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

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

Ashes 2015 Preview

Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes clashed in the previous Ashes series in Australia

Mitchell Johnson and Ben Stokes clashed in the previous Ashes series in Australia

For the third time in just two years, England and Australia are set to do battle in one of the oldest contests across all professional sport. The two arch rivals last competed for the famous little urn in 2013/14 in Australia, where the hosts ran out 5-0 winners, with England triumphing 3-0 on home shores a matter of months earlier. While the Aussies are still led by former batsman Darren Lehmann, who masterminded his country’s whitewash of the “poms” 18 months ago, England have recently turned to an Australian as coach for the first time, and they’ll be hoping that the inside info Trevor Bayliss can provide will help them regain the Ashes over the coming six weeks. To find out which players you need to keep an eye on this summer in addition to a likely less than accurate prediction, just keep reading.

Key Batsman, England – Alistair Cook

Aside from 2010/11, when Cook averaged over 100 as he flayed the Australian attack to all parts, the England skipper has struggled with the bat during the Ashes throughout his career, beginning with the 2006/7 whitewash all the way through to another 5-0 reverse last time out. Cook appears to be nearing his best after a run of good scores both in the Caribbean and at home to New Zealand last month, and with his tormentor in chief Ryan Harris having retired due to his chronic knee injuries captain Cook will have the opportunity to lead from the front and give the three lions the chance to build commanding totals, something they were unable to do in Australia last year.

Key Batsman, Australia – David Warner

Steve Smith may be the number one batsman in world cricket, but it’s Warner who has the ability to take a test away from the opposition in a single session. At his best a hard-hitting force to be reckoned with, Warner made a name for himself in the last Ashes series by mercilessly targeting the England bowlers in the third and fourth innings of tests. Warner infamously swung for the golden boy of English cricket, Joe Root, the last time Australia toured the northern hemisphere, and his success at the top of the order could pave the way for the likes of Smith and Australia captain Michael Clarke to dominate from the middle of the batting line-up.

Key Bowler, England – Moeen Ali

Prior to his England test call-up Ali had always been a batsman who bowled, however that has all changed in the past twelve months as his country has asked him to shoulder the spin bowling load while batting from the lowly position of eight in the batting order. Ali remains a better batman than bowler, yet if England are to be successful they’ll need Ali to hold up an end at the very least while Cook rotates his seamers from the other end. Ali underwhelmed in the West Indies earlier this year – however he enjoyed his most success as a test bowler during the home series against India a year ago which could bode well for the man with one of cricket’s most recognisable beards.

Key Bowler, Australia – Mitchell Johnson

It couldn’t really be anyone else, could it? Fearsome Mitch troubled the England batsmen to such an extent in the previous series that he took 37 wickets, a stark contrast to his other two Ashes series when he struggled to locate his searing pace. While the wickets won’t be as fast in England as they were in Australia Johnson still has the heat to cause England serious problems, and it’ll be clear from his first prolonged spell whether or not scars remain from the 2013/14 whitewash.

Prediction

Australia enter the series as clear favourites, yet they haven’t won in England since 2001 and home advantage may well be worth a test match or two to the hosts during this series. Both teams contain world class players, including Smith, Clarke and Johnson on the visiting side and Cook, Bell and Anderson for England. Yet Australia’s depth is where they stand out; the likes of Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc are top level players, while Mark Wood and Adam Lyth are comparative novices. For England to match their opponents they’ll need to perform to their absolute best – and even then it might not be enough. Australia 3, England 2

The Marcus Mariota Question: Who Will Draft the Oregon QB?

Pac-12 Championship - Arizona v Oregon

With the 2015 NFL Draft just a couple of hours away, there’s one player whose fate could shape the entire three-day long process. Former Oregon Quarterback Marcus Mariota ran away with the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the nation’s outstanding player, in the 2014 college football season, and although Florida State product Jameis Winston is expected to go first overall to Tampa Bay Mariota is still in high demand. But which teams are in the hunt for the decorated passer? And which team offers to best fit for the mobile QB? We break down four teams who could be interested in making Mariota the face of their franchise, and in the case of three of them what they’d have to do move into position to draft him.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans hold the number two overall pick in the draft, and logic would dictate that they should select Mariota with it. They’re not exactly talent rich at the Quarterback position; Zach Mettenberger is the incumbent starter, but as just a sixth round pick in 2014 Mettenberger lacks the pedigree teams ideally seek from  their franchise QB. Tennessee are desperate to appease a frustrated fan base after years of losing, and Mariota’s squeaky clean image could make him the ideal fit. One stumbling block could be the system from which Mariota comes and his existing skill set; Titans coach Ken Wisenhunt runs a pro-style offense which would ideally suit a pocket QB, while Mariota operated the spread offense almost exclusively from  the shotgun during his three years at Oregon. Nonetheless, scouts are impressed with Mariota’s arm strength and work ethic, which should help him adjust to playing under centre and operating a more traditional offense than the one he did in college.

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland have been searching for a franchise QB ever since they re-entered the league in 1999; unfortunately they’ve had very little luck with their draft selections at the position in the past 16 years, from Tim Couch at number one overall the previous millennium to Johnny Manziel with the 22nd overall pick last year. Manziel is fresh out of rehab and he may have already blown his chance to ever lead an NFL franchise, while Josh McCown was signed to provide competition at the position after he was released by Tampa Bay following a terrible year in Florida. The Browns hold the 12th and 19th picks in the draft, but it’s unlikely that they could make a trade with Tennessee without sweetening the pot in addition to those two choices. For Cleveland, it all comes down to how much they’re willing to bet that Mariota can be the face of the franchise for the next decade. Miss, and they might not recover for as long as that – if not longer.

Philadelphia Eagles

Can Chip Kelly wheel and deal his way to being reunited with his Oregon protegé? It certainly would take a king’s ransom for Philadelphia to maneuver their way all the way to the second overall pick from number 20, but they do have a valuable trading chip (despite Kelly’s protestations to the contrary) in recently acquired QB Sam Bradford. Bradford was picked up via trade with St. Louis, and it’s been widely reported that both Tennessee and the Browns were in on Bradford before he was sent to Philly. Could the Eagles package picks and Bradford to make the move to number two? It’s doubtful, but should they pull it off Mariota will have fallen on his feet, as he’s already familiar with Kelly’s offense from his time at Oregon. Growing pains would be minimal – but is it worth the risk for Kelly and the Eagles?

St. Louis Rams

Could the Rams, fresh off acquiring Nick Foles, a fourth round pick in 2015 and a 2016 second round pick for Sam Bradford, have enough capital to move up from 10th overall to number two? It’s certainly possible, but would head coach Jeff Fisher give up so much for a Quarterback who wouldn’t be an ideal scheme fit? While Tennessee face the same problem they could probably justify sitting still at number two and picking Mariota; however it’s a different ball game when additional picks are involved. St. Louis are probably the outsiders in the race for Mariota, but it would be unwise to rule anything out with so much fogginess still surrounding the situation.

So where will Mariota end up once the first round of the draft is in the books? No one knows, but in a few hours time Mariota will have his name read out in Chicago by commissioner Roger Godell, putting both him and NFL pundits across the globe out of their misery. The only certainty? You can’t rule anything out.

Who will draft Marcus Mariota in tonight’s NFL Draft? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

ICC World Cup 2015 Preview

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Brendan McCullum will look to lead New Zealand to World Cup glory on home turf

It’s a matter of a few short hours before the 50-over cricket World Cup begins in Australia and New Zealand, with pundits predicting one of the most wide open tournaments in recent memory. Reigning champions India have had a torrid time over the past few months across all formats, being defeated 3-0 by Australia in a four match test series before failing to reach the final of an ODI tri-series against the same opposition – and lowly England.

Among the favourites are Australia themselves, as well as fellow hosts New Zealand and arguably the world’s best side across all three formats, South Africa. England have been tabbed as dark horses by some, although their lack of experience could come back to haunt them as the tournament progresses. Elsewhere, Pakistan are as unpredictable as ever, Sri Lanka appear heavy on batting if a little light on bowling, while the West Indies have sunk to such depths that their progression from the group stages is far but certain. To find out which of the test-playing nations to keep an eye on as the tournament progresses, just scroll on down.

Group A

England

Fun fact for the day: England are actually the number one seeds for the World Cup. Unfortunately for them, since the seeding’s were made they’ve slipped down the rankings at a precipitous rate and sacked Alistair Cook as captain, making for less than ideal preparation. Encouragement was offered in the form of two wins over India in last month’s tri-series, and a strong pace attack led by James Anderson and a rejuvenated Steven Finn should suit the fast tracks likely to be served up down under. The batting is inconsistent, however, with a well-documented weakness against short-pitched bowling resurfacing in recent matches versus their Australian hosts.

Player to Watch

Surprisingly appointed Eoin Morgan’s vice-captain for the tournament, Jos Buttler has long been touted as a future star of English cricket. Now in possession of the gloves in all three formats, Buttler’s keeping is a work in progress but his destructive batting is an asset that England would be wise to utilise higher up the order than his current number seven position. With a brittle top order in front of him it wouldn’t be a shock to see Buttler rescue his teammates with a swashbuckling inning’s during the tournament.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

Australia

The wickets may be quick in Oz, but the Australian pace attack led by Mitchell Johnson is even quicker. Ably supported by Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, Johnson is likely to rattle a few rib cages with his thunderbolts and it’ll be interesting to see which batsmen opt to take him on. A lack of a top-tier spinner is one minor flaw in this Aussie outfit, but with the quick bowlers backed up by an incredibly deep batting line-up featuring power at the top (David Warner, Aaron Finch), in the middle-order (Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith) and an elite finisher in James Faulkner, it would be a brave man who’d bet against the Australians winning their fourth World Cup in five tries.

Player to Watch

It’s looking likely that captain Michael Clarke will return to full fitness in time for the tournament, and with questions over his popularity among teammates surfacing in recent weeks the man dubbed ‘Pup’ will be looking to win over his comrades through sheer volume of runs. Clarke is capable of putting big scores on the board, no doubt about it, but with Steve Smith and George Bailey waiting in the wings as potential replacements for the skipper the heat will definitely be on the classy right hand bat.

Prediction

Semi-Finals

Sri Lanka

Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Matthews. As batting line-ups go, it doesn’t get much better than that, and as a result the Sri Lankan’s will be a team no one will want to face down under. Unfortunately the bowling attack is far less menacing, with Lasith Malinga carrying a group of underwhelming arms almost single-handedly. Chasing 300 is well within Sri Lanka’s reach; keeping teams under 320 could be their real challenge.

Player to Watch

Although he’s not the most famous of Sri Lanka’s star batsmen, Tillakaratne Dilshan might be the most important as he both opens the batting and contributes his fair share of overs with the ball. His wily off-spin will be a useful tool, but if he can help launch his team off to good starts life will be a far sight easier for the middle order, which is anchored by cricketing legends Jayawardene and Sangakkara.

Prediction

Winners

Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi’s failure to improve since they began playing test matches at the start of the millennium has been well documented, and unfortunately their chances in Australia reflect their lack of progression. Placed in the tougher of the two groups, it would be a huge surprise to see Bangladesh replace even England in the quarter-finals, but a weak bowling attack paired with a brittle batting line-up make it odds on that the Asian side will fail to make the knock-out stages – again.

Player to Watch

Shakib Al Hasan has been the one outstanding performer Bangladesh have produced over the past decade, and the all-rounder will once again attempt to carry the team on his back down under with his crafty batting and useful left-arm spin. Hasan is the only Bangladesh player ever to earn an IPL contract so the rest of the world is aware of his talent – it’s just a shame that his country has been unable to support him ably throughout his career.

Prediction

Group Stages

New Zealand

The co-host Kiwis enter the World Cup with high hopes and perhaps their best chance at 50-over glory since they reached the semi-finals on home turf back in 1992. Brendan McCullum’s captaincy has earned rave reviews and the New Zealand skipper is backed up by former captains Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori, both of whom have flashed world class ability during their careers. Factor in Kane Williamson’s exploits with the bat in recent months and wicket keeper Luke Ronchi’s ability to take games away in the late overs and the Black Caps should be one of the teams to keep an eye on over the next six weeks.

Player to Watch

For all of their weapons with the bat, it’s how New Zealand perform with the ball that could dictate how far they progress. That’s where diminutive southpaw Trent Boult comes in, and his ability to keep runs down in the final 10 overs will be key to the Black Caps hopes in the tournament. Bolt is more accomplished in test cricket than the shorter formats, so he’ll view the next few weeks as an opportunity to really announce himself on the world stage.

Prediction

Semi-Finals

Group B

South Africa

The number one ranked side in the world will finally hope to end their World Cup hoodoo and win a game in the knock out stages, an incredible drought when you consider some of the players produced by the Proteas over the past two decades. They’ll never get a better chance than over the next month and a half, with the world’s best bowler (Dale Steyn) and batsman (AB De Villiers) in their ranks. Hashim Amla isn’t too bad either, and Faf du Plessis has evolved into a top tier batsman in his own right since coming into the side.

Player to Watch

Imran Tahir has been far from consistent as South Africa’s spinner over the past couple of years, but if they’re to walk away victorious down under Tahir will need to play his part. It’s all very well having a pace attack featuring Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, but without balance that formidable threesome will lose some of its effectiveness. The large boundaries in Australia should benefit spinners and protect them from big hitters, to an extent, giving Tahir the perfect platform to perform and help his fellow South Africans to victory on cricket’s biggest stage.

Prediction

Runners-Up

India

The reigning champions enter the 2015 tournament in terrible form, having failed to win a competitive game on tour in Australia, where they’ve been since November. While the batting line-up has shown signs of life with the likes of Virat Kohli maturing into a world class performer, the bowling department is frightfully thin. Famed for their world class spinners over the years, the Indians are weak even in that department, and on the pace-friendly wickets down under they could be faced with the task of chasing 300 plus regularly.

Player to Watch

Rohit Sharma currently holds the highest list A score in history of 264, but while that score came on home turf his form in unfamiliar climes has been less impressive. With the likes of Kohli and M.S Dhoni expected to perform well no matter the batting surface, Sharma will be under pressure to score heavily at the top of the order and give his team’s bowlers a target with which they can bowl at.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

Pakistan

As unpredictable as ever, Pakistan enter this tournament with a team poor on paper yet filled with experience. Shahid Afridi is a one day veteran of near twenty years, while Misbah Ul Haq anchors the batting line-up despite being in his late thirties. The loss of Saeed Ajmal is a huge one, but even without the number one ranked bowler in limited overs international cricket the Pakistanis are a team no one will want to face.

Player to Watch

Umar Akmal has an enormous amount of talent and has shown flashes of fulfilling his potential during his international career, but he’s yet to join the world’s elite as a batsman. If Pakistan are to succeed during this tournament Akmal will need to live up to his immense promise and support Misbah’s efforts with the bat – failure to do so will result in a fragile batting line-up falling short of the required output to challenge for the county’s first World Cup title since 1992, when the tournament was also held in Australia and New Zealand.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

West Indies

Is there a more dysfunctional team in world cricket? Even Pakistan, famed for their volatility, are more settled than the Windies, whose players and board have been at loggerheads for what seems like a decade. Bowler Jason Holder was installed as the team’s captain just a few weeks ago, and it rather feels like Holder has been thrown to the lions as a sacrificial lamb with the rest of the team in complete disarray.

Player to Watch

Who else but Chris Gayle? Gayle may not be in the richest vein of form, yet he’s still a batsman bowlers the world over fear, with his easy power a threat to clear even the biggest boundary. For the West Indies to have any chance against the other test playing nations they’ll need Gayle to be firing on all cylinders – but even that might not be enough with the rest of the team full of holes and lacking both experience and talent.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

Who do you think will win the 2015 ICC World Cup? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley

Super Bowl XLIX Preview: New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks

Tom Brady is seeking a fourth Super Bowl ring, while Russell Wilson is hoping to win his second NFL title

After a gruelling season and dramatic series of play-off games, Super Bowl Sunday is here as the NFC and AFC champion Seahawks and Patriots do battle for the right to hoist the Lombardi trophy aloft in Phoenix, Arizona. A win for Seattle would see them repeat as champions, making them the first team to do so since… The New England Patriots, in 2003/4. Those Patriots teams built on their surprising victory in 2001 and although Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been back to the big game twice in recent years they have yet to win another Super Bowl since they were found guilty of spying on opposing teams sidelines, making tonight the perfect opportunity for both men to cement their legacy as greats of the NFL. To find out which match-ups to keep an eye on as both teams chase history, just keep reading.

When New England has the ball…
Early on in the season Seattle struggled to contain opposing teams tight ends, and as a result many analysts have put two and two together and predicted a big game for New England’s Rob Gronkowski. However while Gronkowski is an elite talent and match-up nightmare Seattle will be able to call on the services of punishing safety Kam Chancellor as they bid to keep ‘Gronk’ under wraps. Chancellor was injured for the early part of 2014 and that goes a long way towards explaining their poor numbers versus tight ends in the campaign’s early going.

It’ll also be interesting to see how New England attacks, or more likely doesn’t attack, Seahawks corner Richard Sherman. Sherman is used to opposing teams completely ignoring him and shutting off that side of the field, but with no standout threat on the outside at wide receiver it’ll be interesting to see who Sherman covers as the game unfolds.
Edge: Seattle 

When Seattle has the ball…
In the NFC Championship game Russell Wilson refused to run the ball himself with regularity until the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, but it’s unlikely that he’ll remain in the pocket for so long this evening. With opposing defenses keying in on Marshawn Lynch Wilson is often able to pull the ball and run himself, so New England will have to be wary of the Seahawks two-headed running attack.

Similarly to New England, the Seahawks posses no standout receiver on the outside. Jermaine Kearse hauled in the winning score two weeks ago against Green Bay but along with Doug Baldwin Kearse is an average at best NFL receiver. If Seattle are to move the ball on the Patriots they will most likely have to do so on the ground, as since last year’s Super Bowl victory they have lost both Golden Tate and Percy Harvin through free agency and trade, respectively.
Edge: New England

Special Teams
Stephen Gostkowsi has been a reliable kicker for New England ever since he was brought in to replace Adam Vinatieri, although he has yet to be on the winning side in a Super Bowl. Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka has also earned himself a reputation as one of the premier points scorers in the NFL, and most would agree that he has a stronger leg than Gostkowski.

Both teams have good coverage units, although Seattle’s is probably marginally better, although neither possesses much of a threat in the return game. Seattle have particularly felt the loss of Harvin in that department. Edge: Even

Weather
The game is being held at the University of Phoenix stadium, and the weather is set fair for the game and the field is reported to be in excellent condition.

Prediction
New England 14, Seattle 24

Who do you think will win Super Bowl XLIX? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley