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Nike sponsors many of the biggest names in sports from Kobe Bryant to Serena Williams.
What's the point of having all that star power if you don't put it together in one glorious commercial? Bryant, Williams, Odell Beckham Jr., Richard Sherman and others all team up to show just how fast they are.
Tennessee released a new uniform design on Wednesday, as the program officially joined forces with Nike as its apparel supplier.
The Volunteers were under the Adidas brand since the mid-1990s, but as of July 1, the program will be sporting Nike apparel for the next eight years.
Nike isn’t making any drastic changes to the Tennessee uniform. Here’s a look at the Volunteers’ Nike uniforms for the upcoming year:
Tennessee's 2015 uniforms with Nike:
Here it is, your Tennessee Football AWAY uniform pic.twitter.com/Esk0S0cb5t— Tennessee Athletics (@Vol_Sports) July 1, 2015
Headhunter pic.twitter.com/g6H2Muzr8N— Vol Photos (@Vol_Photos) July 1, 2015
Alternate Helmet for Tennessee:
Alternate Uniform for Tennessee:
Here's Tennessee's uniforms from 2014 with Adidas:
White Sox lefty Chris Sale has become a member of a short list in the record books, joining Pedro Martinez as the only two pitchers to strike out 10+ batters in eight straight games. In a 2-1 win over the MLB-best Cardinals, Sale struck out 12 over eight innings, allowing just one run. However, very typical of his season, he ended up with a no decision, as the White Sox struggled to score.
The Southpaw from the South Side leads the MLB with 141 strikeouts and possesses a scant 2.87 ERA. His record of 6-4 is hardly indicative of what he’s accomplished so far, as he has been utterly dominant in making batters swing and miss. Sale has been a lone highlight on the White Sox and should be a lock for the upcoming All Star Game.
Look at some incredible pitches from the strikeout machines:
The start of July signals the halfway point in the MLB regular season. With the All-Star Game set for July 14 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, the Midsummer Classic is clearly one of the storylines to watch this month. But it's not alone, as pennant races will heat up and the July 31 trade deadline looms. Here's a rundown of the five storylines that are sure to sizzle this month
Will Kris Bryant or Joc Pederson separate themselves in the NL ROY race?
The future of baseball seems to be loaded with power, if this year’s rookies are indicative of the shift in baseball. In the NL, the race for Rookie of the Year already seems to be down to a battle between Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant and Dodgers’ center fielder Joc Pederson. Both players have gotten off to incredible starts, especially as they were both highly rated prospects. The question though is whether either one will take a decisive lead in the rookie race. As of now, Bryant leads Pederson in batting average, hits and RBIs despite playing in 11 fewer games. However, Pederson leads rookies definitively with 20 home runs and has a higher on-base percentage and slugging percentage than Bryant. Defensively, Bryant has been more than serviceable at the hot corner, while Pederson has made his share of highlight-reel plays in center field. There is still more than half a season left, but July will be an important month for both players, not to mention their respective teams.
Pitching is all about Chris: Archer and Sale
There have been several pitchers who have heated up as of late, but few dominated in June like Chris Archer and Chris Sale. Archer currently boasts a 2.31 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 17 starts. In June alone, Archer went 4-1 in six starts, including a three-game stretch where he struck out 34 in 20 innings. Sale has been just as dominant, as he closed out June with his eighth straight start with at least 10 strikeouts, tying Pedro Martinez's all-time record for the longest such streak. Sale may only have six wins, but you could make a strong case that the ace of the AL Central's last-place White Sox should start the All-Star Game in two weeks. Then again, the same could be said for Archer, who is leading the surprising pitching staff for the AL East's first-place Rays, who are tied with the Orioles entering July. The intensity each displays on the mound is incredible, and it will be interesting to see how long each will be able to maintain this level of performance.
MLB Trade Deadline: Who's moving?
On the last day of July, the trade deadline will come. However, between now and then, it's entirely possible that some big-name players will change teams. Some teams will seek to maximize their return on desirable assets in hopes of jumpstarting a rebuild, while others are looking to add that key player who will hopefully contribute to a deep playoff run. Players that have already been linked to trades include pitchers Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir, and hitters Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Zobrist. Each of these high-profile players brings veteran experience and immediate results to any team in need. Many players have been talked about in trades since last year, so keep an eye out for a blockbuster or two.
Standings Shakeups: Which teams will continue to win and which need to rebound?
As always, several teams have outperformed preseason expectations, while others have struggled to win. The Rays, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Giants and Mets have all enjoyed success at a level beyond what was expected of them. The Astros have certainly garnered the most attention, led by a bevy of young players; orchestrating a surprising turnaround given their results from the past few seasons. Meanwhile, the Red Sox, Mariners and White Sox have been among the biggest disappointments, after each attacked free agency aggressively and made significant moves during the offseason. None of the teams are completely out of the playoff race just yet, but unless an extensive winning streak is on the horizon, it's likely each team could make some changes before the trade deadline. Specifically, the Red Sox need pitching (last in AL, 28th in MLB in ERA) and the Mariners and White Sox need hitting (29th and 30th in MLB in runs scored, respectively).
All-Star Game: What will happen next?
This year's All-Star Game will be played at Great American Ball Park, an NL stadium, but it's the potential makeup of the AL team that's getting the most attention. With the Royals dominating the All-Star voting, it seems that changes to the process could be on the forefront. Whether or not action happens immediately, the dialogue will be important. Baseball has arguably the most important All-Star exhibition out of any of the big four sports because the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. The question is if new Commissioner Rob Manfred addresses the issue, which will certainly be a larger topic for debate. However, don't expect any rules changes in July, as those discussions and decisions will be saved for the offseason.
Colin Cowherd isn't the easiest guy to get along with, but evidently Jim Harbaugh is in the same boat.
The Michigan coach was being interviewed by Cowherd and it didn't go as planned. The ESPN personality ended up cutting the interview short, and for good reason. Harbaugh didn't seem too interested.
Social media quickly reacted to the awkward exchange and abrupt end to the interview.
In defense of Cowherd. Harbaugh clearly had little interest in being interviewed. Answers were brutal.— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) July 1, 2015
Wow. Good for @ESPN_Colin for cutting that interview with Harbaugh off. Guy was half asleep.— Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) July 1, 2015
" I just did the roughest interview I've ever done in my 12 years in radio." @ESPN_Colin on Jim Harbaugh. Ouch— BK (@brendonkuhn) July 1, 2015
" I just did the roughest interview I've ever done in my 12 years in radio." @ESPN_Colin on Jim Harbaugh. Ouch— BK (@brendonkuhn) July 1, 2015
For the first time in a long time, social media is siding with Cowherd for doing what he had to do and cutting Harbaugh short.
Later, Harbaugh replied to the criticism he received for the interview.
In my experience of participating in interviews, I've found it takes 2 to produce a clunker! I'll take 50% responsibility 4 this clunker.— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) July 1, 2015
Before the free agency period explodes, the New Orleans Pelicans have made sure to wrap up Anthony Davis to ensure that he will be with the team long-term. In a five-year extension that will begin next year, the max deal will give him the league’s richest contract. From 2016-2021, Davis will rake in around $145 million, averaging out to about $29 million a year.
The power forward was among the league’s best, ranking in the top five in WAR, points, and blocks. At only 22, the young superstar seems only to have an upward trajectory over the course of his contract. He looks to lead the team further into the playoffs, as they were knocked out by the eventual champion Warriors this year. Broken down more, Davis will make about $350,000 a game, or just under $10,000 per minute played.
Take a look at some top plays below and see why he's getting paid so much:
Cornerback is one of the toughest positions to play in college football. Quarterbacks, spread attacks and skill players aren’t getting any easier to defend and the rules certainly favor the offensive side of the ball.
While the success of the secondary doesn’t necessarily depend on the two starting cornerbacks for any team, having a standout tandem helps to defend the prolific offenses in college football.
It’s never too early to think about the upcoming year, so Athlon Sports is taking a look at ranking the top cornerback tandems for the 2015 season. A couple of notes: Only Power 5 programs were considered for the top 25 and there was projection for the upcoming year. Previous stats and awards matter, but it is important to look at what’s ahead for the 2015 season. Additionally, it’s not easy to weigh the tandems when there is one clear standout (Florida State and Clemson) and question marks at other spot.
Top 25 CB Tandems from Power 5 Teams
1. Virginia Tech: Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson
Fuller is one of the top cover corners in the nation and a first-team Athlon Sports All-America selection for 2015. Facyson was limited to three games due to injury last year and recorded six stops. When healthy, Facyson is one of the top defensive backs in the ACC, recording third-team all-conference honors in 2013.
Related: All-ACC Team for 2015
2. Florida: Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor
Hargreaves III is arguably the best cornerback in college football. Over the last two seasons, Hargreaves III intercepted six passes and broke up 24 throws to his side of the field. Tabor was a member of the Athlon Sports All-Freshman Team last year after recording 22 tackles and one interception in 12 appearances.
Related: 2015 All-America Team
3. LSU: Tre’Davious White and Kevin Toliver II
New LSU coordinator Kevin Steele inherits one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. The Tigers ranked third nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and plenty of experience and talent returns in 2015. White has started 24 games over the last two years and recorded four interceptions in that span. Toliver II was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and will battle with Ed Paris for the starting spot opposite of White.
4. USC: Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour
The Trojans have question marks up front with the departure of Leonard Williams, but there’s little concern in the secondary for coordinator Justin Wilcox. Jackson is one of the top all-purpose players in the nation and will see time on offense in 2015. Seymour broke up 13 passes last season and has made steady improvement over the last three years.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
5. Notre Dame: Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell
The Fighting Irish ranked 84th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season but expect to see big improvement out of this unit. Russell recorded 109 tackles and 10 pass breakups from 2012-13 and ranked as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks prior to last year. However, Russell was suspended for all of 2014, forcing Notre Dame to shuffle its secondary. Cole Luke started all 13 games as a sophomore last year and recorded 48 tackles, 11 pass breakups and four interceptions. He should be even better in his second season as the starter.
Related: 2015 All-America Team
6. Minnesota: Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray
Most around the Big Ten know how good this duo was in 2014, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Boddy-Calhoun was one of Minnesota’s top playmakers on defense last season, breaking up nine passes and intercepting five in 13 games. Murray only intercepted one pass, but opposing quarterbacks also avoided his side of the field. This duo was a key reason why Minnesota only allowed 12 passing scores in Big Ten play in 2014.
7. Wisconsin: Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton
Behind the leadership of rising star coordinator Dave Aranda, Wisconsin limited opponents to just 20.8 points per game in 2014. The secondary was a key piece of Aranda’s defensive success last year, as the Badgers allowed just 11 touchdown passes in Big Ten play and held opposing quarterbacks to a 47.4 completion percentage. Hillary started all 14 games last season, while Shelton followed up a solid freshman debut with 33 tackles and six passes defended.
8. Florida State: Jalen Ramsey and Marquez White
Coordinator Charles Kelly should feel great about one of Florida State’s cornerback spots. The other spot? Wait and see. Ramsey could be college football’s best defensive player in 2015, as the Tennessee native has started all 28 games in his career and will move from safety to cornerback this year. Marquez White is locked into a tight battle for the other job, as converted running back Ryan Green or talented freshmen Tarvarus McFadden or Marcus Lewis could start opposite of Ramsey.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
9. Ohio State: Eli Apple and Gareon Conley
The Buckeyes ranked 13th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season and eliminated some of the big plays that hindered this unit in 2013. Doran Grant must be replaced at one corner spot, but Eli Apple is one of the nation’s rising stars on defense after starting 14 games in 2014. Apple is one of the Big Ten’s top corners, while Conley left spring with the edge over Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore for the other spot.
Related: 2015 All-America Team
10. Clemson: Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley
Clemson suffered significant losses to its front seven for 2015, but Alexander gives coordinator Brent Venables a solid piece to build around in the secondary. The Florida native is coming off an impressive freshman season, recording 22 tackles and six pass breakups in 13 games. Uncertainty surrounds the spot opposite of Alexander, which is expected to go to Cordrea Tankersley.
11. Tennessee: Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley
Sutton has been underrated throughout his career, but the Georgia native won’t fly under the radar in 2015 as one of the SEC’s top defensive backs. He has 20 pass breakups and five interceptions over the last two years. Moseley played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2014 and recorded 19 tackles and six pass breakups.
12. Mississippi State: Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun
The Bulldogs finished No. 14 in the SEC in pass defense last season, but that number was a little deceiving. Mississippi State ranked No. 25 nationally in pass efficiency defense and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 53.4 completion percentage. Redmond has never started a game in his career, but the Memphis native has thrived as a nickel back. Calhoun ranked fourth on the team with 53 stops in 2014 and also recorded nine pass breakups.
Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team
13. Maryland: William Likely and Sean Davis
Likely isn’t the biggest cornerback (5-foot-7), but the Florida native is one of the Big Ten’s top returning defenders. In 13 games last season, Likely earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 83 tackles and six interceptions. Davis started all 13 games last season and will move to cornerback from safety on a full-time basis in 2015. He recorded 115 tackles and eight pass breakups last year.
14. Virginia: Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson
Health is a huge question for this trio, as Nicholson has played in only six games over the last two years due to injury. Assuming Nicholson is healthy and regains his pre-injury form, Virginia should be one of the ACC’s best against the pass. Canady earned second-team All-ACC honors after recording 37 tackles, one forced fumble and three picks in 2014.
15. Ole Miss: Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard
Ole Miss fielded one of the stingiest defensive units in the nation in 2014, and this unit shouldn’t miss a beat despite losing cornerback Senquez Golson to the NFL. The Rebels allowed only seven passing scores in SEC games in 2014 and limited opponents to a 59.1 completion percentage. Matching those totals in 2015 is on the shoulders of juniors Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard. Bridges ranked as the No. 7 junior college recruit in the 2015 247Sports Composite. Shepard returns to action after missing 2014 due to injury.
16. Kansas State: Danzel McDaniel and Morgan Burns
McDaniel and Burns are an underrated duo and a big reason why Kansas State allowed only 11 passes of 30 yards or more last season – the fewest in the Big 12. In his first year from the junior college ranks, McDaniel earned second-team All-Big 12 honors and recorded 59 tackles. Burns is a weapon on special teams and started 12 games for the Wildcats last season.
17. Auburn: Jonathan Jones and Blake Countess
With Will Muschamp calling the signals in 2015, Auburn could have one of the nation’s most improved defenses. The front seven is set with the return of end Carl Lawson, but the secondary has room to improve after allowing 44 plays of 20 yards or more last year. Jonathan Jones had a breakout year in 2014, recording 11 pass breakups and six interceptions en route to earning second-team All-SEC honors. Countess is a graduate transfer from Michigan eligible immediately. He appeared in 38 games with the Wolverines.
18. Oklahoma: Zack Sanchez and Jordan Thomas
Much like a few teams ahead of the Sooners, one spot is secure and the other spot has uncertainty entering 2015. The pass defense has to improve for coach Bob Stoops, but junior Zack Sanchez should be one of the Big 12’s top cover options. The Texas native has 21 pass breakups in the last two years. Sophomore Jordan Thomas is the favorite to start opposite of Sanchez.
19. Missouri: Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see both Dennis and Penton earn All-SEC consideration this year. This duo anchored the Missouri secondary in 2014, guiding the Tigers to a No. 39 finish in pass efficiency defense. Penton broke up 10 passes and intercepted three balls, while Dennis made 61 stops and defended 10 passes.
20. UCLA: Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams
With four starters back in the secondary, UCLA should be able to improve off last year’s No. 60 rank in pass efficiency defense. Moreau earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2014 after recording 53 tackles and one interception. In addition to his success on special teams, Adams started all 13 games on defense and picked off two passes and recorded 41 tackles.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
21. Arizona State: Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown
The Sun Devils are going to be aggressive with their front seven on defense, so a few big plays are going to be allowed by the secondary if the pass rush doesn’t get to the quarterback. Arizona State allowed 27 passing plays (No. 12 in the Pac-12) of 30 yards or more last year. Coordinator Keith Patterson and coach Todd Graham hope that number drops in 2015, especially with Carrington and Brown returning after combining for four interceptions and 11 pass breakups in 2014.
22. Arkansas: Henre’ Toliver and Jared Collins
The Razorbacks showed big improvement under coordinator Robb Smith last year, holding opponents to just 5.1 yards per play after allowing 6.1 in 2013. The secondary limited opposing SEC quarterbacks to 12 passing scores last season, and Smith has three solid options to choose from at cornerback. Juniors Jared Collins and D.J. Dean are competing to start on one side, while Henre’ Toliver left spring with the edge at the other spot.
23. Penn State: Trevor Williams and Grant Haley
Penn State plans on shuffling its secondary a bit in 2015, but coordinator Bob Shoop should feel confident in this group. Senior Jordan Lucas will shift from cornerback to safety, opening the door for Williams and Haley to take over as the new tandem in Happy Valley. Haley played well as a true freshman last season and recorded 18 tackles and one interception in 13 games. Williams made a smooth transition from receiver to cornerback prior to 2013 and started 12 contests last year.
24. Duke: Bryon Fields and Breon Borders
The Blue Devils quietly ranked 23rd nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. And with five starters returning in the secondary for 2015, matching that total or climbing even higher could be possible for coach David Cutcliffe’s defensive backs. Safety Jeremy Cash is this unit’s headliner, but Fields and Borders combined to intercept four passes and limited ACC opponents to just 12 passing scores in league play.
25. NC State: Juston Burris and Jack Tocho
The Wolfpack are a sleeper team to watch in the ACC Atlantic this year, as the Wolfpack return 14 starters from a team that won four out of their final five games in 2014. NC State’s defense has to retool up front, but the secondary is a strength with all five starters returning. This unit ranked 42nd nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowed 12 passing scores in league play. Tocho is only getting better with each snap, and the junior anchors the secondary after recording 40 tackles, one interception and 11 pass breakups last year.
Other Power 5 CB Tandems to Watch
Alabama: Cyrus Jones and Tony Brown
Georgia: Malkom Parrish and Devin Bowman
Georgia Tech: Chris Milton and D.J. White
Iowa: Desmond King and Greg Mabin
Michigan: Wayne Lyons and Jourdan Lewis
Northwestern: Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris
Oklahoma State: Kevin Peterson and Ramon Richards
Oregon: Charles Nelson and Chris Seisay
West Virginia: Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut
Top Group of 5 Cornerback Tandems
Boise State: Donte Deayon and Jonathan Moxey
FIU: Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon
Houston: Brandon Wilson and William Jackson
Louisiana Tech: Adairius Barnes and Bryson Abraham
Northern Illinois: Paris Logan and Anthony Brooks
San Diego State: J.J. Whittaker and Damontae Kazee
San Jose State: Jimmy Pruitt and Cleveland Wallace
Temple: Tavon Young and Sean Chandler
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to the NFL's top linebackers, the list starts with the likes of Luke Kuechly, Justin Houston and Lavonte David. The first two were All-Pros last season, not to mention the fact that Kuechly already has a Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume and Houston came just a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record in 2014. And while David may not have the same accolades as his peers, all he's done is average 143 tackles through his first three seasons. But there's also plenty of depth at this position too, whether it come in the form of veterans like Von Miller, Terrell Suggs and DeAndre Levy or younger players like Jaime Collins, Bobby Wagner, Khalil Mack and C.J. Mosley.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Inside Linebackers
(Editor's note: San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman, who missed all of 2014, does not appear in this year's rankings because of lingering concerns over the health of his surgically repaired knee.)
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
Kuechly is the poster guy for competitive, instinctive and intense linebacker play. Last season, he was selected to his second career Pro Bowl and led the NFL in tackles. He’s started all 48 games in his career.
2. Dont’a Hightower, New England
Hightower is a physical run stuffer with the strength and ability to shed quickly at the point of attack. Most important, he made the key tackle on Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl.
3. Jamie Collins, New England
An ascending player who is getting more efficient every year, Collins has long arms and big hands, which help him shed blocks with his combination of power and speed.
4. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
A Pro Bowl performer, Wagner has top-level instincts and good overall technique. He is quick to read and react, has good range and takes productive angles in pursuit.
5. Sean Lee, Dallas
Lee is a competitor who doesn’t get fooled. He’s versatile enough to play inside or outside in the 4-3, but the Cowboys will start him on the outside in hopes of keeping him healthy and on the field.
6. Kiko Alonso, Philadelphia
Like Lee, Alonso missed last season due to a torn ACL. That didn’t stop Philadelphia from acquiring the former Oregon Duck for LeSean McCoy. In 2013, Alonso was second in the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
7. Brian Cushing, Houston
When healthy, Cushing is an All-Pro-caliber player, gaining such honors in 2009 and 2011. In 2014 — his first season in the last three in which he played more than seven games — Cushing started 14 games and totaled 72 tackles.
8. Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia
Despite missing four games with a calf injury last season, Kendricks is averaging 88 tackles per season. The instinctive playmaker was in on 75 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles last season.
9. Daryl Smith, Baltimore
A free-agent steal for the Ravens in 2013, Smith is known for consistent, instinctive and intense play. For the past two years the sideline-to-sideline performer has averaged more than 125 tackles per season.
10. Karlos Dansby, Cleveland
The 11-year veteran is recognized league-wide as an instinctive and productive defensive leader. He is one of only two players heading into the 2015 season with at least 30 career sacks and 10 career interceptions.
11. Brandon Marshall, Denver
12. Preston Brown, Buffalo
13. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh
14. Demario Davis, N.Y. Jets
15. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore
16. Koa Misi, Miami
17. Avery Williamson, Tennessee
18. Craig Robertson, Cleveland
19. DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia
20. David Harris, N.Y. Jets
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 3-4 Outside Linebackers
1. Justin Houston, Kansas City
A first-team All-Pro in 2014, Houston has 48.5 sacks in his four-year career. Only J.J. Watt has disrupted more dropbacks since 2011.
2. Von Miller, Denver
A nightmare for edge-blocking tackles, tight ends and backs, Miller has a knack and desire to excel working to the quarterback. In his four-year career he has 49 sacks, including 14 last season.
3. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore
The Ravens’ all-time leader in sacks added 12 more in 2014. He’s an explosive athlete who has had a pattern of yearly production from college through pro football.
4. Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore
A fast-twitch athlete who works through blocks, Dumervil had 17 sacks in his 2014 All-Pro season. The prolific edge rusher has 90 sacks between his Denver stint and two years with the Ravens.
5. Clay Matthews, Green Bay
After a temporary move to inside linebacker, Matthews arguably had his best season with the variety of assignments. A five-time Pro Bowl selection.
6. Paul Kruger, Cleveland
A relentless high-motor defender who recorded 11 sacks in 2014, Kruger has been a productive asset since signing as an unrestricted free agent in 2013. He displays a sudden punch and spin move with an upfield burst.
7. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia
The versatile and athletic edge rusher was in on 64 tackles including 14.5 sacks, tied with Buffalo’s Mario Williams for fourth in the league.
8. Pernell McPhee, Chicago
McPhee had a combined 38 quarterback knockdowns and hurries in 2014.
9. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia
Last season, Graham recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and 18 QB hurries.
10. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
Kerrigan racked up 13.5 sacks in 2014 and has never missed a start in his four-year pro career. He is consistent and nonstop in his play.
11. Julius Peppers, Green Bay
12. Derrick Morgan, Tennessee
13. Jason Babin, N.Y. Jets
14. James Harrison, Pittsburgh
15. Chandler Jones, New England
16. Tamba Hali, Kansas City
17. Trent Cole, Indianapolis
18. Rob Ninkovich, New England
19. Brooks Reed, Atlanta
20. Whitney Mercilus, Houston
2015 NFL Player Rankings: 4-3 Outside Linebackers
1. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
A tackling machine with natural and instinctive ability to recognize and react to run or pass, David was third in the league with 146 tackles.
2. Khalil Mack, Oakland
An athletic linebacker who can dip his shoulder, penetrate into the backfield and pressure the quarterback, Mack started all 16 games as a rookie and had 76 total tackles.
3. DeAndre Levy, Detroit
Levy is an athletic linebacker who can play square, work through traffic and run in space. Only Luke Kuechly had more tackles than Levy’s 151 last season.
4. Thomas Davis, Carolina
An aggressive and explosive hitter, Davis has worked through three ACL surgeries during his career to become one of the league’s best linebackers. He’s totaled over 100 tackles for the third year in a row.
5. K.J. Wright, Seattle
A productive tackler who is instinctive and physical, Wright is better in a confined area. He’s a multi-scheme athlete who totaled 107 tackles in 2014.
6. Anthony Barr, Minnesota
Barr has a good combination of length and take-off edge speed. He can beat an offensive tackle with athletic ability and double moves. In 12 games as a rookie, Barr registered 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
7. Jelani Jenkins, Miami
Jenkins is instinctive with a nose for the ball and has all the tools for a coverage linebacker. He made 110 tackles and forced two fumbles in 14 starts last fall.
8. Bruce Carter, Tampa Bay
Carter is a fluid athlete who can cover a lot of ground. Agile through traffic and with no hold up in pursuit, Carter has the speed to run with backs and tight ends in coverage.
9. Nigel Bradham, Buffalo
Versatile enough to play any of the positions in any scheme, Bradham is an athletic linebacker who can cover a tight end. He has good closing speed in pursuit. He was in on 104 tackles and defended six passes.
10. Danny Lansanah, Tampa Bay
An overnight success after being in the league off and on since 2008, Lansanah started 11 games in 2014 and recorded 82 tackles and three interceptions, two returned for TDs.
11. Justin Durant, Atlanta
12. Philip Wheeler, San Francisco
13. Vincent Rey, Cincinnati
14. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis
15. Sio Moore, Oakland
16. Anthony Hitchens, Dallas
17. Chad Greenway, Minnesota
18. Emmanuel Lamur, Cincinnati
19. Bruce Irvin, Seattle
20. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville
Ole Miss has real talent. I don’t mean like possible SEC fly-in-the-ointment talent. I mean we should recognize this Rebel team for what it is — the SEC team with the most rising seniors and arguably the most proven talent on their roster.
They have household names and highly regarded, NFL-caliber players like wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, safety/linebacker Tony Conner and tight end Evan Engram —all juniors. But, more importantly, Hugh Freeze’s team returns a bevy of solid seniors like four offensive linemen (not including Tunsil), defensive end C.J. Johnson, outside linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, and a pair of safeties in Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. All in all, aside from the previously mentioned juniors, the Rebels may start six returning starters who are seniors on offense and another six on defense.
Ole Miss has the right talent to win the West in 2015 and play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time.
But, Ole Miss hasn’t proved it has any staying power.
In 2003, Eli Manning led the Rebels to their seventh consecutive winning season and their first 10-win season in 31 years. It was longest stretch for Ole Miss without a losing season and first season with double-digit wins since John Vaught was the head coach in Oxford.
The next season, without Manning, then-head coach David Cutcliffe learned what Billy Brewer had in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, what Houston Nutt learned in 2010 and ‘11, and what Freeze (assuming he stays long enough) will learn: it’s possible to build but much harder to maintain a consistent program against the powers in the SEC West. The Rebels went 4-7 in 2004 and Cutcliffe was fired.
Fast-forward to September 2009, Ole Miss was ranked fourth in the country. The Rebels had received their highest Associated Press preseason ranking since (again) the Vaught era, and a year earlier the Rebels had beaten eventual national champion Florida and ended the season on a six-game winning streak, including victories over Auburn and LSU. Nutt was the reigning SEC Coach of the Year, and he had signed a 37-player strong recruiting class in February that was ranked behind just Alabama and LSU in the conference.
Nutt had built a fairly strong program at Arkansas over the course of a decade, but at this point in his tenure in Oxford, there seemed to be a “now or never” vibe associated with the program. Less than 12 months later, the Rebels started the 2010 season with a loss at home to Jacksonville State. Over the next two seasons Ole Miss would lose 17 more games and give up more than 50 points four times. The Rebels simply couldn’t keep replacing the quality players they were losing and stay competitive in the SEC.
So what does that stuff have to do with the 2015 team? The funny thing about the seasons your program is chock-full of NFL-ready juniors and seniors; those tend to be the most defining.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Either Freeze will prove to better a player-developer than his predecessors (in which case why should we expect him to stay?), or he’ll suffer a similar fate. Either way, competing with contemporary college football giants like Alabama, LSU and Auburn will always be difficult for Ole Miss. Case in point, according to 247 Sports’ annual recruiting class rankings, Ole Miss finished with its highest-ranked class since 2013 (the class that produced Treadwell, Engram, Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Conner) this February. And yet, that was only good enough to finish fifth in the SEC West.
Combine that harsh reality with the arrival of Texas A&M, a possible resurgence from Arkansas, and perhaps the most steady period in Mississippi State’s program history, and it’s no stretch to say the middle of the SEC West isn’t exactly there for the taking either.
If Ole Miss’ program, as it stands now, would ever like a trip to Atlanta for something other than the Peach Bowl, then it’s likely now or never. Beyond 2015, expect a major overhaul to be needed in Oxford.
— Written by Eron Jenkings, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Jenkins is a public school teacher in Baton Rouge, has written for several other publications and is an SEC fanatic. Follow him on Twitter @EronJenkins.
People are anxious to see what James Franklin and the Nittany Lions will do this year. With Christian Hackenberg under center and other top players on the roster, the sky is the limit for Penn State.
The team released a video called "The Next Phase," to show excitement for the new season and to display how hard the team is working to get ready. Franklin tweeted that this is just the beginning for the team.
Our players r doing what's needed to get better, coaches r doing what's needed to get better. This is just the start. http://t.co/OhIrUMsjnh— James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) June 30, 2015
The next phase for Penn State looks promising.
The MAC had a fun bowl season last year, going 2-3 with every single game featuring 60 points or more. This year we may see more fireworks with some of the old stalwarts in Toledo, Northern Illinois and Ohio as well as some fresh blood in UMass and Ball State. Tuesday nights in the MAC have made many a gambler some money and will do so again this year.
For the purposes of this exercise, projected win totals are broken down into three categories — definite wins, definite losses and toss-ups. Most of the conference games will in the toss-up category, especially ones on the road. This preview will offer thoughts on each team and if there’s any value either over or under.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
(Over 7.5 wins -130...Under 7.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 10 (4 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Outside of Kyle Pohl under center, there's a lot that needs to be rebuilt. Running back Jawon Chisholm is gone, but Donnell Alexander comes over from Colorado State to help out. The WRs need to sort themselves out while the offensive line returns three up front.
Defense: The Zips' defense was highly respectable last year, holding Penn State to 21 points while Pittsburgh could only manage 10 at home. A couple of players from Ohio State will be counted on in Se'Von Pittman and Jamal Marcus. The secondary is the area of worry.
Schedule: Things start out rough with a road game at Oklahoma on Sept. 5. The Zips follow it up with home games against Pittsburgh and Savannah State with a road game at UL Lafayette to close out the non-conference slate. They also have a pair of two game road trips in conference play.
Selection: The under is the play here. The non-conference slate is tough and Akron's road schedule in conference is as well. There are a lot of question marks and I think this group struggles with the adjustment.
(Over 5 wins -260...Under 5 wins +180)
Record Last Year: 8-6, 5-3
Returning Starters: 15 (10 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: This unit should roll this season. Travis Greene rushed for 12 touchdowns last year. The WR corps is pretty solid with Ronnie Moore, Ryan Burbrink and Roger Lewis returning. Lewis put up over 1,000 yards. Matt Johnson is back from a hip injury that sidelined him for most of 2014.
Defense: The defense allowed nearly 500 yards per game last year and returns just five starters. This unit struggled to get pressure on the quarterback then and will do so again this year.
Schedule: Big names litter the out-of-conference schedule. The Falcons take on Tennessee, Maryland, Memphis and Purdue before getting into their MAC slate. They have a stretch of three of four at home starting Oct. 10.
Selection: The over is the play, but not at this number. The best play in Bowling Green games this season may be the over although Vegas is going to post them real high.
(Over 5.5 wins +140...Under 5.5 wins -180)
Record Last Year: 5-6, 3-4
Returning Starters: 9 (6 on offense, 3 on defense)
Offense: The right pieces are back to make this a good offense again in 2015. Joe Licata is under center with Anthone Taylor back as well. The running back put up 1,403 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. The offensive line brings back both tackles, but the middle will be vulnerable.
Defense: The front line returns no one from last year with the secondary having to replace everyone but Boise Ross. Last year's unit allowed 31.5 points per game and that was a veteran bunch. This year's group could be just as rough.
Schedule: The team gets a virtual layup with Albany to start before road games at Penn State and Florida Atlantic. September closes out with a home game versus Nevada. The team alternates home and road matchups in conference.
Selection: The under is the play here. I don't think the offense is good enough to overcome the defense. I'll say this, if a few things break the right way, you could make a case for the over.
(Over 4.5 wins EVEN...Under 4.5 wins -140)
Record Last Year: 2-9, 1-6
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: The offensive numbers last year were pretty ugly. The good thing is that this roster is a year older and should improve. Colin Reardon is under center with the running back duo of Trayion Durham and Nick Holley behind him. The WRs are solid with Kris White and Ernest Calhoun returning. If Reardon can cut down the turnovers, this group should be better.
Defense: It was hard to pass on the Golden Flashes last year, although teams didn't need to because of an awful rush defense. The team returns its top 11 tacklers from 2014 so there is some continuity. This group is led by Nick Holley's 137 tackles from his safety spot.
Schedule: Kent State has road games at Minnesota and Illinois to go with home contests against Delaware State and Marshall. If the Golden Flashes can somehow get two wins out of that group, they've got three of their next five at home.
Selection: Slight lean to the over although I don't love the pick. Kent State has some opportunities at home to pad its win total. The Golden Flashes will need to as they probably will lose every game on the road.
(Over 4 wins -110...Under 4 wins -130)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 2-6
Returning Starters: 11 (3 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: There was a light at the end of the tunnel last year, as Miami (Ohio) finished the season with 48 points in its last two games. Drew Kummer is a contender for the starting QB job, but he threw just 10 passes last year. There's not a lot around him with just 261 rushing yards returning from last season.
Defense: This side of the ball has a lot back despite losing standout CB Quinten Rollins. The whole front line returns as well as two linebackers and two other corners. Bryson Albright led the team with six sacks.
Schedule: The Redhawks host Presbyterian and Cincinnati while playing road games at Wisconsin and Western Kentucky. They finish out the year with three of four at home.
Selection: Small lean to the under. It doesn't look that great for Miami (Ohio) schedule-wise, but it does get three straight at home in October and November. However, this team will not score enough leaving their defense out to dry.
(Over 5 wins -140...Under 5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 6-6, 4-4
Returning Starters: 16 (9 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Almost all of the important pieces are back for the Bobcats. They need to figure out the QB position with JD Sprague and Derrius Vick. Whomever is under center gets the whole offensive line back as well as WRs Sebastian Smith and Brendan Cope.
Defense: Ohio was 40th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 24.8 points per game. This defense is led by Quentin Poling, who had 89 tackles and five sacks last season. The Bobcats return all of their LBs and a few defensive ends. This veteran group has potential.
Schedule: The Bobcats have an interesting array of non-conference opponents, taking on Marshall and SE Louisiana at home while playing at Idaho and Minnesota. They have two groups of two home games in a row and one two-game road trip as well.
Selection: Love the over for Ohio. Tons of returnees plus great coaching in Frank Solich. The schedule breaks nicely and I think the over hits comfortably.
(Over 4.5 wins -185...Under 4.5 wins +145)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 3-5
Returning Starters: 18 (9 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: Blake Frohnapfel threw for 23 touchdowns last year and figures to put up similar numbers this year. Tajae Sharpe is an underrated WR who had 85 receptions. The Minutemen return their whole offensive line. Head coach Mark Whipple has done wonders for this side of the ball.
Defense: UMass' defense left a lot to be desired last year, but it returns the majority of that group this season. Jovan Santos-Knox had 143 tackles. He's joined potentially by seven other seniors on this side of the ball.
Schedule: Temple and FIU are the team's non-conference home games with road challenges at Colorado and Notre Dame. UMass has three home contests out of five in October.
Selection: The over is the play for UMass. The Minutemen will be a factor in the MAC East race and if you are feeling daring, you could throw a little something on them to win this division and make the MAC title game.
(Over 7 wins +120...Under 7 wins -160)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 4-4
Returning Starters: 17 (10 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Jack Milas is back at QB where he figures to start after Ozzie Mann left the program. The good thing is that Ball State will be able to throw to Jordan Williams and KeVonn Mabon out wide. Filling departed running back Jahwan Edwards' shoes will be tough though. Whomever breaks away at RB will have the entire offensive line back.
Defense: This group held Iowa to 17 points last year. The front seven figures to be good with all but one player back. That means the Cardinals will need to get pressure on the QB and make things easier for a younger secondary. Hopefully Dae'Shaun Hurley is 100 percent healthy after tearing his ACL last year.
Schedule: Thank goodness for a home opener against VMI because there are three straight road games after that - Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan and Northwestern. The final non-MAC game comes Oct. 17 when Ball State hosts Georgia State. That contest is part of a stretch that has the Cardinals playing four out of five at home.
Selection: I think this is a good number. Several scenarios give me seven wins for this team. The offense will be fun to watch if Milas figures things out.
(Over 4 wins -150...Under 4 wins +110)
Record Last Year: 7-6, 5-3
Returning Starters: 10 (5 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Cooper Rush is back under center, but he will be without Titus Davis, who was a big time target for him. The good thing is that the running back position is stacked with Devon Spalding and Martez Walker. It will be interesting to see what new offensive coordinator Morris Watts has planned for the Chippewas' attack.
Defense: The lasting memory of this unit is the shootout in the Bahamas Bowl with Western Kentucky. The front line is almost intact, as the defense will be changing from a 4-2-5 alignment to a 4-3. None of last year's starters at linebacker are back.
Schedule: Things start out fast with home games against Oklahoma State and Monmouth before road tilts at Syracuse and Michigan State. Three of Central Michigan's five games in October are on the road.
Selection: Four wins seems about right for CMU. There will be some growing pains with this new coaching staff.
(Over 1.5 wins -185...Under 1.5 wins +145)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 1-7
Returning Starters: 12 (5 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Yikes, it was a revolving door at quarterback last year. Three different players were under center and none were that great. Reginald Ball figures to get the start for the Eagles. He'll have Dustin Creel and Kris Strange back at WR. The offensive line has just two starters returning.
Defense: This group finished out 2014 allowing 38 points or more in four straight. Eastern Michigan returns seven defensive starters, led by Pat O'Connor and his 7.5 sacks. This side will need drastic improvement for any success.
Schedule: The season opens up at home against Old Dominion, which is a possibly winnable game. Eastern Michigan also gets Army at home with road games at LSU and Wyoming to round out the non-conference slate. Four of the last six are on the road, when this team will probably be ready for the season to end.
Selection: Lowest total on the board and I think the over is the right side. If Eastern Michigan doesn't beat Old Dominion or Army in September than the Eagles may not beat anyone.
(Over 8.5 wins +120...Under 8.5 wins -160)
Record Last Year: 11-3, 7-1
Returning Starters: 14 (6 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: This team changes personnel and keeps on rolling. Drew Hare had 18 passing touchdowns to go with eight rushing scores. Running back Cameron Stingily is gone, but Joel Bouagnon returns in the backfield. The WR corps is a mixed bag of size and speed.
Defense: The secondary should lead the way for the Huskies. Paris Logan had three interceptions and he's joined by Anthony Brooks at the other corner spot. Safety Marlon Moore had 99 tackles last year.
Schedule: The Huskies host UNLV and Murray State before the fun begins with road games at Ohio State and Boston College. The big rivalry matchup with Toledo is on the road on Nov. 3, in between contests with Eastern Michigan and Buffalo.
Selection: I'm going under on Northern Illinois, but if you are looking for value, you can take the over. This is a team certainly capable of winning in Chestnut Hill against Boston College. That's going to be a deciding game for a lot of folks when they look at the Huskies.
(Over 7 wins -140...Under 7 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 7-1
Returning Starters: 12 (4 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: The Rockets figure to take a step back on this side of the ball. Phillip Ely and Logan Woodside are back at QB, but outside of running back Kareem Hunt and wide receiver Alonzo Russell, there isn't much else. The whole offensive line needs to be replaced.
Defense: Orion Jones is back for a defense that will have its front line intact. Not a single starting linebacker returns while the secondary is almost intact. Toledo benefited from UAB's temporary demise with the addition of Rolan Milligan.
Schedule: It's a home-friendly start to the year with games against Stony Brook, Iowa State and Arkansas State. The Rockets do play at Arkansas on Sept. 12. The MAC slate is very manageable.
Selection: I like the under for the Rockets. They have several tough road games and we predict Northern Illinois gets them at home in November.
(Over 8 wins -120...Under 8 wins -120)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 6-2
Returning Starters: 16 (9 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: The best offense in the MAC West could be in Kalamazoo. Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis are a tough WR pairing while Jarvion Franklin is back at RB. Franklin had 24 rushing touchdowns and that was even with teams preparing for him. Quarterback Zach Terrell did just enough to let his weapons roll.
Defense: The Broncs are led by Grant DePalma and his 102 tackles. The secondary has some holes to fill, but Ronald Zamort is a good place to start.
Schedule: Western Michigan gets home games with Michigan State and Murray State to go with tilts at Georgia Southern and Ohio State. It's a rough close to the year with road matchups at fellow MAC West contenders Northern Illinois and Toledo.
Selection: I lean to the under in this one. The talent is there, but this is a tough schedule, especially since P.J. Fleck has yet to beat Norther Illinois or Toledo in his short coaching career.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
In 2015, conference bragging rights seem to mean so much, yet so little.
For most of last season, one division — much less one conference — seemed to reign over all others. Yet on the night of the national championship game, the SEC West was nowhere to be found. Instead, the Big Ten’s era of darkness came to an end with Ohio State defeating champions from arguably the two most daunting leagues in the country, the Pac-12 and SEC.
Meanwhile, the power conference with the fewest members, the Big 12, had two teams in the Playoff conversation up to the final minute before the semifinal pairings were revealed.
So what does all this mean? We’re not quite sure how large a role conference strength will play in the College Football Playoff era, but we’re certain having quality teams playing each other week in and week out makes for a more interesting season.
Here’s how that race might shake out during the 2015 season.
The SEC’s national championship drought has extended to — gasp! — two seasons. Yet even if a non-SEC team claims the 2015 national championship, the SEC is poised to be the top conference from top to bottom again. The SEC had seven teams ranked in the final College Football Playoff top 25 before the bowls and six in the final AP top 25 after the postseason. All seven teams from the SEC West went to a bowl and finished with a winning record. Expect more of the same for this 14-team behemoth of a conference. The Athlon preseason top 25 contains a whopping nine SEC teams.
The Pac-12 finished with four teams (Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA) with 10 wins or more, tied with the SEC for the most in the country. The league sported a winning record against three Power 5 conferences (3–1 against the ACC, 2–1 against the Big 12 and 6–2 against the Big Ten) but never faced the SEC head-to-head. That’s a little frustrating because the Pac-12 has remade itself into the solid No. 2 conference behind the SEC with potential to further narrow the gap. Remember, USC is just now exiting the worst of NCAA sanctions and should be a player in the national title race.
3. Big Ten
The same league that seemed hopeless in Week 2 — the week Michigan State lost to Oregon, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech and Michigan was shut out by Notre Dame — knocked off three Power 5 conference champions during the bowl season. That said, a national championship doesn’t by default elevate an entire conference. Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff and is built to contend for another title in 2015. The question for the Big Ten is if anyone can catch up to Ohio State this season. The hires of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and James Franklin at Penn State in the last two seasons set up those programs to eventually challenge Urban Meyer’s juggernaut.
Favorite: Ohio State
4. Big 12
These are interesting times for the Big 12. Baylor and TCU became Playoff contenders last season, ultimately falling short on selection Sunday. Was it the lack of a conference championship game or the lackluster non-conference schedules that did in the Bears and Horned Frogs? Or was it that they were Baylor and TCU and not Texas and Oklahoma? The Big 12 finished 2–5 in bowl games and went 6-11 against the other Power 5 conferences last season. Will that change in 2015? Baylor and TCU are built to contend again, and Oklahoma and Texas can’t stay down forever.
This could be a challenging season for the ACC. Not only does the league’s national title contender the last two seasons, Florida State, lose its Heisman-winning quarterback, but Clemson also moves on without its offensive mastermind (Chad Morris) and key figures on defense. Depth in this league is an eternal struggle. More than half of the league finished 7–6 or worse last season, and while a 4–0 sweep of SEC rivals during Thanksgiving weekend (plus Georgia Tech’s Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State) may help bragging rights, the ACC as a whole has a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the Power Five.
Favorite: Florida State
The American Athletic Conference adds Navy, meaning the AAC will split into divisions and host a league title game. That may be a positive for a league that should have at least one team vying for the Group of 5’s automatic bid in a major bowl game. Last season, the AAC had a three-way tie for first with one of these teams (UCF) not having played the other two (Memphis and Cincinnati). Division races could be heated in 2015 with Cincinnati, Temple, UCF and East Carolina vying for the East and Houston, Navy and Memphis battling for the West.
The Mountain West produced four 10-win teams last season, same as the SEC and Pac-12, but that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of depth. The West Division champion, Fresno State, finished 6–8. The top of the league is where the action is. Boise State should contend for a major bowl slot and a top-25 finish. The Broncos have a veteran cast, but they lose a starting quarterback and a superstar tailback. Utah State also returns a veteran team that could contend for the title if the Aggies can beat Boise State in Logan.
Favorite: Boise State
Could this shape up for another year of mid-week MACtion madness? Of the 10 league quarterbacks who passed for 2,000 or more yards last season, only two were seniors. And Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson, who threw for 3,467 yards in 2013, returns after missing all but one game last fall. The league’s top three rushers, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin and Buffalo’s Anthone Taylor, are also back. The usual powers — Toledo, Northern Illinois and Bowling Green — are the teams to beat.
Six different teams have won the Conference USA championship in the last six seasons. Our projected champion, Western Kentucky, would make it seven in seven years. Granted, three of those champions (East Carolina, UCF, Tulsa) are in another conference now, but that’s just another indication of the rotating cast of characters in C-USA. The high-powered Hilltoppers are the favorite, but they’ll need to watch out for Marshall and Louisiana Tech.
Favorite: Western Kentucky
10. Sun Belt
A year ago, league newcomers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State finished in the top three of the league, the former going 8–0. Yet because they were new to FBS, neither team was eligible for bowl games. That’s life in the Sun Belt these days. The league is forever stuck at the bottom of the FBS ranks and carries considerable dead weight at the bottom (New Mexico State, Idaho and Georgia State went a combined 4–31 last season).
Favorite: Arkansas State
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been a busy man this offseason. Whether it’s satellite recruiting camps, providing entertainment through Twitter or a trip to Peru, Harbaugh always seems to be in the news.
And Harbaugh’s busy offseason made a stop in Detroit on Tuesday night, as the Tigers hosted the Pirates for an interleague matchup.
Harbaugh threw out the first pitch for the first game of this series and also chipped in on the Tigers’ all-star campaign.
Check out the video and a few photos from Tuesday night:
#VoteTigers (@tigers) June 30, 2015
#VoteTigers (@tigers) June 30, 2015
Doesn't get much better than at the Ball Park with my Beautiful wife Sarah! Also great to see Verlander on the mound! pic.twitter.com/9cFcAzDFl3— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) June 30, 2015
Miguel Cabrera is a class act! Great meeting him and being at the Tigers game with Big Jon Falk! pic.twitter.com/ImCRyaoRiS— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) June 30, 2015
Before anybody gets the idea that Brett Favre is returning to the NFL again, it’s safe to say that he is not. However, at age 45, the 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback believes that he still has the skill to be able to make throws and play in the NFL. Known for his consistency and durability over his career, Favre set multiple records, including passing yards, wins, and consecutive starts.
Favre told Sports Illustrated this as he was being interviewed as part of a series looking at where athletes are now. Though Favre still claims that he maintains a throwing range of 50 yards, he does not believe that he has what it takes to actually lead a team. Thankfully, for the sanity of all NFL fans, Favre isn’t going to make another comeback out of retirement.
Here's a celebration to staying retired:
As No. 1 Germany takes on No. 2 USA in soccer in the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup on Tuesday night, a new report shows that Hope Solo received training while suspended earlier this year. Sports Illustrated found that two coaches, including the US team goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, spent about a week each with the suspended star.
Solo was suspended after she was caught as a passenger in a van driven by her husband while he was intoxicated. She earlier grabbed headlines was she was accused of assaulting her nephew, which is pending an appeal after charges were dismissed in January. Though nothing prohibits coaches working with a suspended soccer player, this information had never been previously made public.
Watch this preview of tonight's game below:
Leg day. The two words that make even strongest athlete tremble.
Ball State doesn't let something like leg day stop them from going all-out beast mode. The team dresses up in different costumes to prepare for a tough workout ahead, not that they would need them because this team is full of beasts.
When you are among the top college basketball coaches in the country, NBA offers often come about and rumors spread. Kentucky coach John Calipari has apparently been linked to the Sacramento Kings for the head coach position. Yet, there has been no confirmation and both sides have denied any activity between them.
Over his college coaching career at UMass, Memphis, and Kentucky, he has a record of 635-178, including a national championship in 2012. His NBA success has been nowhere near as good, as he was fired early in his third season with the Nets. It seems unlikely that Calipari would head anywhere given his success, salary, and power in Kentucky. Any conversation between Calipari and the Kings has revolved around former Kentucky basketball players according to the coach.
Look below at Calipari's recent Tweets on the matter:
At no time has @Vivek offered me a job. I WILL BE AT KENTUCKY.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) June 30, 2015
For the 100th time, I have the best basketball coaching position in the world. I am not looking for any other coaching position.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) June 30, 2015
On Monday LSU head coach Les Miles parted ways with redshirt defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao following a June 18 arrest.
Per reports, Lealaimatafao was with a group of men who got into an altercation with a man outside of Reggie’s Bar in the Tigerland district on Tuesday, June 16. After the unidentified man was knocked unconscious Lealaimatafao allegedly went through the man’s pockets robbing him. The victim’s girlfriend asked the 6-foot-3, 300-pound football player to stop. Lealaimatafao then punched the woman knocking her to the ground.
The June 18 arrest was the third incident for the San Antonio native since arriving on the LSU campus as part of the 2014 recruiting class. His previous run-ins included being arrested for stealing a bicycle near the LSU library and then missing much of the 2014 season after punching out a window at the team’s indoor practice facility, suffering a bad arm injury.
When Lealaimatafao voluntarily turned himself into the police following his most recent arrest, Coach Miles immediately suspended the former Warren High School standout indefinitely. On Monday Miles gave a reason for the dismissal stating, “(We) gathered more information and feel it’s best for us to part ways.”
The LSU football team is now suffering from an image problem in the offseason after five players have been arrested for various incidents. The same week of Lealaimatafao’s arrest Maquedius Bain, Dwayne Thomas and 2014 starting quarterback Anthony Jennings were arrested on unlawful entry charges after stealing goods from an apartment thought belonged to Jennings.
In a more disturbing incident, offensive lineman Jevonte Domond was arrested on charges of felony domestic violence abuse battery with strangulation after an incident with his fiancée. Per the report Domond allegedly grabbed his fiancée by the neck from behind as she was leaning over their newborn baby’s crib. She claims she was on the verge of losing consciousness and almost blacked out before he dropped her. She sprayed him with pepper spray in an attempt to protect herself.
The Arizona Glendale Community College transfer then picked her up and slammed her on their couch. He bit her on the hip and she sprayed him a second time with pepper spray.
Domond was promptly arrested and held at the East Baton Rouge Parish jail when the incident occurred on May 25.
Per the report the 6-foot-6, 310-pound reserve lineman refuted the claims of strangulation and biting but did admit to throwing her on the couch to get her to stop pepper spraying him. Domond also claimed his fiancée had pulled a kitchen knife on him earlier in the day. The victim admitted to pulling the knife but claimed it was in self defense.
When Domond was arrested Miles suspended him from the team stating, “It’s a crime that we cannot condone and behavior that we will not tolerate.”
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.
Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval has never really had great plate discipline when batting. However, he last night reached a new high – literally. In his first at bat with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on the mound, Sandoval went airborne to swing at a pitch. The Panda had to jump in order to swing at a pitch over five feet off of the ground.
Impressively enough, Sandoval actually made contact with the eye-high pitch, although it was an easy groundout to the shortstop. The common phrase for knuckleballs goes: “if it’s high, let it fly.” It seems that Sandoval may have taken that a bit too literally.
Watch the hit below:
College football coaches look for any way to lure high school players to come play for them. They usually boast the amenities or the success of the team. But new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has arguably the most unique relationship with a recruit. He was a one-time babysitter for Connor Murphy, a highly rated defensive end out of Phoenix.
However, that babysitting was unplanned, as Murphy’s mother went into labor as Harbaugh was meeting his parents. His older brother was going to play for Stanford, where Harbaugh was the head coach at the time. This bizarre story unfolded seven years ago, and Harbaugh hopes that it will be a key component to help bring Murphy to Michigan.
Watch below to hear their story:
Awards are a big part of any college football season. Whether it’s preseason accolades or awards after the year has finished, All-America, all-conference teams or even a list of the best freshmen, these are an entertaining and informative way to get prepared for the next season or look back at the year that was.
Looking ahead to 2015, college football isn’t hurting for talent in the sophomore ranks. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett was a Heisman contender before a leg injury against Michigan, and the sophomore could be among the nation’s top quarterbacks – if he wins the job over Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller.
But the strength of the sophomore class has to be at running back. LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Florida State’s Darvin Cook and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine are among the nation’s top rushers – and all four are entering their sophomore camaign.
College Football's All-Sophomore Team for 2015
|Roger Lewis (WR)|
|LB||Eli Apple (CB)|
|Steven Parker (S)|
|Armani Watts (S)|
18 weeks. That’s all it took for Kyle Busch to go from a broken leg on one side, broken foot on the other to be healed, healthy and sitting in Sprint Cup Victory Lane. Athletes come back from injury all the time; many wind up successful again. But even the most optimistic soul could never have imagined a journey back this quick after the vicious hit Busch took at Daytona.
Want proof? Check out Tony Stewart across the way, almost two years post-surgery for one broken leg. Look back at history, successful drivers like Bill Elliott and Kyle Petty going winless after returning the same year from significant leg injuries. Add in the reality of a road course, the most challenging track for a man needing to push the brake pedal and accelerator at least a dozen times per lap and the end result is nothing short of impressive.
“The brake pedal was really hard,” Busch said. “I’m a left-foot braker. You see over 1,000 pounds of brake pressure (at Sonoma). (The foot) got sore on Friday, about a 7 on a 1 to 10 pain scale. I went home and iced it and did everything that I normally do to try to cut the pain out, and it worked. I came back on Saturday and then it did it again. I did (the same routine Saturday) night as a safety thing to get myself prepared, no different than any other athlete would to prepare.”
The difference is most athletes will fizzle out. I can only give you my own experience, at roughly the same age as Kyle. I broke my ankle in three places, back in the fall of 2011 and had surgery. I was told I might never run again. At 18 weeks, I was just starting to run again and participate in athletic activity. The doctor then told me I was in the top five percent of people recovering with said injury. But putting pressure on it led to pain and was still exceedingly difficult; once again, that’s with one injured leg.
Kyle, on the other hand had two and he was back in a car racing in about three months. At four and a half, he’s earned victories in both NASCAR’s Cup and XFINITY Series. These days, we overuse superlatives in both writing and sports but this accomplishment is most deserving of one word.
Through The Gears we go after the sport’s first road course race of the year...
FIRST GEAR: Can Busch Bounce Into The Chase?
Two weeks ago, Kyle Busch’s Chase chances looked bleak following a last-place finish at Michigan. One win later, while everyone is caught up in the hype of a good story let’s not let facts and math get in the way. Busch still needs to average a 14th-place finish over the final 10 races to make the cut. He still sits 136 points out of the top 30 with just 10 races remaining. That’s a tall order to overcome, far from “essentially clinched” as NASCAR PR said Sunday, raising a few eyebrows when Busch was introduced for his post-race press conference.
Here’s the deal; David Gilliland, Cole Whitt, and Justin Allgaier are tightly bunched at 29th, 30th and 31st in points. All three are paired with small-scale operations and will be put their best foot forward at Daytona Sunday night. Each one is capable of a top-10 finish there; perhaps, in Gilliland’s case it’ll even be an upset victory. Should the trio run well, posting good results while Busch wrecks, the No. 18 team could find themselves 170 points back with nine races left, all but out of it as far as the Chase is concerned. So while M&M’s, Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing have reason to be excited, there’s one big hump in particular to get over; Daytona, the site of that ugly February crash and a race that can deal you a bad hand in an instant.
“I was very grateful to NASCAR to give us the opportunity to be able to have something to chase after,” Busch said Sunday, thankful for his injury exemption that makes him postseason eligible. “But it’s certainly not going to be easy. We didn’t expect it to be… and it never is.”
Missing three months and then making it would be another miraculous accomplishment. We’ll see if Busch has the luck to get it done.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Bullish on Championship Chances
Sitting right behind Kyle, just a second from Victory Lane himself was older brother Kurt. It was the first time the duo had finished 1-2 in a Cup race, a proud moment for the family and a sign of how quickly both have bounced back in 2015. For Kurt, whose domestic violence issues with ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll are well-documented he’s now 10th in points despite his three-race suspension to start the year.
“There’s so many things that have (clicked) into place for us to be successful,” said Busch, whose 708 laps led trail only teammate Kevin Harvick this season. “I love the camaraderie. I haven’t had this type of team chemistry since my championship year (2004).”
It’s an intriguing statement, a sign of how much backing Busch has from co-owner Gene Haas, crew chief Tony Gibson (installed last fall) and his No. 41 crew. Remember, he was close to being fired in the wake of those criminal accusations and struggling co-owner Tony Stewart, never a fan of hiring Busch to begin with, has been noticeably quiet about the team’s success. It seems like Busch has been able to harness that “us against the world” mentality - one that may occasionally seep inside his own organization - into an extra burst of speed and effort each week with his small group.
Will that translate into NASCAR’s Final Four? Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. appear to be strong competition. But Busch, who has 12 top-15 finishes in 13 starts, hasn’t shown the inconsistency that’s dogged him in recent years. Gibson, a veteran head wrench, also won’t let the driver’s temper take charge in crunch time. The variables are here it seems for Busch to make a deep run in the Chase as long as off-track distractions are turned off for good.
THIRD GEAR: Expected Contenders Turn Into Expected Disappointments
Last year’s surprise road course winner, AJ Allmendinger, hoped for a repeat performance at Sonoma but it wasn’t to be. Early on, the pole-sitter drove a top-3 car only for mechanical problems, the type that have dogged JTG-Daugherty Racing all year, to crop up in the form of a faulty fuel cell.
“We had the fastest lap of the race,” said the driver after dropping to 37th. “I think we were going in the right direction. It just feels like a swift kick to everything right now.”
The ‘Dinger got back on the track to narrowly avoid his fourth DNF, a number which would have tied him with underfunded Landon Cassill for most in the series this season. When your team is showing that much trouble finishing in an era where parts simply just don’t break… it’s hard to view yourselves as a serious contender in any race, let alone one you think you should win.
Jeff Gordon, a California native whose career was celebrated this weekend, hoped to make his last Sonoma start memorable. Instead it was more of the same, struggles in a season that’s starting to slip away. Starting fifth, the No. 24 Chevrolet suffered through a pit road penalty for throwing equipment, and Gordon got so exasperated he made a lengthy, yellow-flag stop to change the setup over to match teammate Johnson. At that point, Gordon used a late-race strategy of staying out to grab back some of the track position he lost. But old tires, combined with an uneven final restart put the all-time leader in road course victories a distant 16th.
“Nothing’s going to take away from this weekend,” the veteran said afterwards. Unfortunately, he’s reaching the point where tributes and not title contention is all we’ll be looking forward to with the No. 24 team the rest of the year.
FOURTH GEAR: FOX Finishes Up
The FOX broadcast network ended their 15th year of live coverage Sunday, paving the way for NBC’s return to the sport July 4th weekend. It was also the grand finale of Larry McReynolds in the broadcast booth; he’ll be replaced next season by the retiring Jeff Gordon.
For full disclosure, I started my NASCAR career in television and still have my hands in there so it’s difficult for me to comment on the broadcasts with an unbiased take. However, this season it’s clear there was an uptick in frustration from fans who don’t like the way FOX covers the sport. Why? Ratings, after an increase during the first three weeks, declined with an unceremonious thud. The XFINITY Race at Chicagoland, postponed by rain, drew less than 400,000 viewers, an unheard-of number and Cup events were off by as much as 20 percent this spring.
It was a difficult year for FOX, losing beloved pit reporter Steve Byrnes to cancer and transitioning races to smaller cable network FOX Sports 1. I think the move to add Gordon will go well; it’s a fresh, TV-savvy face with a strong fanbase still interested in seeing him around. Still, the network faces a myriad of challenges moving forward. The Waltrip brothers, lightning rods for controversy, are under the microscope for different reasons. Darrell, turning 69 next season, will be 15 years removed from a Cup car and viewed by some as “out of touch” with the younger generation. (Example: “Boogity, boogity, boogity.” Need we say more?) Younger brother Michael, an in-race analyst, has come under fire for his ultimate bias in owning a Toyota team on the circuit. You could see the hesitation Sunday when Waltrip’s No. 55 car was at the epicenter of not one, but two, incidents; everyone in the booth seemed unable to handle the immediate possibility Waltrip’s driver, David Ragan, should be criticized.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is trying to cover a sport in a unique way when the teams and participants up front aren’t changing. When you’re interviewing Denny Hamlin for the 50th time, how do you switch it up? It’s a question that will need to be answered better if the owners, drivers, and competition remain stagnant heading into 2016.
Jimmie Johnson, staying out while the most other lead-lap cars pitted late, saw a potential victory fizzle away. Sixth at the finish, you still have to give credit to crew chief Chad Knaus for taking chances, paired with a two-stop strategy that got his driver out front. That aggression will serve them well in NASCAR’s new Chase format… Casey Mears broke an axle to cause that final caution. Can anyone remember the last time an axle straight out broke in half in the middle of an event, and then went rolling across the track? I certainly can’t… Clint Bowyer recorded a season-best third place, the first top-5 finish all year for Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer, now one point behind Aric Almirola for the final Chase bid, is inching back toward the field. Almirola, who won at Daytona last July, must have a big weekend to stall his challenger’s momentum… Ragan, at the epicenter of two big wrecks, was critical of Truex for his driving. Their contact sent the No. 78 team out of the race but don’t expect retaliation from either; they’re both not the type.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
While NBA team executives and coaches anxiously await the start of the free agency period beginning just after midnight on Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has other plans. Instead of vying from a normal schedule, he clearly stated that he will be in bed. He told the San Antonio Express News, “I'm not calling anyone at midnight. I'll be in bed. And if that's the difference, then I don't want them.”
Popovich is the longest tenured active coach in the league, and he is clearly a reason for the Spurs’ success. In 19 seasons, he has led his team to 18 straight playoff appearances, highlighted by five NBA championships. The Spurs are expected to be active in free agency, as they are believed to be the strongest choice for PF LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs might not be the first time he speaks with, but Pop certainly knows what he is doing.
Enjoy this video of some great Pop moments:
The morning of the NFL Draft, Bucs general manager Jason Licht took a walk around the team’s three practice fields completely at peace with the decision to select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick.
“It’s like your wedding day,” Licht says. “Without the cold feet.’’
For better or worse — and some would lean toward the latter — the Bucs’ fortunes and those of Licht and coach Lovie Smith are married to Winston, one of the most polarizing picks in modern NFL Draft history. A civil suit stemming from allegations of a sexual assault for which Winston was never charged, along with a series of relatively minor acts of immaturity, follow the mercurial former Seminole to the NFL.
But the Bucs' decision-makers are more than satisfied with Winston’s character after doing research that included conducting exhaustive interviews of more than 75 people.
“If he wasn’t a good guy, we wouldn’t have used a first pick on him,” Licht says.
On the field, Winston has few peers. He went 26–1 as a starting quarterback at Florida State, and he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
“I would just ask our fans to give him a chance,” Smith says.
The Bucs believe Winston is a transformational quarterback who will eventually put them on equal footing with the other gunslingers in the NFC South — the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Panthers’ Cam Newton.
Winston is a plug-and-play talent who comes from a pro-style offense. He can check protections, read the defense and get through all the progressions. Perhaps more impressive, Winston can make any throw on the field.
The key is whether the Bucs can find a way to protect him. Tampa Bay allowed 52 sacks last season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. That’s why Licht invested a pair of second-round picks on Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College. Both are projected to start as rookies. But the Bucs must get better performances from holdovers such as center Evan Dietrich-Smith, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Demar Dotson.
Winston does have 6-5 targets in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Evans was a Rookie of the Year candidate despite missing most of the offseason with a hamstring strain. He had a monster three-game stretch in November in which he caught 21 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed the final four games of 2014 with a back injury but shows the ability to get downfield. He caught 21 passes for 221 yards but is capable of much more.
The Bucs decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on running back Doug Martin, who has played only 17 games in the last two years after rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. Martin doesn’t seem to be versatile or physical enough to fit Smith’s preference of running style, but at least he will be motivated in a contract year. The Bucs plan to increase the workload for Charles Sims, who missed the first half of his rookie season with an ankle injury. He showed more promise as pass catcher than runner. Licht attempted to upgrade the speed and athleticism on offense, beginning with the two linemen and Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell.
One of the biggest additions to the Bucs attack is offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who hung 56 points on Smith last season while operating the Falcons offense. Smith and the Bucs were dealt a setback with the loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who never returned after a heart procedure, but Koetter is more than a stopgap replacement, and he has a spread-the-field passer in Winston like he had in Matt Ryan.
But make no mistake. The offense will develop as quickly as Winston does.
The Bucs struggled in the first year of Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme. After six weeks, opponents were averaging 34 points per game. That prompted the beginning of an overhaul that will continue through 2015.
The foundation is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, and linebacker Lavonte David, who has the distinction of being an All-Pro (2013) before making a Pro Bowl. McCoy needs help and got some with the waiver claim of Jacquies Smith, who had 6.5 sacks in seven starts last season. The Bucs traded a fifth-round pick to the Lions for defensive end George Johnson, giving them another edge rusher to complement McCoy.
The Bucs also changed their philosophy in free agency. They pulled off the Band Aid by cutting high-priced free agent busts — such as Michael Johnson after only one season — and replaced them on defense with players who have a history of success in Smith’s defense or the Tampa 2 scheme.
Safety Chris Conte and defensive tackle Henry Melton both played for Smith in Chicago. Looking for more playmaking ability at middle linebacker, the Bucs signed former Cowboy Bruce Carter, who had five interceptions last season. They used a fourth-round pick on LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, another run-and-hit machine with speed.
The secondary is solid with cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks. Banks led the team with four interceptions, and Verner, a former fourth-round pick of the Titans, was an under-the-radar free-agent acquisition last offseason. In addition to the rangy Conte, the Bucs believe the future is bright for strong safety Bradley McDougald, who took over following the trade of Mark Barron to the Rams. Tampa Bay also claimed former Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger off of waivers in May. A 2013 second-round pick, Swearinger made 22 starts for the Texans, but struggled last season.
Smith’s teams in Chicago were known for winning games on special teams. That’s hardly been the case in Tampa Bay, which struggled to settle on a kick returner. That’s why they drafted Utah’s Kaelin Clay, who had four returns for touchdowns last season to lead college football. The punt and kickoff return jobs are his to lose. Punter Michael Koenen is in the final year of his contract that pays him $3.75 million. But his pay didn’t match his production as he ranked 29th with a 37.1-yard net average and the team claimed former Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning off waivers in early June to create competition for the job. The Bucs’ placekicking game is solid behind Patrick Murray, who was 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards, including a long of 55. Overall, Murray made 20-of-24 field goals but is capable of more. The kick coverage teams should be improved with the addition of some athletic linebackers and receivers who have specialized as gunners such as Bell.
Winston has the talent and confidence to be a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. But until the Bucs improve around him, he won’t be enough to make them real contenders in the NFC South. The season opener against the Titans and Marcus Mariota offers a juicy storyline. But Winston has to be dedicated on and off the field to make this gamble pay off.
Prediction: 4th in NFC South
(Winston photo at top courtesy of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Web site)
As long as Drew Brees is the quarterback, the Saints will always have a shot to win the NFC South and make the playoffs. But rivals have passed the Saints in other areas, and it all caught up to them in 2014. Team officials realized they couldn’t continue to rely on Brees to simply outscore opponents with his dazzling passing skills. So they conducted an eyebrow-raising roster overhaul in the offseason in an effort to bolster their aging offensive line and flagging defense. The Saints are counting on more new faces than they have in a long time and are something of a mystery team in the NFC race.
The names change, but the production should remain prolific. Even without Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, look for the Saints to continue to rank among the league leaders in yards and points. Since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints have finished no worse than sixth in total offense and 12th in scoring offense. At 36, Brees has started to show signs of age, but he’s still highly effective when not asked to do too much and given time in the pocket to find his receivers. Look for Brees to spread the ball around more without the dynamic Graham in the lineup. The Saints have no one on the roster with Graham’s physical skill set, and his absence will challenge Payton’s play-calling creativity, especially in the red zone, where an alley-oop to Graham meant an automatic six points the past few seasons.
The Saints are high on athletic third-year tight end Josh Hill. He showed big-play ability in a limited role last season, when five of his 14 receptions went for touchdowns. Speedy Brandin Cooks was extremely productive as a rookie before breaking his thumb. He’ll be called on to produce more explosive plays with Graham and Stills gone. Young veterans Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman will compete for spots in the rotation.
Until the passing attack sorts itself out, Brees can lean on a reliable run game that ranked ninth in the NFL in average yards per carry (4.5). With Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson in the backfield, the running game should be a strength. Ingram is coming off his finest season as a pro and is firmly entrenched as the lead back. Spiller was signed in free agency to play the satellite back role in which Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles excelled from 2006-13. The powerful Robinson is one of the most difficult backs in the league to tackle.
All of this firepower will go for naught if the offensive line doesn’t improve. The unit had been one of the most consistent in the NFL over the years but started to show its age last season. Brees was sacked 29 times and often hurried into crucial interceptions. To that end, the Saints acquired veteran center Max Unger in the Graham trade and selected tackle Andrus Peat in the first round of the NFL Draft. Peat is probably a year away from seeing the field, with the athletic Terron Armstead and the underrated Zach Strief bookending the line at tackle. But Unger, a former Pro Bowler, will be an immediate upgrade at center. Right guard is the lone question mark. Former undrafted free agent Tim Lelito will get the first crack to replace Ben Grubbs. He’ll need to stay healthy, because there is little experience behind him.
Whatever pixie dust coordinator Rob Ryan had in his glorious debut season, he ran out of in 2014 as the Saints plummeted from No. 4 to No. 31 in total defense. Payton has given him the chance to right the ship but brought in former Raiders head coach and Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to assist him. The Saints were plagued by blown coverage assignments and alignment errors early last season and never recovered.
The top offseason priority will be improving the play of the team’s talented but underperforming defensive line. Ends Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan are both due for rebound seasons after disappointing in 2014. Hicks has the physical skills to dominate opponents but is frustratingly inconsistent. He could be facing a make-or-break season. Likewise, Jordan failed to make enough big plays, but the team still decided to sign him to a five-year contract extension in June that could be worth up to $60 million. The team’s best pass rusher, outside linebacker Junior Galette, was rewarded with a four-year, $40 million contract early in 2014, then lost the trust of team officials because of off-field transgressions. He has explosive burst but is undersized and can be overpowered at the point of attack. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins form a powerful one-two punch at nose guard.
The linebacker unit needs work. Three rookies and veterans Anthony Spencer and Dannell Ellerbee were acquired in the offseason in an effort to bolster the unit. Only veteran David Hawthorne, who replaces Curtis Lofton as the play-caller inside, appears locked into a starting spot. Rookie sparkplug Hau’oli Kikaha will platoon with veteran Parys Haralson on the strong side. The staff loves his intensity and pass-rush ability. Hulking rookie Stephone Anthony is the kind of physical thumper Ryan has longed for since he arrived in 2013. He’ll compete with Ellerbe at the other inside spot.
The return to health of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd will go a long way toward improving the leaky secondary. The former Pro Bowler should be motivated for a big season after his injury-riddled debut in New Orleans. His center field skills free up Kenny Vaccaro to play the joker role in which he thrived as a rookie.
The No. 2 cornerback spot riddled the Saints last season, and they hope veteran free agent Brandon Browner can fill the role opposite Keenan Lewis. The success of Ryan’s scheme relies on strong press coverage.
There’s an army of candidates but few proven commodities beyond Browner and Lewis. Rookies P.J. Williams and Damian Swann will compete with former Jets first-round washout Kyle Wilson for the nickel spot. CFL import Delvin Breaux is the sleeper in the group. Second-year men Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste are also in the mix.
Thomas Morstead remains one of the most consistently productive punters and kickoff specialists in the league. He’s the strength of an otherwise nondescript special teams group. Jalen Saunders and rookie Marcus Murphy will try to spice up the club’s moribund return units. The Saints haven’t returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011. Veteran placekicker Shayne Graham had his struggles last season, but the team stuck with the 14-year veteran. He was re-signed to a one-year deal in February, but the Saints terminated his contract in May, seemingly handing the kicking job to strong-legged Dustin Hopkins, who has yet to even appear in a regular season game.
Look for the Saints to bounce back from their disappointing 2014 campaign. How far back remains to be seen. The best thing they have going for them is the mediocre competition in the NFC South. If the defensive changes work, the Saints can resume their winning ways and challenge the Falcons and Panthers for the division title. But there are more questions than answers on both sides of the ball, and a lot of things will have to fall into place for them to regain their status as title contenders in the NFC. They’ll be competitive as usual but are a cut below the conference’s elite.