NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC North Division Preview

With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait much longer for pre-season football starting August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s the outlook of AFC North teams.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ front office vowed to get quarterback Joe Flacco help this offseason. Yet they didn’t sign or draft a top receiver to replace the retiring Steve Smith Sr., and they did little to solidify an offensive line that no longer has starting center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner. Through the first two months of free agency, the Ravens’ only offensive addition was veteran running back Danny Woodhead, who is essentially a replacement for versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

One of the lowest-ranked passers in the league last year, Flacco should at least be healthy again. He rushed back from the torn left ACL and MCL he suffered in November 2015 and was on the field for the first day of training camp last July. However, Flacco never looked completely comfortable, and the lack of chemistry with several of his pass catchers was evident throughout the season.

Wideouts Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore provide plenty of outside speed, but it’s up to the strong-armed Flacco to rediscover his touch on the deep ball and get in sync with his receivers. Jeremy Maclin, a cap casualty in Kansas City, was signed as a free agent in June. He is coming off an injury-plagued 44-catch season, but if healthy he could take advantage of all the attention drawn by the Ravens’ deep threats.

With injury prone tight end Dennis Pitta released this offseason, the team will look to Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Darren Waller, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle in hopes of identifying a complementary target who will work the middle of the field and make contested catches.

The Ravens ran the ball the third-fewest times in the NFL last year. Head coach John Harbaugh has promised a greater commitment to the running game. Although, that’s not been offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s trademark as a play caller. Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon(suspended for the first four games) and Danny Woodhead are all capable backs. The Ravens will have to grind it out, because none is a home run threat.

Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton has never been regarded as a top-tier NFL quarterback, but the former second-round pick out of TCU continues to put up quality numbers. In 2016, he threw for 4,206 yards (87 shy of his career high) and completed 64.7 percent of his passes. His best quality might be his durability; in six seasons, he has missed only three starts.

Wide receiver A.J. Green missed out on his sixth straight 1,000-yard season due a hamstring injury that forced him to miss six games. He still caught 66 passes for 964 yards — but had only four touchdowns, the fewest of his career.

The Bengals added to their outstanding group of skill position players in the draft, selecting wide receiver John Ross and controversial but talented running back Joe Mixon. Ross ran the fastest 40-yard dash time ever at the Scouting Combine.

Dalton expects to have a healthy Tyler Eifert, who has dominated in the red zone when healthy but hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Receiver Tyler Boyd enters his second season. He made significant strides in route running and aggressive play in the slot over the final half of 2016. With veteran backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill as part of a rotation also, there will be no shortage of weapons.

Cleveland Browns

Robert Griffin III was released after getting hurt and never inspiring much confidence last season. His exit leaves 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler atop the depth chart headed into a training camp quarterback competition. The spring pecking order was Kessler, Brock Osweiler and then 2017 second-round draft pick DeShone Kizer, but that could change if Kessler falters or Kizer progresses quickly. Osweiler also could end up being the starter; a year after the Texans outbid the Broncos to get him, they gave up a second-round pick to the Browns to take him and the remaining $16 million in guaranteed money on his contract off their hands. Osweiler is just 26 and has made 21 career starts, so he shouldn’t be totally dismissed.

Isaiah Crowell is the lead running back, and he’ll have a chance to build on an impressive 2016. Crowell is a powerful runner who showed improved speed and vision last season. He separated himself from Duke Johnson, who was probably the favorite to become the starting running back last summer. Johnson remains a valuable third-down back and can contribute for a Browns team that needs playmakers.

It’s puzzling to know that the Browns let Terrelle Pryor walk in free agency last March. Pryor went over 1,000 yards receiving last season in his first full season as a wide receiver. His size/speed combo made him a difficult matchup for many cornerbacks. The Browns signed veteran Kenny Britt to fill Pryor’s spot in the depth chart. More than anything, though, the receivers and the offense as a whole need 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman to take a significant leap. Coleman had one big game as a rookie and showed he could become a deep threat, but missing time both in training camp and during the season slowed his overall development. The Browns hope this season that he can be a downfield threat and that Britt can help move the chains. First-round tight end David Njoku should continue to progress and eventually become top passing-game options.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have arguably the best running back in football with Le’Veon Bell, the best wide receiver with Antonio Brown, plenty of supplementary playmakers and a solid offensive line, but they’ll only go as far as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is able to carry them. The past two years have been tough on the 35-year-old veteran, who missed stretches of 2015 and 2016 with various injuries. Though most assumed he’d be back for his 14th season, Roethlisberger waited until early April to make it official. Clearly, he’s on the back end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, completely healthy or not. The Steelers are 28–13 with Roethlisberger under center over the past three seasons — a stretch that has seen him post three of his four highest passing yards-per-game averages.

Roethlisberger is the driving force behind an offense that should be nothing short of a top-five unit in 2017. A player of Bell’s caliber is poised for another big season after averaging more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in 2016, a suspension-shortened campaign that was so dazzling that some dubbed him an MVP candidate. Entering his fifth season, Bell is in the heart of his prime and will have no shortage of motivation while playing on the franchise tag. His security blanket of the past two seasons, veteran DeAngelo Williams, is no longer with the Steelers, but rookie James Conner is expected to provide short-yardage thump that should nicely complement Bell’s patient running style.

The Steelers did just fine through the air last season without Martavis Bryant, who was suspended from start to finish. Now with Bryant back in the fold, the Steelers present one of the league’s most dangerous one-two punches at wide receiver. Bryant’s blazing speed and ability to take the top off the defense not only makes him a dangerous deep threat, but also opens up the field for Brown, who has been the constant target of double-teams and bracket coverage over the past few seasons. And if Bryant can’t stay on the straight and narrow, the Steelers are prepared. On top of returning receivers Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Pittsburgh added the well-traveled Justin Hunter in free agency and used a second-round pick on USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could make an immediate impact in the slot.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

NFC East Division Preview

With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait much longer for pre-season football starting August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s the outlook of NFC East teams.

Dallas Cowboys

The plan for Dak Prescott last season was for him to sit, watch and learn behind Tony Romo. But the Cowboys’ best-laid plans blew up in training camp when backup quarterback Kellen Moore broke his right leg and, three weeks later, Romo fractured his back. Prescott, a fourth-round selection, had arguably the best rookie season by a quarterback in NFL history and won Offensive Rookie of the Year over teammate Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott pushed Romo into retirement, with the Cowboys handing the keys to the youngster. Moore, who missed all of last season, re-signed. The 27-year-old veteran is a favorite of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie, gaining 1,631 yards and earning six MVP votes. Elliott could contribute more in the passing game after the free-agent departure of third-down back Lance Dunbar. The Cowboys aren’t worried about Elliott’s workload after giving him 354 touches last season. Elliott had 322 carries and 32 receptions in 716 offensive snaps in the regular season. He played another 56 snaps with 23 touches in the postseason. (DeMarco Murray had 449 touches on 782 snaps in 2014 for the Cowboys when he led the league in rushing.) Elliott gained 833 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 166 first-half carries — a 5.02 average per carry — and 922 yards and eight touchdowns on 178 carries in the second half and overtime, a 5.18 average per carry.

Receivers Cole Beasley, Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams combined for 169 receptions, 2,223 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. They rank among the best units in the league. While Bryant remains their big-play receiver, Prescott found a security blanket in Beasley, who led the team in receptions (75) and receiving yards (833) for the first time. The Cowboys re-signed Brice Butler as their fourth receiver and added North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer in the draft. Switzer is a Beasley lookalike and will likely replace Lucky Whitehead.

Veteran tight end Jason Witten signed a new deal in the offseason that virtually assures he will finish his career with the Cowboys. Although he played all 16 games for a 13th consecutive season, Witten isn’t the same Pro Bowl tight end he once was.

New York Giants

One of the biggest selling points for hiring Ben McAdoo as Tom Coughlin’s replacement a year ago for the head coach position was the fact that the Giants’ offense finished in the top 10 in both of his seasons as offensive coordinator. Quarterback Eli Manning was thriving and the Giants didn’t want to lose that momentum. So imagine their shock when they finished 25th in the league in total offense in 2016 and averaged less than 20 points per game.

Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has emerged as one of the top playmakers in the game, but the Giants became overly reliant on the All-Pro from LSU. He suffered through a nightmarish performance against Green Bay in his first career playoff game. The Giants need to diversify. Gone is Victor Cruz, who just wasn’t his old self after knee and calf surgeries. In is Brandon Marshall, the big ex-Jet who at 6’4″ is the tallest regular receiver they’ve had since the days of Plaxico Burress (6’5″) and Amani Toomer (6’3″). Manning has been desperate for a big target, especially in the red zone. Marshall and slot receiver Sterling Shepard should take plenty of defensive attention away from Beckham.

The Giants also added speedy tight end Evan Engram in the first round of the draft. Engram is really more of a receiver, but he will replace the unreliable Will Tye and Larry Donnell as a deep option over the middle and provide another weapon who can free up Beckham. Also, the speedy Paul Perkins is taking over for the aging Rashad Jennings at running back, and the hope is that his emergence will force defenses to concentrate on the run more in 2017.

Philadelphia Eagles

Quarterback Carson Wentz set an NFL rookie record for most completions in a season (379) while posting the fourth-most passing yards (3,782) for a first-year player in league history. He started every game, and while his completion percentage dipped as the season progressed and he had some issues with mechanics, Wentz’s rookie season was a success by any measure.

The Eagles decided during the offseason to invest their limited salary cap space on some receivers for him to target. Last year’s crop of wideouts was disappointing, and that’s being kind. Second-year man Nelson Agholor was overmatched, to the point where he was a healthy scratch one week. Dorial Green-Beckham was wildly inconsistent, and even though Jordan Matthews caught 73 balls, he averaged a meager 11.0 yards per reception. So, the Eagles went shopping and purchased Alshon Jeffery for $14 million for one season and Torrey Smith for $15 million over three seasons. They also added a couple of prospects via the draft.

As usual, Zach Ertz looked good at the end of 2016, when the games didn’t matter, and led the team with 78 receptions. But he must become more consistent and deliver in more important situations.

By the end of last year, the Eagles’ running back situation was a mess. Ryan Mathews’ neck injury made him unlikely to return. Faced with the prospect of heading into 2017 with Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood as their holdovers, the Eagles signed LeGarrette Blount late in the spring. While Sproles is a veteran hybrid unable to handle many carries, and second-year man Smallwood also lacks size, Blount gives Philadelphia a big back who can get tough yards, especially in the red zone.

Washington Redskins

Despite the gaudy numbers the offense produced in 2016 — when the Redskins ranked third in the NFL in total yards and second in passing yards — there will still be major changes this season, among them a new coordinator (Matt Cavanaugh, promoted from quarterbacks coach), a new primary play caller (head coach Jay Gruden), a new quarterbacks coach (newly hired Kevin O’Connell) and a rebuilt wide receiver corps, with Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson (who combined for 2,046 receiving yards last season) now gone, and Terrelle Pryor on board as the top playmaker. Pryor was an early target for the Redskins, who are desperate to improve their ugly red zone numbers from a year ago. A former standout QB in college, Pryor has completed his transformation to receiver. Last season, he caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards as the top target in Cleveland.

For a long time, it appeared that quarterback Kirk Cousins, coming off a Pro Bowl season, could join the Redskins’ exodus, but after entertaining options ranging from a lengthy contract extension to a blockbuster trade, the team settled on the middle ground of franchise-tagging him for the second year, at a cost of $24 million. Cousins, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has started 16 games in each of the last two seasons. Last year, he threw for 4,917 yards with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 67.0 percent of his attempts.

If this is Cousins’ last shot at winning big in D.C., he will at least be surrounded by solid pieces, including the electrifying Pryor at wide receiver; Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis at tight end; a running back corps that includes incumbent starter Rob Kelley, fourth-round pick Samaje Perine and third-down back Chris Thompson.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC East Division Preview

NFL training camps just opened, which signals the official countdown to the start of the 2017 season. As usual, there is no lack of storylines to keep an eye on as we get closer to Week 1, with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at the forefront.

The Pats are among the Super Bowl favorites nearly every year, but this season it appears they are more likely than usual to add another Lombardi Trophy to the collection. There is veteran leadership, young talent and the elite coaching that most teams aspire to. That said, the roadblocks along the way can’t be easily dismissed. The Dolphins appear to be on the precipice of becoming a worthy divisional foil. Let’s take a look at what can deliver the AFC East teams this season. And don’t forget that it all begins September 7th. Join Fanpicks now to enter all of NFL’s Week 1 contests.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills will look to improve on a unit that is lacking stars but ranked first in rushing offense and tied for 10th in scoring last season.

With few appealing options on the free-agent market, the Bills had little choice but to bring back quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a third year under a more cap-friendly contract. It was a prudent move as Buffalo’s new coaching staff under coordinator Rick Dennison will not have to waste valuable months staging a competition, and young prospects Cardale Jones and rookie Nathan Peterman can develop without any pressure. The Bills signed veteran T.J. Yates in case neither Jones nor Peterman can secure the backup job.

Taylor will need a full season out of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who had two foot surgeries last year and was limited to 28 catches. Second-round pick Zay Jones, who caught an FBS record 399 passes for East Carolina, should be a nice complement to Watkins, along with veteran free agent Philly Brown. Tight end Charles Clay, who led Buffalo with 57 catches for 552 yards, is also begging to be used more. Watkins’ health is everything, though. The No. 4 pick in 2014 is at a crossroads of his career if he can’t stay on the field.

Taking some of the pressure off Taylor is a rushing attack that has led the NFL two years running. LeSean McCoy is still an elite cut-back runner who topped the 1,200-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. He had 50 catches and earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod. Losing top backup Mike Gillislee (5.7 yards per carry) to New England as a restricted free agent has opened a spot for second-year man Jonathan Williams.

Miami Dolphins

When quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s season ended in Week 14, Miami’s hopes for a deep playoff run were dashed as well. After a rough start partially caused by growing pains in coach Adam Gase’s system, Tannehill rebounded to enjoy the best season of his career. Tannehill’s biggest improvement came on the deep ball. He tied for the NFL lead with seven completions of 50-plus yards, and his 7.7 yards-per-completion average was a personal best.

Behind the scenes, Gase pushed heavily for Dolphins management to re-sign wide receiver Kenny Stills. Those words carried heavy weight. Stills caught a career-high nine touchdown passes and averaged 17.3 yards per reception, which ranked third in the league. Jarvis Landry should be the next Dolphins wideout to cash in. Heading into a contract year, Landry remains Tannehill’s most trusted target. He was among the league leaders in third-down grabs while becoming the sixth receiver in Dolphins history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Miami is counting on DeVante Parker to make more of an impact entering his third NFL season. If he doesn’t, the Dolphins may pass on exercising the fifth-year option in his rookie contract.

At tight end, Julius Thomas should provide Tannehill with a boost in the passing game provided he avoids the injury problems that made him a high-priced free-agent bust in Jacksonville. Anthony Fasano, who played in Miami from 2008-12, returns primarily as a blocker with Dion Sims having left for Chicago.

The running game progressed from a concern in the preseason to a strength by the end of the year. Jay Ajayi, who was left at home for the Week 1 opener because of a bad attitude, changed his tune and quickly surpassed Arian Foster as Miami’s lead back. Ajayi finished with 1,272 yards. The next step for Ajayi is consistency. He finished with 79 or fewer yards in 12 games, including Miami’s first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

New England Patriots

The stirring MVP performance that Tom Brady gave in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons tells you everything you need to know about his lasting ability to play the position even as he begins the 2017 season at 40 years old. He won’t go on forever, but that’s why the team retained backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo despite reportedly receiving repeated overtures from the Browns to trade him away. In so doing, the Patriots will be starting an all-time great at the most important position on the field while having an insurance policy who they believe can carry them to the promised land if Brady gets hurt.

On top of that, the Pats significantly upgraded Brady’s wide receiving corps when they dealt the No. 32 pick in the draft for ex-Saint Brandin Cooks. With the speedy Cooks in the fold, the Pats add the valuable element of a deep threat to an already potent unit. Cooks can also line up in the slot and be effective in traffic, something he will do more in New England than he did in New Orleans.

There is some uncertainty around the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski will be coming off back surgery, and the increasingly injury-prone star is becoming less and less reliable in terms of his availability. The Pats acquired Dwayne Allen to fill the void left by Martellus Bennett, who left for the Packers in free agency, but Allen has his own injury history.

The questions surrounding the running back position are of a different nature. The team swiped restricted free agent Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills, and he could be the lead back in a deep rotation. But Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis also can be effective in multiple facets, and third-down back James White seems like he will hold down that spot after receiving a contract extension in April. Rather than settle on a consistent rotation, the Patriots could use the backs based on game-plan need and leave opponents guessing as to which one they’ll have to worry about from week to week. That kind of personnel flexibility is something head coach Bill Belichick likes.

New York Jets

The main focus for the Jets in 2017 will be on the quarterback position. The Jets didn’t draft a QB, so they’re rolling with journeyman Josh McCown and youngsters Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. This is a prove-it year for Hackenberg, whom the Jets drafted in Round 2 last year.

The Jets are also trying to incorporate younger wide receivers, now that Brandon Marshall is playing for the Giants and Eric Decker is with the Titans. Can Quincy Enunwa prove himself as a potential No. 1 threat, rather than just a hybrid receiver/tight end? What do the Jets have in Robby Anderson, who flashed last year as an undrafted rookie?

While the Jets drafted two receivers (ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen), they also selected tight end Jordan Leggett to bolster a position that was nonexistent under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Gailey retired, and the Jets replaced him with John Morton.

The running game was respectable — the Jets ranked 12th in the league — but Matt Forté averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, his lowest number since 2009.

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NFL Draft 2017

First Round Review

The first round of the 2017 NFL Draft is in the history books and every club around the league believes they’ve got a future Hall of Famer in the process. Which team did the best when they were on the clock? Here’s a look at how each team did with their first-round selections and why it will — or won’t — work out down the road.

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1. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

All the talk of grabbing Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 1 overall pick finished being just a smokescreen for the Browns doing the right thing and selecting the best player on everybody’s board in Garrett. He should be able to contribute right away and, with a little seasoning, has the tools to blossom into an All-Pro coming off the edge. You shouldn’t get too much credit for not screwing this pick up but given that it’s the Browns and the draft, we’ll make an exception.

2. Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina

Giving up multiple top-100 picks to move up a spot to draft a quarterback who started just 13 games in college? That is some confidence being displayed by GM Ryan Pace. It’s also the kind of move – especially in light of Mike Glennon’s free agent deal – that gets people fired in a season or two. Trubisky may certainly prove us all wrong, and he has the tools to, but this was a bold bet in Chicago that was simply puzzling at all angles.

3. San Francisco 49ers: Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford

When John Lynch was hired as the 49ers general manager, many expressed a heavy load of doubt about how he would do. Well, in his first major action as GM in charge, he moves back just one spot in the draft, gets the guy the franchise wanted all along and picks up multiple top-100 picks in the process. That’s a heck of a haul to get one of, if not the, safest players in the draft to help with a massive rebuild.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

So much for the running back position being devalued. The Jaguars are making a big bet on Fournette with a pick this high given his injury history in the NCAA but these types of backs with out-of-this-world power and speed only come along once a decade. He’ll form a great combo with T.J. Yeldon in the backfield and be able to take pressure off Blake Bortles or whoever is at quarterback. It would have been nice to trade back a few spots to select him, but you can understand the driving force behind the move.

5. Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

Row that boat to the Cumberland! Another surprise at the top of the draft came with this pick. Was it too soon? Possibly given where many mock drafts had him, but Davis has a whole bunch of positives and might be one of the cleanest prospects at the receiver position in this year’s draft. The Titans had to get some weapons for Marcus Mariota and they get an excellent target in Davis.

6. New York Jets: Jamal Adams, S, LSU

The Jets needed a good player at every spots given how thin that roster is with playmakers and they grabbed the best player left on many folks’ boards in Adams. The physical safety should delight head coach Todd Bowles and provide a much needed enforcer in a division that forces you to face Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill twice a season.

7. Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

The move to L.A. means increased expectations for the Chargers and they landed a great pick for the immediate future of the franchise as well as the long term. Philip Rivers isn’t getting any younger but he can still sling it like the best of them and has to be ecstatic about this pick as he gets another big wideout on the outside. Williams was a player many believed was the best in the draft at receiver and that makes it good value in this spot.

8. Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

The Panthers had to take some pressure off Cam Newton and get a player who can do that in spades with McCaffrey. He’ll contribute all over the board from Week 1, from the return game to the passing game as an outlet for Newton. McCaffrey is a way better runner between the tackles than he gets credit for and he’ll develop even more by learning from the veterans in the Carolina backfield.

9. Cincinnati Bengals: John Ross, WR, Washington

Andy Dalton gets a ton of heat for his record but he doesn’t care about any of that upon learning about this draft pick. I mean, having A.J. Green and Ross as your wide receiver combo is borderline unfair given what those two can do running routes. The only issue is that the value for this selection is a little low, especially factoring what teams offered for the pick behind this one.

10. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

In a vacuum, this makes sense. Alex Smith is clearly bumping against the glass ceiling, but his presence allows a rookie quarterback to sit behind him and learn until he’s ready. Mahomes can be that guy with the physical tools he possesses but needs a ton of development transitioning to the NFL. Still, that is a ton to go up and get him in this draft (especially when he could have been available later). Like the Bears, the front office and Andy Reid are making a big bet and better be certain because there will be plenty of calls to force Mahomes into the lineup early.

11. New Orleans Saints: Marshon Lattimore, DB, Ohio State

That run on offensive talent in the top 10 had to benefit one defensive-needy team later on and that comes right away with the Saints and Lattimore, a player many consider to be the best corner in the draft. There are few little injury concerns that may have helped him fall a bit but this a great value selection at a huge area of need. Facing Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston six times means you need to be good on the outside and the team improved in this area.

12. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called Watson the Michael Jordan of this draft and Alabama’s Nick Saban praised the QB for two and a half years. By that measure, this is a phenomenal pick by Houston to get the Tigers’ signal-caller and it could solidify the franchise long term by finally getting somebody at the position to be “the guy.” Texans fans have to be excited at landing a player of this caliber, and that goes doubly so for the coaching staff. Maybe Watson can even live with ex-Tiger DeAndre Hopkins.

13. Arizona Cardinals: Hasson Reddick, LB, Temple

There was a ton of talk about the Cardinals going offense with their first pick but they wisely opted to go defense with Reddick. He should be able to make an impact early on and adds pass-rushing depth to a team with a number of players who can get to the backfield. There’s lots of upside to this pick if Reddick’s trajectory in football continues.

14. Philadelphia Eagles: Derek Barnett, DL, Tennessee

The organization that grabbed Reggie White ends up with the guy who broke his college sack record in front of the home crowd. Cool moment made even better by getting a guy that likes to get after opposing quarterbacks and has all the measurables to make an impact in a division with some big-time passers. Great marrying of need with value here for the Eagles.

15. Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

Hooker was a one-year wonder with the Buckeyes but many believe he’ll turn into the next Ed Reed given his ability to cover the entire field and snatch the ball out of the air. It’s no secret that the Colts need a lot of help defensively and this could be a stellar addition that helps on the back end for a decade. There was talk about him going in the top five so the value here is tremendous.

16. Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey, DB, Alabama

Surprising: Humphrey being the first Crimson Tide player drafted this year. Not surprising: That GM Ozzie Newsome got another Bama player. Humphrey checks off almost every box when you are looking for a corner and he’ll need all those physical skills given the division he’ll be playing in. This fills a wide opening in the secondary for the team and he lands in one of the pest spots possible to develop.

17. Washington Redskins: Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama

There were many who pegged Allen as the second best player in the entire draft. There are some medical concerns but goodness it’s hard to beat the value of a player like that with the No. 17 pick. He provides plenty of positional flexibility and adds to some nice pieces on a defense that needs more. This is a flat-out steal in the eyes of anyone who watched him in college.

18. Tennessee Titans: Adoree’ Jackson, DB, USC

Jackson isn’t the biggest corner on the board nor the fastest but he just might be the most fun player to watch in college making the jump to the NFL. He fills a huge hole on defense for the Titans, which badly need help in the secondary and will be an impact return man from day one. With Mariota at quarterback, don’t be shocked if there’s a package of plays that see him catch a few passes out of the slot either.

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

There are a lot of happy quarterbacks around the league coming out of the first round of the draft but the smile on Jameis Winston’s face is going to be the biggest. It’s borderline unfair, actually, to add a physical specimen of a tight end like Howard to an offense that already has DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans and Cameron Brate. Good luck to opposing defensive coordinators, the Bucs defense will look to mess up your week.

20. Denver Broncos: Garett Bolles, OL, Utah

It’s incredible that it took 20 picks for an offensive lineman to go off the board but nobody is surprised that Denver nabs somebody at the position. Bolles doesn’t have a ton of experience at a high level, which makes the bust potential here a little bit higher than normal. At the same time, he’s so physically talented that the potential is off the charts and he lands in a perfect spot to develop. Lots of value for John Elway right here while addressing a big need up front.

21. Detroit Lions: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida

It’s a tad surprising to see Detroit pass on Reuben Foster in this spot but the medicals seemed to scare them away. They land the next-best option at a huge area of need though in Davis, who can really come down hill and make life difficult for opposing offenses. He might end up starting from training camp and spend a decade making plays in the division.

22. Miami Dolphins: Charles Harris, DL, Missouri

When you play in this division, you better be able to pressure the quarterback and make life hard in the backfield. This team really needed a boost off the edge and Harris provides just that. In terms of pass-rushing impact, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him wind up with the most sacks out of all these first-rounders.

23. New York Giants: Evan Engram, TE/WR, Ole Miss

Eli Manning may actually have shown some emotion upon seeing that the Giants’ front office picked a fellow Ole Miss star in Engram. Some folks may have thought David Njoku would be the pick here but Ingram is a slightly more polished and lands in the perfect spot to help out an old Rebels quarterback. That’s quite the receiving corps in New York and Engram is yet another mismatch opportunity.

24. Oakland Raiders: Gareon Conley, DB, Ohio State

What an interesting pick this one is given what has been swirling around Conley with allegations before the draft. Talent-wise, Conley should have gone much higher and he’s somebody many evaluators think is the best corner on the board. The Raiders have got to be pretty confident in what they’ve found out in the days leading up to the draft to make this move, which represents as good of value as it does a massive risk to the franchise.

25. Cleveland Browns: Jabrill Peppers, ATH, Michigan

Browns fans are going to be beside themselves if the franchise did indeed pass on a big-time quarterback in this draft but there’s no question that they added some top-tier pieces on the defensive side of the ball. Peppers is a great football player and because he can excel at numerous positions, his value is a little different than others. There were some questions about where he lines up at the next level but given the holes in Cleveland’s back seven, Peppers can move freely and still contribute.

26. Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, DL/LB, UCLA

Based on how fired up McKinley was after getting picked, it’s hard not to like this pick. Dan Quinn continues to build up that Atlanta pass rush and the former Bruins star is relentless off the edge. Not only is it good value in this position, but it’s a valuable piece going forward to build around on that side of the ball. Great job going up to get him.

27. Buffalo Bills: Tre’Davious White, DB, LSU

It’s not too surprising to see the Bills keep moving up in the draft but it was pretty impressive how they kept dropping back and still wind up with solid value in White. The team has invested quite a bit at this position in recent years so they’ll have to hope that White sticks around, but he has excellent tape and the physical skills to make an impact in the AFC East.

28. Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, DL, Michigan

It was either cornerback or edge rusher for the Dallas defense and the Cowboys not surprisingly went with Taco time with their first-round pick. He’s a high upside player who can rush the passer early in his tenure and just makes a ton of sense. You may wonder if Jerry Jones was getting an itchy trigger finger and would have tried to move up but they stay put and land a nice pick.

29. Cleveland Browns: David Njoku, TE, Miami

The Browns going up and down the board and then landing three potential starters is a bit strange to see from a lot of observers. But this does seem to be a new era for the Dawg Pound and they land a tight end who is only starting to scratch the surface of his potential. The team may not have a long-term answer at quarterback just yet but one has to think that adding a weapon like this will take some pressure off the position no matter who’s behind center.

30. Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin

T.J. joins brother J.J. as a first-round pick and the Steelers drafte a player who perfectly mirrors what they want in a defender. He’ll fit right in to that locker room and should get the benefit of getting mentored by James Harrison. By the way, Steelers at Texans on Christmas will be quite the present for the Watt family now.

31. San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

John Lynch is making this GM thing seem pretty easy and had maybe the best night of anybody on Thursday. That 49ers’ front seven is not only young, but it’s a huge building block and now they add maybe the most instinctive defender in the draft. Steal of the first round? San Francisco landing Foster sure seems like it.

32. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Ramczyk, OL, Wisconsin

The team probably wasn’t comfortable with the offensive line depth trying to protect Drew Brees and corrected that with the selection of an offensive lineman that many thought was the best available. The upside on Ramczyk isn’t as high as somebody like Garett Bolles but he’s very polished and has the potential to step in right away at right tackle.

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NFC West biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

Every team in the NFL’s worst division has serious question marks

The Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams and 49ers collectively finished the 2016 NFL season – playoffs included – with a combined 24 wins. To put that in perspective, the New England Patriots won just seven fewer games than the entire NFC West combined. As you might have expected, the NFC West was easily the worst division in the league from a win-loss standpoint. All four teams are in need of a overhaul if they want to compete for a Super Bowl appearance anytime soon. Step one is making the right decisions on April 27th in what looks to be a fairly loaded NFL Draft.

 Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals finished with a disappointing 7-8-1 record after entering the season as the top pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. A pedestrian season from Carson Palmer combined with injuries on the offensive line was enough to doom Arizona’s season. The Cardinals are a good mix of experience and youth, but it’s beginning to look like the championship window might be closing on its veteran core. For starters, it’s time to find Palmer’s successor at quarterback. There are plenty of guys available in this draft with the potential to be a franchise quarterback after some time on the sidelines to get settled. Arizona also needs help on the offensive line – specifically at guard. Getting younger at receiver is another priority.

First-round pick: No. 13 overall

Potential picks: The Cardinals are going to take a long look at Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson if he’s still around when they are on the clock. That said, if one of the top two receivers – Clemson’s Mike Williams or Western Michigan’s Corey Davis – falls to them, both will be hard to disregard.

 Los Angeles Rams

The Rams were bad enough to get Jeff Fisher fired and subsequently bring in the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. They finished 4-12 in their first year back in Los Angeles, averaging a league-worst 14 points per game. The Rams also were among the worst teams in the league when it came to getting after the quarterback, collecting less than two sacks per contest. The Rams will need to be patient and rebuild from the ground up. They need depth at every position on the offensive line and more playmakers at wide receiver. They may even need to draft another quarterback, despite taking Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick last year.

First-round pick: None

First pick: No. 37 overall

Potential picks: You’ll likely see the Rams go with the best player available at this point. Matching that with their biggest needs, you could see them go with Indiana guard Dan Feeney, Penn State receiver Chris Godwin or Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer.

 San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers ended the season 2-14 amidst the Colin Kaepernick kneeling controversy. What really did them in was a defense that couldn’t keep anyone out of the end zone, as they allowed 480 points (30 points per game) on the year. There is some young talent scattered around the depth chart, but like the Rams, the 49ers appear to be a couple of year away from being taken seriously. A franchise quarterback is a priority for the team. They need a line that can protect that quarterback. They need receivers who can consistently get open and catch passes from that quarterback. The need talent everywhere on defense so that quarterback doesn’t need to win a shootout every week.

First-round pick: No. 2 overall

Potential picks: You’d be hard-pressed to find many mock drafts that don’t have San Francisco taking Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas. If the new regime defies the experts and go another direction, it will maybe be North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Tribusky or Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.

 Seattle Seahawks

Another year, another trip to the playoffs for Seattle. That said, this was not the dominant Seahawks team that played in back-to-back Super Bowls not too long ago. They were very inconsistent, struggling with the Rams and 49ers while defeating the Patriots on the road. The running back position was a revolving door and Doug Baldwin seemed to be the only receiver you could count on each week. Seattle needs reinforcement at both guard and offensive tackle if it wants to keep Russell Wilson healthy for the better part of the next decade. The Seahawks also need to get younger quickly in all three levels of their defense.

First-round pick: No. 26 overall

Potential picks: The wise move would be to select the best available offensive lineman at this point, which could be Utah tackle Garrett Boles. Seattle also could decide to go in a different direction and take Washington cornerback Kevin King or Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt. All three would be safe picks.

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NFC South biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

The league’s most wide-open division looks to get even more competitive after the draft

You could argue that the NFC South is the NFL’s most talented and competitive division from top to bottom. The Falcons and Panthers have represented the NFC and each of the last two Super Bowls, and all four teams have franchise quarterbacks on their roster. Be that as it may, each of the four teams in the NFC South has flaws and holes to address on draft day April 27th. Once those holes are filled, the division is only going to become more competitive, and nobody should be surprised if yet another NFC South team makes its way to the Super Bowl this coming season.

 Atlanta Falcons

Once the Falcons got the ball rolling in 2016, they looked like the best team in the league, at least right up until the second half of the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. If not for the face plant on the biggest stage in American sports, I’d say Atlanta had a successful season. These Falcons appear to be built to last for quite some time, thanks to a young defense, a solid and deep offensive line, the best running back duo in the game, the best receiver on the planet and the reigning NFL MVP. As young and talented as this defense is, the Falcons need more solid contributors at linebacker. They could also use more help at defensive end. When it’s their turn to pick in the first round, I’ll be stunned if they don’t select a player who will start in their defensive front seven immediately.

First-round pick: No. 31 overall

Potential picks: There is no shortage of skilled defensive ends and linebackers in this draft, and there will be plenty to choose from when Atlanta is on the clock. Look for Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Kansas State’s Jordan Willis as possible defensive end picks. If the Falcons go the linebacker route, I like UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, if he’s still available.

 Carolina Panthers

The Panthers fell victim to that post-Super Bowl lost slump last season. Seemingly nothing went right for 2015 MVP Cam Newton and his squad. The Panthers finished in the lower half of the league in total offense and defense en route to a six-win season. It’s crazy to say this about a team one year removed from a 15-1 regular season record and Super Bowl appearance, but the Panthers could use help everywhere outside of the quarterback position.

First-round pick: No. 8 overall

Potential picks: Even though they brought in Captain Munnerlyn this offseason, Carolina is still without that elite, shutdown corner it used to have in one Josh Norman. Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore is a no-brainer if he’s still available. If he’s gone, Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey and Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett are both very real possibilities.

 New Orleans Saints

The Saints bumbled their way to a losing record and another playoff-less campaign last season. Injuries and a awful defense kept the Saints from being competitive in a division loaded with offensive talent. To make matters worse, their most dangerous offensive threat from the last couple of seasons now resides in New England. Even though New Orleans has done a lot of work to fill holes on defense so far this offseason, this unit still needs to add more talent. Cornerback appears to be the biggest need, which is why the Malcolm Butler rumors won’t go away. Whether that will be resolved by the draft remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if the Saints target a defensive tackle early.

First-round picks: No. 11, No. 32 (via New England) overall

Potential picks: Due to what I expect to be an early run on corners, Ohio State’s Gareon Conley, Florida’s Teez Tabor and Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie are all safe bets with the 11th pick. That said, if Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster is still available, it will be tough to pass him up based on raw talent. New Orleans could then use its other first-rounder to grab a defensive back or a lineman.

 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs logged their first winning season since 2010. With a young franchise quarterback protected by a solid line a surrounded by up-and-coming playmakers, Tampa Bay made great strides and is a franchise on the rise. The Bucs fell a game short of the playoffs, but appear to be a sexy pick in 2017 to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII. The line is good, but Tampa Bay needs a long-term option at left tackle to protect Jameis Winston’s blind side. Tampa Bay also needs a dependable running back to take some of the pressure off Winston and the passing game. Defensively, outside linebacker is a need.

First-round pick: No. 19 overall

Potential picks: If Florida State running back Dalvin Cook somehow falls to them, the Bucs must pull the trigger. The more realistic option is Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson. If they choose the outside linebacker route, expect Houston’s Tyus Bowser to get the call.

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NFC North biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

All four teams in the division have serious holes that could be filled in the draft

Thanks to what could only be called “widespread mediocrity” across the NFC, the NFC North got two teams into the playoffs this past season. Be that as it may, the division — outside of Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers under center — is full of question marks and teams looking for direction and identities. The Packers remain the team to beat heading into the draft, but the Lions and Vikings are only a piece or two away from dethroning them. The Bears, on the other hand, appear to be in rebuilding mode. Luckily for all four teams, the 2017 NFL Draft has enough quality prospects at every position help them improve immediately. It’s just a matter of making the right choices once the clock starts on April 27th.

 Chicago Bears

It wasn’t good for the Bears last season. Four different quarterbacks took snaps for the team en route to a three-win season. As a result — and to the delight of many Bears fans — Jay Cutler is no longer on the roster. Unfortunately, Alshon Jeffery — arguably the team’s best player over the last couple of seasons — now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. The lone bright spot heading into 2017 appears to be running back Jordan Howard. The rookie out of Indiana topped 1,300 yards on the ground and found the end zone seven times. Even though they signed Mike Glennon, the Bears are still in need of a long-term option at the quarterback position. Additionally, help is needed at both offensive tackle spots. On defense, they have no real pass-rushing threats.

First-round pick: No. 3 overall

Potential picks: The are whispers here and there that Chicago really likes North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. He’d likely sit behind Glennon most, if not all, of the year if selected. If the Bears don’t pull the trigger on a quarterback and hold onto the pick, they’ll likely go with the best player on the board. In that case, you’re looking at Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, LSU safety Jamal Adams or Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.

 Detroit Lions

The Lions had a bit of a up-and-down season, losing their last four games and backing into the playoffs before getting bounced on wild card weekend by the Seahawks. The good news was that Matthew Stafford seemed to have gotten his groove back, and the offense is only a piece or two away from being one of the most dangerous in the league. As much as they need more big-time weapons on offense, the Lions need even more help on defense — particularly at linebacker. Once they address that need, they could use an upgrade at running back and a bigger receiver for Stafford to target in the red zone.

First-round pick: No. 21 overall

Potential picks: This first-round pick is probably going to be a linebacker. If that’s the case, you’re looking at Temple’s Haason Reddick, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham and Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt as possible options. Don’t be shocked, however, if they try to drop the bomb by landing Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey.

 Green Bay Packers

The Packers battled through injuries and a mid-season slump to win the division and come within a game of playing in the Super Bowl. In the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, Green Bay’s defense was exposed. The offense proved it has enough pieces in place to score with anyone as long as the defense holds up its end of the bargain. That tells you the direction the Packers are likely to go during the draft. The Packers need help at cornerback, thanks to the departure of Micah Hyde. They also are desperately in need of more depth at inside linebacker and lack consistency in their pass rush.

First-round pick: No. 29 overall

Potential picks: Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt would be a perfect fit in so many ways if he’s still around when the Packers are on the clock. If not, you are likely going to see them take a cornerback first. Look for Washington’s Kevin King or USC’s Adoree’ Jackson to be in the mix.

 Minnesota Vikings

The season started off shaky for the Vikings, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the year dropping back during a practice in the preseason. Sam Bradford stepped in and kept the ship afloat as long as he could, but was eventually done in by one of the worst collective offensive line performances in the league. The end result was a .500 season where four mid-season losses by a combined 17 points cost Minnesota a division title. The guard and center positions on the offensive line need to be addressed. Additionally, some depth and youth is needed at the safety position. It would also be a possibleto see the Vikings draft a quarterback early as a long-term insurance policy to Bridgewater’s serious injury situation.

First-round pick: none

First pick: No. 48 overall

Potential picks: It’ll be hard to avoid drafting a guard or center with the 48th pick. If he’s still on the board, Ohio State center Pat Elflein makes a lot of sense, as does Indiana guard Dan Feeney. If Minnesota decides to gamble at quarterback, Patrick Mahomes II out of Texas Tech could also be in play.

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NFC East biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

The Cowboys look like they have long-term stability, while the other three teams in the division are looking for an identity

The Dallas Cowboys returned to on-field relevance in 2016 on the back of two outstanding rookies and elite offensive line play. Suffice to say, the 2016 NFL Draft was kind to them. The other three teams in their division would all love to have the same luck in this year’s draft – and all three need it. The Eagles are in the middle of a rebuild, the Giants are still looking for parts to make everything work and the Redskins appear to be a soap opera gone wrong. There is plenty of talent available in the 2017 NFL Draft, and all four NFC East squads will be in position to acquire players on April 27th who can change the fortunes – both long- and short-term – of their franchises.

  Dallas Cowboys

Dallas knew what they were getting when they drafted Ezekiel Elliott. What they didn’t know was what would happen when Tony Romo went down with a back injury during the preseason. Enter Dak Prescott, and as we all found out, the Cowboys had caught lightning in a bottle. Prescott was the spot on combination of athletic player and cautious game-manager. He led Dallas to the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs. Unfortunately, Dallas’ dream season ended in a shootout against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

The Cowboys are in the very fortunate position of not really needing anything. The could be helped by a productive edge rusher, another solid cornerback or the addition of some depth and a possible future starter at offensive tackle. They also could look for a capable heir to Jason Witten at tight end. They’ll have plenty of options – even picking as late as they do in the first round – to land a prospect who will fit one of those roles.

First-round pick: No. 28 overall

Potential picks: It all depends on the direction they go. If they are looking for a pass-rushing defensive end, Auburn’s Carl Lawson could be their guy. At corner, UCLA’s Fabian Moreau makes sense. Miami tight end David Njoku also is an intriguing choice.

 New York Giants

The Giants have made it to the playoffs after a roller-coaster season of early drama, late injuries and an inability to get into the end zone. Eli Manning topped 4,000 yards passing again, but it was not one of the more impressive campaigns of his career. On defense, the Giants looked to be without a true leader or playmaker. That cost them against some of the league’s higher-octane offenses.

The Giants had a hard time scoring in 2016, never hanging more than 28 points on the board in any one game. You simply are not going to be able to consistently contend with the likes of Green Bay, Dallas or Atlanta with an offense that cannot finish. They brought in Brandon Marshall in free agency, and he’ll make a fine No. 2 option to Odell Beckham Jr., What this offense is missing, however, is a reliable tight end. A serious threat over the middle would open a lot of other options up for the Giants. Unfortunately, the all-important left tackle position also is somewhat unresolved.

First-round pick: No. 23 overall

Potential picks: If the Giants want to gamble, they can probably get their tight end in the second round. In that case, they would likely go left tackle and select either Utah’s Garrett Boles or Alabama’s Cam Robinson. If they choose to reach for a tight end early, Ole Miss’ Evan Engram would be a nice addition to the offense.

  Philadelphia Eagles

The season began with promise for the Eagles, led by rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. After Week 3 however, it quickly became apparent how far the team still had to go to become realistic contenders in its own division. Wentz had no consistent receiver to target and a revolving door at running back. Defensively, the Eagle defense had a hard time matching up with the better passing attacks in the league. The receiver problem was addressed in free agency, so now the Eagles need to focus on shoring up the running back position and solidifying their secondary. Adding some depth to the interior of the defensive line also is on the list of things to do.

First-round pick: No. 14 overall

Potential picks: The smart move would be to select the best corner available – likely Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey or Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzi. That said, it will be tough for the Eagle brass to fight the urge to take Florida State running back Dalvin Cook or LSU’s Leonard Fournette if either on falls to them.

 Washington Redskins

Washington was nothing short of dysfunctional down the stretch, losing four of its last six games. The problem with looking back to last season is that, perhaps more than any other team in the league, the Redskins of 2017 are going to be a completely different version of what we saw last year. Between a polarizing owner, the firing of a general manager and the saga of Kirk Cousins and his desire to leave town, the Redskins are quite simply a mess. The Redskins need to be proactive in the Cousins situation and hedge their bets with a long-term option at quarterback at some point. Additionally, they’ll need targets for that quarterback to throw to. Linebacker and guard also are two positions of need going forward, regardless of who is taking the snaps.

First-round pick: No. 17 overall

Potential picks: If it’s going to be a quarterback, I don’t see any way it’s not Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. He’s the most reliable option at the position in the draft. If they decide to go receiver, Washington’s John Ross is a guy who might remind some Redskin fans of Santana Moss. If they are looking for a bigger, more traditional No. 1 receiver, they are better off waiting until the second round and potentially grabbing Penn State’s Curtis Godwin. Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp also is in play.

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AFC West biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

The right addition by any team could be the difference in the NFL’s most competitive division

The AFC West was a two-team race for the most part in 2016, with the then-defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos ending up in third place. The talented and now newly re-located Chargers pulled up the rear with a 5-11 record that was not necessarily indicative of how talented their roster was.

Heading into 2017, the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs are looking to make a move or two during the NFL draft on April 27th, that would keep them in the fold of AFC front-runners. Denver is trying to keep the championship window open for one of the league’s best defenses and the Chargers are looking to build a corps of player who will lead the franchise into the future in their new city.

 Denver Broncos

The Broncos came into the 2016 season in a weird spot. They were the defending Super Bowl champions, but they also were trying to move on from and replace an NFL legend at quarterback. All in all, their season was not terrible. Unfortunately for Denver, the team was competing in a division with two of the NFL’s hottest up-and-coming teams. Their veteran leadership was not enough to overcome injuries and the distraction — as minor as it ended up being — of the quarterback transition.

If the Broncos truly think they have their quarterback of the future on the roster — and it sounds like that is the case — their biggest need is without a doubt at offensive tackle. They have no true long-term answers on either side of the offensive line, and that’s bad news for a team about to plug in a young quarterback.

First-round pick: No. 20 overall

Potential Picks: It must be an offensive tackle. There are enough talented options in the draft for Denver to land a solid option and a mainstay at the spot for a decade at the No. 20 spot. If the Broncos don’t walk away with Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Utah’s Garrett Boles or Alabama’s Cam Robinson, I’ll be stunned and their fans should be irate.

 Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs won the AFC West on the back of great defensive play and an electrifying rookie playmaker in Tyreek Hill. The lack of a true, consistent threat at the receiver position seemed to be the biggest limiting factor for Andy Reid’s club, as they lacked the firepower to get past the Steelers at home in the playoffs. As much as Kansas City could use that wide receiver, the Chiefs need playmakers at all three levels of the defense in order to remain in the conversation of the AFC’s elite teams. Linebacker, cornerback and nose tackle are all positions where Kansas City needs help.

First-round pick: No. 27 overall

Potential picks: You can expect the Chiefs to take a long, hard look at Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan if he’s available. He would be the perfect long-term option to replace Derrick Johnson. If they go corner, I like Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie as an option.

 Los Angeles Chargers

A tumultuous 2016 preseason — thanks in large part to the Joey Bosa contract fiasco — didn’t get the Chargers off on the right foot. It was another year where Philip Rivers was obviously in need of more consistent targets in the passing game. Bosa ended up being the bright spot on a defense that had a hard time keeping opponents out of the end zone. The Chargers have a talented young running back in Melvin Gordon, they just need a line for him to run behind. Both guard and tackle are positions of need. On defense, a good shutdown corner would make things a whole lot easier for Bosa and the rest of the front seven.

First-round pick: No. 7 overall

Potential picks: All of the top tackles and guards should be available when the Chargers select in the first round. that said, I’m just not sure any of them merit being taken with the seventh overall pick. For that reason, San Diego likely goes corner in the first round and focuses on offensive line after that. The most likely options are Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore or Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey.

 Oakland Raiders

It looked as if the Raiders were on a collision course with the New England Patriots to battle it out for AFC supremacy until Derrick Carr injured a finger on his throwing hand. Oakland was never quite the same team after the fact. Then after Carr broke his leg, they stood almost no chance versus the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card game.

Oakland has talent on both sides of the ball, but the Raiders still need more depth on defense. Linebacker and defensive tackle are both on top of the list of necessities that need to be addressed. An injury in any of these position groups could derail another championship-caliber season. The team also needs a legitimate replacement at running back for the recently departed Latavius Murray.

First-round pick: No. 24 overall

Potential picks: Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell would be a nice fit in Oakland’s defensive scheme if he’s available when the Raiders pick. You also could see general manager Reggie McKenzie pull the trigger on Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham or Temple’s Haason Reddick at outside linebacker — either or which would create a dangerous duo with Khalil Mack.

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AFC South biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

Four teams stacked with young talent still need some key pieces to get over the hump

The AFC South is a division long on potential yet short on results. The Houston Texans are back-to-back champions of the division, but are just 18-14 over that period.

The division is young, but youth alone cannot be blamed for the lackluster results. Each team needs some key pieces  to address on April 27 in order to get over them hump and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

 Houston Texans

As earlier stated, the Texans won their second straight division title this past season. They were eliminated from the playoffs in the Divisional round by the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. An injury to J.J. Watt and what can only be described as the failed Brock Osweiler experiment appeared to be the difference between this team being good and great.

A long-term solution must eventually be found at quarterback. Coach Bill O’Brien has said Tom Savage is their man, but I’m not sure even he believes that. Solidifying the cornerback position is key as well, especially in a division with Andrew Luck and rising star Marcus Mariota.

First-round pick: No. 25 overall

Potential Picks: It could be a reach, but don’t be shocked if the Texans pull the trigger on Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer. He’s a project, but O’Brien loves projects, and Kizer is similar in both build and skill set to a couple of quarterbacks he’s had success with before. If Houston was to go the safer route, they would  then be expected to pick a cornerback – possibly LSU’s Tre’Davious White.

 Indianapolis Colts

It’s simple, really. Due to what might be the worst roster in the NFL from top to bottom, the difference between the Colts going 8-8 and 2-14 was Andrew Luck. Indianapolis logged a single win over a playoff team – the Packers – and went 0-5 in other games against postseason participants. Indianapolis needs a lot of help at both linebacker and secondary. The smart move is to go after the best player available in one of those position groups. The Colts also – as they have throughout Andrew Luck’s stay – need a long-term answer at running back.

First-round pick: No. 15 overall

Potential Picks: There is an outside chance that Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster falls to the Colts. Otherwise, they’ll likely pick Temple outside linebacker Haason Reddick, Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey or Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers. Don’t be shocked, however, if they pull the trigger on one of the top two running backs, should one of them fall to pick No. 15.

 Jacksonville Jaguars

It was a largely disappointing year for what many thought was one of the most talented young teams in the NFL. Everything appeared to be in place on both sides of the ball for the Jaguars to begin their climb to the top of the AFC ranks – much like the Raiders did in 2015. And then Blake Bortles turned in a terrible season, subsequently making Allen Robinson a non-factor and placing extra pressure on a young defense. The end result: The Jaguars have a top-five draft pick for the fifth consecutive year, rounding out a decade where they have had no worse than the 10th overall pick.

Some might say they need a quarterback, but it wouldn’t be wise to throw in the towel on Bortles just yet. They need help on the offensive line, specifically at the all-important left tackle position. They also need a solid option at running back and a legit edge rusher.

First-round pick: No. 4 overall

Potential picks: There are a lot of different directions the Jags could go, but it’s going to be awfully hard to pass up Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. He is similar in some ways to Ezekiel Elliott, although Jacksonville’s offensive line is a far cry from Dallas’. Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett is an option if Stanford’s Solomon Thomas is off the board as expected.

 Tennessee Titans

The Titans proved to be on the winning track that the Jaguars thought they were going be on in 2016. Tennessee has its franchise quarterback. The Titans have a solid offensive line. They have legitimate young talent on defense. All they need is a key piece or two and some depth, and this team appears ready to assert itself amongst the elite in the AFC. They got some secondary help in free agency, but they still need some depth at the cornerback and safety positions. A long-term answer at defensive end – given Karl Klug’s recent injury and pending concerns moving forward – also is a priority. And then there is the need to get Marcus Mariota more targets in the passing game.

First-round picks: No. 5 and No. 18 overall

Potential picks: Tennessee has the luxury of two first-round picks and no “make or break” need. I’d look for them to go after the most skilled players with both picks, regardless of position. This makes LSU safety Jamaal Adams a serious candidate to become a Tennessee Titan with the fifth overall pick. At No. 18, I see them going after Alabama tight end O.J. Howard if he’s there. If not, Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram is a name to keep an eye on.

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AFC North biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

While the Steelers remain the class of the division, even they have holes to fill

The Pittsburgh Steelers were within one game of playing for the Lombardi Trophy last season. As for the rest of the AFC North, there appears to be a lot of work to do and holes to fill during the NFL draft on April 27th 2017.

Only one other division in the NFL had three of its four teams finish .500 or below. Cleveland continued its perpetual role as the NFL’s doormat, while Cincinnati and Baltimore appear mired in mediocrity. A talent-rich draft at most positions gives hope to a division of flawed teams heading into the 2017 campaign.

 Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens finished 8-8 and were decimated by injuries and the lack of explosive weapons on offense. They had a hard time generating a pass rush, which seems strange given Baltimore’s history of fielding menacing defenses. This is a club that simply lacks playmakers and depth on both sides of the ball. John Harbaugh’s squad needs a guy who can wreak havoc when it comes to pressuring the pocket. The lack of such a presence puts extra pressure on his secondary, which also needs help. If the Ravens can’t land an elite pass rusher with their first pick, they need to seriously consider taking a corner who they feel can start immediately. If they can’t find either, they may want to reach for a guy who could become the long-term answer at center.

First-round pick: No. 16 overall

Potential Picks: If somehow Tennessee’s Derek Barnett falls to them, the Ravens need to pull the trigger. Otherwise, they’ll probably be deciding between Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey. There is a possibility they could reach for Ohio State center Pat Elflein. That would be a smart choice, yet widely unpopular amongst the Raven faithful.

 Cincinnati Bengals

Injuries to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert made it tough for the Bengal offense to find its way all season. Player suspensions didn’t help matters either. The Bengals missed the playoffs for the first time since Andy Dalton has been under center, and it’s seems like their window as contenders is closing. They need help on defense, especially at defensive end and safety. Marvin Lewis’ defenses traditionally have an elite playmaker roaming the secondary who changes the way opponents attack. On the other side of the ball, a solid No. 2 receiver option to Green would help him and Dalton, thus helping the Bengal offense as a whole.

First-round pick: No. 9 overall

Potential picks: LSU safety Jamal Adams would be a perfect fit, as he has many of the same characteristics from both a performance and leadership standpoint as former Raven great Ed Reed. If he’s gone before the Bengals pick, one of the top two receivers still on the board — Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis — would be solid choices and make Cincinnati’s offense downright scary when paired with Green.

 Cleveland Browns

Unless you don’t watch any football whatsoever, you know the story with the Browns. They continue to be a punchline in American sport. They’ve still never landed a franchise quarterback in the history of the expansion edition of the franchise, and that has been the common denominator of their issues. They had some young talent display flashes of brilliance in 2016, but for the most part, this is a team that does not look ready to compete anytime in the next 2-3 years. Quarterback and secondary are the biggest areas of need for Cleveland, but at this point, the Browns need to head into the draft and target the best players available. They have a need for a solid pass rusher as well.

First-round picks: No. 1 and No. 12 overall

Potential picks: The acquisition of Brock Osweiler will likely impact their early draft decisions, as there does not appear to be a sure-fire franchise quarterback available in this draft. As a result, you’ll see Cleveland take Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the first overall pick. At pick No. 12, you could see them go after Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers. If they do choose to take a flyer on a quarterback with the 12th pick, it’ll probably be Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.

 Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s up-and-down season ended with a defeat in the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots. Though the offense was able to score with anyone in the league, it seemed to sputter during key moments. The Steelers also had difficulty time slowing down opposing offenses at times — especially against the pass. The Steelers need a good playmaker to be the focal point and eventual leader of their defense. Depth in the secondary is a concern, but linebacker appears to be the biggest need. Truth be told, Pittsburgh probably needs to target the top defensive player available with its first-round pick.

First-round pick: No. 30 overall

Potential picks: Sitting at the end of the first round, the Steelers will just need to wait and see who is left on the board. Lucky for them, this is a deep draft defensively. Ohio State inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan makes a lot of sense. You could also see Pittsburgh go after UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau or Colorado corner Chidobe Awuzie.

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AFC East biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have work to do if they want to close the gap on the Super Bowl champions

The New England Patriots won the AFC East by a wider margin than any other division champion in the NFL in 2016. That’s pretty much how things went over the last decade and a half, as Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Co. continue their unfathomable success as the other three teams in the division seemingly rotate finishing second, third or fourth.

New England has dominated in free agency, but they still have holes to fill and depth to build. Unlike its divisional counterparts, the Patriots will be without a first-round pick in the draft on April 27th 2017 (barring another shrewd move or two) to help them fill those gap and build that depth. The Bills and Jets, meanwhile, will have very early picks at their disposal to help with their biggest needs.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills finished the 2016 campaign with a 7-9 record, losing four of their last five games. The only win during that stretch came against the lowly Cleveland Browns. The Bills were doomed by a laughable passing attack, thanks in large part to another season of a hobbled Sammy Watkins and a limited stable of weapons at the receiver position. Obviously, the Bills need a more dependable playmaker at receiver. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin were the top two producers at the position a season ago, but both have found new homes on the West Coast during free agency. Buffalo also could use more stability on the offensive line — especially at right tackle.

First-round pick: No. 10 overall

Potential Picks: Buffalo will be in position to take one of the top two wide receivers on the board: Clemson’s Mike Williams or Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. Either one is an instant starter and No. 1 option in the passing attack, relegating even a healthy Watkins to the second option at this point — if not making him expendable altogether. The Bills can pick up adequate offensive line depth later in the draft, but they won’t find elite talent at the receiver position beyond Williams and Davis.

 Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had a relatively successful 2016 season. They’ve had 10 victories, qualified for the playoffs and appear to have found a star in running back Jay Ajayi. The problem is, they share a division with the Patriots — regularly one of the league’s most prolific offensive teams. Young stars can be found throughout the offensive depth chart, but the defense — specifically the front seven — is just not built to stop New England right now. Miami needs linebackers — plain and simple. The Dolphins need versatile outside linebackers who can rush off the edge or drop off and cover tight ends and running backs at a moment’s notice. That’s their best hope of matching up and attempting to slow down what today’s NFL offenses are doing.

First-round pick: No. 22 overall

Potential Picks: The Dolphins will be in position to address outside linebacker by taking either Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt or Alabama’s Tim Williams. Both are superior athletes and guys you’d expect to be long-term starters. There also is a chance that the Dolphin brass is wooed by the versatility of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, who spent time at both safety and linebacker during his collegiate stay.

New England Patriots

They won the Super Bowl despite the greatest quarterback in NFL history missing a quarter of the regular season. It was a stark reminder to the rest of the league just how solid the Patriot organization is and how far in front the franchise is of everyone else right now. And the Rocky Balboa-fashion in which they came back to win Super Bowl LI had the football world questioning everything we thought we knew about the game and perhaps even life itself.

Bill Belichick likes to have a good collection of versatile edge rushers, and right now his stockpile is bordering on what he would consider low. Additionally, it’s starting to feel like Rob Gronkowski’s best days are behind him. When healthy, he’s probably still the best player at his position, but the reality is that he has only played in 70 percent of New England’s games over the past five seasons and hasn’t played a complete season since 2011 — his second year in the league.

First-round pick: none.

First pick: No. 72 overall

Potential picks: It all boils down to what’s out there and what Belichick values more at this point. If he’s leaning toward grabbing an impact defender who can get after the quarterback, there’s a good chance that Ohio’s Tarell Basham — the MAC Defensive Player of the Year — is available. If he’s looking to add a pass-catching tight end to groom as Gronkowski’s eventual replacement, Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges is someone who might hear his name called when New England makes its first pick.

New York Jets

The Jets slogged their way to five wins over the Browns, Bills (twice), 49ers and Ravens. They did so with an aging roster and disarray at the quarterback position. Head coach Todd Bowles constantly looked like he couldn’t wait for the season to be done, and a quick glance into the stands during home games reflected the same.

Take your pick. Of course the Jets need a quarterback, but truthfully, you don’t want to plug a fresh signal-caller into a mess like this without some house cleaning and upgrades. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why they gave journeyman Josh McCown $6 million. Remember, New York’s top returning receiving option is Eric Decker. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell leads the running back depth chart, which would be great if we were headed into the 2012 season. If you take a step back, it’s clear to see that this is a total rebuild. That’s going to require the Jets spending their early pick on the best player available, regardless of need.

First-round pick: No. 6 overall

Potential picks: Again, it’s a crapshoot. If they want to draft the most mature, prepared and accomplished quarterback available to be the face of the team going forward, the Jets are selecting Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. If they want to build the line, they either reach for or trade down to draft Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. They could go defense and take Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore or Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett. Best guess is that New York’s draft board resembles more like a dart board at this point.

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5 Reasons Why the Atlanta Falcons Will Win Super Bowl LI

The Atlanta Falcons could not have provided a more fitting end to the NFL franchise’s storied 25-year history inside the Georgia Dome. The final chapter being a dominant 44-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game to earn a trip to Houston to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. It marks just the second Super Bowl berth in the Falcons’ 51-year existence. This also provides Atlanta with an opportunity for redemption, almost two decades after losing to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. It’s their time to win Super Bowl 51.

It won’t be easy as second-year head coach Dan Quinn and the Falcons have a very tall task in front of them. They must face a Patriots team in search of its second Super Bowl win in three years, led by the quintessential head coach of the modern era in Bill Belichick. Fortunately, a poised Atlanta team seems to have everything in place to meet that challenge head on. In fact, the Falcons actually stand a very good chance of hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history when all is said and done on February 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston (Enter contest).

1. Scoring Machine

The Atlanta Falcons not only led the NFL in scoring (33.8 ppg) during the regular season, they also set a new franchise record for points (540). That total tied for the eighth most in the history of the league. Atlanta has won six games in a row and has averaged 39 points per game during this span. The Falcons have averaged 40 points in their two playoff victories.

New England allowed the fewest points in the league this season and the Patriots’ offense is certainly no slouch in its own right when it comes to scoring. However, Bill Belichick’s defense has yet to face an offense quite like Atlanta’s. Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t the same after running back Le’Veon Bell left the AFC Championship Game due to a groin injury. Orchestrated by potential MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ attack is a well-oiled scoring machine that can move the football at will and routinely find the end zone against any defense. Just look at the numbers.

2. Matt Ryan is on a Mission

Atlanta’s first-team All-Pro quarterback can take a lot of the credit for the Falcons’ offensive success, and he should. No disrespect to the great Tom Brady, but this has been Ryan’s breakthrough season, which is why he is considered the favorite to win NFL MVP honors. He set new career highs this season for completion percentage (69.9), passing yards (4,944) and touchdown passes (38), while throwing a career-low seven interceptions. Ryan’s 117.1 QB rating was tops in the NFL and 9.26 yards per attempt were far and away the best in the league. He has been even more impressive in the postseason with near-flawless performances in each of Atlanta’s two playoff victories. In those two wins, he has a remarkable 132.5 QB rating and he hasn’t been picked off in a game since early December.

While Brady has been paired against an impressive list of quarterbacks in the Super Bowl over the years, none have entered Super Sunday with as much momentum as Ryan. He has almost effortlessly carved up every defense that has been put in front of him during the Falcons’ current six-game winning streak, accounting for 19 total touchdowns without committing a single turnover. Brady is a Super Bowl legend, but he could meet his match on February 5.

3. Stellar Supporting Cast

Matt Ryan has had plenty of help in getting the Falcons back to the Super Bowl. Julio Jones led the NFL with 100.6 receiving yards per game and even though he’s been dealing with a nagging toe injury, he showed on Sunday why he’s arguably the league’s best pass catcher. He will be a handful for anyone New England lines up against him, including second-team All-Pro cornerback Malcolm Butler. If by chance the Patriots do manage to keep Jones in check, Ryan has proven that he can easily make do with a number of capable targets, including Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Torching opposing defenses with a wide range of different receivers has been commonplace for Ryan throughout the season.

Despite Atlanta’s affinity for throwing the football, this offense is just as capable and dangerous on the ground. The Falcons finished fifth in the league with 120.5 rushing yards per game thanks to one of the best running back tandems. Devonta Freeman spearheads Atlanta’s running game after posting his second straight 1,000-yard season. Meanwhile, the versatile Tevin Coleman accounted for 11 touchdowns during the regular season and has two more in the playoffs.

Keeping the pocket clean for Ryan and paving the way for the run game is an outstanding group of offensive linemen led by All-Pro center Alex Mack. The Falcons have featured the same starting five up front for every game this season. They are the only team in the NFL to do so, and that continuity should once again pay dividends against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

4. Emergence of a Young Defense

While the Atlanta defense still has its shortcomings, it has come a long way since struggling mightily in the first half of 2016. Growing pains were to be expected for a defense that has featured as many as eight first-or second-year players at times. But this is a group that has matured dramatically over the course of the season, and it is clearly starting to pay off at just the right time. The Falcons’ defense has been particularly impressive during the playoffs, surrendering just 20.5 points per game against two of the NFL’s most dangerous offenses in Seattle and Green Bay. They even managed to hold a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and Packers’ offense scoreless in the first half of the NFC Championship Game.

Rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones are quickly evolving into two of the best up-and-coming defenders in the NFL. And while second-year pass-rushing dynamo Vic Beasley Jr. has been relatively quiet so far during the postseason, he is fully capable of wreaking havoc on Super Sunday. His league-leading 15.5 sacks during the regular season should provide all the evidence you need. This is indeed a group that is finally starting to gel and complement the league’s most prolific offense with some outstanding play of its own. If the defense can maintain its recent strong play, this unit is capable of providing Tom Brady and company with a stiff challenge in Super Bowl LI.

5. Mistake-Free Football

Bill Belichick takes a lot of pride in playing mistake-free football. He takes even more pride in exploiting teams that do not take care of the pigskin, capitalizing on every misstep. The Patriots have been particularly opportunistic when it comes to turnovers over the years. It is a big reason for New England’s success, especially in the postseason. The problem is that Atlanta has been solid with its ball security this season, which make things even more difficult on Belichick’s defense.

The Falcons tied the Patriots for the fewest turnovers (11) in the regular season. Atlanta lost just four fumbles, the third-lowest total in NFL history. The Falcons have yet to commit a turnover in the playoffs while the Patriots have coughed it up three times (all vs. Houston) in two games, although they do have five takeaways in those two games. Atlanta has been penalized just six times for 41 yards in the postseason, while New England has been flagged seven times for 60 yards. If the Falcons can continue to play mistake-free football against the Patriots, it only increases their chances of winning by nullifying what has historically been a big advantage for a New England team that is no stranger to Super Bowl success.

Posted in NFL