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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Franchise Analysis – Carolina Panthers

It’s safe to say the Panthers Super Bowl hangover was real, as 2016 was not kind to this franchise. Coming off their appearance in Super Bowl 50, expectations were higher than ever. How did a team with the defending NFL MVP go from first to worst in their own division?

2016 Evaluation – Offense

With any team, a quarterback will get all of the credit, and all of the blame as well. It looked like Cam Newton finally realizd his potential and established himself as one of the next great quarterbacks. It was evident this season that something wasn’t right with the 2015 NFL MVP.

Overall, this offense finished 15th in points and 19th in yards. That’s a drastic drop off from finishing first and 11th in those respective categories in 2015. Was Cam Newton really to blame for this sharp decline in production? The answer: not entirely.

The 2015 Panthers ran the ball 526 times, which was more than any other team. Next season they only attempted 453 runs, good for seventh in that category. Many factors contributed to this decline. First, Jonathan Stewart missed three games. The Panthers averaged less than 100 yards rushing and three turnovers per game during that stretch.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

Will Cam Newton try to reincorporate running the ball as part of his game for the 2017 season? (Courtesy of; ABC News Radio)

Second, Cam Newton failed to run the ball effectively. At times, he even seemed unwilling to run. Compared to his MVP season, he rushed the ball 42 fewer times and scored five fewer rushing touchdowns. This could be the result of the punishment he continually took this season. It’s smart for Newton to run less, but he’s always been more effective as a threat to run.

In the last two seasons, the Panthers are 14-5 when Newton has at least seven rushing attempts and are 6-2 when Newton runs at least 10 times. Double-digit rushing attempts is probably too much, even for Newton. He has to find a medium between running too much, and not at all. Since his completion percentage has never been above 60 in consecutive seasons, running the ball must be a part of his game.

Third and finally, the Panthers offensive line did not produce to the same level as they did in 2015. Michael Oher, Mike Remmers and Dan France couldn’t stay healthy enough or play well enough to maintain the run game.

Entering 2017, this offense needs to focus on rebuilding their running attack in order to shake off the Panthers Super Bowl hangover.

2016 Evaluation – Defense

If the 2016 Panther’s offense took a step back, then the defense fell off a cliff. This defense finished 26th in points and 21st in yards after being top 10 in those categories a year ago. Specifically, this team could not stop anyone through the air.

In 2016, opponents on average had three less passing attempts against the Panthers per game, but had more success. They gave up 34 more passing yards per game on average. That may not seem like much, but 34 yards equates to three more first downs per game. That impacts field position and scoring.

It’s evident that this unit missed Josh Norman. He’s not the sole reason for this decline. However, when this defense is still top 10 against the run and is decidedly worse against the pass, his absence played a role in contributing to the Panthers Super Bowl hangover.

Apart from inconsistent play from young but talented players, the Panthers’ defensive scheme needs tuning. This defense would routinely ask linebackers and defensive linemen to play an active role in coverage. Using less athletic defenders to cover tight ends and slot receivers should be used sparingly, not featured. If this defense can adjust their scheme to minimize the impact linebackers and defensive linemen have in coverage, they will undoubtedly improve.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

Luke Kuechly’s return in 2017 will no doubt have a positive impact on this lackluster Panthers defense. (Courtesy of; Deadspin)

The Panthers also suffered from one of the most heartbreaking injuries of the season. It was painful to see Luke Kuechly miss the last six games as a result of a concussion. Kuechly is always one of the best linebackers against the run and is incredibly versatile in coverage. The Panthers will no doubt improve with a healthy Luke Keuchly back in the lineup.

What’s incredibly frustrating about this defense is that they finished second in sacks and 10th in third down defense and teams could still pass against them. This team needs more consistent play from all of their players. It’s clear they are capable of top defensive play, but they must become more consistent if they wish to return to the Super Bowl.

 

Divisional Analysis

Unfortunately, the Panthers reside in the NFC South. This division is the best in terms of quarterback play from top to bottom. What other division has a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, two MVP’s, and a rising star all at the quarterback position? Thus, the Panthers have to build their team to combat such players.

The Panthers are already capable of rushing the passer. They must upgrade their secondary to get more consistency against the pass. There are a plethora of good defensive backs in the 2017 NFL Draft. With the eighth overall pick, the Panthers will be able to address this need, should they make it a priority.

With players like Marlon Humphrey, Quincy Wilson, Marshon Lattimore, and Adoree’ Jackson available, the Panthers will have plenty of good options. Because there are so many good defensive backs, they could look to trade back and still be able to select one of these top prospects.

They could also use this pick to address their diminished rushing attack. The Panthers could make a splash and select Leonard Fournette. Infusing a talent like Fournette in this offense could allow the Panthers to return to their 2015 dominance.

The Panthers could also use this opportunity to address their left tackle position. If Cam Robinson is not on the board when the Panthers pick, I don’t see them selecting a tackle. There isn’t a player, besides Robinson, worthy of a top 10 selection at this point.

The point is, the Panthers were dominant when their offense was effective running the football. They were able to keep the opposing teams’ quarterback off the field, and thus limit their impact on the game.

Postseason Prospects

Clearly, the Panthers have certain strengths that give them the potential to be a playoff team. Here are the Panthers’ ranks in the following offensive and defensive metrics that can indicate postseason success.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

It’s nearly impossible for an NFL team to be great in every facet of the game. Often, teams are very good at a few things, and are at least competent at the rest. For Carolina’s offense, they weren’t particularly good at any one part of the game. Yes, they finished top 10 in time of possession. Outside of that metric, they were mediocre in all other categories.

This doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t improve next season. However, the Panthers need to re-establish their identity as a run first team. If they are successful, they will have increased time of possession, third down conversion rate, and allow less sacks.

Panthers Super Bowl hangover

While the drop off for the defense was significant, they still show flashes of greatness. Finishing in the top 10 in three of these categories is great. However, they failed to even be average in terms of points and yards allowed. If they could have just been top 20 in both of these statistics, this team would have had a chance to make the playoffs.

Hopefully the Panthers will continue to build upon the defensive success that made them conference champions in 2015.

2017 Predictions

I see improvement in the Panthers future. They will be returning key players who missed time from injury, as well as acquiring new talent through the draft and free agency.

The only question is, will the coaching staff and quarterback be willing to regain their run first mentality? I think the answer is yes. However, with ascending teams like Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Panthers Super Bowl hangover will remain. I like Carolina to improve to 9-7, but miss the playoffs.

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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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