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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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

 

 

 

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

American Football Focus Podcast: SuperBowl XLIX Preview

Fred Stanley is joined by Will Winthrop for a Super Bowl XLIX Preview Special of the American Football Focus Podcast. Both the NFC and AFC Championship games are also discussed, as well as the head coaching vacancies across the league that have been recently filled. Have your say on Super Bowl XLIX by heading to americanfootballfocus.blogspot.co.uk or tweet @fredjstanley

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Week 4 NFL Predictions


Alshon Jeffery has formed a formidable partnership with fellow Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall

Last night’s lopsided match-up between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins heralded the start of week four of the NFL season, and with the year nearing the quarter mark here’s what American Football Focusthinks will transpire across the league over the weekend, with our prediction record currently standing at 30-18.
Carolina @ Baltimore
Carolina were handled easily by Pittsburgh last weekend in a beat-down that was largely brought about by the Steelers rushing attack. Fortunately for the Panthers the Ravens aren’t nearly as prolific on the ground thanks to the suspension of Ray Rice, while Baltimore have also looked suspect on defense at times in the season’s early going. It’s  a big game between two perennial play-off teams, but with Cam Newton and the Panthers defense not quite right I’m going for a home win.  
Panthers 20, Ravens 26
Green Bay @ Chicago
After two losses in the opening three weeks Green Bay are in danger of falling out of play-off contention early doors, with their defense leaky and their offense failing to produce the amount of points they’re accustomed to putting on the board. The Bears meanwhile have looked good in getting to 2-1, with two comeback victories in the past two games. The Packers secondary really doesn’t look good and with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery nearing full fitness it could be a long day for Aaron Rodgers and his team in the windy city.
Packers 17, Bears 28

Buffalo @ Houston
Both of these teams came crashing back to earth last week after 2-0 starts to the season, but the Bills are better equipped to bounce back with E.J Manuel at quarterback and a rushing attack that features both C.J Spiller and Fred Jackson. Houston should put up a good fight but without Jadaveon Clowney and a competent QB they could struggle to keep pace with the up-tempo Buffalo attack.  
Bills 24, Texans 14
Tennessee @ Indianapolis
Again, both of these teams have identical records at 1-2 but the Colts are clearly the superior team after their blow out of Jacksonville in week three. Andrew Luck and the offense continue to make plays even if the defense struggles, while Jake Locker and the Titans have regressed significantly since their opening weekend win over Kansas City.
Titans 19, Colts 31
Detroit @ New York Jets
Rex Ryan’s job seems like it’s in jeopardy every week, and following a comprehensive defeat on Monday night Rex is on the hot seat once again with a decision over who is starting quarterback will be looming large. Geno Smith may or may not turn it around this season but he’ll struggle in the face of a lethal Lions pass rush, while the Jets lack of talent at corner could hurt them against Megatron and Matthew Stafford. Lions 27, Jets 17
Miami @ Oakland
80,000 Londoners will turn out at Wembley Stadium to watch two poor teams face off in the first of three International Series games in 2014, although as poor as Miami have been in the past two weeks they’re still a superior side to the train wreck Raiders. It probably won’t be much of a spectacle to watch, but Miami are the better side here. Dolphins 28, Raiders 14
Tampa Bay @ Pittsburgh
The woeful Buccaneers travel to the Steel City to take on a resurgent Pittsburgh team who overwhelmed Carolina last weekend. Josh McCown is out injured so Mike Glennon steps in to take his place, but it’s likely to be in a losing effort as the Steelers move to 3-1 at the quarter mark of the season behind the arm of Ben Roethlisberger. Buccaneers 16, Steelers 28
Jacksonville @ San Diego
This is a potential trap game for San Diego, who have looked good thus far this season, although not good enough to make this match-up a foregone conclusion. Jacksonville have Blake Bortles making his first ever NFL start under centre and the rookie looked good in the second half last week versus Indianapolis, and while the Jags are unlikely to win they could keep the score a lot closer than most people will have anticipated. Jaguars 17, Chargers 23
Atlanta @ Minnesota
The Teddy Bridgewater era begins in Minnesota after Matt Cassel was pronounced done for the season, but life will be tough for Bridgewater without the services of Adrian Peterson at running back. Atlanta have put up a boat load of points so far this season and with all of their key players healthy and ready to fire they should win big on the road and move to 3-1.
Falcons 34, Vikings 17
Philadelphia @ San Francisco
The Eagles are slightly fortunate to be 3-0 having fallen into deep holes in each of their first three games this season, and this road trip could be a step too far on their path to a likely NFC East title. Colin Kaepernick needs a big game to quell doubts about his ability as a passer and the porous Philly secondary could be just what the doctor ordered, while the 49ers defense is as well-equipped as most to handle the Eagles fast-paced offense.
Eagles 24, 49ers 34
New Orleans @ Dallas
Two of the NFL’s worst defences square off in Big D on Sunday night in what promises to be a high scoring affair, especially after Tony Romo rediscovered his best form against St. Louis in week three. Both teams need a win to avoid slipping to 1-3, but at home and with the better skill position players Dallas are my pick to make it back to .500.
Saints 27, Cowboys 30
New England @ Kansas City
Andy Reid has struggled throughout his career against Bill Belichick and New England, and that trend should continue on Monday night even with the Chiefs welcoming Jamaal Charles back into the fold. Alex Smith has been poor for Kansas City at QB this season and the Patriots defense is good enough to make life difficult for the former number one overall pick again this week, while Tom Brady could step it up as he seeks to take advantage of a banged up Chiefs defense. Patriots 24, Chiefs 13
What do you think will happen in week four of the NFL season? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley

Week Two NFL Predictions

Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill will hope to lead Miami to a 2-0 record with a win over Buffalo

The second Sunday of the young NFL season is upon as, and with it come the standard American Football Focus predictions for each of the 15 games on show. With an 11-6 record thus far this year we’re hoping to continue our winning ways when it comes to forecasting the outcome; whether or not we’ll be able to is another matter.

Miami @ Buffalo
It’s been a while since these two teams have met while both are undefeated, and although it’s only one game both sides looked impressive in their upset week one victories. E.J Manuel and Ryan Tannehill both have plenty of questions still to answer about their ability to become franchise quarterbacks; however Tannehill has a better supporting cast around him and as a result the Dolphins and their new “Lazor Show” offense should prevail in upstate New York. Dolphins 24, Bills 17

Detroit @ Carolina
Cam Newton is back for the Panthers in week two after he sat out their week one win with a rib injury. Kelvin Benjamin looks like he should be a productive option at receiver for Newton this season, while Calvin Johnson was as terrific as ever for the Lions against New York last week. The Panthers defense is one of the league’s best against the run but if they have a weakness it’s at corner, so expect a relatively high scoring game – albeit one that Newton makes the difference in for Carolina. Lions 27, Panthers 30

Atlanta @ Cincinnati
Two more unbeaten teams go head to head in Cincy, with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones doing battle with Andy Dalton and A.J Green in what promises to be a shootout in the jungle. The Bengals defense has the edge on the Falcons unit, although Atlanta have improved on that side of the ball since their disastrous 2013 campaign. I think Ryan is the better QB of the two on show here, but because the Bengals have the defensive edge and look better at running back I’m plumping for a home win.
Falcons 23, Bengals 27

New Orleans @ Cleveland
Even though the Saints were unable to top Atlanta in the Georgia Dome last week Drew Brees and company looked lively on offense, and although they’ll come up against a good defense in Cleveland on Sunday they should have enough of the ball to put up a lofty number on the Browns D. There might be the first Johnny Manziel sighting of the year in his first regular season home game, adding further intrigue to a must-win game for two 0-1 teams. Saints 31, Browns 20

New England @ Minnesota
Following Adrian Peterson’s arrest over alleged child abuse charges this game has a much different feel, with the Patriots now able to key in on Matt Cassel and the Vikings passing game. Before AP was scratched it was a potential banana skin for the 0-1 Patriots – not anymore.
Patriots 28, Vikings 10

Arizona @ New York Giants
After a 27 interception campaign in 2013 Eli Manning began this year in much the same fashion with two picks last week against Detroit. With the likes of Patrick Peterson patrolling the Cardinals secondary Manning could be in for another rough week, and the Arizona offense is also looking good with Andre Ellington at running back and Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald both excellent options for Carson Palmer at wide receiver. Things could get ugly for the G-men in the Meadowlands.
Cardinals 31, Giants 20

Dallas @ Tennessee
Tony Romo had an, ahem, Tony Romo-esque game last week against San Francisco when he tossed three picks in the first half alone. He should bounce back against the Titans, however, although Tennessee looked good last week on their way to victory behind the arm of Jake Locker. Locker could continue his hot start to the season but in a deep south shootout I’m taking Romo, Dez Bryant and the Cowboys. Cowboys 30, Titans 24

Jacksonville @ Washington
The Jaguars nearly produced a shock in week one against Philly but let a 17-0 lead slip, ultimately losing 34-17. Washington meanwhile were poor from start to finish in Houston, with Robert Griffin III looking as bad as he did for much of last season. I don’t think the Jaguars will start as hot again this week, and I also don’t think RG III will play as badly especially not on home turf. The Jags will keep it close, but Washington will make it back to .500 with Jay Gruden’s first win as an NFL head coach. Jaguars 14, Redskins 24

Seattle @ San Diego
San Diego struggled against Arizona in week one, and things won’t get any easier for them in week two as they face the class of the NFL, Seattle. The Seahawks aren’t the same machine on the road as they are at home but they still look incredibly tough to beat, although the never-say-die competitive spirit of Chargers QB Phillip Rivers should ensure the home side aren’t embarrassed. It’s very difficult to see how the Seahawks are going to get beat, but expect Rivers to give it a valiant shot.
Seahawks 21, Chargers 17

St. Louis @ Tampa Bay
Both the Rams and Buccaneers disappointed last week, with neither boasting a convincing option at quarterback and without the quality at other positions to make up the shortfall. I do think that Tampa are better placed to win with defense and the running game, however, and in Florida I fully expect them to do enough to win their first game of the season against a Rams team who look set for yet another campaign of basement dwelling in the NFC West. Rams 13, Buccaneers 24

Kansas City @ Denver
When these two teams first met in 2013, Kansas City was atop the AFC West and hadn’t yet lost a game. This time round they’re coming off a humbling defeat to the Titans, with Andy Reid’s handling of star running back Jamaal Charles coming into sharp focus after he gave Charles the ball a paltry 11 times in the opener. He won’t have much chance to run the ball in Denver this week either, not after Peyton Manning takes the lead early and doesn’t let up on his way to a convincing divisional beat-down. Chiefs 20, Broncos 35

New York Jets @ Green Bay
After failing to overcome a stout Seattle defense in week one, Green Bay will face a far more forgiving secondary in the shape of the Jets, who enjoyed a solid if often unconvincing win over Oakland last Sunday. At home the Packers should be able to put too many points on the board for Geno Smith to threaten sending them to 0-2, although the New York running game is varied and was successful last week with Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory leading the way. Jets 17, Packers 27

Houston @ Oakland
This far from inspiring match-up pits to teams against each other who were picking in the top ten of last April’s draft, and there’s a fair chance of that happening again next year. The Texans should progress to 2-0 in the early going, however, even with top overall pick Jadaveon Clowney missing for up to six weeks through injury. Houston’s defense is a tough nut to crack and it figures that they should be able to hold the Raiders to few enough points that Ryan Fitzpatrick can guide the visitors to a second consecutive win. Texans 17, Raiders 10

Chicago @ San Francisco
The 49ers host Chicago in the first ever game at Levi’s Field, which has already earned the moniker ‘Field of Jeans’. It should be a happy opener for San Fran, particularly with the Bears wide receiver duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall both doubtful on the injury report. The Niners looked good in Dallas last week and with the defense playing well despite missing NaVarro Bowman San Francisco should have enough about them to move to 2-0 and keep pace with Seattle in the division.
Bears 16, 49ers 21

Philadelphia @ Indianapolis
The Colts head into Philadelphia for a mouth watering Monday Night Football match-up needing to win to avoid dropping to 0-2, which typically tends to be an almost impossible situation to seal a play-off berth from. Philly were unconvincing against Jacksonville in week one but with Colts linebacker Robert Mathis out with a torn Achilles Nick Foles should have a cleaner pocket to work from this week. Andrew Luck is also set to enjoy a prolific day against a weak Eagles secondary, so expect lots of points at Lucas Oil Stadium. The difference in a game that could go either way might be Philly’s strength at running back, with LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles a constant threat out of the backfield. Eagles 33, Colts 30

Who do you think will win out in week two? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley