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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Packer/Cowboy Playoff “Classic”?

05 Oct

The Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, who have a storied playoff history of games played between them, meet on this week’s NFL schedule. In the past, we’ve featured a pair of classic 1960s battles between these 2 teams that were both won by Green Bay in our Throwback Thursday stories. They renewed their postseason rivalry in the 1990s and Dallas dominated those meetings. But for this week’s TBT post, it won’t be a Bart Starr vs. Don Meredith matchup from the ’60s or a Troy Aikman vs. Brett Favre meeting from the ’90s, but rather an obscure playoff clash that took place on January 16, 1983. The opposing quarterbacks? How about Danny White and Lynn Dickey? Starr was Green Bay’s head coach at the time, and for this contest he matched wits with Dallas’ legendary head man, Tom Landry.

Technically it was a divisional round game, but the 1982 season was shortened by a player strike and a total of 16 teams qualified for the playoffs in a special format the league devised to try to crown a Super Bowl champion for the year. Both the Cowboys and Packers won their special “wild card” games to get the opportunity to play each other and move on. Although both franchises have won multiple Super Bowls, the 1980s weren’t a time when either team was much of a championship threat. The Cowboys wound up winning 37-26 as White mostly outplayed Dickey, but Dallas would wind up losing to eventual champion Washington in the title game. White’s favorite target, Tony Hill, caught 7 passes for 142 yards and Tony Dorsett had a decent day running the ball for the Cowboys, while future Hall of Famer James Lofton had a big day for the Packers, snagging 5 passes for 109 yards and also running for a 71 yard TD on an option play.The difference in the game turned out to be the three interceptions thrown by Dickey, all to Dallas defensive back Dennis Thurman, who returned one of the picks 39 yards for a touchdown. White’s career was similar to that of the recently retired Tony Romo. He was a very good player but never really achieved greatness.

 

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Danny White, coach Tom Landry discuss strategy

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Orange Crush

28 Sep

On this week’s NFL schedule two old American Football League Western Division rivals clash – the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos. Their rivalry continued in the NFL after the merger, but it was pretty one-sided up until the 1977 season. It got pretty heated that year, as coach Red Miller’s Broncos and their vaunted “Orange Crush” defense came out of nowhere to challenge the Raiders in the AFC West. Oakland’s club was the defending Super Bowl champions, yet the two regular season meetings between these teams were a wash. They played each other twice in a three week span in October, with Denver’s defense dominating the first meeting, intercepting Ken Stabler 7 times and sacking him 3 times en route to a 30-7 rout. Oakland got some revenge two weeks later with a 24-14 win, and both teams advanced in the AFC playoffs to set up a “rubber match” in the AFC Championship game. Denver was actually the higher seed as AFC West champs so the game was played in the Mile High City but history-wise, the Raiders had a distinct advantage. They were coming off their first-ever Super Bowl title, and had been one of pro football’s winningest franchises since the mid-1960s. Denver, however, had been the losingest team in the old AFL, and had never even qualified for a playoff berth in their history prior to the ’77 season. They were post-season infants.

The title game was played on New Year’s day, January 1st, 1978. It was mostly a defensive struggle, and neither team could muster much of a ground game. The Broncos held Oakland’s main weapons, running back Clarence Davis and receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch, in check while their journeyman quarterback Craig Morton found his favorite target, Haven Moses, 5 times for 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Stabler found his tight end, Dave Casper for a pair of scores in the fourth quarter but the home team hung on for a 20-17 win to advance to the Super Bowl. Denver’s defense was led by Bronco legends like Tom Jackson, Randy Gradishar, Lyle Alzado, Steve Foley and Rubin Carter. The “Orange Crush” club was a bit of a one hit wonder, though. They lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl and didn’t have much post-season success after the ’77 season. Miller, who passed away just this week, coached 3 more years in Denver before being dismissed.

 

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Tom Jackson pursues “The Ghost”, Dave Casper, in 1977 AFC title game (AP Images)

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The 1964 NFL Championship

21 Sep

The Cleveland Browns meet the Indianapolis Colts on this week’s NFL schedule, which takes our Throwback Thursday feature back to the 1964 NFL Championship game, played between these 2 franchises. Growing up as a Browns’ fan in this era, this was one of my favorite football games of all time. In fact, the Browns and Buffalo Bills of the AFL were my favorite teams at the time, and both won their respective league titles that year. The Colts were a heavy favorite going into the game. They were coached by the man who would go on to become the winningest coach in NFL history, Don Shula, and their roster was loaded with talented offensive weapons like John Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, John Mackey, Tom Matte, Jim Parker and Jimmy Orr. Defensively they were an immovable object, led by Gino Marchetti , Don Shinnick, Ordell Braase, Steve Stonebreaker and Lenny Lyles.

The Browns were a year removed from a player uprising that led to the firing of their legendary founder and head coach Paul Brown. He was replaced by the very capable Blanton Collier, who had one advantage going for him. The players, led by all time great fullback Jim Brown, were determined to prove they could win despite Paul Brown’s departure. Surprisingly, after a scoreless first half with the weather affecting both offenses, Cleveland dominated the game in the second half. The Browns’ underrated defense shut out the high-powered Colts as they did in the first half, while Browns’ quarterback Frank Ryan began to put drives together. He hit flanker Gary Collins for a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter, and the Browns added a Lou Groza field goal to take a 17-0 lead into the final stanza. Another Groza field goal and a third scoring throw from Ryan to Collins sealed the victory for the Browns, 27-0.

It was the last title the Browns would win to this day, but it was a sweet one as the players proved their point about winning without Paul Brown’s disciplinary style. Jim Brown made his usual contribution to the attack, rushing for 114 yards and adding 37 receiving yards. Collins was the game’s MVP with 5 catches for 130 yards and the 3 TDs. It was a sweet victory for Ryan, who had been a journeyman in the league before the Browns traded for him from the Rams in 1962 to back up starter Jim Ninowski. Unfortunately, Ninowski broke his collarbone and Ryan took over as the starter in ’63, and never relinquished the job.

 

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Jim Brown grinds out yardage in the 1964 title game

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Jim Hardy’s Redemption

14 Sep

One of the matchups in week two of the 2017 NFL season features a game between 2 teams that are looking to rebound from tough losses on opening day – the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts. For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, we’ll go a long way back into NFL history to a game played between these franchises when both played in different cities. It took place on October 2, 1950 at Comiskey Park. The Cardinals were located in Chicago then, and this game was actually the only one that ever took place between the Chicago Cardinals and the then-Baltimore Colts. They wouldn’t play each other again until 1961, when the Cards had already relocated to St. Louis. Chicago was a powerhouse club at the time, having won the NFL title a couple of years prior, led by future Hall of Fame back Charley Trippi. The game was extremely one-sided, with the Cardinals posting a 55-13 victory on the strength of a big passing day by quarterback Jim Hardy, who threw 6 touchdown passes on only 13 completions for the day. Five of those TD throws went to end Bob Shaw, who grabbed 8 passes for 165 yards on the day. It was a day of redemption for Hardy, who just the previous week had a nightmare game for the ages, throwing eight interceptions in a 45-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to set an NFL record for futility that still stands today. Trippi contributed a pair of rushing touchdowns to the winning cause also, but it was Hardy’s day, as he shrugged off the previous week’s disaster and led his team to the big win. A couple of other future Hall of Famers were involved in this game also. The Cardinals at the time were coached by Curley Lambeau, legendary founder, player and coach of the Green Bay Packers who had moved on from Green Bay under controversial circumstances (a story for another day) and wound up with the Cardinals. Also, Baltimore was quarterbacked that day by a young Y.A. Tittle (although it’s hard to imagine a “young” Tittle). He had a forgettable day, completing only 9 passes for a paltry 91 yards and throwing 2 interceptions.

 

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Chicago Cardinals’ QB Jim Hardy 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Los Angeles Chargers

07 Sep

It’s the start of another NFL season tonight, which means Throwback Thursdays are back for another season also. On Monday night, the Chargers visit Denver to play the Broncos and for the first time in 56 years, they won’t be representing the city of San Diego after moving to Los Angeles in the off-season. Actually, they moved back to the city of angels. It’s almost forgotten, but the team played their inaugural season in the old American Football League in Los Angeles, way back in 1960. For this week’s TBT, we look back at a matchup between the Broncos and the L.A. Chargers of 1960 that took place on December 10th of that year. Played in cavernous L.A. Coliseum, it was a typical rousing AFL game, the kind the league was known for in its’ early days, with the Chargers pulling out a 41-33 victory. The Charger offense, orchestrated by future Hall of Fame head coach Sid Gillman, was a balanced attack. Paul Lowe ran for 106 yards on 19 carries and scored a touchdown. Quarterback Jack Kemp, Gillman’s field general, threw for 3 scores and ran for another. Denver kept the score close with some pretty good offense of their own. QB Frank Tripucka found his favorite receiver, Lionel Taylor, for 9 catches for 171 yards and a TD. In the days when position players did double duty as kickers, Denver halfback Gene Mingo, an early AFL star, accounted for 21 of his team’s 33 points with a rushing touchdown, 3 extra points and 4 field goals.

The Broncos held a 30-24 lead entering the fourth quarter, but Kemp guided his club to 17 final quarter points to secure the win. Gillman’s team was an AFL powerhouse in those early years. They won the Western Division crown in  3 of the league’s first 4 seasons, losing to the Houston Oilers in the title game in ’60 and ’61, before finally winning a championship in 1963 with an eye-opening 51-10 thrashing of the Boston Patriots. They made it to the championship in 1964 and ’65 also but lost both times to Buffalo. However, the 5 Western Division crowns in the AFL’s first 6 years of existence were quite an accomplishment.

 

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The Los Angeles Chargers’ 5 man coaching staff of 1960 included 3 future Hall of Famers – Sid Gillman, Chuck Noll and Al Davis.

 

NFL – Buffalo Bills’ 2017 Season Preview

03 Sep

It’s a whole new ballgame once again at One Bills Drive in 2017 as the team, in what seems like the umpteenth time, starts over with an entirely new regime in charge of football operations. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula, burned the last 2 seasons by the Rex Ryan circus, turn to Sean McDermott to try and right the ship. The expectations will be low as the roster seems to lack talent and the turnover has been high, but Buffalo fans will surely have high hopes that the 17 year playoff drought will finally end. Here is our assessment of the newest rendition of the hometown team, position by position:

 

Front Office / Coaching

Shortly after McDermott was hired as coach, Brandon Beane was brought in to replace Doug Whaley as general manager. The 2 newcomers at least seem to be on the same page when it comes to the type of player they want on the roster. The turnover on the roster has been stunning, and there was no more shocking move made than the trade of prize receiver Sammy Watkins. That move may backfire, but this regime certainly is not afraid to move boldly to accomplish their vision of a winning organization. McDermott hired a couple of experienced coordinators in Rick Dennison and Leslie Frazier, but time will tell whether there is enough talent on the team for them to orchestrate any success. With all the new faces on the team, it will be difficult to coordinate anything, given the lack of familiarity involved.

 

Quarterbacks

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QB Tyrod Taylor

Although he enters the season in the concussion protocol and his status is uncertain for opening day, Tyrod Taylor is back as the Bills’ starting quarterback. He gives the team its’ best chance to win with his unique skill set, but still needs to show he can throw over the middle and just play more consistently in general. Still, the Bills’ offense, with Taylor at the helm, scored more points last year than the franchise did in Jim Kelly’s final 2 seasons in the 1990s. Rookie Nathan Peterman won the backup job in camp and showed poise in the pocket in the game action he saw. For the time being the Bills have 4 signal callers on the roster, with veteran T.J. Yates also in concussion protocol, and “Swiss Army knife” Joe Webb, a late addition from the waiver wire.

Running Backs

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RB LeSean McCoy

Buffalo’s rushing attack is among the NFL’s best and LeSean McCoy is easily their best player. He will be a top weapon in both the running and passing attacks, and a major challenge for the coaching staff will be getting him the ball in space when opposing defenses will be keyed to stopping him. He is the only apparent big play threat on offense. With Mike Gillislee gone in free agency and Jonathan Williams a surprise cut, newcomer Joe Banyard looks like the main backup. Pro Bowl fullback Pat DiMarco was added to the roster, with his major role being that of a blocker for the feature backs. He can also help out in the passing game. Another new backfield addition is veteran Mike Tolbert, a fullback by trade who has also gotten opportunities as a running back. He should be valuable in short yardage and goal line situations. Speedy Taiwan Jones is also on the roster. He showed some flashes as a runner, but was outstanding as a special teams gunner, which will likely be his primary role.

 

Receivers

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WR Jordan Matthews

The receiving corps got a major shakeup and lost a valuable downfield weapon when Watkins was dealt to the Rams, and the 2017 group looks like a mish-mosh of mostly slot-type receivers. Jordan Matthews, acquired from the Eagles the same day Watkins was traded, appears to be the top pass catcher now even though he has yet to suit up for a game. rookie Zay Jones will have to become a major player in the passing game whether he is ready or not. So far he looks like he has reliable hands and may even have the potential to develop into a deep threat. Brandon Tate is the club’s main kick returner, and a pretty effective one, but he also could see significant time as a receiver. The receiving corps is rounded out with veteran journeyman Andre Holmes, plus new addition Kaelin Clay, who is relatively unknown. He has some speed and made some plays in the preseason for Carolina, and is another kick return option. The Bills are keeping 4 tight ends on the roster, since tight ends apparently are important pieces of Dennison’s offensive scheme. Charles Clay can be a playmaker if Taylor can get him the ball over the middle, while Nick O’Leary is capable of moving the chains with third down receptions. The third option is project Logan Thomas, who is being converted to the position from quarterback. He is probably a candidate for the inactive list each week. The newest waiver acquisition is another tight end, Khari Lee, who has a couple of years of limited NFL experience.

Offensive Line

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C Eric Wood

The offensive line has been a strength of the team in recent years, despite the mediocre overall play of the offense. Anchored by center Eric Wood, the starting five have played together for awhile now, although they are learning a new zone-blocking scheme this year under Dennison. Richie Incognito and John Miller man the guard spots, with Cordy Glenn and Jordan Mills at tackle. There is some solid depth behind the starters, and some of the backups may push their way into the starting lineup as the season wears on. Ryan Groy played well in Wood’s spot last year after the starting center was injured, and is the primary backup. He could also slide into both guard and tackle positions in a pinch. The fact that Buffalo matched a free agency offer to keep him proves his value. Rookie second round pick Dion Dawkins may also push Mills out of the lineup when he gains some experience. Free agent signee Vlad Ducasse battled Miller for his job in camp, and will likely spell him during games all year. A late addition is Conor McDermott, no relation to the coach, who is a large rookie tackle from UCLA who was claimed off waivers.

Defensive Line

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DE Shaq Lawson

Despite the low expectations, there is reason for optimism for Bills’ fans heading into the 2017 season. That reason is that the strength of the team is in the trenches, which is usually what winning teams need to be successful. Just like the offensive line, the defensive line is loaded with talent, and will be playing in a scheme that should highlight that talent, rather than hinder it, this year. Kyle Williams is a solid veteran, and locker room leader, at one tackle, and man-child Marcell Dareus is at the other tackle. Dareus needs to have a big year for the D-line, and the defense in general, to succeed. He can start by getting his off the field act together and then begin living up to his big contract. Ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson are primed to have big years harassing opposing quarterbacks. Hughes appears ready for a return to top form, while Lawson may have a breakout year. In the modern NFL, a robust defensive line rotation is important, and the Bills have plenty of depth to keep the troops fresh as games, and the season, grind on. Jerel Worthy, Adolphus Washington and DeAndre Coleman are stout as reserve tackles inside, while newcomers Ryan Davis and Eddie Yarbrough man the backup end spots. Yarbrough in particular showed a lot of energy in the preseason playing time he got. Judging from the preseason, the Bills will be tough to run against this year, after allowing multiple 200 yard rushers last season.

Linebackers

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LB Preston Brown

Buffalo’s linebacking corps is a little unsettled as the season begins. First off, the switch from last year’s 3-4 alignment to a base 4-3 left some players as bad fits. That was the case with Reggie Ragland, who was dealt to the Chiefs. Preston Brown was supposed to be challenged for the middle linebacker job by Ragland, but the veteran from Louisville resoundingly won that battle and will quarterback the defense from that spot. Aging vet Lorenzo Alexander was a revelation last year, but can he repeat the successful year that won him a surprising Pro Bowl trip in 2016? That remains to be seen. The other outside starter is journeyman Ramon Humber. Both he and Alexander were supposed to be special teamers but now find themselves as starting ‘backers. Humber could be pushed for playing time by the reserves. However, after final cuts the only other backups for this unit are rookie late round draft picks Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo, which prompted GM Beane to scour the waiver wire for help at the position. He wound up signing a young prospect in Deon Lacey.

Defensive Backs

CB E.J. Gaines

As far as the defensive secondary is concerned for Buffalo entering 2017, one thing is certain – it will be different. There are no holdovers from last year among the DBs. The starting safety tandem is a pair of free agent additions, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Hyde was a solid player for a winning franchise in Green Bay, and figures to be an effective leader on defense. Poyer is a bit of an unknown wild card, having toiled with the lowly Cleveland Browns and coming off an injury. They looked good and comfortable with each other in preseason action, and now will be tested in real games. Another ex-Brown, Trae Elston, is the only other reserve safety. The cornerbacks are all new faces. Rookie top draftee Tre’Davious White replaces departed Stephon Gilmore as the top corner, with the other starting spot and slot corner position still open. Veterans Leonard Johnson, Shareece Wright and E.J. Gaines (acquired for Watkins) are the candidates. Rookie Greg Mabin had 2 preseason interceptions to earn himself a surprise roster spot.

Special Teams

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KR Brandon Tate

Holdovers on the bomb squads are punter Colton Schmidt, who needs to rebound from a poor 2016, and main kick returner Brandon Tate, who is valuable in giving the offense field position. Long snapper Reid Ferguson is new, as is placekicker Stephen Hauschka, who was highly successful in Seattle. He had problems with the new extra point distance last year, however, much like his predecessor here, Dan Carpenter. With the high turnover on the roster, the special teams will include many new faces, among them gunner Taiwan Jones. New WR acquisition Kaelin Clay has kick return potential also.

 

Overview

As stated earlier, the fact that the Bills are strong in the trenches, on both the offensive and defensive lines, gives them hope for a successful season. They’ll need big years from their few playmakers, McCoy, Charles Clay, Dareus, Hughes and possibly Hyde, to have any success. They’ll have to play solid team defense, and offense for that matter, and get contributions from their non-superstar but solid players like Kyle Williams, Alexander, Jordan Matthews, Holmes and Poyer. If youngsters like Lawson, Tre White, Zay Jones and Dawkins can develop, they could surprise people. McDermott certainly has his hands full in his head coaching debut season, but with expectations low he really only needs to show that the team is showing weekly improvement. If they are showing solid improvement as the year goes on, the future will look bright, especially with all those stockpiled high draft choices coming in 2018.

For the die-hard Bills’ fans, here’s the annual traditional ending of this season preview. Enjoy:

 

 

 

 
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NFL – Mock Draft 2017 Round One

23 Apr

For the second year in a row, Rayonsports.com will offer a first round mock draft for the NFL’s annual selection process of college talent. Here are our guesses as to who will be chosen in the draft, which is mostly a crapshoot for the league’s 32 teams:

  1. Cleveland Browns – Myles Garrett (DE, Texas A&M). Garrett has been the consensus top pick for awhile, and to hard to imagine the Browns passing up this can’t miss edge rusher.
  2. San Francisco 49ers – Mitch Trubisky (QB, North Carolina). New 49er GM John Lynch seems enamored with Trubisky, who has risen up team’s draft boards rapidly for some reason, despite his only having 13 games of college starting experience.
  3. Chicago Bears – Jamal Adams (S, L.S.U.) The Jay Cutler era is officially over in Chicago, and the Bears signed Mike Glennon as a possible replacement. But is he really the answer? I could see the Bears going QB here, but Adams is too good a prospect to pass up.
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars – Jonathan Allen (DT, Alabama). Conventional wisdom has the Jags picking a running back here, but I can see Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone adding to their young stable of up-and-coming defensive players instead.
  5. Tennessee Titans – Marshon Lattimore (CB, Ohio State). The Titans are thin at cornerback so this choice makes sense. He’ll be an instant fit in defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau’s defense.
  6. New York Jets – O.J. Howard (TE, Alabama). The cream of the tight end crop this year may be the best receiver in the draft, including the wide receivers.
  7. Los Angeles Chargers – Solomon Thomas (DE, Stanford). An elite edge rusher, Thomas would be an excellent bookend paired with last year’s top pick, Joey Bosa, in the Chargers’ defense.
  8. Carolina Panthers – Leonard Fournette (RB, L.S.U.). Adding a stud back like Fournette would be the best way to help Cam Newton regain his 2015 form, so I can see coach Ron Rivera liking this addition.
  9. Cincinnati Bengals – Malik Hooker (S, Ohio State). Coach Marvin Lewis adds a major playmaker to his already stout defense. Strong defense is needed in the AFC North in order to compete with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
  10. Buffalo Bills – Mike Williams (WR, Clemson). A partner in crime to line up opposite Sammy Watkins at wide receiver will help the Bills’ offensive production in the passing game, complementing one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks.
  11. New Orleans Saints – Christian McCaffrey (RB, Stanford). A versatile weapon for Drew Brees to utilize in coach Sean Payton’s offense would be a shot in the arm for the Saints, who have gotten a bit stagnant since their 2009 Super Bowl win.
  12. Cleveland Browns – Deshaun Watson (QB, Clemson). The Browns got this pick from Philadelphia as part of last year’s Carson Wentz trade. They get their future franchise quarterback with the bonus pick.
  13. Arizona Cardinals – Derek Barnett (DE, Tennessee). Although Bruce Arians is an offensive-minded head coach, they’ll be hard pressed to pass up a top prospect like Barnett if he falls to them.
  14. Philadelphia Eagles – Haason Reddick (LB, Temple). The Eagles know Reddick well, with him having played at Temple, and they’ll jump at the chance to add him to their defense.
  15. Indianapolis Colts – Corey Davis (WR, Western Michigan). The Colts need to upgrade Andrew Luck’s corps of offensive weapons, and Davis would be a welcome addition.
  16. Baltimore Ravens – Marlon Humphrey (CB, Alabama). An addition of much-needed help to a thin secondary, in a division where you have to match up with the likes of A.J. Green and Antonio Brown.
  17. Washington Redskins – Reuben Foster (LB, Alabama). Foster is too good a prospect to pass on at this point, despite his off the field issues. A smart pick by Jay Gruden and the ‘Skins.
  18. Tennessee Titans – John Ross (WR, Washington). using the Los Angeles Rams’ pick acquired during last year’s draft, the Titans add a speed demon weapon for Marcus Mariota.
  19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Dalvin Cook (RB, Florida State). The Bucs look in-state for an input of youth into their running game.
  20. Denver Broncos – Cam Robinson (T, Alabama). John Elway will jump out of his chair to pick the big Crimson Tide blocker if he’s available this late.
  21. Detroit Lions – Jabrill Peppers (S, Michigan). He is a player who is hard to pigeon-hole into a specific position on defense, but his versatility will be a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators when he establishes himself in the league.
  22. Miami Dolphins – Gareon Conley (CB, Ohio State). The Fish need to strengthen their secondary to take another step forward in 2017, and Conley would be a good addition to help achieve that goal.
  23. New York Giants – Garrett Bolles (T, Utah). The Giants had one of the NFL’s weakest run games last season, and need to make upgrades along their offensive line to improve in that area.
  24. Oakland Raiders – Takkarist McKinley (DE, UCLA). Oakland has a stud in Khalil Mack, but still needs help to improve the pass rush. McKinley would be a strong addition to their D-line.
  25. Houston Texans – Patrick Mahomes (QB, Texas Tech). The Texans are a decent team lacking a good quarterback, and after ridding themselves of Brock Osweiler, they’ll take home-state signal caller Mahomes to be their next savior.
  26. Seattle Seahawks – Kevin King (CB, Washington). This would be a strong pick for the Hawks regardless of whether or not they trade Richard Sherman.
  27. Kansas City Chiefs – Malik McDowell (DL, Michigan State). A big body lineman to help offset the loss of Dontari Poe.
  28. Dallas Cowboys – Adoree Jackson (CB, USC). The Cowboys do a bit of a reach to fill a need in their secondary.
  29. Green Bay Packers – Charles Harris (DE, Missouri). The Pack goes for an edge rusher to help shore up their defense.
  30. Pittsburgh Steelers – Tim Williams (DE, Alabama). Another of Nick Saban’s many Crimson Tide pro prospects, he will be a good fit for the rugged Steeler defense.
  31. Atlanta Falcons – Forrest Lamp (G, Western Kentucky). The Falcons can use some O-line help to keep QB Matt Ryan upright, and Lamp is high on their list.
  32. New Orleans Saints – Ryan Ramczyk (OT, Wisconsin). The Saints got this pick from New England for Brandin Cooks, and they’ll use it to give Drew Brees some more protection along the front line.
 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

07 Jan

The fourth and final segment of our Buffalo Bills’ 2016 season review takes a look at what the team needs to do to finally snap the 17 year playoff drought. Of course, the first and most important thing they need to do is find a new head coach who can change the attitude and the culture of a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity for almost two decades. Here is a summary of the Bills’ biggest needs and our suggestions on how to fill them:

Head Coach

The lack of discipline under Ryan needs to be corrected. If the Pegulas and Doug Whaley decide they need to have some semblance of continuity, then promoting interim coach Anthony Lynn to the job full time would be a good option. Two candidates who have been lined up for interviews are relative unknowns – Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator for Carolina, and Harold Goodwin, offensive coordinator for Arizona. A dark horse candidate who I liked before Ryan was hired is former Buffalo backup quarterback Frank Reich. He is currently offensive coordinator for the Eagles, and did a pretty good job helping develop rookie Carson Wentz there. He’s not a flashy or hot candidate, but the fact he knows the fan base and understands the team’s history is a plus. He seems to have the right demeanor to be a good head coach also, and really was basically a coach on the sideline for Jim Kelly during his playing days.

Quarterback

If the Bills want to try to build on what they’ve accomplished on offense, then bringing back Tyrod Taylor is the best option. A new head coach will likely have input in that call, however. No matter what, the Bills will need to replace EJ Manuel as their primary backup. As far as veteran free agents go, the pickings are slim. They might be better off just continuing to develop Cardale Jones and drafting another lower round player to compete with him. Middle round options with some possibilities include Iowa’s C.J. Beathard and a familiar name, Chad Kelly from Ole Miss.

Receiver

The Bills have 3 impending free agent receivers in Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Justin Hunter, four if you count Percy Harvin, who should not be retained after contributing nothing after being re-signed this year. It would behoove them to try to retain Woods and Hunter and then try to strengthen the unit through the draft. Good receivers can be plucked in the middle to late rounds if your scouts are doing their jobs. Some options there are Corey Davis from Western Michigan, Travis Rudolph of Florida State and Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook.

Safety

This is the Bills’ biggest area of need and may very well be where they look to improve their defense with their top draft choice, which will be the tenth pick of the draft. There are three top players who might be available there – Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, a versatile star, Malik Hooker of Ohio State and LSU’s Jamal Adams. Any of these three would be able to step into Aaron Williams’ starting spot in the lineup. An interesting free agent possibility is Duron Harmon of New England, who could be a diamond in the rough for the Bills’ currently depleted secondary.

Defensive Line

The Bills need to start looking toward the future with Kyle Williams aging and Marcell Dareus being a player they can’t count on. A couple of draft prospects are Notre Dame’s Jarron Jones and Clemson’s Carlos Watkins, who are both nose tackles. If they decide to try to improve the pass rush, a couple of draftable edge rushers are Josh Carraway of TCU and Auburn’s Carl Lawson.

Placekicker

The Bills have a lot of needs but Dan Carpenter was so bad this season that they may have to use a draft pick on a new kicker. The top prospect is Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, who also can punt. If they can convince him to come here, Los Angeles Ram kicker Greg Zuerlein is one of the NFL’s best. Signing him would be equivalent to when they inked Steve Christie back in the “Plan B” free agency days.

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

05 Jan

Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense and special teams. Defense was supposed to be departed coach Rex Ryan’s area of expertise but instead was the main reason for their failure to reach their goal of making the playoffs. Consider these games: 1) at home against the Jets, they allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick, who otherwise had a horrible season, to have one of the best performances of his career, as the Jets cruised to a 37-31 win. 2) at Miami, after the offense built a 17-6 lead, the unit totally melted down, allowing Jay Ajayi to run for over 200 yards as the Dolphins rallied to win. 3) at Seattle, they couldn’t even slow down Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in the first half, forcing the offense to try to play catchup in the second half. 4) at Oakland, the offense took control of the game and built a 24-9 lead, only to watch the defense again inexplicably fall apart and allow the Raiders to score 29 unanswered points and rally to win. 5) at home against Miami, after supposedly preparing to stop Ajayi all week in practice, they again give up over 200 rushing yards to the Dolphin back, including the run in overtime that set up the winning field goal when only 10 Bill defenders were on the field. Here is a position-by-position look at the Bills’ defenders and special teamers:

Defensive Line

It’s supposed to be an area of strength on the team. Inside at tackle, there’s Kyle Williams, a team leader who is getting up in age, and Marcell Dareus, who signed a huge contract and then totally let his team down, first getting suspended and then coming back out of shape and suffering minor injuries that kept him out of the lineup. He is a prime example of the type of player that the franchise has to deal with – inconsistent and unreliable. The new head coach has to somehow fix this problem – either develop the players into men who can be counted on, or cut ties with them and move on, regardless of where they were drafted or how big their paychecks are. Rookie Adolphus Washington got benched for the team’s final game for supposedly not practicing hard enough, but for most of the year was as reliable of a player on the defensive line as the team had. The rest of the D-line roster is pretty much veterans who will have to work hard to impress a new coaching staff to keep their jobs – Corbin Bryant, Jerel Worthy and Rex Ryan favorite Leger Douzable. DeAndre Coleman was another of Whaley’s in-season signings who never had much impact.

Linebackers

There are 11 players available on the Bills’ roster who are listed as linebackers, but some of them may be better players on the defensive line, since there isn’t much depth there. Where these players play and whether or not they even make the team will depend on the opinion of a defensive coaching staff which will probably, and should, undergo wholesale changes. Jerry Hughes has played both DE and LB with the Bills, and is most effective as a pass rusher, although his play fell off markedly this season, another example of Bills’ players who got new contracts, then regressed. Shaq Lawson missed half the season due to injury, then showed a few flashes of decent play, but not much consistency. He certainly didn’t make the impact you’d expect from a first round draft pick. Two of Whaley’s free agent signings, Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander, had good years but the Bills’ penchant for not stopping the run and giving up big plays leaves them open for scrutiny also. The same could be said for Preston Brown. Rookie Reggie Ragland was a player who the team had high expectations for, but an injury ended his inaugural season before it started. He could be a wild card in a much-needed attitude adjustment for the defense. Ramon Humber and Lerentee McCray were special teams players who were also brought in during the season. They are marginal talents who will likely struggle to make the roster next year. Veteran Brandon Spikes is almost surely gone.

Defensive Backs

The fall-off in play of Buffalo’s cornerbacks was one of the big disappointments of the 2016 season. Stephon Gilmore was wildly inconsistent, and the Bills would be smart to not hand him a big money contract, or even waste salary cap dollars putting the franchise tag on him. Ronald Darby had a solid rookie season in 2015, but the sophomore jinx hit him badly this year. Nickell Robey-Coleman regressed also, and was consistently burned by bigger receivers while playing the slot corner position. Rookie Kevon Seymour had his ups and downs, but in my opinion showed as much promise as both Gilmore and Darby and would be a good option to start if Gilmore departs. Out of the in-season players that Whaley brought in, Marcus Roberson looked like he could be a guy who should be given an opportunity next year also. Corey White struggled at corner, then made the switch to safety due to injuries there. He had his hills and valleys there also, but the fact that he appears to be a team player says he deserves a look as a depth player again next year. Aaron Williams suffered another neck injury and may have to retire, and he heads a long list of safeties who played, and got hurt, as the season unfolded. Here’s the rest of the list: Colt Anderson, James Ihedigbo, Robert Blanton and Philip Thomas. Corey Graham is the other safety, and he is getting up in age. Jonathan Meeks is strictly a special teamer, and not all that impressive of one. The Bills’ final roster included defensive backs Sergio Brown and Shamiel Gary. Who?

Special Teams

Special teams weren’t that special in 2016. One bright spot was the kick return work of Brandon Tate, a player who should be brought back next season for sure. New coaches usually mean a new punter and placekicker. Punter Colton Schmidt’s play fell off from 2015 and he needs to be challenged in training camp next year. Kicker Dan Carpenter kicked his way out of Buffalo this season. A poor campaign culminated in a dreadful showing in the home finale against Miami that was likely the final nail in his coffin.

 
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NFL – Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

04 Jan

Part 2 of our season review for the Buffalo Bills deals with the offense. Rex Ryan made a bold but decisive move when he fired Greg Roman as offensive coordinator after the Bills started 0-2, especially since Ryan’s sorry defensive unit was the problem in the second loss. Anthony Lynn was promoted from running backs coach to OC and the move paid off as the Bills’ offense became a competent unit, especially in the run game. There were at least 4 games this season in which the offense did it’s job, which was to score 20 or more points, not turn the ball over and allow a strong defensive unit to win the day – at Miami, at Seattle, at Oakland and at home against Miami. A decent showing by the defense in those games would have cut the Bills’ loss total in half, and had them solidly in playoff contention. Here is a positon-by-position look at where the Bills stand on offense entering the off-season.

Quarterbacks

As usual, it appears the quarterback position is in a state of flux. The “business decision” to bench Tyrod Taylor in the season finale makes it look like the team may be ready to part ways with him. I think that would be a bad decision. Taylor hasn’t been spectacular, but has given the Bills strong enough play at the quarterback position to warrant keeping him around. This is a spot where continuity would be a good thing, since Taylor has gradually grown into the leader of the offensive unit. Also, his play improved markedly when he had all of his top weapons available. There’s a lot of consternation about letting Taylor’s contract extension kick in, with the reasoning being that they’ll be stuck with an overpaid, underperforming player (see Ryan Fitzpatrick). However, if the numbers being reported are accurate, Taylor’s contract would put him at around the 15th highest paid QB in the NFL, which is about where he falls. As for backups, EJ Manuel is as good as gone from Buffalo. He was never a good fit here and needs to move on to a better opportunity for his own good. Cardale Jones could be a viable option if he develops as the team hopes he will. All the more reason to make sure the next coaching staff has competent teachers who will ensure the young players develop, not regress as they have under Ryan.

Running Backs

This is a solid unit, with LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee complementing each other with different styles of running. Rookie back Jonathan Williams showed some promise in limited playing time, and it was good sign that he was trusted to be on the field at times on obvious passing downs for blitz pickups. Honestly, I never saw any reason why an aging Reggie Bush was even on the roster. He contributed almost nothing and will likely not be around next season. At fullback, Jerome Felton rebounded nicely after being cut at the beginning of the year. He was re-signed and became a solid presence as a blocker and pass receiver for the offense.

 

Receivers

This unit was a revolving door for most of the season, and Taylor deserves a lot of credit for accomplishing what he did despite not having much familiarity with the receiving corps for much of the year. There’s no question that Sammy Watkins is the stud of this corps, the problem is keeping him healthy and in the lineup. He is extremely talented and also an up and coming leader in the locker room. I loved his call for a “culture change” on the team after Ryan was fired. With all the prima donna “me first” divas in the league at wide receiver, Watkins is a refreshing “team first” player. There were scattered contributions from just about everybody on this unit in 2016, including Watkins. In sifting through the others who played in games this year, or were at least on the roster, a few players had some positives but there was very little consistency. Marquise Goodwin, whose career has been plagued by injuries, made some big plays when called upon. Robert Woods was a solid slot receiver and a reliable blocker in the run game, but becomes a free agent. If the team wants to keep some continuity in their successful rushing attack, keeping Woods should be a priority. Justin Hunter, once a top prospect who has floated around the league in his first couple of seasons, signed with the Bills during the season and may have found a home. He developed some chemistry with Taylor when he arrived and is a big red zone target. Brandon Tate is another in-season signing who improved the team’s return game, while also seeing some time as a receiver with all the injuries. Dez Lewis worked his way from the practice squad to the active roster by season’s end, but he has shown little in his time with the club. There is a possible diamond in the rough waiting in the wings on the injured list in Kolby Listenbee, a speedy low round draft choice who never saw any action this year due to hernia surgery. A free agent signee who hasn’t lived up to his billing is tight end Charles Clay, but he finally started to click with Taylor toward season’s end. Another reason to keep Taylor and try to keep some semblance of continuity with the offense. Nick O’Leary earned plenty of playing time as a backup TE, while 2 other tight ends on the roster are development projects – Gerald Christian and former quarterback Logan Thomas. Chris Gragg was having a decent season before he was hurt and will be a roster option for the next coaching staff also.

Offensive Line

The Bills were one of the top rushing teams in the NFL again this year so the offensive line, although not loaded with star players, is at least competent. Eric Wood is solid at center, and guards Richie Incognito and John Miller did a good job blocking inside for the team. Left tackle Cordy Glenn got a big contract prior to the season, then spent a lot of the year battling nagging injuries. Jordan Mills was quietly efficient most of the year at right tackle. The injuries to Wood and Glenn revealed two players – Ryan Groy and Cyrus Kouandjio, as adequate replacements. Groy did a great job filling in for Wood, while Kouandjio, whose career has started slowly, could be an option to win Mills’ job next year. GM Doug Whaley seems to be a proponent of constant roster turnover during the season, with an eye for finding gems to help the team in future years. Center Patrick Lewis and tackle Michael Ola are two examples of this. Neither one did anything to help the team this year. A big question mark for next year is big tackle Seantrel Henderson, who has battled Crohn’s disease and drug suspensions for 2 years. He is a talented player when he’s available to play but he has been like a lot of players who have been with the Bills in recent seasons – not very reliable.

 
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