jimmy garoppolo

NFL worst to first candidates for 2018

The NFL is wildly popular in America for many reasons. One of the biggest is that it is the only mainstream American sport where it is not all that uncommon for a team to go from really bad to really good in a very short amount of time. The Super Bowl champion Eagles as well as the Jaguars finished at the bottom of their respective divisions in 2016 before winning them last year.

Also, it is not like teams like the Bills and Saints were on everyone’s radar as far as contending last year either. Still, the worst to first turnaround is most impressive. There are three teams with a realistic shot at doing what the Eagles and Jags did last year.

Denver Broncos: The AFC West is pretty unique headed in to 2018. It is not difficult to imagine any one of the four teams winning it, or finishing last. A lot depends on whether or not two-time defending division champion Kansas City misses a beat in the transition to Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. The former first-round pick is basically a rookie apart from a throwaway start at the end of last season.

The addition of Case Keenum gives the Broncos some long-sought and much-needed stability at the quarterback position. Even if he regresses closer to the player he was prior to last year in Minnesota, he is certainly an upgrade over what Denver put on the field at that spot last year. Only Cleveland had more turnovers than the Broncos in 2017. A quarterback carousel was not the only reason for this but was certainly the biggest factor.

Bradley Chubb

Photo: milehighreport.com

If Keenum only raises the turnover numbers to the middle of the pack, Denver will be a much better football team in 2018. A defense that was top five in both rushing and passing yards allowed last year got younger and hungrier with the addition of Bradley Chubb up front and the departure of Aqib Talib at the back end.

The Broncos also spent another offseason taking a big swing at improving the offensive line. They are counting on veterans to stay healthy and youngsters to improve. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas saw their production drop off last year, but Keenum showed last year he can get the ball to talented wide receivers. With the improvements made and the question marks that surround their division rivals, the Broncos could be in for a very quick turnaround.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are going to win the NFC West this year. They won five games in a row once midseason acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo was inserted as the starting quarterback to finish out the season. This included defeating three playoff teams. The most impressive showing was putting up 40+ points on a Jacksonville defense that carried that team to within an eyelash of the Super Bowl.

Everyone has been singing the praises of the Rams all offseason long. However, the Jared Goff/Sean McVay offense took everyone by surprise last year. Whenever that happens, defensive coordinators always adjust the next year. Then, the offense either readjusts or never gets back to where it was. The same thing happened with the Wildcat offense in Miami as well as the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys. The Wildcat vanished almost as quickly as it appeared and this year will be the moment of truth for Prescott as an NFL quarterback.

For the Rams, this is the year where the offense regresses a little bit. We will see what Goff and McVay come up with in 2019. Los Angeles added some very splashy names on defense.

However, when you put that many strong personalities on one side of the ball, it is going to backfire. Los Angeles is a horrible place for guys like Talib and Marcus Peters to go. Their previous teams could not wait to unload them and it wasn’t because they are not good football players. To think those guys are going to be on their best behavior in Los Angeles is just plain dumb.

Seattle’s roster is a complete mess outside of Russell Wilson and Arizona is starting over as a franchise. Neither team will be a factor in the division race. San Francisco’s roster outside of Garoppolo is not full of household names.

The former Tom Brady understudy completed 67% of his passes and went 5-0 as a starter for a team that had won one game without him. Imagine what the 49ers can do with an entire off-season to build around their franchise quarterback.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has proven to be one of the league’s finest quarterback gurus in recent years. What those two are capable of doing together is flat out scary. The small sample size for Garoppolo is worrisome, but his toughest challenge should be being thrown on the field with last year’s awful team. He passed with flying colors.

 

Houston Texans: This one probably has the most ifs attached to it, but it is very intriguing. Prior to getting injured last year, then rookie quarterback DeShaun Watson had Houston looking like Super Bowl contenders. He threw 16 touchdown passes in one month and went toe to toe with Brady and Wilson on the road.

DeShaun Watson

Photo: slate.com

Blake Bortles is still Blake Bortles. If the Jacksonville defense is even slightly less dominant than it was last year, that team will take a step back. Tennessee has similar limitations at quarterback with Marcus Mariota. You can only go so far ranked 23rd in pass yards per game.

If Watson can stay healthy on offense along with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus on defense, it is sure going to be fun to see what this team is truly capable of. The Colts are capable of a similar turnaround in the same division if Andrew Luck stays healthy.

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Rome Tennis Roland Garros

The road to Roland Garros: Rome

Madrid is in the rear view mirror. It is now time for one of the longest running events on tour to take center stage once again. Rome has played host to the Italian Open since 1930. It is the crowned jewel on the road to Roland Garros for the world’s best tennis players as the last major stop before the French Open. Here are some things to watch for.

Madrid surprises in a tricky spot 

Rome Tennis Roland Garros

(Photo from skysports.com)

Dominic Thiem ended Rafael Nadal’s 50-set, 21-match win streak in the quarterfinals of Madrid. The fifth seed lost in the final to second seed Alexander Zverev. These are great, somewhat unexpected results for this pair. However, clay is hard on the body and Madrid-Rome is the toughest back-to-back the calendar has to offer. Zverev and Thiem have been around the top of the game for a while now, but neither has figured out how to be a consistent factor at the Grand Slams.

So much of doing that is not overplaying in the lead up to the majors and peaking at the right time. Withdrawing from Rome is a bit extreme, but early losses for Zverev and Thiem might not be the worst thing in the world. The same can be said for surprise Madrid ladies finalist Kiki Bertens. Champion Petra Kvitova has already withdrawn from Rome. Kvitova is a two-time Grand Slam winner.

Nadal attempts to restore order

As mentioned above, Nadal lost on clay in Madrid last week. Anytime that happens, it is big news. Beating Nadal on clay best of three sets in a regular tour event is one thing. Beating him best of five sets at Roland Garros is entirely another.

This is probably the biggest reason for Nadal’s 79-2 lifetime record at the French Open with 10 titles. For reference, Nadal lost in Rome last year and quickly rebounded to win the French Open without dropping a set. So there is no reason for the panic alarm if you are a Nadal fan.

Still, this year’s Rome event is significant for him. Nadal does not want the rest of the field to start thinking they have a shot in Paris. A sixth Rome title would go a long way towards reaffirming his dominance. It would also return Nadal to the top ranking that he relinquished to an absent Roger Federer with his loss in Madrid.

Sharapova hunts French Open seed 

Two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova showed signs of life in Madrid by reaching the quarterfinals after three fairly routine wins. She eventually lost a tight three-setter to Bertens.

The result boosted her ranking to 40th in the world. The top 32 will be seeded at the second major of the year in about two weeks. In an honest moment, both Sharapova and her competitors will tell you that they do not want her name just floating in the draw and able to land pretty much anywhere. To have a chance at avoiding that crapshoot, Sharapova must at least match her Madrid result. Then, it would come down to other results. The three-time Italian Open winner will start against 16th seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia.

Remember, Sharapova was unseeded at last year’s US Open and knocked off second-seeded Simona Halep in the first round. As fun as matches like that can be for the fans, they are a nightmare for players that early in a Grand Slam. We already know that Victoria Azarenka will be unseeded in Paris. The same can be said of Serena Williams if she decides to play. Adding an unseeded Sharapova to that mix would make for a lot of very nervous people on draw day.

Women’s top ranking on the line

Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki have had somewhat disappointing clay-court seasons. Wozniacki has never done well on clay, but Rome is a big week for Halep, who has twice been French Open runner-up.

The Romanian needs to reach at least the quarterfinals to retain her top ranking heading to Paris. The rest will come down to Wozniacki’s result. Halep could open against Azarenka, who is a two-time major winner. Being the top seed at a major is a noteworthy honor and could serve as a nice confidence boost for either woman.

 

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AFC East West quarterbacks

Quarterback questions loom largest in AFC East and West

We now have a pretty good idea of what NFL rosters will look like come September. Predicting team records is still very difficult to do in May. However, it is now easier to understand the factors that will lead to success or failure for certain teams. Thus, here are the biggest questions in a couple of AFC divisions. One that is wide open now, and another that could be before long.

AFC West: Is Patrick Mahomes any good?

AFC East West quarterbacks

(Photo from 610sports.com)

This might be the biggest question in the entire NFL. Kansas City has taken control of this division over the last two years as Denver has struggled to transition away from Peyton Manning.

Despite a few playoff failures, Alex Smith never posted a losing record as the starting quarterback for the Chiefs. So replacing him with Patrick Mahomes is pretty bold.

Mahomes is headed into his second year with just one career start. Young quarterbacks have to get handed the keys at some point, but was Smith really what was holding the Chiefs back? His career-high passer rating of 104.7 last year would suggest otherwise.

No quarterback does it alone. Kansas City has an average defense and an offense littered with playmakers, but bad quarterback play can drag a very good roster downward. Last year’s Broncos are a prime example. That was not going to be a concern with Smith. There has to be at least a little bit of doubt when it comes to Mahomes.

One start is nowhere near enough to determine whether any player can be successful in this league, and Mahomes may come out and play very well. If he does, Kansas City will win this division again.

Still, the Broncos upgraded at quarterback, the Chargers improved the middle of their defense, and Oakland is once again being coached by Jon Gruden, the last guy that made and kept that franchise relevant. If Mahomes struggles, at least one of those teams will be right there to pounce, and one of the most consistent teams in the NFL over the last half decade will quickly turn into a non-factor.

AFC East: When do we see the rookie quarterbacks?

As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are around, the Patriots will win this division. They have done so for nine consecutive years. The drama in the division this year is going to be when we see Sam Darnold in New York and Josh Allen in Buffalo. In a perfect world, both guys would probably benefit from a year on the bench.

Particularly in Darnold’s case, that does not seem to be feasible. This is a franchise that has won five or fewer games in three of the last four seasons. It needs a sign of hope and fast. When the inevitable losses start to mount under veteran quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown, the Jets will need to get a glimpse at what they hope is a bright future.

The Jets do have a workable schedule for the first month of the season and could get off to a decent start. So it would not be shocking to see one of the veterans last as the starter until the Week 11 bye. Of course, there is always a chance that the rookie could impress enough in training camp and the preseason to start the season opener.

Either way, the Jets know Brady and Belichick won’t be around forever, and New England does not seem to be ready for life after either one. With Darnold, the Jets have a chance to be the kings of this division in a few years. The first step to helping make that happen is making him the starter at the right time.

Josh Allen is a little more tricky. The Bills made the playoffs last year, but were anemic on offense at times and scored just a field goal in their playoff loss. AJ McCarron replaces Tyrod Taylor as the veteran presence at the quarterback position. Allen was drafted more on measurables than college production and clearly needs time to develop.

However, it is hard to imagine him being afforded that luxury if Buffalo gets off to a bad start under McCarron, who is basically a career backup except for a handful of mediocre performances filling in for an injured Andy Dalton late in the 2015 season.

The Dolphins are just sort of existing in this division at the moment. They regressed last year with Jay Cutler taking the place of Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Even though Tannehill is coming off an injury, Miami was linked to several of the top quarterback prospects in the draft. This could be a make or break year for him as well as head coach Adam Gase.

AFC East West quarterbacks

(Photo from presnapreads.com)

These two divisions are interesting in their own way for 2018. The AFC West is intriguing right now because it is impossible to know what to expect from the team that has dominated it for the last two years. Meanwhile, the AFC East could look very different in a couple years.

This year might provide us with at least some answers in that regard. It all comes down to changes that already have and will eventually need to be made at the most important position in all of American sports, quarterback.

 

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Madrid tennis

The road to Roland Garros: Madrid

With the French Open starting at the end of the month, the road to Roland Garros is in full swing. Madrid plays host to the first of two prestigious combined lead-up events. Thanks to a rare weekend start, the tournament is already underway. Here are some things to watch for.

Nadal’s dominance 

If you are tired of hearing about how good Rafael Nadal is on clay, please scroll to the next part of the article. The Spanish lefty has won 46 straight sets on the red dirt. He is fresh off wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He has now won those events 11 times each in his illustrious career. Nadal has had the title of greatest clay-court player ever locked up for a while now. Still, he had not played an official tournament match since January prior to Monte Carlo two weeks ago.

He flipped some sort of switch and looks unbeatable again on his favorite surface. He is as overwhelming a favorite as the sport has ever seen to pick up his 11th French Open title in about a month. While it is somewhat tiresome to see one player dominating everything at the moment, sometimes you just have to marvel at greatness. In the more immediate future, Nadal’s quest for a sixth title in Madrid will be challenged by Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin del Potro among others.

Sharapova and Djokovic look to get on track 

Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova have been two of the more disappointing players in 2018. Sharapova entered Madrid in the midst of her first four-match losing streak since 2003. Djokovic comes in with just five match wins on the year after an injury-plagued 2017.

Sharapova has struggled with injuries and poor form since returning to the tour from suspension a little over a year ago. However, there is reason for cautious optimism in Madrid. The Russian finally got back in the win column with a straight sets victory on Sunday. Moreover, the two seeded players Sharapova would have had to play early on are already out of the event.

Madrid tennis

(Photo from si.com)

You can only play the players the draw puts in front of you, and Sharapova has had her fair share of tough matchups since she returned to the game. This week though, she finds herself poised to make a run to at least the quarterfinals in the Spanish capital. This would be a much-needed boost to the 2014 Madrid winner’s ranking.

Every match is a test for Sharapova right now. Still, if she can win over three quarters of points on her first serve the way she did in her opener, a deep run is not only attainable, but likely.

The tennis draw gods were not nearly as friendly to Djokovic. The Serb opens up against Kei Nishikori Monday morning. Nishikori is a former Grand Slam finalist, who is also coming back from injury. These two have battled it out for Olympic medals and trips to major finals fairly recently. It will be strange to see them play so early in a tournament. Djokovic dominates the head-to-head matchup, but is tinkering with both his game and coaching team constantly as his struggles have continued.

Nishikori reached the final in Monte Carlo a few weeks back. The last thing the 12-time major winner needs is another early loss, but Djokovic will have his work cut out for him to avoid that fate.

Ladies title contenders 

World No. 1 Simona Halep has to be considered the favorite this week. She is the two-time defending champ in Madrid. The Romanian is perhaps more comfortable at this event than any other on the calendar. Halep’s slant towards a defensive style of play has always translated well to clay.

Caroline Wozniacki has an outside chance to retake the top ranking from Halep this week. However, the Dane has been fairly pedestrian since winning her first career major in Australia in January. Also, she has never been much of a threat at the more prestigious clay-court events. Elina Svitolina is a more realistic threat to Halep. The Ukrainian has a good draw as the fourth seed and won a big title on clay in Rome last year.

Serena Williams is sitting this one out as she continues to try and find the right schedule for her body post childbirth. Still, it would be foolish to completely discount the old guard like Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, who appears to finally have her child custody dispute straightened out.

Even with Roger Federer voluntarily passing on playing on clay for the second year in a row and question marks surrounding Williams, there is no shortage of stars and storylines to watch as the second major of the year creeps closer.

 

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NFL win projections

Man vs. Vegas: Projected NFL win totals

With the NFL Draft finally in the rearview mirror, the window for educated speculation is now open. The powers that be in Las Vegas have released their projected regular season win totals for all 32 teams.

Going up against Vegas usually proves futile, but it is fun to try anyway. Here are the three best over-under bets to cash in on. All projected win totals are from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

Indianapolis Colts: Over 6.5 wins 

Since Andrew Luck entered the league as a rookie before the 2012 season, Indianapolis has never posted a losing record in a year where their franchise quarterback has started the majority of the 16 regular season games. Luck has also led the Colts to the playoffs on three occasions. However, Luck has missed 26 games over the last three seasons, including all of last season with a shoulder injury.

The good news for Colts fans is there seems to be optimism surrounding Luck’s health for the upcoming season. Owner Jim Irsay recently stated publicly that he believes Luck will be ready to go in the fall. Irsay also mentioned that the Colts turned down trade offers for the three-time Pro Bowler.

NFL win projections

(Photo from yardbarker.com)

If Luck stays healthy, this bet really is easy money. Still, even if he does not, the law of averages is on the Colts’ side. Jacoby Brissett filled in admirably in Luck’s absence last year. He started 15 games and threw 13 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions.

The Colts won just four games last year, but also managed to lose an astonishing seven games in which they held a halftime lead. Close games in the NFL often come down to a bounce of the ball. Some of those losses will turn into wins this year, no matter who is under center. A more offensive-minded coaching staff should help Indianapolis be better in terms of closing out games as well.

The Colts also have a workable schedule. Lastly, the addition of incoming rookie Quenton Nelson should immediately improve a Colts offensive line that is a large part of the reason Luck has been injured so often. One guy cannot fix an entire offensive line, but he can certainly make it better in a hurry. Nelson is the most polished offensive lineman to enter the league in quite some time. Ending a three-year playoff drought is realistic for this team.

Los Angeles Rams: Under 9.5 wins 

This will probably raise a few eyebrows. The Rams are being touted by many to make a Super Bowl run.

Forget that. They will have a hard enough time defending their division title. Sean McVay turned the Rams offense and Jared Goff from a dumpster fire into the highest-scoring unit in the league last year. However, defensive coordinators always adjust when something comes out of nowhere and takes everyone by surprise for a year. They will adjust to the Rams’ offense, and it will regress slightly, similar to what happened to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys last year.

The competition for the Rams is also brutal. Division rival San Francisco was the hottest team in the league to close out last year under quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. As long as Russell Wilson is in Seattle, they will remain a tough out. The non-division schedule is not much friendlier. It includes established powerhouses like the Super Bowl champion Eagles as well as the Saints.

Finally, the Rams acquired a wealth of defensive talent. Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh are all outstanding players. However, they are also very strong and volatile personalities. Finances aside, there is a reason they all changed teams this offseason. Whenever you put a bunch of volatile guys on the same unit, there is a reason to be nervous. It could all backfire, especially playing for such a young coach in a city like Los Angeles.

New York Giants: Over 6.5 wins 

The Giants went 3-13 last year. Yet, Eli Manning still threw 19 touchdown passes and performed well in the midst of complete chaos around him. Yes, he is getting close to the end of his career, and the simplest thing to do when a team struggles as bad as New York did last year is change the quarterback. Still, the Giants should be applauded for not doing so.

NFL win projections

(Photo from nypost.com)

Rookie Saquon Barkley immediately becomes an all-purpose three-down running back that will assist his two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback greatly. Second-round pick Will Hernandez and former Patriot Nate Solder have fortified the offensive line, at least on paper.

 

Also, the Giants have an easier schedule like the Colts. The Cowboys and Redskins could go either way this year. Even last year when they were awful, the Giants played the Super Bowl champions tough twice.

Lastly, new Giants head coach Pat Shurmur helped guide a quarterback with far less natural talent than Manning to one game away from the Super Bowl last year with the Vikings. Manning is well-positioned to find the fountain of youth in 2018, and the Giants are poised for a big bounce-back year.

 

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2018 NFL Draft recap

4 things we know after the 2018 NFL Draft

The 2018 NFL Draft is in the books. It takes a couple years to really know which teams nailed it and which teams whiffed. Thus, the concept of giving out nothing more than simple draft grades in the days immediately following it is fun, but somewhat foolish.

However, we now have a better idea of how teams view themselves and how they will fare in the fall. Here are a few things we learned over the three day extravaganza.

Denver does not view Case Keenum as a stopgap 

After scouting every elite quarterback in the draft, Denver passed on drafting a quarterback altogether. Instead, the Broncos bolstered an already loaded pass rush after Bradley Chubb fell into their lap. Then, John Elway spent five of his remaining picks on running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.

Incoming rookie receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton in particular could be asked to make an impact right away. A consistent third pass catcher to take the heat off of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders has been lacking for a few years now.

2018 NFL Draft recap

(Photo from wralsportsfan.com)

The Broncos clearly think Case Keenum can lead them right back into contention in 2018 and beyond. He has almost everything a quarterback needs to succeed, much like he did in Minnesota. Defense was the centerpiece of the Vikings last year and it will be for the Broncos this year.

It is a little bit surprising that Denver spent only one draft pick on offensive line. The decision-makers there are putting their faith in Garett Bolles to make a huge leap forward in his second year and veterans Ronald Leary and Jared Veldheer to stay healthy and stabilize a unit that has needed help for a long time.

Still, it is now apparent that the Broncos think they can win now and are reloading, not rebuilding.

Cleveland did not learn from history, but also hopes not to repeat it 

Baker Mayfield and Johnny Manziel are different people, but the comparison really does write itself. They are both undersized quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy after dominating college football for a very short period of time. Moreover, the Browns ignored significant off-the-field concerns in hopes that they could resurrect a dead franchise.

Manziel failed spectacularly, and that is largely on him. But Cleveland has been the worst culture for young quarterbacks to develop in the last 20 years. Manziel had no chance to succeed there. Tyrod Taylor is a solid quarterback that is more than capable of getting the Browns at least four wins this year. That should lessen the immediate pressure on Mayfield. This, combined with the fact that Mayfield’s rough edges are a little smoother than Manziel’s give him a better chance to do well in Cleveland.

Still, the Browns going with Mayfield after the Manziel experience straddles the line between gutsy and stupid. No one would argue that Sam Darnold is not a safer prospect, even the temperamental Josh Rosen would have raised a few less eyebrows.

The Patriots are not concerned about Tom Brady’s age 

Whether it is Robert Kraft or Bill Belichick calling the shots in Patriot land nowadays, this is the only conclusion that can be drawn. Jimmy Garoppolo is in San Francisco, Tom Brady is 40 and New England passed on taking Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph.

New England did take a quarterback in the seventh round, but LSU’s Danny Etling was not on most radars as a draftable prospect. The Patriots have outsmarted everyone with quarterbacks in the late rounds of the draft before, but it is hard to imagine Etling was drafted with the idea of being Brady’s successor. We know that 32-year-old Brian Hoyer certainly is not Brady’s successor either.

Regardless of how dedicated Brady is, quarterbacks fall off a cliff quickly in the NFL. The most recent example of this is Peyton Manning, who was younger than Brady is now when he played his final season, which was also his worst statistically. The lack of a long-term plan at quarterback is slowly putting New England’s position as the NFL’s gold standard in more and more jeopardy.

Russell Wilson is going to run for his life again in 2018 

When the awesome story of the Griffin brothers is put aside, Seattle’s draft as a whole is worrisome. They reached by as much as two rounds for running back Rashaad Penny and tight end Will Dissly, but that is not all.

2018 NFL Draft recap

(Photo from nocoastbias.com)

Seattle’s offensive line was atrocious last year. At its worst, there were games where Russell Wilson was pressured on a third of his drop backs. The only reason Wilson lived to tell about it is because he is one of the most mobile quarterbacks on the planet. His arm and legs created all but one of Seattle’s offensive touchdowns last year. Wilson was able to keep Seattle relevant until the very end of the regular season.

Wilson will need a repeat performance to do the same this year. The Seahawks continued their long standing reputation of refusing to invest in the offensive line. They only took one and waited until the fifth round to do so. They even traded up to take a punter before paying any attention to their biggest need.

This was a very deep draft for offensive lineman. Thus, it feels like the Seahawks missed a big chance to improve. With the “Legion of Boom” pretty much a memory, Wilson really is the only thing this franchise has going for it. After this draft, the weight of the world remains on his shoulders.

 

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Roland Garros tennis

The road to Roland Garros: Monte Carlo and Stuttgart

The clay-court season is almost in full swing on both tennis tours. The stretch of calendar from now until the end of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 10 is the most grueling the sport has to offer. Playing on clay lessens power a bit while forcing players to grind, build points and play long rallies. Some players thrive while others disappear until the grass-court season. This year will be no different.

Monte Carlo

With 54 career clay-court titles to his name, Rafael Nadal is the undisputed “King of Clay.” However, prior to this past week in Monte Carlo, Nadal had not played an official tournament since retiring from January’s Australian Open with a hip injury. His knees are also a never-ending concern.

Roger Federer is skipping this part of the season for a second straight year. These injury concerns combined with Federer’s absence had to give the rest of the field more hope than usual as they headed to the clay.

Nadal squashed those feelings like a bug. He raced through the field. He did not drop more than four games in a set on his way to his 11th career Monte Carlo Masters title and retained his No. 1 world ranking.

Roland Garros tennis

(Photo from epa.eu)

The return to form of Japanese star Kei Nishikori was also a big story in Monte Carlo. The former US Open finalist came in unseeded after spending much of last year dealing with a slew of injuries. He fell to Nadal in the final, but defeated three seeded players to get there, including two in the top five.

Clay is not a surface Nishikori is great on, but he is far from terrible on it. He really seemed to turn a corner at this event. His movement on any surface is a great asset. For the first time in a long time, there is reason to be optimistic about his chances to get back near the top of the game.

Novak Djokovic also returned to the tour in Monte Carlo. He retooled his coaching team yet again after a disastrous spring swing in the US. For a 12-time major champion, losing in the round of 16 at any event is never going to be good enough, but he picked up his first match wins since January and reported that his elbow was pain free for the first time in two years.

Nadal emphatically staking claim to his clay turf again was the big take away from Monte Carlo, but a healthy Djokovic is one of few things that could trouble him throughout the clay season should they meet.

Stuttgart

The first key stop on the road to Roland Garros for the women begins Monday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany. With only a 28-player singles field and eight of the top 10 players in the world in the draw, some first-round matches could pass for finals.

Two-time major champs Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber will battle as will Americans Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe. There is also sixth-seeded Caroline Garcia taking on wild card and three-time event winner Maria Sharapova.

Each matchup has its own story. Kerber and Kvitova have both played pretty well this year. Neither is particularly comfortable on clay, but there is opportunity in the ladies game this clay-court season. A quality win could set the tone for the next two months for either Kerber or Kvitova.

Sharapova and Garcia is a battle of two players who desperately need something good to happen to kickstart their years. Garcia is just 10-8 on the year. Stuttgart marks the one-year mark for Sharapova in her return from suspension. Her ranking is still stuck in the 40s.

Roland Garros tennis

(Photo from Jimmie48 Photography)

She returns to an event that has been very good to her over the years. Sharapova is also reunited with former coach Thomas Högstedt. The Swede helped Sharapova win the 2012 French Open and Olympic silver medal. Sharapova has never lost to Garcia in four career meetings, but this is a winnable match for both. Whoever loses it will continue a downward spiral. The longer those go on, the harder they are to get out of.

Stephens and Vandeweghe were teammates on the American national team this past weekend in France. That dynamic will change in a hurry. Stephens just won the big event in Miami over Easter weekend. Vandeweghe is a two-time major semifinalist, but has won just one official tour-level match all year. Still, her power against the speed of Stephens should make for an entertaining match.

 

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NFL free agency

Top NFL free agents still looking for a home

The NFL draft is next week. The entire football world is focusing on that, and rightfully so. Most of the free agency dust has settled. However, there are still a handful of players out there that can help teams win, even if they don’t find a home until after the draft. Here are four of those players.

C.J. Anderson

NFL free agency

(Photo from timescall.com)

The first two names are relatively new additions to the free agent pool. Anderson spent five seasons in Denver after going undrafted out of Cal. His release had more to do with finances than football. He is not going to win any foot races, but he is a very tough runner who gets better as the season goes on.

Anderson had 767 yards and eight touchdowns in the second half of the 2014 season and 234 yards rushing yards during Denver’s playoff run to Super Bowl 50. This past season he rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career after an injury plagued 2016.

True featured running backs are a rare breed in today’s NFL. So there is plenty of room for guys like Anderson, who is only 27 years old. He will be a valuable pickup for a team that comes up short in a rich running back draft.

Dez Bryant 

Bryant’s production has fallen off dramatically since 2014. He has not posted 1,000 receiving yards since then. Injuries, lack of chemistry with anyone other than Tony Romo and general unhappiness with the Cowboys are all factors in his statistical decline and eventual release from the Cowboys.

The former first-round pick may still have some good football left in him, but he is going to get opportunities and offers based on the player he is and not the player he was. Bryant has been very vocal about wanting to face the Cowboys twice a year, but there is not an obvious fit in the NFC East. The Ravens, Texans and Packers have all been mentioned as possible destinations.

He could work very well as a complementary receiver in Baltimore or Houston. The Packers simply do not sign many free agents. Thus, Green Bay going after a loud receiver who has been mediocre for the last three years would be a shocker. The Ravens and Texans represent Bryant’s best chances at adding a decent second act to his career.

Junior Galette 

Galette comes with injury and character concerns. He returned to the field in 2017 after missing the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to injury. He played in all 16 games and posted three sacks for Washington last year.

The three hardest things to find in the NFL are elite quarterbacks, left tackles and pass rushers. In the last three seasons in which Galette has played, he has 25 total sacks. That kind of production should get him an opportunity somewhere, even though it may be during training camp for the veteran’s minimum. If the team structures his contract wisely, he is the definition of low risk, high reward.

Eric Decker 

Decker has had one of the more interesting careers you will ever come across. He has been in some great offenses for wide receivers like the record-setting 2013 Broncos. Decker has also been in some horrible offenses for wide receivers. The Tim Tebow led Broncos of 2011 and last year’s Titans immediately spring to mind.

NFL free agency

(Photo from titansonline.com)

Still, Decker managed to be productive even in run-heavy offenses. He blocked well and put up 44 catches for the 2011 Broncos and 54 with last year’s Titans. When he has played regularly, stayed healthy and been in more modern offenses, Decker has been a shoe-in for 80 catches.

Simply put, Decker will do whatever is asked of him and do it well. He is the kind of player that you really have to pay attention to in order to appreciate. Thus, it is mystifying that Decker continues to wait for his phone to ring. Personnel around the league are sleeping on this guy in a big way.

The Ravens and Raiders have kicked the tires on the former Minnesota Golden Gopher. There has also been some chatter about a reunion between Decker and the Broncos.

The early phases of free agency and rounds of the NFL Draft get most of the headlines, but it is often the latter part of both that separate bad teams from average ones and good teams from championship-caliber clubs.

 

Featured image from SI.com

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2018 NFL Draft quarterbacks

Best fits for top 2018 NFL quarterback prospects: Part II

Welcome to the second of a two part series examining the best fits for the top six quarterback prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. You can check out the first part here. Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph go under the microscope this time around.

Playing matchmaker is a little tougher with these three. They are likely to go later in the first round, or perhaps even early in the second, but trades are always possible, especially in that part of the draft.

Baker Mayfield: Arizona Cardinals 

Carson Palmer is retired. No one is mistaking Mike Glennon for a franchise quarterback. Sadly, it is not a matter of if Sam Bradford will get hurt again, but when. Arizona is the most quarterback needy team in the entire draft.

Mayfield’s roughness around the edges is well documented on and off the field. Being drafted to a locker room with veterans like Larry Fitzgerald would go a long way towards smoothing out Mayfield’s character flaws.

On the field, the Cardinals have no long-term quarterback plan, even if Bradford makes it through 2018 healthy. They need one. Mayfield is a legitimate duel threat, but the numbers say he would much rather throw. He never averaged more than 3.2 yards per carry in college. Defense in the Big 12 is bad, but it is not hard to see why there is great intrigue around the reigning Heisman Trophy winner at the next level. He threw 81 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions in his last two years of college.

Other than being a tick too short, He has all the stats and physical attributes NFL people look for. There is more than enough there to ignore the concerns over his arrest and less than sportsmanlike behavior on the field. His ability to ad lib when plays break down should also serve him well if he is thrown on the field as a rookie.

Picking at No. 15, Arizona’s quarterback options are somewhat limited without a trade, but there is some talent on the roster. Mayfield’s upside in a situation like the Cardinals is endless.

Lamar Jackson: Buffalo Bills 

This was the toughest prospect to pair with a team. Any quarterback who weighs just over 200 pounds and has 655 rushing attempts in three years of college football is going to have a short and painful NFL career, unless their game is retooled through coaching. Concerns about size and running too much aside, Jackson’s college numbers and pure athleticism are going to earn him a long look in the NFL.

In Buffalo, AJ McCarron is there on a two-year deal to keep the team competitive while it searches for long-term quarterback. Early returns on the Nathan Peterman experiment have been disastrous. Even though Buffalo could not wait to get rid of him, Tyrod Taylor did lead Buffalo to the playoffs last year. Taylor is a decent pro comparison for Jackson, so the coaching staff would be well-suited to coach him.

The former Heisman Trophy winner going to Buffalo makes sense in terms of both need and draft position. Jackson’s college production shows that he is capable of learning how to become an NFL pocket passer.

Mason Rudolph: New England Patriots

Whether he realizes it or not, Tom Brady is 40 years old. With Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco, the Patriots have no plan for Brady’s successor. Recent reports have New England taking a shine to Jackson. However, it is hard to imagine Bill Belichick taking a chance on an undersized quarterback who some would argue is a better runner than thrower.

2018 NFL Draft quarterbacks

(Photo from zambio.com)

Rudolph is the all-time leading passer at Oklahoma State. He specializes in the vertical passing game that dominates the NFL landscape today. 10 percent of his dropbacks in college resulted in at least a 25-yard completion. Rudolph needs a little polishing to go from Oklahoma State’s gun-slinging offense to the NFL.

New England is the perfect place for him to get that. He can learn from Brady for a while. Then he can either succeed him or get a big payday somewhere else like other Patriot backup quarterbacks have done. Regardless of which quarterback ends up there, New England is an ideal spot. Rudolph is the best fit.

More than just the six teams mentioned in these two articles could be in the quarterback market early in the draft. New Orleans, Denver and Miami could all be additional players in the market for rookie signal callers. With so many teams potentially needing quarterbacks, some of the prospects ranked seventh and lower in the quarterback class will eventually be asked to make an impact as well.

 

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2018 NFL Draft quarterbacks

Best fits for top 2018 NFL quarterback prospects: Part I

The NFL draft is about two weeks away, meaning all the talk from fans, media and executives is almost over. Quarterback always overshadows all the other positions in terms of pre-draft chatter. This year is no different. The need for solid quarterback play in the NFL is as dire as it has ever been and there are not that many decent ones to go around at the moment.

As many as six quarterbacks could wind up going in the first round. This would match the legendary quarterback class of 1983. That class had a Hall of Famer at the top in John Elway and two others in Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Todd Blackledge, Ken O’Brien and Tony Eason did not pan out nearly as well.

Whether it is the accuracy of Josh Allen, the turnovers committed by Sam Darnold, the character of Baker Mayfield or something else, all of these guys have red flags attached to them. So three of the top six quarterbacks in this year’s class ending up in the Hall of Fame is probably a stretch.

However, they could all be successful in the right situation. If the NFL draft has shown us one thing over the years, it is that evaluating players is an inexact science and no one really knows anything. Still, here is the start of a two-part series exploring the best possible landing spots for this year’s top quarterback prospects.

Sam Darnold: Cleveland Browns

Given its abysmal track record of developing quarterbacks since returning to the league in 1999, it is difficult to call Cleveland an ideal landing spot for any quarterback. Even so, one of these guys has to end up there.

Darnold was the primary starter for two seasons at USC. His 22 interceptions are worrisome to some, but they become more forgivable when you put them up against his 57 touchdown passes.

USC always plays a tough schedule as one of college football’s traditional powerhouses. Knowing that, Darnold’s completion percentage of almost 65 should also translate well to the next level. Perhaps most importantly, he has said all the right things about the challenge of turning around a struggling NFL franchise.

Darnold or some other rookie will most likely not start right away in Cleveland as they just traded for Tyrod Taylor. However, the more recent rumblings have the Browns warming up to another quarterback prospect.

Josh Allen: New York Giants

Cleveland has reportedly become enamored with the University of Wyoming prospect. The word project gets thrown around a lot in regards to Allen, who posted a college completion percentage of just 56.2. That is bad at any level of football. It is especially concerning when you realize that Wyoming does not play against much NFL talent.

2018 NFL Draft quarterbacks

(Photo from salutemag.com)

It is his arm strength that has NFL scouts intrigued. He can reportedly throw the ball 50 yards from his knees. That is great, but NFL plays simply do not require that. Cleveland has won one game in two years. The Browns do not have time to develop a raw talent like Allen, but the Giants might.

 

Despite last year’s three-win season, Eli Manning still played pretty well for the Giants all things considered. But the 37-year-old is clearly close to the end of his career. With a year or two to be coached by Pat Shurmur and learn from a two-time Super Bowl champion like Manning, Allen could work out well if the Giants decide to address their long-term quarterback situation early in this draft.

Josh Rosen: New York Jets

Rosen’s biggest issue at UCLA was staying on the field. He missed eight games in three years. The hits only get harder in the NFL. So durability is a legitimate concern, but his play is not. He posted a career passer rating of over 140 for the Bruins.

Some are nervous about the Rosen’s personality. You could consider saying publicly that you want to win more rings than Tom Brady cocky. However, you could also consider it the perfect mentality to play quarterback in New York. Believing you are the best is an asset there because the media will try to tear you down at every opportunity whether it is deserved or not.

2018 NFL Draft quarterbacks

(Photo from newyorkjets.com)

Coming off a five-win season, the Jets re-signed 38-year-old Josh McCown and added Teddy Bridgewater in free agency. Bridgewater has missed significant time due to injury, making just two pass attempts in the last two seasons. The Jets also traded with the Colts for their current first-round draft position. Translation: The organization knows they need to get their long-term quarterback in this draft.

Rosen may end up getting thrown out there before he is ready if he ends up with the Jets, but he seems to have the attitude for it.

Be sure to check back over the weekend for the best possible fits for Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and Mason Rudolph.

 

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