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If you’re a team in need of a wide receiver in this year’s NFL Draft, you’re in luck. The 2017 draft will feature some talented receivers in not just the first and second round, but even in the latter rounds.
There are a couple of players that stand out among the rest at the position. While there isn’t a big name that’s generating a lot of buzz, there are plenty of talented prospects to keep an eye on. Here are the top five receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft heading into this week’s (Feb. 28-March 6) Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
1. Mike Williams, Clemson
DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins are two former Clemson receivers that have had a lot of success in the NFL. Williams hopes he can continue that trend.
As a junior, Williams recorded 98 catches for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns. For his efforts, Williams was named second-team All-American by several outlets and first-team All-ACC by both the media and coaches.
Williams has the look of an NFL receiver at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. He also has the strength and vertical speed to gain separation from his defenders.
Williams also has the arms and hands to obtain the ball at its highest point. His neck injury in 2015, which caused him to miss most of the 2015 season is a bit of a red flag. While Williams does need to work on his route running, he has the talent to be a Pro Bowl receiver for many years to come.
2. John Ross, Washington
Ross broke out in a big way last season, finishing with 81 receptions for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns (tied for third in the FBS). Those numbers not only helped him earn first-team All-Pac 12 and second-team All-American recognition, they also helped the Huskies win the Pac-12 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Ross isn’t a big receiver (5-11, 190), but he can blow the top off a defense with his blazing speed, which makes him dangerous in the open field and a threat to score any time he touches the ball. He also possesses good hands, which is a must to succeed in the NFL.
Ross did struggled getting open against Alabama’s cornerbacks in the Playoff semifinal, finishing with just five catches for 28 yards. He also has a history of knee injuries, so teams will be looking over his medical records thoroughly.
Provided his surgically repaired knees hold up and let him show off his speed and athleticism, Ross’ big-play ability and upside will no doubt appeal to scouts and team executives.
3. Corey Davis, Western Michigan
A four-year starter for the Broncos, Corey Davis was one of the most productive receivers in college football history. His 5,285 receiving yards is the most in FBS history.
Last season, Davis had 97 catches for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns, which was tied for the most in the FBS. At 6-foot-3, Davis has the ideal height scouts look for and he excels when it comes to route-running.
One knock on Davis is that he doesn’t have top-end speed, and he did have some issues when it came to drops. The latter is something he can continue to work on though and doesn’t appear to be a big negative.
Playing for a MAC school, Davis will have to shed the small school label, but his game tape speaks for itself and unless something goes horribly wrong at the Combine, he should be well positioned to establish himself as a first-round pick. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he ends up being the first wide receiver selected.
4. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma
As a junior college transfer, Westbrook quickly made an impression at Oklahoma. In his first season in 2015, he was named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year after catching 46 passes for 743 yards and four touchdowns. Turns out, he was just getting started, as Westbrook exploded for 80 catches, 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, winding up a Heisman Trophy finalist in the process.
Westbrook may not look imposing at 6-foot and 170 pounds, but he makes up for it with his above-average speed and ability to make plays. He is at his best when running downfield, vertical routes. Westbrook also returned kickoffs and punts for the Sooners.
Westbrook’s frame may raise some red flags with NFL teams wondering whether he can hold up through a 16-game schedule. There also are some character concerns stemming from him being arrested twice (2012, ’13) on domestic violence charges, although they were eventually dropped in both cases.
On the field, Westbrook appears to have the necessary tools to play at the next level. Showing those in the Combine should only help his draft stock.
5. Zay Jones, East Carolina
Statistically speaking, Jones was one of the most accomplished receivers in college football history. The second-generation football player (his father, linebacker Robert Jones won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s), set the NCAA record for most receptions in a career with 399 and he also set the single-season record with 158 in 2016.
Jones has good size (6-2, 202) and arguably possesses the best hands of this entire draft class, as he has a highlight reel full of plays of him going up and grabbing the football out of the air at its highest point. He also is known for having a high football IQ.
He doesn’t have game-breaking speed and some of his peers are built a little sturdier. Jones projects to be an excellent slot receiver in the NFL. He was ridiculously productive target in college and should be at minimum a dependable pass catcher in the pros. Like Corey Davis, Jones also played in a non-Power Five conference, but that aloneshouldn’t hurt his draft stock too much.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Game film and stats rarely lie. That said, when you are talking about college film and stats translating to NFL production, it's not exactly science. Speed, size, experience and maturity all come into play when it comes to elite college football players making the transition to the next level.
There are certain collegiate stars that enter the NFL Draft with high hopes of being taken early, resulting in bigger pay days thanks to the league's rookie pay scale. The first step in the transition from college to the NFL and toward that aforementioned pay day is the Scouting Combine. As a result, it is often the case that a bad Combine performance can cost a player millions of dollars.
We've highlighted some players who will be at the NFL Scouting Combine this week who must put up solid, if not-impressive performances in both workouts and interviews.
Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
Trubisky may not be a household name, but he's projected as the first or second quarterback off the board in pretty much every mock draft you'll find. Scouts like his size and arm strength, but questions surround his body of work. The 2016 campaign was his only full season as a college starter. He looked the part for the majority of the season, but outings like the one he had against Virginia Tech leave doubts. He needs to erase those doubts during the passing drills and the interviews in order to solidify his projected position at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft.
John Ross, WR, Washington
Ross was quite simply one of the most dynamic and productive receivers in all of college football this season. It's tough to really tell how much of his success was due to the offensive scheme or the quarterback, but the eye test tells us the kid can play. The big issue is his size. At 5-foot-11 he needs to show scouts at the Combine with his hands, speed and vertical that he is a different specimen — along the lines of Antonio Brown or Julian Edelman — in order to convince teams that he is the clear-cut No. 3 wide receiver in this draft.
T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin
Watt had one of the better seasons of any pass rusher in the country in 2016. He was a huge part of the Badger defense that allowed Wisconsin to hang around the top 10 of the major polls for most of the season. He made what some might call a questionable decision to leave school early. Watt is talented, but one must wonder how much his last name has to do with his current draft stock value. He'll need to make a name for himself — particularly in the shuttle and on the bench — to legitimize himself as a first or early second-round prospect.
Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Few corners in college football were as productive as Lewis was during the last couple of seasons in terms of preventing passes from landing in the hands of targeted receivers. That said, his interception total does not exactly jump off the page. That's one of the questions he'll likely have to answer in Indianapolis. Did his size and strength have anything to do with that. At 5-foot-11 and barely 190 pounds, his does not have the ideal frame when it comes to today's defensive backs in the NFL. He'll need to prove himself in the 40 and in the vertical leap to justify some projections that have him as a top-five prospect at his position.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette is a household name and has been so for the better part of two seasons. He's drawn comparisons to the likes of Adrian Peterson and Hershel Walker during his collegiate career. Sure, he's built like a linebacker and probably could have played every position but quarterback, receiver and corner, but there are still some questions in regard to how he'll fare at the next level. He's not the most consistent pass catcher, which is a big deal in today's pass-heavy offensive schemes. His top speed is sufficient, but his questionable agility and ability to change direction and improvise when compared to NFL players are the reasons he's not the top prospect available at his position. He needs to catch nearly every pass thrown to him and impress in all agility drills to justify most current projections that have him going in the top half of the first round.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
The goal in Seattle is simple — make the playoffs. While most teams have similar aspirations, the Mariners have gone longer than any other team in MLB without a postseason appearance — 15 seasons. That growing number looms over the organization, darkening the often-gray skies in Seattle. With the core pieces of the group that went 86–76 in 2016 returning, expectations are high for 2017.
Because of that, general manager Jerry Dipoto was extremely busy this offseason, orchestrating more than a dozen trades that resulted in a rebuilt starting rotation, a new leadoff hitter and even more turnover to a 40-man roster that looks basically nothing like the one he inherited when he became the team's GM in September 2015. It still all starts with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager, a trio that’s as good as any in baseball, but it will ultimately be the new pieces that determine Seattle’s success.
A year ago, Seattle got 57 starts of five innings or fewer and produced a record of 13–44 in those games. The disappointments started with staff ace Felix Hernandez, who posted an 11–8 record with a 3.82 ERA in 25 starts. He missed six weeks with a calf strain, but even when he was healthy, signs of deterioration and age were noticeable. He lacked consistent command as evidenced by his 1.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio — the worst of his career. The organization challenged Hernandez to come back in better shape and more prepared for 2017. Hisashi Iwakuma did not miss a start in 2016, but he fatigued late in the season. At age 35, he wins games with command and deception, but those can only go so far. Lefty James Paxton, who went 6-7 with a 3.79 ERA in 20 starts, is the other holdover following the trades of Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns, who are expected to be replaced by Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. Smyly was acquired from Tampa Bay and even though he has battled injuries and struggled last season (7-12, 4.88 ERA); the 27-year-old lefty has the potential to be a legitimate No. 2 starter, if not a future ace. Gallardo was acquired from Baltimore for outfielder Seth Smith and should benefit from a change of scenery after posting a 5.42 ERA in just 23 starts with the Orioles last season. Righthanders Rob Whalen and Chris Heston (another trade acquisition) and lefty Ariel Miranda will provide depth in case of an injury, which is highly likely considering the track record of the arms ahead of them.
When Jean Segura steps onto the field on Opening Day, he’ll be the 10th shortstop that Cano has played with in his three seasons with the Mariners. Segura will easily be the best of that undistinguished list, which is why Seattle acquired him in the offseason. Segura is coming off a career year with the Diamondbacks, hitting .319 with an .867 OPS, 41 doubles, seven triples, 20 home runs, 64 RBIs and 33 steals in 153 games. Cano is coming off an even better 2016. He showed no effects from offseason hernia surgery, hitting .298 with an .883 OPS, a career-high 39 homers and 103 RBIs. Beyond the gaudy offensive numbers, Cano returned to form in the field, making stellar defensive plays at second. He also embraced a leadership role in the clubhouse that hadn’t been evident in his first two seasons with Seattle.
Seager just continues to put up consistently good numbers with slight increases each season. In 2016, he hit .278 with an .858 OPS, 30 homers and 99 RBIs in 158 games. He did commit an uncharacteristic 22 errors at third base, botching some routine ground balls moving to his left. But the Mariners believe it’s correctable. While Seattle has a cornerstone at third, the revolving door at first base continues. The plan for this season is to use rookie Daniel Vogelbach (acquired from Cubs last July in the Mike Montgomery deal) and veteran Danny Valencia in a platoon of sorts. The Mariners like the left-handed-hitting Vogelbach’s approach of power and patience at the plate. The right-handed-hitting Valencia is a proven masher of left-handed pitching in his well-traveled career.
Speed should not be an issue in the outfield with former Royal Jarrod Dyson in left and Leonys Martin in center. Dyson was traded for Karns and should finally get a chance to play every day. Right field figures to be a battle between rookies Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel. Seattle picked up Haniger in the Segura trade. He was Arizona’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2016, hitting .321 with a .999 OPS between the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Gamel was acquired in late August and played in 27 games for Seattle.
Mike Zunino is back after spending the first part of the 2016 season in Triple-A to work on his swing. The changes yielded some extended periods of success, but a late swoon still put his batting average at .207 with 65 strikeouts in 164 at-bats. He did hit 12 homers and drive in 31 runs while still showing exemplary receiving and framing skills behind the plate. The Mariners acquired veteran Carlos Ruiz to serve as backup. Ruiz turns 38 before the season, but he still can hit left-handed pitching and provides a solid role model for Zunino and some insurance for the Mariners.
Cruz is not bothered by age or the unfriendly parks of the AL West. At 36, he hit .287 while posting team highs with a .915 OPS, 43 homers and 105 RBIs in 155 games. He also became more accepting of his transition to a near full-time DH. One of the big bonuses of acquiring Valencia was his ability to play first base, third base and both corner outfield spots. It gives manager Scott Servais some options. Shawn O’Malley proved to be the team’s best utility player option and showed he could play shortstop at a decent level, something that the new management team didn’t expect. The acquisition of speedy Tayler Motter will provide some competition during spring training.
Servais had never managed a game at any level in his life. There were times in the mechanics of a game where that inexperience was exposed in 2016. He dealt with injury issues to his starting rotation and a roster that was flawed and limited in versatility. But Servais got his team to buy in to a new way of thinking, preparing and playing. It helped that he got Cano, Cruz and Seager to believe in this new philosophy early in spring and embrace leadership roles.
It seems unlikely that Cano, Cruz and Seager can improve much on the stellar production of last year. But Dipoto has been very aggressive in building up the roster depth around his star trio, which should allow the Mariners to be competitive in a very tough American League West. It will come down to how the new-look starting rotation performs.
2017 AL WEST PREDICTION: 3rd
Purdue made what — on paper, at least — looks like one of the offseason’s better hires, as the Boilermakers landed Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky.
Brohm went 30-10 in his three years with the Hilltoppers, including a 22-5 mark — and 15-1 in Conference USA play — over the past two seasons. His teams regularly lit up the scoreboards and became must-see action in league play. Can Brohm now bring those theatrics to West Lafayette, Ind.?
Here are the top storylines facing Brohm and the Boilers as they open spring ball on Feb. 27.
5 Storylines to Watch in Purdue’s Spring Practice
1. David Blough’s development
In Jeff Brohm’s first year at Western Kentucky, Brandon Doughty finished second nationally in passing yards (371.5 ypg). In Brohm’s second year, Doughty finished third (363.0). And last year, new Hilltoppers QB Mike White ranked eighth nationally in the same category (311.6). Of course, it would be a stretch to expect Blough to pick up a new offense with the snap of a finger, but Brohm’s teams are at their best when the signal-caller is letting it rip, so monitoring how well Blough and the rest of the QBs adjust this spring is the biggest storyline surrounding this team.
2. Wide receiver progress
Purdue had three players catch 39 or more passes last season for 356 or more yards. All three players — DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall and Cameron Posey — are gone. So Blough will have to work with a new cast of receivers, as the two leading returning pass catchers are a tight end (Cole Herdman) and running back (Markell Jones).
3. Can the defense make progress?
Purdue’s defense in 2016 was, to put it nicely, not very good. The Boilers finished last in the Big Ten and 117th nationally in scoring defense (38.3 ppg) and next-to-last in the conference (and 91st nationally) in total D (445.8 ypg). Brohm brought coordinator Nick Holt with him from WKU to lead Purdue’s defense, and Holt’s Hilltoppers units showed some progress from 2014-16, going from an abysmal 123rd nationally in total D in the regime’s first year, to 71st in ‘15, to 41st in ‘16. While the Boilers have their work cut out for them after an abysmal 2016, there is some consolation: They were very young, as they return six of their top seven tacklers from last season. (They also add WKU graduate transfer linebacker T.J. McCollum, although he will be limited to non-contact drills this spring because of elbow surgery.)
4. Depth concerns
The major concern with any new regime early on is mastering the balance of setting a new tone without adding to the inevitable attrition that comes to a roster experiencing a coaching turnover. For Purdue, this gets tricky on both the offensive and defensive lines.
"We're going to have to be careful we're not running them into the ground and we're not losing people during the spring because our numbers are low," Brohm said, according to the Lafayette Journal & Courier. "With that being said, we need to get a lot of reps. We're going to have to police how we do a little bit and make sure we're smart with it."
5. Can early enrollees make an impact?
When you go 3-9 and your head coach gets fired, your team has plenty of holes to fill. That makes the monitoring of the Boilers’ five early enrollees more noteworthy, considering the opportunities that are there for the taking, especially for three of those five mid-year players, who are junior college transfers: defensive end Kai Higgins, cornerback T.J. Jallow and offensive lineman Ethan Smart.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Purdue in the Big Ten
The good news, bad news for Purdue is that the Boilermakers currently stand in arguably the worst shape of anyone in the Big Ten West — but that there’s nowhere to go but up. That’s what the hiring of Jeff Brohm is expected to do: Improve this program dramatically, restoring the Cradle of Quarterbacks moniker and making the Boilers a legitimate threat again.
Does this mean slaying Wisconsin and Nebraska in Year 1? Of course not. But there’s no reason this program can’t eventually climb out of the division cellar in a few years and at least throw punches with Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota or Northwestern annually. Of course, two of those aforementioned programs have experienced coaching changes themselves over the past two years, so Purdue has some competition in its fight for respectability. Still, the Boilers have done it in the past, and that should be the goal for a program that, if nothing else, ought to be exciting to watch offensively early on.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
(Jeff Brohm photo courtesy of www.purduesports.com)
Ranking the college football and basketball head coaching tandems for the Power 5 conferences is no easy assignment. But that’s what Athlon Sports has set out to do this offseason, as spring practice is just starting around the nation for all 130 teams and tournament time is approaching for teams on the hardwood. Michigan State tops the rankings with Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo as its tandem. Duke, Louisville, Alabama and Ohio State round out the top five.
Each year, Athlon Sports ranks the coaching tandems from each Power 5 league. A variety of factors are considered for this exercise. It’s important to note that we are attempting to value balance — i.e., which schools have an above-average coach at both position? That’s why some programs with an elite football coach and a new (or struggling) basketball coach will be ranked lower than one might expect.
Ranking the Nation's Top 40 Football-Basketball Coaching Duos
1. Michigan State
Football: Mark Dantonio
Basketball: Tom Izzo
The 2016-17 academic year hasn’t been great for either of the bosses at Michigan State, but Dantonio (who won a total of 65 games from 2010-15) and Izzo (who has been to seven Final Fours) are among the best in the business in their respective sports.
Football: David Cutcliffe
Basketball: Mike Krzyzewski
The Blue Devils took a step back on the football field in 2016, but Cutcliffe’s résumé still shows a combined 27 wins in a three-year period from 2013-15. Krzyzewski is one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2017
Football: Bobby Petrino
Basketball: Rick Pitino
Petrino has won at every stop (in the college game) and has an impressive 17–7 record in ACC play in his three years since returning to Louisville. Don’t forget: He went a combined 12–4 in the SEC in his final two seasons at Arkansas. Pitino has won over 750 games in stops at Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville.
Football: Nick Saban
Basketball: Avery Johnson
Saban’s (deserved) reputation as the top college football coach in the nation vaults this duo to the top of the list. Avery Johnson has done a tremendous job on the recruiting trail and figures to have Alabama back among the top programs in the league in the near future.
5. Ohio State
Football: Urban Meyer
Basketball: Thad Matta
Meyer, with national championships at two schools (Florida and Ohio State) and an undefeated season at a third (Utah), is an all-time great. Matta’s program has slipped a bit in the past two seasons, but he has won at a very high level in stops at Butler (one year), Xavier (three years) and Ohio State (13 years).
Football: Jim Harbaugh
Basketball: John Beilein
The 2016 season ended on a disappointing note, but Harbaugh has had an enormous impact in a short time at Michigan. Beilein had a great run at Michigan from 2011-14 (four NCAA Tournaments, two Elite Eights, one national runner-up finish) but has leveled off in recent seasons. He still is regarded as one of the game’s top coaches.
Football: Mark Stoops
Basketball: John Calipari
Calipari’s status as far and away the best basketball coach in the league puts Kentucky safely at No. 2 on this list. Stoops’ seat was red hot as recently as October, but the Wildcats won five of their last seven in the regular season, highlighted by a 41–38 victory at Louisville. Another bowl appearance in 2017 — which is likely — would cement his status as a solid SEC coach.
Football: Kyle Whittingham
Basketball: Larry Krystkowiak
After a relatively rough transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, the Utah football program has averaged 9.3 wins over the last three seasons and is 16–11 in league play over that stretch. Krystkowiak has done a masterful job rebuilding the Utah basketball program. The Utes went 13–5 in the Pac-12 in each of the last two full seasons and could be headed back to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year with a strong finish.
Football: Willie Taggart
Basketball: Dana Altman
Taggart’s tenure in Eugene got off to a difficult start with some off-the-field issues, but he brings a solid résumé to his new job. Altman is regarded as one of the elite coaches in college basketball and has elevated the status of this program nationally in the past few seasons.
Football: Bob Stoops
Basketball: Lon Kruger
Stoops is one of the most underappreciated coaches in the nation. He has averaged 10.6 wins in his 18 seasons in Norman and has won 10 Big 12 championships. Kruger is the only coach in history to win an NCAA Tournament game at five schools (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma).
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2017
11. North Carolina
Football: Larry Fedora
Basketball: Roy Williams
The Williams critics point out that he’s been a head coach at Kansas and North Carolina — two schools where it’s hard NOT to win — but the fact remains that he’s averaged a staggering 28.0 wins in 28 seasons. Fedora’s career has been highlighted by two very good seasons (12–2 at Southern Miss in 2011 and 11–3 at UNC in 2015). He’s averaged a rather ordinary 7.2 wins in his other seven seasons.
12. Virginia Tech
Football: Justin Fuente
Basketball: Buzz Williams
Fuente did a great job in his first season at Tech, guiding the Hokies to the ACC Coastal Division title. Williams, who led Marquette to the NCAA Tournament five times in six seasons at the school, is on the verge of taking the Hokies to the NCAAs in Year 3.
13. Notre Dame
Football: Brian Kelly
Basketball: Mike Brey
The Irish slumped to 4–8 in 2016, but Kelly is still one of the game's better coaches. He has won every stop, including two Division II national titles while at Grand Valley State and an undefeated regular season at Cincinnati. Brey is one of college basketball's most respected coaches. He has guided the Irish to the NCAA Tournament 11 times in 16 seasons.
Football: Mike MacIntyre
Basketball: Tad Boyle
MacIntyre earned several National Coach of the Year honors after guiding the Buffaloes to the Pac-12 South title. He has now completed successful rebuilds at both San Jose State and Colorado. Boyle has done a very good job with the basketball program, leading the Buffs to the NCAA Tournament four times in his first five seasons. This year has been a bit of a struggle, but he is an outstanding coach.
Football: Gary Patterson
Basketball: Jamie Dixon
Patterson is nearly 100 games over .500 in his 16 years TCU and has six league titles (one in C-USA, four in the Mountain West, one in the Big 12) on his résumé. Dixon led Pittsburgh to the NCAA Tournament 11 times in his 13 years at the school and is authoring a quicker-than-expected turnaround at TCU, his alma mater.
Football: Tom Herman
Basketball: Shaka Smart
This pairing looks great on paper, but is more about potential at this point. After making the NCAA Tournament last season (losing in the first round as a No. 6 seed), Texas is headed toward its first losing season since 1998. Herman appears to be a great fit at Texas, but he has yet to coach a game in the Big 12.
17. Oklahoma State
Football: Mike Gundy
Basketball: Brad Underwood
Gundy’s success in league play might surprise you; he has a 63–39 record in Big 12 games in 12 seasons (and that includes a 1–7 mark in Year 1). Underwood recorded an astounding 53–1 record in Southland Conference games in his three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. It would be a big surprise if he doesn’t enjoy success at Oklahoma State.
Football: Gus Malzahn
Basketball: Bruce Pearl
Pearl has yet to break through at Auburn, but his track record is too good — at both Tennessee and Milwaukee — and his recruiting too strong to believe that he won’t get it done at Auburn. Malzahn’s stock isn’t quite as high as it was a few years ago, but he is still a very good coach who has an 18–14 record in the SEC in four seasons at Auburn.
19. Florida State
Football: Jimbo Fisher
Basketball: Leonard Hamilton
Fisher is on the short list of active college football head coaches with a national championship. He has a 78–17 record in seven seasons. Hamilton, in his 15th season at Florida State, will have the Seminoles in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. Prior to this recent slump, FSU went to the NCAAs every year from 2009-12.
Football: Dabo Swinney
Basketball: Brad Brownell
Swinney silenced his critics by winning the 2016 national championship — one year after losing in the national championship game. Brownell is a highly respected coach who has struggled to break through at Clemson. The Tigers could be headed to the NCAAs in 2017.
Football: Pat Fitzgerald
Basketball: Chris Collins
Fitzgerald has turned Northwestern into a consistent winner, guiding his alma mater to a bowl game in seven of the last nine seasons. The Wildcats are 11–6 in the Big Ten in the last two seasons. Collins has the basketball team on the verge of its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Football: Paul Chryst
Basketball: Greg Gard
Chryst wasn’t the most exciting hire, but he has a combined 21–6 record in two seasons, including a 13–4 mark in league play. That’s pretty strong. Gard has done a great job in a tough spot — replacing the legendary Bo Ryan. The Badgers are as good as ever.
Football: Mark Richt
Basketball: Jim Larranaga
Richt did a nice job in his first season at his alma mater. That followed a 15-year run at Georgia in which he went 83–37 in SEC games — but failed to win a league title in his final 10 years. Larranaga, who is 20 games over .500 in the ACC in his five-plus seasons at Miami, is one of the nation’s most underrated coaches.
Football: Jim Mora
Basketball: Steve Alford
Mora’s done a decent job at UCLA, with an overall record of 41–24 and a 25–20 mark in league games, but the general feeling — both among UCLA fans and nationally — is that the program is not reaching its potential. Alford reached the Sweet 16 in his first two seasons at UCLA before hitting rock bottom with a 15–17 record last season. However, it’s safe to say the Bruins are back. The ’16-17 team is one of the best in the nation and the program is well-positioned to win at a high level in the next few years.
25. Mississippi State
Football: Dan Mullen
Basketball: Ben Howland
Mullen has had only one winning SEC record in seven seasons as the Bulldogs’ head coach, but he is 61–42 overall and has guided Mississippi State to a bowl game in each of the past seven seasons. Howland, like Johnson at Alabama and Pearl at Auburn, appears to have his program on an upward trajectory — even if the record doesn’t show it.
Football: Jim McElwain
Basketball: Mike White
McElwain has won two SEC East titles in his two seasons at Florida, but Gators fans don’t seem to be overly impressed. Maybe it’s because the East has been down. Maybe it’s because his recruiting has been a bit lackluster. White has a great reputation in coaching circles, but it must be noted that he has yet to take any of his five teams (four at Louisiana Tech, one at Florida) to the NCAA Tournament. That drought will end next month.
Football: Rich Rodriguez
Basketball: Sean Miller
Miller elevates this duo to near the top of the rankings. It’s only a matter of time before he leads Arizona to a national championship. Rodriguez is highly respected nationally, but he went 6–18 in the Big Ten in three seasons at Michigan and is 18–26 in the Pac-12 in five seasons at Arizona.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2017
Football: Butch Jones
Basketball: Rick Barnes
Jones isn’t exactly the most popular guy in Knoxville right now, but there is no denying that he has raised the profile of the program and has the Vols back in the national conversation. At some point, he will need to win a division title (at least) to satisfy the demanding Tennessee faithful. Barnes had some great years at Texas, but it seems unlikely that he will return the Vols’ basketball program to the levels it reached under Pearl in the late 2000s.
Football: David Beaty
Basketball: Bill Self
Self, with 12 straight Big 12 titles, is one of the elite coaches in college basketball. Beaty is 2–22 in two seasons in charge of the KU football program. He will be given ample time to turn things around.
Football: Dino Babers
Basketball: Jim Boeheim
Babers thrived at his first two stops as a head coach (Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green) but went 4–8 in Year 1 at Syracuse. He will be given time to turn things around. Boeheim has won one national championship and been to five Final Fours in his storied career at his alma mater.
31. Kansas State
Football: Bill Snyder
Basketball: Bruce Weber
Snyder oversaw arguably the greatest reclamation project in the history of college football and will be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Weber is regarded as an outstanding coach and average recruiter. The Wildcats appear headed to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in his five seasons at K-State.
Football: Kirk Ferentz
Basketball: Fran McCaffrey
Ferentz takes a lot of heat for his bloated contract, but he has done a solid job in his 18 years at Iowa. He has an 83–64 record in the Big Ten, highlighted by two 8–0 seasons and one 7–1 season. McCaffrey is known for his frequent outbursts on the bench, but he, too, has done a really nice job in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes made the NCAA Tournament in three straight seasons (2014-16) but appear to be a longshot to make it this year.
Football: Jeff Brohm
Basketball: Matt Painter
Painter has recovered from a rough patch (13–23 Big Ten record in ’12-13 and ’13-14) and has the Boilermakers back among the league’s elite. Brohm was a great hire by Purdue. The Bobby Petrino disciple went 30–10 in three seasons at Western Kentucky and did so while running one of the nation’s top offenses.
Football: David Shaw
Basketball: Jerod Haase
Shaw has the Stanford football program in great shape. Haase is a bit of a mystery at this point. He did an outstanding job at UAB, but the Cardinal have been a bit underwhelming in his first season on the Farm.
Football: Chris Petersen
Basketball: Lorenzo Romar
Petersen might be the No. 1 football coach in the league, but the Huskies check in at No. 7 on this list due to Romar and the slumping basketball program.
36. Penn State
Football: James Franklin
Basketball: Pat Chambers
Franklin guided the Nittany Lions to an unlikely Big Ten title in his third season Happy Valley. His most impressive accomplishment, however, is winning a combined 18 games in his final two seasons at Vanderbilt. Chambers is having a tough time turning things around at Penn State (no NCAA Tournaments in five full seasons), but recruiting has been on an uptick and his current team has a talented young core.
37. West Virginia
Football: Dana Holgorsen
Basketball: Bob Huggins
Huggins has enjoyed a remarkable — and underappreciated — career. He has had only two losing conference seasons in 31 years as a Division I head coach. Holgorsen has been good, but not great, in his six seasons at WVU. He went 7–2 in the Big 12 in 2016.
Football: Matt Rhule
Basketball: Scott Drew
With Baylor enjoying one of its best regular seasons in program history, Drew is finally earning some recognition for his coaching — not just his recruiting prowess. He will have the Bears in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the past six seasons. Rhule did a tremendous job at Temple, winning 10 games in each of the last two seasons. He has a difficult rebuild at Baylor — mostly due to off-the-field issues.
39. Ole Miss
Football: Huge Freeze
Basketball: Andy Kennedy
Freeze’s stock is slipping due to the Rebels’ surprising struggles in 2016 (2–6 SEC record) and the ongoing NCAA issues at Ole Miss. Kennedy is an interesting study: He has reached the NCAA Tournament only two times in 10 seasons, but he has had a .500 or better record in the SEC seven times. He’s been consistently solid at a place that doesn’t have great basketball tradition.
40. South Carolina
Football: Will Muschamp
Basketball: Frank Martin
Muschamp improved his reputation nationally — which wasn’t great after his struggles at Florida — by guiding an undermanned South Carolina team to a bowl game. It’s been a slow build for Martin and the basketball program, but the Gamecocks appear to be headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
An Erie Community College hockey player attacked a referee during a national title game and it resulted in an arrest.
Freshman Brandon Day can be seen storming the penalty box and charging at the referee in the final seconds of the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game. Even though it was the end of the game, he was charged with a ten-minute match penalty for abusing an official and was later arrested.
Erie Community College (NJCAA) player storms out of penalty box to level referee late in 3rd period, ending national title game pic.twitter.com/UuJYjSER3K— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 26, 2017
ECC president Jack Quinn issued a statement on the incident.
"The act of one player is in no way indicative of our mission as an educational institution, and does not personify the cordiality and dedication to service instilled in our student body."
The investigation is still ongoing.
One NFL prospect has the chance to own a private island. All he has to do is break the 40-yard dash record.
The catch is that he also must be wearing the new adidas cleats. Usually the company would offer a cash incentive—$1 million prize—if a prospect was wearing adidas cleats and broke the 4.24-second record set by Chris Johnson. But the stakes are even higher in 2017 as the brand is offering up a private island. So if you see a lot of prospects wearing cheetah-print cleats, you'll understand why.
Is it too late to get in on the action?
Trying to narrow down a list of the NFL’s 10 greatest kickers of all-time is not an easy task. Perhaps even more difficult is ranking them.
What matters most? Points scored? Success rates? Longevity? It's a tough call, but I think I cracked the nut.
Kickers, like referees in any sport, are meant to go unnoticed. They jog onto the field, have one job to do, do it, and jog off. That's it. If they do their jobs, we shrug it off on our way to the refrigerator or concession stand. It's only when they pull off the unthinkable, kick a game-winner — or in some cases fail — that we sit up, take notice and subsequently judge the “idiot” kicker.
Being one of the greatest kickers of all-time means doing your job well for an extended period of time while also accomplishing feats along the way that make you a household name.
10 Greatest Kickers in NFL History
10. John Carney
Tampa Bay 1988-89; Los Angeles Rams 1990, San Diego 1990-2000; New Orleans 2001-06,’09-10; Jacksonville 2007; Kansas City 2007; New York Giants 2008
All-Pro (1994), 2-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLIV champion (Saints)
Career success rates: 82.4 percent FG (478 made), 98.4 percent PAT
2,062 career points in 302 games (23 seasons)
Carney was the ultimate journeyman, but he got the job done at a high level at every stop in his career.
9. Matt Stover
New York Giants 1990; Cleveland 1991-95; Baltimore 1996-2008; Indianapolis 2009
All-Pro, Pro Bowl (2000)
Super Bowl XXV (Giants), XXXV (Ravens) champion
Career success rates: 83.7 percent FG (471 made), 99.5 percent PAT
2,004 career points in 297 games (19 seasons)
Stover made his name with the Ravens. As great as the defenses he shared a locker room with were, he was about as good as a kicker can be for the PAT.
8. Jason Elam
Denver 1993-2007; Atlanta 2008-09
3-time All-Pro, 3-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXII, XXXIII champion (Broncos)
Career success rates: 80.7 percent FG (436 made); 99.4 percent PAT
1,983 career points in 263 games (17 seasons)
Elam was one of the most prolific kickers of his era. He also owns the second-longest field goal in NFL history (63 yards).
7. Jason Hanson
All-Pro (1997), 2-time Pro Bowler
Career success rates: 82.4 percent FG (495 made), 98.8 percent PAT
2,150 career points in 327 games (21 seasons)
It doesn't matter what sport or position you play, you are probably doing it right when the same team holds on to you for 20 years. Hanson is the only kicker to ever be named Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association.
6. Gary Anderson
Pittsburgh 1982-94; Philadelphia 1995-96; San Francisco 1997; Minnesota 1998-2002; Tennessee 2003-04
2-time first-team All-Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler
Career success rates: 80.1 percent FG (538 made); 99.2 percent PAT
2,434 career points in 353 games (23 seasons)
Anderson is quite simply the greatest kicker in the history of the greatest franchise of the Super Bowl era. For his troubles, the Steelers retired his No. 1 jersey.
5. Stephen Gostkowski
New England 2006-Present
2-time first-team All-Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLIX, LI champion (Patriots)
Career success rates: 87.1 percent FG (303 made), 99.3 percent PAT
1,457 career points in 168 games (11 seasons)
There's a good chance the Gostkowski will finish his career as the greatest kicker who ever lived. The only thing he's really missing is some of those high-profile moments. The PAT he missed against Denver in the AFC Championship Game in January 2016 ended an NFL-record streak of 523.
4. Adam Vinatieri
New England 1996-2005; Indianapolis Colts 2006-Present
3-time first-team All-Pro, 3-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX (Patriots) and XLI (Colts) champion
Career success rates: 84.3 percent FG (530 made), 98.4 percent PAT
2,378 career points in 322 games (21 seasons)
Vinatieri is arguably the most famous kicker in NFL history, thanks to the three field goals that sealed Super Bowl wins for New England three different times and one miraculous kick in snowy Foxboro to beat the Raiders in the "Tuck Rule Game."
3. George Blanda
Chicago 1949, ‘50-58; Baltimore Colts 1950; Houston Oilers 1960-66; Oakland 1967-75
4-time AFL All-Star
1961 AFL MVP, 1970 NFL MVP (Bert Bell Award)
Career success rates: 52.4 percent FG (335 made); 98.3 percent PAT
2,002 career points in 340 games (26 seasons)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1981
Blanda was as good as a passer as he was a kicker, once tossing seven touchdowns in a single game. He played professional football in four different decades. He has kicked more extra points than any player in pro football history and is the kicker on the All-Time All-AFL Team.
2. Morten Andersen
New Orleans 1982-94; Atlanta 1995-2000, ’06-07; New York Giants 2001; Kansas City 2002-03; Minnesota 2004
6-time All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler
Career success rates: 79.6 percent FG (565 made), 98.8 percent PAT
2,544 career points in 382 games (25 seasons)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2017
Andersen was the premier kicker throughout the 1980s. It was his longevity that made him a legend that kicked in three different decades.
1. Lou Groza
Cleveland 1946-59, ‘61-67
4-time first-team All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler
4-time NFL champion (1950, ’54-55, ‘64)
Career success rates: 54.9 percent FG (264 made), 97.2 percent PAT
1,608 career points in 268 games (21 seasons)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1974
Groza's career wasn't about the stats. It was about him revolutionizing the kicking game. He was the first kicker to be considered a threat to put points on the board from 40-50 yards out. The Hall of Famer raised the bar for kickers. Today, the Lou Groza Award is given to college football's top placekicker.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
Gather 'round, boys and girls, and let me tell you a story of yesteryear. It was 2006, and Stanford football had just completed a 1-11 campaign. The Cardinal's 1-8 record in conference play marked a fifth straight season below .500 in the league, their second last-place finish in four years, and the bottom falling out over a brutal half-decade on The Farm.
Jim Harbaugh took over the next season, and thus began Stanford's ascent not only in the conference, but on the national college football scene. The Cardinal have now gone bowling every season since 2009, won three Pac-12 championships and two Rose Bowl Games, and reached the 10-win milestone six times. Harbaugh's former assistant and current Stanford head coach, David Shaw, has led the program through much of its success.
Times – and indeed, standards – have very much changed. Just a decade removed from losing 11 games, winning 10 in 2016 brings out a shocking number of results when Googling the phrase "Stanford football underachieved." Alas, expectations for Stanford ahead of last season deemed 10 wins without a Pac-12 championship something of a failure.
The Cardinal begin 2017 preparations in earnest with the opening of their spring camp, and there are some noteworthy changes. Nevertheless, the lofty standard under Shaw remains intact.
5 Storylines to Watch in Stanford Spring Practice
1. Feeling The Love
Much of last season's hype centered around the return of 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey. He left a game early, departing before December's Sun Bowl to embark on his NFL career. Reserve Bryce Love acquitted himself nicely, rushing for 115 yards in Stanford's defeat of North Carolina.
The Sun Bowl propels Love into his new role as the Cardinal's every-down back. He need not be Christian McCaffrey for the Cardinal to succeed offensively – really, the only way to replace McCaffrey straight-up would be to add vintage Reggie Bush or C.J. Spiller to the backfield.
Love also won't be a throwback to past Stanford ball carriers like Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney, all of whom had at least 30 pounds on Love. He has an opportunity to carve out his own style unlike previous Jim Harbaugh or David Shaw-coached running backs – particularly because of the uncertainty surrounding the overall look of the offense.
2. Quarterback Questions
Kevin Hogan quarterbacked Stanford to three Pac-12 titles and a couple of Rose Bowl wins; was placed on a hypothetical Mount Rushmore with Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Andrew Luck; and somehow, left The Farm wholly underappreciated.
Stanford's struggles at quarterback last season should have engendered greater appreciation for all Hogan accomplished in his time there. Meanwhile, the Cardinal head into 2017 still seeking to adequately replace him.
Ryan Burns started initially, but struggled mightily. Keller Chryst showed promise after taking over midway through the campaign, throwing 10 touchdowns with just one interception after settling in as starter. However, a knee injury sustained in the bowl game will keep him out of spring practices. Five-star recruit Davis Mills also suffered a knee injury at the end of his prep season.
Burns opted not to transfer, so expect him to get the majority of first-string reps in the spring – unless talented youngster K.J. Costello impresses.
3. Keeping the Party Going
The Stanford defense coined the phrase "Party in the Backfield" to denote the many sacks it racked up during the 2012 and ‘13 seasons. The party's raged on for years since, with Solomon Thomas serving as M.C. a season ago. He'll take his quarterback-terrifying ways to the NFL, which leaves new faces in charge.
Tackle Harrison Phillips is Stanford's top returning sacker, last season tallying 6.5. However, the Cardinal always thrive bringing a rusher off the edge, whether Thomas, Trent Murphy or Ben Gardner.
Sophomore Dylan Jackson has a prime opportunity to carry the mantle of outstanding Stanford pass rushers. He can arrive fashionably early to the party in spring practices.
4. Solidifying the Secondary
Amid its mid-season losing skid in 2016, the Stanford secondary struggled mightily. Chalk some of it up to injury; Quenton Meeks and Frank Buncom missed invaluable time early in Pac-12 play. Both return, and Meeks has the potential to be an All-American-caliber cornerback.
However, after giving up more than 2,900 passing yards a season ago, the Cardinal secondary does need more consistency.
5. The Big Trees up Front
Outstanding offensive lines powered Stanford throughout its run atop the Pac-12. While McCaffrey racked up highlights en route to the Heisman Trophy presentation in 2015, lineman Joshua Garnett could often be seen blasting would-be tacklers out of the way.
Garnett's absence loomed large on the Cardinal offense a season ago – perhaps largely than the void Hogan left at quarterback. The 2017 line's big loss is Johnny Caspers. A youthful front five awaits, with players like Nate Herbig likely to see their first opportunities.
Stanford’s Pre-Spring Outlook in the Pac-12
Washington and Washington State blowing out Stanford in consecutive weekends suggested that the balance of power in the Pac-12 North shifted northward. However, the defending conference champion Huskies face considerable question marks with players leaving for the NFL, while Washington State's late-season collapse begets questions of the Cougars' ability to contend for a divisional title.
With Oregon and Cal breaking in new head coaches, and Oregon State thus far showing only scratching the surface under Gary Andersen, Stanford may well be Old Faithful in an uncertain division.
Surely, the Cardinal are not without their own issues, the quarterback conundrum being the most troubling. A talented and veteran defense ensures that at the very worst, however, Stanford will be a candidate to again win 10 games – if not the conference.
College basketball conference tournament time is upon us, which means almost every team gets a chance to make it to the Big Dance. Regardless of their record going into the conference tournament, we have seen plenty of teams make some crazy runs to get into the NCAA Tournament courtesy of that coveted automatic bid.
But March Madness also is the time when mid-majors and the smaller conferences get their chance in the spotlight, especially those that go on to upset a higher-seeded, power conference team in the NCAA Tournament. Every year there’s usually some team that takes a spin as Cinderella, but there also are those mid-major or lesser known teams that are legitimate threats in their own right and ones that the higher seeds don’t want to see when the brackets are revealed.
Here are five such teams that unless they lose in their respective conference tournament could play the role of bracket buster and contribute to the latest round of March Madness.
Conference: America East
Conference Tournament: Campus sites March 1, 6, 11
Power Five Wins: 0 (lost by 22 at Providence, by 1 to Houston, by 18 at South Carolina)
Leading Scorers: Anthony Lamb and Trae Bell-Haynes, 11.6 ppg
Reasons for Worry: The Catamounts have five players who average at least eight points per game. The majority of their rotation is filled with juniors and seniors. They also most likely won't leave their home gym for the conference tourney so they are the odds-on favorite to win the America East. They last made the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and have one victory in the school's history.
Florida Gulf Coast (23-7)
Conference: Atlantic Sun
Conference Tournament: Campus sites Feb. 27, March 2, 5
Best win: at Louisiana Tech 79-78 (lost by single digits to Baylor and Michigan State)
Leading Scorer: Brandon Goodwin, 18.0 ppg
Reasons for Worry: Dunk City could ruin your bracket once again with four double-digit scorers and a veteran-laden team. Many of the same players on this year’s team helped FGCU win its First Four matchup in last year’s tournament before losing to North Carolina 83-67. This is a group that won't be afraid of anyone and much like Vermont, won't have to leave home in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament.
UNC Wilmington (25-5)
Conference: Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
Conference Tournament: at North Charleston Coliseum (North Charleston, S.C.) March 3-6
Best Win: at St. Bonaventure 81-80 (lost by 5 to Middle Tennessee)
Leading Scorer: C.J. Bryce, 17.0 ppg
Reasons for Worry: The Seahawks play a frenetic style and have four double-digit scorers. They can beat you in a track meet and also can hold you down and play a game in the 60s. UNCW, as a No. 13 seed, lost a tough one to Duke last year in the first round 93-85. The Seahawks have just one tournament win in program history, but don’t underestimate this team.
East Tennessee State (23-6)
Conference: Southern (SoCon)
Conference Tournament: at U.S. Cellular Center (Asheville, N.C.) March 3-6
Best Win: at Mississippi State 67-65 (lost by four to Tennessee)
Leading Scorer: T.J. Cromer, 19.0 ppg
Reasons for Worry: The Buccaneers have a ton of balance with seven players that at least seven points per game. Hanner Mosquera-Perea is one of those guys and he brings a winning pedigree having started his collegiate career at Indiana. There are six seniors on this squad and they've tested themselves so far in 2016. Much like UNC Wilmington, ETSU plays an interesting style and can win both high- and low-scoring games.
Conference: Patriot League
Conference Tournament: Campus sites, Feb. 28, March 2, 5, 8
Best Win: at Vanderbilt 75-72
Leading Scorer: Zach Thomas, 16.0 ppg
Reasons for Worry: The Bison tested themselves out of conference and will not leave home during their conference tournament. If you notice the teams that I've identified for this exercise, they each have a winning pedigree and Power Five-caliber talent. The Bison are a little undersized, but they are scrappy. Nathan Davis was a highly successful head coach at Division III power Randolph-Macon, so he’s no stranger to getting the job come tournament time.
Others that were considered: Middle Tennessee (Conference USA), Belmont (OVC), Illinois State (MVC), Monmouth (MAAC)
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The A’s are making no promises about contending in 2017. It would be a stretch to suggest this team could keep up with the Rangers or Astros. The A’s finished last in consecutive seasons and seem to have 2019 in their sights more than 2017. Maybe some of their young players will be reaching stardom by then. Maybe their hopes for a new ballpark will be more than a dream by then. Maybe they’d consider keeping their best players long term by then.
Until further notice, it’s more of the same: Give young players the chance to succeed at the major-league level and, before they can reach their peak earning potential, dump them for younger players. It’s a vicious cycle that sometimes works and sometimes turns ugly. The system seemed perfectly fine when the A’s built playoff teams three straight seasons from 2012-14, but the past two years were a tough learning experience. The pattern isn’t expected to change in the immediate future. That’s not to say the next wave of young players doesn’t have promise, including starting pitcher Sean Manaea, third/first baseman Ryon Healy, catcher Bruce Maxwell and second baseman Joey Wendle, all of whom had nice runs in their first big-league seasons. But the anticipated growing pains and deficiencies throughout the roster make it tough to believe the A’s will make much noise in 2016.
Manager Bob Melvin went into the new year able to pencil in three starters: Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman and Manaea. Unless a veteran arm is added, the other two spots will be determined in spring training among a young field of Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, Daniel Mengden, Raul Alcantara, Dillon Overton and Frankie Montas. The rotation ranked next to last in the league in ERA (4.84), and Gray posted his worst season (5–11, 5.69 ERA, 1.496 WHIP) while battling injuries — a far cry from his first three years in Oakland (2.88 ERA, 1.134 WHIP). A bounce-back year is a must for all concerned. The A’s would be better with their ace returning to form, and his trade value would be better in case the A’s decide to move him before the deadline or next winter. He’s 27 with three more years of club control. While Gray struggled, Graveman was steady over a career-high 31 starts and 186 innings. Manaea scuffled after getting called up in April but eventually figured it out. His ERA was 3.86 in 25 games (24 starts) and 1.13 in four September starts. Cotton, acquired in the trade that shipped Josh Reddick to the Dodgers, posted a 2.15 ERA in five September starts.
After Marcus Semien’s vast defensive improvement, the A’s are set at shortstop. Second base is a different story. Jed Lowrie will need to prove he’s healthy after August surgery to his left foot, and the top prospect at the position, Wendle, has only one month of big-league experience. Executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane called second base “a concern” and was seeking depth. The A’s could look long term at Chad Pinder or their top overall prospect, Franklin Barreto, a shortstop by trade who’ll probably open at Triple-A. Semien cut his error total from 35 to 21 and supplied power with 27 homers and 75 RBIs, second on the team to Khris Davis in both categories, while hitting in eight spots in the batting order.
Healy was a pleasant surprise, called up after the All-Star break and eventually taking over at third base. He hit .305 with 13 homers in half a season and likely will open 2017 in the middle of the lineup. Oakland signed former Twin Trevor Plouffe to a one-year deal, which means Healy will move over to first base, his natural position. Plouffe was limited to just 84 games last season because of injuries, but prior to that he had averaged 21 home runs from 2012-15. With Healy moving to first, that shifts Yonder Alonso, who was arbitration eligible and re-signed for $4 million, to DH/reserve duty. Alonso is a super defender, but Healy offers more with the bat. The A’s also have third baseman Matt Champan, a first-round pick in 2014 who collected 36 homers and 96 RBIs in two minor-league stops, waiting in the wings. Chapman appears destined to start at Triple-A Nashville, but if he’s able to break into the majors it could mean Healy shifts to DH with Plouffe moving across the diamond to first.
Davis will return to left field after smacking 42 homers and collecting 102 RBIs and joining four Oakland heavyweights in the 40-homers club: Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi. He will be joined by two newcomers, Rajai Davis and Matt Joyce. The AL leader in stolen bases last season (43) with Cleveland, Davis inked a one-year deal in January to play center field. Joyce was signed for two years and $11 million, mostly to play right and face right-handed pitchers. His .403 OBP was fourth best in the National League among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances.
Two-time All-Star Stephen Vogt might open the season as the No. 1 catcher, but Bruce Maxwell is waiting in the wings after impressing the brass in his rookie season. Maxwell, who like Vogt bats left-handed, hit .283 in 33 games and started 17 times in September to give decision-makers a good look. It’s possible Vogt and Josh Phegley will open the season as the catchers, but Maxwell might not be far away.
The A’s agreed that Billy Butler was a $30 million failure at DH and released him with more than a year to go in his contract. The A’s pursued Edwin Encarnacion, who signed with Cleveland, and might rotate players at the DH spot, including Healy, Davis, Vogt and Alonso. The A’s don’t have much infield depth, although Barreto could emerge quickly, and Chapman is worth keeping an eye on too. Former starting infielder Adam Rosales also is back in Oakland after playing last year for the Padres. Rosales was with the A’s from 2010-13, making starts all over the infield. Jake Smolinski and prospect Matt Olson are the likely outfield options, as is Mark Canha, who’s coming off hip surgery.
With the A’s incrementally losing their revenue-sharing checks over the next four years, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the team must get serious about a new park to generate more revenue. Meantime, team president Dave Kaval said every dollar generated would go to “the on-field product and the fan experience” but didn’t provide specifics or say whether payroll would be slashed.
The A’s play in an antiquated stadium. They don’t draw well. They trade their top players instead of paying them top dollar, making it tough for fans to be faithful. Of course, the sentiment would improve if the A’s got off to a quick start, re-energized their fan base and even took steps toward constructing a baseball-only facility in Oakland. Miracles do happen.
2017 AL WEST PREDICTION: 5th
The 2017 NFL Draft is still two months away but for players hoping to realize their dreams of playing on Sundays this week’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is a critical first step towards that goal.
While some jokingly refer to the week-long event as the “Underwear Olympics,” the reality is that the Combine is the first opportunity for invited players to make a strong initial impression on their potential future employer.
Regardless of whether this a made-for-TV event or something that’s not worthy the hype and attention it receives, drills such as the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, cone drills, Wonderlic and BOD Pod tests are just part of the lengthy and exhaustive process these players are about to embark on leading up to this year’s draft, which will take place April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
So which players aced their opening interviews by opening eyes at the Combine? Here are 10 workout warriors (in alphabetical order) who impressed those holding the stopwatches, measuring tapes and clipboards.
Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006
Davis looked like a body builder or, at the very least, an actor from an Under Armour commercial en route to running a 4.38 in the 40, skying for a 42” vertical, 10’8” broad, and slamming 33 reps on the bench press.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012
The fastest quarterback in Combine history, RG3 was a track star on the fast track to NFL (at least initially) and commercial superstardom — with a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash to go along with a dunk contest-worthy 39” vertical.
Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1986
The two-sport tall tale weighed in at a chiseled 6’1”, 230 pounds before running an unofficial hand-timed 4.12 in the 40-yard dash — a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring effort that is still a part of Combine folklore.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech – 2007
Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008
Before he became CJ2K, the gold-grilled CJ4.24 was the gold standard official record-holder in laser-timed 40-yard sprints, posting a 4.24 and hitting the first-round finish line in-stride.
Byron Jones, CB, Connecticut – 2015
Jones literally jumped at the chance to impress at the Combine in 2015, putting up an eye-popping 12’3” in the broad jump. His mark was the best posted in the Combine in the past decade by eight inches. He followed up his broad jump with an equally impressive vertical jump of 44.5” (third-best at Combine over past 10 years), and subsequently watched his draft stock soar all the way to the latter part of the first round.
Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995
After all these years, Mamula remains the go-to cautionary tale of the Combine. The BC beast vaulted up draft boards after a 4.58 in the 40, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, a 38” vertical and a 49-of-50 on the Wonderlic Test. Mamula never looked as good in pads as he did in shorts.
Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989
In hindsight, the most impressive thing the “Incredible Bulk” did was pass his steroid drug screening during the Combine. At 304 pounds, Mandarich ran a 4.65 in the 40, exploded for a 30” vertical and 10’3” broad jump, and ripped off 39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989
The ultimate showman (and show-boater), Deion showed up fashionably late (and probably fashionably loud) to the Combine, then ran his 40-yard dash only once — in a time between 4.19 and 4.29, depending on whose hand-timed stop watch you trust. But Prime Time didn’t stop running once he hit the finish line; Sanders ran out of the building to a limousine waiting to take him to the airport.
J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011
In hindsight, the numbers that Watt put up at the Combine were a window into his dominant Defensive Player of the Year future. At 6-foot-5, 290 pounds with 11 1/8” hands and 34” arms, Watt ran a 4.84 in the 40, soared for a 37” vertical and 10’ broad jump, and threw up a long-armed 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
After the seasons Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard had as rookies in 2016, running backs are once again the trendy position in the NFL. Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns as he helped the Cowboys win the NFC East. As a fifth-round pick, Howard rushed for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns for the Bears.
There is no lack of options in the 2017 NFL Draft for teams looking to improve their backfield. With the Scouting Combine set to take place Feb. 28-March 6, here are the top five running back prospects with the draft still two months away.
1. Dalvin Cook, Florida State
There have been a number of running backs that have made their way through Tallahassee throughout the years, but Cook could be the most talented of the bunch. In all three seasons for Florida State, Cook rushed for more than 1,000 yards as he kept getting better with each season.
In 2016, Cook rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns on 288 carries. He also showed his ability as a receiver out of the backfield with 33 catches for 488 yards and a score.
Cook is exactly the type of running back that teams are looking for in today’s NFL. He has the quickness to make cuts on a dime while having excellent vision to see the hole and explode through it.
The one concern teams may have about Cook is ball security. During his three seasons at Florida State, Cook fumbled the ball 13 times. Also, Cook isn’t the best blocker in passing downs, but he can improve on that.
Cook has the potential to have the same type of impact Ezekiel Elliott had as the No. 4 overall pick last year. While at Florida State, Cook was a big game player as he performed well when the lights were at their brightest. Don’t be surprised if Cook is the 2017 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
2. Leonard Fournette, LSU
Fournette has all the intangibles to become one of the best running backs of all time. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound All-SEC player, showed flashes of his greatness with the Tigers.
He was at his best as a sophomore when he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 carries. Last season, Fournette injured his ankle in the season opener and re-aggravated it later, as he was limited to 843 yards and eight touchdowns in just seven games.
Fournette is built like a bruising, between-the-tackles back, but he possesses the speed and explosiveness of a game-breaking receiver. Not only can Fournette run away from defenders, but he also loves to dish out contact to would-be tacklers.
His play in big games is a bit of a concern as he averaged less than 50 rushing yards and had just one touchdown in three games against Alabama. Fournette needs a lot of work in pass protection and when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield.
Fournette doesn’t have the vision of an Adrian Peterson when he came out of Oklahoma, but he does have the same physical gifts. If he can remain healthy with his violent running style, Fournette should be one of the best players in this year’s draft, regardless of position.
3. Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
There’s no doubt about Mixon’s ability to play in the NFL, but his past could be the reason he isn’t an early-round draft pick.
On the field, Mixon is the complete package as he is an excellent runner, receiver and he can even contribute on special teams. Last season for Oklahoma, Mixon rushed for 1,274 yards and 10 touchdowns on 187 carries. He also chipped in 37 receptions for 538 yards and five more scores.
Mixon has exceptional vision and the patience to wait for his blockers to open the hole for him so he can burst through it. He doesn’t have breakaway speed to outrun defenders and ball security also is a concern.
But the biggest factor working against Mixon is history. In 2014, Mixon was redshirted after he was suspended for the season after striking a woman in a Norman, Oklahoma, restaurant. The woman suffered a broken jaw and cheek in the incident. Mixon was charged with a misdemeanor and had to complete community service but was not kicked off the team.
Because of Mixon's violent history, he was not invited to the scouting combine. Any player with a misdemeanor or felony conviction involving violence or use of a weapon, sexual offense or assault and domestic violence will not get an invitation to Indianapolis for the week-long event.
Mixon has first-round talent, but he was not invited to the Combine and it remains to be seen if he will be drafted at all given his history. Even if he goes undrafted, Mixon will end up in someone’s training camp and likely be on a roster this fall.
4. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Coming out of high school, Kamara was highly recruited as he enrolled at Alabama. In 2014, Kamara transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College where he was the conference player of the year. Then in 2015, he transferred to Tennessee.
As a redshirt sophomore that season, Kamara rushed for 698 yards and seven touchdowns as a reserve. In 2016, Kamara missed time with some injuries, but still managed to run for 596 yards and nine touchdowns on just 103 carries.
At 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, Kamara isn’t the biggest running back, but he has incredible top-end speed. In his last year at Tennessee, Kamara caught 40 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns, so he should be able to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. He also has value on special teams as he returned punts for the Volunteers, taking one back for a touchdown.
Kamara doesn’t have the best vision as a runner, and teams will probably be a little cautious in evaluating him because of his lack of experience (24 games played at Tennessee). But what Kamara does possess is plenty of raw talent. If he shows well at the Combine, some team could take a chance on him as early as the second round because of his tantalizing upside and the fact he didn’t get a heavy workload in college.
5. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Despite being hampered by injuries, McCaffrey had another big season for the Cardinal in 2016, rushing for 1,603 yards and 13 touchdowns on 253 carries. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2015 after breaking Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards with 3,864.
McCaffey is the epitome of a do-everything running back. Besides rushing for nearly 4,000 yards in three collegiate seasons, he also recorded more than 1,200 receiving yards and an additional 1,859 as a kickoff and punt returner.
McCaffrey may lack the ideal size (he’s 6-0, 200) of an NFL running back so he may be best suited as a complementary ball carrier rather than a workhorse, but the league has pretty much shifted to a running back by committee approach so that shouldn’t be a huge concern.
In the right system, McCaffrey could emerge as a consistent contributor as a rookie. He may never be an All-Pro or even make the Pro Bowl, but there’s little question he belongs in the NFL.
Other running backs to keep an eye on: D’Onta Foreman, Texas; Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State; Jamaal Williams, BYU, Samaje Perine, Oklahoma; Curtis Samuel, Ohio State; Kareem Hunt, Toledo; Elijah McGuire, UL Lafayette
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Just a few years ago, there were question marks about the Big Ten’s ability to churn out NFL talent in large numbers. That’s no longer the case however, as the league is sending an impressive 51 players to the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine this year.
Leading the way is Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad, which has more players in Indianapolis this week (Feb. 28-March 6) than any other with a whopping 14 former Wolverines expected to run, jump and interview for scouts and coaches galore. Rival Ohio State isn’t too far behind in terms of numbers either and could again have the most first-rounders of any school when all is said and done from the NFL Draft.
Who’s under the most pressure and who’s destined to be a future star on Sundays? Here’s a look at 10 Big Ten players to keep an eye on when the Combine gets under way and what they can do to solidify their status.
1. Jabrill Peppers, ATH, Michigan
Peppers was a regular on the college football awards circuit thanks to his versatility at Michigan and now it is time for NFL evaluators to sort out how that will transition to the pros. Is he an outside linebacker? Is he a safety? Is he a return man who has a package of plays on both sides of the ball? All that flexibility will no doubt add to Peppers’ value but it will be fascinating to see scouts try to peg his next role. As a result, there might be no more interesting player to watch at the Combine.
2. Marshon Lattimore, DB, Ohio State
It’s going to be an interesting battle right up to draft day to see whether Lattimore or former Buckeyes teammate Malik Hooker is the first defensive back taken. With Hooker missing the Combine due to offseason surgery, there’s an opening for Lattimore to state his case to teams. With a ton of teams needing corners in the top 10, this is a player who could use a great showing in Indy to propel himself to a big pay day.
3. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Size and a slight build may be the only thing that will keep Lewis from the first round but a strong Combine could keep him firmly in the mix to be a top-50 pick when all is said and done. He’s one of the premiere cover corners to come out of college the past few seasons but will still need to prove that is going to translate to the next level. It doesn’t help that he’ll be constantly compared to the big-time prospects from rival Ohio State but Lewis has a chance to impress in other ways this week.
4. Taco Charlton, DL, Michigan
Charlton checks just about every box you want when looking for in a pass rusher. He’s athletic, long and should get plenty of folks enamored with what he can do in trying to get to the quarterback. While he’ll need to answer questions about inconsistency during his time with the Wolverines, it’s possible some eye-popping testing numbers help enhance his case to be one of the first edge rushers off the board.
5. Desmond King, DB, Iowa
King was such a steady player for the Hawkeyes over the years and played a big role in the team’s surprising run to the Rose Bowl two seasons ago when he won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back. He won’t get the buzz that some of the other top prospects in the secondary will but this will nevertheless be an intriguing second day pick for some team. If he can shake off questions about his speed and quickness during testing, King could certainly see his stock rise quickly.
6. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
McDowell could be one of the most interesting prospects in the draft and teams will surely put him through the paces at Lucas Oil Stadium to figure out whether he can be an All-Pro based on his abilities or if he’ll struggle during his early days in the league. Physically, he has all the tools in the world and should have added value for teams given that he can play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. Perhaps he can write off his sub-par final season with the Spartans due to injury but a good Combine appearance could see talk of becoming a first rounder re-appear.
7. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
McMillan was a tackling machine at OSU and one of the most productive players on a stellar defense the past three seasons. How that translates to the NFL is a bit unknown however so showing he’s athletic enough to play all the time will be key when he goes through drills and runs in the testing section. He could be a name that goes later than many college fans expect come draft time but a strong performance could help prevent that slide and help turn McMillan into a solid starter for years to come.
8. Ryan Ramczyk, OL, Wisconsin
Let’s face it, the Combine isn’t the best of settings for offensive linemen aside from the bench press. While Ramczyk will miss most of the on-field testing anyway as a result of an injury, he still has a chance to become the first offensive lineman taken in the draft with a good showing in Indy by checking out on the medical side and proving he has plenty of strength to go with the highly regarded athleticism he already possesses.
9. Gareon Conley, DB, Ohio State
Conley isn’t quite the prospect as some of his fellow Buckeyes but a few good measurables in Indy could make him an early pick. He has plenty of game tape, solid size and should run fast enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams looking for help at cornerback. If he can prove that he’s much more of an all-around cover guy with a fluid showing during drills, there could be plenty of buzz that starts to build around Conley.
10. T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin
Watt’s last name will be a blessing and a curse when it comes to the Combine, as older brother J.J. will get brought up plenty of times (in addition to what likely will be a ton of commercials during TV coverage of the event). Still, he impressed last season as a starter and there’s plenty of positive attributes trending his way and he could continue to climb up draft boards with a strong outing at Lucas Oil.
Don’t forget about: Curtis Samuel (WR, Ohio State), Pat Elfein (OL, Ohio State), Noah Brown (WR, Ohio State), Riley Bullough (LB, Michigan State), Corey Clement (RB, Wisconsin), Sojourn Shelton (DB, Wisconsin), Garrett Sickels (DL, Penn State), Chris Godwin (WR, Penn State), C.J. Beathard (QB, Iowa), Jehu Chesson (WR, Michigan), Ifeadi Odenigbo (DL, Northwestern)
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
A whooping 60 ACC players are scheduled attend the annual NFL Scouting Combine and the pressure will be on every one of them to showcase their skills this week (Feb. 28-March 6) in front of every franchise during the most pressure-packed job interview of the players’ lives. National champion Clemson leads the way for the league in terms of representation with nine high-profile players headed to Indianapolis but Miami (also with nine) and Florida State will be sending plenty of alums to strut their stuff in front of all 32 teams.
Who’s under the most pressure and who’s destined to be a future star on Sundays? Here’s a look at 10 ACC players to keep an eye on when the Combine gets under way in Indianapolis and what they can do to solidify their status.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
This year’s draft is full of big names but there are none bigger than the quarterback from Clemson who is fresh off a slaying of Alabama’s vaunted defense to win the national title. That’s one reason why Watson has been thrown around as a name for that No. 1 overall selection and how well he performs at the Combine could play a big role in him going first or slipping down in the draft. He’s expected to do the full gauntlet of drills so you can bet that all eyes will be on the college star as he takes his first steps to becoming a pro.
2. Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
This year’s quarterback class can best be described as intriguing and no prospect better defines that than the Tar Heels’ signal-caller. Trubisky has all the tools to become the first QB off the board this year and should test well given his athletic abilities and strong arm. What a lot of teams will need to figure out though, is if that limited sample size at the college level (just 13 starts) is either a warning sign for the potential top-10 pick — or a sign of things to come.
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook and Leonard Fournette will be neck-and-neck for most teams in terms of who is the top running back in this year’s draft and the Combine performances could give some insight as to which ultimately ends up being taken higher later this spring. The Seminoles star’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield could give him a nice leg up when it comes to showcasing his skills during drills but don’t discount how much the freakish athlete can wow folks when it comes to the testing portions either.
4. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
At this point, it would be pretty surprising if Williams isn’t the first wide receiver taken in the draft and he’s good enough to become an unquestioned top-five pick given what he showed in his final season with the Tigers. He’s got the size, speed and hands to impress in every portion of the Combine and if he meets expectations in Indy, it should make for a fascinating next few months as teams fall more and more into love with the terrific pass catcher from Clemson.
5. Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech
Evans was one of the more surprising early entrants to the 2017 NFL Draft, spending just a season in Blacksburg with the Hokies after being a top junior college recruit the year prior. That limited amount of game tape at the FBS level will be something to overcome with teams but there’s little doubt that his great size (6-4, 230 pounds), strong arm, and ability to run the ball will make him among the most interesting prospects at his position. Evans may not wind up a first-rounder but a strong showing at the Combine could cause him to shoot up draft boards given what he brings to the table.
6. Nathan Peterman, QB, Pitt
Every year there’s a quarterback who has a strong showing at the Combine and continues to pick up buzz all the way through to the draft. In 2017, that just might be Peterman, who checks off a lot of boxes for NFL evaluators in terms of size, accuracy and playing in a pro-style system. He may not be the biggest name on the board but when it comes to folks on the NFL side of things, this quarterback is certainly one to watch as a sleeper pick.
7. David Njoku, TE, Miami
The latest star tight end from “The U” doesn’t have the numbers or accolades of some of his fellow Combine invitees but his off-the-charts athleticism gives him a chance to be a first-rounder this year. He was a difference-maker for the Hurricanes on the field this year and not only brings the ability to become a top pass catcher at the position but a strong blocker too. The Combine should be a time for Njoku to shine when it comes to testing numbers and if he does well during drills, expect plenty of top 20 buzz to build around him next month.
8. Devonte Fields, DL/LB, Louisville
The Combine is not only a chance for players to showcase their athletic skills but also get in front of teams and the media to discuss their college careers. That off-the-field portion in Indianapolis will be crucial for Fields given some of the incidents that led him to Louisville after bursting onto the scene at TCU as the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year back in 2012. The testing portion should allow him to show off his terrific athleticism but he will also have to prove to teams that he isn’t a tweener between an undersized defensive end and an outside linebacker who isn’t quite quick enough.
9. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
There might not be a more divisive quarterback prospect in the draft than Kaaya. He’s what you want when you’re talking about size, strength, intelligence and the fact that he played in a pro-style system. However there are issues when it comes to accuracy and the fact that he forces plenty of bad throws when under pressure. He could go just about anywhere in the draft but the first step comes when he goes through the Combine process.
10. Ryan Switzer, WR/KR, North Carolina
There are a ton of great prospects coming out of the ACC this year but there might not be a more fun one to watch than Switzer, who is a bit of a Swiss Army knife coming out of Chapel Hill. His small stature will give some teams pause but he should test off the charts given his blend of quickness and speed. Expect to hear plenty of Wes Welker/Julian Edelman comparisons but the Combine should be the first step in Switzer carving out his own role.
Don’t sleep on: James Conner (RB, Pitt), Kermit Whitfield (WR, Florida State), Isaiah Ford (WR, Virginia Tech), Josh Harvey-Clemons (DB, Louisville), Amba Etta-Tawo (WR, Syracuse), Ejuan Price (DL, Pitt), Ken Ekanem (DL, Virginia Tech), Wayne Gallman (RB, Clemson), Ben Boulware (LB, Clemson)
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
So much change has happened during a crazy NASCAR offseason it’s easy to forget about the part that puts fans in the stands every Sunday: the competition itself. Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota have each flexed their muscle so far during a busier-than-normal Speedweeks, giving hope that 2017 may produce more parity than ever in a sport where first through 40th place can be separated by less than a second on the lap chart.
The Fords appear reinvigorated, led by the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing whose newest driver, Clint Bowyer, was runner-up in his qualifying Duel. Heck, even Danica Patrick has made some noise, finishing fourth in Sunday’s Clash and remaining competitive despite questions about her future sponsorship. Add in the typical might of Team Penske (Joey Logano won the Clash) and it would be no surprise to see your Daytona 500 winner come from here.
But what about Toyota? They were 1-2-3-4 for much of Sunday’s Clash and boast a defending champion, Denny Hamlin, who snookered the best of the best in Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the end of Thursday night’s qualifying Duel. If JGR can keep together as a team, bringing rookie Daniel Suarez up to speed by Sunday they appear to have the most horsepower of anyone in the field.
Or does that honor belong to Hendrick Motorsports? Chevrolet, after a rough start in the Clash came back with a vengeance after Chase Elliott and Earnhardt swept the front row for Sunday’s race. Even Jamie McMurray, a plate race specialist and the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, was flexing some muscle along with teammate Kyle Larson. Add in Austin Dillon, whose push of Hamlin was the key to victory in the second Duel race and there’s a long list of contenders on their side.
When you add all that up, what you get is a field that’s wide open heading to a Cup race on Sunday without Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and Greg Biffle in the field. The last time one of the five wasn’t a part of this circus? 1992.
So a clear changing of the guard is at hand, and as a result we’ve got the most unpredictable Daytona 500 in years. Any one of 20 faces could wind up in Victory Lane without so much as a raised eyebrow from the fan base. For a sport that’s in clear rebuild mode, armed with a new title sponsor and desperate to turn declining ratings around such parity is a great place to start.
59th Daytona 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
The last time Chase’s father, Bill, won the Daytona 500 in 1987 this 21-year-old wasn’t even born. But the son is trying to follow in the family’s footsteps, winning his second straight pole for “The Great American Race” and then deftly maneuvering through traffic to take Thursday’s qualifying Duel. You know who else won a Duel, at 21 years old driving the No. 24 car? A guy named Jeff Gordon. Wonder how his career turned out...
Who’s at the Back: Martin Truex Jr.
Furniture Row Racing, in general has struggled since adding rookie Erik Jones as a second team in the offseason. But while Jones can be expected to hit bumps in the road being a young rookie on the circuit, it’s Truex who’s coming off a career year. He struggled during the Clash, never really showing the speed of the other Toyotas and did the same in his Duel just one year after finishing second in the Daytona 500. One bad race does not a bad season make but Truex’s struggles could be worth watching. Expansion, especially for a team like FRR that has run as a single-car operation for so long can be tricky to navigate.
Denny Hamlin announced a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, along with sponsor FedEx that will keep him in the No. 11 Toyota for years to come. The signing ends speculation the 29-time Cup winner would be moved elsewhere to make room for young Erik Jones come 2018. Gibbs, the only owner Hamlin had ever driven for since moving up to Cup full-time in 2006, will now focus on the future of Matt Kenseth as all his other drivers are signed long-term.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted in an interview this week at Daytona Media Day that if he won this season’s championship, he’d consider retirement. “It’d be hard not to call it a career,” he said, admitting that’s the one goal on his racing bucket list that has not been checked off. Earnhardt, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires at the end of the season, has put off extension talks for the next couple of months as he readjusts to full-time driving.
Danica Patrick claimed this week she’s had multiple concussions while driving a race car and that another one would give her pause as to continuing her driving career. If anything, the comments perhaps added further insight to Carl Edwards stepping away from the sport just months after falling just short of a championship.
“I think that we’d like to sweep it all under the rug,” she told ESPN. “But it’s our life. I love what I do but I love lots of other things and I also love life.”
Rules, rules, rules. NASCAR made so many changes this offseason it’s impossible to go through here but the one making headlines this week is the five-minute clock for repairing race cars. Once you get in a wreck at Daytona, you have five minutes to repair the car on pit road, then reach minimum speed after the green flag otherwise you’re headed to the garage area. The move is designed to cut down on the number of wounded race cars running around for points while becoming roadblocks and potential trash depositors on the track.
Joey Logano announced Friday morning he has signed an extension with Team Penske and primary sponsor Shell/Pennzoil that runs at least through the 2022 season. Logano, 26, has been a contender for the season title in each of the last three years since NASCAR switched to its current playoff format. Since joining Penske, he’s won 15 of 17 career races, made the sport’s final four at Homestead twice and captured the 2015 Daytona 500.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Age of the youngest Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne in 2011. Chase Elliott would be a winner at 21 if he accomplishes the feat Sunday.
Laps led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his return to the sport Thursday night. Earnhardt led most of his Duel before getting passed on the outside by Hamlin heading to the white flag.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Joe Gibbs Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing. Sure, they struggled to work together in the first Duel Thursday evening but Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are arguably the best trio of teammates in the sport today. If they can work together, getting underdog rookie Daniel Suarez in the mix, they’ll form a 1-2-3-4 conga line Sunday that’s going to be difficult to beat. It’s how Hamlin won the 2016 Daytona 500 and they could easily rinse and repeat.
Guess who had the highest finish in all restrictor plate races last year? That would be none other than Austin Dillon, posting four top-10 finishes at Daytona and Talladega in four starts. The 2013 Daytona 500 pole winner has been stout in practice this week, worked well with others in the Duels and could be your dark horse for the 500. Either way, his consistency makes it a good bet the No. 3 car will be around at the finish.
The plate races provide opportunities for a number of underdogs and that’s where we’ll spend our time this week. Picking wisely here allows you to save picks for other drivers later in the season and earning a rare top-10 finish for guys like Michael McDowell, Landon Cassill, and other small-team performers you’d rarely have a chance to use otherwise.
Cassill, along with David Ragan, seems to be the best positioned for success Sunday. Front Row Motorsports has won at these plate races before and it’s clear their Fords have the speed to compete in the draft. The question is whether you can trust Ragan’s aggression. The No. 38 car caused an incident Thursday night in the second Duel that effectively ended the night for Ryan Blaney and Jimmie Johnson. Will he make a mistake in the 500 that will cost both himself and others?
What Vegas Thinks
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the way for the Daytona 500 with 5/1 odds, followed closely by Brad Keselowski at 7/1 according to vegasinsider.com. Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. are next up at 10/1 despite none of them having the strongest Speedweeks.
What I Think
Austin Dillon, who took a big step forward last year making the Chase, is poised to shine as Richard Childress Racing’s top dog this season. What better way to start than by winning your first Daytona 500 and Cup Series race? The sport’s Super Bowl will start with a surprise winner as hopefully this theme of parity will catch on.
Clemson fans are in for a treat.
QB Hunter Johnson has some crazy accuracy when it comes to slinging the football. The Clemson enrollee, while sitting down, hit the goal post from the 20-yard line. Twice. The start of the season is still months away, but this is surely a good sign for Tigers fans.
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As the NFL continues to evolve, the league continues to be more and more pass-oriented. Teams build their offense around the skills of their quarterback. Subsequently, teams are building their defenses around the skills of the quarterbacks they face. It's an eternal chess match that has elevated the quality of play of defensive backs at every level of the game. The secondary is the last line of defense. As a result, those positions are filled with lethal combinations of smart football players and elite athletes.
25 Greatest Defensive Backs in NFL History
25. Rodney Harrison, Safety
San Diego 1994-2002; New England 2003-08
4-time first-team All-Pro, 2-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXVIII, XXXIX champion (Patriots)
Key stats: 1,205 tackles, 30.5 sacks, 34 INTs
Harrison was the enforcer on the Charger and Patriot teams he played for, adding an element of physicality to units that normally weren't thought in that vein.
24. Darren Sharper, Safety
Green Bay 1997-2004; Minnesota 2005-08, New Orleans 2009-10
2-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLIV champion (Saints)
Key stats: 942 tackles, 63 INTs, 11 INTs returned for TDs
The off-field activities that he is currently serving prison time for are inexcusable, but his achievements and impact on the field cannot be denied.
23. Dick LeBeau, Cornerback
3-time Pro Bowler
Key stats: 62 INTs, 9 fumble recoveries
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2010
LeBeau's stats don't tell the whole story. He was one of the premier defensive backs of his era, logging a high number of interceptions with considerable fewer opportunities than today's defensive backs. And his overall impact on the game goes beyond his contributions as a player with more than 40 years as a coach in some capacity. His Hall of Fame career includes two Super Bowl victories as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator.
22. Darren Woodson, Safety
3-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXVII, XXVIII, XXX champion
Key stats: 1,350 tackles, 23 INTs, 11 sacks
Woodson was the leader of the elite Cowboy defense that complemented “The Triplets” in the early 1990s dynasty.
21. Lester Hayes, Cornerback
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders 1977-86
First-team All-Pro (1980), 5-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XV, XVIII champion
Key stat: 39 INTs
Hayes was a lock-down corner that opposing quarterbacks avoided, and his stats were a reflection of that.
20. Richard Sherman, Cornerback
3-time first-team All-Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLVIII champion
Key stats: 254 tackles, 30 INTs, 5 forced fumbles
Sherman is the prototype corner coaches look for to combat big receivers. He has the ability to frustrate opponents with his speed, size, ball skills – and often his mouth. You can't argue with the results.
19. Ty Law, Cornerback
New England 1995-2004; New York Jets 2005, ‘08; Kansas City 2006-07; Denver 2009
2-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX Champion (Patriots)
Key stats: 449 tackles, 53 INTs
Law was the shutdown corner that allowed Bill Belichick to get creative with his defenses in the early 2000s. No player in NFL history has intercepted Peyton Manning more than Law (9 total INTs).
18. Mel Renfro, Cornerback
5-time All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl VI, XII champion
Key stat: 52 INTs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1996
Renfro was a man on an island long before there was a Revis Island. His ability to shut down opposing receivers freed up the rest of his Cowboy teammates to make plays on the ball. He is arguably the greatest defensive player in franchise history.
17. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback
New York Jets 2007-12, ‘15-Present; Tampa Bay 2013; New England 2014
4-time first-team All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLIX champion (Patriots)
Key stats: 401 tackles, 29 INTs
His combination of speed and physicality while defending receivers was unmatched in his prime. There wasn't a tougher corner to get open against – maybe ever.
16. Troy Polamalu, Safety
4-time first-team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XL, XLIII champion
Key stats: 770 tackles, 12 sacks, 32 INTs, 14 forced fumbles
Having Polamalu was almost like having 12 or even 13 players on the field. He was probably as good a linebacker as there was in the league and yet he was an elite defensive back who always seemed to make that big play to give his team the edge in close games.
15. Steve Atwater, Safety
Denver 1989-98; New York Jets 1999
2-time first-team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXII, XXXIII champion (Broncos)
Key stats: 1,180 tackles, 24 INTs
You might say that it was Atwater who passed the physical, do-everything safety torch to Troy Polamalu. Atwater was simply a hitter who didn't back down to anyone, and Denver defenses were always championship-caliber during his tenure.
14. Emlen Tunnell, Cornerback
New York Giants 1948-58; Green Bay 1959-61
8-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler
2-time NFL champion (’56, ‘61)
Key stat: 79 INTs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1967
Tunnell is one of the most underrated players in NFL history. His 79 interceptions are mind-boggling, considering how the game was played for most of his career.
13. Mike Haynes, Cornerback
New England 1976-82; Los Angeles Raiders 1983-89
9-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XVIII champion (Raiders)
Key stat: 46 INTs
NFL 75th Anniversary Team
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1997
Haynes teamed with Lester Hayes during the latter parts of their career to form one of the greatest cornerback duos in NFL history. He is a Raider legend, but also had his No. 40 jersey retired by the Patriots.
12. Charles Woodson, Cornerback/Safety
Oakland Raiders 1998-2005, ‘13-15; Green Bay 2006-12
4-time first-team All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLV champion (Packers)
Key stats: 1,003 tackles, 20 sacks, 65 INTs, 13 defensive TDs
The Raider and Packer legend retired after the 2015 season as the only player in NFL history with at least 60 INTs and 20 sacks.
11. Ed Reed, Safety
Baltimore Ravens 2002-12; Houston Texans 2013; New York Jets 2013
5-time first-team All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XLVII champion (Ravens)
Key stats: 643 tackles, 64 INTs, 13 defensive TDs, 11 forces fumbles
Reed played safety like a shutdown corner. He was great in run support, but his ball-hawking ability changed entire offensive schemes.
10. Paul Krause, Safety
Washington 1964-67; Minnesota 1968-79
8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler
1969 NFL champion (Vikings)
Key stats: 81 INTs (No. 1 all-time)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1998
Krause would likely have been a Major League Baseball player had it not been for a shoulder injury in college. I think things worked out pretty well for him.
9. Herb Adderley, Cornerback
Green Bay 1961-69; Dallas 1970-72
4-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler
3-time NFL champion (1961-62, ’65 w/ Packers)
Super Bowl I, II (Packers) and VI (Cowboys) champion
Key stats: 48 INTs, 7 defensive TDs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1980
Adderley was a big, physical corner who imposed his will on opposing receivers back when the rules allowed defenders more freedom in terms of engaging players in coverage. He was a member of six world championship teams.
8. Jack Tatum, Safety
Oakland Raiders 1971-79; Houston Oilers 1980
3-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XI champion (Raiders)
Nicknamed “The Assassin", Tatum was arguably the hardest hitter to ever play the game. It's really that simple. Until probably the last decade, if you played safety, the goal was to be as fierce and intimidating as Tatum.
7. Darrell Green, Cornerback
4-time All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXII, XXVI champion (Redskins)
Key stat: 54 INTs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2008
Things you could count on during from 1980-2000: death, taxes and Darrell Green playing corner for the Redskins. Green holds the NFL record for consecutive seasons with at least one interception (19). He also was regarded as the NFL's fastest man during most of his Hall of Fame career.
6. Champ Bailey, Cornerback
Washington 1999-2003; Denver 2004-13
3-time first-team All-Pro, 12-time Pro Bowler
Key stats: 909 tackles, 52 INTs
No player has dominated the corner position since the turn of the century like Bailey. The only thing his career is missing is a Super Bowl ring.
5. Mel Blount, Cornerback
4-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl IX, X, XIII, XIV Champion
NFL 75th Anniversary Team
Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1989
Those legendary Steel Curtain defenses would not have been nearly as dominant as they were without Blount occupying the corner position for 14 seasons.
4. Dick "Night Train" Lane, Cornerback
Los Angeles Rams 1952-53; Chicago Cardinals 1954-59; Detroit 1960-65
6-time first-team All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler
Key stat: 68 INTs
NFL 75th Anniversary Team
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1974
Lane's technique was the foundation for textbook cornerback play as we know it. His bait-and-switch style would fool quarterbacks into thinking they had an open receiver, only to see Lane ready for the pass the second it was released. His combination of coverage skills and hard-hitting ability were and are still rare at the position.
3. Deion Sanders, Cornerback
Atlanta 1989-93; San Francisco 1994; Dallas 1995-99; Washington 2000; Baltimore Ravens 2004-05
8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXIX (49ers) and XXX (Cowboys) champion
Key stats: 513 tackles, 53 INTs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011
His interception total is incredibly impressive for how often opposing quarterbacks tried to avoid him. Sanders was widely considered the best shutdown corner in the game for most of his career.
2. Rod Woodson, Cornerback
Pittsburgh 1987-96; San Francisco 1997; Baltimore Ravens 1998-2001; Oakland 2002-03
6-time first-team All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXV champion (Ravens)
Key stats: 1,163 tackles, 71 INTs, 13.5 sacks
NFL 75th Anniversary Team member
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2009
Woodson was doing "Deion things" before Deion Sanders was in the NFL. The difference was, Woodson did it with less flash and subsequent fanfare. Additionally, Woodson was a superior tackler to Sanders and one of the better blitzers from the corner in NFL history.
1. Ronnie Lott, Safety/Cornerback
San Francisco 1981-90, ‘95; Los Angeles Raiders 1991-92; New York Jets 1993-94; Kansas City 1995
8-time first-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV champion (49ers)
Key stats: 1,146 tackles, 63 INTs, 16 forced fumbles
NFL 75th Anniversary Team
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2000
Lott was a freak athlete who could close on a play as fast as anyone. His high football IQ allowed him to digest and respond to plays quickly, giving him a leg up and instilling fear in the hearts of opposing receivers. When you went over the middle as a receiver against one of Lott's teams, you had to know No. 42 was going to be there waiting for you. His presence alone changed games and helped make that legendary 49er dynasty a nightmare to prepare for.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Scott is the owner of KnowItAllFootball.com, a Big Ten site for Big Ten fans. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
Every year, die-hard football fans and self-admitted NFL Draft geeks tune in to watch the Scouting Combine to get a glimpse of the stars of tomorrow. And every year — like clockwork — a couple of Combine participants come out of nowhere and wow us. They grab the headlines coming out of Indianapolis and shuffle mock drafts all over the web. They go from virtual unknowns to players you are dying for your team to draft — all based on how they work out in spandex shorts.
Here are five players who could impress during the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine.
Jon Toth, C, Kentucky
Toth was a four-year starter at center, first cracking the lineup as a tackle during his freshman season. He's a smart player with a ton of experience playing against some of the best defensive players in college football. He has some agility concerns, which is why some project him as a right tackle. Be that as it may, his experience and knowledge could make him stand out amongst his peers in Indy. If he can show better agility in drills than what most scouts are expecting and nail the interviews, you'll see him climb mock drafts quickly.
Amba Etta-Tawo, WR, Syracuse
The Maryland transfer came into his own in 2016. Etta-Tawo was Syracuse's go-to receiver and delivered sufficient production in that role. He has the ability to develop into a scary deep threat at the next level. Even scarier, many believe he has barely scratched the surface of his full potential. He has good size and runs clean routes. The only concerns are inconsistent hands — which is obviously a big deal at the position. If he can have a clean Combine and minimize drops, he'll catch the attention of teams looking for another pass-catching weapon.
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA
Vanderdoes came out of high school as a 5-star recruit. He got lost in the mix at times, largely because he is more of a run-stopper than a pass rusher. He missed most of the 2015 season with an ACL injury, but recovered to have a solid, productive '16 campaign. He's a better athlete than some scouts are giving him credit for, and I expect him to show that at the Combine. Once he does, his stock will improve and he'll have a chance of getting picked up in the first half of the draft. I see him finally reaching that 5-star potential once he became a pro, much like New England's Vincent Valentine did in 2016.
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova
Kpassagnon is a physical freak (6-7, 280) who won't be hard to miss. His strength and speed are what you'd expect from that frame and what you desire at his position. His biggest questions center around his explosiveness at the snap and his technique. Those two things did not hurt him at the FCS level, but he'll need to show progress in both if he wants to succeed on Sundays. Keep an eye on him during the shuttles. That's where his burst — or lack thereof — will truly be judged. My prediction is that he'll be the talk of the Combine, alleviate all concerns and emerge as a solid first-round prospect.
Mike Tyson, FS, Cincinnati
There will probably be a Rich Eisen boxing joke or two during the NFL Network's coverage every time Tyson is on screen. Make no mistake, this kid is capable of making a name for himself. He's an intelligent safety, rarely out of position and always close to the ball. He's as seasoned as any safety in the draft, as he started accruing snaps early as a freshman. Athletically, look for him to hang with the top prospects in his position group, while his knowledge of the game and maturity set him apart during the interview process. He has all of the makings of a solid, long-term starter at the next level.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
The starting lineup for the Daytona 500 is set. Final slots were filled in following Thursday's Can-Am Duels at Daytona, and now all that's left is to drop the green flag on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 2 pm ET.
Here's the starting lineup for NASCAR's Daytona 500:
|1||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Hendrick Motorsports|
|3||Jamie McMurray||Chip Ganassi Racing|
|4||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|5||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing|
|6||Clint Bowyer||Stewart-Haas Racing|
|7||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske|
|8||Kurt Busch||Stewart-Haas Racing|
|9||Matt Kenseth||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|10||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing|
|11||Trevor Bayne||Roush Fenway Racing|
|12||Danica Patrick||Stewart-Haas Racing|
|13||Aric Almirola||Richard Petty Motorsports|
|14||Ryan Newman||Richard Childress Racing|
|15||Joey Logano||Team Penske|
|16||Kyle Larson||Chip Ganassi Racing|
|17||Cole Whitt||TriStar Motorsports|
|18||Ty Dillon||Germain Racing|
|19||Daniel Suarez||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|20||David Ragan||Front Row Motorsports|
|21||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|22||Michael McDowell||Leavine Family Racing|
|23||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Roush Fenway Racing|
|24||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports|
|25||Matt DiBenedetto||Go Fas Racing|
|26||Kasey Kahne||Hendrick Motorsports|
|27||Landon Cassill||Front Row Motorsports|
|28||DJ Kennington*||Gaunt Brothers Racing|
|29||Joey Gase||BK Racing|
|30||Michael Waltrip||Premium Motorsports|
|31||Corey LaJoie*||BK Racing|
|32||Jeffrey Earnhardt||Circle Sport - The Motorsports Group|
|33||Paul Menard||Richard Childress Racing|
|34||Erik Jones||Furniture Row Racing|
|35||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing|
|36||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing|
|37||Chris Buescher||JTG Daugherty Racing|
|38||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing|
|39||Brendan Gaughan*||Beard Motorsports|
|40||Elliott Sadler*||Tommy Baldwin Racing|
The future was not looking very bright for the South Carolina Gamecocks around this time last year. First-year head coach Will Muschamp inherited a questionable roster from a team that had compiled a record of just 3-9 the year prior. And expectations were not much better for 2016 with the Gamecocks picked to finish dead last in the SEC East by most media outlets. While the season would provide South Carolina with its share of stumbling blocks, Muschamp managed to exceed expectations by doubling South Carolina’s win total from the previous year, earning a bid to the Birmingham Bowl in the process.
As South Carolina gets set to embark on it second spring practice under Muschamp, the outlook is more optimistic. A roster that returns nine starters on offense, and a defense that will likely feature nine senior starters in 2017, should provide a solid framework for Muschamp's continued efforts to get the Gamecocks back to prominence. But as optimism grows so do expectations from an impatient fan base eager to return to the glory years of the Steve Spurrier era. Another six-win season will simply not be good enough. The question is will the Gamecocks be able to deliver in year two of the Muschamp era? This spring could go a long way in helping make that determination.
5 Storylines to Watch in South Carolina's Spring Practice
1. The progression of Jake Bentley
Bentley, who was still in high school at this time last year, was thrown into the fire at quarterback midway through the Gamecocks’ 2016 season. He took his lumps in his freshman campaign, but ultimately proved to be the right man for the job. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns over the final seven games. But it was his performance in the Birmingham Bowl that has fans most excited for Bentley’s future under center. It was the only game in which he had more than a handful of days to prepare, and he responded with a monster performance, passing for 390 yards and three touchdowns in the exciting 46-39 loss to South Florida.
Now with a full offseason under his belt, the battle-tested sophomore is expected to make huge strides entering his first spring camp firmly entrenched as the starter. A talented group of pass catchers that include Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, Hayden Hurst and early-enrollee OrTre Smith should provide Bentley with plenty of firepower, in what could evolve into one of the more dangerous passing attacks in the SEC. Bentley’s performance this spring should provide further insight on whether or not the South Carolina passing game is ready to take the next step forward.
2. The offensive line
The Gamecocks allowed 41 sacks last season, far and away the most in the SEC. South Carolina also averaged an SEC worst 3.68 yards per carry on the ground. That leaves new offensive line coach Eric Wolford with plenty to improve upon this spring. The good news is that the Gamecocks return four starters to an offensive line that should see marked improvement in 2017 under Wolford’s tutelage.
The first order of business this spring will be to find Mason Zandi’s replacement at left tackle. Junior Malik Young will transition over from right tackle and likely get the first shot. However, Young will have his work cut out for him trying to fend off rising redshirt freshman Sadarius Hutcherson to win the job.
Despite returning four starters, there will be some serious reshuffling up front for the Gamecocks this spring. Junior Zack Bailey, who is considered the Gamecocks’ best offensive lineman, will slide over to right tackle from the left guard position. That will leave D.J. Park, Donnell Stanley and several other promising candidates to compete for Bailey’s vacant left guard spot. Center Alan Knott and right guard Cory Helms seem to be the only returning starters locked in at the same positions, although that could change as well. It will be interesting to see how the Gamecocks’ revamped offensive line shakes out as spring camp progresses.
3. Who will emerge at running back?
One of the more hotly-contested position battles for the Gamecocks this spring will be at running back. Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams comprise a trio of talented sophomores that will compete for the starting job. Mon Denson is yet another sophomore running back that could work his way into the mix to make it a four-man race.
Dowdle should have the edge entering spring practice as the incumbent. His 5.7 yards per carry average as a true freshman provided one of the few bright spots in an otherwise sluggish South Carolina ground game last season.
Dowdle’s biggest competition this spring could come from Williams, a transfer from North Carolina. Despite sitting out 2016 per NCAA transfer rules, Williams routinely impressed the coaching staff in practice last season. He has been described as having “huge upside” by head coach Will Muschamp.
Turner is a legitimate contender as well. The speedy sophomore lacked consistency in 2016, but his big-play potential flashed at various times throughout the season. Breakaway speed and a solid skill set as a receiver out of the backfield are attributes that could set Turner apart from the rest of the competition.
4. The return of Skai Moore
The return of Moore may be the most exciting storyline for the Gamecocks heading into spring practice. The former All-SEC linebacker led South Carolina in tackles in each of his first three years before sitting out last season following neck fusion surgery. He will be a welcome addition for a South Carolina defense that struggled mightily at times in 2016 in his absence.
As one of just three scholarship linebackers on the Gamecocks’ roster entering spring camp, Moore’s return could not be coming at a better time. South Carolina will have reinforcements at linebacker on the way in the fall, but depth at linebacker will remain a serious concern throughout 2017. It will be crucial for Moore and fellow starting linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams to remain healthy throughout the season.
5. Restocking on special teams
Special teams was the least of Will Muschamp’s concerns heading into spring last year. However, it is one of the Gamecocks’ biggest unknowns entering the 2017 season. Elliott Fry (kicker), Sean Kelly (punter) and Drew Williams (long snapper) comprised one of the most experienced and proven special teams trios in the nation in 2016. All three have graduated, leaving a cast of inexperienced, yet promising, young specialists to fill some big shoes.
Redshirt freshman Alex Woznick and sophomore Michael Almond will compete to replace Fry, the Gamecocks’ all-time leading scorer. Woznick has received heaps of praise in the offseason and seems to be the early front-runner to win the job. The versatile Almond also will compete for the vacant punter and kickoff specialist jobs. Almond appears to be the favorite to win both, but redshirt sophomore Joseph Charlton could easily close the gap with a great showing this spring. As the only long snapper on the roster with actual game experience, Junior Nick McGriff should have an inside track for that opening with Ben Asbury and Harrison Freeman adding to that competition this spring.
Pre-Spring Outlook for South Carolina in the SEC
The Gamecocks enter year two of the Will Muschamp era in much better shape than this time last year. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some serious question marks that need to be addressed as South Carolina kicks off the first of 15 spring practices starting Feb. 25 in Columbia.
Defensive line, special teams and depth at linebacker are areas of concern. But perhaps the biggest question mark heading into spring is sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. Much of the Gamecocks’ success in 2017 will hinge on whether or not Bentley can live up to the lofty expectations set forth by his performance in the Birmingham Bowl. Much-needed improvement from an offensive line that often failed to protect him in 2016 will be critical to that success as well.
At a minimum, the Gamecocks should take another step forward in 2017. They are nowhere near ready to compete with Alabama for SEC supremacy. But Muschamp has surprised us before, and South Carolina does have some dark horse appeal to make a run at the SEC East if everything falls into place.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
When it comes to your team having success in fantasy baseball this season it may come down to one simple question – who is on first? Looking ahead, this is a position that seems to thin out rather quickly after the top five or six players.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t options after that without upside and/or appeal, but there also is a pretty clear drop-off. That’s why one of my primary goals entering my drafts this year is to target a tier one first baseman for sure.
The primary categories you hope to get our of your first baseman in fantasy are RBIs, HRs and runs with a batting average that will not sink your teams. This season we are seeing players who will be manning first base for the first time this season and who won’t have that elite power profile – guys like like Matt Carpenter, Ian Desmond (not yet eligible to be ranked as a 1B), and Daniel Murphy. These players can certainly fill the position on your roster and should produce decent numbers, just don’t expect the 30-plus home run and 100-RBIs upside of the elite options. They may provide a higher batting average and possibly add a few more stolen bases to the mix.
Everyone has their own way of approaching a fantasy draft or auction, but my advice is to target an elite 1B early and then maybe look at snagging one of the “newer” guys for a Corner Infield or Utility spot on my roster. If you decide to wait for your starter, you can survive but know that the drop-off from the top tier and the next is significant.
Other considerations: Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers is currently not eligible at 1B or I would have had him in my top 20.
ADP - Average Draft Position
— Rankings by Chris Meyers, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the FSWA. Meyers' work appears on many other sites, including socalledfantasyexperts.com. Follow him on Twitter @FantsyChillpony.
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's (Feb. 26 at 2 pm ET on Fox) NASCAR race: the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speeday in Florida? Our fantasy NASCAR experts are ready to help. (Updated Feb. 24 with final starting lineup spot for each driver.)
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($10,600)
This much we know: he's already qualified fast and will be running on the front row when the green flag drops. And in 34 starts at this track, he's earned 19 top-10 finishes and had an average finish of 13.6. Plus, he's led a lot of laps (593 of 5,798) over the years. Starting spot: 2
Kyle Busch ($9,400)
It's strange to put Busch here after the Daytona injury in February 2015 that nearly derailed what became a championship season. But since that injury, Busch seems to have found a balance between the risk and reward in plate races. He was second and third at Daytona last season and had only one run outside the top five with plates on. Starting spot: 21
Chase Elliott ($9,200)
The son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville has the pole and clearly knows how to make the car go fast around the 2.5-mile tri-oval. But this pick isn't without risk, as his average finish in two Cup starts is a dismal 34.5. Of course, he did win in the XFINITY Series last year at Daytona. So there's that. Starting spot: 1
Austin Dillon ($8,200)
The 2014 Daytona 500 pole sitter padded his resume last season with runs of ninth and seventh. Even though this track left him upside down in an ugly 2015 wreck, the elder Dillon loves plate racing and has more top-10 finishes in his career here (five) than at any other track on the circuit. Starting spot: 10
Ty Dillon ($6,200)
During his recent qualifying runs, Ty had the 12th fastest car. We like the value. Starting spot: 18
Michael McDowell ($5,800)
He's one of the sport's best plate racers you never heard of, making the best of situations with underdog programs. After taking 15th at Daytona in the spring, McDowell followed that up with a 10th in July. Another great value pick. Starting spot: 22
The state of the Angels is evident in the popularity of a debate that should be unthinkable: Would they be better off trading Mike Trout to jump-start a rebuilding effort?
Already a two-time MVP and just 25 years old, Trout is the best player in baseball, a generational talent just dipping into the heart of a likely Hall of Fame career. But the talent around Trout is pedestrian and the roster thin. A series of costly decisions on the free-agent market has left the Angels with the weakest farm system in baseball, $20 million in obligations still to pay for the ill-advised Josh Hamilton dalliance and a potential millstone in the aging Albert Pujols, who had foot surgery again in the offseason and, at age 37, is still owed $140 million over the next five years.
The Angels did take baby steps in GM Billy Eppler’s first year to address the organizational shortcomings. There is hope for the future, but it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point, and there’s no telling how old Trout will be when the Angels emerge as contenders once again.
There is something to be said for quantity being as important as quality in starting pitching given the challenges of a 162-game schedule. The Angels certainly learned that last year when injuries gutted their starting rotation. A year later, it is quantity they have — even with longtime fixture Jered Weaver gone. As many as 12 pitchers could be considered candidates for the 2017 starting rotation. It’s a group that includes uninspiring veterans such as Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez, others returning from injuries such as Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker and faded prospects such as Alex Meyer and Brooks Pounders. The Angels’ one shot at a high-quality starter, Garrett Richards, comes with reservations. They figure to proceed cautiously with the young ace, who appears to have avoided Tommy John surgery with stem-cell therapy.
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was everything the Angels hoped for defensively last year and improved some offensively, batting .281 (his highest full-season average) with a .690 OPS (his highest since his first full-season in 2013) — though his pop has all but disappeared since an aberrational 17-homer debut in 2013. After making do at second last year, Eppler went back to the trade market this winter and acquired a displaced Danny Espinosa from the Washington Nationals. A shortstop in D.C., Espinosa will move to second base in Anaheim, pairing with Simmons to give the Angels exceptional defense up the middle.
Eppler addressed an annual issue in Anaheim when he acquired Yunel Escobar from the Nationals in December 2015. Escobar has joined a long line of players who have taken up temporary residence at third base for the Angels. Anyone remember Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis, Alberto Callaspo and David Freese? But Escobar has given them adequate defense and filled the leadoff spot with a .304 average in 2016. That was enough for the Angels to pick up his contract option for 2017. With Pujols appearing to enter the full-time (or nearly so) DH phase of his career, former first-round draft pick C.J. Cron got his chance to establish himself as an everyday player. The young first baseman did hit 16 home runs last season, valuable support for Trout, Pujols and Kole Calhoun on a team that finished 13th in the American League in slugging percentage. But Cron will likely lose playing time to Luis Valbuena, who was signed to a two-year deal in late January. The nine-year veteran hit a career-high 25 home runs in 2015 with Houston, but injuries limited him to just 90 games last season. A left-handed hitter, Valbuena figures to get most of the starts at first against righties, and he also can fill in at third.
The outfield is in good hands — even more so now that the acquisition of Cameron Maybin has given the Angels a legitimate left fielder. Maybin (career-high .315 batting average and .801 OPS for the Tigers last season) fills what has been an absolute black hole in left field the past two seasons. He can’t help but do better than the .592 and .584 OPS Angels left fielders combined for in 2015 and '16, last in the majors both seasons. Trout and Calhoun remain the heart of the Angels’ everyday lineup in center and right, respectively. Trout won his second AL MVP last season, somehow managing to get even better in his fifth full season. He matched his career-high in OPS (.991), set a new high in on-base percentage (.441) and raised his batting average back over .300 (.315) for the first time since 2013.
A year ago at this time, the Angels were ready to hand their catching job over to Carlos Perez. By midseason, however, Perez was back in the minors and the Angels had turned to Jett Bandy instead. Bandy is gone, traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a more established catcher, Martin Maldonado. Maldonado, 30, has never started more than 66 games in a season but will be the Angels’ primary catcher with Perez backing him up. Maldonado is a good defender with above-average pitch-framing skills, giving the Angels plus-defenders at every position up the middle.
Pujols’ deterioration continues. He had foot surgery again in December, possibly delaying the start of his season, and has become a one-dimensional hitter, still able to drive the ball for home runs but posting a .266 average and sinking OPS in his five years with the Angels. Ben Revere was signed to a one-year deal to be the team’s fourth outfielder; the Angels hope he can bounce back from a dismal season in Washington. Depending on who is at first, Cron and Valbuena figure to be the power bats available in the late innings.
Things seem to have stabilized in Anaheim after recent years clouded by the power struggle between manager Mike Scioscia and former GM Jerry Dipoto and the ugly divorce between owner Arte Moreno and Hamilton. Eppler seems to have been given the kind of free hand his predecessors didn’t have to tug the Angels into the 21st century. The longest-tenured manager in baseball (now entering his 18th season in Anaheim), Scioscia was never the New Age Luddite he was portrayed to be at times during the Dipoto regime. But he is more willing now to use the new tools a modern front office can provide.
From 2002 through 2014, the Angels won at least 90 games seven times, won six division titles, reached the ALCS three times and won the franchise’s only World Series championship in 2002. This is a much different era. Though Eppler defiantly says the Angels “intend to contend” in 2017, the road to fourth place is paved with good intentions.
2017 AL WEST PREDICTION: 4th
The 2016 college football season was nothing short of a nightmare for the Michigan State Spartans and their fans. A year removed from punching a ticket to the College Football Playoff, Mark Dantonio's Spartans won just three games all season – and only one game in conference.
It was understood that there would probably be a bit of a drop-off after losing the caliber of talent that they did. Few, however, could have predicted that the team would fail to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in 10 years. To make matters worse heading into 2017, legal matters involving both players and coaches hang over the program like a dark cloud.
With the strides being made by the "other" Michigan team in the Big Ten, the pressure is on Dantonio and the Spartans to rebound and establish themselves as serious contenders in the East Division once again. For that to come to fruition much work needs to be done and many questions need to be answered this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan State's Spring Practice
1. Brian Lewerke's command of the offense
All signs point to Lewerke being the guy at quarterback for the Spartans. He saw action during four games in 2016 and showed flashes of brilliance against both Northwestern and Michigan before breaking his leg. If he can hold off Damien Terry, show command of the offense and have a solid spring, that opens the door for him to become the next long-term starter at the position. Stability at the quarterback position has gone hand-in-hand with Michigan State's recent success.
2. Elite playmakers emerging on defense
The Spartans have been at their best over the years when they have elite defenses led by elite playmakers like Shilique Calhoun, Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. They lost another big-time talent from last season in defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Sophomores Mike Panisiuk and Raequan Williams will be leaned on heavily to not only replace McDowell on the field, but also to become vocal leaders as well. The Spartans are in need of a consistent, effective pass rusher too. Robert Bowers seems like the most likely candidate to emerge and assume that role.
3. New faces on the offensive line
Michigan State's offensive line lost three starters to graduation from last season. Guard Brian Allen does return and has all-conference potential, but the rest of this unit is largely unproven. You may see Allen start at center, forcing David Beedle to step into that guard position. The spring will be the time to look for effective combinations and rotations, hopefully solidifying the unit before fall camp opens. LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes is the best running back tandem in the Big Ten, but they'll struggle mightily if the offensive line doesn’t come together.
4. New faces in the secondary
The Spartans lost two safeties and a corner to graduation and the draft. Justin Layne is the only returning defensive back with legitimate game experience, and he'll be looked to as the leader of the unit. Guys like Grayson Miller and Khari Willis will be instrumental in filling those voids and continuing the recent trend of dominant play in Michigan State's defensive backfield.
5. Replacing R.J. Shelton
Shelton was one of the more dynamic players in the Big Ten over the last couple of seasons. He was a guy who made opposing defensive coordinators do that extra bit of preparation to account for everything he did through the air and on the ground. Michigan State needs that type of player in its offense – someone to provide that extra wrinkle to ensure the Spartan attack isn't one-dimensional. Donnie Corley seems like the most likely candidate. A natural defensive back, he stepped into the receiver role last season and proved capable. His athleticism should allow the Spartans to do some of the same things with him that they did with Shelton. Pay close attention to how and where Corley is used during the spring session.
Pre-Spring Michigan State Outlook in the Big Ten
With so much uncertainty at so many positions heading into 2017, it's tough to see the Spartans getting back into the mix for a division title this season. They'll be one of the youngest teams in the conference and facing a formidable schedule coming off of season when almost nothing went right. The home game against Notre Dame – a team in a similar situation after a disappointing 2016 – will likely set the tone this fall. Even then, the Spartans host Iowa and Penn State and travel to Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State. Bowl eligibility is a realistic goal for this team. Anything more would be a bonus. The Spartans are probably another year away from competing for trips to Indianapolis again.