2018 MLB Season Preview

The Chicago Cubs are about to take on the Miami Marlins in the first game of the 2018 MLB season!  This year the league decided to schedule every team to play on Opening Day, which allows every team and their fan base to get in on the fun as the season kicks off.  Last year, two teams with long histories of late post-season stumbles, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, gave us a fun-filled World Series that saw the ‘Stros bring home their first ever championship to a city still dealing with the recovery from Hurricane Harvey.  The team is incredibly confident that they’ve got the ability to repeat this year—brazen comments from star pitcher Justin Verlander made that very clear—but many teams have the talent to make the trek to the title.  Will Houston be able to hang on to the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of this year, or will another team manager to snatch it from their grasp?  Here are my predictions for the upcoming season:

 

National League

 

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (#1)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado Rockies

San Francisco Giants

San Diego Padres

This division isn’t weak per se—I think the AL Central is the worst in the baseball, and the NL East is a (somewhat) close competitor—but LA should have no problems with cruising to the top here.  Their rotation gives me a bit of concern, since they’ll have to depend on some back-end starters that have an extensive injury history, but Clayton Kershaw and their loaded young line-up anchored by Corey Seager are good enough to make it work.  I would have put the Giants second, but the fact that they could be without their top two starters for up to two months will put a real dent in their ability to get something going this season.  As such, I’ve got the D-Backs at number two here.  They’ve got one of the best players in the game in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and a decent supporting cast, with a solid rotation headlined by Zach Greinke and a good sidekick in the line-up in AJ Pollock.  That being said, I don’t think said line-up is balanced enough to get them into the post-season—it’ll be close, but I think they’ll miss out.  The Rockies, meanwhile, have the opposite problem—their batting order, anchored by Nolan Arenado, is loaded with solid hitters, and they’ve got a pretty good bullpen.  Their rotation, though, outside of Jon Gray is a little shaky, and will see them drop down the pecking order in this division.  The Padres will bring up the bottom—they have an interesting mish mash of players with some decent bats, the most prominent of which is new signing Eric Hosmer.  However, they have the worst of both of their rivals’ worlds: neither their rotation nor their order have much depth.  They’ll linger at the bottom until their top ranked farm system produces some MLB-caliber players.

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (#2)

Milwaukee Brewers (#1 WC)

St. Louis Cardinals (#2 WC)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Cincinnati Reds

The Cubs were well on their way to their second straight appearance in the World Series before running into the buzz saw that was last year’s Dodgers.  To level up and try to topple their rivals, they took two of their pitchers, starter Yu Darvish and reliever Brandon Morrow.  They have enough talent to hang with LA, but they have a significantly more difficult division, so I don’t think they’ll be able to quite match their record.  They’ll be closely followed by the Brewers, who made two of the biggest moves this past off-season in acquiring outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.  They’ll come into a line-up that already features some strong performers, like slugger Ryan Braun and versatile Travis Shaw.  Their rotation doesn’t have any real high-end arms, but they’ve got enough firepower in their bats to carry them to the post-season.  The Cardinals, meanwhile, made a major outfield addition of their own, bringing in Yelich’s former teammate Marcel Ozuna and creating what is arguably one of the most talented trios in the game.  They have some serious injury concerns with their pitchers, most prominently with former ace Adam Wainwright and key reliever Luke Gregorson—but as is the case with the Cardinals of the modern era, they are incredibly balanced in every aspect of the game, and should have enough to get back into the play-offs.  The Pirates would have had enough to challenge them for that second wild card spot, but they got rid of two players who were arguably their best in righty Gerrit Cole and longtime outfielder Andrew McCutchen.  If they catch fire early on they could make some real noise, but expect them to deal away some of their remaining replacement-level players to restock their farm system.  The Reds, meanwhile, have Joey Votto and… not much else.  They’ll have ample opportunity to reload with high draft picks over the next couple years; here’s to hoping they’re good again before Votto retires.

 

NL East

Washington Nationals (#3)

Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta Braves

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

This is a huge season for the Nats—Bryce Harper is widely expected to leave the nation’s capital after this season and they haven’t won a play-off series with the star right fielder on the roster, so this might be their only real chance to fulfill their potential.  Harper anchors a good line-up, and the Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg duo is perhaps the best in baseball; that’ll be enough to win the division, but I think the Cubs and Dodgers are just a bit deeper and will finish with better records.  Behind them, the young Phillies are a popular dark horse in the race for a wild card spot this season.  Unfortunately, I still think they’re a year or two away—Jake Arrieta was a good addition, as was Carlos Santana (he’ll take some pressure off of budding star Rhys Hoskins)—but I still think they’re lacking another solid rotation arm.  They’ll be competitive before long, though.  In the now, they’ll be fighting for that wild card spot alongside the Braves, who I expect to surprise some people this year, and the Mets.  I think Atlanta’s rotation is underrated, and there are enough solid hitters around superstar Freddie Freeman for Atlanta to make some noise in the standings, and that doesn’t even take into account top prospect Ronald Acuna.  As for the Mets, they certainly have enough talent to be among the best teams in the game, but the best teams are able to stay both healthy and consistent, and this team is always bound to be unable to accomplish at least one of those things.  As for the Marlins… the less said about them, the better.  Take pity on Starlin Castro and JT Realmuto.

 

American League

 

AL West

Houston Astros (#3)

Seattle Mariners (#2 WC)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Oakland Athletics

Texas Rangers

Houston was a feel-good story last year—in the midst of the crisis their city was facing in the rebuild from the hurricane that decimated property across the South, the ‘Stros played incredible play-off baseball to pull out their first World Series in team history.  This year, they’ll get a full season from Justin Verlander, as well as from another star righty in the form of former Pirate Gerrit Cole.  Almost any other year they’d be good enough to earn a number one seed, but the Yankees are so good, and the Indians play in such a weak division, that they’ll have to settle for being number three.  The Mariners, meanwhile, are one of the more underrated teams in the game—sure, they have the longest play-off drought out of any team in the four major sports leagues in the US, and they’ve underperformed relative to their talent level for years.  But they also added Dee Gordon to a strong line-up headlined by Robinson Cano, and while former ace Felix Hernandez is on the way down, others, like Mike Leake and James Paxton, are on the up.  I expect this team to sneak into that second wild card spot.  To do so, they’ll have to fight off their division rival Angels, who made the biggest splash this off-season with their signing of Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani.  They’ve also made some less heralded moves, such as signing Zach Cosart and trading for Ian Kinsler, to boost their push.  However, I just don’t see their pitching staff as being good enough to warrant a play-off berth.  The bottom two will consist of the Rangers and A’s.  I’ll give the advantage to Oakland, who had the 5th best offense in the league during the second half of last season, over the aging Rangers, who have a very uncertain rotation and an offense that, outside of Adrian Beltre, won’t really strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers.  They could flip-flop, but regardless, I don’t expect either team to be very good.

 

AL Central

Cleveland Indians (#1)

Minnesota Twins

Kansas City Royals

Chicago White Sox

Detroit Tigers

The Indians will have a fairly simple season—they get to play a bunch of games against three teams that seem to be in the midst of full rebuilds and more against a team that doesn’t quite match up well against it.  Just based on that alone, they should be able to snag the number one seed in the AL with ease.  Their season will be judged on whether or not they’ll be able to achieve post-season success, which I’ll talk about a bit later.  On our way down, the Twins are really the only other team in this division with a shot at the play-offs.  They made some smart additions this season, acquiring Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, and Logan Morrison in a flurry of off-season moves.  That being said, I still have some doubts about their line-up—they’ll need solid seasons from both Bryan Buxton and Miguel Sano, and I simply don’t think those guys are at a level where they can provide them yet.  Another year of development and another bat, though, and these guys could be a good dark horse contender next season.  Of the three rebuilders, the Royals have the most top-end talent—Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, and the newly re-signed Mike Moustakas are all still around, so that will prevent them from going into an all-out tank.  That being said, they’ll be active in trying to get rid as many guys as they can that don’t have long-term potential, so expect to see Duffy and Moustakas in trade talks come mid-season.  The White Sox, meanwhile, have perhaps the least high-end talent of any team in the division, but also have the best farm system.  Once some of their top picks reach the bigs, they should have enough to pull themselves out of the basement.  The Tigers still have Miguel Cabrera at first and guys like Jordan Zimmemann and Michael Fulmer in the rotation, but somehow contrived to finish with the worst record in the game last year, so while those guys still could be top-flight players, the rest of the team should be poor enough to let them finish with the top pick in next year’s draft.

 

AL East

New York Yankees (#2)

Boston Red Sox (#1 WC)

Toronto Blue Jays

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

This division is consistently the most exciting in the game—there always seems to be at least three teams that have legitimate shots at post-season glory, and I think this year is no different.  The Yankees have gotten a lot of attention for how incredible their line-up is going to look this year, and that makes a lot of sense—it’s been a long time since a pair with as much power potential as Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have been on the same team.  That said, I think it’s the team’s pitching staff, which is deep enough that former A’s ace Sonny Gray is penciled in as the number three starter and that excellent pitchers like David Robertson and Dellin Betances are merely set-up men for Aroldis Chapman, will carry the team to the top seed in the league.  The Red Sox will be nipping at their heels the whole season—they won the division despite some poor performances at the plate, and just added a power hitter of their own in JD Martinez.  They won’t quite be good enough to topple the mighty Bronx Bombers—I’ve got some concerns about the consistency of the back end of their rotation, both on the field and off of it with injury concerns—but they should have no issues snagging a wild card place.  The Blue Jays will be making a strong push for the other spot, especially seeing as how their star third baseman Josh Donaldson is likely to test free agency after this year.  They have an incredibly balanced batting order, but similarly to the Red Sox, I have concerns about the back of their rotation, and their top-end talent there, and in the bullpen, isn’t quite up to scratch for a play-off caliber team.  I think they, and the Twins, will just miss out.  The Orioles and Rays are both in tough spots—they have decent teams with stars (Manny Machado and Chris Archer, respectively) that rival any in the game, but they’re in a division that has what are arguably the two most talented teams in the AL.  They won’t struggle, but they won’t have enough to make the play-offs, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with their two big names, both of whom have been in trade rumors since last fall (my prediction: Machado stays put, while Archer is traded to some team in California, with the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres all being players).

 

Awards

 

National League

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

This figures to be Harper’s last season in Washington, and I think he’ll be especially motivated to make a difference and truly establish his legacy.  His closest competitor should be a duo of Dodgers (Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager), but the slugging Las Vegas native should take the title.

 

NL Cy Young: Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals

I’m kind of tired of Clayton Kershaw winning so may awards, so I went with a wild card pick here.  Martinez figures to be the ace of an improved Cardinal team, and he’s got the stuff to make a real breakthrough this year.

 

NL Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves

This is as close to a no-doubt pick as there is, really—Acuna looked incredible this spring, and he has the potential to be a superstar within a couple seasons.  No other prospect with a real chance of touching the majors this year has that potential.

 

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Adam Eaton, Washington Nationals

I admit that I’m a little bit biased with this one—Eaton was one of my favorite players with the White Sox before he was traded.  That being said, there was a reason that “Sparky” was acquired for a couple of solid prospects last off-season—he’s a very talented outfielder, and I fully expect him to bounce back and make a difference for the Nats this year.

 

NL Manager of the Year: Dave Martinez, Washington Nationals

For all the good that Dusty Baker did in managing Washington during the regular season, never winning a play-off series is a big blemish on his resume.  I expect Martinez to be able to steer his team to a solid season and at least one series win, which should be enough to earn him the award.

 

NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Tyler Chatwood, Chicago Cubs

The Cubs’ signing of Yu Darvish has gotten all the headlines, but I think that, for the money, Chatwood is a significantly better signing.  He pitched well in a tough Colorado environment last year, so while Wrigley Field is no pitcher’s paradise, he should be able to take advantage of not having Coors Field as his home park and leverage that by turning in another solid season.

 

NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres

I actually really respect Eric Hosmer—he’s an exceptional hitter that made things tough for my White Sox many times over.  That being said, to get a six year deal, worth a ton of money, in this money, is a big investment; that it was made by a team that doesn’t really figure to contend for a couple, when Hosmer’s salary might look slightly ridiculous, made this one a bit much for me.

 

American League

AL MVP: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will get a ton of attention all season long, but I think that Betts will benefit immensely from the addition of JD Martinez.  It’ll free him up from a lot of pressure and allow him to excel, so that, combined with his excellent defense, should win him this award.

 

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

THIS HAS TO BE THE YEAR.  Seriously, though: the inconsistencies of the 2015 White Sox probably cost Sale a chance at this award in his last season in Chicago, and he was on track to win the award last year before a poor final two months saw him drop off.  If he doesn’t win this year, I won’t have much hope for one of the greatest lefties of his generation to ever win the award (until I stop thinking he will).

 

AL Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Ohtani’s poor performance in spring training gives me pause in picking him to win this award; he made the team, but I think that had a lot to do with his salary and name recognition than his actual value to the team at this point.  That being said, I think he’ll be able to settle in by mid-June (faster at the plate than on the mound), which is more than enough time to develop into a good enough player to win this award.

 

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Tim Lincecum, Texas Rangers

This is a bit of an ambitious pick, especially considering the struggles “The Freak” endured the last time he appeared in the bigs.  That being said, his effort to regain a real role on a pro team is commendable, and he certainly has the natural ability to make his winning of this reward entirely possible.

 

AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians

The Yankees have gotten most of the attention this off-season, but remember that I have the Indians being the top team in the AL.  I think that somebody in the organization deserves to be commended for that, and I think it’ll be Francona.

 

AL Best Offseason Acquisition: Neil Walker, New York Yankees

Walker might not even be a full-time player, for the Yankees or some other team, by the time this season comes to an end.  That being said, the consistency he brings with his bat is incredibly valuable, especially at his current salary.  If he can maintain his status as the team’s starting second baseman, he could prove to be one of the most underrated signings of the last decade.

 

AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Alex Cobb, Baltimore Orioles

I could type basically all of the things about Baltimore’s acquisition of Cobb as I did about San Diego’s signing of Hosmer—this was a big outlay for a team that doesn’t figure to be super competitive in a market that was even less competitive.

 

Playoffs

 

National League

Wildcard

St. Louis Cardinals over Milwaukee Brewers

 

Division Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over St. Louis Cardinals

 

Washington Nationals over Chicago Cubs

 

Championship Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over Washington Nationals

 

American League

Wildcard

Boston Red Sox over Seattle Mariners

 

Division Series

Cleveland Indians over Boston Red Sox

 

New York Yankees over Houston Astros

 

Championship Series

Cleveland Indians over New York Yankees

 

World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers over Cleveland Indians

I didn’t have enough time to discuss the play-off match-ups before I needed to publish this, so if you have any questions on why I see those playing out the way I do, or any comments on any other parts of this piece, please contact me here.

Instant Reaction: 2018 NCAA Tournament

March Madness has now officially begun, as the Tournament Committee has finally announced the full 68-team bracket for the upcoming 2018 Division One basketball championship.  Here is my Instant Reaction to this year’s bracket:

The top four seeds in the bracket this year are Virginia, Villanova, Kansas, and Xavier, with the Cavaliers earning the distinction of being the top seed this year.  Out of all of those teams, I think that Jay Wright’s team have the easiest path to the Final Four.  The team with the best shot of toppling them in their quadrant is probably Purdue; that being said, the Boilermakers haven’t really played, and beaten, a team on the Wildcats’ level this season, and I don’t think anyone can match up to Jalen Brunson.  The other top-ranked teams in that quadrant, Texas Tech and Florida, simply don’t seem to have enough depth to be able to hang with the top team—the Gators are even at large risk for upset.  Meanwhile, I think that Tony Bennett’s team were given a really tough draw, especially for a number one overall seed—they lucked into a quadrant where the team that arguably has the most on-paper talent, Kentucky, is the 5 seed.  They also have a chance to face Cincinnati, a team that plays a very similar defensive style to them, or Arizona, which has caught fire behind their star forward, Deandre Ayton.

In terms of at-large teams, the fabled “Last Teams In” went to Arizona State, Syracuse, UCLA, and Saint Bonaventure.  Personally, I feel that all of those teams probably deserved to be in the tournament, though if I had to pick a team that didn’t deserve it, it’d be the Orange.  Oklahoma, too, deserved some consideration as a team to be left out.  The most notable teams to miss out were Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, with the Bonzie Colson-led Fighting Irish being identified as the first team out.  I feel they should have been in for Syracuse.  Some other big-time misses included Baylor, Southern Cal, and Middle Tennessee State.

Now, time for the nitty gritty: the actual match-ups.  In the South region, I can’t wait for the possible second round match-up between Arizona and Kentucky.  That might be the best game before the Final Four, and will determine one half of the game that will determine the winner of that region.  Despite the level of difficulty that I mentioned previously, I ultimately think that Virginia is too good of a team to not make it through.  In the East, I believe Villanova will have a fairly smooth road to the Final Four, but I think that the victor of the game between Texas Tech and the double-digit team that prevails between St. Bonaventure and UCLA could make some noise, so watch out for them.  In the Midwest, I think that it’s fairly inevitable that the top two teams, Kansas and Duke, are on a collision course, with only Michigan State having the talent to topple the blue-bloods.  In that game, I think that the Dukies will be the ones to pull out a win.  In the west, I see Xavier losing early to a dark-horse Missouri team, leaving the quadrant open to whoever happens to find their top gear the soonest.  Going into the tournament, Michigan seems to be the team that has the best rhythm of consistency, so I think they’ll be the ones to make the Final Four from that region.  In the championship, I think it’ll be showdown between the two “V’s,” Virginia and Villanova, with the Cavaliers’ suffocating defense limiting ‘Nova’s shooters just enough to win their first championship in school history.

 

Rapid Reaction: 2017 World Series Preview

The Houston Astros have officially made their first World Series since 2005, and their first as a member of the American League, after defeating the New York Yankees 4-0 tonight in Game 7 of the ALCS.  In a back-and-forth battle of incredible pitching staffs, it was Houston’s that stepped up today; starter Charlie Morton went 5 strong innings, allowing only three baserunners and no runs on 54 pitches, and fellow starter Lance McCullers slammed the door with 4 shutout innings of his own.  The only runs in the game came in the 4th and 5th innings—two solo homeruns from Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve gave the Astros a 2-0 lead, and the momentum of the game was secured when catcher Brian McCann, a Yankee just last season, smacked a two-run double off of reliever Tommy Kahnle to plate the final runs of the game.

The team now prepares to face off against the pennant winners in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Dave Roberts’s team has had a few days to scout their potential opponents after dispatching of the defending champion Chicago Cubs in five games, so they have the advantage of rest going into the World Series.  The Astros, meanwhile, after struggling for much of the post-season, seem to have found their bats when it matters most, and have an excellent pitching staff the likes of which the Dodgers have not seen yet in these play-offs.  So who pulls out the win?  Here’s my brief breakdown of the match-ups in the series:

 

Pitching Staff

Advantage: Astros

LA has the unbeatable Clayton Kershaw, who seems to have overcome his play-off demons thus far, and Yu Darvish has looked pretty good, too.  But Rich Hills has labored through a lot of pitches, and Alex Wood has been very poor.  Houston, meanwhile, can counter with four fantastic starters—its two back-end guys were McCullers and Morton, who combined to shut down the Yankees tonight, and its two front-end guys, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, have been excellent so far.  Houston’s got the advantage.

 

Bullpen

Advantage: Astros

The Houston bullpen hasn’t really had to do a whole lot thus far due to their starters’ excellent performances.  The Dodgers, meanwhile, have gotten their normal lights-out performances from Kenley Janson, and the rest of the “no-namers” around him have been very good thus far.  The bats of the Diamondbacks and Cubs, though, did not quite have the firepower that the ‘Stros do, and I worry that LA’s bullpen will fall back into the slump that it had to battle through in the regular season.  For that reason, I think Houston has a slight advantage.

 

Lineup

Advantage: Dodgers

As I mentioned earlier, the Astros bats have been very inconsistent, seemingly having an on-off switch relating to their productivity, which is strange considering how excellent it was during the regular season.  The Dodgers have had no such problems—they have averaged six runs per game in their post-season run thus far, and that includes not having arguably their most balanced hitter, Corey Seager, absent due to injury for the entire NLCS.  They’ve gotten excellent hitting up and down the order, and their big guns, especially Justin Turner, have really stepped up to the plate.  LA has the advantage here.

 

Baserunning

Advantage: Dodgers

Both teams feature a lot of athleticism, but I think that the Dodgers have harnessed theirs a little bit better on the base paths so far—outside of the play at the plate that became a non-factor due to Gary Sanchez’s hard hands, the Astros weren’t that aggressive in taking the extra base.  LA hasn’t been afraid to try, and so far, it’s worked to their advantage.

 

Defense

Advantage: Astros

If you can’t understand why I’d give Houston the advantage here, watch the highlights of the last two ALCS games.  You’ll see the athleticism of Carlos Correa, the ranginess of Jose Altuve, the instinct of Alex Bregman, and the freak of nature that is George Springer.  This isn’t to say that the Dodgers have a bad defense—they don’t—but Houston’s is one of the most capable ones in the league.

 

Coaching Staff

Advantage: Push

Dave Roberts and AJ Hinch are both intelligent former players that have pushed every button correctly so far in these play-offs.  I don’t think either team has an advantage here.

 

Prediction: Astros in 7

I think that the first six games of this one will be won by the home team—as I mentioned earlier, the visitors have had a really tough time getting going, in any series thus far—and that would give us a winner-take-all showdown in Game 6.  If the pitching rotations go in the order that they have up to this point, that would mean a Game 7 match-up between the two starters that have arguably looked the best in these play-offs, Darvish and Verlander.  In the end, though, I think that the advantage that Houston has in its bullpen—not just in Ken Giles and Chris Devenski, but in guys like McCullers, who showed that he is a very capable reliever tonight, and Morton.  I expect one of those guys to be on the hill when Houston pulls out their first championship in franchise history.

2017 NFL Preview

In just under a half an hour, the 2017/18 NFL season will kick off in a match-up between two of the top teams in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs and the defending champion New England Patriots.  After the thrilling conclusion to last year’s season, the start of this year’s campaign has been eagerly anticipated for weeks, if not months, on end.  With all of the speculation about free agency, new coaching hires, and training camp battles now over, we can finally ask: who’s going to win that big prize this season?  Will the big, bad Pats be able to defend their crown?  Or will one of their many challengers be able to keep the Lombardi Trophy from returning to Foxboro?  Here is my view on how the upcoming year will look:

 

 

Regular Season Standings:

 

NFC

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks (#2)

Arizona Cardinals (#2 WC)

San Francisco 49ers

Los Angeles Rams

The Seahawks won their division with ease last year, and that should be the case this year, as well.  For all of the maddening inconsistencies that the team has with its offensive line, Russell Wilson and company but up some decent numbers with the football last year.  Now that they’ve got a four-headed running back group to take some pressure off of Wilson, their offense is close to having the firepower their defense does, even after the addition of Sheldon Richardson.  The Cardinals, meanwhile, lost their defensive lineman in Calais Campbell, and the offensive concerns surrounding quarterback Carson Palmer really haven’t gone away.  Their talent level, though, should be enough to boost them into the play-offs in a weak NFC.  The two teams at the bottom, the 49ers and the Rams, are both in a state of rebuilding.  I think that San Fran is a little bit better in the present day, with Kyle Shanahan reuniting with Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garcon, and especially with Aaron Donald still not suiting up for Los Angeles.  The Rams, though, will have a solid foundation to build on if they can lock up Donald and Sammy Watkins—this could be a sleeper team to watch out for as early as next season.

 

NFC North

Green Bay Packers (#1)

Chicago Bears

Minnesota Vikings

Detroit Lions

The Pack had some serious issues on both sides of the ball last year—they ended up having to convert Ty Montgomery into a running back, and their secondary was an absolute mess.  Fortunately, they’ve got a guy named Aaron Rodgers on their team, and he carried Green Bay to a thrilling play-off victory last season.  This year, playing in the weakest division in the NFC and having seen upgrades in their weakest areas, I expect Rodgers to lead his team to the #1 seed.  The Bears might look like they’re in a rebuilding phase, especially after trading up to take a quarterback with the second pick in the draft, but injuries decimated their defense and their offense was good but inefficient last year.  With strong, healthy defenders and Mike Glennon under center, I expect my hometown team to surprise some people and push for a play-off spot this year.  The Vikings, meanwhile, seem to be… average in almost every facet of the game.  If Dalvin Cook can develop quickly, maybe they have a shot at the post-season, but otherwise I think they’ll be very mediocre.  Detroit, meanwhile, very much resembles the New Orleans team that’s struggled the last few seasons—they have an excellent offense but a defense that is maddeningly inconsistent.  They’ll struggle to beat teams unless they put up 35 every game, especially in a division where every team has made large strides towards fixing their biggest offensive deficiencies.

 

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#4)

Atlanta Falcons (#1 WC)

New Orleans Saints

Carolina Panthers

Picking the Bucs to finish above the defending NFC champions is a bit of a surprising pick, but consider this—Tampa finished only two games behind the Falcons last season, added a much-needed deep threat to compliment Mike Evans (DeSean Jackson), an up-and-coming star at tight end (OJ Howard), and a veteran safety to bolster their secondary (TJ Ward).  I understand that the Falcons also improved, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but with a fluke win or loss here or there, last year’s division title could have very easily gone to south Florida.  Combine those realities with the strides that third-year quarterback Jameis Winston is sure to make this year, and I think that Dan Quinn’s team will have to make it to the post-season in a wild card spot.  In the bottom half of the division, the Saints have done a fantastic job of recovering from their salary cap mistakes to bolster both sides of the ball, with their most notable addition being star veteran running back Adrian Peterson, but their defense is too inexperienced to really make enough of a difference for them to push for a division title this year.  The Panthers, meanwhile, will enter the season with a completely healthy Cam Newton, which is both a blessing and a curse.  The former Auburn star is a fantastic athlete, but with his style of play expected to be curbed due to recent injury issues, his flaws as a pocket passer will shine through, and I don’t think they’ll be good enough with the football to generate enough offense to offset their inconsistent defense.

 

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (#3)

Dallas Cowboys

New York Giants

Washington Redskins

The Eagles were incredibly active during this offseason—they added multiple weapons to surround young quarterback Carson Wentz, headlined by receiver Alshon Jeffery, used their first two draft picks to bolster their defense, and traded their inconsistent receiver, Jordan Matthews, for a number one corner in Ronald Darby.  With the regression to the mean that Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense will be sure to undergo, especially with Ezekiel Elliott on the verge of a six game suspension, I feel that Philly will be able to supplant Dallas at the top of the division.  That reality, combined with the strength of this division in comparison to the other three in the NFC, will, I believe, cause last year’s number one overall seed to miss out on this year’s play-offs.  The Giants and the Redskins, meanwhile, both have weak secondaries, which should prevent them from making much noise in this tough divisional race.  However, with quarterbacks as talented as Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins, don’t be surprised if they play spoiler to some team’s late-season play-off hopes.

 

AFC

AFC West

Oakland Raiders (#4)

Kansas City Chiefs (#2 WC)

Los Angeles Chargers

Denver Broncos

The Raiders were one of last season’s most popular teams, as fans rallied behind young QB Derek Carr and the excellent offense built around him.  Not many remember, though, that it was the Chiefs that actually won the division, thanks to a balanced offensive attack and a ferocious pass rush.  The same two clubs will duke it out for the crown this year, and I ultimately think that the addition of Marshawn Lynch will give the Oakland offense an extra dimension that will propel them over Kansas City this year.  The Chiefs will still make the post-season, though, with the underrated cast of athletes that Andy Reid’s offense features allowing them to snag the second wild card spot.  The Chargers are basically everybody’s dark horse pick for the upcoming season, and with good reason—their bevvy of offensive weapons are all healthy, and Phillip Rivers has yet to show major regression at age 35—but I worry a bit about the Charger defense, as well as back end of their defense, so I think they’ll fall just short.  In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos D is still elite, but starting to show some cracks—TJ Ward was released, DeMarcus Ware’s replacement (Shane Ray) is on IR, and Aqib Talib is on the wrong side of 30.  These things, combined with the uncertainty surrounding their quarterback situation, will see the team fall back into the bottom of the division for the first time since 2010.

 

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (#3)

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals

Cleveland Browns

The Steelers were the only team in this division with a winning record last year—having an offense headlined by players that are arguably the best at their position in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will do that for you.  Pittsburgh’s defense still isn’t all that great, but it’s made some strides in recent years, and that, along with the explosive offense, is enough to let the team top the division.  Their closest competitors, Baltimore, are virtually the opposite of the Steelers—they have an excellent defense with multiple explosive players, but their offense is maddeningly inconsistent.  It is this that will keep John Harbaugh’s team out of the post-season.  The Bengals, who have been pretty close to a perennial play-off team in recent years, will drift off towards the bottom of the division after a poor off-season which saw them make many poor decisions when it came to retaining some of their team’s own free agents, especially along the offensive line.  Then, of course, there’s Cleveland.  The Browns will not be the doormat that they were this past year, and they had a pretty solid off-season (reminiscent of the one that the Raiders had in one of their most crucial rebuilding years, in fact), but they’re still ways away from being truly competitive in the conference.

 

AFC South

Tennessee Titans (#2)

Houston Texans (#1 WC)

Jacksonville Jaguars

Indianapolis Colts

Tennessee narrowly missed out on making the post-season last year, finishing with an identical record to the division-winning Texans, and that happened even while missing Marcus Mariota for most of the season’s final 2 games due to injury.  With Mariota back and ready to heave the ball to Delanie Walker and his two newest targets, Eric Decker and rookie Corey Davis, I expect the Titans to claim the division this year.  That doesn’t mean that the Texans will miss the play-offs, though—regardless of whom of the Deshaun Watson-Tom Savage duo ends up starting more games for Houston, their quarterback situation will be far more stable than it was last year.  All they’ll have to do is utilize the bevvy of freak athletes they are surrounded by, headlined by DeAndre Hopkins, and they’ll end up as the top wild card.  The teams at the bottom of the division have some major quarterback issues—Blake Bortles is maddeningly inconsistent, and Andrew Luck is seemingly always hurt or in danger of being hurt.  I think the Jags had a good off-season and built up some good talent on both offense and defense, so they’ll top the Colts, but neither team should be any good.

 

AFC East

New England Patriots (#1)

Miami Dolphins

Buffalo Bills

New York Jets

Even after losing their de facto number one receiver, Julian Edelman, to injury, the Patriots still have the most dangerous offense in the entire league, with four starter-quality running backs, three excellent receivers, and the best tight end in the league.  And that isn’t even taking into account Tom Brady, last season’s Super Bowl hero, and what he has to offer.  The Pats should cruise to a division title with ease, especially since two teams in their division are in the midst of full rebuilds.  The team that isn’t, Miami, was unfortunate to lose their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, before the season started, bringing in Jay Cutler to replace him.  Cutler won’t be bad—he’s got two receivers, Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker, that are very well-suited to his skill set—but I don’t think that he, or the Dolphin secondary, will be enough to get them to the post-season.  They could make things interesting, though, as they play the Buccaneers, Panthers, and Chiefs in the second half of the season, all teams with high play-off inspirations.  The two teams that are rebuilding, the Bills and Jets, are in separate spots.  The Bills actually have a few talented skill players on offense, including LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor, but their defense is not great, and despite their offensive talent, they aren’t super consistent, so they’ll continue to try and build through young players.  The Jets, meanwhile, will just be… bad.  They’re definitely shooting for a top-2 pick in next year’s draft—the less said about them this year, the better.

 

 

Awards/Individual Predictions

NFL MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

The greatest quarterback in NFL history is surrounded by the deepest level of talent that he’s ever had in his career.  Next category, please.

 

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills

Jones isn’t the sexiest receiver in the world—he doesn’t have the high draft choice label like Corey Davis, or the speed of John Ross, or the big-school pedigree like Curtis Samuel.  But he also happens to be the top threat receiving threat on the outside for a Buffalo team that lost a lot of targets due to departures of some veteran wideouts. On top of that, even when Jordan Matthews returns from injury, he doesn’t figure to take away any of Jones’s playing time since the former Eagle likes operating in the slot.  Add that to the fact that underrated QB Tyrod Taylor seems to prefer larger targets than smaller, quicker ones, and I think that Jones could have a fantastic season.

 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: TJ Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Watt, like his brother JJ, was an electric player at the University of Wisconsin, but because of his stature and role in the Badger defense, not as much was expected of him this season.  His pre-season performances, though, have caused Steeler coaches to drastically increase the role that Watt will have this year.  That’s saying a lot, too, considering that he’ll be taking playing time from former first round pick Bud Dupree and the ageless James Harrison.  Watt’s work ethic is as high as his brother’s, and I expect a big year from him this year.

 

Best Acquisition: DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Part of the reason that Vincent Jackson was supplanted as Tampa’s number one receiver by Mike Evans so early in Evans’s career was Jackson’s declining ability to be good at what the team acquired him for, catching the deep ball.  Evans is more of a possession, go-get-it kind of receiver, and it was clear to see how desperately the Bucs needed a player to help stretch the field.  Enter Jackson.  The former Redskin may be 30, but he hasn’t lost a step of his blazing speed, and with his talent and reasonable contract, he provides an excellent option opposite Evans.

 

Worst Acquisition: Matt Kalil, OT, Carolina Panthers

Maybe pairing the former Minnesota Viking with his brother, Ryan, might improve his productivity.  But the truth of the matter is that Kalil is one of a long list of offensive tackles taken in the first round recently that haven’t reached their potential.  Kalil’s ceiling was higher than most, but it’s clear that his injuries and inconsistencies don’t warrant him getting a huge contract.  The free agent tackle market this year was thin, and I get that, but even so, Kalil got a lot of guaranteed money to essentially be a league-average player.  This contract will bite the Panthers long-term.

 

Coach of the Year: Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Part of me still feels that it was a mistake for the team to fire its old coach, Lovie Smith.  But the success that Koetter has had developing third-year quarterback Jameis Winston has been undeniable, and the cadre of offensive weapons the team has acquired for the young gunslinger is the best that he’s had in the league.  Add that to strong secondary, recently bolstered by the signing of former All-Pro safety TJ Ward, and Koetter has enough talent, and enough smarts (especially on offense), to lead his team to their first division title since 2007.

 

Biggest Surprise: Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons

Jarrett was excellent in his team’s defeat in the Super Bowl this February, flashing the potential that caused him to be considered as a high pick back in 2015 before his smaller stature made him slide down teams’ draft boards.  A pass-rushing tackle, the Clemson tackle was played at nose tackle for most of last year, preventing him from maximizing his potential.  Now, though, he has Dontari Poe next to him to clog the middle, and with the highly-touted duo of Vic Beasley Jr. and Takkarist McKinley attacking quarterbacks from the edges, Jarrett should see a lot of 1 on 1 match-ups, which bodes well for his development in stopping the run and rushing the passer.  I expect double-digit sacks from him this year.

 

 

Play-offs:

 

NFC

Wildcard

Philadelphia Eagles defeat Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This game almost feels like a battle between the new guard—the Eagles, with their second year quarterback Carson Wentz and second year head coach Doug Pederson—taking on coaching and quarterbacking veterans Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer.  I really like the Cardinals—I picked them to reach the Super Bowl last season—but I simply think that the Eagles have more talent on both sides of the ball after their moves this off-season.  They’ll move on.

Yes, I recognize that I have Tampa topping the Falcons in their race for the NFC South title, which would, in theory, mean that the Buccaneers would win this match-up, especially with their home-field advantage.  The Falcons, though, will be out to prove that their run to last year’s Super Bowl was not a fluke, so they will come into this one extraordinarily motivated to win, especially against a division rival.  For that reason, I think that Atlanta moves on to the next round.

 

Divisional

Green Bay Packers defeat Atlanta Falcons

Philadelphia Eagles defeat Seattle Seahawks

The first divisional round match-up will see a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship in which Atlanta romped all over Green Bay in their 44-21 victory.  I see this season’s result going a little different for two main reasons—that this year’s game would be held in Wisconsin instead of Georgia, and that the Pack have retooled the secondary that kept getting beaten by Matt Ryan last year.  Expect Aaron Rodgers and company to move on to the conference championship.

I’m a really big fan of the Eagles’ offense, but they may meet their match here in the ferocious Seattle D.  I still have Philly moving on, though, and that’s because I think that the strengths of the Seattle offense match up well to the strength of the Eagle defense.  In this defensive affair, I feel that the team with the greatest big-play ability will advance, and I view that as being the Eagles.  They move on.

 

Conference

Philadelphia Eagles defeat Green Bay Packers

This one, I think, ultimately comes down to defense.  Aaron Rodgers is clearly a better quarterback than Carson Wentz is, at this stage in their careers.  However, the Eagles will be going up against a defense that, while improved from last year, is still unproven, and even then won’t strike fear into a team as offensively talented as Philly.  The Packers, meanwhile, will go up against a good Eagles defense that only bolstered its secondary by adding the true number one corner it had been lacking in Ronald Darby.  None of this is to say that it will be a low scoring game—it definitely won’t be—but I feel that Philly will have enough to slow down the immaculate Rodgers and move on to the Super Bowl.

 

AFC

Wild Card

Kansas City Chiefs defeat Pittsburgh Steelers

Oakland Raiders defeat Houston Texans

Having two of the most historically gritty teams in the AFC square off in the wild card round will be a real treat.  Pittsburgh has the more explosive offense, which should cause problems for a slightly overrated Chiefs D.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I feel that Andy Reid’s team won’t at least have some success slowing the explosive options Pittsburgh has.  There is also the state of Pittsburgh’s defense to consider—while they are better in their front 7, their secondary still isn’t that great, and while there’s a reason the Chiefs moved up to draft Patrick Mahomes II, Alex Smith has extensive play-off experience, and some shifty players around him.  For that reason, I think that KC will move on.

The Raiders are probably more talented than the Texans, but Houston’s strengths, on both sides of the ball, actually match up pretty well with the weaknesses on Oakland’s roster, so it’ll be a closer game than some would anticipate.  In the end, though, I just think that the Raider offense just has too much firepower for the Texan defense to hold off, and for the Texan offense to keep up with them.  Oakland will move on.

 

Divisional

New England Patriots defeat Kansas City Chiefs

Oakland Raiders defeat Tennessee Titans

The Patriots are virtually unbeatable at home, which puts the Chiefs at an immediate disadvantage in this game.  New England’s defense is not elite, but they do have a better unit than the Steelers do, which further lessens their chances of beating the defending champs.  And then there’s the Patriot offense—they don’t pose the explosive threat that the Steelers do, but they have more weapons that are more dynamic.  All of that will just be too much for KC to handle—New England moves on.

This game will go virtually the exact same as Oakland’s previous game.  Tennessee has a pretty strong defense, and Marcus Mariota is certainly talented enough to tear the inconsistent Raider secondary into shreds.  Ultimately, though, I still believe that the Raider offense will be too strong for any defense outside of Seattle or Denver to stop, and unfortunately for the Titans, they are neither of those teams, and their offense is good, but not good enough to beat Oakland.  The Raiders will win this one.

 

Conference

Oakland Raiders defeat New England Patriots

This might be one of the best conference championships in history—the Patriots will be eager to prove that they won last year’s Super Bowl, as opposed to the Falcons blowing it, while Oakland will surely be spurred on by the fans who remember the heartbreak of the Tuck Rule game that led to New England’s first championship.  In the end, I think that neither team’s star quarterback will be the ultimate difference maker in this one—it’ll be Marshawn Lynch.  The recently un-retired back will be anxious to go all-in against the team that gave him his most heart-wrenching defeat, and while New England’s secondary may be strong, their run defense has some pretty big holes.  Expect Lynch to romp all over the Pats and lead his team to the Super Bowl.

 

Super Bowl

Oakland Raiders defeat Philadelphia Eagles

A showdown between two of the most passionate fan bases, between two of the most dynamic offenses in football, quarterbacked by two of the faces of the sport.  It doesn’t get much better than this.  Philadelphia has a better defense, which should help some in slowing down the Oakland attack.  However, the Oakland team is filled with players that have been in the thick of play-off competition before and will know how to step up during the big moments that will inevitably come, and Raider head coach Jack del Rio has extensive post-season experience.  Doug Pederson and his squad, meanwhile, had a losing record last season, and many of their younger players, particularly Carson Wentz, have never truly experienced such a high-stakes situation.  So: while the Eagles are, in my mind, slightly better on paper, I think that the Raiders’ intangibles will be what allow them to bring a well-deserved title to their fans in the Bay.

2017 MLB Season Preview

Earlier today, the 2017 MLB season began down in Florida, when the Tampa Bay Rays toppled the New York Yankees in a 7–3 ballgame.  For many, though, the memories of last year’s amazing events still remain fresh—the incredible individual feats of pitching and power.  The dramatic wild-card finish.  The enthralling, and almost entirely unexpected, runs of the Cubs and Indians, the two teams that, at the time, had the longest championship droughts in the Big 4 American Sports leagues.  The drama-filled Game 7, capped off with raucous celebrations of long-suffering Cubs fans that saw their team’s legendary World Series curse broken.  Can this season come close to repeating the extraordinary events we were lucky enough to witness last year?  Is it possible for the Lovable Losers to repeat, or will another team get their hands on the Commissioner’s Trophy next season?  As the champs get ready to defend their title, here are my thoughts on what the upcoming season will look like:

 

National League

 

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers (#3)

San Francisco Giants (#2 WC)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Colorado Rockies

San Diego Padres

Coming off a year that was supposed to belong to the even-year dominating Giants, it’s abundantly clear that the Dodgers are the class of the West.  Sure, they might be a serious Clayton Kershaw injury away from falling off a cliff, but the team managed well when the lanky lefty was hurt last year, and now that their whole staff is healthy, LA has a shot at competing for a championship.  The Giants recognized that they had a bullpen issue last year, and while their biggest signing, closer Mark Melancon, will help in that area, it’s still a little shaky.  That being said, their rotation is fantastic, and they have a very strong and versatile infield, and those things will allow them to eke out a wild-card spot.  The next two teams are fairly interchangeable; both clubs have bona-fide superstars that are surrounded by incredibly inconsistent teammates.  I think Arizona has a bit more talent on paper, so I put them above the Rockies, but if Bud Black is able to work miracles with Colorado’s pitching staff, they might be a real dark horse in the race for the post-season.  At the bottom we have Black’s most recent employer, the Padres, who are… not going to be very good.  Outside of Wil Myers, AJ Preller’s team is doing a lot of experimentation—they’re keeping three Rule 5 draft picks on the roster, for example—and the club has both eyes set on the future.  It’ll be between them and the Twins as to who the worst team in the game will be.

 

NL Central

Chicago Cubs (#1)

St. Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh Pirates

Milwaukee Brewers

Cincinnati Reds

The poaching between the top two teams in this division is going the opposite way this year—the Cardinals took the Cubs’ center fielder, Dexter Fowler, from Chicago—but the defending champs are still stacked throughout their line-up.  They also, along with the Giants and Mets, have one of the best rotations in the NL, and I expect those hurlers to carry them to the top seed in the league (read a more detailed preview of the Cubs’ season here).  The Cards won’t have enough to push the Lovable Losers for the division, since their own rotation isn’t all that consistent, but the talent in the batting order is there, especially with the addition of Fowler, to boost them into the post-season.  Unfortunately, San Francisco’s deeper pitching staff will be enough to see them keep the Cards out of October for the second straight season.  The Pirates have a good top two in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but their youth will prevent them from having enough to carry the struggling Andrew McCutchen and his teammates to glory.  The Brew Crew and the Big Red Machine will battle to be among the worst teams in baseball.  I’ve got a little more faith in the Brewers—Ryan Braun and Eric Thames make a threatening duo, and the team is absolutely unstoppable on the base paths, while all the Reds seem to have going for them is veteran slugger Joey Votto—but like I said, neither club will inspire their respective fan bases.  I expect them to “compete” for a top-5 pick come season’s end.

 

NL East

Washington Nationals (#2)

New York Mets (#1 WC)

Miami Marlins

Atlanta Braves

Philadelphia Phillies

The Nats were the best team in the NL last season not named the Cubs, and that came with a relative off-year for face-of-the-franchise Bryce Harper.  However, they faltered in the play-offs, again, and now, with Harper’s future in Washington, the team will be in full win-now mode.  With new acquisition Adam Eaton coming in and allowing Trea Turner to play full-time at shortstop, Washington has a loaded line-up that could push the Cubs at the top of the Senior Circuit.  The Mets, meanwhile, don’t have anywhere near as certain of a batting order, especially in regards to their infield, but with a (mostly) healthy rotation filled with dominating righties, they’ll be able to make the post-season as the top wild card.  Below them, the Marlins are making steps in the right direction to move away from their standard blow-out sale if their team falters in the prior season, but unfortunately, the tragic loss of ace Jose Fernandez leaves their rotation short of enough ability to get them over the hump this year.  Rounding out the division, the Braves and the Phils are in full re-building mode.  Atlanta much further along than their northern rivals, already having an established ace (Julio Tehran), a star slugger (Freddie Freeman), and a future stud up the middle (Dansby Swanson).  They, like the Rockies, have the potential to break out this year, if some pieces fall into place, but it’s more likely that they and the Phillies will be towards the bottom of the league this year.

 

American League

 

AL West

Houston Astros (#3)

Texas Rangers (#1 WC)

Seattle Mariners

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Oakland Athletics

The Astros might have been the winners of the off-season, bolstering their line-up by adding veterans Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.  Their rotation is still maddeningly inconsistent, ace Dallas Keuchel included, but the revamped offense will be enough to give the team their second division title in three years.  The Rangers went on a tear to end last season, ending up at the top of the Junior Circuit by a game over the Indians.  However, their luck ran out in the post-season, and the issues with their pitching staff were laid bare—besides Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, there isn’t much consistency there—but Jeff Banister’s team still has enough talent to keep back the American League East teams to snag the top wild card slot.  Below them, the Mariners will have a decent offense this year, headlined by the dangerous trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager, but their pitching staff, including ace Felix Hernandez, is too inconsistent to warrant consideration for a play-off spot.  The Angels, meanwhile, have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and… not much else.  Until they can get a consistent pitching staff in place, the team will go nowhere, and risk losing Trout in the prime of his career.  The A’s are going full rebuild, as they don’t really seem to have anything going for them outside of the fact that they won’t have to worry about sharing their stadium with  football team in a couple of years.

 

AL Central

Cleveland Indians (#1)

Kansas City Royals

Detroit Tigers

Chicago White Sox

Minnesota Twins

What I felt could have been perhaps the most competitive division in baseball last year basically being the Indians and everyone else.  Now that Cleveland has improved even more, getting Michael Brantley back from injury and replacing the aging Mike Napoli with former Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion, the distance between them and the rest of the pack will be even greater.  They should top the division, and the league, with relative ease.  KC will be in a fairly similar predicament to the Marlins—they’ve got some decent talent in their line-up, and they’ve made all the right moves to try and retool their roster after last year’s disappointing campaign, but after the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, the rotation will simply be good, not great, and that won’t be enough to make up for the dent the offense will take thanks to Kendrys Morales’s departure.  The Royals will fight, but eventually fall short.  The Tigers seem to have too many question marks on their roster, mostly due to lack of consistency and the aging of their core, to really make a push for the post-season with their current roster, but if they can add another hitter and mid-rotation arm, they could have a slim shot.  The Sox and the Twins, meanwhile, are both in the middle of (relative) full rebuilds, and they’ll both end up as one of the worst five teams in the game.  I think the Pale Hose (read my more in-depth preview of their season here) probably have a little more talent on their roster than Minnesota as is, so if they don’t make any moves, I think that they’ll finish above the Twins, but if they trade two of their veteran core (Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, and Melky Cabrera), they could finish last.

 

AL East

Boston Red Sox (#2)

Toronto Blue Jays (#2 WC)

Baltimore Orioles

Tampa Bay Rays

New York Yankees

This is what I believe to be the best division in baseball.  If things were to fall right, every team has a shot of making the post-season.  The cream of the crop will be the Red Sox, who decided that the best way to get better after the retirement of David Ortiz was to bolster their pitching staff, which they did with the acquisition of star lefty Chris Sale from the White Sox.  His presence in Boston gives the team the deepest rotation in the AL, and while they won’t have the offense to propel themselves past the Indians in Big Papi’s absence, they’ll still be a force to be reckoned with.  Behind them will be The Blue Jays, who will maintain most of their incredible offense, with new acquisition Kendrys Morales being only a slight downgrade from slugger Edwin Encarnacion.  That being said, the Jays don’t have the pitching staff to match up with Boston, so they’ll have to duke it out with the Orioles—whose own offense, led by Adam Jones, is also incredibly potent, and who also have a rotation with a lot of major question marks—for the second wild card spot.  I think Toronto is slightly better on offense, though, so I’ll give them the play-off spot.  The Rays have the opposite problem of their divisional counterparts—they’ve got the pitching to make the post-season, but not the bats.  In a league where power numbers are rising, I feel Tampa just doesn’t have enough juice in their line-up to make it out of their tough division.  The Yankees have an unfortunate mix of both problems—they have some good hitters and some good hurlers, but not enough of either to prevent them from being the bottom dweller in this division.

 

Awards

 

National League

NL MVP: Kris Bryant, Cubs

It’s hard for players to repeat as MVP award winners, but it’s also hard to be as good as Bryant when people know that you’re one of the best hitters in baseball and there’s still nothing that they can do about it.  The third baseman should win this one pretty easily.

 

NL Cy Young: Noah Syndergaard, Mets

Thor was the last of the Mets’ three great starters to reach the majors, but he has quickly matured into the best of them.  He only threw 183 innings last season, so he should be fairly fresh coming into the season, and should be able to dominate hitters that have yet to figure out how to catch up to his incredible fastball.

 

NL Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson, Braves

The former number one overall draft pick flashed his extraordinary talent in his 38-game cameo last season, and this year he’s got a stronger line-up around him, which will allow him to see more pitches.  The wear of a full season in the bigs will certainly hinder him a bit, but that’s the case for all rookies; the Vandy product should win this with ease.

 

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Kyle Schwarber, Cubs

I was torn between picking Schwarber and the Pirates star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who is certainly a better all-around player than the Cubs slugger.  The two deciding factors in my decision to pick Schwarber were that it seems as if the big man will spend some significant time in the lead-off spot this season, which will give him a significant number of great AB’s, and that I have the Cubs making the play-offs and the Pirates missing out.

 

NL Manager of the Year: Dusty Baker, Nationals

Dusty hasn’t been the greatest fit for this Nationals team, as his more old-school ways don’t mesh with the louder, more aggressive game put forward by guys like Bryce Harper.  That being said, if the veteran manager can get his team to push the Cubs in the NL, which I think he will, than he’ll deserve this award.

 

NL Best Offseason Acquisition: Dexter Fowler, Cardinals

Fowler’s importance to last year’s Cubs team simply cannot be understated—I don’t think that they would have won without his consistency at the top of the order and in the field.  That the Cardinals were able to get him, at a far more reasonable price than they would have paid had Jayson Heyward decided to stick around, as a big win for John Mozeliak.

 

NL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Ian Desmond, Rockies

Desmond has always been a decent hitter, and will do well enough while batting in Colorado; that much is clear.  It’s also clear that his year in Texas last year was probably an outlier, and that he’s going to be a fairly major liability in the field.  That Colorado dumped so much money at him is a major surprise to me.

 

American League

AL MVP: Francisco Lindor, Indians

If the Indians are to top the American League, their do-it-all shortstop will have to be at the center of everything.  It makes sense to reward the best player on the best team, doesn’t it?

 

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Red Sox

Yeah, I picked Sale to win this last year.  That didn’t work out so great.  But the lanky left is getting a fresh start in Boston this year (that’s you crying, not me), and he’ll be anxious to prove his worth on a contender.  Opposing hitters won’t get to take a day off, either, as none of the BoSox starters are slouches.  Sale is the best of them all, though, and I think he’ll haul in the hardware.

 

AL Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox

Benintendi looked great after being called up in September last year, and he looked great this spring, too.  The athletic outfielder is incredibly well-rounded and figures to play an important role on what will certainly be one of the top teams in baseball, which should be enough to earn him this award if the stats he’ll put up and the incredible plays he’ll make aren’t enough.

 

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas, Royals

Moustakas was the focal point of a Royals team that made it to the World Series two straight years, and the team’s offense struggled mightily last year, due in large part to his absence for much of the season.  His return won’t be enough to get KC back into the play-offs, but it will be enough to get him this award.

 

AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Indians

I used the same logic for this one that I did for having Francona’s player, Lindor, win the MVP award—it only makes sense to reward the guy that’s in charge of the best team in his respective league, right?  I sure think so.

 

AL Best Offseason Acquisition: Jason Hammel, Royals

Hammel was often overshadowed by his big-name teammates in Chicago—and rightfully so, the righty isn’t a star— but he was a valuable innings-eater for a very good team.  His durability will make him a very important commodity for a Royals team looking to fill the hole left by the death of Yordano Ventura, and at $6 million a season, Hammel is a very good fit for that role.

 

AL Worst Offseason Acquisition: Jason Castro, Twins

I’m of the frame of mind that a bad team signing a good player to an expensive deal is not a very bright idea.  That’s exactly what the Twins did here with Castro—he’s a great pitch framer and OK at the plate, but with an AAV of over $8 million a season, this signing just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

 

Playoffs

 

National League

Wildcard

Giants over Mets

Wild card games frequently come down to which team has a better ace, so this one, which will be a game that sees my NL Cy Young award winner square off against one of the best play-off pitchers in recent memory.  Because both pitchers are so good, though, I feel this one will be determined by who is able to crack the opposing pitcher, and since I feel the Giants have a better line-up, I think they’ll be the ones to do it.  San Fran moves on.

 

Division Series

Cubs over Giants

A re-match of last year’s divisional series, one which the Cubs were able to win by taking advantage of San Fran’s weak bullpen.  Adding Melancon will certainly help, but the rest of the ‘pen still remains a question mark, and that’s simply not going to do when you’re playing a team that’s as good as Chicago.  The Cubs will win again.

 

Nationals over Dodgers

Another match-up from last year’s post-season, this cross-country series will certainly be an intriguing one.  LA was able to pull off a victory largely due to the heroics of Clayton Kershaw, who but his team on his back to make it to the NLCS.  This year, though, the Nats will have a stronger line-up, and the Dodgers’ rotation behind Kershaw is uncertain as it’s been in the last few seasons.  Expect Bryce Harper and Trea Turner to lift their team into the second LCS appearance in team history.

 

Championship Series

Cubs over Dodgers

Hey, look—a series that isn’t a rematch!  Both teams have incredibly potent offenses and great starters at the front of their rotations.  It’ll come down, then, to whether or not each team’s bullpen can close out big games.  The Cubs have what amounts to the same set-up as last year, with Wade Davis in place of Aroldis Chapman.  The Nats, meanwhile, might end up going with a closer-by-committee approach, and don’t really have a deeply talented ‘pen as a whole.  That will make the difference in this one, and the Cubbies will advance to their second straight World Series.

 

AL

Wildcard

Astros over Blue Jays

As I said before, the team that has typically won these wild-card games is the one that has the better starting pitcher.  As good as Marco Estrada is, I think that the advantage has to go to Dallas Keuchel, and for that reason, the ‘Stros will pull this one out and advance to the divisional series.

 

Division Series

Red Sox over Astros

I’m kind of bummed out that the way I see the season playing out has these two teams meeting in this round instead of the LCS, because I think that their strengths match the other’s weaknesses better than most play-off pairings.  That being said, though, I think that Boston’s offense is strong enough to trouble the back of Houston’s rotation, and the opposite is not true.  The Red Sox will win in a hard-fought series that should go to 5 games.

 

Indians over Rangers

I could basically use the same logic for this one that I did for the Red Sox-Astros series, except I think the weakness is more stark for Texas than it was for Houston (figure that one out).  The Rangers aren’t going to be able to start Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels in every game in this series, and Cleveland’s line-up is so good from top to bottom that I don’t even think it would matter if they did, anyway.  The defending AL champs should move on with relative ease.

 

Championship Series

Red Sox over Indians

I’ve made it pretty clear that I think that both Cleveland and Boston have pretty good offensive ability, and that Boston’s pitchers are pretty darn good.  What about Cleveland’s?  Their bullpen is second to none, but they’re going to need something from their starters to get it there, and outside of Corey Kluber, the players the BoSox will be starting have had relative success against the Indians’ starters.  That gives Boston’s staff a relative advantage over their opponents, and it’ll be the members of that staff that lift their team to victory in this series.

 

World Series

Red Sox over Cubs

This match-up between the two teams with the oldest stadiums in baseball, and the most history of any teams not named the Yankees, will surely be a treat.  I think that these two squads have the deepest rosters, 1-25, in the game, and have the best talent in the game.  The difference in this one will be, as it has been for every other series that Boston will have been involved in, their pitching staff.  Chicago struggled mightily when they faced Cleveland’s ace, Corey Kluber, in last year’s Series—when he wasn’t tired, at least, having had to start three games in the series.  In Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, and David Price, though, the Red Sox have three guys that could be considered aces, all of whom bring a different arsenal to the table.  Their dominance will prevent the Cubbies from repeating and bring the Series back to Boston.

The Week that Was: 2017 NFL Free Agency

This past Thursday marked one week since the start of this year’s free agency period in the NFL.  While the debate over whether building through the draft or free agency is the better move, teams across the country dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on players that they hope will make their teams better in the coming seasons.  Whether the signings pan out or not, of course, remains to be seen; here, I attempt to bring some semblance of organization to a week filled with transactions and unexpected drama while analyzing some of the most impactful moves so far this off-season.

 

CB AJ Bouye to Jaguars- 5 years, $67.5 million, $26 million guaranteed

CB Stephon Gilmore to Patriots- 5 years, $65million, $40 million guaranteed

The two biggest contracts that have been shelled out this week both went to cornerbacks, showing how valuable teams feel that potential number one cornerbacks can be.  Both Bouye and Gilmore come with some decent-sized question marks—Bouye has really only been a sure-fire starter for a year, and Gilmore has never quite lived up to his considerable physical gifts—but in the end, I think that the Jaguars and Patriots both got good value here.  The Jags have no real direction on the offensive side of the ball, so building a strong defense is the best way to get in the play-off hunt, and sticking Bouye across from Jalen Ramsey gives the team a terrific cornerback pair.  As for Gilmore, having him around to team up with Malcolm Butler at corner gives the Pats a deeper secondary—Gilmore, at 6’0″, would allow the smaller Butler to shift into the slot whenever it is required, and the new signing’s speed makes him a slot candidate, as well. Gilmore’s presence also gives Bill Belichick a nice “back-up plan” if the former Super Bowl hero leaves New England due to his current contract stalemate.

 

DL Calais Campbell to Jaguars- 4 years, $60 million, $30 million guaranteed

RG Kevin Zeitler to Browns- 5 years, $60 million, $31.5 million guaranteed

Both of these guys are really exceptional players that are opting to go from contenders (Cardinals, Bengals) to rebuilders (Jaguars, Browns).  Of course, the money certainly helps a little bit—considering the lack of depth along both lines in this year’s draft class, linemen were going at a premium, and these guys are probably the best of the best.  Even though he is almost 31 and is being paid more in base salary than the majority of players in this post, I think that Campbell is one of the better signings in this free agency.  He is extraordinarily versatile, able to shift back and forth between playing end and tackle, and doesn’t rely on any one particular move to beat his blocker, so I think he’ll be able to make an impact along the Jags’ defensive line for the duration of his contract.  As for Zeitler, how good of a signing this is for the Browns determine how well they build up their offense around their newly re-built offensive line, which also has stalwart Joe Thomas and new center JC Tretter.  They’re following an approach similar to Oakland’s—making a great offensive line and allowing the skill players around them to develop—but if Cleveland can’t get the right players to develop, they’ll be sinking a lot of money into a vicious, but ultimately useless, blocker.

 

LT Riley Reiff to Vikings- 5 years, $58.75 million, $26.3 million guaranteed

LT Matt Kalil to Panthers- 5 years, $55 million, $25 million guaranteed

LT Russell Okung to Chargers- 4 years, $53 million, $25 million guaranteed

Like I said earlier, linemen are really at a premium in this draft.  The contracts for these three men really prove that.  Don’t get me wrong—every one of these players is extraordinarily talented, all of them having been first round picks, and would be elite tackles if they were able to play to their potential—but the thing is, they have never really proven that they are capable of doing so.  We’ll start with Reiff, whose deal is probably the best of the aforementioned players, simply because the guaranteed money that Reiff was afforded is somewhat commensurate with how Reiff performed during his career in Detroit.  Because of that, the former Lion is effectively only on a two-year deal with Minnesota, which makes the huge contract a little bit more palatable, but the fact that he’s even getting that much money, considering his inconsistencies at both tackle positions, is a little but baffling.  That being said, his better days have been significantly better than those of the man of who he is basically replacing, Kalil, who is headed to Carolina to team up with his brother, center Matt, among concerns about Michael Oher’s concussion issues.  Kalil has had injury issues of his own, which have, admittedly, played a role in his up-and-down performances for Minnesota, but the fact of the matter is that the former Viking has never really learned to leverage his incredible physical gifts to turn into a competent blocker.  His contract will most likely end up as some type of disaster for the Panthers, which is certainly not a good thing, especially considering how cap struggles have negatively affected the team in recent years.  Okung’s deal falls somewhere in the middle of his two fellow tackles.  On one hand, he has shown that his ceiling is far higher than almost any tackle in the league, having performed at an elite level for the team that drafted him, Seattle.  On the other, though, he signed a disastrous contract with Denver last year that saw him released to the open market this year after what was an incredibly steep drop in performance.  Okung should bounce back, but he’ll never be able to reach the heights that he did with the Seahawks, even though the Chargers are paying him like he’s already there.

 

WR Pierre Garcon to 49ers- 5 years, $47.5 million, $17 million guaranteed

WR Robert Woods to Rams- 5 years, $39 million, $15 million guaranteed

The funny thing about these two deals is that they were both handed out to guys who were de-facto #2 receivers with their old teams– Garçon with Washington and Woods with Buffalo, respectively.  On account of that, both of these contracts strike me as slightly more expensive than they needed to be, but in the long run, I think that San Fran is getting a far better deal here.  I recognize that Garçon is 6 years older than his new NFC West rival, but the former Redskin very much fits the mold of an Anquan Boldin-type receiver, a veteran that is a great route runner with good hands, and Boldin was a key cog in the 49er offense the last time the team was good.  Woods, on the other hand, has struggled with consistency, despite getting a lot of single coverage opposite Sammy Watkins in Buffalo.  Rumor has it that the team wanted Woods because he’s both fast and strong, allowing him to be an exceptional edge blocker for what figures to be an offense predicated on running the ball with Todd Gurley, but a receiver’s main job is catching the ball, and if the Rams were looking for a good blocker, they surely could have found a player that they could have committed less money, and time, to than the former Bill.

 

QB Mike Glennon to Bears- 3 years, $45 million, $18.5 million guaranteed

There have been some very divided opinions about this signing for my hometown Bears.  Those that view this deal as a good one note Glennon’s decent performances as a starter with limited options in Tampa Bay, the former Buccaneer’s arm strength, and the fact that this contract is basically a one year one that is paying Glennon what is essentially league average for a starting quarterback.  Those that critique it wonder why a man that hasn’t started a game in over 2 years is suddenly worth market-value for Chicago, and question who else was bidding up the QB’s price that he deserved to get so much money.  In general, I think this is a decent signing for Chicago—yes, the deal is a bit pricy, but as I said, based on his guarantees, it’s basically a one year deal, and his presence will allow the team to develop whoever they (should) pick up in the draft to come along slowly instead of being thrown right into the fire.

 

Other Big Signings:

S Tony Jefferson to Ravens- 4 years, $36 million, $14 million guaranteed

My Grade: B-

RG Ronald Leary to Broncos- 4 years, $36 million, $24 million guaranteed

My Grade: B+

G Larry Warford to Saints- 4 years, $34 million, $17 million guaranteed

My Grade: C

LT Andrew Whitworth to Rams- 3 years, $33.75 million, $15 million guaranteed

My Grade: A

WR DeSean Jackson to Buccaneers- 3 years, $33.5 million, $20 million guaranteed

My Grade: A

 

Underrated Signings:

CB Captain Munnerlyn to Panthers- 4 years, $21 million, $10.5 million guaranteed

A somewhat-redeeming signing for Carolina.  It’s well-known that the Panthers were a bit of a mess at cornerback last year—their decision to call former star Josh Norman’s bluff backfired, and the lack of consistency in the defensive backfield was a big reason why they struggled on defense last year (and that, in turn, was probably the biggest reason why they missed the play-offs).  Enter Munnerlyn, who is return to the team that drafted him after spending the last 3 seasons in Minnesota.  He isn’t a very tall cornerback—he’s only 5’9”—but he’s used his speed and improved ball skills to cause problems for receivers, and he provides a veteran presence at a position that was devoid of it after Norman’s departure.  He’s a solid pick-up for Dave Gettleman, especially at an AAV of just over $5 million a year.

 

QB Brian Hoyer to 49ers- 2 years, $12 million, $10 million guaranteed

Brian Hoyer has had an up-and-down career—one that started with him being part of the revolving door of back-ups behind Tom Brady New England and has seen him undergo multiple renaissances after stepping in for injured starters (Houston, Chicago).  During times when he’s gotten extended playing time—and has had halfway decent weapons to work with—he has proven himself to be, at the very least, an average quarterback.  In today’s market, as showcased by Mike Glennon’s deal, an average quarterback might get anywhere from $10-15 million a year.  That he is only getting $6 million a year in a QB-friendly system that will surely enhance his what talent he already has makes him a good deal for San Fran.

 

FB Patrick DiMarco to Bills- 4 years, $8.4 million, $4.8 million guaranteed

DiMarco was a largely unnoticeable, but extremely crucial component to one of best offenses in recent memory.  He’s always been known as a fairly solid run blocker, but he improved his blitz recognition to become an adequate pass protector, and he’s also capable of being a weapon out of the backfield, having shown some decent speed and field awareness after catching passes.  That the Bills were able to get him for the price of a decent kicker is pretty impressive, considering how valuable he will be to LeSean McCoy and how little money he got in comparison to the other top fullback on the market (there’ll be more on him later).

 

WR Terrelle Pryor to Redskins- 1 year, $6 million, $6 million guaranteed

I recognize that another receiver that signed a similar deal to this one, Alshon Jeffery, got a contract that was just as good, if not better, than the one that Pryor got.  But the need for a receiver in Washington was much more pressing after the ‘Skins lost their top two targets from last season, seeing both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon get big contracts elsewhere.  Getting Pryor on what is essentially #2 receiver money, on a “prove-it” length deal, was greatly beneficial for the team and the player, especially since the former Ohio State star will (probably) be hauling in passes from a far better quarterback than anyone he had in Cleveland while offering the team an explosive option as a pass-catcher.

 

Overrated Signings:

WR Kenny Stills, Dolphins- 4 years, $31.9 million, $19.95 million guaranteed

Yes, I recognize that this is technically a re-signing, but we’re going to roll with it anyway.  I’m a big Stills fan—I think that New Orleans made a big mistake in trading him to Miami—but inking the receiver to a deal that will see him get paid like a low-end #1 is an even larger error from Miami.  The large touchdown numbers that he put up last season were largely a fluke (that’s probably what propelled him to such a large deal in the first place), and on top of that, he isn’t even the third best receiver on the team.  His presence, both on the field and on the salary cap, will almost certainly hamper DeVante Parker’s future with the team, which isn’t a great thing for the franchise.  A real questionable move here.

 

ILB Malcolm Smith to 49ers- 5 years, $26.5 million, $11.5 million guaranteed

Smith had his moment in the sun with the Seahawks after intercepting Peyton Manning and returning the pick for a touchdown back in Super Bowl .  Even then, though, teams recognized his limitations, and the Raiders gave him a two-year deal worth about $3.5 million a year.  He didn’t impress during his time in Oakland, being poor against the run and not flashing the coverage skills that earned him a role in Seattle.  Now, though?  Smith gets a deal worth over $5 million a year for a position that’s already fairly solidified due to the presence of NaVarro Bowman.  Another iffy decision by the new regime in San Fran.

 

FB Kyle Juszczyk to 49ers- 4 years, $21 million, $10.5 million guaranteed

Look, I get that there probably aren’t that many players that are going to want to sign for a team that’s been a doormat over the past couple seasons, no matter how much money you throw at them.  I get the there’s a reason that the former Raven fullback is considered an elite player at his position.  But let’s be real here—a rebuilding team dropping almost $11 million in guarantees on a fullback?  There had to be some other way that John Lynch could have put this money to better use in restocking the Niners.  I just don’t understand this one at all.

 

TE Dion Sims to Bears- 3 years, $18 million, $10 million guaranteed

Don’t get me wrong here—the Bears need a tight end or two.  Outside of incumbent starter Zach Miller, there isn’t really much depth.  But if you’re going to give a tight end this much money in guarantees, they better be pretty versatile.  Unfortunately, the Michigan State product has not proven himself to be anything of the sort so far.  In fact, he’s barely managed to start a third of his professional games, being held back by the oft-injured, and recently retired, Jordan Cameron.  That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a player that Chicago is paying like a bona-fide starter.

 

Key Re-Signings:

S Eric Berry, Chiefs- 6 years, $78 million, $38.7 million guaranteed

Kansas City made it clear that, when it came to whether Berry or Dontari Poe was more important to the performance of their defense, that the former Tennessee safety was “the man.”  The contract length itself may be a bit long, even for a guy with as much spring in his step as Berry—it’s increasingly rare to see anything beyond one or two years being guaranteed in the NFL anymore, unless you’re an elite quarterback— but making an exception for Berry was a smart move by KC.  It was essential that the Chiefs keep the face of their franchise around as long as they could.  So, in that sense, this a great deal for both sides, and a great story for Berry, who is getting rewarded handsomely after his phenomenal comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 

ILB Dont’a Hightower, Patriots- 4 years, $43.5 million, $19 million guaranteed

Hightower’s status as the “unsung hero” of New England’s Super Bowl victory—his strip sack of Matt Ryan got the momentum going the Pats’ way—devalues the massive impact he had in Matt Petricia’s defense during the regular season, especially after fellow ‘backer Jaime Collins was shipped to Cleveland.  Without the tackle machine wreaking havoc in both the run and pass defenses, the Patriots wouldn’t have had anywhere near the defense required to make the run that they did to the Super Bowl.  The former Alabama linebacker was probably slightly disappointed in his market—in all honesty, I was surprised that the Chiefs didn’t try to find a way to move Jeremy Maclin and go after Hightower—so for him, this deal isn’t exactly ideal.  But he’s playing on a team where he has the best chance to succeed, and for an organization that values him.  Solid deal all-around.

 

RB Le’Veon Bell, Steelers- 1 year, $12.12 million (franchise tag)

As far as running backs go, this deal is a little bit on the expensive side.  But this isn’t just any running back we’re talking about; this is Bell, who, along with Antonio Brown, forms the most explosive 1-2 punch in all of football.  Tagging Bell allowed them to work out a long-term extension for Brown, who re-upped with the Steelers for another four years.  As the team works its way out of financial hardship, this is sure to be a simple segway to some big bucks for Bell in Pittsburgh.  His deal might be a little but below value for the back for this year, though it should work out for him and the team in the long run, which, if anyone has seen how explosive the Bell-Brown combination can be, is most certainly a great thing for Mike Tomlin and company.

 

DT Brandon Williams, Ravens- 5 years, $54 million, $27.5 million guaranteed

When you think of great Ravens defenses, you probably think of the vicious tackling machine Ray Lewis, or the ball-hawking safety Ed Reed.  However, a big man up front, Haloti Ngata, was pretty important to the best Ravens’ defenses of the past decade or so.  The similarities between those defenses and Baltimore’s defense this year, which finished 7th in yards allowed per game, are fairly obvious, then—most of the attention goes to CJ Mosley and Eric Weddle, and rightfully so.  But Williams played a crucial part in making the Ravens virtually impossible to run on in the second half of the season, and his ability to manage two blockers was crucial to the team’s pass rush.  The extension is a little steep, considering the deal that a player in a very similar mold, Damon Harrison, got in free agency last year, but if he can keep up his run-stuffing ways, GM Ozzie Newsome won’t have to worry about building up the defensive line anytime soon.

 

Other Important Re-Signings/Franchise Tags

OLB Chandler Jones, Cardinals- 5 years, $83 million, $53 million guaranteed

QB Kirk Cousins, Redskins- 1 year, $23.943 million (franchise tag)

WR Terrence Williams, Cowbots- 4 years, $17 million, $9.5 million guaranteed

DT Kawann Short, Panthers- 1 year, $13.648 million (franchise tag)

 

Best Still Available:

Jonathan Hankins, DT

Possible Suitors: Giants, Eagles, Dolphins

Hankins is a pretty versatile player—he’s good against the run, as all defensive tackles need to be in today’s game, and was one of the Giants’ better pass rushers last year.  That being said, he’s not at an elite level, even though he wants to be paid like he is.  That’s why he has yet to return to New York, where he is very much coveted, just at a lower price.  If the two sides can’t come to terms, there’s a threat that the rival Eagles, who lost Bennie Logan to the Chiefs, and Dolphins, who have been linked with Hankins for a while now, might be able to steal him away.  There’s no real frontrunner in his race so long as Hankins maintains his demands, so we’ll just have to wait and see how this one turns out.

 

Adrian Peterson, RB

Possible Suitors: Raiders, Packers, Cowboys

It’s somewhat understandable that the best back of his generation is still on the open market—he turns 32 in 2 days, he’s coming off a major knee injury, and is also coming off a huge contract with Minnesota that may give him and his agent an inflated sense of his value.  Again though: this guy is the best back of his generation, and produced for years behind iffy offensive lines.  Age is a major concern for the Raiders to take into account with Peterson, considering the youth of their core, but would otherwise be a great fit behind their excellent linemen.  The rival Packers would also be an interesting fit for his services, considering their inconsistencies in the running game since Ahman Green’s departure, and the Cowboys have also kicked the tires on using Peterson as a complement to their incredible second year man, Ezekiel Elliott.  In the end, though, expect the former Viking to wind up in Oakland.

 

Darrelle Revis, CB

Possible Suitors: Steelers, Patriots, Cowboys

The veteran corner struggled mightily in New York last season, and at 31, it looks like age might be catching up to the “Revis Island.”  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any teams that might be interested in eking out whatever Revis has left in the tank.  At the top of the list are the Steelers, who always seem to be interested in secondary help.  A reunion with the Patriots, especially considering the uncertainty around Malcolm Butler, and a contract with Dallas, who lost both Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr to free agency, are also possible.  The most likely outcome at this point seems to be retirement for Revis, but until he makes a definitive decision, there will be teams interested in his services.

 

Jay Cutler, QB

Possible Suitors: Jets, Browns

The strong-armed slinger, who was recently released by the Bears after spending 8 up-and-down years in Chicago, is the best veteran quarterback that’s still on the market.  The Jets really look like an idea fit for him, considering that the only two QB’s currently on their roster are still incredibly raw, but the team has yet to strike a balance on a deal that has good enough terms, especially duration wise, to please Cutler.  Meanwhile, the Browns could also be an option, but they would probably have to move on from the recently-acquired Brock Osweiler for that to become reality.

 

Other Transactions:

Browns trade for Brock Osweiler

The trade: Texans trade 2nd round pick in 2018 and Brock Osweiler to Browns for 4th round pick

This deal looked a lot like one that an NBA team would make—trading a somewhat valuable asset along with a player with a huge salary in what can effectively be termed a salary dump.  A lot of people are, for some reason, questioning Cleveland’s logic on this one, saying that the draft pick they got for the former Texan isn’t valuable enough to warrant taking on the QB’s exorbitant salary.  From a strictly present value standpoint, they’re entirely correct—paying Osweiler $16 million a season just to get a pick is very steep—but considering how much cap space the Browns had before this move, it makes total sense to me.  Cleveland gets a 2nd rounder and a quarterback that can compete with Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler for the starter’s job and a player that they can move on from with little repercussions in 2018, while Houston gets a 4th rounder that’s slightly higher than what they had before.  This is a huge W for the Browns, and if the Texans are able to get Tony Romo, it might be for them, too.

 

Patriots trade for Brandin Cooks

The trade: Saints trade 4th round pick and Brandin Cooks to Patriots for 1st and 3rd round picks

It was no secret that the former Oregon State receiver was upset with his role in the New Orleans offense last season, and that New England was an interested party.  That didn’t mean I thought this deal was going to happen—Cooks is still cost-controlled for another season, and even though rookie Mike Thomas seemed to emerge as Drew Brees’s top target, having a player as explosive as Cooks certainly couldn’t hurt; I’m also a lot higher on Danny Amendola, the man that Cooks will (probably) effectively replacing, than most.  That being said, though, this is a pretty good deal for both sides.  The Saints get the first round pick that they were craving, even though it is low, and upgraded the 4th that the gave to New England to a 3rd.  Bill Belichick’s team gets a speed threat that they haven’t had since Deion Branch was in his prime, and allows the Patriots to have the most dynamic, and possibly most dangerous, set in the whole league (Cooks and Julian Edelman at receiver, Rob Gronkowski and the newly-acquired Dwayne Allen at tight end, and either James White or Dion Lewis at running back), certainly giving Tom Brady a shot at another championship without giving up too much for a player that could effectively be a #1 receiver.  This is a deal that really benefits both teams.

2017 NCAA Tournament Preview

It’s that time of year again—March Madness has begun!  This year’s tournament field is as balanced as ever, as there are tons of teams that seem to have the potential to have the potential to make it all the way to cut down the nets in Glendale.  No one team stood out in the regular season, but many teams flashed their mettle and owned their respective schedules, while conference tournaments saw many teams that underwhelmed during the regular season crash the Dance, and they come in hungry to continue their unlikely run towards a national championship.  The unpredictability generated by this year’s match-ups will surely make for a very intriguing, and very dramatic, tournament this year—here’s my detailed outlook on how I think it’ll play out:

 

East Region

First Round

#1 Villanova def. #16 Mount Saint Mary’s

The number one overall seed will not lose in the first round.  Moving on.

 

#8 Wisconsin def. #9 Virginia Tech

In this bloggers humbled opinion, both of these teams are woefully under-seeded, but it is their inconsistencies that put them both in this position.  The Badgers have a really good team, led by Nigel Hayes, which thrives in high-leverage situations, but their shooting problems saw them lose five in a stretch of six games.  The Hokies, meanwhile, have established themselves as an offensive power under the creative mind of Buzz Williams, but their defensive struggles in a very talented ACC caused them to falter in a lot of games that they should have won.  So which team overcomes its liabilities to move on?    Personally, I feel that the trio of star Badgers—Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig—will provide Greg Gard’s group enough points to overcome the potent Hokies.  Wisco wins.

 

#5 Virginia def. #12 UNC Wilmington

UNC Wilmington gave Duke a huge scare at last year’s tournament, and the Seahawks will get another shot at knocking off an ACC power in this match-up against the Wahoos.  Both teams have strengths that match their opponents—Tony Bennett’s team is known for its stifling defense, whereas Kevin Keatts’s team runs one of the most efficient offenses in Division One—so I expect this one to be a very grinding, taxing game for both sets of players, in the vein of how traditional 5-12 match-ups are.  In the end, though, I think it’ll actually be Virginia’s underappreciated offense, which, though maddeningly slow and inconsistent, has some decent potential, that’ll allow them to sidestep an upset and advance to the next round.

 

#4 Florida def. #13 Eastern Tennessee State

The Gators seem to be one of the more low-key high seeds in the past decade—they aren’t nearly as flashy as their conference brethren, Kentucky, but they’ve overcome some injuries and streaky shooting to establish themselves as the best team in the SEC after the Wildcats while being incredibly efficient on both ends of the court.  Their opponent, the Buccaneers, are very much opportunists.  They thrive on aggressive defense and quick possessions, forcing lots of turnovers and committing many of their own.  Tournament play is more suited to teams that are more balanced and composed, so that in and of itself favors the Gators, and that’s not even counting the talent gap that Mike White’s team has over his opponents.  Florida moves on.

 

#6 Southern Methodist def. #11 Southern California

From a scoring perspective, these teams are both pretty similar—they have great balance throughout their line-up, and when their shots are falling from deep, they’re almost impossible to stop.  That’s where the similarities end, though.  The Mustangs have been incredibly consistent all season long, and in addition to their efficient scoring, they’ve proven to be a great rebounding team that also has a very disciplined defense.  The Trojans played well enough towards the beginning of the season deserve a spot in the final 68, but they are also incredibly streaky— they lost five of their last eight regular season games, with their only victories coming at down-and-out Washington and Washington State— and if they aren’t hitting their shots from outside, they don’t really have any tried and true way to beat their opponents.  After beating Providence, they should suffer a pretty big loss against Tim Jankovich’s sqaud.

 

#3 Baylor def. #14 New Mexico State

The Bears started the season without any votes in pre-seasons polls, which made some sense, considering they lost their two best players to graduation.  Even without them, though, Scott Drew’s crew managed to maintain a top-20 defense in the notoriously high-scoring Big 12, and with the versatile Jonathan Motley leading the offense, they’ve been inconsistent, but they’ve managed to put up enough points to put up a fight against some of the better teams in the country.  The Aggies, meanwhile, have been the model of consistency—they’ve made the tournament in five of the last six years—and have a solid trio of guards, headlined by point guard Ian Baker, that propelled them into the tournament.  NMSU’s shooting ability might give Baylor some trouble, and for that, this one might actually be pretty close, as far as 3-14 games go, but I think that the physicality that the Bears have will be too much to overcome, and that they escape with a W.

 

#7 South Carolina def. #10 Marquette

This is going to be a really good game.  On one side we have the Gamecocks, a team with one of the best defenses in the country, yet has lots of trouble scoring.  They are led by their vociferous coach, Frank Martin, and their star forward, Sindarius Thornwell.  On the other we have the Golden Eagles, which are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation and have an incredible transition game, but their defense can be… pretty atrocious.  Each team’s strength corresponds with the others—so who will win?  In the end, I think Martin’s tournament experience, and the fact that this is basically a home game from the Gamecocks, will allow them to advance.

 

#2 Duke def. #15 Troy

The Trojans are not a bad team, by any means—there’s no place for bad here in the tournament, and besides, with leading scorer Jordon Varnado (16.8 PPG, 53.5 FG%), the Sun Belt team actually has a decent offense—but they finished in the middle of the pack in a middling conference and are coming up against a Blue Devil team that is heating up at the right time, having just won the ACC Tournament in relatively convincing fashion.  This one should be somewhat high scoring, but I don’t expect Mike Krzyzewski’s crew to have much trouble.

 

Second Round

#1 Villanova def. #8 Wisconsin

Both of these teams have core players that excel in the big time and coaches that understand what it takes to get big wins in the NCAA tournament, having both been coaches for teams that made it to a national championship game.  So in virtually every facet of the game on paper, neither team has an advantage, meaning it will all come down to execution, and, if this season’s results mean anything (they do), that means that there’ll be one clear winner.  Josh Hart leads the Wildcats on to the Sweet 16.

 

#5 Virginia def. #4 Florida

Neither of these teams come into the tournament with any sort of momentum—the Gators struggled to put away Mississippi State before losing three of their last five regular season games, and Virginia was 5-5 in its last ten.  The problem with both squad’s was their ability to put the ball in the basket.  The thing is, though, is that Virginia was, with the exception of Virginia Tech, playing some decent defenses in their games, whereas the Gators were not.  And now they have to play the best D in all of basketball.  I can’t see them having much success.  Tony Bennett’s team takes this one.

 

#6 SMU def. #3 Baylor

Both of these teams are really similar in a lot of ways—they’re both from Texas, they’re both incredibly physical, and they both have ferocious defenses.  The difference maker in this one for me will be the match-up between Baylor’s star, Motley, and former Duke transfer, and SMU’s leading scorer, Semi Ojeleye; whichever one can provide his team with more of a spark on the offense will allow his team to pull this one out.  I think the victor of that battle will be Ojeleye, and SMU advances to claim the title of the best college team in Texas.

 

#2 Duke def. #7 South Carolina

South Carolina will definitely have deserved their victory in the previous round, but the reasons that I felt they had an advantage over Marquette are virtually gone in this game—the Blue Devils have a far better defense than the Golden Eagles, and their offense is more balanced, and explosive, than anything the Big East school could offer.  Besides that, having the game in South Carolina doesn’t give the Gamecocks much of a “home court” advantage over a team from North Carolina.  The Dukies advance.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Villanova def. #5 Virginia

This is a game where I think that the Wahoos lack of an offense will really come back to bite them—‘Nova doesn’t have an elite defense, but they are a model of consistency on the offensive side of the ball, and I think that Jay Wright and his coaching staff will have a game plan that helps neutralize some of Virginia’s ferocity.  At least, enough to propel the defending champs into the next round without having to sweat too much.

 

#2 Duke def. #6 SMU

Both of these teams entered the tournament on a high note, having both won their respective conference tournaments, and it’ll be exciting to see the rhythm that each team will surely be in after reaching this point.  The Mustangs defense is very good—good enough to lead them to an upset—but I ultimately think that their offense relies a bit too much on their shooting.  If they’re not 100% on, the Blue Devils will be able to capitalize, through their own star shooters or the interior presence that is Amile Jefferson.  In the end, I just can’t see the Mustangs being consistent enough from behind the arc to win this game.  Duke advances.

 

Elite 8

#2 Duke def. #1 Villanova

A game between two elite teams with great coaches, incredible offensive firepower, and decent defenses, I think this one will come down to who can get a couple of stops when time is of the essence.  Villanova has much better defensive statistics, but they’ve struggled a bit with teams that are willing to be more physical with them, and Duke has proven that they are more than adept at shutting down offenses that revolve around efficient guard play (Notre Dame twice, Virginia, North Carolina).  For that reason, I see the Blue Devils moving on to Arizona.

 

Midwest Region

First Round

#1 Kansas def. #16 University of California, Davis

The Aggies really aren’t all that strong on the offensive end of the court, but they really figured out how to play some solid defense as the season wound down, and that which allowed them to win their conference tournament should allow them to win their First Four game.  That’s really all there is to say here, though.  Bill Self’s Jayhawks are too tall, too strong, and too deep for the the California school.  Kansas moves on.

 

#8 Miami (FL) def. #9 Michigan State

By name only, both of these teams underwhelmed a little bit—Miami had the talent to make a push for the top 4 in the ACC, but they fell to 8th and only won one tournament game before being shellacked by North Carolina, while the young Spartans were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and sometimes had some difficulties executing Tom Izzo’s trademark defense.  I see the Hurricanes, who are led by senior guard Davon Reed, will leverage their experience to force the Sparty into enough mistakes to allow Jim Larranaga and company to move on.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #12 Nevada

The Wolf Pack were by far the class of the Mountain West Conference, putting up lots of points in a very pro-style offensive game-plan put in place by former Sacramento Kings coach.  They have the firepower to pull off what would be a traditional upset, but their opponents, the Cyclones, have an even better one, led by senior point guard Monte Morris.  Steve Prohm’s team is also on a bit of a hot streak, coming into the tourney having won the Big 12 tournament.  For those reasons, I believe that ISU will be able to avoid the upset in this high-scoring affair.

 

#4 Purdue def. #13 Vermont

I was really tempted to pick upset here—outside of Caleb Swanigan, nobody on the Big Ten champion’s roster has really been all that impressive, and the Catamounts have the longest win streak in the country at 21 games.  There’s just one problem for them- Swanigan.  One of two human double-double’s, the big man’s strength and versatility will draw a lot of attention from Vermont’s defense, which will open up a lot of easy shots for his teammates, and even then, they still might not be able to stop the big Boilermaker.  Purdue squeaks through to the next round.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #6 Creighton

It’s unfortunate that the committee had to pair a decent amount of the better, smaller schools together—this game is one of those cases, and Dayton playing Wichita State is another example.  The teams have had different trajectories as the season played out—the Rams were ranked in the pre-season but started incredibly slow before recovering to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, whereas the Bluejays started fast before stuttering after point guard Maurice Watson’s injury.  Ultimately, I think that injury will be too much for Greg McDermott’s team to overcome, and Rhody’s strong guard play will carry them to a first round upset.

 

#3 Oregon def. #14 Iona

Iona are actually a sneaky good 14 seed—they played Florida State tough for a half early in their season, beat MWC champion Nevada, and prevented the infamous Monmouth bench mob from making the tournament for the second year running.  They also score a lot of points, with their offense ranking 30th in the nation.  Their big issue is that they also give up a lot of points; that’s definitely not something that they’re going to be able to overcome against the Ducks, who have at least three guys that can score consistently on the Gaels small line-up, even with senior Chris Boucher.  Expect Dana Altman’s team to have an easy time here.

 

#7 Michigan def. #10 Oklahoma State

These are two of the streakiest teams of the season—both started remarkably poorly, but managed to turn up the heat as the season came to a close, with the Wolverines snagging an automatic bid by winning the Big Ten tournament and OSU winning big games against…  well…  bottom-feeding Big 12 teams.  That’s the difference between them here.  Michigan has managed to stop, and score on, teams that have more talent than them, whereas the Cowboys plateaued the Big 12’s best, losing its last three regular season games.  I expect this one to be high scoring, but also for Michigan to have a fairly easy time of moving on.

 

#2 Louisville def. #15 Jacksonville State

I disagree with the committee’s seeding of Louisville hear, but nobody can deny that the Cardinals are a force to be reckon with.  They have a vicious defense—it’s shown some leaks lately, but is the 6th best in the country, as rated by KenPom.com—and a balanced offense led by guard Donovan Mitchell.  The Gamecocks have a halfway decent offense, but they were inconsistent in the Ohio Valley Conference, and their offense is not good enough to put a scare into a team as strong and lengthy as Rick Pitino’s is.  Louisville locks up a second round place.

 

Second Round

#1 Kansas def. #8 Miami (FL)

Miami had an advantage over a young, turnover-prone Michigan State team in their first game; they’ll have no such advantage in this one.  They’ll have to work extra hard to try and get points against the disciplined Jayhawks defense, and then work even harder to prevent the electric freshman Josh Jackson from putting up 40.  In the end, I just think that Bill Self has too deep of a team for the Hurricanes to overcome them.  Kansas advances.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #4 Purdue

This game will see a clash of teams with contrasting styles—Iowa State has been fast-paced since Fred Hoiberg was head coach, and the Boilermakers concentrate more on a more methodical, inside-out type offense.  Typically, in tournament games like this, the team that is able to take better care of the basketball will pull it out.  Purdue’s turnovers allowed Arkansas-Little Rock to upset them last season, and their issues with keeping possession remain in this year’s squad, and the Cyclones’ fast pace will give them even more trouble than most teams.  ISU moves on.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #3 Oregon

There are two reasons why this is my only real major upset—the first is that I want to see how far down my roommate, who is a die-hard Oregon fan, scrolls down on this post—and the second is that I actually think that the Rams have a shot at pulling this off.  Boucher was an integral part of Oregon’s interior presence, and while his absence doesn’t mean that the Ducks don’t have an advantage in the paint (they still do), it lessens the burden on the Rhody’s interior players and allows their guards, especially senior EC Matthews, to get penetration.  Dillon Brooks will probably have a huge game here, but I think that the Rams, who were very highly ranked as this season began, really found out how to play as a unit as the season drew to a close, and that camaraderie, and the efficient offense that they’ve morphed into, will be enough to see them pull off the win over the Ducks.

 

#7 Michigan def. #2 Louisville

For me, this one is all about momentum.  Louisville had a fantastic regular season, but they struggled towards the end of their regular season, especially against teams that had a good interior game.  Michigan’s frontcourt duo, Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, were a major part of why the Wolverines were able to knock off bigger, more talented teams en route to the Big 10 tournament championship.  Big Blue will still need a bit of luck from their perimeter players to get an upset here, but with the attention focused on Wagner and Wilson, I feel that they can do it.  Michigan advances.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Kansas def. #5 Iowa State

In a match-up that will surely have fans around the country salivating, the Jayhawks will have a chance to avenge their loss to the Cyclones that snapped their record-setting home winning streak.  I think that it will be a chance they take—Bill Self will have his team fired up for this one, and I think that the experience of Mason, combined with the flashiness of Jackson, should provide enough of a spark to get a victory.  If ISU can keep their turnovers low and drain around 40-45% of their shots from deep, they might have a chance, but otherwise, you can bet on the Jayhawks to overcome their conference rivals.

 

#7 Michigan def. #11 Rhode Island

This is the lowest seed pairing I have in the Sweet 16, and it’ll come in a game where the participants will have knocked off two giants of the game.  Both teams will have some distinct similarities coming into this one—they’ll both be tired from what are sure to be marathon victories, and they both have solid guard play.  The difference-maker, then, will be each team’s post presence.  In that area, the Wolverines have a distinct advantage—the pair of Wagner and Wilson both average over 10 points per game, and I think the Rams might have trouble slowing them down.  Michigan wins.

 

Elite 8

#1 Kansas def. #7 Michigan

Michigan will have made it this far on the virtue of their interior presence, and they actually have an advantage in the paint in this one, too.  The problem is that they don’t have enough wing players to contain the Jayhawks—Kansas’s top four scorers are all guards, and if any of them are afforded even a split second for an open look, they’ll tear the Wolverines apart (the four average 41% behind the arc, which is… pretty good).  John Belein has some good guards, but not enough to stop Kansas.  They’ll get into the Final Four without too much stress.

 

South Region

First Round

#1 North Carolina def. #16 Texas Southern

No offense to Texas Southern, but they are probably the least consistent of all of the 16 seeds in this tournament.  They’re squaring off against a North Carolina that was consistent enough to win the regular season title in perhaps the best league in college basketball, the ACC.  This will be no contest—the Tar Heels cruise on.

 

#8 Arkansas def. #9 Seton Hall

Both of these teams have been overshadowed by the big guns in their respective conferences—Kentucky and Villanova—but each bring something special to the table.  The Razorbacks are a force with the ball, averaging a touch over 80 points per game, while the Pirates are great at crashing the boards, finishing at 20th best in the nation in rebounds per game.  Unfortunately for Seton Hall, they tend to get sloppy a bit on both ends of the floor, as demonstrated in the fact that they allow more points per possession than they score, and that’s not something conducive to tournament wins.  The Pigs pip the Pirates to party on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #5 Minnesota

I actually feel bad for Minnesota—Richard Pitino’s team staged a remarkable turnaround from last season to develop into one of the Big Ten’s better teams, but they ended up getting over-seeded, leading to some national criticism, and get matched up with a Blue Raiders team that has demonstrated it knows exactly how to counter the style of play that’s prevalent in the Big Ten.  This year’s MTSU team has been even more consistent than last year’s, and they definitely have the talent, and the know-how, to knock off the Golden Gophers in this one, something that I feel they’ll be able to pull off.

 

#4 Butler def. #13 Winthrop

The Eagles can certainly pull off an upset here—they’re really good at perimeter defense, and their dynamite guard, Keon Johnson, can go off at any moment.  On the other hand, while I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year, but it’s hard to deny the balance that they have in both aspects of the game, and they’ve managed to put things together in big games, as they’ve beaten both Arizona and Villanova.  Chris Holtmann’s team will have a tough time in this one, but I still expect Butler to bounce their opponents.

 

#6 Cincinnati def. #11 Kansas State

The Wildcats will make it through to this match-up by virtue of their balanced offensive approach and the coaching nous of former Illinois head man Bruce Weber.  The issue with Weber’s team, though, is that there isn’t really anybody that can scare the Bearcats on defense, and you can rest assured that Mick Cronin and his team’s fourth-ranked defense will find a way to nip any potential momentum in the bud.  This should be a low-scoring game that Cincy pulls out to move to the next round.

 

#3 UCLA def. #14 Kent State

If this were simply a one-on-one between stars, the Golden Flashes might have a chance in this one, as Jimmy Hall certainly has the all-around talent to match-up against famous frosh Lonzo Ball.  Unfortunately for the MAC representative, the Bruins are a whole hell of a lot deeper than that.  Outside of Ball, they have the coach’s son, Bryce Alford, and a host of frontcourt players that allowed the team to average a national-best 90.4 points per game.  This should be an easy one—UCLA won’t have any problems here.

 

#10 Wichita State def. #7 Dayton

It’s a true tragedy that these two teams are slated to play each other in the first round—they have two of the better stories in basketball.  Gregg Marshall’s Shockers are proving to be a tournament regular now, walloping team after team in the Missouri Valley Conference and thriving as a strong shooting and defensive team, while Archie Miller’s Flyers have are a jack-of-all-trades type team that is good at everything and bad at nothing.  In the end, though, I think that Wichita State’s defense is energetic enough to get stops to pull off an “upset” in this one—they’ll move on.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #15 Northern Kentucky

In a logistical sense, this is probably a dream match-up for the Norse—they get a chance to show off their incredible nickname on a national stage while squaring off against an in-state opponent.  Other than that, though, there really isn’t much to be enthused about if you’re an NKU fan.  John Calipari’s team is loaded with future lottery picks that will be way too much for their smaller neighbors to handle.  The Wildcats win in a landslide.

 

Second Round

#1 North Carolina def. #8 Arkansas

The Razorback offense is really something—they can beat you inside, outside, in a half-court set or in transition—and they’ve really been finding their rhythm as we come into tourney time.  Unfortunately for them, they’re coming up against one of the few teams that gets more offensive possessions per game than they do and scores more points per game, the Tar Heels.  That’s not even factoring in the fact that UNC has put up those numbers in what is arguably the country’s strongest conference, while Arkansas played in the meh SEC.  Roy Williams and company move on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #4 Butler

Like I said earlier, I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year—they’re really good, but there isn’t one particular thing that they’re really good it.  The Blue Raiders, however, play some incredible lockdown defense—they rank 21st in the nation in points allowed per game—and they should be able to limit enough of Butler’s offense to give them a fighting chance.  If they can get some contributions from some players outside of leading scorer JaCorey Williams, I think they’re good enough to pull off this upset, and, in my opinion, they will.

 

#3 UCLA def. #6 Cincinnati

This is a quintessential offense-versus-defense match-up, and in a tournament environment, which typically favors more slow-paced, balanced teams, it would actually make sense to take the Bearcats in this one.  However, Cincy hasn’t faced a team all season that comes anywhere close to matching the amount of firepower that UCLA has on their roster.  Will the Bruins be at their high-flying best?  No, they will not.  But they’ll certainly put up enough points to get this one out of the reach of their opponents and move on to the next round.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #10 Wichita State

The Shockers have long been known as a giant-killer—in recent years, they’ve knocked off highly-ranked Gonzaga, Ohio State, Kansas, and Arizona in the tournament, usually by forcing a high amount of turnovers and relying on their battle-tested backcourt to lead them to victory.  However, with this year’s team not retaining much from those past years, and having lost all their games against so-called “elite” teams, the deck is stacked against them this season.  Kentucky will find a way to take care of the ball enough to avoid an upset and move on to the next round.

 

Sweet 16

#1 North Carolina def. #12 Middle Tennessee State

The Blue Raiders will have gotten here by relying on their excellent defense to prevent two teams that don’t really have any super-dependable scoring options from getting in a good rhythm.  The same thing cannot be said for North Carolina; Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, and Isiah Hicks are bound to go off on any given night, and as good as MTSU are on defense, they haven’t faced a team with as many true scorers as this Tar Heels team.  UNC will move on.

 

#3 UCLA def. #2 Kentucky

This might be the best Sweet 16 game in recent memory—a battle between two of the country’s most endowed programs, both headlined by star freshmen (Ball and Malik Monk).  I was originally tempted to pick the Wildcats in this one—as much as I touted UCLA’s balance in the last round, I think that Coach Cal’s team has enough athleticism to contain most of their scorers—but the ‘Cats have had the most trouble this season with teams that push the pace, and we all know that Steve Alford’s crew will want to do that.  Besides, the Bruins have already proven that they can beat Kentucky, having done so earlier this year, in Lexington.  UCLA will win in a shoot-out.

 

Elite 8

#3 UCLA def. #1 North Carolina

Both teams have exceptional coaches, really great guard play, and some shaky defenses, especially in the paint.  That would seem to favor the Tar Heels, who could plant Jackson in the paint and pound the ball down low all day.  However, in the Tar Heels’ most significant losses—against Georgia Tech, Miami, and Duke—their opponents went non-stop on both ends of the court, forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes that they turned into points, allowing them to overcome the onslaught of offensive options the Chapel Hill school is blessed with.  That’s an approach that I think that the Bruins can pull off well enough to carry them into their first Final Four since 2008.

 

West Region

First Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #16 South Dakota State

The Jackrabbits have been one of the better mid-major tournament teams recently—over the past five years, they’ve given big scares to Baylor (2012), Vanderbilt (2015 NIT), and Maryland (2016).  This year, however, they’re facing a Bulldog team that is simply too big, too strong, and too deep to have much of a chance.  They’ll keep it closer than the other 16 seeds, but not by much; the Zags will advance with ease.

 

#8 Northwestern def. #9 Vanderbilt

A battle of the nerds!  The Wildcats are making their first tournament appearance in history, riding on the backs of juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.  The Commodores, meanwhile, used their exceptional three-point shooting, and two clutch victories over Florida, to sneak their way into the Dance.  Bryce Drew’s team are, however, somewhat streaky with their shooting—that’s why they have 15 losses, the most ever for an at-large tournament team—and Northwestern’s defense is actually pretty damn good, ranking 34th in the nation.  For that reason, I think that the Wildcats not only make their first tournament this year, but win their first game.  Chris Collins’s club moves on.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #12 Princeton

A battle of the lesser nerds!  Princeton had one of the greater Ivy League seasons in recent memory, going undefeated in conference play before sweeping through the conference tournament.  They’re actually pretty similar to the Irish, too—they possess the ball well, score a lot of points from three-point land, and play decent defense.  They’ve got a really good shot at a win here.  The reason that I feel Notre Dame avoids the upset, though, is Bonzie Colson.  The Tigers haven’t seen anybody like him this season, and I think that he’ll have enough of an impact to force the Irish through to the second round.

 

#4 West Virginia def. #13 Bucknell

The Bison are one of the most accurate shooting teams in the entire country, and they actually have a victory over one of the major tournament teams, Vanderbilt.  They also have a pretty decent defense that is among the best 20% in the country.  Unfortunately, they’re not only playing a defense that is better than theirs, that will be able to limit their scoring opportunities with a full-court press, but an offense that is as proficient as it is balanced, averaging 82 points per game with no one player above 14.  Expect Bob Huggins’s team to push on to the next round.

 

#6 Maryland def. #11 Xavier

Both of these teams have underachieved this year—the Musketeers, despite a great coach in Chris Mack and a solid leading scorer in Trevon Bluiett, had some troubles after sophomore Edward Sumner tore his ACL, whereas the Terrapins had issues getting scoring from anybody outside of Melo Trimble.  Ultimately, I think who wins this game will come down to a battle between those two guards, Bluiett and Trimble, and based on his performances in last year’s tournament, I have more confidence in the Maryland man to elevate his game enough to take his team to the next round.  Maryland wins.

 

#3 Florida State def. #14 Florida Gulf Coast

This one must be a real treat for Florida fans, to get to see two in-state teams duke it out in Orlando.  “Dunk City” is still in force for FGCU, and their athleticism would cause a lot of problems for teams that rely on strong defense and rebounding in the paint.  Unfortunately for them, Leonard Hamilton has built himself a team of incredibly versatile players, led by leading scorer Dwayne Bacon, that is perhaps the most athletic team in the country.  That negates any real advantage that the Eagles have on offense, and they don’t have enough skill on defense to contain Bacon and his teammates.  The Seminoles win with ease.

 

#7 Saint Mary’s def. #10 Virginia Commonwealth

It’s unfortunate that one of these mid-majors has to say goodbye in the first round of the tournament—both of them are underrated, and execute their own unique styles to absolute perfection.  That being said, the Gaels are by far the more balanced team—headlined by center Jock Landale, Randy Bennett’s team would have been a bona-fide power in the West Coast Conference were it not for Gonzaga.  Will Wade’s bunch have a chance if they can find a shooting rhythm and use their trademark press effectively, but I simply think that St. Mary’s is too deep here.  They’ll win this one.

 

#2 Arizona def. #15 North Dakota

The Fighting Hawks were the class of the Big Sky, and senior guard Quinton Hooker, who averages almost 20 points per game, is really talented.  The only problem is that he is really the only player than can match up with the Wildcats—in every other way, Sean Miller’s team are better shooters, better defenders, and generally more athletic than their opponents.  They should be able to breeze through to the next round.

 

Second Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #8 Northwestern

The Wildcats and their fans will surely be ecstatic that they’ll have made it to the second round, but I fear that it’ll be quickly dampened by the Zags.  Northwestern’s strength is on the perimeter, and the Bulldogs have proven themselves to be pretty adept at containing good guards (their wins against Saint Mary’s prove that), and I don’t think that anybody really matches up to Mark Few’s big center, Przemek Karnowski, on Northwestern’s roster.  I expect Gonzaga to ride his shoulders in a game that should be an easy victory for the top seed.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #4 West Virginia

The Mountaineers have given really good teams fits with their “Press Virginia” defense; their biggest wins, at home against Kansas and Baylor, saw them force more than two times the amount of turnovers as their opponents.  The issue with their opportunistic style is that when they come up against teams that take relatively good care of the basketball and are good free throw shooters, they have to rely more on their inconsistent offense.  Unfortunately for Bob Huggins, the Irish team he’ll square off against is exactly that; it’ll be close, but I expect Mike Brey’s team to win here.

 

#3 Florida State def. #6 Maryland

The Seminoles have, in my opinion, been fairly inconsistent in the second half of their season, but if there is any “elite” team that epitomizes that for the whole year, it’s the Terps.  Trimble has struggled to find his shot because of how often he is double-teamed, and in big games, his supporting cast hasn’t been able to pick up the slack.  FSU has enough athleticism to contain the high-scoring Trimble, and I just can’t see the rest of the Terrapins scoring on, or stopping, any of Leonard Hamilton’s players enough to really give them a chance in this one.  Florida State wins, and it won’t be close.

 

#2 Arizona def. #7 Saint Mary’s

This one should be a really exciting game.  In the Gaels’ four losses this season, they’ve shot a combined 38% from the field, which is… not very good.  Arizona’s defense allows teams to average about 41.5% from the field, which is good, but not good enough to avoid a good day from Saint Mary’s shooters to gift them a win.  So how does Arizona avoid an upset?  By driving the lane.  That’s where they were most effective in their biggest wins, and if Landale has any weakness, it’s that he’s not quick enough to stop quick, penetrating guards.  Sean Miller has plenty of those, and I expect the Wildcats to space out their offense and take down the Gaels with speed.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Gonzaga def. #5 Notre Dame

In my heart, I feel that my Irish can pull off a victory in this game; in reality, though, I just can’t see it happening.  Mike Brey’s team will need to have a lights out shooting night to counter the absolute dominance that the Zags are sure to wreak in the paint against ND’s small frontcourt, and considering that Mark Few’s best all-around player, Nigel Williams-Goss, is a point guard, I expect at least one of the Irish shooters to struggle.  Expect Williams-Goss and the duo of Karnowski and Zach Collins to wreak enough havoc in Notre Dame’s ranks for the top seed to advance.

 

#2 Arizona def. #3 Florida State

Florida State has been significantly more talented than each of the last two teams that it’s faced; that’s not the case here.  As the Wildcats demonstrated in their Pac 12 tournament championship victory over Oregon, the Wildcats have four or five players that can both put the ball in the basket or play lock-down defense.  That isn’t to say that the Seminoles can’t do the same—they certainly can—but I think that the inconsistencies that flared up late in FSU’s season, especially on defense, will be their downfall in this one.  Arizona moves on.

 

Elite 8

#2 Arizona def. #1 Gonzaga

Yes, I recognize that the Bulldogs have already beaten Arizona this year, on a neutral floor, nonetheless.  But loss came during one of the worst 5-game stretches of the season for the Wildcats, who also lost to Butler and struggled with Santa Clara during that period.  Now, Sean Miller’s team has seen freshman star Lauri Markkanen mature into Dirk Nowtizki-lite and has also regained star guard Allonzo Trier from suspension.  Both players will give the team an offensive boost that they didn’t have in their first game against Mark Few and company, and in their recent win against UCLA, Arizona proved they can shut down a dynamic guard like Williams-Goss.  Karnowski won’t have enough offense in him to see this team on; Arizona goes home with a win.

 

Final Four

#2 Duke def. #2 Arizona

Trier versus Kennard.  Markkanen versus Jefferson.  Those match-ups are pretty much scratches in this battle of East versus West.  Guess who’s unaccounted for, though?  Yup—Grayson Allen.  The controversial star doesn’t really seem to have anybody that matches up very well with him on the Arizona roster, so he should be able to do his thing without getting in any skirmishes.  I expect him, along with youngster Jayson Tatum, to carry his team on to the championship.

 

#3 UCLA def. #1 Kansas

I could almost copy and paste my reasoning for why I think the Bruins will beat Kentucky here, but I’ll change a couple things around, just for the sake of it—Kansas is a really balanced team with a really good offense and a meh defense, but their worst games came against teams, such as Iowa State and West Virginia, pushed the ball hard on both ends of the court.  The Jayhawks will keep it a little bit closer than the Wildcats did, because I feel Frank Mason may have a couple tricks up his… shorts?  But in the end, I think UCLA will move on to the title game.

 

National Championship

#2 Duke def. #3 UCLA

Up to this point, my rationale for why UCLA has been able to win its games is because it has the athletes, and the scorers, to execute a style of play that gave its opponents the most trouble during the regular season.  Here, though, they come up against a Duke team who has actually been undone more by stronger, more physical teams— their biggest losses, for example, came against Louisville and Florida State, who both have more length than the Blue Devils.  That isn’t to say that they won’t have an issue with the Bruins— the teams that beat Duke also have shot extraordinarily well, and Steve Alford’s team led Division One in field goal percentage this year— but UCLA’s pace won’t be as big of a problem as it was for their past opponents.  They also have a more balanced attack, with Jefferson and Tatum capable of getting inside the paint to score.  That’s a major weakness for the Bruins, and that’s the reason I feel they’ll ultimately fall— this will be an exciting, high-scoring game, and one that will, I believe, end with Duke hoisting the 6th national title in program history.

Have any questions, comments, or debates about any of my picks?  Contact me here, or tweet me at here.

 

Rapid Reaction: March Madness 2017

March Madness has now officially begun, as the Tournament Committee has finally announced the full 68-team bracket for the upcoming 2017 Division One basketball championship.  Here are my initial thoughts on this year’s competition:

Of the four teams named as #1 seeds—number one overall Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, and Gonzaga– I think the Jayhawks have the easiest road to the Final Four.  Led by Frank Jackson, they really picked it up as the season came to a close, their conference tournament loss to TCU notwithstanding, and the top seeds in their region, Louisville and the Chris Boucher-less Oregon, don’t really strike me as very intimidating.  I think that the top seed with the hardest path is probably North Carolina, because the number two seed in their region, Kentucky, is a team that was probably in competition for a top spot, and a lot of the mid-range teams—UCLA, Cincinnati, and Wichita State—have the physicality to knock the Tar Heels off their game.

In terms of at-large teams, the fabled “Last Teams In” went to Providence, USC, Kansas State, Wake Forest, and Xavier.  Of those teams, I feel like the Wildcats were the most deserving and the Musketeers the least.  Cal and Syracuse were perhaps the most notable teams to miss out.  In my home state of Illinois, there were some mixed feelings over bids.  Northwestern finally got the monkey off their back, earning an eight seed in their first tournament appearance ever, while Illinois State missed out, despite a strong resume that saw them win the regular season title in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Now, time for the good stuff: the actual games themselves.  In the East region, I can’t wait to watch the two Texas schools, Baylor and SMU, fight it out to see who gets to square off against Duke.  The winner of that game will, I think, determine the Final Four participant, and I see the Dukies pulling it out.  In the Midwest, I believe Kansas will have a fairly smooth road to the Final Four, but I think that double-digit seeds Oklahoma State and Rhode Island have the ability to make some trouble for the big boys in that region, so watch out for them.  In the South, I think that Middle Tennessee State and Wichita State were criminally under-seeded, and they have a shot to pull off some big upsets, but in the end, I feel that the top three teams will all have a fairly easy time of it here, and that Kentucky will be the one to prevail there.  In the west, I see two ACC teams, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, as potential troublemakers for top seed Gonzaga, but the team that will eventually topple the Bulldogs will be the Wildcats of Arizona, which will give the Final Four 3-number two seeds.  In the championship, I think it’ll be match-up of Kansas and Duke, with Jayson Tatum overcoming Frank Jackson to lead the Blue Devils to their 6th national title.

These are just my initial thoughts about the bracket immediately after it was released.  Check out my full preview of the tournament on Tuesday!

2017 MLS Season Preview

The 2017 MLS season kicks off in two days, when expansion team Minnesota United FC travel to Portland to take on the Timbers.  Last season was a phenomenal one, capped off by a dramatic penalty shoot-out that saw the Seattle Sounders spoil the party for host Toronto FC.  This year looks like it will be an exciting one, as well—the addition of two new teams, Minnesota and Atlanta United FC, along with all of the new, and incredibly talented, faces that found their way to MLS this season will make the competition for the MLS Cup higher than ever.  So how will the season play out?  Here are my thoughts about what will occur in the coming year:

 

Western Conference

  1. Minnesota United FC

One of two expansion teams entering the league this season, the Loons will be spearheaded by the underappreciated duo that helped ease Orlando’s transition from the USL to MLS—midfielder Kevin Molino and manager Adrian Heath.  They also reacquired the two players that made the club a NASL powerhouse, Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra.  The problem is that… well, that’s about it.  This team doesn’t have a lot of money in compared to some of their rivals, and while they have certainly made countless shrewd moves that will pay off in the near future, this team just won’t be that good this year.

  1. Vancouver Whitecaps

Carl Robinson is a fairly solid manager that gets more heat than he deserves, and the addition of Fredy Montero to partner with Kekuta Manneh in attack will give the ‘Caps arguably the best, if not the most versatile, attacking duo outside of Toronto.  The issue is that behind them, outside of goalie and captain David Ousted, there aren’t many players that are consistent enough to really consider Vancouver to be much more than a bottom feeder this season, particularly in midfield, which is especially important in a league that is quickly increasing its talent pool.  They need to fill those massive holes in the middle of the park before they can really get back into contention.

  1. Houston Dynamo

Houston seems to be in kind of a weird place.  The man widely tipped to become their permanent manager this year, last year’s interim, Wade Barrett, was let go and replaced by former Chivas USA man Wilmer Cabrera.  They have a solid back line, anchored by captain DeMarcus Beasley and new acquisition AJ DeLaGarza, but everyone on that defense except for DeLaGarza is on the wrong side of 30.  They have a lot of young Latin talent, headlined by Mexican youth star Erik “Cubo” Torres, but none of them, Torres especially, have proven that they can perform at the MLS level.  For that reason, I expect it to take a couple years before the Dynamo get back into the play-off race.

  1. Real Salt Lake

This past offseason the Royals parted with one of the greatest players in their club’s history in Javier Morales, but with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando still performing at high levels, they still have a solid core in place.  Jeff Cassar and his staff actually managed to bolster the depth and talent of the midfield after Morales’s departure, signing a new DP in Albert Rusnak, securing a midfielder on loan from Liverpool, Brooks Lennon, and bringing back former youth product Luis Silva.  None of those midfielders are real scorers, though, and that’s where I think this team is the most deficient; they lack true scoring threats.  That’s the reason I can’t see them cracking the post-season this year.

  1. Colorado Rapids

The Rapids were one of the best stories of last season, a team that rose from one of the league’s bottom dwellers to one of the most electric teams in the league.  Their defense will remain as solid as ever, even in the absence of Tim Howard—back-up Zac MacMath is good enough to start in a lot of other cities—but the reason they’ll stay below the line this year is because of their attack.  Colorado scored the second-fewest goals in the league last season, and with the departure of Jermaine Jones and no real major additions, it doesn’t seem like their attack will have enough to allow them to keep up with the teams in front of them.  A year after being among the best, they’ll fall just short this year.

  1. San Jose Earthquakes

Dom Kinnear will be under a lot of pressure this season—his ‘Quakes haven’t made the play-offs in 4 seasons—and I think that the roster additions that he and his staff made to give Chris Wondolowski a bit of a helping hand will push them over the line.  The most important part about the newbies, headlined by Florian Jungwirth and Jahmir Hyka, is that they filled holes from back to front in the San Jose squad and that they’re proven in highly competitive professional leagues.  For those reasons, count on the ‘Quakes to top the Rapids and save Kinnear’s job.

  1. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting didn’t make many changes to its well-established group this past off-season—they’ll still be marshalled by Matt Besler at the back, fronted by Dom Dwyer, and operated in the midfield by the trio of Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber.  That group alone is enough to boost Peter Vermes’s team into the play-offs, but Zusi has started to fade off as a scoring threat from his favored left flank, and so KC may struggle to get the goal-scoring they’ll need to really compete for the top.  Until they get somebody that can truly ease some of the burden off of Dwyer, they’ll be stuck in the middle of the conference.

  1. Portland Timbers

Portland is set up to be one of the league’s highest goal scorers, with speedsters Darlington Nagbe and Fernando Adi leading a very versatile attack; they certainly won’t lack for offense.  However, they might have some problems on defense—stalwart Nat Borchers is retired, captain Liam Ridgewell has struggled with some injuries, and the team never really replaced Jorge Villefana after his departure for Mexico.  If Caleb Porter can sort out this team’s back line, watch out; until then, the Timbers will have to hope that their offense can hold up their defense, and come October, that’ll be a tough ask.

  1. Los Angeles Galaxy

The biggest names from last year’s squad—Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, and manager Bruce Arena—are all starting new phases of their lives, but the Galaxy will be just fine, re-tooling around their remaining star, Giovanni dos Santos.  They re-upped Jelle van Damme to hold down the fort in back and added Romain Alessandrini to support dos Santos in attack.  The Galaxy aren’t as deep, and don’t have as much talent from top to bottom, as their great teams of years past, but Curt Onalfo and crew are still among the top five teams in the league.

  1. FC Dallas

Oscar Pareja’s squad won the Supporters’ Shield last season, and even though Seattle’s off-season additions give them a slight edge to win it this year, Dallas will still be a force to be reckoned with.  Javier Morales was signed away from Real Salt Lake and will deputize for Mauro Diaz until the star returns from injury, providing the team with a great veteran midfielder to keep the attack ticking.  The team also bulked up at the back by adding Hernan Grana and Anibal Chala, which allows young up-and-comer Kellyn Acosta to play his natural position in the center of midfield.  A dangerous attack headlined by newcomer Cristian Coleman completes the team.

  1. Seattle Sounders

The fact that the Sounders managed to gel so fast with mid-season signing Nicolas Lodeiro last year was impressive; that they were able to pull out a championship without their captain, Clint Dempsey, was even better.  Seattle lost a couple of important role players this off-season in Eric Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Zach Scott, but having signed younger, and arguably more talented, depth players in the forms of Harry Shipp, Will Bruin, and Gustav Svensson, Brian Schmetzer should have no problem leading this team back to the top of the conference, especially if Dempsey comes back and plays anything like he is capable of.

 

Eastern Conference

  1. Philadelphia Union

I would love to move the Union up the standings—their manager, Jim Curtin, was a stud as a center back for my hometown Fire.  Andre Blake is a future USMNT starter, Alejandro Bedoya is one of the most underrated players in the current US setup, and Kegan Roseberry has shown potential to be a steady force from right back for years to come.  Outside of those guys, though, there isn’t much that the Union can rely on, whether it’s due to age (Oguchi Onyewu, Chris Pontius), injury (Maurice Edu, Joshua Yaro), or a simple lack of talent—the team doesn’t really have a ton of proven depth, either.  Expect the Union to struggle mightily this season.

  1. New England Revolution

New England has some incredible creativity in its team—their attack could theoretically feature Kei Kamara, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, and Diago Fagundez, all extraordinarily talented players.  The problem is that all of those players are extraordinarily inconsistent, and if last season is anything to go by, they don’t gel well together at all.  The defense is also a bit of a question mark—the only truly reliable performer that they have is Chris Tierney, and it’s uncertain how the re-tooled backline, which sees former right back Andrew Farrell move in to center back, will function.  In what could be a make-or-break year for former Revs great, solid coach and solid man, Jay Heaps, I, unfortunately, see a break in their future.

  1. Orlando City

I loved Orlando’s hiring of Jason Kreis last season—Adrian Heath is a good manager, but Kreis is a great one with an incredible track record.  Every other move that the team has made since then, though, has been a little curious.  Putting faith in Will Johnson to man the center of midfield, despite the former Toronto FC man struggling a bit last season, and not getting him a back-up will cost them.  Trading Brek Shea for Gilles Barnes was good value, but left a hole in their defense.  All in all, this team has some decent talent, but their roster is a mish mosh of borderline starters and guys that might be better served playing in Heath’s old system.  I just don’t think the Lions will be able to find enough consistency to be good this year.

  1. Chicago Fire

The Fire have been struggling for years, but this season they should be competitive enough to make some noise in the play-off race.  They added striker Nemanja Nikolic to give speedster David Accam some help in attack and acquired midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho to shore up the center of the park.  The Fire attack is still missing a playmaker, and there’s some questions about their defense—they have potential building blocks in Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, but the unit as a whole doesn’t inspire much confidence at the moment—so they won’t end their playoff draught, but manager Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez have this team moving in the right direction.

  1. Montreal Impact

The Impact attack will be incredibly dynamic, led by the creative force of Ignacio Piatti, who will be joined by the undervalued pair of speedster Dominic Oduro and Matteo Moncosu.  The team also has Belgian international Laurent Ciman manning central defense, so they should be fine there, as well.  I’m extremely worried about their midfield, though—captain Patrice Bernier is 37, and there really isn’t anybody that stands out on either side of the ball that I think can step up and make a real difference.  Montreal were part of one of the most incredible pair of games in play-off history against their Canadian rivals in Toronto, but that lack of real presences in midfield will see them miss out on the post-season this year.

  1. Atlanta United FC

There’s a lot of factors working against Atlanta this season—they’re an expansion team.  Their manager is new to MLS.  They don’t have an established goalkeeper.  Many of their new acquisitions haven’t played much recently as they waited for the new club to launch.  However, the attacking talent that Tata Martino and company have accumulated, headlined by striker Kenwyne Jones and attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, makes it impossible for me to keep the ATL out of the play-offs.  Their defense, marshalled by Greg Garza and Michael Parkhurst, will be decent, as well, but not having a stable partner for Parkhurst, and the lack of a holding presence in front of the D, will keep them from the conference’s upper reaches.

  1. New York Red Bulls

Ali Curtis and Dax McCarty have both left the club, so the ball is squarely in manager Jesse Marsch’s court this season—he’ll have to really deliver to assure that he keeps his job next year.  Having Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in your team is a good start, and if his performance in Monday’s USA U-20 victory is any indication, Tyler Adams has the potential to fill, and possibly exceed, McCarty’s contribution to the team.  However, the Red Bulls didn’t really add anybody that can ease some of Wright-Phillips’s scoring burden or help steady their inconsistent defense—Aurélien Collin isn’t getting any younger—and for those reasons, I think the Red Bulls will be good, but not good enough to crack the conference’s upper echelon.

  1. Columbus Crew

Columbus was really, really bad last year—they never were able to recover from their early season drama, performing poorly at home and only picking up more points than two other teams.  Now that Kei Kamara is gone for good, though, the Crew can re-establish their efficient style and make a run at the conference’s big guns.  Ola Kamara and Federico Higuain will keep the attack ticking, Ethan Finlay will provide speed on the flanks, Wil Trapp and the underrated Tony Tchani will hold down the middle of the field, and new additions John Mensah and Zach Steffan will solidify a shaky defense.  Expect Gregg Berhalter’s crew to rebound and make the play-offs this year.

  1. DC United

United has built its brand on being solid, but not spectacular, and while this team was constructed in the same vain, it is certainly the most talented team that they’ve had in former star Ben Olsen’s tenure as manager.  Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam went on a tear at the end of last year, and assuming that they can regain at least most of their scoring touch from last season, the rest of the roster is all set—Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell make a fantastic goalkeeper-center back pairing, and the midfield was bolstered by the addition of former USMNT star John Harkes’s son, Ian.  United won’t be flashy, but they’ll get the job done more often than not and crack the top three in the conference.

  1. New York City FC

Patrick Vieira’s squad definitely has some issues—there isn’t a ton of depth, and the defense will probably not win any awards anytime soon—but there’s a lot to like about this team.  They upgraded at goalie by trading for former Fire shot-stopper Sean Johnson while getting younger around maestro Andrea Pirlo in midfield.  They also added former Portland winger Rodney Wallace to an attack that already boasts one of the best strikers (David Villa) and young wide players (Jack Harrison) in the game.  Their D won’t be steady enough to see them topple Toronto at the top of the conference, but you can certainly expect that the Blues to make some noise in their attempt to do so.

  1. Toronto FC

Almost nothing has changed from the team that lost last year’s MLS Cup, a game they arguably deserved to win—squad member Will Johnson is the only loss—and that’s certainly a great thing for Greg Vanney and company.  If anything, this squad is slightly stronger, with new signings Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez pushing the 11 returning starters for playing time.  Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when you have three of the league’s best, and biggest, players in Sebastian Giovinco, Joy Altidore, and captain Michael Bradley.  With little turnover and lots of talent and motivation, Toronto will certainly be the team to beat in the East.

 

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

LA Galaxy over San Jose

Portland over Sporting KC

Conference Semifinals

Seattle over Portland

FC Dallas over LA Galaxy

Conference Final

FC Dallas over Seattle

 

Western Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

Atlanta over DC United

Columbus over New York Red Bulls

Conference Semifinals

Toronto over Atlanta

NYCFC over Columbus

Conference Final

Toronto over NYCFC

 

MLS Cup

FC Dallas over Toronto

 

Awards

MVP: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

Coach of the Year: Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United FC

Rookie of the Year: Ian Harkes, DC United

Newcomer of the Year: Hector “Tito” Villalba, Atlanta United FC

Surprise of the Year: Javier Morales, FC Dallas

 

On Journalism: Part II

If you haven’t already, please read Part I before reading this piece.  It provides an abbreviated history of journalism as we have come to know it and presents the issues discussed in this part.  You can find it here.

Perhaps this is due to falling standards, which can be traced back to the concentrated staffs of many news sources.  One of the places at which this problem is most evident is at the Advocate.  The year that we won the Pacemaker, every person on the staff, from the editor-in-chief on down to the staff writers, such as myself, had an opportunity to write, or work on, the month’s feature stories.  That caused people to be more passionate about their work, and it resulted in more interesting, and in-depth, stories.  The year after, though, more writing responsibility was stripped from the writing staff and placed on the already busy editorial staff, a structure that has remained in place today, for both the online and print editions.  The need for writers, then, was significantly lessened, as a single writer could easily handle at least two or three of the sidebars that we were assigned to.  Therefore, many writers either quit writing for school publications altogether or moved to the school yearbook, a far more collaborative project, or were turned away due to the incredibly exclusive hierarchy of the paper’s leadership.  These departures, or exclusions, led to (relatively) lower quality work and a decrease in unique ideas and perspectives, leading to some grumblings from current students about the Advocate’s limited scope, especially recently, in the light of the Presidential election.  There is another side to this coin, as well—decreased investment in journalism has forced news sources to concentrate their staffs, preventing them from being as effective in their coverage as they could be.  This is more prominent than the Advocate example—since traditional journalism isn’t as financially rewarding as some other mediums, and because of the decreased circulation of many traditional-based journalistic sources as people search for as much free news as possible, many magazines, newspapers, and websites are forced into major budget, and therefore, staff, reductions.  Within the past couple of years, a major sports-and-media website, Grantland, and many prominent newspapers, such as the Tampa Tribune, have been shut down on account of these things.  A more recent, and less dramatic, example of this popped up at the end of November, when the Florida Panthers hockey team shockingly fired their head coach, Gerrard Gallant.  No specific details came out about the shocking decision until the following afternoon, though, because the papers that covered the team didn’t have the money, or motivation, to send their writers to Charlotte to cover the team.  In this modern age, the idea that we couldn’t have crucial details on such a big move virtually immediately came as a huge shock, and the lack of money to have a full-time hockey beat writer caused many to have to wait longer than they wanted to.

All of the that previous criticism of the straying from “traditional” journalism, considering that this post is supposed to be in support of it, is somewhat hypocritical, considering that this blog, and blogs in general, are taking away some of the audience that would typically be buying, and reading, those older sources of journalism (more on that later).  As such, to draw in those audiences, these places have tried to hire more blogger-style writers to maintain their readership.  These other writers either don’t take the time to properly edit their work, ditch prose for more “engaging” content that turns into a hot mess, and drastically stretch facts, misinterpret them, or ignore them altogether, often leading to some unbelievably biased news.  Doing these things has caused the journalism field to drastically decrease in quality.  An example of the first point is my school’s own Babson Free Press, which has both a print copy and an online copy.  The print copy comes out too infrequently to evaluate, but their online site is highly representative of a lack of editorial focus.  None of the featured articles that it covered the last couple months, on the election or other topics—most of which are laced with numerous grammar errors, which is a common theme with many “newer” journalists, or are opinion pieces that have no business being counted as “news” for a school paper with a deep history—can be found without some digging.  The Free Press is not alone in its manipulation of journalistic details—“news sources” on both sides of the aisle have also put a stain on the journalism through their perpetuation of “fake news.”  The usual suspects were involved in the advancement of these false stories—Fox News regularly pushed anything that seemed to bolster Donald Trump’s agenda, while the Huffington Post did the opposite, while ending every one of their articles on Trump with “Editor’s note: Donald Drumpf regularly incites political violence, and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther…”— yet even traditionally unbiased papers like The Washington Post fell victim to “fake news” (their involvement is detailed here).  One of the most prominent of the places pushing fake news is the infamous Breitbart. The site generates hundreds of clickbait articles every week, coming up with fantastical ideas about the failings of liberals based on some faint rumor that may have been emanating from Washington.  Their frequent perpetuation of white supremacist ideals certainly doesn’t help, either.  Another one of those sources is every millennial’s favorite website, Buzzfeed, for which my girlfriend and I hold a very guilty pleasure.  The site fashions themselves as “the leading independent digital media company delivering news and entertainment to hundreds of millions of people,” and to an extent, that is exactly what they are.  But to claim that much of the things that they consider “news” is an embarrassment to the industry—the site has things like this and this filed under their news section.  All of these mistakes, and egregious failings of journalistic integrity, combine to keep the legitimacy, and popularity, of the evolving journalism field level lower than what it could be.

 

Come back on Monday for the conclusion of this series of posts!

 

Rapid Reaction: Super Bowl LI

What started as a bland, boring match-up turned into a game for the history books, as the New England Patriots completed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history with a 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Things started off incredibly slow—there was no scoring in the entire first quarter—but things got going quickly in the second.  New England was driving, but Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount had the ball stripped by Atlanta rookie linebacker Deion Jones, and when Atlanta recovered, the Falcons went on an incredible run.  Falcons stars Devonta Freeman, who scored the team’s first touchdown, and Julio Jones had their way with the Patriots defense, and while the legendary Tom Brady was effective, he wasn’t quite able to crack the young Atlanta D.  That D was able to crack him, though, as on the team’s deepest first half drive outside of the one that culminated in Blount’s fumble, Brady was picked off by cornerback Robert Alford, who returned the ball 82 yards for a touchdown.  While the Pats were able to tack on a field goal before the half, they still found themselves down 18 points, which, even at that time, would have been the biggest lead ever overcome in the history of the Big Game.

The hole got bigger in the third quarter, when Tevin Coleman plunged in to give the Falcons a 28-3 lead.  It seemed as if the Falcons were left for dead.  But Brady, who wound up finishing with a Super Bowl-record 466 yards passing, was having none of it—he led his team down the field to get a score in before the end of the quarter, and then kept up the momentum by getting a field goal on the first drive of the fourth quarter.  The Patriots defense came up big, forcing the league’s MVP, Matt Ryan, to fumble the ball and give it ball to Brady, who responded by quickly tossing a touchdown to Danny Amendola and calling a gutsy play for a two-point conversion.  The Falcons had a chance to put the Patriots away on their next drive, as they were still up 8, and an incredible sideline catch by Jones seemed to do just that.  However, after a sack and a costly holding penalty, Brady and company got the ball back.  They drove swiftly and efficiently down the field, capping their drive with a one yard plunge by running back James White, who had a Big Game-record 14 catches on the day, and a two-pointer by Amendola to tie the game.

The game went to overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history, and when the Patriots won the toss, they elected to receive.  The Falcons wouldn’t see the ball again.  Brady, who was named MVP for the fourth time in his five Super Bowl wins, marched his team down the field, and when White dove past the goal line to secure the victory, all of New England went bananas.  The Patriots were champions again.

Derrick Rose and Abuse in Sports

I am a proud Chicago sports fan.  In many years, that is a quite disappointing fandom, this one included.  The White Sox drastically under-performed expectations.  The Blackhawks got knocked out of the play-offs in the first round for the first time in forever, and they’ve started this season very poorly.  The Cubs have been perennially bad for a very, very long time (though are good this year, which is a major conflict in my White Sox-leaning heart).  The Bears had a horrible 2015 season, and have started off this new-year on a bad note by losing in very ugly fashion.  The Bulls missed the play-offs this past season, too, but initiated a roster turnover this off-season to help improve, and the featured move of that turnover was the trade point guard Derrick Rose.

Back when the Rose trade was announced, I wrote a post honoring his time in his hometown uniform, about how great he was for the city, both on and off the court.  Now, I am starting to regret some of my words.  Part of that regret can be tied back to Rose’s comments about the city not “appreciating” him, or on how the New York team that he finds himself on now is the most talented one he’s ever been on.  But most of it stems from the current rape accusations that Rose and two of his friends are facing in Los Angeles.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, a woman filed a civil suit against Derrick Rose about a year or so ago, with the complaint being that the point guard and two of his close friends drugged her, trespassed into her apartment and gang raped her while she was unconscious on Aug. 27, 2013.  The case has been in the trial phase for about a week and a half, and has garnered much national media attention for the drama that seems to be unfolding within the courtroom.  (For more in-depth information on the case, please click here).

Rape is one of the biggest problems in our society.  7% percent of all rapists are convicted, which is a very, very small number considering the seriousness of the crimes.  Many of those rapes go unreported, for a variety of different reasons from the understandable embarrassment that a victim might feel to the truly horrifying reason of being afraid of victim shaming (which, sadly, happens all too often).  Other cases are thrown out due to “lack of evidence,” or some other preposterous rationale that gets the criminals out of punishment.  Some stories are genuinely made up, sure, but jumping to the conclusion that the person accusing someone of rape isn’t telling the truth is a horrible, horrible mistake to make, considering how many of them are real cases and how many rapists do not end up with proper punishment.

When it comes to sports, many athletes, unless they are strangely reviled, are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making a major mistake.  People assume that because they are athletes, because they frequently in the public eye, that they can do no wrong.  When athletes are accused of committing a crime, no matter how heinous, many thousands of loyal fans will often leap right in to defend the athletes, and some continue to defend them for a long period of time, regardless of what evidence has been presented.  For all that I know, Rose may completely innocent of rape.  His accuser may be someone attracted to Rose who didn’t get her way but still wants to be in the spotlight.  However, I can’t find myself believing that that is the case.  There have been some very viable attempts by Rose’s defense team to discredit Jane Doe’s reason for accusing the point guard of rape, but considering the negative publicity that she is sure to be getting from many of Rose’s most vocal supporters, I feel that she is probably not in it for money or fame, but for justice.  Rose’s vagueness in answering questions concerning the night being brought into question is also pretty telling for me- he created more questions about the turmoil surrounding him.  Rumors about an out-of-court settlement of been floating around, as have rumors of when the grand jury in his case will actually convene; regardless, it really hurts to think that one of my hometown’s biggest stars may have just thrown away his career, especially deciding to engage in something is terrible as sexual abuse.

Sadly, many athletes besides Rose have been accused of some form of abuse in recent years.  Among them, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was filmed on tape hitting his wife in an elevator before dragging her out of it.  In December of 2014, professional basketball player Jeffery Taylor was suspended by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for 24 games after being convicted of domestic assault.  The following month, former pro baseball player Milton Bradley’s appeal of his sexual assault charges was dropped, meaning that he had to serve jail time.  In June 2015, retired NFL safety Darren Sharper pleaded guilty to drugging and raping three women in different cities across the country.  Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov faced deportation to Russia after being convicted of a misdemeanor violence charge against his wife last fall.  These cases, along with Rose’s, have received a lot of media attention.  Some people have complained that they have received too much attention, that the focus on the athletes takes away from attention that should be being paid to the people getting abused that won’t make the headlines.  While they are right, I think that there is something else that these people should be complaining about- why professional leagues, and their teams, are not going above and beyond to combat this abuse.

Professional athletes are some of the most prominent role models in the entire world.  For that, they are held to a higher standard when it comes to personal conduct.  To me, that means that the leagues that these athletes are a part of, and, as an extension, the teams in that league, must also commit to a higher standard of conduct.  Pro sports are a vehicle for many, many great things- the NFL is relatively racially sensitive.  Both the NFL and MLB have been big promoters of breast cancer research.  The NBA has NBA Cares, which runs many local programs for underprivileged kids.  The NHL is working hard at improving the safety of hockey players, from youth levels on up.  However, when many of these professional leagues have been faced with crimes involving abuse, many of them have not done the right thing.  Some leagues have made mistakes with punishment- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made comments denouncing the acts of Voynov and the (supposed) acts of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star who was accused of rape before last season, but Bettman permitted Kane to attend the Blackhawk training camp and allowed Voynov to practice with his team while being investigated (the fact that the Kings were open to Voynov practicing in the first place is bad in its own right).  NFL commissioner Roger Goddell’s punishment of Ray Rice was not properly considered and was eventually overturned.  A problem faced by all pro sports leagues, though, particularly the MLB, which has had many former players convicted of crimes involving abuse, is that, just like most major media/advertising entities today, they done poorly with condoning crimes involving abuse, and making awareness of abuse and abuse a major talking point.

That isn’t to say that sports leagues and teams have done nothing to combat the problem of abuse, but considering the seriousness of abuse, it’s one that hasn’t been addressed enough.  Chicago sportswriter Jon Greenberg made a fantastic point in his article on the situation surrounding Kane and his rape controversy last year.  He wrote, “The Blackhawks could help combat sexual assault before it begins by funding workshops, clinics and speeches for this age group. They can help talk to the kids about sexual assault when they’ll still listen.”  Obviously, with Kane’s case being sex related, Greenberg’s thought is a little more specific than targeting all forms of abuse, but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a great idea.  D.A.R.E programs are instituted in elementary and middle schools across the country- including my hometown, a suburb of Chicago- to teach kids about the dangers of drugs.  So why can’t there be a more widespread, and more impactful, curriculum on abuse, better than the Robert Crown programs that have such limited influence?  And why does it have to be just one pro organization, a team that may happen to have a player under investigation for sexual assault- all professional sports leagues can make a point to prove that this is a major issue.  And shouldn’t adults be targets of a similar message, too?  Just like there are major campaigns involving not drinking or texting while driving, there should be more commercials, and more athlete spokespeople, speaking up about the terrors of abuse, and encouraging victims to seek help, and providing information on how victims’ friends can assist in efforts to make sure the victim recovers and the abuser gets his/her proper punishment.  Considering how big of an issue abuse is, and considering how high profile athletes are, bringing light to this issue will make people more vigilant, and more informed, about abuse, which is something that our culture, in or out of athletics sorely needs.

On Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem Protests

Today marks the start of Week 2 of the NFL season.  In a few hours, the Bills and Jets will start off a week which I expect to have a lot of exciting, competitive games, just like last week.  I also expect there to be some pre-game protests of the National Anthem, just as there was last week.  The man that started the protests, who has been at the forefront of the controversy surrounding them, is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  This has become a polarizing topic of conversation throughout the country, and as a dedicated sports fan, I figured that this would be a conversation worth entering.

So I’m just going to come right out and say it: in the moments after I first heard about Kaepernick’s protests, I thought that I disagreed with them.  I thought that the initial explanation that he gave for his actions was shallow.  I felt that the movement that developed from Kaepernick’s actions did so in poor taste–protesting the flag and song of our country, especially on, and so close to, the anniversary of 9/11, felt like an insult to me.  I felt that Kaepernick, and the other players that followed his lead, should be suspended, or fined, or something- anything to convey the idea that disrespecting the Anthem and the flag would be deemed unacceptable.

The thing about this, though, is that who I am does not give me a real right to determine whether these protests are “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.”  I am not a minority in this country.  I have never had to worry about to worry about being discriminated against based on the color of my skin.  I have never had to fight against drastic economic and social disadvantages.  I have never been called anything derogatory.  I have never had to face unwanted, and unwarranted, stereotypes of thugishness or violence.  I don’t have any fear of any type of interaction with a law enforcement officer.  There are many other struggles that I do not have to deal with on a daily basis, just because I was born white.  In short- my race, and my life experiences, do not make me qualified to judge Kaepernick and his colleagues for what they’re choosing to do.  The large majority of people that are lambasting Kaepernick for his actions- either publicly or privately- also have no rationale to go off of when they insult the quarterback.

If anything, I feel like I, and more people like me, should be showing Kaepernick some more respect for what he is trying to do: what he feels is necessary to start a conversation on the systemic racism that permeates our society.  And, if I’m going to be honest, he’s probably doing it in the most effective way that he, in his position as a major public figure, possibly could- demonstrating during the National Anthem is having a much deeper effect than any statement he could make ever would.  For that, Kaepernick deserves recognition–even if he is trying to gain some personal attention for himself, which many of his critics claim he is, his willingness to stand up to the inequalities in our country, despite some very vicious backlash, deserves to be commended for the attention that he is trying to bring to such a major problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: there is a part of me that is still uneasy about the method of protest Kaepernick is pursuing.  I find some irony in the fact that the fact that he says that this country, as a whole, represses the minority population while the President is a minority himself.  I wholeheartedly believe that the majority of police across the country are benevolent people, doing their best to serve and protect the people of this great nation, and to disrespect them in pursuit of a goal when it doesn’t seem to be necessary doesn’t strike me as very smart.

Ultimately, though, I know that I need to work to get past my unease, because the reality is this: I know that there is a serious problem in our country in that people of color have to worry about so many different issues that white people like myself have never taken the time to consider.  I know that, despite measures put in place to prevent it, that racism is still a major problem, and that in many instances of interactions between authority figures, from the more obvious ones of police officers to the less obvious ones of prosecutors who push for longer sentences for people of color, judges that refuse to acknowledge such blatant displays of discrimination, and business professionals who prefer the “old white boys’ club” to hiring any minorities, even if they are more talented or qualified.  I know are problems that minorities face that I will never fully understand, problems that have a much deeper meaning to those that actually have to experience them.

So please: even if you disagree with what Kaepernick is doing, do not lose track of what he is saying; do not ignore it or brush it off, either, because what he’s saying is the most important part of his protest.  The problems that he is discussing cannot be denied.  Minorities in this country are too often shafted in nearly every facet of their lives.  So while I, personally, will stand and proudly sing the National Anthem whenever I hear it, for all that it embodies for this great country, we need some serious change to make sure that everyone can have a chance to feel that pride.

My opinion here doesn’t necessarily condone what Kaepernick is doing, but I think (I hope) that it doesn’t give much credence to his detractors, either.  Whether that makes this a thoughtful opinion or a weak one for being “indecisive,” I don’t know.  I also don’t know what I, myself, or anybody, really, can do to effectively initiate the change that I called for above- that’s why I didn’t specify what exactly can be, or needs to be, done to combat the issues Kaepernick presents.  So: if anyone has any opinion on this piece, any background on the protests or on the injustices that minorities face, constructive thoughts on how to address the issues at hand, or any other information to give relative to the situation, please, comment below or contact me here.  I’d love to have a conversation with you.

2016 NFL Preview

In less than an hour, the 2016/17 NFL season will kick off in a rematch of last year’s phenomenal Super Bowl match-up between the champion Denver Broncos and runner-up Carolina Panthers.  Each team was arguably the best in their conference the whole year through, and were that they played for the championship was very fitting.  However, some major defections from both teams- Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, and Danny Trevathan for Denver and Josh Norman for Carolina- has, perhaps, made it easier for some challengers to snatch the conference titles from the holders and battle for the big prize: a Super Bowl.  Who’s going to win that big prize this season?  Here’s my thoughts on how it will all play out:

 

Regular Season Standings

NFC

NFC West:

Cardinals (#2)

Seahawks (WC #1)

Rams

49ers

Last year, the Cardinals were only one game away from the Super Bowl, on their deepest play-off run since Kurt Warner was the quarterback, before running into the rampaging Panthers.  However, it seems like Bruce Arians and his staff seem to get the most out of his squad than anyone not named Belichick, and I expect them to do so again this season, holding off the rival Seahawks for first place.  The ‘Hawks will be pretty good themselves, but the uncertainty in the running game, and the corresponding increase in pressure on Russell Wilson, will cause Seattle to end up as a wild card team for the second straight season.  The Rams and 49ers, meanwhile, will again be two of the worst teams in the league- they both have star running backs and a couple of good defensive players, but also have limited talent throughout the roster and very inconsistent coaching staffs.  Los Angeles’s defense is a little better, so I give them the edge, but I don’t expect much from either of those two teams.

 

NFC North:

Packers (#1)

Vikings

Bears

Lions

The Vikings gave the Pack a real run for their money last season- second year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and rookie Stefon Diggs provided nice compliments to star running back to Adrian Peterson, and Aaron Rodgers struggled without Jordy Nelson on the field.  Now, however, with Nelson back on the field and Bridgewater out for the year, and maybe longer, with a gruesome knee injury, Green Bay doesn’t have a team in the division that can compete with them on either side of the ball, which is why I think that they’ll claim the division, and the number one overall seed, with relative ease.  Minnesota will still fight for a play-off spot, but without Bridgewater, I just don’t see it happening.  As for the Bears and Lions, they are teams in the midst of transition.  The Bears massively upgraded their offensive line and front seven, while the Lions seem like they are still reeling after the sudden retirement of star receiver Calvin Johnson.  The Bears are on the up and the Lions are headed down, which is what I reflect in my standings.

 

NFC South:

Panthers (#4)

Buccaneers (WC #2)

Falcons

Saints

The Panthers were last year’s NFC champions by virtue of their explosive offense, helmed by MVP Cam Newton, and their ferocious defense.  Losing All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman will certainly sting, but Luke Kuechly and co. have enough talent to offset Norman’s departure fairly well, and with the offense gaining a new dimension with the return of the lanky Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers should be able to wrap up their third straight division title.  Beneath them, everything is a little bit muddled- every team has some positives and some negatives.  The Buccaneers have an up-and-coming quarterback and a solid front seven, but their secondary and running game aren’t very consistent.  Atlanta has an explosive offense and a very inconsistent defense.  New Orleans has Drew Brees and Mark Ingram, and the less that is said about their defense, the better.  I think that Tampa has the most talent, and that Jameis Winston will be good enough to lead the Bucs to their first play-off appearance since 2007, but the other teams will be hot on their heels until the regular season comes to an end.  Probably the deepest division top to bottom this year (in comparison to last year, when it was Carolina and under .500 teams).

 

NFC East:

Giants (#3)

Redskins

Eagles

Cowboys

Were Tony Romo healthy, I could see this division playing out to be a really interesting one- the Cowboys would be competitive and give every team a legit shot of making the play-offs if they could simply overcome their rivals.  However, as much as I like Dak Prescott, he’s no Romo, and knowing that, I think that this division is the Giants’ to lose.  They’ve bulked up their leaky defense by signing Oliver Vernon and Janoris Jenkins while drafting the dangerous Sterling Shepard to line up opposite Odell Beckham at receiver.  While the team’s closest competitor, and last year’s division champs, the Redskins, also improved their roster by jettisoning Alfred Morris and signing Josh Norman, I simply cannot see Kirk Cousins maintaining the pace, or big-play ability, that he flashed last year.  That isn’t to say that he’s a bad quarterback- far from it- but even a slight drop off from him, combined with the team’s relatively weak linebacking core, should keep them out of the top spot and out of the play-offs.  The bottom two teams in this division will both be starting rookie quarterbacks- Prescott for the Cowboys and Carson Wentz for the Eagles- and that’s pretty much the main reason that I can see both of these teams finishing in the bottom 4 teams in the conference.  I have slightly more confidence in Wentz than I do in Prescott, though, and that fact, combined with Philadelphia’s somewhat decent defense, gives them the edge over the ‘Boys, who will finish last for a second straight season.

             

AFC

AFC West:

Raiders (#3)

Broncos

Chiefs

Chargers

The defending Super Bowl champion has missed the play-offs the year after their victory only four times in the past ten years.  Of course, not every defending champion loses the two quarterbacks that have started every game for the team since the start of the 2012 season (Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler) and the anchor of their defensive line (Malik Jackson).  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Raiders drastically improved under Jack Del Rio, and seem poised for even bigger and better things this year- they bulked up the offensive line to better protect budding star Derek Carr and block for speedy running backs Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington while also adding linebacker Bruce Irvin to make the front seven even more ferocious than it already is.  Oakland will make the play-offs for the first time since their Super Bowl loss back in 2003 (!), leaving Denver’s ferocious defense and my boy Trevor Siemian, Denver’s new and unproven starting QB (who’s from Northwestern, which is about an hour from where I live), on the outside looking in.  The Chiefs have the potential to be pretty good, too, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in an aging Alex Smith, or in a defense that will be missing the pass-rushing monster that is Justin Houston for six weeks.  Oakland and Denver are just too good for them to overcome.  As for San Diego, I think that they are the laughingstock of the NFL- yes, worse than the Browns.  Spurned by Los Angeles, having engaged in fights with Eric Weddle and Joey Bosa’s representatives while throwing money at a receiver, with only one good year, that doesn’t fit Philip Rivers’s playing style.  As much as I don’t want to see it, for their quarterback’s sake, I expect to see them struggle mightily this season.

 

AFC North

Steelers (#1)

Bengals (WC #1)

Ravens

Browns

Even though Pittsburgh won’t have Le’Veon Bell and Ladarius Green to start the season, or Martavis Bryant for the whole season, the Steelers have perhaps the easiest schedule in the division to start the season, and once they get Bell back, Ben Roethlisberger will have an embarrassment of speedy riches to utilize on offense, and I think he’ll be able to do so well enough to claim the division and the conference’s number one overall seed.  Cincinnati will give them a run for their money, though- I feel the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu will hurt them more than I think many people realize, but with a healthy Andy Dalton and AJ Green pairing, along with a gritty, hard-working defense, the Bengals will make the play-offs as the number one wild card.  Baltimore will be the best AFC team to not make the post-season- the return of Steve Smith and signing of Eric Weddle give them veteran leadership on both sides of the ball, and I have enough faith in Joe Flacco’s arm to get them to the play-offs.  However, against better run defending teams, I think the Ravens will struggle, and that will ultimately be their downfall.  Cleveland will continue to languish at the bottom of the division, but all hope is not lost- the front office seems like they’re on the right track now, and they should be in good shape for the future.

 

AFC South

Texans (#4)

Jaguars (WC #2)

Texans

Titans

The Houston Texans won the AFC South last year, but after an offensive implosion against the Bengals in the play-offs, they made it their off-season priority to get star receiver DeAndre Hopkins some new companions.  They largely succeeded in that quest, adding Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller in free agency and Will Fuller through the draft.  Now, the team feels like their offense is on par with their excellent defense, which should allow them to take the division without much trouble.  The battle for second place in the division should be interesting, though.  The Colts, long the division’s top dog, return Andrew Luck from injury but still have a suspect defense.  The Jaguars added a power runner and some studs on defense, but are still relatively inexperienced.  In the end, though, I feel like the Jags have more overall talent, and that talent will help them overcome said inexperience to make the playoffs.  At the bottom, while I don’t think that the Titans will be very competitive this year, the team is certainly on the rise; any team that is being built around exceptional talents like Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry definitely should be.

 

AFC East:

Patriots (#2)

Bills

Jets

Dolphins

The Patriots lucked out a little bit in terms of their schedule difficulty while Tom Brady is serving his suspension- only the opener against Arizona looks remotely tricky for Jimmy Garopolo, and even so, I have a lot of faith in the former Eastern Illinois quarterback to adequately hold down the fort.  After Brady’s return, though, I expect the Pats to click into another gear, pulling away to easily win their division.  All the other teams in the division are capable of bigger and better things, and perhaps even a play-off win or two, but each of them has a very inconsistent aspect of their team that I think will hold them back from making the play-offs.  For the Bills, it’s the offense- there’s a lot of good players in Buffalo, but the offense is mainly boom-or-bust, and that’s hard to maintain at a rate that’ll get you into the post-season.  For the Jets, it’s their defense- it alternated between being very good and very bad, but with nobody getting any younger, I don’t see them getting any better than they were last year.  And in Miami, it’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill- he has all the attributes to be a star, but just hasn’t put it together yet.  If any of these aspects of any of those teams finds consistency, they can make a play-off push- otherwise, they’ll be left out again.

 

 

Awards/Individual Predictions

NFL MVP: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

While Palmer is certainly not getting any younger, he still has his mind and phenomenal accuracy, and the supporting cast he has this year is better than ever- David Johnson is an up-and-coming star at running back, and the receiver trio of John Brown, Michael Floyd, and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald is the best in the league.  That gives Palmer, who is completely healthy to start the season for the first time in three years, a great opportunity to win the MVP while leading the Cards deep into the play-offs.

 

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

This is a fairly straightforward pick.  It’s not “sexy,” so to speak, but nobody will be getting the type of usage, especially with Tony Romo out, that Elliott will, and no running back is fortunate enough to run behind the best offensive line in the entire league.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was unanimous.

 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jaguars rookies Jaelen Ramsey and Myles Jack are more talented players than Spence, and probably more common picks for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I think that Spence is the best pass rusher in the draft, and since most teams will seek to beat Tampa Bay through the air, I think that the former Eastern Kentucky man will get a lot of chances to show off his skills.

 

Best Acquisition: Eric Weddle, FS, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens secondary simply hasn’t been the same since Ed Reed’s departure.  Ladarius Webb hasn’t ever really seemed himself, and Jimmy Smith hasn’t exactly developed into the elite corner that everyone said he would be.  Enter Weddle, a wily All-Pro safety that will be hungry for wins after being stuck in turmoil in San Diego.  His presence and leadership should improve Webb and Smith’s performance as he continues his trend of dominating games, with all of this coming at a reasonable AAV of $6.5 million.

 

Worst Acquisition: Chris Ivory, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Look: I get that the Jaguars needed to spend their cap space this off-season.  I get that the free agent market wasn’t really all that plentiful in compared to previous years.  But signing a guy like Ivory, a running back that will steal carries for the young and underrated TJ Yeldon, a running back that isn’t much of a pass catcher, a running back that will cost over $6 million a year in a league that doesn’t value the run game as high as it used to, doesn’t seem like a bright move.

 

Coach of the Year: Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars

After all the put downs I’ve been giving Jacksonville, here’s a light in the dark- after many years of futility, GM Dave Caldwell and Bradley have done a good job of shaping this team into a kind of Seattle-lite through the free agent market (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson) and the draft (Jaelen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson).  Bradley’s handling of Bortles has been especially admirable, and after he and Bortles lead the team to the play-offs for the first time since 2007, Bradley will be duly rewarded.

             

Biggest Surprise: Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Le’Veon Bell has struggled with injuries in recent seasons.  So has Ladarius Green.  DeAngelo Williams is aging, and Heath Miller retired.  Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year.  Somebody needs to step up to draw some attention away from star receiver Antonio Brown, and while Bell and Williams will still be important, I expect that all the uncertainty in Pittsburgh will give the speedy Wheaton ample opportunity to have a breakout season, and I’ll think he’ll take that opportunity and run with it.

 

 

Playoffs:

NFC

Wildcard

Giants defeat Buccaneers

Seahawks defeat Panthers

This is probably the most unheralded of all the play-off matchups, but I think it will be a pretty good one.  Neither team has a really good secondary, so I believe that it’ll be a relative shootout, but when it comes down to it, as good as I think Jameis Winston can be, he is still not at the level, in terms of both experience (duh) and ability (not so duh), as Eli Manning.  Manning and Odell Beckham will help the G-Men move on to the next round.

In a rematch of last year’s divisional matchup, the defending NFC champs take on the team from which they took their crown.  Seattle’s loss last year was down to uncharacteristic turnovers, but when they found their groove in the second half, they were nearly unstoppable, coming within a touchdown of the host Panthers.  As good as Carolina is, the Seahawks are better overall, and will be anxious to avenge their loss from last season.  Seattle moves on.

 

Divisional

Giants defeat Packers

Cardinals defeat Seahawks

The Giants-Packers match-up is a battle between two of the best play-off quarterbacks in the game, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.  Both have the weapons and the know-how to pull this one out, so I think it will come down to who is able to limit the other team’s star receivers the best.  Unfortunately for Green Bay, I think that the trio of Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Leon Hall is good enough to prevent Jordy Nelson from really getting into the game, and we saw how much of a problem that was for Rodgers last year.  The Giants move on in an upset.

This game was so tough to call- I think that the Seahawks have more talent, but the Cardinals get more from their players.  Both coaching staffs are evenly matched.  Last year’s games saw each team win the game where they were the visitors.  In the end, though, I think that Bruce Arians and his staff will be better prepared than they were for last season’s finale, and without the threat of Marshawn Lynch, they can throw pass rushers at Russell Wilson and force him to make plays, which is a hit-or-miss type of thing.  I think he’ll miss just enough for the Cardinals to move on.

 

Conference

Cardinals defeat Giants

East meets West in a game to determine the NFC champ.  Both teams will come into this game coming off of relative upset victories, and emotions will be running high.  Because of that, I expect this game to be a very fast-paced one, and the team that can control the ball, and the clock, better will be able to move on.  In this case, I think that means that the Cardinals will win, since their tandem of David Johnson and Chris Johnson is better anything than the Giants can throw at them.  Bruce Arians and his squad advance to The Big Game.

 

AFC

Wild Card

Raiders defeat Jaguars

Texans defeat Bengals

I really wish that these teams wouldn’t meet in the first round of the play-offs, because it means that a team that has been in the dumps in recent years gets to make it to the post-season, only to lose their first game.  Unfortunately for Jacksonville, I think it will be them going home- the Raiders monstrous front seven will be able to limit the Jags’ running game and force Blake Bortles to beat him on their own, and while Bortles is very talented, it would be hard for any young quarterback to stand up to such a task, especially in the play-offs.  Jacksonville moves on.

Last year the Bengals absolutely tore apart the Texans, and it was mainly because Brian Hoyer could get absolutely nothing going on offense for Houston.  This year, the Texans are back and reloaded, and the offense they’ve formed is now on par with Cincinnati’s.  In the end, I think it’ll all come down to defense, and I believe that the JJ Watt-led Texans have a slight advantage in that department.  Houston moves on in a squeaker.            

 

Divisional

Raiders defeat Steelers

Patriots defeat Texans

When Derek Carr was drafted, I felt that Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL quarterback he should look up to- they are very similar physically (big, strong arms) and came into the league to very similar situations (mediocre team with great tradition, not necessarily expected to play right away but did anyways).  Now, Carr has a chance to top Big Ben.  While Roethlisberger is certainly a better quarterback at this stage of his career, Oakland’s strong defense and Pittsburgh’s weak one are the difference makers- the Raiders advance.

Bill Belichick comes up against his old protégé, Bill O’Brien, in a game to determine who makes it to the AFC championship.  I really feel like Houston can keep this one pretty close- Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller are dynamic enough to give the Patriot defense some trouble, and the uncertainty around New England’s offensive line situation is music to JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus’s ears.  However, this is the Patriots we’re talking about, and as competitive as the Texans can be, I just don’t think that their secondary has enough skill to truly limit Tom Brady.  The Pats will win in a low-scoring game.

 

Conference

Patriots defeat Raiders

A rematch of the infamous “Tuck Rule” game back in 2002, Derek Carr and the Raiders will have a chance to avenge the controversial win that the Patriots picked up en route to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  Alas, it just isn’t meant to be- Bill Belichick has Jack Del Rio’s number, having beaten him when he was the Jaguars head coach and Denver’s defensive coordinator, and if there’s any place where the Raiders aren’t excellent, it’s in the secondary.  That’s not a good thing when you’re facing Tom Brady.  The Patriots move on, perhaps with ease.

 

Super Bowl

Cardinals defeat Patriots

A battle between the oldest projected starting quarterbacks in the league (Brady and Palmer will be 39 and 37, respectively, at the time of the Super Bowl) and a Week One rematch.  While it’s hard to bet against Brady, especially coming off of his suspension and shocking loss to Denver last season, the Cardinal offense should have little problem picking apart New England’s secondary, and while Arizona’s defense isn’t of Denver quality, it was 5th overall in total yards allowed last season, and should be able to do enough to limit Tom Terrific to allow their offense to build a lead.  There’ll be a lot of points, and it’ll be close, but ultimately, I think Arizona will prevail, 34-27.

 

2016 NFL Free Agency Review

Yesterday marked one month since the beginning of the 2016 free agency period for the National Football League.  While the debate over whether building through the draft or free agency is the better move, teams across the country dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on players that they hope will make their teams better in the coming seasons.  Whether the signings pan out or not, of course, remains to be seen; here, I attempt to bring some semblance of organization to a month filled with transactions and unexpected drama while analyzing some of the most impactful moves so far this off-season.

 

 

Big Signings

Malik Jackson to Jaguars- 6 years, $90 million

Brock Osweiler to Texans- 4 years, $72 million

Two of the three most expensive of this year’s free agent signings are former Denver Broncos.  The first, Jackson, is a true three-down defensive tackle that is capable of providing an effective pass rush while staying solid against the run.  There are some minor worries about his motivation, considering that he’s admitted that his decision to leave the defending champs for the lowly Jags was entirely due to money, and also about his consistency- the most amount of snaps per game he played before last season was 55%- but if the Tennessee grad lives up to his potential, Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell couldn’t have picked a better player to spend a lot of his cap space on.

The second of the two ex-champs, Brock Osweiler, was a surprise defection from the champions- he was slated to be the full-time starter after the retirement of the legendary Peyton Manning.  However, perhaps slighted by the team’s decision to bench him in favor of the aging Manning once the postseason started, Osweiler moved on to a new challenge in Houston.  The pressure on head coach Bill O’Brien to get him to produce will be heavy, considering the price tag, and I think that it will be money well spent- Osweiler is a freak athlete with a strong arm, and with great weapons like Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal, I expect the QB to develop into the greatest gunslinger in the Texans’ brief history.

 

Oliver Vernon to Giants- 5 years, $85 million

Janoris Jenkins to Giants- 5 years, $62.5 million

This was the first off-season in recent memory that the Giants had a lot of cap room to play around with, and they certainly filled it up fast by attempting to address their porous defense, which finished last in the league in yards allowed last season.  To help their pass rush, they took Vernon from Miami with a contract that has more guaranteed money than JJ Watt’s.  Spending a lot on the former Dolphin wasn’t wrong, because he is one of the game’s most consistent pass rushers, and at 25, he has yet to enter the prime of his career, so he is due to improve on his 7-sacks-a-year average.  However, to make a guy that may turn out to be a player that’s on the field in mostly passing situations one of the highest paid defensive lineman in the league seems a bit excessive.  I don’t doubt that Vernon will produce, but I can’t see him providing as much as his contract warrants he should.

Sadly for New York, I think that their other major signing, Jenkins, will give the team another defender that won’t live up to the expectations brought on by his high salary.  The former Rams cornerback is a playmaker, no doubt- since being drafted in 2012, his 34 passes defended is good for 7th most in the league, and his 10 interceptions ranked 12th– but his aggressiveness has also left him prone to big plays, something the G-Men were all too familiar with last season.  Putting him opposite another aggressive corner in Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie does not serve to highlight Jenkins’ strengths, and will he could help improve the Giants’ secondary, he’s just as likely to leave them just as bad as last year.

 

Kelechi Osemele to Raiders- 5 years, $58.5 million

Russell Okung to Broncos- 5 years, $53 million

Often unheralded in the national media, offensive lineman got in on the spending fest this off-season, too.  The OL that got the most money was Osemele, who left Baltimore for Oakland to get a deal that will see him receive an average salary of just less than $10 million a year.  I think this is a brilliant signing for the Raiders- Osemele was overshadowed by his All-Pro teammate, left guard Marshall Yanda, but the youngster was arguably the Ravens’ best offensive lineman last season.  He gave up only one sack at left guard before finishing the final four games of the season with a seamless transition to left tackle.  This versatility, combined with the 26 year-old’s immense strength and strong run blocking ability, make him, in my opinion, one of the best acquisitions of this off-season.

When I first saw the Russell Okung signing, I thought it made little sense at first- Okung was a very solid left tackle for his old employers, the Seattle Seahawks, but it seemed as if his ability had waned in recent years, and that some of that waning could be attributed to the injuries that the former Oklahoma State star has suffered with recently.  He is definitely better than the man he was slated to replace, Ryan Clady, but with Clady and his $9.5 million salary still on the books, I just didn’t think signing Okung was necessary, especially considering all the free agents that Denver could have put money towards.  However, with Clady now a New York Jet, Okung looks like a solid pickup for the defending champs- for slightly more money than they would have paid Clady, they’ll get far better production.

 

Damon Harrison to Giants- 5 years, $46.25 million

Kelvin Beachum to Jaguars- 5 years, $45 million

These two are, perhaps, the most intriguing signings of the 2016 off-season.  The first of them, Harrison, is leaving the Jets for the Giants in a deal that is sure to thrill the former undrafted free agent.  Since becoming a starter back in 2013, Harrison has been one of the best defensive tackles in the business, picking up 72 tackles and an All-Pro selection by Pro Football Focus.  The problem with Harrison is that at 350 pounds, he is only a two-down player, and a base salary of $9.25 million is a little steep for someone in his position.  Unlike some experts, though, I feel like Harrison’s impact to help improve the Giants’ 24th ranked defense will help make his high salary extremely worth it; the Jets will regret letting him go to their very close rivals.

Beachum, meanwhile, got paid a ton of money by the Jaguars and might not even be guaranteed a starting spot along their o-line.  The incumbent starter at left tackle, former first round pick Luke Joeckel, has struggled, and Beachum was brought in, effectively, to give him competition for the spot.  The way his contract is structured- Beachum will get paid a base salary of $4.5 million in his first year before a sharp increase in years 2 through 5- is ideal for the Jags, but his signing is puzzling at best and an extremely high risk at worst.  If Joeckel retains his spot, the Jaguars spent $4.5 million on a lineman that will barely play.  If Beachum wins the job but doesn’t play well, they might be forced to move on from both him and Joeckel, who will surely be offended at being benched.  If Beachum wins the job and plays well, the team will essentially have to own up to the fact that they messed up by picking Joeckel so early in the draft.

 

Other Big Signings:

Alex Mack to Falcons- 5 years, $45 million

Brandon Brooks to Eagles- 5 years, $40 million

Sean Smith to Raiders- 4 years, $38 million

Bruce Irvin to Raiders- 4 years, $37 million

Marvin Jones to Lions- 4 years, $40 million

Coby Fleener to Saints- 3 years, $36 million

 

 

Underrated Signings

Eric Weddle to Ravens- 4 years, $26 million

I’m a huge fan of Weddle’s- his presence upped the Chargers from a below average defense to an average one, and even though he’s 31, his performance the last couple of seasons has shown that he certainly has a lot left in the tank.  Weddle is a strong tackler and a big playmaker that will provide the Ravens with a steady safety for the first time since Ed Reed’s departure, and he will certainly help bolster the team’s ranking in points allowed per game (24th last season).

 

Robert Ayers to Buccaneers- 3 years, $19.5 million

A former first-round draft pick out of the University of Tennessee, Ayers is definitely not a star, and at 30 years old, he probably never will be.  But the former Giant has been steadily improving every facet of his game as he’s gotten older- he became a sturdy presence against the run with the team that drafted him, Denver, and had a career-high 9.5 sacks in New York last season despite playing in only 12 games.  He is also very versatile, having played defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker at points during his career.  That the Buccaneers were able to get him on a relatively short contract, for less than $7 million a year, is a real coup.

 

Evan Mathis to Cardinals- 1 year, $4.01 million

Mathis’s showings in Denver made him appear as if he was nowhere near the dominant force that he was during his prime years in Philadelphia, but that can be accounted for- Mathis signed with Denver fairly late (August 25) and so had limited time to adjust to the scheme he was asked to play while struggling with aches and pains throughout the year.  On track to being 100% in training camp after off-season ankle surgery, the former All-Pro will give the Cardinals a stud opposite Mike Iupati at left guard for a salary that is only slightly higher than what he made last season.

 

Jared Cook to Packers- 1 year, $2.75 million

Cook has definitely not been the most durable guy in the world, and hasn’t put up the best stats considering his status as one of the most athletic tight ends in the league.  However, the former Ram is now healthy, and is surely over the moon at the chance to play with an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. I think that Cook will become one of the Packer star’s top targets, just as Jermichael Finley was in his prime, and fulfill the potential that the Rams had hoped he could provide.

 

 

Overrated Signings:

Mohamed Sanu to Falcons- 5 years, $32.5 million

I actually really like Sanu- he’s very fast and very versatile, and before this season, I felt that he should be the number two guy in Cincy behind AJ Green.  However, I think that paying almost $6.5 million for a guy that isn’t among the best #2 options in the league is a little bit steep, especially when a guy like Rishard Matthews, a player whose talent I see as similar to Sanu’s, is making $5 million a year.

 

Chris Ivory to Jaguars- 5 years, $32 million

Last year, the Jags drafted Alabama running back TJ Yeldon, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry beyond an offensive line that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, showing that Yeldon is both an explosive and powerful back.  The Jacksonville management, however, obviously doesn’t agree with that, and decided to spend over $6 million on Ivory.  The former Jet is a good back, but he’s expensive for a running back in an age of passing and will stunt the young Yeldon’s growth.

 

Travis Benjamin to Chargers- 4 years, $24 million

Yet another case of a team overpaying for a speedy receiver that doesn’t deserve his salary; Benjamin had a fantastic year in Cleveland, playing with below average quarterbacks while posting a 996/5 line in a contract year.  The problem with Benjamin is that while he has shown some great big play ability, he hasn’t been very consistent, and his performance faded down the stretch.  Benjamin is good, but he’s not $6 million a year good.

 

Casey Heyward to Chargers- 3 years, $15.3 million

I don’t think that this deal is as bad as the other ones listed here, but it’s still a questionable one.  As a Bears fan, I got to see my fair share of Heyward in a Packers jersey, and he didn’t impress me all that much, especially for a guy that was so highly touted coming out of college.  San Diego also paid Heyward more than the guy who he is effectively replacing, Patrick Robinson, who is, in my opinion, a better and more productive corner than the former Green Bay man.

 

 

Key Re-Signings:

Kirk Cousins, Redskins- 1 year, $19.95 million (franchise tag)

It took a while for the ‘Skins to decide between Robert Griffin III and Cousins as to which quarterback would be made the fact of the franchise, and it seems that their patience with the former Michigan State star has finally paid off.  After a rocky start to the year, Cousins led his team into the playoffs with a phenomenal season, and he figures to be the long term answer at QB the team has been after for a long, long time.

 

Von Miller, Broncos- 1 year, $14.1million (franchise tag)

Miller confirmed his status as one of the league’s elite defensive players in the Super Bowl, finishing with six tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, and one MVP award.  With Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler off to new pastures, the Broncos will be more of a defense-oriented team than ever before, and having Miller back in the fold ensures that they will still be a force to be reckoned with next season.

 

Alshon Jeffery, Bears- 1 year, $14.6 million (franchise tag)

The first pick in the 2012 draft for the Bears, former Boise State star Shea McClellin, didn’t turn out so hot- he struggled to find a position in Chicago before departing to New England this off-season.  Their second round pick, Jeffery, is a much different story- the former South Carolina receiver has developed into one of the league’s best pass catchers and is, by far, the team’s most talented player.  Keeping him in Chicago gives Jay Cutler a go-to weapon this upcoming season, and hopefully for many more to come.

 

Eric Berry, Chiefs- 1 year, $10.81 million (franchise tag)

Berry is a truly phenomenal story- he was one of the league’s top safeties before being diagnosed with leukemia, and once he beat the cancer, he returned to become…  one of the league’s top safeties.  His determination, energy, and leadership are unparalleled, and the Chiefs are lucky to be blessed with such an amazing player and an amazing man.

 

Doug Martin, Buccaneers- 5 years, $35.75 million

Signing Martin to a big deal was seemingly out of the question before this season started, when the Bucs declined the fifth-year option on the running back’s rookie deal.  However, with the pressure, and spotlight, on Jameis Winston instead of Martin, the former Boise State stud played in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year, picking up 1,402 yards on the ground to go along with his 7 total touchdowns.  Making sure he stayed in Tampa ensured that the Bucs will have a balanced attack as long as he and Winston stay in the pewter and red.

 

 

Best Unsigned Players:

Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB (Teams in play: Jets, Broncos, 49ers)

It’s expected the Fitzpatrick will re-sign with the Jets- he and receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have a great relationship, and both parties seem willing to bend a little to get a deal done.  However, considering how long the two sides have been debating the terms of a contract, there’s always a chance that a team searching for a QB, like Denver, or a dark horse team looking for competition, like San Francisco, gets in on the sweepstakes for the Harvard grad.

 

Leon Hall, CB (Teams in play: Bengals, Titans, Jaguars)

Hall was once an All-Pro cornerback, but the 31 year-old former first-round pick no longer has the pace to deal with the league’s top wideouts.  However, his performances last year show that he still has some gas left in his tank, and his veteran savvy would be valuable for any young secondary.  There’s an off chance that he returns to Cincinnati, but I expect him to eventually sign with either Jacksonville or Tennessee, up-and-coming teams that have (seemingly) solid offenses with inexperienced defenses.

 

Greg Hardy, DE (Teams in play: Unknown)

Hardy is sure to generate at least a little bit of interest- he is a true physical specimen that showed that even when the world is against him, he can still be a fearsome pass rusher.  However, Hardy’s history off the field, paired with recent comments that he made to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, have, rightfully, turned many teams off.  It’ll be interesting to see how his market changes throughout the spring and summer months.