pro linebacker unit, Cam Newton

Biggest Weakness: Lack of a true number one receiver

Green Bay Packers

Seed: Five

Wild Card Round: at Washington (4.40 ET, Sunday 10/1)

Starting 6-0 but finishing 4-6, Green Bay have plenty of questions to answer this evening when they take on the NFC East champion Redskins in Washington. Aaron Rodgers has played well below his elite best and his receivers and running backs have done little to bail him out. Add in a porous offensive line and all is not good on that side of the ball for the Packers. Leading rushers Eddie Lacy and James Starks both averaged just 4.1 yards per carry, and between them they managed just five rushing touchdowns on the season. One positive for Rodgers is that four players caught 50 or more balls on the team, demonstrating that Green Bay does at least have a varied passing game. It’s worth remembering, though, that had Richard Rodgers not hauled in namesake Aaron’s hail-mary at Detroit Green Bay would’ve finished a mediocre 9-7.

Defensively, Clay Matthews is still the star of the show, although his total of 6.5 sacks isn’t anywhere near the total he’s posted in previous years, in large part because Matthews now plays as an inside linebacker in some sub packages. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is maturing nicely into a skilled all around safety, and the second year pro led the team in tackles while also registering three sacks and two picks. Sam Shields is the team’s top cover corner, and veteran Julius Peppers helped generate some pass rush opposite Matthews with his 10.5 QB takedowns. Nonetheless questions remain about whether or not Green Bay’s defense is good enough to sustain the offense when it struggles, as it did during the second half of the season.

Biggest Strength: Aaron Rodgers, at his best, is the top QB in the league

Biggest Weakness: Poor pass protection, lack of reliable weapons on offense

Minnesota Vikings

Seed: Three

Wild Card Round: v Seattle (1.05 ET, Sunday 10/1)

The Vikings are the antithesis of the modern NFL offense, in that they excel at running the football but struggle to move the ball through the air. Having Adrian Peterson helps in the first regards, and a lack of options in the passing game has held them back in the latter. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was less than exceptional in his second season as a pro, throwing just 14 touchdown passes and leading the Vikings to the second fewest passing yards per game in the NFL. Peterson led the league in rushing after missing the entire 2014 season, however Stefon Diggs was Minnesota’s leading receiver with just 720 yards. While AP may help the Vikings to control the clock against Seattle, they’ll need their passing game to step up to the mark if they’re to keep pace with the resurgent Seahawks offense.

The Vikings have a number of emerging players on defense, including end Everson Griffin and safety Harrison Smith. Veterans Chad Greenway and Terrance Newman still feature, and the 43 sacks Minnesota amassed during the season reflect well on their pass rush. Whether or not they can get to Russell Wilson and keep him in the pocket, however, could prove a bridge too far.

Biggest Strength: The best running back in football

Biggest Weakness: Second least effective passing game in the NFL

Seattle Seahawks

Seed: Six

Wild Card Round: at Minnesota (1.05 ET, Sunday 10/1)

They’re back. After reaching the previous two Superbowls, Seattle looked in danger of failing to make the playoffs after a poor start to the season which ultimately proved to be no more than a Superbowl hangover. Russell Wilson produced the best football of his career in the second half of the season, and Doug Baldwin finally gave him a number one receiver worthy of the name when Jimmy Graham went down for the season through injury. Marshawn Lynch is still hobbled, however, and with his replacement Thomas Rawls also out for the year Wilson and the passing attack will be under pressure to perform in sub zero temperatures in Minnesota.

The Seahawks defense became the first in NFL history (post-1970 merger) to lead the league in scoring defense for four consecutive years, and like the offense they improved as the season went on. In fact over the last 5 games the ‘hawks D surrendered just 55 points. Kam Chancellor ended his holdout after missing the early stages of the season to return alongside Earl Thomas as the league’s top safety duo, while Richard Sherman remains an elite cover corner. Bobby Wagner anchors the linebacker unit, and all told there still isn’t a defense in the NFL that can match Seattle for pure talent. Underestimate the six-seed Seahawks at your peril.

Biggest Strength: Elite defense with experience winning in the playoffs

Biggest Weakness: Multiple running back injuries

Washington Redskins

Seed: Four

Wild Card Round: v Green Bay (4.40 ET, Sunday 10/1)

Hands up who thought Washington would win the NFC East this season? Yep, didn’t think so. After Jay Gruden made the bold decision to go with Kirk Cousins as his starting QB for the season many thought he’d erred in removing Robert Griffin III from the lineup, yet Cousins responded with an outstanding seven game stretch to end the year and catapult Washington to the NFC Easy crown. With DeSean Jackson back in the fold following hamstring trouble and Pierre Garcon opposite him Cousins has plenty of weapons to throw to, although the Redksins rushing attack ranked just 20th in the NFL during the regular season. Tight end Jordan Reed turned in his best season as a pro, leading Washington in receptions with 87 and reaching the end zone on 11 occasions.

Defensively Dashon Goldson led the team in tackles with 110, while Ryan Kerrigan anchored the pass rush with 9.5 sacks. “Pot Roast” Terrance Knighton proved to be a solid addition at nose tackle, and ultimately the off-season turnover helped Washington perform a worst-to-first turnaround and most likely save Gruden from the axe.

Biggest Strength: Momentum, recent performances from Kirk Cousins

Biggest Weakness:  Lack of defensive playmakers

 

 

 

Assessing the Six AFC Playoff Contenders

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J.J Watt has been a one man wrecking ball for Houston this season

With the NFL playoffs set to begin in earnest this Saturday, there’s no time like the present to take a look at the teams who’ve made it to the NFL’s annual post-season dance. With only 12 of the league’s 32 franchises still in with a shout of lifting the Lombardi trophy in San Francisco on February 7, each team’s strengths and weaknesses will be exposed sooner or later as the playoff field gradually shrinks. To find out what to look out for when the games get underway this weekend, just keep reading.

Cincinnati Bengals

Seed: Three

Wild Card Round: v Pittsburgh (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Marvin Lewis is surprisingly yet to win a playoff game in his 13 years at the helm in Cincinnati, and if he’s to break his duck this weekend against the rival Steelers he’ll need Andy Dalton fit and firing just 27 days after he sustained a broken thumb. The chances of Dalton returning and playing are slim, although Lewis will at be able to take solace in the fact that the rest of the Bengals 53-man roster is as good as it’s been under his stewardship.

On offense Tyler Eifert has developed into one of the premier tight ends in the NFL, and his 13 touchdown receptions led the league as he became Dalton’s favourite red zone target. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, helping to give balance to Hue Jackson’s offense and taking the heat off of the passing attack. Jackson’s ability to utilise multiple weapons and lead Dalton to a career best season (25 TD’s, seven INT’s) has helped make him one of the most sought after co-ordinators in the NFL, and once the Bengals playoff run ends it’s likely he’ll earn a second shot at being an NFL head coach.

Defensively Carlos Dunlap leads the pass rush with 13.5 sacks, while interior lineman Geno Atkins (11 sacks) is an elite force in both stopping the run and pass. Adam Jones has matured into a top-end cover corner, while ballhawking safety Reggie Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions with eight. Those two in particular will need to be at their best as they aim to keep Ben Roethlisberger and the high octane Steelers passing attack in check on Saturday, especially if Dalton isn’t ready to go and A.J McCarron is once again under centre.

Biggest Strength: Weapons at the skill positions on offense

Biggest Weakness: Uncertainty over the QB position and an 0-4 playoff record over the last four seasons

Denver Broncos

Seed: One

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

Denver clinched the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a hard earned win over San Diego in week 17. A loss would’ve seen them drop all the way to the five seed, and much of the credit for avoiding that fate lies with Peyton Manning after the veteran QB engineered the team’s comeback having replaced Brock Osweiler midway through the third quarter. Manning looks a shoe in to start for Denver at Mile High Field in two weeks time, when they’ll face the lowest remaining seed in the AFC, although the future hall of famer still has much to prove after his interception-laden start to the season.

The Broncos real strength lies in their defense, led by a ferocious pass rush featuring veteran DeMarcus Ware and elite linebacker Von Miller. The secondary also contains star talent, with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris just two of a number of ball-hawking defensive backs on the Denver roster. While the offense has often relied on the defense to bail it out over the course of the 2015 season, Gary Kubiak will need players such as running back C.J Anderson and wide reciever Demaryius Thomas to step up and help the weak-armed Manning put up enough points to keep pace with some of the high octane offenses they’re likely to face on their path to Superbowl 50.

Biggest Strength: Pass rush

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent QB play

Houston Texans

Seed: Four

Wild Card Round: v Kansas City (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

It takes a special type of player to enter the MVP discussion in consecutive years despite playing on the defensive side of the ball, but everyone is well aware of the threat J.J Watt possesses when he puts his hand on the ground. Watt was complimented well by Whitney Mercilus (12 sacks) during the regular season and between them they offer a significant threat to the health of opposing quarterbacks. Mercilus has helped Houston get over the disappointing play of Jadaveon Clowney, the number one overall pick in 2014, who for the second straight year underwhelmed with just 4.5 sacks.

Brian Hoyer has played well under centre when not injured, although last week was his first appearance since he suffered a second concussion of the season during a December loss to New England. Hoyer has had the good fortune of being able to throw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins when healthy, with Hopkins emerging as the Texans number one receiver after the off-season departure of Andre Johnson. Hopkins hauled in 111 receptions and topped 1,500 yards, while his 11 touchdown catches also led the team by some distance. Other than Hopkins, however, Hoyer has a dearth of options with the loss of Arian Foster to a torn achilles in October a blow most teams would struggle to overcome. Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes have done their best to fill Foster’s large shoes, but unfortunately for Houston they’ll have to navigate the playoff field without their star rusher.

Biggest Strength: J.J Watt

Biggest Weakness: Limited offense

Kansas City Chiefs

Seed: Five

Wild Card Round: at Houston (4.35 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Winners of ten straight games (yes, ten), Andy Reid’s Chiefs are the hottest team in the NFL. Having started the season 1-5 and lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the season, Reid and his players could’ve been forgiven for looking towards next season and a high pick in the draft in May, yet they’ve turned their campaign around in incredible fashion and now head to Houston to take on the AFC South winner Texans. It’s been a long time since Reid won a playoff game (early 2009 with Philadelphia), but he’s a seasoned coach with extensive playoff experience having once led the Eagles to four straight NFC Championship game appearances (including an appearance in Superbowl XXXIX.

Once Charles went down Charcandrick West took over at the running back position, and the previously unknown player excelled with over 800 multi-purpose yards and five TD’s in just over half a season of play. West is ably supported by Spencer Ware, and quarterback Alex Smith is no slouch himself with his legs, forcing opponents to focus on what has become a productive rushing trio for Kansas City. Free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin has been everything the Chiefs would have hoped for and more, giving Smith a genuine deep threat on the outside to pair with dangerous tight end Travis Kelce.

The real strength of the Chiefs lies on defense, however, with a host of household names including Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson leading the way. Rookie corner Marcus Peters could well win the rookie of the year award, and other familiar names include Tamba Hali, Sean Smith and Dontari Poe. It would take a brave man to bet against the rolling Chiefs, and make no mistake about it – they’re a team everyone in the AFC wants to avoid on their path to the Superbowl.

Biggest Strength: Elite defense

Biggest Weakness: Occasionally conservative offense, lack of dynamic weapons

New England Patriots

Seed: Two

Wild Card Round: Bye Week

The defending Superbowl champs earned a bye in this first round of the post-season largely on the back of 10-0 start. However New England faded badly down the stretch, finishing 2-4 after injuries ravaged their offense and the offensive line failed to protect legendary QB Tom Brady. The time off before their first game in January should prove invaluable, as wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman return to full health. However breakout running back Dion Lewis is done for the season, as was his replacement LeGarrette Blount. The offensive line has also been a revolving door and no single lineman started all 16 games, which would make a fifth title of Brady’s career both unlikely and also immensely impressive, should he upset the odds and achieve it. Crucially, star tight end Rob Gronkowski has stayed fit all season and hauled in over 1,100 yards receiving and 11 touchdown receptions.

The Patriots defense has fared a little better on the health front, however, with last year’s Superbowl star Malcolm Butler emerging as a legit NFL cover corner. Chandler Jones leads the pass rush and his 12.5 sacks were nicely complimented by 8 from Jabaal Sheard and 6.5 from Rob Ninkovich. Devin McCourty remains the standout player in the secondary, and the safety recorded 67 tackles on the season.

Biggest Strength: Tom Brady and a versatile passing attack

Biggest Weakness: Inconsistent line play, lack of a running game

Pittsburgh Steelers

Seed: Six

Wild Card Round: at Cincinnati (8.25 ET, Saturday 9/1)

Having snuck into the playoffs at the expense of the New York Jets, the Ben Roethlisberger led Steelers are a potential banana skin for any of the higher AFC seeds. In fact, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, the two wild cards, may be the two form teams in the entire conference despite not winning their respective divisions. Roethlisberger may have lost running back LeVeon Bell to a season ending injury, but with Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown as deadly weapons on the outside the Steelers offense has still operated at a high click since Big Ben returned from his four game injury absence earlier in the year. Heath Miller remains a reliable option at tight end, and Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays with his unique physique affords Bryant and Brown plenty of time to get open down the field.

Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t close to the force it was earlier in the century, and that has the potential to hold them back against some of the high octane offenses they’ll face over the next few weeks. Lawrence Timmons still mans the middle of the defense and amassed 119 tackles during the regular season, while Cameron Heyward led the team in sacks with just seven. Mike Mitchell registered three interceptions from the safety position, and he’s the unquestioned leader of a secondary unit that will need to exceed expectations if the Steelers are to make it deep into January.

Biggest Strength: Explosive passing game

Biggest Weakness: Lack of playmakers on defense

Who do you think will emerge victorious from the AFC? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

 

 

 

Bairstow, Buttler and England’s Wicket Keeping Crossroads

Both Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow have failed to grab England's wicket keeping position with both hands

Both Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow have failed to grab England’s wicket keeping position with both hands

Between 2009 and 2013, England enjoyed the luxury that was Matt Prior, picking the Sussex wicket keeper for almost every single test match played during those years. Prior ascended to the role of vice-captain before an achilles injury cut his career short in mid-2014, and his game changing, counter-attacking style of batting at number seven in the order enabled England to play without a genuine all-rounder during their golden era under Andy Flower. Prior averaged over 40 with the bat during his test career and his wicket keeping also improved immeasurably after he was recalled to the team in early 2009, making him one of the best if not the world’s best keeper-batsman for a time.

However times have changed, and since Prior was originally dropped during the ill-fated Ashes tour of Australia in late 2013 Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have both donned the gloves, neither with enough success to end debate about the position in both the short and long term. Both have appealing attributes with the bat; Buttler has played a number of influential innings in the shorter formats of the game, albeit not recently, while Bairstow comfortably passed 1,000 first class runs last summer despite featuring in only half of Yorkshire’s Championship fixtures. Yet both have serious flaws with the gloves, and this has served to exaggerate criticism over their place in the team when either has suffered a barren run with bat in hand.

Both Bairstow and Buttler remain fine fielders, which makes it even more frustrating when they make the occasional mistake with the gloves on, but ultimately it is their performances with the bat that have led to England’s current wicket keeping dilemma. In 34 test innings Bairstow averages 26.40, while Buttler averages 30 after 24 knocks. As a point of comparison, over a decade ago the silk gloved James Foster mustered an average of 25.10 in his 12 test innings, while providing far better work with the gloves than the current Bairstow and Buttler combination.

This begs the question; would England be best served by returning to a specialist keeper? Perhaps the answer is yes, but the options in the county game are few and far between. Foster himself still captains Essex, but he will turn 36 before next summer begins and has played his first class cricket in division two during recent seasons. Chris Read, another excellent gloveman who never quite made the test grade with the bat, is 37 and his ship has also sailed. Younger ‘keepers of prominence include Ben Foakes of Surrey and Sam Billings of Kent, and they would appear to be the next two cabs off of the proverbial rank. Foakes has appeared on multiple England Lions tours and averages 36 in first class cricket, while Billings has been capped at ODI level by England. Billings possesses a first class average of just 31, however, and Foakes only kept wicket on a semi regular basis for Surrey in 2014 thanks to the presence of captain Gary Wilson.

Ultimately, it figures that both Bairstow and Buttler will be given at least one more opportunity each before anyone else is given a go by Trevor Bayliss, but both will be aware that with James Taylor’s emergence alongside Joe Root in the middle order that the only way either of them will find a way into the side is by assuming the gloves. England will need at least one to finally come of age in the test arena if they’re to adequately replace Prior, and in the process plug the huge gap that has emerged in the lower middle order.