2016 NFL DRAFT REVIEW

A few days on from the event and another NFL Draft is complete. As with previous years I really enjoyed it; watching the process of the picks and trades as they happen whilst piecing together each teams Draft class is always interesting.  The NFL showing live and uninterrupted coverage on their website was a welcome addition too.

All of the previews and discussions leading up to the Draft and analysis from the NFL Combine, pro days and workouts helped to increase the anticipation. The players that declared for the Draft and took part in these tests had scouts and coaches dissecting the results and watching individual game film to identify who they wanted.

I was especially interested in these results this year as I watched so much more college Football in 2015 than I ever had before. In past Drafts I have known a fair amount about players and enjoyed viewing highlights, but immersing myself in the entire season and getting a full grasp on the conferences, divisions and teams meant I was familiar with so many of this year’s entrants that it added extra excitement to seeing who would go where and how each round would unfold.

I have always liked analysing players and felt proficient doing so. The knowledge I gained throughout the college season of the majority of talent in this Draft made me take note of as many Combine numbers as possible to see which prospects were helping or hindering their chance to be drafted early.  I used these numbers along with my own judgement from watching games to put the players into order by position.  (I’m sure I may not be evaluating all of these results in the best way possible i.e. which drills are the most important for certain positions…but I was happy enough with my system!)

The players were ranked in this order but not for a mock Draft. Mocks have never appealed to me as they rarely seem to take into account how much can happen throughout the course of a Draft, as occurred about a week before the first night when the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles traded up for the numbers 1 and 2 picks respectively.  I did, however, decide to rank players to put them into a Top 100 list – predicting who the first 100 players selected would be.

It was easy based on the Combine and media hype to identify who had a good chance to make the 100.  In other cases it was tougher (like choosing who was best between my 4th, 5th and 6th offensive guard!) and a couple of times deciding between two players could simply go either way.  Having all of these notes available as references on players during the Draft allowed me to follow who was chosen sooner or later than I was expecting.

As the Draft went on it was apparent how many teams were putting together a strong set of picks. In fact, I don’t remember a Draft where so many teams came away looking as though they had done such a good job.  It was interesting seeing which areas of the field most teams were targeting; one thing that surprised me was the number of cornerbacks taken in the first three rounds.

Below are the first 100 picks of the Draft. The first round attracts the majority of the attention and headlines every year and 2016 was no different, so I have included a small amount on each first round pick and thereafter something on any pick I think is worth a mention.

  1. Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams – The quarterback class this year does not appear to be as strong as recent years, but the Rams made Jared Goff the number 1 pick. Goff looks like the best of the QB bunch and it seems a good fit; trading up to number 1 and taking a California kid is a story that matches the scale of the Rams move back to Los Angeles. Goff likes to spread his throws all over the field so the team added some weapons later in the Draft to further help him become the face of the franchise.
  2. Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles – With the Rams selecting Goff, it was left for the Eagles to get Wentz as their new signal caller. I’m not as high on him as most are and it’s a big leap for him to come straight into an NFL offense from small school North Dakota State. The Eagles will need to adapt their offense a little to make it right for him.
  3. Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers – Joey Bosa was touted as one of the country’s top defensive talents while at Ohio State. Then pre-Draft some reports had him falling a little bit. Then the Chargers made him the top defensive pick after all.  He’s a player I like watching and I can’t wait to see how he fits into San Diego’s defense.
  4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys were linked with Elliott for a long time and they could not resist his college production. Running behind the strong offensive line Dallas have assembled will help Elliott immensely.
  5. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars – Jacksonville gets one of the top players in the Draft by selecting Jalen Ramsey. He’s tough, smart and versatile and instantly upgrades the Jags secondary.
  6. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Baltimore Ravens – A pick unanimously seen as solid and safe. The Ravens have some tough defenses to deal with in their division and choosing a brand new OT is a good start to combatting that.
  7. DeForest Buckner, DE, San Francisco 49ers – Buckner is reunited with Chip Kelly who was his coach at Oregon. He is a good player and a powerful tackler who fills a need for the team.
  8. Jack Conklin, OT, Tennessee Titans – After watching him during the season and on tape I like Conklin a lot, he also had a good Combine. Tennessee traded up to get him and continue to build a good young offense.
  9. Leonard Floyd, OLB, Chicago Bears – Floyd’s value rose throughout the Draft process and I always enjoy seeing the Bears take a linebacker so I like the pick.
  10. Eli Apple, CB, New York Giants – The Giants have received some bad press for this selection, maybe as they had others needs to sort out. I like Apple so am probably in the minority in thinking the Giants made a good choice here.
  11. Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – I certainly prefer Apple to Hargreaves, who goes to his home town to play for Tampa Bay. This pick feels too high, but as I said earlier, far more cornerbacks went earlier than I was expecting.
  12. Sheldon Rankins, DT, New Orleans Saints – Rankins was my top DT so this looks like a smart selection for the Saints who needs to improve the defensive line.
  13. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Miami Dolphins – If you haven’t heard about Tunsil’s Draft night – strap in! He was projected as a possible number 1 pick for the Titans before they traded that away. When he arrived for the event he was still expected to be in consideration for a top 5 selection.  Then minutes before the Draft began, one of his personal social media accounts was hacked showing a video of him taking drugs, which caused teams to disregard him completely.  He actually didn’t tumble too far as the Dolphins grabbed him to upgrade their offensive line, banking on his off-field problems not affecting his on-field play.
  14. Karl Joseph, S, Oakland Raiders – This feels like a bit of a reach from the Raiders. Joseph is a talented safety when he’s good, but he has had an injured and inconsistent couple of years. The Raiders are putting together a nice defense and based on his potential, Joseph could be another big piece.
  15. Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns – It took longer than I thought to hear the name of a receiver called and I did not think the first would be Coleman’s. He wasn’t even in my top 3 receivers before the Draft – typical Browns!
  16. Taylor Decker, OT, Detroit Lions – I thought the Lions would also go with a receiver here, but they had been linked with Decker so this shouldn’t be a big surprise.
  17. Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons – I don’t see it with Neal and had him going late in the second round. Perhaps this move shows a lack of depth at safety and the Falcons were not willing to wait a round for him.
  18. Ryan Kelly, C, Indianapolis Colts – Kelly was the best center entering the Draft and the Colts always looked like they were going to take him as added protection for Andrew Luck.
  19. Shaq Lawson, DE, Buffalo Bills – This is a no-brainer for the Bills, who had a great Draft. Lawson was one of the primary reasons Clemson were unbeaten right up to the national championship game and this feels like a really good fit.
  20. Darron Lee, OLB, New York Jets – Lee is a linebacker who plays with real speed and backed that up at the Combine. He could thrive under the Jets coaching staff.
  21. Will Fuller, WR, Houston Texans – Fuller is quick across the ground but his hands are a little inconsistent. Houston followed up this pick by taking Braxton Miller in the third round in order to give new quarterback Brock Osweiler as many targets as possible.
  22. Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins – I like this pick, especially as I didn’t see the Redskins going wide receiver here. Washington were another team that had a great Draft and it all began by choosing Doctson.
  23. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Minnesota Vikings – Treadwell was my top receiver in this year’s class and probably fell this far due to a perceived lack of speed. What he can do well is challenge anyone for the catch one-on-one. I’ve enjoyed watching him play for more than two years now and he’ll get the chance to make plays in Minnesota’s offense.
  24. William Jackson, CB, Cincinnati Bengals – Jackson’s stock increased after some fast times at the Combine. The Bengals nabbed him ahead of their arch rivals, who were picking next.
  25. Artie Burns, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers – With Jackson taken from them, Pittsburgh chose Artie Burns with another defensive back pick that feels a bit high. Burns could have been their man all along and he’ll be thrown into a good defensive system.
  26. Paxton Lynch, QB, Denver Broncos – Brilliant! It had been talked about but until Denver traded up to get Lynch I didn’t think it would happen. I really like Lynch, if you judge the quarterbacks on potential alone he is easily the best in the Draft.  Denver is the perfect team for him – good quarterback coaches, the best defense in the league and an offense that will fit him.  It’s a great place for us all to find out if he can realise that huge potential.
  27. Kenny Clark, DT, Green Bay Packers – This is a pick that fills a need for the Packers. It also shows the class depth at defensive tackle as there were still names available at the position I thought would go before Clark.
  28. Joshua Garnett, OG, San Francisco 49ers – I was a little surprised the 49ers traded from the top of the second round to the bottom of the first to take the first guard off the board. Garnett would likely have still been there in round two but if you like the player, then why not go get him?
  29. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Arizona Cardinals – A scary pick! Nkemdiche has a lot of talent, but off-the-field issues caused him to slide. The Cardinals already have a mean defense and adding Nkemdiche could turn out to be terrific value.
  30. Vernon Butler, DT, Carolina Panthers – Butler is a player who I heard discussed as a high pick more as the Draft approached. It seems the Panthers were aware of the talk too and selected him to play on their defensive line.
  31. Germain Ifedi, OT, Seattle Seahawks – Seattle allowed the Denver Broncos to trade with them for the number 26 pick, so they traded down to the final pick of round one and still got the player I think they wanted here. Ifedi appears to be a strong addition who is versatile enough to play tackle and guard. Just the sort of offensive lineman the coaches like.
  32. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Cleveland Browns
  33. Kevin Dodd, DE, Tennessee Titans
  34. Jaylon Smith, OLB, Dallas Cowboys – Smith is thought to be as good as any player in this Draft, but a horrible knee injury in the final game of his college career ruined his chances to be taken early. Worrying reports that he may not even be ready to play in 2016 circulated and his Draft stock plummeted. The Cowboys selected him right near the start of round two, which is still earlier than most people predicted.  If Smith returns at a high level this is a huge value pick.
  35. Hunter Henry, TE, San Diego Chargers
  36. Myles Jack, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars – Another quality linebacker who dropped out of round one due to injury concerns was Myles Jack. Since being picked up at this spot by the Jaguars, Jack has stated he is healthy and ready to go. By adding Jack to their first selection, Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have acquired two of this year’s best defensive prospects – great drafting!
  37. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
  38. Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins
  39. Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Tampa Bay could also have a steal by taking pass rusher Noah Spence, who was another player that could of gone higher but for the dreaded off-the-field troubles. If the Buccaneers get what they are hoping for from Spence he will be a threat off the edge of their defensive line.
  40. Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants
  41. Reggie Ragland, ILB, Buffalo Bills – Ragland is clearly the best interior linebacker in the 2016 Draft. He is yet another defender who fell into the second round due to questions about his health. More than happy to get him here were the Bills – as I mentioned earlier, I really like their Draft this year.
  42. Kamalei Correa, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
  43. Austin Johnson, DT, Tennessee Titans – This is the point at which my top 100 took its first miss, I didn’t expect so many defensive tackles to go early. Johnson fits the Titans system really well.
  44. Jihad Ward, DE, Oakland Raiders
  45. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans – I was really intrigued to see which team would take Henry. The Heisman trophy and national championship winner is a big, strong runner who the Titans will use as a tandem with DeMarco Murray in their backfield. I look forward to seeing if he can do it in the NFL.
  46. A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Detroit Lions
  47. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
  48. Jason Spriggs, OT, Green Bay Packers
  49. Jarran Reed, DT, Seattle Seahawks – Based on Reed being one of my top DT’s I think the Seahawks get a really good value pick here that also fills a need in the middle of the defensive line.
  50. Nick Martin, C, Houston Texans
  51. Christian Hackenberg, QB, New York Jets – The Jets quarterback situation is a little uncertain at the moment. Last season’s starter Ryan Fitzpatrick wants a bigger contract and Geno Smith is still there although it seems to have been forgotten how well he played at the end of 2014. Adding Hackenberg to the mix does not feel like a wise decision.
  52. Deion Jones, OLB, Atlanta Falcons
  53. Su’a Cravens, S, Washington Redskins – The Redskins continued their strong Draft by choosing Cravens, a safety who is also big enough to play as a hybrid-type linebacker. The sort of player I assumed coaches would love to get their hands on in the first round.
  54. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings
  55. Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
  56. Cody Whitehair, OG, Chicago Bears
  57. T.J. Green, S, Indianapolis Colts
  58. Sean Davis, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
  59. Roberto Aguayo, K, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Near the end of round two the Buccaneers traded up for…a kicker! I knew Aguayo would get picked on the second night as he’d been talked about as one of the best kickers to enter a Draft for a number of years.
  60. Cyrus Jones, CB, New England Patriots
  61. Vonn Bell, S, New Orleans Saints
  62. James Bradberry, CB, Carolina Panthers
  63. Adam Gotsis, DT, Denver Broncos
  64. Kevin Byard, S, Tennessee Titans
  65. Carl Nassib, DE, Cleveland Browns
  66. Max Tuerk, C, San Diego Chargers
  67. Maliek Collins, DT, Dallas Cowboys
  68. Will Redmond, CB, San Francisco 49ers
  69. Yannick Ngakoue, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars
  70. Bronson Kaufusi, DE, Baltimore Ravens
  71. Darian Thompson, S, New York Giants
  72. Jonathan Bullard, DE, Chicago Bears
  73. Kenyan Drake, RB, Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins need another running back but taking Drake here appears to be a bit high considering other names still on the board at the position. He will most likely feature on special teams having proved himself to be a dangerous returner.
  74. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
  75. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Oakland Raiders
  76. Shon Coleman, OT, Cleveland Browns
  77. Daryl Worley, CB, Carolina Panthers
  78. Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots
  79. Isaac Seumalo, OG, Philadelphia Eagles
  80. Adolphus Washington, DT, Buffalo Bills
  81. Austin Hooper, TE, Atlanta Falcons
  82. Le’Raven Clark, OT, Indianapolis Colts
  83. Jordan Jenkins, OLB, New York Jets
  84. Kendall Fuller, CB, Washington Redskins – Kendall is the fourth Fuller brother drafted into the NFL. His name would have been called earlier if not for a knee injury. By adding Fuller to the signing of Josh Norman and picking up Su’a Cravens in the second round, the Redskins have a much improved secondary.
  85. Braxton Miller, WR, Houston Texans
  86. Leonte Carroo, WR, Miami Dolphins
  87. Nick Vigil, ILB, Cincinnati Bengals
  88. Kyler Fackrell, OLB, Green Bay Packers
  89. Javon Hargrave, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers
  90. C.J. Prosise, RB, Seattle Seahawks – I predicted the Seahawks would get Prosise. He’s a strong runner who, as an ex-receiver, can also catch the ball well.
  91. Jacoby Brissett, QB, New England Patriots
  92. Brandon Williams, CB, Arizona Cardinals
  93. Cody Kessler, QB, Cleveland Browns
  94. Nick Vannett, TE, Seattle Seahawks
  95. Graham Glasgow, C, Detroit Lions
  96. Vincent Valentine, DT, New England Patriots
  97. Rees Odhiambo, OG, Seattle Seahawks
  98. Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos
  99. Joe Schobert, OLB, Cleveland Browns
  100. Connor Cook, QB, Oakland Raiders – Number 100 is Connor Cook. He won a lot of games at quarterback for Michigan State but questions about his leadership and attitude put some teams off. If those concerns are true, Cook may not like going to Oakland to be a backup to Derek Carr.

As the Draft moved into round four I checked my top 100 list which showed I scored 80. I’m very happy with that, as it was my first real try and I would have been pleased to score a bit less.  The result shows that all the time I spent as preparation wasn’t wasted…I think!  The players on my list who were not called in the first 100 picks are below.

101.  Charles Tapper, DE, Dallas Cowboys
102.  Josh Perry, OLB, San Diego Chargers – So close to a couple more with two players on my list going at 101 and 102. Like Tapper a pick before, Perry will add real effort and speed to the defense.
111.  Miles Killebrew, S, Detroit Lions
112.  Malcolm Mitchell, WR, New England Patriots
117.  Pharoh Cooper, WR, Los Angeles Rams
122.  Andrew Billings, DT, Cincinnati Bengals – One of the biggest fallers of the Draft was Andrew Billings. I thought he had a chance to go as early as the first but he slid all the way to the Bengals in round four.
134.  Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens
135.  Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys – Prescott is one of my top quarterbacks in the Draft and will go to Dallas to sit and learn the pro game behind veteran Tony Romo. I hope he gets a chance to play.
136.  Devontae Booker, RB, Denver Broncos
139.  Cardale Jones, QB, Buffalo Bills
142.  Ronald Blair, DE, San Francisco 49ers – I made the decision to put Blair in my top 100 more with my heart than my head. I enjoyed watching him play for small school Appalachian State and was glad to see him drafted.
144.  Connor McGovern, OG, Denver Broncos – The Broncos get a bit of a steal in McGovern who had a really good Combine and should have gone sooner.
150.  Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears
151.  Joe Dahl, OG, Detroit Lions
161.  Christian Westerman, OG, Cincinnati Bengals
171.  Alex Collins, RB, Seattle Seahawks – With the likes of Dixon, Booker and Howard all going late, I really missed on running backs. Add to that Alex Collins, who I really like and was pleasantly surprised to see him taken by the Seahawks after they had selected C.J. Prosise in round three. How many running backs does it take to replace Marshawn Lynch?!
184.  Jerrell Adams, TE, New York Giants
233.  Jalen Mills, S, Philadelphia Eagles
234.  Vadal Alexander, OG, Oakland Raiders
250.  Scooby Wright, ILB, Cleveland Browns – Scooby Wright was an addition to my top 100 because I saw some good highlights on film and decided having Reggie Ragland as the sole interior linebacker was not enough at the position. It turns out that was wrong!

As with all rookie classes, I look forward to seeing how they all develop in the NFL and which players prove themselves at their respective teams. Next for them will be the rookie minicamps and off-season workouts where they will get the chance to earn a spot on the roster.

Even into the final round there were still some good picks being made. I cannot remember being into the whole Draft as much as this one and look forward to next year.

CLEVELAND’S QUARTERBACKING CONUNDRUM

Following another season’s end, NFL teams are currently negotiating their way through an exciting free agency period that has included plenty of interesting and surprising headlines.

One team in particular that has attracted more than its fair share of media attention during this time are the Cleveland Browns.  They have seen players come and go and have signed Hue Jackson as their new head coach, but the majority of focus is centred on one topic – the quarterback situation.

This is the first time that I have written an entry for this blog concentrating entirely on one franchise and it happens to be the Cleveland Browns because their predicament at the quarterback position is nothing new for them. Since 1999 Cleveland has started 24 different names under centre without much success and you will need to trace all the way back through the team’s historical timeline to 1954 to find their last Championship victory.  That’s nothing throughout the Super Bowl era.

A quick look at the decades since that Championship win reveals that, like all offenses, when there is an obvious starter in place it leads to relative success, however, keeping stability at quarterback has become an unfortunate traditional problem for the Browns.  By no means are they the only team to have inconsistencies in a certain area of the field, but the quarterback is the most important position in Football and after another tough season in 2015, this off-season has seen the QB trouble in Cleveland once again magnified.

Recently they were close to turning a positive corner.

After losing the first two games in 2013, injury forced the Browns coaches to give the starting opportunity to Brian Hoyer and he played brilliantly whilst guiding the team to three wins in a row.  I remember thinking “FINALLY!”  It looked like this might be the guy to lead the offense, then the bad luck of the Browns kicked in as it was announced Hoyer had suffered a season-ending injury.  The year ended poorly with just one more win, at least next year the Browns could focus all their attention on working with Hoyer at quarterback…I should have known better.

At the 2014 NFL draft, Cleveland selected Johnny Manziel in the first round. ‘Johnny Football’ was a star quarterback in college and brought a lot of fanfare and distractions with him.  At the time I thought drafting Manziel was a bad move by the Browns and by the end of the season when I wrote a Season Review (which you can find on the right side of this page!) I was even more convinced.  Manziel was often the story despite him not playing and the team, especially Hoyer, did not need that.  Hoyer did start the season and started it playing well, then he began struggling and by the end of the season was cut altogether as the team crumbled.  I’ve always thought Hoyer would not only still be with the Browns but would have continued improving if he did not have to compete with Manziel.

Johnny Manziel’s career has taken a downward spiral over the last year, with reports of his private issues becoming more and more alarming.  Since coach Hue Jackson arrived Manziel has been released too, leaving the Cleveland Browns once again looking at starting afresh at quarterback.

There are options for them out there and just as I began to write this piece Cleveland announced they had signed Robert Griffin III.  RGIII was awesome in his rookie year in 2012 as quarterback for the Washington Redskins, but problems with various injuries lead to the Redskins releasing him this month and the Browns have now picked him up hoping that coach Jackson – as an ex-offensive coach – can find a way to get RGIII back to his best.

Other options that were available to the Browns in free agency included Ryan Fitzpatrick and Colin Kaepernick.  Although I was thinking Fitzpatrick would be the best option as he has played the most recently and won games, RGIII could prove a good signing for Cleveland.  He has experience playing in a very competitive division, which he will need playing for the Browns in a tough AFC North.  The move could also work geographically as in this division RGIII will be up against some strong defenses in cold weather, something else he has already done in his career.

There is also this year’s NFL draft. Due to the gap at the position it seemed inevitable that the Browns would use their 2nd overall pick on a quarterback.  The arrival of Robert Griffin III makes that less certain, although there is a strong argument for the Browns still selecting a quarterback to compete with RGIII.  I think it might be better for Cleveland to stick with RGIII and use the number 2 pick to strengthen the offense in another area to help him; picking another quarterback may not be beneficial.  The strategy of bringing in a young quarterback to ‘sit and learn’ behind one with more experience is a popular one that actually does not always work out.

Further reason to be cautious about the draft is that I don’t believe the 2016 quarterback class is as strong as others in recent years.  The general consensus is that Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are the top two talents, though my favourite entering the draft is Paxton Lynch – knowing the Browns, they will probably be going against the majority and favouring him too (Don’t do it Paxton!)

I will be writing an entry previewing this year’s draft in more detail very soon.

Whoever the Cleveland Browns have at quarterback come the beginning of next season I hope it goes well.  It would really shake up the AFC North and if Robert Griffin III becomes a successful acquisition, that will be fun for all as he was an exciting player to watch when he was on form.  Browns fans must wait and see if this is the year the quarterback puzzle is solved.

MY FIRST SUPER BOWL

IT’S SUPER BOWL WEEK!

No matter which two teams make it to the big one the game is always a huge sporting occasion and as the days count down to the event the excitement and anticipation grows.

The NFL has never been shy about putting on a show. Every year the Super Bowl is celebrated in as flamboyant a manner as possible, with the half time show attracting so much attention and coverage some would be forgiven for overlooking the fact the stage show is taking place in the middle of a Football game.

Even by Super Bowl standards this year is special, because it is Super Bowl 50.  A great milestone that gives the NFL even more of a reason to increase the levels of publicity and the number of previews.  The game should be a really good one – the Denver Broncos play the Carolina Panthers.  They are both strong teams and it’s a classic match-up of old-school vs new-school at Quarterback with Peyton Manning going against Cam Newton.

With this season’s Super Bowl being the 50th, all kinds of pages and articles have been written detailing and listing previous Bowl games: ‘The Greatest Super Bowls Ever’…‘The Greatest Super Bowl Moments Ever’…‘The Biggest Super Bowl Upsets In History’.  In fact it feels like these sorts of things are produced every year and they do have real nostalgia value and give us the opportunity to look back at some brilliant games.

I realised I wanted to do something similar, but I couldn’t just list my choices for the best Super Bowls and it would be too easy to write about my favourite (that would be Super Bowl XLVIII a couple of years ago – GO HAWKS!).  I decided to use this blog entry to recall my first Super Bowl, which was Super Bowl XXXVII between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders on 26th January 2003.

I have never been to a Super Bowl. When I say first, this was the first time I sat and watched one from beginning to end and the following notes about the game itself will come from memory, with a little help from some highlight film as a refresh. I was already a fan of the NFL as I had been able to watch the odd game or highlights show during the 90s. My understanding of the rules, teams, players and Champions wasn’t bad and I had bought the video game, so I was into the sport.  I remember in 2002 reading the New England Patriots had won the Super Bowl and a year before that reading the Baltimore Ravens were Champs, but this was my first opportunity to sit at home and watch the game in full.  Perhaps I could as this was the year it was back on terrestrial TV.

Prior to Super Bowl XXXVII I had kept up with the season and knew the Buccaneers and Raiders had made it through the playoffs, I thought it sounded cool that the two names were associated with pirates. Soon there was my first taste of how elaborately NFL pundits discuss the two sides pre-game.  The Raiders appeared to be favourites, mainly due to their strong offense as the TV show focused on veteran quarterback Rich Gannon and legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice.  They would be tested though as the Buccaneers boasted a fierce defense.

By kickoff time I was caught up in the atmosphere. Both teams looked like they meant business.  John Madden was commentating.  It felt special.  This was sure to be a good game and as I was a neutral fan I was going to enjoy the whole thing.

The Raiders scored within the first five minutes, albeit just a field goal, to go ahead.  But soon that Tampa Bay defense took over the game – in a big way – by getting to Rich Gannon and upsetting his rhythm, they stopped Oakland from scoring any more points in the entire first half while their offense put points on the board.  During the third quarter Gannon threw an interception, by this point his third of the game, which was returned for a touchdown and the lead had grown to 34-3.

Throughout the fourth quarter the Raiders mounted a comeback, reducing the deficit to 34-21 and they had the ball again.  This had become tense.  Gannon stepped back to throw and linebacker Derrick Brooks intercepted the pass and returned it for a Tampa Bay touchdown.  The score was now 41-21, noticing there was just over a minute left I realised the game was definitely over.  As the clock ran down Oakland chose to keep passing, at which point came another interception returned for another touchdown.  It was definitely, definitely over!  Rich Gannon finished the match with five interceptions, three were returned for touchdowns. At the time I didn’t know just how bad that was, especially in a Super Bowl.

The final score was 48-21 to the Buccaneers.  That was a great team.  And it was a great game that helped to increase my interest in the NFL.  Not just the way the game is played; I also enjoyed the analysis from the commentators showing HOW the game is played using different systems and strategies.  I understood just how much goes into each contest.

Reading and viewing archives that document Super Bowls from the past is really cool, there are always stories that surround players and teams with each Super Bowl developing its own in-depth script and unique narrative. Super Bowl XXXVII was my first and I haven’t missed one since.  There have been some great Championship games in that time and it is nearly time for another.  Bring on Super Bowl 50.

TEN GAMES DOWN

Each team’s NFL season is now ten games old.  There are no more bye weeks; all teams will be involved every week from now to the end of the season as a mad and exciting six-game rush to the finish line begins to decide who gets a place in January’s Playoffs.  A few names look certain to make it, while other places remain wide open.

Here are the divisional standings along with a quick assessment of how well the teams have performed this year and what their chances are of making it to the post-season.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots  10-0

Buffalo Bills                5-5

New York Jets             5-5

Miami Dolphins           4-6

The Patriots unbeaten season puts them as strong favourites to win this division and the entire AFC Conference.  The reigning Champs have been unstoppable at times this year, albeit they had to work hard to overcome the Bills last week and dug even deeper the week before to get a win in New York against the Giants by just one point.  The next game is on the road to the Denver Broncos, which should be their biggest test yet, and if they come through that game with a win they may clinch the number 1 seed in the AFC with at least two games to spare.

The chasing Bills, Jets and Dolphins would all have expected more from this season.  Of the three, the Bills have looked most likely to get nearer the Patriots but haven’t found the required consistency.  Neither have the Jets, despite this year already being an improvement on a terrible 2014, it still looked as though they would be much more of a threat.  The Dolphins have shown flashes of quality but have lost badly at times and replacing the head coach hasn’t worked either as it does not feel like their play has improved.  The Bills host the Jets on the last game of the season, which could be huge in deciding the final overall standings in this division.

AFC NORTH

Cincinnati Bengals      8-2

Pittsburgh Steelers     6-4

Baltimore Ravens       3-7

Cleveland Browns       2-8

The Cincinnati Bengals have controlled the AFC North right from the start by powering to a fantastic 8-0 record to begin the season.  But two defeats on the bounce have made them more vulnerable; the team need to get the winning habit back as soon as they can in order to stay atop the division.  The coaches have got them playing well on all sides of the ball and even with some important games to come, Cincinnati should make it to the playoffs.  The next challenge is winning once they get there.

Pittsburgh are currently in position to get a playoff place in the wildcard round.  The offense has had to overcome injury problems at quarterback and running back but the team is on a winning streak.  The schedule shows some tough games coming up though, so it will be difficult for them to hang on in the playoff race.

The Ravens and the Browns have been disappointing this year.  The Ravens were a playoff team last year but have suffered an uncharacteristic decline in form, partly due to disheartening season-ending injuries to star quarterback Joe Flacco and star wide receiver Steve Smith.  Meanwhile, the Browns main problems have centred around the quarterback position, with Johnny Manziel placed in and out of the team and now just this week seems to have blown any chance of keeping the starting job due to off-the-field issues.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis Colts       5-5

Houston Texans          5-5

Jacksonville Jaguars    4-6

Tennessee Titans        2-8

Compared to others this is such a close division and the AFC South looks like it will go right down to the wire.  The Indianapolis Colts were one game away from the Super Bowl last season but are yet another side hit with key injuries that have hindered their play, but they hold the advantage of being unbeaten in the division so far.  The Texans were always expected to mount a challenge this year and have done so mainly due to the play of their strong defense, while the Jaguars have certainly become a team to take more seriously this year.  All three teams are in winning form right now too and will play each other again by the end of the season, so it will be interesting to see which way this division swings.

Unfortunately the only side cut adrift here are the Tennessee Titans.  The defense has greatly improved on last year and I’ve enjoyed watching rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota lead the offense, yet they are still losing and the poor results have already cost head coach Ken Whisenhunt his job.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos          8-2

Kansas City Chiefs      5-5

Oakland Raiders         4-6

San Diego Chargers    2-8

Denver are the ones inching away in the AFC West, their success primarily built around what is currently the best defense in the league.  Upgrading the defense over the last couple of years is showing and has allowed the likes of linebacker Von Miller to consistently make big plays.  On the other side of the ball, quarterback Peyton Manning has been rested following the recent defeat to the Chiefs, giving backup Brock Osweiler the opportunity to show his mettle in getting them back on track with a win over the Chicago Bears.  The Broncos and their number 1 defense need to be ready for that big game this week as they host the 10-0 Patriots.

The Kansas City Chiefs are now the team chasing the Broncos.  In taking advantage of Manning’s struggles and beating the division leaders, the Chiefs took their winning streak to four matches and overtook the Oakland Raiders in the standings as the Raiders own streak is now a three-game losing one.  Oakland are progressing well under the new coaching line-up but are finding it difficult to get a win at the moment.  The Chiefs and Raiders are still yet to play each other and the games could be vital regarding a playoff place.

The San Diego Chargers have fallen well short this season after a good 2014.  In a disappointing campaign, the rushing game that needed improving has, if anything, got worse and with an unfavourable schedule ahead the team may fall even further behind.

NFC EAST

New York Giants          5-5

Washington Redskins   4-6

Philadelphia Eagles      4-6

Dallas Cowboys           3-7

Perhaps the closest division in the NFL is the NFC East.  It was such a brilliant division last year but the standard has slipped in 2015 and allowed the New York Giants to sit at the top.  I wrote in my blog entry when I reviewed last season that the Giants were distinctly average and the current 5-5 record shows they are still playing at a similar rate, but it has been enough so far.

With the standings so tight the others are still well in touch.  Both the Redskins and the underachieving Eagles have had erratic years and have been unable to build a winning run at any point.  The Dallas Cowboys are now the danger team in the division as, like so many others, their squad has been affected by injuries as a poor seven-game losing streak shows.  Quarterback Tony Romo returned to earn them a win last week and Dallas will hope to build on that momentum.  The NFC East is always a battle and any of the four teams can win it from here.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers     7-3

Minnesota Vikings      7-3

Chicago Bears           4-6

Detroit Lions             3-7

The Story of the NFC North is the race between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings for top spot.  Green Bay halted a three-game losing streak with a win over the Vikings to take back control of the division.  Both teams need a little refining all over the field to become real threats in the playoffs and they play each other on the last day, which could be a division decider.

It feels like the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are already in rebuilding mode.  Both have fallen short in 2015, with the Bears winless in the division and lacking inspiration on the field.  Especially surprising is the dip from the talented roster of the Lions.  Key players have either left Detroit in free agency or struggled with injury and when a reshuffle of the offensive staff was announced, it showed the franchise has decided something needs to be done.  It will not be clear until the end of the season whether the new staff line-up has had an effect.

NFC SOUTH

Carolina Panthers             10-0

Atlanta Falcons                 6-4

Tampa Bay Buccaneers     5-5

New Orleans Saints           4-6

The title in the NFC’s South division is already not far away from being claimed by the Carolina Panthers, who’s 10-0 season has been, well, perfect.  Ron Rivera’s men have been strong on offense, defense and special teams, putting plenty of points on the scoreboard and going nearly a whole calendar year without a regular season defeat.  Their schedule has not been easy either; they’ve beaten some big teams.

With the division win heading to Carolina, it seems the Falcons, Buccaneers and Saints can only fight to get a wildcard spot.  The Falcons look the likeliest to achieve this but a real dip in form has allowed the Buccaneers to close on them.  Tampa are a squad building in confidence and appear to be playing better as the season goes on, enjoying a winning streak.  Conversely, the Saints cannot find enough consistency as they try to make plays regularly with new faces having lost some important players in the off-season.  They’re still in it, but it will be tough.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals         8-2

Seattle Seahawks         5-5

St. Louis Rams             4-6

San Francisco 49ers     3-7

In recent years the NFC West has had real strength in depth, but this season the results have shown a reduction.  Not in Arizona though, as the Cardinals have set the pace and have an offense that is difficult to stop.  They took control of the division with a fine 39-32 victory on the road to the Seahawks that helped move them away from the rest of the West.  The aim will be to maintain the great form and earn the division title.

The Seattle Seahawks have set the bar high by going to back-to-back Super Bowls, which makes their 5-5 record a little disappointing.  First the offense then the defense was sighted as the reason behind this slide in fortunes but this set of players have proved over the last couple of years that they can rise to a challenge and they need to in order to stay in playoff contention.  Seattle will also need to keep in front of the St. Louis Rams, who are just a game behind but in poor form.  If the Rams can turn that around they are capable of adding themselves to the playoff mix, boasting an unbeaten record within the division.  Benching starting quarterback Nick Foles though shows that maybe not all is well.

One of the real disappointments of last season was the San Francisco 49ers and in 2015 they have not been much better.  Like the Rams they have decided to send their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, to the bench as he was finding it hard to make plays.  The 49ers offense is now the worst in the league and has scored the least amount of points by a long way.  It feels like the coaches in San Francisco may have decided to start building for next year.

It has been another entertaining NFL season and with the majority of the divisions looking like they may not be decided until the very last game, it’s sure to be a thrilling end.  So many teams will fancy their chances of either winning their respective division or achieving a wildcard spot and I cannot wait to see how it all plays out.

JACKSONVILLE / LONDON JAGUARS WIN AT WEMBLEY

Last Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium saw the Jacksonville Jaguars return to London for the third time in as many years, and an inspired performance pushed them to a win over the Buffalo Bills. As well as a good game, I found the topics surrounding what’s happening behind the scenes of these NFL events at Wembley just as interesting.

This was the Jaguars first win at Wembley as part of the NFL’s annual “International Series” of games played in the UK capital, a series that they have fully committed to. The short-term aim of this commitment is to boost the worldwide status and appeal of the team, which has included helping to set up activities around the venue for the crowds and the formation of the Union Jax Jacksonville Jaguars UK fan club.

The game itself was hard fought and one of the closest and most thrilling to be played at Wembley since the NFL began visiting in 2007. The Buffalo Bills entered as favourites, boasting a strong run game and one of the best defenses in the league.  However, with regular quarterback Tyrod Taylor out injured, they were forced to start young backup E.J. Manuel and come the second quarter it was Jacksonville’s defense who began to write the headlines.

Losing 7-3, Manuel stepped back to throw but was hit hard and lost the ball, which was recovered by the defense and returned into the end zone for a touchdown. Soon the youngster was back on the pitch with a chance at redemption but instantly threw an interception that was ran in for a second defensive touchdown.  The defense could smell blood and were not relenting, forcing a second interception.  The Jaguars offense took over and scored again, the three quick errors from Manuel meant the score was suddenly Jaguars 27-3 Bills.

To his credit, Manuel did recover some composure and started to complete passes again which helped haul his team back to just a 27-24 deficit. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles then threw an interception of his own, which was returned for a touchdown and remarkably the Bills now had the lead – 31-27.  Knowing time was running out, Bortles drove his offense down the field and completed a great scoring pass to receiver Allen Hurns that decided the back-and-forth game and earned the Jaguars a 34-31 victory.

As for the off-the-field details, it was positive for the NFL that it was such an exciting game, as it helps their mission to advertise and grow the sport as much as possible in the UK. Often-heard phrases like “global brand”, which are used to describe the NFL during each International Series event, are a reminder that the NFL’s primary focus on these occasions is one more of a business plan than simply the promotion of a sport in a foreign country.  Like so many others, this is now more of a product than a sport and there is money to be made rather than just a way to entertain an audience for an afternoon.

The NFL recently announced an extension to the deal with Wembley and will play at least two games a year until 2020. And these are not just exhibition games, but regular season games.  They matter!  So what will ultimately result from all of these NFL visits to London?  Will we see more and more games here each year?  Will London get its own NFL team?  How well would that work?  There are differing opinions on these topics and there appears to be so many little factors involved that my brain can’t quite form a full understanding without going on large fact-finding sessions, which I’m not prepared to do any time soon.

The NFL fan in me loves the fact I can go and watch an NFL game live at Wembley Stadium. The sports fan in me spares a thought for all the loyal Jacksonville Jaguars fans back on the east coast of America; part of the agreed announcement was that the Jaguars will continue to host one of these annual games right through to 2020.  The fans in the Jacksonville, Florida area are losing to another country one of only eight chances to see their team play at home for a number of years.  Maybe we should start calling them the Jacksonville / London Jaguars.

With the franchise making Wembley their second home, there are certainly those who believe the owners could move the team out of Jacksonville altogether. Are we watching the future London Jaguars?  Time will tell.

FREE AGENCY HIGHLIGHTS

It now feels like the free agency part of pre-season has settled down, so it seems like a good time to have a quick look back at some of the more interesting signings and trades that took place during one of the busiest and most entertaining free agency periods in recent years.

Big Signings

There were plenty of big moves made over the last month or two, the following are just a handful of the players I think will make the biggest instant impact on their respective new teams.

In this year’s free agency the one player who was always going to attract the most attention from teams and the media alike was Ndamukong Suh.  Widely regarded the best defensive tackle in the league, Suh departed the Detroit Lions and signed a huge contract with the Miami Dolphins.  The deal immediately upgrades the Dolphins’ defense and shows a focus on disrupting offenses as early as possible; most notably the offense of new Super Bowl champions and divisional rivals, the Tom Brady-lead New England Patriots.

Another big headline deal was made when the New York Jets brought back former cornerback Darrelle Revis.  Like the Suh signing, this is another AFC East team targeting the Patriots by improving their defense.  Revis has been one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL for a long time and returns to the Jets having just won a championship with the Patriots.  The Jets are aiming to improve quickly and Revis’ arrival is a signal of that intent.

The Philadelphia Eagles pulled off a real coup in landing running back DeMarco Murray.  Having traded LeSean McCoy away to the Buffalo Bills, replacing him with Murray works brilliantly considering his talent and the fact he comes from one of the Eagles massive rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.  With parts of Dallas undoubtedly left a little fed up at the sight of this deal, the Eagles will hope Murray’s productivity doesn’t slow down on last year.

One of the top offensive linemen in free agency was Mike Iupati.  The former San Francisco 49er stayed in the NFC West by signing with the Arizona Cardinals, a team who have a defense ready for a championship run but need a little refining on offense.  With the addition of Iupati at guard, Arizona has a player capable of helping them move the ball more effectively.

The 49ers penned former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith to help a poor passing game.  Last year was a disappointing one for the 49ers mainly because of a struggling air attack and they have decided against keeping receiver Michael Crabtree, who has signed for the Oakland Raiders.  Smith certainly appears to be a much stronger deep threat and could become a primary weapon for the San Francisco offense.

Busy Teams

Of course during this time of the year all teams in the NFL are busy, but there are a few teams who have used free agency to make more big moves and spend more money than others so they can rebuild where they need to in order to move their franchise up a level.

Buffalo Bills – I stated in my last blog entry that I have liked how the Bills have been building the team in recent years and this pre-season they have made a strong statement by spending a lot of money on some high-profile players.  Along with the trade for LeSean McCoy and re-signing defensive end Jerry Hughes to a big contract, Buffalo have brought in receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Charles Clay to try to bring the offense up to the same level as the defense and make a championship push.

Indianapolis Colts – The Colts now seem primed for an attempt at a Super Bowl appearance.  Not that they were far away last season, reaching the AFC Championship game but losing to the Patriots.  That game showed there were holes that still needed filling, one of which they have filled at running back by signing Frank Gore who potentially could compliment Andrew Luck’s passing game excellently.  Multiple pro bowl selected wide receiver Andre Johnson also comes in to help the offense and to be a big target for Luck, although his production has dipped a bit over the last couple of years so the Colts will need to work at getting the best out of him.  Bringing in Trent Cole at linebacker could prove a smart way for Indianapolis to improve their defense in the middle of the field.

Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles have been one of the most talked about teams during free agency.  The aim for next season will be challenging the Cowboys in the NFC East and signing the Cowboys former star running back DeMarco Murray is a good start, they also picked up Ryan Matthews as a back up runner.  Head coach Chip Kelly has shown a lot of faith in former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell by giving him a large (perhaps too large) contract; Maxwell will have to step up and show he’s worth it.  Kelly has been similarly bold with his trades; receiving linebacker Kiko Alonso from the Bills for LeSean McCoy and writing more headlines by swapping quarterbacks with the St. Louis Rams, getting in Sam Bradford in favour of Nick Foles.  These bold moves reflect Kelly’s bold and exciting systems of play and the new players will be expected to adapt accordingly.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Unlike teams who are building towards playoff appearances, the Jacksonville Jaguars are simply trying to build a team capable of earning a winning record over a season.  They added some good players to their roster in this free agency, including tight end Julius Thomas who will improve the offense and look to be a huge target for second-year quarterback Blake Bortles in 2015.  Another big signing was defensive tackle Jared Odrick, the former Dolphin is a talented defender and good enough to become a leader from the front in the Jacksonville defense.  Signing Brandon Pierce at running back adds another weapon to a Jaguars team looking for their best season in a while.

New Orleans Saints – The Saints have decided to rebuild in a big way.  Starting names on offense like Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas have all gone as the Saints try to improve on a bad season in a bad division last year.  C.J. Spiller comes in to pair with Mark Ingram at running back, which could spell a different approach of more running on the Saints offense.  They have also made some strong signings on defense; linebacker Dannell Ellerbe arrives from Miami as part of the trade for Kenny Stills and cornerback Brandon Browner has been signed after he was cut by the Patriots.  The players they have brought in are good, they may need more to challenge in their division.

Other Notable Signings

There were many signings during free agency to go along with the big ones as mentioned earlier.  I may revisit others in the future but for now the following are deals I found personally interesting.

The Kansas City Chiefs new wide receiver Jeremy Maclin could prove a quality addition and become quarterback Alex Smith’s number one target following the departure of Dwayne Bowe to the Cleveland Browns.  The Chiefs recorded the incredible statistic in 2014 of going the whole season without a receiver catching a touchdown and Maclin will hope to be the guy who makes sure they don’t repeat that in 2015.

The St. Louis Rams bolstered their defensive line by signing defensive tackle Nick Fairley.  Fairley spent the first four years of his career with the Detroit Lions alongside Ndamukong Suh; he is a skilled player and this move gives him the opportunity to establish himself as the main man in the middle of the line whilst playing in a strong Rams defense.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie has left the Arizona Cardinals to re-join the New York Jets and play under new head coach Todd Bowles, who was his defensive coordinator in Arizona.  It is also a reunion with Darrelle Revis as the Jets look to use the duo to revive their secondary.  With these new additions playing under Bowles the potential is there for a better defense next season for the Jets.

Shane Vereen has signed to be the new running back for the New York Giants.  He produced good number playing for the New England Patriots and will hope to perform well for the Giants, who have already hinted that Vereen will have a big role to play in their offense.  They will try to use him in balance with a good pass game and get the team challenging for the division again in the NFC East.

The Tennessee Titans have brought in linebacker Brian Orakpo to play a key role in a defense that needs improving.  Having re-signed outside linebacker Derrick Morgan, the Titans will line former Washington Redskins playmaker Orakpo up on the other side in an attempt to create a fierce pass rush.  Orakpo has had injury problems in the last three years but if they get the best out of him the Titans have a strong player.

One veteran still playing in 2015 will be defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.  The two-time Super Bowl champion has left the Patriots after eleven years to sign with the Houston Texans.  He’s by no means passed it and could have some real success playing in the Houston defense; the potential to see him play next to J.J. Watt and 2014 number one draft pick Jadeveon Clowney is an appealing thought, unless you’re on the opposing offense.

Another veteran moving is ex-Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams as he has joined the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I have always enjoyed watching Williams run, at times I’ve felt he has been a little underrated and he may prove to be a smart pick up for the Steelers.  With the chance of a suspension at the beginning of the season for star running back Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh could give Williams a lot of plays and if he stays healthy he will play a role in their season.

Big Trades

Some of the biggest stories in this free agency period have been the trades that have occurred.  The first big trade happened with the Bills and Eagles swapping Kiko Alonso and LeSean McCoy and there have been a few more good ones since, it will be intriguing to see how these deals work out and how the players perform for their respective new teams.

Jimmy Graham and 2015 fourth-round draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks/Max Unger and 2015 first-round draft pick to the New Orleans Saints – As mentioned earlier, the Saints’ decision to start rebuilding has seen some big names leave their offense and the biggest of all is tight end Jimmy Graham.  With Graham’s arrival, the Seahawks now have a really strong player in the centre of the field for quarterback Russell Wilson to aim at and improve their passing game.  Saints fans will be upset with losing Graham but in return they get centre Max Unger, another move that hints at the Saints offense leaning more towards the run in 2015 as Unger will seriously help them move the ball on the ground as well as protecting quarterback Drew Brees.

Sam Bradford, 2015 fifth-round draft pick and conditional 2016 mid-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles/Nick Foles, 2015 fourth-round draft pick and 2016 second-round draft pick to the St. Louis Rams – Chip Kelly has now used the last couple of years to entirely changed around the personnel in the main skill positions on the Eagles offense.  To complete this rebuild he has traded for former number one draft pick Sam Bradford to play at quarterback.  Bradford never quite lived up to his potential with the Rams and was injured throughout 2014 so the deal is a bit of a gamble for the Philadelphia head coach.  The Rams may have got the better half of this trade by receiving Nick Foles to be their new starting quarterback.  Foles was also hurt last year but the impressive numbers he put up in 2013 show this as a worthwhile trade for the Rams to move on from Bradford after five years.

Brandon Marshall and 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the New York Jets/2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Chicago Bears – So far this pre-season the Jets have mainly been making moves on defense to build towards next season, but by acquiring wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Bears they now have a new player to strengthen the offense.  Now a ten-year veteran, when Marshall is good he’s very good, although off-field and injury problems affected him in 2014 so the Bears have decided now is the time to let him go.  If the Jets find the right way to use Marshall and he settles into the team he could help bring success.

Haloti Ngata and 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the Detroit Lions/2015 fourth-round draft pick and 2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Baltimore Ravens – How do you replace Ndamukong Suh?  The Detroit Lions have opted to answer that question with Haloti Ngata.  The tough defensive tackle brings versatility to the Lions defensive line, opening up the options for the coaching staff.  With both Suh and Nick Fairley gone from the front line of Detroit’s defense, young defensive end Ziggy Ansah could emerge as the main threat with Ngata providing assistance alongside him.

Mike Wallace and 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings/2015 fifth-round draft pick to the Miami Dolphins – The Vikings had been looking for a wide receiver for a long time and landing Mike Wallace could turn into a great deal for them.  The relationship between Wallace and the Dolphins broke down last year and all efforts to trade him away were stepped up once Kenny Stills arrived in Miami from the Saints.  Wallace is a quality receiver and now has the chance to start fresh in Minnesota and become a real game winner for the team.

The free agency period this year was an exciting one and there may well be some more deals confirmed as the league begins to turn its attention towards the NFL draft.

SEASON REVIEW

As it’s been over a month since the Super Bowl the dust has long settled on another NFL season.  But it isn’t too late to look back at each team’s year and analyse how good or bad they really were.  I’m going to rate the teams performances from a low one star up to a high five stars.  Fans who don’t have to scroll far down the page to find their favourite team may not want to bother reading on.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14) ∗ – It feels a little harsh to give Tampa Bay just one star, but their season was awful.  Considering the talent they have on the team and Lovie Smith as new head coach this year should have gone a lot better and should have been far more stable.  They couldn’t seem to decide between Josh McCown and Mike Glennon at quarterback and now that McCown has been released they may go for a new one with the number 1 draft pick.  One high point was rookie Mike Evans’ strong season at wide receiver.  Although many of their defeats were close games, playing in a weak NFC South division makes the Bucs 2-14 record look even worse, but there’s plenty of potential in this team so look for a drastically improved 2015.

Tennessee Titans (2-14) ∗ – The Titans started brilliantly with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs and everything was wonderful…then, well, they only got one more win all season and when it was over they were probably the worst team in the NFL.  Everybody beat them, even the Jets!  It seemed to gradually fall apart all over the field and this after doing ok last year.  This was a big decline.

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13) ∗∗ – This is a team that has been rebuilding over the last few years…slowly.  So slowly in fact that they won less in 2014 than they did in 2013.  But the young Jaguars squad seems to have a great spirit and were not far away in some of their losses.  It looks like rookie quarterback Blake Bortles is going to be given a year or two to show if he can lead the team, which I think is the right thing to do.  They have some good players, they just need to up their game against the stronger teams.

Oakland Raiders (3-13) ∗∗ – I was tempted to give the Oakland Raiders three stars based on flashes of some really good play at the end of their schedule.  Then I remembered they began the year 0-10 and when added to games from the season before, this was a 16-game losing streak going back more than a whole calendar year.  A good sign for next year is that once they won a game they got a taste for winning more.  The new coaches – Jack Del Rio as head coach, Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator and Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator – will help too.

Washington Redskins (4-12) ∗∗ – The Redskins were close to getting just one star, such was the disappointment of their season.  Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy all had a go at quarterback without much joy and on the other side of the ball the defense was too inconsistent.  RGIII should be the starter in 2015; he really needs to be 100% healthy for a full season in order to get back to his best.  He has a real weapon in receiver DeSean Jackson, who was brilliant for them in 2014, averaging more than 20 yards a catch.  They need to improve as the NFC East division is only going to get stronger.

New York Jets (4-12) ∗ – I felt the New York Jets were primed for a big season this year, but it all went very wrong.  The aim must have been to challenge their big rivals the New England Patriots for the AFC East division and give themselves a chance at reaching the playoffs.  Instead the season seemed like a real struggle and the manner of the majority of their defeats was very poor.  The defense and the running game were pretty solid for the Jets this year, despite Chris Johnson not reaching his expected production; the big problem was the passing game, which was the worst in the NFL.  Although Geno Smith played at quarterback for most of the season it didn’t feel like he had the full support that was needed, the distraction being a seemingly season-long internal battle with veteran Mike Vick for the starting role.  Smith did produce an excellent game on the final day though to beat the Miami Dolphins, which is something positive to take forward.  Head coach Rex Ryan seemed to lose his authority and then lost his job, his replacement Todd Bowles comes highly rated and has a strong team to work with – things can only get better for Jets fans.

Chicago Bears (5-11) ∗ – The Bears season was similar to the Jets’ in that they fell well short of expectations and by the end it had just got messy.  While the rest of the NFC North division improved the Bears went backwards and also lost confidence in quarterback Jay Cutler.  New head coach John Fox will have to decide whether to use 2015 to give Cutler a fresh start or go with someone else.  With talk of veteran players wanting to leave during free agency, the Chicago Bears may have to go into rebuild mode very soon.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10) ∗∗ – Atlanta has had an erratic couple of years.  After the 2012 season they earned the number 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and were one game away from Super Bowl XLVII, then last year they were awful and this season wasn’t much better.  The heavy defeat at home to the Panthers in what was a division title-decider on the last game of the season signalled the end for head coach Mike Smith.  As the man who was in charge of the Seattle Seahawks’ brilliant defense, Smith’s replacement Dan Quinn is a great hire as defense is the area the Atlanta Falcons need to improve the most to get winning again.

New York Giants (6-10) ∗∗∗ – There seemed to be negativity from the fans regarding this season, so they may disagree with the Giants being the first three-star team on this list.  Maybe the disappointment comes from the fact they were not able to keep up with the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East division, however I still think there was some progress for the Giants this year.  Everyone’s favourite rookie Odell Beckham Jr. became a human highlight reel and helped to improve the offense, which was also helped by Eli Manning having a significantly better season compared to 2013.  The Giants schedule was tough and their six wins came in two three-game streaks, the difficult schedule meant that, apart from the collapse against the Jaguars in week 13, the Giants basically won the games they were expected to win and lost the games where they were the underdogs – the dictionary definition of an average NFL season.  Therefore, three stars.

St. Louis Rams (6-10) ∗∗∗ – A frustrating season for a Rams side who couldn’t get a run together was perhaps encapsulated most by their performances weeks 5 through to 14, where they yo-yoed along up and down to a 5-5 record in that 10-game span.  The last two games in that run were impressive back-to-back shutout wins, outscoring the Raiders and Redskins 76-0.  Just to prove their inconsistency the Rams followed that up with three straight losses to end the season.  Missing Sam Bradford at quarterback for the whole year is what hurt them most; the offense is what needs to really improve for next season.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9) ∗∗∗ – The Minnesota Vikings had a good season and fans will be optimistic that there’s more to come from the young team.  Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater earned the starting place and played excellently, Minnesota ended with a 6-6 record with Bridgewater as the starter and his performances won him the rookie of the year award.  They have real potential and strength all over the field, so much so that I nearly gave them four stars.  Maybe just one more win over a division rival would have earned them that; a better division record should be the minimum target for 2015.

Cleveland Browns (7-9) ∗∗ – Despite the Browns improving on last year’s record and looking more solid in certain areas, by the end the season had turned into a bad one.  As they entered week 13 Cleveland had a 7-4 record and looked like a possible playoff team, but losing all five of their remaining games destroyed their campaign.  This poor end coincided with the decision to play rookie Johnny Manziel a lot more at quarterback ahead of Brian Hoyer.  For all the hype surrounding Manziel I always thought it was a bad idea for him to go to the Browns.  Hoyer’s performances in 2013 made me think they finally had a good quarterback to build an offense around, but now it seems they have forced Hoyer out and replaced him with Josh McCown to battle for the starting spot with Manziel in the near future.

New Orleans Saints (7-9) ∗∗ – Another team who underachieved were the Saints.  In fact the entire NFC South division surprisingly underachieved.  They still came very close to winning the weakest division in the league, but the defense couldn’t keep up with a difficult schedule.  On the other side of the ball their big names on offense still had decent seasons and produced some big numbers.  There’s a lot for them to build on.

Miami Dolphins (8-8) ∗∗∗ – The Dolphins matched their 8-8 record from the previous year and at one point looked to be making a run for the playoffs but just couldn’t keep pace with the Patriots in the AFC East.  The team played some great games and like the Giants, made sure they won the games they were supposed to win.  The next level is winning those other games against strong opposition and they certainly have the talent in key areas to get there.

San Francisco 49ers (8-8) ∗∗ – The struggling form of the 49ers was one of the big disappointments this season.  The slide mainly centred around quarterback Colin Kaepernick having difficulties with the passing game; he made some bad decisions in crucial situations.  Confidence in head coach Jim Harbaugh appeared to slowly fade away and come the end of the final game he was gone.  There’s so much talent on the 49ers’ roster that they are more than capable of bouncing back.

Houston Texans (9-7) ∗∗∗ – To jump from the worst team in the league one season to a 9-7 record the next would have earned most teams high praise.  Such is the strength in some areas of this Texans team though that a big improvement was expected.  Number 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney fought injury problems in his rookie season and needs to return strong to realise his potential, if he does the Texans front line on defense would be scary with him alongside J.J. Watt.  The other thing to sort out is a starting quarterback, once that is in place this team become dark horses for success.

San Diego Chargers (9-7) ∗∗∗ – For the second year running the Chargers had a 9-7 record and although this time it didn’t yield a playoff appearance the team should be optimistic as there’s plenty to build on.  In a difficult division as well as taking on and beating some of the best teams from elsewhere in the league, the Chargers 2014 season was strong.  One of the areas that needs improving is the running game to back up quarterback Philip Rivers, who should probably change his name to “Nearly Man”.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) ∗∗∗ – Last year the Chiefs’ 11-5 season was the most surprising success story of the NFL.  This year it felt like teams had them a bit more figured out, despite this they still won games – big games too.  High quality performances from their best individuals like linebacker Justin Houston kept them in the playoff chase but neither them nor the Chargers could beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.

Buffalo Bills (9-7) ∗∗∗∗ – The Bills have been rebuilding for a few years now and this was the season the pieces came together.  I really like how the Bills have been doing things and building this team, who were so close to a playoff spot that would have got them five stars here.  The defense has turned into one of the best in the league and in order to improve their offense and chances for next year, Buffalo have traded linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for running back LeSean McCoy.  A negative the Bills have had to deal with in the post-season was head coach Doug Marrone deciding to opt out of his contract, a decision he may be regretting as he has not found himself another head coaching job, instead landing in Jacksonville to be the Jaguars offensive line coach.  Intriguingly, ex-Jets head coach Rex Ryan is Marrone’s replacement, it’s going to be interesting to see how Ryan and the Bills get on together.

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) ∗∗∗ – Arguably the best team to not make the playoffs in 2014 were the Eagles.  They put up lots of points all season but midway through lost quarterback Nick Foles to injury.  Backup Mark Sanchez fitted into the high-tempo offense quickly and kept them winning, including a big win in week 13 on the road to division rivals the Dallas Cowboys that put them atop the NFC East with four games remaining.  However, Philadelphia were beaten in the first three of those four games, meaning they lost the division to the Cowboys and missed out on the playoffs.  As previously mentioned, running back LeSean McCoy has been traded to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso – a sign the Eagles are aiming to upgrade their defense.  Their battles with the Cowboys next year will be fun to watch.

Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) ∗∗∗ – It was a wildcard round appearance but no further once again for Marvin Lewis’ men, something they’ve made a habit of in recent years.  Head coach Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton have both been cited at different times as the reason why the Bengals can’t win more and get a deeper playoff run.  Dalton certainly needs to play better in the big games to prove his worth and he is being helped by a strong run attack.  The Bengals were unfortunate with injuries this season, especially on defense, which was always going to hurt them playing in the tough and competitive AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – Winners of the AFC North division were the Pittsburgh Steelers.  After stumbling a little for a couple of years they returned to the playoffs with a strong end to 2014 with the offense putting up impressive numbers throughout the season.  It came to a disappointing end in the wildcard round when they lost at home to their big rivals the Baltimore Ravens.  With a win in that game they could have pushed on and continued their winning streak in the next round too and gained them an extra star in this review.  While the offense is looking great, there are changes happening on defense as the future of veteran safety Troy Polamalu is undecided and legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has left to join the Titans.  There’s still talent in Pittsburgh to mould a new defense around if they need to.

Detroit Lions (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – The Detroit Lions had a really good season falling just short to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, then falling just short in their wildcard game to the Cowboys where they lost in fairly controversial style.  Detroit’s defense was brilliant this year, especially against the run, but it seems they will lose the face of the defense Ndamukong Suh in free agency.  Suh’s departure will leave a big hole to fill for the Lions but the rest of the roster seem ready and able to put together more wins next season.

Arizona Cardinals (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – This was a season of what could have been for the Cardinals.  At the end of week 11 they had a 9-1 record and looked like the best team in the NFL.  Quarterback Carson Palmer had suffered a long-term knee injury the week before but backup Drew Stanton and a formidable defense were carrying them to further wins.  Then came serious bad luck as Stanton was also hurt and Arizona’s third quarterback Ryan Lindley stepped in and wasn’t up to running the offense.  Arizona lost the NFC West to the Seattle Seahawks and lost in poor fashion to the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs.  So near yet so far.

Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) ∗∗∗ – The Panthers became only the second team in NFL history to reach the playoffs with a losing record.  Even with all the talent in the NFC South, the division dropped to the league’s worst and it was the Panthers who took it by winning all the big games down the stretch.  For this they should be given credit and they followed it up by winning in the wildcard round against the weakened Cardinals.  The Seattle Seahawks outplayed them and ended their season a week later in the next round, despite this playoff run the Panthers need to improve as do the rest of the division.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) ∗∗∗∗ – Playing in such a hard AFC North division, Baltimore really earned their playoff place.  They were a little inconsistent during the year but a win on the final day to seal a playoff spot and the challenge of the post-season really kicked them into gear.  The win on the road to the Steelers added to their confidence and helped prepare them for the New England Patriots in the divisional round.  They pushed the Patriots all the way, leading by 14 points twice during a great game, but lost 35-31.  The Ravens will be expecting to be in the playoff hunt again next season.

Dallas Cowboys (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – A five-star team!  The Cowboys had an outstanding season in what was a big positive step forward.  Offensively they were excellent, scoring loads of points and able to move the ball in the air and on the ground.  The consensus seems to be that they can only re-sign either running back DeMarco Murray or receiver Dez Bryant this off-season, although the target will be to keep them both.  Impressively, Dallas were undefeated on the road in the regular season, then they went to Lambeau Field in the divisional playoff round and were beaten 26-21 by the Green Bay Packers.  The offense should have had a chance to win the game from the Packers one-yard line but what looked like a clean Dez Bryant catch was overturned and the Cowboys season was over.

Denver Broncos (12-4) ∗∗∗∗ – While the offense wasn’t as potent as in 2013, quarterback Peyton Manning still lead the Broncos to another division title.  The team spent pre-season bolstering the defense and the results on the field showed as they ended the season among the best against the pass and the run.  Denver imposed themselves on their rivals and swept a strong AFC West division, easing into the playoffs and a shot at another Super Bowl.  But at home to Manning’s first team, the Indianapolis Colts, the season faded out with a tame defeat.  The game showed how much the players rely on Manning for inspiration as once it was obvious he couldn’t make the big plays needed, the Broncos never looked like winning.  This defeat also cost head coach John Fox his job.  The task for new head coach Gary Kubiak is to keep Denver playing at a high level.

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – Another year that shows the Colts are moving slowly in the right direction.  Andrew Luck had perhaps the best season of his career so far at quarterback, heading statistically the top passing offense in the league.  Despite the progress the Colts had trouble with fellow playoff contenders throughout their schedule.  A good playoff run was stopped in its tracks when they were humbled 45-7 by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.  The staff just need to figure out how to win against the best teams and they will be ready to compete for a Super Bowl appearance.

Green Bay Packers (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – The Packers improved on last season and fought off the Detroit Lions to take the NFC North title.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers inspired the offense to some big performances and the team went unbeaten at home during the regular season.  Rodgers played injured in the post-season but still got them past the dangerous Cowboys, before an extraordinary defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game where the Packers had a 19-7 lead with just over two minutes left and ended up losing 28-22 in overtime.  A difficult loss was slightly mended when the NFL awarded Rodgers the MVP award, a reminder of how good he and the Packers were this season.

Seattle Seahawks (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – The defending Super Bowl Champions had to overcome some issues within the team early in the season.  Once the reported off-the-field problems had been fixed, the form that won Super Bowl XLVIII returned and from week 8 onwards they only lost one regular season game.  The quality of the defense improved too and for another year they were the best in the league, as was the run game lead by Marshawn Lynch.  With the amazing comeback victory over the Packers, Seattle battled their way to a second-straight Super Bowl despite injuries and fitness concerns on defense. The Seahawks lost the big one to the New England Patriots by the narrowest of margins when quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception from the one-yard line with seconds remaining.  The play call itself will forever be debated but for the Seahawks, getting back-to-back Super Bowl appearances is a great achievement that should never be underestimated.

New England Patriots (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have a fourth Super Bowl victory.  As the faces of the organisation the duo will get a lot of the plaudits but of course the whole team played their part.  The season actually started off a little unsteady, for Brady especially.  Following a heavy 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in week 4 there were some voices questioning whether Brady was in decline, he silenced those critics with a huge level of play for the rest of the year and during the playoffs.  Another big reason for New England’s success was an improved and seemingly underrated defense, which came up big in the big game when cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass to earn the Patriots a 28-24 win in Super Bowl XLIX.  Once again the New England Patriots are Champions and the target for every other team in 2015, a position they have been in under Belichick before.

It was an exciting season and hopefully next year will be even better.  At the end of April the attention will switch to the NFL draft but for now teams are signing and re-signing players in the free agency period.  I will write about the highlights of free agency soon.