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If Missouri center Evan Boehm had any doubts about the definition of a “gamer” he learned it by watching quarterback Maty Mauk.
On Oct. 12 against Georgia last season, Mauk got his first taste of SEC play when starting quarterback James Franklin went down with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Mauk entered the game on a third-and-6 and promptly picked up a first down on a six-yard run.
Mauk oversaw the final two touchdowns in the 41-26 win over the Bulldogs, but he could hardly claim player of the game status. The biggest pass play when Mauk was in the game came from wide receiver Bud Sasser on a 40-yard touchdown. The second Mizzou touchdown came on a short field after an Aaron Murray interception.
In other words, Missouri didn’t put too much on the shoulders of a redshirt freshman quarterback. That would change the following week against Florida.
The week of practice didn’t go as smooth as it would under the seasoned veteran Franklin. Boehm and his teammates tried to encourage Mauk — do the things that go you here and so on. Running back Henry Josey told Mauk to “just be a kid.”
Mauk offered some odd reassurance: He wasn’t a great practice player, but he’d be a playmaker once he was in the game.
Boehm was flabbergasted.
“What does he even mean by that?” Boehm said. “You practice how you play. That’s what I’ve been taught.”
In Missouri’s first possession against the Gators, Mauk proved his point in 27 seconds. He completed a 41-yard pass to L’Damian Washington which had a personal foul tacked onto the end of the play. On the next snap, he completed a 20-yard pass to Sasser for a touchdown.
Mauk’s first two passes set the tone for a 36-17 win over Florida in his first of four starts in place of Franklin. Mauk’s 3-1 record helped Missouri to become the surprise team of the SEC East.
With Franklin departed, Missouri will expect more of the same from Mauk as the Tigers defend their division title. In a league with limited quarterback experience returning Mauk may be the next star at the position.
His high school statistics at Kenton (Ohio) — a national record 18,932 career yards — only scratch the surface of what Boehm expects from his quarterback.
“Maty Mauk will surprise everybody, every week with something you’ve never seen from Maty,” Boehm said. “Whether good or bad.”
Now, that’s an intriguing way to describe a quarterback, a position where consistency in the ultimate virtue.
“He’s a playmaker,” Boehm said. “You saw it in Johnny Manziel. You saw it in AJ McCarron. You saw it in Aaron Murray. They weren’t perfect 100 percent of the time. They made their mistakes, too. Maty’s going to make his mistakes. It’s the way you bounce back. That’s what makes Maty a good quarterback.”
Boehm isn’t the only one throwing around the Johnny Football name. No one is expecting Mauk to turn into a Heisman contender or SEC record breaker overnight, but Mauk and Manziel share a something-out-of-nothing ability.
“I modeled my game after him,” Mauk said. “He can turn anything into something. He can change a game so quick by making plays. I feel like that’s something I can do.”
Mauk finished last season completing 51.1 percent of his passes for 1,071 yards, but he also showed burst of electrifying play as a passer and a runner. Beyond his hot start against Florida, he rushed for 114 yards and passed for three touchdowns against Tennessee and passed for five more scores against Kentucky.
The numbers, though, are only part of the reason for optimism in Columbia.
“He’s just got the ‘it’ factor,” said coach Gary Pinkel, who has a long track record of above-average quarterback play at Missouri. “He’s a winner. Players know it.”
For Missouri to continue to contend in the SEC, Mauk will have to be the focal point for the Tigers.
Missouri loses its top three receivers from last season, including the dismissed former No. 1 overall prospect Dorial Green-Beckham. no returning player has caught more than 26 passes. The Tigers return two running backs who combined for 1,286 yards but lost top rusher Henry Josey.
Mauk acknowledges the questions surrounding the receivers from the outside, but he remains confident in the top returning targets.
“I can throw to (Darius White) and expect him to catch it every time,” Mauk said. “And Bud Sasser is somebody that I’ve been playing with that I love. He runs tremendous routes. Jimmie Hunt didn’t show what he can do. He’s got that speed. We need to find who is going to be that fourth and fifth receiver.”
The key will be Mauk, who has four starts under his belt entering his sophomore season.
All that experience could add up before Missouri opens SEC play at South Carolina, the only team to defeat the Tigers during the regular season.
“You could tell that after every pass Maty makes,” Boehm said. “His confidence just goes up more and more and more.”
Any college football coaching tree probably goes all the way to Walter Camp.
We’re not here to settle that kind of family tree today. Instead, we’re going for a smaller approach trying to diagram the top sources of today’s cast of major coaches.
In that way, the former coach in Iowa City is looking like quite the patriarch.
Roughly a dozen of the current 128 coaches, and probably more, in the FBS can trace their lineage back to Hayden Fry at Iowa. Granted, not all of the coaches — all the way down to FAU’s Charlie Partridge — coached or played for Fry, but it’s enough to make him the top “root” in our coaching trees.
A few things before we get to the rankings:
• In general, our “branches” are all active coaches who worked directly with the “root” of the coaching tree.
• There will be a lot of overlap and omissions. Take Bob Stoops: He played for Hayden Fry and coached under Bill Snyder and Steve Spurrier. We’ve placed him in the Fry and Snyder coaching trees and could have placed him in Spurrier’s if the South Carolina coach had a more exact coaching tree lineage.
• We’re organizing by “Roots,” “Branches” and “Leaves” as wings of the coaching tree get further removed from the source. The "Branches" coached directly with the "Roots" while the "Leaves" are at least a step or two removed.
1. Roots: Hayden Fry (Iowa 1979-98) and Bill Snyder (Kansas State 1989-2005, 2009-present)
Branches: Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Dan McCarney, Bret Bielema
Leaves: Kevin Sumlin, Kevin Wilson, Dave Doeren, Paul Chryst, Mark Stoops, Paul Rhoads, Charlie Partridge
Let’s just start naming the programs the have flourished because Fry hired Snyder as his offensive coordinator in 1979: Iowa, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Iowa State and (for a time) Kansas and USF ... we could keep going. The Fry and Snyder coaching trees are so intertwined they must be listed together. Barry Alvarez took the Fry coaching tree to Wisconsin, where hired Bret Bielema and Dan McCarney, who hired Paul Rhoads at Iowa State. Think of that: Iowa's coaching tree even benefitted Iowa State. Bob Stoops, though, is the most intriguing by joining the Fry/Snyder tree with high-flying offensive minds: Mike Leach (a Hal Mumme guy), Mark Mangino (another Snyder product), Kevin Wilson (Randy Walker) and Kevin Sumlin (Joe Tiller).
2. Root: Nick Saban (Michigan State 1995-99, LSU 2000-04, Alabama (2007-present)
Branches: Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain
Saban is closely associated with Bill Belichick and Don James, but his tree stands on its own. Naturally, other coaches in this group could be closely associated with other coaching trees: Dantonio is as much of a product of Jim Tressel as he is Saban, and Fisher was a former Terry Bowden quarterback and assistant. Still, all of them hit their stride career-wise after working with Saban.
3. Root: Bo Schembechler (Michigan 1969-89)
Branches: Les Miles, Jim Harbaugh
Leaves: David Shaw, Brady Hoke, Derek Mason, Willie Taggart
We could spend hours diagramming the Cradle of Coaches, but for our purposes of looking primarily at active coaches, we’ll take on the Schembechler branch. Miles played for Schembechler before coaching under UM assistant Gary Moeller while current Michigan coach Brady Hoke worked for another Bo assistant in Lloyd Carr. The most interesting one of late is that of one of Schembechler’s former quarterbacks in Harbaugh, who counts Shaw, Taggart and Mason as a coaching tree of his own.
4. Root: Hal Mumme (Valdosta State 1992-96, Kentucky 1997-2000)
Branch: Mike Leach, Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorsen
Leaves: Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury, Ruffin McNeill
They all love to overwhelm opponents with the passing game. They’re mostly Texans. And they’re all just a little bit off, personality wise. McNeill is a bit of an outlier here — he played defensive back for Pat Dye at East Carolina — but he runs the Air Raid as effectively as any of the others.
5. Root: Bobby Bowden (Florida State 1976-2009)
Branches: Jimbo Fisher, Terry Bowden, Mark Richt, Rick Stockstill
The handoff from Bobby to his coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher was a little clumsy at first, but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t a success. Elsewhere, the Bowden tree has worked out in unexpected ways. Terry (with brother Jeff and longtime FSU assistant Chuck Amato) have a MAC upstart in Akron. And in some ways the Bowden tree is responsible for the rise of the spread offense, Tommy Bowden hired Glenville State head coach Rich Rodriguez as his offensive coordinator at Tulane and scoreboards haven’t been the same since.
6. Root: Urban Meyer (Utah 2003-04, Florida 2005-10, Ohio State (2012-present)
Branches: Dan Mullen, Kyle Whittingham, Steve Addazio
Leaves: Gary Andersen, Matt Wells, Mark Hudspeth
Meyer would be the first to mention Ohio State coach Earle Bruce as his mentor, but the current Buckeyes coach has built quite the coaching tree of his own. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, an assistant for Meyer at Bowling Green, is probably the clearest disciple by offensive scheme. Whittingham was Meyer’s defensive coordinator (and a holdover from a previous staff) at Utah before his promotion. Meyer, though, excels at what we’ll call “cross pollination.” At Florida, he hired a Lou Holtz guy (Charlie Strong), a Hayden Fry guy (Dan McCarney), a Don Nehlan guy (Doc Holliday) among others.
7. Root: Bear Bryant (Alabama 1958-1982)
Branches: Mike Riley, David Cutcliffe, Joey Jones
Leaves: Mike MacIntyre
Hard to believe the Bryant coaching tree is still going more than 30 years after his final game and years after two of his best disciples — Gene Stallings and Howard Schnellenberger — have retired. Riley and Jones, the head coach at South Alabama, both played for the Bear and Cutcliffe was a student assistant. MacIntyre joins the group as a former Cutcliffe assistant at Duke.
8. Root: Don James (Kent State 1971-74, Washington 1975-92)
Branches: Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel, Jim L. Mora
Saban’s tree has already been detailed, but James’ other two major proteges deserve notice. James may be a bit of an aberration on this list (along with Hayden Fry and Bear Bryant) in that the most proiment members of his coaching tree played for him. Saban and Pinkel played for James at Kent State. Pinkel then was an assistant for James at Washington. At the same time, Mora was a player for the Huskies’ coach.
9. Root: Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State 2005-present)
Branches: Larry Fedora, Dana Holgorsen, Todd Monken, Tim Beckman
Gundy’s tree may not have the clear identity of the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach tree or the close network of the Hayden Fry/Bill Snyder/Bob Stoops group, and the most successful members of the group of been the offensive coordinators. Gundy’s OC spot has been a place to thrive as an assistant and quickly move to a head coaching role.
With the season starting in less than 15 days, most teams are finalizing their uniforms and helmets for the 2014 season.
Over the last few days, Boise State and Kansas released updated or alternate designs, and UAB unveiled a new look for this season on Tuesday.
The Blazers’ new design adds a bigger dragon and more fire. This might be the best new helmet of 2014:
Coming off one of the more eventful 8–8 seasons in recent memory, the Miami Dolphins hope they are ready to make more of their news on the field. Dogged by an embarrassing bullying scandal that put them in the national spotlight while taking two starters off the offensive line, Joe Philbin’s team was actually positioned to make the playoffs prior to a punchless finish: They scored a total of one touchdown in dropping their final two games to the also-ran Jets and Bills.
Philbin survived the offseason, but, much to the fans’ satisfaction, GM Jeff Ireland, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and offensive line coach Jim Turner were sacrificed. After several top candidates took their names out of contention for the GM job, Tampa Bay executive Dennis Hickey took a promotion to run the personnel operation.
Hickey kept most of the core intact during the offseason, aiming to provide third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill with better protection, while working in greater harmony with Philbin than Ireland did.
“We are on the same page of what we want our organization to be founded on,” Hickey says. “Trust, integrity, respect, communication, all of those things are common.”
Uncommon of late? Playoff appearances. There’s been only one (2008) in the past 12 seasons. If Miami falls short again, the axe may fall on Philbin.
Tannehill is now on his own, and yet, perhaps, less alone. Make sense? Consider that he’ll be without his college coach, Sherman, for the first time as a pro. The Dolphins heeded the complaints of players and fans and made a change at coordinator. Miami hopes that new coordinator Bill Lazor can replicate his success working with Nick Foles in Philadelphia, where he served as the quarterbacks coach. At age 42, Lazor has already had a diverse set of coaching influences, working under Chip Kelly, Mike Holmgren and Joe Gibbs, among others.
“What I’m interested in is these three things with Bill — increased play speed, the increased accuracy and cut down on turnovers,” Philbin says.
It will help if Tannehill has more time, after his sacks skyrocketed from 35 to 58 in his second season. Miami will go to a zone-blocking scheme, likely with four new starters flanking talented but still immature center Mike Pouncey. The key new component is left tackle Branden Albert, a long-time target who received $25 million guaranteed to leave Kansas City. Albert's addition is even more important considering Pouncey underwent hip surgery in June and could be out until November.
Miami could very well have a new starting running back too. And while Knowshon Moreno likely won’t be as productive as he was when playing with Peyton Manning, he should upgrade a spot that was one of the worst in the NFL last season. Moreno underwent knee surgery during the offseason, but he was activated from the PUP list just prior to the first preseason game. Lamar Miller showed breakaway flashes but was inconsistent in all phases, and Daniel Thomas has never shown the necessary physicality.
The Dolphins do have some weapons, if Tannehill can stay upright. His primary assignment is finding a way to connect with speedster Mike Wallace, whose first Dolphins season was a letdown. Sometimes, Wallace was wide open and Tannehill was short by several steps. Sometimes, Wallace seemed not to want to fight for the ball.
In fact, Tannehill still appeared most comfortable with Brian Hartline, who led the team in receptions and yards, and with Charles Clay, who surprised everyone by becoming a consistently productive tight end. Others, including the improving Rishard Matthews, the healing Brandon Gibson and the rookie Jarvis Landry give Miami quality depth.
For all the change, there was something that needed to stay the same: Brent Grimes manning a cornerback spot. The diminutive but ultra-athletic Grimes proved to be a steal on a one-year deal, and now he’s back on a long-term contract. The Dolphins, who slipped in most defensive categories from 2012, couldn’t afford to lose their most consistent performer.
After a breakout 2012, strong safety Reshad Jones made few impactful plays in 2013 and often took poor angles. He’ll need to be better, whether he’s paired with holdover Jimmy Wilson or veteran newcomer Louis Delmas, but any impact Jones has on the field for the Dolphins won't come until Week 6. Jones has been suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the season for violating the league's perfomance-enhancing drug policy. The competition is open at the other cornerback, where rookie disappointments Jamar Taylor and Will Davis have a shot, especially if feisty addition Cortland Finnegan’s best days are behind him.
Linebacker came to symbolize Ireland’s struggles in free agency: Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler proved to be downgrades from the departed Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Both are back, as is Koa Misi. But they’ll all be pushed. Even Philbin, loathe to criticize players, admitted that, “I think there was some inconsistency there. We have to get more consistency.”
There’s more promise on the defensive line, in part because Olivier Vernon (11.5 sacks) proved that he could be a worthy bookend complement to the dynamic Cameron Wake. Perhaps Vernon’s blossoming reputation will shake Wake free of some double teams. The hope was that 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan would play more of a significant role along the line, but like Jones, Jordan will sit out the first four games due to a PED-related suspension.
Inside, the Dolphins lost long-time stalwart Paul Soliai in free agency but surprised many by retaining the versatile Randy Starks to pair with Jared Odrick. Earl Mitchell, just 26, has some upside. The Dolphins were 24th in the league in rushing yards allowed and 18th in yards per carry allowed. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle needs to address those numbers before anything else.
After winning the placekicking job from Dan Carpenter in training camp, rookie Caleb Sturgis made all seven of his field-goal attempts in his first four games before falling off some down the stretch. He was 26-of-34 overall, including 3-of-7 from outside of 50 yards. The Dolphins should feel a bit more comfortable about their punting situation. Brandon Fields remains one of the best, and veteran long-snapper John Denney never seems to make a mistake. Marcus Thigpen returns as the kickoff and punt returner. He fumbled three times, though he generally provided quality field position.
The fans can stash their banners and call off their chants. Ireland, the target of their frustration for the past several years, is gone, now just an advisor to the Seattle Seahawks. So, now what? Can the Dolphins get enough out of his leftovers, and Hickey’s additions, to steal a wild card spot? That, again, will largely depend on Tannehill. He’s been given a pass for his erratic passing, in part because of his relative newness to the position, after switching from receiver while at Texas A&M. But he enters this season with 32 NFL starts, just 15 wins and a pedestrian 79.1 quarterback rating. It’s time to produce.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC East
By the time Julio Jones crumpled to the turf of the Georgia Dome in Week 5, his season-ending foot fracture was just one of countless injuries to an Atlanta franchise many had considered to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Falcons, 1–3 at the time of his injury, continued to battle — they won two of their final five games, with the three losses to playoff teams by an average of four points — but this team simply didn’t have enough on either side of the ball to be any kind of factor in the NFC South.
Maybe it was more than just Jones’ absence — at the time of his injury he led the league in receptions. Maybe it was the shaky depth created by general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s move up to draft the Alabama star two seasons prior. After all, in a matter of weeks, the Falcons’ mediocre offensive line unraveled when injuries exposed a thin depth chart. Simultaneously, years of busted free agency moves on defense (Ray Edwards, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel) and a slew of injuries created one of the league’s most anemic pass rushes.
Although it appeared Atlanta built the framework of a powerhouse franchise despite the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino debacles, head coach Mike Smith and Dimitroff watched the Falcons lose an entire season in the trenches before it ever really began. The good news is that most of the crucial pieces are in place for a rebound. Seven of the Falcons’ 12 losses last season were by a touchdown or less, and five of those were to playoff teams. Dimitroff recruited ex-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli specifically to oversee personnel housecleanings on the offensive and defensive lines (both units also feature new position coaches). Pioli’s input is likely for both short- and long-term fixes, as owner Arthur Blank is still confidently demanding a Super Bowl or bust for a team that’s locked and loaded on offense.
After a steady climb toward consideration as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, Matt Ryan was undone by an injury-plagued offensive line in 2013. The Falcons’ quarterback was sacked 44 times after an average of 20 per season from 2010-11. Under near-constant pressure, Ryan posted a career-high 17 interceptions while throwing for only 26 TDs, his lowest total since 2009, when the Falcons last missed the playoffs.
Enter former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice, who must overhaul one of the league’s worst lines in order for coordinator Dirk Koetter to effectively utilize his range of skill-position weapons. First-round pick Jake Matthews could start immediately at right tackle, but don’t be surprised if he upends maligned left tackle Sam Baker by season’s end. Free-agent guard Gabe Carimi is a high-upside, low-risk signee who could add a little extra nasty, and tackle Mike Johnson is expected to return at full strength after missing the entire 2013 season with a broken leg.
Compounding matters for that battered offensive line were key injuries to Ryan’s stable of weapons, most notably Jones (broken foot), All-Pro wideout Roddy White (high-ankle sprain) and running back Steven Jackson, who nursed multiple injuries and finished with the worst yards-per-carry average (3.5) of his career. All three are expected back, but Jones has become the most valuable, as his mere presence demands that defensive coordinators shift coverage to his side of the field.
Tony Gonzalez’s retirement will force Ryan to prove he can work without a safety valve, but he’ll do so with arguably the NFL’s best 1-2 receiver tandem in Jones and White. There’s room for competition at the No. 3 spot. Harry Douglas is coming off of career highs of 85 receptions for 1,067 yards, but many of his targets were the result of injuries at the position.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has proven a capable receiving option, and with a healthy O-line, Koetter will be allowed more creativity with a stable of fast, smallish backs that includes Rodgers, fourth-round draft pick Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith.
Coordinator Mike Nolan and Smith have refused to acknowledge that the Falcons are shifting to an outright 3-4 alignment, Nolan’s historic preference. Yet all signs point that way: The team signed nose tackle Paul Soliai and drafted a fleet of rookie linebackers built for inside and outside speed-rushing. For two seasons under Nolan, Atlanta has lacked pass-rushing talent on the edges of a 4-3 and the talent at linebacker to effectively shift into a 3-4. The latter has certainly been addressed. Among Atlanta’s draft class, Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo stands out as an ideal 3-4 backer capable of rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. In addition, Kroy Biermann will return from a season-ending torn Achilles. Initially a traditional 4-3 defensive end, Biermann had excelled as a 3-4 outside linebacker before his injury.
Expect veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora to shift toward a specialist’s role on third downs. After that, the front seven depth chart is anyone’s guess, depending on how often Nolan shifts schemes. The Falcons drafted four new linebackers to accompany veteran Sean Weatherspoon and breakout performer Paul Worrilow, an undrafted rookie in 2013 who led the team in tackles with 127. The linebacker depth will be tested even further now that Weatherspoon (ruptured his Achilles during team workout in June) and fifth-round pick Marquis Spruill (tore his ACL during training camp) have already been lost for the season. The team signed veteran Pat Angerer to take Weatherspoon's spot on the roster.
The signing of Soliai and the selection of Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round seem to indicate a base 3-4. However, if Atlanta wants to maintain traditional 4-3 looks for variety they’ll need Corey Peters to return from a late-season Achilles injury and serious advancement from defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi as a legit pass-rushing threat.
Atlanta failed to pick up a serious starter at safety through free agency after parting ways with Thomas DeCoud, making the middle of the secondary the thinnest position on the team. Desmond Trufant is poised for a breakout sophomore season and could develop into an elite cover corner.
Free-agent signees Devin Hester and Javier Arenas are expected to compete in an overhauled return game. Hester’s speed could find a niche role in Koetter’s offense, but he’ll be looked upon foremost to repeat as the league’s leader in kick-return yardage. Since coming over from Tampa Bay in 2009, Matt Bryant has provided consistency at kicker, and his notable range (his career long is 62 yards) has given Smith confidence to rely on the Pro Bowler from long distances. Punter Matt Bosher returns after he netted a career-best 41.1 yards per kick.
No one’s expecting a Super Bowl run now, but the Falcons have traditionally thrived under Smith and Dimitroff when they’re ignored. But just like last season, Atlanta’s chances with names like Ryan, Jackson, White and Jones won’t matter if both lines of scrimmage haven’t been repaired — or least patched up.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC South
Boise State opens the 2014 season with a highly anticipated showdown against Ole Miss on Thursday, Aug. 28.
And the Broncos will open the season with new alternate helmets, as the program unveiled an orange design for the matchup versus the Rebels.
Boise State’s orange helmet might be one of the best alternate designs for 2014.
It’s official: Kansas takes the prize for the nation’s most interesting alternate uniform for 2014.
The Jayhawks unveiled a new red alternate jersey for 2014 on Tuesday, which is certainly a switch from the team’s usual blue or white jerseys.
The helmet features a large Jayhawk logo, along with logos on the sleeves of the jersey.
Check out Kansas’ new red alternate jerseys:
The new uni is super icy!! pic.twitter.com/nYed2lC93g— Darious Crawley (@DariousCrawley2) August 13, 2014
Don’t let the disparity between the top and bottom of last season’s NFC South standings fool you – this could be one of the more competitive divisions in the NFL in 2014. Carolina may be the reigning champion, but New Orleans brought in some new pieces during the offseason, while Atlanta should fare better than 4-12 given all of the injuries it weathered last season. And then there’s Tampa Bay, who hired former Coach of the Year Lovie Smith, once again spent big money in free agency and focused on offense in the draft in hopes of turning things around.
In order to get an accurate assessment of the NFC South heading into 2014, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“Aside from QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, the Falcons really have a below-average roster. With TE Tony Gonzalez retiring, WR Roddy White on the decline, an injury-plagued Steven Jackson and an offensive line that is questionable at best, it’s a bit of a pipe dream to expect Ryan to deliver a Super Bowl to Atlanta.” …
“LT Sam Baker was over-drafted as a first-rounder out of USC and has been bothered by back issues through most of his ordinary career. They are hoping for more out of center Peter Konz, but he and RT Lamar Holmes have really been disappointing thus far.” …
“Head coach Mike Smith brought in Mike Tice to help fix the OL, but with the issue being talent-based, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews was an obvious choice at No. 6.” …
“Defensively, you have to wonder where the pass rush will come from, they signed Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai in free agency, but both are more run-down players. Osi Umenyiora survived 16 games, but was not a factor off the edge.” …
“They got great mileage out of rookie free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu after the injuries hit the linebacker spots, but the reality is that this is a sub-standard unit, especially with the loss of Sean Weatherspoon (ruptured Achilles).” …
“The back end is a work-in-progress, too. Second-year corner Desmond Trufant is more dependable than flashy and Robert Alford has promise as a potential starter. They released FS Thomas DeCoud and SS William Moore has been inconsistent since being a second-round pick in 2009.” ...
“They picked Dezmen Southward (Wisconsin) in the third round and he is a safety with corner speed.”…
“Age has hit this team and in a division where pressuring Drew Brees and Cam Newton is mandatory for success, I’m just not sure how they get back to the playoffs with no defenders that scare anyone.”
“Defensively, they were able to mask their secondary issues with a strong, almost dominant front seven. DE Greg Hardy is a force off the corner, but will he be the same player with his contract status (franchise tag) unresolved? Both rookie DTs, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, performed well in the Carolina rotation and should continue to control the middle of the action.” …
“LB Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine and true All-Pro. He has excellent key/diagnose instincts and can effectively play all three downs. It was great to see Thomas Davis get back on the field and play effectively in 2013.” …
“It’s hard to believe they won 12 games with this group of corners and safeties. Captain Munnerlyn signed with the Vikings and Mike Mitchell left for the Steelers during the offseason. The remaining safeties were simply atrocious last year. Robert Lester had a number of poor tackling misses that showed why he was an undrafted free agent.” …
“They stayed within the division and signed Thomas DeCoud from the Falcons and Roman Harper from the Saints to shore up things, but I’m not convinced either will really pay dividends.” …
“On the offensive side of things, it’s all about Cam Newton. When he’s hot, look out. When he’s not, he doesn’t look like the same player.” …
“The Panthers had two major losses in the offseason with the retirement of LT Jordan Gross and the release of WR Steve Smith, the most iconic player in franchise history.” …
“in many ways, trying to find a left tackle is more problematic than a WR, because there simply are not that many bodies capable of protecting the blind-side. If RT Byron Bell goes to the left side, this could be the club’s biggest roster failure and that appears to be the situation, because LT was not addressed in the draft.” …
“Help at WR will come from free-agent additions Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant and the Panthers went big with first-round choice Kelvin Benjamin (6-5/240) from Florida State.” …
“TE Greg Olsen is Newton’s favorite target and he has quietly put together a solid career.” …
“One thing they’ve never figured out is how to utilize RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. It has been spotty at best, and yet both have remained firmly in their backfield.” …
“GM Dave Gettleman struck all the proper notes in his first year as the primary decision maker, but people around the league are really interested to see what he does with at LT and with this secondary prior to the regular season.” …
“A lot of things went right for the Panthers in 2013 as they won the division. But there’s also no question, this team has taken several steps back since losing to the 49ers in the Divisional round of the playoffs.” …
New Orleans Saints
“Want to know how good Drew Brees really is? His receivers are not as dynamic anymore, the running backs without Darren Sproles are not special and the offensive line is very, very ordinary. It’s all about him and head coach Sean Payton who have worked together since 2006 (with the exception of the suspension year in ‘12).” …
“Marques Colston provides a big target, but cannot run anymore and Lance Moore was released, so a lot of pressure will fall on second-year WR Kenny Stills who flashed during the back half of the 2013 season and first-round pick Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. Cooks should be electric in this system and might be an instant star in the league.” …
Jimmy Graham has rare height, body control and overall athleticism, but he won’t go to any Pro Bowls for his blocking.” …
“Last year, LT Charles Brown struggled to the point that they inserted rookie Terron Armstead into the lineup in December. He has a big upside, but is raw and inexperienced. It’s important to note that the Saints have two very good guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans and both do a great job of setting the bottom of the pocket and not allowing immediate pressure on Brees. New Orleans re-signed RT Zach Strief and it’s amazing that this will be his third contract because he is ‘just a guy.’”…
“The defense made significant strides under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. DE Jordan Cameron and OLB Junior Galette emerged as legit NFL difference-makers in his version of the 3-4 and the Saints are hoping Victor Butler can return from a torn ACL that he suffered during training camp last August.” …
“The inside linebackers are functional, but the real strength of this unit will be the safety combo of rookie sensation Kenny Vaccaro and high-priced free agent Jairus Byrd. This may be the best tandem in the entire NFL because of Vaccaro’s ability to blitz and defend the run near the line of scrimmage and Byrd’s range from centerfield.” …
“With so many oversized WRs in the division, it was important that they drafted CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3/220) in the second-round out of Nebraska.” …
“The Saints demonstrated they can win away from the Superdome when they went to Philadelphia and beat the Eagles in the Wild Card round, but there is no denying that this is a significantly different team when they are ‘marching home.’” …
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
“The Buccaneers are trying to recreate the Tony Dungy era with the hiring of Lovie Smith. The good news is that this defense has a chance to be very solid as they transition back to their Tampa-2 roots.” …
“They signed Michael Johnson from the Bengals and he will likely be the RE, but is not elite as a pass-rusher. Adrian Clayborn has the dimensions of a left end, but has a right arm deformity that really impacts his ability to play the run. DaQuan Bowers has never managed to reach expectations and has only 5.5 sacks since 2011.” …
“DT Gerald McCoy is one of the most unheralded players in the league and with the addition of Clinton McDonald, they should have a nice rotation on the inside.” …
“Lavonte David is a very impressive player on tape. He can run, hit and defend the pass. Mason Foster has always been solid in the middle…
“Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson pair off nicely in a strong and free safety arrangement, but the defensive staff has to be concerned about Goldson playing over the top in Cover 2.” …
“New free-agent signee Alterraun Verner and second-year corner Johnthan Banks are ideal zone defenders on the perimeter.” …
“Just like in Chicago, Smith will have to prove that he can oversee a successful offense and that’s where most of the questions are with this club. Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head coach, is the offensive coordinator and Josh McCown turned his 13-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio into a two-year/$10 million contract.” …
“The long-term question will be is if Mike Glennon is the QB of the future or someone else? Glennon, for the most part, showed signs of being a competent NFL starter when he started 13 games and threw 19 TDs against 9 INTs. Still, he was drafted by the previous regime and may not have the sponsorship needed to secure the spot.” …
“The offensive line is ‘under construction’ and has real question marks. New free-agent acquisitions LT Anthony Collins and OC Evan Deitrich-Smith are low-end starters, OG Davin Joseph was cut and LG Carl Nicks unexpected retired after losing last season due to a staph infection.” …
”The Bucs used all seven picks in the draft on offense, including two developmental guards. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins was their second-round selection and he should be an upgrade over Brandon Myers who is as average as it gets.” …
“The running game should be better with the return of Doug Martin and Mike James, who both missed significant time in 2013.” …
“Tampa took Mike Evans in the first round and he has rare traits (6-5/231/4.53 speed) and a large catching radius. With he and the ultra-talented WR Vincent Jackson, McCown can throw the ball ‘above the rim’ like he did in Chicago and let them go get it.” …
“Lovie added his kind of guys in free agency on defense and isn’t waiting around to develop an offense in his second chance at being a head coach. It’s obvious he realizes that you must create personnel mismatches and score points to win in today’s NFL.” …
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 13:
• It stays hot in South Beach: The Miami Dolphins cheerleaders recently held a fashion show and calendar unveiling.
• 25 awesome athlete toys. It's good to be rich and famous.
• Mike Gundy is a man, he's 47, and he's a terrible white-guy dancer.
• Falcons coach Mike Smith: "We want to be the biggest pr--ks." It's good to have goals.
• Ever wonder how a dog would react to a levitating weiner? Wonder no more.
• Watch a sportscaster name-check each Robin Williams movie in his segment.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch in the ACC this fall?
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
The uber-recruit from Immokalee (Fla.) High redshirted a year ago and is ready to fulfill his lofty recruiting expectations. He’s gained some weight and will be charged with protecting the back end of a defense littered with seniors.
Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State
After experiencing some speed bumps in the recruiting process, Thomas is finally ready to contribute in Tallahassee. He has freakish ability and is slated to start alongside Terrance Smith. Jimbo Fisher has proven he will ask big things of first-year starters and Thomas is the next in line.
Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
The five-star safety from Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside is slotted to start the moment he steps onto a college field for the first time. He has veterans to learn from but the 6-foot-4, 210-pound dynamo could be a savior at the back end of the Cavaliers' defense.
Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Arkansas State head coach and former UNC assistant Blake Anderson told me last week that Hood is as ready made as any true freshman in the ACC. There is a crowded backfield in Chapel Hill but the 220-pounder might be the most talented of the bunch.
KC McDermott, OL, Miami
The Hurricanes have plenty of holes to fill and one should be plugged by the monster (6-6, 315) in-state blocker. He has been worked at right tackle with the first team and he could be just one of a few first-year blockers who contribute in a big way for Miami.
Ermon Lane | Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
There is plenty of space in the offense behind senior Rashad Greene and both Lane (6-3, 205) and Rudolph (6-2, 185) have been exceptional in fall camp. Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston have had glowing things to say about the two tall playmakers.
Wyatt Teller, OL, Virginia Tech
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound redshirt freshman has moved from defensive line to offensive tackle to offensive guard and hasn’t played a down yet. But he looks and acts the part of an interior mauler already. His weight lifting records are a testament to that. He will fight to keep his job but the future is extremely bright for Teller in Blacksburg.
Andrew Brown, DL, Virginia
A turf toe injury resulted in surgery at the beginning of fall camp and that has slowed the expectations for the five-star nose guard. The coaching staff still believes the big 300-pounder will be a major contributor this fall but they will ease their prized freshman back into action.
Chad Thomas, DL, Miami
It’s hard to hide Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s excitement about having Thomas on the roster. The local product checks in at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds with excellent burst and great agility. He is the type of South Florida defender the Canes have been sorely lacking.
Bo Hines, WR, NC State
Dave Doeren’s offense will be much improved in Year Two with Jacoby Brissett under center. Hines was impressive in spring camp after enrolling early and there is plenty of space on the depth chart for a talented pass-catcher like Hines to flourish in 2014.
Quarterbacks to Watch:
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The talented dual-threat early enrollee needs to stay healthy but should already be entrenched as Cole Stoudt’s backup and the QB of the future.
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Marquise Williams is the starter but Trubisky brings pocket talent that Larry Fedora brought in for a reason. He is the future in Chapel Hill.
Kevin Olsen, Miami
He’s suspended for at least the opener against Louisville but this situation could be so dire that Olsen could get plenty of reps once he’s out of the doghouse. True freshman Brad Kaaya is also getting a look.
Best of the Rest:
Bentley Spain | R.J. Prince, OL, North Carolina
Keith Bryant | Derrick Nnadi, DL, Florida State
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson
Wayne Gallman | Tyshon Dye, RB, Clemson
Zach Challingsworth | Jester Weah, WR, Pitt
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Kentavius Street, DL, NC State
Chris Griffin, OL, Georgia Tech
The SEC couldn’t close the BCS era with an eighth consecutive national championship, but the conference is still the best in the nation. With a conference deep in playoff contenders and top 25 teams, there’s no shortage of individual talent on all 14 rosters.
In order to rank the top 15 players in the SEC for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports (@AthlonSteven)
Braden Gall, Athlon Sports (@BradenGall)
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com (@Josh_Ward)
Matt Scalici, AL.com/Sports (@MattScalici)
Zac Ellis, SI.com (@ZacEllis)
Josh Kendall, TheState.com (@JoshatTheState)
Thomas Goldkamp, GatorBait.net (@Goldkamp247)
Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report (@BarrettSallee)
Matt Wyatt, Head to Head Radio (@MaroonWyatt)
Russ Mitchell, CollegeFootballNews.com (@RussMitchellCFB)
David Fox, Athlon Sports (@DavidFox615)
Brad Crawford, SaturdayDownSouth.com (@BCrawfordSDS)
Mitch Light, Athlon Sports (@AthlonMitch)
SEC Logo, (@SEC_Logo)
Peter Flournoy, DrSEC.org (@TheDrSEC)
Ross Dellenger, The Advocate (@DellengerAdv)
Ben Roberts, Lexington Herald-Leader (@NextCats)
Wess Moore, Fox16/93.3 The Source, (@Wess_Moore)
Ranking the SEC's Best Players for 2014 (Experts Poll)
|1||Todd Gurley, RB||19||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||341|
|2||Vernon Hargreaves III, CB||2||5||4||5||1||4||0||0||1||0||270|
|3||Amari Cooper, WR||1||3||3||1||3||1||3||1||2||0||220|
|4||Cedric Ogbuehi, OT||0||5||4||3||0||2||2||1||1||0||218|
|5||T.J. Yeldon, RB||0||3||3||3||1||0||2||1||1||2||183|
|6||Nick Marshall, QB||1||2||1||1||2||2||2||2||0||2||177|
|7||Landon Collins, S||0||1||1||2||3||2||3||2||2||0||161|
|8||Mike Davis, RB||0||0||1||1||4||1||2||1||0||0||128|
|9T||Ramik Wilson, LB||0||0||1||0||2||2||1||0||2||1||110|
|9T||La'El Collins, OT||0||0||1||1||1||1||3||2||1||1||110|
|11||Dante Fowler, DL||0||0||0||1||1||0||1||1||1||1||76|
|12T||A'Shawn Robinson, DL||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||1||2||3||63|
|12T||A.J. Cann, OG||0||0||1||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||63|
|14||Reese Dismukes, C||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||0||2||59|
|15||Cody Prewitt, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||3||1||55|
|16||Chris Jones, DL||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||1||0||0||49|
|17||Dak Prescott, QB||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||0||1||48|
|18||Laquon Treadwell, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||1||1||44|
|19||Benardrick McKinney, LB||0||0||0||1||0||2||0||0||0||0||41|
|20||Robert Nkemdiche, DT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||37|
|21||Derrick Henry, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||2||0||0||35|
|22||Laremy Tunsil, OT||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||1||0||34|
|23T||A.J. Johnson, LB||0||0||1||0||0||1||0||0||0||1||33|
|23T||Sammie Coates, WR||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||3||0||33|
|25||O.J. Howard, TE||0||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||0||0||26|
|26T||Markus Golden, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||20|
|26T||Trey DePriest, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||20|
|26T||Trey Flowers, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||2||20|
|29||Maty Mauk, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||17|
|30T||Leonard Fournette, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||11|
|30T||Arie Kouandjio, OG||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0||11|
|32||Bo Wallace, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||7|
|33T||Gabe Wright, DL||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||6|
|33T||Jalen Mills, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||6|
|35||Jordan Jenkins, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|36T||Bud Dupree, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|36T||Christion Jones, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|38||Alex Collins, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|39T||Jameon Lewis, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|39T||Drew Kaser, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
A Few Observations
* Georgia running back Todd Gurley received 19 of the 23 first-place votes. He was also the only player to appear on all 23 ballots.
* The East and West Divisions are represented almost equally in the top 10. Six players from the West make the top 10, while four make an appearance from the East.
* The T.J. Yeldon/Derrick Henry dynamic will be interesting to watch in Tuscaloosa this year. Yeldon ranked No. 5 in voting, while Henry ranked No. 21. There’s a good chance Henry pushes Yeldon for the team lead in rushing in 2014.
* The gap in total points between Dak Prescott and Bo Wallace was surprising. Prescott held a commanding 48 to 7 edge in voting, placing the Bulldogs’ passer as the No. 2 quarterback in the SEC in this experts poll.
* Alabama had the most players (nine) receive a vote. Ole Miss ranked No. 2 with five players receiving votes.
* Is South Carolina guard A.J. Cann underrated? The senior appeared on just six ballots but ranks as the No. 2 guard for the 2015 NFL Draft.
* 13 of 14 teams had a player receive a vote. Vanderbilt was the only team to not have a player receive consideration for the top 15. Two players who could end up on this list at the end of the year for the Commodores: Running back Jerron Seymour and linebacker Caleb Azubike.
* One player to watch: Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd. The sophomore recorded 6.5 sacks last season and should push for first-team All-SEC honors under the direction of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Floyd did not receive a top 15 vote in this experts poll.
Do most SEC fans know who Taylor Kelly is? That he is the only other player in the nation other than the great Johnny Manziel to throw for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 500 in each of the last two seasons?
Because if not, they should. Which is why Kelly is ranked by Athlon Sports as the No. 8 quarterback in college football heading into the 2014 campaign.
So using that list of the best quarterbacks in the nation to determine exactly what “underrated” is — for this exercise, anyone not ranked in the top 15 — here are the most underrated signal-callers in college football this fall.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (Jr.)
The Bulldogs are one of just three teams from the Big 5 conferences that have never had a QB drafted in the modern era (1977). But with great leadership, poise, toughness and a special blend of size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and athleticism (829 yards rushing last year), Prescott could be the first. He should also be the first 3,000-yard passer in school history. Dan Mullen has built a deep roster in Starkville and now he has the quarterback to go along with it. Look for Prescott and the Bulldogs to make plenty of noise this fall.
Davis Webb, Texas Tech (So.)
There are few players in the nation who are safer bets to reach 4,000 yards and/or 30 touchdown passes this year than Webb. He proved himself as a freshman last year, throwing for over 300 yards five times in just six starts — including his marquee, 385-yard performance in the upset of Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Look for monster numbers from Tech’s quarterback this fall.
Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion (Sr.)
He’s started 33 straight games for ODU and is one of the most decorated and prolific passers in college football history. He is one of just 18 Division I quarterbacks to throw at least 100 touchdowns (102) and is 29th all-time in NCAA history with 11,483 yards entering his senior season. The Monarchs will have chances to showcase Heinicke against the ACC (NC State), the SEC (Vanderbilt) and Marshall.
Keenan Reynolds, Navy (Jr.)
The Navy quarterback won’t ever make headlines for passing the football but Reynolds certainly made a statement as a runner last fall. Reynolds set the single season TD record for a quarterback with 31 rushing scores. He finished with 1,346 yards on 300 carries. Few players are better suited to run the triple option than the Nashville native.
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana (Jr.)
In two seasons splitting time under center, Sudfeld has helped Indiana lead the Big Ten in passing offense twice. He posted numbers comparable to most Big Ten starters last fall (2,523 yards, 21 TDs, 9 INTs) despite sharing the field with Tre Roberson. He now has sole control of Kevin Wilson’s prolific offense and should flourish with huge numbers — and, who knows, maybe a bowl berth for the Hoosiers.
C.J. Brown, Maryland (Sr.)
If fans are looking for someone else who could join Kelly as a 3,000-500 guy, look no further than Maryland’s Brown. Finally healthy, the Terps' signal-caller threw for 2,242 yards, ran for 576 and accounted for 25 total touchdowns. All without two potential NFL wideouts in Deon Long and Stefon Diggs. Look for Brown (if healthy) to be one of the surprises in the Big Ten this fall.
Cody Kessler, USC (Jr.)
He isn’t a star like most of his Pac-12 brethren, but make no mistake, Kessler has plenty of talent. The Trojans' signal-caller finally grasped Clay Helton’s offense following Lane Kiffin’s firing. He threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions while winning seven of nine games following the regime change. This includes a very impressive 288-yard, TD performance in the marquee win over Stanford. He threw just seven interceptions in 362 attempts and posted career highs (344 yds, 4 TDs) in the season finale bowl win over Fresno State.
Cole Stoudt, Clemson (Sr.)
His story isn’t told all that often any longer in college football. Most players don’t sit and wait their turn like Stoudt has done at Clemson. Now, he is given the reins to one of the most prolific offensive systems in the nation. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder completed 79.3 percent of his passes last year in mop-up duty but has the tempo and quick release coordinator Chad Morris is looking for in 2014.
Will Gardner, Louisville (So.)
The 6-foot-5 pocket passer from Douglas (Ga.) Coffee turned down a scholarship offer from Alabama to attend Louisville. Now, he falls into a Bobby Petrino offense in which his skill set should flourish. A great offensive line, a superstar wide receiver (DeVante Parker) and a talented running game could make this as potent a Petrino offense as any. And it all starts with the 230-pound sophomore.
Marquise Williams, North Carolina (Jr.)
Forced into action when Bryn Renner was injured, Williams acquitted himself admirably in his first chance as a starting college quarterback. Over the final seven games of the season, he rushed for 441 yards, threw for 1,308 yards, scored 17 total touchdowns and led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 record. The offense averaged over 40 points per game during that span and he should only continue to get better this fall.
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.
The dog days of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season are almost over. This weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway spells the end of the sport’s horsepower-hungry summer malaise. Soon, a trio of exciting nighttime races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond will serve as a three-week hype-builder before NASCAR’s playoffs commence.
For two Cup Series rookies, it’s time to find another gear (metaphorically speaking). For others, like BK Racing’s Cole Whitt, who sat down with Athlon Sports last week for an exclusive interview, getting the best results in the remaining races is the primary goal.
After a three-week hiatus, the Rookie Report rankings return with a familiar face at the front of the pack:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Third, seventh, 11th and fourth are the results for Larson in his last four Cup Series starts and the worst of those came after he won his second pole of the 2014 season. He isn’t quite leading laps — he paced the field just 19 times across those four races — but he’s crowding the front of the field at the finish, netting results far better than his average running position in each of those races. It seems as if Larson and this young team, led by second-year crew chief Chris Heroy, is beginning to hit its stride; however, they’re hitting a snag that befalls many a race team. Larson’s restarts are heavily dictating his outcomes. He gained six positions across seven restart attempts in the first seven rows at New Hampshire (where he finished third) and five across four in Indianapolis (he finished seventh), before losing seven positions across eight at Pocono, which was the 11th-place effort. It makes sense that success or failure in the sport’s most abundant position-changing window is reflected in the outcome, and it is important that Larson, who isn’t all that shabby during these windows, doesn’t boot an entire race because of consistently failing to retain his position.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
While taking in a slow-mo viewing of the Pocono race from two weeks ago, Dillon’s No. 3 car was an omnipresent loser on three late-race restarts within the first seven rows, dropping a total of seven positions. It’s something he needs to improve upon, sure, but before deep analysis is placed on his poor restart habits there is a more basic notion to point out: He is now restarting late in races, consistently, from the first seven rows. Earlier this year, this kind of money position eluded him. In his four most recent outings, he finished 14th, 10th, 15th and 16th, occasionally running higher prior to race-deciding restarts. Add in the fifth-place finish at Daytona in July and it’s easily the best five-race stretch of the season for the rookie. He hasn’t finished worse than 17th since his last visit to Michigan and if this team, one that finished third in points with Kevin Harvick driving last season, wants to crack this year’s Chase, a replication of his 30th-place finish in his last trip to the Irish Hills won’t fly.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 4)
In the last two weeks, Allgaier has earned finishes of 16th at Pocono and 17th at Watkins Glen. The latter, if you’ve paid attention to his career, shouldn’t come as a surprise. A fairly versatile driver with an eclectic background, Allgaier won an ARCA Series road course race in Millville, N.J., in 2008 and scored a NASCAR Nationwide Series victory on the famed Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2012. The stout finish for a team that has struggled to maintain track position harkens one back to Allgaier’s take, in my Q&A with him in April, on why former dirt drivers become standout road course racers:
“I think it’s multi-fold. Number one, in dirt you learn car control that you just don’t find developing on asphalt. The other thing is that in dirt racing you’re constantly searching for a line that allows you to go faster. It’s entering fast, slowing down in the middle and accelerating off the corner or carrying speed through the center; whatever the track calls for, you do it. On asphalt, a lot of times especially in oval racing, you’re going to want to carry center corner speed. That’s the goal, to carry center corner speed. On a road course, that’s not always the key. I feel like dirt racers tend to search around a lot more and maybe that’s why it clicks easier.”
4. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 3)
This weekend’s race at Michigan provides a welcome sight for Annett, who has scored six finishes of 22nd or better in the last 13 races, five of them coming on tracks two miles or more in length. Granted a driver like Greg Biffle has made a career from excelling at one track type, Annett’s inconsistency in finishing is the wrinkle in his rookie season that needs to be ironed; his 6.8 finish deviation is the second-worst among rookies. In the last nine races specifically, his “good” results (a 20.4-place average) have differed from his “bad” results (30.1) by a whopping 10 positions.
5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)
When Whitt told me that his goal for the remainder of the season is “to get every position possible and bring the best car to every race,” he surely didn’t have a Jimmie Johnson-esque ride into the Watkins Glen tire barriers in mind. The cringe-worthy accident left him with a dead-last finish after an uplifting qualifying effort (18th) provided some optimism. Prior to the freak accident at The Glen, he finished 21st at Pocono, an improvement of nine positions over his first visit’s result.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Bowman finished 13th in a nutty July Daytona race, but in the four races that followed, outcomes weren’t as great. Finishes of 31st, 40th and 31st were the results at New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Pocono, respectively, after he amassed a 40.48 percent adjusted pass efficiency and a minus-8.64 percent surplus passing value during that span. It’s a 180-degree turnaround in the wrong direction from the improvement he made in passing from the first quarter of the season to the second quarter.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
Truex and team finally cracked the top half of the field for a finish at Pocono — a 20th-place result — after weeks of steady, albeit practically invisible, improvement in the driver’s passing efficiency. There is still something this young team has yet to accomplish: A lead-lap finish. A two-mile track like the one he’ll see this weekend in Michigan provides a swell opportunity to finish within a lap of the leaders.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
The Cleveland Browns are new again. Come Opening Day, they’ll have their third head coach in three years, their sixth different Opening Day quarterback in seven years and a new team playing under a new regime. The second full season under the ownership of Jimmy Haslam starts with a new head coach in Mike Pettine and a new boss on the personnel side in general manager Ray Farmer.
There will be pressure to play rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel — and he very well may earn the job — but veteran Brian Hoyer will provide stiff competition. Five Pro Bowlers from last season are due back to join a nice mix of veteran free agents and more young talent than the Browns have had in several years. Can it result in wins, though? Only if the Browns get solid quarterback play, stay healthy and keep a potentially strong defense off the field and fresh.
Last season, Josh Gordon was the NFL’s most productive receiver despite missing two games due to suspension and playing with three different quarterbacks. Unfortunately, it appears that Gordon will miss significant playing time this season as well as he's already met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell regarding a reported additional violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. To make matters worse, Gordon also was arrested in early July on a charge of driving while impaired. Incidents like this certainly don't bode well for Gordon’s future nor for an offense that doesn’t have anything resembling a suitable replacement.
Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off a Pro Bowl season and looking for a new contract, and he’ll likely be in line for 70-plus receptions whether Gordon is in the lineup or not. It will come down to whether the Browns can run the ball — Ben Tate was signed and Terrance West was drafted to help the cause — behind a line anchored by the team’s second- and third-highest-paid players, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
Eventually, the Browns figure to transition to becoming Manziel’s team — and a strong running game would serve as the foundation for an offense that plays to the mobile but diminutive Manziel’s strengths. Hoyer won’t go down without a fight, though, and who plays quarterback shapes up as the biggest question for this Browns team. Even if Hoyer is more ready and able to produce, Manziel Mania is real — and those who drive it will be ready to pounce at even the slightest of Hoyer’s missteps.
Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins bring experience and savvy to the receiving corps. Tate has waited for the opportunity to be a featured back and, if he can stay healthy, figures to have plenty of chances. The Browns simply couldn’t run the ball at all last year, and that’s part of the reason why they used a high second-round pick on Joel Bitonio, who should slide in immediately at guard.
A Browns team with the ability to chew up rushing yards to complement Gordon and Cameron in the passing game shapes up as a formidable team capable of playing with just about anybody in the league. A Browns team with continued inconsistency at quarterback and lack of playmakers on the perimeter figures to struggle again. Stay tuned.
The Browns have a talented front seven and got stronger up the middle in March by guaranteeing $14 million to linebacker Karlos Dansby and $11 million to safety Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native. The goal of Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil isn’t just to move past last year’s bad habit of giving up late leads, but to be aggressive and dictate the pace of games.
With an offense that figures to be a work in progress, the defense needs to be the strength of the team, at least early on. The defensive line has depth and talent many teams would love to have, and with Dansby, third-round pick Christian Kirksey and what Pettine hopes will be a new and improved Barkevious Mingo in his second year as an edge-rusher, the pieces are in place at linebacker. Rookie Justin Gilbert should start immediately at corner opposite Joe Haden, who’s becoming a star.
Haden, who signed a huge contract in the offseason, has emerged both as a leader in the locker room and the kind of guy opposing quarterbacks don’t want to have to challenge. That’s why it’s so important that Gilbert proves ready to play right away — and probably why the Browns drafted another big corner, Pierre Desir, as fourth-round insurance. The team wants to keep the speedy but small Buster Skrine in the slot.
The Browns need to be better against the run and make impact plays in obvious passing downs. Desmond Bryant should be back after a heart issue ended his 2013 season prematurely, and nose tackle Phil Taylor needs to prove worthy of the $5.5 million 2015 option the team’s new decision-makers picked up in the spring.
Getting to the passer off the edge will help Haden, Gilbert and all involved. A year after the Browns gave Paul Kruger a $40 million contract and used the No. 6 pick in the draft on Mingo, those two simply have to produce at a higher level. Maybe a new scheme and comfort level with their surroundings will help.
Travis Benjamin provided some sizzle in the return game last year, but neither the offense nor the special teams had the same pop after he went down with a torn ACL. He’s expected back, and the Browns hope he can be the same player. Gilbert has rare athletic ability and could contribute in the return game as well.
The kicking game is solid but not spectacular. The Browns were lucky to land Billy Cundiff just before the start of the 2013 season following the departure of Phil Dawson. Cundiff was good enough to land a contract extension. The team would like to see him in position to make more big kicks. Punter Spencer Lanning did a serviceable job in his first true NFL opportunity and should be better this year. With a young offense and nasty weather due for pivotal games, having a solid punting game can’t be overlooked.
Another restart is here, but Pettine and the winner of the Hoyer/Manziel battle will have better overall personnel than many of their predecessors. The Browns have some talent; the key is mixing a little bit of a luck with a little bit of confidence and seeing where that may lead. At an offseason speaking engagement, Haslam listed his three goals for the 2014 season as being competitive in what should again be a very tightly contested AFC North race; improving the win-loss record (the Browns haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007); and becoming the kind of team Pettine wants in terms of toughness, discipline and establishing an identity. If the Browns run the ball and stop the run, they’ll have a chance for real progress. As for real wins, we’ll see which young players answer the call.
PREDICTION: 4th in AFC North
(Johnny Manziel photo courtesy of Cleveland Browns' Web site, www.clevelandbrowns.com)
Everybody should take a year off work, Lovie Smith says, before adding, “if you can get someone else to pay for it.”
Smith spent last fall in the basement of his home near Chicago watching football. It was a forced but financed hiatus after he was fired by the Bears following a 10–6 season in 2012.
The Buccaneers also wanted to push the reset button following their 4–12 season under Greg Schiano. Smith, who began his NFL coaching career teaching linebackers on Tony Dungy’s staff in Tampa Bay in ’96, was the perfect choice.
“My original statement was for us to become a relevant team again,” Smith says. “And what’s relevant? We want to win all of our home games. We want to put a good product on the field. We want it to be like the old days where teams said. ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to go to Tampa this week. It’s tough going down there.’ We have the same goal as everyone. It’s to win games. To win our division. To win the Super Bowl.”
The Bucs were last in the NFL in total offense last season, so Smith and new general manager Jason Licht believed an overhaul was necessary. They began by cleaning house on an overpriced, unproductive offensive line. Tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph were released. Center Jeremy Zuttah was traded. In their place, the Bucs signed Bengals free agent tackle Anthony Collins and Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith. The only returners were expected to be tackle Demar Dotson and guard Carl Nicks, but Nicks unexpectedly announced his retirement prior to the start of training camp. After coming over from New Orleans as a free agent in 2012, Nicks played in just nine games in two injury-plagued seasons with Tampa Bay.
Smith reached back into his past to select a quarterback — Bears free agent Josh McCown, who threw 13 touchdowns and one interception in five starts filling in for the injured Jay Cutler last season. McCown was immediately named the starter over Mike Glennon, who had been dubbed the Bucs’ “quarterback of the future” by the previous regime. Glennon started 13 games as a rookie and threw for 2,608 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The Bucs have surrounded McCown with some big targets, the Dunk-a-neers, as Licht calls them — rookie receiver Mike Evans (6'5"), rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5") and veteran Vincent Jackson (6'5"). Evans, who is still relatively new to football, caught 151 passes for 2,499 yards in his two active seasons at Texas A&M.
Even though the Bucs believed they had depth at running back with Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, they added a Matt Forté clone in rookie Charles Sims, who caught more than 200 passes during his time at Houston and West Virginia. Martin was the team’s primary ball-carrier through the first part of the ’13 season, but he went down with a shoulder injury in a loss to Atlanta in late October. He was averaging only 3.6 yards per carry at the time of his injury. Rainey stepped in and ended up leading the team in rushing with 532 yards on a 3.9-yard average.
What remains to be seen is how offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head coach, deploys all those weapons. But early indications are that the Bucs will play faster.
“I know you have to play offense and score points to win,” Smith says.
The Tampa-2 has returned home. Fortunately, Smith had two All-Pro components waiting for him — defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (9.5 sacks in ’13) and weak-side linebacker Lavonte David. He also reached back to his past to hire former Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson to coach that position.
“The three-technique in this defense is so important, and Gerald is the best in football right now,” Smith said. “And I think Lavonte is one of the best linebackers I’ve ever seen, and he’s still a young player.”
Jonathan Casillas, who was used mostly on special teams last year but re-signed as a free agent, has the inside track on winning the job at strong-side linebacker.
Smith’s defense generates a pass rush using the front four linemen. McCoy finally will have help with the addition of Bengals free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson and Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn will attempt to switch from the right to the left side.
In order to clear some salary cap space, the Bucs released cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was due to earn $16 million in 2014. But they replaced him with Alterraun Verner, a former Titan who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. The strength of the secondary is the combination of safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.
The Bucs have not had a player with double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice in 2005. That should change under Smith, and it will need to if the Bucs are going to slow down the collection of NFC South quarterbacks that includes Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
If there is one thing Smith is banking on, it’s that he can make the Bucs’ defense elite again.
Placekicker Connor Barth missed all of 2013 after suffering a torn Achilles while playing in a charity basketball game a week before training camp. Then Lawrence Tynes was infected with MRSA following a procedure on an in-grown toenail. Barth is back and has been kicking since January. He says his leg may have actually benefitted from the rest, and he has been booting 61-yard field goals. A career 84 percent field-goal kicker is a nice weapon to have when you are likely to play a lot of low-scoring games. Punter Michael Koenen had a net average of 38.3 yards and pinned a career low 21.8 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. His ability to kick off remains an added bonus.
Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps has devoted his training to football and easily will be the fastest man in the NFL. He should serve as the Bucs’ primary kickoff returner. Receiver Eric Page will return punts again this year.
Smith brings stability and an identity back to the Bucs. Only nine players drafted before 2013 remain on the team. The defense should be among the best in the league, and the offense will be improved. But McCown has thrown for as many yards or touchdowns in the past five years as Glennon did as a rookie. Smith had four offensive coordinators in Chicago, and his offense never finished higher than 15th. It remains to be seen whether Tedford’s offense can be productive at the pro level. A worst-to-first rise in the NFC South is commonplace but probably too much to ask this year.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC South
The quarterback position is stocked with talent in the college football ranks for 2014. Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the defending Heisman winner and should be the early favorite to go No. 1 in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Winston is closely followed by Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who suffered a late-season knee injury in 2013. Mariota’s injury hindered the Ducks’ offense late in the year, but the junior is back to full strength for 2014.
Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Baylor’s Bryce Petty aren’t far behind Mariota, as both players should challenge for All-America honors.
The depth at quarterback extends past the top 10 rankings, as players like Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds are due for big seasons from leagues outside of the Power 5 conferences.
Ranking college football’s top 35 quarterbacks is no easy assignment. It’s not as simple as just looking at stats on a page. To formulate the 2014 quarterback rankings, Athlon examined last year’s stats, career overview, recruiting rankings, level of competition, pro projection and a guess on what might happen in 2014. These rankings are not just a snapshot of the season right now. Instead, we tried to project how a quarterback will perform in 2014.
Ranking College Football's QBs for 2014
|Tough to top 2013, but Winston is|
poised for another run at the Heisman.
|Ducks need Mariota to stay healthy|
to win Pac-12.
|Shoulder injury a concern, but Miller has|
back-to-back season of at least 3,000 yards.
|Tossed only three interceptions on 403|
attempts last year.
|Led Bruins in rushing (748). Completed|
66.8 % of passes in 2014.
|Could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL|
Draft. Will thrive under James Franklin.
|Should be more comfortable in |
Gus Malzahn's offense in 2014.
|Quietly accounted for 4,283 total yards|
|Suffered a torn ACL last year but all signs|
point to a return to full strength in 2014.
|Accounted for 4,282 total yards in 2013. |
Should improve as a passer in 2014.
|Was playing his best ball at the end|
of 2013 in wins over Ohio State and Stanford.
|Has tossed at least 37 touchdown passes|
in back-to-back seasons.
|Significant upside. Finished 2013 by torching|
Alabama for 348 yards and 4 passing TDs.
|Led Pac-12 with 358.6 passing yards|
per game in 2013.
|Returns to starting lineup after|
missing 2013 due to suspension.
|Dr. Bo should rebound in 2014 after|
nagging shoulder injury in '13.
|Impressed in limited action. Needs to|
improve completion percentage.
|Has a chance to be one of the top|
QBs in MSU history.
|Top QB in AAC. Threw for 4,139|
yards and 33 TDs last year.
Next star QB in Lubbock? Finished 2013 on a high note
by throwing for 403 yards vs. Arizona State.
|Tossed only three picks in|
Big Ten games last year.
Becomes clear No. 1 QB with
|Should post huge numbers under|
first-year coach Dino Babers.
|Set NCAA record for most rushing TDs in a season|
by a QB with 31 in 2013.
|Threw 10 of 18 touchdown passes in final four games.|
A QB on the rise in 2014.
|Played better in second half of 2013. Threw for|
345 yards and four scores in Las Vegas Bowl.
|Needs to cut down on INTs (22 last year). Tossed|
six TDs in bowl loss to Colorado State.
|Struggled with injuries last season. Recorded|
nearly 4,000 yards of total offense in 2013.
|Played well in relief of Bryn Renner in 2013. Expected|
to thrive in Larry Fedora's offense.
|Has big shoes to fill with departure of Aaron Murray.|
Started final two games of 2013.
|3-0 as a starter. Should be a solid replacement for|
the departed Connor Shaw.
|Completed 60% of passes in 2013. Should have|
one of the Pac-12's top WR groups in 2014.
|Tajh Boyd will be missed, but coordinator Chad|
Morris will keep offense near the top of ACC.
|Prolific passer leads Old Dominion's|
transition from FCS to FBS.
|The next star quarterback under Bobby Petrino?|
10 QBs to Watch in 2014
Besides being home to the AFC champions, the AFC West was the only division in the NFL last season with three playoff teams. Denver is a legitimate Super Bowl contender again this season, but what about fellow postseason participants Kansas City and San Diego? And does Oakland have any reason for optimism following significant roster turnover?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC West is shaping up heading into the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins came back from a Super Bowl loss to win the world championship the following season, that’s 40 years of history working against John Fox and Peyton Manning.” …
“The Broncos got exposed up front against the Seahawks, however, not everyone can play like Seattle does.” …
“Manning had a record-breaking year and earned a fifth MVP award, but he will have some new working parts around him in 2014. At WR, Emmanuel Sanders was signed to replace Eric Decker who left for the Jets and the Broncos drafted Cody Latimer in the second round. Julius Thomas had a breakout season and even more will be expected of both he and Demaryius Thomas moving forward. Wes Welker proved once again that he is an elite slot receiver.” …
“Knowshon Moreno departed for Miami, so Montee Ball will have a bigger role, especially in pass protection this year. The return of Ryan Clady from injury will allow Denver to re-shuffle their offensive line and potentially put Chris Clark at RT with Orlando Franklin sliding inside. Will Montgomery was signed from the Redskins to bolster the middle in support of Louis Vaszquez and Manny Ramirez.” …
“On paper, the Broncos’ front seven looks really strong with Terrance Knighton, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe handling the run game with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson taking care of the pass rush. The organization is hoping Miller can get back to his previous level of play, while Ware ended up as a cap casualty in Dallas and leaves the Cowboys as their all-time leading sacker.” …
“Aqib Talib unexpectedly became available and the Broncos ponied up a 6-year/$57M contract to obtain him. The other corner spot is up in the air, since Chris Harris went down with a knee injury in the playoffs, so they drafted Ohio State’s Bradley Roby in the first round. They signed T.J. Ward to pair up with Rahim Moore, but neither is classified as a cover safety.” …
“Team health and mental approach are the two unknowns, but key factors to Denver making a return run to the Super Bowl.” …
Kansas City Chiefs
“The Chiefs fixed the two most important positions in pro football last year with head coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith. Then, the team stayed healthy and won 11 games.” …
“Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson is a rising star in the business and he helped Smith provide a steady hand to this team, while distributing the football efficiently to Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery. They could use another WR and an interesting prospect to watch will be second-year TE Travis Kelce.” …
“The loss of Dexter McCluster in free agency will hurt, but they may find an answer in fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas.” …
“The Chiefs sustained losses on the offensive line when Brandon Albert, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asomoah departed via free agency, but give GM John Dorsey credit for having the foresight in 2013 (in a draft devoid of stars) to pick Eric Fisher, who will now shift from RT to his more natural LT spot. Rodney Hudson is underrated in the middle and Jeff Linkenbach was signed from the Colts.” …
“Bob Sutton may have been the assistant coach of the year last fall when this unit responded and put five players in the Pro Bowl: Dontari Powe, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers [Editor’s note: Flowers was released by the Chiefs in late June and signed a one-year deal with San Diego] and Eric Berry.” …
“At corner, they got the most out of Sean Smith and a lot of mileage from Marcus Cooper who was picked up on waivers just before opening day.” …
“If Smith will take another step forward and vertically push the football upfield, their run game with Charles and this defense should keep them in the mix again for AFC honors.” …
“Entering the 2014 offseason, owner Mark Davis waited a full week before having discussions with head coach Dennis Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie. After they were kept intact, then there was quite a bit of talk regarding the Raiders’ assistant coaching contracts, in terms of one-year renewals or two-year extensions. All of this is to say, despite their best attempts, Oakland is a difficult place to win in the NFL.” …
“Once the league year rolled around, McKenzie did not re-sign DE Lamarr Houston and negotiations with OT Jared Veldheer became personal in nature, so both players departed from the Silver-and-Black. After the Rodger Saffold/failed physical situation, the Raiders signed seven new starters with six of them being 30 or older.” …
“They traded a sixth-rounder for Matt Schaub and will hope that he can return to 2011-12 form when he was a Pro Bowl selection. Oakland did draft Fresno State QB Derek Carr in the second-round, so he is the likely future at the position.” …
“The key offensively will be the cohesion and continuity of the rebuilt offensive line (under the direction of Tony Sparano) and their ability to protect Schaub.” …
“They like TE Mychal Rivera as a pass-receiving threat and WR Denarius Moore has shown flashes of quality play in his first two seasons. Still, this is a team that is lacking in offensive firepower.” …
“Defensively, the Raiders are hoping DEs Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley can regain their previous pass rush form to provide some pressure in a division where they will face Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers on four different occasions.” …
“The Raiders sat at No. 5 in the draft and Khalil Mack, arguably the best player in the 2014 class, fell right to them. OLB Sio Moore had a productive rookie season and SS Tyvon Branch, when healthy, can be a competent player.” …
“Again, they will need a big step forward out of 2013 first-round pick, cornerback D.J. Hayden, and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver will rely on Charles Woodson’s return to communicate the scheme to a very young back end.” …
“The reality is this team has so many players and coaches from different backgrounds and philosophies, there just doesn’t seem to be much hope of them improving in 2014 against the toughest schedule ranked by win percentage going into September.” …
“if Hayden and OT Menelik Watson don’t play well and another 4-12 season ensues, with the specter of stadium issues and relocation always in the discussion, major changes would be expected for 2015.” …
San Diego Chargers
“It’s amazing how far a new messenger and team health can go in pushing an organization up the ladder in the NFL. GM Tom Telesco hired Mike McCoy as head coach and he enjoyed a very successful first year.” …
“Their coordinators are all communicators and well-liked by the players: Frank Reich on offense, John Pagano on defense and Kevin Spencer with special teams.”…
“Philip Rivers regained his confidence and returned to previous Pro Bowl form with the help of a reliable Ryan Matthews, the emergence of Keenan Allen, and surprisingly, a better-than-expected offensive line. People knock Rivers for his lack of a championship, but put him in the same situation as Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, and he might have a couple of rings too.” …
“Many were shocked at how well LT King Dunlap played in 2013, can he do it again this year? Nick Hardwick has had a very good career at center and D.J. Fluker proved worthy of the No. 11 pick a year ago when he performed as well as any rookie lineman in the league.” …
“Antonio Gates still has something left and Ladarius Green began to show signs that he can be the legit heir apparent at the position. The Chargers need Malcolm Floyd to return from injury and that should only help Allen who showed why he should have been a first-round selection despite his injuries coming out of Cal.” …
“Defensively, Pagano can rely on Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes on the front with re-signed Donald Butler and Manti Te’o patrolling the middle. Jarrett Johnson just keeps on playing winning football regardless of circumstance, while Dwight Freeney only appeared in four games before going down with an injury. Melvin Ingram gave them a boost at the end of the year and should be fully recovered from his knee injury in 2014. They drafted Jerry Attaochu from Georgia Tech in the second round and he has legit rush potential.” …
“This secondary is worrisome, because there is no lockdown corner and both safeties are somewhat undersized. Eric Weddle plays small and is over-hyped and Marcus Gilchrist is really an ideal third safety. They got even smaller on draft day, when they selected TCU CB Jason Verrett who has a slight build, but can play man-to-man as a nickel or outside corner.” …
“The Chargers gained great confidence under McCoy during his rookie season, but they reside in a tough division with Denver and KC, so it’s not an automatic that they make the playoffs again this year.” …
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 12:
• Hot celebrity alumni of the Pac-12, including yummy Oregon Duck Kaitlin Olson.
• This Robin Williams riff on golf has been making the rounds since yesterday's gut punch. (Language warning) And here's an interview Williams did in 2013 with Dan Patrick. One more — a guide to binge-watching Robin Williams movies.
• I lied — here's one more: Conan, Andy Richter and Will Arnett learned of Williams' death while taping Conan's show. They proceeded to pay a heartfelt tribute.
• You've probably heard of "Garfield Without Garfield." Now, enjoy "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" without the Kardashians.
• Note to self: Never wink at Diego Maradona's lady.
• A 65-year-old former bowler made a nice catch at Wrigley yesterday.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The beauty of college football lies in its unpredictability and volatility.
Roster turnover is largely responsible for the tremendous amount of variability from year to year within the sport. Key graduations, early entries into the NFL Draft, dismissals and a massive influx of tomorrow's stars in the form of bright-eyed freshmen create more personnel turnover in college football than any other major sport in the country.
It's these (relatively) unknown commodities that offer fans a renewed hope of future success. Who are the top freshmen to watch in the Pac-12 this fall?
Adoree Jackson, ATH, USC
For lack of a better term, Coach Steve Sarkisian adores his true freshman, do-everything dynamo. Jackson is penciled in as the star kick returner but will also get carries as a running back, catch passes as a receiver and could even get reps as a defensive back. Coach Sark will use Jackson in any and all ways this fall because it looks like the freshman can handle it.
Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona
The former standout from famed Bishop Gorman High School has been taking most of the first-team reps and appears to have a leg up on Jerrard Randall and Jesse Scroggins. His skill set fits Rich Rodriguez’ offense perfectly and he’s had a year to sit and learn the playbook. He was a big-time winner in high school and is one of the highest-rated QB recruits to ever sign at Arizona.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
While twin brother Tyrell will be suiting up for Fresno State after being dismissed from Oregon, Tyree is set to take over as the starting strong safety. The long, rangy athlete has put in the work this offseason and is in line to become a breakout defender in his redshirt freshman season in Eugene.
Khaliel Rodgers | Toa Lobendahn, OL, USC
Rodgers, a four-star member of the 2013 class, has been through two springs and was considered the best center in the nation two years ago. He is penciled in at the pivot currently. Lobendahn was a four-star early enrollee this spring and is currently holding the starting left guard position. The Trojans' front line is extremely talented, but also extremely inexperienced.
Jermaine Kelly | Budda Baker, DB, Washington
Baker is the highest-rated member of the 2014 Husky class and has already earned a spot in the two-deep at safety. Kelly, a redshirt freshman, is slotted to start at cornerback for new coach Chris Petersen and his reworked secondary. Look for both talented newcomers to lead a group of defensive backs that could feature half a dozen young contributors.
D.J. Calhoun, LB, Arizona State
One of three ASU early enrollees, Calhoun has shot up the depth chart to earn a potential starting spot at outside linebacker. His quickness and size allows him to be moved all over the formation. He will battle all fall camp to hold onto that starting spot and will undoubtedly be a long-term contributor for Todd Graham.
Bryce Bobo, WR, Colorado
Bobo is the top name in a collection of young freshmen who stand to get playing time this fall in Mike MacIntryre’s offense. Junior Nelson Spruce will be the top target for the Buffs but Bobo leads a deep group of redshirt and true freshmen who are eyeing first-team reps. Bobo, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound redshirt freshman, has the inside track for the No. 2 role in Boulder.
JuJu Smith, ATH, USC
Who knows what side of the ball it will be on but Smith appears to be earmarked for a large role as just a true freshman. He’s already gotten rave reviews as a wide receiver but rumors are swirling about the electric player switching to defensive back to start at nickelback. Wherever he lines up, keep an eye on the explosive youngster.
Devon Allen | Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon
The Ducks are in desperate need of quality depth at wide receiver and Oregon could have a couple of playmakers in Allen and Carrington. Allen, a world-class sprinter and track star, is a great fit in the offense while Carrington brings a bigger, more traditional frame. These are just two freshmen that coordinator Scott Frost and head coach Mark Helfrich will employ this fall.
Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford
Many are excited to see the nation’s No. 1 tight end prospect Dalton Schultz in action but they may have to wait until after he redshirts this fall. This is due, in part, to the development of redshirt freshman Austin Hooper. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is excellent at both in-line blocking (a must) and as a pass-catcher (a need) in Stanford’s offense. The three-time state champ from De La Salle is slated to start for David Shaw this fall.
Cole Madison, OL, Washington State
The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder is penciled in as the starter at right tackle for Mike Leach. The former tight end recruit has added plenty of weight (obviously) and has been considered the starter on the right side since spring camp. Look for Madison to have a long career in Pullman.
Best of the Rest:
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
Marcus Ball, S, Arizona State
Hunter Jarmon | Walter Jones, WR, Oregon State
Kenny Young, LB, UCLA
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Jacob Alsadek, OL, Arizona
Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Tre Watson, RB, Cal
Salesi Uhatafe, OL, Utah
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, and there’s a handful of players waiting to emerge as stars in 2014. The SEC is losing several standout quarterbacks from last season, which opens the door for Missouri’s Maty Mauk and Georgia’s Hutson Mason to contend for all-conference honors. Mauk and Mason are joined on the offensive side with players like Texas A&M receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, On defense, sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Chris Jones are two linemen due for a big season in 2014.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
SEC Breakout Players for 2014
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper didn’t make a huge impression on the stat sheet last year, recording 202 rushing yards, 29 passing yards and three receptions for 54 yards. However, expect that to change significantly in 2014. The sophomore is an all-purpose threat for the Gamecocks and should see some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Cooper is also expected to handle returns this year.
Jordan Cunningham, WR, Vanderbilt
Jordan Matthews dominated the stat sheet for Vanderbilt receivers last year, catching 112 of the Commodores’ 243 passes. With Matthews off to the NFL, it’s up to Cunningham and a host of youngsters to fill the void at receiver. Cunningham played in 13 games as a true freshman last year and caught 15 passes for 123 yards. The sophomore should be the No. 1 target for Vanderbilt’s offense in 2014.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
It’s a bit of a stretch to put Floyd on this list after he recorded 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks last year. However, we think the sophomore goes from All-SEC contention to All-America honors and earning national recognition. Floyd should anchor one of the edges in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and the sophomore is expected to push for 10 sacks.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The No. 1 player in the 247Sports Composite rankings for 2014 could have a monster season in Baton Rouge. The LSU offensive line is one of the best in the SEC with four returning starters, and with a young quarterback (Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings) slated to start, expect the Tigers to lean on the ground attack. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Fournette has the size and skill-set to be an every-down back in the SEC. If he gets enough carries, the Louisiana native could finish near the top of the conference in rushing yards.
Kris Frost, LB, Auburn
Frost started just one contest for Auburn’s defense last year but played in all 14 games and finished fifth on the team with 59 tackles. The junior is slated to move into the starting lineup in 2014 and should team with Cassanova McKinzy to form a talented duo at linebacker. Frost also tied for the team lead on last year’s defense with two forced fumbles.
Braylon Heard, RB, Kentucky
Heard was a four-star recruit for Nebraska in the 2010 signing class, and the Ohio native rushed for 462 yards and four scores from 2011-12. Heard averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2012 and will team with Jojo Kemp to form a much-improved Kentucky rushing attack in 2014.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Fans around the SEC are familiar with Henry through recruiting and his limited playing time last year, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Henry rushed for 382 yards and three scores last season, capped by a 100-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl. The Florida native should provide the thunder to T.J. Yeldon’s lightning in 2014, as his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame is a handful for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised if Henry surpasses the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
For any first-year starting quarterback, a potential All-American at tight end is a nice security blanket to have. That’s the case for junior quarterback Jacob Coker in his first season in Tuscaloosa, as Howard should be one of the top tight ends in the nation after a solid freshman campaign. Howard caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two scores last year, averaging 19.2 yards per reception. Expect Howard to be an even bigger part of the Crimson Tide offense this season, likely doubling his catches under new coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Jones ranked as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman. Jones recorded 32 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. He was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for a loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones should build off a promising finish to 2014 and challenge for All-America honors.
Denver Kirkland/Dan Skipper, OL, Arkansas
Bret Bielema wants to establish a run-first, smashmouth mentality at Arkansas, and the second-year coach has two budding stars in the offensive line in sophomores Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. Both players started eight games last year and earned all-freshman honors by Athlon Sports. Considering Bielema’s track record from Wisconsin on recruiting and establishing offensive lines, look for Skipper and Kirkland to develop into future stars for the Razorbacks.
Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury allowed Mason to gain valuable experience in 2013, and the senior heads into 2014 with two starts under his belt. Mason threw for 189 yards and one score in relief of Murray against Kentucky, threw 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-34 victory over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws for 320 yards and one score in the Gator Bowl versus Nebraska. Mason has waited his turn by sitting four years behind Aaron Murray. Expect the senior to deliver a big season in his first chance at the full-time starting job in Athens.
Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
Most around the SEC are probably familiar with Mauk after his short stint as Missouri’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, but the sophomore is poised for bigger and better things in 2014. Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while recording 229 rushing yards. The Ohio native needs to improve his completion percentage (51.1), but he should continue Missouri’s run of successful quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
With the departure of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with tackle Kelcy Quarles, the Gamecocks may use more 3-4 looks in 2014. The linebacking corps should be the strength of Lorenzo Ward’s defense, as Moore led the team with 56 tackles as a true freshman last year. Moore also intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 tackle for a loss in 2013. Expect Moore to challenge for All-SEC honors this season.
Emmanuel Moseley, CB, Tennessee
The Volunteers will have a handful of young players receiving snaps on the defensive line and in the secondary this year, but Moseley has already made an impression on the coaching staff. Moseley was an early enrollee for spring practice and worked his way to the top of the depth chart at cornerback. The three-star recruit will be pushed for time in the fall, but he’s slated to play a key role in the Volunteers’ secondary this year.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche as a breakout player. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.
Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart departing, the Aggies will be young (and very talented) at receiver in 2014. Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones also makes our list of top breakout players from the SEC, but Noil is also a name to remember. The Louisiana native ranked as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and could see touches in a variety of ways – special teams, catches or handoffs – for coach Kevin Sumlin.
Marquez North, WR, Tennessee
North or running back Jalen Hurd deserves a mention in this space as a breakout player for Tennessee’s offense. North quickly established himself as one of the Volunteers’ top playmakers in the passing game in 2013, catching 38 passes for 496 yards and one score. The North Carolina native only had one 100-yard game last season, but his numbers should get better if Tennessee has more consistency at the quarterback spot.
Aarion Penton, CB, Missouri
The Tigers must replace both starting cornerbacks from last year’s defense, including standout E.J. Gaines. Two sophomores – Penton and John Gibson – should have an inside track to replace Gaines and Randy Ponder. Penton played in all 14 games (two starts) and recorded one interception and 16 tackles as a true freshman last year.
Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas
After redshirting his first season on campus, Philon quietly emerged as a force on Arkansas’ defensive line in 2013. The Alabama native played in all 12 games, recorded 46 tackles (nine for a loss) and three sacks). Philon recorded eight stops against Alabama and six against LSU in the regular season finale. Expect the sophomore to push for All-SEC honors in 2014.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
It’s not easy starting as a true freshman on the offensive line in the SEC. However, that’s the likely assignment handed to Robinson in 2014. The touted true freshman – No. 4 player in the 2014 247Sports Composite – could start at left tackle for the Crimson Tide this year. The talent is certainly there for Robinson to have a standout freshman campaign similar to Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil last season.
Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State
Dak Prescott will play a key role in Mississippi State’s rushing attack, but the Bulldogs need to find a new running back to replace LaDarius Perkins to take some of the pressure off of their quarterback. Robinson finished third on the team with 459 yards last season and averaged an impressive 5.9 yards per rush. Expect to see Robinson emerge as the No. 1 back in Starkville.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
A number of LSU defenders could earn a mention in this space, but Robinson is Athlon’s pick to have a breakout year on defense for coordinator John Chavis. The 6-foot-3 corner has the size to matchup against the bigger receivers in the conference, along with the speed to prevent big plays in the passing game. Robinson was a late arrival to preseason camp last year but finished with 16 tackles and broke up three passes in 12 games. The emergence of Robinson and sophomore Tre’Davious White should give LSU one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
Seals-Jones was slated to be a key cog in Texas A&M’s receiving corps last season, but an injury sidelined him for the year after the first two games. The Texas native caught three passes for 84 yards and one score in the limited playing time. With Mike Evans departing, the Aggies are counting on Seals-Jones – the No. 25 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 – to become one of the top options in the passing game. Whether it’s Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill under center for coach Kevin Sumlin, expect to see Seals-Jones making his share of big plays in 2014.
Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
We could pencil in Tabor or fellow freshman corner Duke Dawson here. Tabor ranked as the No. 14 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete this spring. The Washington, D.C. native could start opposite of sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback this year.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Running back is a position of strength for new coordinator Kurt Roper, as the Gators return three running backs that recorded at least 330 yards last year. Mack Brown led the team with 543 yards, but Taylor turned plenty of heads as a true freshman. In 10 games, Taylor rushed for 508 yards and four scores, including 90 or more yards in two out of his last three outings. If the offensive line is improved, Taylor could push for 1,000 yards.
Ryan Timmons, WR, Kentucky
Kentucky’s offense averaged only 20.5 points per game last year, but there’s hope for improvement with more consistent quarterback play expected in 2014. If Patrick Towles, Drew Barker or Reese Phillips stabilizes the passing game, look for Timmons to have a breakout year. As a true freshman last season, Timmons caught 32 passes for 338 yards and two scores.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Donte Moncrief’s big-play ability will be missed in Oxford, but quarterback Bo Wallace won’t have to look far for his replacement. Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year and is slated to move from the slot to the outside in 2014. Treadwell averaged only 8.4 yards per catch in 2013, but that number could easily double in 2014.
D’haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
The Tigers may look to throw more in 2014, as running back Tre Mason departed for the NFL, and quarterback Nick Marshall should be more comfortable in his second year under center in the SEC. Auburn’s receiving corps is also deeper in 2014, largely due to the emergence of junior Sammie Coates and the arrival of Williams in the spring. Williams ranked as the top junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite and caught five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Andrew Williamson, S, Vanderbilt
New coach Derek Mason must replace all four starters in the secondary, but the coaching staff should be encouraged about the replacements. Williamson is one of the names generating buzz on West End, as he’s slated to step into a starting role after working as a top reserve in 2013. Williamson recorded 20 tackles and two interceptions last season and should emerge as one of the leaders for Mason in the secondary this year.
Perhaps we should have seen the signs for Auburn’s turnaround from winless in the SEC in 2012 to conference champions in 2013.
In only his first season as a head coach, Gus Malzahn had an unblemished record in close games at Arkansas State the year before he arrived at Auburn. He was 4-0 in one-score games with the Red Wolves, but Auburn already may have an idea of Malzahn’s composure under pressure.
In 2010 and 2011, Malzahn’s final two seasons as offensive coordinator, Auburn was 10-0 in one-score games.
Going by numbers like that, Malzahn could make a case to be the most clutch coach in the country.
Indeed, Malzahn’s 11-1 record in one-score games as a head coach gives him the best win percentage in the nation the last five years. No other coach wins more than 90 percent of his games in one-score situations the last five years. Only three coaches who have presided over 10 or more one-possession games have won three-quarters of those matchups.
Granted, two of Malzahn's most dramatic wins — the Prayer on the Plains against Georgia and the Kick Six against Alabama last season — had little to do with great Xs and Os acumen. Even disregarding those two finishes, he remains the only coach who has won 90 percent of his close games the last five seasons, and his only loss came by three points to an otherwise dominant Florida State team in the national title game.
Athlon Sports decided to take a look at how every program and every active coach has fared in one-possession games during the last five seasons, i.e. games decided by eight points or less.
While simply looking at scoring margins does not exactly reflect how close a game was — garbage time touchdowns could skew are metrics — this still gives us an idea of how coaches and teams fare in close games. Our method also doesn't account for games that go out of reach within the final minutes, for example, a team going up — or falling behind — by six points in the final five minutes with a field goal in the final two for a more decisive final margin.
Here’s the data we found for coaches:
|Best coaches in one-score games, last five seasons|
|By win percentage (10+ games)||By wins|
|1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn/Ark. St. (.917, 11-1)||1. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame/Cincy (20-8)|
|2. Pete Lembo, Ball State (.765, 13-4)||2. Frank Solich, Ohio (19-9)|
|t3. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (.750, 15-5)||3. Les Miles, LSU (18-9)|
|t3. Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette (.750, 9-3)||t4. Bill Snyder, Kansas State (17-6)|
|5. Bill Snyder, Kansas State (.739, 17-6)||t4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (17-13)|
|t6. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame/Cincy (.714, 20-8)||t4. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy (17-13)|
|t6. Dave Doeren, NC State/N. Ill. (.714, 10-4)||7. George O'Leary, UCF (16-14)|
|8. Urban Meyer, Ohio St./Florida (.706, 12-5)||t8. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (15-5)|
|9. Rocky Long, San Diego St. (.688, 11-5)||t8. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (15-12)|
|10. David Shaw, Stanford (.684, 13-6)||10. Six coaches tied with 14 wins|
• Malzahn is the gold standard here with an 11-1 record in one-possession games in just two seasons as a head coach. Consider this: Malzahn has won as many one-possession games the last two seasons as Alabama has played (6-5) during the last five years.
• Steve Spurrier’s 15-5 record is impressive enough, but he’s 11-3 in the last three seasons in one-possession games as the Gamecocks have finished in the top-10 each year.
• Brian Kelly started his Notre Dame tenure with a 2-5 record in his first seven one-possession games. The Irish are 14-3 since, including 11 wins in a row.
• Penn State also would be advised to be patient with some heartbreaking losses. Vanderbilt started 1-6 in close games under James Franklin before he finished 6-1.
• Another lesson in the patience category: Louisville went 9-2 in one-possession games in the final two seasons under Charlie Strong after starting 5-10. Granted, one of those losses was a 38-35 home loss to UCF that cost the Cardinals an undefeated season and an AAC title.
• Are we noticing a trend? Washington went 10-4 in close games in the final four seasons under Steve Sarkisian, now the coach at USC.
• Will Muschamp is combustible enough as it is. This might not help. He went 4-0 in close games in 2012 and 0-4 in 2013.
• Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has a nice record (11-8), but it’s probably not a stat he wants people to examine closely. Those close wins have included Troy, Louisiana Tech, UAB, Wake Forest, Bowling Green, Kentucky and Ole Miss (twice).
• Want to know why Ball State’s Pete Lembo and UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth will be hot commodities for Power 5 programs? Lembo is 13-4 in one-possession games in three seasons, including two wins over Toledo, two over Indiana, one over USF and another over Arkansas state in a bowl. Hudspeth is 9-3 with two of those losses at Arizona and at Florida.
• Kevin Sumlin is 12-11 in one-possession games during the last five years. His record is skewed by an 0-4 performance in such games in 2010 at Houston, the year quarterback Case Keenum missed with injury.
• Dave Doeren may be the strangest name in the best win percentage column, considering his first NC State team went winless in the ACC. Still, he went 9-3 in one-score games at Northern Illinois.
• Three coaches have presided over 30 one-possession games the last five years, tied for the most in the country: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Navy’s Ken Niumatalo (17-13 each) and UCF’s George O’Leary (16-14).
• Three coaches have won 80 percent of their one-possession games but didn’t meet our 10-game threshold: UTSA’s Larry Coker (7-1), Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter (5-1) and Boise State’s Byran Harsin (4-1 at Arkansas State).
And here’s the other side of the equation:
|Worst coaches in one-score games, last five seasons|
|By win percentage (10+ games)||By losses|
|Kevin Wilson, Indiana (.154, 2-11)||Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (12-17)|
|Dave Clawson, Wake/Bowling Green (.263, 5-14)||Larry Fedora, North Carolina/So. Miss (12-16)|
|Bob Davie, New Mexico (.273, 3-8)||Troy Calhoun, Air Force (6-15)|
|Troy Calhoun, Air Force (.286, 6-15)||Larry Blakeney, Troy (12-15)|
|Charlie Weis, Kansas/Notre Dame (.333, 5-10)||Dave Clawson, Wake/Bowling Green (5-14)|
|Joey Jones, South Alabama (.357, 5-9)||Bret Bielema, Arkansas/Wisconsin (11-14)|
|Bobby Hauck, UNLV (.364, 4-7)||Brady Hoke, Michigan/San Diego St. (11-14)|
|Terry Bowden, Akron (.400, 4-6)||Gary Andersen, Wisconsin/Utah St. (11-14)|
|Mike MacIntyre, Colorado/San Jose St. (.412, 7-10)||Skip Holtz, La. Tech/USF/E. Carolina (14-14)|
|Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (.414, 12-17)||George O'Leary, UCF (16-14)|
• Kevin Wilson has lots of what-ifs in that 2-11 mark. Those losses include two to Ball State, two to Navy and one to North Texas.
• This makes sense: There are very few coaches with dismal records in close games. Most of the coaches with poor records in close games end up getting fired before putting up a truly lopsided number.
• Wake Forest traded a coach who was 11-17 in close games (Jim Grobe) for one that is 5-14 (Dave Clawson at Bowling Green).
• Among the lowlights for former coaches: Dennis Erickson (4-11 at Arizona State), Derek Dooley (2-7 at Tennessee) and Houston Nutt (2-6 at Ole Miss).
Getting ready for your fantasy football draft? Be sure to read these 10 tips from Athlon contributor Mike Clay before plotting your championship-winning plan of attack.
1. Gather as many studs as possible, Then worry about everything else
League-wide offensive production is growing each and every year. The recent wave of fast-paced and pass-heavy offenses has led to more fantasy points than we’ve ever seen. As a result, there are more fantasy-relevant players at every position. “Wait at <enter position name here>” is a common piece of advice from fantasy pundits, but in this day and age, you truly can wait at any position and end up with a competent group of starters. So what’s the message here? The focus of your first few picks should not be on need or replacement value; rather, it should be on selecting superstars until none remains. I always suggest drawing lines on your cheat sheet to create tiers. Be sure that only superstars are in that first tier at each position. The players who fit the superstar bill can fluctuate depending on your league’s scoring, but they’re usually not terribly hard to determine. This year, it’s the top seven or so running backs, top six wide receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham. Unless your scoring is obscenely favorable for quarterbacks, no passers should be in this conversation.
2. Be prepared to adjust on the fly
There are a lot of draft strategies out there: value-based drafting, high ceiling, wide receiver heavy, best player available, tiers. The list goes on and on. Although you’re best served having a game plan in mind come draft day, it’s important that flexibility and the willingness to adjust are a part of your mindset. No two drafts are the same, which means that all the preparation in the world can’t prevent the inside-the-box thinker from panicking when his target is swooped up right before he’s on the clock.
There are a few ways you can stay ahead of the game during your draft. The most obvious one is to cross every selected player off your board. Not only does this help you avoid the embarrassment of selecting a player taken four rounds earlier, but it also allows you to keep an eye on the flow of the draft. Maybe you’re in a 12-team league and haven’t picked a quarterback yet. You notice 10 are already off the board. Should you panic and snatch one up? Unless you’re staring at a major value, of course not. The owners who already have quarterbacks will be addressing other positions for a few rounds, which means you can take advantage and wait even longer to select a signal-caller.
Drafting near the turn? Glance at the rosters of the teams who pick between your two selections on the short side of the turn. Let’s say you have the 10th pick of the fifth round in a 12-team league, and you’re trying to decide between a quarterback and wide receiver. You glance at the rosters of the teams picking 11th and 12th. Both have a quarterback. The odds of either team picking a second quarterback are extremely low. That makes your decision easy. Pick the best wide receiver and go with the quarterback the next time around.
Those are just a few examples of how to adjust on the fly during your draft. Keeping tabs on everything going on around you is the best way to maximize your roster.
3. Don’t be the guy who drafts Peyton Manning
Earlier, I mentioned that quarterbacks do not fit the bill as early-round must-target superstars. That’s despite the fact that there are several superstar talents at the position. On top of that, Peyton Manning was arguably the fantasy MVP last season, breaking all sorts of records en route to blowing all other quarterbacks out of the water in terms of fantasy points. So why am I advising against selecting Manning this season? Simple: He’s not going to live up to his average draft position (ADP).
In early mock drafts, Manning is coming off the board in the mid-to-late first round. If you believe Manning will equal his 2013 performance, that’s not a bad pick. If you expect regression, it’s a poor selection. And you should expect regression. Manning set the single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, and his team set the records for most points, touchdowns and 50-plus point games. Historically, teams that have put up extremely high touchdown totals have regressed the very next season. Consider that over the past six years, 12 offenses have averaged at least three touchdowns per game over a full season. Two-thirds of those teams saw a drop in scoring the next season. The average drop-off was a massive 22 percent, and every team dropped by at least 12 percent. Of the four teams that scored more the next season, three saw a boost of just three percent. The fourth was, go figure, the Broncos, who went from 3.1 TDs per game in 2012 to 4.1 per game in 2013.
I should also point out the loss of Eric Decker and the fact that we already saw regression from the Denver offense in the second half last season. After averaging an absurd five offensive scores per game through their first eight games, the Broncos put up 3.4 per game the rest of the way. That’s still a very healthy number, but it puts them right there with the league’s other elite offenses. Manning remains a top fantasy quarterback, but the inevitable regression makes him a poor first-round pick.
4. With two exceptions, wait at tight end
Much like last year, the tight end position is shaping up to drop off after the top two before leveling off, for the most part, until around the No. 12 spot. Jimmy Graham is your clear No. 1 option, but Rob Gronkowski is so productive when healthy — sometimes more so than Graham — that he has to be considered in the third round. After that, we have a tier of tight ends who will put up similar numbers. A case could be made that Julius Thomas should be in his own tier, but he usually comes off the board before Gronkowski despite overlooked durability questions of his own.
The true values come later in the draft. Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Jordan Reed, Dennis Pitta and Greg Olsen can all be had in the middle rounds. Even better, the likes of Kyle Rudolph, Martellus Bennett and breakout candidate Zach Ertz usually last into and beyond the ninth round. High-ceiling fliers like Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert and Dwayne Allen can be had with late-round picks.
Graham and Gronkowski (assuming he remains on track to play in Week 1) are worth the early-round pick, but otherwise, the smart move is to wait for a major value later.
5. React reasonably to hype
Each year, the fantasy football industry grows exponentially. Punditry grows as a result. We all have guys we love and guys we hate, which leads to a constant seesaw of market value for each player. One week, I write a piece suggesting a breakout season for Justin Hunter. His ADP skyrockets. The next week, Joe Analyst writes a piece explaining why Tavon Austin will bust out during his sophomore season. Hunter’s ADP returns to earth, and Austin becomes overvalued for a while.
The key is to take every single piece of advice with a grain of salt. Does the advice make sense? Does the math add up? Is the player truly in a situation where he can succeed? Is he really as good as the analyst suggests?
Savvy owners take advantage of overreacting owners by avoiding the noise and sticking to their boards, making occasional tweaks only when it makes sense.
6. Go get these sophomore wideouts
All the talk is about the depth of this year’s crop of rookie wide receivers. Sorted by my favorite values, don’t overlook these sophomores:
I foreshadowed this earlier, but Justin Hunter actually is an excellent breakout candidate in Ken Whisenhunt’s wide receiver-friendly, pass-first offense. Terrance Williams will start opposite Dez Bryant in Dallas’ pass-heavy offense. Aaron Dobson figures to play nearly every down in an offense operated by Tom Brady. DeAndre Hopkins struggled along with the rest of Houston’s offense last season, but he will be rejuvenated with Bill O’Brien in control. Tavon Austin disappointed as a rookie but showed big-play ability and will be a key part of the Rams’ improving offense. In Buffalo, Robert Woods is being overshadowed by rookie Sammy Watkins, but the sophomore has an excellent shot to play nearly every down in 2014. Markus Wheaton and Kenny Stills have been promoted into starting roles in good (Pittsburgh) and great (New Orleans) offenses, respectively. The likes of Quinton Patton, Stedman Bailey, Marquise Goodwin, Ace Sanders, Marquess Wilson and Brice Butler should be monitored.
Keenan Allen and Cordarrelle Patterson are fine picks as well, but both will come off the board in the first half of your draft, making them expensive investments.
7. Draft post-hype superstars
We see it every year. A highly talented player makes perfect sense as a breakout. Selected in the first few rounds of every single draft, the player inevitably disappoints before finally busting out the very next season. Last year, Ryan Mathews was a fine example. Knowshon Moreno, DeMarco Murray, Rashad Jennings, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas also fit the bill.
This season, C.J. Spiller should be on your radar. Considering that he was a first-round pick in most drafts, the 2013 season was a major disappointment. Despite dealing with injuries and sharing the Buffalo backfield with Fred Jackson, Spiller still managed 202 carries and eclipsed 1,100 total yards. A lack of usage near the goal line remains a concern, but Spiller is only 27 and one of the top talents at the position. Available in the third round of most drafts, Spiller has top-five upside.
Looking for other post-hype candidates? Consider Jake Locker, Mark Ingram, David Wilson, Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola, Tyler Eifert, Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green.
8. Raise the roof
Once you’re comfortable with your starting lineup, ensure that your focus is on acquiring the players with the highest ceiling. Obviously you want to draft high-upside players early as well, but for the most part, the players in this category are unproven. Spending early-round picks on speculative players is risky and best saved for the mid-to-late rounds. I’ve mentioned a bunch of these players throughout this piece, but there are a few categories breakout players tend to fall into. The most obvious one is “talented.” Players drafted in the last three years who have a ton of raw talent but were injured or buried on their team’s depth chart are usually worthy of late-round consideration. Last season, Alshon Jeffery, Zac Stacy, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron fit this category. Another is “opportunity.” These players might not be quite as naturally gifted, but they’ve fallen into a situation where they’ll be playing a significant offensive role or playing enough of a role in a high-scoring offense. The likes of Riley Cooper, Charles Clay and Julian Edelman fit the bill in 2013.
9. Be wary of rookies
Each year, there is a massive amount of attention given to the NFL Draft. That, combined with recency bias toward the college superstars of the past season, often leads to rookies being overvalued in fantasy drafts. Last year, 14 rookies were drafted in the top 200 of most drafts. Only four players (Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Cordarrelle Patterson) outperformed their ADP. The other 10 players were nothing more than waiver wire fodder for most of the season. That was the case for Patterson for a good chuck of the season as well. There were a few other rookies who shined, but the likes of Andre Ellington, Keenan Allen, Jordan Reed, Zac Stacy and Mike Glennon went undrafted in most leagues. The message here is that rookies tend to be overhyped, and you should be very skeptical about choosing them during the first dozen rounds of your draft.
10. Don’t draft your handcuffs; draft the best handcuffs
It’s inevitable. The guy who picks Toby Gerhart is going to draft and/or waste a valuable roster spot on Jordan Todman. Trent Richardson owners will stash Vick Ballard. Gio Bernard owners will snag BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You get the picture. There are a lot of backup running backs who qualify as handcuffs but who are not very good and/or would be no more than a committee back in the event that they were called on to start. Todman, Ballard and Green-Ellis fall into that category and shouldn’t be stashed over running backs with higher ceilings. You don’t need to own Jamaal Charles in order to snatch up Knile Davis. Or Matt Forté to grab Ka’Deem Carey. Christine Michael, LeGarrette Blount, Bernard Pierce, Carlos Hyde, Donald Brown, Jerick McKinnon, Tre Mason, Charles Sims and Devonta Freeman all make for solid late-round targets.
So often when people look at tragedy they forget its human cost. Rarely are incidents involving death clear-cut — a battle of good versus evil like we read about as children. No one, with any shred of conscience, deserves to bear the guilt of killing a man, a catastrophe they carry the rest of their lives regardless of accident or intention. It’s a punishment worse than any court can impose, a daily nightmare where one can never hit the “Stop” button. Most importantly, there’s the victim, through which the word “recovery” is impossible. No one deserves to die in vain the way a 20-year-old young man named Kevin Ward Jr. did while walking down the track at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park Saturday night.
It’s the disgusting way it happened, a gut-wrenching video as easily accessed as clicking on YouTube that gives so many chills this Monday morning. It’s made an otherwise enjoyable NASCAR race at Watkins Glen virtually irrelevant, and a heartwarming victory by a driver who deserved it rings hollow. Death has a way of doing that. Its impact is the prescription for conquering joy while leaving all involved in various states of grief.
That’s where we focus right now while awaiting the results of an investigation that could take weeks. You have a young man, his whole life in front of him, taken down on a track he loved not because of a wreck or a safety malfunction, but by taking a few small steps into traffic. A talent will never be realized, but a life will also never be lived. There will be no happy marriage, no children, no adventures to one day tell the family on the rocking chair.
There are people connected to Ward, including his parents, who were in the stands that fateful Saturday night. There to cheer on their son, what they saw instead was a scene no parent should ever have to witness. It’s hard enough to endure the loss of a child; just ask those within the world of motorsports like Kyle Petty. But to watch that death unfold while sitting next to random strangers is a scenario for which there are no words, only tears.
But in this type of tragedy, where intention is forever unclear, it’s both sides that feel the hurt. For those accusing Tony Stewart of a callous heart, the victims of last February’s horrible Nationwide Series crash at Daytona think otherwise. Stewart visited those fans in the hospital, unsolicited, and has checked in to ensure some of their lives are back on track. The countless kids whose lives he’s touched through charitable endeavors pursued when the cameras are off are feeling the pain of a hero turned human. Stewart is single, but he has a family too, all of whom are helping heal the guilt that is overwhelming and will never completely disappear.
There are countless employees of Stewart-Haas Racing and Tony Stewart Racing whose grief this morning takes on many forms. They’re mourning their boss, who has a hands-on nature and know most in the shop so personally. One half of their brain asks how they can help a fallen leader as the other rational half produces fears of worry. Millions of dollars are on the line here, and the ruination of Stewart could mean the fall of SHR, TSR and hundreds of people losing jobs. SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, thrust into the role of replacement leader, has the difficult balance of playing emotional therapist while sitting in the boardroom of emotionless corporate damage control.
There’s a reason why so many in NASCAR Nation have gone one, perhaps two days without sleep. It’s the type of horror that makes you go home, hug your loved ones and remember what’s really important in life. Remember the perfection of now because the imperfection of tomorrow is always lurking.
In life, joy is finite. Kevin Ward Jr. taught us all in just a few small steps.
FIRST GEAR: The latest on Stewart-Haas Racing
Before transitioning to the race itself, how could we ignore the goings-on at the No. 14 Chevrolet? Stewart, who pulled out of the race Sunday morning, was replaced by Regan Smith, JR Motorsports’ full-time Nationwide Series driver who flew up to Watkins Glen with Sprint Cup owner Rick Hendrick. Arriving an hour before race time with no practice and an unfamiliar crew, Smith did an admirable job under the circumstances. Charging from the rear, he was a potential top-10 car until a late-race accident left him an innocent victim en route to 37th.
Hendrick, arguably the most powerful car owner in Cup, clearly flew up from North Carolina on a mission. PR spin, with the impact still blossoming, is the school of thought as an investigation continues into Ward’s death. Sponsors must be assured it’s a tragic accident; anything less, from either the police or doubtful minds, put Stewart’s expansive economic empire in jeopardy. Those who back his Cup car could bolt, along with those supporting one of NASCAR’s few bright spots these days in Eldora Speedway. Stewart’s absence, more pronounced than breaking his leg one year ago, will be felt far and wide across the spectrum of racing.
As for what happens next? It’s hard to say for sure. Some believe Stewart is a shoe-in to be behind the wheel again Sunday at Michigan. I find that, as well as a brief decision to race at the Glen until more rational heads prevailed, incredibly hard to get behind. With many fans jumping to guilt over innocence how can Stewart focus enough to be effective inside the car? The security surrounding him, with fans angrily shouting “murderer” like they did on Twitter this weekend, would have to be unprecedented in nature. NASCAR, for the time being, has said there’s nothing precluding the driver from competing but I have a feeling that’s going to change by Sunday.
By the way, has anyone heard from Brian France, the most powerful racing commissioner in America? Someone should tell him one of his sport’s biggest names is the lead story on every news station in the country. He might want to step up and say something soon. Just a thought.
SECOND GEAR: A heartwarming victory amongst the madness
Two years ago, AJ Allmendinger was out of NASCAR, serving a suspension for a failed drug test while his racing career sat on life support. Squandering a top-tier opportunity with Penske Racing, the question was not when but if he’d race in the big leagues again. Rarely do 30-something drivers sans a Sprint Cup victory come back to the table armed with a second opportunity.
However, Allmendinger proved Sunday that he’s a very special case. Outfitted with an infectious personality — the type you can’t help but like — the California driver has charmed the pants off so many. It’s to the point former boss Roger Penske himself wound up giving out Nationwide and IndyCar rides to the ‘Dinger a year after said suspension.
JTG-Daugherty Racing, a single-car team with years of middling success, then got convinced to take a flyer on a guy who has always seemed filled with potential. It’s a decision they won’t soon regret, as the road course ace manhandled their No. 47 Chevrolet to the front in what was one of, if not the best, finish to a Cup race all year.
In the closing laps, it was Allmendinger versus Marcos Ambrose — the sport’s finest road course racer — with a bid to the postseason squarely on the line. Win? You’re in the Chase. Lose? You’re almost certainly out of it. The side-by-side, wheel-banging action over the final 10 laps brought fans to their feet and ended with a driver getting the race-life redemption he thought might never be achieved.
“It’s just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that just happened,” Allmendinger said. “I hope I win a lot more, but if I don’t, to be able to remember it like this, it’s pretty awesome. (A) dream come true.”
Even his Australian rival, whose loss may confirm a trip back Down Under in 2015, admitted Allmendinger deserved this victory, the first Cup win for JTG-Daugherty Racing. It was also the first single-car Cup win in three years with a team that was largely out of contention with former driver Bobby Labonte. Now, they’re in the Chase, a reality like heavyweights Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle can’t say quite yet.
THIRD GEAR: Safety at Watkins Glen must be addressed
The other enduring incident from the weekend not involving Stewart or Ward will be a mid-race accident on Sunday that nearly split Michael McDowell’s car in two. Occurring off the dangerous carousel turn at Watkins Glen, a slip by Greg Biffle caused Ryan Newman to lose control, bounce off an Armco barrier and pinball into McDowell at high speed. The resulting debris field, along with damage to the fence, clearly showed one of the hardest hits for any driver to have taken all season.
“The SAFER Barrier doesn’t exist here, there are no concrete walls,” Newman said during an extended red flag to clean up the mess. “It’s just a very antiquated racetrack and the safety is not at all up to NASCAR’s standards. It’s a shame that we have to have accidents like that to prove it. Hopefully, something will change the next time we come back with our Caterpillar Chevrolet.”
Newman made a fair point that NASCAR, through its track arm International Speedway Corp., is spending $400 million to renovate Daytona International Speedway’s grandstand area, but refuses to spend a few million at tracks like the Glen to ensure these SAFER Barriers are at key portions of the track. One would think the key stakeholders would learn from the Ward incident Saturday night, tragic in nature, but real in the damage an on-track death does to the court of public opinion. NASCAR can’t risk another Dale Earnhardt moment — and it’s come too close at the Glen with both this wreck and Sam Hornish Jr.’s vicious crash out of the same corner three years ago. NASCAR has some smart people, and they need to come up with a solution for 2015.
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle Larson’s sneaky fourth-place finish
Kevin Harvick may be NASCAR’s “closer,” but there’s something about Kyle Larson these days. His charge from around 10th to fourth by the final lap at Watkins Glen was akin to his out-of-nowhere jump to second at Fontana in March. To do what the rookie did at a road course where he has limited experience showcases the type of range only a few in this sport will ever possess. To me, Larson’s first year is shaping up very much like Jeff Gordon’s did in 1993; come close to a few wins, make a big impression and get yourself set up for year two. Everyone knows what happened to Gordon, as by year three, he was holding a championship trophy.
The way Larson drives, a title by year three wouldn’t surprise me either.
Jimmie Johnson’s late wreck gave him yet another disappointing finish over the summer. But keep in mind that in 2010, Johnson went seven straight races in July-August with finishes of 10th or worse. And last season he averaged a 36th-place finish in the regular season’s final four events. On both occasions he came back to win the series title. … Kyle Busch’s inconsistency continued at the Glen after a mechanical failure led to several laps inside the garage. Over the last six races, he now has three second-place finishes, two DNFs and Sunday’s 40th-place result. … Two red flags pushed the total race time of the Glen to well over four hours. While the racing was fantastic, fans were again forced to stick around through a season of rain delays and extended stoppages. It’s a level of patience fewer are having the time to squeeze into their busy lives; can the sport evolve in line with America’s short attention span? … Dale Earnhardt Jr. now holds the Sprint Cup Series points lead after Jeff Gordon suffered mechanical problems at the Glen. That hasn’t happened this late in a season since 2004.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Home to the defending Super Bowl champions and the only division that featured three 10-win teams last season; there is little debate that the NFC West is the NFL’s toughest division entering the 2014 season. So how is Seattle shaping up as the Seahawks prepare their title defense and what about the three other chasing them out west?
In order to get an accurate assessment of the four NFC West teams heading into 2014, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The Cardinals have as much front-line talent as any NFL team. The problem is that they reside in the toughest division in the league and there is no guarantee to even make the playoffs.” …
“Bruce Arians has had quite a run since taking over as interim coach of the Colts in 2012 and then leading Arizona to a 10-6 mark last year. The players love Arians’ approach and really believe they can go win the Super Bowl in 2014, and they might be right.” …
“As Carson Palmer heads into the twilight of his career, he is surrounded by elite-level ability. Larry Fitzgerald has enjoyed a remarkable career despite being, at times, hamstrung by inept QB play, and Michael Floyd is poised to advance his game in his third season.” …
“Arians has raved about Andre Ellington, but he had major durability concerns coming out of Clemson, and it would be difficult to think of him as a workhorse over the course of 16 games and the playoffs. For that reason, Jonathan Dwyer was signed from Pittsburgh and Stepfan Taylor could be a stopgap option.” …
“With Jonathan Cooper returning from a leg fracture and Jared Veldheer being signed during free agency, this line should be much improved. John Carlson gives them a better-than-average answer at tight end and some inside the organization still think Rob Housler has more to offer from a physical standpoint.” …
“Arizona’s front seven has a mixture of experience and youth, but all of them can play. John Abraham can still rush the passer, Darnell Dockett has matured into a consistent Pro Bowler, and Calais Campbell is a force due to his height and athleticism.” …
“The Cardinals signed Antonio Cromartie to pair off with Patrick Peterson, and with Tyrann Mathieu expected to successfully return from knee surgery, they can be multiple in their coverage packages. They addressed their need at safety with Washington State’s Deone Bucannon in the first round ” …
“The backup-caliber players need to understand that special teams could be the difference between them and the Seahawks and 49ers.” …
“If Palmer stays healthy and upright, this team is highly motivated and stronger than people realize.” …
St. Louis Rams
“Head Coach Jeff Fisher is widely respected and well thought of in league circles because of his work on the Competition Committee and overall presence as a leader of the coaches. However, some are beginning to question his won-loss record and lack of success in St. Louis.” …
The Rams appear content to go forward with QB Sam Bradford, but there is no denying the risk involved because of his past injury history. Offensively, the line has been bad for two years running and their best ball-carrier emerged in the form of  fifth-round pick, Zac Stacy from Vanderbilt. They addressed both of those areas in the draft with a pair of Auburn Tigers, OT Greg Robinson and RB Tre Mason.”…
“TE Jared Cook has very good skill and should thrive more with a healthy Bradford, but the wide receivers have been a major work in progress over the past two campaigns. It took nearly ten weeks to get rookie Tavon Austin cranked up, so the assumption will be that he picks up where 2013 ended. STL has gotten little out of former second-round pick Chris Givens, so this will be a make-or-break year for him.”…
“They were lucky that Rodger Saffold returned to them after the physical fiasco in Oakland and the plan might be to play him at RG with Joe Barksdale at RT and Robinson aligning as a LG.” …
“The Rams now have the best defensive front four in the game after selecting Pittsburgh All-American Aaron Donald with their second first-round pick. The linebacking corps isn’t bad, either, with James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree.” …
“The Achilles’ heel has been the secondary and that is where they added Florida State’s super-competitive Lamarcus Joyner who can play safety, corner or nickel. And with even more pressure coming from Robert Quinn and Chris Long, this secondary should be improved.”…
“The Michael Sam story will get some play upon his arrival and maybe during training camp, but his shot to make the team will be as a situational pass rusher and special teams contributor, period.”…
“GM Les Snead and Fisher appear to work well together, but their time in the Gateway of the West will begin to run down without significant progress in football’s most difficult division.”
San Francisco 49ers
“The 49ers may have the most physically imposing and best-looking team in the entire league. They are big and strong along both lines and have tough, athletic skill players on offense and defense.”…
“Despite some of the communication issues between head coach Jim Harbaugh, GM Trent Baalke and football administration director Paraag Maranthe, this is an organization that has built a quality team. “ …
“Many inside the NFL think 2014 could likely be Harbaugh’s last season in SF, so it has been interesting to monitor the upward movement of former Jets and Browns coach Eric Mangini. He is currently the TEs coach, but made his name in New York and New England on the defensive side of the football. There is no question that he is reinventing himself for another run at a head job and would love the opportunity to take over a roster that is absolutely loaded, although DL coach Jim Tomsula would be the in-house favorite.” …
“The 49ers have hitched their wagon to QB Colin Kaepernick’s unique combination of rare size and speed at the position. If there is a criticism, it is his penchant to throw almost every pass on a line with no touch whatsoever. On play-actions and bootlegs, he can rifle a flat ball in between defenders, but in the drop-back game, he tends to try and throw it through rather than around people.” …
“Expect SF to have more of a backfield-by-committee in place for ’14 as RB Frank Gore still has some in-between-the-tackles ability and they picked Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde in the second round.” …
“Defensively, it’s all about what happens with NaVorro Bowman’s return from the brutal knee injury suffered in the playoffs and the off-field problems experienced by Aldon Smith.” …
“Look for second-year player Tank Carradine to make a splash after ‘redshirting’ last season. “ …
“They are so strong up the middle and that is where Patrick Willis has become this generation’s ‘Ray Lewis.’”…
“If they are light anywhere, it would be on the corner where Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers left for Oakland and the remaining group is headlined by Eric Wright [Editor’s note: he retired in June] and Chris Culliver with the anticipation that first-round choice Jimmie Ward will likely be the nickel in 2014. FS Eric Reid is a Pro Bowl talent and they signed Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner.” …
“The ‘body’ of this team is ready to return to the Super Bowl, the ‘head’ of this team is what will determine their fate.” …
“Pete Carroll became only the third coach in football history to win both a college national championship and Super Bowl joining Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer in that elite club. He was rewarded with an extension during the offseason and between the leadership combination of himself, GM John Schneider and Russell Wilson, this team isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.” …
“Offensively, Wilson should be able to expand his game to provide more balance to their attack (4th in rushing, 26th in passing) and Percy Harvin is obviously a difference-maker for them when he is healthy and on the field. Golden Tate moved on to the Lions, so Harvin and Doug Baldwin will need to step up in 2014.” …
“The offensive line lost Breno Giacomini, but the other four starters return and RT Michael Bowie gained valuable experience as a rookie when he started 8 games during the regular season.” …
“Marshawn Lynch has prospered since arriving from Buffalo and his Beast Mode style matches the toughness of their defense.” …
“They traded for Terrelle Pryor prior to the draft, so that is a situation to monitor in regards to their backup QB situation.” …
“Defensively, the Legion of Boom will continue uninterrupted after Earl Thomas received a new contract in April and Richard Sherman did the same a few weeks later.” …
“Up front, the Seahawks lost Clinton McDonald, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to free agency, but they did retain Michael Bennett and still have Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin on the outside. Jordan Hill should figure more prominently on the inside as a second-year player to rotate with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.” …
“Bobby Wagner, T.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith are ideal fits for this scheme because of their versatility against the run and pass.” …
“Byron Maxwell’s emergence opposite Sherman allowed them to let Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner to walk, so expect to see more of Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon this year. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor form the league’s best safety duo where they complement each other’s skill set unbelievably well.” …
“Seattle is built to last because of the QB, a solid OL and the quality of their overall defense. They preach competition and that’s exactly what they will get from their division rivals in 2014.” …
General Manager Rick Spielman created 13 categories that he thought described a successful NFL coach. He identified 10 preferred candidates, interviewed seven and fell in love, professionally speaking, with just one. “It’s like when I met my wife,” he said. “You just know.”
Mike Zimmer, the self-proclaimed “fixer” and first-time head coach at any level, replaces the fired Leslie Frazier. And, boy, does he ever have some fixing to do after a 5–10–1 season that featured the league’s worst scoring defense and a three-headed fiasco at quarterback. Zimmer and Spielman immediately infused the defense with youth and depth, signing five unrestricted free agents before spending seven of their 10 draft picks on that side of the ball.
Offensively, Norv Turner has been entrusted with maximizing a group of talented players and a less-than-ideal quarterback situation that already looks more promising with the franchise-wide acceptance that Christian Ponder never will be a franchise quarterback.
The Ponder experiment is over. Matt Cassel, who had opted out of the second year of his original contract with the Vikings, re-signed in part because he trusts that Turner and Zimmer are committed to him as the starter. That wasn’t the case last year when the Vikings waffled between Ponder, Cassel and Josh Freeman despite obvious examples that Cassel, though not great by any stretch, had the most poise, courage to throw the deep ball and overall success (a 3–3 record).
Ponder will start only if Cassel is injured. And even that would depend on whether rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater is ready or not. Ideally, the Vikings want Cassel to be a one-year bridge and then back up Bridgewater in 2015.
Unlike former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Turner can be counted on to not only groom a young quarterback, but also produce a creative and diverse offense. He’s proven over decades that he gets the most out of quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends while still being able to satisfy Hall of Fame-caliber running backs. And, of course, Adrian Peterson will remain the focal point of the Vikings’ play-action, run-first attack.
Musgrave’s approach was simple, predictable and puzzling in that it failed to incorporate obvious superstar-in-waiting receiver Cordarrelle Patterson until the team’s season had already collapsed. Patterson, an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last year, will excel in Turner’s offense even though it’s more complex and he’s still a bit raw as a route-runner.
Up front, the offensive line underachieved last season and needs to live up to the level one would expect of a unit that’s still young and enters its third season intact. Left tackle Matt Kalil, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012, had too many lapses in his second season. Left guard Charlie Johnson struggled and may be challenged by younger players.
Peterson is 29 and has had knee, hernia and groin surgeries the past three years. But he looks ready to surpass his 1,266-yard effort from 2013. Peterson will get some help from rookie Jerick McKinnon, the kind of third-down, change-of-pace back Turner likes.
The Vikings have played a Cover-2 base defense since 2006. Zimmer, meanwhile, has displayed admirable versatility throughout his career. He’s a 4-3 guy who has posted top-10 defenses using his own 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 alignment he learned working for Bill Parcells.
The selection of UCLA’s Anthony Barr ninth overall fills a huge need at strong-side linebacker and will be a key ingredient as Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards transform the Vikings into a more unpredictable unit capable of easily mixing fronts, coverages and blitz packages. Barr, who has played linebacker for only two years, is raw, but his 6'5", 255-pound frame comes with unusual length, speed and cornerback-caliber agility. He’s a natural rusher from the up or down positions and has the skills to cover the seam downfield, which has been a weakness for the Vikings.
Up front, the Vikings said goodbye to Jared Allen and Kevin Williams and hello to a dramatic youth movement. Everson Griffen, 26, steps in for Allen after four years as an heir apparent. He possesses a freakish combination of speed, size, position flexibility and potential. Meanwhile, Sharrif Floyd, who had a nondescript rookie season, takes over for Williams and will be given a chance to live up to being a 23rd overall pick. Linval Joseph, 25, moves in at nose tackle, giving the Vikings their first legitimately sized nose since Pat Williams in 2010.
In the secondary, Spielman is finally starting to assemble a solid unit after the team experienced some bad misses in the draft. Free safety Harrison Smith, a first-round pick in 2012, is instinctive, fast, physical and will be an All-Pro one day if he stays healthy. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, is a potential Pro Bowler who needs to prove he can be durable.
Meanwhile, the other starting corner is Captain Munnerlyn, a prized free-agent signing and a huge upgrade over Chris Cook, who was a four-year disappointment on and off the field. Munnerlyn also can slide inside over the slot in the nickel, something Josh Robinson failed at last year when asked prematurely to fill that role after Antoine Winfield was cut in a salary cap move. Finding a suitable third corner on the current roster will test Zimmer’s reputation as “the fixer.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was one of Frazier’s three assistants retained by Zimmer. That’s because the Vikings are as good if not better top to bottom than any other team when it comes to special teams. Patterson, the kick returner, turned a ridiculous combination of size and speed into an NFL-leading 32.4-yard average and a league-record 109-yard return. Meanwhile, at punt returner, Marcus Sherels staved off being released and averaged a franchise-record 15.2 yards per return, good enough for second in the league.
Kicker Blair Walsh, an All-Pro as a rookie when he made a record 10-of-10 field goals of 50 yards or longer, struggled from long range last year (2-of-5), but he will be fine. Punter Jeff Locke was typically inconsistent as a rookie last year but should improve.
If turnovers aren’t an issue at quarterback, there’s enough firepower in Turner’s creative hands to maintain a balanced, run-oriented attack that highlights Peterson, camouflages Cassel and taps the potential of Patterson. Defensively, there’s more of a leap of faith required. How quickly can a unit that’s been overhauled with youth get up to speed in Zimmer’s system? The schedule-maker doesn’t give them much time with an opener on the road at St. Louis followed by games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, the latter on the road on a Thursday night. An 8–8 finish might be a nice place to start.
PREDICTION: 4th in NFC North
(Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings' Web site, www.vikings.com)