Eagles vs. Vikings, 1:00PM ET
With both Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart expected to be out for Minnesota, points will be at a premium for the Vikings. The Eagles defense was brutal in the first two months of the season but the team has found its rhythm of late and is playing better on that side of the ball than at any point this year. Philly is also running the ball at will, and Minnesota has had issues slowing the run over the past few weeks. The Eagles are 4-0 against the spread in their last four road games, 4-1 ATS in their last four games versus a team with a losing record, and 4-1 ATS in their last five games overall. They’re also 5-1 against the spread in their last six games versus the Vikings so lay the points. NFL FREE PICK: EAGLES -6.5
Patriots vs. Dolphins, 1:00PM ET
Thanks to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots will survive without Rob Gronkowski, just like they did earlier in the season when he missed the first six games of the year. That said, they survived earlier in the year because of the play of their defense, which has lost Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly along the way. The Dolphins impressed last week in Pittsburgh, beating the Steelers on the road and in the elements. The Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin distraction has died down and there has been a semblance of stability again in Miami. The Patriots are 0-4 against the spread in their last four road games, 1-4 ATS in their last five games in December and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games versus AFC opponents. On the other side, the Dolphins are 4-0 against the spread in their last four games overall, 4-0 ATS in their last four games versus AFC opponents and 8-2 ATS in their last 10 home games. FREE PICK: DOLPHINS -1
Bears vs. Browns, 1:00PM ET
With all the talk about who should start under center, the most glaring situation that is facing the Bears has gone somewhat unnoticed. The defense is an absolute mess and with the way Jason Campbell has played since taking over the starting quarterback job in Cleveland, Chicago should continue to struggle defensively today. The over is 10-3 in the Bears’ last 13 road games, 11-4 in their last 15 games overall, and 5-1 in their last six road games versus a team with a losing record. The over is also 5-1 in the Browns’ last six games overall, 4-1 in their last five home games and 4-0 in their last four games following an ATS win. FREE PICK: OVER 44
Packers vs. Cowboys, 4:25PM ET
The Packers were fortunate to come away with a victory last week at home versus the Falcons in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. They trailed 21-10 at halftime and Atlanta did them a favor by once again putting together another second half collapse. Give credit to Dom Campers’ defense for coming alive in the final two quarters of that game, but today will be a different animal in Dallas. The Cowboys’ defense has been atrocious this season, ranking dead last in total yards per game. But they should have an easier time defending against an ineffective Matt Flynn and a hobbled Eddie Lacy at home. The favorite is 8-2 against the spread in the last 10 meetings between these two teams while the Packers are 0-5 against the number in their last five trips to Dallas. FREE PICK: COWBOYS -6.5
Mississippi vs. Alabama, 6:30PM ET
Alabama doesn’t look as dominant as it has in year’s past, and bettors have taken notice. The spread in this game has been bet down from one key number of 17, to another key number in 14. The Rebels have fared well against the Tide, covering in all four of their last four meetings with ‘Bama in Tuscaloosa. They’re also 6-2 against the spread in their last eight meetings overall with the Tide, while the road team is 5-0 against the number in the last five meetings between these two teams. Ole Miss has a balanced offensive attack thanks to quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti, who is a running threat. The Rebels enter tonight’s game with plenty of confidence and should stay within two touchdowns of a Tide team that didn’t look sharp defensively two weeks ago versus A&M. FREE PICK: OLE MISS +14
Wisconsin vs. Ohio State, 8:00PM ET
The Buckeyes have been flat-out dominant in their first three games and own the fourth-highest scoring offense in the country (52.5 points). But Braxton Miller is set to return tonight following a sprained left MCL injury suffered a few weeks ago. Rust might be a factor in the early going, which could give Wisconsin confidence for the rest of the game. The underdog is 10-3 against the spread in the last 13 meetings between these two teams and the Badgers are 4-0 against the number in their last four games overall. They’re also 7-3 against the spread in their last 10 conference games and have rushed for 387 yards or more in three of their four games. Look for Wisconsin to give Ohio State its first challenge of the season. FREE PICK: WISCONSIN +6.5
Bengals vs. Browns, 1:00PM ET
The Bengals are coming off two emotional victories against Pittsburgh and Green Bay, and now has to travel to Cleveland and play a team in the Browns that they’re expected to beat. There’s always value in the home underdog, especially one in Cleveland that shocked bettors a week ago by beating Minnesota outright as a 6.5-point dog. The line in this game has been bet down from 5 to 3.5 despite the public siding with Cincinnati. The underdog is 10-1-1 against the spread in the last 12 meetings between these two teams and the Bengals are just 2-5-1 against the number in their last eight games versus the Browns. Look for a confident Cleveland team behind Brian Hoyer to keep this game within a field goal. FREE PICK: BROWNS +3.5
Seahawks vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
The Seahawks look every bit a Super Bowl contender in the early going. They suffered no letdown last Sunday when they thumped a brutal Jacksonville team a week after crushing division rival San Francisco on Sunday Night Football. But the Seahawks have never been a team that travels well and the Texans are licking their wounds after being embarrassed in Baltimore last week. Houston knows it can’t afford to fall behind in the AFC South, especially with Indianapolis playing Jacksonville this week. Look for the underdog Texans to win outright as a small home dog. FREE PICK: TEXANS +1
There’s has been a very wide range of opinions on the trade of Trent Richardson by the Browns to the Colts. As a Browns fan I was shocked at first like everyone else, but when I thought about it the deal made a lot of sense. Richardson is a good back and he’s a physical specimen, but he has not lived up to the hype of the third overall pick and he’s very injury prone. He dances way too much behind the line and often either doesn’t hit the right hole or doesn’t hit a hole at all.
On the other hand, it also can make sense for the Colts, who have a franchise quarterback and now add a running back to the mix with a high ceiling. It just remains to be seen if Richardson can improve. Most great NFL backs are great right away. It’s not like the quarterback position where experience is critical.
One very interesting take comes from Scott Fujita, who is already establishing himself as one of the most honest and insightful NFL commentators out there.
I can’t speculate about what’s in any one person’s head, but when a player enters the league wearing headphones incessantly, shows up late for treatments, and makes little effort to engage with his teammates, he can quickly develop a reputation for being insular and high-maintenance.
It can be perceived that he isn’t happy and that he’s not making an effort to buy in. I’ve seen this happen countless times, especially in today’s head down, keep-things-to-yourself culture.
Generally, you hope the player grows out of that coming into his second season, especially when there’s been a complete regime change and everyone is expected to prove themselves all over again. Some players buy in, and some don’t. Buy-in, even if it’s just perceived, goes a long way. You have to be willing to show you want to be part of the team.
I have no idea what took place during Thursday morning’s team meeting in Berea, the first since the trade was announced the previous afternoon. But my sense tells me a message was sent, loud and clear, even if nothing was spoken: No one is guaranteed a spot on this team. No one is bigger than the team. If you don’t buy in, you don’t belong on this team.
Maybe it’s just a personality thing, but was Richardson the type of player to work hard and improve? The new coaching staff gave up on him two games in a row in the second half after he had trouble in the new offense.
Tannehill blossoming but…
With the signings of free agents Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler, Tyson Clabo, Brent Grimes and Brandon Gibson, the Dolphins have had an eventful offseason. But the biggest news has been the development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who reportedly has been sharp in practices and who looks ‘more instinctive and less mechanical.’ With the Bills and Jets devoid of overall talent and the Patriots in the midst of a tumultuous offseason (that’s putting it mildly), some believe the Dolphins could be a sleeper in the AFC East. That said, the reports on left tackle Jonathan Martin have been less than favorable. Martin has been schooled by up-and-comer Olivier Vernon in practice and continues to be suspect in pass protection. And while Martin has looked good as a run-blocker, there are questions about whether Clabo can make the transition from a standard to a zone-blocking scheme. Even if Tannehill takes a significant step in his development and is surrounded by more talent (Lamar Miller continues to showcase his skills in camp), it won’t matter if the offensive line struggles. The play of Miami’s offensive tackles will be a topic of discussion throughout preseason and heading into Week 1.
Kolb has already been sacked.
The preseason hasn’t even started and already Kevin Kolb is on his backside. Bills coach Doug Marrone said the quarterback “tweaked” his knee and is considered day to day after tripping on a wet mat Saturday morning. The news comes on the heels of reports that Kolb has been outplayed in practice by rookie E.J. Manuel, who might wind up starting Week 1 despite his rawness at the position. Manuel fits Marrone’s up-tempo, run-first approach, so the first-year quarterback could grow on the job without having the pressure or expectations of carrying the offense with his arm. But it’s an indictment against Kolb that he can’t even stay on his own two feet while competing for a starting job in training camp. Granted, he was just keeping the seat warm until Manuel was ready to start, but if Kolb can’t win the starting job in Buffalo then what head coach or GM in his right mind will ever view Kolb as a starter again? It’s amazing to think he was once handpicked by Andy Reid to be the successor to Donovan McNabb.
49ers add Collie and Hawkins: What does it say about Jenkins?
The recent additions of Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins speak volumes about the development or lack thereof of 49ers’ 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. The former Illinois standout reported to camp out of shape last year, was eased into the offense by head coach John Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman, and then logged just 47 snaps in the regular season as a rookie. He’s reportedly off to a slow start again this summer and is now dealing with a hamstring strain. And while the additions of Collie and Hawkins could be precautionary with Michael Crabtree (Achilles’ tear) out and Kyle Williams returning from ACL surgery, it’s worth noting that Jenkins has failed to distinguish himself with the position opposite Anquan Boldin up for grabs.
It took Pro Bowlers Roddy White and Vincent Jackson three years to make an impact in the NFL, so the Niners will remain patient with Jenkins. But with Crabtree down, the team has to be frustrated that it hasn’t received more from its first-round investment up to this point.
Cook could be ready for a breakout campaign.
Titans fans are well aware of tight end Jared Cook’s upside and potential. For years they had to endure preseason chatter about how Cook was going to develop into a major contributor in Tennessee’s passing game, only to be disappointed by his lack of production. Whether it was poor playcalling or game planning, quarterback struggles, or Cook’s own bouts with inconsistency, the former South Carolina tight end has failed to deliver.
But after signing a lucrative free agent deal this offseason, Cook has turned heads in Rams camp. He and Sam Bradford have built a solid rapport and Cook has demonstrated his immense versatility. On one play he’s lining up in-line and the next he’s in the slot or out wide and in motion. He’s allowed the Rams to practice formations that they couldn’t use a year ago because they simply didn’t have a weapon as skilled as Cook. Whether it’s against a veteran defensive back or rookie safety TJ McDonald, Cook continues to beat defenders with his speed, soft hands, and big catch radius. The success of St. Louis’ offense will depend on Brian Schottenherim’s creativity, as well as Bradford’s ability to work through his progressions quickly and get the ball out of his hands on time and accurately. But with weapons like Cook, Tavon Austin and Chris Givens, the Rams have finally equipped Bradford with the tools necessarily to succeed.
An offensive weapon is developing in Cleveland.
The reports out of Cleveland have been inconsistent on receiver Josh Gordon. While new GM Mike Lombardi says Gordon has had a “great attitude” this offseason, others have written about his immaturity and lackadaisical habits at practice. He’s also facing a three-game suspension at the start of the season and is now battling “patellar tendonitis.” With second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden also drawing mixed reviews from pundits, the one consistent positive for Cleveland has been tight end Jordan Cameron. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Cameron has been targeted “early and often” during training camp, and he might emerge as Weeden’s security blanket this season. While the Browns’ success this season will depend on Ray Horton’s underrated defense and the development of Weeden, it’s good to hear that Cameron is turning heads. Cleveland has long searched for offensive weapons.
Five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL
Making an impact at a new job is as much about opportunities as it is talent, hard work and dedication. Based on talent, skill set and yes, opportunity, here are five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams
One year after the Jaguars leapfrogged them for the opportunity to snag Justin Blackmon, the Rams foiled the Jets’ plan to select West Virginia sparkplug Tavon Austin in the first round of the 2013 draft by trading up to No. 8 (one spot ahead of New York). Jeff Fisher doesn’t strike me as someone who would go to great lengths to acquire a player if he didn’t plan to use him right away. Much like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb, the Rams figure to use Austin as a moveable chess piece in Brian Schottenheimer’s offense. Whether it’s in the slot, the backfield or as a returner, Austin will be heavily utilized this season. And thanks to the different skill sets that guys like Austin, Jared Cook and Chris Givens bring to the table, opponents may have a difficult time matching personal with the Rams’ playmakers this season.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Last year it was telling how badly the Texans needed another offensive playmaker, not only in their Divisional Round loss to the Patriots, but four weeks prior when they were beaten badly at home by the Vikings in Week 16. Andre Johnson caught seven passes for 97 yards but failed to rip the top off the defense with one big play, and Minnesota did a great job limiting tight end Owen Daniels to just three catches for 27 yards. While DeVier Posey was targeted six times, he caught just one pass for a miniscule six yards and Matt Schaub was held to under 180 yards passing for only the second time all season. (He was also held to 95 yards against the Bears in Week 10 due to sloppy conditions.) Enter DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s first-round pick in 2013. Hopkins has drawn comparisons to Roddy White and Rod Smith for his route running ability and ball skills. He doesn’t have elite speed but that won’t limit him from creating separation thanks in large part to his excellent technique. A projected starter from Day 1, he should flourish playing opposite Johnson in Gary Kubiak’s offense. (One could also surmise that he’ll post better production than fellow rookie receivers Robert Woods, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson based on projected quarterback play alone.)
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell has already drawn praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley for his ability to be a three down back and “workhorse” runner, and he figures to play a large roll in the Steelers’ revamped running game because of his pass-catching ability. (He caught 67 passes for 434 yards with one touchdown at Michigan State.) He’s also durable and versatile in that he’s not only a north-south runner, but he has the ability to attack the edge as well. Largely mistaken as a “bruiser” entering the 2013 draft, there’s fluidity to Bell’s game. With no elite competition in Pittsburgh’s backfield, he has an opportunity to post instant production as a rookie.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, Browns
Last year, Les Miles and his coaching staff at LSU asked Mingo to play contain more than he did the season before when he racked up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The new role crippled his production, as his sack number dropped to 4.5 and his tackles for loss fell to 8.5. At 237 pounds, it’s unlikely that Mingo will hold up against the run but the Browns figure to use him like the Seahawks utilized 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin last year: As a pass-rushing maven. Mingo is an athletic marvel and if Cleveland turns him loose as a rookie, don’t rule out a six or seven-sack season. (Irvin finished with eight sacks last year after pundits ripped Seattle for taking him in the first round.) Unless he adds weight, Mingo will struggle when opponents run straight at him. But as a DPR, he should turn heads as a rookie.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Elam projects as the starting safety opposite Michael Huff in Baltimore’s defense, much like Eric Reid figures to start as a rookie for the 49ers. But Elam has better ball skills and more playmaking ability than Reid, who looks stiff in coverage and isn’t always quick to break on passes. Elam’s short but he hits like a MAC truck and has the versatility to be an interchangeable safety in Dean Pees’ scheme. Don’t rule out a 100-tackle season for the former Florida Gator, who also has the ball skills to snag a few interceptions as well.
+ Many of the offensive linemen taken in the first round also figure to make an immediate impact for their respective teams, but I left out players like Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel because it’s hard to quantify production for O-linemen.
+ I left off defensive linemen because it’s rare that they make huge impacts as rookies, although Bruce Irvin was the exception to the rule. One of the reasons for their limited production is because they quickly find out that the pass-rushing moves they used in college don’t work against NFL offensive linemen.
+ Some might wonder why I left Jarvis Jones off this list and the reason is simple: Dick LeBeau’s scheme is complicated to learn. It usually takes first timers to the defense a half or even full season to pick up. Players have talked about being lost in their first year but by season two they feel more comfortable. Thus, look for Jones to potentially make an impact in 2014 for the Steelers.