NFL Free Agency

Early NFL Free Agency: Sneaky Good Moves

The game of quarterback musical chairs is snagging the headlines early in NFL free agency like every year. If you do not have a quarterback who is at least competent, you have no chance in this league. However, every position matters. Here is a look at some sneaky good moves in the beginnings of the free agent frenzy.

Phil Dawson: Arizona Cardinals

Phil Dawson

Photo: sportsoutwest.com

Yes folks, a kicker. Arizona lost five games by one possession and tied another during last year’s seven-win campaign. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed 11 combined field goals and extra points. These things are not entirely unrelated.

Meanwhile, 42-year-old Phil Dawson missed just four total kicks for the 49ers. As crazy as it sounds, this may be a pivotal move in Arizona’s quest to return to the postseason in 2017.

 

 

 

Ronald Leary: Denver Broncos

Ronald Leary

Photo: hngn.com

Whoever winds up taking snaps for the Broncos next year will have much more protection. This is a heck of a start. Leary did not allow a sack while starting 13 games in Dallas last year. He has been a stalwart on the best offensive line in football since 2014.

Denver’s ability to sack the opposing quarterback in recent years is well documented. In 2016, the Broncos had just two more total sacks than their opponents. That is crazy considering the Broncos have both Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

Poor offensive line play is also one of the reasons Denver struggled to break 50 rushing yards in a game for parts of 2016. Do not be surprised if center Matt Paradis is the only starting offensive lineman that returns in 2017. Last year’s free agent offensive line signings of Donald Stephenson and Russell Okung proved to be disastrous for Denver.

To become legitimate Super Bowl contenders again, the Leary signing needs to be the first step in another massive offensive line overhaul in Denver. The Broncos have also added former Raiders offensive tackle Menelik Watson to the fold.

A.J. Klein: New Orleans Saints

A.J .Klein

Photo: zambio.com

As long as Drew Brees is in town, the Saints will always be able to score. However, they have finished outside the top 25 in total defense for three straight years. While a single player will not change that, Klein is a step in the right direction.

Playing behind Luke Kuechly limited Klein’s snaps in Carolina. When he did see the field, he was reasonably productive. Klein took part in 137 tackles in Carolina despite starting just 23 games in four seasons. Additionally, three years and $15 million is a fairly cheap price to pay a 25-year-old contributor from a division rival.

           

 

Kevin Zietler: Cleveland Browns

Kevin Zeitler

Photo: stripehype.com

It is no secret that the Browns need work everywhere, and the offensive line is no exception. Zietler was one of three early moves the Browns made up front. The former Bengal is now the highest-paid guard in NFL history.

While the contract numbers are eye-popping and the Browns have an alarming tendency to screw things up, signing a guard from a division rival who has given up just 11 total sacks in five seasons is never a bad move.

March is all about basketball. However, the NFL’s version of March Madness is certainly worth continuing to keep an eye on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John Lynch

Lynch Trying not to Join Infamous List of NFL Head Scratchers

The San Francisco 49ers raised more than a few eyebrows at the end of last month when they hired John Lynch as their new general manager. Despite a borderline Hall of Fame playing career, Lynch has no relevant front office experience to speak of. In fact, he is coming straight out of the television broadcast booth.

While it is much too early to pass judgment on Lynch’s hiring, there have been a few other peculiar NFL coaching and front office hires in recent years. For the most part, they have not worked out.

Art Shell: Raiders head coach (2006)

Art Shell

Photo courtesy of USA today

Raiders fans will not enjoy the first part of this article. Up until very recently, Oakland spent almost a decade as the NFL’s top dumpster fire. For some reason, late owner Al Davis thought it would be a good idea to bring Art Shell back as head coach after a 13-year hiatus.

The game changes in 13 years and it left Shell behind. Shell was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Raiders, but his second tenure as head coach is best left forgotten.

His first big hire to his staff was offensive coordinator Tom Walsh. Walsh had been out of football for six years and was running a bed and breakfast.

Walsh is also infamous for saying that the skills of wide receiver Randy Moss were “diminishing.” After being traded to the Patriots, Moss had a record-breaking season in 2007.

Unsurprisingly, Shell’s Raiders stumbled to a 2-14 finish and he was let go after a single season. Somehow, Oakland’s next head coaching hire was even worse.

Lane Kiffin: Raiders head coach (2007-2008)

Lane Kiffin

Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

Lane Kiffin is well known to football fans now. When Davis first hired him to resurrect the Raiders in 2007, Kiffin was a 31-year-old who had never been a head coach at any level of football.

The friction between Davis and Kiffin was almost immediate. The Raiders still had virtually no talent on the roster. To make matters worse, they drafted quarterback JaMarcus Russell who went down as one of the most spectacular draft flops in NFL history.

Davis fired Kiffin during the 2008 season in an epic press conference that resulted in Kiffin taking legal action against the Raiders. He posted a record of just 5-15 and has since bounced around the college ranks.

Matt Millen: Lions President and General Manager (2001-2008)

Matt Millen

Photo Courtesy of Seattle Times

This is the story that makes 49er fans most nervous. Much like Lynch, Millen was hired straight from broadcasting after a really good playing career in 2001. The result was disastrous. Under Millen’s direction, the Lions best single season record was 6-10.

While no one in the NFL fails all on their own, Millen’s biggest gaffe was using a first-round pick on a wide receiver three straight years. Moreover, the Lions passed on guys like DeMarcus Ware to draft Roy Williams, Mike Williams, and Charles Rogers.

After years of losing and fan protests, Millen was put out of his misery in September 2008. The Lions had just begun what would become the only 0-16 season in NFL history. Millen has since returned to broadcasting.

Paul DePodesta: Browns Chief Strategy Officer (2016-present)

Admittedly, the jury is still out on this one. However, that does not make hiring a former MLB analytics guru for a major executive role in the NFL any less odd. The Browns have been a laughing stock since returning to the league in 1999. Maybe they know something the rest of the world does not, but I doubt it.

A 1-15 debut was not encouraging for DePodesta and the rest of the Browns revamped front office, but next year will tell the tale. The Browns have five of the first 65 picks in the 2017 NFL draft and are among the league leaders in salary cap space. That should mean a significant improvement. If not, it may well be back to the drawing board yet again in Cleveland.

What you do not see in this article is as important as what you do see. Generally, the teams who make these type of moves are bad for a decade or longer. Teams like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Seahawks and Broncos do not go outside the box very often. Those are the teams in contention year in and year out.

Given the current state of the 49ers, Lynch will be fighting the odds not to join the likes of Millen, DePodesta, Kiffin and Shell.

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Franchise Analysis – Denver Broncos

Entering the 2016 season, the Denver Broncos had one question: “Who will take over for the legendary Peyton Manning?” One could argue that the question still remains. Trevor Siemian proved to be a serviceable quarterback, but not capable of overcoming below average running back and offensive line play. Other than the quarterback position, where else do the Broncos need to improve to make another run at a Lombardi Trophy in 2017?

2016 Evaluation – Offense

The Broncos failed to pick up where they left off in the 2015 season. Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler both contributed to an offense that ranked 19th in points and 16th in yards. The offense dropped to 22nd in points and 27th in yards this season. Who carries the blame for such a decline? We’ve already outlined the quarterback regression, but let’s take a closer look.

Trevor Siemian proved he has limitations this season. Will the Broncos be able to elevate his play by improving his supporting cast this off season (Courtesy of; DenverBroncos.com).

If it wasn’t apparent last year, it should be now. Peyton Manning covered up a lot of holes on this team last season. Even in his diminished state, Manning’s mind and control of the offense allowed him to put the Broncos in the best play possible on every snap. When Manning played, he accounted for 16 of the 39 sacks allowed. He was able to call plays that wouldn’t ask the offensive line to block for four to six seconds. He was able to minimize the impact that his average to below average linemen had on the passing game.

Even with an upgrade at the left tackle position from Ryan Clady to Russell Okung, the Denver Broncos still struggled. The biggest hole in this starting unit was the right tackle Donald Stephenson. Using Pro Football Focus player rankings, Stephenson was rated as the 77th best tackle out of 78 qualified players. Stephenson was also rated as the worst pass-blocking tight end in football. No quarterback can have success when one of his tackles is constantly getting beat.

2016 Evaluation – Defense

One aspect of the Denver Broncos that was never in doubt, was their defense. As a whole, they ranked 4th in both points and yards allowed. The unquestioned strength of this defense is their secondary. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. provide this defense with incredible flexibility. Talib is able to match up with the top tier receivers on the outside and Harris can lock down even the best slot receivers. When a defense doesn’t have to roll coverage to a player or exchange responsibilities in the secondary, they can focus on rushing the passer.

Sylvester Williams had a down year defending the run. Will the Broncos look to upgrade the nose tackle position, or hope Williams will bounce back in 2017? (Courtesy of; Predominatelyorange.com)

When Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and the emerging Shane Ray are able to rush the passer, this defense is suffocating. However, they must get better at stopping the run. This defense, despite their greatness, was 28th in rushing yards allowed. In their 3-4 defense, the nose tackle must be able to occupy double teams and keep linemen from blocking linebackers. Sadly, Sylvester Williams was unable to do that. Williams ranked as the 106th best interior defender against the run out of 117 qualified players. Denver must upgrade their nose tackle in their base defense if they hope to have more opportunities to rush the passer in 2017.

Divisional Analysis

The best way to ensure a spot in the postseason is to win your division. What does this team need to ascend back to the top of the AFC West?

Clearly, Denver needs to have more production from the quarterback position. However, that doesn’t mean the position needs an upgrade. Trevor Siemian proved to be a serviceable quarterback and can absolutely play better with an improved supporting cast. They also have their 2016 first round pick, Paxton Lynch. What Siemian lacks in talent, Lynch has. With these two players on the roster, they don’t need to try and upgrade the position.

Outside of the right tackle position, Denver could benefit greatly by upgrading their tight end. In 2016 we saw Carson Wentz be productive with an average at best collection of receivers. While they may be better than my analysis, they certainly aren’t as talented as Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders. What allowed Wentz to succeed? He had a receiving first tight end that worked the middle of the field in Zach Ertz. Given that this team isn’t great in pass protection, an upgrade at tight end will allow whoever is starting to get the ball out of their hands quicker.

Some options in the draft include David Njoku from Miami, Gerald Everett from South Alabama, and Evan Engram from Ole Miss. I know I didn’t include O.J. Howard, but I don’t think Denver will use their first round pick on this position and Howard most likely won’t be available in the second round. If Denver wanted to use a day two or three pick to address this position, they could select Tyrone Swoopes from Texas or Eric Saubert from Drake University.

We talked previously about their lack of production from their nose tackle. Given the importance of that position in the 3-4 defense, they need to bring in another player. Given John Elway’s track record of acquiring defensive free agents, I could see them going that route instead of the draft to address this need.

PostSeason Prospects

There are certain criteria that can translate into post season success. Where did the Denver Broncos stack up to the rest of the league in 2016?

It’s almost incredible that this team won nine games and didn’t finish inside the top 20 at any of these critical criteria. What’s most telling is their third down conversion ranking. It goes beyond just third down. This statistic gives you an idea about their success on first and second down. Because they struggled so much to run the ball effectively on first and second down, they often faced longer third down attempts than most NFL offenses. Also, if you can’t convert on third down, you won’t have prolonged drives. Thus, their ranking of 28th in Time of Possession.

This defense is unbelievable. Despite having a bottom third offense, the Denver defense was top 10 in every relevant defensive metric. Of course, they were not good against the run. No team can just run the ball for four quarters. When teams put the ball in the air, most of the time, it fell incomplete or in the hands of a Broncos defender. If they can just be an average team against the run in 2017, they will find themselves in the post season.

2017 Predictions

There’s no reason to doubt that John Elway will address their needs this off season through the draft and free agency. I think they will absolutely find a way to get more production out of their quarterback, whoever it is. I do want to say, under no circumstances should they try and acquire Tony Romo. Yes, Romo is talented. He’s better than every quarterback on that team, but he isn’t a good fit. Putting an injury-prone quarterback, who’s older than 30, behind a suspect offensive line is foolish because they will have to give up substantial defensive assets to acquire Romo.

This team cannot sacrifice their defense to support their offense. Elway and company will do everything possible to put their team in the best position possible. Overall, I think it will be enough to get them back into the playoffs. I believe the Denver Broncos will finish 11-5 and second in the AFC West and enter the 2017 postseason as a Wild Card.

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Super Bowl 50 Storylines

Well at least I got one half of the Super Bowl 50 match up right. The matchup is set and on February 7th the champions of the NFC, the Carolina Panthers, will face the champions of the AFC, the Denver Broncos.

Let’s start first with the Carolina Panthers.

This is the second time the Carolina Panthers franchise will be playing in the Super Bowl. They last played in Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they played the New England Patriots and lost in stunning and devastating fashion. They lost the game 32-29 by a game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri on the last drive of the game manufactured by Tom Brady.

But this 2015 Carolina Panthers team is not that team. This team has that Championship Swagger. That actually starts with the Head Coach Ron Rivera. Coach Rivera was a player on the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team. You all remember them, right? The Super Bowl Shuffle, doesn’t ring a bell? Rivera will be head coaching his first Super Bowl game on the 7th of February in Santa Clara, California. And he has coaching experience at Super Bowl when he was the Defensive Coordinator for the Chicago Bears in their last Super Bowl run. His team is riding high after their drumming of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.

The Panthers offense is led by Cameron Newton, the probable NFL MVP this year. Mr. Newton wants to be the first Heisman trophy-winning QB to win the Super Bowl since Jim Plunkett led the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XV. Cam also could be the only QB to ever win a junior college national championship, a NCAA national championship, and a Super Bowl championship. Newton is also playing to be the 3rd African American QB to win the Super Bowl in the whole history of the NFL. The first being Doug Williams in Super Bowl XXII for the Washington Redskins. Russell Wilson is the second African American QB to win the Lombardi Trophy. Wilson won Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks.

Most importantly he, his team, and the Carolinas just want to see the Panthers win their first Super Bowl in the team’s history. If the Panthers win this Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons will be the only team in the NFC South to not win a Super Bowl game.

The Carolina defense is led by LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly has led the NFL in tackles since his rookie season in the league.

The Panthers D is strong on all three levels. The defensive line features pass rushers like, Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy. The defense is hopeful they can get Jared Allen back from his foot injury that sidelined him for the NFC Championship Game. The D-Line also features space eaters like Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei at the defensive tackle spots.

The linebackers are led by Kuechly and season veteran Thomas Davis, which is battling a broken arm. Their starting rookie linebacker, Shaq Thompson, will play their strong linebacker.

The secondary is led by shutdown corner, Josh Norman, and by ballhawking safety Kurt Coleman. These young DB’s will lean on seasoned veteran DB, Charles Tillman, on how to handle the biggest stage they have every been on.

On to the AFC side.

The Denver Broncos franchise has been to the Super Bowl quite a bit of times but has only won two Lombardi Trophies. Those trophies were won by their current GM, John Elway. He and the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII in Elway’s last season. If Denver wins, it will be their third Lombardi Trophy.

With that 3rd title they will have the 4th most Super Bowls by a franchise. They already have the most appearances (8) and the most losses (5). The last time we saw the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl they got crushed by the Seattle Seahawks by 35 points in Super Bowl XLVII.

This Denver team has some of the same faces but they have a new coach. Gary Kubiak will also be head coaching in his first Super Bowl Game, but he was the Offensive Coordinator for the two Denver Super Bowl teams. His team barely survived the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. They had to defend a 2-point conversion to win the game 20-18.

This Denver offense is led by the “Sheriff”, Peyton Manning. His season hasn’t been his best by far, but he will be able to play in Super Bowl 50 for a chance to get his 2nd Super Bowl Ring in four tries. His two rings would match GM John Elway and his little brother, Eli Manning. With this win, Peyton will be the 12th multi-Super Bowl Ring winning QB. But unusually Peyton’s team’s strongest side of the ball is the defense.

Denver’s defense is super talented on every level as well. Their defensive line has stars like Derek Wolfe as the defensive tackle and Sylvester Williams as the nose ackle in their 3-4 defense.

And “4” in that 3-4 is maybe the best linebacking crew in the NFL. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are the inside linebackers and DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are the outside linebackers. And the rookie Shane Ray will also see the field a favorable amount on the field.

Denver also has one of the best backfields in the game. They have shutdown corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. who made a great play on 4th and 1 in the AFC Championship game. Bradley Roby will also see some time at nickel corner. Their hard hitting safeties in the middle of the field are T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. Their backups, Josh Bush and Shiloh Keo, also bring the wood.

Prediction: I am a completely torn between these two teams. I am as old as the Carolina Panthers. I was born in 1995, so were the Panthers. I am a native Carolinian and I am an African American, so I would love to see Cam win one. And on the other hand there is Peyton Manning. I would love for him to win his second ring. I couldn’t decide so…I flipped a coin. It landed on heads, so I am picking the Carolina Panthers. As much as it pains me to go against Peyton Manning, I am. The Carolina defense will get to Manning around 3-5 times and the pressure will make Peyton turn the ball over. Cam will be dancing on the field with the Lombardi Trophy and put an exclamation point on his and his team’s 18-1 season. I can’t go against the Panthers again this postseason.

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