Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Guys You Don't Know (But You Should) NFC West Edition

The NFC West seems like the division primed to have the most breakout players.  They have stars getting injured with Percy Harvin's hip injury and Michael Crabtree's Achilles injury.  This makes it prime for backups to finally get the shot they have been waiting for.  You have abilities in camp to win a job that was thought to be impossible.  That changes the way people play, the way players practice.  There are a ton of new faces in the division and nobody knows how they are going to work in their new systems.  This division has two of Vegas' top three Super Bowl odds lie in this division (prior to the Harvin injury).  They are looked at as having two of the best teams in all of the NFL.  The division is full of stars on both offense and defense.  When Larry Fitzgerald is overlooked because of the star power within the division, that's when you know this division is stacked.

Last season, this division more than any was affected by players you didn't think would make a huge impact.  The two quarterbacks that may have caused the biggest frenzy in Russell Wilson and Colin Kapernick reside on rival teams in the NFC West.  They were both not expected to play much, one being a third round pick behind a recently signed free agent and the other sitting behind a former number one overall pick who just took his team to the NFC Championship.  They showed that this may become the most heated rivalry over the next decade.  Chris Givens and Daryl Richardson both showed they can be something to build upon in the future for the Rams.  Patrick Peterson may have become the best cornerback in the entire NFL, if Revis doesn't come back to the same player he was before his injury.  Richard Sherman also threw his hat in the race, if not via Twitter but on the football field.  This division is known to have a few breakout stars, and this year will be no different.

Arizona Cardinals - Calais Campbell DE
Campbell is a guy that everyone in the league should already know, but for some reason he has gone unnoticed.  Darnell Dockett seems to take the headlines, even if he has not been nearly as good over the last couple of seasons.  New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is making minor changes that will only help Campbell pad his stats as he is teaching them to be more aggressive with getting past the tackles.  Beyond that, he is keeping the defense as it was when Ray Horton was in charge.  In two seasons under Horton he gained 14.5 sacks and has been consistent to those numbers throughout his career.  Campbell was said to be "JJ Watt like" when it came to swatting down passes, a very nice compliment.  He had 18 blocked passes at the line in the past two seasons.  At 26-years-old, he is about to hit his prime in football, which can only mean good things based on his previous performances.  This seasons, with a newly rejuvenated Dockett and an always here to play Campbell, the Cardinals defensive front may be one of the scariest in football.  Expect him to finally break double digit sacks in 2013 and to show he is a force to be reckoned with for a long time to come.

San Fransisco 49ers - Ricardo Lockette WR
"There's just something about him that I am really fired up about," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.  That is what he says about the undrafted free agent that has two professional catches.  What makes him so special?  Well, for one, he has been training side by side with Colin Kapernick since a week after the Super Bowl.  You can't force the kind of chemistry they no doubt put together.  They literally live together, so he has a 24/7 connection that is extremely rare in today's NFL.  He isn't the most explosive player off the line, but if he gains a step on a player he isn't getting caught.  He was seen to have no chance to take the spot left by Michael Crabtree's injury, but he has impressed coaches so far.  Lockette's main strength is to stretch the field, which will go perfectly with the big arm of Kapernick.  He went from a player that might not have made the team to a player that is all but assured himself a shot to replace Crabtree.  He doesn't have to beat a player that is established, he just has to show that he is the best of the group.  Harbaugh is known to make decisions based on what you are going to do for the team now, rather than what your pedigree or your pasts says.  Lockette has been known as a hard worker and will not stop until he gets where he wants to be, and he wants to be a starter next to Anquan Boldin.

St. Louis Rams - Chris Long DE
Remember this guy?  He was the other Long taken in the 2008 draft, after offensive tackle Jake Long (who is now a teammate).  The first two years of his career seemed like he was going to be a bust, but he started to turn up the power in year three.  Unfortunately, the world had already forgotten him and he was stuck on a middling Rams team that needs a turnaround.  Jeff Fischer came in and kept a defense fighting, when their offense didn't give them much of a chance.  While people just pay attention to the Sam Bradford saga, Long's arrival has happened to blind eyes.  He has 24.5 sacks over the last two years.  Playing against one of the best tackles in the game in practice every day will only help him jump to the echelon that puts him with the best defensive linemen in the game.  Long is even willing to help out his team with his restructured deal he worked out in April.  He has yet to miss a game in his entire career.  He tries to play big in the big games, recording six sacks in games against opponents with winning records.  Expect Long to finally make a name for himself now that the Rams defense seems to be on the verge of being very good.  With young studs like Janoris Jenkins, James Laurinaitus, and Alec Ogletree, Long just has to worry about killing the quarterback.  He will do a lot of that in 2013.

Seattle Seahawks - Brandon Browner CB
All the talk is about how Richard Sherman is the man that holds the corner in Seattle, but the guy on the other side is just as good.  He has gotten past his PED suspension from a year ago and is ready to show his ball hawk status.  He snared six interceptions in his rookie year and three in his suspension shortened season last year.  Now that Richard Sherman has made a name for himself, that means quarterbacks are more likely to make most of their throws to Browner's side.  More balls thrown his way only means more passes are going to get intercepted.  On top of everything, Browner is playing for his first big contract.  He got a small raise, but it seems like he is on a year long showcase for the rest of the league.  He was a star in the Canadian Football League for the four years that he was there.  He knows why he is a player, and the money is only an extra motivator.  This is one of the best cornerback tandems that we've seen in years.  His physicality is something you may not see from every other cornerback, and it helps throw off the receivers he faces.  His burn percentage is high at 44 percent, he just needs to do a little better in the red zone.  He is going to excel with a whole season ahead of him and Jim Harbaugh's mouth motivating him.  He may lead the league in interceptions in 2013.

The Guys You Don't Know (But You Should) AFC West Edition

Peyton Manning came to Denver with a lot of questions surrounding his future in the NFL.  He  missed the entire 2011 season due to the four neck surgeries he needed.  The thought of any athlete at any age to return to form after neck injury is preposterous, especially at the position in which you get blindsided at least twice a game.  All Manning did was come in and go right back to being one of the best quarterbacks in the game.  He threw for 4,659 yards (second most in his career), 37 touchdowns (second most in his career), and a 105.9 quarterback rating (second only to his record breaking 2004 season).  This was unprecedented and unexpected.  He took Denver to the number one seed after winning his last eleven games of the season.  This was the kind of performances that are looked for in articles such as these.  We want to find the players that nobody sees coming.  Peyton Manning had a reputation of being one of the best quarterbacks of all time, so you definitely know his name, but the fact is it was surprising at least to see the masterpiece of a season that Peyton put together.

Peyton Manning wasn't the only one who had a season we did not expect.  His receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had star studded seasons thanks to their new quarterback.  Carson Palmer and Brandon Myers became a connection people did not think would even happen, as Palmer looked pretty atrocious in 2011.  Eric Weddle finally came out of the shadow of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu to show he is one of the elite safeties in the NFL, while his teammate Danario Alexander made us forget that San Diego spent nearly 40 million dollars to bring in Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem.  The AFC West clearly underperformed in 2012.  If you take out the Broncos, this division finished the season with a record of 13-35.  Three out of the four teams in the division have new head coaches in place.  The new schemes make it near impossible to predict what is upcoming for the AFC West in 2013.  Will Peyton be able to survive another season under center?  Will Matt Flynn be able to finally lock down the Raiders quarterback position?  What is the Chargers franchise going to look like in the first season beyond the AJ Smith/Norv Turner era?  As always, the unknown players will have a large part in who ends up taking the division in 2013.

Denver Broncos - Wesley Woodyard LB
Von Miller is currently fighting tooth and nail to lift a four game suspension for violating the league's drug program.  It was stated that he didn't necessarily fail a drug test, but the suspension is going through the appeals process as we speak.  Wesley Woodyard is used to replacing Pro Bowl linebackers when he is needed.  Last season, he came in for the oft injured DJ Williams after he was suspended for nine games.  Woodyard is not going to replace the pass rushing abilities that Miller brought to the table, but he has been under the radar in terms of his ability in coverage.  He snared three interceptions in 2012 and has sneaky speed.  Woodyard spent three years excelling on the special teams units and even became the unit's captain.  He has the abilities to be a great coverage linebacker.  He needs work reading coverages, but he will be forced to do that if the suspension to Miller is upheld.  People will see his skills as the microscope will be on the defense with the missing star.  It is the only way to take your eyes off of the new Peyton Manning and Wes Welker connection. Expect Woodyard to take "the step" in his second season as full time starter.  He will have an entire offseason to get prepared for the role, and he has the security of knowing what that role is coming into the season.  Keep this guy on your radar when checking out that Denver defense.
als process as we speak.  Wesley

Kansas City Chiefs - Donnie Avery WR
Donnie Avery was one of the most under the radar signings of the offseason.  The Chiefs desperately needed a second option beside Dwayne Bowe, and they went out and got Avery.  His numbers don't look like he is anything but the bust he seemed like since being taken 33rd overall by the Rams in 2008.  In five years in the league (one in which he missed the entire season due to a knee injury), he has 2,089 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Not the kind of numbers that scream "going to break out".  He made strides last season in helping Andrew Luck have a record setting rookie season.  He was an asset both on and off the field for the Colts.  The Chiefs have been trying for years to try and find a liable number two receiver to get some of the double teams off of Bowe.  Avery has the break away speed to at least warrant a look, but I think he will be much more than this.  Andy Reid comes into his first season as head coach of a team that isn't the Eagles.  His passing attack is his biggest asset.  He is known to sometimes forget about the running game to try and win with his passing attack.  With new quarterback Alex Smith brings a viable player to sit behind center.  Expect a ton of production from Donnie Avery in this new offense.  He may finally shake that draft bust status he has been carrying around since his break out rookie year.

Oakland Raiders - Latavius Murray RB
Currently slated as the third running back on a team that's best offensive player plays the same position.  Why is he here?  Well, Darren McFadden is that star offensive player, and he did not seem like the guy we were used to last season.  He has yet to put together a year with a full sixteen games without an injury that took away some games.  It seemed to finally catch up to him last seasons as his yards per carry dropped more than two yards from the year before.  Rashad Jennings was brought in to be his backup, but when he got the chance to be "the man" in Jacksonville when Maurice Jones-Drew went down, he laid an egg.  Just because there is a good chance he will play, why will Murray be any good?  He played against inferior competition at Central Florida, which is something that needs to be considered, but he is built like a brick house and ran 4.38 40 at Central Florida pro day.  He has break away speed with the strength to play in between the tackles.  He may end up being this season's version of Alfred Morris.  He was taken in the sixth round and could end up taking the Raiders running back job for himself.  He has all the skills of McFadden (big guy, can run outside or inside just as efficient, can catch the ball) he just doesn't have the pedigree.  He is getting raved by the coaching staff and he showed at CFU that he can score (34 touchdowns in three seasons).  Expect him to beat out Jennings in camp, and then the countdown to McFadden's injury begins.

San Diego Chargers - Marcus Gilchrist S
Gilchrist never seemed to get a real shot under Norv Turner.  He was used as a backup corner when he had so much more talent than that.  The new regime under Mike McCoy seems to want to see what this kid could do.  They are trying him at both cornerback and safety to see where he best fits in the new system.  As of right now, it seems that he will be lining up next to Eric Weddle.  He could be the next Ryan Clark, causing a new debate as to who the best safety tandem in the league is.  We may be getting ahead of ourselves with the predictions, but it just seems like Chargers fans have something to look forward to finally.  Weddle will help with any hiccups Gilchrist might have in learning his new position.  He will become dominant at the position by the eighth game of the season.  Practicing against Antonio Gates will also help him when playing some of the best tight ends in the NFL.  It may be a bumpy ride, but you will know who this man is by the end of the season.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Guys You Don't Know (But You Should) AFC South Edition

The AFC South was a clear two team battle.  The Jaguars and Titans were never in the race to compete.  The Colts and the Texans showed they were the real deal, winning eleven and twelve games respectively.  They did not make much noise in the playoffs, but they both got some needed experience on their young teams.  All four teams are looking to bounce back in completely different ways.  The Colts and Texans are looking to bounce back from disappointing playoff performances and the Jaguars and Titans are looking to bounce back from disappointing seasons.  The headlines were aplenty in 2012.  You could talk about the fact that Peyton Manning was no longer donning the blue and white, the best draft pick since him was now replacing him, whether Chris Johnson was still a good running back, if JJ Watt came out of nowhere to become the best defensive player in the NFL, will the Jaguars be playing in LA sooner rather than later, and so on.

Breakout stars were all the rage in this division last season.  The aforementioned Watt, T.Y. Hilton, Vick Ballard, and Cecil Shorts are just a few players who you couldn't point out in a lineup but are now players who are crucial parts of the their teams.  As with every team, breakout stars are going to decide the winners and losers.  There will always be a player that comes out of the woodwork.  Maybe JJ Watt can become a once in a generation star, but nobody saw it coming before last season.  Many think Andrew Luck will become an all-time great, but they didn't think he would take the Colts from a two win team to an eleven win team.  Not many around the league even noticed that Paul Posluszny (2012 pick of this column) left the Bills to go become a Jaguar, but he ended up eighth in the entire NFL in tackles.  Our job is not to tell you who is good and was good last season, you already know that.  Our job is to tell you who to look out for this season and who's name you should get used to hearing.  These are those people in the AFC South.

Houston Texans - Garrett Graham TE
Owen Daniels is a very good NFL tight end.  So how does his back up become the next big thing on the Houston Texans?  Daniels is going to turn 31 in the middle of this season.  He hasn't played a full 16 game schedule since 2008, and the games he does play in he plays hurt.  Garrett Graham finally got a shot in 2012, as he added to his one career reception in the first three years of his career.  He had twenty-eight receptions on thirty-eight targets.  He caught as many passes as he was allowed to.  He did not let a playoff target hit the ground as he hauled in all five of them.  Another fact helping this guy out is the Texans offense ran more two tight end sets than anyone in football.  With James Casey bolting for Philadelphia, Graham is a sure shot to be that second tight end.  He showed last year that when called upon he can catch the ball.  He is in his fourth year so he can go into his prime without the wear and tear that most players have coming in at this point in their careers.  He has the luxury of having no expectations even though he has all the talent in the world.  The position saw 186 targets in 2012,a number that is not likely to shrink in 2013.  Graham will take advantage of the injuries to Daniels and the playing time that will come with it.  This is also a contract year for Graham, as his rookie contract is up after the season.  He is poised to show that he is worth a big deal, and maybe to the Texans.  Daniels big payout is in 2014 and none of it is guaranteed.  Maybe some of that 4.5 million dollars could be used to keep Graham in Houston where he could take over.  Only time will tell, but expect to see another major jump in this kid's career.

Indianapolis Colts - Jerrell Freeman ILB
Last season was supposed to be the big breakout for Pat Angerer.  He was coming off his first 100 plus tackle season and they were moving to a 3-4, which seemed to suit his skills.  The season didn't exactly go that way for him.  He was injured from the get go of the season and saw two men jump into his spot just as effectively as himself.  One of those men was Kavell Conner and the other was Jerrell Freeman.  The difference between the two is Freeman showed he had starter worthy potential and he was on his last real shot to be an NFL player.  What ended up happening is the Colts found their inside linebacker of the future, and nobody really expected it from a guy coming out of Mary Hardin-Baylor University in Belton, Texas.  Freeman made his presence known immediately intercepting a Jay Cutler pass and taking it all the way back for a touchdown.  Not too bad for your first NFL regular season game.  He showed the talent that made him such a force in the Canadian Football League and used that skill to make a name for himself in the NFL.  Freeman will now start the season as the man as far as the inside linebackers go.  Angerer and Conner are going to battle each other for the extra spot, while the undrafted guy coming out of the CFL sits nicely with his spot intact.  Freeman ended up second in the AFC behind Jerod Mayo in tackles.  He gets to the spots that nobody expected him to.  What you should expect is Jerrell Freeman to become a leader in this defense and be a perennial Pro Bowler for years to come.

Jacksonville Jaguars - Blaine Gabbert QB
I just lost all my readers.  Hear me out for just a minute.  Blaine Gabbert had looked like the most terrible quarterback in the league.  He is a bust before he has even had a shot.  Gabbert has confidence issues, which could be a death sentence for a quarterback's career.  The coaches are saying that he is doing a really good job of forgetting what has already happened.  In early practices, he has shown signs of the skills that led him to be picked tenth overall.  The word coming out of the draft is that he would be struggling to switch from the spread offense to the pro style offense, but in 2008 he was ranked the best pro style quarterback coming out of high school.  The competition with Chad Henne is only going to help him push himself.  He doesn't have time to doubt himself, he needs to have a short memory.  You also have to remember that Gabbert was supposed to sit for a year behind David Garrard before playing, but his surprising release shot him up to starter.  He clearly was not ready for such a responsibility and it is no wonder he struggled.  This will be his third season in the league.  He will have those growing pains out of the way.  He led the most conservative offense in the league, shown by his 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions over the last two seasons.  He needs to be more willing to take a shot and he needs an offense that will help him succeed.  Add to the fact that they got what most analysts felt was the best player in the draft in Luke Joeckel to solidify his blindside and that will always help your confidence out.  New coach Gus Bradley showed his confidence to win with Gabbert when he elected to not take a quarterback with any of his draft picks. The new regime went out and acquired a ton of weapons for him in the likes of Mohamed Massaquoi, Ace Sanders, and Denard Robinson.  He has everything he needs to succeed finally and this is his time to do it.  If he doesn't then this could be the end of a once promising career.

Tennessee Titans - Jason McCourty CB
The twin brother of the Patriots Devin, Jason McCourty finally made somewhat of a name for himself last season.  He took over for Cortland Finnegan who bolted for the Rams, becoming the Titans number one   cornerback.  He took a nice $43 million extension before the season that will keep him in Tennessee until 2017.  He re-payed them by playing like a number one corner should.  He hauled in four interceptions (more than Finnegan in St Louis by the way) and had fifteen pass deflections.  He also was a big part of the run defense as he had four tackles for loss on the year.  He has become a great all around player for the Titans.  Tennessee will be much improved in 2013 on the defensive side as a whole, and because of this the sports world will begin to know the name of Jason McCourty.  I expect him to anchor a defense that may not have a lot of talent, but they have a year of experience under their belts.  A big difference is the effect that incoming safety Bernard Pollard is playing on this team, and Jason.  He is bringing a more team like feel to the organization and McCourty has already said that is helping him become a better player.  Expect a surprise in Tennessee when it comes to the side of the ball you didn't expect it from.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Guys You Don't Know (But You Should) AFC North Edition

The six-time world champions, the current world champions, the team that has never won a championship and the team that seems like they will never smell a championship ever; this is what the AFC North consists of.  It is always one of the best and most competitive divisions in the NFL.  They are known for beating on each other (especially the Steelers and Ravens) and have great competition against the rest of the teams in the NFL.  The Ravens won three playoff games against a team from every division (including the number one and number two seed) on their way to their second Super Bowl Championship.

The Steelers spent the offseason letting go of most of their well known players.  The Ravens followed suit.  The division has been in existence since 2002 and Pittsburgh and Baltimore have taken the division all but two times.  This year seems like it is going to be three with all the losses on these two teams.  Between the two, they lost Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, James Harrison, Mike Wallace, Danelle Elerbe, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin, Cary Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, Keenan Lewis, Willie Colon, and Will Allen.  That is some list of players that now play outside arguably the best rivalry in the NFL.  Is this where the Bengals finally take a strangle-hold of a division they have been so close to taking the past two years?  Will the Browns take a step forward under new management?  We don't know what the future holds, but we do know with all the moving parts there is bound to be a ton of surprises in this division in 2013.

Baltimore Ravens - Bernard Pierce RB
I know what you're saying, there is no way that anyone will take over for Ray Rice, right?  Now I am not sitting here saying that Pierce will take over for Rice next year, but I am saying that Pierce will become the most talked about back-up running back in the league.  Think Ben Tate of the past two years, and that is what you should see from Pierce in 2013.  He had a decent year on limited time in 2012 accumulating 532 yards on 4.9 ypc.  This season the Ravens brass are said that they want to get Pierce more involved with their offense.  The second year pro out of Temple has shown he has the ability to run in the NFL in his rookie year, now he just has to be consistent.  The splits on carries in 2012 were about 75-25 for Rice and Pierce.  Expect that to move more towards 60-40 now that they are a legitimate 1-2 punch.  The headlines are paying attention to the Joe Flacco contract and the fact that they lost their number one receiver, but they are ignoring the fact that the Ravens may have the best backfield in football.  Pierce is quickly looking like a third round steal and is under Baltimore control for the next three years at extremely reasonable numbers.  If Pierce can work on his pass catching ability (something Rice excels at) then he would be a total package.  The Ravens have a true thunder and lightning possibility here.  If Rice ends up getting hurt, then Baltimore is in good hands with Bernard Pierce taking the load.

Cincinnati Bengals - Giovanni Bernard RB
After a year away from the Patriots system, Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis did nothing to impress anyone in his first role as the bread-winner running back of the Bengals.  He had decent stats, but he started fumbling, which is something he literally never did in his four years prior to that.  On a normal circumstances you wouldn't give up on a big signing in year two of a three year deal.  This is where Bernard comes in.  He was taken with the fifth pick of the second round of this year's draft and it showed that Cincinnati did not see the Law Firm as the main squeeze for years to come.  The surprising part is after all this the North Carolina product may not be shining at his natural position of running back.  The Bengals coaching staff loves the pass catching ability of Bernard so much that they are working on using the back out wide.  He is at his best in open space and this could be the best way to get him the space he needs to excel.  Running backs coach Hue Jackson thinks he could be even more than that.  In his view he can carry the load for the Bengals, instead of being just a change of pace back behind Green-Ellis.  Head coach Marvin Lewis sees Bernard as a back who could carry the ball 25 times, not just a home run threat.  He thinks that he could be a control the pace of the game type of player.  Every coach speaks highly of his skills and character and they show that he may be one of the most prominent parts of the Bengals offensive game.  He averaged 6.7 ypc in his last year in college and hopes he can even come close to that in the NFL.  According to Bengals brass, this guy is going to have a huge year, and I'm going to agree with them.  Bengals fans will have something to look forward to with this guy.

Cleveland Browns - Brandon Weeden QB
People are going to start thinking that I am crazy with my love for Weeden.  He was a 28-year-old rookie. He plays for a team that isn't immensely talented.  He had one game where he was REALLY bad, and that was his first NFL game.  If you take that game out then his stats look a lot better (59.1% completion percentage, 14 TD/13INT, 217.8 ypg).  They brought in Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer, but I think that was just an extra push for the 29-year-old.  He may have been older, but he still was a rookie.  It is hard to say that with the Russell Wilsons, Andrew Lucks and RGIIIs taking their teams to the playoffs in their rookie years, but that isn't how it has been in previous years.  He will shorten the gap between himself and the rest of his draft class.  Trent Richardson is going to take on a more prominent role in this offense to take some of the pressure of his quarterback.  They brought in a new head coach in Rob Chudzinski who will bring in a new system.  It seemed Pat Shumar's system was not the very best for his skill set.  He will improve on things that hurt him last year, like reading the speed of the NFL and getting passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.  Weeden has the skills to be an elite QB in the NFL with a gunslinger arm and the ability to help his receiver make a play.  The same guys who turned Derek Anderson into a Pro Bowl quarterback are now working with Weeden on his game.  They brought in Davone Bess to have an extra deep threat along with his young receiving core being one season older.  Norv Turner also came over from San Diego and is said to be an offensive genius.  Between the bevy of new coaches and the fact that his weapons have survived those learning curves as well equal the kind of sophomore year that everyone can hope they have.  With a weaker division and a 21st ranked strength of schedule (remember that is with a stronger Steelers and Ravens team from last season), don't be surprised if Cleveland fights for a playoff spot towards the end of the season.  Also, don't be surprised if a big reason for that is the production of their QB.

Pittsburgh Steelers - Emmanuel Sanders WR
Mike Wallace was supposed to be the clear cut number one receiver on this team, but he was let go for nothing as he signed a new deal with the Miami Dolphins.  The Steelers did not blink an eye to his departure. Sanders could also have left to New England as they sent in an offer sheet on him.  Since he was a restricted free agent, tSteelers would have received a third round pick for the fourth year player.  Ben Roethlisberger was not letting this happen.  He went to Pittsburgh brass and said they could not let this guy go.  I am trusting the quarterback here and believing that there is something special about this guy.  He has shown flashes of playmaking ability last season.  He is perfect for Todd Haley's dink and dunk offensive style.  He has a healthy quarterback and an improved offensive line.  He has his first shot to show that he was capable of being a starter this entire time, as he waited his turn since coming into the league.  Thirty-one of his forty-four receptions went for first downs.  He knows where he needs to get to in order to help this team.  On top of this, Sanders only got a one year contract.  He could be playing for a very big contract if he can produce up to the expectations the Steelers set for him.  He could join Antonio Brown as teammates who hit 1,000 yards receiving.  Sanders will take this season and make it his own.  He is completely healthy for the first time in a long time (whether his injuries were real or fake, see his fine against the Bengals last season) and he is going to take the league by storm this season.  Everyone in Pittsburgh knows this guy is going to go off, it is time for you guys to jump onto the bandwagon as well.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Guys You Don't Know (But You Should) 2013 AFC East Edition

It has been a long time, but we at SportsEnvy are finally back after a nearly two month hiatus.  What better way to come back than with our most popular article series?  For those of you readers who aren't familiar, every year we break down one player from each team that may have been a big name before and fell from grace, or one that you may not know but is going to have a big year this season.  The NFL is a crazy sport that will have unpredictable stories that are hard to believe.  Take last year, of the top five rushers in the sport, two were coming off major knee surgery, two were rookies (one a sixth rounder) and the other was Marshawn Lynch.  JJ Watt became the most fear sack artist in the game.  Patrick Peterson may have stolen top cornerback from a hobbled Darrell Revis.  Richard Sherman made it a three man debate.  All of these players were not household names at the start of the 2012 season.

Today we take a look at the AFC East.  There were many departures from teams in this division.  Wes Welker is off to catch passes from Peyton Manning in Denver.  Aaron Hernandez won't be playing football for a very long time.  Ryan Fitzpatrick is no longer taking snaps up in Buffalo.  The Dolphins lost their former number one overall pick Jake Long and their starting running back Reggie Bush.  The Jets, well, the Jets lost whatever they had left.  This division may be cut and dry as to who the top players are (Dolphins; Patriots) and who the bottom feeders are (Bills; Jets), but you never know in this league.  These next four players should have a sudden impact on these teams if everything goes to plan.

Buffalo Bills- Kyle Williams DE
Williams had somewhat of a decent season for Buffalo in 2012.  With the addition of Mario Williams he got to take advantage of less double teams and showed off his skills.  The issue is that he had to play hurt for most of the year.  Kyle Williams has been fighting foot problems since college and has finally got them fixed.  He had major surgery to take care of the bone spurs in the left foot in 2011 and got the bones spurs in his right foot fixed this February.  He is now walking correctly on his two feet for the first time in his career.  This guy got five sacks on one foot last season.  Think about what his untapped potential is going to be.  Also, the new system brought in by Mike Pettine will only help the seven year veteran.  Williams turns thirty this year and is going to learn a ton from Pettine's system.  Pettine learned from Rex Ryan who, no matter how crazy he might seem, is one of the best defensive minds in the entire NFL.  I expect Williams to blow past his numbers that he put up in 2010 (all career highs for him) and fully expect him to show off that he is a force to be reckoned with, especially against a certain future hall of fame division rival.

New York Jets- Chris Ivory RB
Ivory has been buried on the depth chart in New Orleans for years.  Since 2010, he has been trying to overcome the likes of Reggie Bush, Mark Ingram (both Heisman Trophy winners), Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproiles, Julius Jones and Ladell Betts.  He led the team in rushing in his rookie year, yet seemed to never get a true chance since.  He missed the first half of last season due to injury and was too far behind the temporary regime that New Orleans had together last season.  So what makes that a reason why he is going to break out?  If he wasn't able to take the starting position then there has to be a reason for it, right?  He is coming into an organization with a lot of offensive questions, but he will come in and answer the call when it comes to rushing the ball.  It is no secret that Mark Sanchez is not the best quarterback in the league (he is a lot closer to the worst actually) and Rex Ryan is losing faith in the former 5th overall pick.  This shows that Ryan will lean more heavily on the running game.  Ivory has the pure talent to carry this Jets team on his back and can even get defenses off the back of Sanchez.  He has the ability to make his own plays and can break a few tackles before he is off to the races.  He has a better yards per carry than most of the league.  He even has an above average pass catching ability, even if it wasn't used much in NO.  He will be a decent check down option for Sanchez on later downs.  He may come into the team without much experience, but he will be a vital part of where the Jets go this season.  They may be missing a lot of talent, but Ivory could help the Jets become somewhat respectable in 2013.

New England Patriots- Rob Ninkovich DE
 The Patriots have been in the news for a little over a month now.  First with the signing of Tim Tebow, then with the arrest of TE Aaron Hernandez.  The Patriots may start the season without their top five receiving leaders with Hernandez released, Gronkowski hurt, Welker in Denver, Woodhead in San Diego and Brandon Lloyd was also let go.  They replaced them with cheap options and rookies.  With all this showing that it will be hard for the Brady Bunch to lead the world in passing like they always do it seems as if they will lean on the defense a little more than they usually do.  That is where Ninkovich comes to play.  They have a new look secondary with Devin McCourtey at free safety, Talib coming back to play corner, a full season of Alfonso Denard and veteran Adrian Wilson at the other safety spot.  Teams will need to think before they throw against them for the first time in a long time.  That hesitation is all Ninkovich will need to clobber the quarterback.  He showed to be a reliable hybrid player and made himself a threat.  He has raised his sack total in every year since he came to New England and I don't expect that to stop anytime soon.  He sacked the QB eight times in 2012, and I fully expect that to get to double digits in 2013.  Ninkovich was at his best when it mattered.  He got six of his ten sacks (including two in the AFC Championship Game) against teams that made the playoffs in 2012.  He likes to play the best, and he will get the chance to this season. 
The Pats defense will be talked about as a Patriot strength rather than a weakness.  Ninkovich will make himself known finally and will be spotlighted on this defense once again.

Miami Dolphins- Richard Marshall CB
The Dolphins were more than busy this offseason.  They signed Mike Wallace to give Ryan Tannehill the deep threat his big arm needs, while also keeping their slot guy Brian Hartline.  They traded up to pick Dion Jordan with the third overall pick.  They also took a chance on Brett Grimes, who missed most of the season with a Achilles injury.  Grimes is not the cornerback that we should be looking at when the Dolphins debut the new logos in week one, we should be paying attention to Richard Marshall.  He looked like he was on his way to a career year before he went down with a back injury.  He was on pace for twenty deflected passes on the season, which would have put him as fifth best in the league in that category.  He is a formidable second option and will be more than motivated this season.  There are whispers that he has to perform this season or he may lose his roster spot.  He will be battling Jamar Taylor to be opposite Grimes when the Fins take the field against the Cleveland Browns on September 8th.  I fully expect him to come out with a fire lit under him to show that he cannot be replaced and play mad that anyone even flirted with the idea that someone could do his job better.  He will break out after seeming to be on cruise control over the past four or five seasons.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Grizzlies Love Fest Has Begun...Is It Justified?

If you had the Memphis Grizzlies winning the current series with the Thunder, then I would like tomorrow's lotto numbers if you'd be so kind.  I understand the series is not over yet, but Memphis has done a masterful job of taking Oklahoma City out of it's gameplan in every way possible.  What does this mean?  Did we under estimate Memphis?  Is Oklahoma City nothing without Westbrook?  Are the Grizzlies the best team in the West?  Can they beat the Heat?

These questions rank from "a good conclusion" to "obvious overreaction".  So how good are the Grizzlies?  Well we know they are dominant at home.  They went 32-9 in the regular season at home.  They have yet to lose a home game during this current postseason run, which includes two games against the Thunder and three against the LA Clippers.  The raucous Memphis crown has really got behind the loveable underdog that is the Grizzlies.  The crowd never gives up on it's team and always goes crazy when they take their opponents down. 

It also helps that Memphis was the best defensive team in the NBA this season.  I'll repeat, THE BEST.  They were the only team in the NBA to hold their opponents to under 90 points per game for the season.  They had Mike Conley break out and had more steals than anyone else in the league.  Tony Allen joins Conley in the top ten for steals per 48 and is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.  They win with defense and it has been working against teams that go at them with offense.  They know how to frustrate offensive powered teams and keep the best off the score board. 

Even the best superstars in the NBA cannot over come the pure power of this Grizzlies defense.  Take a look at the difference between the shooting percentage of superstars average against the Grizz rather than against the rest of the league:

                              Shooting %         % Against Mem
Kobe Bryant                .463                          .406
Kevin Durant               .510                          .508 (but .462 in the series)
Chris Paul                    .481                          .472
Carmelo Anthony         .449                          .441
Lebron James              .565                          .424
Blake Griffin                .538                          .444
Dwyane Wade             .521                          .387
Tony Parker                 .522                          .507
Dirk Nowitzki               .471                          .459
James Harden              .438                          .359

As you can see, the glaring truth here is that every single superstar on this list cannot hit their season average against this Memphis defense.  Some are small like Carmelo and Chris Paul, but some are glaringly large like Lebron and Wade's drop.  When you keep the consensus best Batman and Robin team in the NBA to more than 100 points under their average scoring percentage you know you are the best team in the league at holding your opponent down.  

It's amazing how this team is doing what they are without a true offensive punch.  Their best scorer coming into the season is now a part of the Toronto Raptors organization.  The man who they got in return is averaging 10.4 points per game instead of his 18.2.  How could the Grizzlies fathom to try to make offense without Rudy Gay in their lineup, especially since they only got Tayshaun Prince in return.  Where do the points come from?  The inside shooters have really taken over lately.  It is known throughout the league that most teams are getting smaller, and the Grizz are taking full advantage of it.  Marc Gasol is averaging 19.1 points per game and Zach Randolph is averaging 18.9 points per game in the playoffs.  Gasol is second among centers in PPG this postseason and Randolph is second among power forwards in the same time frame.  Both averages are considerably higher than their season average so you know this team has been wanting to step up after getting so close to making a run these past few years.  There just aren't any teams that can match the one-two punch of Z-Bo and Gasol down low. 

The past of the Grizzlies is not a pretty one.  Before the 2010-11 season, the team had only gone to the playoffs in three out of fifteen seasons.  What is worse is that they were swept in all three of those series.  Then the 2011 Spurs series happened.  It was an after thought that the Spurs would make it to the second round, they do every year.  Those Grizzlies wanted none of it and ended up taking down mighty San Antonio in six games.  Then they took the young upstart Thunder to seven games before being taken out in that final winner-take-all game.  The Grizzlies arrived at that point.  Since then they have made the playoffs every year and in this year alone have avenged last year's series loss to the Clippers and are about to avenge a series loss to the Thunder two years ago.  This team is such a contrast to the normal style of play in the NBA that they could steal a championship this year in the style that the Dallas Mavericks did two years ago. 

The trade that brought Marc over from the Lakers to the Grizzlies was riddles with controversy.  It sent Memphis' only good player at the time, Marc's brother Pau, to the already stacked Lakers team that basically gave them two more titles.  Marc was just another European player that was billed as much worse than his brother.  Well we see how that has turned out.  Marc is playing on in the Western Conference semis and Pau is playing golf or doing Spanish things.  The Grizzlies are here to stay and they could go on a Spurs type run.  They won't have many nationally televised games, but they win ugly.  In their minds, it is as long as they win.

I know the biggest asterisk on this series is the injury to Russell Westbrook.  That is indeed a big blow to the Thunder and is hurting them in this series and the previous one against Houston as well.  The fact is that the Grizzlies are still taking down the second best player in the NBA with relative ease.  They have caused the Oklahoma City front office to second guess their decision to trade away James Harden.  They have done the impossible and made Memphis a somewhat relevant sports town.  There is nothing that can be said that should take away any credit that this team deserves.  They made Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka into vegetables.  This is a team that could be your Western Conference representative and they may just be the team that could beat the Heat.  They have the exact contrast to the style of Miami, so why not pick them?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

In Case You Forgot, The Heat Are Still Better Than You

Have you ever heard of that well-known saying "the only thing that could stop them, is them"?  That is your 2013 Miami Heat in a nutshell.  They cruised through their first round series against an over matched Bucks team.  It didn't even seem like the Heat gave forth a big effort, and still Milwaukee had no shot.  They averaged exactly 100 points per game, and I am pretty sure they were blindfolded in game three just to make it interesting.  With such dominance comes some expectations.  When they have those expectations they seem to get full of themselves.  It is hard not to when people are telling you that you are the best and that you will probably win the NBA Finals without losing a game, etc.  When you hear those kinds of claims, you start to believe them.  When you start to believe them, then something similar to Monday night occurs. 

The Bulls came into Monday coming off a hard fought seven game series against the Brooklyn Nets.  They were full of piss and vinegar and came at the Heat with a vengeance.  They had a strange confidence about them since they were the team that ended the much heralded 27 game winning streak.  The Bulls play the kind of basketball that hurts the Heat.  They are rough around the edges and even if they lose they make it extremely hard on their opponents.  They will beat you down and get in your head.  They will make you think twice about going to the hole and cause you to take more jump shots, which have a much lower shooting percentage.  They hurt you and get in your head.  They cause your frustration level to hit the roof.  Basically, they make you play their game, and that's exactly what they did to the Heat on Monday.  They let Miami get comfortable and then in the blink of an eye they were leaving as game one winners. 

Oh, by the way, they were without Kirk Hinrich AND Luol Deng as they were both out with different ailments.  The Bulls took down the "unstoppable" Heat with their JV squad.  They rode the likes of Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler down the stretch to steal home court advantage from the defending champs.  A 10-0 run to end the game spelled doom for the Heat who looked absolutely stunned that a team could come on their home court and take the game away from them in such a way.  They did it with four of their five starters playing at least forty of the forty-eight minutes.  With that, they held the Heat to their lowest output of the playoffs. 

The Heat are awake now.

They went into the last game hungry to quiet the haters.  They wanted the doubters in the media to know that the favorites are still just that.  One hiccup was just that, a hiccup on the way to a flawless victory.  They beat the Bulls by a score of 115-78, their biggest win in their franchise history.  The Heat shot a little over 39 percent in game one, they shot 60 percent in game two.  They made eleven more shots while taking eight less shots.  It was staggering how proficient the Heat were.  They were the ones who were doing the frustrating.  They caused the Bulls to take six technical fouls.  (The Heat took three themselves to show they were ready to play any type of basketball, Chicago was not expecting that.) 

It should have been expected that a night like last night could have happened.  The Bulls aren't known for their scoring, yet they dropped 35 on the Heat in the fourth quarter.  Nate Robinson is usually a good bench player, but he dropped 27 in the starting role.  He has only scored that much on four other occasions all season.  Before Monday night, Jimmy Butler hadn't scored 20 points since March 3rd, but he dropped 21 on the Heat.  What Chicago did was going to be hard to sustain. 

The point of last night was to show that this is the same team who people were saying they could go 4-4-4-4 and win every series in sweeping fashion.  That may not be possible anymore, but they can still dominate.  They need to survive this series without injury.  They need to keep Dwayne Wade as healthy as possible.  They need Lebron to keep doing best in the world kinds of things.  They need Chris Bosh to be quietly great as he has been since he arrived.  They need their bench to show they can hurt you just as quickly as the starters.  They need to shoot well and they need to remember the task at hand.  As long as the Heat don't become their own worst enemy then this will be as easy as everyone says it is.  Even if the Bulls get Hinrich and Deng back healthy they could still win this in 5.  Even if Derrick Rose made his long awaited comeback to the court they will still be moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals.  They are too good.  If something goes wrong (an injury maybe?) then it is a different story.  That is when it gets interesting.  Do the Heat have what it takes to win when they are evenly matched?  Only time will tell, but for now they are the best in the world.