Mike’s Five: NFL Preseason

Mike Bajalia

Mike’s Five is a segment installed by River City Rogue in which, given a certain topic, will discuss five key factors, considerations, and/or predictions. The third installment of Mike’s Five will break down five potentially league-altering story lines to watch for throughout the preseason and into the regular season.

1. Patriots Reloading to Repeat

Last year the New England Patriots claimed yet another Super Bowl title, adding to their already impressive legacy. But, it may just be possible for them to be even better than they were last year.

It’s no secret that Robert Kraft and the Patriot organization know what they are doing, but this off-season has been remarkable. On the defensive side of the ball, New England re-signed one of the best linebackers in the league with a four-year deal – Dont’a Hightower. They also re-signed Duran Harmon, a critical piece of their secondary and their starting back who was also the hero of the 2014 AFC Championship against Baltimore with his late fourth quarter interception of Joe Flacco. Recent defensive acquisitions include the above average pass rushing efforts of DE Lawrence Guy and the signing of their 1st round draft pick Stephen Gilmore, arguably the best CB in the class. Another key defensive player that was retained was DT Alan Branch, a 6’6″, 350 lb. monster in the middle. But, he wasn’t even the best defensive lineman they added. Going somewhat under the radar, the Pats also acquired Kony Ealy from Carolina, who had 18 individual or assisted sacks last year. Lastly, the Pats signed David Harris, the longtime New York Jet and NFL veteran, whose experience is invaluable to any team in the league.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Pats are still led by the 40 year-old Tom Brady, who seems to get younger and better year-in and year-out. Most noteworthy, the Patriots acquired Brandin Cooks from New Orleans. He is one of the best up-and-coming WRs in the league and can be outrun by very few athletes in the world. The last time Brady had a WR of his caliber was Randy Moss, and we all know the records that that offense broke that year. Factor in the additions of RB Mike Gillislee, WR Andrew Hawkins, and TE Dwayne Allen, and the Pats offense is absolutely loaded. They had enough to do it last year and only got stronger. Watch out NFL….

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Just the GOAT signing autographs.

2. Can Cowboys’ Stars Avoid Sophomore Slump?
We’ve seen it all too many times. A rookie has a sensational, breakout, debut season and we think the only direction he can go is up. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, particularly with quarterbacks and running backs.

It’s no secret that the Cowboys future is in the hands of talented youngsters Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot, each of whom could easily have won Offensive Rookie of the Year as they stormed their way to an NFC East Division Title and the best record in the Conference. For whatever reason, NFL players who have a solid rookie season just seem to hit a wall in their second year, especially quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Blake Bortles, and Andrew Luck are a few of the most recent victims of the sophomore slump. While several of those players still had very productive seasons, their completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, and QBR decreased from their rookie campaign while interceptions increased.

With the rest of the league having a full year’s worth of film to develop strategies to counter Dak, he may run into more speed bumps than Cowboys fans anticipate. As for Elliot, added film does not necessarily translate to better defensive efficiency. And he still has the best offensive line in the league. But Dak’s struggles can quickly become Elliot’s struggles as defenses can afford to place more defenders and simply outnumber the Cowboys offensive linemen. Additionally, Elliot has had several off-season legal controversies that have resulted in NFL investigations. It’s no surprise that good ole’ Jerry Jones has no problem hiring felons to his roster, but off the field problems can very rapidly become on the field problems. Ezekiel needs to get his head on straight before he derails what looks to be a very promising NFL career before it even really starts. Only time will tell if these youngsters can build upon their success from last year or tell us it was all a facade by a few one hit wonders.

3. Which Panthers Team Will We See in 2017?
In 2015, the Carolina Panthers went 15-1. Cam Newton threw for 3,900 yards and 35 touchdowns with a QBR of 99.4% while rushing for over 630 yards. In 2016, Newton only threw for 3,500 yards (400 yard decrease) and 35 touchdowns (16 touchdown decrease) with a QBR of 75.8% (24% decrease) while rushing for 400 yards less than he did the year prior. Newton hit a wall and therefore the Carolina Panthers hit a wall. It is anyone’s guess which Newton is going to show up in 2017.

The Panthers will need a lot of work considering  they play in what many consider the best division in football. Obviously we know the reigning NFC champs (Atlanta Falcons) are going to be one of the best teams in football, but Drew Brees and New Orleans can still play with anybody. And Tampa Bay and their improving bunch of youngsters gets better every year. Carolina returns a lot of talent, most notably a fully healthy Kelvin Benjamin. But the offense is going to need more than just those two to provide a spark.

Jonathan Stewart can be productive, but continues to slide down the ranks of starting NFL running backs every year. He’s never been the type of dominant back who can take over a game either. The next most talented on the offense is Greg Olsen, but how much of a consistent spark can the injury-prone 32-year old provide? It may come from Christian McCaffrey, the Stanford standout who broke all kinds of records (rushing AND receiving) in college.

Early reports from OTAs indicates his skill set is translating to the NFL nicely. The same skills that made Stanford relevant and put McCaffrey in Heisman consideration. He can easily fill the role of a Danny Woodhead or Tevin Coleman immediately. With the ability to take a three or four yard dump off from Newton and turn it into seventy, he can add an explosiveness to this offense that helped get this team to the Super Bowl just two years ago. We know the defense is going to do their part, but is the offense coming to play this year?

4. A New Hometown Hero?

I’m not gonna lie, I almost have a man-crush for the talent of Leonard Fournette. If I’m ever having a bad day, I just YouTube “Leonard Fournette highlights” and put myself in the shoes of those incapable defenders who look like JV high schoolers. Jacksonville seems like they’ve been under constant rebuilding and renovation since the 90’s. We need someone to believe in, someone to tell us that the turning of the corner is near. Drafted number four overall, Fournette appears to be that guy. I mean the dude is a complete monster. It should be illegal for someone with that size, speed, strength, lateral quickness, and overall agility to don an NFL uniform. Never again will I have to receive questions from friends who ask who the starting Jacksonville Jaguars running back is. I won’t be surprised in a couple years, he’s so dominant he begins attracting other stars. I’m sorry Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, but Fournette is a guy. Rookie or not, he’s a force to be reckoned with.

5. Can Veteran WR Additions Push Teams Over the Top?

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While widespread parity is one of the things that makes the NFL so great, there are unrecognizable tiers in the league. Well, at the above average tier, there are three teams that did something similar this off-season. These three teams have strengths and weaknesses, but are above .500 teams and can easily make the playoffs. All three have relatively solid defenses and an established, promising quarterback. These three all-stars aren’t scrubs joining forgettable teams like Pierre Garcon signing with the 49ers; in fact, they are additions that can boost teams over the cusp and potentially lead to playoff runs.

Starting off, the New York Giants’ offense was abysmal last season, mainly because of the lack of a consistent ground game. Well, one of the best ways to open up some running lanes is to have a potent air offense. Odell Beckham can’t do it alone and has been begging for some help. Rueben Randle answered the call late last season, but the Giants added Brandon Marshall, a perennial all-star who can compete with the best of them. Two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning has enough talent keep this offense moving. Factor in one of the best defenses in the league and there may be a new NFC East champion in 2017.

Sticking with the NFC East, the Washington Redskins added Terrell Pryor, the breakout star of 2016. The quarterback turned receiver caught the league by storm with over 1,000 yards. The Redskins did lose Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, but they still have the best receiving tight end in the league, a bevy of competent running backs, and a legitimate franchise QB at the helm.

Speaking of DeSean Jackson (pictured above), he is no longer donning a Washington jersey because he has taken his talents to Tampa. This is one of the best “young” teams out there. And boy are they growing up fast! Jameis Winston has surprised us all and is quickly becoming a consistently productive quarterback. If Doug Martin can stay healthy, Jackson’s deep threat ability makes him the perfect compliment to the uber-talented, ever-dominant Mike Evans. This team is going to put up some yards and some points, real quick.

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