After the first week of the regular season I made my observations for all 32 teams and so I thought to wrap up the year, I should come up with a few points for the entire league. I put together eight statements about what we saw in 2018/19 and how that will affect next year or maybe even beyond that. When doing so, I want to point out that these are my personal opinions and while I support them with statistics, not all of this is purely factual and a few of these are simply projections for what I believe in. So here are my two cents on this past year and with this we are headed towards draft season.
For the first time I agree with pretty much all the NFL awards
In several recent years, I thought the voters got multiple awards wrong and I expected to disagree with one or two of them once again, but this time around I truly thought they got the job done. I have been saying that Patrick Mahomes is my MVP all year long, after throwing for a whopping 50 touchdowns and putting up mind-blowing numbers every single week, but more importantly it was his ability to make the big play whenever his team really needed him to. Aaron Donald was an obvious choice to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award as the most disruptive player in the league, leading the league in sacks, total pressures and tackles for loss once again. Since I knew the writers wouldn’t hand an offensive guard the Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy (and Quenton Nelson truly deserved consideration) giving the hardware to Saquon Barkley was expected, even with Baker Mayfield winning seven games with the Browns. Barkley is a phenomenal talent and wowed fans with a crazy juke, hurdle or goal-line leap on a weekly basis. On the defensive side of the ball it was a closer race between Darius Leonard and Derwin James. Both are already in the discussion for the best players at their respective position, but I’ve been on the bandwagon for the Colts linebacker throughout the season, leading the league in tackles and making a multitude of impact plays in the passing game. I was in with Andrew Luck as the Comeback Player of the Year as well. I thought his status was even more unclear to than the one of J.J. Watt, who had a great resurgence himself, and Luck took a team with little proven talent to the Divisional Round thanks to his heroics on the field. I even thought the Miami Miracle was rightfully voted the play of the year, because it took multiple players to convert that prayer into a game-winning touchdown over the eventual Super Bowl champs. I’m not going to speak on the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, since I have no in-depth information on all the unselfish efforts these guys brought to the table. As far as Coach of the Year goes I maybe would have rather seen Frank Reich or Anthony Lynn get recognition, but all in all I thought the press finally got all these awards right.
Saquon Barkley may already be the best running back in football
I am definitely not the one to overhype guys after their first season in the pros. Especially with running backs I tend to give them a couple of years to see how the offensive scheme and the players around them make that player look before really going all-in on them. No matter how impressed with Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and then Alvin Kamara I was, I put up all those guys way lower on my NFL Top 100 lists for each year than the official countdown had them after just one season. I’m not sure if I can hold back on this one. I thought Saquon Barkley truly was a generational talent and the best RB prospect I had ever scouted, since I didn’t grind tape yet back when Reggie Bush came out in 2006. Watching Barkley play for Penn State, he stood out from when I first saw him shred an Ohio State defense that was loaded with NFL talent as a freshman all the way until his last game in college, when he had pretty much secured a top ten selection and had to be pulled from a meaningless bowl game by own coach. He was remarkable before coming into the pros and earned my number one prospect ranking, but he didn’t simply back that up with an incredible rookie season that featured 2000 scrimmage yards and a ridiculous highlight reel, yet instead already put himself into the conversation for the top guy at the position with what he put together. First people blamed the Giants’ lackluster offensive line, then they finally started coming around on the fact that Eli Manning is not a quality starting NFL quarterback anymore and later on it was Odell Beckham Jr. being banged up and missing some time at the end which was the reason for New York’s downfall. All those things (especially the first two) were true and Saquon still made ridiculous plays on a weekly basis. He should ask Dominique Wilkins if he can use the nickname “Human Highlight Reel” because he seemingly was on the top ten plays week after week. Barkley can run power and zone, contributes in the passing game catching the ball and protecting the passer and he makes the first defenders miss every single time. Nobody makes more out of nothing and there are things he does we don’t see from anybody else, plus his humility and work ethic are second to none.
The Steelers need to stop all this drama
The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been one of the blue-collar organizations in the NFL and they were known for how hard they play. However, these recent years no other teams has been in the news more than them and there are always little things coming up, that often times don’t have anything to do with what actually happens on the field. While you can argue that Ben Roethlisberger has been a diva for quite a while now with contemplating retirement and calling out some of his teammates, let’s just talk about 2018. Things started with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell not showing up for any of the offseason activities, as the talks about his contract situation continued. Bell already started saying that he wouldn’t play under the franchise tag at the end of 2017 and continued to threaten that he would hold out, but the front office decided to tag him anyway. As the season approached and there were speculations about when he might show up, his teammates even started setting dates and that ended in his offensive linemen making comments about money and team spirit. This went on until the trade deadline while James Conner was balling out for them and hovered over the team, as Bell ultimately never joined them. When that started to finally go away, it was Antonio Brown complaining about targets and not being cool with the offensive play-calling. He was talking about how this was all about winning, but most of those outbursts came when his team actually was ahead and he started to quiet down when the ball came his way more often. And then finally Big Ben was the same drama king he has always been, trashing his own receivers on his radio show, denying that later with the media and not taking any responsibility for costly turnovers at critical moments in games. The Steelers star running back and receiver probably will be gone soon with how their relationships with the team have developed, as Bell is set to become a free agent (unless Pittsburgh puts the transition tag on him) and AB has already publicly asked for a trade. Yet, not even with those guys they could get past the Patriots in the playoffs, because New England seemed to always have a psychological edge over them. Even if the Steelers lose some of their star-power on offense, they have enough talent on that roster to make noise – they just need to freaking play and not act like the Kardashians, in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s words.
Baker will save Cleveland
To me this was clear from the moment I saw Baker bring the Browns back from 14-0 at halftime versus the Jets in week three. While I thought Sam Darnold was the easier evaluation and I still have faith that he will become a special quarterback, I never questioned if Mayfield had the skill-set to make it in the NFL and I thought he would fit very well with the organization. I liked his attitude, I thought his arm was vastly underrated and I thought his pocket presence was second to none. With that being said, I didn’t expect him to excel as quickly as he did. I did a more extensive analysis on Baker and the other rookie signal-callers back in December, so you can check that out here if you are interested. To me last year’s first overall pick has shown outstanding accuracy, advanced movement skills inside the pocket and understanding for what defenses are trying to do to him. However, his most important ability is to rally the troops and make everybody on his team play better. Baker brings a swagger and an energy that his teammates can feed off and he backs all that talk about when he gets on the field and delivers dimes. I like Tyrod Taylor and I thought the Bills’ decision to put Nathan Peterman in the starting lineup a couple of years ago instead of him was ridiculous, which didn’t take long to be apparent to everybody. Yet, when you go back and watch Mayfield’s debut as a pro, comparing the two and their performances is like night and day. Taylor tried to run around and escape when the Jets sent their zero-blitzes and ultimately got hurt because of all the hits he took while Baker took that same defense and shredded them with perfectly placed balls against their man-coverage. Even though his development was held back by Hue Jackson, when Freddie Kitchens took over play-calling duties and built the offense more around his young QB, they showed what they are capable of. Nick Chubb had a phenomenal rookie campaign, I like that young receiver room, the interior three of their O-line is elite and the defense has some emerging stars with Larry Ogunjobi, Denzel Ward, Jabrill Peppers and obviously Myles Garrett. I think Cleveland could be a perennial playoff contender going forward and that is to a large degree because of how their quarterback has changed the culture.
The Colts will dominate the AFC going forward
I said it earlier this year, the Colts are building a monster in Indianapolis. Once again I want to refer back to one of my articles a couple of months ago, when I talked about how they set themselves up for success going forward and analyzed the situation they are in. The Colts have slowly built a competitive roster that already earned a playoff berth despite being far from complete. With the assets they have collected and how they have worked free agency and the draft under general manager Chris Ballard, they now have the most money to spend at 107 million dollars and they still have plenty of draft picks to acquire new young talent. The front office already added All-Pro players in guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard in last year’s draft in combination to key role players later on as well as selecting a perfect fit at free safety with the rangy Malik Hooker and future starters on day three in Marlon Mack, Nate Hairston and Anthony Walker back in 2017. They still have an extra second round pick this year after stealing a total of four second-rounders last year, when they traded down just three spots and still got their man in Big Q. Indy has a special quarterback in Andrew Luck fully healthy again and they have put a wall in front of him to him upright. They also have some talented pass-catchers, depth on the defensive line and excellent studs on the second and third level. They need to add some a couple more weapons to put around their signal-caller and sign one or two good cover-guys and they should be pretty much in the race for the AFC. While I don’t want to jump to conclusions here and tell you that they will make it to the Super Bowl in 2019, I don’t believe they even need to. The Colts have a large window now and it’s up to them what they do with their money that will define their future. I have always been a believer in Andrew Luck and when you can run the ball down opponents’ throats as well as protect that guy, plus your defense can at least hold the other guys to 20 points – that is scary stuff.
Drew Brees and Philip Rivers need to win this year
With Brees this sounds more adequate to most people, neither of these guys is far from the end in my opinion. I thought both of them played like top five players at the position last year and not only did I believe they could square off in this last Super Bowl, their teams should be among the favorites once again in 2019. With that being said, as the year went along their play certainly did decline. Their arms started falling off and opposing teams found ways to take advantage of that. Since that 13-10 loss to the Cowboys, Brees threw three touchdowns compared to three interceptions through the rest of the regular season. His overall numbers in the Divisional Round were pretty good, but he underthrew a wide open receiver for an interception, which should have been a walk-in touchdown and later on he had his backup and gimmick player Taysom Hill all alone in the end-zone, but let the ball hang up there until somebody could get back. The funny thing is that Taysom dropped back the very next snap and drilled the same throw to Alvin Kamara, which was called back unfortunately. I know he probably was a missed pass interference call away from going to the Super Bowl, but a lot of Brees’ success came due to the play-design of Sean Payton and there are definitely limitations to his game. For Rivers the end to his season was somewhat similar. Over the Chargers’ final two regular season games, he completed just over 60 percent of his passes for an average of 178 yards and one touchdown compared to four INTs. The Ravens held him to just 160 yards through the air in the Wildcard Round and what was lost in that game with the way the Baltimore offense was incapable of doing anything, was the way Rivers couldn’t move his offense down the field either, yet they were set up in scoring range so many times by their own defense. The week after that they only converted two of their first eight third down attempts and were held to just seven points through the first 44 minutes. The Patriots sat on everything underneath and dared Rivers to go over their heads. So while the Saints and Chargers are front-runners to go make deep playoff runs once again in 2019, that should be their best and maybe last shot to go the distance.
The Raiders better get this draft right
Jon Gruden has been the laughing stock for a bunch of fans with what he has done in his first season back as a coach and while there probably is a genius behind all that madness, the draft in a couple of months better end with two or three elite players on their team. The building of the new roster heading into last offseason was a unique and a little weird one. The Raiders released productive veterans in wide receiver Michael Crabtree and punter Marquette King and put together a highly questionable draft class, that I think contains a couple of really talented guys in Arden Key and Maurice Hurst, whose draft stock fell due to off-the-field and health concerns respectively. However I thought they definitely reached on their first three picks, highlighted by the selection of UCLA’s Kolton Miller, who went on to surrender a league-high 14 sacks as a rookie. Yet the biggest move was still ahead of them, as they traded away franchise cornerstone Khalil Mack basically for two first-round picks. While there is speculation that management ultimately wouldn’t have wanted to pay Mack anyway, trading an elite player like him in the middle of his prime is unprecedented, especially at a highly touted position. That was only magnified by the following comments of Gruden saying “good pass rushers are hard to find” and the fact the Silver and Black finished with a horrendous 13 sacks, which obviously ranked dead-last as the team ahead of them collected 30. Another surprising move happened at the trade deadline, when receiver Amari Cooper was shipped to Dallas despite the connection he had built with Derek Carr and some of the promise he had shown. Coop caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns in nine games as a Cowboy. While I understood that deal more considering the inconsistencies he had shown since the start of the 2017 campaign and that the reward was another first-round pick, some of the blame for his lack of production has to be put on that coaching staff. With all that being said, Gruden combined with his new GM Mike Mayock now have three first-round selections in this upcoming draft and it will be up to those to make up for their losses. If they don’t drastically improve, this whole experiment might go down the wrong way. Of course there are a bunch of other questions with the Raiders, starting with where they’ll play this year, but these picks might define their future.
Defense still matters
Midway through the 2018 NFL season there was this idea that defense didn’t really matter anymore because all those highly explosive offenses would put points up on anybody. While I understand that mainstream media can jump on a train like that and every show in America had a topic to talk about, I never bought into it. Yes, the league has catered its rules towards offense and protecting their stars, but in the end games are still won by teams who can get it done in all three phases. I love Patrick Mahomes, who I already stated was the my clear-cut MVP and I said after just three weeks that he would take the league by storm, but he didn’t get to the big game because his defense could not stop anything in the AFC Championship game. Sean McVay is one of the best offensive minds in football after just two years at the head job and he has already completely transformed the Rams organization, but his offense put up three points when it really mattered in the Super Bowl. This idea that you have to you need to spend all your resources on the offensive side of the ball and hire one of those young head coaches, who has creative ideas is crazy to me. Guys like McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Josh McDaniels don’t just run around on the street, they are extremely rare. And to think that as long as you have a system that supports your quarterback you are in the race is just not right. Of course having someone you can trust at the most important position and building around him is the basis to really have success, but your defense is on the field the same amount of time and rarely do you win games solely based on putting up big numbers offensively. While it is harder to get it done with a dominant defense nowadays than it was 20 years ago, the teams that can game-plan for their opponents and slow them down still are the ones who usually advance in the playoffs. The Chargers put together a strategy that has Ravens fans worrying about Lamar Jackson’s ability to succeed in this league, the Rams shut down the Cowboys’ and Saints’ potent rushing attacks in consecutive weeks and the Patriots held three of the top six scoring offenses to a combined seven points in the first halves. Defense may be more about making impact plays and producing turnovers right now, but it sure does still matter.
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