Preseason is well underway, and with that the fires of various hype trains have been stoked up. We’ve also seen the negative side, with players already being side lined for months on end – setting off the chain reaction of ageing free agents being called up from their couch to try out.
Here’s 5 things I’ve been pondering as the NFL season draws ever closer.
1) Is Ezekiel Elliott the second coming of Emmitt Smith?
You’ll know who Elliott is by now. He was the fourth overall rookie drafted in this year’s draft out of Ohio State. The running back is said to be the complete back who can run, catch, and pass protect – said to be the most NFL ready rookie since Todd Gurley the year before (he even received a better draft grade than TG30). What has Cowboy fans (and fantasy owners alike) salivating, is Ezekiel coming in to the perfect position behind what many believe to be the league’s best offensive line. Elliott has the best opportunity in a long while to walk in to the league a star, and again it’s reflective that most of the fantasy community doesn’t have him falling outside of the first two rounds. Usually unheard of for a rookie.
As I write, Zeke is side lined with a minor hamstring injury, keeping him out of pre-season for reportedly just a week. Maybe this is a sign we should pump the breaks a tad? He’s been training pretty much nonstop since January, getting in shape for the combine and perfecting the various drills you have to fulfil, I think it’s quite likely he might hit the rookie wall later on in the 2016 season. The Cowboys will have to be smart in their usage of Zeke, 1000-yard rusher Alfred Morris will be raring to prove he’s not just a backup after a free agency move, and they still have Darren McFadden, who let’s not forget rushed for over 1000 yards last year. I think Zeke will have a great career, and he couldn’t have landed in a better spot. Let’s not elect him to the hall of fame, just yet.
2) Contract disputes, who wins?
Thankfully, the most tedious contract dispute of the summer is over, with Ryan Fitzpatrick signing a 1-year deal with the Jets. Now, as a Jets fan, I’m glad it’s over. Fitz is clearly well regarded in the locker room and did have a great season last year. Though, I was beginning to move on to the idea of Geno. After all, he’d been grafting at OTAs and minicamp. Let’s not forget he was the starter last year until his jaw got knocked off. Chan Gailey’s system lends itself to quarterback friendly play, and I felt Fitz got very lucky at times, not to mention his double meltdown against Buffalo last year. The deal is done, and he can start to work on getting rid of that ‘dad-bod’. The Jets have a hard schedule this year, and they’ll have to at their very best to get back to 10 wins.
Elsewhere, DeAndre Hopkins had what felt like the shortest holdout in history, lasting only a day. Good news for both teams, with JJ Watt currently recuperating from hernia surgery, the Texans can’t afford to have their 2nd most important player holding out, especially when trying to blood their new quarterback.
Another of note is the rookie Joey Bosa, defensive end of the San Diego Chargers. Bosa was selected third overall by the Chargers in the draft, but he hasn’t yet reported to training camp, and indeed didn’t show for Charger mandatory mini-camp in June. Apparently the dispute is over two small details in his rookie contract – offset language and the deferred payment of his signing bonus. I can’t help but think this going to have a negative effect on the start of Bosa’s NFL career. College star, sure, but the jump from college to the pros is night and day, and he’s already missing valuable reps at training camp. It’s worth pondering how long Bosa’s holdout will last before it starts to bother the veterans of Charger camp. Bosa is well within his right to look out for his own financial security, but it may bother the coaches and players who feel as a rookie, Bosa should have shown up to prepare for his first season.
3) Who owns the AFC South?
For years, the AFC south was the Colts, and everyone else. The Colts of course, led by Andrew Luck, have sometimes just too much firepower for anyone in the division to match. Though last year, the number of hits Luck was taking caught up with him, and he had to sit out the majority of the season. As a result, the Colts fell to (a still respectable) 8-8. They recognised things had to change, and made numerous moves to improve their o-line in the offseason, including drafting a center, Ryan Clady, in the first round of the draft.
Things have gradually started to change, with first the Texans, building a dominant defense with which to slow Andrew Luck. They are now just a quarterback away from mounting a serious playoff challenge, and time will tell whether Osweiler can be what Bill O’Brien is looking for. Lemar Miller has come over in free agency to take the pressure off Brock, and hopefully JJ Watt won’t be in rehab for too long for the previously mentioned surgery. He’s probably only flipped the 1000lb tyre 500 times today.
The Jaguars have been steadily improving, and now seem like a genuine threat in the AFC South. Having built one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, with trio Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, the Jags will be hoping their D can put them in more positions to see out games in 2016, rather than come from behind. It’s not hard to see it as a distinct possibility either, with the Jags drafting Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, both of whom could have gone in the top 5 picks according to mocks prior to the draft. Free agency saw them spend big on Malik Jackson coming over from Denver, not to mention last year’s first round pick, Dante Fowler, finally getting to play after losing the entire of 2015 to an ACL tear. The Jags could be a serious contender if all the new pieces in their young D gel, though let’s hope we still get some thrilling games out of them, like we did last year at Wembley.
The Titans are an interesting proposition, probably the rank outsider of the group. Sorry Titans fans (I’m sure there’s some, right?), I think this is a year for Marcus Mariota to progress and hopefully stay healthy. The future’s bright sure, I’m excited to see what DeMarco Murray can offer after leaving Chip Kelly purgatory, and he’ll have to bring it with Derrick Henry waiting to show what he can do. I think the Titans need to do a bit more to surround Mariota with weapons, but they did address the most pressing concern, in keeping him up right.
4) Who owns the AFC West?
Now this is a bit of a cheat given the above, but it’s hard to pick a clear favourite, isn’t it? Which feels strange to say, given the division contains the reigning Super Bowl champs. Maybe I’m overstating it, but can I really give the division to the Broncos (who did lose some pieces, other than the Sherriff), given that they currently have Mark Sanchez at the helm? Now, I’ve a soft spot for Sanchez (honestly), and I know Peyton wasn’t exactly lighting it up in his final year, but I can’t help but think the Broncos have regressed in talent since winning the big one. I hope Paxton Lynch can learn quickly.
I’d love the Raiders to return to the playoffs. It’s been a long time too, 2002 being the last time the Black and Silver graced the post season. They have all the pieces in place to make a real run. A young, capable quarterback in Derek Carr, who’s not only surrounded by a great receiving group led by Amare Cooper, but has an O-line which will rival the Cowboys as the league’s best after Kelechi Osemele joined in free agency. I’m excited to see Khalil Mack take the next step too and become one of the leagues dominant forces. He had a coming out party last year, becoming the first NFL player to be named to All-Pro first team at two different positions (defensive end and linebacker).
The Chargers might have lost Stevie Johnson already this year, but they’ll be hoping that’s the last of it. Their offensive line was absolutely decimated last season, I’m pretty sure I was asked to play at one point – which may have been a contributing factor to a less than stellar rookie season from Melvin Gordon, who’ll be hoping to put 2015 behind him. Phil Rivers also has a healthy Keenan Allen back, who in only 8 games last year, had racked up 67 receptions, 725 yards and 4 touchdowns. They added deep threat Travis Benjamin to take the top off the opposition defense, and have got rookie Hunter Henry to finally take over from Antonio Gates, if he ever wants to retire that is. As previously mentioned, the Chargers will be hoping Bosa’s contract dispute will end promptly so they can fully focus on the season, this is a team on the up.
Finally, we have the Chiefs, who are always there or thereabouts come December. In Alex Smith, you have a dependable and solid, if unspectacular quarterback. Hopefully we’ll see him air it out a bit more than last year, as we saw the beginnings of chemistry between him and number 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin. The tight end Travis Kelce will also have to show his title of “mini-gronk” isn’t just hyperbole. Jamaal Charles returns from a knee injury, but the real strength in the Chiefs is their defense, where they’ll look to dominate again. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are always threats to get numerous sacks, and reigning defensive rookie of the year Marcus Peters will hope to build on his excellent rookie season. I’d probably put the Chiefs as favourites for this division, but it’s marginal – and I almost feel contrary writing off the Super Bowl champs.
5) Don’t believe everything you read…
The end to this piece comes with a somewhat ironic lesson. You’ll hear a lot of hyperbole in the preseason. This is where team beat writers make their money, where a small article can snowball, and become the rhetoric quicker than you can say Davante Adams. Already I’ve seen that Jonathan Stewart is “feeling refreshed”, that Terrance West is “in the conversation as starter” for the Ravens, or my personal favourite “Team X see night and day difference with Player Y”. This year, it’s Sammie Coates. Now granted, Coates has an excellent opportunity to land the WR2 job in Pittsburgh, ahead of Marcus Wheaton. It’s one of the most explosive offenses in the league, and if indeed he does have a good year, you can pencil him in for some great stats. Again, I would just heed caution. As previously mentioned, last year, Davante Adams was vaulting up fantasy draft boards (I saw him go in the 3rd round) after Jordy Nelson went down with injury. The opportunity was there for Davante – similarly in a great offense with a fantastic chance to cement a starting job. The rest is history, with Adams dropping out of Rodgers trusted receivers quicker than he dropped out of your fantasy line ups.
Here’s to no serious injuries, less hyperbole, and a quick few weeks until the real season starts! FOOTBALL IS BACK!
(Photography copyright: Fox Sports)