Posts Tagged ‘nfl’

Trey Lance throws the ball downfield early and often at North Dakota State. He has a strong arm, seems to often place the ball just where his guy can catch it, and finds the open man to catch his passes. Lance ran for over 1,000 yards at 6.5 yards per carry in 2019 (on his way to another 1-AA national title). Overall, Lance looks great. It’s concerning to me that North Dakota State vastly outperforms the other teams it plays that Lance doesn’t ever have to actually make any difficult throws, or go through his reads. Watching his game tape, his receivers are often WIDE OPEN. I have concerns that he may struggle against actual defenses that aren’t ten levels below the offense he’s running. North Dakota State has won eight of the last ten national championships, they are more dominant in their arena than Alabama, Clemson, LSU or any other D-I team is in D1 football. This team in 2016 beat #13 Iowa with Easton Stick at quarterback (Stick was a 5th round selection, nowhere near the player Lance is viewed to be). North Dakota State has a season opener against University of Oregon, which game I believe will be monumentally important in showing the football world how Lance performs when he is NOT racing a Ferrari against proverbial Smart Cars. Oregon recruits actual NFL talent and has a smart coaching staff. There is a lot to like about Lance’s on field performance, I can see why talent evaluators like Daniel Jeremiah are excited about him. Because the level of competition NDSU plays is so low, it’s hard for me to say what Lance would look like in the NFL, where the skill gap between his teams and the teams he faces are much closer than they are at North Dakota State. 

I only watched one game of Justin Fields so far, the Clemson/Ohio State game in the College Football playoffs of 2019. Fields’ stat sheet made him look like he had a rocky outing (30/46, 320 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 14 carries for 13 yards). After watching the game I felt Fields played very well, and the referees made some bad calls that impacted the outcome of the game. His first interception was a sideline pass that Isaiah Simmons made an ultra athletic diving play to pick off. Simmons has absurd speed, height and athleticism even for the NFL game, most of the time that pass gets thrown it goes out of bounds or to his receiver. Fields should shoulder some of the blame for this throw, he understands Simmons is an elite defender, he is partially to blame for this interception, really Isaiah Simmons just made a crazy play on the ball. Fields’ second interception was a timing throw to Chris Olave on a route where Olave fell down and Nolan Turner redeemed himself after being badly burnt on routes previously by giving Justin Fields his third and final interception of the season. On plays like this, Fields has to trust Olave will show up at the catch point or else the defense may have enough time to drive Fields into the turf. Fields did exactly what he should have done, his receiver didn’t show up to catch the ball, the defender was there and picked it off. This is not Justin Fields’ fault. Fields made lots of passes downfield which required accuracy, arm strength, and split-second decision making.

Trevor Lawrence is an elite college quarterback prospect, I feel Clemson ran more YAC (yards after catcb) plays that didn’t demonstrate his arm. Both of Lawrence’s passing touchdowns were brilliant catch and run efforts by running back Travis Etienne. Lawrence himself had a 67 yard run, showcasing his own athleticism. Whether it was excellent coverage, play calling, or Lawrence’s comfort level, Lawrence didn’t pass down field often and I felt Fields outshone him as a passer in this game. Lawrence looks like an excellent thrower of the football overall and I look forward to watching more of his play as the Covid season progresses.

I really enjoyed watching tape of Memphis’ Brady White. White repeatedly threw the ball downfield into relatively tight coverage. Many college offenses run safer “catch in space” plays while Memphis really lets him loose with his arm. White doesn’t play a lot of elite teams as the starter at Memphis. In his bowl game against Penn State, White threw a lot of accurate, downfield passes. He was credited with two interceptions. One was a last second toss while being sacked which he threw towards his offensive line. This was an irresponsible pass but more of a coach-able moment than a deeply instilled passing habit. The interception to Marquis Wilson was Brady White trying to thread a needle too narrow. The pass was right on target for his receiver, but White has to respect the coverage better as Wilson jumped in front of the pass and intercepted the ball. I still feel White played pretty well overall, I would certainly like to see him adjust better for better competition in the future.

Iowa State’s Brock Purdy has gotten attention from some early 2021 mock drafters as a potential early quarterback in the 2021 draft. I felt that while Purdy was not a bad decision maker, most of his successful passes were a product of his offense rather than high level passing. Purdy has lots of plays showing him throw a jump ball to 6’7″ tight end Charlie Kolar, or throwing a quick pass to one of his receivers and letting the receiver create yards after the catch. While I understand this is likely a great gameplan for actually winning games in college, it’s more challenging to see what Purdy looks like if he is asked to make challenging throws. Like Trey Lance, I don’t feel I can confidently say I know who Brock Purdy is as a quarterback because of circumstances out of his control. He seems to protect the football well and take the plays that the defense gives him, but he is not asked to throw downfield enough for me to say how well he can actually throw downfield.

I’ve already written how I feel about Louisville QB Micale Cunningham. I feel he is being underrated and maybe a top two quarterback in the draft class. He has a 22-5 TD/INT ratio, a QBR of 50+ in all but two contests in 2019 (Kentucky QBR 50.0, Clemson QBR 22.6), and is an effective runner. Cunningham may spark concerns he can’t handle a high volume passing offense at Louisville where he hands the ball off a lot and was credited with 122 rushes himself. He has demonstrated impressive quick twitch arm strength and great accuracy. In a rough loss to Clemson, Cunningham placed a 42 (air yards) yard bomb to Dez Fitzpatrick just outside the reach of first round draft pick corner A.J. Terrell. His lone interception went through the hands of wide receiver Tutu Atwell and into the hands of Clemson safety K’Von Wallace. I understand quarterbacks are tasked with protecting the football, this the type of pass Cunningham needed to be willing to risk throwing if Louisville wanted any chance at beating Clemson. The placement of the ball was close enough I blame Tutu Atwell more (although Tutu is a great receiver) for not bringing the pass down over Cunningham for throwing it.

There are still other quarterbacks I want to get into before the draft, guys like: Tanner Morgan, Sam Ehlinger, K.J. Costello, Davis Mills, D’Eriq King, Spencer Rattler, Alan Bowman, Kyle Trask, Kellen Mond, and several more.

Teams likely to draft a quarterback early in 2021 draft:

  • Chicago – With Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace likely gone, it’s tough to know what direction Chicago will want to go at quarterback.
  • Carolina – Carolina looks to either be in position to draft their choice of quarterbacks, or to trade up if they aren’t in the top five. I’d have to believe Justin Fields or some 2020 newcomer would be their top choice, based strictly on current QB hype/overall performance.
  • New England – Bill Belichick will pass on every good quarterback prospect until round seven when he drafts Large WhiteMan from Obscure University. Realistic connections could leave us with Mac Jones from Alabama considering Saban’s/Belichick’s connections, or a “lower-risk” QB like Kyle Trask at Florida.
  • New Orleans – I think New Orleans, who really liked Patrick Mahomes, will really like Trey Lance because of his deep ball and athleticism. Even if Trey Lance struggles a little to go from playing Illinois State to the Atlanta Falcons twice a year, the Saints will be confident they can work with his aggressive throwing he’s already shown.
  • Jacksonville – You can credit Shahid Khan, Jaguars owner, for identifying and pushing the Jaguars to draft Gardner Minshew. If Gardner does not work out long term, Jacksonville would likely to be thrilled with any of the big three (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance). Trevor Lawrence might feel like more of a safe pick after flopping hard on small school risk Blake Bortles. Jamie Newman at Georgia would also be a name to monitor for Jax, as he may blow up in 2020.
  • Pittsburgh – Kevin Colbert may ride out Ben Roethlisberger for 2021 and start fresh in ’22. If he follows the trend of other general managers, I could see the Steelers looking at Jamie Newman and drawing comparisons because of his size and scrambling ability to Ben Roethlisberger.
  • Indianapolis – With Indianapolis, I’m reaching deep into the mists of the unknown. They could pursue a quarterback like Spencer Rattler or Alan Bowman if they develop at their current QB factories (Rattler projected to start at Oklahoma, Bowman at Texas Tech under Matt Wells). They would likely gamble on Trey Lance or be happy with Fields/Lawrence if they lose enough games.

Song of the post is “Why am I here” by Bonjr

 

A brief look at defensive line depth charts in the AFC East and their profootballfocus.com (subscription required) ratings and rankings.

Miami Dolphins

DE Cameron Wake – PFF ranking 32.2, 1st among 4-3 DE’s

DT Ndamukong Suh – PFF ranking 27.5, 3rd amongst DT/NT’s

DT Jordan Phillips – N/A (rookie)

DE Olivier Vernon – PFF ranking 6.5, 17th among 4-3 DE’s

The Dolphins have some young talent (Earl Mitchell, Anthony Johnson) who could start the season at DT next to Suh but Phillips looks like the heir apparent at the position as the second round pick of the draft and coming off a strong season at Oklahoma.

New York Jets

DE Muhammad Wilkerson PFF ranking 33.7, 3rd among 3-4 DE’s

NT Damon Harrison – PFF ranking 11.5, 14th among DT/NT’s

DE Sheldon Richardson – PFF ranking 39.9, 2nd among 3-4 DE’s

The Jets still have the best 3-4 defensive line in football with Wilkerson, Harrison, and Richardson. They also took DT Leonard Williams just in case one of their elite defensive ends gets injured they can instantly replace him with a young blue chip talent and keep plaguing offenses as if nothing happened.

Buffalo Bills

DE Mario Williams – PFF ranking 16.1, 9th among 4-3 DE’s

DT Marcell Dareus – PFF ranking 25.6, 4th among DT/NT’s

DT Kyle Williams – PFF ranking 20.2, 7th among DT/NT’s

DE Jerry Hughes – PFF ranking 9.7, 14th among 4-3 DE’s

The Bills defensive line (barring injury) doesn’t change from a dominant 2014 season.

New England Patriots

DE/OLB Rob Ninkovich – PFF ranking -6.4, 41st out of 46 3-4 outside linebackers

DT Alan Branch – PFF score -.1 unranked among DT/NT’s

DT Sealver Siliga – PFF ranking 4.4, 25th among DT/NT’s

DE/OLB Chandler Jones – PFF ranking 11.7, 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers

You’ll notice the Patriots defensive line pales in comparison to the rest of the AFC East in terms of 2014 performance. It’s worth noting that rookie DT Malcom Brown (2015 1st round pick) or young untested DT Dominique Easley (2014 1st round pick) are likely to win the starting DT job next to Siliga in place of Alan Branch. That leaves “weak link” Rob Ninkovich with eight sacks, two passes defended and an interception from last season to round at defensive end.

The NFC West has recently been known as the division of defense. With free agency and the draft changing the NFL landscape the AFC East may overtake that identity.

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers  – Jameis Winston, Florida State QB -Winston played in a pro style offense at Florida State and had repeated success on a big stage winning a heisman and national championship in 2013. Winston will become the face of the franchise for the next two to three seasons for better or worse.
  2. Tennessee Titans – Marcus Mariota, Oregon QB – Mariota’s a star talent at the QB position. Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt himself said Mariota would be a day one starter if he comes to Tennessee at number two. If the Titans don’t trade the pick expect them to take Mariota here at number two.
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars – Dante Fowler, Florida OLB –  Fowler fits the pure pass rusher mold Coach Bradley wants for this defense.
  4. Oakland Raiders – Leonard Williams, USC DT – Leonard Williams is the best player in the draft. The Raiders have a no-brainer pick here.
  5. Washington Redskins – Vic Beasley, Clemson OLB/DE – Washington needs a pass rusher. Beasley has a successful track record of getting after the quarterback and the physical prowess coaches and GM’s like in a first round pick.
  6. New York Jets – Randy Gregory, Nebraska OLB/DE – Gregory’s ability to both rush the passer and cover opposing receivers make him valuable on Todd Bowles’ defense.
  7. Chicago Bears – Kevin White, West Virginia WR – White can step in and immediately replace and improve on Brandon Marshall’s production from 2014..
  8. Atlanta Falcons – Shane Ray, Missouri OLB/DE – Atlanta needed a first round caliber pass rusher this time last season. They chose to address other needs early in the draft. Ray showed he’s a consistently dominant defender with over fourteen sacks in the 2014 season against big time SEC competition.
  9. New York Giants – Brandon Scherff, Iowa OL – The Giants were the 30th ranked team in run blocking efficiency according to profootballfocus.com during the 2014 season. Young runner Andre Williams will need more help than an underperforming John Jerry to bring balance to the Giants offense. The Giants could take Amari Cooper here, but adding Scherff would help re-establish Giants football from the late 00’s that was so successful.
  10. St. Louis Rams – Amari Cooper, Alabama WR – The Rams need offensive line help, but Amari Cooper would be an enormous gain for St. Louis. The Rams desperately need a true number one receiver.
  11. Minnesota Vikings – DeVante Parker, Louisville WR – The best wide receiver available at this pick. Parker carries the bonus of having played with Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville which should help him develop a rapport with the passer quickly. Parker is a big target with soft hands and only three drops since 2012.
  12. Cleveland Browns – Danny Shelton, Washington DT – The Browns have other needs, but Shelton is a monster at a position of need for Cleveland. Stopping the run will be hugely important if Cleveland wants to win division games.
  13. New Orleans Saints – Malcom Brown, Texas DT – Brown, like Shelton, displayed dominance as both a run defender and pass-rusher. He would be drastic upgrade for New Orleans on the defensive line.
  14. Miami Dolphins – Bud Dupree, Kentucky OLB/DE – Dupree as a physical specimen isn’t too far off of Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney. Dupree can learn from the grizzled veteran Cameron Wake and replace him in future seasons.
  15. San Francisco 49ers – Arik Armstead, Oregon DE – The 49ers have many needs. Armstead should help San Francisco re-establish dominance in the front seven with the potential loss of Justin Smith. Armstead has experience in a 3-4 defense with impressive conditioning. Armstead looks like a more polished Ziggy Ansah coming out of college.
  16. Houston Texans – Landon Collins, Alabama FS – Houston has other needs, but Collins would join a secondary in need of quality safeties. Neither Swearinger nor Rahim Moore blew anyone away with their performance last season. Houston already has a stout front seven, Collins would provide more security on the back end of the defense.
  17. San Diego Chargers – La’el Collins, LSU G/T – Collins demonstrated he can both pass-protect and run block while playing left tackle at LSU. Collins could likely play guard at San Diego or possibly right tackle and maybe be groomed to down the road replace King Dunlap.
  18. Kansas City Chiefs – Ereck Flowers, Miami OT – Young Eric Fisher didn’t come in and play great last season. Ereck Flowers can solidify the right tackle spot or push Eric Fisher at left tackle. The Chiefs also have need for a wide receiver and center.
  19. Cleveland Browns (through Buffalo) – Eric Kendricks, UCLA ILB – Adding pieces to a front seven that can defend better against the run will be important for their jockeying for position in the AFC North. Kendricks plays athletically (though a little undersized) and should stabilize the run defense like he did at UCLA. Kendricks can also drop into coverage well.
  20. Philadelphia Eagles – Trae Waynes, Michigan State CB – Philadelphia just added Byron Maxwell in free agency. Maxwell had a great 2014, but was never great without starting next to Richard Sherman. If Trae Waynes can live up to expectations, he would give Philadelphia a formidable duo at corner. At worst, Waynes can be a valuable nicker corner while grooming under more seasoned players. Waynes demonstrated the ability to play press coverage and to cover well in space.
  21. Cincinnati Bengals – Eddie Goldman, Florida State DT – Goldman can replace the struggling Domata Peko at DT
  22. Pittsburgh Steelers – Jalen Collins, LSU CB – The steelers are losing defensive backs left and right. They needed depth in the secondary before Ike Taylor retired. Collins has plus size and will compete better against A.J. Green and the league’s taller receivers.
  23. Detroit Lions – Marcus Peters, Washington CB – Peters is the most talented player on the board here.
  24. Arizona Cardinals – Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest CB – Arizona needs a top corner to stabilize the secondary after a shaky season from Patrick Peterson and the departure of Antonio Cromartie
  25. Carolina Panthers – Andrus Peat, Stanford, OT – Carolina had a monster need for wide receivers and offensive tackles last season. They drafted Kelvin Benjamin, but took no tackles in the draft. Peat is a top athlete at his position. Peat’s experience playing against top-level competition and high praise qualifies him as a draft steal at number twenty-five.
  26. Baltimore Ravens – Jaelen Strong, ASU WR – Strong is a big, athletic target who should be able to more than replace what Baltimore lost with Torrey Smith’s defecting to San Francisco this offseason.
  27. Dallas Cowboys – Todd Gurley, Georgia RB – Gurley’s play is unbelievable. He has bruising size ( 6’,1” 231 lbs), plus speed (evidenced by two kickoff returns for touchdowns) and skillful hands (37 catches for 441 yards and 6 receiving TD’s in 2013). There is concern of injury. But if Gurley can stay healthy, he can easily be the next big thing at running back.
  28. Denver Broncos – T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh OT – Denver needs a true right tackle to replace struggling Chris Clark. Denver has a future with C.J. Anderson at running back and are preparing to have Brock Osweiler take over the reigns as passer in 2016. Both players will need a strong offensive line to support them. Drafting Clemmings is an investment for the future and for 2015.
  29. Indianapolis Colts – Jake Fisher, Oregon OT – Gosder Cherilus struggled at offensive tackle last season. The Colts can again use some help against the run. Taking an offensive tackle here will give Andrew Luck better protection. Fisher has experience both at left and right tackle at Oregon.
  30. Green Bay Packers – Shaq Thompson, Washington ILB – Thompson’s size (228 lbs) has some teams projecting him at safety. If Thompson can cover and play the run Green Bay can work around his size. Letting go A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones at linebacker and seeing Seattle run right through Green Bay’s defense in last season’s NFC championship game creates a need for an athlete like Thompson.
  31. New Orleans Saints – Cameron Erving, Florida State C/G – The Saints sent Guard Ben Grubbs to Kansas City in a trade and watched as former pro bowler Jahri Evans struggled mightily this season. The Saints are clearly making way for the future. Reestablishing a strong offensive line will be essential for the rebuilding project for the Saints. Erving is a fine athlete with experience at Guard and Center.
  32. New England Patriots – P.J. Williams, Florida State CB – NFL scouts are high on Byron Jones for his athleticism. Bill Belichick has stated time and time he again he values: “football players” over size/speed guys. Williams played big at Florida State’s national championship game and can contribute immediately on Belichick’s defense.

Quarterback

Derek Carr

Carr’s career looks the most optimistic of the rookie QB’s from the ‘14 class. Johnny Manziel has yet to do anything spectacular. Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, and Zach Mettenberger all struggled with traditional rookie roadblocks. Their future’s not decided yet, but they’ve all been outplayed by the Fresno State standout. Carr’s led his team in wins over Kansas City and San Francisco, two above average defenses. A top three overall pick and in 2015 and some young developing players on the offensive line should help guide Carr towards a better season in 2015.

Running backs

Jeremy Hill

Hill has been a revelation for Cincinnati this season. Giovani Bernard who had an impressive rookie season in 2013 is almost an afterthought with the brutal running style that Hill brings to the Bengals offense. No rookie runner has so consistently punished defenses like Hill. Hill brings a punishing running attack to Cincinnati not seen since Corey Dillon wore orange and black. Hill should have a LeVeon Bell-like coming out party in 2015 if the offense can block for him.

Tre Mason

Tre Mason didn’t take off right away for St. Louis but since he’s been starting he’s secured the lead back role in St. Louis. Mason’s biggest game came against Oakland with 17 touches resulting in 160 yards from scrimmage and three trips to the endzone. The Auburn product has a ways to go to be mentioned among the NFL’s top backs, but has started by building one of the better rookie seasons for a running back in recent memory. Mason has struggled against the league’s better run defenses, like Arizona or Washington.

Wide Receivers

Mike Evans

Evans leads all rookie wideouts with touchdown catches with 11 and 948 receiving yards. Evans has the size and speed to be a mismatch but also has the hands and football IQ to consistently get open and make plays. Experience and developing trust with his QB should only add to the playmaker’s effectiveness in shredding defenses.

Odell Beckham

Odell Beckham is already one of the most exciting players to watch in the NFL. He lacks the size of Kelvin Benjamin or Mike Evans but Beckham has crazy speed and great hands as displayed in the past few weeks with his highlight reel of catches. Beckham is the best wide receiver in New York and will be a franchise star for the next decade barring significant injury.

Tight End

Jace Amaro

The tight ends of 2014 haven’t made the aggressive showing that wide receivers have. Amaro has been the most utilized of the rookie tight ends as a pass-catcher. Down the road, Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Richard Rodgers may surface as the most successful tight end out of the 2014 class. But right now Amaro leads rookie tight ends in receiving yardage with 311 yards on 35 catches out of 47 targets and two touchdowns. Amaro is actually the number two target in the meadowlands for receptions (35) and receiving touchdowns (2) behind Eric Decker. Amaro’s a reliable target who’s best football’s ahead of him.

Offensive Linemen

Guards

Zack Martin

Martin is a very important cog in the well-oiled machine that is the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. The Cowboys rank #1 in run blocking efficiency according to footballoutsiders.com. A large part of DeMarco Murray’s legendary season has to do with Martin’s ability to create holes for Murray to run through. Martin’s got a bright future on a studly Cowboys offensive line.

Joel Bitonio

Bitonio has started every game since being drafted in the second round out of Nevada. Bitonio’s high level of play has elevated Cleveland’s offensive line to fifth in the league in pass protection metrics, up from 17th overall from the 2013 season. Bitonio looks to solidify the Browns left side for years to come with his consistent pass-blocking.

Center

Corey Linsley

A handful of rookies are starting at Center for NFL teams. Marcus Martin for San Francisco, James Stone for Atlanta. Luke BoWanko for Jacksonville. Green Bay’s Corey Linsley has been the most stable of the bunch. Time will tell if Bodine in Cincinnati or Bryan Stork in New England will develop into a top-caliber players. But Linsley’s stable play on a consistent basis earns him the top spot here.

Tackles

Seantrel Henderson

Henderson was drafted in the seventh round, and hasn’t been an elite tackle this season. But Henderson’s body of work has been more reliable and evidential of consistent OT play more so than Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson and a slew of other high pick offensive linemen from this year’s draft.

Ja’Wuan James

Miami’s offensive line may have been the worst unit of 2013. Ranking 28 out of 32 in run blocking and 30 out of 32 in pass blocking. Their current ranking of 9th and 18th and James’ arrival on the offensive cannot be a coincidence. The Dolphins offensive line is not a top five group, but a much improved showing over last year. Lamar Miller, the Dolphins lead back is on a pace for 947 yards rushing, a career high. Miller has James’ solid play on the Dolphins line to thank.

(All stats courtesy of footballoutsiders.com and nfl.com)

The NFL media has already begun forecasting doom and gloom on Foxboro’s team after New England visited Arrowhead stadium and got flattened 41-14. Brady looked like a senile old man at times in Kansas City throwing a late pass to Edelman when he could have dived for the first down. But that’s splitting hairs in a horrific loss for New England created by their inability to stop Jamaal Charles and their inability to protect their passer. Belichick’s Belichickian insistence on not overpaying for aging talent (and trading 6-time pro-bowler Logan Mankins) seems to have come at the worst time possible as the Patriots offensive line is struggling severely. For all we know, Mankins would have gotten injured just the same or his level of play would be just as poor as the rest of the line’s and New England would be sitting in a similar spot. But the world will never know. The world only knows that New England’s offensive line is definitely struggling without him.

The lack of pass protection only highlights the Patriots’ lack of receiving weapons. Gone are the days when the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and a spritely Wes Welker to dissect opposing secondaries. In 2014, their top receiving threat is a tie between ever-injured Rob Gronkowski and underwhelming Julian Edelman. Losing to the Chiefs (a strong AFC playoff team) on their turf shouldn’t be too shocking. Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith have decades of big game experience between them.

Negativity aside, the Patriots weren’t exactly towering football behemoths at the start of 2014. Sure, the signing of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner look great on paper. But these guys can’t play on the line, and they don’t catch any passes. The Patriots two greatest areas of needs. The Patriots are certainly a capable team, but they can’t force their will on opponents like they used to. They need to play to their strengths. And no one can do that better than salty captain of the ship Bill Belichick.

New England hosts undefeated Cincinnati next Sunday night at home. A win in Foxborough would re-energize the embattled Patriots team, but first they’ll have to earn it.

NFL players want two things by the time they retire. They want to “get paid” (receive $10+ million/year) and they want to win a championship. Some players (mainly quarterbacks) are more highly thought of if they win multiple championships. Demonstrating the ability to play clutch in the fourth quarter or the playoffs is an immensely important quality to have for any player. But there are some players who haven’t captured the elusive championship ring (and probably never will) who are still among the top players at their position.

Wide Receivers – Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, Eric Decker (His career may as well be over as he just became a New York Jet), DeSean Jackson

Larry Fitzgerald’s been stellar his entire career and has one Super Bowl trip to show for it. A tight NFC West will make it difficult for Fitzgerald to get that close again. Andre Johnson’s career’s similar to Fitzgerald. He’s a huge, world-beating talent who’s rarely had a good QB to throw to him and almost no team success in the playoffs. Bowe’s slowed down in his old age in a rough AFC West and Brian Hartline’s stuck on a permanent 8-win Miami team. DeSean Jackson is a star talent but joins a poorly run Redskins franchise incapable of sustained success in the playoffs.

Tight Ends – Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Chris Cooley

Gates in his prime might be the best tight end to play in the NFL. At 34 Gates has slowed down and may retire before his Chargers team can become truly relevant like they were circa 2005.

Jason Witten is Mr. Reliable but he’s also a Cowboy. Jerry Jones hasn’t put a good team on the field two years in a row since the ’90s.

Chris Cooley was a great athlete for several years but lost his starting job to younger talent.

Running Backs – Adrian Peterson, Fred Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren Sproles

By the time Teddy Bridgewater becomes a talented starter, Adrian Peterson’s wheels will have fallen off. Peterson might a top five running back of all time, but he’s trapped on a struggling Minnesota roster with no QB for much of his career. Jackson is still a terrific runner but can never stay healthy. Jones-Drew gave his best years to a bad Jacksonville franchise and Sproles has maybe a year or two left to contribute as a back.

Quarterback – Tony Romo (I believe Philip Rivers and the Bolts can make a strong push for a dark horse championship run in the next three seasons)

Defensive Linemen – Most of the Bills defensive line (Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams), Cameron Wake, Jurrell Casey. (Julius Peppers and Jared Allen each play for the two franchises that have that rank first and second respectively in championships in NFL history. Meaning, they have a good shot at winning a championship any given year.)

Linebackers – John Abraham (No one talks about this guy but he’s incredible. Abraham’s the NFL’s leading active sack-collector with 133.5. He’ll probably get passed up by Jared Allen in the next year or so but Abraham’s been an absolute rock his whole career, and he’s never gotten close to a championship), Brian Orakpo, Sean Lee, Chad Greenway

Defensive Backs – Joe Haden, Brandon Carr, Dashon Goldson

Joe Haden and the rest of Cleveland will have to wait for receiving talent in order for any QB to have success on that offense. Carr and Goldson are stuck on bad teams for their career.

The Cleveland Browns have been a franchise in turmoil for the past several years. In 2013, they fired their head coach after another embarrassing 4-12 season. But the front office showed some promise. They sent young power running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first round pick. Hindsight has shown that Cleveland came out of that transaction as the clear victor. They start the 2014 season with former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine running the show as head coach and two first round picks, one in the top five. In a shaky AFC North, Cleveland will become one of the AFC’s heavyweights and enter the playoffs taking the NFL by surprise with a veteran defense and balanced offense.

Pillars on defense:

Joe Haden, CB

Haden’s established himself as one of the league’s top corners. He doesn’t get the attention that Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib get because his team never ends up in the playoffs, nor does he run his mouth after a big win.

Donte Whitner, SS

Whitner replaces departed defensive back T.J. Ward. Whitner is a tough defender who will bring a high level of physicality to the defense.

Karlos Dansby, ILB

Dansby’s a seasoned veteran who brings leadership to replace the departed D’Qwell Jackson. Dansby’s shown he can be effective rushing the passer, in coverage, and against the run. He was a defensive powerhouse last season in Arizona and will make an enormous difference in Cleveland in 2014.

Pillars on offense:

Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, OL

Thomas is the most consistent left tackle in football. He hasn’t missed a start in seven seasons for Cleveland and always performs at a high level. Mack is one of the league’s top centers and unless he finds his way out of Cleveland he will be the leader of the offensive in line in 2014.

Josh Gordon, WR

Gordon took the league by storm last season by leading the league in receiving yards, even missing two games during the season, and having questionable at best quarterbacks throwing him the ball. If Cleveland can find a stable and competent QB situation, Gordon can blossom even further.

Jordan Cameron, TE

Cameron broke out this past season catching eighty passes for over 900 yards. Cameron’s presence on the team will make him a “safety valve” for a rookie or journeyman Quarterback in 2014.

Ben Tate, RB

Tate’s been a caged tiger his first five seasons in the NFL. Houston drafted him to be the starting running back, but suffered from an embarrassment of riches at the position as Arian Foster stepped up and outplayed even Tate at the position. Tate is only 25 years old and doesn’t have the wear and tear that other starting backs have at that age.

The Draft:

Sources trusted by NFL.com say Cleveland plans to spend their first pick in the draft on a non-passer (Clowney, Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews, etc) and a later pick on a passer. If Clowney is not available, Cleveland may look to take Khalil Mack out of Buffalo. Mike Pettine made his name by rushing the passer at Buffalo so it makes sense for him to take well-crafted QB hunter like Mack or Clowney. Whether they select Clowney or Mack, they get out of the top ten with one of the draft’s elite pass-rushers.

If QB Derek Carr gets drafted by Oakland, Cleveland will have to settle for a passer like Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron, or Jimmy Garoppolo. Mettenberger has ideal size for the position and a good combination of big-game experience and admirable passing statistics.

Other major needs Cleveland will likely address in the draft include right guard and wide receiver.

Cleveland can elect to use their late first round pick on a top-tier receiver like Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, or Marqise Lee. Doing so would fill a major need for Cleveland and give their QB a variety of deep threats to choose from.

Cleveland should be able to select a guard later on in the draft in the caliber of Cyril Richardson from Baylor or Dakota Dozier from Furman to start right away at right guard.

The final product:

At the start of the regular season, the Browns’ starting lineup could look something like this:

QB: Zach Mettenberger
RB: Ben Tate
FB: Chris Ogbonnaya
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: John Greco
Center: Alex Mack
RG: Cyril Richardson
RT: Mitchell Schwartz
WR1: Josh Gordon
WR2: Marqise Lee
TE: Jordan Cameron

A receiving trio of Gordon, Lee AND Cameron, coupled with Ben Tate at running back makes Cleveland’s offense the most complete in the AFC North (considering Baltimore’s offensive collapse in 2013 and their total lack of receiving options).

Looking at Cleveland’s defense:

DE: Ahtyba Rubin
NT: Phil Taylor
DE: John Hughes
OLB: Khalil Mack
ILB: Karlos Dansby
ILB: Craig Robertson
OLB: Jabaal Sheard (Barkevious Mingo could step up and take this role if Coach Pettine feels he’s ready)
CB1: Joe Haden
CB2: Buster Skrine
SS: Donte Whitner
FS: Tashaun Gipson

Outside of an almost unknown defensive line, Cleveland can field a strong defense in 2014.

  • Tashaun Gipson nabbed five interceptions last season and will be part of a very talented secondary.

  • DT Phil Taylor, a product of the Julio Jones trade Atlanta made to move up in the draft back in 2011 has been a rock in the middle of the defensive line ever since.

  • CB Buster Skrine, not well known outside of Cleveland, has made enormous strides at the CB position since his first two seasons. Skrine may not ever end up in the highlight reel for sportscenter, but he’s provided consistent and reliable corner play in 2013.

With players like Barkevious Mingo, Khalil Mack, and Karlos Dansby, Mike Pettine can orchestrate his patented blitzing patterns and unlock Cleveland’s potential.

A balanced offense paired with a defense spearheaded by Joe Haden, Khalil Mack, and Donte Whitner will put Cleveland in the spotlight next season. This team will be in the playoffs.