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NFL – 2020 Bills’ Mock Draft Predictions

19 Apr

We are now less than a week away from the NFL’s 2020 college draft. The first round mock draft by our Rayonsports correspondents is in the books, and now the four of us will try our hand at identifying the 7 players that our local team, the Buffalo Bills, will select this week. Here are our picks along with scouting reports and some rationale as to why the choices make sense:

 

Round 2, Pick # 54

 

Connor Pohlman – D’Andre Swift, RB (Georgia) – Recently Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller noted that the Bills will look to add more offensive playmakers in this year’s draft. With the addition of stud WR Stefon Diggs this offseason, the Bills’ offense looks to take that step and the addition of Swift will help them get there.

 

Josh Pohlman – Jonathan Taylor, RB (Wisconsin) – Taylor would be the perfect 1-2 complement to Devin Singletary and would be the best player available at pick 54. 2019 Bills’ RB Frank Gore became a free agent in the offseason.

 

Scott Prelewicz – Trevon Diggs, CB (Alabama) – cornerback depth is added by picking up the brother of recent trade acquisition – wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

 

Ray Prelewicz – Curtis Weaver EDGE (Boise State) – GM Brandon Beane has put his team in position to pick the best player available and Weaver fits that description as well as filling a future position of need, with Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and newly-signed Mario Addison all getting up in age.

 

Round 3, Pick # 86

 

Connor Pohlman – Chase Claypool, WR (Notre Dame) – Beane continues to add offensive playmakers here and clocking in at 6’4 and 238 lbs. Claypool would be the primary big body target in a WR room filled with “smurfs”, as coach Sean McDermott said last year.

 

Josh Pohlman – Chase Claypool, WR (Notre Dame) – the final offensive piece for the Bills, a big-bodied receiver who can make contested catches. It would be a stretch if he’s still available at pick # 86 but would also be the best player available.

 

Scott Prelewicz – Matthew Peart, OT (UConn) – Jamaican-born prospect with long arms and great athletic ability who may need development but his ceiling is high.

 

Ray Prelewicz – Bryan Edwards, WR (South Carolina) – Edwards is a physical, possession type receiver who projects as a slot receiver, making him the eventual heir apparent to Cole Beasley as well as an immediate contributor as he learns the ropes of being an NFL player.

 

Round 4, Pick # 128

 

Connor Pohlman – Kenny Willekes, EDGE (Michigan State) – the Bills added DE Mario Addison this offseason, who has been extremely consistent in his time with the Panthers, racking up at least 9 sacks every year since 2016. Adding Willekes here is a good value pick and will help the Bills get younger on the edge, eventually replacing Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes.

 

Josh Pohlman – Alton Robinson, EDGE (Syracuse) – a dominant pass rusher who would be a nice replacement for UFA Shaq Lawson. He has a career total of 19.5 sacks for 102 yards lost in the ACC.

 

Scott Prelewicz – Darrynton Evans, RB (Appalachian State) – small school back who would be expected to complement Devin Singletary. He’s an explosive, shifty runner who is good in pass protection, a bonus for a rookie back.

 

Ray Prelewicz – A.J. Dillon, RB (Boston College) – Bills need a big, physical short yardage back to complement Devin Singletary and Dillon would provide an immediate plug-and-play option there. He is a 6’1 249 lb. bruiser who also displays some unexpected shiftiness in the open field.

 

Round 5, Pick # 167

 

Connor Pohlman – Tanner Muse, S (Clemson) – Jordan Poyer was just recently extended for 2 more years on his current contract, but adding Muse will add depth and youth to the position. While he won’t start at safety right away, McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier like to rotate their young DBs similar to Taron Johnson and Siran Neal in their rookie seasons. Muse could compete for the chance to start on special teams. The Bills were also heavily involved in Clemson’s pro day.

 

Josh Pohlman – Shaquille Quarterman, LB (Miami) – Quarterman is a potential replacement for retired linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. Also, Matt Milano hits free agency in 2021, barring an extension.

 

Scott Prelewicz – Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR (Liberty) – a big (6’4 223 lb.) red zone target for Josh Allen. He has a big catch radius and showed tremendous improvement with his hands in his senior year.

 

Ray Prelewicz – Markus Bailey, LB (Purdue) – a tough, blue collar defender who has the tenacity to carve out a role for himself in the NFL. He would have to earn a spot on special teams while learning the nuances of the position, but with the Bills’ lack of depth at LB would have a chance.

 

Round 6A, Pick # 188

 

Connor Pohlman – Javaris Davis, CB (Auburn) – Davis brings youth and depth to a position the Bills have done a good job of improving this offseason with the additions of Josh Norman and E.J. Gaines. Davis could find himself rotating at nickel corner with Taron Johnson.

 

Josh Pohlman – Terence Steele, OT (Texas Tech) – there are still some questions along the offensive line. Dion Dawkins will be a free agent in 2021 barring an extension and Ty Nsekhe will be 35 years old in October.

 

Scott Prelewicz – Raequan Williams, DL (Michigan State) – a good hand fighter in the defensive line who would have to work hard to make the Bills’ roster. His versatility to be able to play any position along the line would help him.

 

Ray Prelewicz – Carter Coughlin, EDGE (Minnesota) – a consistent playmaker for the Gophers in his college career, Coughlin totaled 22.5 sacks and 8 forced fumbles. Some scouts question his height and strength but he is a high-motor guy and a good value pick at this point.

 

Round 6B, Pick # 207

 

Connor Pohlman – Francis Bernard, LB (Utah) – with the loss of veteran LB Lorenzo Alexander this offseason, the Bills lost a pivotal part of that #3 ranked defense. Newest signing A.J. Klein should become a starter at OLB, but the addition of Bernard will add good depth, coming from a Utah defense that played a major role in landing them in the AP Top 10 this past season.

 

Josh Pohlman – Reggie Robinson II, CB (Tulsa) – cornerback depth is always needed and with Josh Norman only on a one year deal there is room to make the roster. Levi Wallace and Tre’Davious White are potential free agents also barring extensions for them.

 

Scott Prelewicz – K.J. Osborn, WR (Miami) – he transferred from MAAC school University at Buffalo to Miami for his senior season and the jump wasn’t too big for him as he led the Hurricanes in receiving and contributed as a punt returner and on special teams, which gives him an edge in his attempt to stick in the NFL.

 

Ray Prelewicz – Jake Hanson, C (Oregon) – some scouts don’t think he’s strong enough to thrive in the NFL but his college coaches rave about him, especially his nasty temperament. He will probably have to show some versatility at other line positions to make the Bills’ roster if they pick him.

 

Round 7, Pick 239

 

Connor Pohlman – Austin Mack, WR (Ohio State) – the last pick of the Bills’ draft brings in a WR from a good college football program who made some big plays in the 2020 CFB Playoff.

 

Josh Pohlman – Rodrigo Blankenship, K (Georgia) – Bills’ kicker Stephen Hauschka will turn 35 years old in June. Last season he signed an extension and won’t be a free agent until 2022. Hauschka had a rocky start to the 2019 season, going 8-13 on field goals through the first 9 games. One game included an 0-2 performance (with a missed extra point also) that resulted in a 19-16 loss to Cleveland. It became clear that the Bills were exploring other options when they put in a waiver claim for Chase McLaughlin later in the season.

 

Scott Prelewicz – Trevon Hill, EDGE (Miami) – another Hurricane is picked. Hill enrolled at Miami after being dismissed from the team at Virginia Tech. He doesn’t have ideal size for an edge rusher but his play sometimes defied his lack of the prototypical body type.

 

Ray Prelewicz – Reggie Robinson II, CB (Tulsa) – big corner with good ball skills and a willing and able tackler in the run game. A versatile player who has also played safety.

 
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2020 NFL First Round Mock Draft

14 Apr

We here at Rayonsports  have decided to do a first round only mock draft of college players into the NFL, with the picks made alternately by Rayonsports correspondents Connor Pohlman, Josh Pohlman, Scott Prelewicz and Ray Prelewicz. Due to various trades, several teams have multiple picks in the first round. Those teams are: Miami Dolphins, with 3 choices, and Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Las Vegas Raiders and San Francisco 49ers all with a pair each. Also, each of our contributors will offer a complete 7 round draft for the hometown Buffalo Bills, to be published sometime prior to the actual selection process. Here is how we see the opening round of this year’s draft, held “virtually” because of the Covid-19 virus, shaking out:

  1. Cincinnati Bengals (Connor Pohlman) – Joe Burrow, QB (LSU)
  2. Washington Redskins (Josh Pohlman) – Chase Young, EDGE (Ohio State)
  3. Detroit Lions (Scott Prelewicz) – Jeffrey Okudah, CB (Ohio State)
  4. New York Giants (Ray Prelewicz) – Tristan Wirfs, OT (Iowa)
  5. Miami Dolphins (CP) – Justin Herbert, QB (Oregon)
  6. Los Angeles Chargers (JP) – Tua Tagovailoa, QB (Alabama)
  7. Carolina Panthers (SP) – Isaiah Simmons, LB (Clemson)
  8. Arizona Cardinals (RP) – Mekhi Becton, OT (Louisville)
  9. Jacksonville Jaguars (CP) – Derrick Brown, DT (Auburn)
  10. Cleveland Browns (JP) – Jedrick Wills, OT (Alabama)
  11. New York Jets (SP) – Andrew Thomas, OT (Georgia)
  12. Las Vegas Raiders (RP) – CeeDee Lamb, WR (Oklahoma)
  13. San Francisco 49ers (CP) – Jerry Jeudy, WR (Alabama)
  14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (JP) – Javon Kinlaw, DT (South Carolina)
  15. Denver Broncos (SP) – Henry Ruggs III, WR (Alabama)
  16. Atlanta Falcons (RP) – C.J. Henderson, CB (Florida)
  17. Dallas Cowboys (CP) – Kristian Fulton, CB (LSU)
  18. Miami Dolphins (JP) – Josh Jones, OT (Houston)
  19. Las Vegas Raiders (SP) – K’Lavon Chaisson, EDGE (LSU)
  20. Jacksonville Jaguars (RP) – Jeff Gladney, CB (TCU)
  21. Philadelphia Eagles (CP) – Justin Jefferson, WR (LSU)
  22. Minnesota Vikings (JP) – Noah Igbinoghene, CB (Auburn)
  23. New England Patriots (SP) – Jordan Love, QB (Utah State)
  24. New Orleans Saints (RP) – DeAndre Swift, RB (Georgia)
  25. Minnesota Vikings (CP) – A.J. Epenesa, EDGE (Iowa)
  26. Miami Dolphins (JP) – Denzel Mims, WR (Baylor)
  27. Seattle Seahawks (SP) – Trevon Diggs, CB (Alabama)
  28. Baltimore Ravens (RP) – Grant Delpit, S (LSU)
  29. Tennessee Titans (CP) – Yetir Gross-Matos, EDGE (Penn State)
  30. Green Bay Packers (JP) – Tee Higgins, WR (Clemson)
  31. San Francisco 49ers (SP) – Xavier McKinney, S (Alabama)
  32. Kansas City Chiefs (RP) – Patrick Queen, LB (LSU)

 

joeburrow

Joe Burrow, LSU QB,  consensus top pick on most draft boards

Some highlights and surprises of this mock draft: Miami passing up Tua to draft Herbert (what happened to Tank For Tua?), New Orleans causing consternation in the Dolphins’ war room by snatching up Swift, the top available RB, two picks before the Dolphins, and the number of wide receivers (6) and cornerbacks (6) chosen. Five offensive tackles are included, a sign of how that position is becoming a premier one in the league. National champion LSU and Alabama have 6 players chosen each. Also, a question posed – would the Patriots have drafted a quarterback regardless of whether Tom Brady left or not? We’ll check back after the actual draft to see how close we came to the actual selections.

chaseyoung

Chase Young of Ohio State, consensus #2 pick some consider best player available

 

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

19 Jan

The fourth and final section of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review is our favorite part, where we put on the general manager’s hat and make suggestions as to what the team needs to do to improve going into next season. It’ll be a much easier offseason for Brandon Beane and the front office compared to last year, when they had major holes to fill all across the roster. Beane did yeoman’s work to fill those holes in both free agency and the draft, and the results of that work were positive as the team turned its’ record around from 6-10 to 10-6 while claiming a wild card playoff spot. Here is our list of needs for the Bills, with suggestions as to how to go about filling them:

 

Quarterback

 

This should come with an asterisk as it really just means backup* QB. Josh Allen is firmly entrenched as the starter, but it would behoove the Bills to kick the tires on some veteran backups to battle Matt Barkley in training camp for the clipboard carrier’s job. Most of the available “backup” types, like Washington’s Case Keenum and Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel of Chicago or Kansas City’s Matt Moore, are well into their 30s so the Bills would be looking at a short term deal. Maybe the team would consider bringing back an old friend to be third string QB and a special teams contributor, Joe Webb III of Houston.

 

Running Back

 

While Devin Singletary is poised to carry the load as the lead back next season, the situation behind him will likely change. Frank Gore faded as the season went on and he may not even decide to play another year. T.J. Yeldon was rarely used and has to be looking for a different situation where he can get on the field more. Senorise Perry is also a free agent. That leaves Christian Wade as the sole returnee so Buffalo has to add some depth in the backfield. Kenyan Drake, who exploded onto the scene after being traded from Miami to Arizona, figures to cash in on his play from the second half of 2019 with the Cardinals. He would be an ideal complementary back to Singletary but may cost a bit too much for the Bills’ liking. Philadelphia’s Jordan Howard and Jonathan Williams of the Colts are a couple of younger and cheaper options. If they stay true to their formula, they’ll add a back in the draft, probably in the mid-to-late rounds. Players in that category are A.J. Dillon of Boston College, Lamical Perine of Florida and Benny Lemay of Charlotte.

 

Wide Receiver

 

This is the position that Buffalo is in the most need of an upgrade on offense. The additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley improved the receiving corps immensely in 2019 but there is still a need for a big, fast, strong pass catcher who makes the contested catches. Bills’ fans have clamored for Cincinnati’s A.J. Green but he is 32 years old and injury prone. The only WR on the market who comes close to filling the above-mentioned needs for Buffalo is Amari Cooper of Dallas. I see the team using the draft to get their man, with a deep class of receivers available. This position has a great chance of being the top priority of the team in the first round with the talent available. Players likely available at the Bills’ slot at # 22 are Tee Higgins of Clemson and Laviska Shenault of Colorado, both dynamic playmakers. If Brandon Beane waits until the second round to grab a receiver, Justin Jefferson of national champion LSU and Michael Pittman Jr. of USC are candidates. Possible late round gems are Bryan Edwards of South Carolina and Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool.

 

Linebacker

 

With Lorenzo Alexander retiring and the linebacking depth thin as it is, this position will be high on Beane’s list for additions. I believe the best free agent available, and a good fit for Buffalo’s defense, is New England’s Kyle Van Noy. Signing him would be the double hit of improving an already strong defense and weakening a tough Patriot defense. Matthew Judon of Baltimore is another interesting prospect. He is only 28 and a top young star on the Ravens’ defense. In the draft, Buffalo could go after Kenneth Murray of Oklahoma or LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson in the first round, or wait until round 2 and target Zack Baun of Wisconsin, Troy Dye of Oregon or Malik Harrison of Ohio State. Late round prospects include Carter Coughlin of Minnesota and Patrick Queen of LSU.

 

Edge Rusher

 

The lines between outside linebackers and edge rushers have been blurred in the last couple of years. The Bills still employ a defense that uses linebackers and defensive ends, and any edge rusher added would have to line up at one of those spots. As for free agents, Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree would be a nice addition, and although he’s up in years at 32 Carolina’s Mario Addison could be considered. In the draft, Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa would have to be looked at if he falls to the Bills in the first round, as would Curtis Weaver of Boise State. Later round sleepers are Alton Robinson of Syracuse and Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith.

 

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

17 Jan

In part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review we’ll do a position-by-position scan of the special teams and the unit that was most responsible for the team’s run to the playoffs in 2019, the defense. Here’s our critique, starting with the defense:

 

Defensive Line

 

Buffalo’s defensive line didn’t have a particular star player in 2019 but collectively did a good job in pressuring opposing passers and an adequate job stopping the run in most games. They overcame the retirement of Kyle Williams without missing a beat. In the interior, Jordan Phillips was a revelation, leading the team in sacks. Rookie Ed Oliver started out slowly but was a force in the middle as the season wore on and will be a cornerstone of the entire defensive unit moving forward. Star Lotulelei, who has been somewhat of a disappointment since signing a big free agent contract a couple of years ago, made his presence known more than ever this season and was one of a few Bills’ defenders that seemed to profit from coordinator Leslie Frazier’s more aggressive approach in 2019. Cory Luiget and Vincent Taylor are big bodied tackles who were brought in during the season and both showed some ability as space-eaters when they got a chance to play. Those 2 additions to the D-tackle rotation were made necessary when promising second year man Harrison Phillips was lost for the year early on. His return will be a big factor in 2020 and also may play into whether the Bills go all in to resign Jordan Phillips, who is now a restricted free agent and likely wants a big payday. The Bills’ rotational group at end is an interesting mix. Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy are veterans who consistently apply pressure on the pass rush but are inconsistent in racking up sacks. Hughes is a player who is always around the quarterback but doesn’t finish. If his tackling improved he could easily compile double digit sacks every year. Murphy’s performance ranges from dominant to invisible. Shaq Lawson, a former high draft pick, never really lived up to the hype until this season, when he was a good run defender and consistent pass rusher, despite a low sack count. Rookie late round pick Darryl Johnson showed a lot of potential to grow into a decent defensive end in his first year, and was a major special teams player also. Mike Love, a sleeper prospect who wound up on IR all year, will also be back in the mix in next year’s training camp. The team will employ a new defensive line coach, Eric Washington,  in 2020 and there is a lot of improvement to be had from the players he’ll coach.

 

Linebackers

 

The Bills had three solid starting linebackers in 2019 in Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, who is headed to his first Pro Bowl, and veteran Lorenzo Alexander. Alexander is retiring so there is a hole to fill in the lineup there for next year. They won’t enter the season expecting the holdover backups, Corey Thompson and Julian Stanford, to man that important position. Both are core special teamers and capable reserves but linebacker is a spot they’ll need to upgrade, and add depth to, in free agency and/or the draft. Two players who were on injured reserve, Vosean Joseph and Maurice Alexander, will be back to battle for the job. Joseph is more likely of the two to have a shot at winning the starting spot, as Alexander is the same type of player, a special teamer, as Thompson and Stanford. Tyrel Dodson, an undrafted rookie last season, could make some noise too. He showed enough in the way of intelligence and physical play in training camp last year to be kept around.

 

Defensive Backs

 

For the second straight season the secondary was the brightest unit on not only the defense but the entire Bills’ squad. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are as solid of a safety tandem as there is in the NFL, despite not getting much media attention. Tre’Davious White progressed into what many thought he would be when he was drafted, a first team All Pro cornerback. Across from him, Levi Wallace won the starting job and had his ups and downs but overall his play was acceptable. In the times he struggled this past season, Kevin Johnson took over and played well also. Johnson is a free agent now and the Bills should look to lock him up for another year. Taron Johnson, although prone to injury at times, has become a reliable slot corner. Usually practice squad members are afterthoughts when a team goes into the next season, but University at Buffalo product Cam Lewis has a legitimate chance of making the team next season. He showed enough in the preseason to be kept around despite the long odds of being an undrafted free agent from an unheralded program like UB’s. One of the most valuable members of the secondary, and even of the whole team, is the versatile Siran Neal. He has cemented his place on the club as it’s best special teams gunner, and also as a fill-in at both safety and the slot corner spot. Rookie safety Jaquan Johnson made some waves on special teams and has the look of a player who could have a future as a starter once Hyde or Poyer start to decline. A couple of veterans who have the Carolina pedigree that Beane and McDermott like, Dean Marlowe and Kurt Coleman, are strictly depth and special teams players.

 

Special Teams

 

The special teams for Buffalo were horrendous in 2018 and that led to the club bringing in a new coordinator, Heath Farwell, to lead the bomb squads. Unfortunately, the STs weren’t really special in 2019 either. Pro Bowl kick returner Andre Roberts was signed to add some spark to that part of the game, and although he was reliable and did a decent job, he wasn’t really that special and never provided the big play to help win a game or provide great field position for the offense. In other words, he could be counted on to not make costly mistakes but not to create the excitement of big returns. Perhaps they look to find a dynamic returner in the college draft, or maybe Christian Wade puts his rugby skills to work to provide some exciting returns. Kick coverage was mostly alright, although they did allow a 100+ yard return for a score to Miami. Long snapper Reid Ferguson was perfect all season. Punter Corey Bojorquez was inconsistent. He had a crucial punt blocked against New England that cost the Bills the game, and had more than a few shanks, but seemed to clean that up by season’s end. Still, some competition for his spot next season seems in order. The same could be said for placekicker Stephen Hauschka. He had a very inconsistent year but settled down to regain his “Hausch Money” nickname by season’s end. Of all the players whose main job was special teams, two were standouts in my book – Neal and Jaquan Johnson. Farwell’s job for next season should be to figure out how to get his units to help win games. Block a punt or a field goal maybe, or get some big plays in the return game that turn the tide of a game?

 

 

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

16 Jan

Part 2 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review will take a look at the offense. Here’s a position-by-position critique of the players on that side of the ball:

 

Quarterbacks

 

If there’s one word that describes the difference at the quarterback position for the Bills in 2019 compared to 2018 it’s this – stability. After a tumultuous 2018 season that saw the likes of Nate Peterman, Matt Barkley and Derek Anderson take turns guiding the offense, this past season saw second year prospect Josh Allen take the reins as the undisputed starter, and team leader, at the position. Allen showed tremendous progress as the season wore on in terms of cutting down turnovers and leading fourth quarter comebacks, and that progress was a major factor in the team racking up 10 wins on the year. He still made his share of mistakes and regressed into his “hero ball” personna at times, but if he continues to improve on the same arc he is on now the Bills truly have their franchise QB going into the future. Barkley did enough in 2018 to grab the backup spot, but it remains to be seen if the team looks to upgrade that important roster spot next season. There will be some interesting veterans looking for jobs this offseason. Does practice squad member Davis Webb have a chance to unseat Barkley? That should play out in next year’s training camp.

 

Running Backs

 

One of the big surprises of the 2019 campaign was the jettisoning of LeSean McCoy, the Bills’ workhorse back of previous seasons. That left the ball-carrying load in the hands of future Hall of Famer Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary. Gore carried the load early on and when Singletary was hurt, but as the season wore on the rookie took over as the lead back and Gore’s carries were diminished. There’s no doubt going into 2020 that Singletary is the main ball carrier and it’s not even likely the aging Gore will return for another season. T.J. Yeldon was a free agent signee who rarely was active on game days. I don’t see him returning to the Bills next year as he will want to find a team where he can have more opportunity to play. Senorise Perry is on the roster strictly for special teams and will have to fight hard to retain his spot next season. Christian Wade, the novelty rugby player who was on the practice squad in 2019, will get another crack at making the team. He showed flashes of promise in the preseason and it will be interesting to see how much further along he is in his development when he takes the field in camp. There is definitely room for another back, preferably one who would complement Singletary, to be brought into the fold for next season. Fullback Pat DiMarco is another player who is a regular on special teams and is used on offense almost strictly as a blocking back. Could the Bills save that roster spot by utilizing an extra lineman or a big defensive player in that blocking back role next year?

 

Receivers

 

The free agent additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley were an immense improvement over the Bills’ 2018 receiving corps. Brown provided a 1,000+ yard season while Beasley posted career high numbers as a slot security blanket for Allen. The rest of the receiver group provided mixed results. Isaiah McKenzie was usually the #3 wideout and he had his moments but wasn’t a consistent threat. He made most of his noise on jet sweep running plays. Duke Williams rarely saw the field and when he did he made some important plays as a big target for Allen, but again, wasn’t consistent enough as he also had some drops. Robert Foster regressed from 2018 and it appears he will be in for a fight to make the final roster next season, especially if the Bills add more receiving help as expected. Andre Roberts was almost exclusively used as a kick returner. He was extremely reliable but did nothing spectacular. The Bills will have 5 tight ends battling for jobs in 2020. Rookie Dawson Knox appears to have locked down the starting spot, and another first year player, Tommy Sweeney, was noticeable as a weapon in the rare chances he got to see action. Veteran Lee Smith is a locker room force and a good mentor for the young tight ends, but with his penchant for taking penalties he should struggle to stick with the club next year. Free agent addition Tyler Kroft lost much of the season to injury, but he’s signed on for additional years so he will probably be among the tight ends who are kept. Jason Croom became a forgotten man as he spent the season on injured reserve, but he’ll also be around to compete for a job.

 

Offensive Linemen

 

The Bills completely rebuilt their offensive line in 2019 with left tackle Dion Dawkins being the only returnee from the previous year to keep his job. GM Brandon Beane’s biggest free agent splash was signing center Mitch Morse to a long term contract and after dealing with concussion issues in the preseason Morse settled in to anchor the line all season. In the few instances when Morse was sidelined with injuries, another free agent, Jon Feliciano, showed his versatility by filling in at center. Otherwise Feliciano nailed down the starting right guard spot and performed admirably there all year. At left guard was Quinton Spain, signed away from Tennessee. He started at that position all season and didn’t allow a single sack in pass protection while also blocking well for the run. Veteran Ty Nsekhe came in as a free agent also and alternated at right tackle with rookie second round draft pick Cody Ford. When Nsekhe went down late in the year with an ankle injury Ford took over the spot full time and although he had his share of rookie hiccups he played well enough to give the team hope that they’ve found a long term answer for that position too. One of the tasks facing Beane this offseason will be resigning Spain, who came to Buffalo on a one year “prove it” deal. The big guard bet on himself and it paid off as he earned a big payday, hopefully from the Bills. There weren’t many times when the depth players on the line were called on to fill in as the Bills stayed miraculously healthy all year, but when the need arose Beane’s acquisitions filled the bill well. Spencer Long, signed for his versatility, played both center and guard at times and there wasn’t a noticeable decline in play. A preseason trade addition, Ryan Bates, also was a versatile addition. He wasn’t called on often but spent time at both guard and tackle and as an extra lineman when called for. He could be an excellent candidate to become the aforementioned “fullback” if the team decides to move on from Pat DiMarco. Ike Boettger was on the 53 man roster but with the good health of the regular linemen he rarely was active on game day. Another of Beane’s O-line free agents, swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle, was hurt in training camp and spent the season on injured reserve. He was also on a one year contract and his status will be another decision the front office has to make for 2020. Overall, the team has to be ecstatic over how the massive overhaul of the line worked out. The team is set up for the coming years with stability up front.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

15 Jan

Today we begin our extensive four-part review of the 2019 Buffalo Bills’ season with a look at the performance of the front office and coaching staff. General manager Brandon Beane went into the free agency period last year with a plan, and he executed it well. He added a pair of valuable options in the passing game for his young quarterback, Josh Allen, in John Brown and Cole Beasley. Tight end Tyler Kroft was a gamble since he had injury issues, and the gamble didn’t work as Kroft missed significant time with a foot injury and made very little impact when he did get on the field. Beane also completely remade the team’s offensive line. Center Mitch Morse was the star attraction of the free agents and he was a consistent performer all season after having concussion issues in training camp. Also added were starting guards Jon Feliciano and Quinton Spain, who both became instant starters and major upgrades over the 2018 guards. Tackles Ty Nsekhe and La’Adrian Waddle had mixed results due to injuries. Former first round draft pick Kevin Johnson was added to the secondary and provided important cornerback depth all year. The rest of the signees were a mixed bag of players who provided help here and there during the season, with kick return specialist Andre Roberts being the most notable. Beane had an outstanding college draft, plucking players who should be cornerstones of the franchise in the future. Early choices Ed Oliver, Cody Ford, Devin Singletary and Dawson Knox all became starters who flashed potential to develop into Pro Bowl players. Late rounders Jaquan Johnson and Darryl Johnson were major special team contributors and Darryl Johnson was a regular part of the defensive line rotation also.

As for the coaching, head man Sean McDermott continued to preach “trusting the process” and has built a great culture among his players in his 3 seasons. In last season’s review, I commented that McDermott’s “process” had to translate to wins in 2019, and it did just that as the team finished 10-6 and locked up a wild card spot. He still is winless against Bill Belichick’s New England club, with the three year record now at 0-6. Plenty of fans were clamoring for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to be fired after the offense was mediocre this season, but he really produced adequate results considering the young QB, the totally revamped O-line and the fact that a couple of his main weapons, Singletary and Knox, were rookies who delivered typical rookie-like inconsistent results. Leslie Frazier did a great job coordinating the defense. He was masterful at mixing up coverages and having a good knack for blitzing at the right times. It was very telling that Tennessee defensive players, after upsetting the Ravens in the playoffs, reported that they developed their game plan to stop Lamar Jackson “using the Buffalo model”. The Bills had a new special teams coordinator in 2019, Heath Farwell, and the special teams really didn’t do much that was special during the season. In fact, a blocked punt cost them a game against the Patriots and they also allowed a 100+ yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami. It’s a good sign moving forward that McDermott, at his postseason press conference, stressed that there was still much room for improvement heading into next season. Facing a much tougher schedule in 2020, standing pat won’t cut it for this club.

 
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NFL – Throwback Thursday: AFL Western Division Rivalry Is Born

26 Dec

This is the seventeenth and final week of the NFL’s regular season, but for the final Throwback Thursday feature of the year we’ll go back to a game from the opening week, of the opening season, of the American Football League. The Los Angeles Chargers play the Kansas City Chiefs on this week’s schedule, and those two franchises also met on the first week of scheduled AFL games in 1960. This particular matchup was played on September 10th of that inaugural season, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Chiefs’ franchise was located in Dallas and known as the Texans. They would relocate to Kansas City in 1963 and be rechristened as the Chiefs, while in a bit of irony, the Chargers would play only that first season in L.A. before moving to San Diego, where they would stay until shuffling back to LaLa Land a couple of years ago. The two teams were led by future Hall of Fame coaches, Hank Stram of the Texans and the Chargers’ Sid Gillman. The players in this contest weren’t exactly the ones anyone would identify with these clubs as the AFL progressed through the 1960s. When the Texans opened the scoring with a 12 yard touchdown pass to Chris Burford, it wasn’t thrown by the QB most linked to Stram, Len Dawson. It was Cotton Davidson, who would have moderate success in later years with the Raiders but who isn’t a household name with Chiefs’ fans. Jack Spikes scored on a short run to give the Texans a 13-0 lead before the Chargers scored on a 46 yard pass from Jack Kemp to Ralph Anderson. Kemp would go on to lead Buffalo to a pair of AFL titles in the mid-1960s but isn’t generally associated with the Chargers, and Anderson isn’t exactly Lance Alworth when it comes to memorable Charger receivers. Davidson hit a forgotten superstar of the early AFL years, Abner Haynes, with a 17 yard TD pass to widen the Texans’ lead to 20-7. Kemp then took over the fourth quarter, scoring on a 7 yard run and hitting Howie Ferguson, another forgotten player, with the winning touchdown pass from 4 yards out to give the Chargers a hard-fought 21-20 win.

Haynes was the leading Dallas receiver on the day, grabbing 7 passes out of the backfield for 62 yards while Spikes led his team’s ground attack with 62 yards on 9 carries. Kemp threw for 275 yards and the 2 scores, and his leading receivers were the forgettable Anderson, with 103 receiving yards on 5 catches, and Royce Womble, with 7 grabs for 92 yards. The Texans would extract revenge later in the season, defeating the Chargers 17-0 in Dallas. The Chargers won the Western Division but lost to the Houston Oilers in the AFL’s inaugural title game. Haynes would go on to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award for the season. Stram and Gillman would continue to develop excellent teams throughout the ten year existence of the AFL, and the rivalry between the franchises has continued to this day.

 

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Program from Chargers/Texans inaugural AFL game

 

NFL 100 – Hank Stram

25 Dec

“Keep matriculating that ball down the field, boys!” That NFL Films video, of Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Hank Stram on the sidelines of Super Bowl IV, is a treasure for football fans who love the game’s history. No history of the NFL can be written without including Stram, the subject of our NFL 100 post today. He began his coaching career as an assistant football coach and head baseball coach at Purdue in the 1940s, and it was during his eight year stint there that he first met the future quarterback his pro football coaching success would be tied to – Len Dawson. He coached at three other schools, Southern Methodist University, Notre Dame and Miami, as an assistant during the 1950s and it was at the one-year stop at S.M.U. that he would meet a fringe Mustang player who would eventually alter his life – future American Football League founder and Kansas City Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt.

 

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Hank Stram in a Purdue yearbook photo

When Hunt founded the AFL in 1959, he placed his own franchise in Dallas and named them the Texans. Although he’d never been a head coach, Stram was hired for that job with the Texans. Stram wasn’t his first choice. He had tried to hire Bud Wilkinson and Tom Landry but was turned down by both. Of course Landry, a successful New York Giants’ assistant coach at the time, took the job as coach of the expansion NFL team in Dallas, the Cowboys, instead. Stram turned out to be a good hire, however. The Texans were immediately successful and won the AFL championship in 1962 by knocking off the Houston Oilers in overtime. The Oilers had won the league’s title in it’s first 2 seasons. Despite the success on the field, the Texans could not compete at the box office with the NFL’s Cowboys, and Hunt moved the franchise to Kansas City for the 1963 season and renamed them the Chiefs. Their success continued there, as Stram and Dawson led them to 2 more AFL titles, including a 31-7 win over Buffalo in 1966 that would earn them the right to play Green Bay in the first Super Bowl, known as the AFL/NFL Championship Game at the time. They lost that contest but won the AFL crown again in 1969 and upset the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, recording the newer league’s second straight title win, establishing once and for all that the AFL had reached parity with the older NFL. Stram’s Chiefs fell on hard times as the 1970s progressed, and he was fired in 1974. He returned to the NFL to coach the New Orleans Saints in 1976 but had no luck turning around the moribund franchise. His shining moment with the Saints came in 1976 as the team recorded their first win of the Stram coaching era there, beating his old team, the Chiefs, 27-17. He was highly successful as a color analyst on radio and CBS television broadcasts when he was through coaching, working in that capacity into the 1990s.

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The always well-dressed Stram discusses strategy with his QB, Len Dawson

Stram was deservedly enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Like many who labored in the AFL, he was an innovator who helped change the game. His Chiefs’ were the first professional team to use Gatorade on the sidelines, he introduced the “choir huddle” where his players lined up in organized lines, rather than the traditional circle. His offensive strategies included using both the I formation and the double tight end set, both used widely in the NFL today. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the game was doing intense scouting of small black colleges, where he uncovered gems like Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, Wendell Hayes, Otis Taylor and Emmitt Thomas. The pioneers who guided the AFL through the 1960s into reaching parity with the NFL are all a huge part of helping grow the game into the monster it is today, and Hank Stram belongs at the top of that list of pioneers.

 

NFL 100 – Expanded Hall of Fame Class

24 Dec

Back in 2010, Rayonsports.com published a series of 9 posts pointing out the many players who we felt were gross omissions from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since then some of those players have been voted in, but there still remains some notable men who stand out as having Hall of Fame resumes but still aren’t in. For this NFL 100 post, we’ll revisit the list of players who we feel belong in the Hall, since for their 100th season celebration the league is expanding the number of candidates to be enshrined. The Hall of Fame has listed the semifinalists for the extra class and unfortunately many of the players I felt should have been included were not. The expanded class will have 20 new members, broken down as follows: 5 modern era players, 10 senior inductees, 3 contributors and 2 coaches. Let’s start with the modern era players. Former Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu is almost a lock to be inducted in his first year of eligibility. John Lynch, former Tampa Bay safety, is a strong candidate, as is Isaac Bruce, a top receiver on the Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf” teams in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Clay Matthews, ex-Cleveland Browns’ linebacker who had a brilliant career, is a dark horse candidate but I feel he is more than deserving. My fifth and final choice is a real long shot who really should get serious consideration – former Bills’ special teamer Steve Tasker. He is in his final year of regular eligibility and truly redefined the position of “special teams maven”.

 

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Steve Tasker (89) blocks a punt in the Super Bowl

Looking at the senior candidates, even though expanding the number of players to be enshrined should help some long-overlooked men finally get in, the semifinalists named left off some that should have been considered long ago. Jim Marshall, Roman Gabriel, Maxie Baughan, Jim Plunkett, Lee Roy Jordan and Walter Johnson are all Hall-worthy players who didn’t make the semifinal list of 20. The Hall’s list includes some early era players I’m not familiar with, so my 10 players are going to be mostly guys who were in the NFL post-1950s. I’ve got 4 wide receivers on my list who I feel belong. They were called “split ends” or “flankerbacks” when they played. Three of them played in what I consider to be the Golden Age of pro football, the 1960s through the 1980s. They are former Raider Cliff Branch, ex-Eagle Harold Carmichael and Drew Pearson of the Cowboys. The fourth is an old-timer, Mac Speedie, who was a star on the dominant Cleveland teams of the 1940s and ’50s, catching passes from Otto Graham. The next 3 of my choices played on the defensive side of the ball. Alex Karras, former Detroit defensive tackle, should have been inducted long ago, but was probably hurt by his suspension for gambling in 1963. Pittsburgh safety Donnie Shell is another deserving candidate. As Jerry Kramer of the Packers was held back until last year by the large number of his Green Bay teammates already enshrined, Shell has been the victim of the numbers game when it comes to the amount of 1970s Steelers already in the Hall. He is more than deserving to go in with this senior class however. The last defensive player, and seventh overall of my senior picks, is linebacker Randy Gradishar of the Broncos. A stalwart of Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense of the 1970s, he has been long overlooked. My eighth choice is the player on the semifinalist list who is most deserving, former 49er back Roger Craig. He was a great all-around back who played a major role in San Francisco’s dominant era of the 1980s and ’90s. For my last 2 choices, I had to do some heavy research, since I knew very little about the old-timers on the list. One pick is Cecil Isbell. He quarterbacked Curley Lambeau’s Green Bay  teams of the 1930s and was a prolific passer in a run oriented era, hooking up with Hall of Famer Don Hutson. My other choice is Duke Slater, a five-time All Pro tackle in the 1920s. He played mostly for the Chicago Cardinals and was the first African American lineman to play in the NFL.

 

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Drew Pearson (88) with a “Hail Mary” reception

Moving on to the coaches, one of my 2 choices stands out like a sore thumb. Tom Flores won 2 Super Bowls as head coach of the Raiders, yet is never mentioned in the same conversation as coaches like Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson. Johnson is on the semifinalist list but he isn’t one of my picks. My second choice is Don Coryell, who never won a championship but was an offensive innovator who belongs in the Hall. Coryell was a tough choice, as Buddy Parker also deserves consideration. He coached the last Detroit Lion teams who had any success, winning 2 championships in the 1950s for that franchise. His later years in Pittsburgh were not very successful so Coryell edges him out.

Of the contributors, my main pick is the late Steve Sabol of NFL Films. Along with his father Ed, who is already enshrined, they ushered the league into the media age with their masterful images of game action, using slow motion video, the music of Sam Spence and narration from the “Voice of God”, John Facenda, to bring true drama to the game. Frank “Bucko” Kilroy and George Young are my other choices. Kilroy was a long-time executive with 4 different franchises. He also was a good enough player to be named to the All Decade team for the 1940s. In all, his career in the NFL spanned the decades from 1943 until 2007. Young was a five-time Executive of The Year, and as Director of Player Personnel in Miami and GM of the New York Giants, was a part of 3 Super Bowl-winning organizations. Two men on the list who I didn’t consider are Art Modell and Art McNally. Modell earned the wrath of Cleveland fans when he moved the Browns to Baltimore and there is already protesting among fans that the NFL is trying to “back door” him into the Hall against the wishes of Cleveland, and other, fans. McNally was a long-time official who probably should be considered for enshrinement but my view is that officials should have their own place of “honor” outside of Canton, like maybe in the zoo with the other zebras.

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Steve and Ed Sabol of NFL Films

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Walking The Walk?

19 Dec

The Detroit Lions take on the Denver Broncos this week in the penultimate game for the NFL teams. For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, we’ll travel back to a strange time in pro football’s history, the 1967 preseason. This is the second time we’ve featured a game from that year that was just an exhibition contest, but was really much more. On October 28, 2015 we highlighted a game between the Chiefs and Bears from that same preseason. To set up the story we need to remind people who didn’t witness that period of what it was all about. It was 1967, the start of the first season following Green Bay’s demolition of Kansas City in the first AFL/NFL Championship game, which would later become the Super Bowl. It was also the first time, according to the terms of the merger of the 2 leagues, that teams from the rival leagues were allowed to play exhibition games against each other. In prior years the preseason would be a time when players came into training camp from the second jobs they held in order to survive and used the time to get back into football shape. This preseason was going to be drastically different. The NFL had long stated that their upstart rivals were “a Mickey Mouse operation” and a vastly inferior product made up of players who couldn’t cut it in the older, established league. The AFL clubs felt they had advanced to the point where they could compete with the older league, Green Bay’s championship dominance not withstanding. Packer coach Vince Lombardi had added fuel to the fire when he stated in an interview following that first Super Bowl that although he thought that Kansas City was a fine club, that there were numerous teams in the NFL that were better.

In this particular exhibition game, played on August 5, 1967, there was quite a bit of skepticism about the upstart AFL among Lions’ players. The Broncos, for one thing, were the absolute worst of all the teams in the new league, having never posted a winning record. Also, Denver had opened the ’67 preseason with an embarrassing 19-2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, an expansion team in the previous season. Detroit’s outspoken defensive lineman, Alex Karras, openly laughed at the prospect of facing the downtrodden Broncos, and before this game boasted that if his team lost to the Broncos he would walk home from Denver. The Broncos banded together and played an outstanding game. Their defense stymied the Lions’ attack, while their offense managed a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. A key play happened in the third quarter when Denver punter Bob Scarpitto faked a kick and ran for a first down, extending a drive that ended with aging fullback Cookie Gilchrist plunging into the end zone from a yard out to open up the lead to 10-0. The Lions came back to score in the fourth quarter on a Milt Plum touchdown pass but Denver added a field goal and hung on for a shocking 13-7 victory. Detroit coach Joe Schmidt handled the defeat with class, praising the Broncos’ effort and desire and adding that the new league was on par with the NFL. Although some Lion players expressed disbelief in the result, Karras didn’t have much to say after the loss. He just put his tail between his legs and quietly took the team flight back to Detroit. As for the AFL/NFL preseason competition that year, the older league wound up dominating, winning 13 of 16 contests. Two of the AFL’s 3 wins were recorded by the lowly Broncos.

 

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Lions vs. Broncos action from 1967 preseason