Wearing Down Defenses: Quarter-by-Quarter Rushing Breakdown

Many of the “bruiser” type running backs in the NFL are praised for being able to “wear out” the defense. As the game goes on, they start to gain more and more yards because the defense is tired and can’t hold on in their hits. One rusher that heard plenty of this was former Patriot LeGarrette Blount. His aggressive and physical running style was praised by fans in the fourth quarter, but in the majority of the rest of the game he would get tripped up early on, or dance in the backfield too often for a slower back. One would assume he earned the majority of his yards late in the game. We can take the top 10 rushers from the 2016 season and compare them all to see if these assumptions hold up.

rushingqs

LeGarrette Blount should be one of the best fourth quarter rushers on this last. He had 90 carries for 357 yards in the fourth quarter last year. That’s good for 3.96 yards per carry, just about a tenth more than he averaged this year. He did his best work in the first and fourth quarters, which makes a lot of sense for a rusher who should be used to set the tone in a game. The biggest difference between first and fourth quarter rushers was in David Johnson’s game, with a 12.28% difference.

The best fourth quarter rusher in terms of yards was Ezekiel Elliott, who had 84 carries for 404 yards (4.8 yards per carry). Elliott wasn’t known as a strictly power runner coming out of college, and he did his best work at the end of the game. The best first quarter rusher was also Elliott, with 95 carries for 528 yards (5.6ypc). LeSean McCoy came close in terms of an efficiency basis, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in the opening frame.

Most of the best rushers have a balanced attack throughout the game. There isn’t a huge difference in the game for last year’s top ten, but many of them go through different approaches. The best comparison for Blount is likely Bears rookie Jordan Howard, who is almost the same size, and collected relatively similar totals early on in the game, while deviating greatly in the fourth. All things considered, the size of the back doesn’t particularly matter when you want a better late-game rusher as much as the overall efficiency of the back does.

2018 Potential Cap Savers

Each free agency period, teams pledge hundreds of millions of dollars to players that have never been within their own systems, taking on new roles and expecting big breakouts. As you can imagine, these deals don’t always go the right way, and teams are forced to get rid of the players at some point to relieve salary cap space. While the cap rises each year, there are always new players coming onto the market that front offices see as better fits, so they clear out space to add the new players. Whether it be due to a scheme mismatch or just poor play in general, big-deal players get cut all the time. Each team has some, whether they come from their own team or if they are free agent add-ons. Let’s look through which players could get cut from teams before the 2018 season.

Alex Smith, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

Cap Hit: $20,600,000 (11.3% of cap)

Dead Money: $3,600,000 (nets $17,000,000)

Smith has been one of the most boring and unexciting quarterbacks in the league, and their offense and team as a whole will not move forward until he is replaced. 2017 10th overall draft pick Patrick Mahomes was chosen for this sole reason, and he should be ready to replace the former Utah Ute as soon as the 2017 regular season. Smith could certainly be on the outs soon, as trade bait or as an outright cut. The Chiefs have an estimated $-15 million in cap space for 2018, and this would allow them to clear a roster spot for a veteran option in free agency.

Derek Wolfe, DL, Denver Broncos

Cap Hit: $10,925,000 (6.65% of cap)

Dead Money: $3,750,000 (nets $7,175,000)

Wolfe has been an important part of a Broncos defensive line that has lost key players for much of the past few years. He also has suffered plenty of injuries throughout those years. Wolfe plays through most of these, and has hit a recent span of back-to-back solid years with near 50 tackles and 5.5 sacks consecutively. He also hasn’t topped 6 sacks since his rookie year in 2012 and is being paid like a top 15 defensive end, which he is not. On a team that may be facing a mini-rebuild in the coming years, Wolfe would be a nice piece to send away for a late Day 2 or early Day 3 draft pick in 2018. For a team projected to have less than $4 million in cap space, this would be ideal.

Byron Maxwell, CB, Miami Dolphins

Cap Hit: $10,000,000 (5.56% of cap)

Dead Money: $0 (nets $10,000,00)

The Dolphins have been in a bit of purgatory since Ryan Tannehill came to the team, but they finally made the playoffs last season. The team was expected to get better before their quarterback was injured and out for the season, but now this has unfolded this seems like a wasted year. Maxwell came with linebacker Kiko Alonso in a trade with the Eagles, and while Alonso has been much better, Maxwell has been an okay player. He is paid much more than what he is worth, and the team should look to either move him or cut him soon. He could fetch a Day 3 pick from a team that is in desperate need of secondary help, and his absence of dead money is a positive in negotiations. Miami is expected to have $-12 million in cap space, and this almost lets them break even.

Sean Smith, CB, Oakland Raiders

Cap Hit: $8,500,000 (5.18% of cap)

Dead Money: $0 (nets $8,500,000)

Sean Smith is playing behind an undrafted defensive back in training camp this year, and one of Oakland’s prized signings from last offseason isn’t looking too great right now. There’s a good chance his starting spot is taken over by 2017 first round pick Gareon Conley in this season, and that leaves someone being paid over $8 million in a bad spot. Smith was expected to be an important piece in a secondary in dire need of help, and it never worked out. He probably wouldn’t fetch much on the trade market for Reggie Mackenzie and co., but the lack of dead money is a nice way to get out of a contract with no penalty. The Raiders are projected to have just $4 million in cap space, and this cut would allow them to sign a legitimate player in the secondary.

Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

Cap Hit: $22,200,000 (13.96% of cap)

Dead Money: $12,400,000 (nets $9,800,000)

This may be a surprise to Giants fans who are blind to this, but Eli Manning was not a great quarterback last season, and he’s never really been special. While PFF insists that interception rates have decreased in recent years, Elisha’s has been high, especially for someone who is considered a Hall of Famer by many. The Giants have a few problems on offense (certainly not receiver), and removing a quarterback that costs this much would help them fix other problems. Saving that near-$10 million in space would allow them to pick up a mid-high tier running back, as well as possibly pick up a draft pick in a trade to use on a new, younger quarterback. The Giants have a projected $9 million in space for now, and if they added $9,800,000 to that, that’s enough money to sign a good quarterback (or let Geno Smith play. #Believe)

What to Expect: Patriots vs. Jaguars

Well, we’ve finally made it.

The Patriots are returning to the field for the first time since winning Super Bowl 51. There will be plenty of interesting things to pay attention to this week. Although they are playing the Jacksonville Jaguars, who aren’t exactly a contender this year, new players have been brought into the Patriots’ system, and tonight will be the first glimpse into how those players will be used throughout the season. Rookies will have their chance to shine against NFL talent and compete for a spot on one of the most stacked 53 man rosters in the league. Let’s see what we should be expecting in this week’s game.

1. Defense on Display

“Defense wins championships.” That’s the truth. And it appears as though the Patriots defense might be better than last year’s. It will be put to the test early on, with the fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette rushing against them. Blake Bortles might not be a star, but with receivers like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, it will be important to shore up the secondary early on. Rookies like Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, and Adam Butler will get to test their pass-rushing prowess, while DJ Killings and Kenny Moore will test their fortitude in the secondary. We will also see linebackers Harvey Langi and Brooks Ellis backing the front seven. I would expect the Patriots to hold the Jaguars to less than 4 yards per carry, while keeping the team under 300 passing yards and collecting 2 or 3 sacks. Allowing 13-16 points would make sense.

2. Third String Strength

We found out what Jimmy Garoppolo was in the 2016 regular season. We saw a glimpse of a young Jacoby Brissett in Weeks 3 and 4 last year as well. While it is uncommon for a backup “project” quarterback to impress three weeks into his career, the first year teaches rookies plenty. They are generally able to build on it in the second year. A third string quarterback isn’t going to be a gamechanger, but it can be fun to see them perform against young players from the other teams. Going against a Jaguars secondary that doesn’t have plenty of studs after their top pairing should allow Brissett to do something for the Patriots. Fans should expect about 150 yards and a touchdown from Brissett, and not much more.

3. Second Year Studs

Many of the Patriots’ starters will not be playing in tonight’s game,  but there are some second year players that we should expect to play major minutes. Devin Lucien and new 2017 addition KJ Maye could be the top two receivers for the team, while Glenn Gronkowski will likely get some play as a fullback blocking for impressive sophomore DJ Foster. We can also expect Ted Karras to play a lot of minutes as either a guard or center. Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton are the top two defensive tackles ahead of the rookies. Valentine was impressive as a rookie, and Hamilton made some moves when he had a chance to play in the regular season. Jonathan Jones will be the starting nickel cornerback tonight, with Cyrus Jones being given a chance as well. Cyrus played was slightly below average as an actual cornerback last season, but as a returner he was abysmal. Giving him a chance to play more defense will be good, as well as allowing some leeway in the return game considering it’s preseason. Reasonably, Maye could have 50-75 yards, while Gronkowski provides good blocking for Foster, who could see 65-100 yards on the ground. Karras should be solid. Valentine and Hamilton will be a force in the run game, and the two Joneses can provide solid coverage in the passing game. Cyrus Jones should provide a few 10-15 yard punt returns, with a muffed punt being very likely.

Has The NFL Really Become A “Passing League”?

The NFL has seen plenty of different evolutionary effects across its lifetime. The invention of different positions and playing styles has drastically changed the game from how it used to be, even in the past decade or so. While all of these changes have occurred, many believe that the NFL is now a “passing league.” Up until the 1940s, the leagues didn’t even have a player throwing passes. Now, the quarterback position can be considered the most important out of all 22 players on the field. Teams win and lose based on how well their quarterback plays, and defenses shape their schemes differently each week to defend the better passers.

While many have talked about the league being a passing league, we can’t say for sure it’s true until we look at how teams collect their yards. We also cannot tell if the league has become more prone to passing unless we look at historical trends over time. For now, we can start with the 1970s, when football started to come into its own and become one of the top sports in America. We can compare the percentages of yards and touchdowns that came from passing and rushing from the average of all the top offenses in each decade (top offenses being the ones who scored the most points, NOT the most yards). Without further ado, let’s take a look.

offenses

 

 

 

The data that comes from this is pretty interesting. The total yard numbers trended upward quickly twice, with either a fall or short gain in between (70s to 80s, 00s to 10s). The number of pass yards decreased just once, from the 80s to the 90s, which could be tied to the talent at subsequent positions at times. From 2000 on, passing offenses haven’t looked back, and rushing numbers have consistently decreased. It’s clear that most teams keep around a 65-35 balance of passing and rushing, even as numbers changed in both touchdowns and yards. While the numbers may average there, it has become increasingly clear since the 70s that the league is now a passing league, jumping from 51.14% in the 70s to almost 70% in the current decade. This is a large difference that easily shows the stark contrasts in era. This also shows how it can complicate the comparisons between different quarterbacks. When Terry Bradshaw was winning his rings, teams were almost perfectly balanced, with 51-49 and 52-48 pass-run ratios in yards and touchdowns, respectively. Now, when guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are winning, teams are increasingly relying on their quarterbacks, with 68-32 and 60-40 pass-run splits in the 2000s, and 70-30 splits in the 2010s. It is clear that the league is trending toward the passing game, and the real question should be when the next evolution and trend back towards balancing the offense begins.

How Have Expansion Franchises Fared In Their Inaugural Years?

This is a football site, but today we’re gonna look at the “core four” sports in America in regards to one thing: expansion teams.

Every league has gone through an expansion draft since 1990, with 18 teams being added, and the NHL gaining one tomorrow night. The Las Vegas Golden Knights will hold their expansion draft Wednesday night, where they can select a number of players from each existing team’s roster to create their own. These players are supposed to be at least league average, with a certain number of years played (in some sports), and multiple years remaining on their contracts. Typically, that means they are not throwaway players and will contribute to their new franchises.

With that in mind, and taking into account all things, let’s look at how these expansion teams have fared in their inaugural seasons. Each tie is counted as a half win, half loss. You can also see where each team placed in their division, if they made the playoffs, and how many player awards were won by the team. Teams denoted in bold are ones that have won a championship in their respective leagues since coming to fruition.

first year teamss

These results do not bode well for the Golden Knights. The best team on the list, the 1995 Carolina Panthers, posted a record 2 wins below .500, or .0625 away from breaking even. None of the teams did better than two places out of last in their divisions, and none made the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors, Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies, and the Charlotte Bobcats are the only teams that had players on their teams win awards. The Raptors’ Damon Stoudamire won multiple awards (Rookie of the Year, All-Rookie First Team). He is the only player to do so.

While this is never truly indicative of team success, and it appears as though there is viable talent in this year’s expansion draft, it would be smart to bet against the Golden Knights for the majority of the year. You can see a breakdown of strictly NHL teams below. The results are not great.

nhl teams

Just two teams did better than place last in their division in their first year, with the Panthers coming one win away from .500. Historical trends would say that the Golden Knights will either come in last or second to last, winning around 28 games. Not exactly playoff material.

Could Derek Rivers Be A Patriots Linebacker?

In the 2013 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected an edge rusher from a lesser-known school in the second round that ended up being a fantastic choice.

Jamie Collins.

Jamie Collins came out of Southern Mississippi and was one of the best young players that has come through Foxborough in recent years, being 1/3 of a terrific linebacker trio for the Patriots that helped him win a ring in 2014 and take part in a great season before being traded in 2016. The one thing Collins was most known for was the freakish athleticism he had, and his ability to easily blow up plays. His “freelancing” and willingness to get a big payday was what led to him being sent to Cleveland, and the Patriots were lucky enough to get Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to play meaningful snaps for a team seemingly devoid of good linebacker talent.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected an edge rusher from a lesser-known school in the third round that appears to have similar talent. That’s Derek Rivers from Youngstown State.

Rivers is a freak athlete that played the edge in a 3-4 outside linebacker-type position for the Penguins (GREAT team name. Love it.). It’s very similar to what Collins did as a member of the Golden Eagles (another solid name). Their profiles are relatively similar, but it is unclear whether or not Rivers’ story comes out in the same way as Collins’ did (in the playing style and fit sense, not the trading because he was looking for a contract way). Let’s compare them, as well as the other Patriots linebackers in recent years.

Athleticism

lb combines

The Patriots’ benchmarks for linebackers were found by NESN’s Doug Kyed. You can follow him on twitter here. Blanks were unable to be found, whether due to skipping tests or not attending the combine for measurements.

Rivers hits nearly every mark for a Patriots linebacker, save for being an eighth of an inch off on the hand size and .07 seconds off the short shuttle. When compared to Collins they are almost identical. Collins was a bit weaker and had better explosiveness numbers. Rivers and Collins match up very well here, and the Patriots clearly miss athleticism like that.

On-Field Talent

Jamie Collins was a 3-4 outside linebacker for Southern Miss, and he often showed how raw he was as a prospect. It was clearly warranted for him to end up as a second round pick, although he was put in a great position to learn. As a member of the Patriots, Collins spent most of his time in the OLB role, but did his best pass-rushing work as an A gap blitzer (highlight clip here). If the team wants Rivers to do that, they have to rely on his speed and strength to blow back interior linemen. I found some clips of him doing that on the outside and up the middle.

Rivers timed faster in the 40 yard dash compared to Collins, but was slower in the 10 yard split, which is more important in a role like this. While it is clear he has the talent to do that, it is unclear whether the Patriots would like to play him there.

The Patriots are one of the most unpredictable teams in the NFL, and the way they use their personnel in mix-and-match forms is impressive. Rivers clearly has the talent to play as a linebacker, and it’s likely that they’ll at least try him there. His true position lies on the edge, but when the season rolls around we will find out where Matt Patricia and co. want to play him.

The Running Quarterback’s Conundrum

Quarterbacks with enough athletic ability are often some of the most fun to watch. Whether it be college or NFL-level play, “mobile” QBs are able to make plays with their feet and arms, which is exciting for fans, and allows teams to do plenty more than they could with a “regular” passer. This is a relatively new dimension of the game that can be taken advantage of now, and it makes the game better in all cases.

Many people look at the stats of these running quarterbacks and are surprised at what they see. The numbers seem to bare a stark difference in terms of completion percentages, which is regarded as an important stat for QBs. Cam Newton, considered one of the better “running QBs” of this generation of passers, had a frightening 52.9% completion rate. This didn’t give a great look to this group of players, but there may be a reason behind it.

Recently, Derrik Klassen, a former colleague (RIP QB Mecca) and all-around knowledgeable person, posed a question on Twitter.

This question seems to provide a logical answer to the reasoning for such low completion percentages. But we don’t know that is exactly what happens. So let’s look at the data and find out.

We can take a select group of 5 “running” quarterbacks. Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Mike Vick, Marcus Mariota, and Tyrod Taylor. Let’s consider their run/pass ratio, attempts and yards in a season, and then their passing stats in seasons in which they threw at least 200 passes. Then we can compare to a group of “average” quarterbacks, say, Kirk Cousins, Matt Stafford, Derek Carr, Sam Bradford, and Philip Rivers. Look at the tables below to see how they match up.

runqb

regqb

The league average completion percentage for QBs with at least 200 attempts is 63.33%. Completion averages highlighted in red are below that mark.

There is some interesting data to be found here. Running quarterbacks average 100-200 less passing attempts than their peers, while averaging 40-50 more rushing attempts. The pass/run ratios for running quarterbacks is significantly low, with an average around 5.1/1, where a regular quarterback’s hovers around 19.5/1. Running quarterbacks clearly recorded below-average completion percentage numbers, but so did 3 of the 5 regular quarterbacks (who are considered in the top half of the league by most). The yards per attempt numbers are relatively similar, but the yards per completion is very different. Only one running quarterback averaged less than 12 yards per completion, and he (Tyrod Taylor) missed it by .1 yard. On the other hand, just two regular quarterbacks recorded over an average of 12 yards per completion.

This would generally mean that while running quarterbacks are throwing less, they are getting more yards for each time they throw the ball. You could conclude that this means they are throwing less checkdowns than their peers, and instead running the ball. These running quarterbacks are averaging 5 rushes for 33 yards a game, or 6.4 yards per rush. That’s about 2-3 yards more per carry than a running back would get. You could infer that a quarterback running the ball instead of throwing a checkdown will get them more yards, and it will also hurt the defense in that they have to worry about the quarterback running instead of just the passing game and the running backs.

All in all, it’s possible that running quarterbacks are better for an offense, even with the decrease in completion percentage. It makes the offense more multi-dimensional, and with a smart offensive coordinator, it can be lethal. Rushing is an important part of the game, and when your passer can do it, it’s that much better.

2017 College Teams to Watch: ACC

This part of the year is the most “down” part in all of football. Spring games have wrapped up, the draft and OTAs are coming to a close, and we will be in a month-long dead space with no football to watch. We can always look ahead to the next season, and here we have done that. There will be plenty of teams that improve or regress in 2017 comparative to last year, and it is likely to happen in every conference. Whether it be to a new coach, a star departure, or something else, there will be plenty of turnover in college football. So let’s see which teams are the ones to pay close attention to, moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference (we covered the Big 10 here). The ACC saw a big year for the group in 2016, with member school Clemson knocking off the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Championship. There will be plenty of competition within the conference this upcoming season, with plenty of stud players that can improve their draft stock and hopefully propel their teams further than in years prior. Let’s take a look.

Louisville

Louisville returns its Heisman Trophy winner and star quarterback Lamar Jackson to the team, who will look to the lead them into a possible playoff position or bowl game. Jackson is one of the top draft-eligible quarterbacks for 2018, despite what you may hear about him from members of the media. Any quarterback that can collect 5,100 all-purpose yards and 51 touchdowns can play on my team. Alongside him on offense the team returns its third and fourth leading rushers, Jeremy Smith (382 yards, 8 TD) and Malik Williams (145 yards, 1 TD). The two will be taking off for Brandon Radcliff, who is now in the NFL. The Cardinals lost their top three receivers, but could see big years from sophomores Jaylen Smith (599 yards, 6 TD) and Traveon Samuel (230 yards, 1 TD), and could bank on freshman Seth Dawkins to step up and make things happen for the team. Redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick shined in the spring game, catching nine passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, and could end up being a top target for Jackson.

On defense, the team looks to replace stout defensive lineman Deangelo Brown, who is now in the NFL. The defensive line is likely going to be headlined by junior Drew Bailey, who had only half a sack as a bench player in 2016. Bailey is looking to increase his role, and he played well in the spring. The linebackers will likely be the stars of this defense, with Stacy Thomas and Malik Staples highlighting them. In the defensive backfield, the Cardinals will look for big years from Jaire Alexander (one of the best athletes on the team) and Lyn Strange to make some plays, as well as Trumaine Washington, who is the second leading returner in interceptions on the team. The Cardinals could end up as a very good team if the defense holds up.

Boston College

The Eagles lost some good talent after 2016, but a bowl win at the end of the year likely showed some positives to carry into the next season. The offense lost Patrick Towles at quarterback, but will likely replace him with one of Darius Wade or Anthony Brown. Wade looked good in the team’s spring game, but it is unknown which one really has a lead on the signal caller position. The Eagles return their top two leading rushers, sophomore Jon Hilliman (542 yards, 6 TD) and freshman Davon Jones (361 yards, 2 TD). Hilliman averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry, but will look to improve it with more opportunity this year. Both top sophomore receivers Michael Walker (420 yards, 4 TD), Jeff Smith (395 yards, 3 TD), and sophomore tight end Tommy Sweeney (353 yards, 3 TD) will be back for the team in 2017, and they will need to be a big part of the Eagles’ offense for them to succeed. Redshirt freshman Kobay White will likely be another factor for the team, as he has been a stud in spring practices.

The defense is the leader of the team, returning the 9th ranked defense in the NCAA. The leader of this group is without a doubt Harold Landry. Leading the NCAA in sacks with 16.5, Landry is the top returning edge rusher and will end up being selected in the top half of the 2018 draft without a doubt. Along with him on the defensive line will be Zach Allen, who had six sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2016. The linebacker core lost Matt Milano this year, but still has Connor Strachan and Ty Schwab, as well as young gun Sharieff Grice. Strachan is a smart and sound player, being one of the best tacklers on the team. In the secondary, the team lost John Johnson, but still looks good as a unit. Will Harris, Taj Amir Torres, and Gabe McClary will likely all be starters that will make noise for the team, but Lukas Denis will also be a very important player for a team that looks to its defense to make plays often. Look for the Eagles to make moves, but they won’t be stars in the CFB world.

Clemson

The Clemson Tigers had an extremely successful run last year, coming back in the second half of the College Football Championship to knock off the Alabama Crimson Tide as time expired. While many of the players, especially on offense, departed for the NFL, the team still looks impressive and could be a top 10 contender. With star quarterback Deshaun Watson leaving for the Houston Texans, the quarterback position will be left to fight for with Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson and Tucker Israel left to compete. Bryant and Israel were both on the team last year, but Johnson was a highly touted recruit that could be in play for the Tigers. Running back Wayne Gallman is gone, as well as second leading rusher Watson. Freshman Tavien Feaster and sophomore CJ Fuller were the next two in line, and they will both be returning, as well as dual threat Ray-Ray McCloud. Top two receivers Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett are gone as well, but Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow will remain to lead the receiving core, as well as McCloud. This team’s offense could be in a good situation even after losing a huge chunk of talent.

On defense there are still some stars that will be on the field for the Tigers. Clelin Ferrell had a great season in 2016, but will return to play the edge. Christian Wilkins was a possible first rounder this year that returned to the Tigers. Dexter Lawrence is another name to watch inside, replacing Carlos Watkins. The linebacker group lost Ben Boulware, but they have two good replacements in Shaq Smith and JD Davis. The secondary has plenty of talent, as per usual, even after Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson leaving. Trayvon Mullen looks like a legitimate man corner for the Tigers, and almost recorded multiple interceptions in the spring game. Van Smith and Denzel Johnson are other names to watch, although they may be lower on the depth chart. The Clemson Tigers are looking like a real team for 2017, and though they likely won’t be title contenders again, they could be seriously in the mix.

Florida State

The Seminoles pulled off a great win in their bowl game against Michigan with a beautiful pass in the final seconds. The quarterback, Deondre Francois, will be an interesting name to watch in the 2017 season. While he may not project to be a top signal caller in the class, there are some great traits he possesses to go along with his incredible toughness. Considering the offensive line he plays behind, he requires some mental and physical toughness. FSU loses their top running back Dalvin Cook to the Vikings, but they have some interesting names in Jacques Patrick (5.7 yards per carry) and true freshman Cam Akers, the top running back in last year’s recruiting class. Akers will likely be the lead back, with Patrick and Ryan Green to play behind him. The receiver group lost leading receivers Travis Rudolph and Cook, but returns two very impressive names in Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray, who caught the game-winning TD vs. Michigan. Tate is a big-bodied target that many are already falling in love with. Another name to watch for pass catchers is tight end Ryan Izzo, who finds a way to excel even while having average athleticism. If the pass-blocking can hold up, Francois and the Noles will have a great year.

The defense has some very interesting names in all areas. On the defensive line, Josh Sweat is gaining steam as a name to watch on the edge, and tackles Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi will be big players for the team. Jacob Pugh is another name that either comes off the edge or plays linebacker, and can do well at both. Matthew Thomas racked up 32 tackles and a sack in his last three games, and he should see a bigger role next to Ro’Derrick Hoskins (2.5 sacks last year). The secondary has a bona fide star in Derwin James, who could be a top 10 pick next year. He will play along with freshman Stanford Samuels and Kyle Meyers for a team that needs to regain its composure in the secondary. Look for this team to be in the mix for a playoff spot if their offensive line can hold up. The defense looks strong, and they have a for-real quarterback playing for them.

North Carolina State

NC State is a team that deserves more respect in the ACC than they get, and the Wolfpack may get their chance to earn it this year. They had strong play from quarterback Ryan Finley last year, who replaced now-Patriots third stringer Jacoby Brissett well. His 3,055 yards and 18 touchdowns were a positive for the team. The Wolfpack lose top running back Matthew Dayes, but return interesting players in Reggie Gallaspy II and Swiss army knife Jaylen Samuels. Samuels rushed for 189 yards and 6 touchdowns, while throwing a 59 yard touchdown on 1 attempt and catches 55 passes for 565 yards and 7 touchdowns. He will be one of the top threats for the offense, along with top receiver Stephen Louis, Nyheim Hines, and Kelvin Harmon. A team returning the majority of its offensive talent is likely to compete just as it did last year, as long as they can keep their running game moving like it was with Dayes.

On defense one big name comes to mind; Bradley Chubb. A cousin of Georgia’s star back Nick, he recorded 10.5 sacks in 2016, and will be a top edge rusher in the 2017 class if he declares. Justin Jones, BJ Hill, and Kentavius Street are all seniors to pay attention to. The defensive line collected 27 of the 36 sacks the Wolfpack had in 2016. The back of the front seven is no joke either, with linebackers Airius Moore (85 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Jerod Fernandez (89 tackles, 4.5 TFL) shoring up the middle. The Wolfpack had 10 interceptions last year, and Mike Stevens provided one of them. He will be a starter for the team across from Nick McCloud, with James Valdez suiting up behind them. Shawn Boone and Dexter Wright will patrol the back of the field, and hopefully make the Wolfpack defense a scary sight that demands respect.

2017 College Teams to Watch: Big 10

This part of the year is the most “down” part in all of football. Spring games have wrapped up, the draft and OTAs are coming to a close, and we will be in a month-long dead space with no football to watch. We can always look ahead to the next season, and here we have done that. There will be plenty of teams that improve or regress in 2017 comparative to last year, and it is likely to happen in every conference. Whether it be to a new coach, a star departure, or something else, there will be plenty of turnover in college football. So let’s see which teams are the ones to pay close attention to, starting with the Big 10 Conference. The B1G had a strong year last season, with four of the top ten spots in the College Football Playoff rankings. That could stay the same this year, with plenty of talent all around. Let’s look at what we could see in the college ranks next season.

Michigan

Last year’s 10th overall team is going to look a lot different this season. The Wolverines lost virtually all of their defensive starters after the 2016 season to the NFL Draft. Names like Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, and Taco Charlton are gone, and it will be interesting to see who can step up to fill in those spots. One name to watch on the defensive line is former number one overall recruit Rashan Gary, who spent his freshman year playing behind a talented group of upperclassmen. He collected 23 tackles and a sack as a sub last year, and many were raving about how he played during Michigan’s spring game. Another returning player on defense is linebacker Mike McCray, who was the centerpiece of the front seven last season. He could be a draft riser once the season begins.

The major question with the Wolverines in 2017 will be their offense. The team returns just two players that had over 100 receiving yards last season, and their top trio of Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt have departed. Sophomore receiver Grant Perry, freshman receiver Eddie McDoom, and senior tight end Khalid Hill will look to the fill the holes left by the recent draftees. McDoom is a name to watch, as he played well as a slot receiver in 2016 for Jim Harbaugh. Former running back De’Veon Smith will need to be replaced after leaving for the pros, and freshman Chris Evans appears to be rising to a starting role.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin impressed greatly last year, rising to #9 in the College Football Playoff rankings and securing a 24-16 win in the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. The team returns the majority of its players on both sides of the ball, and has plenty of talent that will be interesting to see develop over the course of the year. On offense, freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook impressed last year, and he takes the reins as the full-time starter going into the summer. While Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are out, the Badgers saw freshman Bradrick Shaw rush for 5.2 yards per carry last year, and will likely be the starter for the team, with Pitt transfer Chris James and Taiwan Deal shoring up the “committee” approach the team enjoys. Receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli will be pass-catchers to watch, as they will only improve as time goes on. The two leading receivers are legitimate NFL prospects and can grow their stock with strong years. Junior receiver George Rushing and freshman Quintez Cephus will likely be the other two wideouts for the team.

On defense, the team lost some important pieces, especially their pass-rushing group. Linebackers TJ Watt and Vince Biegel are gone, and they leave behind a young stud in Jack Cichy, as well as Leon Jacobs, to fill the hole. Isaiahh Loudermilk, Connor Sheahy, and Garrett Rand will be names to watch on the defensive line after impressing in the spring game for Wisconsin. In the secondary, young guns Madison Cole and Eric Burrell will be in the back half, as well as Leo Musso and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson. Derrick Tindal and a group of freshmen will look to impress this year and help propel the Badgers to the College Football Playoff.

Maryland

The Terrapins have had a string of down years recently, but with new coach DJ Durkin on the field, the recruiting has stepped up its game and should pay off this year. The team sees senior quarterbacks Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe leave the team, with new recruit Kasim Hill ready to take the field. The four star athlete will be competing with Caleb Henderson and Max Bortenschlager when summer comes around. The Terrapins second leading receiver, Teldrick Morgan, left for the pros, and DJ Moore will be left to carry the team in passing offense. Star running back Ty Johnson returns his big play ability, with a 1,000 yard rushing season in the bag from 2016. Lorenzo Harrison will play behind him after a rough prior year that included an airsoft gun incident. DJ Turneris another receiver that may be able to show something for the Terps. He had an impressive six catches for 126 yards in the spring game. With a bevy on firepower on offense, the team may be able to score much more than their paltry numbers in 2016.

On the other side of the ball, the team will look to create some turnovers and stop teams, unlike last year. Senior edge rusher Jesse Aniebonam will look to have a breakout year, similar to 2016 pick Yannick Ngakoue. Aniebonam has impressive athleticism and can bring the heat from the outside. RaVon Davis and Darnell Savage Jr. will be in the defensive backfield to make some plays. There haven’t been plenty of names that stick out on the defensive line or in the linebacker core, but Antoine Brooks will be a name to watch after a decent year as a freshman in Durkin’s defense. If the offense makes a turnaround, this team could do better than the 6 games they won last season.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions were justifiably placed at 5th in the final rankings going into the College Football Playoff, although many argued they should’ve replaced Ohio State, especially after their shutout loss to Clemson. Regardless, Penn State has plenty of talent returning the year, and the team will likely be in a situation close to what they saw this past year. The offense, led by athletic freak running back Saquon Barkley, will be very impressive, along with quarterback Trace McSorley, tight end Mike Gesicki, and receiver DaeSean Hamilton. The team returns other 300+ yard receivers in DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall. Juwan Johnson is a big target for McSorley that impressed greatly in the spring game, with seven catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. Miles Sanders and Andre Robinson will be running behind Barkley after having freshmen seasons that had some success within. There will be no shortage of offense for this team.

The team lost a few players on its defense, like Garrett Sickels and Malik Golden, but there are plenty ready to take their place and take steps forward. Defensive linemen and edge rushers are looking to stand out, and players like Shareef Miller, Torrence Brown, and Shane Simmons are looking to stand out. The linebacker core looks to be the heart and soul of the defense, with veteran Jason Cabinda leading a group that includes Jarvis Miller and Cam Brown, who looked like stars in the spring. Koa Farmer is a weak-side linebacker that looks great, especially when pass rushing. The secondary is looking great, even after starting cornerback John Reid injured his knee. A new five star recruit in Lamont Wade will likely see some action for the team, with Grant Haley and Amani Oruwariye poised to make plays. Marcus Allen will be in the defensive backfield at safety, and there will be some competition across from him with players like Troy Apke, Will Blair, and Garrett Taylor. Considering the immense talent on this team, it will be a surprise if they don’t creep into the top four in 2017.

Minnesota

There are two major reasons for a possible Minnesota turnaround this season: the arrival of head coach PJ Fleck and the departure of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft will be in a tight competition until the fall, and Fleck will likely need to see more from both of them. It may be a hard competition considering the receiving talent, or lack thereof. Two of the top three 2016 receivers are gone, with Drew Wolitarsky graduating and Brian Smith being dismissed. Aside from Tyler Johnson and Rashad Still, there aren’t many standout talents for the Gophers. Brandon Lingen is a tight end to watch, though his 2016 season was limited. The running back group looks impressive for 2017. Rodney Smith, who had 1,158 yards in 2016, looks just as impressive this season, with Jonathan Femi-Cole coming in behind him as a strong power back. The Gophers’ offensive line will be an average group as long as everyone is healthy, though that isn’t the case at the current moment.

On defense, the line looks impressive and should show some growth. Tackle for loss leader Steven Richardson, who had 7 sacks in 2016, returns to lead the team, along with Winston DeLattiboudere and Tai’Yon Devers. Carter Coughlin will be leading the edge rushers after only scoring two sacks last season. the linebacker group looks strong for this defense, with Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber looking to lead a younger group on the field. Cody Poock looks to have a healthy season after missing half the year, and Jaylen Waters looks to grow after a solid first year. A real issue lies within the secondary, as Damarius Travis and Jaylen Myrick are both departed for the pros. Kiondre Thomas and Coney Durr will likely be the starting corners, and the safety spots are still questionable. Antoine Whitfield and Duke McGhee could be the leading role players. If everything comes together on both sides of the ball, this team could be special. But that’s a big “if,” and it’s likely that the team regresses after overachieving in 2016.

Which Undrafted Rookies Could Make the Patriots’ Roster?

The Patriots aced the draft this year. To recap how they used their picks:

Round 1, Pick 32: Traded to Saints for WR Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick.

Round 2, Pick 64: Traded to Panthers for DE Kony Ealy

Round 3, Pick 83: Derek Rivers, EDGE, Youngstown State

Round 3, Pick 85: Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy

Round 4 Pick: Traded to Colts for TE Dwayne Allen

Round 4, Pick 131: Deatrich Wise, EDGE, Arkansas

Round 5 Pick: Given up to Bills for RB Mike Gillislee

Round 5 Pick: Traded to Chiefs for TE James O’Shaughnessy

Round 6, Pick 211: Connor McDermott, OT, UCLA

Round 7 Pick: Traded to Lions for TE Michael Williams

All of these players will be important pieces for the Patriots this year, and this is easily the best haul of the year compared to the rest of the league. Even though the team only drafted four players, they ended up with six more in other ways, and still had a decent amount of roster spots left to fill to get to the limit of 90 for training camp and the preseason. This meant that they could sign plenty of undrafted free agents. These are players that were not selected for any reason. Undrafted free agents, or UDFAs, that have made the Patriots in recent years are Malcolm Butler, David Andrews, and Brandon Bolden. Other former UDFAs that impacted the team recently include Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and LeGarrette Blount. There is a very clear track record of succeeding within the organization as an undrafted player, so here we can look at some people from this year that have a chance to make an impact. Let’s get into it.

Harvey Langi, LB, BYU

Most well-known for supposedly being given a first round grade by the Patriots last year despite staying in school, Langi is an impressive linebacker prospect that should have been considered in the later rounds of the draft. He is a very athletic linebacker that was questionably moved to the edge rusher position in 2016 after finding success playing the MIKE and WILL roles for the Cougars in the year prior. He collected 68 tackles with 6.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions as a linebacker, and in his lone year coming off the edge he had five tackles for loss and two sacks. It is clear that he will fare better if the Patriots move him to linebacker, as he shows good range and instincts that can translate to the pros. Langi moves very well and flies around the field, delivering hard hits wherever he goes. He may need more work with his discipline, and he missed tackles at times, but there’s a solid foundation to work upon for Matt Patricia. Considering the lack of depth and talent at linebacker for New England, it would not be a surprise to see Langi make the team for Week 1.

Jacob Hollister, TE, Wyoming

Hollister’s brother Cody, a former receiver at Arkansas, was also brought onto the team, which is a cool thing to see in football. Jacob was arguably more important to his team in 2016, where he was part of a potent offense with Brian Hill and Tanner Gentry, as well as some underclassmen. He was able to collect 32 catches for 515 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016. In the Cowboys’ offense Hollister was frequently moved around in an Aaron Hernandez-esque role, where he went from fullback to in-line to wideout in almost every game. Hollister shows decent blocking skills, although he could add more strength in an NFL weight program. He has impressive run-after-catch ability where he shows some good elusiveness and speed for a tight end. While he did have some issues with drops, he was not helped by his quarterback, future draft bust Josh Allen. The reason Hollister has such a good chance to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster is because of a large question mark at the third tight end spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen. While the team traded for James O’Shaughnessy, he is mainly a special teams player that was not much of a factor on offense. The team also returns former tackle Michael Williams, who is not much of a threat in the passing game either, remaining more of a blocker. Ideally there is a good in-between player, and that just may be Hollister.

DJ Killings, CB, UCF

Killings earned the most money out of any Patriots UDFA, with over $30,000 in guarantees. While teammate Shaq Griffin got most of the buzz around draft season, Killings is a talented CB that tested very well for his class. At Central Florida’s pro day, he ran a 4.38 40 yard dash, as well as bench pressing 22 reps, which would have been tied for the most of any defensive back at the NFL Combine. Killings may be considered a little undersized at 5-10 and 190 pounds, but he showed off his strength and he plays with tenacity. While at Central Florida, he was able to collect 8 tackles for loss, as well as five interceptions. Showing the ability to attack the ball is an important trait that Bill Belichick greatly values in his defensive backs. The Patriots have a stacked cornerback depth chart, but one spot left up in the air is the cornerback who plays in the slot, who must have good man coverage skills and be very athletic. This may be the spot for Killings, who could follow in the footsteps of Malcolm Butler and make the team early in his career.

Josh Augusta, DL, Missouri

To call Josh Augusta a space eater would be an understatement. At 6-4 and 345 pounds, he is a mass that can be hard to move when he is on his game. Augusta makes his best moves in the run game, where he uses his strength and leverage to collapse lines. He collected 19 tackles for loss and 4 sacks in his Tigers career, and while he’s a little slow to be a sack master on the interior, he’s a clear force against the run. Augusta was also known for being used in the run game on the other side of the ball as well, collecting two rushing touchdowns in the red zone. While that’s less likely to happen in New England, the former Mizzou standout will likely have a chance to make some plays on the Patriots’ defensive line. While they have a solid four interior linemen with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, and Lawrence Guy, Branch may be on his way out soon and a younger player with similar talents could take his place.

Cole Croston, OL, Iowa

A former 225-pound walk on for the Hawkeyes, Croston comes out as a 6-4, 315 pound offensive tackle with experience all across the offensive line. The Patriots went back to a very familiar pipeline with Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, who has a history of churning out strong prospects on both sides of the lines. Croston missed four games in the past season due to a lower body injury, but when healthy he played on both the left and right tackle spots of the offensive line. While he played on the outside for his career, many believe he best projects to the inside as a guard. Croston is relatively weak for the position, only benching 17 times, but he had an impressive 3-cone as a bigger guy, and his athleticism is decent for his size. His true weakness is just that; weakness. He gets pushed around far too often as a tackle, and that must change if he is going to face bigger players inside. The Patriots enter training camp with not a lot of depth on the interior of the line, with just Ted Karras behind Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason. Most teams carry around 8 or 9 offensive linemen, and with four tackles and four interior players solidified, it will be a fight for Croston. Considering his advanced technique while working with Ferentz at Iowa, I would say he has the upper hand in the battle.