2018 NFL Mock Draft

josh rosen

Which team will select UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen in the 2018 NFL Draft?

Welcome to the pinnacle of the NFL off-season, the NFL Draft. Running from April 26-28, each of the league’s 32 teams will choose from the cream of the collegiate crop as they endeavour to build for a brighter future. The 2018 edition sees perennial NFL bottom dwellers the Cleveland Browns select both first and fourth overall, while the New York Giants hold the second overall pick following a dismal 3-13 season. Read on to find out who I think will make the cut in the first round, including one (projected) blockbuster trade. I’m also joined by England cricketer and Oakland Raiders fan Tymal Mills, who breaks down what the Raiders should do with the tenth overall selection.

Note: The picks made are from the perspective of what I think each team should do, not what I would do personally

1. Sam Darnold (QB) – Cleveland Browns

Although many believe Saquon Barkley to be the best player in the draft, selecting a non-QB at #1 would be a huge risk for a Browns franchise that hasn’t had an above-average NFL quarterback since they re-formed in 1999. With a plethora of picks, not least the #4 selection in this draft, other needs can be addressed later on while Cleveland adds their franchise QB in the shape of USC star Darnold. Darnold has outstanding athleticism, a big arm and scouts rave about his makeup and football IQ, which should limit his bust potential and makes him a far surer bet than the rocket armed Josh Allen. Turnovers were an issue for Darnold in college but after sitting behind Tyrod Taylor for at least a season Hue Jackson and the Browns staff should be able to coach those out of him.

2. Saquon Barkley (RB) – New York Giants

Barkley is widely considered to be the best running back prospect for a generation, and while I personally think #2 is too high to select a player at a non-premium position the Giants seem set on giving Eli Manning enough weapons for one more run at a championship. All of the QB’s in this class have question marks while Barkley’s combination of size, speed, vision and hands make him the quintessential can’t miss prospect. If Barkley can do for New York what Ezekiel Elliot did for the Cowboys (minus the off-field drama), they’ll be thrilled with this pick.

3. Baker Mayfield (QB) – New York Jets

It’s fairly widely believed that the Jets love Mayfield, and the brash Oklahoma product would certainly be an interesting fit in the Big Apple. Mayfield lacks prototypical height at just 6’1″, but he was historically productive in the spread offence at college and displayed elite accuracy, poise and an ability to execute broken plays. Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson are the two comps mostly thrown Mayfield’s way – I actually tend to lean towards placing him in the middle of that spectrum as a player who will ultimately compete at the NFL level but fail to live up to the billing of a top three draft pick due to his not-quite Wilson level athleticism and a slightly questionable attitude.

4. Bradley Chubb (EDGE) – Cleveland Browns

The Browns have two options at four if the draft plays out as it does in this mock; trade down with a team desperate to acquire a QB, or pick the best defensive player on the board to bookend with last year’s number one pick Myles Garrett. Chubb has the potential to be an elite pass rusher at the next level, with outstanding size and speed, plus he possesses the ability to set the edge in the run game. If Barkley is still on the board at this point Cleveland would have a tough decision to make, but with him gone in this mock there’s really only one option as the Browns continue to add blue chip talent to their young roster.

5. Josh Allen (QB) – Buffalo Bills (via mock trade with Denver Broncos)

Mock trade! I’m not convinced the Broncos are particularly interested in drafting a QB this year after signing Case Keenum in free agency, and there’s enough defensive talent on the board to help them even after sliding back to #12 in a trade with Buffalo. The Bills have made their intentions perfectly clear by moving Tyrod Taylor and trading up to 12, so here I have them completing the process by trading both of their ones (numbers 12 and 22) plus, say, a four to Denver for the right to select the rocket armed Allen. Coach Sean McDermott was in Carolina for a number of years with Cam Newton and he saw first hand what a strong armed, mobile QB can do to opposition defenses, so in this scenario he’s willing to overlook Allen’s accuracy issues to make him the main man in Buffalo.

6. Quenton Nelson (G) – Indianapolis Colts

After trading down from #3 a few weeks ago, Indy pick up the best offensive lineman in the draft and give Andrew Luck, ropey shoulder and all, some much needed protection as he makes his much anticipated return from injury. The Colts have holes all over the roster but after picking up three second round picks from the Jets they’ll be able to address those both this year and next as they attempt to bulk up on talent after a couple of miserly years. New head coach Frank Reich is a former QB who appreciates the value of a strong offensive line, and Nelson is the complete package at guard and someone who the Colts should be able to plug in and play for at least the next six or seven years.

7. Minkah Fitzpatrick (S/CB) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay were one of the big disappointments in the NFL in 2017 and they’ve got a fantastic opportunity to put things right if the draft board falls this way. With three of the top six picks going on quarterbacks the Bucs can select from a crop of very talented defensive backs, a clear area of weakness, with Fitzpatrick a Malcolm Jenkins clone by virtue of the fact he can play safety or slot cornerback. Fitzpatrick’s big game experience, having played for Alabama in college, also makes him one of the more pro ready prospects in a stacked top ten.

8. Mike McGlinchey (OT) – Chicago Bears

The Bears spring one of the first surprises in my mock with this pick as they opt to shore up the offensive line with the first tackle off the board, as opposed to selecting one of the many elite defensive prospects still available. McGlinchey is a good, if not quite elite, tackle prospect but Chicago would be wise here to consider the development of second year QB Mitch Trubisky by shoring up his protection and allowing him to flourish in a way not dissimilar to Carson Wentz in Philadelphia last season. You may recall that Philly made the offensive side of the ball a priority last off-season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Chicago followed the same blueprint during the draft.

9. Roquan Smith (LB) – San Francisco 49ers

San Fran are in a bit of a pinch at the linebacker position after the arrest of Reuben Foster for domestic violence last month. Fortunately for them in this mock they have their pick of the linebacker crop, with Smith largely regarded as the standout player in the class thanks to his incredible sideline to sideline range. That should play perfectly in the 49ers defense and ease their concerns about the ongoing Foster situation.

10. Denzel Ward (CB) – Oakland Raiders

*Pick made by Sussex and England cricketer Tymal Mills*

If this is the way the board fell on draft night the Raiders would be delighted. With various holes across the defense they would have the choice of five or six players who could contribute immediately. New coach Jon Gruden has already said he’d like an interior presence to take some heat off stud pass rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, however #10 would likely be too early to select either Maurice Hurst or Vita Vea. Meanwhile, cornerback remains a position of desperate need with Gareon Conley (who missed all but one game in 2017) and Reshaan Melvin (who signed a one year deal in free agency) slated to start on the outside. With that in mind, the Raiders opt to pull the trigger on Ward, the best cover corner in the draft, pairing him with Conley for the foreseeable future.

11. Josh Rosen (QB) – Miami Dolphins

At 11, Rosen is just too good to pass up for Miami, who I believe to be in two minds about whether to move on from Ryan Tannehill or not. Having jettisoned Jarvis Landry and Jay Ajayi over the past twelve months you’d think Miami were in rebuilding mode, however Adam Gase is under a little bit of pressure to demonstrate the team is progressing and acquiring a new QB may give him a bit more rope with the Dolphins hierarchy. Personally, I like Rosen the most of all the quarterback prospects in this draft, but his alternative and allegedly “challenging” personality doesn’t seem to rub well with a lot of front office personnel. In some ways, Rosen is a lot like Jay Cutler, who isn’t universally popular but possesses and outrageous amount of talent, and seeing as Gase had no problem in signing Cutler last summer it figures he’d also be prepared to recruit Rosen to South Beach.

12. Marcus Davenport (EDGE) – Denver Broncos (via mock trade with Buffalo Bills)

Denver are a difficult team to peg for this draft, but as I see them trading down I think they go the route of trying to restock their depleted defense in an effort to return the unit to the elite level it was at as recently as 2016. Davenport is unanimously considered the second best edge rusher in the class behind Chubb, and with a premium placed on players who can rush the quarterback it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him edge into the top half of this class.

13. Derwin James (S) – Washington Redskins

In this scenario the Redskins would be delighted, with James falling beyond his talent level to the thirteenth pick in the draft. James has fast closed on Fitzpatrick in terms of being the top ranked safety in the 2018 draft, so while the latter is long gone in this mock Washington would be more than happy to pick up a versatile safety who should shore up what has been a problem spot for them in recent seasons, especially with the bizarre retirement (or non-retirement, as it turned out) of Su’a Cravens shortly before the 2017 season began.

14. Tremaine Edmunds (LB) – Green Bay Packers

The Packers addressed the offensive skill positions by adding tight end Jimmy Graham in free agency, which frees them up to add Edmunds, a high quality linebacker who fills a position of need in the immediate term, as well as long-term with stud LB Clay Matthews beginning to slow down. Green Bay are also in a position here where trading down could make sense if a quarterback needy team wants to jump ahead of Arizona to select Lamar Jackson.

15. Courtland Sutton (WR) – Arizona Cardinals 

I don’t, however, have the Cardinals selecting Jackson as they have a multitude of other needs and few picks outside of their first round selection. It’s pretty rare that no receivers are off the board by pick 15, and this year it appears that there’s little to choose between the top three of Sutton, Calvin Ridley and D.J Moore. Sutton has impressed during the pre-draft process however, and Arizona has a need outside with little on offer other than the ageing Larry Fitzgerald.

16. Calvin Ridley (WR) – Baltimore Ravens

Ridley, meanwhile, endured a below par combine and has fallen slightly from a borderline top ten prospect to a player who’s ceiling is in the middle of round one. Ridley is an accomplished route runner and with Baltimore having released Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin since the end of the 2017 season he fills a need, giving Joe Flacco the number one receiver he’s lacked for more than a few years.

17. Vita Vea (DT) – Los Angeles Chargers

Like a lot of the teams towards the end of round one, the generally more successful teams, Los Angeles could go a number of ways with this pick due to their relatively hole-free roster. A developmental QB is in play with Phillip Rivers ageing, but the 2004 first round pick shows no signs of age yet and the Chargers will be keen to give him as good an opportunity as possible to win a ring before he retires. Vea would be the first interior defensive lineman off the board in this scenario, and he would immediately help L.A in the run game, taking some of the heat off star pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.

18. Joshua Jackson (CB) – Seattle Seahawks

This is one of the picks that many analysts have predicted, due to both the scheme and positional fit. At 6’3″, Jackson is the type of long-limbed corner Seattle loves, which makes him an attractive option with Richard Sherman now plying his trade for division rivals San Francisco. The Legion of Boom may be on its last legs, but the selection of Jackson could herald a new era of stellar secondary play in the Northwest.

19. D.J Moore (WR)  – Dallas Cowboys

With Dez Bryant no longer playing in Big D, it would be extremely tempting for Jerry Jones to dip his toes into the WR market at #19 and select his replacement. Moore is slightly more raw than the aforementioned Calvin Ridley, but he possesses enough upside to warrant a top 20 pick. Dak Prescott is in desperate need of help in the passing game with Jason Witten nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, something that played up even more when Ezekiel Elliot missed time with suspension in 2017.

20. Da’Ron Payne (DT) – Detroit Lions

Another DT off the board at #20, with Detroit taking the third Alabama product of the first round (keep reading for number four shortly). The Lions had the 21st ranked rushing defence (by yards per carry) in 2017, and Payne should help shore up that element of the team while potentially providing a dynamic pass rush from an interior position.

21. James Daniels (C) – Cincinnati Bengals 

Cincy are pretty well stocked at the offensive skill positions with A.J Green and a stable of running backs on the roster, but the offensive line hasn’t been up to scratch in recent seasons and Daniels would represent an upgrade at centre. Daniels is the number one centre in this class, although it was a close call between him and Billy Price before Price tore a pectoral muscle during the pre-draft process. If the Bengals decide to go defense here keep an eye on Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans.

22. Mike Hughes (CB) – Denver Broncos (via mock trade with Buffalo Bills)

Having picked up EDGE rusher Davenport at #12, Denver adds a second defensive talent with their second (theoretical) pick acquired from Buffalo. With Aqib Talib now in L.A with the Rams, Mike Hughes would fill a need and add a ball-hawking element to the Broncos secondary (four INTs in 2017 for UCF, where he gained All-ACC honours). One knock on Hughes is his lack of height at just 5’10”, which is the primary reason for him falling below fellow corner Joshua Jackson in this mock.

23. Harold Landry (DE) – New England Patriots

New England is desperate for pass rush help, and hometown hero Landry would aid the cause in short order. This pick arrived at the Patriot’s door thanks to their trade of Brandin Cooks to the L.A Rams last month, giving Bill Belichick the luxury of two selections in the final third of the first round. It’s possible they look to trade up and they just might be in play for Tom Brady’s eventual replacement under centre – more on that later.

24. Billy Price (C/G) – Carolina Panthers

As previously mentioned, Price tore his pectoral muscle at the NFL scouting combine and as a result has seen his draft stock fall slightly. Price has excellent versatility and can fill in at either guard position or centre, which should play well in Carolina where they’ve lost Andrew Norwell to retirement since the end of the season. A developing trend here would indicate that interior offensive lineman are in reasonably high supply this year, while offensive tackles are slightly thin on the ground. This won’t concern the Panthers, who could also be in the market for a safety, linebacker or pass rusher at this spot.

25. Rashaan Evans (LB) – Tennessee Titans

Guess what? Another member of the Crimson Tide! Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans joins teammates Minkah Fitzpatrick, Calvin Ridley and Da’Ron Payne in hearing his name called in round one, as new Titans head coach, and former NFL linebacker, Mike Vrabel makes his first pick in Tennessee. Evans should help fortify a questionable linebacker core for the Titans, although Tennessee could also be in the market for offensive line help to aid the cause of quarterback Marcus Mariota.

26. Jaire Alexander (CB) – Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta grab Louiseville corner Alexander in this mock, a player who may actually be better suited to playing inside as opposed to on the outside due to his quick twitch nature and lack of height (another 5’10” corner in this class). Alexander has missed a substantial amount of time through injury during his college career, so he’ll have to quell those doubts if he wants to excel at the next level.

27. Lamar Jackson (QB) – New Orleans Saints

Jackson finally sees his “slide” fall on draft night as he’s selected by Saints offensive guru and head coach Sean Payton, although in reality Jackson could be picked anywhere from the Dolphins selection at #11 or the end of the first round – perhaps even later. Jackson is a real boom or bust prospect, a QB with elite mobility, good arm and.. plenty of question marks. With great play-making ability comes the potential to be erratic, and Jackson will almost certainly need time to iron out these issues before he sees significant game time. That said, Deshaun Watson had similar question marks surrounding his name before the draft last year, and Jackson could excel in the right environment – such as the one he’ll find himself in with New Orleans.

28. Leighton Vander Esch (LB) – Pittsburgh Steelers

Boise State linebacker Vander Esch has the ability to continue to great Steelers linebacker tradition, having tested extremely well at the combine and filled the stat sheet up during his one full year as a starter in college. Vander Esch is one of the true “bolters” of this class, having risen all the way from a mid round prospect to a player who could quite possibly crack the top 20 if everything falls right. He also fills a clear need in Pittsburgh with Ryan Shazier unfortunately looking unlikely to suit up again.

29. Mike Gesicki (TE) – Jacksonville Jaguars

Our first tight end goes off the board with the Jaguars opting to give Blake Bortles an additional weapon in the passing game. With the rushing attack now well established, Gesicki would serve as a big bodied, slot receiver-type player who has outstanding speed for his 6’5″ frame, reminiscent of Patriots star Rob Gronkowski. If Penn State product Gesicki can come close to replicating the Gronk, whichever team selects him will be overjoyed.

30. Isaiah Wynn (G) – Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings had very few holes in 2017, but the offensive line may just have been one of them as they progressed all the way to the NFC Championship game. Having landed prize free agent QB Kirk Cousins, the next order of business for Minnesota is to protect their new leader, in addition to clearing the way for last year’s second round pick Dalvin Cook. Wynn actually played tackle in 2017, but projects as a guard in the NFL, a position he played during the 2016 season for his alma mater Georgia.

31. Mason Rudolph (QB) – New England Patriots

Tom Brady is 40. Jimmy G is in San Francisco. New England has already added an impact player on defense with the 23rd pick. There’s too many reasons for the Pats to select a QB to ignore, and Mason Rudolph fits the Belichick bill as a classic pocket passer with average to slightly below arm strength. The New England offense runs off play action and timing routes on the short to intermediate level, which matches up well with the former Oklahoma State gunslinger. Six quarterbacks in the first round? It could well happen.

32. Maurice Hurst (DT) – Philadelphia Eagles

Last, but not least, is Michigan Wolverine Hurst, a penetrating defensive tackle who enjoyed a productive college career but unfortunately saw his combine end prematurely when a scan showed up heart irregularities. Hurst was originally pegged to go in the middle of the first round, and despite being medically cleared since his heart scare it’s all but certain teams will be wary of spending too high a pick on a prospect who has so recently received such worrying news. Philadelphia find themselves in the luxurious position of having few holes to immediately address, with running back, safety and the offensive line also in play. However I’ve got GM Howie Roseman selecting a defensive lineman to conclude round one, as he has so often done during his tenure as Philly’s head honcho.

What do you think will happen draft night? Make your predictions in the comments or by tweeting @fredjstanley

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

aj bouye

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

 

 

 

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

Sam-Allardyce-Steve-Bruce

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

jj watt

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