No. 25 Missouri vs. No. 7 Georgia, 12:00PM ET
The Tigers are back in the AP top 25 for the first time in two years and are coming off a 51-28 drubbing of Vanderbilt on the road last Saturday. Quarterback James Franklin has looked sharp in the early going and has weapons at his disposal in Henry Josey and dynamic playmaker Dorial Green-Beckham. On the other side, No. 7 Georgia barely escaped Knoxville with a victory last weekend and is severely banged up offensively. The Bulldogs will be without running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurely, as well as recievers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley. And while quarterback Aaron Murray has put on a show in back-to-back weeks, the defense still has plenty of holes after losing a handful of starters to the NFL draft back in April. Georgia is tough to beat in between the hedges, but look for Mizzou to keep things tight.
FREE PICK: MISSOURI +7.5
No. 9 Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss, 8:30PM ET
Two weeks ago there was plenty of chatter surrounding the 3-0 Rebels as they headed into Tuscaloosa. But following a 25-0 blanking at the hands of Alabama and a 30-22 upset last week versus Auburn, Ole Miss has once again fallen off the map. On the other side, A&M has completely regrouped following its loss to Alabama. The Aggies thumped a hapless SMU squad 42-13 before out-pacing Arkansas 45-33 two weeks ago in Fayetteville. Kevin Sumlin’s team is well rested coming off the bye and more importantly his defense has started to show signs of life. The spread is too low for this game, as “Johnny Football” and Co. should roll. FREE PICK: TEXAS A&M -6
Steelers at Jets, 1:00PM ET
It was impressive to watch Geno Smith lead the Jets to a huge road victory over the Falcons on Monday Night Football, but suddenly the national media has made him into Randall Cunningham. Thanks to a rash of injuries the Falcons were without their starting running back, left tackle, middle linebacker, one of their outside linebackers, one of their starting defensive ends and were forced to play a hobbled Roddy White and Julio Jones because their reciveving corps is so thin. In other words, what the Jets did was impressive but they didn’t exactly beat the same Atlanta team that came within 10 yards of going to the Super Bowl last year. The Steelers are coming off their bye and thus, should have had plenty of time to regroup and iron out their issues on both sides of the ball. While it’s shocking to see the Giants at 0-6 on the year, it would be even more surprising to watch the Steelers fall to 0-5. FREE PICK: STEELERS +1
Rams at Texans, 1:00PM ET
The Texans are in the middle of a freefall because quarterback Matt Schaub can’t protect the football. He’s had an interception returned for a touchdown in four straight games and has seemingly lost his confidence. That said, Houston’s running game has remained effective and its defense still boasts the likes of Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt, who is the best interior defensive lineman in the league. The Rams are coming off a win over the winless Jaguars but they still struggle with penalties, third down conversions on both sides of the ball, and run defense. Sam Bradford has also reverted back into a check-down machine and should be under constant duress in Houston. Look for the Texans to get back on track on Sunday. FREE PICK: TEXANS -7.5
Rams at Falcons, 1:00PM ET
The Falcons aren’t firing on all cylinders offensively. Roddy White was relegated to decoy duties last Sunday against the Saints due to a high-ankle injury, and the offensive line is young, vulnerable, and inexperienced. New Orleans pressured Matt Ryan relentlessly last week and the strength of St. Louis’ defense is its front four. Thus, Falcons OC Dirk Koetter might slow things down and build his game plan around Steven Jackson and his running game in efforts to slow the Rams’ pass rush down. On the other side, Sam Bradford and Co. scored 27 points against Arizona in Week 1 but 14 of those points didn’t come until the fourth quarter. The Rams shot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers, which halted a couple potential scoring drives. This is a young St. Louis team that will be facing a defense today led by Mike Nolan, who creates a lot of confusion with his schemes. Don’t expect a shootout today in the Dome. The under is 39-18-1 in the Rams’ last 58 road games and 6-2 in the Falcons’ last eight home games. PREDICTION: RAMS/FALCONS UNDER 47.5
Cowboys vs. Chiefs, 1:00PM ET
The Cowboys had to hang on to a 36-31 win despite creating six turnovers last Sunday night against the Giants. They’re also banged up, as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Anthony Spencer will play through injuries today in Kansas City. Andy Reid is familiar with the Cowboys’ tendencies after coaching in the NFC East for over 10 years and should put together a quality game plan today. The Chiefs also built some momentum and confidence by spanking a bad Jaguars team in Jacksonville last Sunday, and their defense looks like it could be a strength all season under new DC Bob Sutton. The Cowboys are 4-14 against the spread in their last 18 games following a straight up win and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games following an ATS win. Chiefs get it done in their home opener. PREDICTION: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -3
Titans vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
Two of the bigger surprises occurred in Week 1 as Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and thumped the Steelers, while the Texans had to overcome a double-digit deficit to beat a bad Chargers team on Monday night. The Titans aren’t getting a lot of respect from oddsmakers today despite making additions this offseason to fix the interior of their offensive line and defense. I expect Wade Phillip’s defense to play much better this week, but keep in mind that Houston is coming off a short week after traveling to San Diego in Week 1. They’re 1-4 against the spread in their last five games overall and 0-4 ATS in their last four games following a straight up win. Tennessee keeps pace today. PREDICTION: TENNESSEE TITANS +9
Broncos vs. Giants, 4:25PM ET
“The Manning Bowl” is going to be closer than people think. The Giants aren’t going to turn the ball over six times like they did a week ago in Dallas and Peyton Manning will be hard pressed to throw for seven touchdowns again like he did at home versus Baltimore. Look for Perry Fewell and New York’s defense to keep everything in front of them in efforts to minimize Manning’s effectiveness in the passing game. And if Fewell can drum up pressure, then Manning will also be forced to slow down the tempo of the Broncos’ offense. The Giants are 10-4-1 against the spread versus a team with a winning record and 5-2-1 ATS in their last eight games after allowing more than 30 points in their previous game. Look for New York to rebound today. PREDICTION: NEW YORK GIANTS +4.5
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.
With training camps ready to kick off around the NFL, intrigue surrounds a handful of starting quarterbacks. Here’s a closer look at three rather polarizing signal callers.
Even if the Panthers match their 2012 season and amass another 7-9 record, Newton will head into 2014 as Carolina’s starting quarterback. Nobody will fault Newton if he can’t out-duel Matt Ryan and Drew Brees within the NFC South, especially when you consider the weapons that the Falcons and Saints have offensively. That said, more will still be expected of Newton as he heads into his third season. In seven of his final eight games, he averaged 245.6 passing yards per contest and threw 13 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. He also rushed for 360 yards and four scores during that same span and continues to be one of the best playmaking quarterbacks in the NFL. But his accuracy was erratic in his second season and his decision making in the clutch also came under scrutiny. He improved when the Panthers took more off his shoulders and spread the wealth offensively, so look for new coordinator Mike Shula to build off of what Rob Chudzinski was able to accomplish with Newton in the second half of last year. Can Newton improve upon his career completion percentage of 58.9? Will the departure of Chudzinksi stall his progress? Will he prosper or fold in the fourth quarter of close games? Newton will once again be one of the more intriguing signal callers heading into the 2013 season.
Given the lack of playmakers, the carousel of offensive coordinators, and the suspect pass protection, there have been plenty of excuses for why Bradford hasn’t improved upon his rookie of the year campaign in 2010. But considering the offseason the Rams just had, there are no more excuses: Bradford needs to excel in 2013. Thanks to the free agent signings of Jake Long and Jared Cook, as well as the selections of Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Zac Stacy, Bradford will be surrounded by more playmakers this season than at any point during his four-year career. The offensive line has also improved significantly over the past two offseasons (at least on paper), and this will be the first time that Bradford will play under the same offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) in back-to-back years. Will Bradford elevate his game is the question. According to Rotoworld.com, he’s completed just 46.4 percent of his red zone passes for 541 yards, 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions over the course of his career. And while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out that Bradford’s touchdown-to-interception ratio jumped to 9:1 in the red zone during the second half of the 2012 season, that came against San Francisco (twice), NY Jets, Minnesota, Buffalo and Tampa Bay, which all ranked 22nd or lower in red zone defense. Simply put, he needs to be more consistent on third downs and inside the 20 if this new-look Rams offense is going to fire on all cylinders. He’s wanted more responsibility at the line of scrimmage and he’ll get that under Schottenheimer, who wants Bradford to run more up-tempo looks Time will tell if Bradford can push to become an elite quarterback or settle for being a glorified game manager that doesn’t show the ability to elevate those around him.
Who is the real Josh Freeman? The quarterback that threw 16 touchdown passes to just three interceptions between Weeks 6 and 11 last season, or the one that finished with a TD:INT ratio of 6:10 during the Bucs’ 1-5 slide at the end of 2012? Freeman’s biggest issue heading into 2013 is overcoming pressure. He struggles when defenses rush him off the edge, he struggles when they put pressure in his face, and he struggles in a muddied pocket. Granted, most quarterbacks have issues when they’re under duress. According to Pro Football Focus, nine of Freeman’s 17 interceptions last year came when he was under pressure, which probably isn’t an uncommon percentage among starting NFL quarterbacks. But in his four seasons, the Bucs are just 24-32 with him as a starter, and no playoff appearances. Over that same span, Tampa Bay is also just 5-10 against Atlanta and New Orleans, and if Freeman can’t beat those two opponents than the Bucs will continue to fall short in the NFC South. Now, are those failures all on Freeman? Of course not. In fact, he was nearly unbeatable at one point last year, albeit with the aid of Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson. But it’s telling that the Bucs are willing to head into 2013 without extending Freeman’s contract. Greg Schiano wants and demands more from his quarterback, who has enough playmakers around him to succeed. (Tampa has done a nice job of collecting talent on both sides of the ball the past two offseasons.) If Freeman can’t become a more consistent playmaker, the Bucs may chalk up that 10-win season in 2010 as a fluke and look to move on next offseason.
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.