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2019 NFL Preview: AFC North

CLEVELAND BROWNS

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Odell Beckham Jr., DE Olivier Vernon, DT Sheldon Richardson, RB Kareem Hunt

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Tyrod Taylor, G Kevin Zeitler, S Jabrill Peppers, RB Carlos Hyde, LB Jamie Collins, LB Emmanuel Ogbah, RB Duke Johnson Jr.

DRAFT: 2nd round: CB Greedy Williams, LSU   3rd round: OLB Sione Takitaki, BYU   4th round: S Sheldrick Redwine, Miami   5th round: LB Mack Wilson, Alabama   K Austin Seibert, Oklahoma   6th round: OT Drew Forbes, Southeast Missouri State   7th round: CB Donnie Lewis Jr., Tulane

SUMMARY: General manager John Dorsey had an offseason to remember and is currently leading my ballot for Executive of the Year. This team, after an incredible offseason, is stacked with talent. Cleveland has Pro Bowlers all over their defensive line, meaning they’ll likely make leaps in all of these metrics: 6288 yards allowed (30th), 24.5 points allowed (21st), 135.2 rushing allowed (28th) 38 sacks (19th).

Given the talent, Cleveland should be in the top half in all of those categories. Myles Garrett should have a breakout season with a lot of the opponent’s attention directed elsewhere. Their secondary is still young but Denzel Ward and company should have easier lives.

On offense, it’s quite the party. Baker Mayfield has all the weapons he needs to succeed. Odell and Landry are a top-three receiver duo and tight end David Njoku and running back Nick Chubb both have demonstrated high ceilings.

Yet, it would be so very much like Cleveland to mess this up. The talent is overwhelming but Freddie Kitchens is in his first year as coach. Cleveland likely loses a game or two due to bad coaching and those games could prove costly to a chance at their first division title since 1989. Failing to win the division would be a disappointment but missing the playoffs altogether, with this lineup, would be yet another stake through the heart of Cleveland.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Nick Chubb

Baker Mayfield has high upside but is going as high as the end of the fourth round in some drafts and for a quarterback who has yet to show how far the rabbit hole goes, I’m not willing to take that risk. Odell could have a career year or see his usage rate drop in a hodge podge of skill positions, which seems more likely. Njoku is a great tight end as well but Chubb is the player I’d take from the Browns. Chubb is going in the second round of most drafts and while Njoku has high upside, Chubb’s command of the backfield, and Duke Johnson Jr.’s trade to boost that command further, are simply impossible to resist.

SCHEDULE     PROJECTED RECORD: 10-6

Week 1: vs. TEN   Week 2: @NYJ   Week 3: vs. LAR   Week 4: @BAL   Week 5: @SF   Week 6: vs. SEA   Week 7: BYE   Week 8: @NE   Week 9: @DEN   Week 10: vs. BUF   Week 11: vs. PIT   Week 12: vs. MIA   Week 13: @PIT   Week 14: vs. CIN   Week 15: @ARI   Week 16: vs. BAL   Week 17: @CIN

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

KEY ADDITIONS: CB Steven Nelson, LB Mark Barron, WR Donte Moncrief

KEY DEPARTURES: WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell, S Morgan Burnett, LB Jon Bostic, WR Eli Rogers, CB Coty Sensabaugh

DRAFT: 1st round: LB Devin Bush, Michigan   3rd round: WR Diontae Johnson, Toledo   CB Justin Layne, Michigan State   4th round: RB Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky   5th round: TE Zach Gentry, Michigan   6th round: LB Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois   DT Isaiah Buggs, Alabama   LB Ulysees Gilbert III, Akron   7th round: G Derwin Gray, Maryland

SUMMARY: The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team who can’t get out of their own way. Despite having what is undeniably a top-five offensive line, they refused to run the ball, finishing 31st in the league with 1,445, just ahead of Arizona. James Conner demonstrated improvement between his rookie and second year, and in Bell’s absence, showed workhorse potential, accumulating close to 1,000 yards rushing in 13 games on a 4.5 clip. At that clip, you would expect the Steelers to pound the rock. You would be wrong.

With Todd Haley gone, there’s no one in the Steelers’ coaching staff to curtail Ben’s ego. With Randy Fichtner at OC, Ben essentially calls the offense and Ben loves his own number, even when it’s not in the team’s best interest. Pittsburgh may have rid themselves of two cancers in the locker room but one still remains.

The Steelers are unlikely to take advantage of their outstanding run game and will be stuck force feeding Ben most weeks. This strategy will cost the Steelers one contest this season if not two and in a more competitive AFC, that might be the difference between the team making and not making the playoffs.

The defense is still coached by an incompetent coordinator who’s reluctant or ignorant of opposing offense’s adaptations mid-game and Tomlin has lost my faith after losing the locker room and allowing the team to become a soap opera.

Despite all the turmoil, Pittsburgh is still a talented team. Talented teams generally make it interesting but poor coaching, management and play-calling will get them in the end, as it always does.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Ben Roethlisberger

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a talented receiver who will shine in Antonio Brown’s absence and James Conner looked like a game changer when healthy last season. However, Pittsburgh’s a pass-happy team with a pass-happy, egotistical quarterback. Ben chucked the ball a ton last year, 675 times to be exact. That was nearly 35 times, or about a whole game’s worth, more than Andrew Luck and almost 70, or about two game’s worth, more than the next man up, Matt Ryan. Given that usage rate, Ben should be a capable QB starter if not a flat-out QB1. Current rankings in ppr have him as a ninth-rounder. Ben finished third among quarterbacks last year. I understand the road struggles but usage rate, man.

SCHEDULE     PROJECTED RECORD: 9-7

Week 1: @NE   Week 2: vs. SEA   Week 3: @SF   Week 4: vs. CIN   Week 5: vs. BAL   Week 6: @LAC   Week 7: BYE   Week 8: vs. MIA   Week 9: vs. IND   Week 10: vs. LAR   Week 11: @CLE   Week 12: @CIN   Week 13: vs. CLE   Week 14: @ARI   Week 15: vs. BUF   Week 16: @NYJ   Week 17: @BAL

BALTIMORE RAVENS

KEY ADDITIONS: FS Earl Thomas, RB Mark Ingram, CB Justin Bethel, LB Pernell McPhee

KEY DEPARTURES: LB C.J. Mosley, LB Za’Darius Smith, FS Eric Weddle, WR John Brown, LB Terrell Suggs, WR Michael Crabtree, RB Alex Collins, TE Maxx Williams, OL Alex Lewis, DT Brent Urban, OL Jermaine Eluemunor

DRAFT: 1st round: WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma   3rd round: DE Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech   WR Miles Boykin, Notre Dame   4th round: RB Justice Hill, Oklahoma State   G Ben Powers, Oklahoma   CB Iman Marshall, USC   5th round: DT Daylon Mack, Texas A&M   6th round: QB Trace McSorley, Penn State

SUMMARY: The Baltimore Ravens are a victim of the salary cap this season. Many teams can push off their death, alleviate the pain even  but all teams, at some point or another, go through it. It helps bring balance to the sport.

When C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith both entered contract years, everyone, including the Ravens, knew they were in trouble. Two of the team’s best players, the two cogs of the front seven, needed new agreements and both were due a lot of money.

The Ravens were unable to bring back either and while the contracts both signed were pricey and likely unaffordable for Baltimore (Mosley for five years and $85 million, Smith for 4 and $66), it doesn’t alleviate the hole in the roster. Pernell McPhee was brought back home to play edge while Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board and Kenny Young enter the middle, all relatively unknown commodities who are extremely unlikely to replicate a franchise linebacker’s production. Safety Eric Weddle and franchise edge rusher Terrell Suggs left for retirement tours elsewhere. The Ravens also have bad contracts in freshly-signed Tavon Young (season-ending injury yet again), Willie Snead and Brandon Carr to get out from under.

The defense finished first in yards against and second in points allowed at the conclusion of the 2018 campaign. They were really good and they’ll be good this year, they’re Baltimore, but they’ll fall in the rankings. They’ve simply lost too much this offseason.

On the plus side, if Earl Thomas returns to form, he’s an upgrade from Weddle, though far more expensive. I liked the Ravens draft. Oklahoma G Ben Powers likely starts the season while receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin have a chance to become the franchise receiver Baltimore has been looking for since their inception. Running back Justice Hill is getting some praise in football circles and Trace McSorley is similar to Lamar Jackson.

And finally, onto Lamar. Jackson is a great athlete; I don’t doubt his speed. However, there were flags in his rookie tape, specifically a struggle to make basic NFL throws and concerning ball security. The Ravens are smart to run a system tailored to his skill set but I also hesitate to crown a team with a quarterback who will be lucky to throw 20 touchdowns. Jackson has a chance to run for 1,000 yards this season, something only one player has ever done. A bet on that at the sportsbook seems reasonable and we’ve seen the Ravens succeed with their scheme before. However, we also saw it stonewalled after only a few weeks and I believe teams will adapt and thwart it later in the season, leaving Baltimore on the outside looking in.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Mark Ingram

With the Ravens installing a run-first offense, newcomer Mark Ingram seems the most likely candidate for an upswing. Baltimore has been a run-first offense for almost their entire existence and will be so again this year. Ingram is ranked 45 in Matthew Berry’s rankings, placing him in late third, early fourth territory. Ingram, given the scheme and work share, should be a capable RB2. If you somehow squeeze him into your flex, you’re golden.

SCHEDULE     PROJECTED RECORD: 7-9

Week 1: @MIA   Week 2: vs. ARI   Week 3: @KC   Week 4: vs. CLE   Week 5: @PIT   Week 6: vs. CIN   Week 7: @SEA   Week 8: BYE   Week 9: vs. NE   Week 10: @CIN   Week 11: vs. HOU   Week 12: @LAR   Week 13: vs. SF   Week 14: @BUF   Week 15: vs. NYJ   Week 16: @CLE   Week 17: vs. PIT

CINCINNATI BENGALS

KEY ADDITIONS: CB B.W. Webb, G John Miller

KEY DEPARTURES: LB Vontaze Burfict, TE Tyler Kroft, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, DE Michael Johnson, G Clint Boling, G Christian Westerman

DRAFT: 1st round: T Jonah Williams, Alabama   2nd round: TE Drew Sample, Washington   3rd round: LB Germaine Pratt, NC State   4th round: QB Ryan Finley, NC State   DT Renell Wren, Arizona State   G Michael Jordan, Ohio State   6th round: RB Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M   LB Deshaun Davis, Auburn   RB Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma   7th round: CB Jordan Brown, South Dakota State

SUMMARY: Cincinnati did the impossible: they fired Marvin Lewis.

Lewis should have been fired years before but it seemed there was nothing the man could do to cause dismay within the organization. Alas, the shoe finally dropped and now Zac Taylor coaches the Bengals, though they’ve been the Bungles as of late, bungling all over themselves. Last year, the orange and black finished in the bottom third in total offense and passing. The days of A.J. Green bailing them out are nearing an end. The Bengals missed their window.

The franchise is in rebuild mode, though they have their receiver in the future in Tyler Boyd (four-year extension worth $43 million, a reasonable and financially responsible investment). Notwithstanding, the injury bug is alive and well in Ohio. Jonah Williams, this year’s first-rounder, will miss the season following shoulder surgery. 2018 first-rounder Billy Price missed his rookie year with injury as did 2016 first-rounder William Jackson III and 2017 first-round choice John Ross might has well have missed his, playing in only three games. Four consecutive years without your first-round choice is quite a record and it’s no surprise the team has struggled to fill the holes the last few seasons. At this point, I think the team prays for health more than wins.

Andy Dalton’s prime years are behind him and his future with the franchise foggy at best. The team could have cut him this season and suffered only a $200,000 cap penalty, a direction I thought they’d go in to maximize their draft slot but management has chosen otherwise. Either way, Dalton’s final year is essentially an option year and Cincinnati has no commitment to keep it on the books. It’s likely they run with Driskel or Lindley next season or target a new franchise head for 2020.

With the exception of Joe Mixon, who’s one of the league’s best young backs, not much is going on in the jungle these days. Cincinnati re-signed a lot of their roster (LB Preston Brown, CB Darqueze Dennard, RT Andre Smith, to name a few) and will be running the gauntlet with many of the same faces. The team’s secondary hasn’t lived up to its draft stock yet and the linebacker group is especially thin. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap still provide the defense a lethal d-line that may give teams trouble but expect the win column to be low.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Joe Mixon

In fantasy, I tend to target usage rate. Who is getting the biggest share of the offense, will get more targets/carries, etc? Joe Mixon’s usage rate this year is going to be high. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t get 300 carries. With A.J. Green sidelined to start the season and Andy Dalton deteriorating, Mixon will start strong out of the gate. Mixon is an RB1 in the second round. Take him.

SCHEDULE   PROJECTED RECORD: 4-12

Week 1: @SEA   Week 2: vs. SF   Week 3: @BUF   Week 4: @PIT   Week 5: vs. ARI   Week 6: @BAL   Week 7: vs. JAC   Week 8: vs. LAR   Week 9: BYE   Week 10: vs. BAL   Week 11: @OAK   Week 12: vs. PIT   Week 13: vs. NYJ   Week 14: @CLE   Week 15: vs. NE   Week 16: @MIA   Week 17: vs. CLE

AFC WEST   AFC EAST   AFC SOUTH   NFC NORTH   NFC WEST   NFC EAST   NFC SOUTH   Playoff Predictions   Preseason Power Rankings

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One Team, One Jersey: Miami Dolphins

With the beginning of a new year comes the beginning of a new series. I’ve spent hundreds of hours (not an exaggeration) enthralled in game film sessions, reading player profiles, scrounging through stat sheets and scanning the histories of all the NFL franchises. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Welcome to One Team, One Jersey.

As a jersey collector and connoisseur, I am constantly expanding my repertoire and so I thought I should probably expand my search to all the teams of pro football. Buying every jersey I want would be too expensive though. Picking one for each team is reasonable and so became the idea that is One Team, One Jersey.

If you could only have one jersey from each NFL team, who would it be? There are a few ground rules:

The player you choose must have played for that team more than any other AND must have been on that team’s roster during the 2017 season.

Aside from that, it’s up to you what you prioritize: character, statistical production, championships, a combination of the three. Your call.

Who will you choose?

The trend of sad franchises continues as we transition to the Miami Dolphins. Their fan base is still parading their undefeated 1972 squad whilst forgetting that they wasted the career of one of the greatest players to ever pick up a pigskin, Mr. Dan Marino. The mere concept you had a top-ten quarterback on your squad for 17 seasons and could only get to one Super Bowl is quite a damning statement on your management. Perhaps it is like it was with Peyton or Aaron Rodgers. Perhaps he was just on a choke job team or maybe he never performed well in the playoffs.

*checks records*

Yup, I have come to the conclusion your franchise is a choke job. For God’s sake, the last game you had Marino, you lost 62-7 to the Jaguars. That’s hard to believe actually.

*pulls out film*

My Lord, it happened.

What a perfect summation of the state of your franchise. Since drafting Ryan Tannehill, the first time in almost 30 years you’d taken a quarterback in the first round (guess who), you have been on the cusp of the playoffs only to fail to make the playoffs by faltering against mediocre opponents. I’ll admit I was a Tannehill supporter for a little there because it felt like he was one rung away from success but he never made it over the hill and has in fact fallen down it with Jill.

His best year was 2014 when he broke 4,000 yards and carried a 27/12 TD/INT split with a 66 completion percentage. His numbers in 2016 were actually slightly better but the team overall played its best during that 2014 season. The Dolphins would be smart to move in a different direction at the quarterback position but we know how NFL executives are with basic quarterbacks. They’d rather stay put than take the risk to get better.

We could take Jay Ajayi, who was traded midseason to the eventual champion Eagles. However, I’ve never really seen anything crazy about Ajayi. He’s got top-end speed and his acceleration and cuts are fine but he doesn’t have the explosiveness that I love in my running backs. Other than “I’m faster than you” plays, he isn’t doing much on highlight reels.

Jarvis Landry is a yards after catch monster. His rankings since his rookie year (overall/among WRs): ’14 18th/10th ’15 6th/3rd ’16 4th/1st ’17 12th/4th.

He has big play ability but lacks the size (5’11”) to make plays vertically. Odell Beckham Jr. is also 5’11” but had an insane 38.5 vertical at his combine. Landry’s was 28.5.

Landry is the quintessential slot receiver and the embodiment of a returner and a running back at the receiver position. He’s a crisp enough route runner to create space and then use that space to put defenders in a blender. That playmaking ability makes him a magnet for target shares, which has no doubt helped him reach milestones in receptions.

Still, at his size, you have to wonder if he has a ceiling. There may be inherent bias with me but when I watch AB, Julio or OBJ, I feel like those guys could do anything at any moment. Landry is simply not in that tier. He’s a top-ten receiver and definitely one I wouldn’t look forward to gameplanning against but he’s not a probable HOFer. He doesn’t have that consistent fear factor. Last year, he averaged 8.8 ypc. Most elite pass catchers average 14. Yeah, Landry was getting thrown to by the corpse of Jay Cutler but Landry has never had a season where he averaged more than 12.1 ypc, which tells you Landry runs a lot of short digs and slants and works for every yard on the stat sheet. It also means he isn’t the type of guy to win a 50-50 ball during a two-minute drill in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t have the speed (clocked at 4.77 at the combine) to take the top off defenses.

Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, only 32 NFL players have ever accumulated 100 sacks in a season. With Cameron Wake sitting at 98 after this season, he has a legitimate shot to become #33. Before starting his NFL career, Wake went undrafted and up north, winning Rookie of the Year, two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and became the first player to win TSN’s Gladiator of the Year in the Canadian Football League. To accomplish that, Wake had 39 (!) sacks in two seasons. It seems fair to say Wake would have already hit the century mark if his time in the NFL had started sooner.

And so despite the playmaking ability of Landry, I’ve got to take the game changer in Cameron Wake. Gotta respect a self-made man.

My pick: Cameron Wake. My jersey: Home Green.

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Tim Sports Report for 2016 NFL Week 2

Top 5

  1. Stefon Diggs 9 receptions for 182 yards, TD vs. GB

2. RB Matt Forte 30 carries for 100 yards, 3 TDs vs. BUF

3. WR Jarvis Landry 10 receptions for 135 yards vs. NE

4. LB Von Miller 7 tackles, 5 solo, 3 sacks, forced fumble vs. IND

5. LeGarrette Blount 29 carries for 123 yards, TD vs. MIA

Worst of the Worst

5. Norman switched to cover Dez in the 4th quarter. Just the 4th.

4. Seahawks manage three points versus Rams.

3. Jameis Winston 27/52 for 243, TD, 4 INTs, fumble, 39.2 passer rating vs. ARI

2. Jaguars obliterated 38-14 against San Diego.

  1. Browns surrender 20-0 lead versus Ravens, lose 25-20 and lose Josh McCown, forcing Cody Kessler into the starting role.

Steelers Recap

Pittsburgh didn’t pay their best football on Sunday. Ben wasn’t at his best, Antonio Brown didn’t have a highlight reel day and the defense got just one sack. None of it mattered. Pittsburgh got it done. When their offense wasn’t in rhythm, they still put up 24. That’s scary. Against a rookie quarterback in Philly, I’m taking Pittsburgh. Confidently.

Game of the Week: Broncos at Bengals

Cincinnati can contend in the AFC and Denver remains the best team in the league. Can the Bengals upset the Broncos? I definitely think they’re capable. Jeremy Hill needs to get his engine going and the defense has to exploit Siemian at quarterback. I’m just not sure if any of that is going to happen so I’m taking Denver.

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