2017 NFC West division preview

2017 NFC West division preview

The NFL regular season is fast approaching. In the blink of an eye, Sep. 7 will arrive and the Chiefs and Patriots will be kicking off. In the meantime, Hagan’s Haus will be bringing you the divisional previews and predictions of how teams will finish in their respective divisions. Without further ado, here is the 2017 NFC West division preview.

4: San Fransisco 49ers

Last season: 2-14

Strength of Schedule: 20

John Lynch made a statement in the NFL Draft. He knows what he is doing and plans on building a championship defense. The picks of Soloman Thomas and Rueben Foster are prime examples. The problem is that the 49ers need lots of talent to actually be competitive. San Fransisco ranked in the bottom of every defensive category and a few young players aren’t going to turn them into a top NFL defense right away.

2017 NFC West division preview

(Photo Credit: USA Today)

The defense is going to struggle against the run. After ranking 32nd last season, the only way to go is up but again, two rookies aren’t going to take them from 32nd to the top of the mountain.

As teams run all over the 49ers, the defense will get worn out and teams will be able to pass against them as well. With a bottom third defense, it will be difficult for San Fransisco to win games.

Offensively, the 49ers will struggle because of a bad offensive line. Pro Football Focus is predicting the 49ers to have the 27th ranked line in the NFL. This will mean tough sledding for running back Carlos Hyde. Brian Hoyer has been given the reigns at quarterback but is barely an average quarterback.

Hoyer also has no real threat to throw the ball to outside of Pierre Garcon. Teams can load the box to stop the run and will not have to worry about getting burned by the pass. The predictability of the offense will make it hard for them to win games. The 49ers are clearly heading in the right direction but will not show it with wins this season.

Prediction: 2-14 (0-6), miss the playoffs

3: Arizona Cardinals

Last season: 7-8-1

Strength of Schedule: 23

Carson Palmer showed signs of decline last season at age 37. He went from 35 touchdowns down to 26. Palmer also threw more interceptions as his total increased from 11 interceptions in 2015 to 14 last season. Father Time is undefeated and this season Palmer will feel the effects even more.

2017 NFC West division preview

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The rest of the offense is pretty solid. David Johnson is one of the top three running backs in the NFL and will be the workhorse. It won’t be far-fetched to say Johnson will have 1,000 yards both on the ground and through the air.

Larry Fitzgerald is back for his 14th season to lead the Cardinals’ receiving corp. Outside of Fitzgerald, there is a lot of inconsistency with the receivers.

Arizona has had a very good defense for the last couple of seasons but there are a few unknowns this year. Losing Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson really hurt.

There is still plenty of talent but the key pieces of Campbell and Jefferson may prove too big of losses. If they can’t replace these players the defense will regress. The Cardinals will also have a rookie linebacker, Haason Reddick, starting at inside linebacker.

Special teams were a weak link for the Cardinals last season. They must improve in all facets in order to win more games but there isn’t much to look at yet in the preseason to determine whether or not this has improved.

Facing Arizona is going to be a tough game for any opponent but for now, because of an old quarterback and restructured defense, the Cardinals are going to be a team that hovers around .500.

Prediction: 7-9 (3-3), miss the playoffs

2: Los Angeles Rams

Last season: 4-12

Strength of Schedule: 17

Adding Wade Phillips as a defensive coordinator is going to make all the difference for the Rams this season. The Rams’ defense was much better than some of their rankings due to an offense that was rather pedestrian. Los Angeles gave up the ninth fewest yards in the NFL last season at just 337 yards per game.

2017 NFL West division preview

(Photo Credit: https://px1sports.com)

Wade Phillips has had plenty of success as a defensive coordinator and most recently with the Denver Broncos. With players like Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Conner Barwin and Aarond Donald (still in the midst of a holdout), Phillips will be able to create massive amounts of pressure on the quarterback.

Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron are pretty solid linebackers who can fly around the field to make tackles.

Trumaine Johnson is one of the best corners in the league and safety Lamarcus Joyner is an up and coming star as well. The secondary has all the makings to round out this defense and turn it into a top five unit.

Now, everyone knows how talented this defense is but the Rams will only go as far as the offense can take them. Los Angeles ranked near the bottom of every offensive category last season. To upgrade the offense, the Rams signed Andrew Whitworth to replace Greg Robinson. This is a colossal improvement at left tackle, which will really help out Jared Goff and the running game.

Speaking of the running game, Todd Gurley is on a mission to prove that last season’s down year was just a fluke. The Rams will need to run the ball well in order to be successful because it takes pressure off of Goff.

The passing game already featured dangerous weapon Tavon Austin but there were a couple more moves made to give Goff plenty of firepower in the passing game. Los Angeles drafted Cooper Kupp, signed Robert Woods and most recently, traded for stud receiver Sammy Watkins. There is no excuse for Goff to play poorly with an improved offensive line, a workhorse running back and a receiving corp filled with speed and playmakers.

With the additions made on offense, a new defensive coordinator that can turn this defense into elite and a fairly easy schedule, the Rams will be in contention for a playoff spot this season.

Prediction: 9-7 (4-2), wildcard candidate

1: Seattle Seahawks

Last season: 10-5-1

Strength of Schedule: 25

The Seahawks have one of the easiest schedules heading into the season. They might need it with the worst rated line in the NFL. Despite having such a bad offensive line, the Seahawks made the playoffs. They were unable to progress deep into the playoffs though. The offense has to improve in order for the Seahawks to become Super Bowl contenders once again.

2017 NFC West division preview

(Photo Credit: https://wallpapersafari.com)

Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy are going to attempt to bring a great running game back to Seattle. Russell Wilson is good but the identity and key to success have been being able to run the ball. If the Seahawks do so successfully, they will be one of the most feared teams in the NFL.

Jimmy Graham is still an unstoppable red zone threat. The chemistry between Graham and Wilson has seemed to improve the more they have played together and it will lead to a big year for Graham.

The other receiving threats, Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson, provide different playmaking abilities that compliment each other well. Baldwin is a quick receiver who can make plays both vertically or by turning a short completion into a long gain. Richardson can make spectacular catches on the outside as a deep threat.

Russell Wilson is the engine to this offense and he doesn’t get enough credit. Without him, this team wouldn’t make the playoffs. He makes good decisions on when to run and rarely turns the ball over. As long as the Seahawks have a viable running game, Wilson will have another Pro-Bowl caliber season.

The heart and soul of this team is the Legion of Boom. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to lead this defense to a top three ranking. With these three men patrolling in the secondary, teams will earn everything they get through the air because nothing comes easy against them.

The linebackers are solid as well and are headlined by Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Up front, the Seahawks have head hunters. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were the only pair of defensive ends to make the Pro-Bowl. They get constant pressure on opposing offenses making it easier for the rest of the unit to play balls to the wall.

Due to the consistency of this defense over the past five seasons, it is safe to assume the Seahawks have a top three to five defense. Pair that with an offense that will have an improved running game and Pro-Bowl quarterback means the Seahawks will win the division and be one of the best teams in the NFL.

Prediction: 12-4 (4-2), divison champion

 

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2017 fantasy football notes: Cram session

One of the worst feelings in the world is feeling unprepared. You forgot to study for a quiz and have as much knowledge about the subject as Alex Smith has on not being average. You’ve got an important presentation at work but forgot your briefcase at home.

Worst of all, your fantasy draft is tonight, yet you’ve spent the last six months watching baseball and catching up on your favorite guilty pleasure on Netflix. Your pulse reaches an unhealthy level as your heart races trying to think about how to prepare a draft plan good enough to beat your friends, yet you rank Adrian Peterson as your No. 6 running back because you think he’s poised for a great year with the Vikings.

But Adrian Peterson doesn’t play for the Vikings, and you’re screwed.

Fear not, lazy fantasy football player, I’ve got just the article for you. Let’s talk about all the big news and notes you missed so you can have a fighting chance to compete in your league this season.

2017 FANTASY FOOTBALL NOTES: QUARTERBACKS

Marcus Mariota is undervalued

2017 fantasy football notes

Photo: titansonline.com

Marcus Mariota is among the top 25 most attractive players in the NFL, and it turns out he’s pretty good at football too. Mariota was good enough to earn spot starts last season, and finished as the No. 13 scoring quarterback. He’s especially suited for fantasy football thanks to his rushing ability, and he’s gotten some upgraded toys to play with for 2017.

No shade at Rishard Matthews or Tajae Sharpe, but Mariota didn’t have the greatest receivers to throw to last season. The Titans signed Eric Decker during the offseason and drafted top wide receiver prospect Corey Davis with their first pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. On top of that, Mariota plays with an elite offensive line and DeMarco Murray, who got back to his usual RB1 self last season.

Entering his third season, the myth of a sophomore slump cannot affect Mariota. Mariota was the top scoring quarterback from weeks five through week 12 of last season, which shows his upside is through the roof this season.

Mariota is being drafted as a fringe QB1 this season, which is way too low. Sit back and wait for Mariota as others grab overvalued quarterbacks, and then grab him once you’ve filled out your starting lineup and part of your bench.

Blake Bortles sucks at throwing footballs, but don’t overlook his volume

Sure, you may’ve spit up in your mouth a little due to reading the name Blake Bortles, and that’s fine. Bortles ruined Allen Robinson last season and made some of the worst throws of the season in 2016. However, while Bortles gets roasted by Twitter everyday, he could make for a good backup for your team.

Before you click the “x” in the upper right corner of your device, hear me out.

Bortles had the fourth-most fantasy points among quarterbacks in 2015, and followed that with the tenth-most points among quarterbacks last season. Even with all the hate Bortles gets, he’s still been a QB1 in each of the past two seasons.

I’m not saying you need to draft him as your QB1 this season, but you should at least consider the volume he’ll see. Leonard Fournette will suck in Jacksonville’s system unless they plan on taking less snaps out of the shotgun this season. Jacksonville started plays out of the gun more than every single team in the NFL except one last season, so don’t expect Fournette to be successful in his current system.

This paves way for Bortles to continue to see a bunch of pass attempts, and at some point they have to turn into touchdowns and 250-yard games. Bortles will most likely embarrass himself this season, and you’ll get heckled for taking him, but if quarterbacks are thin, take him as your QB2.

2017 FANTASY FOOTBALL NOTES: RUNNING BACKS

Don’t be that guy who drafts Adrian Peterson

2017 fantasy football notes

Photo: Associated Press

You thought I was kidding about Adrian Peterson no longer being a Viking, didn’t you? Well, I’m no Photoshop wizard, so the picture to your left with Peterson doning New Orleans Saints getup proves Peterson is a Saint this season.

I have no clue why the Saints signed Peterson this offseason. Mark Ingram was productive enough last season to be the eighth-best fantasy running back in PPR leagues. Drew Brees is still under center, so expect the Saints to continue to air it out this season, especially with Michael Thomas playing on the outside.

Ingram will most likely be the starter come Week 1, and even though Peterson will see touches this season, it won’t be enough to sustain any kind of success. Peterson managed just three games last season, and averaged just 1.9 yards per carry. He’s also topped 40 catches in a season just once in his career, compared to Ingram doing that in each of his past two seasons.

Peterson will be dropped halfway through the season by all active owners, so save yourself the trouble and keep Peterson off your team. You can score Terrance West, Robert Kelly, Tevin Coleman or even Danny Woodhead at Peterson’s price, and all of which offer much more upside and volume potential.

Eddie Lacy isn’t as fat as he used to be, but that doesn’t mean you should draft him

Eddie Lacy literally got paid this offseason to not be so chunky. Lacy’s always been overrated to me, but that hasn’t stopped others from clogging their arteries by drafting him. In case you missed it, Lacy is now a Seattle Seahawk, and he’ll be fighting off Thomas Rawls to get fed this season.

While the two were splitting time with the first team to open camp, it appears Thomas Rawls has taken over the bulk of the first team work, Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times said on Aug. 9. For the near future, Rawls looks to be the starter.

Fantasy owners will draft Lacy for the same reason as Peterson, and that’s for name value alone. Rawls doesn’t have the name recognition, but he does have the advantage in terms his skillset. Rawls has much better lateral quickness and has forced more missed tackles over the course of his career. That ability is a necessity in a Seattle offense that has a terrible offensive line.

Marshawn Lynch is playing football again

2017 fantasy football notes

Photo: raiders.com

At the end of the 2015-16 season, Marshawn Lynch called it quits even though it seemed he had more left in the tank. Well, Lynch okie-doked us all by coming out of retirement to join the Oakland Raiders.

With Latavius Murray now in Minnesota, Lynch will own the backfield for the Raiders. Oakland’s offense already owns one of the top one-two punches at wide receiver with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL in Derek Carr. The talent is no longer shifted to benefit only the passing game with the addition of Lynch.

Lynch is the No. 15 running back according to the consensus Fantasy Pros rankings for 2017. Expect Lynch to end up as a low RB1 by season’s end. He’s ranked lower than Leonard Fournette, Isaiah Crowell and Carlos Hyde in the rankings, which is odd to say the least. Lynch is in a better offense and will receive the same if not more volume as the aforementioned players.

2017 FANTASY FOOTBALL NOTES: PASS CATCHERS

Brandin Cooks now plays for the Patriots, and that’s not fair

Tom Brady has made his money by throwing to a bunch of late round draft picks and one large tight end that seems to party more than he plays. That changes this season with the addition of Brandin Cooks. The Patriots traded for Cooks during the offseason, and with that addition and other moves, there’s been pundits saying New England could go undefeated this season.

Cooks’ most notable trait is his speed. His catch rate on deep passes last season was 45.8 percent, good for fourth in the NFL. He also had 544 deep receiving yards which was second in the NFL. Patriots beat writers have raved about Cooks to start camp, which further proves he has a great chance to one of the best receivers Brady’s ever had.

I’ve yet to take Cooks in any drafts at his ADP, as his ADP is a little too high for my taste. However, taking Cooks as your WR2 could pay huge dividends for your team. He resides in a pass-heavy offense with one of the best quarterbacks of all time. I’m not quite comfortable with Cooks as my WR1, but if you have him as a WR2, your receiving corps will be solid.

Terrelle Pryor used to be a bad quarterback but now is a good wide receiver

2017 fantasy football notes

Photo: redskins.com

Terrelle Pryor made a cool one-handed catch in training camp, and for one day fantasy football Twitter anointed him as the next coming of Randy Moss. But that’s what happens during the start of training camp, as our football-thirsty brains need something to sip on. Even so, Pryor is in line to become the No. 1 option in a pass-heavy offense this season.

Kirk Cousins may be his generation’s Alex Smith, as he’s as average as Philadelphia fans are angry. However, the Redskins’ poor defense and questionable running attack could give Pryor the chance to see a lot of targets.

Pryor had 1,007 receiving yards last season with the Cleveland Browns, and that’s as impressive as ESPN ignoring the impulse to tweet about Tim Tebow smacking a double in a low-level minor league game. Pryor was a low end WR2 last season, and his situation this season should allow him to be a solid WR2 again this season.

Martellus Bennett will clown around in Green Bay’s offense

Martellus Bennett signed with the Packers this season, making him the first player to sign with Green Bay during free agency since Bart Starr (that’s called sarcasm, folks). Bennett had a better season last year as a backup in New England than half of the starting tight ends in the NFL. Moving to a pass-heavy offense and playing with a future Hall of Famer in Aaron Rodgers gives Bennett the chance to be a TE1 this season.

Bennett was fifth among tight ends in yards per route run last season at 1.96. This shows he took advantage of his time on the field better than nearly all tight ends. Bennett also dropped just two of his 57 catchable targets last season, which will please Aaron Rodgers (that’s a slight against Davante Adams, folks).

Bennett won’t have to battle anyone on the roster for snaps at tight end, so he has the upside to be a top tight end this season. He’s been drafted as a low end TE1 right now, but if you can get greedy and take him as a TE2, you’ll have a good problem on your hands midseason.

 

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NFL Fantasy Studs Sporting New Colors

2017 fantasy football running back rankings: 20-11

This list of running backs fall in the low end RB1 category and the solid RB2 category. These are some of the running backs that can make your season if they breakout and make their way into the top ten. Here you go, the 2017 fantasy football running back rankings: 20-11.

20. Ty Montgomery (Green Bay Packers): Montgomery switched from wide receiver to running back last season and found immediate success. Averaging 5.9 yards per carry, he also rushed for 457 yards. He is kind of like a Swiss army knife for the Packers because of how they still use him in the receiving game. Montgomery had 348 receiving yards last year while playing at both running back and receiver. Expect a bigger workload and continued success for Montgomery and the Packers this year.

19. Spencer Ware (Kansas City Chiefs): After the departure of Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware has the chance to lock up the number one running back position for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ware started last year after Charles went down with another knee injury, and he succeeded. He had at least 16 fantasy points in four games last season and had at least seven points in 11 games. Ware also averaged 2.9 yards after contact, which was good enough for seventh-best in the league last season. If he can fend off rookie Kareem Hunt, he’ll be a solid RB2.

2017 fantasy football running back rankings: 20-11

http://www.chiefs.com/assets/images/imported/KC/photos/clubimages/2016/02-February/tempSpencer_Ware_Gallery_011–nfl_mezz_1280_1024.JPG

18. Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints): I had some trouble placing Mark Ingram on this list. He’s found success in a primarily passing offense, as the Saints passed on 63 percent of their plays last season. Now the Saints added former MVP Adrian Peterson and rookie running back Alvin Kamara.

Ingram will split running duties with Peterson and Kamara will get looks as well. The main reason Ingram is high on this list is because of he is used within the opposing 20-yard line. He scored five of his six touchdowns there and should continue to get the ball in the red zone.

17. Bilal Powell (New York Jets): Powell is in a prime position to be the lead back for the New York Jets this season. He will have to compete with Matt Forte in training camp and the starting spot isn’t guaranteed.

Last season, we saw Powell succeed as the number two running back in New York. He finished as the 23rd-best running back in standard leagues. In four of his last seven outings, he eclipsed 14 fantasy points.

What people don’t know is that he has quietly been the sixth-best running back in terms of receptions over the past two seasons. Powell is a great RB3 and a low end RB2 with tons of upside.

16. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers): The Stanford product finds himself in a perfect position to succeed immediately in the NFL. Everyone knows he has the skill to be a great player, and he gets to play alongside former MVP Cam Newton.

McCaffrey was an absolute beast at Stanford last year. He had over 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns. The Panthers are going to use him to “create mismatches” for opposing defenses, and that is entirely possible. McCaffrey will line up out of the backfield or the slot and will get a lot of touches this season making him a good RB2 and an even better flex.

2017 fantasy football running back rankings: 20-11

(Courtesy of stanforddaily.com)

15. Lamar Miller (Houston Texans): Lamar Miller was a fantasy disappointment last year, plain and simple. He didn’t handle his increased workload as well as everyone hoped he would. His yards per attempt decreased from 4.5 to 4.0 from 2015 to 2016.

His work as a receiver wasn’t anything to brag about either. He had 16 less receptions and almost 200 less yards than the previous season. With the addition of Deshaun Watson, those numbers should be better in 2017.

The key to Miller’s success will be his offensive line. Ranked 29th in the NFL last season, if that group steps up, then Miller could be a top ten running back.

14. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars): Former No. 1 recruit and All-American, Leonard Fournette is ready to make his mark on the NFL. Standing at 6-feet 240 pounds, Fournette is an absolute beast and his college film can back that up. Being this big, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t eclipse double digit touchdowns and get plenty of work in the red zone.

The Jaguars all but said they were going to commit to a power run scheme by drafting Fournette in the first and left tackle Cam Robinson in the second. Fournette would crack the top ten if it wasn’t for Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon being right behind him.

13. Carlos Hyde (San Francisco 49ers): Carlos Hyde has the ability to be a 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL. That’s if he can stay healthy. He hasn’t played a full season since he entered the league in 2014, but when he plays he is effective. He ranked seventh in the NFL with 414 yards after contact and averaged 31.8 yards after contact per game. Recent reports have told us that he is looking slow and indecisive, so if you draft him make sure you handcuff Tim Hightower.

2017 fantasy football running back rankings: 20-11

http://media.cleveland.com/browns_impact/photo/isaiah-crowell-a69df631dd19e806.jpg

12. Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland Browns): Talk about a breakout year, Isaiah Crowell came into his own last season after rushing for 952 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Cleveland did a good job in the offseason of bolstering its offensive line, so expect those numbers to increase.

Two things that should be noted surrounding Crowell is the amount of garbage time running he gets and his goal line carries. Crowell had 591 of his yards when the Browns were trailing, which was most of the season. He is a good player when the Browns are losing but doesn’t get as many opportunities when they are ahead. Crowell is also wildly ineffective when in the redzone, averaging 1.6 yards per carry. Draft Crowell as a low RB1 and a good RB2.

11. Marshawn Lynch (Oakland Raiders): Beast Mode is back. Marshawn Lynch made the decision to come out of retirement this offseason and he is now a member of the Oakland Raiders and their high-powered offense. In 2014, Lynch had 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns and looked like he could play another ten years in the league. It wasn’t until the next season when Lynch hit the injury bug and people saw he was in fact human.

The Raiders had the sixth-best rushing attack last offseason and have the offensive line to help Lynch succeed this season. Their offensive line is currently ranked fourth in the NFL. With Jalen Richard and Deandre Washington also in the mix, Lynch should have ample rest opportunities and should be fresh the whole season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect another 1,000-yard season and ten touchdowns for Marshawn Lynch.

 

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2017 fantasy football running back rankings: 30-21

Franchise Analysis – San Francisco 49ers

For more than 60% of the NFL fan base, the season is over. Whether it was a key injury or an inept GM, there is a reason why your team didn’t make it. Fear not, because you may have heard of an event in May that allows teams to accumulate new players and renew faith in your franchise, the NFL Draft. This will be the first of an ongoing series in which I will perform an in depth analysis to assess the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of every NFL team, including what positions need to be addressed in the draft and free agency, starting with the San Francisco 49ers.

2016 Evaluation

Any competent 49ers fan knew that this year had the potential to be rough. Of course, Chip Kelly and his unique offense brought potential and excitement, but also an element of uncertainty. On the season, the 49ers ranked 27th in points and 31st in yards. Clearly, those rankings are not the hallmark of Chip Kelly’s offense. However, they were first in situation neutral pace. This means that the 49ers ran plays faster than any other team when the game was within one possession. Sadly, when your team can’t run or pass effectively and consistently, being the fastest team works against your defense.

Despite the offensive rankings, the 49ers do have assets at the running back and the left tackle position. According to Pro Football Focus, Carlos Hyde had a 71.4 player rating, which is average. So why would an average running back be an important asset moving forward? Because of the offensive line he’s playing behind. At season’s end, the average rating of a 49ers offensive linemen was a 58.08.

If you remove Joe Staley, their other offensive asset, they average is a 52.25 rating. The fact any running back could be considered average running behind this atrocity indicates talent. Also, if you happened to watch any of their games this year, they often were playing from behind, meaning, Hyde’s ability to run the ball is incredibly limited, as they need to make up ground. There aren’t many players that will entice potential head coaching candidates, but Hyde is certainly one.

San Francisco 49ers Analysis

Joe Staley was one of the few players the 49ers could consistently rely on this season at left tackle. (Courtesy of: USA Today)

As a linemen, Staley is the highest rated offensive player with an 81.4. This makes him a top 25 player at his position among qualified players. Sadly, his age and injury concerns decrease his value. Given that he is under contract, there is no reason to believe that the new 49ers general manager will let him go. Look for Staley to return next year as a top 15 tackle.

I’ll try to keep this brief. The 49ers defense was horrific this season. They were the absolute worst in terms of points and yards. Specifically, the 49ers were one of worst defenses against the run in NFL history. Of course, injuries to key defensive players attributed to this statistic.

However, there is clearly a scheme issue here. There are multiple players on defense that are not a fit for their 3-4 style defense. I won’t elaborate on which players, because the next coach may run a completely different defense, making some of those out of position players more valuable.

The only redeeming players on this side of the ball, outside of the injured NaVorro Bowman, are Tramaine Brock and Gerald Hodges. Brock is just outside of being a top 25 cornerback and Hodges is a top 20 inside linebacker. If the next head coach decides to stay with the 3-4 scheme, they will have a good pair of inside linebackers in Bowman and Hodges.

Divisional Analysis

You hear analysts and former coaches say it all the time, you build a team to win your division. There are a few things the 49ers have to do if they want to compete for a division title in 2017.

First, they have to be better against the run. When a team can run the ball effectively, they control every aspect of the game. The 49ers will never be able to compete if they can’t contain running backs like David Johnson and Todd Gurley the four times a year they play. But where do the 49ers need help most?

San Francisco 49ers Analysis

Deforest Buckner will look to improve upon his rookie campaign, but will a new coaching staff help or hurt his development in year two (Courtesy of: USA Today)?

In order to compete, they need to address the defensive line position in the draft or free agency. Their best interior or edge defender was DeForest Buckner. Buckner is a young, ascending player, but his strength is rushing the passer. The 49ers need to pair him with an interior defender who’s biggest strength is stopping the run.

Next, this team needs to address their offensive line. As stated, Joe Staley is an above average tackle. The 49ers absolutely have to acquire a tackle to pair with Staley on the right side. Their right tackle this year was Trenton Brown, who received a 53.7 rating. If the 49ers can find even an average tackle, they will see a dramatic increase in their ability to run and pass.

If this team can be better against the run and be more efficient on offense as a whole, they will find themselves in a position to win more of their games in 2017.

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. This team, like most NFL franchises, has to address the quarterback position. There’s a reason Seattle and Arizona have been battling atop this division- consistency at quarterback. I sadly don’t have much to offer in this area, as free agent quarterbacks don’t often work. At this point, there isn’t a quarterback worthy of their 2nd overall pick in the upcoming draft with prospects like Myles Garrett and Johnathan Allen that could help address their putrid rush defense.

Of course, there are more positions that the 49ers need help at, but these are the positions they must improve with the focus on competing in their division. That’s not to say they can improve by upgrading other positions, rather, these are the most important to their success.

Postseason Prospects

Moving forward, I will include what a franchise needs to do compete in the playoffs. However, this is one of the few cases where I simply won’t. This team just has too many holes that can’t possibly be addressed in one season. Here are the most critical metrics that determine whether or not a team will make the playoffs.

On offense the important categories are points, yards per attempt, 3rd down conversion rate, sacks allowed, and time of possession. On defense the following metrics that determine playoff viability are points allowed, yards allowed, 3rd down efficiency rate, sacks, and turnovers.

Here are all the categories previously mentioned and how many playoff teams are within the top 15 in that respective category, in order from highest to lowest ranking.

Offensive Metrics

Points

  • Atlanta, New England, Green Bay, Dallas, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City

Yards Per Attempt

  • Atlanta, New England, Dallas, Seattle, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Detroit

3rd Down Conversion Rate

  • Green Bay, New England, Detroit, Dallas, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh

Sacks Allowed

  • Oakland, Pittsburgh, New York, New England, Dallas, Miami, Kansas City, and Houston

Time of Possession:

  • New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Miami, Houston, New York Giants

Defensive Metrics

Points Allowed

  • New England, New York, Seattle, Dallas, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Detroit

Yards Allowed

  • Houston, Seattle, New England, New York Giants, Pittsburgh, and Dallas

Turnovers

  • Kansas City, Oakland, New York, Green Bay, Miami, New England, Pittsburgh

3rd Down Efficiency

  • New York Giants, Miami, New England, Houston, Seattle, and Dallas

Sacks

  • Miami, New York Giants, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Dallas, and New England

I’m sure you’ve noticed a trend. These teams made the playoffs because, for the most part, they don’t have any glaring holes in their game. That’s why the threshold was the top 15 teams. It proves that to make the playoffs you don’t have to be elite in every category. However, you can’t be terrible either.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they are nowhere to be found in these categories that determine playoff viability. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t improve in 2017.

2017 Prediction

San Francisco 49ers Analysis

With Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke out in San Francisco, the Niners are looking for new faces to lead this franchise in 2017 (Courtesy of: Inside the 49ers).

There’s too much unknown to make an honest prediction about who the 49ers will select in May. They still have to hire a general manager and head coach. They could go a variety of different ways depending on their scheme and philosophy.

If I had to guess, I would see them addressing their defensive line position given the number of premiere players in the draft. Rather, I could see them trading back with a team like Tennessee who has multiple first round picks, courtesy of the Rams, in order to just accumulate as much talent as possible.

Barring something incredible, this team as it’s currently constructed will not win the NFC West. However, I do think they will finish 3rd and improve their record to 5-11.

The Rams were as dysfunctional as the 49ers, but now that they have cleaned house officially, they will be more stable moving forward. The decision on who will lead the 49ers on the field and in the front office will have a huge impact on their success over the next decade. So, choose wisely San Francisco.

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

2016 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings

2016 Quarterback Rankings: Where does Tom Brady fall?

All rankings are PPR rankings. Although some of my colleagues here at The Game Haus disagree, PPR is the way to go. I believe it, and you, the fans, believe it too (according to a Twitter poll). Here’s your 2016 fantasy football running back rankings.

1. Adrian Peterson

From Surefire Running Backs: “Adrian Peterson is about as steady as running backs come. Peterson’s worst finish among running backs is eighth, which occurred in 2011. Obviously this doesn’t include 2014, when he played just one game. Other than two eighth place finishes, Peterson has never finished worse than third in fantasy points in his career. A complete breakdown can be seen below:

2007 3rd
2008 3rd
2008 2nd
2009 3rd
2010 8th
2012 1st
2013 8th
2015 2nd
2016 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings

AP will consistently put up great numbers. (Photo: Sporting News)

We all wondered how Peterson would respond to a year off at the start of last season. He finished with 231 points, and was the second-best rusher last season. All Day isn’t a PPR stud, but in standard scoring, he’s been incredibly dependable.

There’s nothing to worry about when it comes to the Oklahoma product losing touches. The Vikings did spend their first pick of the draft on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, but the Vikings are still a run-first offense.

Teddy Bridgewater threw just 14 touchdowns last season, and 9 of which came in the redzone. There’s no running back that will vulcher away redzone touches from Peterson. With just a 41 percent completion percentage in the redzone, Bridgewater wasn’t a valuable asset when it counted most.

This all paves way for Peterson to dominate redzone touches this season.

Entering his age 31 season, Peterson isn’t a guy to take early in a dynasty league. However, if you’re in a re-draft league, drafting him will be an all-too-easy pick for your RB1 this season.”

2. Devonta Freeman

After winning the starting running back job in Atlanta by a hair, Devonta Freeman took the fantasy football world by storm by scoring 146.5 points in weeks 3-6 last season. Freeman had just three games last season in which he scored less than 15 points. He also enjoyed 30+ point games four times last season.

Freeman is a PPR stud with the fourth-best offensive line in football according to Pro Football Focus. He is the perfect fit to the zone-run scheme, and there’s no signs of slowing for the 24 year-old. Freeman will be an elite running back once again in 2016.

3. Todd Gurley

From Surefire Running Backs: “In his rookie season, Todd Gurley scored 189 fantasy points, good for fifth among running backs. Gurley also did this after missing the first two games of the season. Questions arose about whether Gurley would be as explosive as he was prior to his ACL injury, but Gurley swiftly hushed the nay-sayers.

2016 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings

Todd Gurley could be the best second-year back in the NFL this season. (Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Gurley could be the next superstar in the NFL, but the only concern is his durability. Gurley missed the final game of the 2015 season due to a foot injury. He played in 13 games, which isn’t bad, and his injury history isn’t exactly extensive. However, an ACL injury is the most scary of them all. Even so, Gurley averaged 18 carries per game, and topped out at 30 last season.

If you’re looking for big time games, this is your guy. Five times last season Gurley rushed for 100 yards or more. He scored ten rushing touchdowns last season, which is about 0.8 scores per game. Gurley also had double-digit point totals ten times last season.

Gurley, like Peterson, is not a huge PPR get. He caught just 21 balls last season, good for 29th among running backs. He also had zero touchdown catches.

Nevertheless, Gurley could be the best running back in the league this season. His injury risk should be in the back of all fantasy owners’ minds. Other than that, drafting Gurley with your first pick should keep you giddy all season.”

4. Ezekiel Elliott

Running behind the best offensive line in the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott is poised to become an elite rusher in this year’s NFL. Owners passed on Todd Gurley last season, simply because he was a rookie. Don’t make that mistake this season. People who don’t believe in Elliott as a pass-catcher are flat wrong.  Of all rookie running backs this season, Elliott averaged the most targets per route in college, earning a target in 65% of routes ran in college (per rotoworld.com). Elliott is a great pass protector, which means he won’t lose snaps on passing situations. He allowed just one pressure on 17 chances at Ohio State.

All this adds up to a great all-around running back, playing with the best offensive line in football. Elliott will be a star in Dallas, there’s no question. My boldest prediction I’ve ever documented comes in this paragraph: Ezekiel Elliott is the next Emmitt Smith.

So draft Elliott as your RB1, take him at his ADP, or let him fall to your lap in the second round if possible.

5. David Johnson

2016 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings

Fantasy owners hope David Johnson’s second season is just as good as his first. (Photo: Getty Images)

From Surefire Running Backs: “I’m all in on David Johnson for 2016. In just five games started last season, Johnson accounted for 658 yards. He’s also managed to find paydirt five times during that stretch. Catching 17 passes in that time also proved Johnson has potential to become a great pass catcher.

What’s more is that Johnson will run behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Pro Football Focus ranks Arizona as having the ninth-best o-line in 2015. That ranking will improve with the addition of All-Pro guard Evan Mathis. Mathis had the best run blocking grade last season according to PFF. With Mike Iupati anchoring the line, Johnson should have plenty of room in the trenches this season.

The UNI product looks reliable as a middling RB1 this season. Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington will battle for backup carries, but don’t be afraid of them luring away touches from Johnson. Head coach Bruce Arians gave just about the highest praise you can give a second-year running back, saying he’s on track to be “one of the all-time best” at running back. That should be plenty reason to take Johnson as your first running back this season.”

6. Le’Veon Bell

From Surefire Running Backs: “Believe it or not, 2016 will be Le’Veon Bell’s fourth season in the league. He’s seems older than that to me, and that’s probably because of how quickly he became a prominent player in fantasy football.

Bell played in just six games last season thanks to another injury against the bitter rival Cincinnati Bengals. In those six games, however, Bell ran for 4.9 yards per carry (career best) and 3 rushing scores. He also caught 24 passes for 136 yards.

Barring injuries, Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in football. He’s a spectacular runner and possesses great hands and route running abilities for a running back. Bell was the second-highest scoring running back in fantasy in 2014. Had DeMarco Murray not blown up behind the strong Dallas o-line, Bell would’ve finished in first place by 23 points in standard leagues.

We say this far too often with running backs, but as long as Bell can stay healthy, he’ll be a fantastic player in fantasy. The Michigan State product can put up 20 points in any given week. In 2014 PPR leagues, he scored at least 20 points seven times. He also eclipsed 20 points in three of his six games last season.

Bell is an explosion on your fantasy waiting to happen. Week in and week out, expect him to be a top-five running back. Draft Bell on your team, and handcuff him with DeAngelo Williams. If Bell doesn’t start one week, roll with Williams, who will produce just as much as Bell.”

Even with Bell being suspended four games, I still trust him to be one of the best running backs in football after week four. Drafting DeAngelo Williams is a must for all fantasy owners, and especially if you draft Bell. Williams was spectacular replacing Bell last season, and there’s nothing indicating that will change this season.

7. Jamaal Charles

Coming off his second ACL surgery since entering the NFL, Jamaal Charles isn’t a favorite running back for fantasy owners. In the four full games he played last season, Charles’ lowest finish was 18.7 points. He also scored 31.2 points against Green Bay in week 3.

I understand the fear of another Jamaal Charles injury, as he hasn’t been the most durable running back since entering the NFL. However, he’s been a great fantasy asset since becoming a starter in 2008. He’s finished in the top-12 among running backs in every season in which he’s played in 15 games, other than his rookie year. He’s also got two first-place finishes under his belt. Take Charles as an RB1, and pending good health, he’ll be a top running back.

8. Mark Ingram

Mark Ingram has had a lot of hype for all of his seasons in the NFL, but he finally lived up to it in 2014. Ingram has finished as the RB15 in each of the past two seasons. To add to that, Ingram caught 50 passes last season, nearly doubling his totals from 2014.

When it comes to red zone opportunities, Ingram’s numbers are deceiving. He rushed the ball inside the red zone on 33% of all Saints opportunities, which doesn’t look good. However, take just the games Ingram played in, and his red zone carries skyrocket to 71% of carries. When the Alabama product is healthy, he’ll hog all the carries when they matter.

Ingram doesn’t have superstar upside, but he also doesn’t carry a lot of risk. He just missed out on getting the Surefire Stamp of Approval, so draft Ingram as an RB1, and that’s what he’ll be.

9. Matt Forte

From Surefire Running Backs: “Matt Forte is the only player to join a new team for 2016 on this list. Although I’m usually leery of jumping on players who are on new teams, I’m excited for Forte this season.

Forte has never finished worse than an RB2 in his career. He’s also finished as an RB1 five times in his eight year career. Now with the Jets, Forte will be relied on heavily due to the quarterback situation in the Big Apple. Although the quarterback may be a walking question mark, Forte will hold down the fort as a consistent running back and pass catcher. Each of Forte’s finishes among running backs is listed below:

2008 4th
2009 18th
2010 9th
2011 15th
2012 12th
2013 3rd
2014 4th
2015 8th

Now with the New York Jets, Forte will play under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Gailey has coached Emmitt Smith, Jerome Bettis, Lamar Smith (in his best career season), Larry Johnson, and C.J. Spiller (also in his best season). Although Smith and Spiller are nothing close to big names in the NFL, they even had their best seasons while under Gailey.

Chan Gailey seems to be a running back whisperer, and Forte will be the number one source of offence for the Jets. Entering his age 31 season, Forte, like Peterson, is not a huge dynasty pick, but he will produce for at least a couple more seasons. Draft Forte as an RB1, especially in PPR leagues.”

10. Lamar Miller

Finishing ninth and sixth among running backs in 2014 and 2015 respectively, Lamar Miller’s career is on the upswing. He’s rushed for eight touchdowns and accounted for 1,000 yards or more in each of the past two seasons. Now a Texan, Miller hopes to pick up where Arian Foster left off. Once Foster went down for the year, the vulnerability of Houston’s o-line was showcased. Miller has enough talent to produce even behind a subpar line. Expect Lamar Miller to be a great addition in Houston, and a borderline RB1.

11. Doug Martin

Doug Martin is a muscle hamster, and that’s the best combination of two words in the history of speech. Since bursting onto the scene in his rookie season in 2012, Martin has only been able to replicate his success once. He totaled 1,454 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012, helping him to be the second best running back in fantasy football.

After two seasons filled with injuries and no production, Martin came back into his 2012 form last season. His 1,402 rushing yards was second most in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson, and nearly 300 more yards than the next best rusher. Martin was the third highest scoring running back last season, and he’ll be just as good this season. Expect him to be a high RB2, but closer to a middling RB1 this season, pending he plays 14 games or more.

2016 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings

Turns out P90X actually works. (Photo: Tony Horton Twitter)

12. Eddie Lacy

Eddie Lacy used to be chunky. Eddie Lacy is now not chunky. When the Alabama product is in NFL running back condition, he is good. In his each of his first two seasons in the NFL, Lacy finished as the RB6 in fantasy football. Last season, Lacy finished with the 25th most points in fantasy football. Lacy is in great shape, and that’s what held him back last season. Expect another 1,100 yard, 9 touchdown campaign from the Alabama product.Displaying IMG_1645.jpg

13. LeSean McCoy

LeSean McCoy has been all over the place in terms of fantasy football production. He’s finished in the top seven of running backs three times (two second place finishes), while finishing 12th and 17th in the past two seasons. Running behind Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked offensive line while be solid, and Karlos Williams being suspended helps McCoy’s case even more. Yes, the Bills did sign Reggie Bush, but he’s no threat to take McCoy’s production. The Pitt product will be a RB2 throughout the season, with bursts of RB1 showcases.

14. Carlos Hyde

Contrary to popular belief, Chip Kelly operates on a run-first basis. Although he did call plays at a record-breaking pace last season, he prefers to establish the run first. With Kelly controlling the Eagles last season, he saw his team attempt 442 rushes, 11th in the NFL. Kelly brings that scheme to San Francisco, and it will benefit Carlos Hyde. The Ohio State product was on pace to rush for 1,072 yards last season, so as long as he stays healthy, Hyde is in good position to have a solid season for fantasy owners.

15. Dion Lewis

The grim reaper of running backs afflicted many stars last season, and Dion Lewis was one of them. Through seven games, Lewis ran for just 234 yards, but added 388 receiving yards on 36 catches. Lewis will be a PPR magnet for both Jimmy Garoppolo and Tom Brady, and should enjoy the featured back role in New England. However, Bill Belichick and his shenanigans are always in full swing. I refuse to trust any running back in New England as long as the Belitricks affect rushers, so be cautious but optimistic with Lewis this season.

16. Latavius Murray

After rushing for 1,066 yards and six touchdowns last season, Latavius Murray is on the fantasy radar for all owners. With 41 catches for 232 yards, Murray also proved to be more than a one-dimensional back. Murray plays in one of the most talented offenses for its age, and will at worst make up for an average rushing game with a few catches. Murray will most likely finish as a hard RB2, and I’m more than okay with him as my second running back this season.

17. C.J. Anderson

C.J. Anderson is yet to put together a full season of consistent production. Anderson had just two games of 100 yards rushing or more last season. He also totaled nine games in which he didn’t even record 70 all-purpose yards. Add that to just five total touchdowns and only 25 receptions, and you have a consistently average running back. On the upside, Anderson ran for 4.7 yards per carry, and could be leaned on heavily due to the passing game in Denver being in question. I still don’t understand all the hype for Anderson, and see him as nothing more than a RB2 who only produces good games on occasion.

18. Thomas Rawls

After barely making the roster after training camp, Thomas Rawls was just happy to be on the team when the season started. After Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch went down with injuries, Rawls quickly had to step up to the starting gig. Rawls hit the ground running, rushing for 100 yards four times, including a 209 yard performance. The risk with Rawls is his running behind a terrible offensive line, and the questions about whether or not he’ll be able to replicate his high clip in 2016. I’m more comfortable with Rawls as my flex player, but a low RB2 to start isn’t too bad of expectations for him.

19. Ryan Mathews

It seems like there was more running backs getting playing time in Philly last season than there was Browns starting quarterbacks since they moved to Cleveland. Mathews was the only consistent runner last season for the Eagles, and with DeMarco Murray gone, it’s going to be all Ryan Mathews this season. As the featured back, I like Mathews as a low RB2 with upside to be a high RB2.

20. Jonathan Stewart

The Carolina Panthers have the second-best offensive line in football (PFF). That said, Jonathan Stewart has never been, and will never be, an elite running back. He is a good running back, but reigning MVP Cam Newton will get his touches, and so will Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin. Stewart was 11 yards away from his second 1,000 yard rushing season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get there this season. Stewart will be good enough to be an RB2, but his lack of touches hurts his ceiling.

Ohio State: Re-loading, not Re-building

The dark and gloomy time known as football off-season is only a handful of days from ending. With the end of this barren desert on the horizon, it’s time to take a look at some of the teams who will have an impact on college football this season.

Color me biased, but here’s a good way to make a quick buck: lay a few thousand on the over side of Vegas’s 8.5 win total for the Buckeyes. You know, the team that is a combined 26-2 with a national title and Fiesta Bowl win over the last two years? The team with four consecutive top-five finishes in 247sports.com’s recruiting class rankings?

I understand that people saw all the players Ohio State lost in the draft, and the fact they only return three starters on each side of the ball. But those same people forget that Urban Meyer, a coach with four straight 12-win seasons who has won 85 percent of his games as a college coach, is still at the helm of this team and he’s got a run of tremendous recruiting classes with him.

Let’s take a closer look.

Offense

Returning Starters: J.T. Barrett (quarterback), Pat Elflein (offensive guard), Billy Price (offensive guard)

Position Group Strength: Backfield

Taking snaps this year is the single-season touchdown record holder in the illustrious history of Ohio State football, one J.T. Barrett. J.T. may be the biggest single returning starter for Ohio State, a second-time captain and redshirt junior that could find his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation (he was 5th in 2014) and a true dual threat. There’s certainly no question mark for the Buckeyes at football’s premier position.

Behind Barrett there are some question marks though. Departing from Ohio State’s backfield is career 3,961 yard and 43 touchdown rusher Ezekiel (fondly known by Buckeyes everywhere as “Zeke”) Elliott.

Who will replace a number four draft pick and slayer of giants? I’ve covered this somewhat previously, but the man poised for a break-out season is redshirt freshman Mike Weber.

To summarize, Weber has warranted comparisons to buckeye legend Carlos Hyde, and there were few players that earned better reviews from both buckeye head coach Urban Meyer and running backs coach Tony Alford.

Also looking to perhaps receive a few carries is redshirt senior Bri’Onte Dunn. Dunn only has 291 yards and a single touchdown career to his name, but a ton of experience living in the shadow of other scarlet and gray backs. Urban Meyer has even been quoted as saying that he and Weber are “neck and neck” though I believe El Guapo 2.0 wins in the end. But it is worth noting Bri’Onte has had tremendous improvement through a blue collar four and a half years and competition breeds success among players. I expect Dunn and Weber to push each other to the top.

The final spot to evaluate in the backfield is the famed hybrid H-back role, a player that acts as both a slot receiver and a back. Looking to fill this position are three different players for Ohio State.

There’s all-around freak of nature athlete Curtis Samuel, whose total yards from scrimmage over his career is at 899 with 9 touchdowns.

Even faster than him (recorded at under 4.40 in the forty-yard dash) is Dontre Wilson, who entering his redshirt junior year has yet to even come close to realizing his full potential.

And finally there is Noah Brown, a relatively unheard of redshirt sophomore. Noah broke his leg prior to 2015 and missed the entire season. He’s another Buckeye ready to smash free of the prison of the unknown.

The aforementioned Curtis Samuel even said the following in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch:

“Nobody had really seen what he could do, but Noah is a big-time player. He came in every day when players weren’t here, always working on his hands, always watching film. We knew he was going to have a big season. Him having that setback, it hurt us a little bit.”

Position group weakness: Receivers

Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller. The top four Ohio State players in terms of receptions last year.

They are also four players that will don an NFL jersey next season.

The Buckeyes may have one of the nation’s best at quarterback. The question is who he will throw to outside of the listed rushers and H-backs above. The run-away candidate for number 1 wide-out is the only player with anything resembling production. That player is redshirt senior and former JUCO transfer Corey Smith.

Before redshirting as a senior due to injury, Smith reeled in 20 catches for 255 yards in Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season, and with the positive reviews coming from the Buckeye circles, he looks to be the number one wide-out. But behind him is a wealth of players that are comparable to a freshly bought steak from the farmer’s market: a lot of potential, but still raw.

A number of players are in competition for receiver spot number two and three. Most of them are, as per the usual with the recruiting blitzkrieg Urban Meyer launches each season, former four stars. There’s junior Johnnie Dixon, a player with more hype coming into his sophomore season than Tim Tebow’s NFL career, but about as much pay-off as the leg issues that have plagued him for a long time now cost him another season of incredibly small production. But if he can get those injuries behind him, he will be something to watch: he’s a gamer with strong hands and playmaking ability.

There’s highly touted redshirt freshman K.J. Hill, a former Army all-American and late get in the class of 2015 that Urban and co. were incredibly excited about.

Junior Parris Campbell is a freak of nature athlete with good route running ability, but he struggled with dropped passes last year.

Junior Terry McLaurin is another to watch.

Urban Meyer gives all newcomers a black stripe that is placed on their helmet for the first practice. That stripe stays on every player’s helmet until Urban Meyer decides he’s fit to lose it, and officially become a part of the team. True freshman Austin Mack, the first Buckeye to lose his black stripe and officially become part of the team, has his chance to make an early impact for Ohio State this season.

Now, while receiver will be a fun competition to watch, tight end is redshirt junior Marcus Baugh’s spot to lose with the departure of NFL draftee Nick Vannett. He’s been primarily a blocker in the past. If he wants to be successful this season he’ll need to develop into a great pass catcher too. At 6’5” and 255 pounds, he has the potential to provide some major mismatches.

Defense

Returning Starters: Tyquan Lewis (defensive end), Raekwon McMillan (middle linebacker), Gareon Conley (cornerback)

Position group strength: Linebackers

Ask WikipediaBleacher Report, or Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary and the 1985 Chicago Bears’ famed defense: the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the side without the football. And just like on offense, Ohio State has their unit leader covered like any number of receivers playing against Night Train Lane. Their stud is Raekwon McMillan.

The godzillian junior and former five-star McMillan registered 119 tackles last year (57 solo) and defended four passes on his way to a media selection as first-team All-Big Ten.

Someone next to “Kwon” will likely be Dante Booker, who was sub number one last year and came up with 22 tackles in seven games.

The number three spot is up for grabs, and is a race between three players primarily:

There’s Justin Hilliard, a former five-star and redshirt freshman with supreme athleticism.

Chris Worley, the veteran of the contending group as a redshirt junior with 28 tackles registered over his past two seasons sporting scarlet and gray colors.

And Jerome Baker, a true sophomore.

Position group Weakness: Defensive Line

Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa, and Jalyn Holmes all should be stud defensive ends at Ohio State this year. That’s not the problem.

The problem is at defensive tackle.

Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Donovan Munger, and Joel Hale are all gone. That’s number one, two, three, and five on the depth chart.

Number four is an obvious starter in Michael Hill, but even he lacks experience with only eleven games played and 15 tackles on his career.  The only four star at the position recruited in 2014, 2015, or 2016 is 2016 IMG stand-out Malik Barrow, who is a stud and could look for playing time as a freshman… though a knee injury could dampen his efforts. Of the 2015 three stars Da’Von Hamilton has seemed to look the best.

But I mentioned Nock Bosa earlier at defensive end. That’s right, he’s Joey’s younger brother. And some have speculated that the five-star Nick could be even better. And a player of that caliber can be deadly anywhere on the defensive line, including tackle.

It should shape up as a fun season in Columbus.

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It’s the Year of the Running Back in the Big Ten

Saquon Barkley hurdles Illinois defender V’angelo Bentley in a game in 2015. From CBS Sports.

Two Big Ten 1,200 yard rushers (Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard) have forgone their final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Two more runners of at least 950 yards, Jordan Canzeri and Brandon Ross, have exhausted their eligibility in addition.

But for the reason of these eight rushers, 2016 will be the year of the running back in the Big Ten conference. Why eight you ask? Well, because it’s my second favorite number. No other significance. If you don’t like it you can shove it, because this is my article.

Joking aside, here are the eight backs in the Big Ten poised for a great season, in order of who I think will be the most productive.

  1. Markell Jones, Purdue Sophomore

Markell Jones in a game against Virginia Tech. Courtesy of Getty Images.

This home-town product for the Boilermakers came in his freshman year and earned the role of primary runner for Purdue by his second game against Illinois, when he picked up 84 yards on just 14 carries. Averaging a high total per attempt turned out to be a theme for Jones in fact, as he gained 5.2 yards per carry in his true freshman season to finish with a total of 875 yards with ten scores on the ground.

Hindering Jones’ efforts, however, may be a historically ineffective Purdue attack. The Boilermakers do have over 30 started games on their front line returning, but what good are starts for a squad that ranked 109th last season in rushing offense with only 131.3 yards per game, and 95th in total offense with 368.6 yards a game? There was a reason the Boilers went 2-10 last year and haven’t won more than three games in a season since 2012.

  1. De’Veon Smith, Michigan Senior

De’Veon Smith stiff-arms a defender. Courtesy of touch-the-banner.com

In his second year in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines revamped and poised for another 10+ win season.  It would be the first time they have had back-to-back double digits in the win column since 2002 and 2003.  

A big reason for the position they sit in is their returning rushing leader, De’Veon Smith. The fit of a downhill and through-contact runner like Smith in Harbaugh’s pro-style offense is glove-like, and while his production as a junior was gaining just 4.2 yards a carry to total 753 yards, he’s got the work ethic to break free this final season.

Mlive.com quoted Jim Harbaugh as saying, “De’Veon Smith is the clearcut starting tailback. But he’s the first one in there no matter what drill we’re doing. If it’s a live drill, he doesn’t shy away. If we’re tackling, he’s in there.”

  1. Devine Redding, Indiana Junior

Devine Redding tightropes a sideline against Ohio State. Provided by zimbio.com.

Indiana has had 1,200-yard rushers in back-to-back seasons now, a rare bright spot in the otherwise gloomy combined 12-15 past two years there. Devine Redding will look to continue that trend, coming off a season of over 1,000 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. The only thing that could subtract from Redding’s numbers is fellow junior Camion Patrick, who was described as the best player on the team by Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson. But after sitting in the shadow of Tevin Coleman and then Jordan Howard, I look for Redding to win the starting role for the Hoosiers and make it three straight years for Indiana with a 1,200 yard back.

  1. L.J. Scott, Michigan State Sophomore

lansingstatejournal.com’s photo of Scott breaking free on a run last season.

As a talented freshman from Ohio, L.J. Scott was a rare first-year contributor in a back-by-committee system last year for the Spartans that also included fellow freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes. Those other two also return for 2016, but L.J. has the talent and heart to excel above to the featured back role on a team coming off three straight eleven win seasons and Big Ten titles in both 2013 and 2015. It’s not for nothing that Ohio State and Alabama also offered him coming out of high school.

I would not be surprised at all to see L.J. double the 699 yards he gained last year. From the things I’ve read, he’s that good.

  1. Corey Clement, Wisconsin Senior

Picture from badgerofhonor.com shows Clement hitting a whip following a touchdown.

Wisconsin is known for big offensive lines and top running backs in recent history; backs like Melvin Gordon III, Montee Ball and John Clay.

This year is no exception on the big offensive line part, as the average projected Badger in the trenches is 305 pounds, including two big men over 315. Clement, who ran for over 900 yards behind Melvin Gordon in 2014, was poised last year to take on the role as the next great Wisconsin running back. But an injury in 2015 left him only four games played, and Wisconsin’s converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale would have to take over.  

Now back from surgery to repair a sports hernia, Clement is ready to enjoy the success he was supposed to have last year when he was a preseason Heisman trophy candidate.

  1. Justin Jackson, Northwestern Junior

Justin Jackson comes into 2016 off back-to-back 1,100 yard seasons. Photo from Big Ten Network.

Justin Jackson is the most productive Big Ten back returning from last year, with 1,418 yards

It’s not often that Northwestern reels in a four-star recruit. That’s probably why Jackson was a day one starter in 2014. Now in 2016, he will again be the featured back for a team that quietly went 10-3 and finished 23rd in the AP poll last year.

Of course, it took him 312 carries to get the yards he got (4.5 yards a carry) and with only five touchdowns, he wasn’t racking up many points. However, he’s a quick-footed runner who will look to improve on his totals from last year, which would mean 1,500 yards.

  1. Mike Weber, Ohio State Freshman (RS)

Mike Weber is poised for a break-out season. Courtesy of elevenwarriors.com.

This prediction is a little more bold, but I think the running back rumored to be Carlos Hyde 2.0 down in Columbus could bust out a huge season this year. He’s got a line composed of almost entirely former four stars in front of him, and the buckeyes have been a top 11 rushing offense each of Urban Meyer’s four years coaching.

Weber received rave reviews coming out of fall camp last year. In fact, the only thing that kept him from being Ezekiel Elliott’s back-up as a true freshman was a torn meniscus, and after the time he missed the coaching staff decided to redshirt him.

  1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State Sophomore

One hurdle already featured at the top of the page, here is another. Source: onwardstate.com.

Barkley defines the phrase “freak of nature.” Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell said he was better than Derrick Henry, and Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin said of him that “He’s pretty rare, pretty special. I haven’t been around too many guys like him.”

Coming off a season where he made the freshman All-american team with 1,076 yards rushing, Barkley will go as far this year as his offensive line will take him. An offensive line that has had problems staying healthy the past couple of seasons. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will look to revamp the scheme and try to improve play up front, and a new detail-focused approach to a unit that allowed 3.0 sacks per game last year — tied for 111th worst in the country.