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A week before the Rams won their only Super Bowl in 1999, Sean McVay celebrated his 13th birthday. Now, 18 years later — and after an ugly half-decade under coach Jeff Fisher — the keys to the franchise have been turned over to McVay. At 31, he’ll be the youngest head coach in NFL history.
That may raise red flags for some, but for the Rams, McVay’s youth was only a footnote on an impressive résumé, which includes turning the Redskins into an offensive force as coordinator and grooming Kirk Cousins into a quality NFL starter.
In Hollywood, though, the wunderkind coach will need to orchestrate a masterpiece if he hopes to turn around a Rams offense that, by every possible measure, was a complete flop.
Could this be the start of an epic comeback story? McVay has a young leading man to groom in quarterback Jared Goff and a former Offensive Rookie of the Year to lean on in running back Todd Gurley. He’ll have a talented defense and one of the game’s best coordinators in Wade Phillips. But the uncertainties are unending, and with such a young coach, it’s fair to wonder how many growing pains lie ahead in 2017.
In 2016, Los Angeles’ new NFL team truly scraped the bottom, ranking dead last in the NFL in yards per game (262.7). After a breakout rookie season, Gurley stalled. The line regressed, giving up the second-most sacks in the league (49). The quarterback on which the franchise’s future was mortgaged proved underwhelming at best.
|Head Coach||Sean McVay|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Matt LaFleur|
|Defensive Coordinator||Wade Phillips|
|Special Teams Coordinator||John Fassel|
|Running Backs||Skip Peete|
|Offensive Line||Aaron Kromer|
|Defensive Line||Bill Johnson|
Out of such darkness, however, McVay apparently sees a silver lining. Call it youthful delusion, if you must, but McVay has at least made it clear that decisions are made with his quarterback in mind — a concept that somehow eluded Fisher.
Already, Goff is better situated under McVay. The Rams signed All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who allowed just four sacks in his past three seasons, to protect Goff’s blindside and veteran center John Sullivan to add experience up front.
The Rams also made a surprising trade shortly after the start of training camp in an effort to give Goff more weapons by acquiring Sammy Watkins from Buffalo. The fourth player taken in the 2014 draft, Watkins had trouble staying on the field for the Bills, missing 11 games combined over the last two seasons because of a variety of injuries. If healthy, Watkins could provide quite a boost to an offense that otherwise is light on pass-catching playmakers. Adding reliable intermediate receiver Robert Woods helps in an offense that demands such qualities. But without last year’s leading wideout Kenny Britt, who left for Cleveland, the Rams must hope Tavon Austin realizes his Swiss Army Knife potential. Austin will be challenged to diversify his route tree, and for a wideout who has never reached 510 yards receiving, the jury is out on his role.
The better bet to improve is Gurley, who must adjust to McVay’s zone-blocking scheme. If he does, he should have more room to run — his 3.2 yards per carry were downright depressing last season — but a repeat of his rookie campaign, which benefited from unpredictable, long-distance touchdowns, is unlikely. If Lance Dunbar produces as a third-down receiving back, Gurley’s role could be reduced.
Could a new playmaker emerge? Second-year leaps from tight end Tyler Higbee and wideout Pharoh Cooper are possible. Of anyone on the roster, Higbee should benefit most from the switch to McVay’s vertical offense, which turned tight end Jordan Reed into a star. Toss in rookies Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, and the pipe dream of a functioning offense doesn’t seem totally far-fetched.
Ultimately, it’s Goff’s development in Year 2 that will decide the Rams’ fate. After just seven starts, it’s too early to offer a verdict on his future. If Whitworth can anchor the line from the left, and the rest of the line allows Gurley to establish the run again so the new offense clicks, the opportunity will be there for Goff to succeed.
When McVay was hired in January, he understood the need to balance his youth and inexperience with a veteran voice on defense. Enter Phillips, the architect of the Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning defense from 2015 and one of the most respected defensive minds in the league. Phillips’ arrival means a switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. But while scheme changes often incite panic, Phillips has maintained that he’ll take advantage of his personnel’s strengths. Up front, there are still plenty of those to exploit.
In a scheme that turned Malik Jackson into a dominant force in Denver, All-Pro 3-tech tackle Aaron Donald may steal the crown as the NFL’s best defensive player this season. Donald has 28 sacks in three seasons and should only improve with Phillips calling the shots. If he can stay healthy, Robert Quinn, a former Pro Bowl defensive end making the switch to 3-4 outside linebacker, could join him atop the league, thriving in the role DeMarcus Ware once filled under Phillips. Rushing from the other outside linebacker spot, Connor Barwin should prove to be a bargain addition after playing out of position in Jim Schwartz’s Eagles defense. As recently as 2014, Barwin had 14.5 sacks, and if he can offer another pass-rushing threat, the Rams defensive front could be ferocious.
Inside, the speed and athleticism of Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron offer tantalizing versatility as well. Ogletree, in a contract year, could be on his way to a huge season, if he’s able to iron out some of the over-aggressive mistakes that have plagued his first four years in the league.
The secondary is where the lion’s share of questions remain. Trumaine Johnson was franchise tagged for a second straight season, despite taking a few steps backward in 2016, and in Phillips’ scheme, which relies on press-man corners, the slower Johnson could struggle. Beyond Johnson, the situation is even more bleak. The Rams signed Kayvon Webster, previously in Denver, to add more competition to a less-than-stellar cornerback group, but he’s never proven to be a starting-caliber player. To make up for the loss of safety T.J. McDonald, the Rams plan to move hard-hitting nickel back Lamarcus Joyner to the position, leaving new, pint-sized nickel back Nickell Robey-Coleman to step in for him.
A dominant front can make up for a weak back end. A new, more evolved scheme can help cover up vulnerabilities. And with Phillips at the helm, the Rams can rest assured that the defense is at least in the right hands.
The Rams promised to bring in competition for once-struggling kicker Greg Zuerlein last summer but never followed through on their threat. Their inaction proved prescient, as Zuerlein bounced back in a big way, converting 86 percent of his kicks — up 20 percentage points from 2015. Whether the offense will give him enough opportunities is the real question.
As sad as it sounds, punter Johnny Hekker might have been the Rams’ most dangerous offensive weapon last season. Hekker set the NFL record for punts inside the 20 last season — a record that says as much about the Rams’ stalling offense as it does Hekker’s punting prowess. Still, he’s arguably the best punter in the game.
The return game is the only special teams group in flux. Do-everything returner Benny Cunningham signed with Chicago, which should give Cooper or Dunbar a chance to carve out a role. The team will likely cycle through several returners before settling on one.
It’s hard to imagine that things could possibly get worse for the Rams than their dismal 1–11 finish last season, and with a new coaching staff and new philosophy in place, the team will almost certainly improve on its 4–12 record, assuming the careers of young offensive cornerstones Goff and Gurley don’t go down in flames. That said, there are no delusions of grandeur in Year 1 of the McVay era. Competing for a playoff spot is possible but unlikely. Measured progress is what’s important now. Without any, general manager Les Snead’s days in L.A. could be numbered.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West
If the Eagles’ moves ahead of the 2017 season tell us anything, it’s that the protection of a franchise quarterback is paramount to management, coaches and just about everybody else in the city. Despite sizable holes on the defensive side and a dearth of talent at running back, the Birds decided to spend big on wideouts and fortify the offensive line in free agency while addressing their other needs through second-tier free agents and the draft. The reasoning was clearly that if quarterback Carson Wentz is happy, the team has a chance at future prosperity. If the second-year man from North Dakota State does not continue to develop — and more important, stay happy — the Eagles don’t have a chance.
It’s possible Philadelphia could sneak into the playoffs this year, but it’s clear the organization has decided on the long play, with Wentz at the forefront, and everything else coming together behind him.
Wentz set an NFL rookie record for most completions in a season (379) while posting the fourth-most passing yards (3,782) for a first-year player in league history. He started every game, and while his completion percentage dipped as the season progressed and he had some issues with mechanics, Wentz’s rookie season was a success by any measure.
|Head Coach||Doug Pederson|
|Record With Team||7-9|
|Offensive Coordinator||Frank Reich|
|Defensive Coordinator||Jim Schwartz|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Dave Fipp|
|Running Backs||Duce Staley|
|Wide Receivers||Mike Groh|
|Tight Ends||Justin Peelle|
|Offensive Line||Jeff Stoutland|
|Defensive Line||Chris Wilson|
|Defensive Backs||Cory Undlin|
The Eagles decided during the offseason to invest their limited salary cap space on some receivers for him to target. Last year’s crop of wideouts was disappointing, and that’s being kind. Second-year man Nelson Agholor was overmatched, to the point where he was a healthy scratch one week. Dorial Green-Beckham was wildly inconsistent, and even though Jordan Matthews caught 73 balls, he averaged a meager 11.0 yards per reception. So, the Eagles went shopping and purchased Alshon Jeffery for $14 million for one season and Torrey Smith for $15 million over three seasons. They also added a couple of prospects via the draft, and traded Matthews along with a third-round pick in next year’s draft to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby on Aug. 11.
Jeffery is a big target who will help in the red zone, goes over the middle willingly and can be considered a No. 1 receiver, even if he did score just two times last year. Smith, meanwhile, has speed, but his catches have dropped in each of the past three seasons. Last year, he caught just 20 passes for the Niners. Still, this is an upgrade.
As usual, Zach Ertz looked good at the end of 2016, when the games didn’t matter, and led the team with 78 receptions. But he must become more consistent and deliver in more important situations. Don’t expect too much early on from Mack Hollins of North Carolina and Shelton Gibson from West Virginia. Hollins has good size (6'4", 221) and some speed, while Gibson is a burner, but neither is ready to be a standout in 2017.
By the end of last year, the Eagles’ running back situation was a mess. Ryan Mathews’ neck injury made him unlikely to return. Faced with the prospect of heading into 2017 with Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood as their holdovers, the Eagles signed LeGarrette Blount late in the spring. While Sproles is a veteran hybrid unable to handle many carries, and second-year man Smallwood also lacks size, Blount gives Philadelphia a big back who can get tough yards, especially in the red zone. Fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey rushed for more yards than anyone in FBS history but is only 5'8" and 176 pounds. He is expected to be a next-generation Sproles.
There won’t be too many surprises on the offensive line. During the offseason, GM Howie Roseman insisted that center Jason Kelce would return in the middle. He’ll likely be flanked by Brandon Brooks and Allen Barbre, with Lane Johnson and ancient Jason Peters at the tackles. But there are variables involved. Johnson missed 10 games last year after being suspended for his second PED violation. One more, and he’s gone for two years. Peters is a future Hall of Famer, but at some point his aching back and age will betray him. Look for second-year men Isaac Seumalo, a guard, and tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to get plenty of opportunities to grab starting jobs. Meanwhile, free-agent signee Chance Warmack and Stefen Wisniewski will handle swing work in the middle.
The Eagles weren’t awful defensively last year, finishing 12th in points allowed and 13th in yards surrendered. However, there is no doubt the team has some serious deficiencies at several positions.
The biggest problem area is cornerback, which was a huge liability last year and allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on 60.2 percent of their throws. The departures of Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin did not disappoint any fans, but there’s no guarantee things will be much better this year. Ron Brooks is back, to little fanfare, and the offseason acquisition of Patrick Robinson, who is on his fourth team in as many years, isn’t a long-term solution. Philadelphia drafted two corners in April, Rasul Douglas from West Virginia and Washington’s Sidney Jones. Jones tore his Achilles during his pro day workout and fell from the first round to the Birds at pick 43. He has great skills and could be a Pro Bowler once healthy. Fans shouldn’t expect him to be 100 percent this season although he could contribute in 2017, and second-year man Jalen Mills has talent but must become more consistent. These are all reasons why the team decided to send Matthews and a third-round pick to Buffalo for Darby, who started all 29 games he played for the Bills after they took him in the second round of the 2015 draft. The return of safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod solidify that area. McLeod is a big hitter, and the versatile Jenkins makes plays all over the field.
There is concern at linebacker, too. While middle man Jordan Hicks is quickly becoming a dynamic force in all facets of the game, there isn’t much around him. Veteran Nigel Bradham is solid in the run game but hardly a star, and Mychal Kendricks’ inability to cover anybody is threatening to turn him from a favored prospect into a sideline spectator. The Eagles selected Nebraska safety Nate Gerry in the fifth round and hope to convert him into a coverage linebacker. If he shows some aptitude for the role, he’ll get immediate time.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz favors the Wide-Nine alignment with his defense, with the goal of creating maximum pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and the Eagles’ offseason moves were made with that philosophy in mind. They signed aging end Chris Long, who will be used primarily as a pass-rushing specialist, and traded with Baltimore for tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has the potential to reach the quarterbacks, although consistency has been a recent problem for him.
Though many thought the Eagles would spend their first-round pick on a receiver or cornerback, they went with end Derek Barnett, who set the all-time Tennessee sack mark. Barnett can play the pass and run and has plenty of room to grow, since he turns 21 in late June. The newcomers join standout tackle Fletcher Cox, a Pro Bowler who stars despite facing an onslaught of double-teams and extra attention. Also back is end Brandon Graham, who continues to improve but has yet to make good on his first-round pedigree. Another end, Vinny Curry, was paid starter’s money last year but registered only 2.5 sacks.
The Eagles have one of the league’s top special teams. Punter Donnie Jones has a big, reliable leg, and placekicker Caleb Sturgis made 35-of-41 kicks and didn’t miss from inside 40. Sproles is an electric return man, and Philadelphia’s coverage units are outstanding.
Early in the offseason, Roseman declared the Eagles not ready for real contention during 2017, and his assessment is right. Despite having what it believes is a franchise QB in Wentz, Philadelphia lacks proven playmakers. The defense is shaky throughout much of the back seven and must hope the front four can apply enough pressure to prevent rival passing attacks from thriving. Wentz will enjoy throwing to Jeffery and Smith, but with no proven ground game, he will face a parade of eager pass rushers. The Eagles finished 7–9 last year under first-year (and first-time) head coach Doug Pederson, and it’s hard to believe they will do much better than that in 2017.
Prediction: 4th in NFC East
The key to winning at fantasy football is obtaining the most value with each selection during your draft. There is always value available throughout a draft, and grabbing it is one of the most important keys to a successful fantasy team. But it is also one of the hardest and mysterious things to accomplish.
That’s why you need to know which players are steals at their current ADP*, so you can get the most value from your draft. Here are five running backs to keep an eye on come draft day.
Danny Woodhead, Ravens
Steve Smith has retired; Dennis Pitta was released after suffering another hip injury; and the team’s receivers are a mix of newly-signed Jeremy Maclin and notorious burners with great vertical speed but haven’t always shown the ability to be possession receivers. Enter Woodhead, a free agent signing who has registered 80 and 76 receptions in the last two seasons he has finished. Woodhead could easily lead this team in receptions. In fact, the biggest obstacle might be his injury history – not his teammates. But at his current ADP as a RB34, even if he suffers another injury, he can be replaced in your lineup. If he doesn’t, he’s a huge steal with a realistic 50-catch floor and 80-catch potential. Remember, Joe Flacco finished just one pass attempt behind Drew Brees for the league lead in 2016.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions
The injury history is concerning, but all signs point to Abdullah getting one more chance as the Lions’ lead running back. Despite missing 14 games last year, the Lions passed on veteran free agents this offseason. They also passed on drafting viable alternatives. The Lions ranked 30th in rushing yards and 26th in touchdowns last season; they NEED to be more efficient on the ground. General manager Bob Quinn and the coaching staff have all said the right things. Abdullah won’t be a workhorse. Theo Riddick plays a key role in receiving packages, and Zach Zenner has a role in short-yardage situations. Abdullah has explosiveness and dynamism that makes him a fantasy commodity even if he only touches the ball 12-15 times per game. If Abdullah stays healthy in training camp, his ADP (RB25) is going to skyrocket.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns
Here’s an interesting stat: four players had 175 or more rushes, at least 4.8 yards per carry, at least 7.0 yards per reception, and seven or more total touchdowns in 2016. Those players were Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, Jordan Howard, and, wait for it... Isaiah Crowell. He also tied Elliott and Howard for the most games with 10 or more carries and at least 5.0 yards per carry with seven such performances. Crowell’s issue wasn’t ability or efficiency; it was volume. If Cleveland can find a way to not be trailing by double digits in many of their games this season, Crowell will get more touches. Hue Jackson, Cleveland’s head coach, is a notoriously run-heavy play -caller. Only game script will take him away from that. Cleveland also added multiple new offensive linemen to bolster what was arguably the league’s worst unit. Crowell’s ADP is already starting to rise (RB15, but don’t be surprised if he finishes 2017 with more fantasy points than the likes Leonard Fournette, Marshawn Lynch and Lamar Miller.
Mike Gillislee, Patriots
Wouldn’t it be great if the Patriots would show some week-to-week consistency in terms of rushing volume and who is going to get the ball? Here’s what we do know, they'll run a lot – great teams with frequent leads often do – and that their ball carriers are a pretty safe bet to have the opportunity to get into the end zone. Gillislee isn't the clock-killing grinder LeGarrette Blount was last year, but he could be even more efficient than his plodding predecessor. And like 2016 Blount, Gillislee will enter the year lacking real competition for rushing duties. All four of his primary backfield mates are more receiver-than-rusher types, so we can likely pencil in roughly half the Patriots' carries for Gillislee. Assuming the Patriots remain world-beaters, it's safe to expect a run at 1,000 yards and double-digit scores – quite a value for a back currently being drafted as RB23.
Eddie Lacy, Seahawks
This is the year that Lacy’s career could go either way: out of the league or back to his form from his first two seasons. Lacy obviously remains a high-risk pick, but the upside is much higher than his current draft position (RB27). If you pair him with Thomas Rawls then you should safeguard your investment, but focusing purely on Lacy and despite his reputation, he has always performed when on the field. In his five games last year, he averaged better than five yards per carry, and the year before had three 100-yard games when Green Bay wasn’t really interested in running the ball. There is no doubt that Seattle will want to run the ball, and often. The Seahawks have depth at the position, but the lead runner will be Lacy. Don’t let him fall too far in your draft.
*ADP values courtesy of FantasyPros
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
Odell Beckham Jr. is back like he never left.
The Giants receiver is ready to give fans what they've been clamoring to see, the catches that make you question your own eyes. During a recent practice OBJ did just that, going over a defender to make an incredible one-handed catch.
OBJ is known for crazy catches, so it wouldn't surprise anyone to see more of that during the regular season.
The NFC South is one of the best divisions in football, but that doesn't mean there arent some questions surrounding the top teams. While the Falcons are predicted to win the division, the Panthers, Buccaneers and Saints all have their own franchise quarterback that you can never count out.
All eyes will be on how the Falcons respond to their Super Bowl collapse, but fans also should watch to see if am Newton and the Panthers can bounce back from a disappointing 2016 campaign. Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston and Saints QB Drew Brees both look more than capable of leading their teams to the playoffs, but questions remain on how each team's defense will be able to hold up.
In order to get an accurate assessment of the NFC South heading into 2017, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The Falcons proved that they are capable of winning a Super Bowl with Matt Ryan as the quarterback.”
“The signing of center Alex Mack was significant, because he set the bottom of the pocket and consistently provided openings for Devonta Freeman, who had a spectacular season.”
“Julio Jones is simply one of the best players in the entire league and proved to be almost indefensible when he is healthy.”
“The offensive coordinator change will be interesting to follow as Dan Quinn tabbed Steve Sarkisian as his new play caller to replace Kyle Shanahan.”
“Quinn has changed the mentality of the Falcons’ defense, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is a part of that equation.”
“He’s being counted on to produce at a high level in 2017 in combination with free-agent signing Dontari Poe (Chiefs).”
“Vic Beasley can flash major potential, but he is more finesse than physical as a run defender and pass rusher, and they moved up in the draft to select UCLA’s Takk McKinley.”
“Linebacker Deion Jones was sensational in his rookie season and should continue to excel in this scheme.”
“The Falcons re-upped with both of their homegrown corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but truthfully, neither jumps to mind as a top-shelf cover guy.”
“The mental challenge of coming back from the most difficult of Super Bowl defeats is going to be Atlanta’s biggest test, but Quinn and Ryan are both wired to respond and lead this team back to the playoffs.”
“Ironically enough, the Panthers were second in the NFL in sacks with 47 while finishing 29th in passing yardage allowed. Those two stats alone demonstrate the lack of experience and playmaking ability in the back end of their defense.”
“After they literally walked away from Josh Norman and the franchise tag last April, they invested heavily in the draft and selected three rookie corners. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley flashed potential, but it was trial-by-fire for that duo.”
“Coach Ron Rivera has already announced that Cam Newton will not be featured and leaned on as a primary ball carrier anymore, so they picked Christian McCaffrey in the first round to complement Jonathan Stewart as a runner and increase Newton’s proficiency in the passing game.”
“With their power-forward style wide receivers in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess on the outside and tight end Greg Olsen patrolling the middle, their offensive success really comes down to their line play and Newton’s accuracy. Cam hit an alarmingly low 52.9 percent of his passes last year, so McCaffrey and fellow rookie Curtis Samuel should give him two more accessible options.”
“Matt Kalil (Vikings) was signed to be the left tackle, but he has been a shadow of himself in recent years. Trai Turner is a standout at right guard, but look for rookie Taylor Moton to win the right tackle job at some point during the season.”
“Of course, the real question centers around star linebacker Luke Kuechly, who missed six games with a severe concussion.”
”This team must play ball control, shorten the game and protect its young secondary in order to reach the playoffs again.”
“Winning one Super Bowl is hard, but is it fair to ask if the Saints have maximized their time with Drew Brees as the quarterback? Defensively, they have tried different coordinators, added free agents and drafted to that side of the football, and yet nothing has really worked.”
“Sheldon Rankins returned from a fractured leg to total four sacks in nine games.”
“They traded Brandin Cooks for the Patriots’ first-round choice and landed cornerback Marshon Lattimore and tackle Ryan Ramczyk in the draft.”
“The Saints made a splash in secondary free agency by signing Adrian Peterson, so it appears that he has come to grips with the reality of being part of a backfield committee rather than ‘The Guy.’ Mark Ingram returns off his best overall season with 1,043 yards rushing and 46 receptions. He’s still the No. 1 guy.”
“The offensive line is suspect, and they have yet to get much out of former first rounder Andrus Peat, who has been below average thus far.”
“Without Cooks, Brees loses a dynamic playmaker, but New Orleans has plenty left. Michael Thomas emerged as a rookie with 92 receptions and nine touchdowns, and Willie Snead has turned himself into a trusted target, too.”
“They need another big year from defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Nick Fairley to help their secondary.”
[Editor's note: Nick Fairley will not play this season because of a heart issue that was discovered during the offseason.]
“The reality is that the Saints must regain their homefield advantage in the Superdome, where they have gone a paltry 11–13 over the past three seasons.”
“The Bucs certainly look like a team on the rise with a young franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston. Now, the trick for management will be putting enough assets around him and constructing a defense that can compete in a division loaded with quality signal callers.”
“Winston is exactly what most forecasted when he was the top choice overall in 2015. He’s a classic pocket passer with leadership qualities that connect him to his peers and a player that others believe in. In order for him to reach elite status, he must reduce his interceptions (18 in 2016).”
“Doug Martin will complete the remainder of his four-game suspension during the first three weeks of the season. Fifth-round pick Jeremy McNichols could surprise as a rookie.”
“Tight end Cameron Brate had a breakout campaign in 2016 with eight touchdowns, but the Bucs received a gift in first-round selection O.J. Howard. He was one of the cleanest prospects in the entire draft and should flourish with Winston.”
“The club is very excited about the addition of DeSean Jackson and what his vertical speed can bring to the offense in connection to Mike Evans, who had a monster season last year.”
“The offensive line is good enough but is a middle-of-the-pack unit overall.”
“As long as Gerald McCoy is in the mix, the Tampa front will always have a chance to control the run and rush the passer.”
“The Bucs have a set of modern game linebackers in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Both can run and hit and tackle in space.”
“Their secondary continues to improve and finished with 17 interceptions last season.”
“In Year 3 of the Winston era, there are huge expectations for a team that could reach the playoffs. But they are in a really tough division. No bad teams in the NFC South.”
There was a time — not all that long ago, actually — when Aaron Rodgers was already planning for life after football. He’d led the Green Bay Packers to their first Super Bowl title on his watch — the first of what would be multiple NFL titles, he wholeheartedly believed — in 2010, standing atop the victory podium at the ripe old age of 27. The way he figured it, another nine, 10 seasons tops would be enough.
He wasn’t going to be a lifer, having entered the league as a self-assured 21-year-old kid, surviving an excruciatingly long time trapped in the green room during his freefall at the 2005 NFL Draft before serving a three-year apprenticeship on the Packers’ bench. Even after all that waiting, he was certain he could carve out a Pro Football Hall of Fame legacy during a 15-, 16-year run and walk away from the game while he could still, well, walk. Then it would be on to other pursuits — documentary filmmaking, charity work, coaching high school kids, relaunching his music label, whatever.
But then, something changed. Actually, a lot did. For starters, inspired by his friend, Patriots star Tom Brady, Rodgers revamped his diet a couple of years ago, realizing he could improve his health and his long-term football-playing prospects by changing what he ate. An inquisitive, intellectual fellow by nature, he began researching nutrition like he would an upcoming opponent’s defensive strengths and weaknesses, giving up sweets — his culinary Kryptonite — and removing lactose from his diet, much to the chagrin of some in the Dairy State.
Meanwhile, Rodgers hearkened back to the three years he spent as Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s understudy from 2005-07, watching as the iconic quarterback struggled with a changing locker room that was growing younger and younger as he got older and grayer.
Rodgers was there during that surreal summer of 2008 when Favre’s 16-year run as the face of the franchise ended with an acrimonious divorce and awkward transition to Rodgers. Favre, who’d announced his retirement that spring after years of will-he-or-won’t-he drama, went on to play three more NFL seasons (one with the New York Jets, two with the rival Minnesota Vikings) before retiring after the 2010 season, at age 41.
From watching all that unfold, Rodgers learned two lessons that he believes are more important now, at age 33, than ever before: Find a way to stay relevant and connected to the youngsters who enter your locker room each year, and do everything you can to make sure your employer never has a reason to give your job to somebody else.
“I think as you get older and you see a lot of your friends move on, retire, get cut, get injured and stop playing, you have that point where you think about your own career and how long you can go,” says Rodgers, who will be entering his 13th year in the NFL and 10th as the Packers’ starting quarterback. “And for me, I got even more motivated to be an irreplaceable part of our team. And in doing that, I also think I started to really have a greater awareness of my surroundings and enjoy the little things more — the preparation, the meetings, the practice. And when you’re loving those things, the game is really icing on the cake for you.
“I love to compete and love to play. So for me, it was a natural progression to enjoy it even more and to want to play it as long as I can at a high level.”
To that end, Rodgers significantly altered his diet. The same guy who used to proudly walk into In-N-Out Burger and order his off-the-menu “double-double animal style” usual, abruptly reduced his red-meat intake. The same guy who’d been photographed with his then-girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn, at the 2016 Academy Awards munching on Girl Scout cookies didn’t place an order this year. While he may not have his own cookbook like Brady does, and he isn’t extolling the virtues of avocado ice cream, Rodgers is definitely following the Patriots quarterback’s lead in the kitchen.
“For sure. Tom takes really, really good care of his body — and has for a long time — and he understands what it takes to get that longevity,” Rodgers says of Brady, who’ll turn 40 on Aug. 3 and just engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in February. “What I tease him about — and actually applaud him for — is, it seems like the older he’s gotten, the more athletic he’s gotten. He had a 15-yard run in the Super Bowl for a first down; he’s actually moved in the pocket more and made more plays out of the pocket, which has added another dimension to his game, which obviously helped him a lot [last] season. Down the stretch of [the Super Bowl], he was able to keep plays alive and move and make accurate throws.”
That has long been a key part of Rodgers’ game — his improvisational keep-the-play-alive ability with his legs is one of his best traits — and must remain so in order for him to play at the level he demands. Thus, making sure his legs don’t fail him is vital — not because he wants to be a running quarterback into his 40s, but because he wants to be able to extend plays in order to make big-play throws.
Asked if he believes Rodgers can play into his 40s, Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s reply is as quick as a Rodgers release. “I mean mentally and physically, clearly yes. He has that ability. I think there’s no question there. But I think all positions in football are the same. It’s their legs. You watch a player — and it’s no different with quarterbacks — as long as they have their legs, they can compete at that level.
“Just with anything in life, the more education, the more [information] that’s available to you. If you do have good fortune and good health and you’re able to keep playing at a high level, I think these guys will play a lot longer than the generation before them.”
But for Rodgers, altering his diet and workout regimen to increase his longevity is only half the equation. Being able to play into your 40s is of no value if you don’t actually want to still play, so rediscovering his passion for the game — while simultaneously seeing so many of his longtime teammates depart — has been just as important.
“Football has become even more fun for me,” Rodgers says. “And I think it’s a slight change that happened the last few years, where it really has become just a love affair. [It’s gone] from a game I always enjoyed playing and enjoyed competing and am hyper competitive in, to just really loving the process even more — the practice, the preparation, just enjoying those moments even more.
“And that has kind of given me the idea that, ‘This is what I want to do. I love football, and I want to keep playing as long as possible.’ When you have that kind of slight shift in your thinking, then you start going to, ‘How can I do that?’ And the way you can do that in my opinion is taking care of yourself at a hyper-sensitive level to all the areas that that entails — the rehab area, the eating area, the workout/focus area. And all those combined has kind of given me the idea that I’d like to keep playing at a high level. And [as a result] it’s as fun as it is right now.”
Teammates who’ve been with Rodgers the longest — remarkably, only six players remain from that Super Bowl XLV-winning team of 2010, including Rodgers — say that despite all the love-of-the-game talk, what remains Rodgers’ most driving on-field motivation is his ultra-competitive personality, which extends beyond just football.
“His competitive nature, it’s hard to match that. I think all of us in this building have that fire and that competition in us, but he definitely leads that charge,” kicker Mason Crosby, Rodgers’ teammate since 2007, said during the 2016 season. “Especially through this season, the ups and downs we’ve had, his competitive fire has been a confidence-builder for a lot of guys in here.”
Adds wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who joined the Packers in 2008 and is one of Rodgers’ closest remaining friends on the team: “[Rodgers’ competitive fire] is the most intense I’ve ever seen — on little things. From cards to games to a water balloon fight at the dorms [during training camp], he’s always trying to one-up someone else.”
And perhaps that’s part of the equation, too, though Rodgers might be loath to admit it. Though pained by the seemingly yearly departures of his longest-tenured teammates — from linebacker A.J. Hawk to fullback John Kuhn to wide receiver James Jones — Rodgers might also be just competitive enough to want to make sure his career in Green Bay doesn’t end the way Favre’s did. If he can deliver another title or two to Titletown — and leave on his own terms — his legacy in Green Bay just might surpass that of his predecessor.
Of course, for now, Rodgers is simply focused on 2017 and making sure he enjoys every moment, not just on game day but every day.
“With A.J. getting released [after the 2014 season] and John Kuhn moving on [after 2015], and James Jones not coming back, [that’s] a lot of close friends that I still keep in contact with very regularly moving on. I think that starts to make you think about your own duration and career and how long you want to play.
“I think part of it is, the pressure of practice is way less for me. Obviously, I want to go out and perform every day and make the plays that I know I can make so I have good images for when I’m on the field. But as a young player, you put so much into those reps, and it’s not quite as fun because every play is so important to you.
“When that kind of goes away and you’re an established player and you can start working on little things within plays, within segments of practice, everything becomes a lot more enjoyable because it becomes a chess match out there, not only with the defense that you’re seeing but with yourself, on what you can show yourself you can do and then what you can do to the guys you are playing against.”
There are two storylines in the AFC East that will be talked about a lot before the season and they are "will the Patriots go 16-0 again?" and "will the Jets go 0-16?" The answer to both is no, but it'll be fun to discuss.
New England won the Super Bowl last year and appears to be a better team on paper this season. The Dolphins and Bills also made moves in hopes of narrowing the gap, but there’s still plenty of ground to cover. The Jets seem to be playing for 2018 or beyond with the roster moves they made this offseason.
As I did with college football, I'll provide my thoughts one every team's win total provided by the South Point Casino in Las Vegas. Injuries will change any of these so be vigilant of any news that may come out of training camp. Schedules also are important, as are situational plays. The AFC East gets the NFC South and the AFC West this season.
Over 7 wins +125...Under 7 -145
15/1 to win the division
Offense: A lot of the Buffalo offense is status quo with the major players returning in Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins. The team didn't exactly show a ton of love to Taylor this offseason, but ended up keeping him considering the lack of options on the free agent market. The passing game will go as Watkins goes and that's hard to rely on considering his injury history. The No. 2 WR spot could go to rookie Zay Jones who comes over from East Carolina. The offensive line should be pretty good and this team invested in fullbacks Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert to help open up holes for Shady.
Defense/Special Teams: Sean McDermott is a defensive-minded coach so it's this side of the ball that should see more benefits. The Bills did lose linebacker Zach Brown as well as defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Corey Graham. The secondary is going to turn to first-round draft pick Tra'Davious White out of LSU. He'll have Ronald Darby on the other side at cornerback. The front seven has a lot of potential especially with Shaq Lawson, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams up front. Stephen Hauschka comes over and is a huge upgrade over Dan Carpenter at kicker.
Selection: To me, the Bills took a step back this offseason although the hiring of McDermott is a huge upgrade over Rex Ryan. The offense needs to find more weapons while the defense has to get pressure to help out the secondary. The Week 6 bye will come at a good time after playing three of four on the road – at Carolina, Atlanta and Cincinnati – with the home game being Denver. I think seven is a good number and I lean to the under too so really at that price, I'm not very interested. They have a late three-game homestand against New England, Miami and Indianapolis that could decide which way this number ultimately lands.
Over 7.5 +115...Under 7.5 -135
15/2 to win the division
Offense: This side of the ball is in flux right now following the injury to Ryan Tannehill. Season-ending knee surgery remains a distinct possibility, which is why head coach Adam Gase persuaded former Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler to delay his broadcasting career and join him in Miami instead. Whether it’s Cutler, backup Matt Moore or someone not yet on the roster, he has weapons in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills as well as a new tight end in Julius Thomas, who was acquired via trade with Jacksonville. Jay Ajayi was a revelation too with 1,272 rushing yards. The key for him to even get better is center Mike Pouncey's health. He's missed 19 games the last four seasons.
Defense: Eventually this side of the ball will catch up to it's potential. It'll be new coordinator Matt Burke's task to get this unit to play better after being promoted from linebackers coach. Lawrence Timmons is a great pickup at linebacker. Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh and William Hayes will put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. The problem is that the cornerback position is so bad that who knows how much blitzing they will do. Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett don't exactly inspire confidence. The late signing of cornerback Alterraun Verner will help and the Dolphins should be fine at safety with T.J. McDonald, Nate Allen and Reshad Jones.
Selection: Year after year we wait for the Fins to break out and be the team that will challenge the Patriots. It might be another season because of Tannehill's injury. The schedule starts out a lot friendlier then last year although they do have three on the road Weeks 2-4. Miami also has forsaken the usual bye week after its London trip (Week 4) and instead will have one in Week 11. Until the quarterback situation figures itself out, I'll stay away from this one, if for any other reason because it's due to change because of the uncertainty under center.
Over 12.5 wins +115...Under 12.5 wins -135
-1500 to win the division
Offense: Somehow this side of the ball managed to get better with the addition of WR Brandin Cooks and RB Mike Gillislee, who should take over as the short-yardage and goal-line option. Cooks adds some true speed to a passing game that has lacked that aspect in recent seasons. We'll see if the game plan opens up a little more to suit his skills. Dwayne Allen replaces Martellus Bennett as the No. 2 tight end to complement Rob Gronkowski, whose health will always be a question mark. New England also still has Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola at wide receiver. There are no worries at quarterback with Tom Brady leading the way and Jimmy Garoppolo behind him.
Defense: This side of the ball will look different following the retirement of Rob Ninkovich and the departures of Logan Ryan, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long. Kony Ealy was acquired in a trade with Carolina, Stephon Gillmore was signed in free agency, and David Harris joined after being let go by the Jets. Pairing Gilmore with Malcolm Butler should give the Patriots one of the best tandems in the league. The pass rush should be serviceable, especially if Trey Flowers can match or surpass his seven sacks from 2016. The retirement of Ninkovich weakens the linebacking group a little, but the addition of Harris could offset that.
Selection: New England will not go 16-0 so we can get that out of the way. There are several games that could cause the Patriots trouble with road tilts at New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Denver and Pittsburgh as well as a Week 11 matchup with Oakland in Mexico City. I agree with the public money going on the under here as I'm modestly concerned about the front seven of the defense. There may be a lot of overs in Patriots games this season.
Over 4 wins EVEN...Under 4 -120
75/1 to win the division
Offense: Quarterback for this team is one big gigantic question mark. It's most likely going to be Josh McCown or Christian Hackenberg. Really the team is biding it's time and looking towards next year’s draft. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell form a solid running back duo although Forte is getting up there in age and wear. The wide receivers took a hit early when Quincy Enunwa suffered a neck injury that would take him out for the season. Now they will turn to Robby Anderson and Lucky Whitehead along with rookies ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen.
Defense: There are building blocks for the future on this side of the ball especially at safety with first-round pick Jamal Adams and second-rounder Marcus Maye. The defensive line should be stout with Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson was very disappointing last year so we'll see if he can play up to his hefty contract. We'll also see if second-year linebacker Darron Lee can take that next step. This group has the potential to be solid and should keep games from getting too far out of hand.
Selection: The Jets will not go 0-16 so let's get that out of the way. Home games against the Chargers, Bills and Jaguars represent their best chances for wins. The road slate has Oakland, Tampa Bay, Denver, New Orleans and New England so that certainly won't help. The Week 5 date in Cleveland could end up being an important one not only in terms of the teams’ win total, but also for draft order. I'll take the under for New York.
— 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.
After reaching an oh-so-familiar 9-4 record last season, Nebraska enters the 2017 college football season staring firmly down the barrel of a rebuild. That’s not exactly the place the program wanted to be in year three of Mike Riley’s tenure but it’s where the Cornhuskers look to be at in a year that could go a number of different ways depending on how quickly some fresh faces leave their mark.
While replacing so many starters will prove to be a challenge this season, the team is not lacking options after several solid recruiting classes. Throw in a new defensive coordinator who sports a solid track record and few squads in the Big Ten can be labeled as intriguing as the one in Lincoln.
How exactly will Nebraska fare as a result? Athlon Sports polled several writers to get their take on the Cornhuskers and how they think the 2017 campaign will play out.
Nebraska Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
If you’re going to be rebuilding in the Big Ten, you better hope you’re in the West division and few are going to understand that better than Nebraska will this season. Schedule is one reason why it’s possible the Cornhuskers will receive a bit of a soft landing in what is certainly a rebuilding year. Outside of games against league powers Ohio State and Penn State, there’s a tossup just about every week and that results in a team that could win eight or nine games just as easily as they could five.
Most of the attention will be paid to the offense and for good reason with so few starters back. That said, you can probably expect better (or at least more consistent) quarterback play with Tulane transfer Tanner Lee in place and the offensive line will be on the better side in the conference. There’s not a ton of skill position guys you trust but a healthy De’Mornay Pierson-El could lead the way as a senior.
Defensively, the addition of coordinator Bob Diaco is a positive for the team in both the short and long term. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the number of big plays given up to be cut way down and the experienced secondary should help ease the scheme transition.
That said, I’m still not completely convinced this is the type of the team that can win enough of those tossups to make a run at the division title or wind up much more beyond a borderline bowl team when you add in injuries and bad luck. Things look like they are building to a good 2018 but this season might have a few bumps in the road for the Huskers.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Cornhuskers are the biggest wild card in the Big Ten West Division. Third-year coach Mike Riley brought in Bob Diaco to take over the defensive signals and transition this group to a 3-4 scheme. Overhauling the defense may take a year, especially as Nebraska enters 2017 with question marks in the front seven. On offense, new quarterback Tanner Lee should fit this scheme better than former signal-caller Tommy Armstrong. But will the Cornhuskers develop more consistency out of the ground game and find a few more targets at receiver? There are a lot of question marks for Riley, but the schedule does break in Nebraska’s favor with home games against Iowa and Northwestern in swing conference matchups. With the transition on defense and uncertainty at a few spots on offense, 7-5 or 8-4 seems like the right projection for the Cornhuskers this fall.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Nebraska has been an up-and-down sort of team since joining the Big Ten, and that trend looks to continue this fall. A decent amount of roster turnover leaves some question marks for the Cornhuskers on offense, and the defense has to find a way to clamp down in 2017 if Nebraska is to make a run for the Big Ten West Division title this season. Nebraska builds some momentum with a home win against Wisconsin but will lose ground in the Big Ten West race with a tough draw against Big Ten East leaders Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule this season. There are a handful of toss-up games Nebraska will need to go their way to end the season feeling good about the direction of the program.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
I expect the Huskers to storm out of the gate and start fast on the back of both a new-look offense and a newly installed 3-4 defense. Even outside of the Omaha-Lincoln fish bowl, Tanner Lee is being talked about as a potential early NFL draft pick in 2018 or ‘19. If he lives up to that hype – with the other offense talent around him – the Huskers shouldn't have trouble moving the ball. The biggest concern for Mike Riley's club is time and depth. As time goes on this season, teams are going to figure out the new-look Nebraska. And as the season rolls along, injuries will inevitably take their toll. That will be an issue for the Huskers on both lines and in the secondary. Couple that with the latter part of their season featuring elite opponents, tough road trips and teams that have had their number recently, the Sea of Red may be witness to another dreaded nine-win season after starting as well as 6-0.
Chip Minnich (@ChipMinnich)
Nebraska is undergoing a transition, both offensively and defensively. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley's firing of longtime assistant Mark Banker as defensive coordinator, coupled with the hiring of Bob Diaco, is ushering in the move to a 3-4 scheme that the Cornhuskers may not necessarily have the personnel to run well this season. Tanner Lee at quarterback, a transfer from Tulane, will allow Riley to run an offense more to Riley's liking, but Lee is inexperienced, so there may be some growing pains on the offensive side of the ball.
The schedule is loaded with land mines, with losses likely at Oregon, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern, at Penn State. I will give Nebraska the benefit of the doubt against Minnesota and Iowa, but a 7-5 record will only keep the Cornhusker faithful grumbling and reminiscing.
The Heisman Trophy is college football’s most prestigious individual award, so it should come as no surprise that it’s been very difficult for a player outside of a Power 5 conference to win it. In fact, the last time a player from one of the current Group of 5 conferences (AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) did claim the Heisman was back in 1990 when BYU quarterback Ty Detmer was the winner.
As an FBS Independent, the Cougars at least have the advantage of being able to schedule several Power 5 teams, which in turns increases their exposure and profile. Houston’s Andre Ware (1989) was the last true Heisman winner from a Group of 5 conference so should that change this year it would take nothing short of a historic performance.
Here are the 10 Group of 5 players that appear to have the best shot at breaking the Group of 5’s lengthy Heisman drought.
10. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
For wide receivers, their Heisman drought goes back almost as far as the Group of 5’s with Desmond Howard (1991) being the last. Similar to Howard, Sutton has big-play ability (16.4 ypr on 76 catches in 2016) and can score any time he touches the ball. The junior figures to be a huge part of the Mustangs’ offense, which could take a step forward in head coach Chad Morris’ third season.
9. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State
How do you replace the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher? With a guy who averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Penny has big shoes to fill following Donnel Pumphrey’s departure, but he gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground last season on just 136 carries, which was 213 fewer than Pumphrey. The Aztecs will continue to run the ball, so expect Penny’s workload to increase significantly and with early-season matchups against Arizona State and Stanford on tap, there are opportunities to impress the country and Heisman voters too.
8. Mike White, QB, WKU
The Hilltoppers have a new head coach following Jeff Brohm’s departure for Purdue, but the offensive game plan will remain the same – throw, throw and throw some more. White is coming off of a 4,363-yard season with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions despite not playing in the second halves of several blowouts. He’ll be breaking in some new targets, but the opportunity should still be there to put together another impressive stat line.
7. Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee
James is the NCAA’s active leader in both career receptions (213) and receiving yards (2,971) after hauling in 105 catches for 1,625 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He did this despite starting quarterback Brent Stockstill (see below) missing three games. James is a fairly safe bet for another 100 receptions and if he’s able to surpass last season’s production it will not go unnoticed despite the Blue Raiders hailing from Conference USA. Especially should Middle Tennessee come away with a win against Vanderbilt, Syracuse or Minnesota.
6. Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee
Stockstill is the son of Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill and already well on his way to rewriting the school record books. The junior missed three games last year because of a shoulder injury and still threw for 3,233 yards, 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. If he stays healthy, bigger numbers should follow, especially with top target Richie James leading a deep receiving corps. Brent Stockstill also will need to make the most of the three Power 5 opponents (Vanderbilt, at Syracuse, at Minnesota) on Middle Tennessee’s schedule.
5. Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo
Woodside led FBS with 45 touchdown passes last season and his 4,129 yards placed him seventh. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, tossed just nine interceptions and finished second in passer efficiency (183.3) to Baker Mayfield. Woodside has two of his top receivers back as the Rockets are expected to not only contend for the MAC title, but the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six bowl spot as well. A strong showing on the road against ACC Coastal Division favorite Miami would go a long ways to helping his Heisman candidacy.
4. Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
Rypien returns after throwing for 3,646 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Now in his third year as the Broncos’ starter, if Rypien can take another step forward and help lead Boise State back to the Mountain West title game and a possible New Year’s Six berth, then he will get some Heisman consideration. An early-season head-to-head matchup with Washington State’s Luke Falk and a home game against Wyoming and Josh Allen (see below) also provide Rypien with opportunities to impress.
3. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Allen is considered by some to be among the top quarterback prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. He needs to cut down on his interceptions (15 in 2016) and keep the Cowboys in the hunt for a Mountain West Mountain Division title, but he has the dual-threat skill set to put up big numbers and highlight-reel plays. Strong showings out of the gates against Iowa and Oregon not only will help his draft stock, but also build momentum for his Heisman candidacy.
2. Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
It’s no secret that the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman is Charles Woodson, who also served as kick returner and a wide receiver on occasion for Michigan that season (1997). So it will take a special player to break through for the defense, and Oliver certainly fits that bill. A Freshman All-American last season after racking up 23 tackles for a loss and five sacks, Oliver will be the focal point of the Cougars’ defense and will have plenty of attention on him throughout the fall. If the preseason first-team All-American can live up to his lofty billing, it will only help his Heisman chances.
1. Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
Flowers could follow in Lamar Jackson’s footsteps as the next dual-threat quarterback to win the Heisman. Last year, Flowers accounted for 42 total touchdowns and finished with just 41 fewer rushing yards (1,530) compared to Jackson (1,571) despite getting fewer carries (198 vs. 260). Now a senior, Flowers will remain the focal point of the Bulls’ offense under new head coach Charlie Strong and going undefeated in the regular season is a possibility. If Flowers puts up similar numbers along the way, he should get serious consideration for an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York City.
The polls are coming out. The odds are set. The pundits and prognosticators have all had their say. There really isn't much more to do before the 2017 college football season kicks off, right?
Who am I kidding?
For better or worse, it's time once again for some OUTRAGEOUS* college football predictions heading into the 2017 slate.
We're going to get things rolling by trying to pin down the outrageousness that's going to take place in the ACC this season. The home of the defending nation champion is getting a whole lotta love from a lot of media members and fans alike. Well, I'm here to pump the brakes on the ACC hype train and get you ready for the unthinkable to unfold on the East Coast.
Outrageous College Football Predictions for the ACC in 2017
Miami loses five games
Sorry Canes fans, you don't lose a collegiate signal-caller like Brad Kaaya and think you're going to be a serious contender in what might be the nation's deepest conference the following season. It'll start to get ugly early on against Florida State in Tallahassee. Road games to Duke and North Carolina will be lost on the sidelines to guys who will simply outcoach Mark Richt. Good luck moving the ball against what should be an elite Virginia Tech defense, followed by a a visit from a Notre Dame team every bit as talented and again, probably better coached. That's five already. In case Miami steals one of those, the Hurricanes still will need to leave the warm confines of South Florida in late November for a trip to a likely frigid Pittsburgh to take on the feisty Panthers.
Florida State will lose four games
You thought I was going to let the Seminoles off the hook? Please. Speaking of hype trains, there may not be a bigger hot-air powered locomotive than the one that calls Tallahassee home. I'm hearing and reading Heisman talk and College Football Playoff discussion in regard to Florida State everywhere I go. Those are lofty goals, especially with trips to Death Valley and Gainesville late in the season. Oh, and there is that little season opener against a certain team from Tuscaloosa. Don't sleep on that trip to Duke, and you certainly better not be looking past that pesky NC State squad (more on them in a bit). The Seminoles are talented, but a young and inexperienced offensive line will be their undoing.
Virginia Tech will win the Coastal Division
Bud Foster's defense is going to be among the best in the nation this season. He'll unleash them against a division where all but one team (Duke) will be working in a new full-time starter at quarterback. Advantage: Foster and the Hokies. Offensively, head coach Justin Fuente continues to install his high-powered attack. You'll start to see more elite skill players from the 757 area code blending into his system. Redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson will be the breakout player of the year in the ACC and the Hokies will be on their way back to national relevance.
NC State will win the Atlantic Division
It won't be pretty early on. It'll look like a muddy horse race full of close games and round-robin outcomes between three or four teams. But at the end of the season, the horse that separates from the Atlantic pack will be the Wolfpack. They return 16 total starters on offense and defense from a team that nearly knocked off both Florida State and Clemson last season. And with the race still close at the end of this season, NC State will get to close out its campaign against Boston College, Wake Forest and North Carolina.
The ACC gets shut out of the College Football Playoff
Sure, the ACC may be the deepest, toughest conference in the land this season – but that's the problem. The two teams playing in the conference championship game are each going to have two, maybe three losses, and I don't expect any of the teams that don't make it to the ACC Championship Game to be able to punch a playoff ticket like Ohio State did last season. There will be some great football played along the East Coast this season, but the demolition derby-nature of that competition will leave too many teams with too many wounds to merit an invite to play for a national championship.
*Remember, "outrageous" can be defined as “wildly exaggerated or improbable,” and “very bold, unusual, and startling.” These are "outrageous" predictions and should be treated as such.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also covers the Big Ten for Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa's SB Nation blog. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
It’s a persistent storyline that won’t go away for NASCAR these days: ratings and attendance declines. The loyalists are sick of hearing about it, fans are sick of reading about it and the big guns in Daytona Beach wish it would all just go away.
But it hasn’t. And the story that just won’t find a final chapter is at the epicenter of a little Kevin Harvick – Dale Earnhardt Jr. controversy entering Michigan.
Harvick, himself a driver slash media pundit with a weekly show on SIRIUS XM Radio, spoke out about the current state of the sport. He claimed Earnhardt, a 14-time Most Popular Driver has actually kept NASCAR from growing despite loyalists that number in the millions.
“[Earnhardt]’s got these legions of fans,” Harvick said on his program. “This huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”
Harvick also went on to explain that Earnhardt’s last year has been underwhelming in terms of a surge in fan attendance. He claimed that, once again it was performance or lack thereof keeping those people from paying hard-earned money to see their hero.
Earnhardt, for his part called the comments “hurtful” and remained confident he had made an impact on the sport. While never winning a championship, he does have 26 race wins (including two Daytona 500s). Earnhardt also made five consecutive playoff appearances before last summer’s season-ending post-concussion syndrome.
Much of the focus has surrounded whether Harvick owes Earnhardt an apology. (For the record, these are two grown athletes who often speak their mind; I don’t think Earnhardt’s crying in the back of his camper over this thing).
Sure, Harvick could have articulated his point a little better. But in the end, I think what he said about Earnhardt is irrelevant; it’s the broader subject he’s talking about that matters.
Several years ago, NASCAR CEO Brian France encouraged drivers to stay positive about the state of the sport. NASCAR went through a period of “secret fines” where drivers critical of officiating, rule changes or future direction were penalized for speaking out. For a time, that philosophy appeared to tone down the rhetoric.
But money can trump loyalty, and the lack thereof is now filtering down to driver’s wallets. Kurt Busch saw his option not picked up at Stewart-Haas Racing; a renegotiated contract could lead to less money. Ditto for Matt Kenseth, a veteran who may be priced out of the sport as too expensive without a primary sponsor. William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports’ newest hire as a teenager, comes paired with a check from Liberty University for multiple races; that certainly didn’t hurt his case over a one-year stopgap with experience. It’s clear, more than ever sponsorship decisions and departures have caused even the top teams to make difficult choices.
Who loses out? Veterans who have given their blood, sweat, and tears to NASCAR are now seeing the money tree dry up as their careers wind down.
That leaves people more open to discussing why NASCAR is sliding downhill, admitting the problem and assessing blame. What Harvick said, then is just as important because it changes the focus this weekend to why NASCAR is failing: is it Earnhardt or something else? That’s near impossible for the sport to spin into something positive.
What’s worse is there’s no solution offered, either. The unspoken narrative is if only Dale Earnhardt Jr. would retire, things will get better. Say what? Point me to any major sport that became more popular after their biggest draw decided to hang it up for good.
Such is the state of the sport heading to a track in Michigan unlikely to change that storyline. That, in itself, is really the key to pushing aside Harvick’ and Earnhardt’s comments. If only the on-track product could produce the type of verbal spark and attention the talk of NASCAR’s decline inspires off it, this chatter would be back-page news.
Pure Michigan 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, MI)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Daniel Suarez
Ho, hum, another Martin Truex Jr. win at Watkins Glen. The fourth victory of the season propelled the points leader further toward “title favorite” status. So why not tip the cap toward a surprise third-place finisher instead? Rookie Suarez led 14 laps at the Glen and remained in the mix through a quirky fuel mileage finish.
After a slow start replacing Carl Edwards, this freshman has caught fire. Four straight top-10 finishes give him eight for the season, leading all rookies. It’s a surge too late to make the playoffs but enough to give Joe Gibbs Racing optimism their last-minute selection is capable of being a Cup championship contender someday.
Who’s at the Back: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The part of Kevin Harvick’s comments that are factual, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is how disappointing Earnhardt’s final season has been. Engine problems left him sitting in the garage at the Glen, his seventh DNF overall in 22 races. Only his nephew Jeffrey, driving for underfunded Circle Sport, has more in the Cup Series.
The sport’s Most Popular Driver now sits in a rather untenable position: win in the next four races or write off his final shot at a championship. Considering he’s led no more than 10 laps in any race all season (24 overall) that appears to be a tall order.
As mentioned above, William Byron was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to drive their No. 5 Chevrolet beginning in 2018. Primary sponsorship for most races will be provided by longtime Hendrick backer Axalta Coating Systems, Jeff Gordon’s former sponsor and Liberty University. The move came just 48 hours after Kasey Kahne was officially released from his contract a year early. Kahne was unable to save his ride despite a Brickyard 400 win last month that locked him into the playoffs, his first postseason bid for HMS since 2014.
Aric Almirola claims his plan is to remain with the No. 43 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports next season and beyond. Almirola, who missed several races this season after fracturing his vertebrae at Kansas Speedway, claimed negotiations were ongoing with RPM and sponsor Smithfield to re-up over the long term.
Josh Wise, who hasn’t run at all in NASCAR this season claimed he was "retired from racing" this week. The former full-time Cup driver, who took a position at Chip Ganassi Racing as a driver consultant this season, claimed it just wasn’t worth it to keep driving considering the equipment and rides he was being offered.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish for AJ Allmendinger this season at the sport’s two road course races. The ‘Dinger is known as one of the top right-turn experts on the circuit but struggled this year at both events with JTG Daugherty Racing.
Straight NASCAR Cup races in which Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have combined to win at least two of the three stages.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson. Kyle Larson. Kyle Larson. Sure, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is slumping, earning three straight finishes of 23rd or worse. He’s even fallen to third in the points standings behind Truex and Busch. But Michigan, of all places, is the right track for the No. 42 team to right the ship. Larson has won two straight races here, pacing the field for 137 of 400 laps and enters the weekend a clear favorite. If he can’t win here, then Chip Ganassi Racing is in trouble and I firmly believe that’s not the case. Just think of how many summer slumps Jimmie Johnson has been through en route to his seven championships?
Chase Elliott, depending on the league, is middle tier or top tier. But he’s a must-have for your roster after three Michigan starts have resulted in three straight second-place finishes. Elliott’s team is the most consistent at Hendrick Motorsports right now in a sea of transition. Add in his bubble status, in need of a victory to secure a playoff spot, and the No. 24 team will come ready to play this weekend.
Once upon a time, Roush Fenway Racing owned Michigan, capturing 13 victories on the Cup level. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t won here yet, several steps behind the shoes of former drivers Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards but he was eighth in June with the No. 17 Ford. Expect him to keep building momentum toward the playoffs with another top 10.
Again, this track is one where you want to lean toward rookies languishing in the lower tier when they’re anything but. Daniel Suarez’s top-10 finish streak makes him a solid choice for the weekend; ignore his 24th-place result from June. Erik Jones was 13th that day while Ty Dillon ran a respectable 20th.
Finally, don’t sleep on Danica Patrick... again. The stats show a last-place finish from June but she could have gotten a top-15 result had she not been in the wrong place, wrong time during the closing laps.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch had the edge at Michigan over Kyle Larson Friday morning, earning 13/4 odds while Martin Truex Jr. sat at 15/4. Larson ranks third on the list with 11/2 odds.
What I Think
I look for Larson to return to his winning ways. Championship drivers establish the type of streak that a Michigan victory (his third straight) would give this rising star on the Cup circuit.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)
Last year’s rookie class was all about Ezekiel Elliott and how he become one of the top fantasy performers. While some were worried about taking him as early as the first round, those who took the risk were rewarded handsomely.
There were other major surprises as well. Dak Prescott, Michael Thomas and Jordan Howard all made significant fantasy contributions as rookies. However, while some rookies struggled (hello Jared Goff), a bunch of others just couldn’t get it going due to injury, including Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Prosise. So now heading into their sophomore seasons, which players are ready to break out and work their way onto your draft radar?
1. Paul Perkins, RB, Giants
Perkins was a late-round flier in many drafts last season even with Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen ahead of him on the depth chart. But as the season progressed, Perkins made the most of his opportunities and enters 2017 with a strong claim to the No. 1 job. With the possibility for 200-plus touches, Perkins could become a valuable asset, especially if he gets involved in the passing game.
2. Corey Coleman, WR, Browns
Coleman looked like fantasy gold after Week 2 last season when he caught five passes for 104 yards and two TDs. Then he broke his hand in practice, missed the next six games and didn’t do much upon his return. Over his last eight games, he averaged a little more than three catches and exactly 30 yards per game with a single TD. But with Terrelle Pryor now in Washington, Coleman should be the Browns’ No. 1 target, over Kenny Britt. Even with some questions at quarterback, Coleman should put up similar if not better numbers than Pryor had last season — 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns.
3. Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles
Wentz started the season on fire but went through the expected growing pains as defenses got better looks. He ended up with 3,782 passing yards, 16 TDs and 14 interceptions. Philadelphia signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency to give Wentz more weapons. If everyone can get on the same page, 4,000 yards and at least 25 TDs are reasonable expectations for the second-year signal-caller.
4. Hunter Henry, TE, Chargers
Even though he played second fiddle to Antonio Gates, Henry managed to catch 36 passes for 478 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. Gates is still around, but Henry is expected to serve as the featured tight end in the Chargers’ passing attack. If that’s the case, he’s worth consideration as a back-end TE1 in all formats.
5. Austin Hooper, TE, Falcons
Hooper’s playing time increased as the season progressed, and he actually led the Falcons in targets (six) in Super Bowl LI. Atlanta’s three tight ends were productive last year, combining for 57 catches, 787 yards and nine touchdowns in 16 games. Jacob Tamme has moved on, leaving Levine Toilolo as Hooper’s main competition for targets. Expect Hooper to not only be the starter in a high-powered offense but also a focal point in the red zone.
6. Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
There was some thought that Henry might actually beat out DeMarco Murray as the Titans’ No. 1 running back, or at least share half of the load as a rookie. That didn’t materialize, however, as Murray had a great fantasy season. Henry did average 4.5 yards per carry, scored five touchdowns and showed good hands (catching 13 of 15 targets), but Tennessee is committed to Murray as the lead back. The Titans love to run the ball, making Henry a must-have handcuff, a potential RB2 and solid flex option. Remember, he’s just one injury away from an RB1-worthy workload.
7. DeAndre Washington, RB, Raiders
Washington was part of a three-headed rushing attack last season along with Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard. The only thing that has changed for this season is that you can swap out Murray for Marshawn Lynch. While Lynch has big-name value, he was a shell of his former self the last time he played way back in January 2016. If Washington can earn the backup job, he might be one of the most valuable handcuffs, because no one knows what the Raiders are going to get out of Lynch, and their offensive line is one of the best in the league.
8. Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants
Shepard played just about as well as everyone had hoped he would in his debut season. The Giants’ No. 2 WR quickly became one of Eli Manning’s favorite red-zone targets, finishing with eight touchdowns, to go along with 65 receptions and 683 yards. While Brandon Marshall’s arrival will have a direct impact on Shepard’s role in 2017, it won’t make him completely irrelevant. Figuring out where to draft Shepard could be tricky, but as long as it’s not too early, the value should be there considering his potential in a pass-happy offense.
9. Wendell Smallwood, RB, Eagles
As a rookie, Smallwood was a fantasy afterthought for much of the 2016 season. His best game came in Week 10 when he ran the ball 13 times for 70 yards, but he didn’t score a touchdown in the game, or all season for that matter. However, opportunity is knocking for Smallwood this season with head coach Doug Pederson saying the second-year ball carrier is “in the mix” for the starting job. Then again, LeGarrette Blount was signed in May, and Darren Sproles is still around. So while Smallwood may be nothing more than an RB4, he could end up being a steal on draft day if he gets enough touches.
10. Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals
Boyd had a quiet yet productive rookie season, catching 54 balls for 603 yards and one touchdown, but there were stretches of ineffectiveness. In nearly half (seven) of the games he played, he reeled in two or fewer catches. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert remain the Bengals’ top two targets, but even with the arrival of first-round pick John Ross, Boyd should have ample opportunity to expand his role this season, especially if any injuries happen.
11. Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos
The Broncos did everything they could to make Booker their featured running back last season, and all he did was disappoint. Taking over as the starter after C.J. Anderson was lost for the season, Booker managed just 3.5 yards per carry behind a suspect offensive line. Denver will be running a different offense under new head coach Vance Joseph, but Anderson is back and former Chief Jamaal Charles has been added to the mix. Both have had their history of injuries, so Booker should still see a fair amount of carries and have a chance to show he can be a lead horse if called upon. He may get off to a slow start because of a broken wrist suffered early in training camp that will cause him to miss as many as six weeks, a time frame that could have him miss the first few games of the season. But there should still be plenty of time for him to have an impact if given the opportunity.
12. Jared Goff, QB, Rams
As last year showed, Goff still has a long way to go before he’s a reliable starter in the NFL. But perhaps a coaching change and some new weapons will get him going in the right direction. He spent the offseason working with QB guru Greg Olson and new head coach Sean McVay, and the Rams overhauled their receiving corps, so it might not be too shocking to see Goff take a big step forward as a sophomore.
13. Paxton Lynch, QB, Broncos
Lynch was a surprise first-round selection by the Broncos last year and wound up making two starts. His stats weren’t overly impressive (497-2-1 in three total games), but he did show enough that he’ll get a chance in training camp to beat out Trevor Siemian for the starting job. Lynch has the higher ceiling, and great weapons to throw to in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, so if he does get the nod, he might be worth a flier as your QB2.
14. Will Fuller, WR, Texans
Fuller started the 2016 season looking like the next Odell Beckham Jr., going off for 107 yards and a TD in his first game and 104 yards in his second. Unfortunately, injuries and terrible quarterback play prevented him from having another 100-yard game the rest of the way. His explosiveness and big-play ability were evident based on his 11 catches of 20-plus yards. Unfortunately, Fuller broke his collarbone early in training camp and is expected to miss two to three months. That obviously will impact his breakout potential, but he still could prove to be valuable pickup late in the season. Don’t draft him, but don’t completely forget about him once the season gets going either.
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
The guy who invented beer probably didn’t have to buy another beer in a bar for the rest of his life. But as great as beer was, people eventually realized that they needed some different types of beers to break up the monotony, so craft beers took the world by storm. That same thinking should be applied to your fantasy football leagues.
Being in just one fantasy football league these days is rare, but now you may be starting to get bored with a handful of the same types of leagues. We came up with some new ideas and rules either to add to your current league or to start with an entirely new league. It’s like we’re introducing 21 new flavors to your fantasy football craving!
This article appears in Athlon Sports’ 2017 Fantasy Football magazine, available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere
1. Have an owner waiting list? It’s time for relegation!
If you have a successful fantasy league already, with 10 or 12 reliable owners coming back year after year with a waiting list of people hoping to join the party, then maybe it’s time to expand. Rather than expand your main league, screwing up the integrity of the draft, expand by making a “minor” league of owners (even if it’s just a six-team league). The top two teams in that minor league move up to replace the bottom two teams in the majors the next year, like European soccer relegation. Have a Super Draft Day, with both leagues doing their drafts at the same time — but force the minor-leaguers to draft at the kiddie table!
2. Schedule double-headers twice per season
You might figure, like many of us, that a 13-week fantasy regular season is too small to really establish the six best teams. Schedule two weeks of double-headers (the week before bye weeks and the week after so everyone has full rosters), preferably against division rivals. You’ll add two games to the schedule, and you’ll have two “super” weeks of action.
3. Assign team captains who get a turbo boost
Don’t you wish you had a turbo button in life, like you do for “Madden”? Run faster, drive faster, work faster! Do it for your fantasy leagues, allowing each team to name a team captain each week, allowing that player’s score to be multiplied by 150 percent. You could also make a rule that you can’t name a player as captain more than twice in a season, making it more strategical. (That’s a word!)
4. Give your league a theme
Don’t be “just another fantasy league.” Stand out from all the others — by assigning a theme to it, like Seinfeld, Mafia movies or Saturday Night Live. Change the division names accordingly, along with the name of the league’s trophy and championship game, while also asking each owner to change his team name and logo to something theme-related. There’s just something extra fantastic about having your “Soup Nazis” beat “Kramerica Industries” in the Festivus Bowl.
5. Biggest injury busts earn sandwich picks
Baseball has “sandwich picks” that are awarded to teams that lose certain free agents. Use that same line of thinking to help the owner who suffered the worst injury bust last season (Keenan Allen?) and give him a bonus pick after Round 1 and before Round 2. Get the league to vote on the biggest injury bust at the end of each regular season.
6. Allow public counteroffers for trades
You don’t get any spicier than this addition — it’s the cayenne pepper of all rule changes! Once two teams come to an agreement on a trade, the commissioner notifies all the other owners, who will then have a 24-hour window to try to beat the offers. Once that trade is accepted, it goes up for counteroffers, too. This should eliminate bad trades and dumb vetoes.
7. Time for an auction/draft hybrid system
If you’ve never done a fantasy auction, you’re missing out. But then again, there’s just something about a draft that makes life worth living — along with family and buffalo wings, of course. Have a hybrid auction/draft, where you auction off 50 players, then teams can fill their rosters with a regular draft. It will take some adjusting to, especially until you figure out the right amount of auction money everyone starts with, but it can be twice the fun!
8. Add rivalry weeks to the schedule
Each team owner usually has one natural rival in the league, whether it’s two brothers, VP against VP, husband and wife, in-laws, neighbors, etc. Have them face off in Rivalry Week, where the winner gets to change the loser’s team name and logo for the entire week after their game. Good times!
9. Weight the draft lottery toward the have-nots in keeper leagues
A team with bad keepers has a real uphill battle year after year. That tends to make owners think twice about returning the next season, which is a pain for the commissioner. Just like the NBA Draft, award the worst teams from the previous season with extra names in the hat during the draft lottery, improving their chances for landing a top-three pick.
10. Eliminate luck by awarding extra wins
One of the biggest complaints about fantasy football is that it seems like luck has a huge say in the standings. Like when a team scores the second-most points of the week, but happens to be scheduled against the highest-scoring team, and they get a loss. If you award a second “win” to the teams that score in the top half of the league that week, then the best teams get two wins, the worst teams get two losses, and the “unlucky” teams split the difference with a win and a loss that week. It’s like when your tax refund comes in the day your car engine blows.
11. Vote on awards at end of the season
In Week 14, before the fantasy playoffs begin, have all your owners vote for a handful of awards each season, including Fantasy MVP, Rookie of the Year, Sleeper Pick of the Year, Free-Agent Pickup of the Year, Fantasy Bust, Worst Move of the Year, and most important, Fantasy Owner of the Year. This helps get everyone involved, and some non-playoff guys might even get an award or two. Teams can’t vote for themselves, though! Also, keep owner records, year after year, including the award winners and career win/loss records (overall and against specific owners). This is great for Draft Day bragging rights!
12. All vs. one scheduling
Wouldn’t the NFL be better if every team played every other team at least once? Obviously, it’s impossible for that to work, but that’s not the case in fantasy. Have each team face off against the other 11 teams in the league — every week! That will truly determine the six best teams that should be in the playoffs — which are then just Head-to-Head contests.
13. Make two college players keeper eligible
For keeper leagues, one way to keep the bad teams interested as the season wears down is to have the two worst teams choose a college football player as a possible keeper. This makes those owners who might bail have a reason to return, and it makes for some interesting picks. For instance, some great college keepers in recent years would have been Amari Cooper, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. And some great busts would have been Justin Blackmon, Trent Richardson and Montee Ball. Two intriguing picks for your 2017 draft would be USC quarterback Sam Darnold and LSU running back Derrius Guice.
14. Week 3 free-agent drafts will change your life!
Rather than allow teams to make free-agent pickups in the first two weeks of the season, hold a special Week 3 Free-Agent Draft, with the worst team getting the first pick in each round. Just think over the past few seasons how players like Dak Prescott (2016), Justin Forsett (2014) and Odell Beckham Jr. (2014) would have helped push some 0–2 teams into contention. It’s a great reason to get the league together again, too.
15. Bonus TD awarded for best set of backups per game
Eliminate the frustration of having a player go off on your bench and not help your team. If your backup players score more points than your opponent’s backup players, then your final score that week gets a bonus six points tacked on. NFL teams use their backup players, so why shouldn’t you? It will change the makeup of your roster, too.
16. Invent interesting draft pick lottery ideas
Deciding the fantasy draft order might be the most important event outside of the actual fantasy draft, so why not make it a bigger deal than just pulling numbers out of a hat? Set up some competitions, like miniature golf or skee ball. Better yet, make the competitions a little more random and have everyone pick a NASCAR driver for an upcoming race, or a horse in the Belmont Stakes held in June. A favorite I’ve heard recently is putting draft pick numbers on the bottom of cups, shuffling them around and having owners play beer pong to decide their draft pick’s fate.
17. Draft your draft picks
You could also make the draft lottery a little more strategic. Have owners draft where in the first round they’d like to draft. Their lottery number is the order in which they pick their picks. It’s always interesting to see at which point someone prefers the 12th or 11th pick over the seventh, eighth or ninth picks.
18. Week 17 becomes DFS Pro Bowl Week!
Since Week 17 is generally regarded as a throwaway week in fantasy — much like how the Pro Bowl is viewed in the real NFL — why not have a DFS Pro Bowl Week, inviting your entire league to play a Daily Fantasy tournament for that final Sunday. Take advantage of those backups to the stars that sit for the NFL Playoffs! Maybe even give each team the option of locking in one player from their year-long fantasy team that no one else can use that week.
19. Give kickers the boot
Until you’ve played in a league that has already eliminated the kicker position from lineups, you’ll never realize how nice it is to not have to deal with a kicker on a bye week when six NFL teams are on byes.
20. Award highest-scoring non-playoff team
Rather than just have the six teams with the best records make the playoffs, award teams with the top five records, but then save that sixth spot for the highest-scoring team outside of those top five. It could still be the team with the sixth-best record, but this is a way to make sure a great team with a tough schedule doesn’t get screwed.
21. Hold a Super-Duper Bowl every 4 years
Each season, have teams put in an extra 25 percent of the entry fee, which then goes into a pool that pays out to the champion four years from now — in the Super-Duper Bowl! This is especially great for keeper leagues, which then adds some strategy on which players they hold over aiming for a Year-4 double payout!
The DraftKings daily fantasy NASCAR game heads to the midwest this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will make its second stop at Michigan International Speedway this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.
After a few one-day shows, we're back to a traditional schedule this week. Cars hit the track Friday morning for first practice; drivers then battle for the Coors Light Pole Award at 5:05 p.m. The series then holds their two final practice sessions on Saturday morning.
ELITE TIER: $9,500 and up
Martin Truex Jr. ($10,600)
Michigan: 23 starts, five top fives (21.7 percent), eight top 10s (34.8 percent)
Average finish at Michigan: 16.0
Truex is coming off a statement road course win last weekend at Watkins Glen. Clearly, he can no longer be looked at as a driver who can only win on the “cookie cutter” tracks. The race came down to fuel mileage, one where Truex saved just enough to hold off second place Matt Kenseth.
Truex will now look to build upon his series-leading four wins. Earlier this season at Michigan, he finished sixth, leading 62 total laps in the race while also winning the first two stages. Over the past five races here, the veteran's average finish is 8.8, besting his overall track average by seven positions. Truex should be a sure bet for Sunday.
Kyle Larson ($10,300)
Michigan: Seven starts, Two wins, three top fives, four top 10s
Average finish at Michigan: 12.3
Larson excels at the two-mile tracks on the NASCAR schedule. In fact, Michigan is the home to his first career MENCS win; he earned a second at the track earlier this season. In last year’s race, Larson started 12th and then led 41 laps en route to the victory. Back in June, he started from the pole and led 96 laps in a dominant performance.
Larson has finished 23rd or worse in three straight races, slumping to third in the MENCS point standings behind Truex and Kyle Busch. With that said, he remains the favorite to win Sunday and should be a lock to start up front. This type of oval is the true test as to whether he can put this growing slump to rest.
Chase Elliott ($9,800)
Michigan: Three starts, three second-place finishes
Average finish at Michigan: 2.0
Elliott was the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver that showed decent speed at Watkins Glen last weekend. The four-car team has been up and down all season, leaving the No. 24 car winless and squarely on the playoff bubble.
Elliott hopes to change that Sunday and he's got as good a chance as anyone. His Michigan resume is almost as impressive as Larson’s, participating in three Cup races at the track and finishing runner-up in all of them. In the first two events, Elliott led just over 30 laps apiece but fell just short of Victory Lane. Could Sunday finally be the breakthrough moment fans have been looking for?
ALL-STAR TIER: $8,000 – $9,400
Brad Keselowski ($9,400)
Michigan: 16 starts, five top fives (31.2 percent), eight top 10s (50 percent)
Average finish at Michigan: 12.6
Keselowski was in contention for the win at Watkins Glen last weekend before a green-flag pit stop penalty as the race came to an end caused him to fall back to 15th. Fuel mileage didn't work in his favor but the No. 2 Ford remains the strongest within the two-car Team Penske camp.
Michigan should bring another chance at a quality run. Keselowski hasn't finished outside the top 16 here since 2011 and has six top-10 finishes in the past seven races at the track. Keselowski has also led laps in three straight MIS races and in nine of the past 11.
If he qualifies inside the top five, Keselowski could also be a value dominator play as well. He's a bargain at nearly $1k less than the top guys.
Matt Kenseth ($9,300)
Michigan: 36 Starts, three wins, 14 top fives (38.9 percent), 20 top 10s (55.6 percent)
Average finish at Michigan: 10.4
Kenseth is second among all active drivers at Michigan in average finish, average running position, driver rating, and laps inside the top 15. He also led 146 laps during his last win here back in August 2015.
Watkins Glen marked the fourth straight race in which Kenseth finished inside the top 10. Since it was announced he would no longer be the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kenseth has finishes of fourth (NHMS), fifth (Indianapolis), ninth (Pocono), and second (Watkins Glen). He is clearly racing with a chip on his shoulder, energy you can put to good use for your DraftKings roster.
Jamie McMurray ($8,500)
Michigan: 29 Starts, two top fives (6.9 percent), eight top 10s (27.6 percent)
Average finish at Michigan: 17.4
At Michigan, McMurray has finished inside the top 10 in four out of the last five races. He finished fifth in June, his second top five of the season and has top-10 finishes in 11 of 22 races this year.
McMurray currently sits eighth in series points, but because of the playoff system, finds himself 15th. The driver of the No. 1 Chevy likely needs a win to secure his spot in the playoffs. Can it happen at MIS, an intermediate where McMurray is not known to flash winning speed?
Sure, that's certainly possible as this veteran has been one of the most consistent drivers this season. McMurray is having his best statistical year in over a decade and can't be counted out with Chip Ganassi Racing's intermediate track program.
BARGAIN TIER: $4,500 – $7,900
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($7,900)
Michigan: 35 starts, two wins, eight top fives (22.9 percent), 15 top 10s (42.9 percent)
Average finish at Michigan: 15.6
Earnhardt's luck this season has been terrible. Last week, he earned his seventh DNF of the season, the most of his career since 2007. He ran only 22 laps before he experienced engine trouble and retired to the garage early.
Clearly, momentum doesn't appear to be on Junior's side as of late. But Michigan is a track that Earnhardt has run pretty well at historically. He has two career wins here, in 2008 and ‘12 while finishing ninth in the first stop at the track this season. That was his fifth top-10 finish at Michigan in six races.
With the NASCAR playoff window closing, it is “checkers or wreckers” for the No. 88 team in the final few races before the playoffs start. Junior will be all boom or bust in daily fantasy this weekend. Will the risk be worth it?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($6,900)
Michigan: Nine starts, one top 10
Average finish at Michigan: 21.3
Stenhouse is averaging just outside the top 15 in average finish this season, which is right where he is expected to run this weekend. He hasn’t been fantastic at Michigan, struggling overall in nine career races but did finish eighth here earlier this season.
The driver of the No. 17 Ford has fallen off since starting the season on a hot streak. But Stenhouse has two wins on the year and has run well at his non-conventional tracks throughout 2017. Priced below the $7k mark, Stenhouse will be the bargain-tier driver to watch during practice. If he shows top-20 speed, be sure to stick him in your lineup.
(Top photo by ASP Inc.)
The AFC South is arguably the most wide-open division in the NFL right now. Houston and Tennessee tied for the division lead at 9-7 last season, with the Texans winning the tiebreaker and making the playoffs over the rising Titans.
The Texans dealt Brock Osweiler to Cleveland but traded up to take Deshaun Watson with the 12th overall pick in this year's draft. However, the Titans also have retooled, with Marcus Mariota healthy and ready to lead a dynamic offense in Nashville. The Jaguars upgraded at running back by drafting Leonard Fournette, with 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. looking to return from injury and exhibit the athleticism he showed off at Florida. And of course, never count out Andrew Luck and the Colts who, if they can find a capable offensive line, are in line for success.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC South breaks down entering the 2017 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The Texans have a proven playoff-caliber team. But it is amazing that GM Rick Smith and head coach Bill O’Brien have been given a free pass on their handling of the quarterback position. They creatively found a way to escape the Brock Osweiler contract, then gave up their 2018 first-rounder to move up for Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.”
“No matter what they say, Tom Savage won’t be the quarterback of this team by mid-October.”
“Running back Lamar Miller was a quality signing for them last year, and their expectation on offense is that Nick Martin will improve the interior of the line, while wideout Will Fuller should increase his consistency and Braxton Miller comes to life as a slot receiver.”
“DeAndre Hopkins is up for an extension, and his play would be even more impressive with a real NFL quarterback.” “The defense is their calling card and had an amazing year in 2016, despite J.J. Watt missing basically the entire season.”
“In the meantime, Jadeveon Clowney finally hit his stride as a third-year pro, and Whitney Mercilus has quietly become a pass rusher who must be accounted for by the opposing offense.”
“Benardrick McKinney has been a good find as an inside linebacker, but his lack of speed shows up in coverage, hence their selection of Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham as a combo inside/outside backer.”
“Houston lost A.J. Bouye to the Jaguars in free agency, but they still believe in corners Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph. The Kevin Johnson selection two years ago looks like a wise choice now.”
“Still, everything here rides on Watson, who was the most mature and experienced signal caller available in the draft. After Tony Romo retired and was unavailable to them, Smith and O’Brien are hoping Deshaun can be their Dak Prescott in 2017 and beyond.”
“The media and fans ridicule Jim Irsay, but the people within the Colts’ program not only respect him, but admire his football acumen.”
“The reality for this team is that Andrew Luck has been injured since 2015, and the defense could not make a play to save its life during that time.”
“Luck had offseason shoulder surgery and is expected to return by training camp. The organization still believes he is capable of leading them to multiple Super Bowls, but he has to play better and cut down on his turnovers.”
“Opposing coaches marvel at the career Frank Gore has put together. He still runs with a forward lean, great instincts and finishes every play.”
“They should be set at receiver with T.Y. Hilton leading the way and Donte Moncrief showing signs of being a solid No. 2.”
“The offensive line has stabilized with Ryan Kelly at center and should be better with more experience. It’s still not a strength.”
“[New GM Chris] Ballard paid $30 million over three years to defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins in early April, which might prove to be the best of his 14 free-agent signings.”
“Ohio State free safety Malik Hooker was their first-round pick, and he is a rangy center fielder with exceptional ball skills.”
“Punter Pat McAfee retired and blasted [former general manager] Ryan Grigson on his way out the door. Jeff Locke was signed from the Vikings to fill his role.”
“Their obvious problem is Blake Bortles and a subpar offensive line. This is a make-or-break year for Bortles, who must prove that he can play effectively early in games rather than just building stats in garbage time.”
“They jumped all over Leonard Fournette at pick No. 4 with the belief he can make an immediate impact.”
“They traded for left tackle Branden Albert to protect Bortles’ blindside and chose Cam Robinson in the second round as a possible tackle or guard.”
[Editor's note: Albert announced on July 31 that he was retiring.]
“The Jags traded tight end Julius Thomas to Miami and added Mychal Rivera (Raiders) to complement Marcedes Lewis.”
“Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns fell off in 2016 due to injuries and defenses adjusting to their styles, so they both need to respond in their respective fourth seasons.”
“Tom Coughlin continued the Jaguars’ willingness to spend big in free agency when they added defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye.”
“On paper, this side of the football has vast potential, but they must create more pressure to increase their interception production.”
“With Bouye and Jalen Ramsey on the corners and veteran safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church patrolling the middle of the field, the Jaguars should be comfortable in building eight-man fronts and blitzing when necessary.”
“Everything is riding on Bortles, and everyone in the league knows it, so the scrutiny will be unrelenting from opening day.
“Everything went according to plan under first-year general manager Jon Robinson until the Game 15 fibula fracture suffered by franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. The idea going into 2016 was to build the offensive line and develop a ground game to take some pressure off their second-year signal caller. It worked to the tune of Tennessee finishing third in the league in rushing, third in third-down percentage and first in red-zone scoring via touchdowns. Mariota has remarkably thrown 33 touchdowns in the red zone against zero interceptions — so he truly values the football.”
“DeMarco Murray enjoyed a bounce-back season, and look for Derrick Henry to get more touches this year, too.
“In the draft, Robinson chose Western Michigan’s Corey Davis at No. 5 overall to become Mariota’s first option.”
“The line is set with Ben Jones at center and Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin at the tackles.”
“On defense, the Titans added Sylvester Williams (Broncos) in free agency.”
“Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined for 19.5 sacks from their outside linebacker posts, while Avery Williamson turned in another solid season from the inside.”
“After being 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, they signed cornerback Logan Ryan from the Patriots and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien from the Jaguars, plus drafted Adoree’ Jackson.”
“The Titans improved their turnover margin from minus-14 to even in 2016. If they can get that number to the plus side, this team is better than a legitimate playoff contender.”
The Big 12 didn’t wind up having a team in the College Football Playoff last season but the conference was all over the Heisman Trophy ceremony, drawing the rare honor of sending not one but two finalists to New York for the sport’s ultimate individual honor.
Could the same thing happen again in 2017? Given the amount of players who put up eye-popping numbers in the conference, chances look good that there will be at least once finalist representing the Big 12 this December. Who exactly might that be? Here are 10 of the top candidates for the award from all over the league:
10. Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys’ offense will be explosive once again this season but the most underrated part of the big numbers produced by Mike Gundy’s group is the running game. Hill burst on to the scene in 2016 and garnered Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors after averaging nearly 5.5 yards per carry. Defenses will have to deal with a dangerous passing game so Hill will have plenty of opportunities to leave his mark in favorable situations. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the tailback’s candidacy is on his own team and trying to emerge from the shadow of the mullet that lies on his coach’s head.
9. Chris Warren, RB, Texas
Warren is the presumed heir in the Texas run game to D’Onta Foreman, who only put up 2,028 yards on the ground last season. Yes there will be a new offensive system in place under new head coach Tom Herman but that will also mean a more physical approach that loves to run the ball that could prove a boon for somebody like Warren. If he can come close to Foreman’s numbers last year while helping the Longhorns make a big jump in the win column, the big fella can certainly rumble all the way to the Big Apple.
8. Jesse Ertz, QB, Kansas State
It seems like forever ago that Collin Klein was repping the Wildcats in the Heisman race and Ertz looks like the next man to make it from Manhattan to Manhattan. This might be Kansas State’s best team since that 2012 team that won the league and the dual threat Ertz is going to play a big role in living up to high expectations. If he can make a jump in terms of efficiency and capture a league title, he’ll have more than a dark horse’s chance of grabbing the trophy.
7. KaVontae Turpin, WR, TCU
Injuries derailed his and the Horned Frogs’ season but there have been plenty of highlights early in Turpin’s career that showcase his game-changing abilities. Be it on a screen play or a punt return, he’s simply a threat to take it to the end zone on every touch. Turpin will benefit from a potential run to the league title and being able to contribute in multiple categories.
6. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Washington is the favorite to take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver and a third straight 1,000-yard season could earn him a trip to New York for an even bigger award. His Bedlam rival Dede Westbrook made the same trek in 2016 and it would surprise nobody if the same thing happens to the Cowboys’ playmaker. The only question is whether Washington can steal enough of the spotlight from his teammates to hoist the trophy.
5. Kenny Hill, QB, TCU
The Trill is gone is but Kenny Hill will still live on as the Horned Frogs’ signal-caller. Now a senior, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a big jump with his numbers provided he can stay healthy and his receivers don’t drop half the things he throws their way. If Hill can lead TCU to a surprise conference title while producing the way he’s capable of, Gary Patterson will be in New York talking about his super productive offense instead of the team’s D.
4. Shane Buechele, QB, Texas
There are a handful of programs that get an oversized amount of attention and Texas is no doubt one of them. Being the quarterback on such a team makes for an instant Heisman contender to begin the year and Buechele is no exception. He posted impressive numbers as a freshman (including a 21:11 TD-to-INT ratio) and now gets the benefit of working with a new, offensive-minded head coach who is something of a QB whisperer. It all adds up to the budding face of the Longhorns program potentially winding up flashing the stiff arm following the “Horns Up.”
3. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
Grier was slowly working his way into the Heisman conversation back in 2015 following a breakout first half at Florida. After getting popped for using PEDs and then transferring to Morgantown, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the quarterback keep up the early career trajectory and turn into a quality starter for the Mountaineers. Geno Smith made an impressive early run at the award under Dana Holgorsen before and it seems Grier has enough talent to get over the hump with a big year and league title in hand.
2. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Everybody from NFL scouts to every Big 12 defensive coordinator is well aware of what the strong-armed Rudolph can do with the football in his hands and the early name recognition will certainly help his case of making it to New York. He tossed just four interceptions last season despite throwing for more than 4,000 yards and is primed to repeat (or better) those numbers once again given the ridiculous skill talent around him. Having the new Big 12 title game in late December could help his candidacy tremendously and give the Cowboys another Heisman Trophy nearly 30 years after their first.
1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield understands the saying “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” more than any other college football player after finishing in the top five in voting for the Heisman twice but still failing to take home the prize. He at least made it to New York as a finalist last season but will no doubt be aiming to finally give the winner’s speech this time around in his final campaign in Norman. He set the FBS record for passing rating a year ago and should be just as good (if not better) for the Sooners in 2017, which just might be enough to become the latest OU signal-caller to grab the trophy in December.
— 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.
Finding and evaluating cornerbacks and safeties is one of the most difficult jobs for any college football coaching staff. Competition level and a variety of offenses in high school create a several obstacles in player evaluation. But for some programs, finding the next stars at defensive back is an easy task. Florida State and Alabama top Athlon's best defensive backfields for 2017, with Stanford and Virginia Tech headlining the next group of teams. The Seminoles boast two first-team All-Americans in safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, while the Crimson Tide return standout safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.
How did we come up with these rankings? Several factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2017 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different coordinator, the addition of a touted freshman or transfer or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2017, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2016.
College Football's Top 50 Defensive Backfields for 2017
1. Florida State
The return of safety Derwin James to full strength after a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 is a huge boost for a Florida State secondary that showed marked improvement over the second half of 2016. In addition to his duties at safety, James is an all-around playmaker on defense for coordinator Charles Kelly. Trey Marshall is expected to flank James at the other safety spot, with converted receiver Ermon Lane and A.J. Westbrook providing depth. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden had a breakout year in his first season as a starter, sharing the nation’s lead with eight interceptions. He's a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2017. Sophomore Levonta Taylor is likely to start at the other corner spot, with Kyle Meyers filling in as a reserve and also as the team's starter at the star position. Sophomore Carlos Becker and freshman Stanford Samuels III will provide depth at cornerback.
The Crimson Tide have to overcome the departure of standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey to the NFL, but there’s no reason to expect a drop in production from a secondary that ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency defense in back-to-back years. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s versatility allows Nick Saban to mix and match the personnel at cornerback and safety. With Fitzpatrick, a first-team Athlon Sports preseason All-American, likely to end up at safety, Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and converted receiver Trevon Diggs are slated to round out the top trio at cornerback. Fitzpatrick will be joined by standout Ronnie Harrison at the other safety spot. This secondary allowed only nine passing scores in SEC play last year.
Developing a standout secondary in the offensive-minded Pac-12 isn’t easy. But coach David Shaw and coordinator Lance Anderson have assembled an athletic and versatile group to combat opposing passing attacks. Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder form one of the nation’s top cornerback duos, while safety Justin Reid is due for a breakout year after registering 57 stops and seven pass breakups last season. Brandon Simmons is the frontrunner to replace Dallas Lloyd at free safety. Stanford finished 25th nationally in passing efficiency defense in 2016.
4. Virginia Tech
The Hokies finished fifth nationally by limiting opposing passing offenses to a completion percentage of just 50.1 last season. This unit could be even better in 2017 with four returning starters. Cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman are expected to challenge for All-America honors after combining for 21 pass breakups last season. Adonis Alexander works as the No. 3 corner but could start for most Power 5 teams. Terrell Edmunds (four interceptions) is a playmaker at safety, with sophomore Reggie Floyd the lone newcomer. True freshman safety Devon Hunter will be tough to keep on the sidelines.
5. Ohio State
The Buckeyes suffered some heavy losses here for the second year in a row, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb provide a foundation for the rebuilding effort in a secondary that finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2016. Damon Arnette is slated to start at the other corner spot, but top recruits Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield will vie for snaps. Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller are battling to replace Malik Hooker at safety.
The combination of four returning starters and the addition of two top-100 recruits should propel Georgia’s secondary to a place among the nation’s best. Three-year starter Dominick Sanders is a ball hawk at free safety with 12 career interceptions. He’s joined by fellow senior Aaron Davis on the strong side, but true freshman Richard LeCounte III will be tough to keep on the bench. The cornerback duo of Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker was a reliable one for the Bulldogs last year. Tulsa transfer J.R. Reed and freshman Deangelo Gibbs are two other players to watch here in 2017.
Make no mistake: The Gators suffered some significant losses in the secondary. Cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and safety Marcus Maye departed from a unit that finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense last year. But as usual in Gainesville, there’s still plenty of talent in the secondary. Senior Duke Dawson and sophomore Chauncey Gardner should form one of the nation’s top cornerback tandems. The picture is less certain at safety after All-SEC contender Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to injury. Senior Nick Washington is expected to claim one safety spot, while the other could go to sophomore Jeawon Taylor or freshman Quincy Lenton. The Gators will dip into a freshman class that includes Marco Wilson, Brad Stewart and C.J. Henderson for depth.
Coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in college football, so despite some shuffling in the secondary this offseason, LSU’s pass defense will be one of the stingiest in the SEC. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safeties Jamal Adams and Dwayne Thomas leave big shoes to fill for 2017. Aranda and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond are mixing and matching to find the right group this fall, but it’s safe to assume Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver are the starters at cornerback. Jackson is poised to rank as one of the best in the SEC at his position this fall. Ed Paris and John Battle have the inside track at safety, but freshman Eric Monroe and Grant Delpit will be tough to keep on the bench. Fellow freshmen Kary Vincent and Andraez Williams should factor into the mix for snaps at cornerback or in the nickel role. Top recruit JaCoby Stevens joined the team at safety but will shift to wide receiver for 2017.
The Tigers feature three returning starters from a secondary that finished 22nd nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Cornerback Carlton Davis has started 19 games over the last two seasons and looks to put together his best year on campus after an uneven 2016 campaign. Davis should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. Joining Davis on the other side will be Javaris Davis or Jamel Dean. Sophomore Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson (back from injury after missing all of 2016) are battling in fall camp to claim the nickel role. The senior duo of Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts returns at safety after combining for three interceptions last year.
Considering the Tigers possess the nation’s No. 1 defensive line, the secondary shouldn’t have to worry about maintaining coverage for too long with a relentless pass rush leading the way. However, maintaining last year’s top-five finish in pass efficiency defense will depend on how fast coordinator Brent Venables can replace standout safety Jadar Johnson and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley. The good news for Venables? There’s experience and talent at both positions. Senior Ryan Carter is back as a returning starter at cornerback, with Marcus Edmond, Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen rounding out the next three options. Van Smith finished third on the team with 95 stops last year and leads the way at safety. Sophomore Tanner Muse opened fall camp at the top of the depth chart for the other starting job opposite of Smith at safety.
19. Kansas State
22. Appalachian State
23. Penn State
26. South Carolina
27. Texas A&M
34. North Carolina
35. Notre Dame
38. San Diego State
39. Miami, Ohio
41. Ole Miss
42. Washington State
45. Western Michigan
46. Northern Illinois
48. Boise State
49. Kent State
50. Georgia State
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused clichés used during the year.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2017, Athlon asked coaches in the MAC to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Related: MAC Football 2017 Predictions
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
MAC Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“They had an injury problem down the stretch but that might have just masked some up-and-down play regardless.”
“The talent is there because [head coach Terry] Bowden’s staff really works recruiting with a SEC mindset.”
“Still a rebuilding project for one more year.”
“Mike Neu doesn’t have that explosive player you build an offense around.”
“Defensively they can be pushed around a lot.”
“Mike Jinks is a good transition coach from Dino Babers but the roster wasn’t in title shape.”
“He gets knocked for not being an Ohio guy but that hasn’t stopped other coaches from winning big at programs like theirs.”
Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2017
“If Lance Leipold is under .500 again it will be interesting to see how much time he’s given.”
“Buffalo is a hard job and the recruiting is outside the usual paths in the league because of their location.”
“They have bright spots, you can see them developing in area on defense especially.
“Replacing QB Cooper Rush will be really big for them.”
“They slid down the stretch last season and could open this year the same way if they don’t shake some things up. But they’re also talented enough to compete in the division.”
“The success they’ve had doesn’t get the attention Chris [Creighton] and his staff deserve, but it’s because the program was such an afterthought for so long.”
“The school needs to invest in the future of the program soon, to be fair to the coaches and players.”
“They’re going to need a miracle for Paul Haynes to keep his job.”
“The players don’t look poorly coached on tape. The problems go deeper than changing a coaching staff, which will probably happen.”
“Gus Ragland is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.”
“They’re going to be stronger this year, and it looked good for the conference when they almost beat Mississippi State.”
“This is a talented team.”
“They’ve come close to something like the Boise State of this conference, if that’s possible here.”
“They’re consistent with their coaching and development and they’re recruiting their home state the right way.”
“If they find the right QB they’ll be back at the top again.”
“Frank Solich doesn’t get the respect he deserves for how consistent the Bobcats are. Longevity isn’t rewarded in the MAC but he’s built a consistent winner.”
“You know you’re playing a hard, disciplined team.”
“Everything seems to be in place for them to make a run at the [conference] title and maybe some national noise.”
“They’ve got the quarterback (Logan Woodside) to do it and most of that defense is in place from last year. They could be dangerous.”
“You can’t replace P.J. Fleck.”
“WMU won’t be undefeated this season but there’s still enough there to compete for the conference.”
“Tim Lester is a program guy, he played there, I think they want to recreate that energy Fleck had in a different way with him.”
After breaking down each FBS conference and providing opinions on the win totals for all of those college football teams, it’s time to take a look at the best values. For this exercise, I am going to break my picks into two categories – “Best Values” and “Best Chance of Winning.”
Obviously I think all of these are going to win, but some of these plays are among my favorites because the price is too good not to take a shot. If I can give you an appealing play that also offers good value then you win more than you spent.
Below you will see my breakdown of wins, losses and toss-up games for each to help you see what I took into consideration. The numbers referenced below are of the South Point Casino and are subject to change.
2017 Win Totals: AAC I ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Conference USA I MAC I Mountain West I Pac-12 I SEC I Sun Belt
South Florida Bulls Over 10 +105
I think South Florida is going to a New Year’s Six bowl this year behind the offensive firepower of QB Quinton Flowers, RB D'Ernest Johnson and WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The defense has some issues, but that side returns nine starters for new head coach Charlie Strong. The schedule is very easy in spots with the non-conference games being San Jose State, FCS member Stony Brook, Illinois and UMass. In AAC play, the Bulls get Temple and Houston both at home with the toughest road game appearing to be a trip to UCF. I don't usually like to take these wagers because it doesn't leave me room for injury, but at plus money, I'll take the chance that this team is real special and goes 11-1 or 12-0.
Mississippi State Bulldogs Under 5.5 +120
Losses: at Louisiana Tech, LSU, at Georgia, at Auburn, at Texas A&M, Alabama, at Arkansas
The road slate for the Bulldogs is very tough, including that non-conference game against Louisiana Tech in week two. Getting LSU and Alabama at home is usually a blessing, but I don't think there's enough talent here for Mississippi State to win either of those matchups. Nick Fitzgerald is a very good quarterback and Todd Grantham is a nice addition as defensive coordinator. The offensive line is a huge question mark. If this somehow moves to six, I like it even more, but the +125 price is juicy considering this team's questions.
Miami Hurricanes Under 9 EVEN
Losses: at Arkansas State, at Florida State, at North Carolina, Virginia Tech
People are backing the Hurricanes to win the ACC Coastal and I don't know if I can do it. There are a ton of banana peel games and you'll notice one of those in the loss column. Miami travels to Arkansas State a week before its biggest game of the season against in-state rival Florida State. The Red Wolves from the Sun Belt are not a bad team so the ‘Canes need to be on upset alert when they travel to Jonesboro. Miami has questions at quarterback and has yet to show it can when the big game. I think Virginia Tech is a better team and I’m calling for the Hokies to beat the Canes at home. At EVEN money, I'll back the under and hope they slip up in several tough games.
Best Chance of Winning
West Virginia Mountaineers Under 7 -125
Losses: Virginia Tech, at TCU, at Baylor, Oklahoma State, at Kansas State, at Oklahoma
The Big 12 is a tough place to rebuild, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Mountaineers will be replacing their top three linemen, a really good linebacker as well as five of their top six defensive backs. Yes, Florida transfer quarterback Will Grier is a solid place to start on offense and the run game figures to be a strength, but WVU figures to be in a fair number of shootouts and I’m not sure this team is capable of winning those types of games. Outside of Kansas, the Mountaineers don't have too many road games that are easy. To me, I think it's a rebuilding year for West Virginia.
North Texas Mean Green Over 4.5 -130
Losses: at SMU, at Iowa, at Southern Miss, at FAU, Old Dominion, at Louisiana Tech
The pieces are there for a continued upgrade of the Mean Green. Year two of head coach Seth Littrell and offensive Graham Harrell should see the offense get better with Mason Fine under center. He's got Jeffery Wilson to run the ball, but it’s the passing game that needs to stake a step forward. The defense has plenty of speed and the secondary should be strong. Outside of the Iowa game, North Texas shouldn't get blown out by anyone else. I think this team could go bowling for the second straight year.
Arkansas Razorbacks Over 6.5 -130
Losses: at Alabama, at LSU
This is clearly one of my favorites because I surpass the Vegas win total by 3.5 games. Even with a little bit less optimism, the Razorbacks still win eight in my mind. I like Austin Allen at quarterback and Devwah Whaley at running back. It stinks that Rawleigh Williams retired, but the offense is still in good hands. Yes, the defense isn't great, but I think Arkansas is capable of winning shootouts. The schedule is very doable with a home slate that should produce a lot of wins.
Florida Atlantic Owls Over 5 (-105) – I'll bet on new head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to do big things for the Owls in 2017
Colorado State Under 8 (-110) – Way too much optimism for a Rams team that has to play at Alabama and New Mexico as well as games against Colorado and Boise State.
— 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.
Larry Fedora inherited a solid program when he took over the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2012. The Heels had four consecutive winning seasons prior to Fedora’s arrival in Chapel Hill, though there was some turmoil off of the field. Despite uncertainty with regards to the NCAA, Fedora has maintained UNC’s winning ways, going to four straight bowl games as well as playing in the 2015 ACC Championship Game.
Now Fedora must prove that winning is ingrained in the program’s culture following some major personnel losses, especially on offense. On top of everything, North Carolina faces a schedule that consists of challenges from beginning to end.
Athlon Sports polled a few writers for their take on the Tar Heels’ realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
North Carolina Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
There has been a lot of change at North Carolina this offseason. The good news is that they have two seasoned returning linebackers in Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb. The defense will have to be better – especially against the run – because the offense loses most of its weapons, with wide receiver Austin Proehl the only holdover. The ACC Coastal Division, as scrambled as it is, has depth and crossover games against Louisville and NC State won’t be easy. Larry Fedora is a very good coach and will get UNC to bowl eligibility. But it won’t be easy.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With the departure of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and a couple of other key cogs from last year’s team, 2017 is clearly a rebuilding year for coach Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels opened fall camp with four candidates vying for the starting job, with LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris the likely starter. Can Fedora help Harris live up to his recruiting hype out of high school?
North Carolina made strides on defense under coordinator Gene Chizk, but he stepped aside following the 2016 season. John Papuchis has a solid foundation to work with in six returning starters from a unit that gave up 24.9 points a game last fall. The Tar Heels have to get tougher against the run after giving up 227.3 yards per game in 2016.
Another obstacle to Fedora’s rebuilding effort is the schedule. North Carolina catches Louisville and NC State in crossover play, hosts Notre Dame in non-conference action and has swing games at Pitt and Georgia Tech. Getting to a bowl would be a successful 2017 season for the Tar Heels.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
In terms of underrated ACC coaches, Larry Fedora might be up there given the job he's done in getting UNC to solid footing and then some. While the 40-25 record is impressive going into his sixth year, 2017 should test what he's built quite a bit given what the team has lost in the offseason. A lot of the attention will be paid to not having the No. 2 overall pick at quarterback but I'd be even more concerned over the loss of all the skill position talent on both sides of the ball. Transfers and recruiting have softened the blow a bit but this looks like a team that is going to experience a ton of ups and downs over the course of the season. If they can win some toss-up games, eight wins isn't out of the question but being in the Coastal means a few wild finishes that won't go their way.
Adam Kurkjian (@AdamKurkjian)
Depleted. Starting over. Rebuilding.
These are the terms that apply when you look at the players UNC lost from the 2016 team and who returns. When it comes to the latter, the answer is "almost no one."
Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is with the Chicago Bears. Top receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard? Gone. Leading rushers Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan? Also gone. Ditto most of the offensive line and almost everyone on defense.
Last year was supposed to be one where the Tar Heels leapt back into the ACC title game, but instead saw Virginia Tech steal that spot. The highlight was a last-second win over Florida State in Tallahassee. (Oh, yeah, the kicker who drilled that game-winning field goal, Nick Weiler? Take a wild guess. Correct, he’s gone too.)
Luckily, LSU transfer Brandon Harris, who was a square peg in a round hole at quarterback in Baton Rouge, is a graduate transfer who might be what the Heels need at QB. Wide receiver Austin Proehl is back and will be an early guy to lean on in the passing game. Linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith are a nice place to start on defense.
Coach Larry Fedora has a good thing going in Chapel Hill. However, this year a big step forward is unlikely. With the personnel losses across the board, this team needs to tread water.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
After defeating Florida State in Tallahassee last season, expectations were high for the Tar Heels. Then it just fell apart down the stretch as North Carolina lost three out of its last four games to finish 8-5.
Now UNC will need to replace a number of skill position players, including quarterback, running back and several wide receivers. LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris is expected to get the starting job at quarterback in the season opener against Cal.
The Tar Heels also have a defensive coordinator, as former linebackers coach John Papuchis is taking over for Gene Chizik, who resigned for family reasons.
With the Coastal being so wide open, UNC will have a shot to make some noise. But with the key players they lost over the offseason, it is hard to see the Tar Heels winning no more than seven games this season.
Many athletes and sports fans have a set "get pumped-up" playlist that's designed to get them ready for the game ahead. Genre preferences vary by athlete and sport, with rap and pop being heavy favorites, with rock or country also making an appearance.
If you're looking to spice up your own pregame playlist, we've put together 10 of the best pregame pump-up songs (sorted by artist) that are fit to be blasted through headphones, speakers and the like. And yes, some are NSFW, so be careful before you crank these up.
10 Best Pump-Up Songs for Sports:
Turn Down for What (DJ Snake, Lil Jon)
Started from the Bottom (Drake)
Lose Yourself (Eminem)
Till I Collapse – feat. Nate Dogg (Eminem)
The Buzz – feat. Mataya & Young Tapz (Hermitude)
Monster – feat. Rick Ross (Kanye West)
Power (Kanye West)
Can’t Hold Us – feat. Ray Dalton (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis)
Hall of Fame (The Script, will.i.am)
Eye of the Tiger (Survivor)
Best Pump-Up Songs, Honorable Mention:
Club Can't Handle Me - feat. David Guetta (Flo Rida)
The annals of Pac-12 football history are filled with stars who won the Heisman Trophy – names like Jim Plunkett, Terry Baker, Gary Beban, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Marcus Mariota.
In total and throughout its various incarnations, the Pac-12 claims 11 Heisman winners; Pac-12 programs make for 12, with recent newcomer Colorado boasting a 1994 recipient in the late Rashaan Salaam.
And the Pac-12 is loaded with contenders to make it Lucky No. 13. Heading up the Pac's cast of candidates is arguably the most hyped prospect of the 2017 season, Sam Darnold. And while USC has had a historic edge on the Heisman in comparison to its conference brethren, don't sleep on some of the league's other names – especially considering the last five Pac-12 Heisman finalists all came from Stanford (Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck, Christian McCaffrey) and Oregon (LaMichael James and Mariota).
Top 10 Pac-12 Heisman Trophy Candidates for 2017
10. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Overlook Freeman at your own risk. Though the Oregon senior's production dipped in 2016 – and really, who in the program didn't suffer a setback in last year's 4-8 finish? – Freeman remains on course to set UO's career rushing record.
He already holds Oregon's single-season rushing mark, hitting 1,836 in 2015. That was good enough to surpass 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James. And even while languishing through a less productive junior campaign, Freeman still flirted with 1,000 yards while averaging more than 5.6 yards per carry.
Freeman isn't ranked higher here because Oregon has a long way to return to contention in 2017. While there are exceptions – D'Onta Foreman earned an invitation to New York last season despite Texas' sub-.500 finish – Heisman nominees from teams out of their conference title race are rare.
9. Armand Shyne, RB, Utah
If you're looking for a dark horse out of the Pac-12, look no further than Shyne. The Utah offense has undergone repeated changes throughout the program's tenure in the Pac-12, but one constant is the showcasing of standout feature backs: John "Wolfman" White, Devontae Booker and last year, the surprising emergence of once-retired Joe Williams.
Before Williams came out of a brief retirement to rack up 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns, Shyne was on his way to carrying the banner for Utah's running back legacy.
Shyne rushed for 373 yards and four touchdowns in less than five full games' worth of work. He's poised to be the breakout star of a unit that finally looks healthy. The Utah ground attack should also benefit from the addition of new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, previously the quarterbacks coach at FCS Eastern Washington; as well as Oregon wide receiver transfer Darren Carrington.
A more credible passing threat should open the field for Shyne more than any recent Utes running back, and almost give Utah a dimension its lacked in three years of contending unsuccessfully for the Pac-12 championship.
8. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Christian McCaffrey nearly brought the Heisman back to The Farm in 2015, and quietly put up finalist-worthy numbers in 2016. McCaffrey leaves Stanford with a long shadow, but Love has the skills to forge his own path.
Oh, and Love's skills fit nicely in the larger confines of the Stanford system.
For as long as David Shaw's been at Stanford – both as head coach and offensive coordinator – the Cardinal have featured standout running backs. Love appears ready to be next in the long and distinguished line that includes two Heisman finalists, last year averaging 7.05 yards per carry in relief of an injured McCaffrey.
Considering the position's importance to Stanford's success, and the precedent set with McCaffrey and Toby Gerhart both reaching New York, Love could easily position himself for a similar run.
7. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Star players on national championship teams tend to have an advantage when pursuing the Heisman, though that comes with a stipulation.
Gaskin is an elite running back – one of the best in college football, in fact – and could rank much higher on this list. It's possible his surrounding team is too good for him to rank much more favorably than No. 7, however. Don't mistake that for a slight on Gaskin, who prepares for his third year as Washington's feature back.
Gaskin averaged 5.8 yards per carry for 1,373 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. He could have produced more, had Washington not also had a Heisman-chasing quarterback in Jake Browning, and another electric running back in Lavon Coleman. Both are back, meaning Gaskin will be sharing the spotlight.
Should the benefits of playing on such a loaded offense improve Gaskin's individual numbers, he could race to the forefront of the Heisman chase.
6. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
Few, if any backfields in college football history were as good as the USC tandem of Reggie Bush and LenDale White. When that duo left following the 2005 season, the Trojans went almost a decade before another top-flight back emerged. That was Javorius "Buck" Allen in 2013 and ‘14.
The wait for another star-quality running back wasn't nearly as long after Allen. Jones II arrived the very next season, and marked his place as an elite rusher by 2016.
It's no coincidence USC's dramatic turnaround coincided with Jones' uptick in production. He made 141 of his 177 carries from Week 6 and on, and scored 11 of his 12 rushing touchdowns in the same stretch. Jones will be a clear No. 1 to open 2017 now that veteran Justin Davis has graduated. Don't be surprised if he becomes USC's first Heisman finalist since Bush won the award in ‘05.
5. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Despite Mike Leach's impressive lineage of record-setting quarterbacks, none of the operators of his air-raid offense have been Heisman finalists. Falk may be the exception to that precedent.
Falk enters his third year as Washington State's quarterback, and he's demonstrated a unique mastery of the system that transcends the plug-and-play stigma often associated with it. Falk's considered an upper-tier NFL draft prospect for 2018, and could make headway in the preceding Heisman race.
To start, he's the leader of a dark-horse Pac-12 title contender. Secondly, his statistical output is prolific – and not necessarily in the same, sometimes manufactured way as other air-raid passers. Falk is remarkably accurate, connecting on 70 percent of his attempts a season ago.
4. Phillip Lindsay, RB, Colorado
Colorado's 2016 season was a big surprise. One of the key reasons was the Buffaloes’ smallest first-string player.
The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Lindsay was a dynamo in 2016, racking up 1,252 rushing yards with 16 touchdowns. His impact in the ground attack was sizable, but there may not be a running back in college football who packs as much of a punch in the receiving game as Lindsay. He was good for nearly 500 receiving yards and a score last season.
Operating behind a solid, veteran offensive line, and coupled with one of the best wide receiving corps in the nation, Lindsay has the personnel around him to improve his numbers further. Should Colorado again surprise pundits and return to the Pac-12 title hunt, Lindsay has a big chance to get to New York.
3. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
The former 5-star recruit made a splash in his UCLA debut two years ago. Rosen’s deconstruction of Virginia Week 1 of the 2015 season set a high standard he will strive to again meet upon his return from a shoulder injury.
Rosen spent more than half of 2016 on the sidelines, as UCLA (4-8) endured easily its worst season since Jim Mora became head coach in 2012. With new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch implementing an offense designed to better accentuate all of UCLA's offensive positives – including a more effective run game – Rosen should flourish in 2017.
Given his exciting style of play and fascinating off-field persona, Rosen should have no trouble getting back into the Heisman conversation with a standout season.
2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Pac-12 North teams produced the Heisman Trophy winner in 2014, and the runner-up in ‘15. Browning's first two months of 2016 had the division on course for a third consecutive finalist reaching New York City, but the Washington quarterback endured a late-season arm injury that significantly hindered his production.
Browning said at July's Pac-12 media days that his arm is back to 100 percent, so expect to see the Washington quarterback produce at the torrid pace he established through the Huskies' first 10 games. He threw for 34 touchdowns against just three interceptions in that stretch, and was completing around 70 percent of his attempts.
What's more, a full-strength Browning is a human highlight reel who tosses the deep ball better than most in college football. He had 11 passing plays of 60-plus yards a season ago.
1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Every bit of hyperbole imaginable has been thrown Darnold's way this offseason. He stepped in as starting quarterback of a 1-2 USC team last September, lost his debut, then led the Trojans on nine-game winning streak that culminated in the Rose Bowl.
His record-setting Rose Bowl performance – 453 passing yards with five touchdowns – ignited a flurry of praise that has firmly established Darnold as the Pac-12's leading candidate for the Heisman; if not the nation's.
We've heard this in the past of other USC quarterbacks, but Darnold seems prepared to face the onslaught of pressure. He said he spoke with 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart in the offense to ready himself. Employing a dual-threat game unlike any recent USC quarterback before him, Darnold's uniquely equipped to join the most illustrious club in college football.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
Utah has finally reached a point where rebuilding has given way to reloading. The Utes enter the 2017 season with some holes to fill in key positions in the secondary, along the offensive line and on special teams. Filling those holes will be a task Utah can handle.
Earlier this year, head coach Kyle Whittingham brought in his highest-rated recruiting class since the Utes joined the Pac-12. Combined with redshirt freshmen and returned missionaries from previous classes and talented transfers, Utah has several players who appear poised to become major contributors from day one.
Corrion Ballard, DB
It hasn't taken long for Ballard (above, right) to step into a leadership role in the secondary. With Chase Hansen sidelined during fall camp, Ballard has grasped the reins of a unit returning only one starter from last season.
“He's only been here for one semester prior to this fall and he has got the defense down inside and out,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “And with the absence of Chase Hansen back there, he's taken control.”
Ballard seems like an ideal and natural leader for Utah's secondary. He totaled 41 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble at Blinn (Texas) College last season.
The junior safety is determined to similarly fill the stat sheet for the Utes and be the type of successor to Marcus Williams that Utah fans are hoping to see. Ballard feels like he is bigger, stronger and faster after putting in tons of work during the spring and summer and is ready to contribute.
"Ain't no pressure,” Ballard said. “I can stand up to the challenge for sure. It is like a dream come true and a blessing coming here to Utah with the DB history and everything.”
Darren Carrington, WR
Oregon's loss could be Utah's gain. Carrington was dismissed from the Ducks by new head coach Willie Taggart following a DUI arrest in July. The senior receiver transferred to the Utes before the start of fall camp and the Pac-12 waived the intra-conference transfer penalty, allowing Carrington to play this season.
He immediately becomes the top deep threat for Utah. Carrington ranked first or second in total receiving yards in each of his three seasons at Oregon. He totaled 1,919 yards and 17 touchdowns on 112 catches during his time with the Ducks.
Carrington joins fellow transfer Josh Nurse and returners Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson and Demari Simpkins to give the Utes their best depth and talent in their receiving corps in ages. It could be exactly what the offense needs to take a step forward.
"We've got some receivers that are going to go get it,” Utah quarterback Troy Williams said.
Jaylon Johnson, DB
Nothing intimidates Johnson. He isn't approaching his first season at Utah like a typical freshman. Johnson is determined to make a name for himself at corner while simultaneously leading his new team to success.
Johnson is determined to become a starter before the season is over. He also has set his sights on becoming a freshman All-American. Lofty goals for certain. Still, each one is achievable in Johnson's mind because he feels like the Utah defense fits his skills like a glove.
“It's definitely aggressive and definitely fast and those are my two best attributes,” Johnson said. “I'm big and I'm fast and I'm smart and that's everything that the Utah defense is.”
Johnson was one of the brightest gems in Utah's 2016 recruiting class. His speed and athleticism are exactly what the Utes need in the defensive backfield. The freshman can cover a 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds and boasts a 38-inch vertical leap.
Maxs Tupai, DE
After a spending a year redshirting, Tupai is ready to make his mark on the defensive line. The freshman was the No. 1 overall recruit in the state of Utah as a high school senior in 2015. He totaled 229 career tackles, 42.5 career sacks and seven forced fumbles during his high school career.
Utah seems to grow talented defensive linemen on trees. Tupai is yet another in-staet product who seems to have everything necessary to be the latest star up front. He worked himself into the two-deep at right end coming into fall camp and has endless potential to be a disruptive force in the trenches.
Tupai credits his redshirt year with helping him absorb the defensive schemes and learn what it takes to be effective at the college level. The offensive linemen Tupai lined up against on the scout team were quick to offer up some insight on how he could get an edge on his opponent.
“It was really helpful because they were teaching me mechanics, like what offensive tackles would do and offensive guards would do, just so I could get used to it, perfect my technique and get better,” Tupai said.
Jordan Agasiva, OL
Utah dipped into the junior college ranks once again, bringing in Agasiva to shore up a depleted offensive line. The last time that the Utes took such an approach, it worked out well. Garett Bolles became one of the nation's top linemen in his lone season at Utah and parlayed it into a first-round NFL draft selection in April.
Agasiva has all the tools to be another success story. The 6-foot-4, 345-pound junior has the size and enough mobility to push around opposing defensive linemen. He also has enough versatility to play at tackle or guard. Agasiva was listed as starting right guard on the depth chart when fall camp opened, but injuries have limited his participation in camp.
If Agasiva can return to 100 percent by the season opener, he could help Utah feel less of a sting from losing four starters along its offensive line.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Photos courtesy of Brooke Frederickson, University of Utah)
The Green Bay Packers may be as close to a lock at winning the NFC North as you can get, as long as Aaron Rodgers is able to stay healthy. The Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings have both made improvements to their roster from last season, and either one of them could make the playoffs if they can put everything together. On the other hand, the Chicago Bears don't seem as if they'll have any chance at contending in the foreseeable future, as they went all in to get two quarterbacks this offseason (Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky) but avoided filling holes in other places on their depth chart.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the four NFC North teams are shaping up heading into the 2017 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“Mike Glennon is a classic pocket passer with a big arm, and people tend to overlook his 30-to-15 career touchdown-to-interception ratio.”
“GM Ryan Pace shocked the NFL and maybe his own coach John Fox when he traded up to No. 2 in the draft and took Mitch Trubisky.”
“You can’t fault them for trying to fix the position, but you can critique Trubisky as a one-year starter who did not exude much personality in his interviews and visits.”
“With this dramatic move, Fox will have to manage two parallel tracks — one for Glennon, the presumptive starter in 2017, and one for Trubisky, the quarterback of the future.”
“Running back Jordan Howard was a bright spot when he rushed for over 1,300 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie.
“Wide receiver Kevin White has played four games in two seasons — this is a prove-it year for him.”
“Cameron Meredith led the team with 66 receptions, and when Alshon Jeffery signed with the Eagles, he was penciled in as a starter.”
“Tight end Zach Miller has struggled staying healthy, so they took a shot on Ashland phenom Adam Shaheen in the second round.”
“Center Cody Whitehair looks like a mainstay in the middle of their line, and last year’s No. 1 choice, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, racked up seven sacks in 12 games.”
“Chicago was tied for dead last at minus-20 in the turnover margin, so taking care of the football will be a major priority for Glennon and Co.”
“The Lions reached 9–4 in December only to lose their last five games and meekly go out of the playoffs at Seattle.”
“Matthew Stafford has rare arm strength but is finally ‘playing’ the position.”
“Running back Theo Riddick topped the team with 357 rushing yards, so getting Ameer Abdullah back to full health will be important to their offense.”
“Tight end Eric Ebron caught over 60 passes, so maybe he has turned the corner as a pro. Golden Tate and Marvin Jones proved to be dependable targets for Stafford and solid free agent signings.”
“GM Bob Quinn got good mileage out of his rookie linemen, Taylor Decker at left tackle and Graham Glasgow at center and left guard. This year, they addressed the right side of the offensive line by signing T.J. Lang (Packers) and Ricky Wagner (Ravens) during free agency.”
“On defense, they need a healthy Ziggy Ansah, who hobbled through 13 games with a high ankle sprain.”
“Defensive end Kerry Hyder surprised with eight sacks as a rotational pass rusher, and they are hoping first-round linebacker Jarrad Davis from Florida can shore up that position. He is a run-and-hit defender with excellent speed. Tahir Whitehead is not well-known, but he plays fast and collected 132 total tackles last season.”
“Cornerback Darius Slay is a talented cover man, but they are taking a flyer on D.J. Hayden (Raiders), who has only had one healthy season in four years.”
“Strong safety Tavon Wilson followed Quinn to Detroit and impressed with 89 tackles alongside Glover Quin, who has started 16 games for seven seasons in a row.”
“Aaron Rodgers was simply stunning last year. He makes it look easy in gliding from the pocket and making throws on the move. As long as he is on the field, they are clearly the class of the NFC North.”
“Ty Montgomery converted from receiver to running back, but even going back to his days at Stanford, he had a running back build and was always a physical returner. I think BYU’s Jamaal Williams will have a great chance to contribute as a rookie. He is an instinctive runner between the tackles.”
“When talks with tight end Jared Cook broke down, GM Ted Thompson signed Martellus Bennett from the Patriots.”
“Jordy Nelson returned to form. He was really good. Davante Adams responded with 75 receptions. That’s two really nice targets for Rodgers.”
“The line is anchored quietly by two underrated players, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley, but T.J. Lang and JC Tretter left in free agency.”
“Defensive end Mike Daniels is undervalued outside their building, but internally, they have high regard for him.”
“Outside linebacker Nick Perry played in 14 games and had 11 sacks.”
“Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez are only adequate at the inside linebacker posts.”
“At the corner spots, they signed Davon House (Jaguars) and drafted Kevin King from Washington in the second round, so they really want to push Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter.”
“Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix make for a nice combination of safeties.”
“It’s almost automatic to assume this team makes the playoffs. But unless injuries hit, anything less than the NFC Championship Game would be a disappointment.”
“In a shocking instant, all the positive vibes surrounding the Vikings crumpled to the ground with Teddy Bridgewater as he suffered a severe left knee injury during a non-contact drill that jeopardizes his return in 2017 and maybe his long-term career.”
“Sam Bradford was exceedingly efficient with 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions, but he has some Alex Smith to him in that he is very risk averse.”
“They parted ways with Adrian Peterson at running back and could be better with Latavius Murray (Raiders) and rookie Dalvin Cook, their second-round pick from Florida State. Murray is a hammer inside, and Cook can vanish with the football in his hands.”
“Stefon Diggs is a speed merchant outside, and Adam Thielen emerged as a steady target for Bradford.”
“All Kyle Rudolph does is show up and perform at a consistent level.”
“The offensive line was a mess last year, and left tackle Matt Kalil signed with Carolina. The Vikings added both Riley Reiff (Lions) and Mike Remmers (Panthers) to be their bookend tackles.”
“Everson Griffen had eight sacks last year, but Danielle Hunter, in a specialized role, accounted for 12.5 sacks and should take over the other end spot very soon.”
“Chad Greenway retired, but Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr were already full-time players anyway.”
“Terence Newman seems ageless and still plays better than Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes.”
“Harrison Smith is a Pro Bowl player."
“If the offensive line jells, maybe they can return to the playoffs. Otherwise, the Bradford/Bridgewater questions for 2018 will envelop the organization all season long.”
Picking the top linebacker units in college football is no easy task. After all, schemes dictate how linebackers are used and the rise of spread offenses generally means more defensive backs on the field. Regardless of whether a scheme utilizes a 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5 or nickel package, linebackers are a critical component to any defense. How should a team with four starters at linebacker compare to one that uses only two? That's a tough question we tried to address. Additionally, the 2017 season features a significant amount of turnover at this position. Some of the nation's stars at linebacker last season have moved onto the NFL.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2017 all factored into the rankings for the linebacking corps. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a change of scheme, impact freshman or transfer or new coach can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2017, not solely what teams accomplished in 2016.
College Football's Top 50 Linebacker Units for 2017
With 11 starters returning, Kirby Smart’s defense is expected to take a significant step forward in 2017. Leading the way for this unit is a linebacking corps that features rising star Roquan Smith (95 tackles in 2016) in the middle, while pass rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are back to wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage after combining for 10 sacks last year. Natrez Patrick will flank Smith on the interior, while the depth is plentiful with Reggie Carter, Chauncey Manac and D’Andre Walker returning.
There’s a similar theme surrounding Alabama’s linebacker unit and defensive line this offseason. A few standouts are gone, but the defense won’t miss a beat with the next wave of stars ready to step into new roles. Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams leave big shoes to fill this offseason. However, the drop-off should be minimal with seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans back to anchor the interior. Hamilton is recovering from an ACL tear suffered in the SEC Championship Game. Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller will be tasked with replacing the 18 sacks Anderson and Williams combined for in 2016. Five-star recruit Dylan Moses is expected to see time on the interior and on the outside as an edge rusher.
Replacing standout cornerback Desmond King and tackle Jaleel Johnson won’t be easy, but the Hawkeyes should be tough on defense once again thanks to the linebacker unit. All three starters from last year’s standout group return in 2017 for coordinator Phil Parker. Josey Jewell ranked second among Big Ten defenders with 124 stops last season and is entrenched as one of college football’s top linebackers after earning all-conference honors in each of the last two years. He’s flanked by two other seniors in Bo Bower and Ben Niemann — both all-conference candidates in 2017. Sophomore Amani Jones is a name to watch as a reserve this fall.
4. Virginia Tech
With the Hokies losing a trio of key players in the trenches, the strength of Bud Foster’s standout defense shifts to linebacker this season. A pair of 100-tackle enforcers headlines this group. Andrew Motuapuaka finished fifth in the ACC with 114 stops last year, while Tremaine Edmunds contributed 18.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks among his 106 tackles. Foster uses a hybrid safety/linebacker position as the third starter to match up better against spread offenses. Mook Reynolds is back at that position after a standout first full season as a starter in 2016.
Injuries to Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis hindered this unit late in the year, but the Huskies have reloaded and are poised to rebound in 2017. Victor recorded 67 stops in 10 games last season and is the leader of a unit that led the Pac-12 in scoring defense in 2016. Senior Keishawn Bierria has been a steady running mate for Victor over the last two seasons and is expected to push for first-team All-Pac-12 honors. The development of Connor O’Brien, Benning Potoa’e and freshman Amandre Williams off the edge is critical to replace Mathis’ and Psalm Wooching’s 11 combined sacks last year.
6. Ohio State
Raekwon McMillan will be missed, but Ohio State’s linebacker unit is still among the best in the nation. Leading the way for coordinator Greg Schiano’s defense is Jerome Baker, who is the team’s top returning tackler (83) and also posted 9.5 for a loss last fall. Senior Chris Worley is slated to shift to the middle to replace McMillan, while senior Dante Booker is expected to claim the third starting job. Booker missed nearly all of 2016 due to injury. Schiano has quality depth here too, as Baron Browning, Keandre Jones, Malik Harrison and Justin Hilliard anchor the reserves.
Similar to its Big Ten counterpart Ohio State, Wisconsin has to do a little retooling here this offseason. The Badgers lost standouts Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt to the NFL after this duo combined for 21.5 tackles for a loss last year. However, the cupboard is hardly bare for new coordinator Jim Leonhard. Senior Jack Cichy was slated to be the leader for this group after missing the final seven games of 2016 due to injury. However, Cichy - a potential All-America linebacker this year - suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. Junior T.J. Edwards (89 stops) is the team’s top returning tackler and a second-team Athlon Sports All-Big Ten selection for 2017. There’s plenty of depth on the interior with Chris Orr back from injury, along with junior Ryan Connelly. Sophomore Zack Baun and seniors Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley will battle for the two outside spots vacated by Watt and Biegel. Junior college recruit Andrew Van Ginkel and Alabama transfer Christian Bell will also push for snaps. (Note: Jack Cichy was ruled out for the year after these rankings were published.)
The strength of USC’s defense in 2017 rests with its linebackers. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast will utilize hybrid formations, so players like Porter Gustin or Uchenna Nwosu could spend some time at end instead of the traditional linebacker role. Regardless of the formation, Pendergast has plenty of talent here. Middle linebacker Cameron Smith is the unit’s top performer and paced the defense with 83 stops last fall. Michael Hutchings’ departure has opened the door for John Houston Jr., true freshman Levi Jones or Jordan Iosefa to claim the other spot on the interior. Gustin ranked second on the team in tackles last fall but wreaked havoc in the backfield by registering 13 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks.
The Hurricanes went with a youth movement at linebacker last fall. Zach McCloud, Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney each started as true freshmen in 2016, providing a strong foundation for Manny Diaz’s defense in 2017. Quarterman is the unit’s top performer, ranking as a second-team All-ACC selection by Athlon Sports for this season. He’s also the top returning tackler after registering 84 in 13 games last fall. Pinckney (61 tackles) and McCloud (37) should continue to develop in their second year as starters. Sophomores Darrion Owens and Jamie Gordinier are expected to provide depth.
Standout defensive end Solomon Thomas will be missed, but coordinator Lance Anderson can lean on a standout linebacker group to carry the Stanford defense in 2017. The Cardinal return nearly all of their key cogs from last year’s unit, including disruptive junior Joey Alfieri (10.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2016) and senior Peter Kalambayi (six tackles for a loss). Bobby Okereke and Kevin Palma are expected to return to starting roles, while Casey Toohill, Sean Barton and Curtis Robinson will provide depth.
13. Florida State
21. Penn State
24. Arizona State
25. Notre Dame
29. South Carolina
30. Washington State
33. Boston College
35. NC State
36. Mississippi State
37. Michigan State
40. North Carolina
44. San Diego State
46. Appalachian State
47. Oklahoma State
48. West Virginia
49. Texas A&M