RB Ezekiel Elliot is not done yet

RB Ezekiel Elliot bounced back strong for the Cowboys in Week 3

By: Adam Hulse

There was much concern about Ezekiel Elliot heading into the 2021 NFL season. He was coming off his worst year ever in 2020, setting new career lows in many different categories. His 979 rushing yards, four yards per carry, six rushing touchdowns, eight total touchdowns, and 6.5 yards per reception were all new career lows for Elliot. He did set one new career high last year, but unfortunately it was in a negative category, losing five total fumbles. That’s the same amount of turnovers that he had in the rest of his entire career combined.

2020 Struggles

It was a rough 2020 campaign for Elliot, but there were reasons why some of it could be somewhat understandable. With Dak Prescott being injured in week five and missing the rest of the season, defenses were stacking the box against the run without the threat of a real passing game. In addition, the Cowboys suffered a ton of injuries to their offensive line last year as well, including to their top two blockers in Tyron Smith and Zack Martin.

All of the injuries to key players in the Cowboys offense may have made Elliot feel extra pressure to perform last season. He may have been trying to to force things a bit too much, would could possibly explain the fumbles. Playing with a backup quarterback and loaded defensive box for the majority of the season can in a way explain why his production averages fell off. Regardless, it was clearly the worst season of his career by far and the concern about him no longer being the same dominant force that he used to be was justified, especially considering the short life span of running backs in the NFL.

2021 Campaign

Elliot entered the 2021 NFL season determined to prove that 2020 was a fluke and that he still has plenty left in the tank. Week one was an unimpressive performance, touching the ball 13 times and only producing 39 total yards against one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Bucs. He improved in week two against the LA Chargers, getting 18 touches for 97 yards and a touchdown. His big breakout was in week three against the division rival Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football, producing 116 total yards and two touchdowns on 20 touches.

It was a much needed dominant performance by Elliot on a big stage. He helped the Cowboys demolish the Eagles in a premium game. This performance should provide him with a huge confidence boost moving forward. Additionally, the emergence of Tony Pollard should help keep Elliot more fresh. He can now receive a few less touches so he will have an opportunity for a quality over quantity situation. Pollard has been explosive as the second back in Dallas this year, turning his 35 touches into 248 total yards and a touchdown. His contributions will take some of the burden off of Elliot while keeping him at full strength.

Weeks 1 and Week 2 In The NFL are in the books: Here’s what we learned

Aaron Rodgers flips the switch early in the season

By: Andy Davies

The NFL season is underway and there have already been two weeks completed. There have been some high-scoring games, with 10 of the 32 games so far totaling 55 total points or more.

We already have an idea who will be good and who may not be as good this season. Here are four takeaways from the opening two weekends of action.

Week 1 Is Always An Overreaction

Plenty of people were quick to either write off a team or praise them to death after the opening weekend. This also goes for certain players and coaches. There are 18 teams who are 1-1. This is over half of the league.

People were quick to criticize the Green Bay Packers during their 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints and also crown Saints QB Jameis Winston a ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ favorite after his five touchdowns in week one. Fast forward to week two and the Packers came back from a 17-14 deficit to thump the Lions 35-17. Aaron Rodgers threw for 255 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Aaron Jones recorded 3 receiving touchdowns, 1 rushing touchdown and over 100 combined yards. Meanwhile, the Saints lost 26-7 to the Carolina Panthers with Winston throwing for just 111 passing yards and 0 passing touchdowns, with 1 rushing touchdown.

The Miami Dolphins edged a divisional win over the New England Patriots in Week One but were humbled 35-0 by the Buffalo Bills in Week Two, who themselves suffered an opening day defeat. People had Buffalo down as a team in trouble after the 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers but they got back to winning ways on Sunday.

The Titans were embarrassed by the Cardinals 38-13 in week one and many questioned Tennessee considering they lost their offensive and defensive coordinators. However, they earned a spirited comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks in week two. Titans running back Derrick Henry only recorded 58 rushing yards in week one but was a monster in week two. Against the Seahawks, Henry recorded 55 receiving yards as well as 182 yards on the ground and 3 rushing touchdowns.

Is it easy to write off a team after just one loss? With the increasing loss of interest from teams in preseason games where starters don’t often see the field, the opening weekend is now seen by many to be like a preseason game. It is often the case in Week One that those who played starters in preseason will beat the team who didn’t. This is why you should not read too much into opening weekend results, especially with an extra game this season.

The Cardinals and Raiders Can Surprise A Few

Talking of crowning awards too early, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is already hearing people calling him the early favourite for MVP. It should be a new rule that it is illegal to crown an MVP before week 8 or 9. Last season was a great example of how Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson started it. He was projected to beat all sorts of passing records before both his and Seattle’s seasons slowed down.

These talks of Murray winning the award have come after the impressive start from the Cardinals QB. So far this season, he has thrown for 7 touchdowns and 689 yards as Arizona have a 2-0 record at time of writing.

Murray has been helped by a brilliant offensive cast around him and an excellent defense. Rookie wideout Rondale Moore topped his 68 receiving yards from week one with 114 yards and one touchdown in week two. Both Deandre Hopkins (3) and Christian Kirk (2) have helped themselves to multiple touchdowns. Defensive end Chandler Jones had 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in week one and the defense may have slacked off in week two, but still managed two further forced fumbles as well as a sack from linebacker Markus Golden.

Arizona was criticized by myself for their two biggest offseason additions being two players past their best. J.J Watt has been quiet but A.J Green has had his moments, with the touchdown and 44 yards from 3 receptions on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. However, the performance of rookie Rondale Moore and the encouraging start to the season for Isaiah Simmons has fans excited. Arizona has plenty of talent on either side of the ball along with the aforementioned Hopkins, Jones, Murray and safety Budda Baker. They can be a legitimate darkhorse, as can the Las Vegas Raiders, who have won their opening two games against playoff teams from last season, something that has never been done in the history of this Raiders franchise.

Raiders fans know more than anyone else these past few seasons not to get carried away with their team’s performances after how the 2019 and 2020 seasons have ended. However, quarterback Derek Carr seems far more confident in himself this season, as does wide receiver Henry Ruggs who has 159 yards and 1 touchdown so far. This has him projected to record 1,352 yards and 8.5 touchdowns come the end of the regular season.

This would be a massive upgrade on the two touchdowns and 452 yards he posted in 13 games during his 2020 rookie campaign. He seems far more of a factor in this offense. Their defense seems much improved, with multiple forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, 5 sacks and 1 interception across the opening two gameweeks. They have conceded a total of 44 points so far this season, ten less than the 54 they allowed in the opening two weekends of 2020.

Head coach Jon Gruden will be aware of their recent season collapses but he has never seemed more trusting of Carr than he does at the moment.

Expect more big results this campaign from the Cardinals and Raiders.

Tom Brady Is Still Tom Brady

At the age of 44, most athletes are either retired or massively declining in their performances. Not Tom Brady. He looks every bit as good as he did when he was 26 and 32. He shares similar traits with Cristiano Ronaldo in that he takes such good care of himself that he has the body of someone ten to fifteen years his junior. He threw for 5 touchdowns, 276 yards and 0 interceptions during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 48-25 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Along with Kyler Murray, he is also someone that is being crowned a way too early MVP. With 9 touchdowns, 655 yards and 2 interceptions so far this season, it would not shock many if he goes on to win his fourth MVP. With the talent on this team, he may even go on to win his sixth Super Bowl MVP award and subsequently his eighth ring.

The Joy Of Returning Fans

How good is it to have fans back? During last season, some stadiums allowed limited capacity which was good but there was something missing. We are now seeing stadiums with full capacity and it is for the better. You can once again hear true fan emotion. Fans are also being treated to some excellent games.

The Thursday Night Football season opener between the Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, fans were met by a 30-29 game that saw 782 combined passing yards. The Monday Night Football in week one saw the Raiders beat the Baltimore Ravens 33-27 in overtime, the first game with fans at the new Allegiant Stadium. The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Cleveland Browns 33-29 and there was almost an insane comeback as the San Francisco 49ers beat the Detroit Lions 41-33.

Week Two followed a similar trajectory. The Washington Football Team beat the New York Giants 30-29 on Thursday Night Football and the Tennessee Titans beat the Seattle Seahawks 33-30 in overtime despite being 24-9 down at half time. The Cardinals beat the Minnesota Vikings 34-33 after a last gasp missed field goal by kicker Greg Joseph, a game that featured excellent commentary by Gus Johnson and former NFL player and Super Bowl winner in Aqib Talib. Week Two also saw the Ravens beat the Chiefs 36-35 as Lamar Jackson finally beat his self proclaimed “kryptonite”.

The NFL is never short of drama and this season appears no different. Television networks repeatedly refer to this campaign as the “biggest season ever”. With an extra game, this has all the makings of being the best ever NFL season.

Buccaneers secondary is a real concern

The Buccaneers secondary is a weakness

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs have one of the better defenses in the entire NFL. They ranked 6th last season with 327.1 yards allowed per game and 8th in scoring with 22.2 points allowed per game. Much of this can be credited to their stout run defense, which was the best in the league by allowing just 80.6 rushing yards per game. Their front seven is extremely strong and talented, also contributing the 5th most sacks with 48 total last season.

On the other hand, their pass defense was not nearly as impressive. They ranked a disappointing 21st with 246.6 passing yards allowed per game and were middle of the road at 18th with a 94.3 passer rating against. They did rank 10th in interceptions forced with 15 total last year, but that may be more because of their solid pass rush as opposed to tight coverage. In fact, they were terrible in opponent completion percentage, ranking 29th in the NFL by allowing 69 percent of pass attempts to be completed against them in the 2020 season.

New Year, Same Results

In week one of this year, the Bucs hosted the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football to kick off the 2021 NFL season. The Bucs secondary picked up right where they left off last season, getting torched by Dak Prescott and the Cowboys passing attack. They allowed the Cowboys offense to march up and down the field through the air, with Prescott completing 72.4 percent of his passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns while posting an impressive 101.4 passer rating. In fact, if not for two missed field goals and a missed extra point by Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein, the Bucs may very well have lost this opening game of the season. Prescott put up a performance that would win most games but ultimately could not finish the job in this one.

Probably most concerning for the Bucs secondary is that the Cowboys found success through the air on every level. It was not just a matter of the Bucs having one weak spot but an inability to stop any aspect of the Cowboys passing game. Amari Cooper was unstoppable on the perimeter with 13 receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns while CeeDee Lamb did all of his damage from the slot with seven receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown. The Dallas tight ends combined for 65 yards on 9 receptions and even the running backs contributed six receptions for 35 yards. Clearly, the Bucs pass coverage could not stop anything in the Cowboys passing scheme.

Making Matters Worse

Unfortunately, the Bucs lost Sean Murphy-Bunting due to an elbow injuring during the game with the Cowboys. His timetable for return is unclear at this point but he could be out anywhere from the minimum three weeks on IR to a full season. This is a big loss for the Bucs considering he is one of their very best in man coverage. He works on the outside of their base defense while sliding into the slot for nickel and dime coverage schemes. In his absence, Jamel Dean, among others, will have to step up and play a much larger role.

Dynasty flex players to trade for

Here are your dynasty flex players to acquire

By: Keith James

The NFL is back and it is better than ever. The beauty of the NFL is that it is a week-to-week game. One week a team or a player looks great, the next week not so much. Such is life in the NFL. In a dynasty, fantasy owners can win by buying the dip. Human beings are emotional creatures. We don’t always follow logic. This is never more true than in fantasy football. People take this seriously and they get angry when their players don’t perform. 

Use that anger to your advantage. Look for young players that didn’t perform where a fantasy manager may throw their hands up and say, I’m going to cut bait on this player. This is how fantasy managers can buy productive assets on the cheap. 

This week I will give three players that can be used in the flex position that fantasy managers can buy cheaper than before the season. 

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, 23 years old

Aiyuk was a mystery on Sunday. There were reports that he has been dealing with injuries all off-season but he was healed up enough to suit up against the lowly Lions on Sunday. Given the 49ers history of spreading the wealth, I cautioned fantasy owners on Aiyuk in week one. In what should have been a smash spot for the talented 2nd-year player, I was concerned that the Niners were going to spread the wealth and Aiyuk could be the odd man out solely based on his injury. 

Something else seemed to be afoot with both Brando Aiyuk and Trey Sermon and there were reports both payers may have been in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse for missing curfew. Who knows. Either way, Brandon Aiyuk watched as his fellow WR running mate, Deebo Samuel went bonkers against the Lions atrocious pass defense. Deebo had 9 grabs on 12 targets for 189 yards and a long 79-yard touchdown. Of course, he also had a terrible late-game fumble. Still, BA had to watch as his fellow receiver went crazy and Aiyuk was left with zero targets. That’s not good. 

Aiyuk will likely still be seen by fantasy managers as a great young receiver. He had 15.4 fantasy points per game last year because Aiyuk is electric with the ball in his hands. After week one, however, some of the shine may have worn off. I threw out some offers for Aiyuk to fellow league mates and I recommend you do the same. He is still a player that can have a top 24 season this year and in only his second year, he can become a fantasy scoring machine if he stays healthy and grows up. The cost will likely be high but I would offer a first-round pick for Aiyuk and try to pry an exciting young player from your league mates hands on the back of a pathetic week one show. 

Javonte Williams RB, 21 years old

Get Javonte as soon as you can! I would try to get Javonte this week before he goes crazy against the Jags and becomes all but untouchable. More than likely fantasy managers will not want to part with Javonte. Fantasy managers know that Melvin Gordon will likely be a PITA for Javonte the entire year. Managers are waiting for the year two ascension and may scoff at any Javonte offers but the fact remains Javonte played second fiddle to MG3 against the Giants. As much as I love Javonte’s talent, MG3 was by far the better back on Sunday. 

Gordon had 101 yards on only 11 attempts (9.2 YPC) and looked just as explosive as he did in his Chargers days. Javonte did not look great. He looked tentative and was bottled up for only 45 yards on 14 carries. It was encouraging to see the snaps split evenly between the two backs (they both had a 50% snap share) but the 28-year-old Gordon looked explosive and the 21-year-old Williams looked plodding. 

This is the best time to strike for Javonte. As I stated, his cost will not be cheap. Dynasty owners likely invested a lot in Javonte but like Aiyuk he may have lost his shine and if a fellow league mate is a contender that just so happens to have Williams, there may be a deal to be had for a more established RB and a pick. I would strike sooner rather than later however because up next, the Broncos take on the lowly Jags. The Jags of course were demolished by what many people think is the worst roster in the NFL in the Texans. With Denver more than likely taking a commanding lead in week two against Denver, Javonte may get enough run to put up gaudy numbers. 

This may be the last chance to get what could be a top ten back in the NFL over the next three years. If a team has any interest in selling, I am trying to buy Javonte right now. His schedule at the end of the season could make patient Javonte owner league winners. With Gordon’s history of getting beat up and missing games, this could be Javonte’s backfield to own by week 10. I’d be willing to offer a player like Chris Carson and a first-round pick to land Javonte. As I say, he won’t be cheap but he will be worth whatever it takes to pry him from your league mates hands. 

Courtland Sutton WR, 25 years old

Sutton had a bad game against the Giants. Lining up against James Bradberry is never easy and Jerry Jeudy was the star receiver in this game; until his injury. With Jeudy suffering a high ankle sprain and landing on IR, his entire season is likely toast. Remember Michael Thomas last year. Even if Jeudy comes back he will likely be hobbled the rest of the year. High ankle sprains are killers for playmakers. This is the time to strike on Courtland Sutton. 

Sutton of course is working back from his own devastating injury. Sutton blew out his ACL early in the season last year and will likely take a few weeks for him to regain his confidence and explosion. Sutton was on his way to becoming one of the best young receivers in the game in 2020. Coming off of an impressive 2019 season, Sutton blew out his knee all too early. Injuries suck. Sutton owners are likely frustrated and are wondering if Sutton will ever come back. He only had 1 grab for 14 yards on 3 targets. Steady Teddy Bridgewater will spread the wealth and he found guys like Tim Patrick, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam against the Giants. Combined those three players had 13 grabs on 15 targets for 117 yards and two touchdowns. It seemed as though everyone but Sutton had a good game for the Broncos. 

Sutton may take some time but with Jeudy going down, Sutton has the opportunity to be a true alpha in Denver. Playing against the Jaguars this week, he could be in line for a monster game. I would throw out some offers for Sutton and see if there are any bites. Again, strike before the player goes off. Denver should manhandle the Jaguars fairly easily this week as 6 point favorites on the road. Both Williams (pricey) and Sutton (cheap) could be had for a discounted price but if they blow up against the Jaguars forget about it. Remember, human beings are emotional. Both good and bad. The strike will Sutton has put a bad taste in his fantasy managers mouth and your team could have a high-end WR2 this year and for years to come. 

RB Latavius Murray is a Buy in Fantasy

RB Latavius Murray has huge potential with the Ravens

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

After some unfortunate injuries leading up to Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season, including JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards, the stable of running backs for the Baltimore Ravens is going to look much different than expected. Their rushing attack, in addition to quarterback Lamar Jackson of course, will now likely come from a combination of multiple running backs. This is not uncommon for the Ravens, who use a creative run-heavy scheme and can support multiple running backs from a fantasy football perspective.

The distribution of carries in Baltimore is going to be something to keep a very close eye on over the early weeks of the season. They have a few different options for who could receive the biggest workload, including Ty’Son Williams, Devonta Freeman, and Le’Veon Bell, but the leading candidate to have the most production is their newest addition to the roster, Latavius Murray. It may take a week or two to get him up to speed, but as soon as he is fully acclimated with his new team, he will likely take over as their RB1. Here is why Murray is a buy in fantasy leagues and the top choice of who to own in the ravens backfield.

Consistent and Reliable

Across his seven seasons in the NFL, Murray has only missed four games total. He has consistently solid production including 713 rushing yards and 6 rushing touchdowns per season, 4.2 yards per carry, and just two lost fumbles in his entire career. He played in three very different schemes with the Raiders, Vikings, and Saints but that never impacted his steady output so changing teams again would not appear to have any negative effect on his game. He is used to playing in situations where he has to compete for carries so being in the Ravens currently crowded backfield is no different. He has always delivered positive results when given the chance and this may be his biggest opportunity for more touches in over five years. A bigger workload in an extremely RB-friendly scheme could mean big things for Murray this year.

Weak Competition

None of the other RB options on the Ravens are nearly as dependable as Murray. Freeman has been unable to stay healthy over the last three seasons, playing in just 21 games combined, and his yards per carry have steadily decreased. His 3.5 yards per carry over the last three years are significantly lower than his career 4.1 average, which indicates regression. Williams has not played an NFL game yet but was not at all a high prospect coming out of college. In fact, he was undrafted, which speaks to his perceived low potential as a player. Bell is an interesting situation but it appears that his best days are behind him at this point.

In his five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bell was one of the very best backs in the NFL with a very dynamic skill set. He eclipsed 2200 total yards back in the 2014 season and came close to the 2000 yard mark twice more in both 2016 and 2017. After sitting out the entire 2018 season because of a contract dispute, he has never been quite the same. Playing in 26 games over the last two seasons, he has recorded just 1716 total yards combined. In his prime that would be a down year for just a single season total. Now 29 years old and 4 years removed from elite status, it is more than likely that his best days are long gone.

Considering all of the question marks and inconsistencies with all of the other options, Murray is by far the most reliable back in Baltimore. All of them will get carries at some point and their play on the field will likely determine the share of touches moving forward. Murray is the newest to the team so he may not get too much of a workload in week 1 but as the season continues on it should increase drastically. All things considered, he is the leading candidate to be the RB1 for the Ravens and has an opportunity to have a huge season in this run heavy scheme. If there is one back to buy in fantasy right now, Murray is the best investment.

Latest NFC East Preview: Will Washington win the NFC East again?

Who will win the NFC East?

By: Andy Davies

The NFC East was a much-maligned division last year, with Washington winning it despite just seven wins. This is a far cry for the only division where all four teams have won at least one Super Bowl. Both the Giants and Eagles lifted the Lombardi Trophy during the 2010s.

Often called the ‘NFC Least’ last season, it led to some questioning the playoff system and whether it should just be the teams with the seven best records rather than the division winners and three wildcard teams.

All four teams will want to prove the division is competitive. Here is a preview of the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys (2020 Record: 6-10. Missed out on playoffs)

The Cowboys were massively disappointed after much hype going into the 2020 season, in a similar vein to the Cleveland Browns the prior season.

Quarterback Dak Prescott put up some good numbers before suffering a season-ending injury against the Giants in week 5. However, when the Cowboys went into the Giants game, they were still 1-3. This is despite Prescott’s statistics.  At the end of the 2020 season, they may have been 11th in passing yards allowed but finished 31st in rushing yards allowed and 28th in total points allowed. Have they done enough to address their defensive issues from last season?

Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is back as a defensive coordinator. Quinn, who was a coordinator for the Seahawks ‘Legion of Boom’, has been hired this summer by the Cowboys. Their draft has implied that they are looking to address this. 8 of their 11 picks were defensive players. Twelfth overall pick Micah Parsons is one of the best rookie prospects in the entire league and will be a brilliant replacement for the retiring Sean Lee, who struggled with injuries during his career. During the two seasons he played with Penn State, Parsons recorded 191 total tackles, 6 fumbles, 6.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.

Dallas may have their issues defensively, but Dak has some excellent offensive weapons to work with. This includes wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and second-year wideout CeeDee Lamb. Both Cooper and Gallup have combined for 32 touchdowns and 5,485 yards since they arrived in Dallas and Lamb had an encouraging rookie season. He was reportedly impressive in training camp this offseason.  Running back Ezekiel Elliot and Dak had excellent debut seasons in the NFL, with the latter winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2016. Elliot has slowly regressed. He will hope for a bounce-back year in 2021 and doing so would be a huge bonus for Prescott and this offense.

The Cowboys were the featured team on the 2021 edition of ‘Hard Knocks’ and play in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football. Other games against the Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, a tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense, Baltimore Ravens, and the San Francisco 49ers will challenge the Cowboys’ defense.

Their offense will perform but not as well as people think they will. The defense has made improvements this offseason but the unit is still a long way off.

Prediction: 2nd in NFC East

New York Giants (2020 Record: 6-10. Missed out on playoffs)

It has been a tough few years for the Giants, who last had a winning season when they went 11-5 in 2016.  Eli Manning’s form went downhill and he has since retired. Odell Beckham left for the Cleveland Browns. Daniel Jones was the replacement for Manning at quarterback but the 2019 sixth overall pick has flattered to deceive, with 35 touchdowns, 5,970 yards and 22 interceptions.

He has been backed this offseason, with the addition of wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who scored 21 touchdowns and caught for 3,068 yards during his four seasons with the Detroit Lions. Fellow receiver John Ross was added in Free Agency, with Kadarius Toney taken in the first round of the draft. Toney is reported to be set to have a “significant role” in the week one game against the Broncos. Tight end Kyle Rudolph joins the Giants after 48 touchdowns and 4,488 yards during ten seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.  Running back Saquon Barkley had an impressive rookie season in 2018 but had an injury-hit 2020, where he played just two games.

On the other side of the ball, Leonard Williams will hope to build on an impressive 2020. After moving from the New York Jets last year, he recorded 11 sacks, 57 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 30 quarterback hits. However, despite these impressive numbers, the Giants still ranked 17th in passing yards allowed and 10th in rushing yards allowed. Head coach Joe Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman have attempted to address their defensive issues in the draft and free agency, with linebacker Azeez Ojulari (below) taken in the second round. He is a player that I feel is one of the biggest sleeper picks in the 2021 draft. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and nose tackle Danny Shelton were also added in Free Agency.

Their schedule isn’t too bad, with the Saints, Chiefs and Buccaneers presenting the biggest challenges, as well as their division games. They also get to face the Eagles, Denver Broncos and Falcons.

This is Jones’ time to shine. He needs to perform this year and has now been given everything he needs in terms of offensive weapons. He will see his performances improve but this won’t be enough for Joe Judge’s men to make the playoffs.

Prediction: 3rd in NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles (2020 Record: 4-11-1. Missed out on playoffs)

The Eagles had a very dysfunctional season in 2020, with the controversy surrounding their quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson. Both are no longer with the organization as the franchise look to rebuild.

Jalen Hurts was the man to replace Wentz last season and be will look to improve on the 1,061 yards, 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions he recorded in four games. He was sacked 13 times in those games, with 113 passes attempted. This amounts to be sacked every 11.4 passing attempts. With Wentz being the most sacked QB last season, this shows a problem with the Eagles offensive line, one that was around for most of Wentz’s Philly career. Free Agency signing Ryan Kerrigan will hope to improve the line between the trenches. Nick Sirianni has taken over from Pederson and will want to make an impression. However, he may find things tough for a team that ranked 24th for total offensive yards and 18th for total defensive yards allowed.

Heismann Trophy winner DeVonta Smith was taken twelfth round after the Eagles traded down via the Miami Dolphins. He recorded 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2020 with Alabama. His size has led to concerns over his durability at the NFL level. Becoming the first wide receiver for thirty years to win the award, he is not shy of breaking the trend. Running back Miles Sanders is another weapon for Hurts to hand the ball off to, with 867 yards and 6 touchdowns despite his the injury he suffered midseason. The Eagles are likely to be affected by the offseason departures of receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey. Tight end Zach Ertz is still around, despite most feeling he would leave this summer.

The Eagles may face the Giants twice as well as the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos but also face the NFC South teams. The Saints, Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers present difficult tasks, as does the game against the Chiefs. Philadelphia has a tough season ahead and these games do not help matters.

Prediction: 4th in NFC East

Washington Football Team (2020 Record: 7-9. lost in Wildcard Round)

Washington went from worst to first in 2020, losing to the eventual champions in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the postseason. This is despite the valiant effort from Washington.

This is a credit to Ron Rivera, who did an excellent job during his first year in charge. He was fired by the Carolina Panthers in the 2019 season but it didn’t take him long to find work. Rivera came into a franchise with a lot going on during the offseason. They retired the ‘Redskins’ part of their team name and for now, are called the Washington Football Team until they decide on their team name for the future. There were also plenty of issues surrounding behaviour in the front office.  Rivera also battled through some personal battles, overcoming cancer whilst on the job. He has installed good values back into this organization and is the perfect man to take Washington to the next step.

Dwayne Haskins failed to deliver and the 2019 fifteenth overall pick was cut by the franchise midseason in 2020. Alex Smith was the fairytale story, coming back from the career-ending injury he suffered. He came onto the field against the Los Angeles Rams in week 5 to a chorus of cheers. He would retire at the end of the season after winning Comeback Player of the Year. Both he and Kyle Allen suffered injuries, which meant Taylor Heinicke came in. He had the game of his life during the Buccaneers playoff loss, leading to some feeling he should have been given a chance to start this season.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is his replacement, arriving in Free Agency after two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. He recorded 13 touchdowns and  8 interceptions in 2020 despite spending the second half of the season mostly as a backup. He did come in midgame against the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders, the latter where he threw a heroic pass to Mack Hollins despite a facemask that put the Dolphins in field goal range. Jason Sanders converted the game-winning field goal that followed that pass. He threw for 8 touchdowns and 1 interception after the opening two games of the 2018 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and became the first quarterback to throw for more than 400 yards in three straight games.  He is one of the most loved players in the entire league thanks to his infectious personality. Washington fans will take to him, especially if he plays as he did in 2020.

Fitzpatrick has plenty of weapons around him to throw the ball to and also hand the ball off to. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin recorded 1,118 yards and four touchdowns in 2020 and will want to continue the upward trajectory that his career has gone so far. Free Agency signing Curtis Samuel offers flexibility in the receiver position whether this is out wide, in the slot or the ground game. He had 851 receiving yards, three touchdown receptions and two rushing touchdowns. Adam Humphries arrives from the Tennessee Titans to add depth, most likely as a third or fourth choice wideout. Running back Antonio Gibson had 795 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in his 2020 rookie season, with J.D. McKissic a capable backup. Tackle Sam Cosmi was taken 51st overall and his biggest strength is said to be run blocking. If he is to fulfil his potential, then this could open things up for Gibson and McKissic.

Washington’s prize asset is their defensive line. Predominately using a 4-3 scheme, they have the threat of both Montez Sweat and Chase Young on the edge, who recorded 16 sacks between them in 2020. With Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen on the interior, there is no mercy for any offensive lines or quarterbacks that face this front four. It doesn’t get any easier for Washington’s opponents this season, with linebacker Jonathan Bostic having 118 total tackles, 3 sacks and 6 quarterback hits in 2020. Washington added to the linebacker room in the draft, with Jamin Davis being selected nineteenth overall. During his time in college with Kentucky, he had excellent numbers. This was especially the case in his 2020 season. He posted 102 total tackles and 3 interceptions combined for 90 yards, with one resulting in a defensive touchdown. Sweat also had 45 total tackles, one defensive touchdown, 20 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss, with Young tallying up 44 total tackles, 12 quarterback hits and one fumble recovery for a touchdown. Jonathan Allen had 63 total tackles and Daron Payne had one interception, 3 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 8 sacks.

Washington faces the Buffalo Bills, Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Buccaneers and Seahawks in 2021. This appears a hard schedule but as it will for any team in the NFC East,  the two games against their division rivals will offer plenty of chances for wins.

Due to head coaching and a more complete roster than Dallas, Washington will take home a second consecutive division crown.

Prediction: 1st in NFC East

Why the Cowboys can Win Week 1

The Cowboys can start their season with an upset.

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

The 2021 NFL season kicks off on Thursday night September 9th with the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs hosting the Dallas Cowboys. The Bucs are a pretty big favorite currently, as they should be, but it is not going to be as easy for them as the betting line may suggest. Here are some reasons why the Cowboys can open the season with a big upset of the defending champs.

Dak is Back!

Dak Prescott returns for the 2021 NFL season after missing the large majority of 2020 due to a gruesome ankle injury. The Cowboys are a completely different team when Prescott is healthy and the numbers prove it. In the 2019 season, when he last played a full season, the Cowboys offense was absolutely dominant. In addition to being the number one ranked offense in the league that season, they were statistically the best offense since the 2013 Denver Broncos. Their 431.5 yards per game were the most that year by a very wide margin, ahead of the second ranked Baltimore Ravens by nearly 24 yards per game. In 2020 before the injury, Dak was on a ridiculously scorching hot pace. If he continued on his per game averages for a full season, he would have set a new NFL passing yardage record for a single season.

Prescott will look to pick up right where he left off and he could really be an even better version of himself this season. Now that he has received the mega-contract that he has been waiting for, there will be a weight lifted off his shoulders. This could allow for him to play looser and more confidently with a bit less pressure on him. This could help the Cowboys offense be even better than it already was, and that is a scary thing for opposing defenses, starting with the Bucs in the season opener.In addition, a healthy Prescott could also very well mean a big bounce-back season for Ezekiel Elliot because the defense has to respect the passing game much more. That in turn should open up more running lanes for Zeke. The other thing that will improve the Cowboys is their new weapon, CeeDee Lamb, that Prescott has not had the luxury of using for a full season yet.

The CeeDee Lamb Effect

Lamb had an excellent rookie season in 2020, recording 74 receptions for 935 yards and 5 touchdowns. What makes that even more impressive is that it was Andy Dalton throwing him the ball for most of the season rather than Prescott. He should be even better this year now that the Cowboys have their true starting quarterback and the short time that the two of them played together last year is a glimpse at what’s to come in the future. Across the five games that Prescott played last season, Lamb registered his only two games with over 100 receiving yards, his only game with multiple touchdowns, and had at least 5 receptions in each of those 5 games. He is lined up to have a monster season out of the slot for the Cowboys, with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup working on the outside.

Improved Defense

In the 2019 NFL season, the Cowboys had the 9th ranked defense at 327 yards allowed per game. Despite bringing back almost all of their defensive roster, they regressed big time in 2020, allowing 386.4 yards per game and ranking 23rd. This lead to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan being fired after just one season. The Cowboys hired a huge upgrade for the job in Dan Quinn, who was the mastermind behind the famous Legion of Boom defense in Seattle. This will, in theory, help the Cowboys get back to playing more like a top 10 defense once again. Drafting Micah Parsons, a highly rated prospect who can do a little bit of everything, should also help them get back on track. This new look Cowboys defense may catch the Bucs off guard in week one. It has yet to be seen exactly how Quinn is going to scheme with his new team and that element of surprise could be an advantage for Dallas.

Timing Matters

There is no doubt that the Tampa Bay Bucs are one of the very best teams in the NFL. They are the favorites to once again win the NFC conference, as they should be. The fact that the Cowboys get to play them the first week of the season, rather than later on, may be the very best time for a possible upset. In the first couple of weeks in an NFL season, many teams come out a little but rusty, making upsets more likely. It sometimes takes a couple of games before teams really hit their stride and get the team chemistry down. A highly motivated Prescott getting this big opportunity in week 1 with new weapons and a better defense could be the perfect recipe for a huge upset in the very first game of the 2021 NFL season.

Latest AFC South preview

Who will win the AFC South?

By: Andy Davies

Welcome to the most topsy turvy division in the NFL. This is a division featuring two teams that are expected to make the playoffs and two teams that are expected to have no more than 5 or 6 wins. In the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans, the AFC South presents a very contrasting division. During the past seven seasons, all four teams have at least once tasted the division crown.

With it only being one of two teams that are likely to win the division this season, here is a preview of the AFC South.

Houston Texans (2020 record: 4-12. Third worst record in the NFL)

The Texans are in a dysfunctional mess. It seems just yesterday that they were 24-0 up against the Kansas City Chiefs during the Divisional Round in January 2020. The franchise has overseen massive changes and none are for the better.

Star wide receiver Deandre Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2020 offseason, which had a massive role to play in the Texans finishing 4-12 last season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson had his best statistical season despite the team’s record and the loss of his number one wideout, earning the award of passing yards leader. A request for a trade followed by legal troubles leaving his chances of suiting up once again in a Texans jersey slim to none. Defensive end J.J. Watt, who is probably the best player in franchise history, said an emotional goodbye to the Texans this offseason, with his move to the Arizona Cardinals in Free Agency confirmed.

The team has attempted to address the QB situation in the offseason, with Tyrod Taylor picked up in Free Agency and Davis Mills being taken in the third round of this year’s draft, the team’s first selection. The running back room is one area where Houston will be happy. Along with David Johnson, who was part of the aforementioned Hopkins trade, will be joined by three free-agent signings. Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay, and Rex Burkhead have all joined this summer via the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, and Denver Broncos respectively.

Wide receiver Chris Conley, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, linebackers Christian Kirksey, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and cornerback Desmon King are five other notable additions but none of these players are likely to make much of an impact. With the exception of Watson, who has an uncertain future both in the NFL and as a Texan, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and linebacker Zach Cunningham are the only two players that would start for the majority of teams in the league.

The Texans face a difficult season and new head coach David Culley has a tough task on his hands. Expect them to finish last in the division and have the worst record in the entire league.

Prediction: 4th in AFC South

Indianapolis Colts (2020 record: 11-5. Lost in Wildcard Round)

Indianapolis has the longest period without a division crown, with their last AFC South title coming in the 2014 season. Head coach Frank Reich has done an excellent job since being appointed in 2018, a job that was given to him after Josh McDaniels’ u-turn.

They started 1-5 in 2018 before turning it around to finish 10-6 and bow out in the Divisional Round. Quarterback Andrew Luck had an excellent 2018 campaign but announced his retirement on the eve of the 2019 season, Jacoby Brissett would come in as the starter before 2020, where Phillip Rivers arrived for what ended up being the final season of his career.

Carson Wentz departed the Philadelphia Eagles for the Colts this offseason but an injury put his season in doubt. It has since been reported that he has recovered way better than expected and may even play in week one. The more realistic outcome is Wentz playing in either week two or three.

He is reunited with his former offensive coordinator in Reich, someone who was a big part of his 2017 campaign. This is a season where he was everyone’s favourite for the MVP before injury prevented this. If there is anyone that can get him back to the player we once saw, this is Reich. Wentz knows the Reich system and once he starts for the Colts, the transition from franchises should be a smooth one.

Wentz comes into a very talented offense. He firstly will have running backs Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines to hand the ball off to. Michael Pittman showed flashes of what he can do in the NFL last season in his rookie year. Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell have the opportunity to make their mark, especially with the injury concerns surrounding T.Y. Hilton.

The offense will be massively helped by what is an excellent offensive line. Alongside centre Ryan Kelly, the Colts have the best offensive lineman in football. Guard Quenton Nelson has been a force in the league ever since being drafted sixth overall by Indianapolis in 2018. It is not only the offensive line where the Colts excel. They have an excellent defensive unit.

Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, DeForest Buckner will be joined by 2021 first round pick in defensive end Kwity Paye, who was one of the best defensive prospects in this year’s draft.

Games against the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots as well as two division games against the Titans makes for a tough schedule. These are mostly all Super Bowl contenders. Two games against the Texans and Jaguars will offer the Colts some wins, as well as their games against the inconsistent Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders.

Had it not been for Wentz’ injury, the Colts would be my tip to win the AFC South. However, the uncertainty around his health and the NFL readiness of backup Jacob Eason means that the Colts will find it tough to win this division.

Prediction: 2nd in AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars (2020 record: 1-15. Worst record in NFL)

Hope surrounds Jacksonville, with new head coach Urban Meyer and number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence. Fans are left extremely excited over how the next three to four seasons will play out.

However, there have been some setbacks this offseason. Fellow first-round selection Travis Etienne was making good waves in training camp. The running back was said to be playing snaps as a receiver, which would allow fellow back James Robinson to kick on from his excellent rookie campaign. Etienne is now out for the season after suffering a foot injury.

Meyer’s body language has not exactly been positive and the three preseason games have highlighted the issues with the Jaguars offensive line, despite the win over the Dallas Cowboys. Lawrence will struggle to become the quarterback we all expect him to be if his line cannot protect him. If they can get that part of their team right, then the Jaguars can be a team to shock a few. Lawrence has the chance to throw to what is a very underrated wide receiver room in Jacksonville.

Marvin Jones has come in during the offseason after 36 touchdowns in 5 seasons with the Detroit Lions. Alongside 2020 draft pick Laviska Shenault and D.J. Chark, who has recorded 13 touchdowns throughout his three-year NFL career, the Jaguars are set at the wide receiver position. Offensive weapons should be the last of their concerns in the 2022 draft.

Defense should be a concern going into the 2021 season, considering they finished 27th in passing yards allowed and 30th in rushing yards allowed last year. No matter whether their offense excels or struggles, their defense will let them down. This is a far cry from the 2017 Jaguars defense that were proclaimed ‘Sacksonville’, a unit that was dismantled year by year until all of those individuals left the franchise.

Expect the Jaguars to show their potential in short spells as the rebuild continues for this franchise. Improvement will be made on last season.

Prediction: 3rd in AFC South

Tennessee Titans (2020 record: 11-5. Lost in Wildcard Round

Under an excellent head coach in Mike Vrabel and the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in running back Derrick Henry, the Titans go into this season with plenty of excitement. They are seen as a dark horse for an appearance in Super Bowl 56 but can they surprise a few and make it to the big game?

With an exciting offense, anything is possible. Ryan Tannehill has rejuvenated his career in Tennessee after being traded from the Miami Dolphins, with 55 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 6,561 passing yards since arriving at the franchise in 2019. He will hope to continue his success despite the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Of course, there is Henry. He became just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards. He is the hearbeat of this offense. His sheer size and athleticism makes him a terror for any NFL defense. His importance to this team means that opponents can draw up a gameplan that aims to take him out of the game. If they are successful, then this can often be Tennessee’s downfall. This is a big if. Teams who take Henry out of the game often still get bullied by him and those that deal with Henry often then get stung by the Titan’s passing offense.

Wide receiver A.J. Brown had an excellent 2020, where he caught for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns. Josh Reynolds has arrived in Free Agency but the biggest headline addition is Julio Jones. He joined from the Falcons after 10 years and likely to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Injuries halted his 2020 campaign but if the Titans get a Julio at his best, then they have a very exciting and deep receiver room. By double teaming either Jones or Brown, this can open up space for the other to capitalise and get Tennessee down the field. Tannehill is excellent when running play action. His ability to move around the pocket and evade defenses is a massive plus to this Titans team.

Defensively is where Tennessee struggled in 2020, ranking 29th in passing yards allowed and 19th in rushing yards allowed. There was a clear intent this offseason to address the defensive issues, with stopping the pass a clear priority, with 5 of Tennessee’s 8 picks on the defensive side of the ball, with three of those being defensive backs. Cornerback Caleb Farley was taken 27th overall with second-round pick Dillon Radunz and third rounder Elijah Molden both expected to be taken higher than what they were. Bud Dupree has come in during Free Agency to add some quality to the defense. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 11-0 when Dupree suffered a season ending injury. They finished the season 12-4 and lost in the Wildcard Round. This shows how crucial he was to the Pittsburgh team.

The Titans have a fairly tough schedule. This is despite having the same fortunes as Indianapolis in that they will play the Jaguars and Texans twice. Games against the Bills, Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Rams, Seattle Seahawks and 49ers await Tennessee as well as two games against the Colts.

This may impact Tennessee’s chances of winning the division but their stacked roster, particularly on offense, has the capabilities to win it and go far in the playoffs.

Prediction: 1st in AFC South.

Latest AFC North preview

Who will win the AFC North?

By: Andy Davies

The AFC North is currently one of the league’s best divisions. Three of the four teams made the playoffs last season, the most of any division in the NFL.

All four teams have strengthened this offseason as the three teams look to take a trip back to the postseason, whilst the Cincinnati Bengals also look to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season.

Here is a preview of the AFC North in the upcoming 2021 season.

Baltimore Ravens (2020 Record: 11-5, lost in Divisional Round)

Baltimore went into the 2020 season with plenty of hype, particularly around quarterback Lamar Jackson. He was crowned MVP after his brilliant 2019 season, with many predicting their week three clash with the Kansas City Chiefs seen as a preview of the AFC Championship game. It seemed that every pundit had the Ravens v Chiefs as a foregone conclusion for this game.

However, the 2020 season didn’t pan out this way. Whilst they made the Divisional Round and were one game away from the AFC Championship, they were outclassed by the Buffalo Bills in the postseason and almost didn’t make the playoffs altogether. Jackson saw some regression, particularly when it came to passing the football. After throwing for 36 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and 3,127 yards in 2019, Jackson threw for 26 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and 2,757 yards in 2020. After a three-game losing streak, Baltimore won their last five games as they reached the playoffs at the expense of the Miami Dolphins. Can they get back to the team we saw in 2019 that earned the number one seed in the AFC?

They have addressed their biggest concern, getting help for Lamar. Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins has joined in Free Agency and Rashod Bateman was taken 27th overall by the Ravens in this years’ draft. Along with Marquise Brown, Lamar has some great options. Offensive line help had also been added, with Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva taken in Free Agency. Baltimore also selected guard Ben Cleveland in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Everyone knows Jackson’s ability to run with the ball, with 2,906 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns during his first three seasons in the NFL. If he is to succeed with the throwing of the football, the Ravens have certainly done all they can.

Baltimore’s defense finished sixth in passing yards allowed in 2020 and only the Los Angeles Rams allowed fewer overall points than the Ravens. Their defense will hope to have a similar impact in 2021 and will want to improve on their run defense, finishing eighth overall. Losing Matt Judon to the New England Patriots will be a big loss, considering he recorded 21 quarterback hits and 6 sacks. However, the Ravens defense has all the talent to atone for losing a big part of their unit.

Linebacker Patrick Queen recorded 106 total tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 10 quarterback hits, and 3 sacks during his rookie 2020 season. Tyus Bowser recorded three interceptions and cornerback Marlon Humphrey recorded 8 forced fumbles, 11 passes deflected 82 total tackles, and four quarterback hits. Head coach John Harbaugh won’t allow this defensive front to slack.

Games against the Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Browns, Green Bay Packers, and Los Angeles Rams make for some tough fixtures, but games against the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos, and two games against a rebuilding Bengals side will offer the Ravens some rest bite.

Baltimore’s season hopes rest on the form of Lamar. If they get the 2019 version, then expect the Ravens to be Super Bowl contenders. If we see the Lamar of the majority of 2020, then they will make the playoffs but should expect to be playing on Wildcard Weekend.

Prediction: 2nd in AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals (2020 Record: 4-11-1, missed out on playoffs)

When the Bengals went all the way to the Super Bowl during the 1988 season, nobody would have predicted them to play in just nine further playoff games and win just once in the 33 seasons that have followed. They have been one of the league’s poorest performers over recent years. They were offered hope in the 2020 NFL Draft when LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was taken first overall. However, a season-ending knee injury midseason that included a torn ACL and MCL meant that his campaign was cut short despite a promising start that saw 13 touchdowns thrown, 5 interceptions, and 2,688 yards in ten games. This amounts to 268.8 yards, 1.3 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per game.

Burrow showed a lot of promise worthy of being a number one overall pick, even earning praise from Lebron James on Twitter. Can he get back to full health and become the quarterback everyone expects him to be?

He will be reunited with his college receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who recorded 20 touchdown receptions and 1,780 receiving yards in the 2019 season that saw LSU go all the way and win the National Championship. There have been some concerns in the preseason with Chase’s dropped passes but these are teething problems and the rookie wideout may need some time to adjust to the pros.

Safety Jessie Bates is one of the more underrated in the league in his position and at just 24, he can offer many more years to this franchise. Further on the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals added defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerback Mike Hilton in Free Agency along with linebacker Joseph Ossai in the third round of the draft. Hendrickson recorded 13.5 sacks in 2020. He will want to prove he is more than just a one-season wonder who performed well on their contract year. Hilton offers depth to the Cincinnati secondary. Late pick Wyatt Hubert suffered a season-ending injury in July but he offers potential for the future, with 8.5 sacks for Kansas State in 2020 and 20 across the 34 college games he participated in.

Expect the Bengals to struggle in 2021 in what is a big year for head coach Zac Taylor. They are certainly a team to watch for the future, especially with receiving talent such as Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins as well as a running back as impressive as Joe Mixon.

Prediction: 4th in AFC North

Cleveland Browns (2020 Record: 11-5, lost in Divisional Round)

The Cleveland Browns had been starved of success, with no playoff appearance since the 2002 season. They finally ended this hoodoo by reaching the postseason, beating the Steelers 48-37 in the Wildcard Round. Their journey would end against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round despite their valiant effort. Can they go one or two steps further by reaching the AFC Championship or even the Super Bowl?

Cleveland’s first target in 2021 will be to win the division, which they last won in the 1989 season. It has been so long since they won the division, that two teams have won it more recently than the Browns who aren’t even in the division anymore. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans won the AFC North in 1999 and 2000. They have a genuine chance of winning this division. It will be a tough challenge for any of the four teams to win it but the Browns have had the best offseason and this could be a deciding factor.

Safety John Johnson was added in Free Agency as well as defensive end Jadaveon Clowney, who could be a real difference-maker to this defensive line. Fellow defensive end Myles Garrett is one of the league’s best. The 2017 first overall pick recorded 12 sacks in 2020, making it 42.5 across his four-year career. You could make the case that only Aaron Donald is more feared by opposing offenses than Garrett.

Garrett is often a victim of his success, with many teams choosing to double-team him. Adding someone in of Clowney’s quality, despite struggling with injuries and consistency, will help ease the pressure off Garrett and elevate this defense. If Garrett is double-teamed, this will open the door for Clowney to get to the quarterback.

Defensively, the Browns also added one of the best defensive prospects in the draft. Notre Dame Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah somehow fell into the second round, with Cleveland taking him 52nd overall. Alongside Sione Takitaki, who recorded 67 total tackles in 2020, this pair can help this team in the middle of the field as well as from the outside.

One of Cleveland’s best assets last season was their run game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were excellent and both combined for 1,908 yards and 18 touchdowns between them. They were protected well by an offensive line that was excellent at opening up gaps for their two running backs. This was guard Wyatt Teller’s specialty and he is one of the best in the league at it. Alongside Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, and Joel Bitonio, this forms one of the league’s best offensive lines that also massively helped quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The Oklahoma QB impressed in his 2018 rookie season after being taken first overall but suffered a sophomore slump in 2019. Last year saw a massive improvement in Mayfield, with 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns. He had better numbers in previous seasons but there was a much more mature Baker, someone who came up big in important situations. He combined for 467 yards, four touchdowns, and just one interception across the two playoff games last season.

With Odell Beckham back healthy, it will be interesting to see how the season goes considering how better the team looked without him on the field. He is being backed by some for Comeback Player of the Year, but injuries have played a part in recent years and there is no guarantee that they won’t reappear in 2021. Jarvis Landry was the lead receiver but will want to improve on the three touchdowns and 841 yards he racked up in 2020. He may find this tough under a system that excels when predominantly using the run game. Head coach Kevin Stefanski won Coach of the Year last season and will look to build on what was an impressive first season as an NFL head coach. The Browns have long searched for a good head coach and they appear to have finally found this.

There is trepidation about backing the Browns. They went into the 2019 season with similar hype and ultimately disappointed, with just six wins. However, this time they arent going into the season with a new head coach. Stefanski already knows the players and it is unlikely that he has a falling out with Mayfield as we saw with Freddie Kitchens in 2019. Mayfield will become the first Browns quarterback to start in week 1 in three consecutive seasons. This level of consistency has been hard to find for a franchise that has been perennial strugglers during the Super Bowl era.

It has been dangerous to trust the Browns over the years, but this year feels different. Hello first division title in over thirty years.

Prediction: 1st in AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers (2020 Record: 12-4, lost In Wildcard Round)

Along with the New England Patriots, the Steelers’ six Lombardi Trophies put them as the joint-most successful franchise in NFL history during the Super Bowl era. Pittsburgh is always there or thereabouts, with playoff appearances in 13 seasons since the turn of the 21st century. However, they have only won consecutive playoff games in the same season once since the conclusion of the 2011 campaign.

The trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell failed to make the most of a very impressive offense. Both Bell and Brown have left, with the latter winning a ring and scoring in Super Bowl 55. Big Ben is likely to be in his last season, hoping for one last chance at a third Lombardi.

Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster recorded 9 touchdowns and 831 yards in 2020 and Chase Claypool recorded very similar numbers during his rookie season. Diontae Johnson scored seven touchdowns and racked up 923 yards in the same campaign. Despite these numbers, they are going to struggle to put up similar numbers with the arm of Big Ben regressing and on the decline.

Pittsburgh was dead last in rushing yards record in 2020 (1,351), with running backs Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook both recording more yards than the entire Steelers offense. James Conner was the Steelers’ leading rusher (721) but is now an Arizona Cardinals player. The franchise went out to address this, by taking Alabama’s Najee Harris 24th overall. He will hope to add to a run game that struggled immensely last season.

Defensively, Bud Dupree may have moved to the Tennessee Titans during Free Agency but the Steelers still have T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, Joe Haden, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. All of these players are fearsome on the defensive side of the ball and will give Pittsburgh a chance to win games if the offense struggles. Combine this with the head coaching of Mike Tomlin, then the Steelers should never be written off. However, the overall strength of division rivals Baltimore and Cleveland means that the Steelers may have to prepare for missing out on the playoffs altogether.

Prediction: 3rd in AFC North

Predicting the Top 5 defenses this season

Is the Rams defense the best in the NFL?

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

The 2021 NFL season is now less than a week away. The preseason has been completed and rosters are being finalized as teams prepare for week 1 of the regular season. Now is as good a time as any to start projecting how each team will perform this year. In particular for this article, let’s predict who the top five defenses in the NFL can be this season, counting down from 5th place and continuing all the way to the number one spot.

5. Buffalo Bills

The Bills were an average defense last year, ranking 14th in yards allowed per game with 352.5 and 16th in scoring with 23.4 points per game allowed. What’s encouraging is that they played much better defensively late in the season than they did earlier. For example, in their final six regular-season games following their bye week, they held four of their six opponents to under 20 points and then also held the Ravens to just three points in a playoff game. That gives reason for optimism heading into the 2021 NFL season, especially because head coach Sean McDermott is defensively focused. In addition, they addressed their lack of “true pass rushers” in the NFL Draft this year with first round pick Greg Rousseau and second round pick Boogie Basham. With the improved pass rush and renewed focus on defense, the Bills can get back to playing like they did in 2019 when they ranked 2nd in scoring defense at 16.2 points per game and 3rd in total defense at 298.3 yards per game.

4. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers suffered an extreme amount of injuries in the 2020 NFL season, including their top two pass rushers in Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. Despite the fact that neither of them played much at all, in addition to all of the other injuries as well, they still managed to finish ranked 5th in total defense at 314.4 yards allowed per game. They only recorded 30 team sacks in 2020 but that number should greatly improve with their overall health, as demonstrated by their 48 team sacks in the 2019 NFL season. Lead by superstar linebacker Fred Warner, the 49ers should have another great year defensively, even without Robert Saleh as the defensive coordinator anymore after he accepted the New York Jets head coaching job.

3. Washington Football Team

Last season WFT ranked 2nd in yards allowed per game with 304.6 and 4th in scoring defense with 20.6 points allowed per game. There is good reason to believe that they could be even better this season than they were last season because of the development and progress of their young and dominant front seven. Chase Young and Montez Sweat are already one of the very best EDGE duos in the NFL and should continue to improve as they mature a bit more. The team ranked 6th in sacks last year with 47 and that number will likely go up this season. The front seven was the biggest strength of the team last season but that didn’t stop them from using their first round draft pick on linebacker Jamin Davis out of Kentucky. As long as they can keep this unit together, WFT will have one of the top defenses for many years to come.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

The center piece to their defense, linebacker Devin Bush, only played in five games last season due to injury but the Steelers still ranked 3rd in both scoring and total defense with 19.5 and 305.8 respectively. They did lose pass rusher Bud Dupree to free agency but replaced him with a very capable veteran in Melvin Ingram. He was plagued by injuries last season, but from 2015 to 2019 he recorded 43 total sacks with the Chargers. He will pair with one of the best EDGE players in the NFL in TJ Watt, whose 15 sacks helped the Steelers lead the league in team sacks last year with a massive 56 total. In just four seasons, Watt has already accumulated 49.5 sacks and 17 forced fumbles. The Steelers have an absolute stud at all three levels of their defense, with Minkah Fitzpatrick on the back end to go with Watt on the EDGE and Bush in the middle.

1. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams were the most dominant defense in the NFL last season. Their 281.9 yards per game allowed was best in the league by a very wide margin of more than 22 yards per game. In addition, they lead the NFL in scoring defense at 18.5 points allowed per game and were second in team sacks with 53 total. They have, arguably, the best cornerback in the entire NFL in Jalen Ramsey and he’s not even their best defensive player. That is, of course, Aaron Donald. He is not only the best defensive player in the NFL but he very well may be the best overall player period. In seven season with Rams he has only missed two games total while accumulating 85.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles, and 6 recovered fumbles despite being double or triple teamed on every single play. He is the “favorite” to once again win the Defensive Player of the Year award this season, as he should be favored every year. Based on their dominance last season, as long as they have Donald and Ramsey then there is no real reason to believe that they will regress as a defensive unit.

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