Thursday Games of the Week

Begin the football weekend with the College Football game between Stanford and Oregon State. Mix it with some NFL Thursday Night Football and you’ve got your Games of the Week. Check out both games preview below and come play FanPicks cross sports contest!!! >>>Click here to join the game<<<

Stanford Cardinals vs Oregon State Beavers

Following a much-needed week off, No. 20 Stanford aims for its fifth straight victory Thursday in Corvallis against a re-energized Oregon State team under interim coach Cory Hall. The game will start at 9pm ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.

The Beavers have dropped five in a row and will be hard-pressed to slow down Heisman Trophy hopeful Bryce Love. Love leads the nation in rushing at 198.1 yards per game and has 18 carries of 30 yards or more. He has a remarkable 1,387 rushing yards through seven games despite carrying only once in the second half of Stanford’s 49-7 rout of Oregon on October 14.

Stanford’s offensive line has gone four straight games without allowing a sack while creating opportunities for quarterback Keller Chryst, who turned in one of his best games of the season against Oregon, throwing for 181 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. The Cardinal are tied for first in the Pac-12 North but need to avoid a letdown against Oregon State, which headed into its off week after playing one of its most competitive games of the season in a 36-33 loss to Colorado.

STANFORD (5-2, 4-1 Pac-12)

Love ranks second nationally with 200.9 all-purpose yards per game to lead the Cardinal, who have averaged 295 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns during their four-game winning streak. Linebacker Curtis Robinson had a team-high seven tackles against Oregon but the Cardinal run defense struggled again as the Ducks rushed for 276 yards. The Cardinal have been stronger in the secondary where safety Justin Reid (five) and cornerback Quenton Meeks (two) have combined for seven interceptions.

OREGON STATE (1-6, 0-4 Pac-12)

Hall took over for Gary Andersen on October 8 and immediately placed a greater emphasis on the run game as Ryan Nall finished with 172 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Colorado. Junior wide receiver Seth Collins, who leads the team with 43.3 receiving yards per game, missed the contest because of an unspecified illness and could be out for the rest of the season. Senior linebacker Manase Hungalu has been a bright spot on defense with 59 total tackles, five for loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and three quarterback hurries.

Miami Dolphins vs Baltimore Ravens

Journeyman Matt Moore is fresh off a brilliant comeback performance and now will serve as the starting quarterback when the Miami Dolphins visit the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday. You can catch that game at 8:25 pm on CBS.

Moore came off the bench after Jay Cutler suffered multiple cracked ribs on Sunday to rally Miami from a 14-point deficit and record a 31-28 victory over the New York Jets. He threw two touchdown passes during a 17-point fourth quarter and brings a more boisterous approach than the introverted Cutler, who could miss multiple contests. Miami has won three straight games, so it is experiencing better times than the Ravens, who have allowed an average of 27.6 points while losing four of their last five contests.


Running back Jay Ajayi (442 yards) is saddled with a 3.5-yard average that is well below the 4.9 mark of last season’s breakthrough campaign, but he will have a shot at posting his third 100-yard performance of the year against a Baltimore squad that ranks last in the NFL in rushing defense (145.3 yards per game). Moore will try to pump life into a sagging offense that ranks 31st in scoring (15.3 points) and dead last in total offense (261.8 yards) as well as try to make a downfield threat out of receiver Jarvis Landry, who is averaging just 8.1 yards on 45 receptions. Defensive end Cameron Wake has recorded six sacks after posting 2.5 against the Jets, but the defense has made only two interceptions.

RAVENS (3-4)

Baltimore ranks 23rd in the NFL in scoring offense (18.8 points) and 28th in total offense (277.6 yards) while quarterback Joe Flacco has been an underwhelming performer with five touchdown tosses and eight interceptions. Cornerback Brandon Carr has recorded a club-leading three interceptions. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (team-best 4.5 sacks) is expected to play through a knee injury.

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Posted in CFB, NFL

MNF Games of the Week

It’s the last chance game to put your NFL Week 7 bets in. Select your fantasy draft picks from Monday Night Football Cross Sports Game of the Week between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. Finish off your remaining selections with some NBA action. A total of three games to choose from. Check out our Redskins versus Eagles preview along with all other Monday’s 8:30pm start time NBA games below and join the action for cash prize!!!   >>>Click here to join the game<<<

Washington Redskins vs Philadelphia Eagles

When the Philadelphia Eagles step onto the field for Monday’s prime-time clash against the visiting Washington Redskins (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), they will own the best record in the NFL and have a chance to take total control of the NFC East. The Eagles have ripped off four consecutive victories to open a two-game lead on the Redskins as they vie for a sweep of the season series.

Philadelphia won its first three games last season under rookie quarterback Carson Wentz before going into a tailspin, but the team seems better equipped to continue its success this time around. Washington, which won five straight in the series before dropping a 30-17 decision to the Eagles in the season opener, held on for a 26-24 victory over winless San Francisco last weekend after building an early 17-point lead. The Redskins’ only other loss was a 29-20 setback at then-unbeaten Kansas City, which also handed Philadelphia its only defeat.

Teams Breakdown

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had his worst performance in the season opener, but he is coming off a strong three-game stretch and leads the NFC with a 106.4 passer rating. Running back Rob Kelley is dealing with an ankle injury, which could mean the bulk of playing time will go to rookie Samaje Perine and Chris Thompson, who already has recorded two 100-yard receiving performances and made four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. With wideouts Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder continuing to struggle, the tight-end tandem of Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis has combined for 29 catches. Linebacker Preston Smith has registered 4.5 of the team’s 15 sacks, including one in the season opener.

Wentz entered the weekend fifth in passing yards (1,584) with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, and during the four-game winning streak has thrown nine scoring passes against only one pick. Moving to the slot has provided a boost for third-year wideout Nelson Agholor, who has recorded four catches and a TD reception in each of the last two games. However, Wentz’s top target is tight end Zach Ertz, who hauled in a pair of touchdown passes last week and has been a nemesis for the Redskins – evidenced by an eight-catch, 93-yard performance in Week 1. Philadelphia ranks No. 1 in the league against the run, allowing an average of 65.7 yards, but is surrendering a generous 273.5 passing yards.

Golden State Warriors vs Dallas Mavericks

The Golden State Warriors came into the season with almost unreal expectations and are having some trouble meeting them in the first week of the season. The Warriors will try to keep their cool and even their record when they visit the Dallas Mavericks on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET on NBCS-Bay Area (Golden State)).

Golden State stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were both ejected in the final minute of Saturday’s 111-101 loss at Memphis after Curry – protesting a no-call on a drive to the basket – tossed his mouthpiece near a referee and Durant came to his defense. Curry and Durant are both off to strong starts offensively but Golden State is struggling on the defensive end and with turnovers.

The Mavericks are struggling out of the gate as well and are about to face their second straight title contender after falling 107-91 at Houston on Saturday.  Dallas isn’t expected to do much this season but does have some hope for the future in point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who collected 16 points and 10 assists in his NBA debut on Wednesday. Smith, who had left knee surgery in 2015, sat out the last two games with swelling in that knee, but the issue is not believed to be serious and he could return as soon as Monday. Yogi Ferrell started at point guard in the last two games and averaged 16.5 points and four assists.

Toronto Raptors vs San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs played the first two games without former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard but still had little trouble shutting down their opponents. The Spurs will try to make it three straight strong performances with Leonard sidelined when they host the Toronto Raptors on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET on NBATV).

San Antonio is leaning on power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in Leonard’s absence, and Aldridge delivered an average of 26.5 points and 10 rebounds in the first two contests while totaling four blocked shots. Aldridge helped hold the Minnesota Timberwolves to 43.5 percent from the floor in a win in the season opener and anchored an even better effort on Saturday, when his team held the Chicago Bulls to 37.8 percent from the field in an 87-77 triumph. The Spurs should have a much tougher time defending the Raptors, who exploded out of the gates with an average of 122.5 points in the first two games, capped by a 128-94 thrashing of the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

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Posted in NBA, NFL

NFL Games of the Week

Sunday’s lives for NFL Football and FanPicks has your fantasy football fix. Usually the Green Bay Packers are unstopable with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but this Sunday Rodgers is out and the New Orleans Saints are in town. . With eight games in line, there will be no shortage of draft picks. Check out our Saints versus Packers preview along with all other 1pm games below and join the action for cash prize!!!   >>>Click here to join the game<<<

New Orleans Saints vs Green Bay  Packers

Aaron Rodgers is sidelined with a broken collarbone, and that leaves all eyes on quarterback Brett Hundley when the Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on FOX). Hundley will be making his first career start and must upgrade his play after throwing three interceptions in relief of the injured Rodgers in last Sunday’s loss to Minnesota.


The Saints have rattled off three straight wins after an 0-2 start. Quarterback Drew Brees tossed his first two interceptions of the campaign and compiled a season-low 186 yards in last Sunday’s win over Detroit, but he has been superb this season with 1,321 yards and 10 touchdowns. Running back Mark Ingram (284 yards) started slowly but revved up his game against the Lions with a season-best 114 yards and his first two touchdowns of the season. The defense allows 23.2 points per game (21st in the NFL), but defensive end Cameron Jordan has registered five sacks as he looks to reach double digits for the third time in his career.


The chatter all week has been about Green Bay falling apart without Rodgers due to now having a novice at the helm. But Hundley has performed superbly in the preseason during his three years with the Packers, and he says the squad’s playoff aspirations shouldn’t take a hit with Rodgers lost for at least two months. Second-year inside linebacker Blake Martinez (team-best 48 tackles) has excelled, but the defense has struggled against the run as it is allowing 119.8 yards per game (24th in NFL).

New York Jets vs Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have won two straight following back-to-back ugly defeats, including a 20-6 loss at New York. Miami pulled off an incredible comeback to win 20-17 at Atlanta last week after trailing 17-0 at halftime. The Jets had their unlikely three-game winning streak snapped with a 24-17 setback against New England last week. They squandered a 14-0 lead but were hurt when an apparent touchdown was ruled a fumble and a touchback on a controversial call.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Buffalo Bills

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston sustained a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder on a sack in last week’s loss at Arizona and appears headed for a game-time decision. Ryan Fitzpatrick came off the bench and rallied for the Bucs from a huge deficit last week in a 38-33 setback. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has yet to throw for more than 224 yards in any game this season and posted a career-low yards per attempt in a 20-16 loss last time out at Cincinnati. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, however, told reporters earlier in the week that Taylor retains his full confidence.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs Indianapolis Colts

With 1,209 yards passing, Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett has played fairly well in Andrew Luck’s stead, but the former Patriot backup has thrown just three touchdown passes on the season. The Colts have also coughed up three second-half leads and have fallen into last place in the division. Jacksonville hopes to have rookie sensation Leonard Fournette in the backfield for Sunday’s game. Fournette left last week’s 27-17 loss to the Rams in the second half after suffering a leg injury and he has missed two practices during the week.

Baltimore Ravens vs Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings seem to have found an answer to their injury woes at quarterback with Case Keenum excelling in place of Sam Bradford (knee), and Jerick McKinnon has put up big numbers in two games since rookie running back Dalvin Cook was lost for the season. Minnesota has the benefit of leaning on one of the league’s best defenses, which has been especially tough against the run. Baltimore is coming off a bad loss – 27-24 in overtime to visiting Chicago – and has plenty of problems on both sides of the ball. The teams are meeting for the first time since 2013.

Arizona Cardinals vs Los Angeles Rams

The 32-year-old running back Adrian Peterson, who was acquired from New Orleans for a draft pick on October 10, gave a huge boost to a Cardinals ground attack that was averaging a mere 51.8 yards per game and this week will be facing a run defense that ranks 29th in the league (139.5 yards). Los Angeles is coming off its third win in four games, a 27-17 victory at Jacksonville that featured a 103-yard touchdown return by Pharoh Cooper on the opening kickoff. The Rams have a rushing threat of their own in Todd Gurley, who is fourth in the NFL with 521 yards and tied for first with seven TDs – including three of the receiving variety. Both teams also can get things done through the air, as Arizona’s Carson Palmer (1,856) is second in the league in passing yards while Los Angeles’ Jared Goff (1,484) ranks seventh.

Carolina Panthers vs Chicago Bears

The Bears haven’t asked too much of rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky in his first two starts, as he has passed for only 241 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while primarily focusing on handing off to Jordan Howard. Leaning on the ground game might not be a viable option against the Panthers, who rank fifth in the NFL against the run and allow just 3.4 yards per carry. Carolina had a two-game winning streak snapped with a 28-23 loss to Philadelphia last week.

Tennessee Titans vs Cleveland Browns

Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer watched from the sidelines as Kevin Hogan threw three interceptions and is heading back out on the field ready to limit his own mistakes and hold himself accountable. Kizer is completing 50.9 percent of his passes and owns nine interceptions to go with just three touchdowns. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota sat out a 16-10 loss at Miami on October 8 with a hamstring injury but returned on Monday with limited mobility and threw for 306 yards in the 36-22 victory over Indianapolis while working from the pocket.

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Posted in NFL

Thursday Fanpicks Games of the Week

Begin the football weekend with Thursday Night Football game between the Raiders and Chiefs. Mix it in with NCAA gridiron action between Memphis and Houston and you get the Games of the Week contest. Check out both games preview below and come play FanPicks cross sports contest!!! >>>Click here to join the game<<<

Oakland Raiders vs Kansas City Chiefs

The Oakland Raiders were a trendy preseason choice to wind up in the conference championship game, but they are in desperate need of a victory to keep from falling out of contention in the AFC West. Riding a four-game losing streak, the struggling Raiders face a daunting task when they host the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night (8:25 p.m. ET on CBS).

Oakland plugged a void this week with the signing of four-time All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a tackling machine who moves across the Bay after he was released by the San Francisco 49ers on Friday.

Kansas City became the last team in the NFL to lose, dropping a 19-13 decision at home to Pittsburgh on Sunday, but it has won five in a row against the Raiders.


Kansas City averaged nearly 33 points through its first five victories, but its offense was bottled up while its 27th-ranked run defense was shredded for 194 yards. Kareem Hunt rushed for a season-low 21 yards but had five receptions for 89 yards to become the first rookie in league history to amass at least 100 scrimmage yards in each of his team’s first six games. Multi-threat receiver Tyreek Hill injured his neck in Sunday’s game and it was feared he might have a concussion, but the team pronounced him good to go. Smith threw for 246 yards and a TD last week, failing to post a 100-plus passer rating for the first time.


Derek Carr returned to the lineup after missing one game with a fractured bone in his back, but had another mediocre game and has four interceptions in his past three contests after tossing only six picks in the entire 2016 season. The vertical passing game has been a staple in Oakland since the franchise’s inception, but deep threat Amari Cooper has a combined nine receptions for 51 yards during the four-game skid. Marshawn Lynch has not provided the expect jolt to the ground game, rushing for two TDs and an averaging 42.8 yards rushing. Only three teams in the league have fewer than the Raiders’ 11 sacks.

Memphis Tigers vs Houston Cougars

A short week will only add to the drama when Memphis visits Houston on Thursday night( 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) for a key American Athletic Conference West Division game. The past three meetings have been decided by four points or fewer.

The Tigers can gain the upper hand in the division and become bowl eligible for the fourth straight season — a program first — with a win. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson has 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past two games while the Tigers have scored 100 points during that span.

The Cougars have won 11 straight conference home games, and six of the past seven against Memphis.


Ferguson leads the conference with 1,814 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, including nine TD passes to Anthony Miller (45 catches, 606 yards). Darrell Henderson (542 rushing yards, three TDs) is averaging 8.1 yards per carry to lead the ground game while Tony Pollard (39.3 yards per return) has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. Sophomore Austin Hall leads the Tigers with 44 tackles and recorded three of the team’s five takeaways (two interceptions, fumble) in last week’s victory over Navy.


Quarterback Kyle Postma (805 yards, five interceptions, four touchdowns) has made three straight starts but had three turnovers in Saturday’s loss at Tulsa. Steven Dunbar (team-best 40 catches for 462 yards) is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season while Linell Bonner (37 catches, 344 yards, three TDs) had five catches for 44 yards in his return from a concussion. Matthew Adams and D’Juan Hines each have 57 tackles for a defense that has 10 sacks and 12 takeaways.

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Posted in CFB, NFL

Carolina Panthers vs New England Patriots Preview

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick built his reputation as a defensive guru so his team’s inability to slow the opposition has been among the more stunning developments in the first month of the season. Despite ranking last in the NFL in defense, the reigning Super Bowl champions go for their third straight win over the visiting Carolina Panthers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on CBS). Enter this Game of the Week contest right here.

The Patriots are giving up 31.7 points and a staggering 461.0 yards per game and only the sensational play of quarterback Tom Brady has allowed them to overcome the glaring defensive deficiencies. On the other side, the Panthers are 2-1 but are having issues that belie their record — they have scored one touchdown in two weeks and are coming off a 34-13 beating at home to a New Orleans team that was shredded for 36 points and 555 yards by the Patriots one week earlier.


Carolina’s defense allowed three points in each of its first two wins — against San Francisco and Buffalo — but had no answers for Drew Brees and the Saints. Former NFL MVP Cam Newton, who underwent surgery on his rotator cuff in the offseason, has twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns but received positive news when top wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who hurt his knee in last week’s setback, was a full participant in Thursday’s practice. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick in this year’s NFL draft, has done little in the ground game but had nine receptions for 101 yards against New Orleans. The Panthers’ defense ranks third in the league against the pass, allowing 162.0 yards per game.


New England’s defense was carved up by Kansas City in a 42-27 season-opening loss and allowed Houston rookie Deshaun Watson to throw for 301 yards in his second career start in last week’s 36-33 victory over the Texans. Brady was the league’s lowest-rated passer after Week 1 but has rebounded to win consecutive NFL Player of the Week awards, throwing for 378 yards and five touchdowns to rally the Patriots to a last-second victory a week ago. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks finally showed why New England used two draft picks to trade for him, hauling in five catches for 131 yards and two TDs against the Texans. The Patriots also have struggled against the run, yielding an average of 130.3 yards.

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Posted in NFL

Bears vs Packers Preview

The oldest rivalry in the NFL has become one-sided in recent years, something the Chicago Bears hope to change when they pay a visit to the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night in a prime-time NFC North matchup (Enter GOW Contest).

The Packers swept the season series last year en route to winning the division title and have captured six of the last seven matchups. It will mark the 195th matchup between Chicago and Green Bay — and the first where both teams are each coming off an overtime victory. Running back Jordan Howard’s 19-yard touchdown run provided the exclamation point on the Bears’ 23-17 victory over Pittsburgh, helping them avoid an 0-3 start for third straight season. Green Bay was seconds from a second straight defeat before Aaron Rodgers tossed a tying touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson, setting up a game-winning field goal in overtime in a 27-24 victory over visiting Cincinnati. The series could not be more evenly matched — each team has won 93 times to go along with six ties.


Chicago will try to run the ball for two reasons — to keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and alleviate the pressure on quarterback Mike Glennon, who threw for only 101 yards and a TD on 15-of-22 passing. The Bears rushed for 220 yards against the Steelers as Howard, despite dealing with an ailing shoulder, piled up 138 and two scores while electrifying rookie Tarik Cohen had 78 yards on 12 carries. With the wide receiver corps ravaged by injury, Howard and Cohen also led the team with five and four catches, respectively. Safety Quintin Demps broke his arm in Sunday’s game, a blow for a defense that has only eight interceptions in each of the past two seasons.


Rodgers is second in the league with 967 yards passing, exceeding 300 in each of the first three games, although his passer rating is below 100 for only the third time in 10 seasons since he took over as Green Bay’s starter. Rodgers has attempted at least 42 passes in each game behind a banged-up offensive line, among the reasons he has been sacked a league-high 13 times. Running back Ty Montgomery, despite leading the team with 18 receptions, has rushed for only 124 yards in three games, but he carved up the Bears for a career-best 162 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns in December. The Packers are eighth in the league, allowing 296.7 yards per game.

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Posted in NFL

FanPicks Games of the Week

Rams vs 49ers Preview

A pair of rookie head coaches will square off for the first time when the San Francisco 49ers host the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday night for FanPicks Games of the Week (Enter Contest). San Francisco has yet to find the end zone through its first two games, but has won three in a row in the series, including a season sweep against the Rams in 2016.

Although the 49ers acquitted themselves well in a three-point loss at Seattle last week, they have been limited to four field goals under coach Kyle Shanahan, marking the first time in franchise history they haven’t scored a touchdown in the opening two games. “I don’t think there are any moral victories in the NFL, especially with the way I played,” San Francisco quarterback Brian Hoyer said in the wake of the 12-9 defeat to the Seahawks. The Rams were denied a possible 2-0 start under coach Sean McVay after surrendering a late touchdown in a 27-20 setback to the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Los Angeles had the second-worst passing game in the league last season — behind only San Francisco — and averaged an NFL-low 14.0 points, but it has amassed 86 points during its 1-1 start.


The semblance of a passing game has provided a boost for third-year back Todd Gurley, who along with Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt are the only players to amass more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving. Quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick a year ago, was not as sharp as his performance in the season opener but did rally Los Angeles from a pair of double-digit deficits to forge a fourth-quarter tie on Sunday. Sammy Watkins and rookie Cooper Kupp each have seven catches through the first two games to tie for the team lead. Stud defensive tackle Aaron Donald had a quiet debut after returning from a contract dispute but vowed to be better against San Francisco.

ABOUT THE 49ers (0-2)

Running back Carlos Hyde is coming off a huge game in Seattle, rushing for 124 yards on only 15 carries while ripping off runs of 61 and 27 yards. Given the state of San Francisco’s passing game, expect Shanahan to lean heavily on Hyde, who rambled for 88 yards and a pair of touchdowns to carry the 49ers to a 28-0 rout of the Rams in the 2016 season opener. Journeyman Hoyer, playing with his fourth different team in four seasons, needs to rebound from a wretched performance in Seattle when he managed only 99 yards and an interception on 15-of-27 passing. Wideout Pierre Garcon has a team-leading nine receptions, but the 49ers are dealing with myriad injuries in their defensive backfield.

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Posted in NFL


It’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one game. Often it turns out a Week 1 result in the NFL is as much about a team’s opponent as it is about the team itself. Are the Bengals that bad, or are the Ravens that good? Can the Texans really not block anyone, or is the Jaguars’ defense better than we thought? We may get those answers Thursday starting  night in Cincinnati when the Bengals welcome Houston. This is the game of the week starting September 14 at 8.25PM Eastern, enter the contest right here!


What we may not get is any kind of offense if Week 1 wasn’t an anomaly for these teams. Because make no mistake, these offenses were bad on Sunday. The Bengals were shut out at home for the first time since 2001, turning the ball over five times and allowing five sacks. Houston wasn’t any better, committing four turnovers and allowing a franchise-record 10 sacks. Starting QB Tom Savage lasted one half before being replaced by first-round pick Deshaun Watson, who will likely get the start in Cincinnati.

Watson did suffer an ankle injury last week, but he was full-go in practice on Tuesday and should get the start. So what can we expect? He led the Texans’ only touchdown drive on Sunday to start the second half. After that he was running for his life, taking four of the 10 sacks Houston allowed on the day.

The Texans would love to get Lamar Miller and the running game going to help Watson settle in. Maybe they can do it against a Cincinnati defense that allowed 157 yards on the ground to Baltimore. But the Houston offensive line may be in worse shape than the Bengals. It took the Ravens more than 40 carries to rack up those yards. The Bengals didn’t get gashed as much as worn down in a game where they got no help from their offense. For Houston to win, odds are Watson will need to make some plays.


However the game plays out, someone will be 0–2 despite starting the season with playoff expectations. Perhaps Houston could survive that in the traditionally weak AFC South, and if nothing else the Texans’ season will remain meaningful as Watson begins his development as an NFL starter. But this is a much bigger game for Cincinnati. Starting the season 0–2 — with both losses coming at home — in a division with the Steelers and Ravens would be a rather deep hole. Head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton have taken heat for playoff failures; imagine the reaction if they are out of the race early for a second straight season.

Usually Dalton can keep his critics at bay until the postseason, but they are having a field day after he threw four interceptions last week. Still, Dalton’s history tells us this is unlikely to become a trend. He threw only 15 interceptions in the last two seasons combined and had the second 4,200-yard season of his career in 2016. That said, free-agent losses have left the Bengals’ offensive line a mess, and that’s not a good thing with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and company coming to town. If Dalton has no time to throw, he could struggle again.

Fantasy owners, if no one else, want to see how this is going to shake out. Jeremy Hill got the start against Baltimore but had only seven touches (six runs, one reception); Giovani Bernard (above, right) led the team in rushing with 40 yards on seven carries. He also had the Bengals’ longest play of the day on a 39-yard catch. But rookie Joe Mixon got the most touches (eight carries, three catches) but found little room to run, even if you discount nine yards in losses on the game’s final two plays.

Given how dominant the Ravens’ defense was, we don’t know much more than we did before the season. Eventually, Mixon was expected to emerge, and given that he got more touches than Hill and Bernard, perhaps he still eventually will. But will Hill vulture goal-line carries? If the Bengals ever get near a goal line, we’ll find out.

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Posted in NFL

NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC West 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 any longer for pre-season football at FanPicks. NFL pre-season Week 2 is in two days (Enter Now). To get you ready for the new season, here’s an outlook of AFC West teams.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos’ offense was forever developing last year but never emerged. Denver had the fourth-most three-and-out drives and ranked 27th in rushing yards and 26th in red-zone touchdowns.

This season figures to be less futile. The optimism begins at quarterback. Trevor Siemian, 8-6 as a first-year starter with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, underwent surgery on his non-throwing left shoulder but missed no offseason workouts. He earned teammates’ respect with toughness and for his ability to digest the playbook and apply information quickly. The belief is that the new offense will benefit with 2016 first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch more than Siemian. Lynch impressed teammates with his maturity in the offseason. After what amounted to a near-redshirt season, Lynch believes he can win the starting job in an offense that has deep ball routes and spread formation concepts more similar to what he used in college.

Running back C.J. Anderson is like a bowling ball with legs. He excels in yards after contact. Anderson enters a crossroads season. Can he be a bell cow or just a complementary back along with former Utah star Devontae Booker and newly acquired Jamaal Charles? The addition of Charles, a five-time 1,000-yard rusher in Kansas City, gives the Broncos a veteran who can diversify the offense with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

Expect a steady diet of bubble screens to receiver Demaryius Thomas and more motion and varied routes from Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas will need to shrink his number of drops to regain his star status in the NFL. Sanders has been the Broncos’ most reliable weapon. For Sanders and Thomas to realize their potential — say, 1,200-plus yards receiving — they need help in the red zone. That’s where the selection of Michigan tight end Jake Butt comes into play. If he recovers from his second ACL surgery and returns in October, Butt provides size and mismatches inside the 20 that have been lacking since the departures of Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.

Kansas City Chiefs

Quarterback Alex Smith is a polarizing figure in title-starved Kansas City despite a 41-20 record in four seasons. Only New England’s Tom Brady (47) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (45) have more wins during that span. Still, fans openly wonder if Smith, who is regarded as a risk-averse game-manager, can win a Super Bowl.

Smith threw for a career-high 3,502 yards last season, but his touchdown (3.1) and interception percentages (1.6) were his worst under Andy Reid’s coaching. Nonetheless, Smith’s age and big cap number drove the Chiefs’ decision to draft a quarterback — Texas Tech gunslinger Patrick Mahomes II — in the first round for the first time since 1983. Mahomes isn’t ready to start, but the Chiefs are gambling on him for the future. The idea is that after studying under Smith and learning from Reid for at least one season, Mahomes can become the franchise quarterback. Meanwhile, Smith remains the best hope for a Super Bowl run in the short term.

First-team All-Pro Travis Kelce headlines the pass-catching corps and shows no signs of slowing down. He led all NFL tight ends with 1,125 yards last season, but the Chiefs need more production from their wide receivers. Chris Conley (44 catches for 530 yards) or Albert Wilson (31 catches for 279 yards) will need to take a step forward after the release of Jeremy Maclin.

The wild card is receiver Tyreek Hill, a speedster who racked up 61 catches for 593 yards with six scores and added 267 yards with three touchdowns rushing plus incredible special-teams value. It will be a treat to watch Reid deploy Hill now that the coach has a feel for all that he can do.

Hill will remain a factor in an otherwise pedestrian ground game. Running back Spencer Ware was fine with 214 carries for 921 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately,backup Charcandrick West didn’t reach the same expectation. He averaged only 3.3 yards on 88 carries. That’s a big reason why Kansas City invested a third-round pick in Toledo’s Kareem Hunt. Don’t be shocked if Hunt assumes a feature role now that the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, is gone.

Los Angeles Chargers

There’s a lot to like about the Chargers’ offense, if only it could stay healthy. There are plenty of playmakers, but they can’t seem to stay on the field together very long.

The one guy the Chargers can ill afford to lose, for any length of time, is quarterback Philip Rivers. While he doesn’t seem overly excited about the move to L.A., Rivers is willing to give it a go and is trying to win the support of new fans. Despite coming off another 4,000-yard passing season, he led the NFL with 21 interceptions. It’s something Rivers will need to reduce in order to help give the Bolts a chance.

Rivers showed his usual leadership as he tried his best to hold things together as the receiving corps was depleted by a season-ending knee injury to Keenan Allen in Week 1. The Chargers gave Rivers another playmaker when they took Clemson receiver Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Williams is a definite upgrade and will start opposite the oft-injured Allen, who has been limited to nine games and four TDs in the last two seasons (knee injury in 2016, lacerated kidney in 2015).

There should be nothing but positives from running back Melvin Gordon, who bounced back from a woeful rookie season to rush for 997 yards and score 12 touchdowns. But his season was cut short by hip and knee injuries. The Bolts are certainly going to miss backup Danny Woodhead’s change-of-pace play, both rushing and receiving, although he was injury-prone. Star tight end Antonio Gates returns for his 15th season, as motivated as ever to win an elusive championship. His next TD catch will be his 112th, giving him sole possession of the NFL record for tight ends. If this is Gates’ final season, the Chargers are in good shape, because Hunter Henry had a strong rookie season with 36 catches for 478 yards and eight touchdowns.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders had one of the NFL’s top offenses last season, and it could be even better this year with the addition of former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. The powerful Lynch ended his one-year retirement and signed a two-year deal with his hometown team after being traded to Oakland. Lynch has rushed for 9,112 yards and 74 TDs in nine seasons. He retired after an injury-plagued 2015 season, but if he stays healthy and recaptures his Beast Mode form, Lynch will be an upgrade from Latavius Murray, who signed as a free agent with Minnesota. The combination of Lynch and scatbacks DeAndré Washington and Jalen Richard gives Oakland three dangerous weapons in the backfield. Make that four counting Jamize Olawale, a battering-ram fullback with some running skills.

Quarterback Derek Carr was putting up MVP-like numbers before his season-ending injury. He threw for 3,937 yards with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Carr’s passer rating has gone from 76.6 as a rookie to 91.1 in 2015 to 96.7 last season, showing his steady improvement. Carr signed a five-year contract extension in June to make him the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, for now at least. The deal could be worth as much as $125 million in total with Carr guaranteed to receive at least $70 million.

Carr’s top two receivers — Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree — each had over 1,000 receiving yards and combined for 172 catches last year. The trio of Carr, Cooper and Crabtree should only get better in their third straight season together. The Raiders gave Carr another inviting target when they signed free agent Cordarrelle Patterson. The 6’2″, 220-pound Patterson caught 52 passes for 453 yards — both career highs — last season for Minnesota, which drafted him in the first round in 2013. The Raiders’ tight end corps should be better this year with the addition of former Packer Jared Cook. Cook has 303 career catches for 3,880 yards and 17 touchdowns in eight NFL seasons.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

NFC South 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 tomorrow August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s an outlook of NFC South teams.

Atlanta Falcons

There is absolutely nothing to fix in the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta finished 2016 first in points scored, offensive touchdowns and points per drive. The argument surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan’s “eliteness” ended in 2016. The veteran was both statistically impressive (4,944 yards, 38 TDs, seven INTs) and a commanding force in two playoff wins.

So there isn’t much that changed in the Falcons offense beside one move on the sidelines. Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian is taking over the offensive coordinator duties from Kyle Shanahan. Sarkisian’s play-calling tendencies in the college game promoted play-action and no huddle, which jibes with the aspects of Shanahan’s system that elevated Ryan’s game. Ryan hasn’t missed a start since the 2009 season, but Atlanta extended the agreement of backup Matt Schaub, the most reliable number 2 option the Falcons have had in years.

Running back Devonta Freeman was the breakout star of Atlanta’s offense last season. Julio Jones is arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver if not its most physically impressive. Perhaps more important for Jones (and Ryan) was that the big free-agency price paid for Mohamed Sanu was worth it (59 catches on 81 targets). Jones and Sanu thrived when Ryan consistently hit supporting targets (Freeman, tight end Austin Hooper and breakout sensation Taylor Gabriel), forcing defenses to avoid bracket and double coverage.

Carolina Panthers

Score more points. This has become the Panthers’ offseason mantra after the offense was average at best in 2016 and failed time and again in the clutch. After a 2015 season in which Carolina finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (31.3 ppg), the Panthers dropped to 15th in 2016 (23.1 ppg). And given that Carolina lost six games by three points or fewer, the goal this year is to once again top the 30-points-per-game threshold.

The “old” is not that old, but quarterback Cam Newton turned 28 in May and will be entering his seventh NFL season. Newton took a couple of steps backward in 2016, suffering a career low in completion percentage. Besides the inherent pressure of attempting to return to his Most Valuable Player form of 2015, Newton has the additional burden of coming back from March surgery on the partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.

At running back, bruiser Jonathan Stewart returns but is nearing the twilight of his career at age 30 and in his 10th year in the NFL. Christian McCaffrey, the apparent heir of the running duties, is a far different type of back. He is more elusive and better in space, but not as effective in between the tackles. Fullback Mike Tolbert was released as the Panthers plan to go more to three-wide sets and let their new slot receiver, rookie Curtis Samuel, run a lot of the deep routes that Ted Ginn Jr. used to before he bolted for New Orleans.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has not been able to achieve the separation he needs to from defensive backs. His on-and-off battles with weight are part of the problem as well. He has a lot to prove this season. Tight end Greg Olsen is a consummate pro and has made the Pro Bowl three years in a row. His sticky hands have made him Newton’s favorite target. Devin Funchess has been a poor man’s version of Benjamin, which is not a compliment. Like Benjamin, Funchess badly needs to show improvement in 2017. Damiere Byrd is undersized but very fast and could surprise.

New Orleans Saints

As quarterback Drew Brees goes, so go the Saints. Even at 38, Brees remains one of the elite passers in the league. He compensates for his lack of prototype size and arm strength with anticipation and an encyclopedic knowledge of head coach Sean Payton’s complex offense. Few quarterbacks are given more control at the line of scrimmage, and Brees is a master at reading defenses before the snap and beating coverages with his quick release and uncanny accuracy. Even without big-play threat Brandin Cooks, Brees should enjoy another big season.

The emergence of Michael Thomas and the acquisition of Ted Ginn Jr. made the speedy Cooks expendable. Thomas uses his powerful hands and 6’3″ frame to physically dominate defensive backs on competitive balls downfield. He compares to former Saints great Marques Colston with his uncanny body control and innate feel for getting open against zone or man-to-man coverage. With Cooks gone, Thomas is Brees’ clear go-to receiver in the red zone. On another team, Willie Snead might not be a factor, but in the Saints’ intricate, timing-based attack, he excels with his smarts, sure hands and precise route-running. He’s a favorite target of Brees on third down. Ginn fills Cooks’ role as the deep threat. Even at 32 years-old, he can still take the top off a defense with his sprinter’s speed.

Mark Ingram has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around backs. He drives through tackles with his powerful legs and low center of gravity. Ingram has also become a dependable receiver in passing situations. He’s the clear starter. The Saints believe Adrian Peterson has plenty of juice left in his 32-year-old legs and can share the workload with Ingram. If he can stay healthy, he’ll provide insurance for Ingram, who has battled injuries throughout his career. Look for Ingram and Peterson to alternate series and share the workload.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs will face a murderers’ row of quarterbacks this season: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning in addition to NFC South gunslingers Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. Some may believe that that’s what gave the team the excuse to raise ticket prices for the second year in a row. But the truth is, the Bucs believe that quarterback Jameis Winston is more than worth the price of admission.

Winston has to cut down on his turnovers though. He’s had 42 in two seasons (33 interceptions and nine lost fumbles). The Bucs engaged in an offensive weapons spree in the offseason to help out Winston. They’ve added free-agent receiver DeSean Jackson while drafting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Penn State receiver Chris Godwin to go with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate.

Wide receiver Mike Evans was targeted an astounding 175 times, the most of any player in the league. He caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 TDs, but he won’t have to carry the offense anymore now that Jackson and Howard are on board.

Brate tied for the league lead among tight ends with eight touchdown receptions. The addition of Howard to the squad allow him to be free to run option routes down the seam.

The biggest question mark on offense is at running back. Doug Martin will miss the first three games serving a suspension for PEDs. The Bucs re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers, and both Charles Sims and Peyton Barber return. Tampa Bay used a fifth-round pick on Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols, who has the best hands and is the best pass protector among backs in this year’s draft.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC South 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 South teams.

Houston Texans

In head coach Bill O’Brien’s first three seasons, the Texans have been amazingly consistent. O’Brien’s team has three consecutive 9–7 records, including the last two AFC South titles and a playoff victory last year. They have closed each season going 3–1 down the stretch.

Quarterback Tom Savage replaced Brock Osweiler late last season. The product of Pitt college would have started in the playoffs if not for a concussion suffered in the last regular-season game. Savage has a strong arm, can make any throw, knows O’Brien’s system and can handle his tough-love coaching. Entering the last year of his contract, Savage will be under a lot of pressure. He’s started two games, has never thrown a touchdown pass and has been injured each season. If he struggles early, fans and media will create a huge controversy by demanding that the 2016 Heisman trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson play.

In O’Brien’s first three seasons, the Texans have run the ball more than any team in the league. They’ll rely heavily on a ground-and-pound mentality featuring veteran Lamar Miller (1,073 yards rushing) and rookie D’Onta Foreman, a third-round pick who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season at Texas. Miller shouldered the workload with a career-high 268 carries. Foreman is expected to excel between the tackles. Tyler Ervin, a change-of-pace back in his second season, should become a weapon out of the backfield.

The receivers should be happier with Savage because he can throw any route. DeAndre Hopkins never seemed to click with Osweiler, finishing with 78 catches for 954 yards and four touchdowns. Hopkins seems to have a good on-field rapport with Savage. Hopkins has terrific hands and an impressive catch radius that’ll help the quarterback’s accuracy. Savage should benefit from expected improvement by two second-year receivers, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, first- and third-round picks last year. Fuller is a tremendous deep threat but drops too many passes. He’s got to improve his route running. With a year to learn, Miller is expected to contribute in the slot.

For the first time under O’Brien, the tight ends figured prominently in the passing game. C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 104 catches for 1,001 yards and six TDs. At 6’5″ and 6’6″, respectively, Fiedorowicz and Griffin are inviting targets who prefer to run routes down the middle, and they don’t shy away from contact.

Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck, the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, suffered a torn labrum in 2015 but put off the surgical procedure until the painful situation became unbearable. After taking 41 more sacks in 2016, bringing his five-year, 70-game total to 156, Luck relented to having his injury fixed.

Beyond that injury, do the Colts have enough weapons to take the pressure off Luck? Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the NFL’s best deep threats. The next-best skill returnee is tight end Jack Doyle, a hard-working overachiever and hometown-hero who was rewarded with a $19 million contract. New general manager Chris Ballard rid himself of tight end Dwayne Allen’s overpriced contract by trading him to New England. Donte Moncrief, the No. 2 wide receiver, had seven TD catches but also missed seven games due to injury. Phillip Dorsett, a 2015 first-round pick, has caught only 51 passes and scored three touchdowns in his two seasons. He is on the verge of becoming a bust.

Running back Frank Gore became the first running back 33 or older to rush for 1,000 yards since John Riggins in 1984. But Gore is in the final year of his contract, and the Colts need to be looking for a long-term ball carrier. Robert Turbin rushed for 164 yards in a reserve role in his first season in Indianapolis. The team used a fourth-round pick on Marlon Mack, who will have an opportunity to be the number 2 back.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Former New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was hired in January by owner Shad Khan to resuscitate the entire organization… just not as the head coach. Coughlin’s title is executive vice president of football operations, and he has final say on roster decisions, taking that responsibility away from GM Dave Caldwell. Doug Marrone, the offensive line coach from 2015-16, got the incumbent coaching job.

Since 2008, when the Jags’ current playoff drought began, their 18.3 points-per-game average is third worst in the NFL. And since 2012, a year after Maurice Jones-Drew won the rushing title, the Jaguars’ per-game rushing average of 92.1 yards is the league’s worst. The Jaguars are counting on Leonard Fournette — who rushed for 3,830 yards in three seasons at LSU — to impact both categories. The Jaguars selected Fournette fourth overall, and running backs taken that high have turned into Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk — but also Trent Richardson and Darren McFadden.

A one-man wrecking crew since he was in high school, Fournette will have to do the Jaguars’ heavy lifting, because Bortles proved last year he wasn’t ready for that task. Bortles had his 2018 contract option picked up on May 1, but it is guaranteed only for injury, meaning this remains his make-or-break season. If he wants to remain the Jaguars’ starter beyond this year, he must commit fewer turnovers (51 interceptions in 46 games) and be more accurate (58.8 career completion percentage). The Jaguars didn’t draft a quarterback, which can be viewed as a vote of confidence or a sign Coughlin is merely waiting until 2018 to take one.

The Jaguars believe they have provided Bortles with ample weapons. Now entering their fourth year, receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee have shown flashes of consistent play, just not at the same time. Robinson and Hurns eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015, but their numbers dipped because of extra attention (Robinson) and injuries (Hurns). Lee hasn’t been able to use his speed to stretch the field. Although they enter as the top three receivers, rookie Dede Westbrook could become an option operating from the slot. After a rather ordinary junior season at Oklahoma — his first after transferring from junior college — Westbrook exploded for 80 catches for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. His 19.1-yard average was the best in college football for players with at least 75 catches.

Getting more production from the tight ends would help matters on the outside. The Julius Thomas experiment failed. They’ve shipped him to Miami in exchange for a seventh-round pick. The Jaguars want their tight ends to be equally effective as receivers and blockers. The team believes that former Raider Mychal Rivera can be an efficient receiver. Question is still up in the air about his blocking ability.

Tennessee Titans

Quarterback Marcus Mariota built upon his rookie season with an outstanding 2016. He completed 276-of-451 passes for 3,426 yards. This makes him the first Titan since Matt Hasselbeck in 2011 to top the 3,000-yard mark. His 26 TD passes were most by a franchise quarterback since the team moved to Tennessee 20 years ago. The only downside was that for the second straight year, Mariota was not able to finish the season due to an injury. He broke his right fibula on Christmas Eve. The injury required a plate to be surgically placed into the leg to help the healing process. Mariota might not do much in OTAs as the Titans will be careful regarding his recovery. Veteran Matt Cassel was re-signed to be the backup.

While the Titans will go as Mariota goes, the running game also has a big say in the team’s success. DeMarco Murray came over from Philadelphia and led the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards while scoring nine touchdowns. Tennessee also has Derrick Henry to bolster the backfield. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner added 490 yards and five scores in spot duty behind Murray. That formula should continue in 2017, with Murray being the workhorse and Henry spelling him as a power and short-yardage back.

The Titans overhauled the wide receiver position, spending two of their first three draft picks there. They chose Corey Davis of Western Michigan fifth overall and are hopeful that he can develop into the true No. 1 receiver that has been missing for many years. The Titans also drafted Taywan Taylor, a shifty speedster from Western Kentucky. He replaces the departed Kendall Wright in the slot and has deep route ability.

Those two will mix in with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, as well as former Jet Eric Decker, to make up the core of the unit. Matthews, a free agent from Miami, had a banner season in 2016, catching 65 passes for 945 yards and nine touchdowns. He is ideally a number 2 receiver but was the top target a year ago. Sharpe started all last season as a rookie fifth-round pick and caught 41 passes. He will have to work hard to stay ahead of Davis and Taylor. Decker was part of the Jets’ offseason veteran purge and is looking to bounce back strong after playing in just three games last season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder and a lingering hip injury. If healthy, Decker could provide a big boost to an otherwise young and inexperienced receiving corps.

Tight end Delanie Walker was a Pro Bowler for the second straight season. Walker tied for the team lead with 65 catches and is still going strong at age 33. The Titans drafted his potential long-term replacement in Jonnu Smith, using a third-round pick on a player who had been compared to Walker in draft evaluations.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

NFC 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 NFC North teams.

Chicago Bears

After eight years of teasing with rare flashes of talent but always underachieving, Jay Cutler is gone as the Bears leading quarterback. Mike Glennon is the successor. But Glennon is in a win-now-or-else situation, because the Bears used the second overall pick in the draft on Mitchell Trubisky, who general manager Ryan Pace hopes will become the team’s franchise quarterback. If Trubisky doesn’t deliver, Pace will soon follow Cutler out of town. Glennon got a three-year $45 million deal, but after the $16 million he’s guaranteed this year, just $2.5 million more is guaranteed. The hope is that by 2018, Trubisky will be ready to replace Glennon, or that Glennon plays well enough to keep the rookie on the bench for another year of seasoning.

Chicago lost its best offensive weapon in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. To replace Jeffery, the Bears added free-agent wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, both of whom fit best as slot receivers and are young enough to duplicate promising seasons they enjoyed earlier in their careers. They also add some much-needed speed to complement 6’3″ Cameron Meredith, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who had a breakout sophomore season in 2016 with 66 receptions for 888 yards.

The tight end position should be much improved within the Bears organization with the return of talented pass catcher Zach Miller and the addition of ascending, three-down player Dion Sims in free agency. The Bears also used a second-round pick on 6’6″, 277-pound Adam Shaheen, who could also contribute on all three downs provided he can make the jump from Division-II Ashland.

The run game is in excellent hands. Jordan Howard may have been the biggest steal of the 2016 draft after Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. The fifth-round choice from Indiana rushed for a Bears rookie-record 1,313 yards. He had a higher average per carry (5.2 yards) than Ezekiel Elliott.

Detroit Lions

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, despite playing the last month with the middle finger on his throwing hand in a splint. Prior to that, he led the team to an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins. And he looked comfortable in his first full year with Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator, spreading the ball around in a controlled short passing attack.

What would make him even more comfortable this season would be an improved run game. The Lions ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing and didn’t have a back gain more than 70 yards in a game all season. But starter Ameer Abdullah is back after suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 2 last season. He could form a dynamic tandem with Theo Riddick, a matchup nightmare out of the backfield. Riddick’s 80 receptions in 2015 tied for the lead among NFL running backs. The emergence of Zach Zenner as a viable fill-in starter provides some depth, but if Abdullah can’t stay on the field, it’ll spell trouble again.

Last year’s big free-agent addition — receiver Marvin Jones Jr. — started fast while trying to fill the cleats of retired star Calvin Johnson. But after a 205-yard, two-TD day at Lambeau Field in Week 3, his per-game averages the rest of the season (three catches for 44 yards) didn’t measure up. That’s one reason the Lions targeted another big wideout in the draft, Northern Illinois’ Kenny Golladay. He’ll compete for the No. 3 role behind Jones and Golden Tate. The wild card remains Eric Ebron, an athletic tight end who may never validate his top-10 draft choice but who has steadily improved.

Green Bay Packers

As quarterback Aaron Rodgers goes, so go the Packers. When he was less than stellar to start last season, the offense sputtered and suddenly critics began whispering about his magic being gone. Then he uttered his “run the table” remark, the Packers won their final six regular-season games and a pair of playoff games, and all was right with the world as Rodgers finished the season on perhaps the best run of his career. In the final seven regular-season games (six wins, one loss), he completed 69.7 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions (120.0 rating) — reminding everyone that he’s one of the game’s best.

The free-agent additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, combined with holdover Richard Rodgers, will create intriguing wrinkles to an offense that still has Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the emerging Davante Adams at wide receiver. The passing game will have to be its high-flying self, however, given the unproven situation at running back, where two-time 1,100-yard rusher Eddie Lacy left in free agency after last year’s season-ending ankle injury. Converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery is the starter, but with three draft picks at the position, that could change.

Minnesota Vikings

For the first time since 2006, the Vikings head into a season without running back Adrian Peterson as the face of their franchise and the engine that drives their offense. After nine weeks of coordinating a hybrid offense on the fly following Norv Turner’s surprising resignation last November, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has an entire offseason to install his own attack. He runs a West Coast system with a heavy dose of the shotgun looks that quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater prefer but Peterson struggled with.

At quarterback, Bradford is the undisputed starter in part because the Vikings believe Bridgewater will miss a second straight full season. as he works his way back from the career-threatening knee injury suffered last August. Bradford was exceptional last season. He arrived eight days before the regular season and set an NFL record for completion percentage (71.6) while throwing only five interceptions. He was durable, quick-minded, smart with the football and steady in spite of losing Peterson in Week 2, both starting tackles by Week 6 and Turner heading into Week 8.

Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook improve the league’s worst running attack instantly. Murray, a free agent acquisition, is a big back who can pass protect and make people forget last year’s repeated failures in short-yardage situations. Cook is a three-down back with first-round talent who fell into the second round in the 2017 draft. He needs polish in pass protection and ball security, but he’s a home run threat.

Shurmur is a pass-oriented coach but has worked to change the team’s run-blocking schemes to include more outside zone plays that could benefit Murray and Cook. Head coach Mike Zimmer is determined to run the ball to control the game and prevent a repeat of the plethora of three-and-outs that caused his defense to wear out down the stretch last season.

At receiver, the Vikings have two overachievers as starters in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Neither has the size of a typical number 1 receiver, so it’s time for the underachiever in the room — 2016 first-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell — to bounce back after an injury-marred season saw him start only one game and catch one pass.

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Posted in NFL

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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