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Ten NFL storylines to follow this Offseason

From a slew of head-coaching changes to an unpredictable draft (even more so than usual), there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on this NFL offseason. Here are 10 to follow over the next few months.

1. RGIII’s health.
Robert Griffin III vows to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season but in addition to damaging both his LCL and ACL, the dynamic quarterback also suffered a medial meniscus tear in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. While Adrian Peterson proved that ACL tears aren’t always a two-year injury, “All Day” was also a medical marvel. We’re talking about a guy who suffered a sports hernia injury in Week 10 and questioned whether or not he would be able to continue by Week 16, only to rush for 596 yards over the Vikings’ final four games (including playoffs). Not everyone is Adrian Peterson.

According to reports, RGIII was seen walking without a limp at “Media Week” down in New Orleans. But no matter how quickly he’s progressing with his rehab, the Redskins need to first be concerned with his the long-term health. If they rush him back and he suffers even further damage to his knee(s), his career could be in jeopardy. Mike Shanahan and Co. have a couple of months to evaluate the situation but at some point they’re going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to place RGIII on the regular season PUP list. While that would cost them their starting quarterback for the first six weeks of the season, riding Kirk Cousins over that stretch is a lot better than installing him as the franchise signal caller because RGIII’s knees are shot. For the Redskins, there’s more at stake here than just six weeks.

2. Newsome’s unenviable task of re-constructing the Ravens.
Whether anyone thinks Joe Flacco should be paid like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is rather moot. The going rate these days for franchise quarterbacks is $20 million per season, and Flacco proved in the postseason that he’s Baltimore’s franchise player. He may never put up the same jaw-dropping numbers that Brees has, but Flacco is worth his weight in gold to a team like the Ravens, who consistently draft well and will continue to compete under John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome. When you find a quarterback in this league (particularly a quarterback coming off one of the finest postseason performances in NFL history), you hang onto him. And in order to hang onto Flacco, the Ravens will pay the $20-plus million-a-year asking price.

No, the real storyline in Baltimore is whether or not Newsome can build another Super Bowl contender after he gets done paying Flacco. Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bryant McKinnie all helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl this year and all four of them are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Receiver Anquan Boldin is also set to make $6 million, so he could be forced to either restructure his deal or become a cap casualty. (He said he’ll retire if Baltimore releases him.) Newsome build two entirely different Super Bowl winners over the past 12 years. But this offseason might offer him his biggest challenge to date. As one of the finest general managers in the NFL, Newsome is certainly up for the challenge but the pressure will also be on Harbaugh and his staff to win with younger players as Baltimore re-stocks through the draft.

3. No consensus No. 1 pick.
Ask 10 NFL analysts who they have rated No. 1 in this year’s draft and you might be supplied with 10 different answers. Some believe Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is the safest pick in the draft but if the Chiefs re-sign Branden Albert than they have no use for Joeckel at No. 1. Besides, some think Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is the best offensive tackle in the draft, not Joeckel.

Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and even Florida State’s Bjorn Werner’s names are atop some analyst’s rankings. Why so much uncertainty? Point to the fact that there’s no consensus top quarterback in his year’s draft class. Twelve of the last 15 first-overall selections have been quarterbacks, with only Jake Long (2008), Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) being the exceptions. With no potential franchise signal caller to be had, the ultimate crapshoot is even more unpredictable than ever this year.

4. Veteran quarterbacks in limbo.
Flacco is the best free agent quarterback this offseason but the Ravens won’t allow him to escape Baltimore without at least slapping him with the franchise tag. That means backups will litter the open market, unless you still consider guys like Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore capable starters. (And why would you?)

The more intriguing names are Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Matt Flynn, who are all currently under contract but could become available either via trade or release at some point this offseason. While the 49ers will certainly honor Smith’s desire to start elsewhere, at the end of the day they don’t owe him anything (non-monetarily, that is). If they don’t acquire what they feel to be decent compensation for the 28-year-old veteran, they could use him as insurance behind Colin Kaepernick for another season. That may not be fair for Smith, but the Niners will ultimately do what’s best for the franchise.

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Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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NFL Quick-Hits: Ten Observations from Week 2 of Preseason

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he hands out 10 observations from Week 2 of the 2012 NFL preseason.

1. The Jets’ offense is troubling.
Mark Sanchez is already in mid-season form. In two preseason games, he’s 13-of-17 for a dismal 80 yards with no touchdowns and one 77-yard pick-six against the Giants on Saturday night. But it’s unfair to be overly critical of Sanchez’s performance when he’s consistently on his back or starring out of his ear hole. The Jets’ offensive line has been a disaster to this point and how can anyone expect that Sanchez will take that next step if right tackle Wayne Hunter acts as a turnstile instead of a brick wall? Sanchez has been sacked six times in 23 dropbacks in preseason and Hunter allowed four sacks in total on Saturday night. The fact that the Jets tried to trade for Carolina OT Jeff Otah back in July is all you need to know about the team’s confidence in Hunter. (The trade eventually fell through after Otah couldn’t pass a physical.) But it’s not just Hunter – the entire New York offensively is struggling, so much so that Tony Sparano’s offense has yet to score a touchdown in two preseason games. Forget Sanchez and ESPN’s lovechild Tim Tebow – if the Jets don’t get their offensive line straightened, the 1960s version of Joe Namath could step off a time machine and struggle under center.

2. Let’s keep Peyton’s “struggles” in proper context.
Following the Broncos’ loss to the Seahawks on Saturday night, the headlines on Sunday focused on Peyton Manning’s two interceptions. In two games this preseason, Manning is 20-of-30 passing for 221 yards, no touchdowns and three picks. Ever consumed by projections and predictions, many message board fanatics and media members are clamoring about how Manning doesn’t look like the Peyton of old. Really? The guy didn’t play a down last year and his career appeared to be in jeopardy. Twelve months ago many said he was finished. Now, because he’s thrown three interceptions in his first two preseason games following multiple neck surgeries, everyone is concerned? Relax. Jacob Tamme dropped an easy touchdown versus Seattle and Eric Decker also put one of Manning’s passes on the ground as well. His velocity isn’t there yet and may never return. But it’s only the second week of the preseason. Give him time to get his feel back for the game before we chastise him about his numbers.

3. It’s great to see Atlanta and Baltimore open things up.
The paths of the Falcons and Ravens have run parallel to each other since 2008. Mike Smith and John Harbaugh were both hired that year, while Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were both selected in the first round of that draft. Both teams have also been on the cusp of big things, although Baltimore has been closer to fulfilling its promise than Atlanta, which is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith. One other key similarity between these two teams is their offensive philosophy, which is to keep the ball on the ground and play a physical brand of football. Or, should I say that was the teams’ philosophy until this year. Flacco was inconsistent against the Lions on Friday but for the most part he looked smooth running Cam Cameron’s no huddle offense. He often got the Ravens set before Detroit’s defense was settled and while he attacked with mostly underneath routes, the takeaway is that he looked comfortable. Ryan, meanwhile, has looked like a different quarterback in new OC Dirk Koetter’s system. He’s no longer just a game manager that is afraid to fit the ball into tight windows. He’s confident, he’s standing strong in a muddied pocket and he has developed a great rapport with Julio Jones. In what has become a passing league, it’s good to see that two contenders have finally come to grips with the fact that they need to adjust.

4. Enough about Bradford’s ankle.
CBSsports.com’s Jason La Canfora released a report earlier this week that stated there’s a “definite possibility” that Sam Bradford will need ankle surgery after the season. I’m not here to discredit La Canfora’s report, which was validated a day later when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the team does have concerns about Bradford’s left ankle holding up for the entire season. But the bottom line is that he didn’t miss one rep in mini-camp, hasn’t missed one rep in training camp, and has yet to be affected by the ankle in preseason. In practices he hasn’t had issues rolling out of the pocket and hasn’t as much as limped around the field. Saturday night versus the Chiefs, he completed 6-of-9 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. From the very first snap of the game when he hit Danny Amendola on a long crossing route for a 35-yard gain, Bradford consistently went through his progressions and found open receivers. He’s primed for a bounce back season.

5. Outside of Urlacher, optimism continues to build in Chicago.
Looking back, the Bears had one of the better offseasons of any team in the league. Had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not gotten hurt last season, the Bears were on a collision course with the fifth playoff seed in the NFC. So what did they do? They signed a quality player in Jason Smith to backup Cutler and added Michael Bush to help take some of the rushing load off of Forte. Of course, Chicago’s biggest and best move was trading for Brandon Marshall, who finally gives Cutler a bona fide No. 1 target. The Bears also drafted South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who has caught seven passes for 97 yards this offseason. The offensive line is the biggest concern, but the unit looked good on Saturday night. The other question mark is obviously Brian Urlacher, who likely won’t be healthy all season. But while the defense is getting long in the tooth, the Bears have everything they need to make a deep postseason run this season.

6. The Cardinals are in trouble.
If I were to pick one defense to improve the most from 2011 to 2012, I would choose the Arizona Cardinals. Last year coordinator Ray Horton implemented the same defense that Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh and while the Cardinal defenders were often caught out of position last season because of their unfamiliarity with the scheme, they improved throughout the year. With a full offseason to grasp Horton’s scheme, Arizona’s defense should be quietly consistent all season. Then again, it better be because the offense could be a total disaster. The offensive line was already struggling before Levi Brown suffered what should be a season-ending triceps injury on Friday. Not only that, but Kevin Kolb has been a train wreck in preseason and while John Skelton has displayed a little magic before, he’ll eventually succumb to the pitfalls of the offensive line. Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, Michael Floyd and Ryan Williams, the parts are there. But Wells and Williams are injury concerns, the Cardinals are bringing Floyd along slowly and the greatness of Fitzgerald is nullified by a bad situation at quarterback and along the offensive line. It could be a long season in the desert.

7. Locker is keeping Hasselbeck in the running.
With an opportunity to perhaps widen the gap between he and Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker really struggled in his second preseason game on Saturday might. He completed just 4-of-11 passes for 21 yards and one interception and he struggled mightily in his first NFL start (preseason or regular). And because he had so many issues, coach Mike Munchak wasn’t able to declare Locker the starter this weekend. It makes sense that the Titans want Locker to emerge as the starter. After all, he’s the future and while the veteran Hasselbeck can keep Tennessee in most games, Locker is the superior athlete and has the ability to produce more big plays. But if the second-year quarterback can’t seize the opportunity in front of him, then Munchak has no choice but to allow the two signal callers to keep battling.

8. The Seahawks have an underrated battle at quarterback.
Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports joined Tony Softli and myself this morning on 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis and noted that at least one team would have drafted Russell Wilson ahead of Ryan Tannehill if Wilson weren’t as short as he is. But as SI.com’s Peter King said earlier this week, Wilson didn’t have one ball knocked down at Wisconsin. He’s a smart, instinctive kid with excellent fundamentals. If Matt Flynn didn’t sign that free agent deal this offeason, I’m not so sure Wilson wouldn’t have been named the starter by Pete Carroll at this point. Granted, Wilson has played against the second and third-teamers in preseason but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still making the throws, still making sound decisions, and still forcing Carroll from naming Flynn the starter heading into the third week of preseason.

9. The NFL hasn’t made the referees a priority, which is bothersome.
A couple of days ago NFL executive Ray Anderson made a comment on the locked out officials saying, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.” That’s true, I’ve never purchased a ticket to a NFL game hoping to a see a Pro Bowl-caliber performance from a referee. But I have paid to watch a professional NFL game, which should include professional referees. I get that the NFL is in the middle of a labor dispute and is therefore downplaying the value of the regular referees. But Anderson shouldn’t insult the intelligence of fans with comments like the one above. It’s a different game with replacement refs, and that much has been proven the past two weeks. I have no doubt that these replacements will improve with each week but it’s going to be a long time before they reach the level that the regulars are at. The NFL is not putting a high value on the regular referees, and that’s not fair to fans.

10. Questions surround Bowe.
As a whole, the Chiefs had a poor showing in their 31-17 loss to the Rams on Saturday night. But Matt Cassel did some good things, especially when he was allowed to open things up and target the middle of the field (which happens to be St. Louis’ weakness save for MLB James Laurinaitis). Jon Baldwin has also drawn rave reviews in training camp and Jamaal Charles appears to be recovering nicely from ACL surgery. Another piece of positive news is that Dwayne Bowe signed his franchise tender and has been cleared to practice. But will he learn new OC Brian Daboll’s scheme in time for the regular season? Imagine trying to master a new language before having to take the final exam in just two weeks. While there’s plenty of optimism growing in Kansas City, there’s a realistic chance that Bowe will be slow out of the gates until he can learn Daboll’s offense.

Chad Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace & more NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter provides his quick-hits from the week that was in the NFL.

Did this Mike Wallace situation escalate or what?
Last Wednesday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Steelers had broken off contract talks with Wallace until he signs his one-year, $2.472 million tender and reports to the team. That same evening, Mike Tomlin held a press conference and said that the situation is “bigger than Wallace” and that he was going to go work with Emmaunel Sanders “because he’s here, and be exited about doing it.” Two days later, the Steelers hand $42.5 million to Wallace’s teammate Antonio Brown, which wasn’t a message to Wallace as much as it was a statement that the team wasn’t playing around. Reports have also surfaced that Wallace rejected a contract offer in the five-year, $50 million range and that he could be traded during camp. But a trade is going to be incredibly difficult because no team will want to surrender a first-round pick for Wallace this offseason and keep in mind that the Steelers only received a fifth-rounder for Santonio Holmes (who was a Super Bowl MVP, mind you). Thus, it appears as though Wallace has two choices: Play for just over $2 million this season or holdout, which really doesn’t help him achieve what he wants (that being a long-term deal). At this point, the Steelers are in complete control. If Wallace signs his tender, reports to camp and is motivated to stick it up Pittsburgh’s ass, then the Steelers win. If he doesn’t report, then the Steelers are already preparing for life after Mike Wallace.

Chad Johnson appears to be a tad delusional.
While speaking to the media earlier this week, Johnson predicted a “monster” season for himself this year in Miami and then essentially blamed his poor performance last season on the Patriots. Said the Twitter artist formerly known as Ochocinco: “My personality was controlled last year. You perform. It’s never been vindictive. I never got anybody in trouble.” He went on: “The didn’t hear me at all last year. Zero. Zilch. When my mouth is running, it forces me to stuff that I do well, I do extremely well. The Pats know what I do well. You put that player in position to make those same plays he’s been making his whole career. It’s not rocket science.”

Let’s keep in mind that Bill Belichick and the Patriots coveted Johnson. It’s not like they grabbed him off the scrap heap and paid him the veteran minimum – they gave up a fifth and a sixth round pick because they thought he could still play. What they quickly found out is that they acquired damaged goods. According to a report by the Bengals’ official website back in June, T.J. Houshmandzadeh used to tell Johnson where to line up on offense when the two were in Cincinnati. And around that same time, multiple sources told the Boston Globe that Johnson just didn’t have the “football I.Q.” to succeed with the Patriots, who used to tell him to run a route a certain way and he would do the opposite. New England also gave him the benefit of the doubt by keeping him on their roster until this spring when it was clear that he still hadn’t fully grasped the offseason. So it’s a little arrogant on Johnson’s part to blame his poor 2011 on the Patriots because they didn’t let him be him. Belichick’s rigid ways may have had some negative impact on Johnson’s play but his declining skills are mostly to blame for his one-year stop in New England.

What exactly is Dwayne Bowe’s game plan here?
He took exception to the Chiefs slapping him with their franchise tag earlier this year, so he skipped OTAs and minicamp in efforts to voice his displeasure with the situation. But now that he’s no longer eligible for a long-term deal, why skip training camp? Why not sign the one-year tender and play for $9.5 million guaranteed? I get it – if you’re Bowe, why bust your butt in training camp if you can show up for Week 1 and make the same amount of money. But he’s not endearing himself to the Chiefs or other teams by skipping training camp. Look, there are no guarantees in life. Bowe could get hurt in training camp or on the first snap of the regular season. He could also go on to have a great season without taking one practice rep, assuming pf course that he even shows up for the regular season. But if the ultimate goal is to receive a long-term contract, then why drive another stake between yourself and the people who can accomplish that objective? If you want your bosses to give you a raise, or if you want to make yourself more attractive to the competition, you don’t stop driving into the office.

Here’s an idea to end the stalemate between Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars.
It would appear as though the only way the situation will be resolved is if the two sides come to some sort of compromise. He is the Jacksonville offense but the Jaguars hold all the leverage right now. He’s under contract for the next two years and the team doesn’t want to set a precedent for paying players with more than one year remaining on their deals (which makes sense). I don’t write contracts for a living but one would think that if the Jaguars would be willing to make at least some of his current deal guaranteed, MJD would report to camp with a slight raise. If not, then the Jaguars might as well keep fining him until he shows up because with or without him, they’re not going to challenge for a postseason berth this season. Besides, in 2009 the Jaguars and MJD agreed to a fair contract. The team expected him to be this good, which is why they invested so much money in him then. For him to turn around and now try to hold the team hostage for more money is slightly ridiculous. Thus, if the two sides can come to some sort of compromise that makes all parties happy and gets MJD to camp, that would appear to be the best solution.

It would be a mistake if soon-to-be Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III let Mike Holmgren go.
Poor ownership, failed player evaluation and scouting, and bad hiring decisions have all contributed to the lack of success that Cleveland has had over the years. But a lack of vision, continuity, and cohesion has been the biggest reason the Browns have suffered through a decade of losing. Holmgren’s first two years in Cleveland haven’t been very successful but there’s excitement building thanks to the first-round selections of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. Holmgren knows how to build a winner, as he did so he Green Bay and Seattle before Cleveland hired him as its team president back in 2010. It’s understandable if Haslam wants to bring in his own people but to fire Holmgren and start over isn’t a move that brings the Browns closer to competing. This is a team that has lacked vision and while Holmgren hasn’t done enough to earn his new boss’s trust, Haslam owes it to the fan base in Cleveland to keep the train on the tracks.

2012 NFL Free Agency: Breaking down the Wide Receivers

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson celebrates a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Free agency in the NFL begins on March 13 and leading up to that date I’ll go position by position while highlighting the best players, best bargains, as well as the riskiest investments.

Best in Class: Take your pick.
This is the deepest pool of free agent receivers that I’ve seen in a long time. Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Robert Meachem comprise the top 10 free agents, but Mario Manningham, Laurent Robinson and Harry Douglas could also be available next month. Welker seems like a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense and will likely stay in New England, but Wallace could be available if the Steelers can’t figure out a way to fit him under their cap. When healthy and not in the midst of a contract holdout, V-Jax is one of the more versatile receivers in the league in that he’s a vertical threat with soft hands who can also block in the running game. Bowe, Colston, Lloyd, Johnson, Jackson and Wayne have been, or still are No. 1 options in the passing game and Meachem certainly has the talent to be a No. 1 given his skill set. Teams needing a receiver have no excuse not to address that hole this offseason.

The Biggest Risk: DeSean Jackson
Jackson is only 25 and is drenched in big play ability. But he has 35 drops over the last four seasons, was a ghost at times last year because he was seemingly worried about his contract situation, and sometimes costs his team on the field with his immaturity. Because of his big play ability and success as a punt returner, plenty of teams will be interested in Jackson’s services next month. But with so many other free agent receivers available, teams weary of his inconsistency and maturity issues can cross his name off the list if they want to. His agent must pull his hair out thinking about how much money Jackson has cost himself over the past year.

The Best Value: Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd is still going to be paid like a low-end No. 1 but at 31 he’ll be cheaper than guys like Welker, Jackson, Bowe, Wallace and Colston. He didn’t post the same numbers in 2011 as he did in 2010 but don’t forget that the quarterback situation in Denver was brutal and Sam Bradford couldn’t stay healthy in St. Louis (the team Lloyd was traded to midseason). Even at 31, Lloyd is an explosive downfield threat who also has a large catch radius. The Rams would be wise to keep him in St. Louis but if he were to hit the open market, he could turn out to be a real value for his eventual production.

Best Cost-Effective Bargain: Robert Meachem
Meachem doesn’t have the numbers or name power as other receivers that could become available next month but at 27 his ceiling is still somewhat high. He’s consistent, as he’s averaged a touchdown every 10 receptions in the regular season and has just 11 drops over the last four years. He may never develop into a No. 1 but he’s worth a shot for a team like Jacksonville that is thin at receiver and has other holes to address this offseason (and thus, might not want to spend big at one position). Meachem could wind up being a cost-effective alternative to Jackson, Bowe, Colston and the other big-name receivers in this free agent pool.

NFL Week 17 MVP power rankings

Well, I’m pretty sure the announcement for NFL MVP comes down this weekend, so let me begin by saying that I was not influenced by anything that I read when making these picks…..

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots—Brady, who is going to run away with this award, played about half a game last Sunday, and still threw for 199 yards with 2 TDs and 0 picks. He hasn’t thrown an interception since like early October.

2. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles—Vick did Brady a favor by not being in the lineup against Dallas in Week 17, but he and his coach know what’s more important, and that is for him and some nagging injuries, resting up for the Packers.

3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints—He wound up third in yards (4620) and tied for second in TDs (33) but uncharacteristically threw for 22 interceptions.

4. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts—4700 yards, 33 TDs, 17 picks. But most impressive is the way Peyton led his team to the postseason when things looked bleak.

5. Matt Cassel/Jamaal Charles/Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs—Cassel had a dreadful game in Week 17, but we stand by the fact that this was a trio that helped a young KC team win their division and a 4-seed.

6. Arian Foster, Houston Texans—Not only did he lead the league in rushing (1616 yards), but Foster added a whopping 66 receptions for 604 more yards—giving him 2220 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs.

7. Matt Ryan/Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons—Well, at 13-3, someone had to be good for them to get there, especially with all of those come from behind wins.

8. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers—Finished with 3922/28/11 in 15 games, but what counts is leading his team to the postseason berth they deserve.

9. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers—If they could do last year’s draft over again, do you think Matthews would still be picked at #26?

10. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers—You know, he led the NFL in passing yards (4710) and had 30 TDs with 13 interceptions. He didn’t have Antonio Gates for a while, and he had Vincent Jackson for maybe two games. That’s why we can’t discount Rivers’ numbers.

11. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Bucs—We had to add one more. This kid is going to be a star. Oh wait, he already is. Freeman started every game and wound up with 3451 passing yards with 25 touchdown passes and just 6 interceptions. By comparison, Eli Manning had more than FOUR times as many picks.

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